Monday, 28 November 2011

On Heidegger's "Being and Time": Being-in-the-World I (Study Notes #2)

Continuing my attempt at providing study notes to sections of and notions in Being and Time. As already mentioned in the previous post these are my study notes and I present them in the hope that they are of some use to people approaching the text and trying to make sense of it (producing notes like this is also a great exercise in understanding the text yourself). As I stated in the last entry, given that these are my study notes familiarity with terms is presupposed and little or no critique is offered.

The notion of Being-in-the-World is fundamental to Heidegger's phenomenological investigation into the being of Dasein given that Dasein simply is the way of being-in-the-world. What Heidegger is getting at by this compound expression is detailed across three large chapters. Critically, he stresses the equiprimordiality of its "structural moments" - for Heidegger it is crucial not to crudely analyse being-in-the-world in the sense of breaking it down into parts and trying to find some homogenous ground through which it all makes sense. Being-in-the-world is the ground and it is a whole phenomenon.

Now, he does not deny that its structural moments can be appreciated by themselves (the world, being-in, and the "who" of being-in-the-world) otherwise his analysis could not get off the ground. He simply insists that phenomenologically, i.e. in reality, the phenomenon does not present itself as a sum of isolated parts. This holistic character is reflected in the analysis itself which cannot be strictly organised into chapters dealing exclusively with one of the three structural moments. The chapter dealing with world, for example, must also consider being-in, if only briefly, in order to make sense.

So what does Heidegger mean by being-in-the-world? We'll begin as Heidegger does by offering "knowing" as a founded mode of being-in. Knowing is a form which our intentionality can take in its being directed towards the world in some way. Being-in-the-world in a knowing manner simply entails having knowledge about something in the world. The typical view which Heidegger is seeking to overthrow here is that knowledge necessarily precedes all modes of being-in. He wants us to see that there are more original ways of being-in - one can love something, or use something, or produce something, be frightened by something. Heidegger's analysis will show us that knowing depends upon these more original modes of being-in. What is known is always something which is encountered in pre-cognitive activity. That you love Earl Grey, or that your friend studies philosophy - in order to be able to know these things as propositions there must first be a thing which is known, an original encounter. How we understand things, as we'll see, is through concernful lived activity. If Heidegger is right then it simply makes no sense to put knowing before living.

The world, then, is that towards which modes of being-in are directed. The being [sein] of beings [seindes] within the world includes Dasein, the ready-to-hand, and the present-at-hand. Our understanding of these three enables those beings to demonstrate themselves, to be intelligible. Understanding the being of the ready-to-hand, for instance, involves always already grasping how something can be for something, as the keyboard is for typing or the mug is for drinking from. However, the keyboard and mug considered from a disinterested perspective are merely objectively present things occuring at a place in space at a given time, divorced from the practical context in which they make sense (have meaning) as what they are. This disinterested perspective reveals things as they are under the aspect of the present-at-hand.

But what Heidegger wants to show us is that things are never initially encountered as present-at-hand, i.e. as meaningless objects simply "there" at a point in space and time which then have value-predicates foisted on them by a subject (see previous for a more in-depth set of notes on Heidegger's reinterpretation of the present-at-hand with regard to its grounding in the engaged/lived/pratical context). Things are initially encountered by us in some sort of meaningful practical context. As we said above, they must be able to touch us in some way, to be significant in order to be understood at all. How, then, does this understanding come to pass?

In order to appreciate this more fully consider the following example: walking through a busy Christmas market you see a child aimlessly striding towards you with some candy floss. Without thought you immediately perceive the child as threatening the sugarless and unsticky status of your clothes and step aside to avoid getting the candy floss on you. How is it that the candy floss was understood with respect to its being sticky? A typical account might insist that at some point we identified the fact that candy floss is sticky. Inferring from the stickiness of candy floss and the desire not to be sticky we arrive at the resolution to step aside. Sounds plausible, but what this account misses is the original phenomenon in which the candy floss was first of all able to demonstrate itself - the phenomenon of being-in-the-world.

How does the candy floss come to be understood as "sticky"? It is not that stickiness is directly intelligible by any means! In fact, taken outside of this lived context the candy floss is merely an object with no other meaning (even its being identified as an object depends upon this meaningful context in which it is initially encountered). How, then, does it demonstrate its nature? Our concernful engagement allowed the stickiness of the candy floss to come forward and reveal itself as a threat to our otherwise clean and dry clothes. Through its being relevant to our concern it is able to demonstrate its significance - that it is sticky.

That we were averse to getting candy floss on ourselves results from, as mentioned, being concerned about our clothes. In wanting our clothes to stay clean and dry various things which would make our clothes dirty show up for us in their relevance to this particular concern. Being concerned in this manner signifies various courses of action (avoidance, for example). We already had to know that candy floss was sticky, but how we came to know this originally was still in concerned engagement with it - not disinterested knowing. If we were not at all concerned about things "getting sticky" the stickiness of candy floss would never have become salient and we could never have known about it.

Within this context of involvement the things of the world are able to be understood as what they are - as heavy, or difficult, or indeed "sticky". Knowledge itself is organised with respect to a concernful perspective. "Pure" knowledge is a non-concept. How could we call the performance "delightful" if we are not captured by it? Or "boring" if it fails to affect us? How could we call a shattered mug "broken" if it isn't already understood as for drinking from? Being "broken" implies being in a state such that it can no longer do what it is supposed to. This "supposed to" derives its sense from the phenomenon of world as an in-order-to. An in-order-to (e.g. in-order-to drink tea) denotes a with-which (the mug) and a towards-which (drinking tea). Practical involvements reveal the nature of the things engaged with. The world, in Heidegger's sense, just is this interrelated nexus of people, things, and purposes. It is what Heidegger calls a "clearing", an open space in which things can be understood as what they are. Being-in-the-world is the practical/engaged/lived activity in which Dasein secures its understanding of the things in the world (not just propositional knowing-that but engaged knowing-how).

With this cursory overview we can more easily appreciate "being-in" and "the world" as equiprimordial structural moments of being-in-the-world. Without things and such in the world for Dasein to make use of or be threatened or seduced by Dasein can't make use of or be threatened or seduced by anything! But similarly, without Dasein these things could never enter into a lived context and demonstrate what they are by virtue of their relevance to our concerns. Beings press in upon us as we press in upon them.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Heidegger & Technology

In this essay I am going to look at Martin Heidegger’s critique of the essence of modern technology as “enframing” outlined in The Question Concerning Technology. Ultimately I hope to defend the notion that Heidegger’s critique will not fit into a technological determinist framework.

Before we begin, a crucial notion in the philosophy of Heidegger must briefly be made clear. In Being and Time Heidegger distinguishes between the being [sein] of something, and beings [seindes] in general.[1] The disanalogy between being and beings is called the ontological difference. For Heidegger, one cannot get at the essence of what a thing is (the being [sein] of beings [seindes]) by looking at and listing the properties of the thing itself as it appears already intelligible. For this reason the being of beings is not a simple distillation of essential properties identified in a group of objects which are then organised into a genus (Heidegger, 2010).

Things are not, for Heidegger, directly intelligible to us – we must have a mode of access to beings in order to achieve intelligibility at all. To make this clearer, consider how it is only by having a pre-conceptual understanding of how something can be for something that any given thing can be understood by us as something with-which we might achieve some end. This “being-for” in general is understood by us pre-conceptually by means of our fundamental dependence upon beings in order to do things we need to do. It is an irreducible aspect of our facticity that we need more than our bodily appendages to make music, to cook, or even to survive at all (King, 2001). Our very relationship to technology emerges first of all from this fact.

To give an example of how intelligibility is secured by understanding the being of beings, consider how the mug is intelligible to us as something which we might drink out of. This results from a possibility of being that we have already built into us – namely, that we drink things. The being of beings we make use of for-the-sake-of all types of ends is accordingly understood in advance as readiness-to-hand [zuhandenheit]. With the being of equipment as ready-to-hand we see quite clearly, then, how “the being of beings is not itself a being” (Heidegger, 2010). Understanding the being of something as ready-to-hand is an order quite distinct from knowing the properties this thing can exhibit (e.g. that the hammer is too heavy) in the practical context made possible by that understanding of the thing’s being.

The significant result of Heidegger’s ontological difference, then, is that things can only demonstrate what they are within an a priori understanding of their being. You could not understand how the coffee mug could be unsuitable for drinking out of (perhaps it has a series of fissures in it) unless you already understand the coffee mug in its being as ready-to-hand (e.g. as for drinking from). The fissures as they are perceived demonstrate their very meaning for us against the practical context in which they are involved and which is already understood by us before we apprehend the coffee mug itself. In this way our understanding of being grants us our mode of access to beings and enables them to demonstrate their properties to us.[3]

The later Heidegger, however, is not so much interested in these ahistoric existential features of man, but rather in the historic disclosures of being [sein] which grant us intelligibility. That we have a relationship to technology as a result of our always-already being delivered over to beings by virtue of our fundamental dependence on them is an ahistoric fact of human life. How this relationship is manifest, Heidegger holds, is not ahistoric. Heidegger begins his critique of modern technology by affirming the ontological difference, still present in his philosophy, asserting that the essence of technology is not itself discoverable in any particular item of technology. What Heidegger has in mind by the essence of technology is a historic a priori understanding of being [sein] as apart from the particular qualities of those items of technology revealed within this understanding of being.[3]

Heidegger considers at first an anthropological definition of technology, that technology is characterised in its essence as means to ends. Heidegger considers this definition correct but not true in that it captures an aspect of the phenomenon but does not penetrate to its essence. The anthropological definition is untenable as essence of technology. The essence of technology is rather grounded in how technology reveals beings. The essence of technology, he says, is truth (Heidegger, 2009). Things are still understood by us as being something with-which we might achieve some end, however the specific character of our understanding renders salient different aspects of the beings understood. It is by virtue of these different aspects of beings which are revealed by different historic understandings of being that, for Heidegger, makes the anthropological definition untenable owing to its inability to account for this revealing.

It might be objected at this point that as the anthropological definition is correct from epoch to epoch that it is itself in fact the true essence of technology. However, as we will come to see, this presupposes an understanding of making present which Heidegger does not accept. The very notion that what is guaranteed in beings (their unchanging, calculable qualities) is what is essential to them is a principle which is only present in Heidegger’s philosophy insofar as it stands as the subject of a fundamental rejection. What is essential to a thing is its condition of possibility. As the anthropological definition cannot discriminate between what makes a given epoch’s technology possible it cannot, for Heidegger, be its essence.

How, then, is technology related to truth? In approaching this question it will be helpful to follow Heidegger in comparing the understanding of being which underpins modern technology with that of previous technologies. We’ll borrow an example from Lee Braver who compares the farmer who looks after the crops in his field with someone who grows crops with hydroponics (Braver, 2009). The farmer who tills his field does so in a receptive manner. They plant the seeds in the soil and then leave the forces of nature to unfold themselves - the rain, the ecology of the soil, organic processes, etc.

Now, the farmer might intervene in some way by uprooting weeds which begin affecting their crops (or something similar) but they are in each case letting nature come forward in embracing her powers. The hydroponic grower, however, has broken nature down into its constituent parts and “unlocked nature’s energies”. Hydroponics even eliminates the need for soil as the relevant nutrients and pH balancing chemicals have already been extracted from the natural world and stored for just such an occasion. In fact this breaking nature down into its most malleable and useful form, energy, and storing it is for later use is one of the chief characteristics of enframing (Heidegger, 2009)

What is manifest in the two different technologies are two different understandings of being (unconcealment). In the case of the farmer, nature is revealed as something to be respected. The way of the natural world is not interrupted – the farmer goes to the field and lets nature be. This mode of unconcealment Heidegger calls poiesis, i.e. bringing-forth. The hydroponic grower, however, has intervened in nature, has taken it apart and distilled the essential processes in order to grow more efficiently. This Heidegger calls enframing i.e. challenging-forth. The crucial distinction between poiesis and enframing is captured in the phrase “to grow more efficiently”. Whereas poiesis is a bringing-forth, enframing challenges nature. It wants to break nature apart and make its processes lend themselves to more immediate availability. Heidegger’s discussion of Aristotle’s four causes may help us further distinguish the two modes of revealing and in this way come to see enframing in a clearer light.

Aristotle discriminates between the formal (the form of the coffee mug), the material (the matter which assumes the form of a mug), the efficient (the hand which created the mug), and the final (ithe reason why a mug is) causes. The understanding of causation manifest in pre-modern technology is captured by the Greek term “aition” which derives from “aitios”, i.e. “responsible” (Heidegger, 2009). Accordingly, each of the four causes are understood as mutually responsible for any given being under poiesis. The understanding of causality which goes along with enframing, however, stresses the efficient cause as primary – it puts the human being at the front. Braver observes that, despite the enframing attitude which reveals nature as something to order around, we are still in fact dependent upon what we inherit from the natural world. If nature herself did not grant it possible to remove the soil and simply fasten the roots of a plant in nutrient-enriched water, hydroponics would not be possible at all (Braver, 2009).

Despite the fact that this is so, it is not the accomplishment but aim of enframing to control nature. Even though enframing is still rendered possible by the factical being [seindes] of nature itself, and even if enframing feels itself as opposed by, or even pressed upon by nature to control it, it is the feeling of this opposition which manifests only in enframing. If the hydroponics researcher acts in full understanding of their having to deal with their factical inheritance, the thrust towards greater forms of control is nevertheless manifest. It does not matter to enframing if absolute control is ultimately unattainable.

Enframing, then, as the essence of technology is an understanding of being [sein] which reveals beings [seindes] and makes them intelligible in a certain way (specifically, as that which is ours to command). Enframing reveals nature as a “gigantic gasoline station” (Braver, 2009). Everything must be immediately available and readily calculable. Heidegger mentions Werner Heisenberg’s lament that the subject matter of physics in no longer even the object but is mathematical formalism (Heidegger, 2009). Even human beings are understood with respect to this historic disclosure of being, evidenced in the term “human resources”. Zygmunt Bauman in fact even sees modernity as the condition of possibility for the concentration camps of the Third Reich – a consequence of the way of ordering expressed in the modern understanding. This is one aspect of the “danger” Heidegger sees in enframing. The other aspect of the danger is in the forgetting of being, a common theme in the later Heidegger, present in all understandings of being hitherto inherited.

Heidegger has it that all ways of understanding being (ancient Greek physis, Medieval theism, modern enframing) have an uncanny way of forgetting being (Braver, 2009), which is to say, any way of achieving intelligibility forgets that it has gained its understanding of beings [seindes] in a particular way. The illusion is that things just are the way they stand in a given mode of unconcealment, and that the reason they are grasped by us in this particular manner is that we have direct access to them as they are. The actual fact of the matter, according to Heidegger, is that we can only reveal one aspect of beings at a time. Beings for the modern age, then, are those which are under our command.

Another difference between the Heidegger of Being and Time and the later Heidegger is that the later Heidegger sees the understanding of being as given to man rather than as emerging from man’s existential structure (Braver, 2009). Heidegger has it that enframing as understanding of being cannot be changed by mere human effort:

“[…] the essential unfolding of technology gives man entry into something which […] he can neither invent nor [...] make.” (Heidegger, 2009)

Man is commanded by being to command nature - the irony, of course, is that man has no choice in this (Braver, 2009). This way of speaking would certainly at least suggest that Heidegger is a technological determinist. Technological determinism is defined as “the claim that technology causes or determines the structure of the rest of society and culture” (Dusek, 2006). On page 312 we even see Heidegger affirming that the possibility of a radar station emerges from a meeting of technical-industrial production processes (Heidegger, 2009). It might seem to follow from this that the patterns of societal discourse rendered possible by such a technology (the necessity of building stealth aircraft, the possibility of detecting airborne invasion, etc.) are ultimately founded by this technology.

As we cannot actually stop enframing by a will to mastering technology (as this simply expresses the attitude of enframing and therefore undercuts itself) it would seem that the essence of technology will continue to unfold in this way and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. The hope Heidegger identifies is that we cultivate a receptive attitude to being [sein]. We ought not to hope to change our mode of unconcealment - we can only become aware of it as one way of many in which we can reveal beings. The fact that enframing propriates as a way of grasping beings Heidegger hopes is the key to its solution – that it can still be grasped as historic understanding of being and not “how things absolutely are”, even if we cannot change it. However, what it is crucial to realise about Heidegger’s account is that it’s unconcealment itself which is what’s essential to technology:

“Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology.” (Heidegger, 2009)

It is not technology per se which determines our way of revealing but the essence of technology which is our understanding of being (and accordingly the condition of the possibility of the particular artefacts of technology manifest through history). Whereas a type of Marxist might say it is economics which drives society, and therefore also technology, I feel that Heidegger would have rather said it is being [sein] which drives society (and therefore also technology). Although technological determinism does not necessarily presuppose autonomous technology, it does suppose that it is technology itself which motivates societal structure and progress. This conclusion, I feel, is anathema to Heidegger’s critique.

Technological determinism itself has come under fire by those who champion the social determination of technology. Val Dusek recommends that assessments of social or technological determinism ought to be handled on a “case by case basis”, and voices scepticism regarding a homogenous technological or social base (Dusek, 2006). Contrary to this, I contend that Heidegger would see both the technological and social as deriving from unconcealment. We recall that not just items of equipment are intelligible to us in the unconcealed region, but people are too (Heidegger, 2009). Braver identifies enframing even in the structure of teaching which he says:

“[…] has become the academic ‘business’ ruled by the need to reduce waste and maximize output.” (Braver, 2009)

Heidegger’s resolution itself is curious. If there is hope in our becoming aware of enframing as one of many ways of having access to beings, presumably Heidegger must feel that we as human beings have some way of moving our understanding of being. If our understanding of being as being is any hope at all for us and not merely the way in which we at last discover the inevitable force of our doom it would seem to follow that this very awareness itself has some impact on our understanding of being. But what could Heidegger mean, if this was so, by the claim that no human action itself could possibly overturn the way in which we see things? How could cultivating a sense of the historicity of being really change anything? I freely admit that I do not know how to answer these questions.

In the foregoing we’ve identified in Heidegger’s work the “turn” in which he no longer proceeds from the existential structure of man but from the historic disclosure of being. Through this we have followed the consequences of this change with respect to his view of the essence of technology as delivered historically from being. In identifying being in Heidegger as the source of intelligibility, we’ve seen an interpretation of Heidegger which does not, on Dusek’s definition, render him a technological determinist despite initial appearances to the contrary.

- Jordan Adshead (October 2011)


Braver, L. (2009). Heidegger's Later Writings: A Reader's Guide. Continuum.

Dreyfus, H. (1991). Being-in-the-World. MIT Press.

Dusek, V. (2006). Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction. Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (2009). The Question Concerning Technology. In M. Heidegger, Basic Writings (pp. 307-343). Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. SUNY.

King, M. (2001). A Guide to Heidegger's Being and Time. SUNY.

[1] The English language does not discriminate between “being” as sein and “beings” as seindes. Where this distinction must be made salient, I’ve included the German term in brackets.

[2] It’s important to make clear the notion that readiness-to-hand is not the only understanding of being we have available to us. Against other understandings, other properties not related to a context of use are able to become salient.

[3] At this stage in his career, Heidegger often expressed “understanding of being” by “unconcealment”.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Problem of Epistemology

Epistemology as a branch of philosophy (roughly, the study of knowledge) is unclear. Where other disciplines and sub-disciplines have delineated regions between statements about the subject and statements about the fundamental nature of the subject (i.e. between mathematical statements like "2 + 2 =4" and meta-mathematical statements like "what is the possibility of axiomatising arithmetic?") epistemology appears to have no such distinction. Insofar as epistemology makes clear the structure of knowledge and belief it says something about knowledge, like whether knowledge is closed under known entailment. But when the sceptic's question arises, "how do I know that I know?", we proceed into meta-epistemological territory.

Meta-epistemological territory, then, asks questions about how knowledge is possible. But insofar as epistemology carries within it a bias of the Western rational tradition it overlooks the original phenomenon of world which renders things intelligible (and thus ultimately knowable). It sees knowledge as the primary mode of access to beings, underpinning all possible activity (knowing how to ride a bike, for example, is considered a sort of unconscious knowledge as opposed to practical know-how - the distinction between propositional knowledge and practical understanding is not there). For this reason a distinction between first-order and second-order statements cannot coherently emerge, because knowing how you know is seen as the only way to get at the understanding that you know.

However, once the ontological ground has been cleared it's then possible to ask meta-epistemological questions about intelligibility, and what is given over to knowledge. For instance, Samuel Todes refines Merleau-Ponty's researches into the role of embodiment in intelligibility by pointing out that the forward-back, up-down, and other spatial "categories" delivered over to our understanding non-cognitively (i.e. prior to knowledge) enable us to understand more complex concepts (like the "forward" arrow of time, or higher and lower values). As this understanding is not first given over by knowledge but is grasped initially simply by virtue of being embodied it cannot be susceptible to the sceptic's touch. Mental content, such as propositions, are only possible on the basis of non-cognitive worlded activity. Conscious, knowing experience is not primary as knowledge is a founded mode of being-in-the-world and as such cannot make sense of itself.

Not being able to know that the world is real is not a problem as the world is in fact given along with the possibility of having representations at all. One can only pose the sceptic's question if they see themselves primarily in the mode of knowing (which is not the case) and thus owning the sentiment that you can only get at the reality of the world through knowledge itself. As we have modes of access to beings which are not propositional in character (using them, or being them as in the case of the orientation of the body) we can be sure those beings are indeed there. Accordingly, if the preceding estimations are correct (owing to Heidegger's phenomenological account) it is in fact no problem at all.

With its ontological foundations in place the region of discourse available to epistemology is clearly defined. Second-order statements about the ontological-existential possibility of knowledge are released from being appraised by the same modes of investigation as first-order epistemological questions about knowledge itself.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Heidegger's Public World, Other Minds, and the Possibility of Automatons (Part I)

I’ll begin by briefly setting out the epistemological problem of other minds. The problem originates from Descartes project of systematically building a picture of the world up from a minimal basis on which he could be certain. Having previously stripped away all beliefs which were vulnerable to scepticism he sought from there to found knowledge on a secure epistemological basis. The founding stone of Descartes epistemic reconstitution was the cogito, the famous philosophical adage which goes “I think, therefore I am”. The cogito is supposed to reaffirm for us that, as the subject of a given mental state, I cannot be sceptical about the existence of a subject having that mental state. The self is inseparably given in any intentional act as that to which the intentional act refers. The existence of the res cogitans is, for Descartes, secured on that basis.

The other minds problem, then, proceeds from these grounds and attempts to obtain knowledge about the minds of others. As we in fact have no such first-person access to the minds of others, we cannot guarantee that the minds are “there”. When we start from the experiences of a subject and intend to build ontology from that point “outwards”, we find ourselves stuck in a sort of solipsism. All we have is the knowledge of our mental states. The epistemological character of the problem of other minds is thus rendered clear.

Heidegger’s objection to the problem is ontological (Hall, 1980) in that it does not discuss epistemological access but rather seeks to ground the problem in the existential-ontological structures which make possible an understanding of the world, including the other people in it. To understand Heidegger’s objection some preliminary remarks are required. What Heidegger does is to demonstrate the priority of what he calls being-in-the-world over detached propositional knowledge. In Being and Time he conceives of knowing as a founded mode of being-in-the-world and not as the primary way in which beings become intelligible to us. The idea is that in order to be able to know any being, the being must first have touched upon us or become relevant (intelligible) to us in some way on the basis of how it fits in with a possibility of our being. For example we may use a hammer for-the-sake-of building a shelter and find it too heavy, or eat a mango for-the-sake-of nourishment and find it delicious.

What being-in-the-world amounts to is the various possible ways a human (henceforth understood as the way of existence known as Dasein) can be. Dasein can build things, drink things, prepare things, drive things, watch the sunset, appreciate art, navigate its way about the world, etc. The notion that knowledge underpins these ways of being as the original mode of access to them is disturbed by Heidegger’s phenomenological account of everyday being-in-the-world.

It’s fairly obvious that most of the time when we use the keyboard we do not own any mental states whatsoever. Cognitivists tend to think that such practical skills result from unconscious calculative processes involving inferences based on beliefs and desires (Dreyfus, 1991). However it’s easy to find skills we have simply learned non-cognitively by imitation and trial and error, and not by means of acquiring a set of beliefs and inference rules. If it can be said that we unconsciously believe that “doing so-and-so” will make the wheels turn we already presuppose practical know-how in helping ourselves to understanding how to “do so-and-so”. So this being able to “do so-and-so” must be grounded in propositional knowledge itself, devoid of any practical content if the cognitivist is correct. What would this pure propositional knowledge look like if it could not assume as its content non-cognitive abilities like "doing so-and-so"? I can think only of the formalism of logic and mathematics as modes of knowing which do not ultimately presuppose this kind of content and so accordingly don't solve the problem (more on the dependence of propositional knowledge on being-in-the-world in the next two paragraphs). But as we don’t have to work through the complex of differential equations involved in turning a bicycle, we in fact don’t even have to know the equations at all (Andler, 2006).

We just do these things - our bodies can assume what Merleau-Ponty called "sets" to deal with our environments and others. Other examples are certain social norms, such as intuitively (non-cognitively) grasping the appropriate amount of distance to maintain between yourself and another person (Dreyfus, 1991). This skill requires a kind of sensitivity to context - a sensitivity which draws upon much more than cognition. More often rather how you feel is significant. Just consider the various distances you maintain, without thought, between lovers and friends, or teachers and colleagues, and how these distances differ from situation to situation. Accordingly this skill cannot be learned in terms of context-free rules and in fact presupposes an involved, concerned participant (or participants). The difference between knowing-how and knowing-that we have thus indicated is detailed explicitly in other places (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1987), but a more in depth discussion here would take us too far from our primary purpose.

So we see how being-in-the-world cannot be made intelligible on the basis of propositional knowing-that. This results from the notion that the existential-ontological foundation of knowledge itself is actually this being-in-the-world. Detached, speculative thought must use the significations which arise from this sort of original involvement as their content. For instance, you cannot come to grasp the fact that “this radio is broken” without having the way of being of Dasein. Only by being so constituted as to intend upon something as a piece of equipment which makes sense in terms of some purpose of Dasein (for playing music, the news, etc.) can we ever understand what it would mean for something to be broken or too heavy or boring (Dreyfus, 1991). Only through our having involvements in the world can things be relevant to us and thus secure their intelligibility as radios or as bikes and keyboards.

But, Heidegger says, our being-in-the-world is essentially a being-in-the-world-with-others. The equipmental nexus inextricably tied to purposes of Dasein through which we come to have a self includes reference to other Dasein. The roles which Dasein takes upon itself (tacitly or explicitly) in being a nurse or a professional tennis player bear explicit reference to others, both in terms of any equipment they use (which can also be taken up and used by another Dasein) and in terms of the others which the roles would not make sense without (like patients and sports fans to the nurse and tennis player respectively). We encounter other people first and foremost not in the detached mode of speculation Descartes was in when he wrote his philosophy, but as engaged participants in a public world. By starting with the detached individual, Descartes had already taken a wrong step, as the world and the others are pre-given before he detaches himself from them to reflect on things in the mode of knowing. Here he believes himself an isolable subject without epistemological access to other minds. If Heidegger is correct the ontological structure on which he deliberates means he always already is in the world along with others. We are, Heidegger has it, all constituted by a shared horizon of intelligibility strung together by roles emerging from concerns and involvements of beings with the same way of being as us.

Heidegger’s argument is not supposed to provide a response to the problem of other minds on epistemological terms. By demonstrating that prior to detached speculation the others are already given along with the horizon of intelligibility (the others indeed mutually constitute that very horizon of intelligibility with their purposive concerned involvements). When we get our ontology right, the question simply doesn’t manifest. We are not first and foremost, contra Descartes, a separate I which thinks, but are rather before ourselves in activity. However, the possibility of automatons makes a robust argument against Heidegger’s ontological argument. The logical possibility of non-Dasein which nevertheless behave like Dasein threatens the whole enterprise. If we can establish beyond logical possibility the notion that we may be in a public world populated by automatons which behave like-Dasein but are not-Dasein, then the traditional epistemological worries resurface at the fundamental level which Heidegger appeals to in order to avoid them.

Effectively what we’re asking is if it’s possible to have a simulation of the entire dynamic public world, a simulation not strung together by significance at all but by a sort of behavioural mimicry. The question on which all of this turns is a demonstration that such a complex simulation would not be possible without those participants having the way of being of Dasein. If we can establish this (and only if we can) then Heidegger’s ontological argument has successfully caught traditional epistemological worries in the bud. Working out these questions will be the aim of the following part.

- Jordan Adshead (September 2011)


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Dreyfus, H. (1991). Being-in-the-World. MIT Press.

Dreyfus, H., & Dreyfus, S. (1987). Mind Over Machine. The Free Press.

Hall, H. (1980). The Other Minds Problem in Early Heidegger. Human Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3, 247-254.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. SUNY.