This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."
Bryan suggested that we might find his reading of “What Is Metaphysics?” too Sartrean; I confess I did find it so. I was particularly distressed to read that according to Heidegger “one [i.e., the human subject] is nothing. The terms ‘the nothing’ and ‘the subject’ are co-referential.” But Heidegger does not talk about “the subject.” That would smack of Cartesian subject-object ontology, which is accepted by all modern philosophy and which Heidegger is keen to "de-struct" (“Introduction” to Being and Time, in Basic Writings, 69-70; NB: my edition of Basic Writings evidently is different from Bryan’s; my page numbers are normally two greater than his for the same material). And in fact Heidegger relentlessly avoids any sort of mentalistic language, anything that would imply that he accepts the mind or the knowing subject as valid ontological categories. If Heidegger ever refers to Dasein as “the subject” I would be curious to know where.
Heidegger’s project is one more tortuous attempt to escape the apparently intractable difficulties of modern philosophy by “thinking outside the box.”
The point matters because, as I read Heidegger, it is essential to his project to escape the difficulties Descartes opened up for modern philosophy by questioning the subject-object ontology that Heidegger believes to be the root cause of said difficulties. These are the same difficulties, about causation, space, time, freedom, etc., that Kant wrestled with and tried but failed to resolve with his transcendental method. Kant failed because he accepted Descartes’ categories rather than ask “the question of Being” (“Introduction” to Being and Time, 68-69), which is the question what is the meaning of being in general. That is, prior to deciding upon any set of ontological categories, we ought to ask the more fundamental question what it means to be per se. Thus Heidegger proposes a sort of meta-ontology prior to ontology itself, which in turn is prior to science (“Introduction” to Being and Time, 53). He hopes thereby to succeed in establishing the foundation of science where Kant and Hegel and Husserl and all the rest failed. This being so, he is certainly not going to begin by presupposing subject-object dualism.
Again, consider the following from the “Letter on Humanism”: “Nihilation unfolds essentially in Being itself, and not at all in the existence of man--so far as this is thought as the subjectivity of the ego cogito" (Basic Writings 238). So long as one thinks of Dasein as subjectivity, one can understand nihilation only as denial. But nihilation is something more: our “standing out” (ek-sisting) into the nothing. We are “held out into the nothing” and thereby encounter entities in their “original openness” (“What Is Metaphysics?” 105), i.e., without embeddedness in the wider context of other entities. This concurs with what Bryan says about the nothing earlier in his piece: the nothing is total dis-integration [not annihilation] when all context has been rendered useless. It is beyond intellect and reason as normally understood.
In short, Heidegger’s project is one more tortuous, Teutonic attempt to escape the apparently intractable difficulties of modern philosophy by “thinking outside the box.” It would appear in fact to be the last such attempt. It is generally thought to have unraveled in midstream, and Heidegger never completed it. After Heidegger, philosophers influenced by the tradition of which he is a part gave up on the modernist project of establishing an objective basis for science.
Bryan Register wrote:
There are a number of criticisms of my introductory comments which I’d like to discuss over the next few days, but first I’d like to accept one of them. David L. Potts is right to call to our attention Heidegger’s anti-mentalism:
“I was particularly distressed to read that according to Heidegger ‘one [i.e., the human subject] is nothing. The terms “the nothing” and “the subject” are co-referential.’ But Heidegger does not talk about ‘the subject.’ That would smack of Cartesian subject-object ontology, which is accepted by all modern philosophy and which Heidegger is keen to ‘de-struct.’”
It’s true and I owe you an explanation.
Heidegger does want to deny the subject-object distinction, and many take this to mean that he wants to deny the subject. In some way, he does. But the way is important. Many modern materialists, who seem to assume that ‘the mind,’ if it existed, would *have* to be a Cartesian subject, will want to move from Heidegger’s denial of the subject to his denial of the mind or the mental as such. However, Heidegger alludes to mental or subjective phenomena all the time. Moods, thoughts, logic, and so forth form a constant part of his vocabulary. In virtue of this, it seems to me that those modern materialists are taking their own impoverished view of what a mind might be and imposing it on Heidegger. I continually find that Heidegger makes most sense as a kind of mental externalist; so, I take it that, for Heidegger, the mind is ‘located’ out among its objects. For instance, someone’s experiencing something as ready-to-hand (a needful tool in its appropriate context) happens in the hand, in the tool, in the workshop, in the thing to be tooled. (Much like the perceptual form of a perceived object is experienced as a feature of the object, not of our experience of the object; so the form which is there only in virtue of the workings of the mind is experienced as out in the world.) It’s not that there’s no mind, it’s just that it’s not a unitary Cartesian mental point. Heidegger, too, may have viewed this as such a radical break with the tradition that he had denied the mind, but, as he hadn’t, I can’t think of any reason to follow his usage in detail.
Thus, I played fast-and-loose with the language in the way David Potts is taking me to task for. Essentially, I, for clarity’s sake, translated Heideggerian into Objectivese or at least into normal English whenever possible. I don’t think that I introduced any distortion into the presentation in that way, but if someone thinks otherwise, that’s possible and important and I’d like to hear how and why.
David L. Potts wrote:
Bryan writes, in defense of his claim that the nothing is “co-referential” with “the subject”:
“Many modern materialists, who seem to assume that ‘the mind,’ if it existed, would *have* to be a Cartesian subject, will want to move from Heidegger’s denial of the subject to his denial of the mind or the mental as such.”
Who do you have in mind?
Anyway, it makes no difference. Whether we speak of “the subject,” “the mind,” “the self,” or any such category, my point was that none of these is what Heidegger means by “the nothing.” Heidegger himself speaks not of “the subject” but of “Dasein” (i.e., man). But man isn’t the nothing either. We are held out into the nothing. When we confront the nothing we can approach and penetrate beings (Basic Writings 105).
In his review essay , Bryan says that the identity of the subject and the nothing explains why Heidegger says, “Without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom.” Concerning selfhood, Bryan explains:
“There’s no selfhood without something that isn’t the self, so to have a self we have to realize what the self is not. That’s everything (all objects which can be given to one); the self is nothing.”
But just because everything other than the self must be “not the self” doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the self to be. That is simply a non sequitur. A simpler interpretation is provided by Heidegger himself in the sentence immediately preceding the one Bryan is trying to explain (105-106): if Dasein were not “holding itself out into the nothing, then it could never be related to beings nor even to itself.” I believe the reason for the latter clause is that, as Heidegger says repeatedly, man himself is a being. “No selfhood” then means that man, if he were never held out into the nothing, would never encounter himself (or anything else).
Concerning freedom: “were the subject something, then it would be governed by causal laws and would thus not be free.”
Heidegger does not, so far as I know, think that man is free in the sense of being able radically to choose identity for himself. Rather, we find ourselves “thrown” into a world of determinate and limited possibilities from which to choose. This is our “facticity.” We must “project” ourselves and our goals on the world to build a coherent life. Such projection confers meaning (intelligibility) on the entities that comprise facticity, it is true, but that does not mean that facticity is infinitely malleable or that it does not constrain our possibilities. Man should be pictured not as a being confronted with freedom to “pick any properties you like” (as Bryan says) but as a culturally rooted, historical being whose choice consists in what sense to make of the traditions one inherits.
Much more to the point, the analysis that shows what freedom man has to choose is a “fundamental ontology, from which alone all other ontologies can originate” (“Introduction” to Being and Time (in Basic Writings), 56), as I discussed in my previous post. That is, Heidegger is proposing to do a “phenomenology” of man (as Dasein) prior to any ontological categories, including causation. It therefore misses the point to try to understand human freedom in relation to causation, as an “exception” or otherwise, since human freedom must be understood from a vantage point prior to any such categories.