Friday, June 23, 2006

Essencing vs. Essence

One of the questions that has been central to traditional metaphysics is that of essence--those properties and/or relations that either define or constitute what an entity is. Within the dominant substance-property metaphysic, an essence is the necessary and sufficient properties that make a thing what it is. In contrast, traditional metaphysicians speak of those contingent properties that are only accidentally 'attached' to the substance or property. One of Heidegger's primary concerns was to qualify this metaphysical dogma that has never been phenomenologically grounded. This, I believe, is one step closer to answering the question of logic's primacy, either in epistemology or metaphysics.

Consider, to use the ubiquitous Heideggerian example, a hammer. For the substance-property metaphysician, the essence of the hammer is understood in terms of its properties--hammerness, steelness, brownness, greyness, hardness, etc. The essence of the hammer must be understood apart from any contingencies such as history, culture, or the existence of any other being. Furthermore, there may be other things that are attributed to the hammer, but which do not ontologically belong to the hammer-itself: it may be valued as an heirloom or perhaps have security value, like Linus' blanket.

The first time Linus appears with his security blanket.
These valuations, however, are 'subjective' properties that a mind 'attaches' to the object, not objective constituents of the object-itself. It is from the objective standpoint, devoid of valuations and contexts, that the 'true' constitution of the object is understood. The essences and properties that define the hammer, as 'universals,' could just as well belong to another object at another time or place and their meaning is uinvocal in every individual instantiation--it is non-spatial and atemporal. This has two consequences: first, the best understanding of an object will consist of understanding its necessary properties in their essence. This means understanding them in their universality, their non-contextual and universal meaning. Second, all things that exist--be it an object, a person, or a discipline--can be grounded in these non-contextual entities. This is the assumption that drives attempts to explicate 'objective' realities--truths, morals, etc.

This will no doubt seem natural to many, even to be 'common sense': of course objects are best understood from an 'objective' (i.e. non-contextual/non-situated) standpoint and of course values are 'subjectively' attached to objects by human minds. Lastly, of course objectivity is preferred to subjectivity, as we want to be grounded in what objectively is, not in what minds subjectively attach to objects (which may have no basis in 'reality'). How could anyone doubt such obvious facts?

The historian of philosophy would be quick to point out that this hasn't, in fact, been such an obvious view within history. Even as late as Descartes, 'objectivity' is attributed to ideas and representations, not mind-independent objects (see the third meditation in Meditations on First Philosophy). It was perhaps with the empiricists, but certainly by the time of Kant, that the exact opposite was thought to be the case--the objective concerns mind-independent objects/entities. This probably doesn't mean that the pre-Kantians simply used the same categories but applied them to the opposite kinds of entities than we do, which leads to the second point: the obviousness of the modern understanding is, in fact, not so obvious.

From the beginning of his philosophical journey, Heidegger thought that "the genuine problematic" of philosophy has been deformed by "the general domination of the theoretical."1 By focusing on atemporal/non-spatial universals such as Forms, properties, or a universal Being (God, the Good, etc.), philosophy has forgotten the contextual and hermeneutical foundations of philosophy and science. As argued within Being and Time and moving on to "Time and Being," these philosophies have forgotten the essential connection between being and man, or between being and Da-sein, being-there. As I will argue below, an alternative way of understanding Da-sein is that of being-a-context.

Consider an alternative account of the hammer: to understand the being of a hammer is not to summarily make note of its properties, but to see how it appears within our concerns in the world. Consider, for example, our understanding of its physical constitution: having an adequate grasp of the hammer first and foremost deals with the hammer's serviceability. This is not a matter of knowing that the hammer weighs this much, has its center of gravity here, and is this dense. Rather, it is a question of how 'hefty' it is for the user, how adequate it is for the given purpose, and how skilled the individual is in hammer use. Understanding the hammer in this way requires that the hammer be situated with other objects and people: with the objects that are hammered, the conglomeration of objects with which the hammer is associated (wood, nails, a workshop, etc.), the physical capacities and skills of the hammerer (which will vary from person to person), the needs that the hammering fulfills (building houses, toys, or equipment), etc. Long before the hammer was weighed to the gram, before its density could be measured, and before precise mathematical formulas were used to describe them, carpenters were industriously making objects and distinguishing between useful woods and metals. In short, the more 'scientific' understanding of the hammer, the one that is ontologized in categorization through its properties, is not a necessary component for the skilled hammerer's correct understanding of the being of the hammer.

In fact, it is on the basis of this practical and contextual understanding that we can begin to scientifically measure weight, density, and such. It is because I am skilled at taking up and using a hammer, at hitting other objects, and noticing that some objects are dented or augmented when hit by more dense objects that I can begin to think of and test scientific/mathematical density. It is also through such a practical understanding that I can then test whether the scientific understanding is accurate. The scientific enterprise itself is dominated by such practices: by methods, ways of setting up tests, and ways of interpreting data. The current crisis in fundamental physics seems to stem from the failures of these practices--particularly of the hermeneutic kind--and the need to find new ones (see also Yves Gingras' What Did Mathematics Do to Physics?).

At this point the traditional metaphysician will display their trump card: It must be the case that these practical concerns and uses of the hammer are dependent on the objective properties of the hammer. Why? Because the hammer exists apart from human minds and there must be some content to this existence without mankind's concerns and needs. But is this the case? As with any good phenomenology, let's examine the phenomena itself: what is density? Mathematically, density is expressed by the following formula:

Density is a measure of mass per unit of volume.
This is a good start; but what does it mean? First, the notion of equality requires a mode of comparison of the kind A = B. This particular sort of equality is very precise, not of mere similarity but of exact correspondence: e.g., 22 = 4. One more precise way of putting it (as used in transfinite set theory) is that every unit on one side of the equal sign can be matched up to a unit on the other, with none remaining. This is thought to be objectively true: it is true in all possible worlds and requires no context to be intelligible. But this isn't the case. As Lakoff and Nunez have cogently argued, our understanding of this equality depends on certain metaphors, in this case Number as Collection of Objects. To see that two numbers are equal, you collect as many objects as correspond to the numbers in two locations; if we collect the same number of objects in both locations, then the numbers are equal.

It is also dependent on my ability to 'collect' objects. This 'collection' has a peculiar character: it is not dependent on spatial proximity or object similarity. In seeing how many yellow objects there are in a given room, the object that is in my hand is just as relevant as the object that is 10 feet away. As such, the object that is 'objectively' furthest away is in a sense brought 'just as close' in my collecting as the object that is already in my hand: they are both 'near' in my collecting. This is seen by the fact that the red objects in the room, the ones that are irrelevant to my current collecting, are 'far away'; they are not relevant, perhaps even not seen. For a better example, in 'collecting' the 7 wonders of the world, their 'objective' distance from me is inconsequential in my collecting/counting them. Similarly, I can collect various objects that have very little in common: they can have various shapes, sizes, weights, colors, or uses. How the objects are collected is also important.

Psychological findings on categorization of objects might be useful here. I'm reminded of the military's attempt to create AI that can identify enemy tanks: with apparently enormous success in identifying pictures of enemy tanks and differentiating them with ally tanks, the program failed miserably in a public demonstration because it was categorizing the tanks according to when the pictures were taken. All of the enemy tank pictures were taken during the night and all the ally tank pictures were taken during the day; the AI program was accounting on the wrong aspect of the picture for identification. Other categorization tests with children also yield interesting results: the children will often come up with rather intricate methods of differentiating and categorizing objects that are surprising to their testers, but in fact have a reason about them. But the most important aspect of categorization for our purposes is its contextual nature.

Robert Goldstone and Yvonne Lippa, for example, have an interesting article that discusses how discrimination of objects alters how the objects appear, in this case as increasingly dissimilar. From their abstract:

By a strategic judgment bias account, the categories associated with objects are explicitly used as cues for determining similarity, and objects that are categorized together are judged to be more similar because similarity is not only a function of the objects themselves, but also the objects’ category labels. By a representational change account, category learning alters the description of the objects themselves, emphasizing properties that are relevant for categorization. A new method for distinguishing between these accounts is introduced which measures the difference between the similarity ratings of categorized objects to a neutral object. The results indicate both strategic biases based on category labels and genuine representational change, with the strategic bias affecting mostly objects belonging to different categories and the representational change affecting mostly objects belonging to the same category.
Wenchi Yeh and Lawrence Barsalou, in The Situated Nature of Concepts, argue for a broader understanding of how our background (not only of concepts, but practical understanding of the situation) influences concept comprehension, creation, and categorization. A relevant quote from their paper:
Across these diverse areas, background situations are fundamental to cognition. By incorporating situations into a cognitive task, processing becomes more tractable than when situations are ignored. Because specific entities and events tend to occur in some situations more than others, capitalizing on these correlations constrains and thereby facilitates processing. Rather than having to search through everything in memory across all situations, the cognitive system focuses on the knowledge and skills relevant in the current situation. Knowing the current situation constrains the entities and events likely to occur. Conversely, knowing the current entities and events constrains the situation likely to be unfolding.
This is a fact that has been focused on in much of the current literature on philosophy of perception: the world appears only in terms of our goals, intentions, and, as later Heidegger would put it, our openness to beings.2 This is an important phenomena in that the hammer can appear as a hammer only if some of its aspects are covered over. In actively using the hammer, It is only because I am a being that cares about beings, that is concerned with them in some way (e.g., to fulfill my needs, desires, or intentions), that beings appear at all. Otherwise why would I even care that 22 = 4 or that there are 3 yellow objects in the room? There is no motivation, no reason to attend to such things and thus no reason for them to appear as such. As something that I will argue later, understanding this openness as the precursor to every logical statement provides the non-logical basis for logic, or that which makes logic possible but cannot be encapsulated in it.

Returning to our question about the equation for density, the meaning of the equation only comes to light on the background of certain skills, practices, and motivations that can bring things to light as valuable or meaningful/relevant. When divorced from those skills, practices, and motivations, the equation is meaningless: someone who is incapable of collecting objects (i.e. counting), bringing their relevant attributes to light (as objects, differentiable from other objects in the environment), and who, quite frankly, cares about what on earth is happening (i.e. what is happening matters to me) will see nothing (or no-thing). As the research in the philosophy of perception seems to demonstrate, without such engaged concern the equation would not appear to begin with nor could the relevant skills and practices develop whereby the equation gains its meaning. All of these are necessary factors for the initial appearing and understanding of the equation. Far from being a context-less entity or description, the equation is intelligible only on the background of these skills, practices, and motivations.

The substance proponent, in defense of their views, will now quickly respond (almost repeating their first objection, but not quite): but these skills, practices, and motivations are simply bringing to light what was already meaningfully, objectively there! In other words, even if these skills, practices, and motivations are needed in order for us to see things like objects or relevance, they are simply discovering what is already there. But does this follow in the case of the hammer? The hammer is understood in terms of its relation with certain practices and objects, but do these relations happen 'naturally' or 'objectively'?

The answer I would like to propose is, no, they do not: seeing the hammer as something with which to build requires non-objective (in classical terms) relations. Hammers do not appear in nature, nor do the hammer's relations--with nails, wood, contracts, etc.--occur without a peculiar kind of being. Building itself is meaningful only in terms of a being that needs or desires something to be built for some purpose; in an impersonal, 'objective,' and non-contextual world, such needs would not exist. Futhermore, it requires a being who has the relevant embodied skills with which to build. These skills are not dominated by explicit rules, perhaps by rules of thumb, but even rules of thumb require a receptivity to when those rules do not apply and an understanding of what to do instead. But most importantly, it requires a being that is open to beings: it requires a receptivity to beings that is necessarily prior to our ability to say anything about those beings. It is only because beings appear that I can say anything about them; divorced from beings, any possible saying would have no referrent and, hence, would not be language. It is this receptivity that escapes 'objective' analysis: I have concerns and intentions that essences beings, that bring them into the relations with other objects, skills, and practices (i.e. the context) whereby they can be something to begin with. Within such a world, there is no need to appeal to some transcendental objective intelligible sphere; what is needed is a being who is concerned with its world, that is open to beings, and that is able to disclose beings. Notes:

  1. Zur Bestimmung der Philosophie, 87; quoted by Charles Guignon, "Philosophy and Authenticity: Heidegger's Search for a Ground for Philosophizing," in Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity, 82.
  2. See, for example, Arian Mack and Irvin Rock, Inattentional Blindness (London: MIT Press, 1998); Simons, D.J., and C.F. Chabris, "Gorillas in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events," Perception 28 (1999), 1059-1074; Lachter, Joe, Eric Ruthruff, and Kenneth I. Forster, "Forty-Five Year After Broadbent (1958): Still No Identification Without Attention," Psychological Review 111/4 (2004), 880-913; Susan Hurley, Consciousness in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Alva Noë, Action in Perception; Steven B. Most, Brian J. Scholl, Daniel J. Simons, and Erin R. Clifford, "What You See Is What You Set: Sustained Inattentional Blindness and the Capture of Awareness," Psychological Review 112/1 (2005), 237. Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued for this when he claimed that we "polarize the world," bringing out those aspects of the environment that we set ourselves to see (see Phenomenology of Perception, Colin Smith, trans. (London and New York: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1958), 129). Heidegger makes a similar claim with his discussion of "moods" (Stimmung) and "state-of-mind" (Befindlichkeit); see Being and Time, 29-31, 172-188 (H134-148) and The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, William McNeill and Nicholas Walker, trans. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 78-167.

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