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Tag: philosophy (page 3 of 26)

Wilfrid Sellars and Edmund Husserl on Science and Life

I recently presented a brief and rough comparison of philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Edmund Husserl on the subject of science, its place in the world, and the social crises of modernity. Specifically, I drew a few lines between Husserl’s concept of the “life-world” in The Crisis of the European Sciences (1938, excerpts available at link) and Sellars’ idea of the “manifest image,” as described in Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man (1962, complete text at link). Both tackle one of the central problems of the modern age: how to square scientific knowledge with the “unscientific” parts of the world, be they social, ethical, mental, or metaphysical.

While the post-war American Sellars and the intrawar German Husserl use vastly different vocabularies and start from vastly different perspectives, there are some notable points of agreement. Their hopes for a nonreductive unification of science and society hold great appeal. It is an abstracted and generalized picture of my personal experiences with truth and muddlement.

I only quote Sellars below, because I found I got whiplash from alternating between Sellars’ and Husserl’s equally tortuous but wholly opposing styles. To orient, some excerpts from Husserl’s Vienna lecture:

I, too, am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance. The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble and genuine sense, the original Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy – though of course it still needed considerable clarification through self-examination. It is its vocation, however, to serve as a guide to mature development.

The philosophy that at any particular time is historically actual is the more or less successful attempt to realize the guiding idea of the infinity, and thereby the totality, of truths. Practical ideals, viewed as external poles from the line of which one cannot stray during the whole of life without regret, without being untrue to oneself and thus unhappy, are in this view by no means yet clear and determined; they are anticipated in an equivocal generality. Determination comes only with concrete pursuit and with at least relatively successful action. Here the constant danger is that of falling into one-sidedness and premature satisfaction, which are punished in subsequent contradictions. Thence the contrast between the grand claims of philosophical systems, that are all the while incompatible with each other. Added to this are the necessity and yet the danger of specialization.

In this way, of course, one-sided rationality can become an evil. It can also be said that it belongs to the very essence of reason that philosophers can at first understand and accomplish their infinite task only on the basis of an absolutely necessary onesidedness. In itself there is no absurdity here, no error. Rather, as has been remarked, the direct and necessary path for reason allows it initially to grasp only one aspect of the task, at first without recognizing that a thorough knowledge of the entire infinite task, the totality of being, involves still other aspects. When inadequacy reveals itself in obscurities and contradiction, then this becomes a motive to engage in a universal reflection. Thus the philosopher must always have as his purpose to master the true and full sense of philosophy, the totality of its infinite horizons. No one line of knowledge, no individual truth must be absolutized. Only in such a supreme consciousness of self, which itself becomes a branch of the infinite task, can philosophy fulfill its function of putting itself, and therewith a genuine humanity, on the right track. To know that this is the case, however, also involves once more entering the field of knowledge proper to philosophy on the highest level of reflection upon itself. Only on the basis of this constant reflectiveness is a philosophy a universal knowledge.

The reason for the downfall of a rational culture does not lie in the essence of rationalism itself but only in its exteriorization, its absorption in ‘naturalism’ and ‘objectivism’.

Edmund Husserl, The Vienna Lecture (tr. David Carr)

Willem deVries’ essay on Sellars at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a superb overview of Sellars’ philosophy. Here are a few of his remarks on Sellars’ concepts of the manifest image and the scientific image:

The manifest image is neither frozen nor unchanging. It can be refined both empirically and categorically…Thus, the manifest image is neither unscientific nor anti-scientific. It is, however, methodologically more promiscuous and often less rigorous than institutionalized science. Traditional philosophy, philosophia perennis, endorses the manifest image as real and attempts to understand its structure.

One kind of categorial change, however, is excluded from the manifest image by stipulation: the addition to the framework of new concepts of basic objects by means of theoretical postulation. This is the move Sellars stipulates to be definitive of the scientific image. Science, by postulating new kinds of basic entities (e.g., subatomic particles, fields, collapsing packets of probability waves), slowly constructs a new framework on this basis that claims to be a complete description and explanation of the world and its processes. The scientific image grows out of and is methodologically posterior to the manifest image, which provides the initial framework in which science is nurtured, but Sellars claims that “the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image” (PSIM, in SPR: 20; in ISR: 388).

Is it possible to reconcile these two images?…The manifest image is, in his view, a phenomenal realm à la Kant, but science, at its Peircean ideal conclusion, reveals things as they are in themselves. However, despite what Sellars calls “the primacy of the scientific image”(PSIM, in SPR: 32, he ultimately argues for a “synoptic vision” in which the descriptive and explanatory resources of the scientific image are united with the “language of community and individual intentions,” which “provide[s] the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives” (PSIM, in SPR: 40).

Willem deVries, Wilfrid Sellars (in SEP)

And two further remarks (with which not all Sellarsians would agree) on Sellars’ conception of science in a normative social realm:

Science, for Sellars, does not aim to construct an adequate representation of the world given a fixed stock of basic concepts or terms; it aims to change our concepts and terms to enable us to anticipate, explain and plan ever better our interaction with reality. Science is the methodologically rigorous attempt to reform and extend the descriptive resources of language to better equip us in all those tasks that presuppose descriptive language. (148)

Science envisages abandoning the manifest image and its norm-laden objects, but it cannot in fact do so without undercutting itself. The manifest image is transcendentally ideal but empirically and practically real. The world in which we live and have our being is necessarily a world of sensible objects that we constantly evaluate with regard to their aiding or impeding our intentions. We are simply built that way. This manifest world is grounded in, but not identical to, the world science reveals to us. (161)

Willem deVries, Wilfrid Sellars (Acumen)

So thus, on the vision and immense challenges of a truly universal, non-parochial science carried out in a rational and tolerant society–the “infinite task.”

Edmund Husserl and Wilfrid Sellars

(All quotes below are from Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man unless otherwise stated.)

Marvin Farber led me through my first careful reading of the Critique of Pure Reason and introduced me to Husserl. His combination of utter respect for the structure of Husserl’s thought with the equally firm conviction that this structure could be given a naturalistic interpretation was undoubtedly a key influence on my own subsequent philosophical strategy.
WS, Autobiographical Reflections

One seems forced to choose between the picture of an elephant which rests on a tortoise (What supports the tortoise?) and the picture of a great Hegelian serpent of knowledge with its tail in its mouth (Where does it begin?). Neither will do. For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.
WS, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind §38

Sellars and Husserl are both trying to provide a holistic structure for the mind’s universalizing scientific engagement with the world. The difference lies in their methods: where Husserl is transcendental-historical and phenomenological, Sellars is pragmatist and naturalistic. The Lifeworld and the Manifest Image share the same methodological primacy in determining how we look at the world. They are “given” or “pre-given”: we have come to them without being aware of the processes by which they arose—or if we ever were aware of them, we have forgotten them. But for Sellars, the idea of the “image” or model is crucial: the Manifest and Scientific Image both are inexact pictures of reality which undergo repeated refinement.

Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world…By calling them images I do not mean to deny to either or both of them the status of ‘reality’. I am, to use Husserl’s term, ‘bracketing’ them, transforming them from ways of experiencing the world into objects of philosophical reflection and evaluation…While the main outlines of what I shall call the manifest image took shape in the mists of pre-history, the scientific image, promissory notes apart, has taken shape before our very eyes.

The Manifest and Scientific Images both are idealized concepts established communally. Truth and falsity exist in each of them through communal norms of rationality and discourse. While images may be refined or discarded, normative standards of correctness nonetheless exist with regard to any image.

Pragmatism: The point I wish to make now is that since this image has a being which transcends the individual thinker, there is truth and error with respect to it, even though the image itself might have to be rejected, in the last analysis, as false.

From “I” to “We”: Yet the essentially social character of conceptual thinking comes clearly to mind when we recognize that there is no thinking apart from common standards of correctness and relevance, which relate what I do think to what anyone ought to think. The contrast between ‘I’ and ‘anyone’ is essential to rational thought.

Their own methodologies, however, are opposite. Husserl tends toward transcendental idealism; Sellars towards a nominalistic physicalism. For Husserl, the ego is transcendental; for Sellars, it is a theoretical construct that, in its “givenness,” we have come to take for granted. For Sellars, the “given” (in at least one of its forms) is that knowledge which we gain exclusively through pure, raw experience or being-in-the-world. Sellars is very clear: no such knowledge exists. Any such seeming knowledge is acquired against the holistic background of a theoretical structure, even if we are not conscious of that structure. Scientific investigation can reveal that structure. The Manifest Image cannot, because it is unable to get around its own theoretical presuppositions and reliance on subjectivity:

A Point of Difference: The manifest image must, therefore, be construed as containing a conception of itself as a group phenomenon, the group mediating between the individual and the intelligible order. But any attempt to explain this mediation within the framework of the manifest image was bound to fail, for the manifest image contains the resources for such an attempt only in the sense that it provides the foundation on which scientific theory can build an explanatory framework; and while conceptual structures of this framework are built on the manifest image, they are not definable within it. Thus, the Hegelian, like the Platonist of whom he is the heir, was limited to the attempt to understand the relation between intelligible order and individual minds in analogical terms.

I see this possibly as the fundamental difference between Husserl and Sellars: for Sellars, phenomenological investigation alone cannot get around the theoretical structure necessary for it. Any transcendental phenomenology remains a contingent construct. For Sellars, bracketing (the epocheshould include subjectivity and experience itself—they cannot explain themselves.

Nonetheless, for both of them, science is unique in its potential universality, the Manifest Image being too tied to cultural norms and historical caprice and false first principles to withstand substantive debate over its contents, unlike the “self-correcting enterprise” of science.

Science as a Rival Image: Yet, when we turn our attention to ‘the’ scientific image which emerges from the several images proper to the several sciences, we note that although the image is methodologically dependent on the world of sophisticated common sense, and in this sense does not stand on its own feet, yet it purports to be a complete image, i.e. to define a framework which could be the whole truth about that which belongs to the image. Thus although methodologically a development within the manifest image, the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image. I say, ‘in principle’, because the scientific image is still in the process of coming into being.

Yet for both Sellars and Husserl, science has also fallen prey to a certain kind of “givenness,” though their attacks differ. Husserl critiques the sciences as having forgotten the historical circumstances in which they arose, having become “sedimentized” with naturalistic assumptions. Sellars, on the other hand, critiques the sciences’ foundationalism. That is, Sellars also accuses science of having established a false, ahistorical, positivist and empiricist ground on which they build a world image distinct from that of the Manifest Image or Husserl’s Lifeworld. For Sellars it is not so much that science’s foundation has become “sedimentized” as much as that the foundation never existed to begin with. History helps to expose the cracks in the foundation by exploring how it was that this foundation was established, but it is not the case that we have obscured a previous way of being, only that we are taking aspects of our current way of thinking for granted. We have misunderstood the nature of what science is. It does not and cannot provide a new foundation that wipes out the manifest image in one blow.

Holism : For each scientific theory is, from the standpoint of methodology, a structure which is built at a different ‘place’ and by different procedures within the intersubjectively accessible world of perceptible things. Thus ‘the’ scientific image is a construct from a number of images, each of which is supported by the manifest world.

While Sellars replace positivism with a broader, more holistic, pragmatic, and fallibilist methodology, he also attempts to expose the “givenness” of the Manifest Image. In the Manifest Image, people participate in discourse that establishes a linguistic idealism through the existence of shared concepts expressed through language. These concepts are internalized by us, often becoming second nature.

Our first-person thoughts are his prime example of an implicit theoretical construct.  Elsewhere, in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Sellars attempts to show that the very existence of “thoughts” depends on a rational discursive linguistic community, what Sellars terms the “space of reasons.” What we take to be “given” in our minds actually depends on a learned communal conceptual structure. And this anti-foundationalism attacks both the givenness of the Manifest Image itself and the positivistic empirical basis of science. In both cases, there is an implicit, complex, historically-established theoretical structure that undergirds even the simplest of thoughts and perceptions.

This attack does not invalidate the Manifest Image, as we still inhabit it and the concepts of personhood and the discursive community are essential to establishing the norms by which we live. But because the Manifest Image is incomplete and insufficient—our “given” ideas not able to form a coherent explanation of reality—the Scientific Image appears as a potentially more satisfactory picture of reality to understanding ourselves and the world—as long as we do not see it as wholly substitutive. We should not be looking to evolutionary psychology to explain the nature of morality.

My primary concern in this essay is with the question, ‘in what sense, and to what extent, does the manifest image of man-in-the-world survive the attempt to unite this image in one field of intellectual vision with man as conceived in terms of the postulated objects of scientific theory?’ The bite to this question lies, we have seen, in the fact that man is that being which conceives of itself in terms of the manifest image. To the extent that the manifest does not survive in the synoptic view, to that extent man himself would not survive.

As with Husserl, we will find ourselves in crisis if we take our contemporary Scientific Image to be real rather than an approximate image or model. The Scientific Image should ideally converge on the real in a way that the Manifest Image has failed to, but it does not and cannot stand independently of the Manifest Image in which we exist. Hence Sellars’ emphasis on the need for a Synoptic Image in which the discursive normativity of the Manifest Image and the fallibilist, revisionary Scientific Image allow us to achieve a satisfactory methodology of philosophical-scientific investigation.

The Merging of the Images: Thus the conceptual framework of persons is the framework in which we think of one another as sharing the community intentions which provide the ambience of principles and standards (above all, those which make meaningful discourse and rationality itself possible) within which we live our own individual lives. A person can almost be defined as a being that has intentions. Thus the conceptual framework of persons is not something that needs to be reconciled with the scientific image, but rather something to be joined to it. Thus, to complete the scientific image we need to enrich it not with more ways of saying what is the case, but with the language of community and individual intentions, so that by construing the actions we intend to do and the circumstances in which we intend to do them in scientific terms, we directly relate the world as conceived by scientific theory to our purposes, and make it our world and no longer an alien appendage to the world in which we do our living.

Appendix: Husserl’s Response

I am closer to Sellars’ stance than Husserl, lacking his transcendental sympathies. But Richard M. Bernstein gave an account of what he thought Husserl’s response to Sellars could be, which I excerpt here:

It is clear even from Husserl’s preliminary characterizations of the Lebenswelt, and what he takes to be its general structures, that he would criticize Sellars’ own account of the manifest image — especially in regard to what Sellars calls empirical and categorial refinement — as being infected by categories rooted in objective science. He would accuse Sellars of not being “philosophically radical” enough in bracketing the manifest image and providing an analysis of its structure.

But how are we to perform such an investigation? What is the ground for such a “new” science? Here we touch upon the most fundamental theme in Husserl, one which he took to be a radical turn — though he also claims it has been the telos of philosophical reflection itself: the transcendental epoché that makes possible a transcendental reduction. When we bracket the ontological claims of the Lebenswelt and perform the epoché, “we are not left with a meaningless, habitual abstention, rather, it is through this abstention that the gaze of the philosopher in truth first becomes fully free: above all, free of the strongest and most universal, and at the same time most hidden, internal bond, namely, of the pregivenness of the world” (p. 151 ). When we have freed ourselves by means of this transcendental epoché, is it possible to recognize the Lebenswelt and mankind itself as “a self-objectification of transcendental subjectivity.”

The transcendental epoché — the philosophical act of pure reflection -which involves a personal and intellectual transformation of the philosopher, is not to be understood as a “turning away” from “natural human life-interests.”

According to Sellars, once we clarify the differences and relationships between the types of scientific activity appropriate to the manifest image and to the scientific image proper, then we grasp the essential unity of science. This unity not only reconciles the two types of scientific endeavor appropriate to the two images, but also indicates the essential unity between the natural and the social sciences. Extrapolating what Sellars says about behavioristics, we can extend his principle to the distinctively social sciences such as economics, political science, and sociology, and claim that these disciplines also involve the techniques of correlational induction appropriate to the manifest image.

But it is precisely here that we find the deepest and the most consequential clash between Sellars and Husserl. Husserl too takes psychology itself as a “decisive field” (p. 203 ). And his judgment about the science of psychology — both behavioristic and nonbehavioristic — is that it has been a failure. And while Husserl also focuses on psychology, it is clear that he is pressing an indictment against all forms of naturalism and objectivism in the sciences of human life. In the attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences to an understanding of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity, these disciplines have not only failed, but distorted the phenomena studied. This failure is not one that can be overcome by more sophisticated development of the methods and techniques of the natural sciences. “It has already become clear to us that an ‘exact’ psychology, as an analogue to physics…is an absurdity. Accordingly, there can no longer be a descriptive psychology which is the analogue of a descriptive natural science. In no way, not even in the scheme of description vs. explanation, can a science of souls be modeled on natural science or seek methodical counsel from it. It can only model itself on its own subject matter, as soon as it has achieved clarity on this subject matter’s own essence” (p. 223). If it is objected that a “genuine” psychology is not a “science of souls,” but a science of observable behavior, this does not weaken Husserl’s charge, for psychology conceived in this manner will never be able to illuminate the structures of human subjectivity and intersubjectivity.

Richard M. Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory

My gut reaction is that Sellars and Husserl are most at odds over the very distant “end of inquiry,” which is such a distant and hypothesized and never-to-be-reached point that arguments over it are not just irresolvable, but close to meaningless. I think that Sellars’ “synoptic view” could ultimately allow for scientific accounts of what Husserl wants (who’s to say it couldn’t?), while Husserl seems like he might be amenable to an expanded definition of naturalism and objectivism–his problem is with those terms in their current form. So I’m not sure the disagreement Bernstein lays out would necessarily amount to more than a terminological dispute however many thousands of years into the future it would take before science nearly gets reality right.

Husserl and Sellars’ prescriptions for science today, however, still seem rather close. Both admit the broad failings of scientific theory and method, and both want to use the fundamental methodological conceptions of science to reform it. They both ask us all to own up to the failures and idiocies and prejudices that mar scientific practice, and try not to be so arrogant and half-assed in the future.

Truth and Muddlement

The main reason why I pursued philosophy alongside literature was my increasing certainty that the closer I looked at words and sentences, the less idea I had of what they meant. The apparent correspondence between my thoughts, our language, and the world fell apart as I matured, in much the same way that Kafka described in Diogenes:

Diogenes

In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Franz Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

Where A is thought and mind, B is language, and C is the world, including our physical selves. It would be so much simpler if there were only two pieces to the puzzle and we could measure one against the other, but since each is a medium onto the other two, stability seems absurdly out of reach.

Yet analytic philosophy was disappointing in that the grave problems of correspondence between language, mind, and reality had given way in the 80s and 90s to a neo-Aristotelian essentialism, which once again wished to see language as a transparent window onto the world. Its counterpart in poststructuralism was equally disappointing, positing that meaning was endlessly deferred or wholly constructed, something which was rather evidently not the case. The world has some pull on language, though that pull is slippery, non-atomic, and ever-shifting.

And at the center of it (or perhaps the bottom of it) lies that big notion of truth. There are so many hazy concept around today that I hesitate to single out any one as being overridingly problematic, but of all the concepts that people simultaneously trumpet and denigrate, while not even being aware of the contradiction, truth must rank damn close to the top.

People claiming to do away with truth produce more heat than light, frequently falling into absolutist claims that would embarrass the targets of their attacks. Meanwhile, attempts to account for truth in logic and positivism have yielded poor results: special cases in which a method for knowing truth is somewhat more available than usual.

Attacks on scientism are really just attacks on the claim of special access to truth that that has been made by every dominant methodology, from animism to shamanism to alchemy, since the beginning of time. If science today provides the clothes with which educated people dress up would-be truths, that says nothing more about the worth of science than it said about alchemy. Other considerations factor into those assessments. But truth requires some methodology in order for us to see it as truth, and so you get what Polanyi calls “dynamo-objective coupling”:

These supposedly scientific assertions are, of course, accepted only because they satisfy certain moral passions. We have here a self-confirmatory reverberation between the theory of bourgeois ideologies and the concealed motives which underlie it. This is the characteristic structure of what I shall call a dynamo-objective coupling. Alleged scientific assertions, which are accepted as such because they satisfy moral passions, will excite these passions further, and thus lend increased convincing power to the scientific affirmations in question—and so on, indefinitely. Moreover, such a dynamo-objective coupling is also potent in its own defence. Any criticism of its scientific part is rebutted by the moral passions behind it, while any moral objections to it are coldly brushed aside by invoking the inexorable verdict of its scientific findings. Each of the two components, the dynamic and the objective, takes it in turn to draw attention away from the other when it is under attack.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

Polanyi was referring to Marxism but the sentiment applies just as easily to the rhetoric of countless other ideologies, Ayn Rand being one crude example. And “science” can just as easily be swapped out for the previous justificatory methodology of your choice. And that makes the problem that much worse since the methodology now remains under question itself.

Now, science works and alchemy (or augury, or poetry) does not. But when reduced to its seemingly essential components, science does not yield anything so lofty to be called truth, at least not in the sense of a human truth graspable by anyone meeting the basic criterion of being human. Robert Musil phrased the disappointment like this:

It is hard to say why engineers don’t quite live up to this Vision. Why, for instance, do they so often wear a watch chain slung on a steep, lopsided curve from the vest pocket to a button higher up, or across the stomach in one high and two low loops, as if it were a metrical foot in a poem? Why do they favor tiepins topped with stag’s teeth or tiny horseshoes? Why do they wear suits constructed like the early stages of the automobile? And why, finally, do they never speak of anything but their profession, or if they do speak of something else, why do they have that peculiar, stiff, remote, superficial manner that never goes deeper inside than the epiglottis? Of course this is not true of all of them, far from it, but it is true of many, and it was true of all those Ulrich met the first time he went to work in a factory office, and it was true of those he met the second time. They all turned out to be men firmly tied to their drawing boards, who loved their profession and were wonderfully efficient at it. But any suggestion that they might apply their daring ideas to themselves instead of to their machines would have taken them aback, much as if they had been asked to use a hammer for the unnatural purpose of killing a man.

But one thing, on the other hand, could safely be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it. He was in love with science not so much on scientific as on human grounds. He saw that in all the problems that come within its orbit, science thinks differently from the laity. If we translate “scientific outlook” into “view of life,” “hypothesis” into “attempt,” and “truth” into “action,” then there would be no notable scientist or mathematician whose life’s work, in courage and revolutionary impact, did not far outmatch the greatest deeds in history. The man has not yet been born who could say to his followers: “You may steal, kill, fornicate–our teaching is so strong that it will transform the cesspool of your sins into clear, sparkling mountain streams.” But in science it happens every few years that something till then held to be in error suddenly revolutionizes the field, or that some dim and disdained idea becomes the ruler of a new realm of thought. Such events are not merely upheavals but lead us upward like a Jacob’s ladder. The life of science is as strong and carefree and glorious as a fairy tale.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

In its most distilled form, science (and especially mathematics) provides a certain temptation toward pristine and unvarnished truth that I have never experienced anywhere else–unfortunately, some have taken this to mean that science provides the complete vision of what truth can be and so we’d better get used to it. At least in its present form, science does not do that, because I have had enough glimpses of it through other methodologies to know that science, at least in its common naive sense, is not sufficient.

The better answer, at least from those who see what a mess science is and has always been, is that “science” is a broad enough methodology to encompass these other methodologies as well, if the criteria of science are restricted to what seem to be its core essentials: fallibilism, skepticism, and provisionality. (You could say humility and modesty, except that these traits are often applied without much of either.) More and more I see these traits in most of my favorite literary authors, and I also see their absence in a great many writers I disdain.

Here is a scientist speaking of how little we are privileged to know, something you would never guess at were you to find yourself reading Henry Miller, Max Stirner, or Christopher Hitchens:

We walk through the world as the spectator walks through a great factory: he does not see the details of machines and working operations, or the comprehensive connections between the different departments which determine the working processes on a large scale. We do not see the things, not even the concreta, as they are but in a distorted form; we see a substitute world–not the world as it is, objectively speaking.

Hans Reichenbach, Experience and Prediction

Reichenbach’s statement at the beginning is not just about science, but about our observation and study of anything. We are tearing our way through thick layers of the gauze of preconceived notions and biases instilled in us by seemingly every single damn thing in the universe. We won’t pass the final layer (probably not ever, though hope springs eternal I suppose), so the myriad disguised claims of truth that constantly shriek and harangue us would do better to come clean and be exposed for the false promises they are. Our tub is full of ghosts.

This is what I’ve learned in my years (today is my birthday). The more I’ve held to this sort of a systematic, coherent system of fallibilism in every aspect of my life, particularly with regard to myself and my beliefs, the better off I have been.

The Authority of Obscurity: Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, Kripke

The democratization and accessibility of knowledge has always been opposed by those who wish to keep power for themselves. These opponents may wish to be seen as wise authorities, or they may be fearful of the changes that will occur if people get too curious and too smart. Their weapon in disguising or confusing real knowledge is obscurity.

Obscurity can take several forms. Just a couple:

  1. Proclamations of secret inner knowledge and access to fundamental essences known only to a few.
  2. Accusations to others of ignoring the real truth at the heart of things.
  3. Deliberate obfuscation, hiding and/or complicating what is said in order to intimidate.
  4. Appeals to instinct and conventional wisdom to justify shaky reasoning.

All of these have been mixed in with quasi-religious rhetoric in order to reify the power-base of those who wish to be exempt from the strictures of rational inquiry and science.

(For those tempted to see this as religion-bashing, this actually has very little to do with religion per se. It is about rhetoric and power and authority.)

Not that science is exempt. Such techniques are sometimes used within science (string theorists have been guilty of this recently), but they have been used outside of it with far more vigor. The sheer consistency of this is shown by three examples each a century apart: Robert Fludd, J.G. Hamann, and Martin Heidegger. There is a fourth case too, a more recent one, who doesn’t quite fit the mold but merits inclusion: Saul Kripke.

It may seem unsporting or even perverse to point out this tendency when its advocates are so clearly on the losing side–at least among the cognoscenti. But unlike Scientology or Objectivism, the quasi-mystical obscure position needs criticism because so much real intelligence has fallen under its sway, possibly because its current underdog status masks the underlying hegemonic attitude of its proponents.

Also significant is that the underlying position hasn’t really changed that much: in each, a certain high-minded rhetoric is deployed with the signifiers of authority to do an end-run around the hard toil of more rigorous thinkers.

Four examples, then, from four eras: the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernism, and today.

 

1. Robert Fludd (1574-1637)

Robert Fludd was an occultist and an exponent of the Hermetic traditions in the High Renaissance, just as Bacon, Galileo and Kepler were dismissing all sorts of superstition and trying to get a semi-coherent and semi-unified science off the ground. Unlike the far more brilliant Giordano Bruno, Fludd was simply not terribly bright, and in combination with colossal arrogance, he comes off as quite unpleasant.

Fludd’s half-baked thinking, which led him to propose perpetual motion machines are best seen in his famous engraving The Divine Monochord, used on the cover of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, among other places.

Robert Fludd, The Divine Monochord

The engraving overlays the notes of the scale with Ptolemy’s circular orbits of the spheres. Even if you give him the geocentric universe, to which Fludd held half a century after the death of Copernicus, Fludd messed up the notes: the F should be an F sharp. Fludd was not one to worry about such things, and while the results may have artistic value, Fludd’s attempts to link them to physical phenomena are laughable. But this he did.

For Fludd, the mere stipulation of symbolism is enough to make something true:

Further, all kinds of natural things, and those which are supernatural, are bound together by particular formal numbers. The mystery of these occult numbers is best known to those who are most versed in this science, who attribute the Monad or unity to God the artificer, the Dyad or duality to Aqueous Matter, and then the Triad to the Form or light and soul of the universe, which they call virgin.

That is, numbers have special powers given to them by their “formal” nature, that is, their nature beyond mathematics. The analogies for numbers proposed by occultists lend the numbers real power, in Fludd’s view.  Well, as Hans Blumenberg said, analogies are not transformations.

Fludd was an Oxford graduate and finally entered the College of Physicians after six failed attempts. Connections to the royal physician may have helped. Fludd became famous for his debates with Kepler, who was easily the most mystical of the scientists and astronomers.

Though Kepler had made his name by predicting a notoriously cold winter in 1595, Kepler distrusted astrology and generally held the more superstitious arts like alchemy and divination in total contempt. Nonetheless, he sought a cosmological union of mathematics, physics, and music that would explain the complete and utter perfection of God’s world. In the process, he correctly theorized that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than circles, a discovery of gobstopping genius contrary to pretty much what everyone everywhere had ever thought, and even more amazing given the lack of any theory of gravity to explain why the orbits were ellipses. He also discovered two other laws of planetary motion of similar import.

Fludd, in words that sound eerily contemporary (and not for the better), attacked Kepler as vulgar and scientistic, in a prolix pamphlet that needs to be heavily summarized:

In the arrogant pose of the esoteric and mystagogue Fludd lectured to Kepler, reproaching him for crass ignorance and ambition. Kepler’s science, in Fludd’s opinion, refers only to the outside of things. A distinction must be made between vulgar and formal mathematics. Only the chosen sages, skilled in formal mathematics, perceive nature truly; to the representatives of vulgar mathematics, among whom he also counts Kepler, and whom he calls bastards and stunted people, it remains invisible and hidden. These measure only the shadows instead or the reality or things. Fludd compares Kepler’s astronomy to a “mystical astronomy.” While Kepler stopped short with the outer movements of nature, he himself contemplates the inner and fundamental acts, which flow forth from nature. So it goes on, on fifty-four thickly printed folio sheets.

These samples from Fludd’s pamphlet are characteristic of the intellectual temper of that epoch. One who looks about in that departed era of writing and printing is astonished at the flood of astrological, alchemical, magical, cabbalistic, theosophic, mock mystic, and pseudoprophetic writings which held the intellects in a spell. The vaguer their content and the richer the promises they ventured in predictions, in communication of secret knowledge and abilities, the more readers they found. What was always being proclaimed under the name of Hermes Trismegistos passed for revelation, whereas imitation of the ideas of Paracelsus passed as the highest wisdom.

When Fludd, in the delusion of possessing deeper perception, held forth that he himself had the head in his hands, Kepler only the tail, then the latter replied humorously: “I hold the tail but with the hand; you clasp the head, if only it does not happen just in a dream.” The widdy disseminated writings, aiming to found and extend the order of the Rosicrucians, were naturally also known to Kepler. Yet he wanted to have nothing to do with a secret organization which feared the light. He urged the Brothers of the new order not to turn only to the ”children of the truth,” but also to go and to talk in the meetings of people, on the mountains and in public places, so that people would get to know their true doctrine.

In the face of all such pseudoscientific efforts, Kepler most strikingly characterized his manner of thought and the goal, which he also pursued in the Harmonia, when he says about his connection with Fludd: “One sees that Fludd takes his chief pleasure in incomprehensible picture puzzles of the reality, whereas I go forth from there, precisely to move into the bright light of knowledge the facts of nature which are veiled in darkness. The former is the subject of the chemist, followers of Hermes and Paracelsus, the latter, on the contrary, the task of the mathematician.” Fludd answered Kepler’s apology once more. The latter, however, did not want, as he says, to press this issue any longer and was silent. “I have moved mountains; it is astonishing how much smoke they expel.”

Max Caspar, Kepler: A Biography

Kepler only sees the outside of things, while Fludd penetrates to their innards. We’ll hear that line again.

Kepler eloquently described how Fludd “inner workings” terminally confused the causal workings of things with symbology:

I too play with symbols and have planned a little work, Geometric Cabala, which is about the Ideas of natural things in geometry; but I play in such a way that I do not forget that I am playing. For nothing is proved by symbols; things already known are merely fitted [to them]; unless by sure reasons it can be demonstrated that they are not merely symbolic but are descriptions of the ways in which the two things are connected and of the causes of these connections.

Brian Vickers draws the contrast quite vividly, emphasizing the replacement of Fludd’s visual constructions with Mersenne and Kepler’s primarily mathematical ones:

Mersenne rejects much of the conceptual structure of occult science, the whole analogical-correlative method, its symbolism, its confusion of mental and physical worlds….Kepler, by contrast, believed that the principles defining the structure of reality are picturable only in a certain sense. What is entirely lacking from the Fludd mentality is any interest in measurement or in testing an analogy against data derived from experience, and in this respect Kepler’s assumptions and methods are wholly different. The crucial issue is the relationship between pictures, words, and things. Fludd starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality. Kepler, who deals with reality in terms of geometry, rejects Fludd’s analogies as visual or rhetorical, never capable of demonstration and often arbitrary.

Brian Vickers, Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance

The particular method I’ve highlighted in bold is one that will recur as well.

Fludd was not well-liked. Even the alchemist Johannes Baptista van Helmont disparaged him as  ‘a poor physician and a still poorer alchemist, talkative, loud, thinly learned, inconsistent . . . a fluctuating Fludd.’ And when you’ve lost the alchemists….

Frances Yates, generally rather sympathetic to the Hermetic tradition and its influence on the development of science, says this about him and Kepler:

Nevertheless, Kepler had an absolutely clear perception of the basic difference between genuine mathematics, based on quantitative measurement, and the “Pythagorean” or “Hermetic” mystical approach to number. He saw with the utmost distinctness that the root of the difference between himself and Fludd lay in their differing attitude to number, his own being mathematical and quantative whilst that of Fludd was Pythagorean and Hermetic. Kepler’s masterly analyses of this difference in his replies to Fludd brought this matter out into the clear light of day for the first time and performed a great service in finally releasing genuine mathematics from the agelong accretions of numerology.

Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Accretions can still accumulate, however.

 

2. J. G. Hamann (1730-1788)

J. G. Hamann was a lesser-known philosopher of the Enlightenment who had connections with Herder and Kant. Isaiah Berlin calls Hamann the first anti-rationalist opponent of the Enlightenment, though most of his substantive criticisms had been made already by people within the Enlightenment, so his influence is debatable. Hamann heavily protested against the anti-religious, scientific trends of his age, without articulating a particularly clear alternative beyond God.

What is not debatable is Hamann’s pioneering efforts into obscure, allusive writing. Unlike Kant, who writes densely but does not seem to be covering his tracks, Hamann takes pains to avoid saying much of anything directly. Sarcasm and ridicule are more his style than sincerity or cogency.

He engages in mystical investigations reminiscent of Fludd, such as his New Apology of the letter h. It is uncannily proto-Derridean in its punning half-fatuousness, as Hamann attacks a proposed spelling reform to standardize German by removing some silent letters. The proposal is not just wrongheaded, Hamann says, but blasphemous:

The canon of writing no letter which is not pronounced is the most impossible and exaggerated postulate in the exercise. Why is the author himself unfaithful to his own propositions, not only in regard to all the other letters, but even to h? Why does he not write in instead of ihn, and inn instead of in, or ir instead of ihr, and tun instead of thun, in order to comply at least with the appearance of an analogy? What reason can indeed be envisaged for his biased exception of all the remaining letters and his unjustified severity toward a breath, which is not even an articulated sound?

If the pronunciation of letters is to be elevated to a universal judgment throne over correct spelling such as the one so-called human reason arrogates to itself (under cover of liberty) over religion, then it is easy to foresee the destiny of our maternal language. What divisions! what Babylonian confusion! what mongering of letters! All the great diversity of dialects and speech and their shibboleths would pour into the books of each province, and what dam could withstand this orthographic deluge? The h, turned out from the raw midnight of Germany, would prolifherate [sic] itself in the writings of the greater and milder nations of the Holy Roman Empire with such opulence that would not be comparable to the wise generosity of a famous translator  of sacred parchment rolls in very isolated cases. – In short, the whole social bond of literature among the German nations would be destroyed in a few years, to the great disadvantage of the true, universal, practical religion, its dissemination, and the peace promised by it – –

J. G. Hamann, “New Apology for the Letter h” (1773, tr. Kenneth Haynes)

I suppose this is good fun, but I find it rather tiring and trivial for a supposed major work, though Haynes is to be commended for assembling a reasonably compact and accessible collection. His sneering at “so-called human reason” and the elevation of his stipulated “true, universal, practical religion” grate. I’m more inclined to agree with Michael Forster’s view of the impoverishment of Hamann’s philosophy:

Besides being unsystematic, Hamann’s writings are typically short; occasional in nature; adorned with mysterious visual symbols (e.g. the figure of Pan), and enigmatic titles, subtitles, and mottos; authored with an adoption of strange identities; extremely obscure in content; lacking in developed argument; full of quotations from ancient and modern works left in their various original languages, as well as citations and allusions, many of whose significance is left unclear; prone to the use of German archaisms, especially the vocabulary and constructions of Luther’s German Bible; bombastic and dramatic; crude, sometimes to the point of obscenity; humorous and satirical, often in cruel ways; and rich in metaphors. As Goethe already observed, the cumulative effect of such features (especially for a modern reader deprived of the help that was supplied by the contemporary context) is to preclude satisfactory understanding.

Hamann did not have to write in this way; his early Biblical Reflections, a long work, is written clearly and even elegantly, and his letters throughout his life often show similar virtues. Why, then, did he choose to write in this way? Part of the explanation lies in his principled contempt for reason, and therefore for the conventional ways of writing that rely upon it. Another part of the explanation lies in a deep disaffection with his age and its ‘‘public’’—rooted in his unpopular religious position, but also exacerbated by more mundane grievances, including, for example, his lowly employment and inadequate salary—which leaves him uninterested in being understood by most of his contemporaries, and indeed keen to mystify them. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a motive that is in tension with the preceding one: a wish to cultivate a strikingly distinctive authorial individuality. Yet another part of the explanation lies in a fear that his ideas were not original or cogent (in his letters he voices a fear that he got all his main ideas from the poet Edward Young, and laments the weakness of his own intellect, e.g. in comparison with Kant’s), and in a resulting desire to mask his intellectual nakedness. It is difficult to have much sympathy with these motives.

Michael Forster, After Herder: Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition

Contra Socrates, Hamann thinks self-knowledge is “a descent into hell,” merely painful preparation for the real truth of salvation. So Hamann is really opposing not just the intellectual trends of the time but the use of reason as a means to anything but faith. The obscuritanism and the attacks on reason go hand in hand with Hamann’s appeal to religion (Christianity, of course), and so it is not so surprising that today he is being used by postmodern theologians to help expand the gaps in which they wish God to exist. That is to say, postmodernism not in the service of skepticism or pluralism, but in service of ignorance and superstition.

John Betz enthusiastically endorses Hamann’s attack on Kant and the claim that Kant’s system is really just another religion like any other, Kant a “magician” and “alchemist” playing tricks on us:

Indeed, following Hamann, the very structure of Kant’s Critique could be said to mirror the mystagogy of the temple cult, proceeding by way of an ever more inward progression from the forms of intuition, which concern the “outer court” of sensibility, to the “sanctuary” of the transcendental categories of the understanding, to the sanctum sanctorum of the regulative ideas of reason itself.

In any case, as Hamann reads it, the Critique is a kind of “magical mystery” tour de force. Kant’s philosophy is “alchemical” because its transcendental method involves a similar process of purification; the only difference here is that the “dross,” which must be separated in order to attain the “philosopher’s stone” is phenomenal experience.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Teach the controversy! Kant’s philosophy, whatever its many problems, is not alchemical and not a temple cult. I repeat again: analogies are not transformations. Betz seems to think that Hamann has some sort of knock-down arguments, and that these knock-down arguments, having God in them, are somehow superior to all other criticisms against Kant and deserving of more attention.

Betz sides with Hamann in his attack on Herder’s pioneering naturalist account of the origin of language. I will not get into why Hamann’s criticisms of Herder are weak and specious (Forster’s book addresses this issue convincingly), since the rhetoric is my focus here. Note how Betz goes right along with Hamann’s invective precisely when it is most free of content:

In a masterful stroke of irony Hamann then adds that Herder’s “natural” theory must have been the product of divine inspiration, due to a divine “Genesis”; indeed, it must be even more supernatural and poetic than the oldest account of the creation of heaven and earth. For, surely, only inspiration would cause this learned author to set himself up “so confidently and so recklessly for such public, earth-shaking, hyperbolic-pleonastic, retaliatory criticism, and to misuse polemical weapons only to incur wounds and lumps at his own expense, accomplishing thereby precisely the opposite of what his readers are promised and flatteringly led to expect.”

What a lashing!

With consummate irony, Hamann then caps his parody with the following coup de grace: “With this divine organon of understanding the entire Koran of the seven [liberal] arts and the entire Talmud of the four faculties was invented, and upon this rock stands the fortress of the philosophical faith of our century, before which all the gates of oriental poetry must submit.” That is to say, how can this understanding of the origin of language, which rests upon a plain contradiction, possibly serve as a suitable foundation for philosophy, for the sciences, for philology?

What a damning appraisal!

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

I find it vaguely frightening that such rhetoric as Hamann’s should appear so convincing to a theologian that it could be cited with such cheerleading enthusiasm. Betz’s choice of the phrases “lashing” and “damning appraisal” are rather intriguing on their own, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.

It should not, then, come as too much of a surprise that Betz then links Hamann to Heidegger and Derrida and enlists all three in his religious project, finding fault with the latter two in that they are not sufficiently religious (i.e., Christian), making Hamann the clear choice:

Thus it comes about that for Heidegger, the anti-Augustine, paradoxically “Nothing” really “Is”; and that this “Nothing” becomes the source of ethics, revelation, and poetic inspiration. Such is the odd, uncompelling, and, in view of the horrors of the twentieth century, ethically chilling result of Heidegger’s attempt to purify philosophy of theology, whereby he essentially repeats in the realm of ontology the same fundamental error Hamann identified at the heart of Kant’s epistemology, thereby bringing the history of philosophy (divorced from theology) to its explicitly nihilistic conclusion.

After the Enlightenment, the problem of reason, following Hamann and now Derrida, has come down to the problem of language. In short, it comes down to a choice between inspired and uninspired language: either language inspired by the Holy Spirit in response to the Logos, or language inspired by Nothing at all.

John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: Hamann as Post-Secular Visionary

Here it is more difficult to argue with Betz, for he is opposing thinkers who have dispatched the only terms of argument that could help them against Hamann, and given the choice between Nothing and God, people will tend to plump for the latter. All of the relativism eventually gives way to the “true, universal, practical religion” of which Hamann, and presumably Betz, are certain.

 

3. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Much of the discussion of Heidegger can be found in the entry on Herman Philipse’s Heidegger book, where Philipse diagnosed Heidegger’s rhetoric as authoritarian and theological. (More on Heidegger’s sloppy scholarship.) Heidegger’s irritating statement “Only a god can save us” is ultimately representative of the tactics of his later work. I quote the relevant bits from the previous entry:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation…

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again.

Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being

I trust that the linkages here are evident. Like Fludd and Hamann, Heidegger appeals to some sort of revelation to which he has privileged access, one that both trumps other accounts and is not accessible to them. The presupposition of having penetrated to the inner core of things is stated as a first principle, not a conclusion.

This passage from The Question Concerning Technology is representative:

In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. Man stands so decisively in subservience to the challenging-forth of enframing that he does not grasp enframing as a claim, that he fails to see himself as the one spoken to, and hence also fails in every way to hear in what respect he ek-sists, in terms of his essence, in a realm where he is addressed, so that he can never encounter only himself.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”

But Heidegger sees, Heidegger encounters. Heidegger knows the fundamental inners of things, like Fludd. His claims would be easily dismissed if technology and science didn’t present so many genuine questions that Heidegger is forcing out of people’s minds with his mystification. Such obfuscation neuters the rational force of any critique it is used to make and replaces it with pure authority. If you have the authority that Heidegger had, you can win the argument; if you don’t, you will lose.

 

4. Saul Kripke (1940- )

It may seem unfair and even perverse to include Kripke on this list, for unlike the others he has an indisputably great contribution to formal logic. Yet it is his metaphysics and his rhetoric with which I am concerned here, and I can’t deny the overlap. In fact, it’s significant that both an “analytic” and a “continental” philosopher can fall into this list.

Kripke does not use obscurity per se; what he does do is utilize a closed system that is then pushed onto reality. In this he resembles Fludd, who in Vickers’ words “starts with ideas and pictures, finds words to describe them, and then links this composite to reality.” The composite here is far more rigorous and “scientific” than anything Fludd ever managed, yet the outcome is not so different. Those who favor Kripke will certainly disagree, but the burden of proof remains with them. Central to Kripke’s approach is an appeal to ungrounded intuition that mimics the tactics of the above thinkers. Intuition becomes another obscuring tactic.

Kripke acolyte Scott Soames gives a non-technical summary of Kripke’s impact:

[Kripke’s theories] brought back the idea that things in the world have discoverable essences, which are properties not just physically required but metaphysically necessary for their existence. Some of these properties are discoverable by science. But these may not exhaust the essential properties of human beings. The impact of Kripke’s book was its message that, despite the progress philosophers have made in understanding meaning and language, philosophical knowledge is not limited to that, which means that philosophy must reconnect to the non-linguistic world.

Scott Soames in The Browser

Essential properties: the insides of things, just as Fludd claimed access to. The armchair discovery of essential properties beyond those discoverable by science is quite an achievement, one capable of generating a lot more business for philosophers itching to escape the punishing strictures of mid-century anti-essentialism. How did Kripke do it? Richard Rorty provides a good overview in the LRB, but I will briefly summarize the technical points:

Kripke postulated a formal modal logic for talking about possible worlds, creating a formalization of “necessary” and “contingent” propositions that has caught on like wildfire, wiping away the austerity of W.V.O. Quine and a number of other mid-century analytic philosophers in favor of bold new metaphysical conjectures. Some of these conjectures are indeed dangerously close to postulating the inner essence of things, as anyone who reads Kripke’s Naming and Necessity will realize. Key to this is Kripke’s idea of the “rigid designator,” a name that picks out the same thing in all possible worlds. Rigid designators include all proper names, various technical physical science terms. Somewhat famously, he says:

I thus agree with Quine, that “Hesperus is Phosphorus” is (or can be) an empirical discovery; with Marcus, that it is necessary.

So it is not possible that Hesperus could not have been Phosphorus, and this modal, metaphysical claim is based solely on the nature of the linguistic terms involved and the counterfactual possible world setup he has going. In response to those who complain about possible worlds, he says:

Those who have argued that to make sense of the notion of rigid designator, we must antecedently make sense of ‘criteria of transworld identity’ have precisely reversed the cart and the horse; it is because we can refer (rigidly) to Nixon, and stipulate that we are speaking of what might have happened to him (under certain circumstances), that ‘transworld identifications’ are unproblematic in such cases.

Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity

The shorter version of this, again, is: saying makes it so. The way in which we use language somehow makes it possible to generate claims about metaphysical necessity. Can we rigidly refer to Nixon? That seems to be the shaky ground on which cart and horse must ride.

For someone like myself who thinks that simply naming something isn’t even sufficient to be certain it exists, Kripke is far off the mark, but again, that is beside the point here. My consideration here is with the rhetorical tactics involved and how they echo past thinkers who presume a familiarity with the inner nature of reality and use a certain sort of authoritative language to proclaim it.

Other Kripkean feats include proving the necessity of “Water = H2O” and “Cicero = the organism descended from sperm s and egg e,” as well as the non-necessity of “Mental events are identical with brain events.” The passage related to this last one is worthy of quoting. Here, “C-fibers” are the part of the brain that happen to be associated with pain in humans.

What about the case of the stimulation of C-fibers? To create this phenomenon, it would seem that God need only create beings with C-fibers capable of the appropriate type of physical stimulation; whether the beings are conscious or not is irrelevant here. It would seem, though, that to make the C-fiber stimulation correspond to pain, or be felt as pain, God must do something in addition to the mere creation of the C-fiber stimulation; He must let the creatures feel the C-fiber stimulation as pain, and not as a tickle, or as warmth, or as nothing, as apparently would also have been within His powers . . . The same cannot be said for pain; if the phenomenon exists at all, no further work should be required to make it into pain.

From here it is a short hop to Kripke’s personal views:

Kripke is Jewish, and he takes this seriously. He is not a nominal Jew and he is careful keeping the Sabbath, for instance he doesn’t use public transportation on Saturdays. He thinks religion can help him in philosophy:

“I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a world view and do not believe in materialism.”

He claims that many people think that they have a scientific world view and believe in materialism, but that this is an ideology.

GoInside interview with Saul Kripke, 2001

Such remarks sound a bit condescending, and so I ask: does Kripke have his own prejudices? It seems that he does not. He is well above the rest of us, having evidently transcended the need for a worldview. And perhaps language as well:

“People used to talk about concepts more, and now they talk about words more,” he says, capsulizing the profession. “Sometimes I think it’s better to talk about concepts.”

Saul Kripke profile in the New York Times (1977)

Yet the reason for why analytic philosophers migrated to words was that no one could agree on what a concept was. Nor how to grasp one. The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Concepts encompasses nearly every discipline of philosophy, while offering little that is uncontested save for the gnomic first sentence: “Concepts are the constituents of thoughts.” So the way I read Kripke’s statement is that people should talk about concepts his way.

Yet in justifying the correctness of his versions of things, Kripke often appeals to intuition. The word “intuition” appears frequently in Kripke’s writings, often as something he wishes to “capture” formally. The Preface to Naming and Necessity appeals to intuition on nearly every page in justifying rigid designators. The papers in Philosophical Troubles use intuition, if anything, more frequently, particular when speaking about truth and knowledge. Some form of the word “intuition” is used 246 times in the book’s 380 pages. For comparison, Quine uses it 9 times, and not always favorably, in the 130 pages of From a Logical Point of View, while Davidson uses it 23 times in the 285 pages of Inquiries into Truth and Intepretation. Wittgenstein uses it only four times in all of Philosophical Investigations, while Sellars makes only a single derogatory use of it in the entirety of Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.

Now perhaps Kripke’s experience is different, but I live in a world in which the vast majority of intuitions that I or anyone else has are wrong. Today’s intuitions are tomorrow’s mockeries. Either way, I don’t see how you combat Kripke if you have an opposing intuition. I doubt he expects one to do so. Appeals to intuition in philosophy are not so different from appeals to feeling, consensus, or religion: they rely on you accepting an unsubstantiated claim from a supposed expert or authority. It is hard to see intuition as much more than an authoritative cudgel designed to shut down questions and let things remain cloudy. At the end of the day, I think this is what Kripke’s metaphysics will remain: ungrounded appeals to intuition.

In some ways Kripke has embraced obscurity, publishing next to nothing in the years since Naming and Necessity and cultivating an oracular persona. He is very much a counter-Wittgenstein, another religious philosopher who published almost nothing, yet where Wittgenstein leaves us with questions, Kripke is always in a hurry to give answers. I do believe that Kripke’s metaphysical system has more value than Fludd’s pretty but false pictures of the world, but I do wonder how much more value.

I’ll let Quine have the last word on intuition’s use as a core tool of mystic authorities:

Twice I have been startled to find my use of ‘intuitive’ misconstrued as alluding to some special and mysterious avenue of knowledge. By an intuitive account I mean one in which terms are used in habitual ways, without reflecting on how they might be defined or what presuppositions they might conceal.

W.V.O. Quine, Word and Object

And this dual nature of ‘intuition’ is why intuitions are obscure, and why they form the fundament of Fludd, Hamann, Heidegger, and Kripke’s work.

The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: Georges Dreyfus on Buddhism

I consume enough books that it takes time to see which ones rise to the surface of my memory and stay with me. Georges Dreyfus’ The Sound of Two Hands Clapping is one of one of them. Both a memoir of the fifteen years he spent training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a cross-cultural comparison of Buddhist and Western philosophical education, Dreyfus makes more good points about philosophy, scholarship, and life in general than the sum total of many other books. Apart from the inherent value of reading work by someone who has immersed themselves in several wildly divergent cultures, Dreyfus cogently and reasonably articulates broader points about study, tradition, and debate. Here I’ll summarize a handful that were most useful to me. (Extensive excerpts of the book are available online.)

Dreyfus writes with admirable clarity and focus, possibly attributable to his fifteen years of intense and incessant study and debate at the Drepung Loseling monastery in Karnataka, which houses about 3000 monks. He was the first westerner to gain the title of Geshe, a degree taking at least 12 years to complete and which seems roughly the work equivalent of three PhDs.

Dreyfus is resolutely anti-mystical. He shows little interest in the esoteric traditions of Buddhism, rightly wary of the Western appropriation of tantra and other “secret teachings.” He distrusts both the romanticization of foreign cultures as well as the polarized we-vs-them assessments that often substitute for genuine comparative engagement. Instead, Dreyfus focuses on Tibetan Buddhism’s dialectical investigation and debate into reality, knowledge, and being.1 He has written in more explicitly philosophical terms elsewhere, but his focus in the book is primarily on the monastic academic culture and their practices of learning and training, as well as the culture’s relation to its philosophy.

By showing the importance of the life of the mind in this tradition, I present a picture of Buddhism that differs from standard representations. Instead of straining my ears to listen to the mystical sound of one hand clapping, I focus on practices such as debate, where the sound of two hands clapping can literally be heard loud and clear. In this way I make clear the important role played in Buddhism by the tradition’s rational and intellectual elements. These elements have often been misrepresented as precursors of scientific inquiry or rejected as clerical corruption of an originally pure message. In The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, which examines the role and nature of rationality in Tibetan monastic education, I contend that each of these views seriously distorts the nature of rationality in traditional Buddhist cultures. My claim is not that Tibetan culture is uniquely spiritual or that monasticism is the only focus of intellectual life. Tibet also enjoys a secular culture with political institutions, literature, music, folklore, and so on. Moreover, there are traditional nonmonastic forms of education, both religious and secular, as we will see later. Nevertheless, it remains true that the sophisticated intellectual culture that developed in the large monastic institutions has been at the center of traditional Tibetan life for centuries. Hence, an examination of the ways in which Tibetan monks are educated can provide an important view of the depth and richness of Tibetan culture. It can also correct the excessive emphasis on the mystical and romantic that at times have been the focus of Western understanding of Tibetan culture.

Those who describe traditional Tibetan monastic education and compare it to modern education also are in danger of overemphasizing differences. This tendency is common in academia, where subtle distinctions are often reified into separations that obscure more fundamental commonalities. Dan Sperber puts it well: “[A]nthropologists transform into unfathomable gaps the shallow and irregular boundaries they had found not so difficult to cross, thereby protecting their own sense of identity, and providing their philosophical and lay audience with what they want to hear.”

The dominant Ge-luk school of Tibetan Buddhism, in which Dreyfus studied, is descended from the philosophical school of Madhyamaka, founded by Nagarjuna in India in the second century and elaborated significantly by Candrakirti in the 7th century. A key figure in Madhyamaka’s Tibetan lineage is Tsongkhapa (or Dzong-ka-ba, 1357–1419), who wrote an immense commentary on Nagarjuna (Ocean of Reasoning) and originated the Ge-luk school. The predominant aspect of Ge-luk, as portrayed by Dreyfus, is its exhaustively rigorous emphasis on scholasticism and debate.2

The result, Dreyfus writes, is an unabashed intellectual elite:

The construction of a universe of meaning is not unique to Tibetan scholastic traditions or to scholasticism in general. Most religious traditions, however, do not take the doctrinal and intellectualist approach adopted by scholasticism. Rather, they emphasize the role of myths and rituals in constructing a universe available to large groups. While these mythic dimensions obviously exist in scholastic traditions, they play a lesser role than abstract doctrines, which are used to refine and develop the culturally accepted universe of meaning and reinforce the conviction of their participants. This, I suggest, is a distinguishing feature of scholasticism as a religious phenomenon that concerns the intellectual elites.

Dreyfus emphasizes that the monastic lifestyle encourages rigorous study and concentration beyond what most will ever experience in a university. Study is a life practice–an intense one–rather than a pursuit of a goal. So Dreyfus’ portrait of the monastery in which he lived is not one of a site of transcendence but of intense academic study, as well as a fair amount of physical hardship. (Dreyfus’ tale of the malnutrition of his first year or so is unsettling.)

I believe that these hardships played an important role in the life of these scholars. They created an atmosphere that led monks to develop new habits and stifle old ones, particularly those antithetical to monasticism. Immersed in a life of singular intensity, scholars ignored the usual desires and redirected their attention to soteriological concerns. Hardships helped in this process, strengthening the scholars’ resolution and providing the pressure that effected their transformation. Discarding one’s hedonistic desires is never easy, but the task’s difficulty is magnified when one is living in comfort, with pleasures readily available. To break away from such desires, it is helpful to enter a new situation from which those pleasures are absent. That is what monasticism is supposed to provide.

But mere absence is not enough. The pressure of the milieu and the hardships encountered help break the hold that desires have on one’s mind, creating new patterns in which soteriology is central. Hermits report undergoing a similar experience. Their career often starts with great difficulties: they lack food, fall sick, experience mental problems, and so on. But once they overcome these difficulties, they progress quickly and easily. This pattern, equally clear in the life of many saints, suggests that those initial difficulties are not just obstacles but vital elements of the story. They create the kind of pressure under which inclinations can be reordered. After this transformation, the practice becomes easy, effortless, and intensely fulfilling.

So, too, the great hardships and the intense discipline of Tibetan scholars push them toward the change in inclinations necessary to achieve their goal. This reordering is also greatly enhanced by the narrative unity that scholars find in their existence. As I will show in chapter 8, providing such unity is one of the central tasks of scholastic education, which is often less a direct preparation to meditative practice than an intellectually rigorous framework in which Buddhist practice makes sense. Developing a meaningful narrative structure contributes powerfully to the effectiveness of the discipline. It confirms the value of the tradition and justifies its members in the sacrifices that they have made. It gives them a sense of purpose and achievement, encouraging a decisiveness and resolution that serve them well in their future religious and worldly endeavors.

The sheer immanence of the monastic life is what comes through, as with my favorite anecdote in the book, concerning the comparative lack of emphasis placed on meditation:

A monk at the Nam-gyel monastery expressed a typical view when I asked him why he was not meditating. Visibly becoming defensive, he said, “You Westerners are really quite funny. You all want to become a great meditator and become buddha in this life like Mi-la-re-pa. You think it’s easy. You do not realize how difficult this is and how much sacrifice one must be ready to make. In Tibet, there were hundreds of thousands of monks, and one or two managed to achieve realization.” Many traditional Buddhists would agree with his reply. This stance is often combined with the cosmological vision of the degenerate nature of the times (snyigs dus), a view pervasive in most Buddhist traditions. Many of my teachers shared this outlook, arguing that our time is too degenerate to allow much spiritual development. One put it this way: “We are not strong enough to reach realization in this lifetime. But we can prepare ourselves so that when Maitreya [the next buddha] comes, we will be in good shape and become one of his chief disciples.” The traditional cosmology suggests that the wait will be rather long, and hence there seems to be no compelling reason to rush toward enlightenment.

 

Memorization

On the other hand, meditation-like practices in study are present in abundance in Ge-luk monastic life. Primary among them is rote memorization, the slow assimilation of texts until they are second nature. Texts–not just fundamental philosophical texts, but manuals of conduct–are learned eidetically rather than semantically. Texts are recited out loud many times until perfect recall is achieved.

The young monk then proceeds to memorize the passage given to him the night before. He loudly reads it from his text bit by bit, rocking his body back and forth. He starts with the first word or two of the first sentence or line of a stanza (often but not always the text is written as poetry; the verses of seven, nine, or eleven syllables, grouped in four-line stanzas, are easier to retain than prose), reciting that element until he has mastered it. He then moves on incrementally until he has memorized the whole sentence, which he recites, still in a loud voice, several times. The same process is repeated for subsequent sentences; and after memorizing each, he recites the sentences that he has just memorized. Thus, by the end of the session, the whole passage forms a whole that can be integrated with the passages he has already memorized.

The process of memorization is aural. Without relying on visual mnemonic devices, Tibetan monks memorize their texts by vocalizing them. The only support is a tune to which the words are set. In certain monasteries (such as Namgyel, where monks are expected to memorize an enormous amount of liturgical material), the text is memorized to the same tune to which it is later chanted. In scholastic monasteries or in smaller monasteries, there is no fixed tune. But in both cases, students concentrate entirely on the text’s sonic pattern, ignoring other associations as much as possible.

Meaning is only examined after the sounds of the text have been internalized.

By dissociating texts from meaning before committing them to memory, the monks seek to make memorization a form of implicit memory, ingraining texts in the mind as if they were a motor skill. By contrast, when we memorize a text that we already understand we rely mainly on semantic memory— easier to acquire but less stable. It is open to the retroactive interference of subsequent learnings, especially those having to do with the same subject. Without completely erasing the old memory, new ones take over and modify it in the light of new knowledge. Texts that we memorize without understanding their meaning are not so prone to reconstruction, because of the artificiality of their inscription, which occurs in a mnemonic subsystem not influenced by semantic memory—hence, the practice of memorizing texts without understanding them. What comes with difficulty goes with difficulty.

These important benefits are not unlike those provided by meditative training, which is even more effective in giving its practitioner the ability to be attentive and concentrate, as well as the experience of mental calm. The advantage of memorization over meditation is that it is easier. In meditation, one’s mind focuses on purely internal objects (when it focuses at all), easily wandering off unnoticed for several minutes. In memorization, the mind is given a clearly defined external task and kept to it by the loud vocalization and the tune that are part of the process. Hence, to memorize is a relatively painless way to acquire the stability and discipline essential to monastic training.

This educational process reflects the belief that knowledge needs to be immediately accessible rather than merely available.

For many reasons, this sort of memorization has suffered a huge decline in western culture over the last century (following a more gradual decline in the centuries before that), and the effects on cognitive structure and processing should not be underestimated. I have always been quite poor at rote memorization, while having a great talent for remembering organized structures–learning grammatical rules was always far easier than memorizing vocabulary. I retain conceptual abstractions rather than exact phrasings. So I suspect I generally do not process texts, even those I know well, in the way that Dreyfus describes here, and this is no doubt an deficiency on my part–though it has some concomitant advantages.

 

Debate

Having absorbed the key texts, the students then spend years debating them. The debate is fierce, competitive, and sometimes brutal. Dreyfus tells of the daily debates between students that go on for hours, one monk demolishing his opponent to great crowd approval. The whole section at that link is worth reading, but here are some key excerpts:

Tibetan debates involve two parties: a defender (damchawa), who answers, and a questioner (riklampa). The roles of defender and questioner imply very different commitments, as Daniel Perdue explains: “The defender puts forth assertions for which he is held accountable. The challenger raises qualms to the defender’s assertions and is not subject to reprisal for the questions he raises.” The responsibility of the defender is to put forth a true thesis and to defend it. Hence, the defender is accountable for the truth of his assertions. The questioner, on the contrary, is responsible only for the questions he puts forth. His questions must be well-articulated, must logically follow from the points already made, and must be relevant to defeating the defender. Their truth content is irrelevant, however, for his task is not to establish a thesis but to oblige the defender to contradict either previous statements or common sense.

Let us take the example of a debate about the definition of impermanence, which is “that which is momentary.” The debate starts by delineating the agreement between both parties. The questioner may ask for further clarification, with such questions as “What doesmoment mean in this definition?” “Does it refer to a brief moment or to a longer one?” The defender may answer that the moment implied by momentary is brief. The questioner then proceeds to draw consequences, thinking that he has enough to go on. He may start, “It follows that things last only for a short moment since they are momentary.” This statement is framed to embody the defender’s answer concerning the meaning of momentariness and is considered the root consequence (tsawé telgyur), which derives from the root thesis (tsawé damcha) that the defender must be made to contradict.

The questioner’s task is then to oblige the defender to back off from his acceptance of the root statement, forcing him to make the no-pervasion answer that contradicts his main thesis. To do so, the questioner will draw unwanted consequences from the defender’s position, pushing him to make counterintuitive statements until he reaches the point of absurdity.

Sometimes, however, things escalate and one party may start to taunt the other: “Come on, answer; you think you know so much, don’t you?” Things can get even more heated, and ridicule may follow. A skilled rhetorician can be devastatingly effective in a large public gathering, hurling a clever name that may stick to a person for the rest of his life. It is hard not to fall apart when one is ridiculed in front of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of scholars and students. Shoving matches are also common, when several people attempt to put their questions to the defender. Noisy demonstrations of victory and sarcasm to humiliate one’s opponents are often observed, particularly when the questioner has obliged the defender to contradict his basic point and expresses his victory by saying, “The root thesis is finished.” While saying this, he slaps his hand in a particular way. Instead of hitting one palm against the other, as in the usual accompaniment to every statement, he hits the back of the right hand against the left palm to signify that the defender has contradicted himself. In this psychologically intense moment, the questioner expresses his glee at crushing his adversary. Some take a sadistic pleasure in repeating “The root thesis is finished” several times, with sweeping gestures and humiliating comments. Stein describes a particularly colorful and graphic expression of victory: “The winner of the debate is borne in triumph on his colleagues’ shoulders, sometimes, it seems, humiliating the loser (in Sikkim, the loser has been known to get on all fours, with the winner riding on his back and spurring him on with his heels).”

This intense physical and emotional involvement explains why Tibetan scholars love debate so much. They become excited when they talk about it and miss it once their training is finished. Older scholars often advise students to savor their times as debaters: “This is the best time in the life of a scholar. After this, all fades in comparison.”

Yet such intensity also can be dangerous. There are clear cases of monks using debate for the sole purpose of settling old scores or advancing their own ambitions. In twelve years of practicing debates, I have sometimes seen abuses committed. I have seen people attempting to wound and humiliate their adversaries or becoming genuinely angry. These cases are rare, however, and most debates reflect an honest interest in intellectual exchange.

These debates seem most reminiscent of the early eristic Socratic dialogues (thought to be an Athenian pastime in Gilbert Ryle’s account), though with a more explicit, culturally agreed-upon set of rules. Competition and a clear sense of victory or defeat are explicitly employed to further study.

The final examinations for becoming a Geshe include several lengthy oral exams running up to ten hours in front of a hostile audience:

Candidates then defend their view in front of the whole monastery in a formal debate. One cannot fail but one can be humiliated in this difficult trial, which requires the candidate to spend up to ten hours answering questions on any topic related to the curriculum. This examination also involves a strong psychological element, since the defender stands against the entire audience (numbering several hundred to several thousand), which is expected to support and help the questioner. When the defender hesitates in answering, the audience joins the questioner in pressuring him by loudly intoning “phyir, phyir, phyir.” If the answer is still not forthcoming, the questioner may start to make fun of the defender with the vocal support of the audience. Conversely, if the questioner falters, members of the audience may jump in and pick up the debate. At times, several questioners bombard the defender with a variety of questions. Sometimes they may join in unison as they forcefully press their points. When the defender loses, the whole audience joins the questioner in loudly slapping their hands and pointedly proclaiming, “Oh, it’s finished.”

Withstanding such intense psychological pressure is not easy. Being jeered or ridiculed by thousands is a disconcerting experience. Some candidates fall apart, becoming rattled, angry, or unable to answer. Most candidates, however, are able to withstand the pressure because of the long training they have undergone. It is crucial to remain calm and good-humored, while keeping an eye out for sharp rejoinders that can turn the presence of a large crowd to one’s advantage. I remember an incident that took place while I was answering in Sera Jé. The abbot, Geshé Lozang Tupten who was my teacher, made a joke at my expense, implying that my answers were weak. The whole assembly burst into laughter. I was not fazed and without blinking I replied, “Some may laugh, but I challenge them to back up their laughter!” The audience exploded. I had won the exchange

After that, it’s not surprising when Dreyfus expresses disappointment at the lack of even moderately vigorous debate in his American graduate school:

My greatest disappointment in coming to an American university was the lack of debate. I remember at first trying to debate in classes with other students or with the professor, but such attempts usually ended badly. In one class, I was told that debating was not what “gentlemen” should engage in. In another, the professor was only too delighted to debate me in his area of specialization, where he obviously had the upper hand, but this made the other students uncomfortable. “How can you be so harsh toward a student?” they asked him. “Oh, don’t worry. He is well trained. He can take it,” was the reply. As I have tried to make clear, the monastery allows for freer encounters. There nobody is offended at being defeated in debate or even made fun of. I find this culture of disagreement too often missing in American higher education, where students and faculties are at times overly sensitive and preoccupied with their reputations.

 

Closure

There is a tension at the heart of such philosophical debate within a tradition, which should be familiar to anyone who has studied in almost any philosophical school, from Christian Scholasticism to Midrash to analytic philosophy: the existence of unquestioned, agreed-upon foundational views allows for fervent and unfettered debate about consequent issues, but the foundation must remain untouched. (The higher stakes in Tibetan Buddhism emerge when Dreyfus tells of murders committed between competing schools.) For all the debate the inquiry is fundamentally more limited.

The issue of a canon becomes crucial here, since there needs to be some selection of texts to memorize and debate, and the lack of consensus in our culture today no doubt contributes to an unwillingness to have students privilege any particular text with such obsessive attention and assimilation.

This embedded and confident rationality also results from the constitutive role of the great texts of the tradition, which do not just inform but form fields of study. Because scholasticism proceeds by examining and, in the final analysis, appropriating constitutive texts, the understanding that is derived from their studies remains embedded within the tradition. Scholastic reason can be used to critique certain aspects of the tradition but finds it difficult to question the tradition as a whole, for it necessarily remains within the parameters determined by the basic texts. Such a procedure is strikingly different from modern scientific rationality, which is based on a readiness to cast aside previous theories in the light of new facts. Such readiness should of course not be exaggerated, as Thomas Kuhn has made clear in drawing a distinction between normal and revolutionary sciences; a good deal of science involves working within an established paradigm. Nevertheless, the scientific enterprise in principle is prepared to let go of past theories, to reject the familiar disciplinary matrix and shape a new one. The same is not true of scholasticism, which is inconceivable without the constitutive texts around which it revolves. Unlike great scientific texts, these are not held provisionally as a basis for problem solving. Although their exact interpretation may be up for grabs, there is nothing tentative in how scholasticism regards its great texts. They are the authority within their own domain and the given basis of the tradition, which evolves as scholars constantly reappropriate their content. As we have seen in previous chapters, this means not that such a tradition is uncritical but that its critical spirit remains within the orbit of the tradition delimited by the scholastic curriculum.

I find this a significant point, since it unites the religious aspects of scholasticism with its scholarly methodology. The functional aspects of study as a method of training the mind are not, in the end, aimed at generating radically new knowledge, but in training the mind and reifying a fundamental substrate. There is value in the method apart from that goal, but the survival of the culture relies on a conservative and traditional closure to debate.

The closure presupposed by tradition distinguishes rational scholastic practices from the practices of modern scholars. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the boundedness of scholasticism necessarily implies a dogmatic and uncritical spirit. To flourish, scholasticism needs freedom to interpret its own constitutive texts. In the Tibetan tradition, debate provides this freedom of inquiry, which allows scholars to examine rigorously the content of the tradition, though that examination is limited in its scope. Questions may be raised, but they may not undermine the foundations of the tradition, particularly its constitutive texts. In Tibetan scholasticism, when such limits are transgressed, authorities (secular or monastic) step in to restore what they perceive to be the integrity of the tradition, thus illustrating the reality and limits of this tradition’s freedom of inquiry.

It is not coincidental that the most memorable and inspirational figure in the book is the teacher who most strongly pushes at the boundaries of what can be questioned. This teacher, whom Dreyfus clearly reveres and vividly describes, is his mentor Geshe Nyi-ma-gyel-tsen (Gen Nyi-ma for short, also called Gen-la (revered teacher) by Dreyfus).

Geshe Nyi-ma-gyel-tsen (Gen Nyi-ma)

Gen-la’s appearance also reflected his approach to life, which he devoted entirely to intellectual and religious pursuits rather than to superficial external refinements. He often showed little concern for personal grooming and paid little attention to his robes. Often his students had to clean him up. His eyes were his most striking feature, however. Because his eyelids could not stay open on their own, he had to hold a finger to the side of his right eye. This, combined with his shortsighted peering, gave him a wrathful appearance that was, to say the least, not very attractive. The unpleasant impression would be heightened when Gen-la read: as he kept his two eyelids open with his two hands, his big red eyes would bulge out. Students would often comment that it had taken them several weeks to get used to Gen-la’s appearance and to be able to look at him. 19 But his influence on his students and their admiration for him were so strong that after some time students would completely forget their first impression. Some students would even go as far as to unconsciously mimic Gen-la, putting their hands by their eyes.

Gen Nyi-ma emerges as a somewhat Pyrrhonist skeptic, subtly questioning even the foundations of Buddhist philosophy through intense discussion. (The way Dreyfus describes him, he vaguely resembles Burton Dreben.)

In accordance with his predilection for questioning and contrary to most teachers, Gen-la rarely commented on a text or explained a point but proceeded almost entirely through debates. He would pick up a term in the text and would start to explore its meaning; as he sat, he snapped his debates to students who were in charge of answering. The class would continue only as long as his students were able to answer. Most of the time, Gen-la was able to shoot down any answer put forth by his students. This was no small achievement, for his teachings often attracted seasoned scholars. Sometimes, however, students were able to answer Gen-la quite well and even put him in jeopardy. On those rare occasions students would stop, slightly embarrassed, as soon as it had become clear that they had established their points. They would then defer to Gen-la’s summary of the argument, but it was clear to everybody, Gen-la included, that they had won the argument.

Following Gen-la’s classes was a treat for good scholars but quite difficult for those with minds less well prepared. Gen-la considered himself a poor teacher. He was fond of quoting a student who had told him, “Gen-la, when I come to see you I think I have some understanding of the topic. After your class, I am completely confused and have lost the little I knew!” Gen-la viewed his classes not as channels for imparting some truth but as means to further the inquiry. Hence, his teachings were thrilling for those who could follow them, for they had the impression—quite rightly—of being taken on a search for greater understanding by one of the best minds of their time. But the classes could be very difficult for those who had not yet gained the knowledge and experience required by his probing questions.

I feel Dreyfus is hinting at a certain underlying commonality to philosophical debate, in which the processes taken by the ruthless examination of words and concepts breaks free from what those particular concepts may be and their culturally conditioned particulars. Certainly Dreyfus prizes this approach over any particular doctrine. This “throwing away the ladder” approach sometimes becomes explicit, as with this quote of Gen Nyi-ma:

“We are getting pretty good at debating on Madhyamaka but this is not the real understanding of emptiness, for it is bound by conceptual elaborations (prapañca, spros pa). We could even defeat a person who had realized emptiness! Such a person would be able to see through conceptual elaborations but could not answer our questions.”

Gen-la’s comment puts scholastic studies in their proper perspective. They are means to develop an insight into the nature of reality but are unable in and of themselves to bring to full maturity the process that they start.

And I think Dreyfus ultimately endorses a pragmatic account of the tension between a foundationalism that establishes starting principles but limits debate and a skepticism that exceeds the boundaries set:

Gen-la understood and valued intellectual complexities, realizing that the Indian sources of the tradition have a diversity of views not easily exhausted by any party line. He also emphasized the deconstructive dimension of inquiry—the central insight of the Madhyamaka tradition, that reality is essenceless and hence no distinction can be completely consistently maintained. Yet he was quite aware of the potential risks of his approach. No relativist or nihilist, he held that the ability of the mind to undermine concepts must be at some point restricted. One day, he told me: “The inquiry has by itself no limit. One must decide for oneself what the limits are. For me, the limits are determined by Dzong-ka-ba and his direct disciples.” This statement was obviously an invitation—but it was also an admission that “reasonable people” (here teacher and student) could disagree, since there is no intrinsic essential property that can separate conflicting approaches. The point is not that no distinction can be made, but that such distinctions are fragile and that to remain within the circle of acceptable views one must recognize that fragility. I remember answering by mumbling something about the importance of the great Indian texts.

The comparative open-endedness of science comes, then, in recognizing that the foundations are simply to be shifted and thus seen as contingent even though they cannot be wholly abandoned. In the famous words of Wilfrid Sellars, “For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.”

Dreyfus, I think, articulates a somewhat similar principle in discussing the tempering of tradition-bound (yet eristic) scholasticism with a more intuitive and creative approach achieved through less structured inquiry:

For example, in the search for the view of emptiness, the other main goal of the scholastic training, deeper understanding is reached by the gradual cultivation and internalization of the Madhyamaka mode of inquiry through thinking and meditation. In this way, ordinary subjectivity, particularly our obsession with our own self-importance, is disrupted and we gain the ability to deal with things, ourselves included, without grasping onto them. This understanding is quite different from the purely intellectual approach developed by debate.

Yet scholasticism also has definite strengths, for it fortifies concentration, develops confidence and resolution, and trains the mind in the art of inquiry, an ability without which deeper understanding is impossible. Thus, far from being an obstacle to higher religious pursuits, scholasticism is an important step toward appropriating the tradition. However, such an appropriation is constituted less by standard doctrinal formulations than by an inquisitive mind that can see through the limitations of its constructions and yet remain within the orbit of the tradition.

And this balance, for Dreyfus, seems to be something that can and should be sought in both of the traditions in which he has studied. Nonetheless, Dreyfus’ final assessment seems to be that within both Western and Ge-luk traditions, as well as many others, there are skeptics and there are believers, or at least those who want to be believers:

The reasons for my preference for Gen Nyi-ma are not difficult to find; they have to do with my own background. Because I had been raised in an intellectual family, I found myself at ease with an approach based on realizing the complexities of the tradition. My response had little to do with my being a Westerner, however. Other Western students found his approach to Buddhism much less appealing. Some thought that it was a distraction from more essentially religious concerns such as meditation. Others became profoundly uncomfortable: they wanted certainties and were not ready to question fundamental concepts. One could even say that many Western Buddhists seem particularly lacking in their abilities to reflect on and problematize the basic concepts of their newly adopted tradition. Terms such as wisdom, path, and enlightenment are used as if their referents were perfectly self-evident. I particularly remember a Western friend of mine who would often question me about points of Buddhist doctrine. At first, I would answer him by laying out the different opinions and the subjects of debate, but he would respond impatiently, “I am not asking for a list of possible opinions, I am asking for an answer.” I would then have to choose, more or less arbitrarily, what seemed to be the most appropriate answer and give it to him as the answer, keeping to myself the realization that this was just one interpretation among many. The ability to tolerate complexities is certainly not a Western birthright.

It should be evident that I am with Dreyfus and Gen Nyi-ma. In comparison to Gen Nyi-ma’s searching approach, such people as Dreyfus’ friend should feel somewhat embarrassed.

 

  1. Dreyfus has been associated with the recent school that could be termed “analytical Buddhism,” people such as Jan Westerhoff, Mark Siderits, and Miri Albahari who have explicated various philosophical schools of Buddhism both in current philosophical terminology and in their historical context.
  2. Dreyfus mentions the current Dalai Lama a few times, having met him in person on several occasions. He emerges as a rather savvy reformist, gently pushing generally progressive change while trying to keep the factions happy. Pace Christopher Hitchens, he seems to have displayed considerably better judgment than most would have in his place. Dreyfus does not deny the authoritarian structure of Ge-luk institutions nor the all-too-familiar politicking that goes on within them, but neither do they come off as so different or worse than what we experience here in the west. Kelsang Wangmo became the first female Geshe in 2011, and I get the sense that this could not have happened without the Dalai Lama’s wider efforts.

Heidegger’s Theology of Being

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being, Herman Philipse (Princeton, 1998) 

Herman Philipse makes very fine tombstones. Recently he published a book, God in the Age of Science?, criticizing much modern philosophical theology (e.g., purportedly rational arguments for being Christian) in far greater depth than atheist gadflies like Dawkins and Dennett have ever felt necessary. This particular tombstone is for Martin Heidegger: a very critical exegesis of his philosophy that ends with a damning verdict.

People have wondered for whom Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being was intended, since anyone willing to read this much about Heidegger is probably going to be favorably biased toward him. I suppose I am part of the target audience. I have an inclination toward what is evidently Philipse’s vice: getting inside of dubious systems and seeing how they collapse. I’m glad he has done the work on this one, though.

I take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher, unlike many of his scions. There’s no question that in terms of influence, he has wielded real substantive power over the 20th century, and there is certainly something compelling about his work. It is also very elusive and blatantly evasive. Philipse’s book is the first comprehensive synthesis of Heidegger’s work that I have read: all the other books I know of (almost all in English) either stick to Being and Time or else settle for summary overview or simple paraphrase. Philipse, having ingested as much of the literature as anyone, attempts to identify the driving motives behind all of Heidegger’s work and trace their course chronologically.

I think his attempt is for the most part convincing; where the details are debatable, the high level still seems broadly on the mark. Philipse takes Heidegger seriously. He scolds those who call Heidegger’s writing garbage, fascist, and/or pure nonsense. Heidegger’s work is obscure, probably needlessly so, but it’s not nonsense. Philipse criticizes Victor Farias and Tom Rockmore for calling Heidegger’s work intrinsically fascist, and he even chides Jürgen Habermas for condemning Heidegger too quickly. That Philipse nonetheless concludes with an extremely harsh assessment of Heidegger’s philosophy is a real problem for Heideggerians, one that cannot easily be dismissed. I have not seen a comprehensive competing account that contests Philipse’s book.

The estimable Taylor Carman, who has done some intriguing work on Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, took great issue with Philipse, but I think that Philipse easily came out the victor in the argument. William Blattner, another sharp Heidegger scholar, was more willing to recognize the difficulties posed:

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being presents significant challenges to the legitimacy of Heidegger’s ontological discussions. Unless we can justify Heidegger’s assumption that being must enjoy a form of unity that transcends its diversity into regions and epochs, and unless we can free his texts from their pseudo-religious, postmonotheist mythology, Heidegger’s celebrated Seinsfrage will collapse (as a piece of philosophy).

William Blattner, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sep., 2002), pp. 478-481

I think Philipse’s challenge still stands unanswered.

 

The Thesis

Central is Philipse’s thesis that Heidegger maintained a fundamentally religious tenor throughout all his work. Philipse is a staunch atheist and the association of Heidegger with religion is a dire sign, but it’s worth pausing to assess exactly what is meant by religious. Heidegger was raised Catholic and started in theology but rejected Catholicism utterly. The persistence of a religious framework in his writing is best expressed by his methodological appeal to a non-rational, ineffable fundamental and transcendent truth not subject to analysis or debate. (Note that I say “transcendent,” not “transcendental.”)

In this Heidegger follows Luther and Kierkegaard, as well as adopting Nietzsche’s methods and flipping them on their head to reject materialism instead of embracing it. Such claims are, of course, radically anti-pluralistic, anti-multicultural, anti-tolerant, and anti-liberal, and so Heidegger’s anti-humanistic positions follow from this method as much as they do from his philosophical ideas. Such values of rational assessment and debate would jeopardize the philosophy and so must be rejected.

It is this seizing of quasi-religious authority that bothers Philipse, and it bothers me as well. Philipse tries to evaluate the philosophy once removed from such self-puffery, and finds the remainder wanting. Heidegger indisputably cast a great spell over those he came into contact with, and over many who read his work. They included his teacher Husserl, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Karl Löwith, and many others. He was able to convince a great many people that he was wrestling with something primordial and essential. Just in changing the terminology from that of Husserl’s phenomenology to his own phenomenological ontology, he staked out a seemingly higher ground. This orientation to an authority about the fundamental is what underlies Philipse’s claim that a religious authority underpinned all of Heidegger’s work from beginning to end.

Ironically, Philipse’s conclusion is not so far from that of Heidegger scholar Theodore Kisiel. Chakira recommended Kisiel’s The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time as one of the best works on Heidegger, and indeed Kisiel is extremely comprehensive and thoughtful about the development of Heidegger’s early thought. Kisiel’s conclusion is that the essential bits of Heidegger’s philosophy were in place by 1919, expressed most coherently in Being and Time in 1927, and remained fundamentally unchanged thereafter until his death in 1976:

Could it be that the hermeneutic breakthrough of 1919 already contains in ovo everything essential that came to light in the later Heidegger’s thought? Could it be that there is nothing essentially new in the later Heidegger after the turn, for all is to be found at least incipiently in that initial breakthrough of the early Heidegger? Could it be that not only B T but all of Heidegger can be reduced to this First Genesis, the hermeneutic breakthrough to the topic in KNS 1919? Heidegger seems to suggest as much by using Holderlin’s line, “For as you began, so will you remain” (US 9317) to place his entire career of thought under a single “guiding star.”

Theodore Kisiel, The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being in Time (Conclusion)

This is, to some extent, a problem for some Heidegger scholars who would like to treat Being and Time as uniquely belonging to an early period of thought and the later, far less systematic work as fundamentally different and far less significant. In addition, after Being and Time Heidegger’s work is haunted by the specter of his mid-1930s Nazism and apparent lack of repentance thereafter, and so this problem is also avoided by way of a dividing line placed before the Nazi period. After Being and Time, Philipse sees a change in approach and presentation, but not in substance.

 

The Five Leitmotifs

Philipse posits five “leitmotifs” present in Heidegger’s work, one ever-present, two dominant in the early work and two in the latter. Blattner summarizes them more concisely than Philipse does, so I quote him here:

Philipse argues that in place of a coherent ontological theory, Heidegger weaves together five “leitmotifs.” There is

(1) a meta-Aristotelian theme: philosophy aims at discovering the unity of being beyond its diversification into subordinate categories.

In the early thought, the diversity of being is spelled out in

(2) a phenomenological-hermeneutic leitmotif: we access being through a series of regional ontologies that expose the holistic patterns of unity within various domains of entity, such as nature and Dasein. This “diversity pole” is complemented by

(3) a transcendental “unity pole:” the unity of being is uncovered through a regional ontology of the human, which simultaneously serves as an investigation of the possibility of the understanding of being in general.

After Being and Time the transcendental unity for which Heidegger strove gets historicized, yielding

(4) a neo-Hegelian deep history: Western culture is grounded in a series of global epochs of being, each of which makes possible a distinctive, transcendental sort of being. This “diversity pole” is then itself complemented by

(5) a postmonotheist mythology: each epoch of being is a dispensation of Being as a transcendent, concealed non-phenomenon, from which Western culture has been falling away since the time of the presocratics and for a second coming of which we must prepare ourselves by way of a radical, non-rational form of “thinking.”

William Blattner, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sep., 2002), pp. 478-481

In addition, the change of method after Being and Time, as well as the switch from “being” (the gerund) to “Being” (the proper noun), stem from Heidegger’s failure to make the second and third leitmotifs work together in a systematic fashion. So all traces of phenomenology and phenomenological method get dropped, along with much of the philosophical framework that led up to them, in favor of a vigorously irrational and mystical theology that attempts to combine Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

I will not try to tackle the sufficiency or the accuracy of these leitmotifs here. Philipse works hard to close-read huge chunks of Heidegger’s corpus within this framework. Lacking such familiarity, I can only say that Philipse seems to conduct his analysis fairly and thoroughly. I was in the best place to judge with regard to Being and Time and some of the later work, and while many of his points seem debatable, Philipse never appeared to lose the plot in the way that Carman accuses him of doing.

Philipse emphasizes the purely negative approach of so much of Heidegger’s work, which consists of discarding or otherwise demoting methods of inquiry that could compete with his own ontological investigations. These are not incidental to Heidegger’s philosophy. They are a necessary component to it because, as Philipse repeatedly shows, treating Heidegger’s philosophy critically, from the outside, by nearly any alternative approach, exposes gaping chasms. Only from within does the edifice hold up, and even then….

 

Being and Time

Philipse’s treatment of Being and Time focuses on its methodology, which time and again shows up as deficient. The main problems are that Heidegger frequently begs the question, or else muddies the waters by drawing a distinction between what he is doing and what everyone else has done, which then does not stand up to scrutiny.

Philipse demystifies it piece by piece. I’ll focus on only one particular and significant problem here, which is Heidegger’s crucial yet unjustified claim to have access to the question and structure of being, independent of all particulars and all theory: one white European man has grasped the fundamental ontology of being without needing to so much as glance at another culture.

Dasein has understanding not only of its ontical possibilities, but also of its essential constitution of being (Seinsverstandnis). If this is the case, Heidegger assumes, Dasein will be able to articulate conceptually its understanding of its essential constitution of being, that is, to develop an ontology of itself, independently of empirical research on the varieties of human life and culture. Because we allegedly possess this possibility, Heidegger says that Dasein is ontological. Unfortunately, in giving this answer Heidegger assumes what is to be explained, to wit, how it is possible to understand the essence of being human without doing ample empirical research in anthropology.

This is a very old sin, yet far less justifiable in 1927 post-Sapir/Whorf, when the cracks in the universalist tendencies of Western Culture had long been on display for all to see. But leaving the problems of universalism itself aside, Heidegger is nonetheless depending on some kind of transcendental framework to justify his claim of access to ontological structures.

Assuming that the ontological interpretation of Dasein is based on a presupposed ontic ideal, will its results not be arbitrary, because the presupposed ideal is a matter of free choice? Will we not interpret the ontological structure of Dasein differently if we choose another ontic ideal of authentic existence? If this is the case, as it seems to be in view of the many different interpretations of human existence by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and others, should we not abandon the claim that the ontological analysis of Dasein yields knowledge? In section 63, Heidegger denies that this skeptical conclusion is justified. But his argument confronts him with a dilemma. He stresses that there are formal aspects of the ontological structure of Dasein as interpreted by him, such as the self-interpretative nature of Dasein in general, which do not depend on a particular ontical project. The problem is that this thesis conflicts with Heidegger’s theory of interpretation, according to which all features of Dasein’s ontological structure can be discerned only in the light of a specific existentiell project and its forestructure. As a consequence, Heidegger should either admit that he contradicts his theory of interpretation, or he should restrict the scope of this theory to applicative interpretations and leave room for other types of interpretation, such as objective or theoretical interpretations. In the latter case, he could draw a distinction within the analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit between purely ontological analyses, which are independent of any specific ontic ideal, except of course the ideal of seeing the ontological constitution of human life as it is, and ontically contaminated analyses, which presuppose a specific ontical ideal. I argue below that amending Sein und Zeit in the latter sense is mandatory.

In brief, Philipse here criticizes Heidegger for formulating a single ultimate notion of “authenticity.” Not only does Heidegger not justify his notion of authenticity, but the very framework he has embraced–the “phenomenological-hermeneutic” and “transcendental” leitmotifs, specifically–makes it impossible to privilege any particular notion of authenticity as being ultimate.

Philipse lays some of the blame at Husserl’s feet, saying that Heidegger simply brought to an extreme longstanding problems with the very notion of access to phenomenological structures of experience.

Husserl’s mature conception of phenomenology is characterized by four elements: (1) phenomenology is a purely descriptive discipline, which avoids all theorizing; (2) phenomenological description of the way in which entities are “given to” or “constituted in” transcendental consciousness is equivalent to an ontological elucidation of their mode of being (Seinsweise, Seinssinn), because (3) the “being” of entities is identical with their being constituted in transcendental consciousness. Finally, (4) transcendental phenomenology is possible as an “eidetic” discipline, which consists of synthetic a priori propositions about essential structures. Clearly, each of these four tenets is problematic. The principle of description (1) presupposes that theory-free description is possible. The idea of a phenomenological ontology (2) assumes that the manner of being of entities or their ontological constitution is identical to the manner in which they appear to us, and this, in its turn, presupposes Husserl’s transcendental idealism (3), that is, the view that the world, and all entities other than transcendental consciousness, are ontologically dependent on transcendental consciousness because they are constituted by it. Element (4), finally, will be rejected by the great majority of modern philosophers, for they repudiate the notion of a synthetic a priori discipline. In section 7 of Sein und Zeit, where he elucidates his notion of phenomenology, Heidegger at first endorses (1), (2), and (4), whereas he rejects Husserl’s transcendental idealism (3).

Now, the rejection of transcendental idealism is a major problem for Heidegger. Taylor Carman’s critique of Philipse insists that Heidegger’s modifications to Husserlian phenomenology in fact allow Heidegger to escape these charges. I am with Philipse, however, in thinking that Heidegger’s modifications simply result in rendering phenomenology incoherent. Husserl, who never begged off a difficult problem, knew that transcendental idealism was required if there was going to be any possible way of justifying the eidetic phenomenological method–mind, object structure, and world could not line up properly otherwise. (I’ve never seen an account that manages it, anyway.) By cavalierly ignoring the problem and appealing to some sort of basic realism, Heidegger has devoured a supersized transcendental free lunch. His postulation of moods as more fundamental than intentions is interesting, but in no way logically coherent in the way that he claims. Jumping to the assumption of privileged access, of course, makes Heidegger’s work more immediately appealing and less leaden than Husserl’s, at the cost of its internal coherence.

Philipse puts it as follows:

We must conclude that in this intuitive sense of the term “category” Heidegger was wrong in claiming that the same categories cannot apply both to inanimate things or tools and to Dasein, whereas we did not succeed in finding another sense of “category” that would make Heidegger’s claim plausible. As a consequence, there simply is no interesting philosophical program of constructing specific categories for human life. A philosopher might explore a great number of concepts in which human beings express their understanding of life. But it is not fruitful to claim that some of these concepts are categories or “existentialia,” whereas others are not. In other words, there is no distinction left between the ontological and the ontical if Heidegger’s theory of essential structures is discarded.

Another way of phrasing this point would be: categories require theory and theory requires categories. There are no pre-theoretical categories.

Given that the methodology of Being and Time is fatally compromised and its authority cosmically self-inflated, what remains? A fair bit of stuff about everyday practices, how we engage with the world, how we conceive of ourselves vis-a-vis death, and other talk about the human condition. Much of this forms the basis of the quasi-pragmatic interpretation of Heidegger formulated most famously by Hubert Dreyfus in Being-in-the-World, a book which Philipse cites approvingly as a rigorous and critical engagement with Being and Time. This effectively gives up the transcendental pole and renders much of Being and Time irrelevant, preserving only certain epistemological aspects. One could argue that Sartre rescues other aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy in Being and Nothingness through a somewhat similar mechanism, as Sartre simply argues that authenticity is simply something that we can’t reach.

So some of Heidegger’s concepts, extracted and reprocessed, partly survive their faulty surroundings. The methodology and the system do not, however. The methodology, it seems, also failed for Heidegger, since he never even attempted such a systematic philosophical project again.

 

The Turn and the Later Work

Heidegger abandons systematic philosophy completely after Being and Time and turns to a historical and essayistic approach with more overt mythologizing. (“Only a god can save us now,” etc.) Philipse’s most intriguing analogy here is that Heidegger was posturing himself as a post-Nietzschean Martin Luther, trying to wipe away the human and social crud separating us from God (or whatever is left of him). Since Heidegger wished to save religion in the absence of a god, his attempt was fundamentally doomed, and so his later work is at odds with itself substantively in a way that the earlier work is not.

The core of the postmonotheist leitmotif is the idea that traditional monotheism died because Being was misinterpreted as a being, God. The postmonotheist strategy purports to destroy monotheism and to rescue religion by arguing that monotheist faith, which died, is not the true religion. True and authentic faith is the thinking of Being. This strategy faces a dilemma. On the one hand, postmonotheology should resemble traditional monotheism sufficiently for satisfying similar religious cravings. Indeed, we saw that the meaning of Heidegger’s postmonotheist thought is parasitic on the Christian tradition. On the other hand, postmonotheism should not resemble traditional monotheism too closely. For in that case, it could be interpreted as just another variety of the deceased monotheist tradition, as a watered-down and more abstract version of Christianity, a substitute religion, and the postmonotheist strategy will fail altogether.

Philipse maintains, however, that the religion was present in Heidegger’s work all along, and perhaps the central piece of evidence here is Heidegger’s assessment of his philosophical development from 1938:

But who would want to deny that on this entire road up to the present day the discussion [Auseinandersetzung] with Christianity went along secretly and discreetly [verschwiegen]—a discussion which was and is not a “problem” that I picked up, but both the way to safeguard my ownmost origin—parental home, native region [Heimat], and youth— and painful separation from it, both in one. Only someone who has similar roots in a real and lived catholic world may guess something of the necessities that were operative like subterranean seismic shocks [unterirdische Erdstöβe] on the way of my questioning up to the present day …

It is not proper to talk about these most inner confrontations [innersten Auseinandersetzungen], which are not concerned with questions of Church doctrine and articles of faith, but only with the Unique Question, whether God is fleeing from us or not and whether we still experience this truly, that is, as creators [als Schaffende]…

What is at stake is not a mere “religious” background of philosophy either, but the Unique Question regarding the truth of Being, which alone decides about the “time” and the “place” which is kept open for us historically within the history of the Occident and its gods …

But because the most inner experiences and decisions remain the essential thing, for that very reason they have to be kept out of the public sphere [öffentlichkeit].

Heidegger, My Way Up to This Moment (1937-1938)

Religion, at least in the broadest sense of the term, has been on Heidegger’s mind the whole time.

And so Philipse tells a story stressing the continuity of Heidegger’s thought despite the change in approach. What remains after the systems and methods of Being and Time are discarded are the same fundamental elements: privileged access to the essence of being/Being, and the dismissal of all other methodologies and disciplines (politics, science, technology, materialism) as superficial, incomplete, or irrelevant. His work, if anything, becomes more solipsistic, as engagement with any other thought would be enough to threaten the unjustified seizure of authority upon which it relies.

His aggressive misreading of Nietzsche is his last sustained engagement with philosophy, which then gives way to short quotes from writers and philosophers and generalizations about culture and history. (And puns.) There is always the insistence that humanity is ignoring some “more original” and “more primordial” truth that Heidegger, naturally, is trying to illuminate. (I take those phrases from what must be Heidegger’s most overrated work, “The Question Concerning Technology.”)

Taking the lead from Nietzsche, his method of of interpretation becomes explicitly violent and presumptuous:

The authentic interpretation [eigentliche Auslegung] should show that which is not stated in words anymore but which yet is said. In doing so, the interpretation must necessarily use violence. The proper sense [das Eigentliche] should be looked for where a scholarly [wissenschaftliche] interpretation does not find anything anymore, although the latter stigmatizes as unscholarly [unwissenschaftlich] everything that transcends its domain.

Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (1935)

Yet whatever subversive cool hovers around such violent and authentic interpretation should not disguise what this method is and has remained from Heidegger through Derrida, de Man, and Fish: the assumption of privilege. Here it is undisguised, in Philipse’s words:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation.

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

Philipse points out that the unwarranted, rhetorical assumption of privilege weaves its way through all of Heidegger, as when Heidegger disregards plain old empirical “vulgar” history in favor of his own practice of “real history.”  Once again, the empirical and methodological legwork usually required in such disciplines is trumped by Heidegger’s claim to have made an end-run around them to the very depths of being.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Which is not to say that Heidegger is not capable of insight, only that the insights are repeatedly and terminally dressed up in almost unforgivable pomposity and presumption.

 

The Assessment

The latter, critical parts of Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being are less effective than the analysis because Philipse has already done the heavy lifting just in uncovering the structure of Heidegger’s thought. The five leitmotifs, if truly present and central, are already so damning that when Philipse later slices and dices Heidegger’s language to show that it’s slippery and bad philosophy, his arguments follow very easily from his earlier analytic interpretation.

Philipse has a great fondness for the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Ryle, but his methodological application of it to Heidegger’s thought yields its most fruitful results in his structural analysis, before Philipse critiques Heidegger and explicitly contrasts these thinkers favorably with Heidegger. Philipse’s comprehensive structural organization and presentation of Heidegger’s thought is the major achievement here, in itself enough to relay much of the criticism he subsequently makes.

Despite Philipse finding methodological failings in Habermas’ assessment of Heidegger, their accounts dovetail in certain important respects, particularly how Heidegger’s methodological failures make his results arbitrary:

The language of Being and Time had suggested the decisionism of empty resoluteness; the later philosophy suggests the sub­missiveness of an equally empty readiness for subjugation. To be sure, the empty formula of “thoughtful remembrance” can also be filled in with a different attitudinal syndrome, for ex­ample with the anarchist demand for a subversive stance of refusal, which corresponds more to present moods than does blind submission to something superior. But the arbitrariness with which the same thought-figure can be given contemporary actualization remains irritating.

Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Being and Time inspired far less self-contradictory work by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but the roots of their work are arguably more in Husserl more than Heidegger. Heidegger’s work, however, may have provided a rhetorical force for some of Husserl’s observations that the brilliant but chronically leaden Husserl never managed. Heidegger, patricidal to the end, played down his debts to Husserl as much as possible, but it is unclear both to me and to Philipse what Being and Time added to phenomenology, substantively. Ernst Tugendhat put the point this way:

What Heidegger obtained through his argumentation is only the position of Husserl. The decisive step beyond Husserl is no longer substantiated through argumentation; indeed, it is not even recognizable as an independent step.

Ernst Tugendhat, “Heidegger’s Idea of Truth” (1984)

What remains then? Metaphors, or, as Carnap would say, poetry. And while Carnap called it bad poetry, I’d say some of it is fairly good poetry. “The Origin of the Work of Art” remains a forceful and evocative essay, and especially in light of the collapse of Being and Time‘s foundations, I’m nearly ready to rank it over Being and Time.

Of the Nazism, I broadly agree with Philipse. Heidegger’s philosophy does not necessarily imply Nazism, but following it does make it more likely that one will embrace of something like Nazism: a blunt, irrational, cult of tribalism uniting people around a charismatic leader. There is no question that Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism gained strength from his philosophical convictions, but those convictions did not mandate Nazism per se. Heidegger was unlucky in having the particular cult to which he was attracted turn out to be one of the most virulent of all time. This excuses him in no way, but it does remove the stigma from the work itself. Such is not the case for Carl Schmitt or Ludwig Klages, whose philosophy contains far more inherently fascist elements rather than merely cultic or irrationalist ones. Nonetheless, you’d have to be nuts to use Heidegger’s work as political philosophy; likewise, I’m mildly horrified whenever someone like Avital Ronell praises Heidegger’s personal choices in his life.

Likewise, I think that Heidegger’s philosophy is not coincidentally the product of his being a generally horrible person. Leaving aside the Nazi issue, his treatment of basically everyone he ever came into contact with, from Husserl to Hannah Arendt to his colleagues and students, tended toward the selfish, callous, and profoundly exploitative. Few philosophers seemed to treat people as means to an end as exclusively as Heidegger did. Both of the Heidegger biographies by Hugo Ott and Rüdiger Safranski paint the man as frighteningly charismatic but devoid of warmth and loyalty. I may write a follow-up post about Heidegger’s life to talk further about his personality traits, but for now I will just say that I draw a connection between such callousness and Heidegger’s conviction that he was dealing with a realm of truth greater than that which any other human being had touched in millennia.

I think that Philipse does, however, give an impression of there being too much calculated intention behind Heidegger’s philosophy. I believe that the unity he observes is present, but I think Philipse somewhat overstates the degree to which Heidegger’s philosophy was a conscious attempt to instill a new religion of Being. I think Heidegger was too disorganized and confused to pull something like that off. Philipse, quite organized and systematic himself, may have read too much of those traits into Heidegger. This is a small point, but I think it does result in Philipse giving Heidegger a bit too much credit.

Yet Philipse has a second interpretation to unify Heidegger’s work which bears mentioning, tracing the problem of authenticity as Heidegger himself might have faced it:

Now I want to suggest that the burden of authentic resoluteness as Heidegger sees it is in principle unbearable. It is simply impossible to be resolute without relying somehow and to some extent on preexisting cultural roles and norms. This is why Heidegger’s individualistic notion of authenticity, according to which Dasein has to liberate itself from common moral rules in order to choose one’s hero freely, tends to collapse into a collectivist notion, according to which the choice is not made by an individual at all, but is predetermined by the destiny of the Volk to which one belongs. Once Dasein has become authentic by liberating itself from standard morality, life becomes unbearable, and the liberated individual will seek to shake off the burden of radical individuation (vereinzelung) by joining a collectivist mob.

If this interpretation is acceptable, there is no direct relationship between the ideal of authenticity in Sein und Zeit and Heidegger’s turn to Nazism. The unbearable burden of authentic life can be relieved in two ways: by a leap to faith and by a totalitarian commitment. Only when the first solution seemed to be ruled out did Heidegger jump to the second. Nietzsche’s thesis of God’s death explained why the first solution was not available, and the metaphysics of the will to power paved the way to a second solution: Nazism.

I want to look at this psychologically and biographically. As depicted in biographies, the unempathetic and selfish Heidegger never seems to possess any sense of belonging to a group of peers. Lacking human compassion and solidarity, his search for authenticity had no choice but to take theological and tribal forms. His relations to others were those of power: he was a student (of Christ, of Husserl, of Hitler), or more often he was a teacher, or rather a leader, since “teaching” is not quite the word for what Heidegger intended to do. His dictum to his students was always, “I don’t want you to think. I want you to see.”

Milton set about to “justify the ways of God to man.” Once God is in the business of needing justification, He is doomed. Heidegger’s project was to disassemble that need, for God and for himself.

 

Appendix: Heidegger’s Sophistry of Being

If nothing else, Heidegger was a brilliant rhetorician, and though not as important to the book’s thesis as the points above, Philipse’s list of his authoritarian rhetorical stratagems is quite handy, if only to see how they too have woven their way through so much philosophy before and since. I have abbreviated this section heavily and excluded two more specialized stratagems. Philipse counts them as characteristic of the later work in particular.

1. The Stratagem of the Fall. If the Neo-Hegelian and postmonotheist doctrines were true, modern man would be fated to err. Heidegger erred grandly, because he erred in accordance with the present fundamental stance of the will to power. His opponents, however, err in petty ways, because, disagreeing with Heidegger, they do not acknowledge what is in our times, even though they are unwittingly determined by the present fundamental stance. Heidegger holds that logic is bound up with a false metaphysics that conceals Being, and that language in its ordinary uses blinds us to the light of Being as well. For this reason, opponents of Heidegger’s philosophy who try to state their objections clearly and pay heed to the principles of logic, need not be refuted: the very medium of their thought is condemned beforehand, because they have fallen from the House of Being. Christians sometimes held that everything, from language to inanimate matter, had been corrupted by the Fall. Similarly, Heideggerians suggest that all ways of philosophizing other than their own are contaminated, and that one does not need to show this in detail. These ways of philosophizing simply belong to the “reign of technology” (das Wesen der Technik), or to the “era of information,” to “logocentrism,” or to whatever other pejoratively labeled comprehensive category Heideggerians may invent. All philosophers are in Plato’s cave, except the Heideggerians.

2. The Stratagem of the Radical Alternative. If everything that human beings do or think is contaminated by the Fall, redemption must consist in an alternative that is radically different from anything we are able to conceive of: an entirely new Beginning. The conjunction of stratagems (1) and (2) puts the Heideggerian in a comfortable, because unassailable, “position”: he may condemn all other philosophical doctrines and movements in the name of an alternative that is ineffable because it is radically different: the Saving Event.

3. The Stratagem of Undifferentiating Abstraction. Heidegger tries to characterize the fundamental stance of the present epoch by stretching indefinitely the extension of nouns such as “technology” and “information.” We have seen that these nouns become meaningless by such an abstraction, even though Heidegger pretends that he is still using them meaningfully. I call this type of abstraction undifferentiating because Heidegger suggests that differences between items within the extension of these empty terms do not really matter and are indifferent. In 1935 he said that Russia and the United States are “metaphysically the same”; in 1945 he contended that communism, fascism, and democracy belong to one and the same metaphysical reality of the will to power; and in 1949 he ventured the opinion (which I quoted already) that “agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps.”

4. The Stratagem of Persuasive Redefinition. Theologians are masters of persuasive redefinition. It used to be the case that believing Christians were not allowed to doubt religious dogmas, but as soon as doubting the literal truth of the New Testament became widespread, theologians such as Paul Tillich were quick to point out that “real” faith does not exclude doubt. One has “faith” as long as one has an “ultimate concern” in life. Nearly all core concepts of Christianity have been redefined in the course of Western history, because religious dogmas had become unacceptable in their original sense. Heidegger often uses this strategy of persuasive redefinition, and he applies it not only in the later works.

5. Strategies of Immunization. Heidegger’s notion of thinking as questioning is one strategy of immunization among others. Heideggerians often claim that criticism of what Heidegger says must be due to misunderstandings. This is a time-honored theological strategy: if the Bible is God’s word and if God is infallible, we will never criticize the Bible as long as we understand it well. Similarly, if what Heidegger says is in fact what Being gives us to understand, and if Being is the only source of Truth, as Heidegger suggests, then we should not criticize Heidegger’s later writings. I do not want to deny that criticisms may be unfair; surely they might be due to misunderstandings. But this cannot be the a priori predicament of all possible criticisms, unless Heidegger’s postmonotheist doctrine of being is true and unless Heidegger is infallible. It is at this very doctrine that my criticisms are aimed.

8. Stratagem of the Elect. One will wonder how Heidegger could claim that he was able to raise and understand the question of Being, if Being is concealed and the Fall has been completed. How could he gain access to the impenetrable and hidden place from where he was able to experience the Truth of Being, if this truth remains concealed to ordinary mortals? Heidegger lectured repeatedly on Plato’s simile of the cave, and Plato’s simile provided him with the solution to this problem. Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again. Perhaps it had to overcompensate for Heidegger’s isolation and lack of success in the Nazi movement.

Philipse links these stratagems to religion. While the links are obvious, I would not say they originate with religion nor are they necessarily indicative of religious thinking per se–certainly secular politics and science have made use of them as well. They are so ubiquitous that Heidegger stands out mostly for the force and skill with which he deployed them, which would do Grover Norquist proud. Likewise, I think that many of the people who have been attracted to Heidegger’s philosophy and methodology have done so not because of its religious revivalist content (though some, such as Levinas, clearly were attracted to it for precisely this reason) but because of the authoritarian rhetoric it offers.

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