Read Chapter 2

David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger

CITE AS: Weinberger, D. (2016). David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 37 - 48). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 2
David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger
The lack of digital-media literacy is bemoaned by educators, parents, and others who worry about the The Kids and Their Future. The moans are familiar, which is not to say that they’re unwarranted: we need to teach The Kids what we used to call “critical thinking,” by which we mean how not to fall into the traps others set for us to sway our beliefs and behavior. It’s true that we need a focus on digital-media literacy because the Internet opens up a whole new set of traps, many due simply to the unprecedented nature of the net: content can float free of its attribution more easily than ever, content is corrupted as it passes from one hand to another like in a global game of Telephone (or Gossip), you can always find others to encourage your belief in some crazy idea, and the list goes on and on.

The type of media literacy that teaches critical thinking with regard to the net is, of course, important, but it’s not my primary interest. As a writer and researcher, I personally am more interested in how digital-media literacy addresses the changing nature of knowledge. In some ways, the net pulls apart ideas, connecting them loosely through links. In this environment of many small pieces loosely joined, how should we be putting ideas together? The “how” in that question means both “How do ideas fit together?” and “What’s the best process by which we can find that fit?”

To put it too briefly, before the Internet, the book was the medium of knowledge, and knowledge took on the properties of that medium. Knowledge became a particular type of content that we wrote down, so we thought of it as settled and unchanging, the way books don’t change after you print them. Knowers would work in private (perhaps with a small, trusted group) and wouldn’t get credit for their work until they published it; the rhythm of knowledge (work in relative private until you’re sure) became exactly the same as the rhythm of publishing. Knowledge was divided into disciplines and topics, the way that books put a topic between covers.

Now, in the Age of the Net, knowledge is taking on the properties of the network. Knowledge is highly connected. It has no edges. It is always unsettled and subject to further argument. And, with links, it has no natural boundaries. There’s good and bad to this, of course, although overall I think it’s safe to say that this is the greatest time in human history to be someone who wants to know things. It’s also the greatest time to be a total idiot, unfortunately —which is why we need the sort of digital-media literacy that keeps us from falling into traps of thought. In this essay, I discuss one important part of our understanding of knowledge that I think we need to rethink: communication. If knowledge is becoming networked, it’s hard to understand the effect of that networking if we’re thinking about the net as a communications medium in a pre-networked way.

Surprisingly, it was the work of a philosopher, written about sixty years before the World Wide Web was invented, that has influenced me the most on this topic.

Nowadays, the term identity usually refers to something that can be stolen: a credit card or Social Security number that lets someone else incur debts or obligations in your name. But when I was a lad, an identity was a solid sense of self that teenagers tried to grow into, often going through an identity crisis along the way.

My identity crisis was a doozy. It was 1968. I was a freshman in college. I couldn’t tell how much of me was an act for other people and how much of it was real. I could spend a long time weighing every thought, assessing whether it expressed something really real about me or was just another shiny surface in my mind’s hall of mirrors. That was fairly typical of identity crises, but for whatever quirk, I experienced mine as despair that all meaning is a human projection. See that fork lying over there? It’s only a fork because we happen to take it as a fork. If we were the size of field mice, it’d be a seesaw. (It didn’t help that 1968 was the year I started smoking pot.) See that tree? We say it’s a tree, but that’s because we choose to see it as something separate from the ground and air. We only think it’s a whole, complete entity with leaves and roots because we choose to see the roots as distinct from the molecules constantly going across its “borders.” In fact, we can see the tree in its entirety only when it has been uprooted. Our meaning of things (that’s “meaning” as a verb) comes from uprooting them. Meaning is an act of violence. Dude.

The positive side of this was that it fueled my early pacifism: if humans are the source of all judgments about meaning and value, to kill a person is to kill the most valuable thing there is. This—plus principled opposition to the Vietnam War and a huge dose of cowardice—led me to apply to my local Draft Board to be classified as a conscientious objector. (They granted my application, and a few months later I won the newly instituted draft lottery.){AU: Please clarify: Does this mean you were drafted?}

My identity crisis also made me a certain type of boy that a certain type of girl found appealing. I am not proud of any of this.

Nor was it fun. If a fork had no real meaning, how could life? Why should I decide to become a doctor instead of a bank robber? Why should I butter my toast instead of feeding it to the ants? At least the ants knew what to do with it. Why should I get up? Or go to sleep? If killing myself had held any more meaning than living, I would have been suicidal. Fortunately, mine was an equal-opportunity nihilism. My pacifism told me that I was the source of all the value I experienced, and my nihilism told me that for that very reason, the value wasn’t real.

I was brought out of this funk by Martin Heidegger, thanks to a course I took a course from Professor Joseph P. Fell at Bucknell University. Professor Fell was interested in the Big Questions—and he still is—but not in the way freshmen sitting around a dorm room are. Professor Fell is a scholar who reads Greek, Latin, German, and French and has read deeply in Western philosophy. His course was rigorous, informed by the great minds of our culture, and was a model of what it means to seek to understand something. From that course, I began to see how much of my despair was, in fact, a silent inheritance from our intellectual history.

Professor Fell taught a course on Heidegger’s Being and Time ([1927] 2010), which is a fairly ridiculous thing to do at a small college that graduated only a handful of philosophy majors. Being and Time is notoriously difficult. For one thing, it only makes sense as a response to mistakes made by our philosophical tradition. For another, it addresses the broadest question there is: What does it mean for anything to be? For yet another, Heidegger uses many words in peculiar ways because he doesn’t want us to assimilate his ideas to our existing, corrupt way of understanding.

Also, Heidegger was a Nazi. An official, card-carrying member of the Nazi party. In 1968, we generally believed that he joined only as a formality to save Freiburg University from the real Nazis. It was only in the 1980s that new research showed that Heidegger’s beliefs were more in line with the Nazi’s romanticism about peasant life, and also possibly with their virulent anti-Semitism, than we’d thought. The debate about just how much of a Nazi Heidegger was continues to rage, but in 1968 Heidegger’s party membership was written off as well-intentioned misjudgment by a terminally naive philosopher.

So, how did Heidegger come to my rescue?

My problem was that I assumed that we are all locked inside our own heads. Through this lens, everything we see is an inner picture of an outer reality. Once that picture is inside your head, you attach a meaning to it. We never get out of our own heads. And inside your own head, you have too much freedom to give things the meanings that you want. 

It seemed obvious to me that this was simply the way consciousness works. It turns out that this picture wasn’t my invention. It is the logical outcome of two-and-a-half thousand years of Western philosophy. The crisis got particularly severe in the seventeenth century when the distinction between the body and the mind was drawn most dramatically. The more different from the physical world the mind was perceived to be, the more difficult it became to explain how our minds know anything at all about the world. With the realm of thought severed from the physical world, what we know of the physical world must be just a mental reconstruction of it. {AU: Edits in this para. OK?}

Heidegger was writing in response to that schizophrenic tendency of our philosophical tradition. Because he thought that the normal words for mind are infected by their philosophic history, what others call the mind, the person, or consciousness, he called Dasein, a German word that literally means being (Sein) there (Da). This new word helps us look with fresh eyes about how we actually experience the world.

What he finds—what he points out to us—is that we don’t experience our world as being inside our own heads, except in rather exceptional experiences when we feel abstracted from the world and sit alone in a corner like an eighteen-year-old undergoing an identity crisis. Instead, think about the 99.999 percent of the rest of the time when you’re making breakfast, ducking your head to avoid a branch, lowering a phonograph needle onto an LP (it’s 1968, remember), or even listening to Professor Fell lecture. In all of these cases, we don’t experience the world as inside our heads. Rather, our consciousness is out in the world, filled with the things of the world understood in terms of what it is that we’re trying to do: eat breakfast, walk down a sidewalk, listen to music, understand some passage in Heidegger. We only have the locked-in-our-head experience when we sit down to think about it. The rest of the time we’re engaged with the world, doing some form of purposive activity. Philosophy only thinks that we’re separated from the world because philosophy occurs when you aren’t engaged in the world but are thinking about it.

That was helpful to the eighteen-year-old me. Even more important, however, was Heidegger’s observation—obvious though it now sounds—that if we look at how we experience the world, we realize that we are already in a world not of our own choosing. We are, in Heidegger’s word, “thrown” {AU: Correct that this word, and only this word, is the quoted material?} into a situation that has arisen because of history, culture, language, and the particularities of our own lives ([1927] 2010). I was born in 1950 in America, not in 1450 in Mongolia. You can work on transforming yourself, but not all that much; even if I succeed in becoming a back-to-the-earth farmer who eschews modern technology, I can only do so as a twenty-first-century American. We’re thrown and we’re stuck with what we’ve been thrown into. We are, in a word, situated.

This, for Heidegger, is not just cold beans you have to eat. Being situated isn’t simply a limitation on your experience and understanding; it makes experience and understanding possible. If you were not born into any situation (whatever that might mean), you’d stare blankly at the fork, not understanding what it is for. Things have meaning because we are thrown into those meanings. (And what’s true for a fork is obviously true for what you read or view online.)

For Heidegger, those meanings are not intellectual definitions that one can formalize and be done with. Rather, the meaning of a thing is its position within a vast context of meanings. To understand a fork the way we do within our shared situation, you also have to understand which food can be forked, that there are a set of cultural norms about how forks are handled, that forks are designed for hands like ours, that we are creatures that enjoy eating and thus are capable of physical and social pleasure, that food comes to us through complex biological and economic processes, that we are biological creatures that need to eat, and that the world will continue without us as it managed before we existed. In short, you need to understand everything in order to understand anything. Of course, understanding everything does not mean that you know all the details of agricultural engineering or of cellular metabolism. Rather, the meaning of the fork is connected to a web of interrelated meanings, and nothing we encounter is outside that web; even if we find a scrap of metal in the street and we have no idea where it came from, we identify it as a scrap of metal and as something a human made for some purpose. That all-encompassing web is what Heidegger means by “the world” ([1927] 2010).

This was a radical idea because the world had been assumed to consist of all the Real Stuff—atoms, matter, energy—that exists independently of us. In contrast, Heidegger tells us that the world is the set of meanings in which we always already have found ourselves as situated creatures. Now, meaning here is definitely not capital-M Meaning, as in the Meaning of Life. Rather, it is the simple, everyday meaning we assume when we reach for the fork to twirl some spaghetti around. This lowercase meaning is expressed by the word as, as when we say that we experience the fork as a tool for eating, or we take the object we find in the road as a scrap of metal from some larger assemblage. Part of Heidegger’s insight is that these simple as’s are only possible within a seamless and inexhaustible context of as’s: the world in which we exist.

Thus, Heidegger gets over the mind-body conundrum by saying that before we abstract ourselves into that problem, we already live in a world of meaning. We have been thrown into a world that matters to us in particular ways. In fact, meaning is so fundamental to this world that Heidegger points to it as the very heart of human existence. While the Western tradition focused on how we can know our world, Heidegger says that knowing the world is just one way of being in the world. It is, of course, an important mode, but it is not that which explains all other modes.

Rather, Dasein—consciousness, if you prefer—is fundamentally characterized by the fact that we care about what happens to us. You go to pick up the fork because you want to eat. You use a fork instead of your hands because you care about what other people will think, or perhaps because you care about avoiding grease stains on your sleeve. Ultimately, you want to eat because you care about living. Human consciousness runs on care. Even the act of knowing the world is based on care. It’s the fact that we care that causes us to take things as what they are; if you truly didn’t care, you wouldn’t be interested in eating or anything else, so the fork wouldn’t show itself to you as anything in particular. It would truly be meaningless.
It’s important to note that this did not make Heidegger into a preacher or narcissist. Looking at our experience, he concluded that we care not only about ourselves but also about others. We recognize that we have been thrown into a world that contains other people who care about themselves and about others. We are not isolated, selfish, lonely people. We share a world and share a caring about that world and others.

The ways in which we care lead to a history that results in our tending to see things some ways rather than others: we’re more likely to take the fork as a way to eat than as a weapon or as a way to comb our hair because that’s where our history has led us. That history is expressed by language. Except that, for Heidegger, that’s a terrible way to put it. Language is, for Heidegger, not merely an expression of meaning; it is the shape of meaning itself. Just as the fork only has meaning within a web of references, so does the word fork. For Heidegger, the two are, in important ways, the same.

To make sense of this, it’s important to distinguish language as a set of arbitrary squawks and squiggles from language as the set of meanings expressed in those squawks and squiggles. For Heidegger, language articulates meaning in the sense of drawing circles around things and drawing the links among the circles. That we have the words “plates” and “saucers” draws a distinction among these two similar sorts of eating equipment, but to understand what either is, one must see its position in the complex set of relationships that constitute the world.

Language is that articulation. It generally happens to be expressed in squawks and squiggles (but also sometimes bumps on paper or hand motions). It is a mistake, of course, to look for meaning in the squawks and squiggles of language, for they are arbitrary. But, for Heidegger, it’s also a mistake to look for meaning in some easily expressed definitions of those squawks and squiggles. The meaning of a thing is its position in a complex, messy web of situated relationships that no one can ever make fully explicit. In my adolescent identity crisis, I made both mistakes. Particularly in situations where I was expected to be especially social—parties, for instance—I suffered a mild form of aphasia: I was unable to speak. Or I lacked the motivation to speak. The squawks were just squawks, and their definitional meanings seemed too impoverished. Speaking just wasn’t worth the effort, and nothing that speech could utter seemed to be the truth.

Heidegger helped cure me of that symptom. He helped by not offering a theory of communication. Communication is one of those loaded terms that Heidegger is right to avoid. Our idea of it is quite modern. John Durham Peters in Speaking into the Air, writes, “Technologies such as the telegraph and radio refitted the old term ‘communication,’ once used for any kind of physical transfer or transmission, into a new kind of quasi-physical connection across the obstacles of time and space” (1999, 5). This idea gained an even greater hold on us, thanks to the invention of information by Claude Shannon in 1948, about twenty years after Heidegger’s Being and Time was published in Germany.[1] (Heidegger, who died in 1976, wrote about computer technology a bit in the 1950s but did not show any evidence of understanding anything about Shannon’s work.)

Shannon worked in Bell Labs, the research and development branch of the telephone company. That company had a large interest in trying to ensure that what went into one end of their lines came out the same at the other end. Shannon’s theory of information—a relatively novel use of the term information at the time—provided a mathematical framework for measuring the amount of information that could be put through a medium and the inevitable noise that would deform it along the way. Although Shannon opens his initial article on the topic by telling readers that it is not meant to have anything to do with meaning, his theory was quickly taken as applicable not just to pulses of electricity moving over telephone wires but also to every human attempt to share meaning.

The impact of Shannon’s theory of information was huge, which is remarkable given that its math was beyond all but the most expert. But it came with a diagram that seemed to be within everyone’s reach. At one end, a message is encoded into a set of signals that go over a line, which might be a telegraph or telephone wire, and are decoded at the receiving end. Noise is depicted as an arrow pointing into the middle of the wire. Picture people talking into tin cans connected by string and you have the basic image. This simple picture fit in perfectly with our idea of ourselves as locked in our own heads. We take our meanings, turn them into arbitrary sounds and scribbles, and send them out over some medium in the hope that someone else will receive them and decode them at least partially correctly. That’s communication.

But this picture suffers from the same problems as the traditional picture of knowledge we’ve painted for ourselves. That picture leads us (and me, during the worst of my identity crisis) to think that communication is the process by which what’s in your head gets into my head, and that process consists of moving arbitrary symbols through a medium. That picture isn’t wrong so much as misleading. It’s like saying that the experience of love consists of the firing of particular neurons. Neurons do fire when we experience love, but that doesn’t tell us what love means or is like.

So drop the Shannon picture of communication, and look again. I say, “Beautiful morning,” and you respond, “Too bad we have exams.” Yes, these are particular squawks that have moved through the air (more exactly, they’ve caused changes in the pressure of the air between us), but that doesn’t tell us what it means to communicate. Heidegger’s approach provides an alternative way to understand what’s going on. You and I share a world in which we are situated. We understand this world in terms of what we care about, what matters to us. When you and I talk, we are not moving inner pictures from one head to another. Rather, we are each turning the other to the world itself, disclosing it{AU: Please clarify what “it” is here. Ideas about the world?} in terms of what matters to us. When I say “Beautiful morning,” I’m turning your attention to the weather. When you say, “Too bad we have exams,” you’re pointing to a feature of our shared world—exams are coming—that matters to us in a shared way and that has implications for what we’re going to do today. In conversation, we turn each other toward aspects of the world that matter to us. We do so within a situation that not only shares a language, but also a domain (school) with its own features (exams) about which we care.

So, rather than thinking of language as a vehicle for communication, and communication as a process of re-creating in your mind the picture I have in my mind, Heidegger thinks of speaking (and writing and painting and dancing{AU: Deletion OK, or is there quoted material here? If the latter, please insert opening quotation marks as needed and page-number citation.}) as turning us toward our shared world, disclosing its possibilities based on what we care about.

This is entirely consistent with the rest of Heidegger’s thought. Language is something we find ourselves thrown into; we already speak at least one language. (Heidegger doesn’t provide a theory of how we get into that situation.) Language is already something we share, just as we always already experience the world itself as shared. The elements of language only have meaning because they are embedded in a relational context as extensive as the world itself. And language, like our life in the world, is saturated with care: I only speak if there’s something I care about, and in disclosing the world together we are making what we care about manifest.

This view of communication rejects the fundamental premise of the prevalent abstract understanding of communication, which sees it as overcoming disconnectedness: you and I are fundamentally isolated (the theory suggests) unless and until we communicate. Even at that point, we are isolated individuals who happen to have the same mental content at the same time. Against this, Heidegger proposes the concept of the always already: before we ever think that we are isolated consciousnesses, we have always already found ourselves in a shared world that is rich with meaning—where “meaning” means the “as-ness” of things ([1927] 2010). That as-ness—seeing the fork as a way to eat some peas instead of as something to comb your hair with or as a mouse’s seesaw—occurs within a complex, messy set of relationships (a.k.a. the world).

This is just what eighteen-year-old me needed to hear and to accept. My experience of isolation and of meaninglessness was looking for Meaning that was independent of all situations. I could not find it because understanding is always situated, always a part of its culture, language, and history. I so mourned Meaning’s absence that I missed the world full of meaning that we all always already inhabit.

In short, I was taking the unusual experience in which meaning seems to withdraw as especially revelatory. But that mood is deceptive. The proof of this is that if we experience the temporary withdrawal of meaning as a loss, it’s because we are care-based creatures living in a language-soaked, shared world. If, in your despair, you pick idly at your food with a fork, the forkiness of that fork proves Heidegger’s point. In fact, Professor Fell’s work over the years{AU: OK?} has repeatedly come back to the question of the always already. He finds the idea in Aristotle’s sense of the prior community of nature that allows us to understand a world that is in many ways very much unlike our understanding of it.[2] He finds it in the thinking of his own teacher, John William Miller, when he writes about “the mindworld.”[3] The awareness of the mystery of the always already was a great gift for which I continue to thank Professor Fell. In practical terms, I was on the student-faculty committee at Bucknell that first allowed students to create their own major, and I was one of the very first to take advantage of the opportunity. I graduated as a Meaning major.

So, thanks to Professor Fell’s patience, clarity, and wisdom, Heidegger brought me out of my teenage angst. I saw that the world wasn’t the illusion. The illusion was that I lived inside a hollow skull, trying to wring meaning from meaningless experience and from the echoes of arbitrary squawks and squiggles emitted from other hollow skulls. As a result of questioning the idea that communication overcomes fundamental isolation, I was reminded of the more important truth: we are always already together in a shared world about which we all care, but care differently.

What does this reunderstanding of the nature of communication mean for digital-media literacy? The prior idea of media literacy pictured students reading a newspaper (ah, the old days!) or watching TV by themselves, prey to all the ways that advertisers and propagandists lie to us. We still need to learn how to encounter media on our own, but we should also recognize that generally we now read in a shared space, with other people. What we read comes from them, via links and tweets and all the other ways we recommend places on the net to one another. What we read comes filtered through others who often comment on it, guiding our understanding and attitude. Our network does much of the hard work of spotting traps and exposing liars, whether it’s through a Reddit thread contradicting a hyperbolic headline or a response on Facebook that links to a contrary source.

So, while we still need to sharpen our skills, we also need to figure out how to make the networked space better at discovering the truth and swerving around the lies. Our fundamental image should no longer be that of an isolated student facing an onslaught of lies. Rather, it should be that of a shifting network of people with a shared interest, showing one another how the world looks to them. Media literacy needs to produce not just literate individuals but networks that are better at telling the truth—which means they’re better at letting us see the world together and helping us care about it more.
Aristotle. 1997. De Anima [On the Soul]. Bk. 3. Translated by J. A. Smith. Classics in the History of Psychology. Available at
Heidegger, Martin. (1927) 2010. Being and Time. Translated by J. Stambaugh and D. J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] I write this with the understanding that it’s usually taken as obvious that information has been with us throughout time. I disagree, except in the sense that one could also say that miles and centigrade degrees have been with us forever. But that’s not our topic.
[2] “For interaction between two factors is held to require a precedent community of nature between the factors.” Aristotle 1997, chap. 4.
[3] The Wikipedia article on John William Miller is one place to start. It references a couple of articles by Professor Fell.

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