Master's thesis online: Ecological Realism and the Tension of Realism and Idealism in Heidegger's Thought

My Master’s thesis is finally completed, approved, and uploaded publicly on LSU servers for all to see.

LINK: Ecological Realism and the Tension of Realism and Idealism in Heidegger’s Thought

Here’s the introduction:


I think many would agree that Martin Heidegger’s position in respect to the traditional questions of realism and idealism is murky, to say the least. This is due to how his oeuvre seems to oscillate between an idealism with respect to being and a realism with respect to entities. On the one hand, Heidegger sometimes claims that the being of entities cannot be analyzed independently of human experience, and is thus ideal; on the other hand, he clearly states in several places, and strongly implies elsewhere, that entities do not depend on us for their brute, material existence, and are thus real. How then do  we reconcile the ideality of the  being of entities and the reality of their status as entities independent of our experience and opinions? Commentators on Heidegger’s ontology are divided as to whether this strange tension between realism and idealism can be made consistent without collapsing into an untenable subjectivism wherein reality and experience cannot be disentangled in a meaningful way. The collapse to subjectivism would make Heidegger’s ontological views no better than the methodological individualism he attempted to critique. The looming threat of subjectivist idealism (and thus human chauvinism) is especially leveled against Heidegger’s early, “phenomenological” work e.g. Being and Time.[1] Indeed, many scholars claim that Heidegger never succeeds in overcoming this idealist subjectivism until after the so-called “Turn” in his thinking in the 1930s.[2] Moreover, many interpreters of early Heidegger have argued that this tension between realism and idealism simply ends in “aporia” and cannot be coherently resolved (Braver, 2007; Lafont, 2007; Okrent, 1988; Vallicella, 1983, 1985). Such philosophers argue that early Heidegger was embroiled within a logical contradiction when he claimed that being is interdependent with human disclosure (being idealism) but entities can exist  independently of our disclosure or opinion (entity realism). Others attempt to resolve the tension by distinguishing between what can or cannot be said within different levels of analysis (Blattner, 2004; Philipse, 2007).[3] In contrast to these subjectivist readings that end in contradiction, some scholars attempt to resolve the tension by arguing that Being and Time must be understood in terms of an “ontic” or “robust” realism (Carman, 2003; Dreyfus, 2001) which maintains that material entities such as stars and rocks do not depend on us for their brute, physical existence.

The central contention of my thesis is that this tension between being idealism and entity realism can be adequately resolved without philosophical compromise in terms of what I call “ecological realism”. Crucially, ecological realism will be distinguished (chapter 3) from the “classic” or “philosophical” realisms that Heidegger distanced himself from in virtue of their focus on either Kant’s Critical arguments or the various “proofs” of the external world starting from the assumption of sense-data and a spectatorial consciousness.  It is important to note that my use of Heideggerian ontology to address the problem of realism and idealism would probably not be recognizable to Heidegger himself or the German phenomenological tradition. My appropriation of Heidegger’s tension between being idealism and entity realism to tackle the problem of realism and idealism in general stems from my appreciation for how he rejects the assumptions and dogmas of the Western philosophical tradition, particularly in respect to the nature of human experience. Taking my lead from his insights, I argue that we need not abandon the basic thesis of realism in order to account for the insights of idealism. Although I cannot claim to stick within the methodological constraints of phenomenology in the technical sense of how Husserl and Heidegger did philosophy, my development of ecological realism as a solution of the problem of realism and idealism stems directly out of my reflection on Heidegger’s works. Moreover, I believe ecological realism is a plausible interpretation of some of his key ideas,  just not one he would have likely endorsed given its scientific, biological context. And although the topic of my thesis (realism and idealism) is one that only rarely animated Heidegger’s philosophy, I do think that the issues and problems discussed herein are nevertheless relevant to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of Dasein’s relation to the world.

Rather than claim that Heidegger would adopt this label of ecological realism for himself, I will be making the weaker claim that Heidegger can be coherently thought of as an ecological realist, but that the position itself, being a metaphysical and theoretical stance, is not derived from the phenomenological method as Heidegger practiced it. Ecological realism is better understood as a theoretical toolbox developed to solve certain conceptual problems rather than a direct product of the phenomenological method. However, I will still follow Taylor Carman (2003) in arguing that Heidegger can be plausibly understood as adopting an  ontic realismwherein occurrent entities are theoretically understood to exist independently of our interpretation and disclosure of them  as occurrent entities. I argue that the theoretical commitment to ontic realism and rejection of indirect perception and phenomenalism entails a direct realist theory of intentionality in regards  to understanding how humans and animals encounter reality. I contend that this framework of ontic realism coupled with direct realism can resolve the tension between realism and idealism. Moreover, I will argue that while Carman, Dreyfus,  and others implicitly develop the conceptual resources for solving the tension between being idealism and entity realism, they ultimately fail to adequately address the theoretical plausibility of how exactly a phenomenon “shows-itself” in the first place, thus making the  idea of  encountering the environment 4 philosophically intelligible as an answer to the tension between being idealism and entity realism. By addressing James J. Gibson’s theory of  ecological optics and contemporary developments in 4EA philosophy of mind (embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, affective), I hope to provide the conceptual foundations for making sense of how an entity could “show itself from itself” such that a direct encounter with entities is plausible as an alternative to Platonism, Cartesianism, British empiricism, and contemporary approaches inspired by cognitivism.

In Chapter 1, I introduce the reader to the question of the meaning of being in terms of Heidegger’s tension between being idealism and entity realism. This chapter sets up the textual tension between being idealism and entity realism in  Being and Time and foreshadows my solution for deflating the tension put forward in the remaining chapters. In Chapter 2, I argue for a particular solution for deflating the tension between being idealism and entity realism. By introducing the concept of sense-making, I deflate the tension between being idealism and entity realism and provide a coherent method of answering the question of the meaning of the being of entities. In Chapter 3, I provide a short history of realism, further define my terminology, and defend ecological realism in terms of an “affordance ontology”. In this chapter, I also address the question of intentionality (our directedness towards entities) and defend a theory of truth against possible objections (e.g. that ecological realism collapses to a pragmatic relativism where “anything goes”). In Chapter 4, I address the question of language in Heidegger’s thought in terms of various puzzles about animal consciousness. Understanding Heidegger’s theory of language as well as his thoughts on animal consciousness is critical for understanding how ecological realism also assimilates the best insights of idealism, subjectivism, and socialconstructivism. In the final chapter, I provide a summary of the overall argument and my concluding thoughts on the problem of realism.


1. One can often distinguish Anglo-American and Continental philosophers on the basis of whether this subjectivism is understood pejoratively or not, with the Anglo-Americans more comfortable with talk of realism and Continentals more comfortable with talk of idealism. There are of course exceptions to these social observations, but in general I think they are true

2.This is the most common interpretation of the “Turn” that I have seen in the literature. I think the most significant opinion to the contrary has been produced by Thomas Sheehan (2001, personal communication). 2

3. William Blattner is well-known for trying to resolve the tension between entity realism and being idealism by distinguishing between an empirical and a transcendental level of questioning. He argues that on the empirical level it makes sense to claim that the planet Earth will still exist when humans die out but on the transcendental level we cannot discuss entities apart from the transcendental conditions and in this sense, the being of entities is ideal (hence, being idealism). But whereas Blattner reads the transcendental level in terms of idealism, Herman Philipse reads it in terms of realism. This is supposed to resolve the problems of establishing the legitimacy of a transcendental level of questioning in the first place. My problem with these interpretations is that they are needlessly complicated. On my reading, we can resolve the tension without making such distinctions or worrying about the legitimacy of our level of analysis. 3



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4 responses to “Master's thesis online: Ecological Realism and the Tension of Realism and Idealism in Heidegger's Thought

  1. Sarah

    Great job Gary! Very, very proud of you!

  2. Sounds interesting!

    I actually have a draft paper of Gibson’s (I don’t believe I have seen any part of it in print) in which he argues that realism and idealism converge. Basically, he argues they are two different directions of the the same argument.

    I don’t know much about Heidegger though, so I can’t say if it is relevant.

  3. Lee Braver

    Hi Gary–congratulations! What are you plans now?

    Forgive the narcissism, but I don’t quite agree with your portrayal of my position. Rather than saying that _Being and Time’s_ “tension between realism and idealism simply ends in “aporia” and cannot be coherently resolved,” I argue that the common interpretation of BT as holding to an ontic realism & ontological idealism is incoherent, which is one reason why I don’t attribute it to BT. In other words, this problem is a sign of a faulty reading of BT rather than of an unresolvable problem in BT itself. A perfectly reasonable interpretation of BT’s idealism can be had, as I try to show.

    Not at all important as regards your thesis, but if you go on to publish versions of it (which you should), please do change that.

    Again, the most important point is getting the damn thing done–congratulations!

  4. Marry

    Hello Gary,
    a brillant introduction – thanks for sharing at least this part. I’d love to read your complete paper and so I had to stop to drop you this message – as I think it’s a shame not let you know, that I’d really recommend you to publish this piece of work. Why don’t you have a look here at where you may do so – a friend of mine did it with his master thesisi and is (from what I know) extremely happy with it. Hope to read more soon. Sincerely, Marry

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