Tag Archives: Idealism

Quote for the Day – Theology and Idealism as Rhetorical Devices in Academic Philosophy

In old times, whenever a philosopher was assailed for some particularly tough absurdity in his system, he was wont to parry the attack by the argument from the divine omnipotence. ‘Do you mean to limit God’s power?’ he would reply: ‘do you mean to say that God could not, if he would, do this or that?’ This retort was supposed to close the mouths of all objectors of properly decorous mind. The functions of the bradleian absolute are in this particular identical with those of the theistic God. Suppositions treated as too absurd to pass muster in the finite world which we inhabit, the absolute must be able to make good ‘somehow’ in his ineffable way. First we hear Mr. Bradley convicting things of absurdity; next, calling on the absolute to vouch for them quand même. Invoked for no other duty, that duty it must and shall perform.

~William James, The Pluralistic Universe

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Preview of Master's Thesis: A Defense of Heidegger's Internal Consistency

I thought people might be interested in where my Master’s Thesis is going. It’s a defense of Heidegger’s metaphysical consistency (against the claims that he was incoherently anthropomorphic or subjectivist). But as far as I am aware, my interpretation is unique in the literature. I have seen nothing like it, although Dreyfus,  Carman, Sheehan, and Wheeler all anticipate me on several points. But I aim to offer something new to the Heidegger community. As I put it in the introduction, “While Carman, Dreyfus, and others implicitly develop the metaphysical resources for establishing an ecological realism within Heidegger’s thought, all commentators on his phenomenological-ontology (to my knowledge) ultimately fail to adequately address the theoretical plausibility of how exactly a phenomenon “shows-itself” in the first place, thus making Heidegger’s account of encountering entities philosophically intelligible as an answer to the classic questions of realism and idealism.”

This excerpt comes from the end of chapter 2, “Being as meaning”.


With being understood as meaning and ontic being distinguished from ontological being, we can now defend Heidegger’s internal consistency. In order to do so, we must reconcile entity realism with being idealism. Entity realism (what Taylor Carman calls “ontic realism”) is simply the common sense notion that the Earth exists regardless of whether agents are around to perceive it. As it were, the Earth does not disappear when we turn our back on it. On the other hand, being idealism is the notion that, in some sense, the being of entities is dependent on or “relative to” perceivers. In order to reconcile these two theses, we must come to terms with the puzzle passages highlighted in chapter one.

Heidegger’s entity realism is evident when he says that “Entities are independently of the experience, cognition, and comprehension through which they are disclosed, discovered, and determined” (SZ 183). In contrast, his being idealism is evident when he says that “only as long as Dasein is (that is, as long as there is the ontic possibility of an understanding of being), ‘is there’ being” (SZ 212). While some scholars have attempted to reconcile these two passages in terms of a sophisticated distinction between different levels of analysis, my approach is much simpler. I contend that the most parsimonious way to reconcile the passages is to realize that for Heidegger, the ontological “being” of entities is synonymous with their meaning in relation to teleological interests. We can thus propose that there are two different senses of being in Heidegger’s ontology, the ontic and the ontological. Ontological being is synonymous with perceiver-dependence whereas ontic being is synonymous with perceiver-independence. This is nothing less than the famous “ontological difference” between being and beings. Accordingly, we can then read the puzzle passages as follows:

Only as long as Dasein is…‘is there’ meaning.

Meaning is that which determines entities as entities, that on the basis of which entities are already understood.

“There is” meaning – not entities – only insofar as truth is. And truth is only because and as long as Dasein is.

It is my contention that this interpretation of being as meaning absolves the contradiction between entity realism and being idealism. Under this framework, we can say that entities exist independently of us but their being (i.e. their meaning or significance) is dependent on how we take them to be. As Sheehan puts it, “Whereas entities may exist apart from whether or not human beings exist, being as the meaningful givenness of entities never “is” apart from human experience” (Sheehan, philosophy of mind, p. 289).

Take, for example, Mount Rushmore. Clearly, there is a sense in which the cliff face is constituted by perceiver-independence insofar as the material rock from which it is carved existed before perceivers came about and would continue to exist if all life vanished. It is in this sense that we can say Mount Rushmore is ontically real or actual. However, there is sense in which Mount Rushmore exists only insofar as there are humans around to encounter it as a monument. The mountain thus lives a double life when perceivers are around. On the one hand, its reality as a contingent entity is determined by material forces which operate independently of perceivers. On the other hand, its reality as a monument is dependent on those entities who disclose Mount Rushmore as Mount Rushmore. A bird living on the cliff face, for example, will not take the mountain as a monument, but rather, as a place of shelter or sustenance. It is only in this sense that we can say the mountain’s being is relative to the teleological interests of cognitive agents.

Accordingly, the meaning of the puzzle passages is now clear. Entities are independently of disclosure insofar as they exist as natural entities but their being “is” only insofar as there is an understanding of being, that is, only insofar as entities are taken to be meaningful in relation to prior teleological interests. The ontology of being, of meaning, is thus equivalent to the affordance ontology of ecological psychology. The ground will afford support whether any animal is around to walk on it, but the perception of the affordance is relative to the perceiver. In this way, we can say that the perception of affordances (the disclosure of meaning, of being) is both subjective and objective, but neither taken in isolation. Objective, because what the environment affords is related to what it actually is. Subjective, because an organisms history of structural coupling determines the perception of what the environment affords. Accordingly,

The meaning or value of a thing consists of what it affords. Note the implications of this proposed definition. What a thing affords to a particular observer (or species of observer) points to the organism, the subject. The shape and size and composition and rigidity of a thing, however, point to its physical existence, the object. But these determine what it affords the observer. The affordance points both ways. 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. (Gibson, notes on affordances, 407-408)

Moreover, it is important to note that this circumspective or hermeneutic understanding of being is operational prior to any explicit linguistic cognition. In other words, the primordial meaning or significance of entities is determined not by our language or theoretical concepts, but rather, in their immediate intelligibility relative to the teleology of circumspective concern. This point is eloquently expressed in ¶32 of Being and Time:

Any mere prepredicative seeing of the ready-to-hand is, in itself, something which already understands and interprets…that which is understood gets articulated when the entity to be understood is brought close interpretatively by taking as our clue the ‘something as something’; and this articulation lies before our making any thematic assertion about it. (SZ 149, emphasis added)

This point is important. If we do not understand the prelinguistic intelligibility of entities relative to the care-structure of affectivity (Befindlichkeit), we will not understand how linguistic cognition takes up and modulates this more primordial, prereflective understanding of being through the power of labeling and pointing (chapter 4). Heidegger’s point is simply that insofar as we are embodied individuals, our primordial relationship to the natural Earth is always already shaped by our history of structural coupling. It is this ontogenetic history which co-constitutes my encounter with Earthly entities.

For example, every time I enter my room and encounter a chair, I immediately understand that the chair affords the possibility of sitting. This is in fact my immediate and prereflective understanding of the chair. In Heidegger’s terms, my history of using chairs as something to sit on has now created a foreconception that shapes my everyday experience such that my encounter with chairs is proximally grounded by the affordance of sitting. This foreconception or “foresight” is generated by learning the affordances of the environment, an act of perceptual learning. It requires an act of theoretical cognition to “deworld” or “defamiliarize” the chair such that I see it as something besides a tool for use. Indeed, Heidegger says that “In every case interpretation is grounded in something we see in advance – in a foresight” (SZ 150). This foresight is what ecological psychologists have called “prospectivity” (Gibson & Pick, 2000, p. 164). If we carefully reflect upon our everyday experience, we can see the influence of historicity (our “having been”) and foresight upon our immediate encounter with entities. As we go about our business, the world is made significant in relation to our prior interests, expectations, and beliefs. And moreover, what we are interested in is always shaped by our internal structural history and what is currently ready-to-hand in the Umwelt. For this reason, Heidegger is right to emphasize that perception is better understood in terms of a meaningful encounter with the Earth that brings forth an ecological world rather than in terms of constructing representational models of the Earth which are then analyzed according to truth conditions. Accordingly, we can say that, strictly speaking, “the perceiver does not contribute anything to the act of perception, he simply performs the act” (Gibson, reasons for realism, p. 89).

According to my reading then, Heidegger’s ontology is internally coherent insofar as it combines entity realism and being idealism without collapsing into Cartesian subjectivism. Because we can account for how the being (i.e. meaning) of entities is relative to organisms without supposing that the perceiver synthetically contributes anything to what is perceived, I contend that Heideggerian ontology avoids the charge of strong correlationism.


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James on the Noumenal, a Reply to "Anti-Correlationists"

I have, indeed, said that “to be radical, an empiricism must [not] admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced.” But in my own radical empiricism this is only a methodological postulate, not a conclusion supposed to flow from the intrinsic absurdity of transempirical objects. I have never felt the slightest repsect for the idealistic arguments which Mr. Pitkin attacks and of which Ferrier made such striking use; and I am perfectly willing to admit any number of noumenal beings or events into philosophy if only their pragmatic value can be shown.

-William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 123

So called anti-correlationists would point to the last sentence and say “See! Reality is correlated with the pragmatic value of humans, therefore James was an idealist!” This response, of course, relies on a mistakenly shallow understanding of pragmatic value. When anti-correlationists think of pragmatism and “practical consequences”, they imagine using a fork to eat, or a lawnmower to mow lawns i.e. useful instruments. To say then that noumenal beings are only allowed in ontology when they have “pragmatic value” is taken to mean that entities only exist if they serve some useful purpose relative to human needs. But this is a mistake! In order to understand James, one must have an expanded notion of “pragmatic” that goes beyond mere instrumental usefulness. Imagine if the noumenal realm was so noumenal that Kant never even bothered to think about it, let alone write about it. Reflection on this indicates that the noumenal realm, whatever that turns out to be, must be cashed out in terms of its effects on us (what it causes us to do, even if that just means writing philosophically about it), otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it or understand it. Notice how this is a purely methodological doctrine, similar to phenomenology. We need not directly experience these noumenal beings with our five senses, but they must factor into our cognitive economy somehow if they are to be discussed ontologically. Similar to the Kant example, if we postulate the existence of neutrinos that we cannot directly experience with our senses, the scientific discourse itself constitutes the “pragmatic value” of the neutrinos rather than any possible instrumental use we could find for the neutrinos. Thus, by understanding the broad scope of pragmatic value, which goes beyond mere instrumentality,  we can see how radical empiricism escapes from the “correlationist fallacy” often levied against James.

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Berkeley, Idealism, and Heidegger

In his Principles of Human Knowledge and Three Dialogues, Bishop Berkely famously argued that matter did not exist. Only ideas in the mind. Idealism was born. What was he arguing against? He was primarily arguing against the representationalist dualism of Descartes and Locke, that claimed that the mind consists of representations of the external world. He thought that such a representationalist paradigm leads to skepticism because it is possible that our representations don’t correspond to any reality. Berkeley had several arguments against this representationalist philosophy, but what is more interesting is his argument against those who deny the premises of representationalism. To this, Berkeley offered what is sometimes called the “master argument”:

… I am content to put the whole upon this issue; if you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable substance, or in general, for any one idea or any thing like an idea, to exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the cause…. But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and no body by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you your self perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose: it only shows you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the objects of your thought may exist without the mind: to make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy. When we do our utmost to conceive the existence of external bodies, we are all the while only contemplating our own ideas. But the mind taking no notice of itself, is deluded to think it can and doth conceive bodies existing unthought of or without the mind; though at the same time they are apprehended by or exist in it self.

So, while this argument was designed to work if you are a direct realist, what happens when you deny the framework of direct/indirect realism? I can’t help but view this argument through a Heideggarian lens and wonder what Philonous would say to someone who denied the subject/object distinction and thus the perceiving ego altogether. I think Heidegger would have denied the premises upon which Berkeley’s argument stood. If you deny that humans have subjective minds that perceive the world, then it doesn’t matter whether the “world” perceived is immaterial or not. Heidegger would still go with the parsimonious, scientific materialism but what matters is that the world of humans is imbued with significance through the pragmatic interactions of everyday life. The subjective mental realm that Berkeley works with is primarily a metaphorical holdover from the popular philosophy of the times. Berkeley couldn’t help but frame his philosophy in terms of a mental subject interacting with the world, either material or immaterial. However, thanks to 20th century thinkers like Heidegger giving us a new vocabulary to work with, the philosophical problems of the 17th century seem antiquated in the same way that ptolemaic astronomy is outdated to modern astronomers.

So, it isn’t that Berekey’s argument are wrong per se, it is just that the philosophical framework that they rest upon has been cast aside in favor of new metaphors and vocabularies.

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