Witnessing as a mode of being in the world

This paper considers what is involved when we witness an event from an (everyday) ontological perspective, by specifically applying, at least initially, the language and philosophy of Martin Heidegger. The use of ‘everyday’ is important because it distinguishes his flavour of ontology from other classical accounts which are concerned with getting to the ‘core’ of phenomena or as Husserl put it “[to] the things themselves”.

This everyday or existential ontology is an account of being referenced on the everyday experiences of people (Dasein)[1] rather than to an abstract philosophical notion.

We begin with the simple premise that to witness requires Dasein to be present. Therefore to understand witnessing we must understand that most important and necessary pre-condition, namely, that Dasein is present in the world. Indeed from a Heideggerian perspective, Dasein, by definition, means being present in the world. However we immediately encounter a raft of difficulties as the more widely accepted definitions of being present in the world as proposed by the ‘presence research’ community – (see the International Society for Presence Research - ispr.info) typically treat it as it were a consequence of experiencing virtual reality technology or enjoying an immersive experience (e.g. a trip to the local IMAX cinema), rather than being a primordial condition in its own right. Thus presence research has sought to understand the conditions required to create a sense of presence and to measure it thereafter. Presence has been treated as a commodity which can be increased, diminished, broken (interrupted) and otherwise manipulated (e.g. Brogni et al., 2006; Freeman et al., 2007 – among many others). However, I argue that taking being present in the world as a primordial state means that (a) we regard it as a propensity or readiness to act or perceive and (b) it is geared towards the world and all that it comprises (more of this in the next section). In treating presence as a readiness to engage with the world, to cope with the world, to deal with the world and to witness events, people and things, then witnessing itself becomes a consequence of being present in the world. Heidegger describes this readiness in his History of the Concept of Time as: ‘the background of … primary familiarity, which itself is not conscious or intended but is rather present in [an] unprominent way’ (189). To witness does not simply mean we were in a particular place at a particular time when such and such a thing happened. For example, I, with millions of others, witnessed the first (and subsequent) Moon landings. I have a clear memory of sitting up late (in the UK) and witnessing it on TV. I had followed the launch of Apollo XI, the broadcasts from outer space and the eagerly awaited the landing. To witness is then not so much about co-location or contemporaneity but one of being prepared, and of being ready. Witnessing can then be recognised as a mode of being in the world.

Note 1: A quick word of explanation on Dasein before we continue. The German word Dasein (lit. being-there) is traditionally left un- translated and is taken to stand for ‘human being’ and is usually printed in a different font–like this. Being undefined, Dasein is recognized as being contingent or seen as a ‘placeholder’ for ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are.

Phil Turner