Monday, July 10, 2006

State of the Blog

First, let me thank those who have participated for their, well, participation. I apologize for those comments that I still have not gotten to. Most of my blogging was done at my old job (yes, my boss was aware of it; he knew they didn't have enough to keep me [and the rest of the team] busy). Now, with my new job (that I will have for three weeks before I move to Georgia), I do not have that luxury. So, things will be quite slow for the next three weeks, and will probably be slow once I start graduate school (though hopefully not as slow as they are now). But I am still thinking about this blog, the questions asked, and the things that continue to interest me. Just don't expect very much in the next three weeks.

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Failed Philosophical Enterprises

And now, for a bit of humor (well, I hope they're funny): philosophical enterprises that are doomed to failure.

Descartes and Associates
Company Motto: Guilty until proven innocent.

Nietzsche Construction
Company Motto: We build without foundations.

Berkeley Medical Association
Company Motto: It's all in your mind.

Whitehead Pharmaceuticals
Company Motto: We don't deal with substances.

Hobbes' Dating Connection
Company Motto: Connect with those who are solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

Spinoza Dating Connection
Company Motto: Connect with yourself.


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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Being: The Positive Nothing

First off, let me thank Tim (and others) for his comments thus far: they have been great food for thought and I am making every effort to take them seriously (as he is, thankfully, trying to do with me). In line with that, I want to expand my discussion of the illusory thing-in-itself with a short commentary on the 'nothing.' In Being and Time, the nothing was seen in its traditional garb: the groundlessness of mankind's mode of comportment; the absolute nihil that makes possible man's resolute authentic mode of being. In short, here Heidegger saw the nothing as the mathematical nihil, the empty set, the lack of beings/being.

Later, at least starting from On the Essence of Truth, the nothing began to take on a new significance in light of the history of being. Let me start from the latter in order to properly ground the former. The history of being is, in short, the history of man's comportment of being, of his modes of disclosing and bringing beings to light. As his paradigmatic example, Heidegger refers to "technology"--the disclosure of beings as reserves and resources that can be used or exploited. Within technology, I see objects in terms of their utility, of what I can do or make with them in order to accomplish some goal. Metals become resources for automobiles and computers, time becomes something that is 'used,' 'wasted,' or 'invested,' I read a book in order to become 'cultured,' etc.

The technological mode of comportment is the prize of the Industrial Age: we will eventually 'conquer' nature, 'subdue' it for our own goals and purposes, or 'facilitate' great technological wonders through our 'mastery' over it. There is indeed some truth to this understanding: metals are, in fact, quite useful for making various objects; time can be seen as something to use or waste; etc. The problem is the tyranny that this mode of comportment lays on being: everything that is disclosed must be disclosed as a reserve for use. Heidegger feels that this is one of the faults of philosophy at least since Plato, exemplified well in the Medieval theology: that beings are best understood in terms of God's overarching plan for them in his divine intentions. It also made philosophy into a mere technique or methodology:

When thinking comes to an end by slipping out of its element [i.e. the question of being] it replaces this loss by procuring a validity for itself as technē, as an instrument of education and therefore as a classroom matter and later a cultural concern. By and by philosophy becomes a technique for explaining from highest causes. One no longer thinks; one occupies oneself with "philosophy." In competition with one another, such occupations publicly offer themselves as "-isms" and try to offer more than the others. The dominance of such terms is not accidental.
"Letter on Humanism," in Basic Writings, 221.
Reduced to a useful resource, philosophy becomes a discussion of thoughts, ideas, or worldviews, including their viability according to some transcendent logic. Lost is the question of being as the technological outlook just seems 'obvious' or 'natural'; surely the natural world is meaningful only insofar as it is exploitable for our (or God's) aims. There is also a hint of criticism for Heidegger's own earlier understanding of the 'nothing' in B&T: what is meaningful is an object's utility, its being-at-hand for me in my concerns within the world (a nascent technological disclosure of beings). It is this nihilism that Heidegger's later thought attempts to 'destroy'--to break apart in order to see the dominant horizons and hermeneutical/disclosive attunements assumed in philosophy (see James Faulconer's useful discussion of Heidegger's Abbau ["destruction"] here). It is only through such a destruction that technological attunement can be understood in its essence, through which its tyranny can be overcome.

As I have tried to argue earlier (see here and here), every disclosure of beings and, hence, every understanding of beings requires a context in which it becomes intelligible: the Rook in the game of chess, the baseball bat in the game of baseball, the electron in the parlance of physics, etc. The bat, then, can be disclosed as something with which to hit a ball (bath), as a weapon (batw), as a museum piece (batm), as a work of art (bata), as a doorstop (batd), as a particular object for punishment (like a belt or a wooden spoon; batp), as a musical instrument (bati), etc. Every understanding requires a certain context with its rules, norms, intentions, and motivations that make the bat salient in a particular way, that make use of its many modalities. Each is a particular mode of attunement that brings the bat to light in the relevant ways according to the context.

What then can we say when we try to either take the bat out of all contexts/relations or, perhaps better, to disclose it simultaneously in all possible contexts (i.e. the bat as seen 'objectively')? Two problems present themselves: first, we cannot know all possible contexts. The number of ways that the bat can be disclosed, by both human and non-human entities, is unknowable and potentially infinite (at least indeterminable). Thus, while we can claim that an 'objective' understanding (thought of in either non-contextual or omni-contextual terms) is possible, it is an essentially meaningless claim, which raises the second problem.

Given the different modes of appearing of any given object in various contexts and in relation to various kinds of beings (that may be different from human modes of being), a bat-seen-from-everywhere is not an object, is not a thing, is nothing. The question is this: what would a bath-w-m-a-d-p-i-etc. look like? How would it appear? All beings that we understand, that we can say anything about, that we disclose are understood in relation to a context; they are meaningful only within their respective contexts. The all-contextual-bat, in contrast, has no such conditions of intelligibility: it is seen in-itself as something to look at as well as an object to be used for some purpose (and hence not seen); it simultaneously disappears in our active utilization of it and appears in its particularity as something to be looked at and appreciated. But in some odd sense, the bat is both: it is simultaneously bath and bata, despite their incommensurability. But this simultaneity is not so specific, just as that which is not being disclosed is not so specific.

This points to one of the most fascinating aspects of Heidegger's later thought: the mystery of being as the 'nothing.' As I've argued here and elsewhere, every disclosure of beings is a simultaneous covering over of beings: to disclose the bat as bath is to simultaneously cover over (though not consciously, as will become obvious later) the bat as batw-m-a-d-p-i-etc.. That which is covered over is the "mystery of being," the non-essence of disclosed beings.

But surely for those of us who know about such matters the "non-" of the primordial nonessence of truth [i.e. disclosure/uncovering], as untruth [i.e. non-disclosure/covering over], points to the still unexperienced domain of the truth of being (not merely of beings).
"On the Essence of Truth," in Basic Writings, 131 (see also here).
Being, as that which is undisclosed, as that which remains hidden in every disclosure of beings, is the nothing. We cannot treat being simply as one being among others; we must maintain a difference between being and beings. Thus, being is not something-or-other, we cannot say being is this-or-that, as doing so will bring being into a context when it, by its very essence (or non-essence, as the case may be), escapes all contexts of disclosure. The 'nothing,' then, is understood by the later Heidegger as the 'excess,' as that which escapes every disclosure and yet makes them possible. We cannot understand it, or even the being of an entity (e.g., the bat), in terms of some determinable essence or set of properties because no such set of properties are available, nor is the mode of disclosure of properties (as a contextual attunement) the only nor the most essential mode of disclosure.1 Put another way, there is no fundamental mode of disclosing beings (including a so-called dispassionate cataloguing of properties) as the modes of disclosure themselves are probably just as numerous as the modes of disclosing any given being, meaning they are at least indeterminable. But neither can it be the mathematical nihil: its essence is that of indeterminable excess, of a positive overflowing of any finite disclosure.

This is the basis of Heidegger's claim that philosophy has forgotten or ignored the question of being: as the excess of every disclosure, explicating being through notions such as substance and property forgets the other modes of disclosing beings. To use terms reminiscent of Derrida, by reducing being to one of its modes of disclosure, we do violence to being. This is why a proper grasp of the phenomena is essential: if Heidegger's phenomenological descriptions are correct, then the traditional understanding is inadequate. Again, what is at issue here is Heidegger's phenomenological analysis: it is not an issue of whether Heidegger misuses etymology or refuting some logical argument, but on the adequacy of his description of our disclosure of beings. If we disclose beings in the manner Heidegger attempted to bring to light, then the notion of 'essence' as traditionally understood is fundamentally inadequate. What is needed, then, is a counter-phenomenology, not an abstract argument. Notes:

  1. To return to the issue of physics, perhaps the classic double-slit experiment also demonstrates a similar fact in relation to the physical world: the electron can be disclosed either as a wave or a particle, but not as both at once. I'm not certain how closely this resembles Heidegger's understanding as given above (i.e. it may not be a pertinent parallel), but I'll throw it out there for your consideration.


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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Essences Again

In my Presencing and Essencing, Tim comments:
Suppose Heidegger had said this:

"I know what you guys mean by 'essence,' which is the intrinsic, non-relational properties that make a thing the kind of thing it is. But you have also adopted the position that what is, in this sense, essential is all that is important. And that latter claim is what I want to dispute."

Then we'd all be on the same page and we could get into an interesting discussion. And a lot of analytic philosophers would be lining up on both sides.

Heidegger's point is that there are no "intrinsic, non-relational properties." Another way to put it is that we cannot give meaning to the idea of "intrinsic, non-relational properties." Let me return to one of my examples: the Rook. If we accept the substance/property metaphysic, then there must be essential properties that define Rookness, that make a Rook what it is. It cannot be the materiality of the Rook: it can be made of wood, plastic, or pixels on a computer screen. It cannot be the form of the Rook: it can be a tower, Darth Maul, or Lisa Simpson.

Rather, we understand the Rook in terms of how it moves: in a straight line. While this may be necessary, it certainly isn't sufficient; it is an impoverished understanding and fundamentally inadequate. A straight line in relation to what? The chess board. But this still isn't enough: it moves in a straight line either horizontally or vertically; it cannot move in a straight line diagonally, as can the Queen. This is certainly better, but already at this level we have understood the Rook relationally in terms of the board: its movements can only be adequately understood in terms of movement on a chess board, including constraints on that 'straight line' movement.

There is still more, however: the Rook can move in a straight line (horizontally or vertically) only where there are no other pieces. When there is an opposing piece, the Rook can 'capture' it by replacing its position, which then removes it from the board; when there is an ally piece, the Rook cannot capture it, but it can move in a straight line from its originating location to a square adjacent to that piece's square. Lastly, in relation to its movements, the Rook is capable of castling, with its respective rules. This, as far as my understanding goes, exhausts the movements of the Rook, which even on a fundamental level requires relations to be what it is in its 'Rookness.'

This is still a barren understanding, one that even a novice such as myself can possess. Beyond this, through countless hours of practice, the chess player learns the specific advantages and disadvantages of the Rook, including a feeling for when some moves are more appropriate or inappropriate than others (see Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus' From Socrates to Expert Systems for one good analysis of this move from novice to expert). At these higher levels the Rook's essence is not further divorced from the context, but further embedded in it; a feel or attunement for the context--which can vary up to thousands of possible contexts--is absolutely essential and constitutes a richer understanding of the Rook's being. I haven't even started on the chess master's grasp of the utility of the Rook against a particular player whose strategy might make the Rook more or less advantageous than usual.

This brings up a very important point in relation to Heidegger's understanding of beings: they are best understood, not in terms of their 'objective properties' (whatever those may be), but in terms of their possibilities. Let me use a more 'physical' example: an electron is not understood in terms of whatever properties it may 'possess,'1 but in what it can do in relation to other entities. For example, it allows for chemical bonding, it can pass through a conductor, it can exhibit wave-like and/or particle-like aspects, etc. Perhaps in some contexts the electron can be the final trigger for the onset of cancer or the potentiality of exploding a bomb. These are not context-independent properties that the electron 'possesses' of its own accord; they are context-dependent possibilities that give content to 'electron.' The question then comes up: does an electron have 'properties' if it is not interacting with other entities? Heidegger, as far as I know, has no answer to this; it lies in the realm of philosophy of science (see, as one of my favorite possibilities, Alfred North Whitehead; see also here). What is important, however, is that this is how we understand electrons: through their possibilities, not their actualities.

To end, let me return to the question of 'objective reality': our understanding and presencing of beings will necessarily do so in a context. To even understand what an electron is requires a whole background understanding of modes of experiment, experimental devices, hermeneutic practices for interpreting the 'data,' etc. Apart from this background we do not have meaningful entities; the electron is something-I-know-not-what rather than, well, an electron. Apart from an 'I' that can bring it into a context, it is not even some thing; any attribution of a property or mode of being to the entity would of necessity bring it into a context. But if we look at the Rook (as a more practical example for this argument) and its possible uses in wider non-chess contexts (like as a work of art), then we have a potentially infinite (or at least indeterminate) number of ways for understanding it, each requiring a different context in which to be intelligible.

This has at least two important consequences: first, if an object's 'essence' is at least partially constituted by its possibilities, then the substance/property metaphysic is inherently incomplete (which is one of Heidegger's main points in Being and Time). Essential properties by their very nature are actualities (actually, they are necessary actualities for the essence of the being), not possibilities. We may turn to 'relational properties,' but it is unclear whether they could actually fulfill the notion of possibility that Heidegger's phenomenology requires. Heidegger's phenomenology may be wrong, but then the substance/property proponent would have to provide a counter-phenomenology. Second, attaining an 'objective' non-contextual understanding of objects is impossible: it is not possible to simultaneously be in all possible contexts for a given object. Every understanding, though possibly true, is still finite, situated, contextual. It is unclear what a non-contextual object would appear as, or if it could appear at all.

In order for human beings to truthfully see beings, to see beings as they are, there must be a connection between our mode of seeing (or, as I am putting it here, our mode of presencing) and the 'constitution' of the being. Thus, if Heidegger is right, an epistemology/ontology/logic of substances and properties is fundamentally inadequate. Though a property analysis of an object does reveal something about the entity (as one context of intelligibility), it is intelligible and possible only on the background of a more fundamental understanding of beings in terms of their contextualized possibilities. It is only in refining these contextual possibilities--i.e. learning what is the best course of action for which contexts, how the entity acts in a given context, etc.--that we refine our understanding of the entity. Plato was wrong: we are not seeking the eternal unchanging entities, but an appropriate understanding of entities within their various contexts.


  1. Some physicists would have issues with this Newtonian concept:
    The atom of modern physics can be symbolized only through a partial differential equation in an abstract space of many dimensions. All its qualities are inferential; no material properties can be directly attributed to it.
    Werner Heisenberg in 1945, quoted in Alan A. Grometstein, The Roots of Things: Topics in Quantum Mechanics (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenium Publishers, 1999), 62.
    See also Yves Gingras' "What Did Mathematics Do to Physics?," in History of Science 39, 4/126 (2001), 383-416 (can be found online here).


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Creationism/ID vs. Evolution

I know this doesn't get to the heart of the debate (Addition: I don't personally endorse the views expressed on either side of this comic), but I thought it was funny (Addition: so please read it in that spirit):

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Philosophers' Carnival #32

The Philosophers' Carnival is back, this time hosted by Janet Stemwedel's Adventures in Ethics and Science blog. My post, Presencing and Essencing, got accepted in the "Continental Philosophy Beer Garden." Kudos to Janet for her interesting and imaginative presentation of the Carnival.

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