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Is Nature Continuous or Discrete? How the Atomist Error Was Born

Thomas Nail
University of Denver


Image result for lucretius

The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.

Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.

Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe. (more…)

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Heidegger’s Political Theory and the Concept of the Event

Amogha Sahu
University of Toronto


Abstract

In this paper I would like to answer four questions:

  1. How (and more importantly where) does politics arise in Being and Time?
  2. How can we trace the roots of Heidegger’s Nazism, from the author of Being and Time to his ‘Nazi’ works of the 1930s?
  3. How does the concept of the Event, considered to be the central concept of Heidegger’s later philosophy, relate to questions (1) and (2)?
  4. To what extent is Heidegger’s philosophy tied to 1930s Fascism?

How is Heidegger a Political Thinker?

One of the things about Heidegger’s thought that has been the source of extensive critical comment is its (supposed) lack of an ethical/political core. Many of his ‘Children’ [1] have made just such a claim, ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre [2], who claimed to provide an existential basis for political engagement; Emmanuel Levinas [3], who argued that Heidegger could not (in any real sense) have had an ethics, as an ethical orientation was necessarily prior to Heideggerian phenomenology into the ‘political’; and even Michel Foucault [5], whose implicit Heideggerianism led to A reimagining of Heideggerian Being-in-the-world in terms of phenomenology of power and discourse. All of these thinkers considered themselves (explicitly and implicitly) to be providing an ethics Heidegger himself failed to propound.

Notably, for many in this camp, the philosophical source of Heidegger’s Nazism is not his explicitly avowed commitments to Hitler and Mussolini [6], nor the connections he draws between their Fascist movements and his own philosophical opposition to Western metaphysics, but the lack of explicit political philosophy (in the fullest sense of the term). This gap was filled by Nazism, something Heidegger got ‘carried away with’ because of his own social and historical context, and which can be distinguished from his fundamental ontology [7].

While I disagree with the view adumbrated above, any reasonable reader of Heidegger must acknowledge that, at the very least, it is not prima facie clear that there is a necessary connection between (i) the desire to renew the question of the meaning of Being through existential phenomenology and (ii) a concrete programme for political action (never mind Fascism). Those of us raised in the analytic tradition tend to see metaphysics and politics as two distinct enterprises [8], where the latter is concerned with what ought to be the case and the former with what is the case.

Now, it is obviously true that a complete description of the world must do justice to both the political and the ethical, but it certainly does not seem that the normative is a distinct realm from the natural such that they cannot be accounted for in the same way. Any project which attempts to unite them has to do some argumentative heavy-lifting in order to demonstrate how one might flow from the other (or at least that they have a common root).

In order to demonstrate the heavy-lifting Heidegger undertakes in Being and Time (his first major work [9]), we must begin from the author’s own starting-point and reconstruct a politics from there. He opens the work with the claim that, ‘Our aim, in this treatise, is to work out the question of the meaning of Being and to do so concretely’ (§1). The starting-point that we are looking for is thus this very question.

Why is Heidegger interested in this? He thinks the tradition of Western metaphysics suffers from Seinsvergessenheit, the forgetting of Being. This is not to say it has not claimed to undertake an ontology, for most metaphysicians before Heidegger would have claimed to be doing just that: even since Plato, the West has desired to seek the Being of Beings: it has investigated ordinary objects in attempt to discover what grounds them. Thus, one goes from the least fundamental (the ordinary objects we encounter in our everyday lives) to the most fundamental (Epicurean atoms, Cartesian substance, Plato’s forms, and so on). Heidegger sees this enterprise as fundamentally flawed, and the way to understand this claim is to read it as a criticism of an assumption at the level of metaontology, in that the problem is not the failure to possess an understanding of the meaning of Being [10], but that the employed understanding of Being is not fit for purpose.

This ‘restrictive understanding’ is, at bottom, the claim that to be is to be an object, or, to use Heidegger’s terminology, an entity which is present-at-hand. Secondly, this restrictive understanding of Being leads to an inability to understand the distinctive structure of human subjectivity, except as a kind of object. So human beings are thus understood as zoon politikon in Aristotle’s politics, or res cogitans, a Cartesian thinking thing.

The restrictive conception of mind leads to what Heidegger terms ‘homelessness’ in the modern age. Activities that are distinctively human—e.g. aesthetics, ethics, human sciences—have only questionable validity relative to the sciences which investigate the world of entities, i.e. the natural sciences. Furthermore, the disembodied view of human subjectivity presented above leads to ‘homelessness’ in a deeper, metaphysical sense: one where the mind can only really be said to be part of the world if (i) it exists in a realm which is ontologically distinct (as per Cartesian dualism) or (ii) the world is the mere projection of the mind (as per Berkeleyian idealism). Due to these failures of traditional metaphysical thinking, Heidegger wants to reframe the question such that the metaphysical split between subject and object, or between mind and world, can be healed. We have to reformulate the question of the meaning of Being so that the problems of its metaphysical conception do not arise again. Heidegger thinks that this method of existential phenomenology will allow us to tackle the question of Being in a better way.

In order to ask the question of Being’s meaning correctly, we must inspect our experience without the fetters placed on us by Western metaphysics. This inspection is thus a phenomenological one in that it aims to gain a systematic (logos) understanding of the way the world is disclosed to us (the way that it appears, i.e. phenomenally) (§35). Phenomenology presupposes some notion of subjectivity as a being to whom Being is disclosed. Heidegger calls this being Dasein. Dasein, or being-there, must be the cornerstone for any investigation into the meaning of Being, as it is the only being for whom the question of the Being of beings is at issue. Indeed, as Heidegger will later demonstrate, Dasein’s understanding of the nature of Being is constitutive of being-there. It is thus a being which is intimately connecting to Being, in a way that a rock, for example, is not. Hence, ‘The investigation into the question of Being must be understood as an existential analytic of Dasein’ (§41).

Heidegger wants to stress in his re-investigation of the meaning of Being that Dasein’s Being has three characteristics, necessarily: being-in-the-world, being-in and being-with. Its necessary being-in-the-world reflects Heidegger’s claim that the primary relation between human beings and the world is not a cognitive one. Unlike the Western tradition—which sees the world as primarily composed of entities which are present-at-hand and whose nature is to be accessed by detached reflection—Heidegger thinks the world we are embedded in is a ‘totality of significances and references,’ the nature of which is structured by our interests and projects. We are already in the world, where the world is a context for practical action (or, as he puts it, a ‘site for the projection of possibilities’ (§149)). Heidegger calls the Being of Beings in this world of practical action ‘ready-to-hand’ Being. Secondly, he thinks Being is necessarily disclosed to Dasein in a context of mood (Bestimmung) (§134). Moods are not simply inward subjective drives, but act as ‘turning forks,’ illuminating the world as a context for practical action. In other words, the ready-to-hand world is ‘lit up’ by moods, which ensure that certain parts of the world are more salient than others. Heidegger also says the Being of Dasein is care, where care is a kind of primordial orientation to the world as world, a primitive desire to make sense of it, in the broadest sense of the term (§131).

Thirdly, Dasein’s Being is also Being-with (§114-5): its actions necessarily take place with respect to a social understanding of Being’s meaning. Here ‘the they,’ Heidegger’s term for a community, provide a certain basic understanding of what it is to be a human being, and an accompanying prescribed set of skills and practices which help orient members of that community. This is made explicit in phenomenological interrogation, where the conventions and rules we follow to survive are revealed as ‘just what one does.’ It is important to note that at this point Heidegger does not normatively judge as to the authenticity or inauthenticity of what he calls ‘Mitsein’; rather he claims that a socially mediated understanding of Being’s meaning is a necessary prerequisite of Dasein being what it is.

The above is a basic account of Division I of Being and Time, which articulates the Being of Dasein in spatial terms. The author sees the disclosure of the meaning of Being as necessarily temporal, however, and must thus give an account of this in Division II (§233-4). This lack of emphasis in temporality in Division I seems also to coincide with the lack of any normative framework, at least so far; this is not merely a coincidence, since many aspects of ‘the political’ are necessarily temporally structured, ranging from concerns about the durability of a political order to the possibility of a revolution. Division II does a lot more to sketch out Heidegger’s account of temporality. The first thing to note is that the distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand is prerequisite for understanding Heidegger’s revised account of time. The way we traditionally think about time is as a linear, measurable, discrete set of temporal points; Heidegger wants to get us to think of time in phenomenological terms, however—in terms of our more immediate experience of time. This reconception can be understood with reference to three key Heideggerian concepts: thrownness, authenticity, and temporality.

I will begin with thrownness because it is most easily rendered intelligible given the extent of the discussion of Division I above. Thrownness, for Heidegger, is part of Dasein’s facticity: he speaks of ‘factically thrown Dasein’ (§135). Facticity and thrownness are both initially connected to Heidegger’s discussion of Das Man (or ‘the they’), where he claims that Dasein’s facticity is constituted by its absorption into certain conventions and traditions (which he describedsas ‘fallenness’ (§176)).  Thrownness, meanwhile, has a more existential interpretation, where one recognizes one’s Being-in-the-world as radically contingent.

I am thrown into a world in which I am forced into my facticity, which is best understood not simply as the brute fact of my social embeddedness, but in terms of the ‘limits’ placed on me by my biology. However, one’s thrownness into one’s own facticity is not simply a natural condition which one has to resign oneself to: Heidegger speaks of ‘thrown projection’ (§145), where one’s capacity for free action, to break from the conventions and idle talk of Das Man is emphasized. His talk of Dasein’s ‘potentiality’ reflects this (almost Sartrean, but crucially not quite) emphasis on Dasein’s ontological freedom.

This freedom talk, and the talk about the need to break from Das Man suggests we have already made the break from fundamental ontology to normative valuation (insofar as the two are even separate). In order to flesh this out it is necessary to discuss Heidegger’s central normative concept, authenticity. He thinks that it has to do with ‘being able to understand one’s own and uttermost potentiality-for-Being’ (§..)  What one is being authentic to, when one is being authentic in the Heideggerian sense, is Dasein’s ability to project itself beyond itself (be-ahead-of-itself in the world), to undertake projects which create new possibilities.

Authenticity is intimately connected to Heidegger’s notion of Being-toward-Death, too. As Heidegger puts it, ‘Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be actualized, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could be […] Being-toward-Death, as anticipation of possibility, is what first makes this possibility possible, and sets the basis for this possibility’ (§250-251). The way one reaches this state of existential Being-toward-Death is for Dasein to anticipatorily and resolutely confront the possibility of its non-Being, thus reaffirming its freedom ‘a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the they, and which is factical, certain of itself and anxious’ (§266).

Authentic existence is this existence in the full recognition of the possibility of non-existence, and is thus existence that is anxious. This anxiety is not negative, however. It is an anxiety which reveals a human being in full possession of his own finitude, and a recognition of his own freedom given this full possession. Another dimension of authenticity is a recognition of the nullity at the heart of thrown projection. As a human being undertaking projects, all of which are different from one other, one has to commit to certain projects and possibilities, and to let some others fall away into nothingness. The nothingness that is truly threatening is the nothingness which results from the inability to realize the myriad possibilities which are thrown away in the course of authentic action. In recognition of this fact, authentic Dasein must own its choices, and to own up completely to the fact that it has picked a certain path and certain other paths have fallen away. This is still a very formal account of authenticity, however, and one that will hopefully be clarified through the discussion of temporality below.

Inauthentic Dasein is the antithesis of the virtues relevant to authentic Dasein which Heidegger lays out. It flees from death, shocked by the freedom of Dasein to project its own possibilities into the future; it retreats into the ‘idle talk’ (§ 167-168) of the ‘they,’ which prevents it from thinking about this freedom (§167-8). It also abrogates any responsibility for its choices by claiming to be following the instructions laid down to it by some social authority.

I will end with temporality because it is most easily connected to where we left off in Division I. Heidegger begins his discussion of the existential-temporal analytic of Dasein with the following quotation:

Temporality has manifested itself as the basis of the meaning of Being as care. So that which our preparatory existential analytic of Dasein contributed before temporality was laid bare, now has been taken back into temporality as the Primordial structure of Dasein’s totality of Being (§436).

In other words, time, which was overlooked above, is now revealed to be a fundamental structure underlying the ‘meaningful, ready-to-hand’ world discussed above. How so? Recall the discussion of Dasein’s Being as care. This primordial orientation, a desire to make sense of the world and be connected to it in some way, is necessarily temporally structured. We care about the world because we want to make sense of it before we die [11]. Time acts as a ‘horizon’ for the meaningful disclosure of Being; as Heidegger puts it, ‘The existential and temporal condition of the possibility of the world lies in the fact that temporality, as an ecstatic unity, has something like a horizon’ (§365).

Authenticity is also understood, for Heidegger, in terms of temporality—for it is done so in terms of Dasein’s ability to project itself into the future through the pursuit of projects. Time is understood, for authentic Dasein, not in terms of a linear sequence, but in those of a unity between past, present and future drawn together by Dasein’s projection of possibilities. It follows that inauthentic Being has a repetitive and ‘monotonous’ character, characterized not by its own projects, but through the blind repetition of social conventions. Its temporality is the linear time of the present-at-hand, where the even and homogenous character of temporality signifies the repetition and dull homogeneity at the core of inauthentic Dasein.

So far, what we have is the beginnings of a political philosophy. It does not yet have the reactionary character some would attribute to Heidegger. Indeed, its emphasis on freedom, the contingency of human existence, the ability of Being to reinvent itself through its projects, and the need to reject the stifling impacts of conformity bear a lot of resemblance to certain modern conceptions of the self. It can very easily be read as a critique of modernity from a modern standpoint.

It might be argued that Heidegger’s critique of ‘the they,’ and ‘publicness,’ with the ‘idle talk’ that characterizes it, is a critique of the polis or the ‘public sphere’ in liberal-democratic societies. This certainly appears to be the case, as he would disapprove of the ‘rational animal’ conception of human beings which underlies a lot of these concepts. It is not clear at this point that this should be read as a critique of deliberation as such or of liberalism as such, however. Heidegger’s problem with ‘the they’ is not uniquely a problem with ‘the political sphere,’ but one with any social structure that prevents the potentiality-for-Being essential to Dasein through the imposition of strict rules.

It might also be argued that Heidegger is opposing a certain kind of liberal universalism, with all his talk of ‘horizons’ and the importance of retreating from universal abstractions—such as those implicit in the Cartesian conception of the world—to particular meaningful activities. A retreat from liberal universalism can in turn be read as a carte blanche for any kind of oppression of people who are outside your immediate sphere of practical, meaningful action. Any appeal to ‘human rights’ can be criticized as merely present-at-hand (insofar as the concept of ‘the rational human subject’ which underpin human rights was founded in a metaphysics of entities which Heidegger calls ‘present-at-hand’), while the oppressive activities of one’s own community can allow Being to meaningfully disclose itself.

This charge is, again, unfair. While it is true that Heidegger opposes a certain kind of universality, it also seems like his theoretical framework might be used to criticize any appeal to the primacy of a ‘community to whom Being is meaningfully disclosed.’ Indeed, all we have now is an account of the possibility of Dasein’s living authentically; we do not even have an account of how a community might live authentically. Heidegger’s critique of ‘the they’ can be extended to any community, be it the public sphere of liberal democracy or the ecstatic crowds cheering Hitler on in the mid-1930s. And indeed his own critique of universality is only skin-deep. Heidegger frequently claims that he is revealing universal ontological structures for Dasein as such in Being and Time. This claim seems to suggest that anyone can be authentic, at least in principle.

The Root of Heidegger’s Nazism

It might seem from the above that I wish to remove any connection between Heidegger’s early philosophy and his later affiliation with Nazism. This is not the case; I merely wish to pinpoint the most direct source of Heidegger’s Nazi politics in Being and Time, that being his discussion of historicality [12] in the last sections of the book. For Heidegger Dasein is not embedded in history understood as an abstract progression of events detached from individual experience—as in the Hegelian account—but in time, by virtue of projecting possibilities into the future, and so on. Dasein’s ‘historicality’ has to be understood in terms of its facticity; it is a condition that Dasein is thrown into and has not chosen, but it is something with which it must deal. Historicality becomes important as the answer to this Heideggerian question, ‘Whence, in general, does Dasein draw the possibilities upon which it factically projects itself?’ (§383).

This question is possibly the most vital for any account of Heidegger’s political philosophy in Being and Time, for—on the account sketched out in the previous section—the projection of possibilities was articulated as though it were a spasm of pure creativity, a heroic wrenching away from ‘the they’ and into an unknown future.

It is this creative character which was implied in authenticity, and which allowed us to head off some early critiques of his early philosophy. If Heidegger makes a move to circumscribe the space of possibilities for what counts as authentic thrown projection, he will be less equipped to respond to those critiques laid out previously. Heidegger does just this: as he puts it, ‘The resoluteness with which Dasein comes back to itself, discloses current factical possibilities of authentic existing, and discloses them as that heritage which that resoluteness as thrown, takes over” (§383).

The concept of heritage completely changes the map. If heritage is to be understood as what allows for the possibility of authentic Being, we now conceive of authenticity not as a form of projection of possibilities upon nothing, but a form of projection where Dasein ‘historicizes,’ i.e. takes on certain aspects of traditions that it has received, and reconfigures them in order to found a new mode of Being. Heidegger calls this process ‘repetition’ and a ‘handing over,’ which constitutes the ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ of a Dasein (§ 386/387).

The historicality of Dasein is constituted by this process of repetitive reappropriation, which is thrown projection into the future conditioned by the appropriation of a particular historical tradition. Heidegger also suggests that this process of appropriation involves ‘choosing a hero’ (B&T §385), which also allows one to see the communal dimension of authenticity in a way that was less clear previously, as a community can be authentic insofar as it participates in this process of historical reappropriation. History as such cannot be the province of an individual person in the way that Heidegger’s abstract Time [13] can, as historical inheritance (or tradition) is more intersubjective than the previous, more individualistic conception of facticity previously mentioned. Not only is authenticity not more circumscribed relative to what it was previously: we now have a possible formulation of a certain kind of fascist politics in the language of Heideggerian authenticity. It is now all too easy to see how all the talk of ‘horizons’ can act as a justification for a heroic embrace of a politics which claims to embrace the ‘destiny’ of a particular people. It is also easy to see how such an analysis of historicality can lead a German to embrace a movement which selectively appropriates certain elements of German history—the German ‘traditional inheritance’—and claims to find a ‘unique destiny’ for its people [14].

Late Heidegger

Heidegger’s philosophical oeuvre is generally divided into two parts: the Early Heidegger, whose views are roughly demarcated in Being and Time, and the Late Heidegger, who believes the work failed to overcome Western metaphysics in the way he intended. For the latter, the account of Dasein’s Being only begins to overcome Western metaphysics; it still contains its vestiges [15], as it essentially results in a kind of Kantian Idealism (insofar as it aims to investigate the necessary conditions of possibility for how the world shows itself to us). Though Heidegger does not want to renounce his early work completely, he does want to claim that it displayed an anthropocentricism which conceded too much to traditional metaphysical thinking [16].

Heidegger’s later project is to eliminate this source of anthropocentrism, i.e. the implicit claim that Being is dependent on Dasein. Thus, he casts around for structures which transcend the anthropocentric focus on Dasein prevalent in Being and Time, such as the History of Being, God, Nature and the Event. The structure I will focus on here is Heidegger’s latter concept and its implications for his Nazism. The Event, first introduced in Heidegger’s work ‘Contributions to Philosophy’ [17], denotes a ‘radical rupture,’ which completely transforms the way Being is disclosed to Dasein. As such, it is best understood in the context of his history of Being. Heidegger’s later work chronicles the ways Being has been disclosed to Dasein in human history; the transition between modes of Being is an evental transition. There is no dialectical process where there is a predictable movement from one mode of Being to another; the Event is a rupture, which generates the precondition for the disclosure of the new mode of Being such that it establishes its own chronology [18].

There is no way to predict or anticipate it, for it is radically ungrounded. All we can do is attune ourselves, like a member of the faithful, to a new disclosure of Being to Dasein, in order to be ‘steadfast’ in our ‘preparedness for the disclosure of the truth of Being’ [19]. The Event is significant to an analysis of Heidegger’s Nazism because his claim that the mode of Being which we (quite catastrophically) find ourselves in is called ‘modern technicity.’ This [20] is Heidegger’s term for the mode of Being which sees all beings as ‘standing reserve’ for the improvement of efficiency. Technicity is Heidegger’s pin-up for all that is negative (from his perspective) about modernity, from the machine-like logic of technology to the destruction of meaningful human community or the nihilism resulting from modern thinking. Though he did not have the concept of technicity, he had a critique of modernity as nihilistic: his engagement with Nazism was not solely due to his understanding of the uniqueness of the German people, as suggested above, but also the fact that the Nazis aimed to combat this nihilism at the very heart of modernity.

Insofar as Heidegger wants to transition from the mode of Being in late modernity (or modern technicity for Late Heidegger) to an era revealing the truth of it, his theory of the Event is the closest we might get to a philosophical account of how such a transition might occur. Though we have good retrospective evidence that Heidegger considered Nazism to be an Event, this Event might also provide a good blueprint for a Heideggerian politics as such.

How can the Event be read politically? The obvious analogy is that of political revolution; and indeed the most radical possible revolution, a revolution in the mode of Being. The Event can thus be read as a complete transformation of the rules of the game. It should not, however, be read as a change simply for the sake of change. Heidegger speaks of the ‘voice of Being,’ or the ‘call of Being,’ which suggests some people, or some groups of people, might be more receptive to Being than others (the talk of ‘destiny’ seems to confirm this, inasmuch as destiny is almost by definition an attribute of a particular person or community). The talk of ‘rules’ above can be taken quite literally, where those considered to be more receptive to Being can quite literally be the source of the law [21]. This ‘politics of the Event’ seems to be the point at which Heidegger’s liberal critics are the most persuasive [22]. The charge that there is no space for any kind of conception of universal humanity in Heidegger has some purchase in Being and Time—as I have attempted to outline—but this concept comes to the fore in his theory of the Event. Even if one does not accept Heidegger’s assertion that the German people are ideally placed to answer the call of Being, one cannot simply reject the problematic split between ‘people exalted by destiny’ and ‘people unable to appreciate the true nature of the Event.’ Not only is this conceptual distinction by definition a block to any possible universalistic politics—as its dual structure has the potential to etherize —it leaves open the possibility of excluding a particular out-group. This structure also bears a striking (and unsettling) resemblance to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s theory of the state in the Concept of the Political [23], which draws a strict distinction between friend and alien, where the vitality of a particular political community is guaranteed by virtue of continual reference to the ‘alien’ who is ‘existentially’ other to those within the community.  In Heideggerian terms, the Event leading to the formation of a ‘horizon’ will also generate an ontological distinction between those who demonstrate ‘fidelity’ to the Event and those who do not. Neither of these elaborations of the Heideggerian Event do much to quieten his critics; indeed, the comparison made above ought to make the cries louder!

Conclusion

I have traced Heidegger’s political thinking from Being and Time to his later work (such as The Question concerning Technology and The Event). In doing so I have drawn systematic connections between Heidegger’s political concepts and his theory of time. I have also attempted to discern a philosophical basis for his engagement with Nazism, and attempted to evaluate his political theories. Though I have found this philosophical basis—contrary to the assertions of many Heideggerians—I have aimed to remain faithful to the deep philosophical questions with which Heidegger found himself wrestling.

*

Notes

  1. Wolin, Richard. Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse. Princeton University Press, 2015.
  2. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and nothingness. Open Road Media, 2012.
  3. Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority. Vol. 1. Springer Science & Business Media, 1979.
  4. Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  5. Nichols, Robert. The world of freedom: Heidegger, Foucault, and the politics of historical ontology. Stanford University Press, 2014.
  6. Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. “Schelling’s treatise on the essence of human freedom.” (1989).
  7. Arendt, Hannah. The life of the mind. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981.
  8. Pigden, Charles. “Is–Ought Gap.” The International Encyclopedia of Ethics(2013).
  9. Heidegger, Martin. “Being and time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.” (1962).
  10. Indeed, Heidegger argues in the first section of Being and Time that Dasein necessarily possesses an understanding of the meaning of Being.
  11. My understanding of this point can reasonably be credited to the following article by Thomas Sheehan. Sheehan, Thomas. “A paradigm shift in Heidegger research.” Continental philosophy review 34, no. 2 (2001): 183-202.
  12. Karl Lowith confirms my point when he claims, ‘Heidegger agreed with me without reservation, and added that his concept of “historicity” was the basis of his political “engagement.”‘ (Lowith, Karl. ‘My last meeting with Heidegger in Rome, 1936.’ Wolin, Heidegger Controversy 142 (1986).)
  13. Indeed, Heidegger repeatedly insists that the Death which ends the ‘lived time’ which he chronicles is Dasein’s ‘ownmost,’ that is to say, Dasein necessarily experiences its death in a singular, individual fashion.
  14. Thomas Sheehan correctly points out that that Heidegger believed that the Germans had a special access to the Thought of Being, as their language has an ‘inner special kinship’ with Greek people. (Sheehan, Thomas. “Heidegger and the Nazis.” The New York Review of Books 35, no. 10 (1988): 38-47.)
  15. Heidegger himself claimed that Kant was the source of his fundamental ontology in Being and Time, and he referred to his fundamental ontology as ‘veritas transcendentalis’ (B&T p.38), a reference to Kant’s “transcendental philosophy” in the Critique of Pure Reason.
  16. Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on humanism.” Basic writings 204 (1977): 39.
  17. Heidegger, Martin. Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event). Indiana University Press, 2012.
  18. The Birth of Christ is a good example. Time is literally reorganized around that Event
  19. Heidegger, Martin. The event. Indiana University Press, 2013., sec. 20
  20. Heidegger, Martin. “The question concerning technology.” Technology and values: Essential readings (1954): 99-113.
  21. ‘Let not propositions and “ideas” be the rules of your being (Sein). The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!’ (Rectoral Address Nov 1933, Heidegger, R. Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy (MIT Press, 1993), chapter 2.)
  22. I refer here primarily to Wolin (1992) and Farias (1991).
  23. Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the political: Expanded edition. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

The Oxford Philosopher Speaks to… Stephen Boulter

9781137322814Stephen Boulter is a Senior Lecturer and Field Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Oxford Brookes University. Having completed his PhD at the University of Glasgow, he is now both a published author (see Metaphysics from a Biological Point of View and The Rediscovery of Common Sense Philosophy) and a respected member of Oxford’s philosophical milieu. Boulter has also been contracted to the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) as a Development Officer and National Trainer of Scotland’s philosophy A-level. His research interests include the philosophy of language, the philosophy of evolutionary biology, perception, metaphysics, virtue ethics, Aristotle, and medieval philosophy. We at The Oxford Philosopher interrupted these interests for a moment to ask Boulter a few questions about his own experience of philosophy as an academic discipline.

What was the first piece of philosophical literature you read from beginning to end, and have you revisited it since?

My first piece of philosophical literature read from beginning to end was Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. It was part of a course that included Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. I’ve reread the work many times since. Part of my current research focuses on the continuities between scholasticism and early modern philosophy – the theme of the so-called ‘long middle ages’ – so there is a sense in which I’ve never stopped reading it.

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Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: A Hopeless Case?

George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University


Abstract

The interpretive mayhem engendered by Immanuel Kant’s Critique has, in the space of two centuries, yet to provide a standard or altogether satisfactory exegesis of transcendental idealism, a theory which on all counts lies at the very heart of Kantian philosophy. This paper aims to delineate two of transcendental idealism’s most salient readings in hope of proffering a well-considered comparison and, ultimately, a proposal that neither interpretation provides an account which conforms unerringly to Kant’s own promulgations.

Part I: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism

The Kantian doctrine of transcendental idealism concerns itself with the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, i.e.. objects as they appear to us and objects as they are in and of themselves. Kant’s finishing thesis on the matter posits the human mind as an active contributor to the objects of its perception and thus, in some way, a direct authority upon the nature of reality as we know it (McCormick, 2012, §4).

An exhaustive exposition of transcendental idealism demands a full consideration of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1998), an enterprise well beyond the scope of this paper. Thankfully, in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic,’ however, Kant assures us that his views on space and time are of particular relevance here, and it is upon these views that the present section will aim to focus (Janiak, 2012, §6). It may, for the sake of clarification, be useful to juxtapose the Kantian notion of space and time with that of Newton (see Newton, 1990, pp.85-109, 823-60), whose transcendental realism epitomises the notion of external reality Kant aimed to oppose. With an eye to Newtonianism he writes:

Those […] who assert the absolute reality of space and time, whether they be subsisting or only inhering, must themselves come into conflict with the principles of experience. For if they decide in favour of the first […], then they must assume two eternal and infinite self-subsisting non-entities (space and time), which are there (yet without there being anything actual) only in order to comprehend everything actual within themselves (Kant, 1998, pp.166-7).

Here Kant presents the transcendental realist position as one which posits space and time as a pair of quasi-objects which exist independently of the human intuition. Without attending to Kant’s direct objections to this concept, it should suffice to say that he does not conceive of space and time as objects, quasi-objects, or indeed anything to be considered independent of human intuition. For him, they are to be conceived neither as things-in-themselves nor properties that can be perceived or verified empirically; they are rather ‘forms of intuition,’ that is, ‘a priori elements of sensible perception’ which would not ‘subsist in themselves’ if one were to contemplate them in abstraction from the minds of those to whose perception they are essential (Guyer, 2006, p.53). It is in this that Kant proffers the notion of the synthetic a priori proposition: observations on these necessary forms are synthetic, since ‘the predicate […] is not logically or analytically contained in the subject,’ but simultaneously a priori because they are ‘verifiable independently of experience,’ since they essentially constitute it (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015). These forms are not, in other words, borne out of the objects themselves but imposed upon them as necessary conditions of the mind’s ‘receiving’ the external world (Schulting and Verburgt, 2011, p.5). When we look at a tulip as it is situated within spatiotemporal reality, then, we are not seeing it as it is, but as it appears to us following the intuition’s attempt to sort it into forms more easily digested by the understanding (van Cleve, 1999, p.134).

But what is the nature of an object beyond the veil of the mind? What are objects like when we are not considering them? It is when we ask questions like these that we stumble into Kant’s controversial distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves or, more concisely, phenomena and noumena. While on the one hand we have the phenomenon, an object as we perceive it through the prism of our intuition and understanding, on the other we have the noumenon, an object ‘unembellished’ by the mind and thus in possession only of those properties that are intrinsic to it (Walsh, 1901, pp.464-5). Things-in-themselves are on all counts considered inscrutable: while Kant claims we are able to perceive phenomena and acquire empirical truths regarding their relations, he insists that we will never apprehend the ‘unknown somethings’ of which appearances are mere representations (Kant, 1998, pp.276-96). This, he says, is impossible from the perspective of the finite mind.

As noted in Braiche (2008), a great deal of tension exists among Kantian scholars where transcendental idealism is concerned. While some interpret it as a doctrine interested in making ontological claims, others read the Critique as propounding an epistemic thesis (pp.2-3). The question of whether Kant intends to suggest that reality consists in two ontologically distinct worlds (one phenomenal, the other noumenal) is pivotal here; and it is around this question that the following sections will work.

Part II: Strawson and the Noumenal World

Needless to say, it is usually the thing-in-itself that provokes interpretive issues. Even Jacobi, one of the Critique’s earliest commentators, famously claims that ‘the “thing-in-itself” is the kind of concept without which it is impossible to enter Kant’s system, but with which it is impossible to get out of the system’ (Jacobi, 1912, p.304). Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense (1996) takes similar issue with Kant’s reliance on noumena and attempts to release transcendental idealism from its inconsistencies by attributing its metaphysical system to Berkeleyan idealism; that is, the notion that external reality is but a phenomenal illusion. ‘The only element in transcendental idealism which has any significant part to play in those structures,’ he writes, ‘is the phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions’ (p.246). Despite the extremity of this deduction, Strawson’s ‘sortings of wheat from chaff’ are broadly acknowledged to stand among transcendental idealism’s most canonical interpretations (Bennett, 1986, p.340).

In reaching these conclusions Strawson focuses on the troublesome relationship between phenomena, noumena, and our cognitive faculties. He begins from what has become known as the ‘two-worlds’ reading of transcendental idealism, a view from which things-in-themselves and their appearances occupy two distinct realities, only the latter of which being comprehensible from the human perspective. The former, that noumenal ‘sphere of supersensible reality,’ must on Kant’s view transcend our intuitive notions of space and time as well as those ‘pure concepts’ which follow from them (such as that of causation) (Strawson, 1996, p.236). This interpretation is not without textual evidence. In Kant’s own words:

We should consider that bodies are not objects in themselves that are present to us, but rather a mere appearance of who knows what unknown object; that motion is not the effect of this unknown cause, but merely the appearance of its influence on our sense (Kant, 1998, p.435).

On this reading, then, we are to consider phenomena and noumena as ontologically distinct objects, one inhering within space and time and the other in some sort of transcendental realm of aspatiotemporal things-in-themselves. This is not to say that these worlds do not interact, however. Strawson insists that human experience must be the result of some ‘complex quasi-causal relation’ between phenomena and noumena, a connection he terms the ‘A-relation’ (Strawson, 1996, p.236). It is by way of this ostensible quasi-causality that noumena and human minds are able to ‘collaborate’ in their formation of the phenomenal world (Braiche, 2008, p.9).

But Strawson does not believe this relationship comports with Kant’s earlier conception of things-in-themselves as unknowable objects that do not conform to the modes of experience central to phenomenal nature. In support of this thesis he questions two aspects of the transcendental-idealist system in hope of bringing the notion of the thing-in-itself into question (Matthews, 1969, pp.206-7).

First, if noumena are unknowable and cannot be cognised, how is that we are able to know that they cause phenomena, or that they are in fact there at all? On Strawson’s reading of Kantian epistemology, things-in-themselves do not fall within the category of ‘possible human experience’ and thus possess neither the capacity to be verified nor any significant meaning as theoretical concepts. To insist that noumena exist despite this would be to approach transcendental idealism as a rationalist, where to claim that they do not would be to fall worryingly close to the extreme idealism of Berkeley (Strawson, 1996, pp.237-40). Kant here faces a dilemma, for he fits comfortably into neither camp. Second, if such notions as space, time, and causation do not exist beyond the realm of appearances, how is it that the A-relation is possible? How is it, in other words, that noumena are able to provide us with the material from which our cognitive faculties are able to construct phenomena? This, too, is a problem for Kant since it is not clear how this might occur without presupposing concepts of causation and, by extension, the forms of space and time (ibid., pp.246-8). While his epistemology is challenged on the first confutation, his ontological account of things-in-themselves is undermined in the second.

The Critique provides no easy way out of these difficulties and this, for Strawson, ‘tolls the death knell’ for transcendental idealism (Braiche, 2008, p.2). If we recall his statement that the doctrine’s only remaining foothold is the ‘phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions,’ we see that Strawson chooses to equate Kant with Berkeley, both of whom deny the external existence of phenomena yet fail to affirm the things-in-themselves that would otherwise ground them in reality (Strawson, 1996, p.260). And thus Kant is, where his idealism is concerned, considered nothing more than an ‘inconsistent Berkeley’ (Allison, 2004, p.4).

Part III: Allison’s Two Aspects

How might transcendental idealism be navigated from Strawson’s impasse? According to the account proffered in the Bounds, Kant is describing two different classes of objects: the tulip as we see it, and the tulip as it is in and of itself. This is a metaphysical interpretation, and from this approach arises Strawson’s refutation. Allison does not read transcendental idealism this way; rather he views it as an appendage of Kant’s epistemic ideas. For him, the Critique does not intentionally discuss the ontologies of two distinct-yet-somehow-interactive tulips, but a single tulip considered in two different ways (Allison, 2004, pp.229-35). This, at least theoretically, diverts transcendental idealism away from the ambush Strawson prepares in his own exegesis.

Allison does not contend that there is nothing to be considered beyond phenomena: while he does not award things-in-themselves their own ontological status in the way of Strawson, he nonetheless acknowledges them as an important aspect to Kantian philosophy. On his view, sometimes linked with the ‘two-aspects’ position, what distinguishes a thing-in-itself from its appearance is not the domain of existence it occupies but the way in which the human mind considers it. Given that our cognitive faculties actively process and order the external world, thus giving rise to phenomena, it follows that an object of this reality may retain its own sort of existence where these devices are not present. This does not, however, entail the treatment of this existence as a separate, ontologically distinct entity, for it is simply an object of the phenomenal world considered in abstraction from the conditions under which we perceive it (Allison, 2004, pp.33-6). This interpretation is no more lacking in textual evidence than Strawson’s:

We can have cognition of no object as a thing in itself, but only insofar as it is an object of sensible intuition, i.e. as an appearance […] We [presume] the distinction between things as objects of experience and the very same things as things in themselves (Kant, 1998, p.116).

As seen above, phenomena and noumena are ‘the very same things’ considered in different contexts. We cognise phenomena as they appear to us within space and time, adorned with all the concepts part and parcel to human experience; while noumena are these same manifestations considered (via transcendental reflection) in the notional absence of such conditions. In this they retain a sort of methodological or formal status, but by no means an ontological one. This kind of formal significance is in no way peculiar to human thought: in theoretical physics we often consider objects abstracted from their necessary properties, but we do not insodoing commit ourselves to the belief that these abstracted entities exist in any real sense of the word (Allison, 1978, pp.53-4).

To avoid Strawson’s critique, Allison emphasises noumena’s negative role as more a description of what phenomena are not than an account of what might exist beyond the realms of possible experience. This account gives things-in-themselves a viable position within Kantian epistemology without force-feeding them the unwieldy metaphysical significance found in two-worlds interpretations. It shifts, in other words, the axis of the phenomena-noumena distinction from the way things are to the way (or whether) our cognitive faculties respond to them (Braiche, 2008, p.14).

Part IV: A Hopeless Case?

It seems fair to say that the accounts of both Strawson and Allison more-or-less conform to Kant’s original proposition; they would not, otherwise, be so widely discussed as valid interpretations. It is worth considering, however, that throughout the Critique Kant himself appears to oscillate between a two-worlds and a two-aspects position. Transcendental idealism is by no means a straightforward discipline to comprehend, and it could be that our failure to reach a univocal reading of its postulations owes to the irresolution of its author (Matthews, 1969, p.204). To end on a quotation from Wood (2005):

I think much of the puzzlement about transcendental idealism arises from the fact that Kant himself formulates [it] in a variety of ways and it is not at all clear how, or whether, his statements […] can be reconciled or taken as statements of a single, self-consistent doctrine. I think Kant’s central formulations suggest two quite distinct and mutually incompatible doctrines (pp.63-4).


Works Cited

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Presentism & Relativity

Steven Umbrello
University of Toronto


In this short paper I will be presenting and evaluating the arguments provided by Keller and Nelson in their paper, ‘Presentists Should Believe in Time-Travel.’ I will show that their presuppositions, which are essential to their arguments, have the potential to devastate their central position. We will see that one of these presuppositions comes into conflict with the General Theory of Relativity, and I will demonstrate that this endangers both their own agenda and presentism as a whole.

Part I

Keller and Nelson (2001) attempt to show that there are at least some cases of time travel that are compatible with presentism, that is, the view that only the present is real (p.334). Before these scenarios are presented, they assess the nowhere argument (see Axiom 1), which they claim offers a fundamentally incorrect interpretation of the presentist view and must as a result be dismissed. We will revisit the nowhere argument (hereon NA) in Section III. (more…)