Tag Archives: realism

Mini-Book Review: Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?

I like to think of Ian Hacking as the “Oliver Sacks” of phil. science. Hacking – never a bore – makes reading and thinking about the history of science positively fun (and controversial!). Hacking’s writing is usually stocked with interesting facts, details, and stories. The Social Construction of What? is no exception. In this short collection of essays, Hacking dives into the Science Wars , sometimes called the “Culture Wars”, using a different “case study” per chapter. If you finish the book, you will have a better appreciation for  the myriad complexities in making sense of what people mean when they say “X is socially constructed” (the range and diversity of entities/predicates claimed to be constructed is phenomenal). Ambiguity is King in the Science Wars, but Hacking extracts the signal from the noise and states the relevant interpretations in an amicably clear fashion. Hacking makes a compelling case that these Wars represent “sticking points” of differing philosophical temperaments with a long and distinguished history e.g. the ancient debate between what Hacking calls nominalism and inherent-structuralism.

Hacking’s contributions to these debates involves clearing up a mess of conceptual confusions about what the debate amounts to, what the relevant terms mean and don’t mean, and how to resolve (or dissolve) the tension. Hacking seems to think that the term “social construction” is practically useless given the inevitable ambiguities and myriad meanings associated with the term. Ever ecumenical, Hacking nevertheless argues that both the realists and constructionists have a point worth making, and diagnoses the debates partially as a result of each side talking past each other with an ample dose of pamphleteering on both sides. Once a scientific question is well-posed, realists are right to insist there are determinate answers independent of what anyone thinks. But constructionists are right to point out that contingent personal, social, and cultural factors influence what questions are asked, as well as the standards and methods used to evaluate the answers to the questions. Thus, Hacking concludes that although the “content” of science is realist enough to warrant the term, the “form” of science is not.5/5 stars.

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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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Defending Heidegger (Again)

Graham Harman, in response to some recent communication and thinking about Heidegger’s relationship to Berkeley, has this to say:

There is obviously something psychologically special about humans in comparison with rocks and perhaps even flowers. No argument from me there. All sorts of fascinating human complexity is not to be found anywhere else. But it does not follow that human psychological peculiarity needs to be built into ontology as a full half of the cosmos.

Here’s a very nice passage from Dominic, which gets to the heart of the dispute I’ve had with a number of Heideggerians in this space over the past year, including both Minds and Brains and Chris Ruth. Only a few days ago did I realize the nature of the mutual misunderstanding, but Dominic gets it right:

“In other words, the question is not so much ‘does the hammer exist when I’m not using it’ (Heidegger would readily affirm that it does) as ‘does the hammer have a relationship to the nail, apart from my intention to use the one to strike the other’?”

Yes, that’s it. In recent days I realized (but perhaps I realized it before, and then forgot) that a number of my Heideggerian critics interpreted me as saying that Heidegger is Berkeley. In other words, when I say that there is nothing in Heidegger about the interaction between two entities when Dasein is not watching, they think I’m claiming that Heidegger is a sort of solipsistic idealist.

Well, he may actually be a bit closer to that than Heideggerians think. But that’s not the heart of my claim, and Dominic does get the heart of my claim: it’s about whether the Dasein/world relation is privileged over the world/world relation. In reviewing Lee Braver’s book in Philosophy Today, it’s what I called the “A7″ thesis (added on to Braver’s other 6 excellently useful anti-realist theses). A7 = “The human-world relation is the center of philosophy, having privileged status over all other relations.” And that’s really the essence of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. It doesn’t matter how much a Kantian insists that things-in-themselves really exist (and not all Kantians are that adamant). What matters is whether philosophy is allowed to treat sun/Mars and raindrop/ocean in the same way as human/tree.

I think Harman and Dominic have nicely clarified a pressing question: does Heidegger’s philosophy allow him to admit that humans interact with the Earth in the same ontological manner as a hammer falling to the ground during an earthquake does? Clearly not, based on standard readings of Heidegger’s ontology. But on my reading, this is indeed allowed but rarely mentioned; why not? Because it’s just common sense, encapsulated by the “natural attitude”, our basic way of understanding the world we live in. Normal people don’t doubt that raindrops over the ocean are having real interactions with each other; they just never bother to question it because it is so firmly rooted in how we understand reality. Indeed, the independence of object-object relations is something we learn in infancy and never forget.

Moreover, Heidegger says in the History of the Concept of Time that Dasein is corporeal. This is common sense. Everyone knows that they have a body and this body is made of “material stuff”. Clearly, the natural attitude understands that corporeal stuff interacts with the ground in the same way that raindrops interact with the ground. On a crude level of analysis then, most people understand that human bodies and the world are on the same ontological plain when it comes to what Harman and friends call “translation”, otherwise known as “bumping into” or “interacting with”. Heidegger doesn’t deny any of this. Indeed, Husserl insisted that the phenomenological reduction doesn’t deny the natural attitude but only temporarily suspends it for investigative purposes. Heidegger rarely comes right out and confirms the natural attitude, but he always implies its truth and never denies it. Why the hangup though? Because Heidegger wasn’t interested in the natural attitude or object-oriented science. In the same way that linguists aren’t interested in anything but language, Heidegger was only interested in the unique properties of the animal-world relationship, more specifically, the human animal-world relationship.

Heidegger was fascinated by animal-world relationship because of several unique properties, including affectivity (finding-oneself) and intentionality (directedness towards). Indeed, he says in the History of the Concept of Time that

A stone never finds itself but is simply present-at-hand. A very primitive unicellular form of life, on the contrary, will already find itself, where this affectivity can be the greatest and darkest dullness, but for all that it is in its structure of being essentially distinct from merely being present-at-hand like a thing.

What Heidegger is talking about here is the self-organizational property of living bodies, that peculiar way of bootstrapping oneself across time into a highly effective dynamic core of homeostatic directedness. As Maturana and Varela put it in The Tree of Knowledge,

What is distinctive about [organisms]…is that their organization is such that their only product is themselves, with no separation between producer and product. The being and doing of an autopoieic unity are inseparable, and this is their specific mode of organization.

So while the cellular organism is made of out the same physical “stuff” as inanimate objects, and thus “translates” in the same way on a fundamental level, the structural/functional properties of self-organization guarantee a unique “biological” phenomenology that is worlds apart from “stone phenomenology”. Furthermore, the addition of language, culture, and technology gives humans a “cultural” or “hermeneutic” phenomenology above and beyond the biological phenomenology that we share with our animal cousins. This is why Heidegger insists that language is the house of being, which constructs our unique “understanding of being” and gives rise to our capacity for ontological inquiry. Indeed, he says

Genuinely and initially, it is the essence of language to first elevate beings into the open as beings. Where there is no language — as with stones, plants, and animals — there is also no openness of beings and thus also no openness of non-beings, un-beings, or emptiness. By first naming objects, language brings beings to word and to appearance.

So it seems like Heidegger comes away unscathed from pejorative accusations of “correlationism”. He was fully capable of talking about the nail interacting with the hammer in the same way as our bodies interact with the hammer, but that just didn’t interest him. He was a phenomenologist after all, and remained one throughout his entire career.


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Speculative Realism: A False "Revolution"?

Graham Harman recently linked to a “conversion post” by Crispin Sartwell that gushes over the “new realist” or “speculative realist” movement, a supposedly “revolutionary development”. Sartwell is apparently excited by speculative realism because “all of these people in some form or another seem actually to believe that there is a world of objects etc out there outside of human consciousness, and that we didn’t make this all up in a narrative, or construct it socially, or impose on it space and times as forms of perception etc: they are finally turning away from the kantian nightmare.”

This narrative of “finally” moving beyond the “Kantian nightmare” is tired and overplayed. Just once I wish people who  are bowled over by the “revolutionary character” of SR would point to a major 20th century philosopher who actually denies that the Earth, moon, and stars exists independently of human perception. They certainly can’t point to Heidegger as a culprit of “strong correlationism. As I have been at pains to argue, early and late Heidegger would both agree that the “earth is real and exists independently of human access with a determinate spatiotemporal existence”. Accordingly, we see a sharp break with Kantian thought as early as the 1920s with Being and Time. Earlier still, William James and American pragmatism had long since broken with the “Kantian nightmare”. So had Husserl. So had Merleau-Ponty, James Gibson, and the whole tradition of ecological philosophy that started in the 70s and transformed into the current anti-Kantian and anti-representationalist tradition of 4EA philosophy.

Indeed, the whole attempt to make Heidegger a scapegoat for “strong correlationism” in order to tell an intellectual narrative about the “revolutionary” character of speculative realism is based on one-sided readings of Heideggerian phenomenology and simple ignorance concerning ecological philosophy as an intellectual movement stemming from phenomenology and pragmatism. Saying that the “world is real” is nothing new. In fact, it’s just common sense. That SRists attempt to launch a “philosophical revolution” in terms of “anti-correlationism” without ever decisively showing who these “strong correlationists” are bespeaks of hastiness and immaturity as a philosophical movement. Revolutions aren’t started by attacking strawmen. Point me to some “strong correlationist” passages in Heidegger and I will accept the “revolution” of speculative realism. Until then, I will be content to watch SR develop a false sense of accomplishment as it proclaims itself as the “new realism”.


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Ecological Realism in the History of the Concept of Time

Heidegger’s 1925 lecture course published as the Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time is widely considered to be the prequel to Being and Time. Since I consider BT to be a realist work in philosophy, it should not be surprising to find quotations in HCT that support what I call ecological realism. Ecological realism is to be decisively distinguished from philosophical realism. Both realisms agree, doxographically, that the natural world (what Heidegger later calls the Earth) would still exist if humans were wiped off the planet (Of course, this is just common sense, but many commentators seem content to ascribe to Heidegger the nonsensical position of anti-realism in respect to the ontic dependence of the Earth on human disclosure).But ecological realism differs from philosophical realism insofar as the latter accepts the “mind independence” of the Earth but arrives at this position from the starting point of a mind essentially cut-off from the Earth by means of the sense-data “veil”. According to philosophical realism, the only things we know directly are the sense-receptors at the edge of our bodies i.e. what’s called the proximal stimulus. Because they claim we are only in an epistemic relationship with the proximal stimulus, we must therefor “deduce” or “infer” that the distal stimulus exists. And moreover, because of the possibility of hallucination and illusion, we can never be certain that the proximal stimulus veridically corresponds to the distal stimulus. We are thus unable to adequately rebuff the radical skeptic of knowledge.

Ecological realism is different because it assumes that we have a direct epistemic relationship with the Earth by means of our intentional directedness towards the Earth. For ecological realists, the distinction between proximal and distal stimuli is a nonstarter in terms of epistemology. Indeed, Heidegger says in HCT:

When I perceive the chair and say, “The chair has four legs,” the sense of this knowledge according to Rickert is the acknowledging of a value. [However], even with the best of intentions one cannot find anything like this in the structure of this perceptual assertion. For I am not directed toward representations and less still toward value but instead toward the chair which is in fact given. (33)


[Rickert] is prevented from seeing the primary cognitive character of representation because he presupposes a mythical concept of representing from the philosophy of natural science and so comes to the formulation that in representing the representations get represented. But in the case of a representation on the level of simple perception a representation is not represented; I simply see the chair. This is implied in the very sense of representing. When I look, I am not intent upon seeing a representation of something, but the chair. (35)

For ecological realism then, the sense-data hypothesis is mistaken insofar as it begins with the assumption that representations get represented “in the mind”. For Heidegger, we need not make this assumption and indeed, we shouldn’t make it if we are to make sense of the phenomena of perceiving. One might reply by saying that Heidegger is merely assuming what he wants to assume in order to counter the neo-Kantians but why is he justified in assuming that intentionality is directed toward the environment and not toward the proximal stimulus? For one, the Heideggerian position is more parsimonious on the evolutionary and developmental stage because it allows for the possibility of coping behavior without the need for positing an internal consciousness “synthesizing” the proximal data into a percept of the distal stimuli, a processing heavy and thus energy-consuming process. If we look at the earliest progenitors of perceptual systems in unicellular bodies, we can see that the chemical receptors are directly connected with locomotion. The bacterium’s detection of instrumentally relevant chemicals sets off a causal cascade that eventually results in the spinning of the flagellum. In these bodies, there is no possibility of radical skepticism. The epistemic situation is akin to a gear that connects a car’s engine to the tires. Any possibility of perceptual mistake is thus physiological in character rather than epistemological. If we scale these systems up to humans, the same principle applies. We need not assume that the possibility of perceptual breakdown implies the possibility of radical skepticism. Understood from the ecological point of view, perception evolved so as to put us in intimate contact with the Earth. Ecological realism is also committed to the possibility of molar stimuli.

Moreover, in regards to the problem of other minds, philosophical realism assumes

that a subject is encapsulated within itself and now has the task of emphasizing with another subject. This way of formulating the question is absurd, since there never is such a subject in the sense it is assumed here. If the constitution of what is Dasein is instead regarded without presuppositions as in-being and being-with in the presuppositionless immediacy of everydayness, it then becomes clear that the problem of empathy is just as absurd as the question of the reality of the external world. (243)

By exposing the way in which philosophical realism depends on certain unnecessary assumptions about the nature of intentional perceptual systems, we can pave the way for ecological realism as both a metaphysical and epistemological doctrine. Metaphysical, because ecological realism accords with our common sense intuition that the Earth existed before humans and will continue to exist after humans are gone. Epistemological, because it offers a theory of knowledge in terms of opportunities of meaningful behavior.

‘[O]riginally and to begin with,’ one does not really hear noises and sonorous complexes but the creaking wagon, the ‘electric’ streetcar, the motorcycle, the column on the march, the north wind. To ‘hear’ something like a ‘pure noise’ already requires a very artificial and complicated attitude. (266)

This is of course an explication of our being-in-a-world with world understood in terms of significance and meaning. The world is directly meaningful because our affective care-structure compels us towards goals in a teleological fashion. This is of course much more parsimonious with evolutionary theory than any sense-data theory. There is much more to say on this issue, but I will leave the details for another post (and for my master’s thesis!). Also, In Jon Cogburn’s upcoming Fall graduate seminar, we will be exploring this issue of teleosemantics and animal cognition in great detail, so expect a flurry of posts related to these issues in the Fall. I can’t wait!

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On the Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit "Reversal"

I often hear people say that Heidegger’s big accomplishment in Being and Time was the “reversal” of presence-at-hand and readiness-to-hand.  These people will of course tell the standard story of how Heidegger was dissatisfied with traditional philosophy making vorhandenheit dominant in  Western thought. Being dissatisfied, they say Heidegger then “reversed” vorhandenheit with zuhandenheit, and made readiness-to-hand dominant in ontology. That is, Heidegger hated how objects and objectivity had played such a dominant role in philosophy and created all these problems so he replaced it with Dasein i.e. readiness-to-hand. These two ontological modes play off each other. Traditionally, zuhandenheit was derivative of vorhandenheit but it is said that Heidegger “reversed” this relation, claiming instead that vorhandenheit was derivative from zuhandenheit.

According to this line of thought, Heidegger’s ontology consists of a dualism between vorhandenheit and zuhandenheit. Being a dualism, this will obviously get Heidegger into a lot of trouble, especially with the so-called “anti-correlationists”. The anti-correlationists claim that because of Heidegger’s reversal, he is stuck with anthropomorphism because he claims that vorhandenheit (objectivity) is derivative from zuhandenheit (subjectivity).

I want to challenge this dualism. A careful reading of Being and Time reveals that there is actually a tripartite ontology in Heidegger’s phenomenology: zuhandenheit, vorhandenheit, and the real. This is evidenced in the following passage:

The ‘Nature’ by which we are ‘surrounded’ is, of course, an entity within-the-world; but the kind of being which it shows belongs neither to the ready-to-hand nor to what is present-at-hand as ‘Things of Nature’. (SZ 211)

Passages like these clearly call for a rejection of the simple dualism between readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. There is a third element in play: the Real, the environs, the Earth, etc. These terms are all synonymous with Heidegger’s first definition of world as “the totality of entities present at hand”. Thus, we need to distinguish between two different forms of vorhandenheit. There is the vorhandenheit which shows up within-the-world which is derivative from zuhandenheit. This is a phenomenological conception of presence-at-hand. It describes how the world shows up as objective when our familiarity breaks down. But then there is the ontic and naturalistic conception of presence-at-hand which is independent of human concerns. This is a metaphysical notion of vorhandenheit. Heidegger cashes it out in terms of the “Real”.

“As we have noted, being (not entities) is dependent upon the understanding of being, that is to say, Reality (not the Real) is dependent upon care” (SZ 212)

“But the fact that [phenomenological] Reality is ontologically grounded in the being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is” (SZ 212)

This means that there is an underlying naturalistic metaphysics in Being and Time (*gasp*). This metaphysics isn’t made very explicit, but it is there. For example, he says:

Thus Dasein’s Being becomes ontologically transparent in a comprehensive way only within the horizon in which the being of entities other than Dasein — and this means even of those which are neither ready-to-hand nor present-at-hand but just ‘subsist’ — has been clarified. (SZ 333)

Only in so far as something resistant has been discovered on the basis of the ecstatical temporality of concern, can factical Dasein understand itself in its abandonment to a [totality of entities] of which it never becomes master. (SZ 356)

Clearly, Heidegger wants to separate the Earth as it exists naturally and the Earth as it exists within-the-world of human experience. Heidegger recognizes that if humans vanished from the planet the planet would still exist, without Dasein. Indeed, he says that “The present-at-hand, as Dasein encounters it, can, as it were, assault Dasein’s Being; natural events, for instance, can break in upon us and destroy us” (SZ 152).

Accordingly, I have never understood the claim that because Heidegger “destroyed” Western metaphysics he didn’t have his own metaphysics. I find this claim to be absurd, not only philosophically, but textually as well. A close reading of Heidegger reveals that even within the densest descriptions of worldhood there are oftens cracks of Earth poking through, “rupturing” the world structure. In fact, I think this is what Heidegger is describing when he talks about the breakdown structure of both circumspective concern and anxiety before the “nothingness”. The nothing is literally the no-thing, the Real which has not yet been “worlded” and object-ified in terms of human concern. The no-thing is not itself nothing. It is something. It is the all-present, all-surrounding natural environs which grounds our dwelling. We can thus see a metaphysical continuity running from early Heidegger to late Heidegger.


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Heidegger's Realism in Being and Time

This is a paper I wrote this semester for Greg Schufreider’s class on Being and Time. It’s basically a condensed version of my master’s thesis. In it, I attempt to argue that Heidegger’s masterpiece Being and Time is best understood in terms of what I call ecological realism, wherein Earthly entities exist independent of human disclosure but their being depends on how we take them to be (in relation to our concerns). This claim requires a distinction between two different conceptions of “being”, ontic and ontological.


Since Descartes developed his methodology of radical skepticism in the seventeenth century, answering the “problem of the external world” has long concerned Western philosophy. In this paper I will argue that Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time (1927/1962) should be seen as compatible with the thesis of realism concerning the existence of the Earth.[1]  Distinguishing between two different forms of realism, I will argue that Heidegger’s ontology in BT is best seen as providing a deflationary answer to the problem of the external world, particularly in respect to overcoming the classic subject/object distinction. Showing that Heidegger’s methodology in BT entails a nonrepresentational direct realism, I will use this conceptual framework to address the so-called “puzzle passages” in BT. After resolving the contradictions in BT, I will argue that Heidegger’s ontology captures the most desirable elements of both realism and idealism, without collapsing into either anthropomorphic idealism or naïve realism.

Defining Realism

In order to establish BT as compatible with the thesis of realism, we must first clarify the position of realism in respect to the philosophical tradition. Customarily, the problem of realism concerns rigorous philosophical proofs for the existence of the Earth “external” to the interiority of consciousness. Western philosophers since Descartes have long presupposed a sharp ontological boundary between interior mental life and exterior physicality, that is, between res cogitans and res extensa. Moreover, the history of Western philosophy indicates that it is difficult if not impossible to securely connect these two ontological worlds once cleaved. Indeed, Kant said that the lack of decisive proof for the existence of the external Earth was the great “scandal of philosophy”. Consequently, it was the task of philosophy to provide a “proof” that Earth did indeed exist independently of the mind and that moreover, we have good reasons for believing so (as opposed to merely animalistic intuitions regarding its existence). According to this tradition, which we can call philosophical realism, the world external to the mind is believed to exist independently of the mind but the validity of this thesis requires rational proof, of which there have been various kinds offered.

In claiming that BT is best seen in terms of a realism about the “external” Earth, we must first sharply distinguish philosophical realism from what I want to call Heidegger’s ecological realism. Both positions agree on the thesis that the physical Earth exists independently of our perceptual access to it, but they differ radically in regards to a demand for philosophical proof. Indeed, Heidegger says that

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, emphasis added)

In order to understand ecological realism as distinct from philosophical realism then, we must come to grips with Heidegger’s conception of humans being “in-the-world” as a philosophical alternative to the classic theories of interior consciousness. Traditionally, Modern philosophy has understood perception in terms of a container schema wherein the mind acts as an internal storehouse for mental representations of the external Earth. Accordingly, the preeminent problem of Modernist epistemology was to rationally prove that what is on the “outside” corresponds to what is on the “inside”, with total skepticism about knowledge always lurking just around the corner. Heidegger finds this position problematic precisely because it begins from the presupposition of an isolated consciousness set off against the external Earth by means of an internal epistemic veil. In sharp contrast, Heidegger claims that “When [Humanity] directs itself towards something and grasps it, it does not somehow get out of an inner sphere in which it has been proximally encapsulated, but its primary kind of being is such that it is always ‘outside’ amidst entities which it encounters and which belong to a world already discovered” (BT 89).

According to my reading then, Heidegger understands perceptual access in terms of a externalist nonrepresentational direct (but nonnaïve) realism wherein the variant and invariant structures of the natural Earth are encountered directly without any sort of mediating representations “standing in for” or “re-presenting” the entities-themselves. In arguing for a direct realism, I believe that Heidegger is primarily responding to Neo-Kantian representationalism, which starts from the unquestioned premise of a Self or Mind isolated from the Earth by means of mediating representations.

Read the rest of the paper at academia.edu

[1] In how I am using the term, “Earth” includes everything that is empirically encounterable, directly or indirectly. This would include Earth as a planet, the atmosphere, and the rest of the physical universe. The Earth is thus a synonynm for Heidegger’s first definition of “world” as the totality of entities present-at-hand (BT 93). I use “Earth” rather than “world” to avoid inconsistency and preserve the special phenomenological connotations of “world” and “worldhood”.

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Heidegger's Direct Realism – Intentionality and Perception

What is perception?

For Kant, perception is the process of the noumenal realm being sensed through the categories of intuition such that our phenomenal experience is always a “mere appearance” of the thing-in-itself. Although Kant had a different understanding of what “Reality” entailed, we can say that for Kant, perception is the experience of reality through a representational filter such that we can never gain access to reality. In other words, we are trapped behind our senses and phenomenal experience, while objectively valid, is “merely” an appearance of a reality that never shows-itself-as-itself. Kantian perception is thus representational.

For Heidegger, in contrast, perception is the process of intentionally directing-oneself-towards the noumenal realm without any sort of representational mediation. We can say that for Heidegger, perception is the experience of responding to how the thing-in-itself shows itself to us. In other words, perception is direct and nonrepresentational.

“To say that I am in the first place oriented towards sensations is all just pure theory. In conformity with its sense of direction, perception is directed toward a being that is extant. It intends this precisely as extant and knows nothing at all about sensations that it is apprehending” (Basic Problems 63)

“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).

However, if we leave the phenomenon of perception here, we are left clueless as to how this notion of “directing-towards” is accomplished. Does intentional comportment mean that perception is always veridical? Can we not be mistaken in our perception? Here, we must understand the phenomenon and the semblance.

The phenomenon is that which shows-itself. We have already seen that what shows-itself is the extant Earth, the thing-in-itself. This Earth existed as an extant environs long before humans existed. “Such a being, for example, nature, does not depend in its being – that and whether it is a being or not – on whether it is true, whether or not it is unveiled and encountered as unveiled for a Dasein” (BP 219). The Earth is the noumenal realm i.e. the planet as it is independently of our perception of it. For Heidegger, the phenomenal/noumenal distinction is collapsed not by placing our intentional comportment entirely within a subjective sphere, but rather, by eliminating the representational medium which blocks our access to the thing-in-itself through intentional perception.

“the intentional constitution of the Dasein’s comportments is precisely the ontological condition of the possibility of every and any transcendence…The Dasein, comports existingly toward the extant” (BP 65)

How is this possible? Through ambient light. The Earth is there without our perceiving it. So is ambient light. The light bounces around the environment, settles into stable overlapping arrays, and carries information regarding the environment in virtue of the light interacting with the environment as it gets reflected/absorbed. All we have to do is direct ourselves towards this information. The evolutionary reasons for doing so are enormous given that visual perception gives us unparalleled access to behaviorally useful information. It is no surprise that visual perceptual systems have evolved independently in separate species numerous times.

So, the Earth is showing-itself to us in virtue of ambient light. We are behaviorally directed towards this information and react to it in terms of a functional contexture of instrumentality. But to say that we act towards this light in an instrumental fashion is not to say that we are somehow encapsulated within a subjective sphere of readiness-to-hand such that we never have access to the thing-in-itself. On the contrary, we are always already surrounded and enveloped by the thing-in-itself in virtue of inhabiting a giant rock which floats around the sun in an elliptical orbit.

“Nevertheless, the walls [in a lecture hall] are already present even before we think them as objects. Much else also gives itself to us before any determining of it by thought. Much else – but how? Not as a jumbled heap of things but as an environs, a surroundings, which contains within itself a closed, intelligible contexture” (BP 163)

Okay, so that is the phenomenon: a directing-towards that which surrounds us. The directing-towards is essentially an uncovering of what’s-already-there. However, perception is not veridical. We do not perceive the Earth in its pure-presence-at-hand. We interpret Nature in terms of entities. This is our understanding of being. Thus, “[Entities] show themselves, but in the mode of semblance” (SZ 222). Semblance is the perception of what shows-itself (the Earth) as something it-is-not. The Earth is not naturally composed of chairs, tables, people, cats, etc. It is composed of energy. The human world is made up of chairs, tables, people, cats, etc. Thus, we operate within a realm of semblance wherein what shows-itself is perceived as something it is not. The power to interpret the world in terms of entities is that which establishes the phenomenon of Being with a capital B. This capacity is granted to us through language and predication for “language is the house of Being”.

However, Heidegger’s great advance over Kant is to claim that even though we operate within a “subjective” realm of readiness-to-hand and intepretation, there is no representational mediation between us and the ambient optic array. Quite simply, for Heidegger, there is never anything transcendentally lurking “behind” the phenomena.“Uncovering…brings the uncovering Dasein face to face with the entities themselves” (SZ 227, emphasis added). We directly perceive the Earth in terms of Worldliness. In conclusion,

“As surely as we can never comprehend absolutely the whole of beings in themselves we certainly do find ourselves stationed in the midst of beings that are revealed somehow as a whole. In the end as essential distinction prevails between comprehending the whole of beings in themselves and finding oneself in the midst of beings as a whole. The former is impossible in principle. The latter happens all the time in our existence.” (What is Metaphysics? Basic Writings pg 99)

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Puzzle Passage in Heidegger – Reality and the Real

Of course, only as long as Dasein is, that is, the ontical possibility of the understanding of being is, “is there” being. If Dasein does not exist, then “independence” “is” not either, nor “is” the “in itself”. Such a thing is then neither understandable nor not understandable. Then also intraworldly entities neither are discoverable, nor can they lie in hiddenness. Then it can be said neither that entities are, nor that they are not. Nevertheless, it can now be said — as long as the understanding of being, and thereby the understanding of occurrentness are — that then entities will continue to be. (SZ 212)

In his 2007 article in Inquiry (“Heidegger’s Kantian Idealism Revisited”), William Blattner concludes from this passage that the question “Do occurrent entities exist when humans do not?” is impossible to answer for “If we suspend the understanding of being, then ‘entities do exist’ and ‘entities do not exist’ not only lack truth-values; they are undefined, meaningless” (327).

It is my contention however that such questions do have meaningful answers and that moreover, a proper interpretation of the above puzzle passage can provide the conceptual means for doing so. A clue is given in the very next sentence: “As we have noted, being (not entities) is dependent upon the understanding of being; that is to say, Reality (not the Real) is dependent upon care.”

Thus, in accordance with the puzzle passage, we can make several distinctions:

-How beings “are” when Dasein understands them and how beings “are” independent of Dasein’s understanding of being.
-The Worldhood of the world and the extantness of the planet.
-Reality as opposed to the Real
-An entity understood or determined “as” an entity and the entity as it is independent of Dasein’s as-structure.

In light of these distinctions, which are synonymous, we can see how Blattner’s answer to the puzzle passage is much too complicated for its own good. Instead of claiming that the concept of entities existing independently of Dasein is meaningless (a bizarre claim), we can instead claim that it makes sense in terms of the distinction between Reality and the Real.

Reality is the Kantian concept of “thingness” or Sachheit. In how Heidegger adopts the term, it designates the mode of being of objects as understood through Dasein’s understanding and interpretation of the world as worldly. When Heidegger defines being as “that which determines entities as entities”, the determination of entities according to the as-structure is the “Reality” of such objects. In contrast, the “Real” existence of entities is the determinate structure of entities as they exist independently of our understanding and interpretation of them as entities.

Thus, when Heidegger says “entities will continue to be” only when there is Dasein’s understanding of being, there is a crucial ambiguity here overlooked by Blattner. We can distinguish between “continue to be” in the sense of Real existence (subsistence, extantness) and “continue to be” in the sense of Reality or the as-structure of worldhood. It is my contention that Heidegger meant the latter. Accordingly, the puzzle passage’s cryptic meaning becomes clear. Only as long as Dasein exists “is there” being in the sense of that which determines entities in terms of entities as entities i.e. in terms of the understanding of being. This can be translated as “Only as long as Dasein exists is there a determination of entities as entities”. Accordingly, there is no contradiction in saying that being is dependent on Dasein’s understanding of being but entities nevertheless are “extant”. We can then make sense of the other puzzle passages in Being and Time, which say:

“Readiness-to-hand is the way in which entities as they are “in themselves” are defined ontologico-categorially. Yet only by reason of something present-at-hand, ‘is there’ anything ready-to-hand” (SZ 71)

“Entities are, quite independently of the experience by which they are disclosed, the acquaintance in which they are discovered, and the grasping in which their nature is ascertained” (SZ 183).

“But the fact that Reality is ontologically grounded in the Being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the Real be as that which in itself it is” (SZ 212)

Thus, the answer to the question of whether occurrent entities can exist independently of Dasein’s understanding of being depends on how you understand the occurrent existence of entities. If you understand it in terms of the ontological-categorial determination of entities as entities (Reality), then no, entities do not exist independently of Dasein. If you understand it in terms of the Real and extantness, then yes, of course occurrent entiteis continue to exist or “subsist” when Dasein is not around. Case closed?

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Master's Thesis: Provisional Topic

As readers of this blog are probably well-aware, the issue of realism in Heidegger has been a pet issue of mine for quite some time. Over and over, I repeatedly hear the same claims made in regard to Heidegger. “Oh, Heidegger thinks that Being is correlated with Thought.” “Oh, Heidegger was an idealist because he didn’t have the resources to make a distinction between presence in the sense of presentability (idealism) and presence as the ground of presentability (realism).” “Oh, Heidegger was an ontic idealist because he thought all modes of Being are dependent on Dasein.”


Such positions are positively absurd in light of our existence in the REAL world! Was Heidegger a fool? Did he really think that we have no phenomenological recourse for overcoming both vapid realism and vapid idealism? Did he not explicitly say that a correlation between subject and object completely misses the phenomenon of existence, of our living and breathing and dying in a world that resists us, that presents itself or shows itself to us? Are not the conceptual resources for ontic realism already established within his very definition of phenomena as against the Kantian critique of appearances as a possible ontology? How can that which shows itself to us be a correlation of our subjectivity when Heidegger himself defines subjectivity in terms of an intentional comportment towards the world, towards the extant?  Thought is not correlated to another correlation, it is correlated to reality itself, otherwise it would not be intentional i.e. transcendental. Does he not say, over and over, that “The window, however, surely does not receive existence from my perceiving it, but just the reverse: I can perceive it only if it exists and because it exists“? How else can we make sense of this except in terms of realism concerning the external world? Any other interpretation simply renders Heidegger a fool and Heidegger was no fool, no mere correlationist, if by that we mean a vapid anthropomorphizing of reality.

Thus, I have provisionally decided that my master’s thesis will be on the issue of realism and the external world. It will be my scholarly goal to provide the conceptual resources within Heidegger* to establish an ontic realism which claims, as our common sense preontological understanding itself confirms, that physical entities exist independently of our interpretation of them as physical. Any other position is absolutely absurd in light of phenomenological-ontology being an analytic of finitude, of real existence. To construct a strawman of vapid idealism and then congratulate yourself for tearing it down is surely not an impressive feat.

I apologize for the snarky tone of this post but I am just seriously tired of hearing about the same tired story of “correlationism this” and “correlationism that” when Heidegger himself explicitly claims that a conception of “correlation” cannot possibly capture the phenomenon of intentional comportment towards extant reality i.e. of our uncovering of reality. How else can we understand the Heideggerian advance over Husserlian correlation? As Merleau-Ponty said,

To ask oneself whether the world is real is to fail to understand what one is asking, since the world is not a sum of things which might always be called into question, but the inexhaustible reservoir from which things are drawn.

*The final chapter will probably attempt to establish the theoretical viability of a direct or “naive” realism via conceptual resources outside of Heidegger, such as in Gibsonian ecological optics, dynamic systems theory, and embodied/embedded philosophy of mind.


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