Ecological Realism in the History of the Concept of Time

Heidegger’s 1925 lecture course published as the Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time is widely considered to be the prequel to Being and Time. Since I consider BT to be a realist work in philosophy, it should not be surprising to find quotations in HCT that support what I call ecological realism. Ecological realism is to be decisively distinguished from philosophical realism. Both realisms agree, doxographically, that the natural world (what Heidegger later calls the Earth) would still exist if humans were wiped off the planet (Of course, this is just common sense, but many commentators seem content to ascribe to Heidegger the nonsensical position of anti-realism in respect to the ontic dependence of the Earth on human disclosure).But ecological realism differs from philosophical realism insofar as the latter accepts the “mind independence” of the Earth but arrives at this position from the starting point of a mind essentially cut-off from the Earth by means of the sense-data “veil”. According to philosophical realism, the only things we know directly are the sense-receptors at the edge of our bodies i.e. what’s called the proximal stimulus. Because they claim we are only in an epistemic relationship with the proximal stimulus, we must therefor “deduce” or “infer” that the distal stimulus exists. And moreover, because of the possibility of hallucination and illusion, we can never be certain that the proximal stimulus veridically corresponds to the distal stimulus. We are thus unable to adequately rebuff the radical skeptic of knowledge.

Ecological realism is different because it assumes that we have a direct epistemic relationship with the Earth by means of our intentional directedness towards the Earth. For ecological realists, the distinction between proximal and distal stimuli is a nonstarter in terms of epistemology. Indeed, Heidegger says in HCT:

When I perceive the chair and say, “The chair has four legs,” the sense of this knowledge according to Rickert is the acknowledging of a value. [However], even with the best of intentions one cannot find anything like this in the structure of this perceptual assertion. For I am not directed toward representations and less still toward value but instead toward the chair which is in fact given. (33)


[Rickert] is prevented from seeing the primary cognitive character of representation because he presupposes a mythical concept of representing from the philosophy of natural science and so comes to the formulation that in representing the representations get represented. But in the case of a representation on the level of simple perception a representation is not represented; I simply see the chair. This is implied in the very sense of representing. When I look, I am not intent upon seeing a representation of something, but the chair. (35)

For ecological realism then, the sense-data hypothesis is mistaken insofar as it begins with the assumption that representations get represented “in the mind”. For Heidegger, we need not make this assumption and indeed, we shouldn’t make it if we are to make sense of the phenomena of perceiving. One might reply by saying that Heidegger is merely assuming what he wants to assume in order to counter the neo-Kantians but why is he justified in assuming that intentionality is directed toward the environment and not toward the proximal stimulus? For one, the Heideggerian position is more parsimonious on the evolutionary and developmental stage because it allows for the possibility of coping behavior without the need for positing an internal consciousness “synthesizing” the proximal data into a percept of the distal stimuli, a processing heavy and thus energy-consuming process. If we look at the earliest progenitors of perceptual systems in unicellular bodies, we can see that the chemical receptors are directly connected with locomotion. The bacterium’s detection of instrumentally relevant chemicals sets off a causal cascade that eventually results in the spinning of the flagellum. In these bodies, there is no possibility of radical skepticism. The epistemic situation is akin to a gear that connects a car’s engine to the tires. Any possibility of perceptual mistake is thus physiological in character rather than epistemological. If we scale these systems up to humans, the same principle applies. We need not assume that the possibility of perceptual breakdown implies the possibility of radical skepticism. Understood from the ecological point of view, perception evolved so as to put us in intimate contact with the Earth. Ecological realism is also committed to the possibility of molar stimuli.

Moreover, in regards to the problem of other minds, philosophical realism assumes

that a subject is encapsulated within itself and now has the task of emphasizing with another subject. This way of formulating the question is absurd, since there never is such a subject in the sense it is assumed here. If the constitution of what is Dasein is instead regarded without presuppositions as in-being and being-with in the presuppositionless immediacy of everydayness, it then becomes clear that the problem of empathy is just as absurd as the question of the reality of the external world. (243)

By exposing the way in which philosophical realism depends on certain unnecessary assumptions about the nature of intentional perceptual systems, we can pave the way for ecological realism as both a metaphysical and epistemological doctrine. Metaphysical, because ecological realism accords with our common sense intuition that the Earth existed before humans and will continue to exist after humans are gone. Epistemological, because it offers a theory of knowledge in terms of opportunities of meaningful behavior.

‘[O]riginally and to begin with,’ one does not really hear noises and sonorous complexes but the creaking wagon, the ‘electric’ streetcar, the motorcycle, the column on the march, the north wind. To ‘hear’ something like a ‘pure noise’ already requires a very artificial and complicated attitude. (266)

This is of course an explication of our being-in-a-world with world understood in terms of significance and meaning. The world is directly meaningful because our affective care-structure compels us towards goals in a teleological fashion. This is of course much more parsimonious with evolutionary theory than any sense-data theory. There is much more to say on this issue, but I will leave the details for another post (and for my master’s thesis!). Also, In Jon Cogburn’s upcoming Fall graduate seminar, we will be exploring this issue of teleosemantics and animal cognition in great detail, so expect a flurry of posts related to these issues in the Fall. I can’t wait!

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Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

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