Thursday, May 10, 2007

Siris on Clarity

Siris has an interesting post on clarity. Following from Nigel Warburton's claim that "[c]larity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying," Siris raises the important question: who are the readers? Can I take any clear account in analytic philosophy, walk the streets, give it to any randomly chosen passerby, and expect them to say, "Yeah, this is clear; I know exactly what they are saying!" No, since understanding and seeingly clear what another is saying depends on the background familiarity of the reader.

Ricoeur talks about this in terms of mimesis3: "the intersection of the world of the text and the world of the hearer or reader; the intersection, therefore, of the world configured by the poem and the world wherein real action occurs and unfolds" (71). It is the point where the understanding of the reader, including the kinds of texts, disciplines, and ways of thinking that they are familiar with, comes to bear on the text and influences how it is seen. This is seen particularly in literature, but also in the sciences: a proponent of string theory will approach a text on quantum physics quite differently from one that follows a Copenhagen-type approach; a philosopher of science and scientific history will read the same text in a different way, as different aspects of the text will be more salient than others.

Siris brings up the question of taste, which I think is relevant. Gadamer, in Truth and Method, gives a similar account (also relying on the Scottish philosophy): "The concept of taste undoubtedly implies a mode of knowing. The mark of good taste is being able to stand back from ourselves and our private preferences. Thus taste, in its essential nature, is not private but a social phenomenon of the first order" (36). Gadamer then goes on to recount how taste became a "subjective" thing, particularly through Kant. The essential tie to both ethics, epistemology, and, Heidegger and Gadamer both argue, ontology is lost in the wake of modernity's subjectivism and individualism.

Many readers decry Heidegger's enigmatic writing style, stumbling over neologisms and such. But once you really dwell with his writings and get a feel (or a sense) for both what he is saying and, perhaps more particularly, how he is saying it, then it is much clearer (though still not easy). The same must be true of analytical texts: it takes time, it takes developing (literally) the skills to see what the author is saying so that, even if the sentence structure is not spot on, you can still understand what they are saying. Then, when asked to demonstrate that we are reading correctly (that we really have this sense of the text), we will eventually be pushed to (a variation on) Wittgenstein's claim: "This is simply what I [sense]."

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Another Misunderstanding of Heidegger

In a piece for The Conservative Voice, writer Albert Brenner attempts to expose the myth of the Noble Savage. In the course of doing so, he quotes and comments on Peter Winch in the following:
Be that as it may; following from Martin Heidegger’s notion that ‘language is the house of being’, Winch comes to the following conclusion; “Reality is not what gives language sense. What is real and what is unreal shows itself in the sense language has”. Brutally summarized; what Winch is saying1 is that the respective discourses (i.e. language games) of disparate societies are what give sense to their approximation of what constitutes reality, in their disparate ‘realities’.
To put it bluntly, this is not "following...Heidegger"! Language is that which brings beings to light in their being, not some mere language game2 that follows the whims of society. The quote comes from Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" that, strangely enough, argues against this kind of an interpretation. He speaks of the "dominance of the modern metaphysics of subjectivity" that would submit language to the "mere willing and trafficking as an instrument of domination over beings" (Basic Writings, 222-223). While he then immediately applies this to the technological understanding of beings—as mere resources for human consumption—it applies equally well to Winch's subjectivist interpretation. "Before he speaks man must first let himself be claimed again by being" (223). Perhaps the most apt response would be the following quote:
Man does not decide whether and how beings appear, whether and how God and the gods or history and nature come forward into the clearing of being, come to presence and depart. The advent of being lies in the destiny [Geschick: suitability, capacity, or enabling {see 220}] of being. But for man it is ever a question of finding what is fitting in his essence that corresponds to such destiny [Geschick]; for in accord with this destiny man as ek-sisting [as essentially open to beings] has to guard the truth of being. Man is the shepherd of being. (234)
Man is not the dictator of being, either as the being that absolutely determines the real (as in Winch's interpretation, or Brenner's misinterpretation of Winch) or the domineering technological man. He is the shepherd, the one who must preserve and watch over being (see "Building Dwelling Thinking," in Poetry, Language, Thought, 143-159).


  1. It is unclear on whether this is actually what Winch is saying or whether it is simply another bad attempt of the media to understand what an academic is saying. In any case, Brenner is wrong in thinking that what he says follows from Heidegger.
  2. Though I am not familiar with Wittgenstein's work, I do not think this would be an accurate understanding of what he is trying to say either.


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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Malpas' New Book, Heidegger's Topology: Being, Place, World

Gary Sauer-Thompson posted yesterday on Jeff Malpas' new book, Heidegger's Topology: Being, Place, World. The book sounds fascinating and the works he consults merely add to that fascination, moving from Being and Time to post-Turn works (e.g., "The Thing" and "Building Dwelling Thinking"). Here's the blurb on the MIT Press page (don't miss the sample chapter):
This groundbreaking inquiry into the centrality of place in Martin Heidegger's thinking offers not only an illuminating reading of Heidegger's thought but a detailed investigation into the way in which the concept of place relates to core philosophical issues. In Heidegger's Topology, Jeff Malpas argues that an engagement with place, explicit in Heidegger's later work, informs Heidegger's thought as a whole. What guides Heidegger's thinking, Malpas writes, is a conception of philosophy's starting point: our finding ourselves already "there," situated in the world, in "place." Heidegger's concepts of being and place, he argues, are inextricably bound together.

Malpas follows the development of Heidegger's topology through three stages: the early period of the 1910s and 1920s, through Being and Time, centered on the "meaning of being"; the middle period of the 1930s into the 1940s, centered on the "truth of being"; and the late period from the mid-1940s on, when the "place of being" comes to the fore. (Malpas also challenges the widely repeated arguments that link Heidegger's notions of place and belonging to his entanglement with Nazism.) The significance of Heidegger as a thinker of place, Malpas claims, lies not only in Heidegger's own investigations but also in the way that spatial and topographic thinking has flowed from Heidegger's work into that of other key thinkers of the past 60 years.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Heidegger and Sponge Bob Square Pants

In a final comment in an article on labor in Australia, we find an unrelated, but utterly profound comment on the true significance of Sponge Bob Square Pants through the lens of Heidegger:
Science is a wonderful thing, is it not? According to the latest research, the origin of the human species is to be found at the bottom of the sea, not in an octopus's garden, but in a sponge bed. So Sponge Bob Square Pants is more than just a cartoon. Heidegger was right: In art, the truth.

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