Friday, January 14, 2011

Heidegger, Dreyfus and Leiter, Oh My!

You can read Leiter's comments on viewing the old BBC documentary on Heidegger.

I found a transcript of an interview Dreyfus gave in which he claimed Heidegger was refreshing to analytic philosophy. He calls it boring! If it wasn't for a traveling fellowship, he would have never came upon Karl Jasper and Heidegger's defenders at Freiburg. I mention this since we should not find Heidegger scary, and wonder rather from Dreyfus's example why Heidegger made him see things differently.

Now, Dreyfus rarely minces his words. He writes on Heidegger in a very concise and succinct way. I speculate that years teaching at MIT and U.C. Berkeley will do that to you. If one hangs around analytic philosophers long enough, one will start to write in a very systematic and maybe even boring way (I just spent the last three hours reading John Drummond's Chapter on the "Structure of Intentionality" in Welton's The New Husserl). Truthfully, this training from Simon Fraser has helped me more than hindered my abilities thus far.

My only real disagreement with Leiter is that this documentary gets to the "entirety of Being and Time." I didn't find that to be the case since much of Being and Time is a silent engagement with Kierkegaard and the concept of anxiety. The documentary is more or less a slight introduction to those of whom will never really want to read Heidegger, but might find some knowledge beneficial. Moreover, if Leiter presents a thesis arguing for the contentiousness of why Heidegger is a major relevant philosopher, such a claim can appear to have a semblance of authority behind it. Yet, I think it is very misleading to suggest that it can be otherwise without first noting that those that object to Heidegger's philosophy usually don't know it well enough. I'm not saying this is the case with Leiter. However, it does stand to reason that most analytically-inclined philosophers -- like those Leiter often favors on his blog -- in the mainstream do tend towards views that are naturalistic, and therefore somehow continuous with what philosophers take to be scientific. This means they are skeptical already, even implicitly, towards philosophies that thematize matters of our existence first, what I would call phenomenological themes in the capital 'P' sense.

To be sure, Being and Time is Heidegger's most provocative and concise effort. It is important for hijacking Husserlian phenomenology and transforming it into an existential phenomenology that abandons many assumptions that analytically-inclined naturalists take for granted. So, Heidegger's relevance should be judged in a more nuanced way than Leiter's sweeping generalization.
It is unfortunate, though, that the documentary gives the impression that everyone agrees Heidegger was a "great" philosopher, and that the only doubts about him pertain to his disgusting political and personal behavior.  In fact, there are extensive doubts among philosophers, both European and Anglophone, about Heidegger's originality and philosophical depth.
A close reading of a text and its history is not something many analytically-inclined naturalists are up to doing. I don't know any "Continental" philosophy who can get away with never reading Heidegger, and quite frankly, I don't know many "Anglophone" philosophers that think reading him is a good idea. There are many reactions to Heidegger, and so Leiter is right to point them out. However, it should be stated from the outset that philosophers that seek to describe the world continuous with science reject the aim of phenomenology already (there are even substantial differences with what the term "phenomenology" refers to from analytically-inclined philosophers of mind). This implicit assumption is thee major reason why so many are skeptical about Heidegger. The difference in method already colors the perception. In some ways, it is similar in Leiter's work on Nietzsche. Leiter is very skeptical of what he calls the cultural therapeutic Nietzsche over his more -- again -- naturalist reading of Nietzsche as a speculative naturalist in much the way Hume is claimed to be a speculative naturalist. In this way, Heidegger will never get a fair shake, and my colleagues in philosophy will think this documentary the only synopsis needed for an otherwise sophomoric introduction to Heidegger's thought.

However, the difference in method does not remove the fact that Heidegger needs to be overcome because of his originality and depth. He needs to be overcome because of his lasting influence. We shouldn't be skeptical of that influence anymore than we should think philosophy should remain Heideggerian. Yet, that is a blog post for another time, but a point of lasting significance that cannot be washed away with a call to contentiousness. I find it is a rhetorical trick of preference and nothing more on Leiter's part to suggest Heidegger's claim to fame a matter of contention. In fact, we can always cite our philosophical opponent whose work we find disagreeable and lay claim to their status as a philosopher. That's the easy thing to do. It is quite another to critically engage Heidegger's lasting significance and overcome it.

Again, this documentary is not that good in giving the background thought about Heidegger's thinking. Heidegger is one of those thinkers that you need to have an extensive amount of background knowledge to make sense of his work. You have been warned. Besides, the Sartre documentary is better in my opinion.


Canadian Pragmatist said...

Hey, after an overview of what phenomenology is in my Heidegger class, someone had a question, they just posted to the online group for the class that in effect, asks why imagination is so important for understanding what an object essentially is. How would you respond?

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Well, it should be noted that I am not sympathetic to Heidegger's overall phenomenology, but I am sympathetic to the claim that the understanding involves the power of the imagination.

Before I answer this question, however, it would be incumbent for me to ask a few questions to undersand where you are coming from. Why would you think that understanding an object doesn't involve the imagination? And what view of the understanding do you have in mind? Finally, what do you mean by an object?

I would not presume much about your class discussion not being privy to its details. If you give me some context, then I could better respond to your inquiry.



Canadian Pragmatist said...

Sure, that sounds fair. She didn't think the imagination was important in getting to the essence of say, a table because imagining a table upside-down, broken, etc. does not seem to do anything but confuse what a table is as opposed to give its essential characteristics, unless phenomenologists believe all the possible characteristic of a table are its essential characteristic. That would be my response. That without a full understanding of the object of inquiry, you lack a full understanding of it, and part of how we get a full understanding is by imagining.

Would you reply differently?

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I'm inclined to something like your answer, but insofar as Husserl is concerned you need to focus on what an essence is. For Husserl, the object is not the object itself out there in the world and then there is a separate thing called a mind that knows the thing separate from it, the essence of the table. The Husserlian picture collapses this clear separation between subject and object with his concept of intentionality and this throws light on how it is that we apprehend the essence of a table as the table reveals itself through consciousness.

Insofar as the experience of the table is concerned, a table must have an essence and this essence is instantiated through an act of a certain quality. Here, I mean act not as a physical action of a body, but a conscious act. So phenomenology is a way to recover how it is that we constitute the meaning of objects in the various ways we experience them. This is what it means to describe things/phenomena as they appear to consciousness; appearing to consciousness is just what experience means for the phenomenologist. The imagining act is just one way among others we will relate to objects.

Also, the imagination is the manner in which we apprehend much of ideal objectivities like a triangle. Husserl has a wonderful description of the geometer and how imagination is essential to the geometer's experience and eidetic sciences in general in Ideas 1. In addition, there is a reading of Kant in which the imagination is the unifying factor between the two stems of knowledge: sensibility and understanding. Heidegger picks up on this reading in his book on Kant.

The best book by far to introduce Husserl to people of an analytic persuasion is J. N. Mohanty, "Transcendental Phenomenology: An Analytic Account." The first step to understanding Husserl should be, however, to get clear on exactly what intentionality is, and there is no other better article on this point than John Drummond's Chapter "The Structure of Intentionality" in The New Husserl ed. Donn Welton (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003).

Also, Dermot Moran's Husserl: the Founder of Phenomenology and his introductory book, Introduction to Phenomenology are immensely helpful.

I hope I have helped in some way. By the way, who are you studying Husserl with?

Canadian Pragmatist said...

That does help; thank you. I don't think I should tell you their name until the term is over (so, April). Also, we're not actually studying Husserl. Our professor presented some lectures on Husserl so that we would be ready to read 'Being and Time'. Do you think that was unnecessary?

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I understand, and I let slip my Vancouver connections. I have met and conversed with every Continentally-inclined intellectual in Vancouver. Hopefully, it's Feenberg or Angus. There's a guy who teaches at UBC, a Heidegger scholar from U of Virginia--he's real good too. There's no real dedicated phenomenologists in Vancouver.

So, I completely understand and shouldn't have thought to be so casual on a public forum. I forget myself since I often think of this as "my space" if you get my pun.

To answer the question: Yes, you need Husserl to make sense of Heidegger. Anyone teaching Being and Time must introduce Husserl in some fashion. I just had a graduate seminar on Being and Time and found the course very insightful. It's still fresh in my mind, and you're always welcome to post.

Canadian Pragmatist said...

Thanks. I don't really have too many questions now. We've resolved the supposed imagination problem. I'll probably have a question or two down the road though.

I was wondering if you know of and what you think of Toronto's MA in the History and Philosophy of Education though:

From what I hear they are much more interdisciplinary than other only philosophy departments and also, they are actually in need of professors:

Do you think it's a good program?

Carbondale Chasmite said...

I wouldn't know anything per se, nor do I make recommendations to anyone lightly about graduate school. It's such a strange beast and not all of us go to graduate school for the same reason, though most of want to be professors of it. The saturated job market for philosophy PhDs makes me think I should strive to be a Dean at times.

Philosophy of education is not mainstream, and I would think the places to ask about this program would be graduates of the program and other faculty of education. I imagine that's where the jobs are if one does philosophy of education primarily. Those philosophers I've met that list philosophy of education as something they do put it in a secondary area (an area of competency) over their area of specialization.