Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Grounds of Philosophy

Some latenight meditation has proven useful.

On some readings of Heidegger, Heidegger came to recognize there is no fundamentally unifying ground on which philosophy qua metaphysics can come to rest upon. There is no Cartesian edifice to build a system of philosophy.

This claim can be understood a number of ways. The two senses that follow about grounding here are meant ontologically. First, it can mean there is no privileged a priori on which philosophical analyses have access to. Secondly, it can mean a denial of a fundamental characteristic of reality that guarantees that objects of experience are real. This second sense is more familiar since it has a history in the moderns and Kant. In such systems of thought, the reality of the world is guaranteed by the subject as in Kant and Descartes. Other systems of thought might make God the guarantor of the real, or notions of substance.

Grounding can also be meant epistemologically. My belief in the external world is grounded on the experience of my embodiment. Such a belief would be warranted given what work embodiment would do for us. Central concepts in philosophical systems, I believe, can be the same in their providing justification for a belief as constituting what is real ontologically. My driving impulse for this post is that this relation between epistemology and metaphysics is why they seem to infect each other. It is not a clear distinction between the two. Whatever the concept of ground does for eliciting beliefs about the Real is, in fact, what gives justification for what to believe about the Real.

Heidegger's denial about a fundamental unifying characteristic to philosophy is foolish. When we employ such skepticism about the reality of the ground/central concept, we only wind up grounding such skepticism in denial. The very act of denial becomes its own ground, and this strategy winds up being self-defeating in the end. Instead, we shouldn't think of various philosophical systems as themselves foolhardy in establishing a ground or framework. We should interrogate the framework or ground on its own merits.

Some will notice this is a very modernist discourse. Yes, I admit that philosophy as I practice it looks for foundations. I am a type of foundationalist in my methodology. However, it is completely unfair to assume that, like the moderns, I am a top-down thinker. What Husserl shows is a full-agreement with Descartes. It is an inward examination of our subjectivity which matters for these problems. The grounds offered are not independent of the thinker that proposes them. The bottom-up approach is phenomenological, and while I will not get into the merits of phenomenology versus other methodologies, it is phenomenological fact that to do philosophy is always to work with assuming a ground for the very possibility of a discourse before it is underway. In this way, we are always working within inescapable grounds, sets of conceptual backgrounds that figure into our way of navigating philosophical problems. Thus, it would seem that some privileging of phenomenological description and hermeneutics central to the start of any philosophical inquiry.


Nick said...

Good post. I agree that the thinker who sets out to use reason and discourse to undermine the ground of those very activities is at least question-begging. This is one of Descartes' best lessons, I think.

Many have, as you say, started from different places and used different potential grounds, but we should not infer from the difficulty of choosing between those grounds that none of them is valid.

Vancouver Philosopher said...

Careful, I think I walk a double-edged sword on this point, and I think it is possible to misconstrue that my post is dedicated to some form of analytically-driven conceptual analysis. While I think the analysis of grounds to be an invaluable aspect of philosophizing about grounds, I'm open to interrogating grounds on the same methods that Heidegger uses to put to question grounds in the first place--phenomenological description and the hermeneutic task interrogating such grounds would involve.