Defending Heidegger (Again)

Graham Harman, in response to some recent communication and thinking about Heidegger’s relationship to Berkeley, has this to say:

There is obviously something psychologically special about humans in comparison with rocks and perhaps even flowers. No argument from me there. All sorts of fascinating human complexity is not to be found anywhere else. But it does not follow that human psychological peculiarity needs to be built into ontology as a full half of the cosmos.

Here’s a very nice passage from Dominic, which gets to the heart of the dispute I’ve had with a number of Heideggerians in this space over the past year, including both Minds and Brains and Chris Ruth. Only a few days ago did I realize the nature of the mutual misunderstanding, but Dominic gets it right:

“In other words, the question is not so much ‘does the hammer exist when I’m not using it’ (Heidegger would readily affirm that it does) as ‘does the hammer have a relationship to the nail, apart from my intention to use the one to strike the other’?”

Yes, that’s it. In recent days I realized (but perhaps I realized it before, and then forgot) that a number of my Heideggerian critics interpreted me as saying that Heidegger is Berkeley. In other words, when I say that there is nothing in Heidegger about the interaction between two entities when Dasein is not watching, they think I’m claiming that Heidegger is a sort of solipsistic idealist.

Well, he may actually be a bit closer to that than Heideggerians think. But that’s not the heart of my claim, and Dominic does get the heart of my claim: it’s about whether the Dasein/world relation is privileged over the world/world relation. In reviewing Lee Braver’s book in Philosophy Today, it’s what I called the “A7″ thesis (added on to Braver’s other 6 excellently useful anti-realist theses). A7 = “The human-world relation is the center of philosophy, having privileged status over all other relations.” And that’s really the essence of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. It doesn’t matter how much a Kantian insists that things-in-themselves really exist (and not all Kantians are that adamant). What matters is whether philosophy is allowed to treat sun/Mars and raindrop/ocean in the same way as human/tree.

I think Harman and Dominic have nicely clarified a pressing question: does Heidegger’s philosophy allow him to admit that humans interact with the Earth in the same ontological manner as a hammer falling to the ground during an earthquake does? Clearly not, based on standard readings of Heidegger’s ontology. But on my reading, this is indeed allowed but rarely mentioned; why not? Because it’s just common sense, encapsulated by the “natural attitude”, our basic way of understanding the world we live in. Normal people don’t doubt that raindrops over the ocean are having real interactions with each other; they just never bother to question it because it is so firmly rooted in how we understand reality. Indeed, the independence of object-object relations is something we learn in infancy and never forget.

Moreover, Heidegger says in the History of the Concept of Time that Dasein is corporeal. This is common sense. Everyone knows that they have a body and this body is made of “material stuff”. Clearly, the natural attitude understands that corporeal stuff interacts with the ground in the same way that raindrops interact with the ground. On a crude level of analysis then, most people understand that human bodies and the world are on the same ontological plain when it comes to what Harman and friends call “translation”, otherwise known as “bumping into” or “interacting with”. Heidegger doesn’t deny any of this. Indeed, Husserl insisted that the phenomenological reduction doesn’t deny the natural attitude but only temporarily suspends it for investigative purposes. Heidegger rarely comes right out and confirms the natural attitude, but he always implies its truth and never denies it. Why the hangup though? Because Heidegger wasn’t interested in the natural attitude or object-oriented science. In the same way that linguists aren’t interested in anything but language, Heidegger was only interested in the unique properties of the animal-world relationship, more specifically, the human animal-world relationship.

Heidegger was fascinated by animal-world relationship because of several unique properties, including affectivity (finding-oneself) and intentionality (directedness towards). Indeed, he says in the History of the Concept of Time that

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing.

What Heidegger is talking about here is the self-organizational property of living bodies, that peculiar way of bootstrapping oneself across time into a highly effective dynamic core of homeostatic directedness. As Maturana and Varela put it in The Tree of Knowledge,

What is distinctive about [organisms]…is that their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no separation between producer and product. The being and doing of an autopoieic unity are inseparable, and this is their specific mode of organization.

So while the cellular organism is made of out the same physical “stuff” as inanimate objects, and thus “translates” in the same way on a fundamental level, the structural/functional properties of self-organization guarantee a unique “biological” phenomenology that is worlds apart from “stone phenomenology”. Furthermore, the addition of language, culture, and technology gives humans a “cultural” or “hermeneutic” phenomenology above and beyond the biological phenomenology that we share with our animal cousins. This is why Heidegger insists that language is the house of being, which constructs our unique “understanding of being” and gives rise to our capacity for ontological inquiry. Indeed, he says

Genuinely and initially, it is the essence of language to first elevate beings into the open as beings. Where there is no language — as with stones, plants, and animals — there is also no openness of beings and thus also no openness of non-beings, un-beings, or emptiness. By first naming objects, language brings beings to word and to appearance.

So it seems like Heidegger comes away unscathed from pejorative accusations of “correlationism”. He was fully capable of talking about the nail interacting with the hammer in the same way as our bodies interact with the hammer, but that just didn’t interest him. He was a phenomenologist after all, and remained one throughout his entire career.



Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

2 responses to “Defending Heidegger (Again)

  1. Pingback: this is either strange, or missing the point « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. There is such a happy willingness among native English speakers to talk about Heidegger because they have all read quite a few chapters by him, because in English he is actually intelligible.

    You would not believe what Heidegger is in his own native German, how contorted and intentionally wrong his syntax, how vain and oddly lyrical his strings of wordies, and what a mess it all is.

    Geeeez. Compare that to any little textito by Plato or even Kant. What a waste.

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