Why Philosophy? Lecture 1 HM4511

September 24, 2017

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values, or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were the first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one these first, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theaetetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he could predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way, he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals, and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives? Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes, and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we must accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that can choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction, and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off deciding. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course, that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spirtual experience at about 8.36.

Why Philosophy?

February 19, 2015

Hubert_Selby,_JrPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., speaks about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


November 8, 2014

DescartesOne of the difficulties of reading Descartes’ Meditations is that it has become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heart of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read the text without really making any attempt to understand it. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote the Meditations as he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method in the Meditations is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why we can Descartes’ takes his doubt much further than classical scepticsm. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appear to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[1] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). Thus to use Deleuze’s example from his own lectures, the idea of frog is less perfect than the idea of God (Deleuze 1978). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea. The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to thing about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no manner philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant that we will look at next week), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza want to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5. For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.


Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.

[1] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.

Existence – Lecture 7

April 25, 2013

In the previous lecture , we examined the introduction to Being and Time. There we saw that Heidegger’s intention was to renew the question of Being. He sought to do this via inquiring about that being whose Being is question for itself, which, of course is ourselves. This being he called Dasein. This week we shall describe and think about how Heidegger understands the peculiarity of this being. Such a process, which refers back to Kant’s analytic in the Critique of Pure Reason, Heidegger calls the ‘analytic of Dasein’. We shall see that the major purpose of this analytic is that we cannot understand the Being of Dasein in the same way that we understand the Being of things, any yet this is precisely what the Western tradition has done. What differentiates this being from form things is that it has a world. Again this would mean renewing the ontological understanding of the world, and sharply differentiating it from its natural or thing-like explanation. For example, that the world is something that simply lies outside us, like the air that we breathe. Once we have understood the being of Dasein, we can understand that the being of things must be dependent on it, since it is we who make claims about the being of things, and not things that make a claim about understanding our being. Thus we reverse the traditional Western conception.

The first way that we can understand that the Being of Dasein is not the same way as the Being of the thing is through the notion of existence, which we have already introduced in the first lecture. As Heidegger remarks, Dasein’s existence must not be understood in the classical way as mere existentia; that is to say, as the mere presence of a thing (what Heidegger will call ‘present to hand’ das Vorhandensein). Rather Dasein’s existence must be understood in terms of possibility:

The essence of Dasein lies in its existence. Accordingly those characteristics which can be exhibited in this entity are not ‘properties’ present-at-hand of some entity which ‘looks’ so and so and is itself present-at-hand; they are in each case possible ways for it to be, and no more than that [BT 42].

Because Dasein’s existence is understood in terms of possibilities and not properties, then every existence is radically singular or individual. This is because everyone’s existence is an issue for them individually. Of course it can be the case that we might be faced with the same possibilities, and this is more than likely to be so, since what is possible for us is going to be determined by a given culture. But how we face these possibilities and what they might mean for us is going to be radically singular. We shall find, as we read through Being and Time, that there is one possibility that we all share in common, but we all have to face in our own individual way, which is the possibility of our deaths, because no one can die our deaths for us. The individuality of existence is, therefore, very different from the existence of things, since each thing, even if it has different properties, exists in the same general way:

We are ourselves the entities to be analysed. The Being of any such entity is in each case mine. These entities, in their Being, comport themselves towards their Being. As entities with such a Being, they are delivered over to their own Being. Being is that which is an issue for every such entity [BT 42].

Possibilities are not something that are just added to my existence, rather they make me the person I am, and they, so to speak express my being, even if these possibilities are the same as the person who is sitting next to me. This is quite different from the possibilities of thing, which are each case the same for each thing that has them. Thus it is the same possibility to be an oak tree for acorn A as it for acorn B, but unlike the possibilities of human existence, these acorns do not live these possibilities in a personal way. Of course the development of this possibility might differ from one acorn to the next, but this difference in development belongs to the possibility indifferently and not because of the relation of the acorn to this possibility. This is why the possibility of an acorn becoming an oak tree can be investigated scientifically. For human being, possibilities are something quite different, because I choose to be who I am. The acorn does not choose to be an oak tree, and if it does not become one, then this is because of some external force; it did not rain that year, or the soil in which it fell was poor. It would be absurd to say that the acorn did not choose to grow. But I choose to be who I am, whether I am a student, a lecturer or even the Vice-Chancellor of the university; and even if I do not choose these possibilities, I choose not to choose them. This does not prevent external factors from influencing who I can be, but these external factors do not prevent me from being who I am. Thus I can live my life authentically or inauthentically: I can choose to be who I am, or just live my life without choosing at all. What is important ontologically for Heidegger is that it is only human existence that can be either authentic or inauthentic. Acorns do not choose to be oak trees, and a frog cannot decide to be a dog, but you can choose to be a student. Of course you might be a student, because you didn’t really make a decision, and just ending up doing it, because everyone else is doing it. Then your existence, for Heidegger, is inauthentic. We shall have to see later why this is not a moral judgement:

Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or even ‘seem’ to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic – that is, something of its own – can it have lost itself and not yet won itself. As mode of Being, authenticity and inauthenticity … are both grounded in the fact that any Dasein whatsoever is characterised by mineness [BT 42-3].

But if Dasein is to be understood as existence and existence as possibility, then what type of existence best typifies what it means to be Dasein? We might be tempted to pick some kind of existence that we think would be most authentic, a poet, philosopher or artist for example, and use this as example of what it truly it means to be a human being, but this would be a mistake for Heidegger. For a possibility is only has a proper existential meaning in the sense that it is chosen my someone, we cannot abstract it from a life and then make it an objective property, when we say for example that the best acorn, the one that most expresses the essence of what it means to be an acorn, is that one which has the shiniest and healthiest brown skin. This is what Heidegger means when he writes that ‘In determining itself as an entity, Dasein always does so in the light of a possibility which it is itself and which, in its very Being, it somehow understands’ [BT 43]. To avoid choosing one possibility above any other as being somehow more authentic than any other possibility, Heidegger says we must choose what is most undifferentiated about Dasein. This undifferentiated character of Dasein Heidegger calls averageness or average everydayness, and this averageness is what for the most part how Dasein is, no matter what Dasein we are speaking about:

We call this everyday undifferentiated character of ‘averageness’. […] And because this average everydayness makes up what is ontically proximal for this entity, it has again and again been passed over in explicating Dasein. That which is ontically closest and well known, is ontologically the farthest and not known at all; and its ontological signification is constantly overlooked [BT 43-4].

The way that Heidegger makes the distinction between the Being of things and the Being of Dasein is to distinguish between two different ways of thinking about Being. One, he calls categorical, and which goes back to Aristotle and the other he calls existential. He wants to show throughout the analytic of Dasein that we continually misunderstand the being of Dasein because we understand its being categorically, rather than existentially. This is what has happened in the history of Western philosophy, and why retrieving the real meaning of Dasein’s Being means deconstructing the tradition that has been handed down to us:

All explicata to which the analytic of Dasein gives rise are obtained by considering Dasein’s existence-structure. Because Dasein’s characters of Being are defined in terms of existentiality, we call them ‘existentialia’. These are to be sharply distinguished from what we call ‘categories’ – characteristic of Being for entities whose character is not that of Dasein…. The entities which correspond to them require different kinds of primary interrogation respectively: any entity is either a ‘who’ (existence) or a ‘what’ (presence-at-hand in the broadest sense) [BT 44-5].

One of the fundamental ways of thinking about the difference between an existential and categorical meaning of Being is to think about the simple preposition ‘in’ (in a certain sense these little words hide the whole meaning of our Being). There is a great difference, Heidegger would argue, between the categorical ‘in’ and the existential ‘in’. Categorical speaking, the water is in the glass, and existentially speaking Dasein is in the world, but it would be quite wrong to say that Dasein is in a world in the same way that water is in a glass:

What is meant by Being in? We are inclined to understand this Being in as ‘Being in something’. This latter term designates the kind of Being which an entity has when it is ‘in’ another one, as the water is ‘in’ the glass [BT 53-4].

In the latter case, ‘in’ is merely understood in the sense of the space of things (that is to say categorically), when we think of the water being in the glass, and glass being in the room and the room being in the building and so on till we get to the universe as a whole. Dasein, however, is not just in the world in the sense; rather it is ‘in’ the world in the sense of being at home or familiar to a place. I am ‘in’ Cheltenham, therefore, can have two senses: one, that I am physically inside the town, and the other, that I feel part of or accustomed to it. ‘In’ in the second case expresses a way of Being, rather than a spatial relation, the ‘in’ of ‘intimacy’, rather than the ‘in’ of ‘inside’:

Being-in […] is a state of Dasein’s Being; it is an existentiale. So one cannot think of it as the Being-present-at-hand of some corporeal Thing. […] In is derived from innan – ‘to reside’… to dwell [BT 54].

Existentially speaking this ‘Being-in’ a world can be understood as being near or being alongside the world. This being near or being alongside should again not be understood in the same way that we talk of one thing being next to another. We can describe the chair as touching the wall, but what is meant by touching in this case? Is it not true to say that chair and the wall never touch, not because there is always a space between them, but because the wall cannot reach out to encounter the chair and the chair cannot reach out and encounter the wall. We must, therefore, sharply distinguish between existentially space and categorical space, and if we think of things touching this is only a metaphorical extension from our own ‘lived’ space.

The chair touches the wall. Taken strictly, touching is never what we are talking about in such cases, not because accurate re-examination will always eventually establish that there is a space between the wall, but because in principle the chair can never touch the wall, even if the space between them should be equal to zero. If the chair could touch the wall, this would presuppose that the wall is the sort of thing ‘for’ which a chair would be encounterable [BT 55].

This does not mean that Dasein cannot be understood as thing – as something merely present to hand, as ‘a what’. We do so, for example, when we say that a human being is merely a ‘rational animal’ or, to give such definition a more modern ring, a ‘gene carrier’. But such definitions completely miss the essential way of Being of Dasein as existence. Indeed, the very possibility of treating Dasein as thing must arise from the particular way that it relates to things from out of its own Being. If I understand myself as a thing, then this understanding comes from the way that I encounter things in my world. A stone cannot conceive of itself as a fact.

The Method of Being and Time – Lecture 5

March 20, 2013

If the Being of Dasein is the clue for Heidegger, at this stage, for the general meaning of being, then what method can give us access to being? The problem is that although we all exist in a pre-ontological, pre-theoretical or pre-philosophical understanding of being, this understanding is not something that we have explicitly:

Ontically Dasein is not only close to us – even that which is closest: we are it each of us. In spite of this, or rather for just this reason, it is ontologically that which is furthest away [BT 15].

Precisely because this average understanding of being is not available to us, we cannot use it straight away as the way into the question. It is precisely this understanding that needs to be interrogated and we need to find a way in which to investigate it. This is not an epistemological problem, whereby we have to find access to some object that lies external to us, because we already exist in this understanding. Our problem, therefore, is not like Descartes’ as to how we can prove whether world already exists or not, because even before we ask this question we already exist in the understanding of our being and always so exist. This is why access to this everyday understanding cannot be by some kind of arbitrary idea of being. Rather we have to follow the meaning of this everydayness itself. Nonetheless the same problem remains. How are to gain access to it, when it is that which is ontologically furthest away from us? To some extent Heidegger answers this question by saying that even in this understanding there is something that is made visible to us and that is every understanding of being is temporally formed or structured:

Whenever Dasein tacitly understands itself and interprets something like Being, it does so with time as its standpoint. Time must be brought to light – and genuinely conceived – as the horizon for all understanding of Being and for any way of interpreting it [BT 18]

But even this notion that time is the ultimate horizon of the understanding of being is still something that is not clear to us unless we have worked through the history of philosophy as such. This is because history is not something that lies outside of Dasein’s being, but expresses the very way that Dasein is. Thus we never come to any investigation empty handed, but already have preconceived ideas about what is true or false. The idea of presuppositionless beginning is itself a presupposition that needs to be investigated. Our inability to ask the question of being itself, as we have seen, has it source in our history, but equally if we are going to attempt to retrieve this question by analysing our average understanding of being, then we will have to be aware that this history will affect our way of understanding. Indeed it might be this history that stands in the way of grasping our everyday understanding of being. We have already seen this to be the case in the opening pages of Being and Time.

When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed [BT 21].

This does not mean that we reject our own history, but we have to free up possibilities of questioning so as to get back to object in question, in the case the everydayness of Dasein, that we are interrogating so as to find out about the meaning of being. It is Heidegger’s thesis, as we shall see, that Western philosophy since Plato has overlooked this everydayness, or interpreted it as something not worthy of philosophical attention, in its fascination with the theoretical relation to things. Thus it has been the being of things, rather than Dasein’s being that has determined the general concept of being in the West. But such a concept, as we have seen, only leads to banal, meaningless and sterile concept of being, as the mere empty fact that everything exists. To get back to phenomenon of everydayness requires what Heidegger calls a ‘destruction’ of the Western tradition of philosophy. This must be understood in a positive way not as a dismantling of the tradition for its own sake, but to find within this tradition the possibility of a genuine interrogation of everydayness:

If the question of being is to have its own history made transparent, then this hardened tradition must be loosened up, and the concealments, which it has brought about must be dissolved. We understand task as one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue, we are destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being – the ways which have guided us ever since [BT 22].

This does not mean getting rid of tradition, but finding that which in the tradition helps us to gain a better understanding of being. Thus the positive sense of tradition, with the clue given to us by our preliminary description of the everyday understanding of being, is to see in what way traditional ontology has treated the theme of time. In this case, despite all the ways that he also concealed this problem, the most important philosopher for Heidegger is Kant, who made time central to The Critique of Pure Reason. Prior to Kant, the most fundamental notion of time in Greek philosophy is the present and the most important philosopher here is Aristotle. This understanding of being in terms of the present also comes out the everyday understanding of being, even though it is now a block on our understanding of it. It is only in the destruction of this tradition that the everyday understanding of being can be revealed, but this destruction of the tradition is also its renewal, since the possibility of making the everyday understanding of being visible is something that this tradition itself grants. For it’s only from the past that we can find resources to engage the present by opening it out to future possibilities that remain hidden there.

If hermeneutics somehow helps to circumvent the tradition that has prevented us from asking the question of the meaning of being, but also, to some extent, if we keep this question in mind, can also help us to renew this question, then we are still left with the problem of a positive method. How are we to actually investigate the Being we have discovered initially by dismantling the tradition that has concealed it? ‘The task of ontology is to explain,’ Heidegger writes, ‘Being itself and to make the Being of entities stand out in full relief’ [BT 27]. But how are we to make Being ‘stand out’? The answer to this question, for Heidegger, is phenomenology. This is because the basic tenant of phenomenology is to describe beings as they manifest themselves. ‘The term “phenomenology”’, Heidegger explains, ‘expresses a maxim which can be formulated as “To the things themselves”’ [BT 27-8].

Rather enigmatically, however, rather than go back to Husserl, the inventor of the phenomenological method, and Heidegger’s teacher, Heidegger explains phenomenology through its Greek etymology. The word ‘phenomenology’, he explains, is made of the two Greek words φαινόμενον (phainomenon) and λόγος (logos). Therefore, to understand the true significance of this word, we need to go back true meaning of the Greek. Why would Heidegger think that investigating the Greek meaning of words would help us to formulate the true significance of phenomenology? This is because, for Heidegger, the Greeks, at least before Plato and Aristotle, still had an understanding of the question of the meaning of being that had not been distorted by the tradition (though paradoxically, of course, they are the originators of this tradition), and thus if we ourselves are going to be able to ask this question again, let alone answer it, we shall need to retrieve this tradition. We again can see the connection between Heidegger’s hermeneutical and phenomenological method:

The meaning of the Greek word φαινόμενον is as follows:

Phenomenon signifies that which shows itself in itself, the manifest. Accordingly the phainomena or ‘phenomena’ are the totality of what lies in the light of day or can be brought to light [BT 28]

Heidegger makes it clear that we should not confuse this notion of phenomenon with appearance, for an appearance suggests that there is something behind what appears, which itself is not an appearance, just as symptom is an appearance of an underlying disease, which is itself not visible [BT 28]. Rather, appearance is derivative of the more fundamental notion of phenomenon as a ‘self-showing’, even if what is most important, the meaning of being is hidden in this showing.[1] On the other side, the meaning of λόγος is: ‘discourse’ means […] to make manifest what one is talking about in one’s discourse [BT 32]. Again, just as with the word φαινόμενον, we have to retrieve its authentic Greek meaning, as opposed to its continual re-interpretation through the tradition. λόγος does not originally mean, for Heidegger, some kind of logical or conceptual judgement, but rather it means ‘letting something be seen’ [BT 32]. The true significance of the work ‘phenomenology’ is, therefore, a combination of the original sense of these Greek words:

Thus ‘phenomenology’ means […] to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself […]. But here we are expressing nothing else than the maxim formulated above: ‘To the things themselves!’[BT 34].

This notion of directly grasping something should not be confused with naivety, for the way in which things conceal themselves belongs to their very essence as phenomenon. The task is to bring this concealment to presence rather than simply annul it. In relation to the particular object Dasein, phenomenology is to be understood as hermeneutics. This is not just because the investigation is historical, as described above, but that the phenomenological investigation is interpretative. This we return to the start of our investigation. My being is what is closest to me, but at the same time, in terms of my understanding, it what is furthest away. What makes it difficult to understand it is that the tradition handed down to me distorts my experience of being. At least now, however, I have a method, phenomenology, which allows me to being to approach it as its shows itself in my experience of my self, the world and other people, rather than how I think I ought to interpret it through metaphysics and the history of philosophy. The rest of Being and Time, will be Heidegger’s attempt to do precisely that, to describe Dasein’s being as it shows itself, and in so doing he will turn around the whole course of Western philosophy.

[1] Heidegger’s long discussion here of the various meanings of appearance, and why they are derivative of the original meaning of phenomenon, is aimed at neo-Kantians.

Phenomenology – Lecture 3

February 21, 2013

Of all the precursors to Heidegger’s Being and Time, phenomenology is probably the most obvious. Unlike with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, its source is not hidden. Indeed Being and Time is dedicated to Husserl.[1] Again due to constraints of time, we cannot hope to cover all of Husserl’s work (which is very extensive in itself), but only focus on that material useful for our reading of Being and Time: namely, the critique of psychologism and the natural attitude through the phenomenological reduction, and the intentional structure of consciousness that emerges from such a distancing from psychologism and the natural attitude. We shall end with Heidegger’s critique of the presuppositions of Husserl’s phenomenological method and thus how he saw his own fundamental ontology going further and deeper.

In the Prolegomena, the first part of Husserl’s Logical Investigations, Husserl offers a sustained argument against psychologism in logic, which he believed had come to dominate the philosophical scene in the early part of the 20th century (2012, pp.9–160). This is not merely a parochial issue for Husserl, for it is a matter of the status of philosophy itself. Psychology, or the domination of psychology, which is a natural science, marks an extreme danger to philosophy that could have the consequence of its own disappearance. This unease should not be misunderstood as an expression of hatred against science or that the sciences themselves do not tell us something true about reality (Husserl remains deeply committed to the scientific project of the 17th and 18th century, and this commitment in some sense marks the difference between him and Heidegger), but the belief that science ought to be limited to its own proper area of investigation. When science does exceed these limits it becomes a myth or an ideology. What do mean by science exceeding its limits. For example, Steve Hawking in his introduction to modern cosmology, A Brief History of Time, argues that the physico-mathematical theories of the universe that he and his other colleagues have uncovered are a representation of ‘God’s mind.’[2] We need to be clear that science can tell us nothing about God, and the statement that physical theories are a representation of God’s mind are not scientific but mythical.

What matters for Husserl, however, is not just what scientists say or do not say, but the relation between science and philosophy. He makes two fundamental claims: one, philosophy is not a science, and two, science is impossible without philosophy. There are perhaps many who would agree with the first statement, because they would think that philosophy is more akin to literature than anything scientific, or more pejoratively, that philosophy is just metaphysical claptrap, which we don’t need at all. But the second claim makes it clear that Husserl would not agree with this dismissal of philosophy. Rather, he wants to insist that science cannot ground itself scientifically. In other words the natural sciences require philosophy in order to be legitimate, even though philosophy itself is not science in their terms:

Man should admit that truths which have their roots in the concepts which constitute the objectively conceived Idea of Science cannot also belong to any particular science. They should see that such truths, being ideal, cannot have their home-ground in the sciences of matter of fact, and therefore not in psychology. (Husserl 2012, p.172)

But why should the sciences require philosophy in order to be properly grounded or legitimated? The answer is logic. All the sciences require the truths of logic in order to put forward properly constituted arguments. This is why we can see that there arises a conflict between philosophy and psychology. For psychologism is the belief that logic is based in human psychology. Psychology is just one more natural science (though Husserl will say that is not a well formed natural science), and if psychology could demonstrate the basis of logical truth, then the sciences no longer require an extra-scientific discourse in order to legitimate themselves. To save philosophy from this redundancy Husserl must show that logic cannot be validated legitimately in psychology and thus philosophy is still necessary to the natural sciences.

There are three, Husserl argues in introduction to the Prolegomena, primary explanations of logic: ‘psychological, formal and metaphysical’ and, as we have seen, the first, the psychological has gained the ascendancy (2012, p.3). Psychologism can be defined as follows: laws that regulate the mental must themselves have a mental basis. The regulative principles of knowledge must be grounded in the psychology of knowledge. Take, for example the law of non-contradiction that P cannot be P and not P at the same time. The psychologist would say that this certainty of this law was grounded in the feeling of certainty of the person whose thought it is (perhaps today we might speak of MRI scans). Now Husserl’s argument against this is not a factual one (that there could be, for example, a better factual account of our minds), but that these psychologists have made a fundamental mistake about semantics. This error does not invalidate their scientific accounts, but it does call into question their ability to determine the status of logical truths from facts about the human mind.

The source of Husserl’s theory of semantic is Bolzano. Like Kant, he argues that all knowledge is representation and representations can be divided into concepts and intuitions. There are two meanings to representation: on the one hand, mental states of the soul, which are the states of my mind when I perceive something, which is a subjective representation, and on the other side, there is the inter-subjective representation, which is not a representation in us, but a representation in itself; that is to say, an ‘objective representation.’ This difference can be made sense of in the following way: each grammatical unity (a word) is associated with a host of subjective representations, but with only one objective representation. There are many subjective representations of the word ‘nothing,’ for example, but only one meaning of the word ‘nothing.’ Whereas subjective representations are real, objective ones are not. The subjective ones are real because they exist in the psychological state of the mind, the objective ones are ideal because they do not require a subject and cannot be said to exist. There is also a distinction between objective representation and the object of representation. The meaning of ‘table’ should not be confused with actual tables.

We can see what Husserl’s critique of psychologism might be. It is the confusion between meaning and the psychological state. Or, in other words, they believe that meaning and the activity of the mind belong to one and the same region of being, reality or nature, which is to be understood through the same causal laws. But this is to fail to make the distinction between real and ideal being. Husserl would speak here of a difference between the content of thought, which is nothing real, and the activity of thought itself, which is something real. Take his example of the number 5 again in the Prolegomena. No one would think that the concept or the meaning of 5 is the result of their own counting or someone else’s. The number five is not the result of the activity of thinking (or what Husserl’s calls ‘presentation’) by this or that person rather it is a possible object (‘object’ here not meant as a real object, but as an ideal object) of any activity of thought or presentation. In the activity of thought, we can, Husserl’s argues, make an abstraction, from the actual event of thinking itself, which takes place in a certain time and certain place, to what is being thought, which is not dependent on certain time and place. This ideal meaning tells us nothing about reality, to use the example of the number 5 again, the actual activity of counting, or the thinking the number, or objects in the real world, which might be counted through the concept of the number 5 itself.

The critique of psychologism is negative. It attempts to show that we cannot give a scientific account of our understanding of the world because we need a non-natural account of meaning. We need a positive account, however, what it means to do philosophy if we reject the natural attitude. Husserl’s description of what it means to do philosophy he calls the reduction.

I see the table in front of me. Now it seems clear to me that this table exists. But what do I mean by the word ‘exists’? I mean possibly that it is something real. That is to say that it is not a dream, an illusion or a hallucination. But what do I mean by the word ‘real’? This word seems just as obscure as the word ‘exists’. Perhaps I mean by this, taking into account my reference to illusions and so forth, that is has a physical existence. And what is something physical? It is something that is made of matter, and if I have some passing knowledge of physics, I might add that this matter is made of atoms and energy that can be described by quantum mechanics.

What of the world that things are in? Is that too a thing? From a scientific point of view, we might think of the world as the totality of things, which would be nature ruled by causal laws. The difficulty comes when we speak of the scientist itself. What is she or he? In one sense they are just like the chair about which they speak. They too are things. We would want to say, however, that they are much more than that.  Unlike things, they think (they are scientists after all), and like the rest of us, they have hopes and desires, which chairs do not have. Thus we must make a distinction between what is psychical and what is physical, and to each we could say, there belongs a corresponding world: for the world of things, nature, and for people, the mind.

This vision of a world split into two, the physical and the psychical, is already an interpretation and one perhaps that is even the more distorting and powerful because we just take it as obvious. First of all we need to go back, Husserl would say, to our most fundamental and basic relation to things, and therefore to the world in which they belong, and that is perception before we make metaphysical or even scientific speculations. We ask ourselves ‘how does the thing appear to us?’

Let us go back to our table again. There are two sides to our experience of this table. One side is transcendent and the other is immanent. The natural attitude only ‘sees’ the transcendent side of the object. What is meant by transcendence here? It is the object conceived as something real that lies outside of consciousness conceived of as something mental. From the perspective of the natural attitude knowing something is to go outside of oneself towards the object and to bring it back to the mind. Here consciousness is conceived of as a bag that contains the representation of the objects passively. And yet there are great difficulties with this theory. How would one know that the picture one had of the object was the same as the object itself? Moreover it is clear that my perceptions can be disappointed. I think that I seeing a chair, but on closer inspection it is a stage prop. It is clear that these questions themselves are not scientific ones, for what matters here is not knowledge of this or that object by a subject, but knowledge in general, that is to say, the relation between the subject and object, rather than the subject and object in themselves. Moreover, even if I were never deceived, does not this image of knowledge beg the question? How can I make the reality of external things the basis of knowledge when this is the very thing that I am trying to prove? The phenomenological reduction, which Husserl says is the very beginning of the philosophical method, brackets any claim to the external transcendent reality of things:

We put out of action the general positing which belongs to the essence of the natural attitude; we parenthesise everything which that positing encompasses with respect to being: thus the whole natural world which is continually there for us on hand, and which will always remains there according to consciousness as an actuality, even if we choose to parenthesise it. (Husserl 1980, p.61)

What need to underline here, and make sure that it is completely understood, that this is not a theory about the non-existence of the world: that everything is a dream, and that nothing exists except consciousness. For these claims themselves would be metaphysical and thus outside the reduction. Rather, it is a matter, of methodology. This is clear in the above quotation. The very being of the external world is one of actuality, and it is not as if the phenomenologist will put his or her hand in the fire after the reduction, because he or she know believes that the world does not really exist. I ask myself if the knowledge of exterior things cannot be the basis of knowledge itself, is there anything left if I discount this knowledge from my own procedure? You would think that the quick answer to this question would be nothing. For if I can no longer used the facts and material obtained by the natural science, or even my everyday experiences, then they must be nothing left over.  For I still see my consciousness as an empty bag that need to be filled with the things outside of it, and once I have got rid of these things, then all I am left with is something useless and null.

Yet consciousness is certainly not a thing, and this is what Husserl wants us to see above all, and moreover if I take out the transcendent object, then I am not left with nothing, rather everything remains, but with a different status.  What I am left with after the reduction, what Husserl calls the ‘phenomenological residuum,’ is the immanent object. In The Idea of Phenomenology, Husserl refers to Descartes to make sense of this idea. Cartesian doubt leads us to the cogito as something self-evident, for even if I doubt everything I cannot myself doubt that I doubt. But the evidence, of the cogito extends over all conscious acts. If I remember something, I cannot doubt that I remembering it and if I desire something, I cannot doubt that I desiring it. The immanent object remains, even if the transcendent one does not:

I might reach such a degree of sceptical despair that I finally say: Nothing is certain, everything is doubtful. But it is at once evident that not everything is doubtful, for while I am judging that everything is doubtful, it is indubitable that I am so judging. […] And likewise with every cogitatio.  Howsoever I perceive, imagine, judge infer, […] it is absolutely clear that I am perceiving this or that, and as far as the judgement is concerned that I am judging of this or that, etc. (Husserl 1964, p.23)

Now the content of the immanent object must be exactly the same as the transcendent object, though the latter is a real object and the former an ideal one. For the real object, external to consciousness can be in reality be destroyed, whereas the ideal object cannot; it only exists immanently within the consciousness. It is Husserl’s argument that the immanent object is given absolutely. Thus there is no possibility that I can doubt it. If I am thinking of a chair then I am thinking of a chair, whether the chair exists or not, or whatever the chair is made of.

The reduction opens up a field of the phenomenological analysis of immanent objects. But we do need to be careful to understand how far we have got here. We still do not know what the relation, if there is any, between the immanent and transcendent object is, and how we are to grasp the meaning of the world after the reduction. Do we simply return to the distinction between the subject and object, as Descartes does after the proof of the existence of God, or is the relation between immanence and transcendence far more complex than this? An answer to this question will only be found by a closer analysis of the difference between transcendence and immanence, and this can only be attempted after a deeper look into the structure of consciousness that will only be obtained after a discussion of perhaps Husserl’s most important and central concept, intentionality.

How things present themselves, rather than how we might wish them to present themselves, has to do with the intentional structure of consciousness. Like Kant, Husserl would argue that consciousness is not just a passive recipient of information from the external world, but already determines shapes and constitutes the object we see. Consciousness is not just opposed to the object, but constitutes the relation between the self and the object. These two ‘subjects,’ however, cannot be thought as identical. The first subject is the actual empirical subject, whereas the second subject, which cannot be identified with any actual living person, is ideal and transcendental. The analysis of intentionality is the description of its essential structure.

The notion of intentionality has its roots in medieval investigations of signification, but the immediate source for Husserl was his philosophy teacher Brentano, who made intentionality a distinction between mental and physical phenomena. Mental phenomena, for Brentano, are to be divided into the act of presentation, such as hearing a sound or seeing a colour, but also expectation, hope, judgement, love, happiness and joy, and the content of the presentation of the things or matter which is aimed at in the act of presentation. This ‘presentation’ is not to be confused with any actual thing or state of affairs (Brentano 1973, pp.77–81).

Brentano’s account is still empirical (different ways that we are conscious of the world) however, whereas Husserl’s is transcendental (what does it mean to have a consciousness of the world at all?). To explain intentionality, let us return to the distinction between immanent and transcendent objects Transcendent objects, or real objects, are given to us, Husserl argues, only through a continuum of profiles, perspective or adumbrations (these are not only spatial, but temporal):

Of necessity a physical thing can be given only ‘one-sidely,’ and that signifies not just incompletely or imperfectly in some sense or another, but precisely what presentation by adumbrations prescribes. (Husserl 1980, p.94)

Yet it is equally clear, Husserl would say, if we simple reflect upon our perception of things, we do not just see aspects and profiles, rather there is another element. I always see one and the same thing. Take the example of the table described in the Ideas:

Let us start with an example. Constantly seeing this table and meanwhile walking around it, changing my position is space in whatever way, I have continually the consciousness of this one identical table as factually existing ‘in person’ and remaining quite unchanged. (Husserl 1980, p.94)

We are continuously conscious of this one and the same table as really existing yet our perceptions of it change. My perceptions of the object are perspectival, whilst I am conscious of the table in person as being there as one thing. We can, therefore, also make a fundamental distinction between appearing and appearance. There is one and the same appearance, Husserl would say, though the appearing of this appearance is always changing. The one and the same appearance is the immanent object, and the changing manner of the appearance is the transcendent object.

We confuse objectivity with the transcendent object, but it is this object that is continually changing and therefore could never be the ground for scientific knowledge. It is the immanent object that gives unity and sense to our experience of things in the world. It is this unity that is valid meaning of objectivity. This unity provided by the immanent object already organises, or synthesises Husserl would say, our experience of the world, prior to any theoretical or scientific judgements that I might make of it. It is because the world is already organised by the immanent intentional structure of consciousness that we see things as having such and such meanings and therefore can make judgements about them. My experience of the world is already organised by the structure of intentionality before I have any sensations.

The world is not something outside of us, in the sense of nature in the scientific or common-sense attitude; rather the world should be understood as the network of meanings, which is the horizon in which we encounter objects. The world is this region of sense in which we are orientated. This world for Husserl is identical to the immanent life of consciousness. It is constituted through it. The key to understanding this claim is to no longer to see the world on the analogy of a natural thing, but in terms of language. For the self-same and identical appearance that appears at the heart of appearing is sense or meaning. It is not a natural thing, and nor does it have any basis in nature, yet it is the ground and possibility of our experience and judgements about nature.

What then did Heidegger take from Husserl’s phenomenology and what did he reject? First of all, it goes without saying, that not one page of Being and Time can be understood without it. It is phenomenological through and through. Heidegger himself is very clear about this when he describe the phenomenological method on Being and Time in section 7 (which we will describe in greater detail when we get to it). What is more difficult is seeing where Heidegger wanted to distance himself from Husserl. Here lectures that Heidegger gave on Husserl’s method, called The History of the Concept of Time, can be very useful.

In the third part of these lectures, he gives what he calls an ‘immanent critique’ of Husserl (Heidegger 1985, pp.90–131). The problem with the earliest conception of phenomenology is how it conceived our relation to the world. For Husserl, at least, this relation was primarily epistemological and his ideal was the sciences, even if, as we have seen, these sciences could not ground themselves. We can talk about tables other things around us and ask how it is that we know them, but is this really the primary and most important way that we relate to the world? For Husserl it seems that it is, such that any subsequent relation to the world must be built from it. What Husserl takes for granted is that we are nothing but consciousness and this is how we relate the world. What evaporates in this relation is the very concrete lived being that is consciousness and who must be the basis of any conscious act. The aim of Being and Time is to show that the there is a more elemental relation to the world than this conscious self-reflective one whose dominance is historical rather than phenomenological. Heidegger’s method could be described as a double reduction. A reduction of Husserl’s reduction so as to discover the concrete life it takes for granted. The latter, Heidegger, describes as a ‘fundamental ontology’ whose method is still phenomenological even though it rejects the primacy of the theoretical attitude (1962, pp.33–4).

Works Cited

Brentano, F., 1973. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint;, London: Routledge.

Hawking, S., 2009. A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes, New York: Random House.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Heidegger, M., 1985. History of the Concept of Time : Prolegomena, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Husserl, E., 1980. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, The Hague: M. Nijhoff.

Husserl, E., 2012. Logical Investigations D. Moran, ed., Routledge.

Husserl, E., 1964. The Idea of Phenomenology, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Rockmore, T., 1997. On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy, University of California Press.

[1]Though shamefully Heidegger removed this dedication whilst he was rector of Freiburg and also banned Husserl from using the library. For a thorough account of Heidegger’s ‘turn to Nazism’, see the chapter ‘The Nazi Turning and the Rectoral Address’ in On Heidegger’s Nazism and Philosophy (Rockmore 1997, pp.39–72).

[2] ‘However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God’ (Hawking 2009, p.136).

The True World – Lecture 2

February 1, 2013

Just as was the case with Kierkegaard, Nietzsche pervades the pages of Being and Time, but if you were to try and prove this by the amount of times that Heidegger refers to his work, then you would equally fail.[1] Just as we said in our lecture on Kierkegaard, however, weighing up citations does not really prove anything at all. Indeed, you might argue their absence proves more than their presence. For if Heidegger had signalled the importance of Nietzsche in Being and Time, then he would have had to litter the text with footnotes. Yet perhaps this importance is more than just scholarly. If Nietzsche is present everywhere in the pages of Being and Time, it is not because this work is an interpretation of Nietzsche, or just follows on from the work of Nietzsche, as though Heidegger’s own philosophy were just a new version of one of Nietzsche’s famous thesis on the eternal return or the will to power. To understand the importance of Nietzsche to Being and Time, you have to interpret it from this vantage point and not impose it from the outside, as though you were just hunting for citations and reference. Such an activity, anyway, is strange way of doing philosophy. It transformation the creativity of thought into a hobby of collecting numbers.

Being and Time opens with the question of being. Not only do we not know the answer to this question but we do not even know what it means to ask it. If Heidegger is going to convince us that it is even worth doing so then he has to have a method. This method is twofold. First of all he has to show us why it is that we have forgotten it and secondly what it is that we have forgotten otherwise we would not know that we had forgotten it. The first method is historical and the second is phenomenological and it is in the first that we might discern the influence of Nietzsche.

To think is not to think in isolation. We might think that there is a simple agreement with what we say about the world and what the world is. Either we think this agreement as its source in the world, so that the aim of knowledge is to discover the truth that is in the world itself. Or we might think its origin is in the subject, such that it is we who have to agree with the world, but the world that has to agree with us. We can see in these two forms the oppositions that have characterised Western philosophy itself throughout its long history through various forms of idealism and materialism. What is common across this opposition, however, is the idea that truth is a representation. One says that the true image of reality is to be found in the world and we simply have to see it there, and the other, in the self, so we simply have to look at ourselves. What is lacking in this account of truth is any sense of history. It either asserts that the world is atemporal and eternal, or the self is atemporal and eternal. Error is not a property of either the universal world or the self, but the individual who has mistaken truth for its opposite. Science, then, is nothing but the progress to an ultimate truth that has been there from the very beginning and which, one supposes, if we ever reach it, will mean that science itself will come to an end. Each individual scientist has been seeking for the same truth from the very beginning, and if they made mistakes, then this was because they were ignorant or biased. Now from our vantage point, because we know that we our closer to the truth than they, we can see this even though they cannot. They thought they were speaking the truth but they were not.

What does it mean to think truth historically? It means that one understands that the representation of the world is not first but second. The source of our image of the world has its origin in a tradition that is itself not an image. Take for example Nietzsche’s argument in his essay ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense’(Nietzsche 1990).[2] Truth is something that has to appear on this planet. It is an accomplishment, not a given. In other words, there have to forces that produce and create truth. It is only because we have forgotten that truth has a history that we think the agreement between the self and the world, whether from the side of the world or the self, is natural and universal to the human species. It is in this social existence that the first urge for truth arises. It is society that fixes the truth of terms. The liar is excluded because he misuses words and meanings. So it is not deception that bothers us but what harm comes to us from deception and we want truth because it is agreeable and preserves our existence. Truth is first of all normative. It’s basis is that we experience the world in the same way and this can only be brought about through social force. We have to be made to feel the world in the same way. Only then can we claim that truth is in us or outside of us as a representation.

Truth is imposed upon us by society. We use the same metaphors as everyone else. Lie like everyone else. We forget that we are lying so no-one knows that they are lying. Because we forget, we think the lies are the truth. This commitment to truth is moral, for one’s attachment to it means that you judge as the liar the one who does not speak conventionally. You also judge yourself. You think only in abstractions and universals, and you ignore every subtle impression or sensation. Thus everything is reduced to schemata and diagrams that turn the perceptual and visual world into a grid. This how we humanise the world so that it does not threaten and disturb us. You have to understand that this is first of all a moral order. We force the world to conform to our concepts and then only subsequently say that it is true.

Does this mean, then, that Nietzsche himself is telling us lies. Does he not fall for the paradox of claiming that everything is lie apart from the statement ‘everything is lie’? That would be so if the only account of truth that we could give is representational. If the only truth were the agreement of the world with the self, either from the side of the world or from the viewpoint of the self, then Nietzsche would be the relativist that people confuse him with, because they think that when he says that everything is an interpretation he means that every truth is just what you say it is. Yet this truth, as we have seen, is not first but second. It is the result of certain history that prioritises representational thought, but it itself cannot be representational. There must, therefore, be another kind of truth, a ‘higher’ then this kind.

First of all there must be a truth about the history of truth. We must be able to examine how this truth came about, and also that there could be other truths, other ways of conceiving the world than agreement. This method Nietzsche calls genealogy. So his Genealogy of Morals, for example, is not about the definition of morality, as one might find in Kant and Bentham, but this history of this morality, which has a common source, even though at the level of representation they appear as opposites. The history of morality is the study of how something like morality came about in the first place and how different moralities are expressed in different civilisations and through time. Yet the past is not just for the sake of the past, for Nietzsche. It is not about collecting facts like an entomologist butterflies, but how the past means something for us in the future. Why does it matter to us, what does it have to say to us, and how will it change us. Nietzsche interest in the Ancient Greeks, for instance in The Birth of Tragedy, was not merely a matter of historical curiosity about the past, but that they could say something to us about our future.

Why the ancient Greeks were so important is that they had not fallen under the thrall of representational truth, though there philosophy, to some extent, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, set in train its eventual triumph. What the ancient Greeks knew, and what they could still teach us, is that the world is not first of all represented but created. Even the world as representation had to be created. Creation, then is the other meaning of truth, as well as history. For what we see when we look at history of truth is its creation. It is these creations that are the original source for the paradigms of truth that over time forget their own origins so that they confuse themselves for the truth.

Creativity requires freedom otherwise how could there be other possibilities than the reality that faces us? When we think about freedom, however, we think about in terms of freedom of choice. We think freedom is simply a matter of choosing between one thing and another, or between one life and another. We have already seen with Kierkegaard that this is not the only way of interpreting freedom. What freedom means for Nietzsche is self-determination and self-determination is nothing like choosing, and indeed from its perspective self-determination will look very much like un-freedom.

When we come to think of the difference ourselves and nature, we think of nature as being determined and ourselves as being free. We think of nature made up of atoms which are causally tied together by the chain of necessity. We however, are more than just atoms (though they make up our physical nature) because we have reason. Freedom is not a natural property of something. Freedom does not exist in this way. Rather freedom is an idea. It has no reality about from people asserting it. Yet this difference between freedom and necessity mirrors the very opposition between idealism and materialism that is the basis of representational truth, and which we have seen Nietzsche rejects. This is why some readers of Nietzsche can get confused and think he’s a determinist and cannot understand how at the same time he will speak of genius and creativity. If you think you are free because you have reason, then Nietzsche is a determinist, because he would claim that this idea is a fiction. But that the same time the causal universe of science is also only an idea. Reality goes deeper than both reason and matter. It is the lived body.

What Nietzsche means by the livid body is not the physiological body of science, since that body too is thought in terms of causes and effects, but existence. Existence here is not a category of thought, but a way of being. When we speak of a physical body, then we are thinking of body that is common to many, but existence is not. Existence is individual. The body that Nietzsche speaks of is my body. The body I live in and which expresses my being concretely and not abstractly. It is my body which first of all says who I am and not thought. Thought has its source in the unthought and the unthought is the body with feelings, instincts and drives. It is the body which is the vehicle of history (it is the body that both resists and is formed by power) and not thought that only catches up with history retrospectively.

I am where my body already is shaped by history and projected into the future. The real opposition is not between the self and the world, which is an opposition of thought and not the body, but between thought and the unthought. Thought want to say that it is it that battles against thought, but in fact thought has its origin in the unthought, and without it thought would be sterile and lack creativity. We do not first exist as individuals because we think, since the thinking self is the universal self that is common to everyone. I exist first of all as the lived self that is my body. Only retrospectively does this body think. Reason has its origin in the historical being of the concrete individual, and not the other way around as it likes to imagine.

The ontological freedom of self-determination is to become who you already are. To become what your body, in its historical being, has already fated you to be. The choice I have is affirmation. Can I affirm my individual existence or not, and not whether I can choose between one action or not. The authentic individual is not someone who makes choices, but who seizes their own existence as their own. Outwardly nothing has changed at all. I am still the person I have always been and would have been. Yet this time I accept fully the person that I am. To do so, for both Heidegger and Nietzsche, means to live in the truth. It cannot be understood, of course, in terms of representational truth, for that would mean an agreement between the self and the world, an acceptance of reality, and a passivity in relation to its image, whether that image was  internal or external. To live in the truth is to be revealed to oneself as one is out of one’s past and forward into the future.

Works Cited

Haase, U.M., 2008. Starting with Nietzsche, London; New York: Continuum.

Heidegger, M., 1981. Nietzsche: The Will to Power as Art, Taylor & Francis.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1990. Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, Humanity Books.

[1] There are only three references to Nietzsche, as David Farrell Krell remarks in his analysis of Heidegger’s later lectures on the same philosopher, in Being and Time (Heidegger 1981, p.247)

[2] Ulrich Haase provides an excellent guide to this text and to Nietzsche thought as a whole in his introduction, which is more than just an introduction since it is a philosophical interpretation, Starting with Nietzsche (2008, pp.22–23). Much that is written here is inspired by it.

The Justice of Truth – Lecture 3

January 27, 2013

Ethics is the condition of truth and not truth ethics. Western philosophy accepts as its starting point that the first relation to the world is one of knowledge and then attempts to reconstruct society on that basis. For Levinas, on the contrary, the first relation is social in the form of the ethical relation of the self to the other who calls into question by enjoyment and possession of the world through speech.

The fundamental question for Western philosophy is how can I know the world? How can I be certain that my experience of the world is valid and I am not betrayed by appearances. There are two directions in which one might go in order to answer this question. One might say that I agree with the world or the world agrees with me. In the former, reality is given, and I seek to understand it, whereas in the later, reality is constructed and I have to seek to understand myself. In both cases truth is a matter of agreement, of wresting agreement from the anarchy of my first experiences. From Plato onwards, we might say, the general tendency of, with certain notable exceptions, philosophy is to discover the truth of the world in the self. Not that truth is subjective in any simple sense, but that the truth of the world exists in a common reason that we all share, but which we can only discover individually through our own application of this reason. Philosophy is both the discovery of this reason, and the means to achieve it.

Levinas is not doubting the truth of this truth, but whether the ascent to it could have a begun without a social relation that makes it possible but which, at the same time, is not reducible to it. The search for objective truth forgets this relation because it forgets its beginning and thinks that it has founded, like Plato’s Republic, the true society on its own rational principles which have neither beginning nor end, and in which each individual is ideally treated as equal. Such an equality is the highest principle of political theory, which is freedom.

Perhaps this concept of freedom, however, conceals a violence it is unaware of (or perhaps sometimes all too aware, since someone’s freedom might be an other’s tyranny). For the freedom of equality abolishes the difference between myself and the other that Levinas argues is the very possibility of ethics and therefore peace. Yet Levinas’s argument is not only a negative one, as we have already hinted, where a freedom that is conceived as greater than the social relation to the other, has, if left to its own devices the danger of becoming violence and war, but also a positive argument that even this freedom cannot exist without the social relation that precedes it. The politics of freedom might be necessary, but if it is not invested by the ethical relation, then it can, as history has so often taught is, become the very tyranny that it abhors. What philosophy sees as an achievement won, the equality of all, Levinas worries might lead us to forget the inequality of the relation the other, without which this equality can lead to violence (we fight wars, for example, for the sake of this freedom).

Even when we ordinarily speak about truth we talk about justification. Such a claim is usually thought about in terms of objectivity. A justified claim or judgement is a legitimate one. But we could take this justification literally. What would a justified speech be ethically? To speak justly for Levinas is first of all to respond to the presence of the other. I justify myself in front of them. This does not just mean that knowledge of the world is shared. The social condition for knowledge is not inter-subjectivity, because inter-subjectivity treats the terms in the relation as equivalent. The I and the Other are not separate from one another but unified in a ‘We’. This presupposes that the only way to think of the social relation is as a totality.

The constraint of my freedom is not worked out in advance through calculation but is the shame I feel in front of the other. If the presence of the other did not first of all call into question my enjoyment and possession of the world, then no such embarrassment would be possible, and then I would not have to justify myself. Such a constraint is not a battle of wills. It is not that other forces me to submit to their will, for this would treat the other as though they were the same as myself, and then it would be impossible to distinguish peace from war. I am only aware of my injustice because of the other not because I have arrived at it through my own self-reflection on the limits of my freedom. Such an limit comes from without and not within. It is not a limit of my power, but a limit set to my power by the other who I respond to through the demand their presence makes on me. The other is already justified. It is I who have to justify myself to them. This fact that I have to justify myself in the face of the other, Levinas call conscience and it is the very impetus to moral action.

Conscience welcomes the Other. It is the revelation of a resistance to my powers that does not counter them as a greater force, but calls in question the naïve right of my powers, my glorious spontaneity as a living being. Morality begins when freedom, instead of being justified by itself, feels itself to be arbitrary and violent. [TI 84]

We are not then, as Sartre would say, condemned to be free. Rather our freedom is ‘inverted’ in the face of the Other. I do not first of all assert my freedom and then find that it is limited by obstacles in my way (those obstacles being indifferently people and things). On the contrary, my freedom is compromised from the very beginning, or prior to the beginning if one thinks that reality begins with a self that is in charge of itself. I am already guilty before I have accepted this guilt, because its existence is not dependent on my choice. It already defines my existence (even if I refuse to acknowledge it). The original source of the freedom of the self, which is the freedom to take up one’s existence is not to be found in the relation of this self to itself, but in its relation to the other. The genesis of my freedom, therefore is in the other. Freedom again is always freedom justified and not the arbitrary will that finds after the fact that nothing goes its own way. This anteriority of the demand of the other over my apparent independence Levinas calls ‘creation’ [TI 85]. Creation is not originally a theological concept, the absurd idea that the world is created by a God from a pure act of will (such an image of God is no different from the very arbitrary will of the subject that is called into question by the presence of the other), but recognition that the self is a dependent being before it even asserts its independence and that this independence, which must be real otherwise there would be no separation, is paradoxically a dependent one.

If knowledge is critique, as Kant would assert, then it comes from the side of the other and not the self. Self-critique ends up in an infinite regression where the self-reflection of the self upon itself disappears in a hall of mirrors. Only the presence of the other can truly critique the limits of my knowledge and thus provide it with its own external foundations. It can provide such a limit because the other is not an object of my knowledge or comprehension. It is that against which knowledge itself breaks. But why wouldn’t such an limit be an appeal to irrationality and myth? We might accept that the other is the limit to knowledge but this is not the same as saying that it is the ultimate source or foundation of knowledge, unless we appear to be saying that reason has its origin in unreason which would be tantamount to giving up on the possibility of Western philosophy.

When Levinas says that Western philosophy perceives reality in one way and prioritises thematisation, I do not think he means by that that we should give up philosophy, thought, or reason. The limits of philosophy are not philosophy’s limits which, like Kant’s famous island are always surrounded by the fog of superstition and enthusiasm for the unknowable, but there are the limits to philosophy. Philosophy itself has its non-philosophical source in the relation to the presence of the other. This relation is not mystical or mythical, but one of speech. It is speech first of all that makes philosophy possible, but the concrete experience of conversation is not itself reducible to a philosophical theme.[1]

Here we must make a distinction between what is said in speech and the act of speaking itself. It is not in what the other says to me that I have to justify myself, for what is said is common to each of us. It is the very impersonal reason that philosophy seeks to justify itself without recourse to the other. Yet what is said is only possible because someone speaks. The sign always refers back to a signified, to an idea or a concept. Such a signified always belongs to a systems of ‘signifieds’ and thus forms a totality of meaning. The other in speech, however, is not first of all a sign, because if that is all they were then the other and the same would be equivalent. They would be signs that belong to the same totality. The transcendence of the other is not what they say or what is said about them, but the saying itself that attaches itself to the word that is spoken. This for Levinas is the primary meaning of discourse. The speaker is present in the words they speak. It is to this presence that I respond. It is in this presence, or revelation to distinguish it from Heidegger’s disclosure, that I am called into question and must justify my freedom. In speech, therefore, the speakers, as opposed to what is said, are not at the same level. I speak in response to the other. The priority of the appeal of the Other to me is the measure of my responsibility in the ethical sense. My subjectivity is first of all responsibility and this responsibility, as a social relation, is the very condition of knowledge. For if knowledge is what is said, the ideas and concepts we use in order to understand the world and to share it in common both theoretically and practically, then there is no knowledge without the speakers and this speech is already curved towards the other. I must speak because the other address me. The priority of the presence of the other in speech Levinas calls ‘teaching.’[2]

The opposite of such a presence would be the ‘evil genius’ of Descartes’ Meditations. Such a description, however, is not the authentic portrayal of the other, but how reality would appear without teaching. A silent world is one in which I can find no certainty because the appearance of things is ambiguous and equivocal. Nothing seems as it is and the world is one of fear and terror. If the other were not present in the words they speak, then truth would not be a possibility. The world is first of all offered to me in the sincerity of the other’s speech and then it is subsequently thematised and theorised. Without this sincerity, I would never be able to trust the world and would, like the famous cogito, be stranded between the world of dreams and reality.

The objectivity and usefulness of things comes from within language that is the relation to the other, language as a social relation first of all, and not a description of reality that comes second. The truth of statements, therefore, is dependent of the statement of truth, which is not something said, but the orientation of speech: the one responding to the other. This orientation is even prior to Heidegger’s reformulation of truth as disclosure in Being and Time, where the truth of propositions is dependent on a disclosure of the world to me. Speech has nothing at all to do with the visible. I do see the other and then respond to them. They do not make themselves manifest to me. I respond to them in the straightforwardness of their appeal to me. I am made responsible to them in this infinite demand which transcends any possible idea or concept that I might have of them, and even goes beyond their disclosure as being within the network of habits and decisions that make up my everyday world. I am not with others, if we mean by ‘with’ side by side with them. The other calls into question my enjoyment and possession of the world. They are not an extra item to be added alongside. The locus of truth is society and not being.

Work Cited

Cohen, J., 2005. Interrupting Auschwitz Art, Religion & Philosophy, New York; London: Continuum.


[1] This is the positive meaning of Plato for Levinas, beyond the metaphysics of the theory of forms. Philosophy begins in conversation and it is not possible without it.

[2] There is an important issue here that throughout Totality and Infinity, Levinas describes the ethical relation in terms of speech, where the other is present in the words they speak. One might argue, however, that such a description undermines the difference between the self and the other, since the self too must be present in the words that they speak. For the issues of speech and writing in Levinas’s work see Cohen’s, ‘Absolute Insomnia: Interrupting Religion, or Levinas’, in Interrupting Auschwitz: Art, Religion, Philosophy (2005, pp.71–106).

Kierkegaard and Existence – Lecture One

January 18, 2013

For the first three weeks of this course on Being and Time we are going to read three philosophers as background to the text: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Husserl. We are not reading them in terms of themselves, but only to the extent that they help us to better understand Being and Time. In this way, we are doing all three a disservice, because we cannot hope to be true to their philosophy by investigating what they have written in any depth. Hopefully, at some other time perhaps, if these philosophers interest you then, you can read them for themselves rather than just for Being and Time.

We are perhaps even doing a greater injury to Kierkegaard than the other two, because he expressly saw his writing as having a higher religious purpose than simply being a philosophical treatise or worse an introduction to something called ‘existentialism’. Yet in some way this wrong done to his intentions was already committed by Heidegger. Our purpose here is to explain what influence Kierkegaard had on Being and Time, and not purely his own project. Nonetheless it is important to mark what the limitations of this interpretation are.[1]

As with most writers that have influenced Being and Time directly there is little evidence in the text itself of Kierkegaard.[2] The reasons for this are probably twofold. First of all, like every original thinker, Heidegger wanted to present his work as a radical break with the previous tradition. Being and Time is not a work of scholarship on Kierkegaard, however much Heidegger himself was influenced by this reading of Kierkegaard.[3] Secondly, I think it was important for Heidegger to differentiate his philosophy from religion, precisely because, at least in terms of its vocabulary, there is much that is in common with a religious conviction. As we have already intimated, the primary purpose of Kierkegaard’s writing is religious. His aim is to place in front of the reader the real demand of becoming a Christian. Now on the way to that it might be the case that existential themes are announced, since for Kierkegaard one cannot truly be Christian without first of all becoming a self (indeed the two are necessarily entwined for him).[4] Whereas for Heidegger, the fundamental project is the existential analysis itself. Despite these two possible reasons for the virtual disappearance of Kierkegaard’s name in Heidegger’s text, it is clear that his work present throughout.[5]

What then did Kierkegaard discover that was so important to Heidegger’s existential analysis? Kierkegaard’s fundamental insight is that the self is not a category of thought. One does not think subjectivity into being, one has to become a subject. Existence is not a category of thought but a way of being. In terms of Kierkegaard’s context, he is writing against what he saw as the predominance of Hegelian philosophy at the time, where the human individual disappears in the system that he thinks.[6] What does it mean to be a self? We might think that this is the easiest thing of all to accomplish, since we are just born a self, but Kierkegaard wants to convince us that it is the hardest task of all, and some never achieve it. What is important is that simply thinking about it will not help. You cannot define the self into existence. You have to be it. In a footnote to Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard makes the famous distinction between learning about swimming and swimming. In the end to swim one has to swim. So too, to be a self, one has to exist as a self.[7]

In speaking of self objectively, I am describing the self from the outside. I might speak of myself or another person in terms of culture, morality and science, for example. But this way of speaking is not the same as being a self from within. Precisely by speaking of oneself from the outside, as though one were nothing but this objectified self, then the decision of being a self is left out. One just is one’s culture, society, or how science objectively describes me (a member of the human species for example). In this description, what make you or you a living self disappears. You vanish in the objective descriptions themselves. This does not mean that these objective descriptions are wrong. The scientific investigation of objective existence is right in itself, but it is wrong to confuse this with the subjectivity of lived existence. There are therefore two kinds of errors. One can make a mistake at the level of an objective description (one can think, for example that human beings did not evolve from a common ape ancestor), but there is more fundamental ontological error of confusing an objective description and subjective existence.

This means that nothing objective can help you make a subjective decision. Kierkegaard’s example is the decision to become a Christian. Nothing objective could make you become a Christian as a matter of faith. No-one becomes a Christian through the proofs of the existence of God, even if these arguments were true objectively. On the contrary faith is not a matter of reason for Kierkegaard but a subjective decision and it would be an ontological error to measure the latter by the former (as though faith were irrational in relation to the rationality of reason). An ‘objective acceptance of Christianity,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is paganism or thoughtlessness’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.108). What is ‘thoughtless’ here is not that one has made an objective mistake, but one has confused the subjective with the objective.

We think that what is objective is hard and what is subjective is easy. We think the objective is hard because it has to be learnt, whereas the subject is just given as a birth right. On the contrary, the opposite is the case. Anyone can learn if they want to, but to want to learn is harder than to learn (as any student knows). The first is objective and the second subjective. Not only is there a difference between the two, the objective is dependent on the subjective, and not the subjective on the objective. I learn because I want to learn. Without this first subjective decision, nothing objective would be learnt. Even if I live in a culture that treasures learning for itself, I still have to, as a subject, take this upon myself as task for myself. No-one can learn for me, I have to have this passion in order to learn. Rather than my subjectivity being given to me at birth, it is therefore something that I have to accomplish and it is an infinite task, for just when I think that I might have become myself I can lose myself again.

This difference between the subjective and the objective is the basis of the first problem of Fear and Trembling (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.54–67). Objectively, the subject matter of this book is the sacrifice of Isaac, his son, by Abraham, which is told in Genesis 22. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son. He takes him up to Mount Moriah, makes an altar, binds his son, and as he raises the knife a voice commands him to stop. Everyone knows this story from the outside, but Kierkegaard, through the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, wants us to experience the true horror of Abraham’s action from within.[8] Either he is a murderer or he is acting from faith, but if he is acting from faith then what he does makes no sense at all.

What is ethical, Kierkegaard explains, is universal and belongs to everyone and at every time. It is the ultimate telos and purpose of the ethical individual’s existence. This telos, however, is external and not internal, objective and not subjective. The individual breaks with this order by refusing to subject his will to the universal. This is what we mean by evil. An evil act is an action that breaks with the moral order as it is institutionalised in a given culture.[9] From this perspective, Abraham is a murder, and that he only stops his hand because he hears a voice would not make our judgement of him any better. But is this break with the ethical only an evil? Is there another way in which the ethical order is suspended? The paradox of faith is that the individual is higher than the universal not because the individual merely contradicts it but because the individual as individual is in relation to the absolute. The relation to the absolute is not the same as the relation to the universal, because in relation to the latter the individual is subsumed, whereas in relation to the absolute it is preserved. This cannot be understood from the outside, since from the exterior this relation can only be understand through the universal. Abraham could either be a murderer or a man of faith, but only he can know this. We can never be certain.[10]

Kierkegaard distinguishes the man of faith from the tragic hero. The tragic hero, however tragic he might be, finds recognition in the universal. The force of tragedy is the tension between the particular and the universal that finds resolution in the universal. Kierkegaard compares the Abraham’s sacrifice of his son with the Greek tragedy of Iphigenia (Kierkegaard 1983, p.57). On the surface these two stories might appear to be exactly the same. Abraham has to sacrifice his son; Agamemnon his daughter. Yet the results or outcomes of these stories are quite different. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for the sake of a higher purpose, the whim of the gods who will allow the winds to blow so that the Greeks can sail to Troy. It is terrible that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, but everyone knows that is this is the right and just thing to do. For Abraham, on the contrary, there is no result or outcome. His act is not justified by the universal, and no-one thinks that his act is legitimate. On the contrary, Kierkegaard asserts, the opposite is the case, there is no justification. Either Abraham is a murderer because he breaks the moral code, or he is man of faith, but the difference between the two is not rational. The true analogy between them would have been if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter even though the winds had already started to pick up and there was no reason at all to carry through the terrible act.

What is the difference between the tragic  hero and Abraham? The tragic hero is still within the ethical, still within the universal. He has a higher purpose, goal or telos that in the end justifies the action however much the individual suffers, both the doer of the deed and the victim. This is the meaning of the spiritual trial or tragedy of the tragic hero. For Abraham, on the contrary there is no spiritual trial, even if he might think there is or we might do so, since he suspends the teleology of the ethical for something higher still.[11] He has a relation to something else that is not the universal, which is the absolute.[12] This relation, however, can only be subjective and not objective. It can only be recognised inwardly and not outwardly. He goes ahead with the act because as living proof of his faith in God, which is an individual subjective relation and not an objective universal one.

Abraham’s temptation, therefore is not to break the law, but to act out of duty. Not to trust in God, but to trust in the law. His temptation is not to kill his son, but the opposite, not to kill him. This struggle, unlike the tragic story, cannot be described, because what matters is internal not external. You can describe it from the outside as Kierkegaard does, but that is not the same as undergoing this trial. Because from the outside we do not whether Abraham is a murder or a man of faith. This is why from the outside his action can only appear as absurd and meaningless.

Because I cannot know whether my faith is justified or not from the outside, then I can only experience it in terms of doubt, distress and anxiety. If I could point to something outside of myself, some proof, reason definition, then I could find a stable resting place. But it is precisely these that are lacking. What has happened to contemporary Christianity, for Kierkegaard, is that it finds its certainty in the external so that it can avoid the anxiety of the internal. At least at the time when he was writing, everyone could confirm their faith by simply being a citizen but one did not have to take a stand individually in the way that Abraham had to proof his faith in the sacrifice of his son.

‘Anxiety,’ Kierkegaard writes, ‘is the dizziness of freedom’, but what is meant by ‘freedom in this remark (1980a, p.61)? It is not the freedom to want something, which Kierkegaard calls finite freedom, but infinite freedom. How do we distinguish infinite and finite freedom? One way to distinguish it is the object of freedom. The object of finite freedom is things, but the object of infinite freedom is literally nothing. It is precisely because infinite freedom has its object nothing that it is experienced as anxiety. What is this nothing about which I am anxious? It is my existence as such. Not this or that part of my existence, or even something in my existence, but my very existing itself. Faith, for Kierkegaard, is an expression of such an existence.

Here we come to the crux of Kierkegaard’s thought, existence. How are we to approach existence? If we were to describe it externally, then we would do so through categories, but is so doing we would lose its very character and what is revealed in anxiety would vanish in our labels, definitions and certainty. We want to understand existence in terms of its own being, from within and not from without. To do so, Kierkegaard argues, we have to experience it as a possibility rather than as an actuality. When we think of existence from the outside, we imagine it as an actuality. I think of myself, for example, in terms of the role I occupy. I am a student or a lecturer. But what defines these roles form the outside is that they are eminently substitutable. Anyone can be a student or a lecture, not just me. What I want to capture is the fact that is I who am a student or a lecturer. The only reason that I could be so is that these actualities were a possibility that I could choose or choose not to be. In terms of existence, therefore, possibility precedes actuality, whereas in terms of essence (objective and universal thought), it is the other way around, actuality precedes possibility. The anxiety that Kierkegaard describes as fundamental to becoming a self has to do with this possibility. For a possibility is not yet something, so to experience the possibility of possibility is to feel the anxiety of nothingness. What is it that I shall be? How to I become myself? What is my task?

There is another way of thinking possibility. It is not to be understood as lack, chance of good fortune, as when someone says on some happy day, ‘anything might be possible’. For the possibilities they are imagining, buying a new car, getting a better job, winning the lottery, are all actualities of this world, banal and common place. Rather what Kierkegaard means by the infinite is that ‘all things are equally possible’. In other words, everything is suspended in the possible before it is actualised. Not this or that possibility in my life, but my whole life has become a possibility and one that can be torn away and annihilated. In comparison, reality is easy to bear, because you have never risked your life for it. You become a part of your reality by acquiescing to it. You only become yourself, however, by rejecting it. Yet to reject reality is not replace one part of it for another. You never learn anything from existence by merely standing a little apart from it. Only when it, as pure possibility, has robbed you of all certainty do you learn anything at all. Existence only teaches me when I am stripped off my reality and not when I am absorbed in it. To experience the possible at the heart of the actual, and not the actual at the heart of the possible and to accept the impossible as the movement of existence is a matter of faith. For knowledge and reason will have already defined in advance what the possible is by the actual, rather than the actual by the possible.

No doubt for the most part, we do not live like this for who wants to face the anxiety of the possible every day? Also, Kierkegaard is certain that we live in age where what is ultimately possible is levelled down to the lowest level. We understand ourselves as others understand themselves, we think as others think, like what they like and even end up having the same opinions. We are hardly even living as individuals even though ironically we live in the age of the individual. Everything is fed to is so we do not have to face ourselves. Our lives are one distraction following another where what dominates are ‘the public’ and endless ‘chatter’(Kierkegaard 1978, pp.91–110).

There is, however, one eventuality that cuts through this banality and that is our deaths. Of course we all know that we are going to die eventually, but this death is an actuality, a fact, a death that we read about everyday online. What it isn’t is the possibility of our own deaths. The possibility of my death is not something that happens at the end of my life and which I can postpone as much as I wish. The possibility of my death is permanent and imminent. Moreover my death is something that I have to face myself. Someone else I cannot die my death. I have to do so alone. This possibility of my death shows me that my existence is fragile and temporary. All the actualities on which I have constructed my existence can be swept away by this possibility which is the impossibility of all my possibilities. If I were really to face this permanent possibility of my death would I not choose my life as an individual, rather than have someone else choose it for me?

Suppose death were so devious as to come tomorrow! Just this uncertainty, when it is to be understood and held fast by an existing individual, and hence enter into every thought, precisely because as uncertainty, it enters into everything […], so that I make it clear to myself whether, if death comes tomorrow, I am beginning upon something that is worth starting on. (Kierkegaard 2009, p.139)

If I were to die tomorrow, would I really be what I am now? It is not that this or that action or role is authentically individual or not (as though one were more authentic if one were a poet rather than a street cleaner, or Kierkegaard’s tax collector, for this again would be to confuse the inner with the outer), but whether one is authentically individual at all. Whether one really has chosen one’s life at all, and the risk, distress and anxiety this causes. Or whether one has accepted the safe and secure position, but which, from one’s death bed, one regrets as a life wasted. As Kierkegaard continues,

For me, my dying is not at all something general; maybe for the others my dying is a something in general. Neither, for myself, am I such a something in general; maybe for the others I’m a something in general. But if the task is to become subjective, then every subject will for himself become the very opposite of a something in general. (2009, p.140)

Risking one’s life, facing one’s death, being oneself, subjectivity as a task and an accomplishment, the priority of existence over essence, the internal over the external, the possible over the actual, are all themes that we shall find at the heart of Being and Time. What we will not find is any talk of God. We shall need to ask whether this absence troubles us or not. For the great difference between Kierkegaard and Heidegger is not, as Heidegger believed, that Kierkegaard lacked a sufficient ontological analysis of existence, but that for Kierkegaard to truly be a self you have to be in a relationship with God. For Heidegger, it is sufficient to be in relation to one’s own death. This is perhaps the difference between an ontological ethics and an ethical ontology.

Works Cited

Carlisle, C., 2010. Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: a Reader’s Guide, London; New York: Continuum.

Hannay, A., 2010. Why Kierkegaard in Particular? Kierkegaard Studies Yearbook, pp.33–48.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kierkegaard, S., 2009. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1983. Fear and Trembling   Repetition, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1980a. The Concept of Anxiety : a Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1980b. The Sickness unto Death : a Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kierkegaard, S., 1978. Two Ages : the Age of Revolution and the Present Age : a Literary Review, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

McCarthy, V., 2011. Martin Heidegger: Kierkegaard’s Influence Hidden and in Full View. In J. Stewart, ed. Kierkegaard and Existentialism. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., pp. 95–125.

Stewart, J., 2007. Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] I agree with Hannay that there is no philosophy in Kierkegaard’s writings as such however they might be appropriated by philosophers as such. ‘I myself have ceased to look for such a philosophy in Kierkegaard. Whatever his private thoughts , and however much we like to ‘depth’ read the texts as an escape from nihilism, or to skim from them an early course in existentialism, that is not what Kierkegaard’s writings say on their face or even under the skin, not to me at least.’ (2010, p.46)

[2] There are only three footnotes to Kierkegaard in Being and Time. For a thorough analysis of the presence of Kierkegaard in Being and Time see Vincent McCarthy ‘Martin Heidegger: Kierkegaard’s Influence Hidden and in Full View’ (2011).

[3] This should not prevent others from finding Kierkegaard there for themselves.

[4] As Kierkegaard writes in Sickness unto Death, ‘Despair is intensified in relation to the consciousness of the self, but the self is intensified in relation to the criterion for the self, infinitely when God is the criterion. In fact the greater the conception of God, the more self there is; the more self, the greater the conception of God’ (1980b, p.80).

[5] We should be particular suspect of Heidegger’s insistence, in one footnote, that Kierkegaard was only capable of existentiell rather than existential analysis and thus any ontological understanding lacking in his work (Heidegger 1962, p.494n). If this were the case it would be difficult to explain how even his existential concepts have a remarkable kierkegaardian flavour. This is clear when one compares the pages on subjective anxiety in The Concept of Anxiety  and the description of the same phenomenon in Being and Time (Kierkegaard 1980a, pp.60–80).

[6] ‘From an abstract point of view, system and existing cannot be thought together, because systematic thought in order to think life must think of it annulled and hence not as life. Existence is the spacing that holds things apart; the systematic is the finality that joins them together’ (Kierkegaard 2009, p.100). Kierkegaard’s comments against Hegel are more aimed against Danish Hegelians and a philosophical fashion than Hegel himself. For a detailed account of Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegel see Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Stewart 2007).

[7] ‘In learning to go through the motions of swimming, one can be suspended from the ceiling in a harness and then presumably describe the movements, but one is not swimming’ (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.37–8).

[8] Clare Carlisle, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, explores the significance of this pseudonym (2010, pp.24–8).

[9] There are three spheres of existence for Kierkegaard: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. The ethical expresses the universal (which he understands in an Hegelian sense; the aesthetic the capricious will of the individual; the religious, the relation of the will to the absolute. The important distinction is between the aesthetic and the individual. In other words, do not confuse subjective relativism with a genuine commitment to the self.

[10] This is why Kierkegaard says that from the outside one could never differentiate the knight of faith from the knight of infinite resignation. He tells the story of the knight of faith as an ordinary person who goes about his day without anyone knowing. ‘He belongs to the world; no bourgeois philistine could belong to it more’ (Kierkegaard 1983, pp.38–41).

[11] It is very important not to confuse the teleological suspension of the ethical for the sake of the absolute with subjective relativism. The latter is not a mark of commitment or courage, but precisely the opposite. Relativism is an expression of following the crowd and not a mark of authentic individualism, which is always a relation to something higher than oneself.

[12] It significant that the relation to God is to the absolute and not to the universal. In the latter God is part of reason; in the former He transcends it.

Kant and the Synthetic A Priori – Lecture 5

November 16, 2012

We are tying to find out the meaning of transcendental idealism. We have discovered that it is better not to understand it as the unification (and how could there be such a unification of opposite poles that cancel one another out?) of rationalism and empiricism, but the prising of them apart so as to find, so to speak, hidden beneath this opposition, which appears to cover every possibility, a third alternative. This third possibility is what Kant calls transcendental idealism. One of the routes into what this might mean is rather convoluted expression a priori synthetic judgement.

One of these terms were already in use before Kant, and which he uses in the traditional way, and that is a priori, which was distinguished from a posteriori. An a priorijudgement was one that was necessary and universal, and thus logical, whereas an a posteriori judgement was contingent and grounded in an appeal to experience.  Kant, however, invented the term, ‘synthetic’, and here we have to introduce the notion of a predicate proposition. When we say something about something, we predicate something to it.  Let us use Kant’s example of ‘all bodies have extension.’  The first concept is the subject of the judgement, ‘body’ and the second the predicate of the subject.  Now this judgement for Kant is analytic; that is to say, the predicate can be discovered in the subject simply by analysing it.  If I understand the meaning of the concept ‘body’, I know that extension is contained in it.  The other kind of judgement is synthetic. Again to use an example of Kant, the following judgement is synthetic: ‘all bodies have attraction’.[1] It is synthetic because under the general description of the ‘body’ it adds a predicate that is not to be found by simply analysing the first concept.  No matter what I understand by the term ‘body’. I cannot simply deduce the concept ‘attraction’. This seems clear and simply enough, but where Kant diverges from classical philosophy is in the relation between these new terms and the old ones of a prioriand a posteriori.  We would think all analytic judgements would be a prioriand all synthetic ones a posteriori. Yet this is precisely what Kant’s claim to have discovered a priorisynthetic judgements denies. Such judgements could neither be empirical, for they are a priori, nor merely logical, for there are synthetic; that is to say, neither rationalism nor empiricism can explain them.  The clue for their existence, for Kant, is to be found in the separation of human knowledge into two faculties, intuition (or sensibility) and the understanding.[2]

The two building blocks of human knowledge for Kant are concepts and intuitions.  An intuition is the immediate appearance of the object – the table that you see before your eyes, and the concept is idea or meaning through which you think the object, ‘table’ in general.[3] Although in our mind, we can easily abstract these two sides of human knowledge, in the absence of either nothing truly can be known, for without intuitions concepts would be about nothing, and without concepts intuitions would be chaotic and orderless. To use Kant’s famous saying, concepts without intuitions are empty and, intuitions without concepts are blind:

Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought.  Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concept are blind. It is therefore just as necessary to make our concepts sensible, that is, to add the object to them in intuition, as to make our intuitions intelligible, that is, to bring them under concepts. These two powers or capacities cannot exchange their functions.  The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise. [A51/B79]

Corresponding to intuitions and concepts, there are two faculties of human knowledge: to intuitions, the faculty of sensibility, and to concepts, the faculty of the understanding. For Kant, it is absolutely important, in understanding the kind of beings that we are, that we can only know something through the faculty of sensation; that is to say, that the object must be given to us.  There might be other beings (and Kant is thinking of God here) that are able to know things directly through thought (what he calls ‘intellectual intuition’), but we cannot do so. This is a very important limit on the validity of human knowledge. We can think many ideas, but the only ones that have any validity are those that are limited to the sphere of experience, for it is only the conjunction or union of intuitions and concepts that produces legitimate knowledge. Kant’s critique of many of the pseudo problems of philosophy has to do with the illegitimate use of concepts beyond experience.

In the introduction, Kant does not prove the validity of a priori synthetic knowledge, but argues that without out it mathematics, physics and metaphysics would not be possible. The argument, if you like, works, backwards. We all accept that mathematics and the others forms of knowledge exist, and that they must be a priori and synthetic, therefore the task of philosophy is to prove their validity. However, some might argue that it is not even the case that these discourses are a priori and synthetic.  We might argue for example that mathematics is a priori and analytic and physics is a posteriori and synthetic.

Let us then take the case of mathematics. which Kant spends sometime describing in the introduction. Why does Kant argue that it is synthetic and a priori and not analytic? To answer this we need to look a little closer at the difference between the analytic and synthetic that we have already introduced. First of all how can we recognise a priori judgements? Kant’s response is that every a priori judgement fulfils two criteria: universality and necessity. Thus an a posteriori judgement could never be necessary or universal, since it could always be contradicted by a future experience. As we have already said, we tend to think that the difference between a priori and a posteriori statement is the same as the difference between analytic and synthetic statement. Thus every analytic statement is a priori and every synthetic statement is a posteriori. So following this reasoning, since mathematics statements are clearly a priori, since they fulfil the criteria of universality and necessity, then they must be analytic. Yet it is precisely this designation that Kant disputes.

Kant defines analytic in terms of the relation between the subject and the predicate. An analytic statement is one in which the predicate is contained in the subject. So in the statement, which we have already used, ‘all bodies are extended’, the subject ‘body’ contains necessarily and universally the predicate ‘extended’. It is important to be precise here; otherwise why Kant thinks mathematical statements are a priori but synthetic will be obscure to us.[4] What does it mean to say that one concept is contained in another? This a relation between a higher genus and lower species. The genus is contained in the species and the species are contained under the genus. Thus under the concept ‘metal’ is contained the concepts ‘gold’ or ‘copper’. A concept’s content is general concepts contained in it, and its logical extensions are the specific concepts under it. We can understand this idea of containment in terms of logical division. Thus a concept is logical divided in terms of its extensions. We can divide the concept number therefore into odd and even numbers. This division is logical because it follows the rules of completeness and exclusivity. So the predicate ‘odd’ covers completely the genus ‘number’ and no odd number can be even. This means that conceptual relations are reciprocal. Thus every extension of the concept A contains A as part of its content. A lower concept must contain whatever a higher concept contains, and a visa versa. Without this concept containment, then we are not facing an analytic judgement. This has nothing to with the idiosyncratic definitions of an individual but how one concept is contained in another.

When it comes to the introduction of the Critique, the key question for Kant is whether mathematical statements follow analytic containment. It is clear that mathematical judgements are a priori because they are universal and necessary. But are they analytic? The problem is that when Kant declares that they not and our synthetic, he seems merely to state it rather than prove it.

One might initially think that […] ‘7+5=12’ is a merely analytic proposition […]. Yet if one considers it more closely, one finds that the concept of the sum of 7and5 contains nothing more than the unification of both numbers in a single one, through which it is not at all thought what this single number is […]. The concept of twelve is by no means already thought merely by my thinking that unification of seven and five, and no matter how long I analyse my concept of such a possible sum, I will still not find twelve in it. [B15]

What Kant has to show is that there is not a containment relation between the concept ‘7 + 5’ and the concept 12. The argument would be that mathematical relations between numbers cannot be expressed in containment relations. Remember that containment relations are reciprocal. If A contains B, then B must contain A, and whatever A includes or excludes, B must include or exclude. This is precisely what does not hold with mathematical expressions. If 12 is contained in the concept ‘7+5’ then it must include and exclude what it does, but this would be mean that that concept ‘7+5’ would exclude ‘7’ and ‘5’, since 12 ≠ 7, nor 12 ≠ 5.  What is not contained in the concepts ‘7’ and ‘5’, therefore is the sum concept ‘7 + 5’. Something else is added there, which is the relation between these three numbers. This is clearer if we look at the following proposition, which Kant used in letter to Johann Schultz: ‘3 + 5’ = ‘2 × 4’. Here no-one would think that the two concepts have the same content, since they involve different numbers with different operations even though they might refer to the same object (the number ‘8’).

It would appear then that mathematics proves the existence of a priori synthetic statement. The question for the rest of the Critique is why do these judgements exist in mathematics, physics and mathematics, and do we have the right to use them? What we will discover is that origin of mathematics is in what Kant calls pure intuition and the pure understanding, and not in logic or experience.

Works Cited

Allison, H.E., 2004. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Guyer, P. ed., 2010. The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[1] The first example is taken from The Critique of Pure Reason, whereas the second is from Kant’s lectures on logic, which is referred to by Allison (2004, p.76).

[2] This is separation of philosophy; in experience they always go together. Thus I always see something as something, and never just see it.

[3] We need to underline here that intuition for Kant does not mean the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis; rather it is immediate sensation. These immediate sensations, however, are still representation.  I don’t see a ‘red sensation’. I see ‘red’.

[4] An excellent account of concept containment can be found in Anderson’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Guyer 2010, pp.73–92), which our explanation follows pretty much to the letter.