Thursday, May 29, 2008

Martin Heidegger (part 1)

In the four major divisions of Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction, Andrew Cutrofello (the Virgil of my infernal summer vacation) allots to Martin Heidegger three chapters. That’s one more than any other twentieth-century philosopher gets. So I’m splitting my thoughts on this difficult philosopher into three posts, one for each section. Today’s edition amounts to an introduction not so much to Heidegger’s theoretical apparatus (as have my first two posts, on Bergson and Husserl) as to his privileged yet contested status in the recent history of philosophy.

Many commentators have accused Heidegger of charlatanry. Apparently it’s obligatory to mention this at the commencement of any piece of exegetical writing about Heidegger, whether the writer at hand is friendly or hostile to Heidegger’s work. The most frequently cited objection regards his non-conformity to analytic philosophy’s standards of philosophical rigor. Very similar accusations were leveled at Jacques Derrida by analytic philosophers protesting Cambridge’s decision to bestow upon Derrida an honorary degree. In both cases the opponents’ objections are intended to shore up a self-imposed boundary separating philosophy from literature, thus at once protecting analytic philosophy’s constructed access to unambiguously statable, definitely demonstrable truths, as well as legitimating the ever lingering logical-positivistic claim (never fully eradicable from the analyticist project) that only such truths should be admissible to philosophical discourse.

The rhetoric of Roger Scruton, a conservative British philosopher and popularizer of the history of philosophy, makes these stakes quite clear. He complains that Heidgger’s language is “metaphorical and contorted to the point almost of incomprehensibility” so that no one can “understand [it] completely” (A Short History of Modern Philosophy, 270). Furthermore, Heidegger “does not give any arguments for the truth of what he says,” relying instead exclusively upon “compound assertions, with hardly a ‘thus,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘possibly,’ or ‘it might follow that,’ to indicate the relations which are supposed to hold between them.” “Even if the whole of Heidegger’s philosophy is both meaningful and true, therefore, we have yet to be given a reason to accept it. Looked at critically, Heidegger’s ideas seem like spectral visions in the realm of thought; vast, intangible shadows cast by language” (274).

Just a few years after his death, Derrida’s legacy is still in the process of being decided. It seems likely that his star, so very bright in the intellectual climate of the 1980s, will finally be eclipsed by that of Gilles Deleuze—but I’ll further address that speculation in a few weeks. Setting Derrida aside, it’s clear that, outside the narrow confines of analytic philosophy, Heidegger’s current influence is almost unparalleled among early-to-mid-twentieth-century philosophers. (His only serious competitors in a popularity contest held today would be Wittgenstein and—provided you accept him as a philosopher, a title he never claimed—Freud.)

Frank Lentricchia voices a very different objection to Heidegger, one that commonly emerges from discursive communities more essentially hospitable to the Continental style of thinking. Heidegger appears in Lentricchia’s text as “the last humanist” (96). (Lentricchia, reading Derrida’s essay “The Ends of Man,” which is collected in Margins of Philosophy, initially assigns this notion to Derrida. Ultimately, Lentricchia fully endorses the characterization.) The conclusion to Lentricchia’s chapter on phenomenology is worth quoting at length:

To suggest a unity and wholeness just the other side of history which becomes dispersed or fragmented in time [which is Lentricchia’s interpretation of Heidegger’s concept das Verfallen, the falling into Uneigentlichkeit (inauthenticity) that characterizes Dasein (human being)] is a fundamentally idealistic way of mythologizing a narrative of human being. In this mythology, the “thrown” character of being-in-the-world, a supposedly primordial condition, becomes a falling from unity, a secondariness. Verfallen retains the stubborn theological implication of The Fall. In its disposition to recover unity from dispersion, Heidegger’s philosophy is fundamentally nostalgic and world-weary. It is a last-ditch defense of the concept of man as a unified and gathered totality, secure in his neighborhood, existentially limited, of course, and confined by the biological trap, but in the freedom for death, free at the heart of its being.

The early and the late Wittgenstein disagree on many points, but in both periods he hopes to preserve a space for Voltaire’s retired Candide to tend his garden without being troubled by metaphysical questions. This is thanks, in the early Wittgenstein, to having disproved metaphysics; and in the late Wittgenstein, to having dissolved it. In direct contrast Heidegger explicitly presented his project in terms of reviving metaphysics, or rather un-forgetting it. Heidegger famously characterized the history of Western philosophy since Aristotle as the history of the forgetting of the question of being—that is, a series of repressions of metaphysics. Lentricchia’s Heidegger is concerned not with persuading the pre-philosophical individual to remain untroubled by nagging existential doubts (as is my hastily sketched version of Wittgenstein) but rather with leveraging those doubts (Heidegger’s Angst) in order to recover the always-already lost subjectival unity that goes by the names of Eigentlichkeit (authenticity) and Freiheit zum Tode (being-free-for-death). Of the three contenders I earlier nominated for the title of most influential early-to-mid-twentieth-century philosopher, we would be left with only Freud to argue for a human subject that is both non-unified and non-unifiable.

Note on sources: In every post in my present project, I rely principally upon Andrew Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. For many posts I also consult relevant sections of The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought and Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. For the present post (and the other two planned posts on Heidegger, which will follow in due time) I’ve referred to the following secondary texts. Asterisks indicate that I read the text for the first time specifically for this project:
Jae Emerling, Theory for Art History
Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy
Michael Inwood, Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction*
Adam Sharr, Heidegger’s Hut*
Vincent Gérard, “Husserl et Heidegger: La rupture silencieuse,”* (in Le Magazine littéraire #468)
Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism
Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Edmund Husserl

The founder of the philosophical tradition we refer to as phenomenology, Edmund Husserl tried to put the kibosh on the Kantian phenomenon/noumenon dichotomy and in the process to refer all ontology to a transcendental conscious subject. Truth for Husserl is a product primarily of intuition, and only secondarily a function of judgment. This is a reversal of Kant, for whom all experiences depend on acts of judgment in which intuitions are subsumed under concepts. Rather, for Husserl an intuition simultaneously apprehends an object’s sensible content and its categorical form. All intuitions are thus acts of categorical intuition; no intellectual intuition (which would leave behind all sensibility) is possible in the phenomenological theory.

Objects of consciousness are thus first and foremost given to consciousness. The epoché (a.k.a. the phenomenological reduction) is the process by which the phenomenologist extracts acts of eidetic intuition from the acts of categorical intuition that constitute experience. Eidetic intuitions are intuitions of the ideal essences of objects and events; the adjective "pure" in Husserl’s philosophy always refers to the essence of a mental act rather than its real existence (which is seemingly entailed in acts of categorical intuition, an appearance that itself constitutes the problem that phenomenology seeks to resolve/evade, namely the necessity for Kantian ontological dualism). I think (though this is not explicitly stated in any of the texts I read today) that eidetic intuitions are to be considered as immanent in categorical intuitions, but obscured to consciousness due to the imposition (by categorical intuition) of existentiality. The “principle of all principles,” which the epoché permits us to uphold, states that “we must attend only to that which is disclosed through pure intuition [i.e. eidetic intuition].”

The epoché consists in two stages. First, the eidetic reduction systematically ignores all "matters of fact" by putting out of play (i.e. parenthesizing, a.k.a. bracketing) all posited objects of consciousness. For the early Husserl, this first stage is the only stage necessary in order to describe ideal essences. But later Husserl admits that a second stage is needed, the transcendental reduction, which, having already ignored everything that is posited by consciousness as matter-of-factual rather than essential, further ignores everything that is posited by consciousness as "real." As Cutrofello puts it: “What remains is a transcendentally purified consciousness for which pure phenomena [which have been parenthesized] are given as irreal.”

Against Kant, Husserl insists that consciousness does have “a secure means of access to the domain of the transcendental.” “Transcendental” in Kant is distinguished from “transcendent.” Whereas transcendent refers to that which goes beyond any possible knowledge of a human being/consciousness (i.e. that which lies beyond what our faculty of knowledge can legitimately know), on the other hand transcendental refers to the conditions for knowledge/cognition, “the way that we can possibly know objects even before we experience them.” (It’s unclear to me whether this distinction is precisely preserved in Husserl’s thought.) For Husserl, every mental act is characterized by intentionality, a concept derived from the work of Franz Bretano. Roger Scruton defines intentionality as as “reference to a content” or the “direction upon an object” (A Short History of Modern Philosophy, 264).

Husserl elaborates upon the implications of intentionality by positing a complex structure for all mental acts. Every mental act has the form of a noesis directed toward a noema. The noesis, which constitutes the act-stratum of the mental act, has two “inherent moments”:

- First, the hyle (matter). In the case of the particular kind of mental act called perception, the hyle is known more specifically as a hyletic manifold, something very like Kant’s “sensible manifold.”
- Second, the sense-bestowing activity (you can always tell the philosophers who wrote in German from the compound nature of their jargon terms!). This moment “synthesizes the manifold so as to direct consciousness toward a unitary object of some sort.” (It’s not clear to me what other kinds of mental acts are possible aside from perceptions, and so it’s also unclear whether every hyle may be considered as a “manifold” of some kind, or exclusively the hyletic manifolds involved in perceptions.)

The noesis also has a “non-inherent moment” (but don’t ask me to elucidate the nature of this non-inherence), which is its noema. The noema, which constitutes the sense-stratum of the mental act, contains a core (about which Cutrofello says nothing at all) and a noematic sense that serves to refer the noesis to its object.

This conceptual apparatus allows Husserl (or so he believes) to put the kibosh on the phenomenon/noumenon dichotomy that is central to Kant’s philosophy. Husserl argues that only one thing may be given to consciousness in a “perfectly adequate way,” and that is itself. (This is the self-plenitude of presence that consciousness experiences in “hearing its own voice,” so to speak [so to speak]; the fatal flaws of this aspect of Husserl’s thought will in 1962 launch the project of deconstruction in Derrida’s first book, L’Origine de la géometrie de Husserl.) But all physical objects can only be given to consciousness inadequately through finite adumbrations. Each adumbration is “surrounded by a halo of indeterminacies which could themselves be filled out only through successive adumbrations” (Cutrofello, 45). What this means is that the essence “physical object” is not a thing-in-itself (as Kant had it) but rather “the idea of the complete disclosure of an infinite number of adumbrations.”

After the epoché, a “residuum” remains: the pure Ego, which “is not immediately apprehended in any reflective act of consciousness” yet “is always there as a transcendency of a peculiar kind – one which is not constituted,” an immanent transcendency.

Time and space are still, for Husserl, transcendentally ideal, because they are constituted by consciousness. The project of Husserl’s transcendental aesthetics is to describe the constitution of space and time (to provide a genetic analysis of them to complement the static analysis of the structures of mental acts [noesis – noema] that I summarized above). Each moment of the transcendental aesthetics reworks a moment of Kant’s three-fold synthesis of the “transcendental deduction of the pure concepts of the understanding.”
- First, absolute subjectivity is self-present, a self-unifying flux that, like Bergsonian durée (as Cutrofello helpfully points out) “can be intuited, but remains fundamentally ineffable.” This moment corresponds to the Kantian apprehension of a sensible manifold.
- Second, the constitution of immanent time (a.k.a. phenomenological time) is the moment of awareness of the sequential structure of successive states of consciousness. This corresponds to Kant’s reproduction of the manifold in the imagination.
- Third, the construction of objective time (a.k.a. cosmic time) is the moment of distinguishing a sequence of worldly events from a sequence of mental acts. This corresponds to Kant’s recognition (subsumption) of the representation in the concept.
(Cutrofello notes that the transition from immanent time to objective time corresponds to the work of the “analogies of experience” in Kant.)

Asserting the priority of immanent time to objective time puts Husserl very close to (and perhaps within) the unpopular position of transcendental solipsism, which Kant avoided by claiming that objective time must first be apprehended in order for the subject to determine its own existence in time. But Husserl has parenthesized all existenents, so, as Cutrofello admits, “he must affirm that the being of consciousness would not be extinguished, but only modified, by an annihilation of the world.” Need I add an exclamation point to this assertion? It might seem less preposterous (and less necessarily mystical) if one thinks of the world as a creation of consciousness, as distinct from the earth. (If I’m not mistaken, Heidegger will attempt to do just this. Perhaps I’ll find out tomorrow!) But can this be done without collapsing into what Husserl dismisses as “mere Weltanschauung philosophy,” with the “world” whose possible annihilation Husserl entertains as synonymous with a culture’s Weltanschauung (world-view)?

We’re not quite finished with Husserl yet. In his penultimate book, he offers the notion of sedimentation, “the building up of successive strata of meaning over time" (Cutrofello, 46). (I think it would be correct to say that these “strata of meaning” are composed of various noemae, or perhaps just of their noematic senses [since I still don’t understand the noema’s other component, its “core.”]) Sedimentation enables a science, an “on-going communal mode of inquiry.” Initially ideal objectivities exist only in private, that is to say as mental acts in the minds of individual consciousnesses. Husserl posits a “proto-geometer” in the case of the ideal objectivity of a geometrical object. That is to say, he claims that each geometrical object could only have come into being originally in private, as a mental act in the mind of its proto-geometer. Spoken language enables the communication of these private mental acts to others, but speech confines the spoken ideal objectivity to expressivity. So long as an ideal objectivity remains expressive, its sedimentation is not ensured; it exists only so long as someone is still constituting/reconstituting it. But with writing, the meaning can attain indicativity, “an irreducible indicative dimension that escapes the order of sheer givenness.” In contrast to the only-ever actual expression that speech offers, writing permits an ideal objectivity to become virtual, thus to become a genuinely public objectivity, a.k.a. a transcendental memory. (All this too will become crucial to deconstruction.)

The strata of meaning built up by sedimentation constitute a Lebenswelt (life-world), a shared cultural environment. (Is there only one cross-cultural Lebenswelt at a given time? I don’t find the issue directly addressed in any of today’s materials. But, to preserve our precious cultural relativism, we will surely incline toward the alternative hypothesis that multiple Lebenswelts temporally co-exist.) Scruton interprets the Lebenswelt as “the human realm (the realm of meaning),” in contrast to “the realm of nature (the realm of science and explanation)” (Scruton, 268).

There is, however, a problem: sedimentation cannot help but make possible a forgetting of the Lebenswelt. This forgetting results in what Husserl calls the natural attitude, which grounds philosophy in the natural sciences and thus misunderstands the ontological status of consciousness (which “cannot be reduced to a mere natural phenomenon,” as we have seen with the assertion of its non-extinguishability even by the annihilation of the world) as well as the status of nature (which as we have seen is dependent on consciousness for its existence [though not for its essence? Unsure.]). (The forgetting also enables “the more general dogmatic attitude,” but I am not sure what is meant by this.) In the natural attitude, scientists may proceed quite productively in utter ignorance of the meaning of their discoveries. “At stake is nothing less than ‘a struggle for the meaning of man’—the struggle between a naïve scientism and the phenomenological movement itself” (Cutrofello, 47).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Introduction, and Henri Bergson

So the plan is to go through Andrew Cutrofello’s Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction, a dense 450-page monster of an overview to precisely the stuff I need to know better than I now do. As I make my way through the book, which is organized in chapters under the names of individual philosophers, I will write a bit about each one. And in many cases I will read a bit about that philosopher beyond whatever Cutrofello has given, especially in the cases (which are many) of those philosophers about whom I already own secondary texts. In some cases I’ve already read those secondary texts, and in other cases they’re fresh to me (despite having sat on my shelves for, in some instances, years). The major supplementary sources will be Simon Critchley’s Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, which I read in January, and the edited volume The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, most of which I have not read. In addition I’ll be taking time-outs to read other supplements, such as Heidegger’s Hut, How to Read Sartre, etc.

All told, the project will probably take two months, and perhaps as long as the entire summer. The ultimate idea is to try to retain the key information for each of these thinkers, as it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I need to master—and, hubristically, I insist that I do mean master—this tradition of thought. These posts aren't really for the public benefit. They're just to keep my thoughts straight, to encourage my own retention of the material I've read, as well as to get myself into the habit of writing daily about academic topics. I contemplated not blogging them at all, instead quarantining them to my hard drive. But hey, what the hell, right? Maybe someone else will get something out of it, and maybe someone, somewhere, will even see fit to correct some of my inevitable mistakes.

First up (it should only ever be spoken in a Python falsetto): "Henri Bergson."

Bergson’s major beef is with the concept of spatialized time, which he says has dominated Western rationalism. Kant is only the most persuasive of the thinkers in this tradition of error. Bergson’s critique begins by asserting that intensities (a.k.a. sensations) are absolutely non-quantifiable. However, they can be associated with quantifiable extensities, which they are then said to represent. As an effect of such an association, the intensity becomes linked to degrees, but the intensity itself remains purely qualitative. Any “increase in sensation” is always only an illusion that results from a confusion of the nature of this link; rather, what is real in such a situation is only the “sensation of increase.”

Due to this irreducibly non-discrete nature of intensity, it is also impossible to isolate ontologically any intensity from its sensible manifold. This has major consequences. First, it puts the kibosh on Kant’s notion of time as a homogenous medium (in which arithmetical synthetic a priori judgments are made; “the form of inner sense”). Rather, time for Bergson is durée (duration). Durée is definitionally linked to subjectivity for the early Bergson: the self is only “the lived flux of [its] own duration,” and is located at the intersection of durée and extensity.

Bergson believes that such concepts of the self and of time evade the antinomy of freedom that caused Kant to posit the transcendental subject of noumenal freedom and phenomenal determination, because that antinomy only arises when freedom is thought in the spatialized-time regime, as the real-possible relation of forking paths (shades of Deleuze’s actual-virtual solution to the paradox of incompossibility here). Bergson further believes (although the details of this belief are not clear to me) that growths on the plane of extensity influence the subject’s action without being incorporated into its consciousness, thus providing the subject with lived freedom, a rather dubious notion that Cutrofello admits is for Bergson “an ineffable fact that can only be intuited and not defined.”

This lived freedom manifests as a moment of delay in which consciousness separates perception from action. These two processes are normally contiguous. Unconscious perceptions trigger automatic actions (reactions). But a contraction of durée in consciousness “pauses time,” so to speak, and permits the mental (the past) to intrude into the physical (the present). “To be free is to be capable of living in memory,” as Cutrofello puts it, “or rather to bring the past to bear on present situations.”

This all pertains to what the Columbia History calls Bergson’s interactive dualism, that is, what Ronald Bogue calls the second moment in Bergson’s thought, the moment of clarifying dualism (after having critiqued illusory dualisms of mind/body, quality/quantity, and space/time in the first moment). Interactive dualism opposes internal durée to external space (Deleuze on Cinema, 20-21). But there are, Bogue writes, two later moments in Bergson’s thought. The third moment, the moment of higher monism, shows that the interactive dualism is actually a monism of rhythmic contractions and relaxations of a vibrational whole. And the fourth and final moment, the moment of generative dualism and pluralism, relies on the concept of élan vital. Élan vital is a force that “moves life forward on the path of time, carrying the principle of duration from subjective consciousness to life itself—to evolution (Columbia, 430). Élan vital is, Bergson says, “la durée agissante.”

In animals, élan vital manifests as instinct. In humans, it is expressed as intellect, which is practical, oriented toward the sensori-motor schema that enables us to survive and motivates science. But intellect cannot reveal metaphysical significance; that role is given only to intuition, which is the human version of instinct. It’s unclear to me whether intellectual intuition (which for Bergson is the intuition of lived durée and is thus opposed to the German idealists’ concept of intellectual intuition as a non-temporal intuition) is to be considered a synthesis of intellect and intuition, or identical to (adjectiveless) intuition, or rather one form of intuition.

There’s more to Cutrofello’s and Columbia’s treatment of Bergson, but these are the points that seem crucial. Tomorrow: Husserl.