Saturday, 13 August 2011

On Heidegger's "Being and Time": Critique of Descartes (Study Notes #1)

I've decided to post some of my study notes to Heidegger's Being and Time in the hope that they'll be useful to others who are studying the text as well. Please be aware that as these are study notes and not essays they will be devoid of much if not all comment and criticism. Their aim is simply to enlighten the text. As such they presuppose some familiarity with the special language Heidegger established when he wrote the book. The first set of notes I'm going to post up here are notes which should accompany the critique of Descartes (the mid-section of the fairly large third chapter, "The Wordliness of the World") which is the place where Heidegger branches off from what had hiterto been the Western way of thinking and situates that understanding of being in a broader horizon.

René Descartes understood the being of beings as substance, and the essential quality of substance, he argued, is extension. Descartes articulates being into three substances, res extensa (Matter), res cogitans (Mind), and the ens creatum (God). The ens creatum is the perfectly self-sufficient substance (the metaphysical "God", not the religious god). Heidegger notes that Descartes himself admits that he sees no way that the idea of substance as a determination of all three articulations of being could be reconciled, as the res extensa and the res cogitans are not substantial in the same way as God which is wholly self-sufficient. The idea of substantiality is, according to Heidegger, already clouded by this inability to characterise all three of Descartes' articulations of substantiality.

With his determination of being as substance nevertheless settled, Descartes goes on to affirm the long-held philosophical distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The example used is that hardness and resistance can only be understand as modes of the extensio - that two bodies can only "have" resistance as a result of their relative velocities and trajectories means that if the thing you attempt to push moves at the same velocity at which your hand pushes, there is no resistance. Yet the things still have their bare objective presence in terms of their extension. Descartes would have it that other modes of the extensio (colour, weight, etc.) can similarly be demonstrated to be modes of the extensio through which the primary, objective presence as extension remains.

Descartes' conclusion is obvious, the essence of being lies in its extension and accordingly its objective presence. All other properties are modifications of substance as extension (Aristotle, in fact, came to the very same conclusion). The proper mode of access to beings is not, then, through sensuous apprehension which does not deliver beings over in their "in itself" but only in their relation to an embodied human being (useful, not useful, hard, soft, etc.) Accordingly, this would require the elimination of qualities apprehended in this way (from the perspective of Dasein in its everyday world) from our ontology. The proper mode of access to beings is the intellect, which can separate these contextual and "subjective" secondary qualities from the more primary qualities of extension.

However, Heidegger, as a phenomenologist, is keen to disagree. In fact, he believes that what Descartes is doing with his ontology is an impoverishment of our understanding of being. Hardness is not just the objective presence of two beings meeting each other with opposing velocities. It certainly is that, but not only that. Without Dasein nothing like hardness can be discovered. Only by being so constituted as to intend upon things can something like hardness be disclosed. It's through our involvements with things that we can discover hardness as the hardness of steel or marble which we are attempting to fashion into a blade or statue. Hardness as discovered in this manner is a far cry from the objective presence tale Descartes has given us.

What Heidegger wants to make clear is that the being of beings is much more than what we get when we look at the modifications of the extensio. Equipment, for instance, cannot be grasped against the horizon of substantiality. The hammer's "for-ness" will not be captured in a collection of objective facts regarding its extension; hardness, weight, and colour. This is why the tradition has superimposed values on top of the pure objective presence of equipment to explain its readiness-to-hand. For example, we consider the knife "good for cutting" and attach this value predicate onto the objective facts about it. But what Heidegger is trying to get us to see is that the knife is originally apprehended as a "for cutting" (depending on the context in which the knife is encountered) and that our reconstruction of the knife through superimposing value predicates onto objective facts is only possible against the prior understanding of the knife as the "for-cutting" without which no such reconstruction would be possible. So we see that the knife has already been made intelligible to us as the "for cutting" (again, the mode of being of Dasein and context of use determines which aspect of the knife's being is presently disclosed) - how we have arrived at it as mere objective presence is (as the foregoing chapters have demonstrated) as a result of a suspension of Dasein's everyday activity.

But when we are in our everyday mode we catch sight of equipment as equipment, and not as this objectively present entity with value predicates attached. It is intelligible to us at first by being relevant to a possibility of our being (perhaps cutting up a nice t-bone steak) and is accordingly discovered by us in its handiness. Hubert Dreyfus has it that Heidegger does not want to deny that the objective facts enable the knife to be good for cutting or the hammer good for hammering. As Magda King points out, it is an issue of how the "being there" of things is intelligible to us - and this intelligibility is only possible on the basis of their being-relevant to our being in some way so that they can become involved and we can subsequently discover them.

Heidegger drops a few hints towards the end of this section regarding the role of temporality in all of this. As Descartes is only willing to determine being as raw objective presence, as that which is perpetually guaranteed no matter the formal manifestations of it (remember Descartes was a monist, he saw the res extensa as one big substance - things coming and going are just manifestations of indestructible and ever present matter - only forms fade, matter itself does not). This is determining being as a mode of time (presence). Certain beings, like Dasein and equipment (probably animals too), cannot be characterised in this way as they are of a different mode of temporality. An essential structual feature of Dasein is its always being involved in some sort of activity - and, of course, the significance and dynamism of human activity is absolutely unable to be captured in a list of context-free, objective facts.

First-person, phenomenological access to beings, then, is important to the task of ontology as it discloses and reveals the being of beings in wider spheres than simple substantiality can, being as it is disclosed by an un-involved perspective of Dasein. The being of Dasein and equipment must be able to be articulated by a fundamental ontology, and so Descartes, according to Heidegger, fails to create an ontology suitable for describing the being of all beings. As he takes his point of departure from the being of an innerworldly being (substance) he cannot piece together the phenomenon of world which is essentially much larger then the extensio (and is rather the condition of intelligibility of the extensio), embracing the whole structure of for-the-sake-of-which's, in-order-to 's (with-which's and towards-which's) and the being of equipment and the being of Dasein therein.

Hubert Dreyfus holds that third-person, objective, scientific ontology in the manner of Descartes can offer causal explanations for how the things in the world (like knives, boats, hammers, orbits, nuclear reactors) work, but cannot tell us what they are. Only our first-person phenomenological access can disclose what things are, by being as such as to reveal them in their being through our involvements. To borrow Magda King's example, the apple tree could not be discovered as a source of food if it were not "in itself" handy, and if the fruit on its branches were not "in themselves" sweet and nutritious. But no list of objective facts regarding the extension of the tree could bring us to an understanding of its handiness - only intending upon the tree, as we do, can bring us to that kind of understanding.

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