Heidegger claims that philosophy, understood as the hermeneutics of facticity, does not attempt to get at theoretical truths about the existence in general of some sort of universal humanity but rather about what “is always as its own [das eigene].” (From Phenomenological Interpretations of Aristotle) Heidegger’s target here is the subject-concept advanced by neo-Kantians like Paul Natorp and Heinrich Rickert: neither an empirical self nor an eternal being but rather a principle, like the Kantian “I think,” which must be able to accompany any of my representations. In contrast to this purely formal condition of knowledge, Heidegger’s factic subject is one that can be otherwise and yet is not simply an empirical subject. (Heidegger is no naturalist.) So the first way we can understand the factic subject is by grasping that it transcends the neo-Kantian dichotomy between a “pure” and an “empirical” subject.
On one interpretation, that the subject is factic means that there is a conditioning ground of the subject that is unavailable to theoretical reflection. Such a ground includes things like history, language, embodiment, gender, and power. What at bottom sustains the subject as a knowing being lies outside of and is unavailable to knowledge, and so we are committed to various forms of historicism, hermeneutics, or aestheticism about knowledge.
But this interpretation makes the fatal mistake of running together two different kinds of facticity. Facticity in the “loose” sense refers to the subject’s situatedness, but facticity in the “strict” sense refers to that aspect of the subject that is unavailable to reflection. For example, some have claimed that, by Heidegger’s lights, sex (whether you’re male or female) is a fact, but gender (masculinity and feminity) is factic. Facticity, therefore, consists in socially constructed self-interpretations. If all knowledge is sustained and grounded in such socially constructed self-interpretations, and if such interpretations can change over time, it means that we can never really have a philosophical account of knowledge. Such an account would be the province of gender theory, sociology, history, etc. But such constructed meanings and are available to reflection and so belong to facticity in the loose sense. We can explore the necessary conditions for fulfilling them in a culture and discover how they hang together with other meanings. That we can never get clear about facticity, and that we can never get clear of facticity, is not true of something like gender or any other socially constructed self-interpretation. But it is true of facticity in the strict sense.
Therefore, to say that the factic subject is historical, linguistic, embodied, social, and so on is not wrong; it’s just irrelevant from Heidegger’s point of view. We can’t say that any of these are the factic ground of the subject (in the strict sense) because all of them are available to phenomenological reflection. If they weren’t available to such reflection, I wouldn’t be able to say anything about them at all. And no exploration of the subject’s history, language, embodiment, sociality, etc., can shed light on the subject’s facticity in the strict sense.
If we’re going to take the facticity of the subject seriously as the ground of the subject, we cannot identify it with any sort of situatedness (facticity in the loose sense). We can’t identify it with the historical, the religious, the natural, or anything of the sort. Facticity is radical otherness lying at the basis of reflection. Reflection must remain incapable of getting to the bottom of what sustains it as a theorizing, philosophizing subject.
Wittgenstein more or less says the same thing:
Man has an impulse to run up against the limits of language. Think, for example, of the astonishment that anything exists. … This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics. (Wittgenstein, “On Heidegger on Being and Dread,” from Heidegger and Modern Philosophy)The level of facticity is that which Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, points to as that which lies outside of language. The entirety of the Tractatus is a performance or a way of showing this limit up against which language runs. Likewise, the reason that we cannot identify facticity with anything lying within reflection (such as the historical, flesh, power, embodiment, etc.) is because these are all things that we can inspect by means of phenomenological reflection and talk about. Facticity is what Wittgenstein refers to as the “mystical,” but he also calls it “Ethics.” Heidegger has an almost identical interpretation of the relationship between facticity and ethics. Before turning to why Heidegger thinks there is such a connection, first I want to provide a clearer, more positive account of what facticity actually is.
Most commentators seem to think that facticity is the subject’s historicality. But this is wrong. Heidegger describes facticity as “already” finding oneself in a world “beforehand,” so “the primary existential meaning of facticity lies in the character of ‘having been’ [gewesen sein].” (B&T, H328) This translation of Gewesenheit as ‘having been’ is misleading, since the term doesn’t really name something chronologically prior. Instead it indicates the “apriori perfect” or the perfect tense in an a priori aspect. It is not “that which has been and still is, but that which … is always prior to and beyond our determination.” (Thomas Sheehan, “Heidegger’s New Aspect”) Gewesen - sein is the always already, corresponding with Aristotle’s term “essence,” to ti en enai. It has nothing to do with the process of becoming or what occurred in the past and continues to impact the present. It has to do with Heidegger’s temporal interpretation of the a priori. That something is a priori doesn’t mean that it is true in a timeless realm radically apart from this world. It means that it is there “always already.” In every situation in which we find ourselves, the a priori is always binding. (Heidegger talks about this in length in History of the Concept of Time.) That facticity lies in the character of gewesensein means that it is what I always already am. That’s the opposite of historicism.
Facticity is “not something we can come across by beholding it,” and its ontological significance lies in the formal structure of “being delivered over.” This is why facticity is disclosed in mood. Facticity pertains, therefore, to how things matter to us; not what things matter to us. As revealed in mood “the ‘whence’ and the ‘whither’ of throwness ‘remain in darkness.” (B&T, H134-35) All of our knowledge counts for nothing in the face of this “mood-wise disclosure of ‘the ‘that it is’ of the ‘there’ which, as such, stares us in the face with the inexorability of an enigma.’” (B&T, 175) To acknowledge radical otherness, to acknowledge facticity, means to confront the enigma of being-there. (This term, “enigma,” is one of the most important in all of B&T.) And one particular mood, Angst, has special methodological significance, because in this mood we confront this radical otherness, and we discover the origin of the philosophical project itself.
Angst reveals my facticity in such a way that the world no longer makes any claim on me. The historical and rational normativity belonging to the structure of my everyday practices is shown to be null and void. I don’t doubt that such norms exist; they simply don’t matter to me. What I took to be inevitable is shown in anxiety simply to be factual. In the space created by Angst between me and the historical and rational norms of everyday existence there arises the question of whether what does exist ought to exist. If in the grip of Angst I hear a telephone ring, I do not doubt that the telephone rings; I wonder, in a terrifying way, why anything like that should happen in the first place. Herein lies the connection between philosophy and facticity. Angst demonstrates in Dasein an interest in truth, in the rightness of norms and reasons for things, and this interest is co-extensive with Dasein’s existence as such. Dasein is brought face to face with the choice of taking responsibility for truth or else fleeing it (running headlong into the everyday). But such a choice is a precise description of the project of philosophy itself. (And this also shows why, in his encounter with the same phenomenon, Wittgenstein claims that language (philosophy) runs up against ethics.)
Authentic retrieval of facticity, therefore, is not a meaningless encounter with the void; it has the character of an ethico-existential imperative that calls forth the project of philosophy as an interest in truth. To say that the philosophizing subject is factic means that taking responsibility for truth is an essential aspect of the philosophical project. Authentic retrieval of facticity is a response to my obligation to make myself accountable to myself and others for what I do and say. Various continental philosophers have taken facticity to mean that we have to pursue historicism or relativism of some kind. But read correctly, facticity proves that historicism, aestheticism, relativism, pragmatism, etc., all have to be wrong. Or put more precisely, they’re “inauthentic” forms of philosophy that renege on their responsibility to truth.
(This post closely follows in form and content sections of a draft I have of Steven Crowell’s paper “Facticity and Philosophy” which appears as “Facticity and Transcendental Philosophy” in From Kant to Davidson, put out, I think, by Routledge three years ago.)