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Friday, April 5, 2013

Ontology and the Philosophical Project

Descartes and Heidegger duel

Alice C. Linsley

From the time of René Descartes, ontology and speculation about the purpose of Philosophy became intertwined. The Cartesian mind-body problem pushed philosophers to reflect not only on the nature of being and existence, but also on the nature of philosophy itself. Philosophers became conscious of themselves and their work. Philosophy became a self-conscious project with a great proliferation of ideas and innovative thought. Unfortunately, while the questions being considered matter on the level of daily life, the discussion moved beyond the intellectual reach of the average person. Today only those with a background in Philosophy have some understanding of the work of Leibnitz, Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida and Wittgenstein.

René Descartes (1596-1650) is often considered the founder of modern Philosophy. He conceived of all the branches of science as a whole and sought a methodology that worked toward a unified science. He wrote that “philosophy is like a tree: the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches that issue from the trunk are all the other sciences . . ."

His metaphor betrays his mission. Descartes attempts to show that what is not mental or mind-like is extension, that is, it takes up space. However it is not possible to speak of Philosophy as taking up space. As we will see, others philosophers have recognized this inconsistency in Descartes’ thought.

Descartes regarded the individual mind as the ground of being. His awareness of his own self constituted the point of certainty from which he could proceed to consider and verify knowledge. This is the basis for his theory of knowledge (epistemology).

Descartes viewed mind and body as distinct entities or substances. He concluded that the basic features of material objects are geometrical. They have size, shape, volume, etc. The mind is not measureable in the same way. The mind is characterized by thinking, reasoning and imagination. For Descartes the essential property of the mind is that it thinks and the essential property of the body is that it is “extended.” Extension is the property of taking up space. In this view of the material world, action or movement is explained by the impact of one extended object upon another. The question arises how mental events can impact objects if they are not extended?

Descartes’ view of God must also be questioned. If God is mind-like how can He be the Primer Mover? How can God bring about action or movement? How can God create material things? Descartes does not answer this. His ontological argument for God’s existence is based on his assumption that God is self-evident as are axioms of geometry. God's existence is as obvious and self-evident as the most basic mathematical truth. Descartes is taking a common sense approach. His ontological argument is not a formal proof, but a self-evident axiom grasped by intuitive reasoning. He appears to be more interested in affirming his conception of reality than in affirming God’s existence. God is used by Descartes to certify his epistemological or cognitive confidence in a mathematical science of nature.

Descartes has been criticized for separating mind and matter into two distinct substances and failing to explain how they may be said to be related and/or interactive. This Cartesian dualism gave rise to the concept of other minds and in particular the Mind of God, which Descartes believed to be the Principle which unites the realms of Mind and Matter. Later George Berkeley would take this to a logical extreme with his panentheism.

Ontological Arguments for God

Descartes was not the first philosopher to formulate an ontological argument for the existence of God. St. Anselm in the eleventh century postulated that God necessarily exists because it is possible to conceive of a being a greater than which cannot be conceived. God by definition is that being above which there can be no greater power and no greater majesty. Anselm was approaching the subject from the assumption that faith is necessary for understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).

Descartes' approach is more intuitive and rationalist. He reasons that an entity with essence must necessarily exist. On the other hand, to determine the essence of something allows one to avoid the harder explanation of how the Mind-like Supreme Being is related to the material world. Descartes speaks of God's essence without having to prove his existence. This distinction allows him to avoid the numinous.

Leibnitz’s Critique of Descartes

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716) observed that if life is a dream (as Nietzsche asserted), it must still have structure. He applied this idea to the relationship of objects. According to Leibnitz, every entity whether mental or physical is independent and constitutes a “monad.” Each monad is fixed or determined in its properties according to its essence or nature. Whatever form an entity takes or whatever happens to an entity is entirely determined by its essential characteristics and not from the influence of any other entity (a version of essentialism).

Leibnitz overcame Descartes’ dualism by claiming that there is no connection between mind and body, but a harmonization of all (Monism) on the level of kinetic energy. Leibnitz believed that the world is not as Descartes claims. It has structure, but what we see is merely the visible outcome of infinitely numerous spiritual things that are not complex and therefore not divisible. Today we might speak of “monads” as the most fundamental units of energy.

Leibnitz disagreed with Descartes that God is the mechanism that makes connection of mind-body possible. That would be to cast God as an extension of the mind and would suggest that God can be reduced to constituent parts or analyzed into simpler elements. For Leibnitz, the ultimate constituents of the world must be non-material and therefore not divisible. These cannot occupy space and cannot be said to be extensions. In this view, God is not a mechanism that connects things, but instead the mind that harmonizes all things. Here Leibnitz approaches Baruch Spinoza’s thought. In fact, the two rationalists had spoken face to face. Spinoza conceived of God as “a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” Leibnitz would have agreed with Spinoza’s statement that “In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.”

Leibnitz believed that material and non-material entities do not influence one another, but there is a pre-established harmony between all entities. Consider the example of two clocks that keep perfect time and are exactly synchronized. One has a bell that rings when the hour is struck. The other has no bell; when the one clock points to the hour, the other clock rings precisely at the moment. Descartes would argue that the clocks have some connection and the mechanism that connects is God. Leibnitz would argue that although the clocks have no relation to each other, they keep perfect time because from the outset they were synchronized by God.

Husserl’s Critique of Descartes

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was a German philosopher and mathematician who believed that for each person one thing is certain: our own conscious awareness. We must begin here if we seek to build knowledge of reality on a philosophically solid foundation. Husserl agreed with Descartes that our own conscious awareness is the one certainty. However, he criticized Descartes’ disembodied ego as the starting point. He argued that when we analyze our awareness we recognize something other than self and although we may mentally distinguish between mind and body, in actual experience we are never able to distinguish between states of consciousness and objects of consciousness.

Husserl stressed the need to consider ordinary phenomena of daily life and to describe them without relying on scientific assumptions. A central feature of Husserl’s thought is “intentionality” or directedness. Husserl called intentionality “the fundamental property of consciousness.”

Husserl is considered the founder of phenomenology, the science of Consciousness. He attempted to develop the phenomenological method as its own distinctive and rigorous science. He insisted that the study of consciousness must differ from the study of nature because it cannot be studied the way we study objects in nature. Husserl argued that information and insight do not come from large amounts of data, but emerge from an intense study of experiences, performed through the phenomenological method. He called intentionality “the principle theme of phenomenology” and set about to demonstrate that direct experience of phenomena moves beyond reasoning to include pains, moods, memories, and any other experience or content of conscious awareness.

Skeptics argue that we can never be certain that objects of our consciousness have separate existence independent of our awareness of them. Against the skeptics, Husserl argued that phenomena of which we are conscious are founded in sensory data and therefore cannot be said to lack objectivity.

Husserl’s work is ontological because it seeks to investigate the parts that make up the whole of conscious experience. He attempted to think about consciousness in terms of parts and wholes. Husserl's Logical Investigations set forth the foundation of the formal theory of wholes and their parts known as “mereology.” However, the term mereology does not appear in Husserl’s book. Mereological thinking involves exploration of sets and their relationship. For example, when we speak of a couple, we are speaking of two people and their relationship. In the case of the sacrament of marriage we are speaking of at least 6 aspects: the man and the woman; their relationship, the relationship of each individual to their Maker, and the covenant relation made before God and witnesses.

When we speak of night and day, we are speaking of two experiences with a range of in-between experiences that we call “dawn” and “dust”. Often the sets are used to express the whole range of experience. For example, the expression “night and day” represents a 24-hour cycle.

A merism is a figure of speech which references an experience using a phrase that enumerates several of its parts. To say that “they searched high and low” is to mean that they searched everywhere. Merisms are common in Biblical poetry. In Genesis 1:1 we read that God created "the heavens and the earth." The merism means that God created the whole universe. In Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows "my sitting down and my rising up”, which is simply to say that God knows all the psalmist's actions. The phrase “good and evil” – as in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - is merism whereby a pair of opposites refer to something greater than the constituents. The tree symbolizes all that can be known. Adam and Eve were barred from eating of this fruit because such a property rightly pertains to God alone.

Jacques Derrida explored merisms, binary oppositions, and reversals in his approach to meaning called “deconstructionism.” Derrida was influenced by Husserl and by one of Husserl’s students, Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger’s Critique of Descartes

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher known for his existential and phenomenological explorations of the "question of Being." Heidegger maintained that philosophy, in the process of philosophizing, had lost sight of the Being it sought. He rejected Descartes’ image of philosophy as a tree, insisting that the roots of the tree must be cut. To grasp Being metaphysics must be overthrown. He maintained that Descartes’ cogito ergo sum does not constitute an unshakable foundation and can never lead to absolute science.

We must conclude that Heidegger is correct. Descartes attempted this starting position as an act of scrubbing his mind of what he has been taught by the Jesuits and what he had experienced. This is hardly possible. Each of us is formed by what we have learned and by what we have experienced. It is not possible to scrub the mind clean and start from scratch, as Descartes attempted to do. After all is said and done, the human consciousness is far more complex than is granted by Descartes. Being is the ground of our experience and though we are able to think about what we experience, thinking is not synonymous with being.

“Being There” as the Necessary Point of Reference

For Heidegger, Being there (Dasein) is meaningless apart from the human. Man alone has being. Rocks and trees exist, but they do not have Being. God and angels may be real, but they have no Being. They are not natural to the world of human experience. The proposition "man alone has Being" does not mean that these other entities are unreal or figments of human imagination. When we say that human Being is, we are asserting something about what can be known by human beings since we are able to distinguish our Being from beings. Man alone can perceive and experience the existential nature of humanness and is conscious of other beings.

Heidegger wrote that “Dasein is its world existingly.” He regarded “Being there” as the concealed and elusive ground of all that we might think, experience or discuss. He was attempting to uncover what he perceived to be an overlooked presupposition of philosophy. Being there, humans are not spectators of a world of objects. Being is vital, not mental. Being stirs Being. It rouses Being to respond to Being. Being makes us yearn for being or causes us to become attached to Being on a visceral level. It is the function of the being being with know-how.

Heidegger wrote, "One of the basic errors of our times is to believe a 'deep' understanding of the human being is to be obtained by groping around in trivial shallows. Human Dasein gains depth only if it succeeds for itself, in its own experience, in first throwing itself beyond itself - to its limits. Only from the height of this high projection does it glimpse its true depths." (The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, p.17)

Heidegger wrote that “Dasein always exists as itself, and being-a-self is in every case only in its process or realization, as is also existence. For this reason, projection of the basic ontological constitution of Dasein must arise by constructing one of the most extreme possibilities of Dasein’s authentic and total capability of being. The projection is directed towards Dasein, as a whole, and towards the basic determinations of its wholeness, even though Dasein in each case is only as existent. To put it another way, attaining the metaphysical neutrality and isolation of Dasein as such is only possible on the basis of the extreme existential involvement [Einsatz] of the one who himself projects.” (The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, Indiana University Press, p 139-140)

For Heidegger, Being has remained concealed throughout the history of metaphysics. The fate of metaphysics, in his view, is that it can never uncover its own ground of Being. Ontological concealedness is the very nature of metaphysics, and this is why Descartes’ metaphor of philosophy as a tree misleads us. Dasein is not existence of subject-object consciousness. It is the existence of being qua being.

Related reading: The Story of OntologyA Closer Look at Martin Heidegger; Introduction to Ontology; What Constitutes Being?; Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; Something Older; Crash Course on Phenomenology

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