Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Words, Reference and Being

A couple of days ago, I sat with a prestigious philosopher of language. He claimed that Heidegger was a fraud. The substantive claim revolved around Heidegger's fixation on the obscurity of Being, and dislike for science (amazingly enough the reasons for disfavor weren't concerned with the politics of the man!). Thus, we can see this charge as amounting to both a claim about Heidegger's ambiguous word-usage and uncritical rejection of science. In this post, I want to dismiss these as mere hand-waving. There is, indeed, a purpose to the language use, and points made about science and technology. I'll speak to each point in turn first starting with the claim of language.

Ambiguous word usage is sometimes called the charge of obscurantism. Commonly, this charge is made also against Derrida and post-structuralist thinkers as well. In Heidegger, the language use reflects the methodological commitment of Heideggerian phenomenology. Legitimating this project involves several things that should be noted about the project itself. Good criticisms only come from charitable understanding. First, Heidegger regards philosophy as uncovering the implicit structures of our practical everyday being-in-the-world, which means that philosophy is directed at describing the concrete facticity of human existence, not fundamental inquiries of a more conceptual nature. In this way, Heidegger intends to turn philosophy inside-out. It no longer concerns the tripartite Kantian division of logic, metaphysics and ethics. Instead, philosophy works not from the outside looking at problems in the previous areas, but exposes from within those relations that are taken for granted in our everydayness. In this way, Heideggerian phenomenology looks to uproot common associations in our experience of being-in-the-world.

Secondly, the concern with Being is a philosophical problem abandoned in the practice of philosophy, and Heidegger needed to develop a way of retrieving and uncovering this old problem that's no longer talked about in a more original way. As such, he chose to pursue it through the lens of phenomenology which seeks to describe things as they reveal themselves. Phenomenology amounts to describing the world as it is lived and experienced through and through. Hence, the language is in the service of looking at a phenomena long since avoided in philosophy to begin with. We can pay attention to things like how relate to our own mortality or the inauthentic modes of our decisions. The upshot of thematizing things of our everydayness means philosophy has more to dealing with our actual existence than dealing with problems abstracted from the way we encounter the world (as Kant would have philosophy divided into logic, metaphysics and ethics). This also means the language must reflect those lived experience structures now coming under the attention of phenomenological description. Indeed, some creativity is needed in developing a language that can render the problem of Being in a way we can answer the question through phenomenology.

Now, the common move is to suggest that Heidegger doesn't mean anything by observing that the meaning of his terms are obscure. Sure people talk about authenticity or being-towards-death, but does that talk pick out anything really real in the world? Well, this attitude starts from several observations. Let's get the first one out of the way. First, the problem with such general skepticism coming from analytics is that reading a German thinker in translation, and judging them by the translation is severely misplaced. However, let's move beyond that one and straight to the heart of the matter. Heidegger is hard to understand. Yet, the implicit strategy of the skeptic is to mistrust Heidegger since the only true way we can speak about the world is somehow informed by the sciences (I say somehow informed since I want to leave a lot of room for disagreement amongst naturalists). However, it cannot be that the sciences are all that is true. Instead, what needs argued is a different but just as reliable way of knowing, namely, showing that the humanities can succeed in ways that the sciences cannot. Maintaining the sciences and humanities as distinctly different allows for us to speak about things that the humanities speak about (legitimating the literary side of things is one positive contribution that underscores much of Gadamer's project). In the same way, this also is Husserl's point about giving priority to the phenomenological viewpoint as a realm onto itself.

On the next move, Heidegger grew suspicious of science and the norms that constitute its possibility. The best articulation of the connection between his philosophy of technology and science comes from Iain Thomson (Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: The Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective," in Jan-Kyrre Berg Olsen, Evan Selinger, and Søren Riis, eds., New Waves in the Philosophy of Technology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 146-66.). For Thomson, the critique of Being is a critique against our metaphysics, that is, the dominant metaphysical view (an ontotheology in the words of Heidegger and Thomson) that determines the limits of our conceptual understanding and interpretation of the world--as well as the source of the attack on Heidegger's antiscientism!

I thus interpret Heidegger's understanding of the ontotheological structure of Western metaphysics as advancing a doctrine of ontological holism. By giving shape to our historical understanding of 'what is' metaphysics determines the most basic presuppositions of what anything is, ourselves included. This is what Heidegger means when he writes that "Western humanity, in all its comportment toward entities, and even toward itself, as in every respect sustained and guided by metaphysics" (N4 205/NII 343). This ontological holism explains how the successful ontotheologies can function historically like self-fulfilling prophecies, pervasively reshaping intelligibility. Put simply since all entities are, when a new ontotheological understanding of what and how entities are takes hold and spreads, it progressively transforms our basic understanding of all entities...our great metaphysicians help establish the fundamental conceptual parameters and ultimate standards of legitimacy for each of our successive historical epochs (150).

This has a lot to say against any contemporary scientifically-minded philosopher that thinks Heidegger full of crap. They impose the standards of what is available to them at their own time. The authority of science purports to describe what basic categories exist, and if words can only express real things in the world, then the ontological holism of our time will determine the extent to which words are ontologically real and accessible. However, Thomson adds more to follow. There's a point to linking ontological holism about the ontotheologies with the culmination of Nietzsche's thinking

Nietzsche is the pivotal figure in Heidegger's critique of technological epoch of enframing because, according to Heidegger's reductive yet revealing reading, Nietzsche's unthought metaphysics provides the ontotheological lenses that implicitly structure our current sense of reality...As Heidegger, thus puts it, Nietzsche understands the 'totality of entities a s such' ontotheologically as 'eternally recurring will-to-power,' that is, as an unending disaggregation and reaggregation of forces through their continual self-overcoming (In this Nietzsche was effectively universalizing insights Darwin had already drawn from his study of living entities and Adam Smith from his examination of the economic domain). Now, our Western culture's unthinking reliance on this implicitly Nietzschean ontotheology is leading us to transform all entities into Bestand, mere resources standing to be optimized, ordered and enhanced with maximal efficiency...[regarding ourselves]no longer as modern subjects seeking to master an objective world, but merely as one more intrinsically meaningless resource to be optimized, ordered and enhanced with maximal efficiency, whether cosmetically, psychopharmacologically, genetically or even cybernetically (151, brackets mine).

Now, one interpretive picture is in view about what is meant by Heidegger. Science is embedded in an enframed mindset by which the Nietzschean impulse to optimize translates into the outcomes of science, technology. The more this ontotheology spreads the more we relate to the world and ourselves differently. In fact, Heidegger says at one point that only "what is calculable is being." In other words, the very words we use must refer only to real things as determined by this pervasive ontotheology. This is his reason for being critical of science. As it produces more insight, the more Heidegger's critique of technology becomes apparent, and for Heidegger, the situation of this ontotheology is not replacing itself as it did in the past. Our way of talking is, now, stale. We've grown into a dogmatism within this enframed mindset and alienated ourselves from the very primordial relations that shape human experience. The very primordial relations to the world through art, literature, poetry, history and philosophy become/are continuously displaced, set farther away from our particular experience. This criticism of science might also explain the phenomenological demand of our age. A phenomenologist seeks to recover some sense of meaning in the world in opposition to the natural attitude that vitiates our experience of it. Ever since phenomenology's inception, the Nietzschean impetus for optimizing increases in reality, and this is also what Husserl and Heidegger have in common--or this is just me interpreting Husserl's criticism of the natural attitude through the Heidegger.

It can be said for these reasons that a) Heidegger is "onto something" with his use of language. Secondly, it can also be said that Heidegger's anti-scientism is defended for more critical reasons than is often charitably acknowledged.

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