A Thing Of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism

I am super excited to begin an online reading group for Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. My copy hasn’t arrived in the mail yet, but I got a sneak peak at a few chapters on google books, and from what I have read, I am going to have a beef to pick with some of the things he says about Heidegger. This is not surprising given that I have a rather unorthodox interpretation of early Heidegger, especially in regards to the exegesis of Being and Time.

That I disagree with pretty much everyone (with few exceptions) concerning what Heidegger was actually arguing for and against is becoming increasingly apparent to me as I read more and more shallow attempts to assimilate him into a convenient historical box without taking seriously the radical implications that his critiques of Descartes, Locke, and Kant have for reconceptualizing philosophy of “mind.” Most scholars working with Heidegger seem to only be discussing Heideggerian philosophy on the surface level and subsequently fail to see his work as a plausible alternative to the tradition of Western metaphysics/epistemology. Instead, people seem to see Heidegger as only reacting against that history,working within those very frameworks and never being able to actually move past the stale dialectics that define the history of philosophy with its “scandal” of knowledge concerning a body-external world. On my view then, it is a shallow and theoretically naive reading of Being and Time to say that early Heidegger remained completely within the conceptual schemes of Kant. I firmly believe that if we  “updated” Heidegger jargon into a more contemporary theoretical framework, we would see that, well, actually, Heidegger overcame Kantian thought as early as Being and Time and no, he wasn’t a transcendental idealist in the same vein as Husserl. To think otherwise is to ignore Heidegger’s potent critique against the interalist representationalism of modern philosophy.

It seems to me then  that the only reason the radicalized implications of Heideggerian philosophy haven’t been more widely discussed is that philosophers haven’t found a more intelligible theoretical foundation to interpret Heidegger in terms of. So while scholars like Dreyfus understand very well just what Heidegger is arguing against, and have a vague understanding of what he is arguing for, they do so completely within the vocabulary of “Heideggerese.” In my opinion, we will never make progress on incorporating Heideggerian insights into contemporary philosophy of mind so long as we are bent on “preserving” Heidegger into his own historical niche, treating him like just another dead white philosopher who said some pretty radical things, but shouldn’t be taken so seriously because of all his jargon and strange word plays.

Wrong! Heidegger utilized wordplay because he realize that the analytic of Dasein, indeed the very conception of what constitutes Dasein, will always been an evolving enterprise given that shifting nature of our metaphors and self-interpretations concerning cognition and the mind. In contemporary philosophy of mind we shouldn’t be trying to understand how Heidegger-language is an alternative to Kantian vocabulary (although it is); we should we trying to understand how Heidegger-language is an alternative to the computationalism of contemporary cognitive science! This is the real meat and potatoes of good Heideggerian philosophy and I am glad that people like Andy Clark and Alva Noë are beginning to work our the consequences of this (the concluding section of Clark’s recent book is entitled “The Heideggerian Theater”).

What is great is that a lot of phenomenologically oriented cognitive scientists are starting to realize this and have  been reaching haphazardly for a suitable theoretical foundation to “translate” Heidegger into. If you have ever read anything on this website, you will probably know that I already think there is such a framework in the work of James Gibson and his ecological approach to visual perception. But I will rant about that some other time.

Coming back to Lee Braver’s book, I am exicted by project of finding a common theoretical framework to discuss Heidegger and the continentals in relation to both the history of analytic and continental philosophy alike; seeing in just what respect Heidegger agrees and disagrees with the metaphysical tradition. Although I suspect I will have to argue heavily in favor in re-categorizing Heidegger (I think he supports Braver’s R1 Independence thesis, contrary to Braver), I am looking forward to this discussion as it might potentially elevate the level of Heideggerian discourse past convenient platitudes and shallow summaries typical of most scholarship and into a real discussion of his revolutionary rejection of traditional accounts of cognition.

edit: I got the book in the mail today and have been reading the early Heidegger section more closely to see what Braver has to say about Heidegger and R1.  It seems like Braver is confusing the issue when he says (rightly) that for Heidegger, “present-at-hand objects are real” and then a few pages later that being is dependent on Dasein, so therefore he must be rejecting the Mind-Independence thesis, despite holding that present-at-hand objects “really” exist. It is plainly obvious from reading any Heidegger that being (that which determines entities as entities, to us i.e. the basic act of explicit, interpretive perception) is dependent on Dasein. This is clear. As Heidegger defines it, being has to be Dasein dependent because no other animal has explicit interpretation of objects as objects e.g. a tree as a tree, a pen as a pen, my child as my child, with all the referential holism tied into that perceptual relationship tacitly.

But, as Braver framed it, R1 implies that “the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects.” On this view, provided we understand Heideggers ontic/ontological distinction between the “physical world” and the lifeworld we cope in, Heidegger would be perfectly fine saying that the brute, physical-behavioral world is independent of us according to R1. And this is where Braver gets confused about Heidegger’s critique of Kant’s nouema because Heidegger only has problems with the traditional account of how we basically interact with the world (representational perception) and not the fact that there is an external, objective world at all. Of course there is an external world! I don’t know how post-Darwinian thinking could ever deny this.

So yes, Braver is right to say that Heidegger rejects the noumena, but misunderstands Heidegger’s reasons for doing so. It isn’t because there is no mind-independent reality “out there,” its because Kant claimed our perceptual access was mediated by representations. See Being and Time pg 51 for his critique of Kantian representationism as being circular. Thus, Dreyfus is right to say that the proper level of analysis for understanding Heidegger’s critique of Kant is through representational perception versus non-representional “direct” perception. Heidegger is thus a realist, but not a metaphysical realist per se, but rather a “direct realist” in the tradition of Reid. Braver seems to miss this by ignoring the fundamental importance for Heidegger of getting our account of perceptual acces right.

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One response to “A Thing Of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism

  1. Whenever you go through struggles and decide not to surrender, that’s strength

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