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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I like the approach to the postive 'nothing' as the excess of disclosure of a being.

I do have a couple questions:

If every disclosure of beings and, hence, every understanding of beings requires a context, how are we to understand "context" itself? Is there a context in which the bieng of "contextualization" is disclosed?

Near the end you stress that in Heidegger's phenomenological analysis "proper grasp of phenomena is essential," yet at the same time to goal is to disclose being(s). What is the relationship between "grasping" and "disclosing" - they don't seem like they go together?

1:44 PM  

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