Heidegger and the Phenomenon of Truth – A Preliminary Interpretation

It is well known that Heidegger’s concept of truth differs radically from the traditional correspondence theory. Some people take this to mean that Heidegger was in some way undercutting the possibility of propositional or predicative truth wherein our assertions are lined up and compared with reality as it exists in itself. Accordingly, this radical notion of truth is usually understood in terms of some kind of idealism or subjectivism. This line of interpretation is driven by passages where Heidegger says that “Being (not entities) is something which “there is” only in so far as truth is. And truth is only in so far and as long as Dasein is” (SZ 230).

However, I want to decisively argue against an idealist or subjectivist interpretation of Heidegger’s notion of truth. On my reading (which I am still developing), Heidegger’s notion of truth is entirely compatible with there being a mind-independent world that we more or less have direct access to by means of encountering it. This requires that we read Heidegger’s notion of truth in phenomenological terms. What needs explaining is how “the proposition that ‘Dasein is in the truth’ states equiprimordially that ‘Dasein is in untruth'” (SZ 222). What does this mean? How can we live in both truth and untruth?

The answer to this question lies in the notion of structural coupling. Structural coupling occurs whenever there is a history of recurrent interaction between two systems. More specifically, in virtue of its autopoietic (i.e. self-organizing) unity, an organism is structurally coupled with the environment insofar as it maintains its unity it respect to the environment. Accordingly, cognition can be defined as “A history of structural coupling that brings forth a world.” This definition of cognition is in stark contrast to the traditional conception of cognition as the manipulation of explicit symbol tokens by a central processing unit.

What does this have to do with Heidegger’s notion of truth? I propose that for Heidegger, Dasein is “in the truth” insofar as it is structurally coupled to a real environment. Dasein isn’t coupled to itself, nor its ideas, representations, or thoughts; it is coupled to the Umwelt, which is composed of real entities that have a structural determination independent of whether we are there to disclose it. Indeed, look at this passage:

Because the kind of being that is essential to truth is of the character of Dasein, all truth is relative to Dasein’s being. Does this relatively signify that all truth is ‘subjective’? If one interprets ‘subjective’ as ‘left to the subject’s discretion’, then it certainly does not. For uncovering, in the sense which is most its own, takes asserting out of the province of the ‘subjective discretion, and brings the uncovering Dasein face to face with the entities themselves. (SZ 227)

I have elaborated on this notion of encountering before (more recently here). Basically, the idea is that our cognition is directed towards the things themselves rather than any putative re-presentation of the things inside a mental theater. As I put it earlier,

perception is a matter of encountering or attending to what is already presenting itself to us. As long as we are alive, we have no choice but to encounter the Earth. Understood this way, sensations are irrelevant for the achievement of perception. All that matters for the act of perception is the performance of the act. And it is only dogmatism which supposes that the act of perception involves re-presenting the phenomena in terms of sense-data. For this, there is no need. We only need to respond or react to that which is there in such a way as to maintain the unity of our bodily singularity.

This direct response to what is “really there” in the environment grounds Heidegger’s notion of truth. This notion is taken from his definition of phenomena as that the totality of what shows itself. I contend that this notion of showing and encountering can be explained in terms of J.J. Gibson’s theory of direct realism. I don’t know of any other Heideggerian theorist who has proposed a concrete theory of how phenomena can show themselves and how we are receptive to this showing. I propose that the notion of structural coupling in addition to Gibson’s notion of affordance perception provides the necessary theoretical background for making sense of how Dasein can encounter the phenomenon as it shows itself from itself.

So now we have explained what Heidegger means when he says that Dasein lives in the truth. But as we saw above, Dasein also lives in the untruth. What does this mean? It means that our encounter with the environment is always an interpretive encounter. But this doesn’t mean that Dasien is synthesizing brute intuitions through a transcendental manifold, nor is Dasein generating internal “percepts” through sense-data. Heidegger’s notion of thrown projection is postKantian in the sense that for Heidegger, nothing is added to the phenomenon. In the act of perception, we simply perform the act. Accordingly, the significance of the world is generated by means of structural coupling rather than any putative “subjective coloring” of a static reality. As Varella and Maturana put it,

Inasmuch as the changes of state of an organism (with or without a nervous system) depend on its history of structural coupling [with the environment], changes of state of the organism in its environment will necessarily be suitable and familiar to it, independently of the behavior or environment we are describing.

In other words, the significance of entities (their meaning in relation to Dasein) is dependent on both the context of the situation and the internal historicity of the perceiver, but not on the generation of subjective percepts. In this way, Dasein is always attending to a partial selection of reality and never the entire Earth at once. Indeed, to say that Dasein is in the truth “does not purport to say that ontically Dasein is introduced ‘to all the truth’ either always or just in every case, but rather, the disclosedness of its ownmost being belongs to its existential consitution” (SZ 220). Encounter is always interpretive and thus disclosure is always partial and selective.

[In disclosure] entities have not been completely hidden; they are precisely the sort of thing that has been uncovered, but at the same time they have been disguised. They show themselves, but in the mode of semblance. Likewise what has formerly been uncovered sinks back again, hidden and disguised. Because Dasein is essentially falling, its state of being is such that it is in ‘untruth’. (SZ 222)

Now we can see that Heidegger’s notion of truth is phenomenological insofar as it describes the history of structural coupling of Dasein with the environment. As we have seen, claiming that truth is dependent on Dasein does not mean that propositional truth somehow is no longer valid or that Heidegger ascribed to some kind of subjectivist relativism. Instead, we can understand the claim that Dasein is both in the truth and the untruth to mean that Dasein is always operating within a real environment by means of structural coupling but at the same time, we only attend to that level of reality which is salient in respect to our interests and internal history. Indeed,

The existential-ontological condition for the fact that being-in-the-world is characterized by ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’, lies in the state of Dasein’s being which we have designated as thrown projection. This is something that is constitutive for the structure of care. (SZ 223)


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