Last night we went for a barbecue at Amida's. It was a nice Memorial Day party, with a laid-back group of Anglos, Africans and Latinos. Imagine an exuberant subtropical garden with dashes of reddish lights coming from behind the vegetation. Uttered words linger in Babelian, fused with the beats of late-60's rock music. There is a curated selection of imported beers with vegetarian hamburgers and other tidbits. The main attraction? Ami's garden.
A garden is a garden
Ami was kind to give us a "mini-tour". Flashlight in hand, he walked us through the winding straights of his garden -more like an urban forest amidst Miami's Little Havana, as it appears from the outside. At each stop of the way he would nimbly lean over and introduce the given specimen. He'd explain its Latin root and go over provenance, care, growth process, local climate conditions, aesthetic preferences, etc. Meanwhile he compared the banal, the exotic and the endangered. You could tell that he knew his plants. Suddenly, the garden had become a wonderful, rich-in-detail, reservoir of pure "in-itself" beingness.
As I enjoyed the moment, I couldn't help but think of Heidegger's Being and Time and his explanation of how to get a garden. Not really, Heidegger uses hammers and nails as examples, but it works just the same. For starters, what distinguishes Ami and I is that he is IN the garden, I'm not.
"Being-in" is thus the formal existential expression for the Being of Dasein, which has Being-in-the-world as its essential state. 'Being alongside' the world in the sense of being absorbed in the world. (80)Forgive Heidegger's convoluted prose. He is saying that as a gardener, Ami is in a mode of being-in. I don't have that privilege. The world of things is divided into two: ontic (for entities and their categories) and ontological (for Being and its existentials).
What's "out there" depends of how we (Dasein) cut the world. The garden would not be the same for a child, a blind person or an entomologist who looks for a dangerous bug. Not even for an apathetic gardener, who finally comes to terms with the fact that his real vocation is hairdressing.
If its kind of Being as ready-to-hand is disregarded, this 'Nature' itself can be discovered and defined simply in its pure presence-at-hand. But when this happens, the Nature which 'stirs and strives', which assails us and enthralls us as landscape, remains hidden. The botanist's plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow; the 'source' which the geographer establishes for a river is not the 'springhead in the dale'. (100)There are two modalities: one, ready-to-hand, is involved & unobtrusive (this is Ami's mode). The other mode is derivative, metaphysical, quasi-scientific. The botanist's mode is present-at-hand. I -a neophyte- am in what mode?
Not as ready-to-hand: For me, at least until yesterday, a garden was a bunch of plants being-presented to my attention. Ami however, was neither ready-to-hand nor present-to-hand. He was a bit detached from his usual immersion but not completely alien to it. According to Heidegger, the mere fact that I enjoyed his tour as present-to-hand, is ontologically suspect. Why? My garden is foreign, differentiated, disconnected. My sense of wonderment a sort of ontic epiphenomena. Only when the garden becomes invisible one can feel its true ontological import. For the sake of complicating things a bit further, these are different ways of seeing. When one looks at the world as environment one looks differently than when one looks at oneself. Sort of,
To the everydayness of Being-in-the-world there belong certain modes of concern. These permit the entities with which we concern ourselves to be encountered in such a way that the worldly character of what is within the-world comes to the fore. (102)Gradually we discover that at every step of the way, Ami is guilty of showing, re-presenting, discovering -as if the garden was damaged (or not working properly). In fact, we should conclude that his mini-tour made the garden conspicuous:
When we concern ourselves with something, the entities which are most closely ready-to-hand may be met as something unusable, not properly adapted for the use we have decided upon. The tool (garden) turns out to be damaged, or the material unsuitable. We discover its unusability, however, not by looking at it and establishing its properties, but rather by the circumspection of the dealings in which we use it. When its unusability is thus discovered, equipment becomes conspicuous. (Idem)A Heideggerian in the crowd will retort that plants (life) should not be equated with hammers (objects). But the fact is that when it comes to plants, there's not much to chew on from the pages of Being and Time. Plants are not Dasein.1 When it comes to Nature, Heidegger does not provide a way of seeing that is not "circumspect." 2
In fact, for Heidegger, there is no Nature independent of Dasein. 3
Here, however, "Nature" is not to be understood as that which is just present-at-hand, nor as the power of Nature. The wood is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock; the river is water-power, the wind is wind 'in the sails'. As the 'environment' is discovered, the 'Nature' thus discovered is encountered too. (100)The question we have to ask now is how meaningful was the world before Dasein.4 And someone will say that the question doesn't make any sense. But it does! There is definitely something "there" right now, in that garden, besides Ami, I, or any other Dasein.
All excerpts taken from Being and Time, (Harper & Row: 1962) 1 "Because animals and plants are lodged in their respective environments, but are never placed freely into the clearing of being, which alone is world, they lack language." (Letter on Humanism, 248). 2For Heidegger there's a difference between facts and history. So, whereas we know that there is a geological pre-Dasein history, that period is not really significant without Dasein being in the picture. 3 Plant (Pflanzen) appears only 4 times in Being & Time. 4 This is a revealing paragraph:
In its projective character, understanding goes to make up existentially what we call Dasein's "sight" (...) as the circumspection of concern, as the considerateness of solicitude, and as that sight which is directed upon Being as such, for the sake of which any Dasein is as it is. The sight which is related primarily and on the whole to existence we call "transparency." We choose this term to designate 'knowledge of the Self' in a sense which is well understood. (186)