Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Heideggerian Hyperbole PART I: The Problem of Nature

Somewhere in Sein und Zeit, in a gesture of such consummate “grand style” that it rouses in the reader a suspicion of hyperbole –and there is, of course, no dearth of such gestures in Sein und Zeit –Heidegger once again tries to say the whole all at once at the risk of sounding radically reductive:
“[T]he ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the
fundamental words in which Dasein expresses itself, and to keep the common
understanding from leveling them off to that unintelligibility which
in turn as a source of pseudo-problems.”
If such a pointed, not to say confined, characterization of philosophy’s “ultimate business” and essential task can be conceded for the nonce, then a surprising conclusion necessarily follows from this concession, forcing the reader to confront a unique and unexpected danger. How so? The primal power of language –the manner in which it entrances and enthralls, but also the manner in which it indicates and discovers, bringing to its first luminous appearance what had all the while been in front of one’s eyes, yet overlooked –this primal power of language obeys a certain rhythm; it recedes and falls dormant precisely to the extent that something first uttered in the trepidation of discovery becomes, in a sequence that is inevitable, irresponsibly inherited, repeated without being rediscovered, and eventually taken for granted as a commonplace. It would be unnecessary for us to labor further over the details of this narrative of forgetfulness, the analysis of which is not uncommonly lauded as one of the indisputable virtues of Sein und Zeit, and which is not infrequently rehearsed with varying degrees of accuracy. And yet, that which it is necessary –even urgent –for us to confront, the “unexpected danger” of which we have just above made mention, resides so close to the recitation of this well-known narrative that it hides in its shadow: if, in the throes of philosophic discovery, Heidegger claims philosophy must assume a unique responsibility for the original meaning of words, and if indeed, he claims that philosophy is essentially beset with this task of stirring and restoring such meaning, what happens, in the course of its public reception, to the meaning of Heidegger’s own claim? In ‘diagnosing’ the danger of the atrophy of language, and in extolling the primal power of its original meaning as the proper object over which philosophy must labor to restore, Heidegger presents a possibility far more perilous; with the pronouncement of Heidegger’s claim, the danger arises that not only this original meaning of language remain taken for granted and forgotten, but that, the meaning of the appointed task to recover it sink into an oblivion, thereby making both become altogether irrecoverable. This danger is the danger par excellence, since it is simultaneously the danger that the possibility of being freed from this danger be forgotten. This danger is, of course, die gefahr, the danger that will be more decisively and perilously engaged much later as the turning point on which the age and essence of technology hinges. It is not, however, upon that essential turning point that I wish now to concentrate. Here let it be sufficient to reflect on the fact that this danger which regards the appointed task of thinking is also alluded to in the later Heidegger’s fore-warning issued in Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens: “We are still too inexperienced in the difference between an object of scholarship and a matter thought.” Much could certainly be offered in elucidation of this quote, but for present purposes, let it simply serve as a reminder that the aforementioned task of philosophy to restore what is original nevermore easily threatens to become a platitude and a commonplace than at that time when it is received by scholarship, whether it be sophisticated and prestigious or the mere banter of a “blog”. It is with this forewarning firmly in mind – a forewarning which began in what might be called an instance of “Heideggerian hyperbole” –that it seems appropriate to consider a recent maverick complaint leveled against just such hyperbole:

[C]onsider Martin Heidegger. Somewhere in Sein und Zeit he writes that Das Dasein ist nie vorhanden. The human being is never present-at-hand. This is obviously false in that the human being has a body which is present-at-hand in nature as surely as any animal or stone. What he is driving at is the truth -- or at least the plausibility -- that the human being enjoys a special mode of Being, Existenz, that is radically unlike the Vorhandenheit of the mere thing in nature and the Zuhandenheit of the tool. So why doesn’t he speak the truth, and nothing but the truth, without exaggerating?

What I think is most worthy of response in the above objection is the presupposition upon which it stands, a presupposition which has, shall we say, “in advance,” ossified into an obviousness almost entirely recalcitrant to the blows of further questioning. (It should be noted that this presupposition is not unique to the objection quoted above; it persists more or less surreptitiously in more than one camp of current (and especially past) Sein und Zeit scholarship). Indeed it is on the basis of the unquestioned obviousness of this presupposition that the above objection can unflinchingly identify Heidegger’s own maxim regarding Dasein as “obviously false.” In fact the commentator even supplies a rough and ready formulation of the proximate reason for such an objection: “the human being has a body which is present-at-hand in nature as surely as any animal or stone.” This must be considered a proximate reason because it rests on the deeper presupposition –again, shared by some scholarship –that nature is itself a domain of vorhandenheit, and that it is accordingly comprised of things that are present-at -hand. It is on the strength of this presupposition that the commentator feels his point sufficiently made by the mere gesture toward the example of other natural objects, “any animal or stone”, for these are indubitably –“surely” –present-at-hand in nature. Amazingly, when one reduces the argument to this presupposition, the possibility emerges that the cumbersome ‘terminology’ of “vorhandenheit” or, even more awkward, “presence-at-hand”, may be thrown out altogether, and a more vernacular paraphrase of the argument can be made: Nature is comprised of objects, the human body is natural, therefore the human being cannot be said to be in no wise an object –unless such a claim be understood to be a false exaggeration. With this paraphrase in place, the remainder of the objection follows as a sort of safe-guard set in place to preclude the possible rejoinder that it has succumbed to its own critique of exaggeration: after all, Heidegger was on to something, its just that he got too worked up when he tried to talk about it and he ended up exaggerating. What he really meant, however, was that the human being is different from tools as well as other things in nature, and this difference, this added feature, Heidegger calls “Existenz”. It takes no great measure of familiarity with the history of philosophy to recognize that this apparent claim of Sein und Zeit, the supposed revolutionary seminal work of twentieth century philosophy, is nothing more than an oversimplified version of a refrain repeated ad nauseum in various ‘re-touchings’ and guises since philosophy first began: man is composed of body and soul, or, more broadly, nature and spirit.

Is this what Heidegger is saying? Surely others have pointed out this fact with greater clarity and profundity ---not to mention less awkward neologism. If we were ‘prepared’ to unquestioningly accept an appeal to the alleged obviousness of the vorhandenheit of nature, then something like this sort of reductive obfuscation of Sein und Zeit is inevitable. But we are not so ‘prepared’ –we, who perhaps once were ‘sure’ of such things, “have now become perplexed,” to quote the Platonic epigram of Sein und Zeit itself. Let us more closely examine the implications of this presupposed character of nature as vorhandenheit. According to this presupposition, nature means as much as anything that has not been tampered with or constructed by man, i.e. the natural as opposed to the artificial. Nature thus has an independence from any sort of involvement with man; the tree that falls in the woods ‘is there’ whether heard or unheard: it is not contingent upon an encounter with the human subject, it is ‘objective’. What could be more natural than that we speak of beings in nature in terms of natural objects, that is, present-at-hand things? Conversely, artificial things are contingent upon human involvement; the hammer is only a combination of natural present-at-hand things, namely, metal and wood, until it is brought under the aims of the person using it, aims which Heidegger calls “a referential totality of assignments constitutive of readiness-to-hand” or, ultimately, in fewer words, the “world”. Thus, it is as if, in a dark forest of objects called nature, there is a luminous sphere of light, which Heidegger calls “Dasein”, which projects ‘meaning’ on the things that immediately surround it. While this remains a crude formulation, nevertheless the underlying prejudice we are seeking to clarify by its means remains to this day one of the most pernicious obstacles to readers of Sein und Zeit’s first division, and, consequently, of the entirety of Heidegger’s works that follow. Thankfully, somewhere else in Sein und Zeit, Heidegger expressly repudiates such a claim:

Readiness-to-hand is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [these
beings that are nearest to us], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the
‘beings’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is
proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective coloring’ (BT 101,
SZ 71).

Here, as in many other places in the first division of Sein und Zeit, Heidegger is emphatic that no being, nevermind Dasein, is ever present-at-hand or ‘objectively standing there’ before Dasein encounters it. There can never be a group of things present-at-hand that have not yet been discovered within-the-world by Dasein. This is a point which even Heidegger takes the time to note he has been repeatedly emphatic in regarding:

Within our present investigation the following structures and dimensions of
ontological problematic, as we have repeatedly emphasized, must in principle be kept distinct:

1.) the Being of those beings within-in-the-world which we proximately encounter –this is what we have called readiness-to-hand

2.) the Being of those beings which we can come across and whose nature we can determine if we discover them in their own right by going through the beings proximally encountered (i.e. the ready-to-hand) –this is what we have called presence-at-hand (vorhandenheit)

3.) the Being of that ontical condition which makes it possible for beings-within-the-world to be discovered at all –this is what we have called the worldhood of the world (BT 121, SZ 88, emphases mine).

This enumeration emphasizes once again that any being that is discovered as an ‘individual object’ or thing simply standing there must already have been discovered within-the-world as ready-to-hand; only by ‘going through’ these already discovered beings that are closest to us can we come to find ‘things’ just standing there which seem to be simply individual objects, since the world has become and remains concealed and unnoticed in order for them to appear in this way. The world is no “net” or “coloring” cast over a group of present-at-hand, natural objects; rather it is the reverse, beings can only appear as present-at-hand when the place where they have already been discovered has sufficiently been disengaged and overlooked. This means that the distinction between readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand can in no wise be equated with the distinction between artificial and natural objects; the former distinction is ontological, the latter ontic. The hammer is that which only comes to me as it is not when it is blankly stared at but on the half-shingled roof of my uncle’s house throughout the course of a blazing-hot August workday. Only after this manner of having discovered the hammer has taken place can the hammer ever be a conglomerate of two things that are for some reason stuck together, namely steel and wood, as two natural ‘objects’ lying in front of me. By the same token, the rock is only found at all if it is first found next to the picnic table in the backyard, or 'in the way' of my lawn-mowing, or as what I must have just tripped over in my hurry to chase the dog that is unleashed and getting away. It is rare and only after all this that the rock is a thing to be inspected. Looking again at the evidence: the path in the forest is the one along which my grandfather used to walk, or it is the one that I had never noticed before when I went to get firewood. It is never in the first place an object ---even when the cartographer surveys its shape he already stands within a possible escape from the interruption of sudden danger in the woods. In fact, even the photograph of the birch tree in the middle-school text book is already part of, e.g., passing an environmental science course --or passing the time after 'lunch period' in the midst of day dreams.
Of course, I could go on, but, for love of the reader, I won’t. The point to be gleaned is not only that nature is never at first present-at-hand, but also that, even when it becomes present-at-hand, that natural 'thing' is never exclusively present at hand; there persists a concealed relation to it as ready-to-hand already discovered in the world. It is only when this relation is disregarded even as it persists that the misconception of nature befalls us that beings encountered in nature, as maverick would have it, “rocks and animals," are “surely present-at-hand,” as Heidegger famously says:
If its kind of Being as ready-to-hand be disregarded, this ‘Nature’ itself can be discovered and defined simply in its pure presence-at-hand. But when this happens, the Nature which ‘stirs and strives’, which assails us and enthralls us as landscape, remains hidden. The botanists plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow; the ‘source’ which the geographer establishes for a river is not the ‘springhead in the dale’. (BT 100, SZ 71).


  1. It strikes me that the distinction created between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand is unique in that the distinction is not made with the objective of setting up one as "better" than the other. Heidegger does not appear interested in using this distinction as a basis upon which to utter ethical pronouncements, yet neither is his interest in these matters the detached "objectivity" of the scientist. While I think you will agree that there are certainly practical implications of the final paragraph that you quote, the fact that Heidegger is able to engage in philosophy without attempting to use it for anything makes him immediately incomprehensible to readers such as the one whose essay you quoted from at the outset.

  2. I am unsure as to whether the Maverick commentator's conception of philosophy and its 'aims' could be faithfully brought under the rubric of a utilitarian orientation, unless if, by this suggestion, you are alluding to the possibility that an acquiescence to the utilitarian orientation necessarily (according to a hidden law of history) befalls that thinking which tarries in the realm of vorhandenheit as if such a realm were the final destination of thought (on this point, I can refer you to the discussion going on over at KTL regarding what I now shall paraphrase as the temporary veracity of the external view).

    That point aside, however, I think you raise an important concern ---one which I would "be lying if I said I didn't have designs" to post on in the near future. For the fact is, despite the overly rehearsed renditions of the distinction between vorhandenheit and zuhandenheit that superabound in Heidegger scholarship (a fact the Graham Harman comically underscores in more than one place in his first book Tool-Being), the relation between these two, i.e. the sein that somehow remains at the heart of vorhandenSEIN and zuhandenSEIN, is scarcely inquired into in a manner that strictly observes the limits of this problematic, by which I mean the domain of the "zunachst und zumeist" tath demarcates the boudaries of Sein und Zeit's first division. Too often this difference is thought or even overtly spoken of in terms of a difference of "perspective". It is only a matter of the slightest reflection to recognize that such a manner of characterizing the difference itself lies exclusively on one side of the difference and is vorhanden.

  3. But more to the point what I take to be the real kernel of your above comment, and certainly something that I see referring back to your own recent posts on "Utilitarianism as Tool," the non-ethical character of Heidegger's distinction should be emphasized and questioned. Regarding this remove from what is ethical, my post of yesterday, The Piety at the Heart of Technology, points a few modest steps in the direction of path of reflection upon the necessary abdication of ethical intimacy proper to the thinking demanded of the present age. That, however, belongs to a reflection on the essence of technology which has already undermined the distinction between zuhanden and vorhanden. On the other hand, in anticipation of a future post I intend to put forth on this non-ethical character of SZ's most famous distinction, I would like to say that, while I agree with you that it cannot be said that one side of the distinction is BETTER than the other, it can be said that one is HIGHER than the other. Here the difference between "better' and "higher" can only be rigorously maintained to the extent that one grasps the condition in terms of which the zuhanden and the vorhanden are reciprocally dependent on one another.