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.

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