In Defense of Heidegger – Meillassoux's Problem of Ancestrality

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In this neat little paper (warning pdf), Quentin Meillassoux raises the problem of how continental philosophy can account for scientific statements concerning events which happened before the dawn of humanity. For example, if Heidegger really claims that being and time is dependent on humanity, how can we account for scientific statements concerning a period of time when there was no subject, no Dasein?

To me, this is a very important question that immediately gets to the heart of the realism/anti-realism debates that occurred earlier this year in terms of Lee Braver’s excellent book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. The standard line of attack leveled against Heidegger is that, thanks to his anthropocentric views of humanity, he is barred from discussing “arche-fossils” as Meillassoux puts it.

That is, by virtue of his “correlationism”, Heidegger is incapable of talking about the natural world as independent of human disclosure because ancestral statements are merely subjective representations of the past. Accordingly, we can never escape anthropocentrism if we insist that being and time both issue out of humanity’s unique disclosure of the world. That is, if the mode of present-at-hand is dependent on human disclosure then we will immediately run into a problem when we attempt to talk about stars and fossils. For Heidegger, the world can only “be” independent thanks to Dasein. The presentation of the world as independent is paradoxically a mode of being of Dasein since Dasein-independence is assigned by Dasein. Thus, we never escape from correlationism. Or do we?

Beings are independently of the experience, cognition, and comprehension, through which they are disclosed, discovered, and determined. But being “is” only in the understanding of that being to whose being something like an understanding of being belongs. Sein und Zeit 183

This passage presents quite a problem for the Meillassoux’s account of Heidegger. If rocks exist independently of the “experience, cognition, and comprehension” of rocks, then it is not surprising in the least that scientists are capable of producing ancestral statements concerning stars and fossils. This is common sense. After all, if rocks are independently of human disclosure, then it is obviously not problematic to discuss their existence at a time before humans ever came about. We simply use the methodological tools of science to do so.

What is the problem then? Where do all these accusations of correlationism come from? Probably from the second line of the above quotation, which states that being “is” only in the human understanding of being. This idea is probably most famously articulated in the statement that “only as long as Dasein is (that is, only as long as an understanding of being is ontically possible), ‘is there’ being” (SZ 212). But is this position inconsistent with the ontic realism of the first sentence? Definitely not. Taylor Carman explains why:

Being is…inextricably bound up with Dasein’s understanding of the intelligibility of entities as entities, but it is emphatically not an entity brought into existence by Dasein. Without Dasein there would “be” no being, which is to say there would be no understanding of being, so that that and what entities are would add up to nothing intelligible. But occurrent entities would still be, nonetheless.

To say that entities exist independently of us is not to assert the being or existence of anything like being or existence, as if too were a kind of entity, that is, something that is alongside or in addition to the entities themselves. It is consistent, then, to say that although being consists solely in our understanding of being, occurrent entities are independently of us and our understanding.

What more needs to be said? The human understanding of rocks allows us to understand the rocks as rocks (rather than pure behavioral affordances). In this sense, the being of the rock as a thing which exists independently of human disclosure is dependent on human access (as per correlationism) but this doesn’t logically entail that the rock is actually dependent on human access for its occurrent existence. The rock has been here for billions of years, long before humans ever came around and started understanding rocks as rocks. Thus, the “Dasein-dependency” of presence-at-hand is purely in terms of the intelligibility of the independent world as an independent world. But this doesn’t mean that if humans were wiped off the planet tomorrow that rocks and stars would stop existing. That is a patently absurd and scientifically ignorant statement. To level it against Heidegger is in my mind to insult his intelligence and capacity for common sense.

It seems then that Heidegger is perfectly capable of answering Meillassoux’s problem of ancestrality. The fossils existed independently of human disclosure but it is only human disclosure that intelligibly understands them as fossils which exist independent of us. Problem solved (I hope).

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7 responses to “In Defense of Heidegger – Meillassoux's Problem of Ancestrality

  1. Hi Gary,

    nice post. As far as my knowledge of Heidegger goes, I tend to agree with you. You might know this already, but if you don’t you could find it interesting: http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/rtf/Heidegger-Realism_5_95.rtf

  2. Gary Williams

    Fabio,

    I had already read the Dreyfus paper awhile back when I was first looking into this issue of realism but thanks for reminding me about it; it’s a great paper although I think Carman does a better job of arguing for ontic realism through his intelligibility thesis. Regardless, Dreyfus is nice to have in your back pocket when discussing these issues and he is great for finding good quotes from Heidegger.

  3. This is great. I´ve wandering around trying to find a website that explained Heidegger as good as this, but I´ve only encountered this one so far. And so far, so good! I like the explanation.

    I´m only beginning to catch on Heidegger now, but I´m aware of the whole Messailoux, Brassier, Heidegger and speculative realism debate.

    Cheers man!

  4. John

    Hello, I’ve worked largely on Heidegger and I’ve just finished reading After Finitude. I honestly think you have mistaken Meillassoux’s point here. Heidegger’s concern is about the thinkability of entities through Being, as you correctly pointed out. But Meillassoux’s concern is also about the intelligibility of a certain kind of proposition, and not about the “existence” of ancestral rocks or planets. Your defense of the compatibility of the two thesis just amounts to the classical phenomenological counter-objection of common-sense realism, by distinguishing, on the one side, dependence of existence (as if the subject “created” things) and on the other, dependence of meaning (where the subject “constitutes” the thing as a thing). But Meillassoux’s question is not about existence, but about meaning, i.e., the meaning of “ancestral statements”: these kind of statements are meaningfull if and only if their literal meaning is their ultimate meaning. But if “Dasein” and “Welt” are co-originary (not in the sense of being created at the same time, but in the sense of the world being worldy only as long the Dasein understands it) ¿how can Dasein understand a world es devoid of understanding of being? I don’t think, however, that it would be impossible to answer Meillassoux from a Heideggerian standpoint, but I think another argument should be elaborated: an argument concerning Heidegger’s notion of “aletheia” (truth) as “disclosedness”.

  5. Great post, but I have to agree with John, though I would definitely agree with your implicit sentiment, that Meillassoux’s reading of Heidegger is not very sympathetic. In addition to John’s comment, I would like to say that an issue facing the anti-correlationist camp –I am including Heidegger in this–, in attempting to overcome correlationism, is that getting outside of thought per se has proven problematic. Latour’s work, I think, is another example of trying to deal with the problem of getting outside of thought, and not just dissolution the subject-object divide in the terms Heidegger intended. It’s not an easy problem to deal with, and so I think Meillassoux is being quite harsh in calling Heidegger a correlationist. I think the passages you cite show this. Thanks for the contribution.

  6. Hi Milliern,

    Thanks for the comment. To be honest, I havent thought about these issues or cracked open Heidegger for a long time, so I am probably quite rusty in discussing these issues.

    However, I will say that I never felt the “force” of correlationism as applied to Heideggerian thinking for two reasons. First, our pretheoretical mode of being is in “touch” with reality in such a way that the “meaning” of, for example, a natural disaster as independent of humans is perfectly meaningful. It’s just part of our pretheoretical understanding to have a concept of reality and it seems like “ancestral” statements can be subsumed under this general pretheoretical understanding of reality. Second, we have a “theoretical” understanding of the meaning of ancestral statements insofar as we have a theoretical understanding of “presence-at-hand” or the “ontic” nature of reality. This ontic conception is what we would use to make sense of ancestral statements.

    I think one issue is that Heidegger has the philosophical resources to handle ancestral statements, but he simply wasn’t interested in such issues so he rarely discussed them, which gives the impression he can’t account for them.

    If you’re interested, I work this idea out in much greater detail in my master’s thesis on “Ecological realism”.

  7. ESR

    It should interest everyone to learn that Heidegger explicitly addresses the problem of “arche-fossils” in one of the texts collected in the Zollikon Seminars (GA 89, 221-226). Unsurprisingly, Heidegger’s solution to the question “How are ancestral statements possible?” proceeds from his concept of ecstatic temporality. Here is an except of the relevant passage, first in German, then in my rough-and-ready English translation:

    Das Schon-gewesen-sein der Erde ist ein Anwesen der Erde, dessen Offenbarkeit, dessen Lichtung gar nicht einen damals schon gegenwärtigenden Menschen braucht, wohl aber dem Wesen nach den Menschen braucht als den in der Lichtung des vollen Anwesens Stehenden, und damit auch in der Lich­tung des Gewesenseins Stehenden.

    Das Innestehen in der Lichtung des Seins heißt u. a. auch das Zulassen des Schon-gewesen-seins der Erde vor dem Men­schen, d. h. das Zulassen dieses Modus der Anwesenheit. Nur darum kann der alltägliche Mensch sagen: die Erde war schon vor dem Menschen. Er denkt nur nicht eigens über das >es war< nach.
    —-
    The Earth's “already having been” [before the existence of human beings] is a presencing of the Earth, whose revelation, whose clearing does not at all need a then-present human being, but does, however, according to its essence need the human being as that which stands in the clearing of its full presencing, and thus also stands in the clearing of its having been.

    Standing-within in the clearing of Being means, among other things, the admission of the Earth's already having been before the human being, i.e., the admission of that mode of presentness. Only for that reason can the everyday human being say: the Earth already was before the human being. He doesn't think specifically about the “it was.”

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