Suppose Heidegger had said this: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.
"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.
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.
- 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.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).
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.
Labels: Later Heidegger