Thomas Sheehan's Heidegger, part I

Thomas Sheehan has an excellent paper available online entitled A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research. The paper is interesting in several respects. First, it helps delineate the myriad strands in North American Heidegger scholarship: (1) the ultra-orthodox (classic continental studies) (2) the rejectionist wing (Caputo and ilk) (3) the orthodox position (Kisiel, etc.) and  (4) the liberal-assimilationists (people like Dreyfus and others who seek to place Heidegger into dialogue with contemporary philosophy). Sheehan wisely admits that these distinctions run across a spectrum that is pluralistic. I would say that I probably fall within the liberal-assimilationist camp given my proclivity to situate Heidegger within the embodied/embedded paradigm in cognitive science (especially Julian Jaynes and J.J. Gibson).

Moreover, despite their differences, Sheehan argues that all four camps tend to accept William Richardson’s supposition that Heidegger’s project shifted from a focus on There-being (Dasein) to Being itself over the course of his career. Thus, the classic Heideggerian model (according to Sheehan) claims that Heidegger’s entire oeuvre represents a shift from the human to die Sache selbst and that moreover, this “thing” was Big B Being or something else equally mysterious. In a brilliant display of interpretative prowess, Sheehan challenges this model on several fronts. The first point is to emphasize that “being” is not die Sache selbst insofar as this interpretation would hypostatize it into “Big Being” and that moreover, “being itself” is not Heidegger’s central topic. To think otherwise is to operate under the confusion that  if one merely distinguishes being from entities and then focuses on the “being”-side you have isolated die Sache selbst.

The point about hypostatization is extremely important because there is no such thing as “the” being of entities. As Sheehan puts it,

The current being of an entity is what and how I happen to take this thing as at the present moment. For example, in the absence of a hammer at my campsite, I use this rock to pound in tent pegs…The being of something comes about only when ‘man entwirft etwas auf etwas.’ The proper translation of entwerfen auf…is not “to project something upon” (a meaningless phrase in this context) but “to take something as,” i.e. to make sense of it.

I find Sheehan’s interpretation of this “taking-as” to be far above average for Heideggerian scholarship. He rightly points out that “being” is always in relationship to the human activity of sense-making. I take the newspaper “as” something different depending on whether I am in a reading mood or whether there is a fly on the wall. Such categorial “taking-as” constitutes the essential structure of the referential totality and worldhood in general. The being of entities, properly speaking, is thus always in relation to human activities.

This is a firm position that Heidegger never renounced: ‘being’ is given or appears (das Sein west) only in the activities of human beings, which are always discursive, synthetic-differential activities. Before homo sapiens sapiens evolved, there was no ‘being’ on earth: it did not lurk within things, waiting to be discovered; it was not hiding in the wings, waiting for a Dasein to come along so that it could reveal itself.

Moreover, the Lichtung or clearing is essentially related to this “taking-as” function. To “clear” a rock in terms of an “open freedom” is to free it for use depending on its situational relevance to teleologically structured (means/end) human activity. If I left my nut cracker at home, the things around me become categorially transformed in terms of their relevance to my project of trying-to-open-nuts. The otherwise inconspicuous rock becomes seen “as” a nut cracker. The clearing is thus a synonym for the as-structure and our human tendency to free entities in terms of their relevance to our circumspective concern. Sheehan is thus perfectly right to see the interrelation between the “Da” of Da-sein, the Welt of worldhood, and the Lichtung or clearing of disclosure. Sheehan thus interprets Da-sein not as “Being-there”, but rather, as “always-being-open” or “already-having-been-opened”. The human being then is always already in a dynamic process of opening entities into our world-involvement such that we categorially “take” entities as entities either as themselves or as something they are not, but always for-the-sake of some circumspective activity.

Moreover, and important for Heidegger’s project, Sheehan rightly emphasizes the a priori nature of our thrown projection. I like to cash this out in terms of childhood development, but I don’t know if Sheehan would agree with this interpretation. In my view, because being-open (projecting possibilities through supersensory categorial perception) is something learned in childhood, there is no choice involved in being open. The child does not choose to be born into a society of language and narrative. Thus, our thrown-essence is in a sense independent of the individual person. On the other hand, there is no openness without Dasein, without humanity.  There is thus an

unbreakable reciprocity (back-and-forth-ness, reci-proci-tas) between our thrown-open essence (-sein) and the possibility-of-sense-making (Da-), and this apriori interface constitutes the dynamic structure of Dasein…There are not two apriori’s here, but only one:thrown-open-ness-as-ability-to-make-sense-of. The hyphens hold together Geworfenheit [thrownness] and Entwurf [projection], whose reciprocity is the essence of Dasein.

I think Sheehan’s interpretation is right on the money (for the record, I also think he agrees with me insofar as the question of ontic realism goes). By linking together the notions of being, worldhood, projection, clearing, sense-making, taking-as, etc., we can begin to form a systemic conception of just what the hell Heidegger is talking about. What we see is a radical phenomenological conception of average human experience. Instead of digital computers generating virtual phenomenal models which we perceive after the computational processing of sense-data over the medium of explicit mental representations, human beings are primordially “thrown” into the “yonder” of  externalist perception-for-action. The issue here comes down to understanding the nature of humanity’s “who-ness”. Who are we? Are we epiphenomena of computer simulations? Or are we something else? Heidegger’s answer is this: we are corporeal beings and we “live” in the outside world, in what we are involved in i.e. we live through our everyday routines and our long-term projects. We are usually too absorbed in our day-to-day activities to make conceptual distinctions between ourselves and the hustle-bustle of the world. Thus the Heideggerian answer to the question of “who” is this: the They-self, the thrown-self, the factical Da-sein human. That is who we are.

But this does not complete Heidegger’s model of humanity. For built around this inauthentic  they-self is the authentic self. This self exists primarily as a psychological possibility (emphasized in extreme situations), but it does not “rest” or “found” or form the “core” of human existence. Strangely then, the “core” of human being is the noncore of thrownness into daily activities, of getting lost in the significance of worldly items, of projecting possibilities through the supersensory taking-as operation, of letting our moods take us for a ride.

According to Sheehan then, what is die Sache selbst for Heidegger?

To be continued…



Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

4 responses to “Thomas Sheehan's Heidegger, part I

  1. Pingback: Paradigms of Heidegger : Mormon Metaphysics

  2. I loved that paper when I first read it several years ago and still love it equally much today. Rereading it again this time though I’m not sure he really does orient the various schools who interpret Heidegger that well. But perhaps I just wanted more divisions within what he called “the center-left”.

    I think the biggest problem with far too many who deal with Heidegger is that they don’t just read Heidegger while doing phenomenology. I think if you do that then the word mysticism that seems to pop up all too often is avoided.

  3. Gary Williams


    So you feel that if Heideggerians were more keen to cash Heidegger’s philosophy out in terms of everyday phenomenological experience, his mysticism would abate? If that is indeed what you are saying, then I am in agreement. I often read secondary literature and I find myself thinking “example please?”. I think that if you can’t give a real-life example to illustrate Heidegger’s point, then you haven’t really grasped his phenomenology.

  4. Well I confess I just don’t see Heidegger as a mystic, despite Caputo’s attempts to make him one. By word mysticism I mean the odd fascination with what comes off primarily as word games in far too much literature.

    Now I’ll be the first to admit I read Heidegger through a strong pragmatic lens (although pragmatism isn’t often what the received stereotype indicated: too many people come to it via Putnam or Rorty unfortunately). That pragmatism may bias how I read him. (And it was one of Sheehan’s categories although knowing the figures who are writing about pragmatism and Heidegger I don’t think I agree with their readings)

    I guess my point is just that, like Sheehan, I think the texts are simpler than they often come off. And the complexity is partially due to the translations, partially due to how Heidegger writes, and primarily due to the larger Heideggarian community loving to play odd language games. Which is, I think, one of Sheehan’s points. (Of course I like Derrida a lot and he does the same thing at times, so take that for what its worth)

    Anyway, I see Heidegger much more a philosopher of everyday experience, as you do. I think breaking the mysticism from the everyday is harder than you suggest though. While I disagreed with much of Caputo’s book on mysticism, I think he does a good job of explaining how mysticism and the everyday match up. (I don’t know if you’ve read that book)

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