Understanding Why There Is Something When There Could be Nothing

Andrew Bourret ’09 Reflects on Learning About Heidegger From ‘Professor Capo’

I chose to study philosophy at Stonehill because I was curious. More than a sure path to wealth, I wanted to study to answer questions that seemed fundamental, yet that few people seemed to have an interest in considering seriously. Questions like …

  • How should I live?
  • Which political ideology is true?
  • And, the big one: Why is there something when there could be nothing?

After a few semesters of ancient, medieval, modern and analytic philosophy, I was familiar with many philosophers and their arguments, but not particularly passionate about any of them. To me, they all seemed to be lacking in some way. Of course, they were making convincing arguments and saying interesting things, but I still felt that most were overlooking something critical. At the time, I was unable to articulate what this was, but I knew it through my intuition.

Tackling a “Vague Immensity”

During the summer break between my sophomore and junior years, I logged into Hillnet to select my fall courses. I noticed Professor Capobianco would be teaching a class called “Heidegger and His Influence.” I had never taken a class with “Professor Capo,” and I had never learned anything about Heidegger. Before signing up, I did a little research online. This proved to be intimidating and intriguing at the same time. Reading Heidegger as a beginner is daunting. He uses a strange vocabulary, and many of the German words are left untranslated in the English versions of his texts. Moreover, the title of his masterwork, “Being and Time,” conveys such vague immensity that the unacquainted can’t even begin to guess what its pages might contain. It was a question I often found myself wanting to confront people with out of the blue — while ordering a coffee, perhaps.

“You’re charging $2.14 for a medium coffee? Thanks. Hey, have you stopped to wonder yet today why there are beings at all when there could be nothing? No?”

Ready to Have My Mind Blown

Anyway, I was curious, so I signed up and was truly ready to have my mind blown. During my first day back at Stonehill, I remember being quite proud that my major would allow me to consider such a profound topic. In the campus bookstore, I compared the stacks of books in my cart to those of my friends. While everyone else would be studying statistics, media communications or corporate finance, I would be trying to understand nothing short of being itself.

Professor Capobianco’s approach was conducive to learning such a difficult topic. We had weekly reading assignments, but rather than focusing too heavily on dense technical details in the text, he sought to bring us to understanding Heidegger’s position through discussion. Often we would rearrange our desks so we were seated in a circle — a “hermeneutic” circle, he would often joke. It was obvious that Professor Capobianco was passionate about the topic because he would speak with great enthusiasm — eyes wide with excitement, and arms and fingertips extended — whenever he was about to discuss some new idea. And he wasn’t above turning the classroom upside down to demonstrate a point. In one instance, he showed Heidegger’s notion of “taking as” in “Being and Time” by turning a desk upside down and renaming it a “moose.” This style of teaching kept the students entertained and engaged, even if some of them were eager to disagree that he had just refuted 2,000 years of metaphysics. By invoking such liveliness in his teaching, Professor Capobianco ensured that the ensuing discussions would be filled with an equal amount of vigor and good humor.

Understanding How We Find Ourselves

Understanding Heidegger came easy to me for some reason. He articulated positions that I had felt on some level were true but had been incapable of expressing. I liked Heidegger’s focus on answering the major question of being by starting with phenomena. His philosophy is not a metaphysics, and it is not speculative. He asks “How do beings show themselves to us from themselves? How do we find ourselves in the first place?” And then he proceeds. For instance, I don’t experience myself in the first instance as an immaterial thing that secondarily is dropped into a world. Rather, I simply find myself always already in a world, in a context that is underway. This is why Heidegger’s word for the “human” is not a fixed noun, but “being there.”

Discussion of being itself is found especially in Heidegger’s later work, and he has many ways of articulating the notion, often reinterpreting ancient terms we are familiar with such as nature (physis), truth (aletheia) and the holy. While much can be said and elaborated upon, the central theme of his thinking is that being itself is a temporal unfolding that is manifest, not permanent and beyond us. It is the ongoing activity by which beings emerge into presence, show themselves, linger, and then wither and pass away. The idea is so simple that it is easily overlooked.

A “Humble Honesty”

 As I read more, I began to enjoy the humble honesty of Heidegger’s approach. Many philosophies, and especially science itself, are so driven by a desire to know all, and through knowing, be mastered. For instance, we discover chemistry and then uncover the chemical compositions of materials so that we can manipulate them to serve our purposes. In one lecture, Heidegger distinguishes calculative thinking and meditative thinking. Calculative thinking helps us plan, organize and arrange conditions for a purpose. Meditative thinking, on the other hand, doesn’t lead us anywhere in particular; instead, it helps us comport ourselves with openness to the mystery of being. Heidegger wants to show us our finitude, and through this we feel small. We appreciate the mystery of being itself and realize that despite all our knowledge, we don’t have an infinite perspective. We are a part of the unfolding, not outside of it. Like all beings, we emerge, flourish, and linger and then pass on.

For my senior thesis, Professor Capobianco guided me as I explored Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” in which he elaborates on the way that calculative thinking has come to dominate modern man’s thinking to the point of causing major environmental crises. Today, more and more, we let one particular truth about nature dominate our thinking and deciding, namely the way that nature is made useful to us through science and technology. We see a landscape, perhaps a mountain, and probe it so that we can calculate that it will provide “X” amount of raw materials for “Y” number of kilowatt-hours. This “Y” number of kilowatt-hours will power the machines that make “Z” cellphones. And this calculation goes on and on. Absent from this thinking is an appreciation for the poetic beauty of the mountain or that perhaps at one time it showed itself as a god to the people who dwelled in its presence. We should not destroy all technology, but with greater thoughtfulness, we can change our comportment toward it and relax our grip on nature.

When I graduated from Stonehill, this “Heideggerian” perspective became a launching point for my career in the environmental field. I joined AmeriCorps and taught environmental education, and then I joined the Peace Corps and worked in a protected rain forest in Madagascar. Today, I’m working in international development, trying to get involved in efforts to stop global climate change. Professor Capobianco’s Heidegger courses have enabled me to approach a range of topics, including science, history, language and religion, with greater thoughtfulness, and I have a strong foundation for living mindfully and happily. While others go through lifelong spiritual and existential struggles, suffering from their own confusion in the face of the great question, I feel at peace because Professor Capobianco helped me follow my driving curiosity at Stonehill.

– Andrew Bourret ’09