The phenomenality of the phenomenon: Heidegger on physics


The essay explores the possibilities afforded by Heidegger’s thought for addressing the question of the reality of the phenomenon within the framework of the theory of quantum mechanics. Heidegger’s conception of the task of phenomenology is seen to provide a crucial axis along which the phenomenon of quantum physics can be connected both to its appearance in language and to the historical unfolding of the horizon that grounds the possibility of an encounter with the phenomenon itself. The determinations of this horizon, i.e. of the order of “phenomenality” that makes the appearance of the phenomenon possible, are analyzed in the instance of quantum mechanics, and compared to the ones presented by Heidegger in his considerations concerning the appearing of the phenomenon in Aristotelian and classical physics. The three main directives that structure the analysis of this order of phenomenality are the determinations of the conditions of experience of the phenomenon, of the function of language that makes this appearance possible, and of the subject function that constitutes, and is in turn constituted by, this experience.

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  1. 1.

    See e.g. Heidegger (1993, 2012b). At a later stage, Heidegger will set to relinquish the ontic-ontological difference altogether, and attempt to think the a-historical site (that of the Ereignis) that itself “gives” the history of being. See e.g. Heidegger (1969, 1972, 2003a).

  2. 2.

    Richardson (2012, p. 43).

  3. 3.


  4. 4.

    For what concerns the necessity of a deconstruction of the “regional”/”fundamental” divide, see e.g. Derrida (1982, p. xix), Malabou (2011, pp. 156–157).

  5. 5.

    See Caputo (2012) for a brief summary. More generally, see Kockelmans (1985) and Glazebrook (2000) for critical takes on Heidegger’s relationship to science.

  6. 6.

    See Heidegger (2010, Section 3, Section 69b; 1982, p. 13), and especially Heidegger (1977b, 2018, pp. 44–72).

  7. 7.

    Heidegger’s charge levelled at Husserl that ‘the historicity of thought remained completely foreign to such [i.e. Husserl’s] a position’ cannot be addressed here. Heidegger (2003b, p. xiv).

  8. 8.

    Heidegger refers to this archi-transcendental projection as “time” [Zeit], “being” [Sein], “presencing” [Anwesen], and other increasingly esoteric terms.

  9. 9.

    Heidegger (2018, pp. 56–57).

  10. 10.

    See Aristotle’s Physics (Book IV), Newton’s Principia (Axioms), and Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science.

  11. 11.

    Heidegger (2018, p. 63).

  12. 12.

    See Heidegger (1977b, pp. 128–130).

  13. 13.

    See Heidegger (1978, p. 4).

  14. 14.

    Heidegger (1977b, p. 121). See also Heidegger (2012b, pp. 127–128).

  15. 15.

    See Heidegger (1977b, p. 122; 2012b, p. 127).

  16. 16.

    See Heidegger (1977b, p. 151).

  17. 17.

    Hegel (1956, p. 235), translation modified.

  18. 18.

    See e.g. Bohr (1998, p. 100).

  19. 19.

    For otherwise, as Heisenberg remarks, it would be a contradiction in adjecto. Heisenberg (2000, p. 95).

  20. 20.

    As is well known, this order of potentiality cannot be coherently determined as being strictly “objective” or “subjective.” Heisenberg (2000, p. 15). More generally, the epistemological-ontological and empirico-transcendental doublets, as the founding features of modernity, can no longer be strictly separated in quantum mechanics.

  21. 21.

    See the volume by Bitbol et al. (2009), in particular the “Introduction” by the editors, but also many other excellent essays.

  22. 22.

    Heidegger unequivocally states that dynamis is a mode of appearance of the phenomenon (in his jargon): “Dynamis is a mode of presencing [Anwesung].” Heidegger (1998 p. 219). This split is, of course, nothing new; the reason why it appears to be so is that, in the physical and metaphysical traditions, priority has been given to the mode of actuality. Heidegger indeed continues: “Aristotle says, energeia (entelecheia) is proteron, ‘prior’ to dynamis, ‘prior,’ namely, with regard to ousia” (ibid.). The question of the modes of appearance of the phenomenon here does not coincide with the question as to whether the notion of objectivity should be thought in substantial terms, or, after Cassirer, in functional ones or even as a “task” of knowledge and spirit.

  23. 23.

    Heidegger (1977b, p. 150).

  24. 24.

    The following analogy points in fact to an affinity of horizons of phenomenality whose origin cannot be addressed here: in quantum mechanics, different singular con-texts come to replace the autonomy of a single “text” of nature, which is to say that quantum mechanics deals always with singular translations of a text that has been barred de jure from existence. The instrument is then the function that gives rise to these contextual translations. Said otherwise, one is to conclude that something “is” insofar as it is a translation, not insofar as it is a part of the original text.

  25. 25.

    See e.g. Bitbol (1996), but also virtually all works by Michel Bitbol or Patrick Heelan. More generally, see Patrick Heelan’s work for a most insightful treatment of relationship between the philosophy of quantum mechanics and phenomenology, hermeneutics, and the thinking of Martin Heidegger. See Heelan (1965, 2016), and the collection of essays in his honor edited by Babette Babich (2002).

  26. 26.

    Note that, more precisely, experience gives rise to the proposition “the instrument shows a certain experimental mark.” If this were a classical experiment, one would conclude that e.g. a particle or a wave should be responsible for this experimental trace: this is how seemingly classical propositions like “the electron has a momentum of x” should be understood in quantum mechanics.

  27. 27.

    Meta-propositions are given by a probability distribution on the set of experimental questions.

  28. 28.

    Heidegger (1977b, p. 131).

  29. 29.

    See e.g. Heidegger (1977b, pp. 149–153; 2018, pp. 273–282).

  30. 30.

    Note that one can argue that the potentiality for singular events is “experienced” (as an “actuality”) by a singular subject, but this potentiality is nevertheless not for a singular subject. It is rather potentially for any contextual subject—or, rephrasing, it is for a potential subject.

  31. 31.

    One should perhaps refer not to the determining of the law of place (topos), but of the law of taking place (chōra-nomos), where chōra marks for Plato the taking place of place itself, but also, according to Aristotle’s critique, the site of a conflation of place and matter. For Heidegger’s discussion of chōra see Heidegger (2014, pp. 72–73; 2004, p. 227).

  32. 32.

    According to Aristotle, “Motion (kinēsis) is the actuality of what is potentially, as such.” Aristotle (1984, III 201a11).

  33. 33.

    According to Aristotle, “Nature is the origin of motion” (archē kinēseōs). (1984, III 200b12).

  34. 34.

    Heidegger (1977a, pp. 172–173), translation modified, Heidegger’s own note to “The Question Concerning Technology.” In the latter essay, Heidegger states: “Modern physics is the herald of the Ge-stell, a herald whose origin is still unknown.” Heidegger (1977c, p. 22).

  35. 35.

    “Nature is no longer even an object [Gegen-stand].” Heidegger (2012a, p. 41).

  36. 36.

    One should nevertheless generally beware of Heidegger’s grave inaccuracies, such as: “In atomic physics a state of motion may on principle only be determined either as to position or as to velocity.” Heidegger (1977a, p. 172).


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Sacco, D. The phenomenality of the phenomenon: Heidegger on physics. Cont Philos Rev (2021).

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  • Heidegger
  • Physics
  • Phenomenology
  • Quantum mechanics