books book reviews

ontology and phenomenology books

What is is, is is.


Being and Time
by Martin Heidegger

Harper Perennial, 2008, 589 pages; Transl. by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson

Reviewed by T. Nelson

M artin Heidegger's mentor, Edmund Husserl, was interested in the phenomenon of consciousness. But to Heidegger, consciousness is just a small part of our reality. Even ‘Being’ was too narrow a term. It was meaningless, he thought, to consider an individual subject in isolation from the outside world. “Only as phenomenology,” he wrote, “is ontology possible.” Thus, he argued, Dasein, or Being-in-the-world, not Being, is the fundamental unit of phenomenology. Only in the context of the world as a whole, which contains entities, their beginnings and endings, inanimate objects, as well as space and time itself, can our existence be understood.

Thus, Dasein is more than just existence. It encompasses the entirety of the individual human experience. Even our ordinary ‘everydayness’— anxiety, ‘care’ (i.e. daily concerns), inauthenticity, and language—are part of our Dasein. Dasein, says Heidegger, is not just the “I myself” but the primordial domain for the kind of Being that entities possess. He wrote: “This insight even affords access to a phenomenological problematic in its own right, which has in principle the signification of providing a framework as a ‘formal phenomenology of consciousness.” [p. 151]

He never completed that framework; Being and Time is only the first third of his intended design. In this part, Heidegger devotes his energy to producing an ‘analytic of Dasein.’ He attributes to it a tremendous philosophical power, saying that it even eliminates the question of whether the world is real.

It also eliminates absolute truth: “There is truth only insofar as Dasein is and so long as Dasein is.” Even universal facts of nature are not true until someone discovers them, and they cease to be true when no longer believed.

This idea is sometimes taken as a foundation of postmodernism. But it shouldn't be: if postmodernists tried to appropriate Heidegger it was because they misunderstood him. When Heidegger writes “Before Newton's laws were discovered, they were not ‘true’” [p.270], what he actually meant is not that truth is relative, but that there is no meaning unless there is a mind to perceive it.

In Section 2, Heidegger turns to the problem of time. He wrote: “Being cannot be grasped except by taking time into consideration ... [T]he central problematic of all ontology is rooted in the phenomenon of time” [p.40].

Here Heidegger seemed to be on the verge of making the intellectual leap that would have revealed profound philosophical truths about time. But instead, what he meant by time was mortality and death. Death, he says, is the end of Dasein—its completion. Thus, instead of advancing our concept of time, he helped lay the foundations for existentialism; Sartre acknowledged his contribution by titling his book Being and Nothingness.

Before starting Being and Time, it's helpful to read one of the many introductions to his work in order to understand his basic ideas. Heidegger's writing is not difficult to read, but it's abstract and full of untranslated Greek, Latin, and German phrases. Heidegger himself recommended his own Introduction to Metaphysics, but George Steiner's Martin Heidegger is a popular alternative.

From Steiner you will learn that Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933, apparently as a career move to help solidify his appointment as rector at the University of Freiburg. He resigned as rector in 1934, but remained a party member until the end of the war. It didn't look as good on his résumé as he seems to have hoped, however, and his critics, trying to tar him as a Nazi, have combed through his works trying to find antisemitic remarks. The best they could come up with was one sentence from his 1200-page ‘black notebooks,’ expressing sorrow and envy:

World Jewry is ungraspable everywhere and doesn't need to get involved in military action while continuing to unfurl its influence, whereas we are left to sacrifice the best blood of the best of our people.

Steiner thinks where there's smoke there's fire, and all the innuendo implies something unsavory about Heidegger, yet fails to provide anything substantial. Among Heidegger's supporters was Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was clear that Heidegger, while possibly caught up in the nationalist fervor of the 1930s, cared more about his career than politics. Ironically, while Victor Farias and others were trying to vilify him, other philosophers, openly calling themselves communists and Marxists, got a free pass.

Of the Nazis, Heidegger later wrote in a letter: “One had to throw them a crumb here and there in order to keep freedom of teaching and speaking.” He was at heart a detached academic who seemed to feel it was unnecessary or unseemly to defend himself. There is no politics in his book: no Heil Hitlers, no fascism, and no mention of any desire to conquer the world. His weaknesses were ambition, naïveté and a desire to continue teaching even under a despotic regime instead of fleeing. His only crime was to underestimate the danger around him, both from Hitler and from his attackers.

What could Heidegger have accomplished without these attacks, which led to his ban from teaching between 1945 to 1951? Perhaps he would have finished his three-part work. Maybe he could have made that intellectual leap he seems continually on the verge of making in Being and Time, and saved us fifty years of existentialist gloom and postmodernist drivel. It is a morality tale of the sad necessity of defending one's work at all costs against politically motivated attacks.

It is also the tale of how ideas, and ideas missed, can change the course of a civilization. Today, it often seems the only way to contribute to the history of ideas is to throw your idea out on the Internet and let somebody else steal it. So great ideas are kept private and we only see the mundane, the silly, and the commercial. At work we train ourselves never to give anything worthwhile to the masters we despise. In earlier times, maybe it was different, and Heidegger sowed the seeds for both existentialism and postmodernism. In Being and Time, as in Introduction to Metaphysics, where he asks the question that every schoolchild asks—why is there something instead of nothing?—he reveals his genius at asking the most fundamental questions. He failed to find satisfactory answers to any of them, but it is a testament to his genius that he came so close.

mar 29, 2015; updated nov 29, 2015

Ontological Relativity and Other Essays
by W. V. Quine

Columbia, 1969, 165 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Q uine's most important essay, in which he discusses the idea that ontology is based on language. The theory of ontological relativity is actually two-fold, what he calls “doubly relative.” One aspect of relativity is explained in this paragraph:

What makes ontological questions meaningless when taken absolutely is not universality but circularity. A question of the form “What is an F?” can only be answered by recourse to a further term: “An F is a G.” The answer only makes relative sense: sense relative to the uncritical acceptance of “G.” [p.53].

He explains the second aspect of relativity by considering knowledge. He writes: “We cannot know what something is without knowing how it is marked off from other things.” In an economic theory, for example, people are reduced to objects with incomes. All persons with the same income are considered equivalent. But they can't be substituted into another theory. The best that can be hoped for is that the theory is subsumed into a more universal theory (a background theory) which contains it as a part.

In this example, the double relativity is the relativity of the object theory to the background theory, plus the relativity of the translation or interpretation imposed on the object theory from within the background theory.

Quine believed that it would be impossible to translate ideas perfectly to, say, an alien, because there is no way to know how the alien grasps a particular concept. We can never be sure whether the alien who says the word “gavagai” really means “rabbit” or something else, like “rabbit stage” or “undetached rabbit parts.” Behaviorally, says Quine, reference itself is inscrutable.

The question of how to represent natural language precisely was, in Quine's day, a big issue in philosophy. Today a scientist would counter that it is possible in principle, provided we (a) had a complete theory of mind and brain and (b) were able to scan the alien's brain to interpret its synaptic pathways in terms of the theory. But that would be a lot of effort; sometimes close is good enough.

This collection also includes “Epistemology Naturalized” in which Quine despairs of keeping epistemology as a branch of philosophy because of the inability of philosophers to reduce the laws of mathematics to logic. He says the distinction between synthetic truth and analytic truth is illusory.

One man's observation is another man's closed book or flight of fancy. The notion of observation as the impartial and objective source of evidence for science is bankrupt. [p. 88]

In other words, observations can only be interpreted in context. A good observation sentence is one on which all speakers give the same verdict under the same situation. This is the same formulation as used in science and law. Therefore, he writes, epistemology studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject, and is thus a branch of psychology—a natural science.