Monthly Archives: January 2010

"Thoughtlessly random, common, everyday existence"

Oh, how I love Hofstadter’s translation of Basic Problems of Phenomenology! Here, Heidegger achieves his greatest clarity in phenomenological description. The nature of Dasein’s primary mode of self-understanding is perhaps never illustrated more beautifully than in section 15. “When we say the Factical Dasein understands itself, its own self, from the things with which it is daily concerned, we should not rest this on some fabricated concept of soul, person, and ego but must see in what self-understanding the factical Dasein moves in its everyday existence.”

Here we can see that our most basic level of self-understanding must be differentiated from self-consciousness, which is introspective in nature, turned “inwards” towards a functional landscape of memory and imagination. Counter-intuitively, self-consciousness is not genuine, not actual, in the sense that inauthentic existence is. “The genuine, actual, though inauthentic understanding of the self takes place in such a way that this self, the self of our thoughtlessly random, common, everyday existence, “reflects” itself to itself from out of that to which it has given itself over”. Thus, we need to rid ourselves of any pejorative connotation for inauthenticity, for

Being lost [into the they-self]…does not have a negative, depreciative significance but means something positive belonging to the Dasein itself….This inauthentic self-understanding of the Dasein’s by no means signifies an ungenuine self-understanding. On the contrary, this everyday having of self within our factical, existent, passionate merging into things can surely be genuine.

We are thus caught up in things in the broadest sense, with families, friends, projects, jobs, kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms, the ground, the sky, the very medium of light itself. “The Dasein must be with things.We have also already aheard that the Dasein’s comportments, in which it exists, are intentionally directed-toward.The directedness of [Dasein’s] comportments expresses a being-with[amidst] that with which we have to do, a dwelling-with, a going-along-with the givens.”

But, prima facie, the nature of intentionality is ambiguous in respect to the ontological structure of subjectivity. We can state, however, that “the Dasein does not “transport” itself to things by leaping out of a presumably subjective sphere over into a sphere of objects. But perhaps we have before us a “transposition” of a peculiar sort.” What then is the fundamental ontological constitution of human intentionality? Heidegger claims that “Transcendence is a fundamental determination of the ontological structure of the Dasein. It belongs to the existentiality of existence. Transcendence is an existential concept.” Moreover, “intentionality is founded in the Dasein’s transcendence”.

Understanding this last phrase is crucial. Intentionality is the hermeneutic “rift-design” which carves up the world through language and the “discovery” or “uncovering” of entities as entities, that is, in terms of worldliness. For all we know, this is unique to humans. However, I think transcendence is something shared by all living organisms; it underlies our bodily-experience in a real world. Transcendence is thus more fundamental than intentionality because we must first be situated within an environment before we can categorially interpret it through intentional comportment.  When sitting in a lecture hall, “[T]he walls are already present even before we think them as objects. Much else also gives itself to us before any determining of it by thought. Much else-but how? Not as a jumbled heap of things but as an environs, a surroundings, which contains within itself a closed, intelligible contexture.” Thus, Heidegger falls in line with classic empiricist thinking with the important caveat that he allows for qualitative cognitive development through language learning, allowing for a “determination” of objectivity through linguistically structured categorial intuition, the “casting-forth” of a world according to our understanding of being.

Moreover, the primary mode of inauthenetic self-understanding within an enviromental contexture is known as “circumspection”. “[C]ompletely, unobtrusive and unthought, is the view and sight of practical circumspection, of our practical everyday orientation. ‘Unthought’ means that it is not thematically apprehended for deliberate thinking about things. Circumspection uncovers and understands beings primarily as equipment.”

Thus, the nature of primordial self-understanding has become clear. “The Dasein does not need a special kind of observation, nor does it need to conduct a sort of espionage on the ego in order to have the self; rather, as the Dasein gives itself over immediately and passionately to the world, its own self is reflected to it from things”.  “First and mostly, we take ourselves much as daily life prompts; we do not dissect and rack our brains about some soul-life.”

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Master's Thesis: Provisional Topic

As readers of this blog are probably well-aware, the issue of realism in Heidegger has been a pet issue of mine for quite some time. Over and over, I repeatedly hear the same claims made in regard to Heidegger. “Oh, Heidegger thinks that Being is correlated with Thought.” “Oh, Heidegger was an idealist because he didn’t have the resources to make a distinction between presence in the sense of presentability (idealism) and presence as the ground of presentability (realism).” “Oh, Heidegger was an ontic idealist because he thought all modes of Being are dependent on Dasein.”


Such positions are positively absurd in light of our existence in the REAL world! Was Heidegger a fool? Did he really think that we have no phenomenological recourse for overcoming both vapid realism and vapid idealism? Did he not explicitly say that a correlation between subject and object completely misses the phenomenon of existence, of our living and breathing and dying in a world that resists us, that presents itself or shows itself to us? Are not the conceptual resources for ontic realism already established within his very definition of phenomena as against the Kantian critique of appearances as a possible ontology? How can that which shows itself to us be a correlation of our subjectivity when Heidegger himself defines subjectivity in terms of an intentional comportment towards the world, towards the extant?  Thought is not correlated to another correlation, it is correlated to reality itself, otherwise it would not be intentional i.e. transcendental. Does he not say, over and over, that “The window, however, surely does not receive existence from my perceiving it, but just the reverse: I can perceive it only if it exists and because it exists“? How else can we make sense of this except in terms of realism concerning the external world? Any other interpretation simply renders Heidegger a fool and Heidegger was no fool, no mere correlationist, if by that we mean a vapid anthropomorphizing of reality.

Thus, I have provisionally decided that my master’s thesis will be on the issue of realism and the external world. It will be my scholarly goal to provide the conceptual resources within Heidegger* to establish an ontic realism which claims, as our common sense preontological understanding itself confirms, that physical entities exist independently of our interpretation of them as physical. Any other position is absolutely absurd in light of phenomenological-ontology being an analytic of finitude, of real existence. To construct a strawman of vapid idealism and then congratulate yourself for tearing it down is surely not an impressive feat.

I apologize for the snarky tone of this post but I am just seriously tired of hearing about the same tired story of “correlationism this” and “correlationism that” when Heidegger himself explicitly claims that a conception of “correlation” cannot possibly capture the phenomenon of intentional comportment towards extant reality i.e. of our uncovering of reality. How else can we understand the Heideggerian advance over Husserlian correlation? As Merleau-Ponty said,

To ask oneself whether the world is real is to fail to understand what one is asking, since the world is not a sum of things which might always be called into question, but the inexhaustible reservoir from which things are drawn.

*The final chapter will probably attempt to establish the theoretical viability of a direct or “naive” realism via conceptual resources outside of Heidegger, such as in Gibsonian ecological optics, dynamic systems theory, and embodied/embedded philosophy of mind.


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All the Buddha’s teachings just had this single object —
To Carry us beyond the stage of thought.
Now, if I accomplish cessation of my thinking,
What use to me the Dharmas Buddha taught?

-Ancient proverb


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Heidegger on the Essence of Humanity

In his essay  “The Way to Language” (Basic Writings 2008), Heidegger opens by saying,

Man would not be man if it were denied him to speak — ceaselessly, ubiquitously, with respect to all things, in manifold variations, yet for the most part tacitly — by way of an “It is.” Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language. (397-8)

There is a lot to unpack in these two sentences. One could make the claim that his entire philosophical system is here condensed into a magnificently concise formula.

To begin, let us dig out the concept of an understanding of being, that is, an understanding and use of  “It is” grammar. That is a scarf. You are beautiful. I am self-conscious. Through linguistic scaffolding we tacitly understand what it means for an object to be, and moreover, we tacitly understand what it means to interpret the world in terms of entities, things, objects, etc. Furthermore, as Heidegger points out, metaphors and figurative thought structure or “carve up” the experienceable world in terms of such entities, things, objects, etc. We reify object-hood into almost everything. Time is spatialized, seen and understood in terms of geometry and motion; “Time flies“, “Time is crawling to a halt” (Here we might see, following Heidegger who was following Husserl, where Derrida gets his conception of “spacing” and “becoming-space” of time and the “become-time” of space. Bergson made the same basic point about time as well, but in a more eloquent fashion).

Moreover, abstract ideas and psychological states are understood in terms of object metaphors and everyday embodied coping, with Love being a Journey, Time being Money, Knowing being Seeing (“I see what you mean”), etc. For a more extensive and thoroughly researched expose of such embodied metaphors, see the great work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, from whom I typically borrow superb linguistic examples.

The point being (no pun intended) is that our understanding of being — our interpretation of things and objects as things and objects, our explicit, linguistically structured object recognition, our use and understanding of “Is” grammar, our ability to point out objects and abstract mental states to other persons through language and symbolism — constitutes the phenomenological particularity of human existence. This cognitive trick seems to be uniquely human in its “ceaseless ubiquity”.Heidegger thus calls the essence of human language use and understanding its “rift-design”, with rift meaning “to notch” or “to carve”. The familiar expression is that language allows us to carve nature at its joints, to, in a sense, turn Nature’s squiggles into well-ordered Cartesian geometry. And as Heidegger says, “The rift-design is the totality of traits in the kind of drawing that permeates what is opened up and set free in language” (408).

We now have a concept of our understanding of being, of the “open freedom” of linguistic cognition, and accordingly, we can see that “In manifold ways, by unveiling or veiling, showing brings something to appear, lets what appear be apprehended, and enables what is apprehended to be thoroughly discussed (so that we can act on it)” (401).

Thus, we have our conception of Dasein, the linguistic animal, for whom “Language is the house of Being because, as the saying, it is priopriation’s mode”. Here, we have what is perhaps the best clue for understanding Ereignis and its relation to Being and Time‘s more simple vocabulary of “being” and “the understanding of being”, which rendered our experience of the world explicit, as opposed to the tacit or “absorbed” coping of typical mammalian behavior. Dasein’s full existential structure is constituted by the “as-structure” or “well-joined structure” of the rift-design i.e. the linguistic “carving” of the experienceable world in terms of complex webs of background knowledge concerning objects, ideas, people, events, etc. and how they interrelate.

As a side note, it is this feature of Heideggerian thought which led me to become dissatisfied with Hubert Dreyfus’ insistence that Dasein’s nonrepresentational and “non-mental” absorbed coping is the total story insofar as Dasein is average. On the contrary, as the rift-structure indicates, and as John McDowell attempts to demonstrate in Mind and World and in his recent exchange with Dreyfus in Inquiry, human experience is thoroughly “conceptualized” in terms of linguistic “object carving”. This is the nature of propriation, of letting things be shown as things, of opening up a space of linguistic freedom wherein interpretational perception “lets beings be seen (as beings)”. The close etymological relationship of Ereignis — propriation — to “owning” can thus be made sense of in terms of the reifiction of objecthood, of unity and “well-joined structure”, onto the world, thus allowing the world to self-subsist in terms of “objectivity”. Thus, Heidegger says that

If by “law” we mean the gathering of what lets everything come to presence on its own and cohere with all that belongs to it, the propriation is the most candid and most gentle of laws…[and moreover] Propriation is the law, inasmuch as it gathers mortals in such a way that they own up to their own essence. (416).

In moving from the early Being and Time notion of “understanding of being”, later Heidegger, borrowing from Hölderlin, was simply trying to be more poetic when he shifted vocabulary from his earlier “paths”. But the basic structure of Dasein’s intentional uncovering of objecthood, its being-directed-towards worlds of referential significance, its direct behavioral resonance to the external environmental niches, both constructed and natural, remains the same throughout Heidegger’s career. Thus, “Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language.”

And, finally, as Alan Watts so nicely puts it, “There is too little recognition of the vast difference between the world as described and the world as sensed, too little recognition that what we describe in the physical universe as separate things are of the same order as areas, views, aspects, selections, and features — not data but capta, grasped rather than given.”


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Alan Watts and Das Man

I have said on this blog before that I think that Alan Watts was perhaps the first Anglo-American thinker to lucidly espouse Heideggerian philosophy into plain English. Moreover, despite his status as a “stoner” philosopher working outside the academic profession, his thoughts on philosophy of mind and the nature of selfhood were very much ahead of his time in terms of providing an “ecological” or “situated” alternative to traditional Western concepts of cognition and mind.

We are, perhaps, rather dimly aware of the immense power of our social environment. We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them that excrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from society. Society is our extended mind and body.

Here we can see a primitive form of Andy Clark’s “Extended Mind” hypothesis, which says that the cognitive border between body and world is porous in terms of the information processing and the shared background manifold for behavioral norms and patterns of thought. Moreover, we see in Watts an echo of the Heideggerian concept of Das Man, which unravels the tight knot of Cartesian self-autonomy into a vast and intricately spun web of social intra-action. We are not just an Ego trapped within a bag of skin, but rather, as Watts emphasizes, members of a social and linguistic community. Accordingly, there cannot be a principled distinction drawn between where I end and the world begins, for I must be defined in terms of my relation to the world, not in terms of the relationship I have to myself.

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Heidegger's Realism

If you want to grasp the deep structure of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, there is no better place to start than his 1927 lecture course at the University of Marburg, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology . I am not aware of any other of Heidegger’s texts that is so clear and insistent on problems of realism and intentionality. In this post, I’d like to briefly examine some passages from Basic Problems in an attempt to establish a clear sense of Heidegger’s realism in relation to Kantian idealism. It is my contention that Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology is founded in overcoming the Kantian critique of phenomenology (the study of “appearances”) as a possible ontology. For reference, I am using the excellent Hofstadter translation.

Realism can mean many things. For how I understand Heidegger, it simply indicates that intentional perception must be conceived as a directing-towards-the-extant-world. Such a directing is conceived in terms of a behavioral comportment, with perception being a form of doing. Moreover, in order to think this concept of perception, we must reexamine the traditional dichotomy between the subjective and objective spheres. Heidegger makes a deeply insightful point that humans think of everything in terms of “being extant”, that is, in terms of a persistence, a “reality”, an occurring. Moreover, in thinking of intentionality, we cannot discover it in terms of a relation between extant objects and therefore, we think “if it is not objective then it is something subjective” (66). However, because of our “mode of understanding” applies to even the realm of subjectivity, “the subject, again, is taken with the same ontological indeterminateness to be something extant” (ibid.); indeterminateness meaning that we have no real understanding of what we are saying when we declare “the subject” to be extant and constantly present-at-hand throughout our waking life.

On the contrary, precisely with the aid of intentionality and its peculiarity of being neither objective nor subjective, we should stop short and ask: Must not the being to which this phenomenon, neither objective nor subjective, obviously belongs be conceived differently than it thus far has been? (ibid.)


Intentionality is neither objective nor subjective in the usual sense, although it is certainly both, but in a much more original sense, since intentionality, as belonging to the Dasein’s existence, makes it possible that this being, the Dasein, comports existingly towards the extant. (65)

“Comports existingly towards the extant”. Phrases to such an effect are littered through these sections on intentionality and perception.

The statement that the comportments of the Dasein are intentional means that the mode of being of our own self, the Dasein, is essentially such that this being, so far as it is, is always already dwelling with the extant. The idea of a subject which has intentional experiences merely inside its own sphere and is not yet outside it but encapsulated within itself is an absurdity which misconstrues the basic ontological structure of the being that we ourselves are. (64)

Here we can see why Heideggerian ontology has often been adapted to underlay the theoretical structure of modern ecological – or situated – cognitive science, which is at odds with the innerpictorial sense-data theorists. Heidegger concurs with Gibson in his critique of cognitivist sense-data theories when he claims “To say that I am in the first place oriented toward sensations is all just pure theory. In conformity with its sense of direction, perception is directed toward a being that is extant. It intends this precisely as extant and knows nothing at all about sensations that it is apprehending” (63). “For the Dasein there is no outside, for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside” (66).

How people could read these sections and conclude that Heidegger wasn’t a direct realist or an externalist is beyond me. Can we not put to rest any such notions with the following passage?

Does the perceivedness of a being, of an existent, constitute its existence? Are existence, actuality, and perceivedness one and the same? The window, however, surely does not receive existence from my perceiving it, but just the reverse: I can perceive it only if it exists and because it exists. (49)

I therefore argue that Heidegger was not an antirealist who thought that our perceiving the world is what primordially constitutes the extant world. The world is extant without our perceiving it and we have a nonmediated access to it through intentional comportment. However, the intentional as-structure bestows significance upon the world, not because our perceptual systems are “constructing” it, but rather, because the as-structure filters our experience in terms of “obects” and “things” i.e. “entities”. In Being and Time, Heidegger defines “Being” as “that which determines entities as entities“. In Basic Problems, we see the same essential point:

This entity [nature] is intraworldly. But intraworldliness does not belong to nature’s being. Rather, in commerce with this entity, nature in the broadest sense, we understand that this entity is as something extant [occurrent], as an entity that we run up against, to which we are delivered over, which on its own part always already is. It is, even if we do not uncover it, i.e. without our encountering it in our world. Being within the world devolves upon this entity, nature, only when it is uncovered as an entity. (169)

I rest my case.

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Vittorio Gallese On the Importance of Philosophy

Metzinger: Vittorio, you have repeatedly cornered me with pressing questions about Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Edith Stein. Why are you so interested in philosophy, and what kind of philosophy would you like to see in the future? What relevant contributions from the humanities are you expecting?

Gallese: Scientists who believe that their discipline will progressively eliminate all philosophical problems are simply fooling themselves. What science can contribute to is the elimination of false philosophical problems. But this is a totally different issue.
If our scientific goal is to understand what it means to be human, we need philosophy to clarify what issues are at stake, what problems need to be solved, what is epistemologically sound and what is not. Cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind deal with the same problems but use different approaches and different levels of descriptions. Very often, we use different words to speak about the same things. I think all cognitive neuroscientists should take classes in philosophy. Similarly, philosophers — at least, philosophers of mind — should learn a lot more about the brain and how it works. We need to talk to one another much more than we are doing now. How can you possibly investigate social cognition without knowing what an intention is, or without understanding the concept of second-order intentionality? Similarly, how can you possibly stick to a philosophical theory of cognition if it i patently falsified by the available empirical evidence? There is another aspect for which I think philosophy may be helpful. Our scientific bravado sometimes makes us think we are the first to have thought about something. Most of the time, this is not true!

Well said!


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