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Response by Jamie Mellway

Response by Jamie Mellway

2 Mins
February 27, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

"It’s a show about nothing.” -Seinfeld

Note on references: I am quoting from two books on Heidegger:

Murray, Michael, editor. 1978. Heidegger and Modern Philosophy: Critical Essays. New Haven: Yale University Press. (referred to as Murray)

Heidegger, Martin. 1993. Basic Writings. David Krell, editor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. (referred to as Krell)

I do not have a copy of Being and Time (BT), so any BT quote either is from “Being and Time: Introduction” in Krell, or was quoted in Murray. (WM) refers to “What Is Metaphysics?”


I am having a harder time giving a charitable reading of WM than others have. Perhaps that is because I have not had much exposure to existentialism and continental philosophy.


Roger Donway says he believes that WM “must be read as a polemical lecture trying to rebut the logical positivists of his day, who said that man’s only true knowledge of the world is given by the positive sciences and these sciences tell us only what sorts of things exist.” While I agree that Heidegger is trying to rebut the positivists, I do not think he believes that the positive sciences *can* tell us what sort of things exist. That sort of talk still sounds a bit too “metaphysical” for the Positivists.

Heidegger denies that the symbolic logic of the Positivists has any philosophic authority as “its formal nature prevents it from gaining access to the living problems of the meaning of proposition, of its structure and cognitive significance” (from his dissertation, quoted from Murray 6) and that “propositions are dissolved into a system of ‘mapping and interconnecting’; that become the object of a ‘calculus,’ but not of an ontological interpretation” (BT 202 from Murray 7).

What is the semantic status of ‘Being’? Aristotle tells us that Being is not a genus (998b22); Kant tells us that “Being is obviously not a real predicate” (A5098=B626); and Pascal points out that Being can not even be defined (see BT, Krell 43). The Positivists do not even have the tools to talk “meaningfully” about Being(!)--let alone “the nothing.”

While Heidegger is trying to rebut the positivist project, he also needs to be seen as to be implicitly rebutting three “prejudges” (Heidegger’s term) on the question of the meaning of Being. These are:

1. “Being” is the most “universal” concept.

2. The concept of “Being” is undefinable.

3. “Being” is the self-evident concept. (BT in Krell 42-4)

While we can be sympathetic to Heidegger as he rejects that notion that we should upgrade symbolic logic to the rank of true logic, we must grasp in horror that he is also rebutting our “prejudges”!


Since we are discussing the Positivist/early-analytical school, it might be of interest to note two things:

First, Heidegger showed an acquaintance with the works of Frege and Russell/Whitehead and even said, “it seems to me that the real significance of G. Frege’s logico-mathematical investigation has not yet been appreciated; much less have his writings been exhaustively dealt with” (“Recent Research in Logic,” quoted from Murray 5).

Second, it should be noted that the logical positivist Rudolf Carnap did comment on WM. His comments can be found in Logical Positivism and this selection can be found as “The Overcoming of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language” in Murray (23-34, esp. 23-6).

In this essay, Carnap claims that “the possibility of forming (the) pseudostatements (of Heidegger) is based on a logical defect language” and gives a chart to illustrate the Heidegger quotes “cannot even be constructed in (logically) correct language.” Unfortunately, Carnap gives a rather uncharitable interpretation of the essay and even claims that Heidegger introduces “‘nothing’ as a name or description of an entity.”


Roger Donway says that Heidegger’s idea seems to be “Metaphysics inquires into the nature of beings just in so far as they are beings.” I don’t think he is doing that; unfortunately, I am not very clear what he is doing. But he seems to be saying that “metaphysics is inquiry beyond or over being” (WM, Krell 106), “that metaphysics belongs to the ‘nature of man’” (109), that metaphysics “is Dasein itself” (109), and that metaphysics is definitely not the study of being qua being.


Anyway, I have not made any comments on the sections on dread because, frankly, this is not important to our “answer” to Heidegger. (By the way, my own escape from dread is that I “dread” the thought of becoming an existentialist more that I dread death.) We become too charitable if we discuss which emotions do or do not reveal what ontological what-is and so on.

Instead, what we need to do is:

1) reclaim and elaborate our Aristotelian “prejudices” (including reuniting existence and identity!)

2) make sure that our semantics are such that: a) we can formulate the question of the meaning of Being (which Heidegger denies that us Aristotelians can do) and answer it b) if we can formulate the question of the meaning of “the nothing,” then it only refers to a negation

3) deny Heidegger’s move to place metaphysics into the “nature of man.”

Jamie Mellway
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Jamie Mellway
History of Philosophy
Ideas and Ideologies