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.

Notes:

  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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8 Comments:

Blogger Clark Goble said...

It might be helpful, Kevin, if you address in a followup post how Heidegger is an essentialist. I think that distinction confuses a lot of people.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Kevin,

I'm not sure how great our differences are in the case of the Rook. You write:

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.

Well, no -- that would hold only if you thought that a Rook is a substance, which surely wouldn't have been a popular position among traditional metaphysicians. On the contrary: the very fact that a Rook doesn't appear to have any intrinsic, non-relational properties might well have been thought to be a decisive reason to say that it isn't a substance. This would be in line with what I wrote:

On the example of the Rook: I don't think it's useful to speak of Rooks as having essences. It's certainly important to understand that Rooks move in certain ways and not in others, that one may castle under certain well-defined circumstances, etc. But what's the point of pressing the word "essence" into service here?

I have no particular objection to what you've summarized from the Dreyfus brothers; in fact, I focus on pattern recognition as a significant factor in my chess teaching. There's even an entire book designed on the premise that recognition of about 300 essential patterns is the principal difference between GMs and weaker players (Rashid Ziatdinov's GM-RAM).

The really interesting question is whether the case of the Rook can be generalized to things traditionally thought to be substances, such as matter and the soul.

Here, I confess, I'm somewhat baffled by your treatment of the electron. No one denies that one important clue to a things nature is the way that it behaves in various environments. But you seem to slide from how we arrive at an understanding of electrons in various complex contexts -- the "possibilities" they present, as you put it -- to some sort of negative conclusion about the traditional metaphysics of substance and accident. At the beginning of the paragraph you simply claim that beings "are best understood, not in terms of their 'objective properties' (whatever those may be), but in terms of their possibilities." At the end of the paragraph you seem to be taking an agnostic stance on the question of whether electrons have non-relational properties, saying simply that how we understand them is "what is important."

That doesn't sound as bold as the position you attribute to Heidegger at the outset where you write:

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."

This prompts me to ask, for clarification: are you deliberately being more modest than Heidegger in what you claim here?

Now, I'm not by any means wedded to any form of pure methodological atomism that says we must isolate an entity from all other entities in order to "truly understand" it. (I doubt if such a position has ever been widespread.) But in fairness, disentanglement of objects from some of the complexities of their surroundings has proven to be a very fruitful methodological principle. We're always trying to control for nuisance factors and statistical "noise" in the sciences. And much of Galileo's work in mechanics can be seen as a sustained attempt to reduce friction so that the natural behavior of objects could be seen more clearly.

9:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Butler said...

I think if your definition of object is broad enough, then of course there are no fundamentally instrinsic, non-relational properties. However, by broad enough, one would have to include universals.

In the case of an electron, mass and charge are its most fundamental properties, which no one has ever shown have any relation to something non-intrinsic, except the univerals mass and charge.

Now suppose you were in a universe with two electrons and a positron, and one of the electrons and the positron collided to form a high energy photon (the reverse of pair production). No physicist in his right mind would assume that the mass and charge of the remaining electron had gone away.

Indeed the photon could change back into a electron and a positron, and everything would be roughly the same as it was before.

Now Ernst Mach did some speculation along these lines, but due to the impracticality of constructing a universe with only a handful of particles and no observers, his speculations have not yet been tested, though some of them seem promising in the abstract.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

Tim,

Well, no -- that would hold only if you thought that a Rook is a substance, which surely wouldn't have been a popular position among traditional metaphysicians.

According to Moreland, properties also have properties that make them what they are; to have a property is to exist, in his metaphysic. Therefore, we can just as easily talk about 'Rookness' in this case as a substance. The fact of the matter is that a Rook is something intelligible, hence it must have an essence.

The really interesting question is whether the case of the Rook can be generalized to things traditionally thought to be substances, such as matter and the soul.

I think it can. Heidegger's notion of Dasein and Ricoeur's notion of narrative identity both posit the necessity of man's relationship with transcendent beings. Furthermore, both seem to be more true to the human mode of existence. In relation to the soul, this fits well with its Biblical use (primarily Old Testament): it essentially means 'life' or the passionate struggle of existence; it is not what one possess, but what one is. This, I would argue, implicitly requires a transcendent world.

But you seem to slide from how we arrive at an understanding of electrons in various complex contexts -- the "possibilities" they present, as you put it -- to some sort of negative conclusion about the traditional metaphysics of substance and accident.

To understand a being is to bring it to light in a particular context. To understand 'electron,' for it to have meaning, requires it being in a context and, hence, to be a relational being. The point Heidegger is raising is whether that context is the only one within which to understand the electron. I know Clark has some ideas about this in relation to Peirce's 'community of inquirers'--truth is not an objective thing that is outside a community; it is that which the community, after an unspecified amount of time, will eventually agree upon in light of all the mounting evidence. I'm currently writing up another post to address some of these issues.

But in fairness, disentanglement of objects from some of the complexities of their surroundings has proven to be a very fruitful methodological principle. We're always trying to control for nuisance factors and statistical "noise" in the sciences.

And perhaps that is a failing of science, then. I know that the psychological community has an upsurging group of thinkers who reject the attempt to find contextless principles of behavior or thought (some of them finding their impetus in Heidegger, though some misunderstand him by appropriating Sartre's reading of B&T). One of the primary difficulties in physics since Einstein is a particle's relationship to its background/context--can they be divorced or is it necessary for the being/properties of the particle? I'm just saying that it is an open question, meaning that the substance/property view is not so commonsensical as it is often thought to be.

And much of Galileo's work in mechanics can be seen as a sustained attempt to reduce friction so that the natural behavior of objects could be seen more clearly.

Yes, but an environment with friction is just as "natural" as not (perhaps more so, if there are no absolute vacuums in space). Again, perhaps this attempt to divorce objects from their contexts is a faulty methodology, one that distorts more than it reveals. Clark really has more of a feel for modern physics than I do, so I hope he comments on this (and corrects me if I am wrong, which is entirely possible).

10:44 AM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Mark, I think Heidegger's point is a tad different from the Leibniz attempt at fully relativized physics. I'll fully admit that Leibniz' aim that was taken up by Mach and then Einstein is something I'm very sympathetic to. But I'll fully admit that even GR entails substantial space-time. So thus far it's a failure, although topic is still lively in debates about quantum gravity.

However that's not really what Heidegger is getting at. I think he's talking about Being (or what it means to be for us) and is, in effect, simply rejecting the thing-in-itself that Kant proposed. Peirce did the same thing. That is all properties thus become relative to a perceiver for them "to be."

Heidegger doesn't mind then moving from this into the theoretical stance where we can create what he calls ontic constructions. (Roughly physical theory) But he feels that these physical theories are grounded on our ability as perceivers to have the things appear to us in a relation.

That is the issue is less whether the theory as given in description is fully relative than the means by which we can come to experience it is fully relative.

Does that make sense?

I should add, as I've mentioned at my blog, that not everyone takes Heidegger as an ontic realist. So some will dispute this way of reading him and will adopt a more thorough and idealist form of entities. In this sense there is no ontic realism just idealism ala Kant minus the things-in-themselves.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

Clark,

We should also note that the idealistic interpretation of Heidegger is the admitted minority. Even William Blattner, who has advanced this thesis more than anyone else, is willing to admit as much.

Overall, I think your emphasis on the question of being is right: Heidegger should not be interpreted in any other way. His explicit aim was fundamental ontology, not psychology, sociology, or epistemology. His views will have consequences for these fields, but they are not his direct concern.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Kevin Winters said...

Clark,

Admittedly, I don't know what you mean by "essentialist." If you can help me out I can try to post on it.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Clark Goble said...

Hmm. If I have time I'll whip up a post on Heidegger the essentialist.

6:44 PM  

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