Ecological Realism and Affordance Ontology

Being and Time era Heidegger is often accused of holding to some kind of subjectivism because of his “being idealism” wherein the being of entities is interdependent with the event of perceptual disclosure. But since early Heidegger also clearly states in several places that entities are not dependent on Dasein for their material existence, we are left with a contradiction between being idealism and entity realism. Now, there are many ways to try and get out of this contradiction. People like William Blattner differentiate between an empirical and a transcendental level of analysis where on the empirical level it makes sense to talk about independent entities but it does not make sense to do so on the transcendental level. Others like Dreyfus and Carman take a different route and simply define being idealism in such a way as to be compatible with entity realism. This is the route I take.

The best way to make entity realism consistent with being idealism is through what I call “ecological realism”. This version of realism must be decisively distinguished from classic or “philosophical realism”. Understanding the difference between these two styles of realism will help bolster my case that Heidegger understood himself to be a realist but denied the validity of “classical” realism. The key difference between ecological and classical realism is that whereas both believe that the Earth exists independently of the mind, ecological realism takes this as the starting point and philosophical realism takes it as something to be proved.

Along with Dasein as being-in-the-world, entities within-the-world have in each case already been disclosed. This existential-ontological assertion seems to accord with the thesis of realism that the external world is really present-at-hand. In so far as this existential assertion does not deny that entities within-the-world are present-at-hand, it agrees – doxographically, as it were – with the thesis of realism in its result. But it differs in principle from every kind of realism; for realism holds that the Reality of the ‘world’ not only needs to be proved but also is capable of proof. (BT 251)

Philosophical realism starts with the assumption of a consciousness or subjectivity isolated from the external world by means of an internal subjective sphere. The question is then “How does the inside of the sphere correspond to the outside?” Here we can see how classic realism runs dangerously close to being a form of idealism because it seems possible that our subjective experience could be totally different from the actual physical world. Indeed, it seems impossible to put the subjective and subjective worlds back together once cleaved. This is nothing other than the classic subject-object model that has caused so many problems in philosophy. Heidegger rejects this position not because he disagrees that the Earth exists independently of us, but rather, because he rejects the starting point of a consciousness isolated from it.

Instead, it is assumed that the mind relates to reality by means of already “dwelling outside”. For Heidegger, there is never a problem of how the inside corresponds to the outside because the mind is always already “outside”. But this doesn’t mean that the mind is somehow floating outside the skull. It simply means that insofar as the mind is characterized by intentionality (directedness towards), the mind is always already directed towards the outside world. Accordingly, subjectivity is understood in terms of being a process of encountering or attending to what’s already there before you: the environment. Perception then becomes a matter of regulating our reaction to the environment rather than constructing a model of the environment. We move from models of representation as mirroring to models of representation as control. The mind becomes a way of regulating our internal behaviors and homeostasis. This regulation forms a “background” upon which higher-order thoughts and theoretical reflections can occur. And built into this background is a feeling of existential being-in-the-world. This is because we spend our whole lives inhabiting the environment. To start from the presupposition that our primordial consciousness is separated from the environment is merely Cartesian dogma. Our primary consciousness is always already “outside” of our heads, in-the-world. This primary consciousness is better seen as a kind of low-level perceptual reactivity than any kind of theoretical cognition operating on the basis of symbolization.

The statement that the comportments of the Dasein are intentional means that the mode of being of our own self, the Dasein, is essentially such that this being, so far as it is, is always already dwelling with the extant. The idea of a subject which has intentional experiences merely inside its own sphere and is not yet outside it but encapsulated within itself is an absurdity which misconstrues the basic ontological structure of the being that we ourselves are. (BP 64).

So that’s more or less entity realism in a nutshell. What about being idealism? We have already set out a realist ontology based on the assumption of a direct realist account of intentionality. But we must infuse ecological realism with an “affordance ontology” in order to avoid a naive realism. It would be naive to suppose that animals directly attend to reality itself as understood by the physical sciences. But any direct realism worth its salt will never claim that animals directly perceive the actual structure of reality. This would be putting the cart before the horse. Instead, direct realism claims that animals do not first learn to perceive the present-at-hand structure of the Earth, but rather, they learn to perceive affordances. Affordances are objective properties of the given environment that are related to what an animal can do (with passive observation being a derivative kind of activity). For example, a chair affords the possibility of sitting for those with the appropriate bodies and capacities. But the affordance property of the chair is completely objective and independent of the perceiver. Whether the chair is capable of supporting someone is based on the material dynamics of the chair itself independent of my mind. As Gibson says, “The affordance points both ways [subjective and objective]. What a thing is and what it means are not separate, the former being physical and the latter mental, as we are accustomed to believe”.

It is here we can develop an account of being idealism that does not contradict entity realism. Take the chair again. The chair as it materially exists is independent of my perception of it. But my perception of the chair as as something-for-sitting is dependent on me the subject. So we can say that whereas the chair independently exists on the ontic level, its ontological being is dependent on how I take it to be. And since I can take the chair in many different ways depending on the context of my interaction, its ontological mode of being is essentially “free” or “open” to an infinite number of involvements (chair can be used as a stool or as kindling, etc.). Accordingly, Big B Being becomes defined as the meaning or significance of entities in relation to prior interests. We can therefore have an idealism of meaning (being) without collapsing into a subjectivism because the affordance property of the entity is not something subjectively determined. The chair will support me whether or not I am around to actually sit on it.  In order to perceive the chair as a chair then, I need not construct a mental representation or subjectively “put a value” on a meaningless input. Rather, I need only to differentiate the affordance property from the given stimulus. In other words, I need only respond to the meaning of the stimulus, not its physical profile (wavelengths, etc.). Learning this capacity involves learning how to attend to the ecological level of reality, the level of the Umwelt.


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