I’m generally opposed to “Great Man” theories of the history of ideas. My preference is for folks like Derek Parfit who acknowledge that philosophy is a discipline that builds on the work of one’s predecessors and that showing clearly why a bad idea is wrong can be tedious but also more useful than the flashy sexy work of doing it all new just to prove you can. However, following on the heels of the recent discussions on Heidegger’s relationship to National Socialism, I’ve been having several discussions of the value of Heidegger for contemporary philosophy, and I thought I’d go on the record: no one other than Hegel has had a greater impact on my intellectual development, but on reflection, Heidegger is overrated.
It’s not really because he was a Nazi, or that he didn’t leave his wife to marry Hannah Arendt. Though I think its conclusions are absurd, the Faye book ought not be judged by Carlin Romano’s thoughtless Heil Heidegger! because it promises something useful: lecture notes and personal reflections from the people who knew Heidegger during and after the rectorship. After all, the concerns at the heart of a nationalist interpretation of historicity and thrown-ness are right there in Division II of Being and Time for anyone to see, but perhaps this will help us understand how Heidegger misinterpreted his own earlier insights. This has long been Charles Scott‘s interpretation, and I think it’s the most honorable way to continue to study Heidegger, “holding your nose” while you dig for the insights.
But what insights were there? Well, it’s my own view that Heidegger’s relevance is heavily dependent on his popularizing and disseminating Husserlian phenomenology, and that his attempt to give an account of a fundamental ontology or “the difference between Being and beings” is a departure from what’s valuable in phenomenology, but I’ve recently been coming around to the view espoused by my friend Michael Sigrist, who claims that the incorporation into phenomenological discourse of the Aristotelian insight that acting precedes perceiving counts as a distinct contribution.
His central claim is something like: “to exist is to exist in a time and place and to always to have one’s thinking claimed or circumscribed by the history and organization of that time and place.” I think it’s fair to say that Heidegger lays the metaphysical groundwork for existentialism and for anti-humanism by prioritizing existence over essence, but again this is not unique nor even particularly fruitful or even clear enough to help solve problems in mathematics or set theory, which is one area where there’s still live debate about the ontological status of the object of study. The fact that Alain Badiou spends so much time articulating the convoluted debt to/departure from Heidegger in Being and Event seems to me to be a sociological oddity of the French academy, not a scholarly obligation.
But of course, Heidegger never billed himself as a mathematician. One of the reasons Heidegger continues to be exciting to artists, architects, and literary folk is the way he connects the work of art to the constitution of our shared world. His “Orgins of the Work of Art” is credited with demonstrating the way that museum art, the arrangement of public spaces, and language and structure of fiction and poetry help (and hinder) us in framing and making meaning out of our experience of the world, without necessarily getting in the way of our encounter with the “things themselves.” The sense data folks (AJ Ayer, for one) still had not learned this lesson in the 50s, but that’s as much out of ignorance of Thomas Reid as of Heidegger.
He’s often credited with dissolving the mind-body problem by demonstrating how it is predicated on the mistake of thinking of ourselves as somehow not always-already in the world. In analytic philosophy fifty years after Being and Time, there were still folks who thought that they could distinguish human from machine thinking on the basis of the lack of referentiality or semantics. (Putnam and Searle are two examples of this, but then in a different sense, so is Dreyfus, who ought to know better.)
Heidegger introduces a distinction between two ways of approaching the world: the present-at-hand (Vorhandenheit) and the ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit). Present-at-hand refers to our theoretical apprehension of a world made up of objects. It is the conception of the world from which science begins. The ready-to-hand describes our practical relation to things that are handy or useful. Heidegger’s basic claim is that practice precedes theory, and that the ready-to-hand is prior to the present-at-hand. The problem with most philosophy after Descartes is that it conceives of the world theoretically and thus imagines, like Descartes, that I can doubt the existence of the external world and even the reality of the persons that fill it – who knows, they might be robots! For Heidegger, by contrast, who we are as human beings is inextricably bound up and bound together with the complex web of social practices that make up my world. The world is part of who I am. For Heidegger, to cut oneself off from the world, like Descartes, is to miss the point entirely: the fabric of our openedness to the world is one piece.
The problem that Heidegger solves is the conceptual source of counterfactuals. If the ready-to-hand is phenomenologically prior, then the possibility of the present-to-hand and ultimately the possibility of absence is what needs to be explained, rather than presumed. He claims that we can only access counterfactuals through actual experiences of not-ready-to-handness (the broken or missing tool) and that this culminates in the ultimate counterfactual: the possibility of my own impossibility, i.e. my being-towards-death. At least in this, he’s trying to figure out how we get from a phenomenological experience of a world that is unquestioned to the possibility of asking the question of being and not-being, or worldliness and mortality.
So skepticism is not the product of mental distinction, but of a worldly phenomenon and of the kind of being that Da-sein is: a being that calls its own being into question because the world is “for it” but the world is also fragile. I know that’s jargonistic, but Heidegger is claiming that unless we work out the sources of this kind of counterfactual rigorously, we’ll be mislead by the way we speak about it. The phrasing of the question of the world’s fragility can draw us into identifying metaphysical perplexities where none exist.
At base, he’s charging dualists with a category mistake: they think they need an account of mind only because they’re already speaking in a way that creates the difference that needs explaining. What they truly need, Heidegger claims, is an account that doesn’t have minds and bodies in it to begin with, because it doesn’t prioritize perception and knowledge, but rather sees those as metaphysically posterior (though in truth, ontologically coeventuated, because metaphysics for Heidegger always makes this mistake and needs to be unsaid or concealed in order to reveal the fundamental and non-enframed questioning of Being) to action and involvement. That’s basically where he loses me: it’s a hermeneutic circle you can only understand once you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. It’s Scientology for philosophers.
I think, following Quine, that this is a fine way to address substance dualism, but not particularly good at addressing the contemporary accounts of dualism that tend to rely on supervenience to articulate a dualism properties between mental and neural states. If what we’re trying to make room for are the ineffable, intrinsic, private, and directly accessible elements of an experience, my guess is that Heidegger would sound a lot like Dennett in “Quining Qualia.” The only experience that is truly private is so private even I can’t have it: my own death, which is only the cessation of experience. If what we’re trying to make room for is P-Consciousness, or an irreducible (but not private, intrinsic, etc.) “what it’s likeness” then I think Heidegger would say that this what-it’s-likeness is the question that draws us inexorably into metaphysics, and the forgetting of the question of Being, despite its pitfalls and errancy. I’m not sure if that claim is translatable back into more traditional philosophical vocabulary or into an argumentative form, and I’m not sure if it’s true, but it doesn’t seem to entail, or be entailed by, any particular politics. If Heidegger claimed otherwise, as he apparently did in lectures and private conversation, then he misunderstood the insights of his own work.
If anything, Heidegger seems to shut the door on a particular modernist attempt to do natural science within the metaphysical framework set out by the scholastics. So it makes sense to say that Heidegger somehow puts an “end” to philosophy if philosophy only began with Descartes. Our concepts of the world are worldly: they’re derived from the world, from some set of experiences. It may well be the case that a concept derived from the ready-to-handness of the tool may not serve us well when thinking about hadrons or substances, and that’s basically Heidegger’s critique: at some point, perhaps it was Aristotle, perhaps it was Augustine, we began applying a set of concepts derived from instrumentality to describe Being. “Form” and “material,” like “telos” and “arche” or “property” and “substance,” are concepts derived from the artisan’s vocabulary, concepts for instrumental planning. They’re already over-stretched when applied to the physician’s task, and they’re even more inappropriate when trying to “say the world” or do justice to the difference between Being and beings or whatever.
Again, we’re back at a down-the-rabbit-hole moment: you either accept this and amend your concepts, or you don’t. The right way to relate to hadrons is to ‘let them be’ or say them ‘poetically’ rather than try to ‘enframe’ them with a scientific worldview. This is more clearly a political project, and it’s more clearly an enraging and stupid thing to say. But it also helps to explain why the whole set of epistemic counterfactual questions, the ones that propose that I might be a brain in a vat, would have been a category mistake for Heidegger: if you want to say you can’t know that you’re not a brain in a vat, you still aren’t really expressing a substance dualist concern, but only worrying about whether the world that presents itself to you as ready-to-hand is as dependable as it seems to be. It’s precisely not to worry about whether there ‘is’ a world at all: the world is there, presenting itself to you as a things to be concerned about. It may be different, in its foundations, than you previously thought… but that’s as much a problem for us if we aren’t brains in vats and think, falsely, that atoms are the smallest particles, or erroneously believe that a specific version of string theory is correct. Realism doesn’t solve fallibility.
None of these concerns would ever prove that the world is something unworldly. I’ve always thought that Montero captured this very well in an analytic mode in her article “The Body Problem”: physicalism may spare us from some of the metaphysical perplexities of the intersubstantiality, but it comes with a whole host of other metaphysical perplexities every bit as, well, perplexing.
To go any further, we’ve got to talk about phenomenological zombies. Is it possible that another Joshua, in another place, might have the same brain states as I’m having right now, but not be conscious at all? That’s the counterfactual that troubles physicalists, and which naturalism denies without ever quite justifying. Certainly we can worry that a brain state might not always entail a mental state, so in that sense a kind of dualism emerges, but (a.) it’s not a substance dualism, since the missing mental state would be a missing property of the brain, like color or radioactivity, and (b.) not being able to give a conceptual account of the way in which mental properties emerge from physical properties does not commit us to a dualist metaphysics, only to a conceptual division between the human and natural sciences in search of unification.
To (a) I think one can reasonably respond that what is most troublesome is not bodies without minds, but minds without bodies. I’m really not sure how to respond adequately to skeptical doubts that invoke ghosts and souls, and I do feel a little like I’m making an argument from assertion by saying that we must accept naturalism if we’re ever to make any progress. I can kind of wave at Hume and the problem of non-natural causation, but if someone simply claims to have divine revelation or faith that minds can exist without bodies, I get stymied. It’s an argument-stopper.
Heidegger’s solution to (b) is to force the natural sciences to view themselves within the constraints of the human sciences, which is clearly absurd, but I think it’s just as absurd to force the human sciences to be explicable in terms of the natural sciences. A good, short essay for understanding Heidegger’s take on this is: “The Age of the World Picture,” which I rather like as it echoes some of my own concerns about what’s lost when we attempt to reduce any of the humanities to a research agenda that can be divvied up amongst working groups and lab and directed more by funding availability than by the intrinsic draw of the question.
The other way to get at the problem is through reference/intentionality/representation: what are mental states ‘about’ and how do they get that way. Heidegger is a Husserlian in the sense that he claims that our mental states always-already reference the world and the things that make it up, which, again, starts to sound like an argument from assertion. But how else can we surmount the problem of reference by which any thing is about any other thing? It’s a finger-pointing-at-the-moon issue: if minds didn’t already have syntax, I don’t know how they could gain it, but since they do it’s difficult to explain how it came about. Perhaps he’s an old Mysterian?
Now, I’m not sure why he needs an argument against property dualism. Shouldn’t we all be property dualists? Or maybe even property pluralists, since objects seem to have many properties, some of which are relational and even referential? For instance, my brain is grey and white, weighs about three pounds, and is currently thinking. My brain will stop thinking when the cells die. I know this by analogy, to some extent, but mostly by report from experts. What’s needed is an account of why brains develop phenomenality and rocks don’t, if indeed they don’t.
Still, there’s a philosophical problem here regardless of how we speak of it, of which analytic philosophers have been aware for a while now. Heidegger seems to be a property dualist in the following way: some kinds of beings have a phenomenological world of their own and some don’t. Some kinds of beings are Dasein: they constitute a world and a ‘being-there’ that is ‘ownmost,’ such that they say that the phenomena that are revealed to them are ‘their own,’ i.e. their own experiences. Some kinds of beings aren’t Dasein: no experiences there. There’s nothing it’s ‘like’ for the rock to fall or sit in the sun. (In contrast, I find panpsychism sort of attractive: the rock just doesn’t reflect on its experience like you or I do, but there is an unreflective rock-like world, which a rock’s eye view would show to us: blind, deaf, dumb, warm, and weighty.) In all the Heidegger I’ve ever read, he never gives an account of how it is that some things develop worldliness and some things don’t. In this, at least, his insights don’t quite match the hype.