Lessons from Reading Heidegger

One of the lessons learned from reading Heidegger is how exactly the historicity of language comes to shape philosophical discourse (and any discourse for that matter). The particular emphasis of how we write and the words we choose commit us implicitly to certain meta-perspectives. In fact, the goal of hermeneutic phenomenology is to make use aware of how efficacious language and history influence us. Philosophers as custodians of their own history are acutely aware of this fact, or I should say that we ought to be aware of this fact even if we feign differently.

Let us speak about one way in which language influences what we conceive of philosophy. I would assert that the many nouns of metaphysics or theology are regarded by philosophers as referring to some entity independently existing for all time. For example, if I stated that “God consists of a trinity” or “The normative-overriding force of morality consists of never treating someone as a mere means”, then you would immediately take these two propositions as suggesting the hypostatized concepts of God and normativity exist independently of me, and that these propositions are to be taken as either true or false about God and normativity. This hypstatized conception comes from the Latinate origin of our metaphysical history in which the presence of the term indicated its conceptual form as an enduring reality. Methodologically, this trend may be called a naive realism or implicit Platonism to which many analysts never acknowledge despite Wittgenstein or Austin’s close approximation to Heidegger’s insight that context, history and language determine the ways we can speak about experience and the world. The belief in enduring realities commits philosophers to thinking that philosophy can transcend the very historical determination of inquiry rather than working within the boundaries of history, language and context.

Leaving Heidegger aside, William James offers us a picture of philosophy a tad bit more honest, and likely his conception is a bit more realistic. For James, philosophy is always incomplete. No experience can be total. We experience the world not in its entirety, but in snippets of limited experience. With the world’s dynamism and the many purposes we assign experience to the world, James endorsed a form of pragmatic epistemic modesty about what we can claim to know about it. Yet, boldly, James linked the modesty of what we can claim to know about the world with the concomitant belief in experimenting with our beliefs. Given that beliefs are rules of action and not simply descriptions of an enduring reality, we can see where some concepts lead. The concepts we employ to understand the world are, therefore, not enduring realities we speculate about, but efficaciously alive in how we conceive of ourselves relating to the world.

Much of what I claim of James can be gleaned in Heidegger, though I there is one aspect in Heidegger that should be abandoned. Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology makes it seem that we are held captive by the forces of history and language in a way that seems impossible in Jamesian thought. The Jamesian always is aware of the importance of assigning purpose to experience and that opens up an constant awareness of how history and language may influence us. In such a way, the Jamesian is reminded of the importance (possibly) of the authentic resolve to take up responsibility of sustaining an awareness of how experience unfolds given that experience is something to be experimented with in a way that the Heideggerian cannot conceive. Authenticity is something wrenched from inauthenticity, but Heidegger has no clear path or method to offer us so that we may wrench ourselves into authenticity. Perhaps, Heidegger’s call to the historicity of Dasein’s self-understanding is the same as this Jamesian move to experiment with experience. In so far as we are aware of the historicity of self-understanding we can sustain a vision of experience to know exactly where history and language overtake us. Such a vision of experience still seems passive even if aware of those forces at work in self-understanding.

So what is the lesson? The lesson is more about the language we employ when talking about concepts. Our philosophical concepts are best understood as referring to things in process rather than as enduring realities. An enduring reality can deceive us that philosophy can transcend itself. It cannot. At best, philosophy should be modest about what it can claim. It can only claim things in a limited scope, in a particular context, and in a particular language such that part of philosophical wisdom consists of knowing when and how the limitations of experience are violated in the name of hubris.



Consider the following argument.

(1) If the form of morality requires never treating another agent as a mere means, then this form of morality explains the normative force of morality possesses.

(2) The form of morality requires never treating another agent as a mere means.

(3) The form of morality explains the normative force of morality possesses

Now, this is an argument that puts together the what of morality with its form. I find it simple, concise, and wonderfully elegant. Yet, I do not find the argument convincing about what the form of morality requires. We could introduce a distinction between the aesthetics of an argument from its convincingness (though some intuition in me thinks they are somewhat related). I also feel the same way about Leibniz’s rationalism and the pre-established harmony it advances. Neither position convinces me.

Many philosophers think that the love of wisdom consists merely in the assessment of arguments. Yet, this methodological commitment presupposes many things about arguments that one could call into question. An argument, for instance, is only as convincing as the person viewing it presupposes elements to it. Let’s discuss this first option.

If an argument is only as convincing as the person’s presuppositions allow, then there is nothing about the argument itself that inspires. Moreover, this option would delimit the experience of an argument’s novelty to stun us about a particular issue. Believe it or not, I have experienced some arguments in philosophy that threw me for a loop. They were rather convincing and they invited me to think about accepting them even if I later rejected the conclusion they offered. Don Marquis’s argument against abortion is particularly clever, and for several days I had to think about exactly how to understand what he meant by the term “future-like-ours.” In that argument, I struggled with two observations about abortion. Autonomy considerations for the permissibility of abortion always transform the practice of an abortion into something morally neutral like receiving a haircut, and anti-abortionists always regard the fetus as a person. Both the person and moral neutrality are excessively interested presuppositions in that debate that both sides require. Don Marquis’s argument seemed to sneak around the excessive posturing of both positions and capable of extreme epistemic humility.

So, it would seem that arguments can be pedagogical and incite reflection in us about our own beliefs. I do not think this to be simply a feature of moral arguments. Yet, if arguments incite reflection, then there must be something about arguments that produce that function in me. However, as a profession, philosophers endorse a variety of positions and present arguments over a spectrum of issues. The massive disagreement between philosophers, then, causes suspicion about argumentation as a practice given that the content of them is “all over the place.” Worse yet, when teaching the history of philosophy, students often walk away with the impression that an argument can be made for any conclusion despite the pedagogical goal of philosophy to seek out the best arguments. In fact, in my own teaching, I always try to make my students feel that just because you can argue any conclusion does not mean that we should. Instead, we should be concerned about the truth in a particular discourse. Moreover, the rhetorical trick of many philosophers is to say that the conclusion is the “inference-to-best-explanation”. The claim is implicit. “This is the best argument of all of the different arguments in this debate.”

Hence, I want to ask if there is a middle way between what arguments do from the convincingness proponents of an argument say we should observe in them. In addition, the answers of formal validity and soundness are not the issue here. Repeating the formal elements of argumentation only restates the problem of argumentative practice. I am wondering about what we might call the practice of argumentation in the profession. We all advance particular conclusions. In my own philosophy, I argue that an ontology of value should be rooted in phenomenological experience. I even wrote my dissertation on this issue. However, the argument I advanced presupposes many things. For example, values are experienced in intentional feeling, and we participate in these feelings to such an extent that values are felt. From their issuance in feeling, values acquire a sense of the real unlike analytic versions of moral realism. Schafer-Landau, however, argues for a different version of moral realism, which among many things thinks of moral judgments as true. They are true in the sense that they correspond to a mind-independent moral reality independent of feeling. As you can see, every argument takes place in the background of a larger debate with a particular trajectory and history.

Let me try to put this together.

1. Arguments incite reflection only when we approach a discourse with epistemic humility.

Perhaps, an argument is only potentially convincing proportionate to the amount of epistemic humility we have for an issue. For instance, I am rather open in areas where I know less than I want to know. For the last year and a half, I have been reading William James vigorously. At the beginning of that exploration, I approached Richard Gale and Wesley Cooper as potentially convincing about interpreting James’s ethical thought. Now, I see that imposing analytic ethics and metaethics onto James without historically contextualizing his texts is a reason not to be convinced by them. Both Cooper and Gale are not interested in reading James to get to know what he is thinking,but  they are more interested in passing off their 20th century vocabulary without penetrating the debates that animated James at the time he was writing. These efforts cause a tension between the spirit of James’s texts and how they understand and render James’s thought. I did not have this presupposition at the beginning, but I soon became aware of this “interpretive pull” in my reading of James over the year.

2. Arguments take place in a hermeneutic horizon.

As I became closed to the various analytic engagement with James, I found Bruce Wilshire’s book linking phenomenology to his Principles of Psychology a refreshing engagement. Moreover, Wilshire dealt with texts in a very hermeneutically-friendly way that I found convincing. Now, I should be transparent. I am trained historically and hermeneutically. Engaging in James in such a radically counter way to my norm elicited my “pre-judgments” (to put it in a very Gadamerian way). Yet, now the question facing us is rather stark. Was I epistemically open as I claimed? Are any of us (philosophers or those aspiring to be) ever really capable of epistemic humility? If we are not, then there may be one final way to decide about the convincingness of arguments.

Philosophical arguments may explain the best reasons for a position if we were to take up that position and convincingness follows from this observation. In such a reading, the argument doesn’t offer convincing reasons to adopt it from a general point of view, but only the argument stipulate reasons if we were to take it up. Let me make an analogy to chess. A particular argument has an appeal that pulls people to play chess. Another argument has the appeal for others to play monopoly. Yet, there is no appeal general appeal of game playing. Some people just find monopoly better to play than chess and vice versa.

I think this last position falls short. Certainly, we can admit the hypothetical element in self-reflection about an argument without thinking that the sole function of an argument is to convince other like-minded people. If arguments only worked on other like-minded people, then their function could only be gauged by like-minded people. Philosophical arguments always attempt to reach others beyond those that find them convincing–even if it is not likely to ever do so. The attempt is still made.

Why Zimmerman is Guilty

 Yep, I’m going there. Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

After hearing so many people defend Zimmerman down here in Texas, I just had to present my simple argument for why I would have given Zimmerman some conviction within the orbit of a manslaughter charge.

If someone follows another person around in the dark and at night, against the police dispatcher’s insistence, and gets into an altercation with that person that leads to their death … then the burden is on the perpetrator to justify the use of lethal force. Zimmerman was the aggressor, and the fact that Martin may have thrown the first punch or may have been winning the fight is irrelevant. Zimmerman also lacked the authority to use lethal force proactively, and was told to cease and desist from his activities (that may escalate the situation and provoke the need for force). To say it simply, Zimmerman chose to start a violent confrontation.

For parity and as a thought experiment, are we now to allow anyone to pick a fight and justifiably shoot the other person when losing? If you insist that Zimmerman’s role as a member of the neighborhood watch grants justifies his actions, then you are confusing a local informant with an on-site police officer. In fact, too many of the pro-Zimmerman opinions that I’ve heard treat him as if he were a police officer (hat tip to Adam Kotsko of An ind fur Sich for the idea), in which case I would side with Zimmerman as well since Martin would have assaulted a uniformed officer and violently resisted arrest. But that is not the case, and the police dispatcher’s repeated requests, which we ignored, for him to wait for the police destroy the credibility of that line of argument.

Please hold your objections about whether Martin may have been a marijuana user in the past, or whether Zimmerman feared for his life, etc. since those are unprovable speculation. So what if Marin “escalated” the situation; I would too if a strange guy was following me from behind at night and tried to forceably halt me, since I would presume the person was trying to mug me. Besides, by parity, Zimmerman escalated the situation first by forcing a confrontation. Let’s not go into the question of race in Zimmerman’s mind, since we could not prove anything; it’s irrelevant in that respect.

All that said, I do not see how a murder charge could be supported given the publicly available evidence. What was omitted from the jury is not that significant. There just is not sufficient external evidence of intent, and the situation as we know it supports the view of an accidental altercation between two people. We cannot know what more evidence we might have had if the police had performed a proper investigation.

I would invite anyone to provide evidence or considerations that I have over-looked or misinterpretted.

Teaching Theory of Justice

I offer an insight into my Introduction to Philosophy course. Right now, I offer a Great Books format on the topics of justice and epistmeology. We begin with Plato’s Republic and end with Locke’s Second Treatise and Rousseau’s scathing critique in “Discourse on Inequality.” Then, we shift to modern empiricism culminating in Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and end the course with an explanation of the necessity, power, and limitations of abduction as a logical response to Hume’s critique of induction. The end occurs within the context of coming to understand contemporary science and scientific logic and applied abduction. Below is an introductory discussion forum post that goes with the other instructional materials, and might be of interest….

The first unit of the course is on justice, especially political justice. However, both the book and even my podcast give only the barest definition. Here, I want to discuss what it is in more detail. We are not looking for a dictionary definition, which is both uninformative and misleading. Per uninformative, here are the first two denations in a dictionary that I grabbed, “just behavior or treatment” and “the quality of being fair and reasonable.” Uh, Mr. Dictionary Dude, what does that mean?

The mistake there is that you should never define a word using its own terms, e.g., “I define justice as justice!” Likewise, don’t use synonymous: “Justice is rightness!” or “Justice is fairness!”  Riiiiight. Real helpful, buddy … I paid what for this dictionary? If you want a good definition, especially for terms in this course, you need a philosophical dictionary, which is like a cross between a dictionary and an encyclopedia. You see, dictionaries only tell you how people use the term, but not why that is a good use of the term, where it comes from, the proper conditions under which to use it, etc.

In philosophy in general, and in this course, we establish the primary definitions of terms before we do anything else. And that is precisely what we’re doing in the first reading. However, we’re going to keep developing the definition of “justice” and later “political justice” into full theories of justice in response to various problems with any one definition. In the process, we learn a lot about justice and get a better and better definition, where “better” means “able to solve more problems and better respond to more objections.” For instance, liberal democracy and its variant of justice is a response to a specific set of problems that we will discuss, culminating in the end of the unit of justice. Where we end, many “U.S. Government” courses in Texas begin, unless you had a really awesome and ambitious professor.

Let us start the course with a working definition. “Justice” in general means the “minimum and universal obligations we have to people in the community, including ourselves and others.” By “minimum,” I mean that we must do the stated obligations, or we have merited and should expect some form of enforcement or punishment. By “universal,” I mean that everyone must do these. These obligations come from and are to other “people,” and not rocks, for instance. Finally, there’s a limit to the number and scope of people to whom we owe obligations that is spelled out in whatever “community” we’re talking about.

For instance, if we’re talking about “moral justice,” the “community” usually means all “persons,” which most commonly includes other humans. If you’re from an Abrahamic faith (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam), “persons” may include angels and God/Jaweh/Allah. If you’re an animal rights activist, it might include “all sentient animals” or “all animals.” In this class, however, we’re focused on humans and secular concerns though I will make reference to Christian religion since it is so formative for justice in western civilization, which is our focus. We will talk about moral justice in the beginning of the course, but our main focus is political justice.

Political justice restricts the “community” to the polis/body politic/state/nation/etc. Political justice is concerned with obligations that we owe each other in virtue of being members of a political body of some sort, and not because we are moral persons. Hence, there is a strict difference between the idea of “universal moral rights” (which we would owe all persons no matter what) and “civil rights” that we would owe only to members of our civil community; e.g., in the U.S. that would be state’s rights or federal rights. Moral and political justice frequently overlap, but it is possible for them to conflict, especially if one accepts political realism that we will address when we start Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Much of the first part of the course will focus on how to define and defend a theory of justice. Although, Plato will presume that moral and political justice are identical, which is anti-thetical to most western notions. The reason for this is due to the pre-eminence of Christianity in the west, since early Christianity that became the Catholic Church embraced the separation of religion and politicals (in principle but not always in fact, and I am omitting Eastern Orthodox, the Gnostic and Coptic traditions, etc.). In contrast, which has become a heated issue recently, Islam was founded on the notion of the identity of moral and political justice, which is anethema to most westerners given their Christian heritage regardless of whether that individual is Christian or not. It’s in the cultural water, and we’ve been drinking it for so many centuries that we long ago forgot the legacy of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

This should be a good start for us…

A New Home and New Faculty Position

Apologies for the lack of posts lately–and I always planned to slow down the hectic pace–as I recently moved. I am taking a position as philosophy faculty member at Des Moines Area Community College and leaving Lone Star College, and thus the pace has slowed. It’ll slow again, as my fellow professors well know, when the summer is over, although our co-authors should have recovered from completing their doctoral examinations by then … <nudge>.

Neoliberalism and Production

Adam Kotsko at An und fur sich writes on the problems of neoliberalism.


Neoliberalism always presupposes production. It is not interested in how it happens or how to cultivate it — indeed, its typical strategies evince an assumption that it exists more or less automatically and the goal of the market is to find and reward it. Take teaching reform. Clearly, the thinking there is that the ability to teach is a more or less inborn trait. Reform does not concern itself primarily with teacher training, and it undermines traditional ways in which teachers have governed and assessed themselves. Instead, it takes an output (test scores), assumes that it’s generated by an input (teaching ability), and then sets up a market-like mechanism to make sure that the “good teachers” rise to the top regardless of how they came by that ability. ……

Who Will Be Our First Fake Latina President?

Gene Demby at Code Switch muses upon the ultimate summer film question … what feel-good illusion of race and gender parity will Hollywood give us next in a summer blockbuster?

On a more serious note, I’ve decided that District 9 is now my gold-standard of recent cultural criticism through film. I’ve been blathering on Facebook about the poisonous insidiousness of Suckerpunch and Spring Breakers and wondering just how bad Django and The Lone Ranger do the same. Look! We’re culturally-conscious, PC-lovin peeps who want to blow stuff up, make you think, and give you a warm and fuzzy. It’s like eating too much cotton candy and calling  it brussel sprouts. I suppose somebody is going to make films with cheap moral thrills….