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The Failings of Heideggerian Metaphysics - PPS



Heidegger passage I was responding to:


‘What is the earth, that it reaches the unconcealed in just this manner? The stone presses downwards and manifests its heaviness. But while this heaviness weighs down on us, at the same time, it denies us any penetration into it. If we attempt such penetration by smashing the rock, then it shows us its pieces but never anything inward, anything that has been opened up. The stone has instantly withdrawn again into the same dull weight of mass and fragments. If we try to grasp the stone’s heaviness in another way, by placing it on a pair of scales, then we bring its heaviness into the calculable form of weight. This perhaps very precise determination of the stone is a number, but the heaviness of the weight has escaped us. Colour shines and only wants to shine. If we try to make it comprehensible by analysing it into numbers of oscillations it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth shatters every attempt to penetrate it. It turns every merely calculational intrusion into an act of destruction. Though such destruction may be accompanied by the appearance of mastery and progress in the form of the technological-scientific objectification of nature, this mastery remains, nonetheless an impotence of the will. The earth is openly illuminated as itself only where it is apprehended and preserved as the essentially undisclosable, as that which withdraws from every disclosure, in other words, keeps itself constantly closed up.’

--Martin Heidegger, “Origin of the Work of Art,” Off the Beaten Track, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 25.


Heidegger, in this passage, presents us with a significant paradox. How can something become less knowable the more we try to comprehend it? Perhaps, the best approach to answering this question is through exploring Heidegger’s descriptions of different ways of knowing. The first description is found in the heaviness of a stone and the way a colour shines. It is a passive impression of qualia on our person, or what Heidegger calls ‘Earth’. The second description is found in destructive and penetrative acts on the side of the knower to comprehend. To weigh the stone on a set of scales, or to measure the frequencies of electromagnetic radiation in colour. This quantification of experience into comprehensible data becomes an objectification of Earth or an engagement with abstractions. However, in the very act of engaging with an abstraction, you are no longer grappling with the source of that abstraction. By looking at electromagnetic frequencies you are no longer engaging with the quale of colour, and by analysing mass density you’ve lost the stone’s weightiness. Hence in this form of knowledge, the original is lost or ‘concealed’. It seems then that Heidegger is arguing for a return to a qualitative knowing, that escapes a quantitative comprehension or enclosure. Knowing art not by abstractions, but through this earthy lens of being grounded with the art as it is in its experience.


However, Heidegger should be questioned for this idea and I want to offer a critique of his position. Do abstractions really detract from the experience of qualia? Let’s say that there was an American called Craig who decided to move to Japan. He doesn’t speak any Japanese and decides to live in a rural town where no one speaks English. What would the qualitative experience of this culture be for Craig? He’ll certainly be confused not speaking the language, and his ignorance of the culture may hurt his ability to integrate with the local people. He may find an initial awe at the novelty of what he is experiencing, but after the novelty wears off, he’ll be left frustrated with his inability to engage with this new culture. When he’s handed chopsticks for the first time in his life, there won’t be this ready-to-hand experience of how to use them. This purely qualitative experience becomes meaningless without any knowledge to give context to Craig’s experience. There is a certain amount of abstract information Craig will have to learn before he can truly appreciate this rural Japanese culture. Experience can only be understood within some sort of cognitive framework, which is made up of abstractions.


However, there is also a problem with the opposite approach. Let’s go to another American, but her name is Laura and she doesn’t go to Japan. Instead she stays in America and does intensive study of Japanese culture and their language at the local library. She reads every book there is and even goes on to do a PhD in Japanese studies without ever stepping foot in Japan. How is Laura’s experience of Japanese culture different to that of Craig’s? Laura has only experienced abstractions of Japanese culture. So while she understands the culture very well, she has never really interacted with it. Craig on the other hand has only an interactional experience of the culture. He has first-hand experience of interacting with the culture, but doesn’t understand it. Heidegger is correct in pointing to Laura and saying that she is limited in what she can know without having a direct experience with Japanese culture.


However, these examples show us that abstractions don’t diminish from qualia, but actually make them meaningful. When you weigh a stone on a set of scales, the number on the scales represents something abstract, true, but it’s still something that belongs to the stone. A colour that produces an electromagnetic frequency will still have that frequency as being a property of the colour. Sure, feeling the weight of a stone in your hand or seeing a colour are qualia that can’t be measured in themselves. However, it is still the stone and colour that are producing that qualia in the individual’s mind. We can still know about them through qualitative experience. Feeling the weight of a rock and then learning that it weighs five kilograms gives us context when considering the weight of other things.

Let’s take, for example, a bag of rice that has a weight that feels different to the rock. How do we distinguish between the differences in the weightiness of the bag of rice to the stone? One way is seeing if my muscles start to ache quicker holding one thing rather than another. Yet, all I’ll know is that I am able to hold the stone longer before my muscles give out than the bag of rice. However, if I knew that the bag of rice was ten kilograms (compared to the stone’s five kilograms) then I would have the additional information to be able to know that if I was holding two stones, my muscles would give out in the same amount of time as the bag of rice. The abstraction actually gives context to the qualia of my aching muscles, just as Laura would be able to gain a meaningful understanding of Japanese culture by going to Japan.


So why does Heidegger try to present these abstractions as actually making the thing less knowable? I think the mistake he makes is metaphysical because for Heidegger the basis for Being starts with the ego (Smith, 2010, pp. 98–99), or what he calls Dasein (Heidegger, 2008, pp. 34–36).[1] However, the basis for starting with Dasein is because it is uniquely ‘existentiell[2], pre-ontological[3], and those who grappled with existence, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, understood man’s soul as that which contains or comes together with all other entities (Heidegger, 2008, p. 34). Even though Heidegger critiques the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, he falls into the same fundamental problem of thinking of the sum in terms of the cogito. His main problem is this, ‘Only as phenomenology is ontology possible’ (p. 60) where he describes phenomenology as, ‘to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself’ (p. 58). Why is this a problem though?


The question of being is not primarily in how or what a thing is, but that it is. Heidegger gets this wrong in his confusion of the meaning of being as οὐσία (p. 47) rather than as an ens that has an esse. The existence/essence distinction is vital to the question of being because ‘what a thing is’ depends first on ‘that a thing is’. However, Heidegger skips straight to the what question without first considering the that question.[4] This explains why he uses Dasein as the primary basis for his metaphysics because man is unique in being able to grasp the whatness of entities. However, any true ontology must first start with the thatness of an entity or its esse. This leads me to briefly describe a better ontology that puts the thatness of an entity first.


Existence precedes everything ontologically, even time itself. Time is only the measurement of changes within existence. If existence had no changes within it, then there would be no time. This allows us to consider existence in two ways, the parts of existence in which there is change, and existence itself which cannot change. While there is certainly motion[5] within existence, existence also has a persistence and unity which is not subject to motion. The theoretical thing that existence could change into is non-existence. However, there would need to be something outside of existence to actualise this change. Yet, as we mentioned before, nothing can exist prior to existence because its own existence would need to be accounted for. Therefore, existence cannot change into non-existence. However, there are distinctions within existence. I know that I exist. I know that there are forms of existence that act upon me to produce change. Since there are these changes I can know that I myself am not existence itself, since existence cannot change. Therefore, we have a distinction in existence. There is an unchanging existence that cannot change into non-existence, and there is an existence where changes do happen. The first is what I will call the Active Body of existence which is responsible for its unity and persistence and cannot change. The second is what I will call the Passive Body[6] of existence which is where the changes we see in existence take place.


Within the Passive Body, we have distinctions between different beings each with their own esse. Since each of these beings is unique in their esse, we can say that they are distinct from one another and must themselves contain a unity and persistence. This unity and persistence would be another active body for each being and the changes in these beings would constitute another passive body. Therefore, each being has itself an active body and a passive body within the Passive Body.


I believe this is sufficient for understanding the thatness of Being that Heidegger has left out. This doesn’t mean that we have to discard everything that Heidegger has said though. We will, however, have to reconcile his idea about abstractions and how it makes something less known. Let’s return to the colour. From our inquiry into ontology, we know the esse of a colour has an active body and a passive body. The active body of the colour contains its persistence and unity as an existing entity, while the passive body contains everything which is changeable about it. We grasp its active body as a colour and specifically this colour or its quiddity. The passive body reflects the shine of the colour towards us and we see it through our own passive body. We experience the colour as a phenomenon and all of its qualitative aspects through its impression on us.


This is where the distinction lies. While the qualia is impenetrable, and abstractions don’t help explain qualia qua qualia, the abstractions of something still tell us something about the colour and about our experience of that colour. The colour is not ‘gone’ from those abstractions but the abstractions belong to the colour and give context to the qualia. Just as Japanese culture is given context through its own abstractions. Let’s ask ourselves, how would Laura and Craig approach Japanese art? Can we see a strife between Earth and world in their approaches, or do we see them compliment each other? Heidegger may be worried that the complementarian approach will limit how Laura and Craig encounter the Japanese art. However, all encounters happen through a hermeneutic lens. World is needed to approach Earth, just as the active body is needed for there to be a passive body. What we must do instead is equip ourselves with multiple hermeneutic lenses to allow a horizon of multiple encounters with Earth. It is only through engaging with our abstractions that we can understand their limitations and open up a horizon between Earth and the observer.


Earth, then, may be impenetrable, but it has an active body of abstractions. Something about it is united and persisting. Heidegger has used abstractions to help us understand this about Earth, even if it conflicts with his own point of view. We should encounter Earth with a new ontology that embraces ‘World’ to give new cognitive frameworks to complement our encounters with Earth.

[1]‘Therefore fundamental ontology, from which alone all other ontologies can take their rise, must be sought in the existential analytic of Dasein.’ and, ‘Ontically, of course, Dasein is not only close to us—even that which is closest: we are it, each of us, we ourselves.’ [2] I translate this as to mean, the way an entity can know itself as an existing entity. [3] I understand this to mean, it understands its own relationship with existence before defining the relationship of existence to other entities. [4] Or you could argue he starts with the howness question in his discussion of the modes of Being. [5] Metaphysical motion being defined as the actualisation of potential. [6] The use of title case of Active Body and Passive Body regarding existence are used as an honorific and as a distinction from other active and passive bodies.

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