A Short Defense of Heidegger

To take the bite, I want to answer Christoper Vitale’s question, which is itself a response to Graham Harman’s post on the “most overrated philosopher of all time”:

There’s so many folks online whose thought I DO respect that like Heidegger, that I’m probably missing something. And I’m curious what that is. I’m curious, that’s what it comes down to. Was Heidegger essential as a path to where you are now, or do you think he has something lasting to say to us today? That’s my question.

Let me start by saying that I primarily deal with philosophy of mind. Let me also say that there is a quiet storm brewing in philosophy of mind circles, with essentially two competing philosophical paradigms standing at odds: one inspired by Descartes/Locke/Kant and the other by Heidegger/Merleau-Ponty/Gibson. The former trio is foundational in respect to the cognitivism still very much in vogue today; the latter with respect to the less established but quickly growing 4E paradigm (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted). The 4E paradigm is a direct reaction to the perceived failures of classic cognitivism in respect to understanding perception, action, intentionality, emotion, reasoning, etc.  Accordingly, there are many overlapping ways to cash out the distinction between the two paradigms:

  • Cartesian vs. Heideggerian philosophy of mind
  • indirect representationalism  vs. direct nonrepresentationalism
  • strict primary/secondary qualities distinction vs. skepticism of distinction
  • atomism vs. holism
  • computationalist vs. Gibsonian theories of information processing
  • disembodied vs. embodied theories of mind
  • social atomism vs. social embeddedness/contextualism
  • emphasis on the theoretical vs. emphasis on the instrumental
  • theory-theory vs. the Narrative Practice Hypothesis
  • reductionist vs. social constructivist approaches to higher-order cognition
  • computer metaphor vs. “bundle of habits” metaphor
  • literal view of language vs. figurative-metaphorical view of language
  • analytic vs. hermeneutic approach to interpretation and understanding
  • internalist vs. externalist approaches to perception
  • dualist ontology vs. affordance ontology
  • robust vs. minimalist conceptions of selfhood
  • subject-as-against-objects vs. subject-as-“amidst”-objects
  • Those who believe in the Myth of the Given vs. those who don’t
  • etc.

I can thus answer Christopher’s question of whether Heidegger has anything important to say to contemporary philosophers: Yes, of course! Heidegger’s texts were groundbreaking in respect to almost every idea in the right-hand column. Moreover, he was the first thinker to systematically defend a coherent philosophical alternative to Cartesian and Kantian theories of mind. Thinkers up until Husserl overcame  the tradition in many respects, but never broke away from it in a decisive fashion like Heidegger did. Philosophers were far too embroiled within the language games of traditional philosophy to see that their theories were grounded upon a particular intellectual trajectory starting with ancient philosophy and moving up and through Descartes and Kant. I am of the opinion that Heidegger was perhaps the first major thinker to break away from the tradition in respect to all the major dogmatisms in philosophy of mind . For this reason, I must modify something that Paul Ennis said in his own defense of Heidegger:

It is important to situate Heidegger in order to defend him. He only makes sense as a thinker of and within the tradition. He is self-consciously an ‘inheritor’ of the tradition – hell he even seems to be putting himself into it as it were.

I would say instead that Heidegger only ever put himself into the tradition in order to destroy it. I think Paul would probably agree with me on this, but I think it is important to emphasis the ways in which Heidegger broke with tradition in many key areas. His ideas are so influential and so far reaching that, in my opinion, anyone working with Descartes and Kant is obliged to understand Heidegger’s alternative model of human existence. This is especially important when engaging with the cognitivism debate in philosophy of mind. While many excellent books and articles have been inspired by Heidegger’s ideas, many philosophers not well-versed in the history of philosophy lose sight of Heidegger’s larger metaphilosophical goal of overcoming the deficiencies in Cartesian and Kantian philosophy. Without understanding the historical context in which Heidegger overcame traditional views of subjectivity, his philosophical achievements are difficult to fully recognize. Conversely, traditional Heideggerians get so wrapped up in the system and the terminology that they overlook the wider context of what people like Dreyfus and Andy Clark are doing with Heidegger, namely, trying to overcome the deficiencies of the Cartesian homunculus theory.

There is much more to say on this issue of Heidegger’s intellectual lineage. One could write ten volumes  tracing his thought through the work of people like Merleau-Ponty and the Gibson up and through the developments of 4E philosophy in the early 90s. The intersection between Heideggerian phenomenology and cognitive science is rich. For this reason, Heidegger has much to say to us in the 21st century.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

7 responses to “A Short Defense of Heidegger

  1. Vic P

    From Heidegger’s Wikipedia entry:

    “The essence of modern technology is the conversion of the whole universe of beings into an undifferentiated “standing reserve” (Bestand) of energy available for any use to which humans choose to put it. Heidegger described the essence of modern technology as Gestell, or “enframing.” Heidegger does not unequivocally condemn technology: while he acknowledges that modern technology contains grave dangers, Heidegger nevertheless also argues that it may constitute a chance for human beings to enter a new epoch in their relation to being. Despite this, some commentators have insisted that an agrarian nostalgia permeates his later work.”

    When philosophers make those “jumps of insight”, it shows they believe we are poised to be higher creatures, which makes them very admirable. Our hope. To jump the cynicism and skepticism of our times.

  2. Gary Williams

    Hi Vic,

    I think I am in agreement with that quote. IIRC, I think Heidegger said that modern technology itself is strong evidence that we are no longer living in the age of metaphysics. For example, if you look at how people use the internet as an extension of their selfhood, then it becomes difficult to describes modern existence in terms of the classic subject-standing-against-objects model. Instead, when using items of gear, humans do not usually distinguish themselves from such usage and are in fact “thrown” into the world of instrumentality. While one could make the case that the medieval carpenter had the same kind of relation to his tools, I am of the opinion that technology as been infused into our everyday coping moreso in our own time than at any other time in history.

  3. Vic P

    During the late 60’s, baby boomers discovered that if you could publicaly demonstrate and get on TV, you could get around the power of the nation state. Even at the beginning of the 20th century Bertrand Russell understood the power of the media and later Ghandi, King etc.

    Whether it’s the nation state, corporate state, social state or religious state, young people have discovered the power of technology to break this shell of our existense. Unfortunately when they break one shell, they find another shell trying to encase them, but that’s how history moves or as many theorize to some final end state which frightens, (so they recursively find another shell of ideology).

  4. Pingback: Heidegger: Response to Paul Ennis and Gary Williams « Networkologies

  5. Gary Williams

    Haha, that is an awesome article, thanks for sharing!

    My one beef with it is that Heidegger’s notion of the ready-to-hand is more extensive than literal tools. For Heidegger, the room itself, the ground, the sky, the sun, etc. are all ready-to-hand, not just literal tools like flashlights and what not. When walking on the ground, it is “on hand” for our stabilization in the same way that the hammer is “on hand” for our wanting to hammer nails.

  6. Jessica Schafer

    I’m currently doing an assignment on how Heidegger gave meaning to human life. I know that he reshaped modern day philosophy, but I’m unsure how it positively influenced society, be it modern day or not. Would you mind helping, thank-you.

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