Heidegger’s Views on Realism and Idealism
by Paul Rogov

Martin Heidegger’s reformulation and revitalization of the question of Being, his  concern for the question of Being at the very heart of Philosophy, distinguishes him from most philosophers that preceded him. In his opaque tome Being and Time, he critiques epistemic intrigues promulgated by Immanuel Kant, rightfully corrects the privileging of searching for objective knowledge over existentiality, denounces staunch attachments to the subject/object distinction as expressed in Descartes’s cogito (I think, therefore I am), and more than anything, divulges Philosophy’s misconception of presences as the only mode of being in reality, as well as Being’s relation to Time. For Heidegger, both Idealism and Realism fail to accurately account for the ontic-ontological character of yours and/or my experience. Unlike a hammer (a tool) or the periodic table (an ontology of empirical entities only), Dasein (us) is a mode of being that takes a stand on its own existence. Heidegger claims that we often misrecognize the genuine analytic of Being and pass over the ontic-ontological structure of “Being-in-the-World,” which, at a certain point, is characterized by what he calls care.


For Idealism and Realism, the world exists as either mind-dependent or the world is presupposed to exist independent of the mind. Idealism and Realism, however, are not simply beliefs or views; they are mobilized as arguments (epistemic ones). These arguments require presuppositions about how we know Reality, yet do not truly account for how we always-already experience a series of phenomenological encounters as we apprehend reality, wherein our existence is more primordial than knowledge of reality. When I argue for Idealism, for example, I often unknowingly distinguish “my mind” from a “Reality out there” and attempt prove everything about that Reality on account of using that same mind as a starting point. Phenomenology is quite different: one does not begin with a mind. Instead, one observes what is really taking place existentitally in its average everday-ness. Psychology is not required for reality.  Idealism does not begin with the question of Being, but begins with thought. In the case of Realism, a philosopher presupposes that Reality and mind do and will meet up or correspond to one another during the explication of the knowledge of a thing. Idealism’s presupposition is to start with my mind. It is the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which suggests a subject-object dualism: only after making my mind independent of Reality first, then I become the perceiver of Reality—and only then can I understand a myriad of links between my mind and Reality. Heidegger writes:

In so far as Reality has the character of something independent and “in itself”, the question of the meaning of “Reality” becomes linked with that of whether the Real can be independent ‘of consciousness’ or whether there can be a transcendence of consciousness into the ‘sphere’ of the Real (246).

Once the independence of mind from everything else that exists has been established, a traditional metaphysician will show proof for the existence of a mind by presupposing a mind as a presence. Such a metaphysician will insist that the mind is the beholder of Reality, that we cannot think or do anything without a mind, will either adopt a monist biological naturalism or a Cartesian dualism (among other ways of experiencing reality). The subject/object distinction, then, in the case of Idealism, the cogito, would appear to be the most appropriate, even most convenient premise, as far as arguing for Idealism is concerned. Why? Because by claiming my mind is different from my body in any respect ensures that, when I am talking about Reality, I am including mind and body within that Reality. The mind-body problem (or the subject-object distinction on is as old as Descartes; it distinguishes mind from body and insists they we experience them parallel with one another, even though they are separate in nature by one another. But are they?

Let’s take a look at Realism, a belief that our reality, or at least some aspect of it, is ontologically independent of the mind, i.e. concepts, schemes, perceptions, beliefs.

Basically Realism is the belief that reality is separate from Dasein (us). It, in some way, demarcates us from reality by saying that reality is “out there” and that we are “here”

Here, it would be useful to paraphrase Kant’s transcendental idealism.  As it is well known, the following method is the one in which Immanuel Kant makes regarding the claim that we have knowledge of entities (“Reality”) with our cognitive capacities.

A) Concepts are part of my subjective experience.

B) Concepts correspond to the external world, so I may know and understand it.

C) To know anything outside of me, then, I must have a concept of it, so that I may know how a thing corresponds to that concept.

D) So that I do not equate the concepts of my subjective experience with the concept of an external thing, I must go beyond my inner experience in order to apprehend the appearance of an external world and distinguish it from my concepts of it.

E) Therefore, to know anything that occurs outside of me, that which corresponds to concept s inside of me, I must go outside my inner experience.

Going beyond one’s inner experience is the foundation of the formation of subjectivity. The above five points are, for most of us, common sense. Martin Heidegger, however, raises objections towards Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism, the latter bearing some resemblance to Realism.  If anything, the one thing that Heidegger would agree with regarding Idealism is that as long as Being and Reality are only in a consciousness, this expresses an understanding of the fact that Being cannot be explained only through entities (BT 251). Dasein (us), as only one kind of mode of being, is not simply an entity; it has an ontic-ontological character. What does it mean to have an ontic-ontological character? It is to understand we are not simply mind or presences existentially. Dasein has an understanding of its Being. Reality does not. Neither does the world. Neither does an illusory Reality. This is actually an important point and a great plus for Idealism: Heidegger’s does accept certain features of idealism. Again, being cannot only be explained by talking about entities. The way we exist is specific. We are entities at some basic level, yet function much different than, let’s say, a paintbrush or economics.

The theory of Realism, unfortunately, by correctly positing that the world as “there,” and present-at-hand before us, fails to define or assert what world even is, let alone explain what its relationship to us is; it fails to present the primacy of Dasein’s Being-in-the-World (BT 251). One may be inclined to think that, as far as that claim is concerned, Dasein is to subject as “object” and “people” are to” world,” but this cannot be the case. Being-in-the-world is an ontic-ontological structure ascertained by a phenomenological method; it not a concept or a relationship between two entities that are present-at-hand. Claiming Being-in-the-world  has the ontic-ontological character of Dasein is not like saying “I am me and the world is there.” Surely, we sense a relationship between the world and a self, intuitively; nevertheless, when we speak about this relationship, aren’t we really talking about a relationship between the two entities in question like software is to hardware, one being inside the other—like water is “in” cup, etc.— where one thing facilitates another thing in a mutually beneficial way?

A software inside hardware’s relationship, each as entities, do not take stand on their own existence like an ontic-ontological structure Dasein. My numerically distinct body, which is in another an entity (say, the world) does not have an ontological status; it is merely flesh, a presence; this fact, that we are only flesh, or chemical as such, suggests that we are an entity walking in or upon another entity while conflating the chemicals that comprise my body with my mind and everything it holds. But that cannot be true for Dasein (translated from the German as a being-there, is a mode of being that takes a stand on its own existence, unlike the technology of a hammer existing or as a periodic table existing.  Dasein has a specific way in which it is encapsulated in the appellation  Being-in-the World, for despite crude analogies, we are different than the subject/object distinction, and we are also different, as if we were like water in a cup or a self in a world.

Notice how we tend to conceive of the self and world relationship functioning like the relationship between software and hardware (BT 86). This “in-ness” tangles up what is ontic (that is, what is there, as opposed to the nature or properties of a being) with that which is ontological (the nature of being itself, existence.) Realism and Idealism, presuppose that Reality is merely comprised of entities-within-a-world (BT 251). The problem resides in saying anything that exists in Reality—inclusive of three modes of being—the present-at-hand  of numbers in mathematics (one mode of being), the ready-at-hand of technology(another mode of being) as well as Dasein, which are all equivocal in the way they exist and are coeval  to one another as far the way in which they exist. In short, monistic totalization, as geared by Barch Spinoza, or pure biological naturalism both do not take into account the question of being; they merely are models of reality.

In sum, there are three modes of being: presence-at-hand/ready-at-hand/Dasein.

It should come as no surprise why Heidegger says that “subject and object do not coincide with Dasein and the world” (BT 87). We, as Dasein, are already with world. Kant failed to give an adequate ontological account of anything that exists, and instead proved that the ‘external world’ exists, and that it matches up with our consciousness.  Dasein is a mode of being among other modes of being. If one would like to argue that Dasein is an entity and nothing more, let it be clear that Dasein is a mode of being that takes priority over entities and other modes of being. Why? Because the existentialality of a thing (its being) is more primordial than the knowledge that it exists. Existence precedes essence. Dasein, in this regard, could very well be an entity whose Being has the determinate character of existence.  Dasein in itself then has both an ontic character (as a presence) and an ontological character (in that, it is a specific mode of Being).


It should be clear by now that neither Idealism nor Realism can account for Dasein as an ontic-ontological mode of being. Idealism does not account for the existence of a being which is determinative to exist. There is no Dasein “without world” Dasein, as I stated, is always-already “with world.” Dasein is a mode of being which only appears as mere entity, yet it comes to know Reality by apprehending and encountering phenomena, either present-at-hand and/or ready-at-hand.  Heidegger critiques Kant for not explaining this fact: how Dasein is an entity and a specific mode of being, which, most importantly, is constituted by it itself having an understanding of its own existence (BT 34).

Subsequently, Heidegger does not simply value certain aspects of Idealism—for example, that consciousness can, at least, have some understanding of Being, and in-itself, and Reality to boot. Dasein’s Being-in-the-World has certain features of idealism already, in fact, inside its primordial character; it is not world-less, and it does understand its own existence. Realism also is correct in some respects. It’s not simply that Heidegger devalues that there entities out there and just dislikes Realism, but he argues that the actual disclosure of the Real is compatible with his phenomenological method.

This implies that the Being of these entities is always understood in a certain manner, even if it not conceived in a way which is appropriately ontological.  To be sure, the pre-ontological understanding of Being embraces all entities which are essentially disclosed in Dasein; but the understanding of Being has not yet Articulated itself in a way which corresponds to the various modes of Being (BT 245).

Idealism and Realism cannot account for the ontic-ontological structures such as Being-in or Being-with, and also what Heidegger defines as care, concern, and solicitude.   This shows that having knowledge is one way of accessing Reality—that there are others. . . .


In general, I agree with Heidegger’s takes on Idealism and Realism.  I agree with him when he emphasizes that Dasein is the ontic-ontological condition for the possibility of all ontologies, which simply means that it encompasses any paradigm that lays claim to Reality at all.  In this sense, in Division I of Being and Time, Idealism and Realism are really “pseudo-problems” for Heidegger, ones that are easily promoted and/or demoted  by mistakenly getting caught up in the presence-at-hand-ness of logical argumentation, that is arguing about objects existing or not, through inductive and deductive proofs.

Dasein, on the other hand, is more than a mere entity as was mentioned before:  one which must first be interrogated by employing phenomenology-–even before arguments like Realism and Idealism can even be taken seriously, or considered useful (BT 34). The matter resides in understanding how the “thingness” of a thing requires an understanding of its character or nature.  Noting how “an entity” in question also has its own mode of existence other than as Dasein may or may not teach us whether or not we are able to have knowledge of it.  That said, it is useful to define the ontological terms before a discussion begins, so there is no confusion by the obfuscating power of language, which is common in philosophy.

Moreover, perhaps, the reasoning that motivates the enunciation of either argument (for Idealism or for Realism) inevitably (and ridiculously) presupposes that the world as such has yet to be understood, or disclosed to us, even ascertained as a world at all.  Perhaps, Heidegger is right when he talks about the emptiness or forgetfulness inherent in us by demanding proofs for existence of the external world. For according to him:  We are thrown. We encounter. We cope. We are concerned with—these are the basis of our existence. . . . despite the way in which we attempt to ascertain “Reality.” After all, the encounters that happen to Dasein happen while the activities are being known to Dasein.

It is immediate and immanent, simultaneous and seamless. Heidegger writes:

The being of entities does not lie in the activity of encountering, but the encounter of entities is the phenomenal basis, and the sole-basis, upon which the being of entities can be grasped. Only the interpretation of the encounter with entities can secure the being of entities, if at all (BPP 297).

We already know the world-thing in advance. It is not taught to us. Arguments for Realism and Idealism are taught to us and we come to accept them as true all our lives; however, upon closer investigation, philosophers’ prose over many historical epochs have seduced other philosophers as well as many students—undergraduate or graduate, as well as the reader, who reformulate the question of Being as it is set at the center of the table.

Perhaps, we want to shun from phenomenology (inferring that is not merely based on logical statements of facts, but based on experiential observations). This article itself is an encounter as a Being-with, the notion of other Dasein, originating from my Being-in-the- World, which draws us to closer to dread and the issue of authenticity-inauthenticity regarding Being-towards- Death. Division II of Being and Time spends quite a bit of time elucidating these two components. As Dasein, I am coping to culture, to encounters, to everything that happens to Dasein, yet the way I am in the world always-already (by observation) suggests I am producing creating, eating speaking, and doing many other things , which underscore that basis of what Heidegger calls care.

“We shall never come to grasp the sense of the world if we could run through the sum-total of all things in the world. In such an inventory and in every characterization of the outward appearance of a world-thing and of the particular relations among several of them we always think of the world-thing in advance already as world-thing” (HCT 169).  This might be true. There is a place for Idealism and Realism, but there are also critiques of it. Dasein, meanwhile, a mode of being, along with the notion of care as well as its notion of an authentic and inauthentic encounters, solidifies a genuine analytic of Being wherein the existence of a thing is more primordial than the knowledge that it exists.


Heidegger, Martin, John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. Being and Time.
Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1962. Print.  pp 3-201.

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