Thoughts on master's thesis, Heideggerian scholarship, and interpretation

So far I am pleased with how my thesis is shaping up and the scholarly direction I am taking. I wanted first and foremost for this thesis to focus on explaining Heidegger rather than simply explaining why everyone else is wrong. I struggled for awhile with trying to choose which scholars I wanted to attack when I was first drafting the outline. But then I was reading some secondary literature and I realized that I hate it when Heideggerian scholars bicker back and forth about some trivial issue rather than dealing with Heidegger himself.  I often get the feeling that these scholars are more interested in preserving their academic reputation than attending to the “things themselves”. But now I am following a different strategy. Instead of devoting whole sections to showing how other interpretations miss the mark, I am simply going to briefly mark in a footnote what the position of other scholars is, but not really explain why they are wrong explicitly. I will simply mark their position and move back to my own interpretation.

I realized recently that I want my thesis to be 90% original interpretation. Reading through the secondary literature, I have become conscious that my interpretation of Heidegger is unique and that I have a lot to offer to the Heideggerian community. While I agree doxographically about certain issues with many people, there is no one I know of who reads Heidegger exactly like I do. I feel like I have a unique grasp on what Heidegger was really saying, particularly in respect to circumspective concern, Dasein, Existenz, intentionality, being/beings, Befindlichkeit, the question of the meaning of being, language as the house of being, phenomenological-ontology, the fourfold, and  authenticity.

Thomas Sheehan, Taylor Carman, Hubert Dreyfus, and Michael Wheeler come closest to my interpretation, but I find that each author suffers from theoretical hangups when it comes to paraphrasing Heideggerian concepts into concrete examples. For me, concrete examples are the highest standard of clarity in Heideggerian scholarship. If you can’t give a concrete example or description of the phenomenon that Heidegger is discussing, then in my mind you do not understand Heidegger’s meaning. If you haven’t experienced an authentic moment of vision and don’t know how to describe that experience, then you do not understand the concept of authenticity in phenomenology. You might be able to string Heideggerian jargon together in a way consistent with Heidegger’s own use of the term, but if you are unclear on the phenomenon in question, then you will never really “get” Heidegger, nor phenomenology.

Because so many scholars fail to live up to the rigorous introspective demands of phenomenological methodology, they end up merely parroting what Heidegger said rather than explaining what he was talking about. This is why I want my thesis to be less about showing why everyone else is wrong, and more of why my interpretation can unify Heidegger’s corpus into an internally consistent philosophical system, make sense of confusing “puzzle passages”, and clarify Heidegger’s position in respect to important issues such as the realism/idealism controversy, the problem of the external world, mind/body dualism, postKantian critical philosophy, etc.

Here are some of the things I will be demonstrating in my thesis:

  • Following Sheehan (and Carman to some extent), I will argue that the question of the meaning of being is really about the question of the meaning of the meaningfulness of entities in relation to teleological interests. In other words, the being of an entity is always its meaning or significance for-the-sake-of a perceiver who is both concerned and familiar with the Earthly entities. But “being” (meaning) only “is” when there are perceivers. But entities nevertheless live a rich life of their own independent of perceivers. Accordingly,  we can explain how entities could exist independently of perceivers, but nevertheless their being (i.e. their meaning) depends on Dasein. We can thus have a entity realism and a being idealism without falling into a subjectivism. Moreover, this is a nontrivial philosophical position.
  • In order to avoid a subjectivism wherein the given is “subjectively colored” or “synthesized” by the mental apparatus of the perceiver, we must develop a theory of perception wherein nothing is contributed in the act of perception. Instead of “synthesizing” the given into a percept, Heideggerian perception is described in terms of an entity encountering what is already there. In psychological terms, this can be described as an attentional theory of perception. Instead of enriching the stimulus through mental gymnastics, the entity is simply attentive to the meaning already specified within the ordered structure of the given. Because the meaning is already there in the environment, we can understand perception in terms of a perceiver taking the Earth as meaningful. Accordingly, there is nothing contributed to the stimulus in the act of perception as with Kantian psychology; the act if simply performed.
  • Taking-as must be described in prepredicative terms because the meaning of the Earth is determined by the internal historicity of the perceiving entity as a living body. Because the historicity of biological organisms is structured by immediate teleological principles of homeostatic regulation, the internal balance of the system coconstitutes the manner of how we take the Earth to be. Moreover, the taking act is a worlding act. If you have a teleological instinct for self-preservation through the continual maintenance of structural unity, then there is an immediate mood or “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) which governs your manner of interaction with the Earth. If you have a mood, then you have a world in virtue of being “attuned” or familiar with entities. This is what separates animate from inanimate entities. And because the teleological demands of the system are determined by a structural coupling with the environment, we can say that the Earth is immediately significant for the organism in virtue of the history of structural coupling of the organism with the Earth. This is why the Care-structure is temporalized. The teleology of the organism is always such that we are future-directed (so as to maintain our internal balance), but the history of structural coupling guarantees that our realtime interactions are coconstituted by our entire historicity as an embodied organism. The organism thus provides the model of temporality for Heidegger.
  • Accordingly, I will argue that it is not affectivity, care, understanding, or temporality which separates Dasein from other animals. We share all these features with other animals insofar as they too are structured by teleological principles of organization. But these animals are still “world poor”. Why? Because they lack a complex syntactical language. It is language which gives birth to the thing through the power of naming and high-order attentional modulation. Language also allows us to engage in joint-attention. I can point something out and refer to it by name in order to control the attention of both myself and other people. Language allows us to point out and attend to higher levels of organization. For example,  the linguistic concept of person greatly changes how we perceive and interpret the world. We see others not as automatons or animated beings but as persons. Moreover, we understand ourselves to be persons. My account of language will thus account for Heidegger’s discussion of the word and thing, as well as the famous statement that language is the house of being. I will also be bringing contemporary developments in cognitive linguistics to bear on the question of language in Heidegger’s thought, showing that his account of language is now being confirmed by theoretical developments in the mind sciences.

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Filed under Heidegger, Phenomenology

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