Friday, August 26, 2011

Early Reactions to BEING & TIME - Guest Post

"In computer science, an ontology is a data model that represents a domain and is used to reason about the objects in that domain and the relations between them." - Univ. of Georgia Complex Carbohydrate Research Center

This guest post comes to us courtesy of Oroboros (follow on Twitter @ Thanatologist). If you have reactions to, thoughts on, memories of, or grievances with BEING & TIME you'd like to post here, let me know @ tolstoysbeard @

No self respecting student of Continental philosophy can speak with any credibility unless they've studied the juggernaut of the 20th century Being & Time! We may embark on a journey & not return quite the same, if at all.

I've already read bits as a lowly undergrad. And those bits proved that I was more than just wet behind the ears. This time... I've taken an alias to cover my true origins as a Nietzschean ironist. So I'll enter the world of Being & Time unnoticed in this alter ego.

I shall no longer be known as the Nietzschean Awet but as Dasein Awet. I'll leave behind Nietzsche in appearance but I shall hold on to the light of Götzendämmerung when the labyrinth gets too twisted.

Either I'll end up just another notch on the bedpost of Being & Time or I'll conquer the juggernaut of philosophy. Either my Nietzsche will persist through the suffocating labyrinth that is Being & Time or Dasein will overcome Götzendämmerung.

Warning. Heidegger is difficult.

The problem with reading difficult thinkers like Heidegger is that even if you agree a lot you probably don't understand. What sounds good isn't always good and if you don't grasp the ideas properly, there's no way to assess their validity. Your entire brainpower is spent on trying to understand what he says & you have nothing left over for assessment. Worse yet, you may also be reading too much into Heidegger. Even if you assume he makes sense and you do not understand, you try to find ways to explain his ideas, you end up inserting ideas that aren't there.

However, Heidegger is difficult for justified reasons. He attempted to avoid traditional philosophical terms due to the specious ontology built into them over the centuries, and worse yet, ordinary language has been inevitably misleading & contributed to and reciprocally corrupted by traditional philosophy.

On one hand, since Heidegger formulates philosophy in unfamiliar terms, he is not spelling out any dependence on the philosophical tradition and that leaves us without any guidance to its true meaning. Hence, my familarity with traditional philosophy and the novice's lack of familarity are both barriers to true understanding.

Moreover the novice is more a sympathetic reader because the book is about something of interest to everyone: death, conscience, guilt, and authentic existence. The novice reader won't be as objectionable to the book as the professional thinker because he isn't as prejudiced by the tradition. Yet a thorough understanding of the tradition preceding Heidegger is necessary to understand him.

Introduction: preliminary remarks
According to Heidegger, the meaning of Being has been neglected in philosophy. After proving that looking for its meaning does not include circular reasoning, he shows us that it must have a different kind of meaning than other concepts. That meaning cannot be a theoretical one, because that would always require premises, and that mean reducing Being to something other that is, but there is no way that these other beings could exhaust the meaning of the Being they themselves take part in.

Why should we bother about the question of Being?

Go back to Aristotle & Plato. Their philosophies have been trivialized, vulgarized regarding Being in 3 ways:

Being is the most universal concept. Philosophers assume that since it's universal, so general, it needs no definition. However this by no means Being is also the clearest concept. As the most universal, it's also the most obscure concept of all.

Being is indefinable. No higher concept can define Being. Neither can a lower concept represent Being. Therefore, Being, not something like "a" being, remains a problem.

Being is the most self-evident concept. We implicitly understand Being, in predicates & relations to beings, but not explicitly. The very object of analysis IS the self-evident. Thus, Being isn't explicitly self-evident, an "a priori enigma," and remains a problem.

Bottom line: Not only is there no answer to the question of being, even the question itself is obscure.

The meaning of Being is in the way it manifests itself; therefore, the method of phenomenology is used to unhide it. Moreover, the being that is able to ask questions, Dasein (there-being), is privileged in this book. Because only Dasein can question its own being & thus understand it, the study must be based on analyzing how Dasein purports to understand itself.

When a circle is not a circle

The gist of the claim:

There's no circular reasoning in asking the meaning of Being because meaning is NOT derived from premises through logic, which is a necessary condition for something to even be a possible species of circular reasoning. But the question purports to show the foundation or unhide it. Important: for Heidegger, truth is unhiddeness. The meaning of Being cannot be deduced. Only shown.

There's your Wittgenstein gloss. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein said the form of the picture can only be shown, not pictured. Language is the picture of reality, and the form of the picture is something that accompanies all pictures, but that itself cannot be pictured -- only shown. Basically, logic cannot be explained or proven, but it just simply is and shows itself only through usage. Moreover, Heidegger says Being only shows its truth.

All ontology is circular. Heidegger's approach has to be non-deductive because there's NO prior validation of the inferential rules for producing conclusions - other than assuming the conclusions to be true or some true & others inferred from them.

Reading Heidegger has led me to the speculation that his use of the word Being has a lot in common with Oroboros. The Oroboros is not just a serpent or a circle but a symbol of a meaning that turns back on itself.

Its entire essence is an endless circle where you can travel forever. The truth of Being cannot be seen within the circle because you will only see an endless repetition of questions that turn back on themselves in a never-ending cycle. The truth of Being or the essence of it is understood as the circle itself.

knee deep into ontological shit
I feel there's plenty to mine from the first part of the introduction.

Where Heidegger says that Dasein has a number of positions - the special position is ontic, in which existence determines this being in its being. another is ontological: Dasein is itself ontological, based on its existence. The third special position of Dasein is the ontic-ontological condition of all ontology.

Dasein is ontologically primary being that precedes all Being that is the object of inquiry (or questioning).

Yeah, so?

This piece is actually quite thought provoking. That is, if you can handle the number of beings and ontologies and onticalities and existences...

The ontic considers the things that are, so Dasein's ontic position has to do with where things are & in this that which makes it special is its existence. In other words, its ability to reflect upon its own possibilities and come up with a purpose for itself. That makes it quite different from things like the wood fence outside my window.

The ontological level is about the structure of being, and Dasein in this regards is different, since like I said, its being is itself ontological, since its mode of being is to question its own being. Dasein is obsessed with its own being, and ultimately differs in its structure of being precisely in which its structure includes its way of reflecting upon this very structure.

Basically it seems that we have a self-consciousness that reflects upon itself, and more importantly that it is a necessary condition for us: we are self-conscious & reflect upon ourselves and can do nothing else.

Not only is Dasein trying to understand itself, it also tries to understand that which is not Dasein (nature or objective world). Since ontology is the reflection upon the structure of being & Dasein isn't just the only one doing that, its the only being that can do that. Dasein's determining attribute is the ability to ask questions. Thus the necessary condition of all ontology in general is Dasein - the only being that can have an ontology, the inquiry to the structure of being.

In a nutshell: only self-conscious beings are able to ask & only asking beings are able to even try to understand being, no matter if those other kinds of things are themselves part of being.

Nothingness remains a plank in my eye

After consulting Dreyfus' excellent Being-In-The-World (I've stayed away from it in this reading group just to keep my impressions authentic), I've come to the conclusion that I've been reading Heidegger with Sartrean goggles and I have yet to wean myself off them when it comes to phenomenology. First love dies hard. :p

Dreyfus insists that Dasein isn't a conscious subject for the term "Dasein" means everyday human existence, and Heidegger uses it to refer to human being. That doesn't necessarily mean Dasein is only a self-conscious subject. Early interpreters have fallen in the same rut as Sartre, likely because they approached Heidegger through Sartre, and ended up reading Heidegger as an existential phenomenologist.

However, I do not have the benefit of reading ahead, where Heidegger says "...if we posit an 'I' or subject as that which is primarily given, we shall completely miss the phenomenal content of Dasein" (p. 72) and neither do I remember much from the class I took on Heidegger in several years back.

Thus Dasein is understood to be more basic than mental states & intentionality. Some interpreters go the other way and claim Dasein is the masses. But Heidegger uses the term to signify an individual throughout the book, particularly in Division II, so the golden means between a self-conscious individual and the masses is human being, for it can refer to both all people & a person, without being either one exclusively.

Then again, Dasein, essentially self-interpreting, has no nature. And at the same time Dasein understands itself as having a specific essential nature, and bases its action in this understanding of a "human nature" and is comfortable in being a member of a country or an ethnic group.

Dasein... really?

Regarding Dasein, Heidegger avoids from making dogmatic statement what constitutes the meaning of Dasein, because the existential analysis must begin with account of Dasein in its everydayness. I.e. The most uncritical mode of daily life that where even the most profound live.

Talking about the everyday self allows experience to speak for itself. This avoids limiting Dasein to a criteria that reduces analysis to an aspect of Dasein's being. The entire point is to study what it means to be.

The fact of everydayness is a vague awareness. Awareness of being is not some mysterious mystical knowledge or insight. But everyday perspective must be transcended to a perspective of ontological insight, after entire range of everyday perspective is examined thoroughly.

In all the ways in which a person can be said to be, the understanding of such ways is limited by finitude. Non-temporal truths of logic and faith are temporal since they're understood by a person determined by temporal dimensions. To grasp what it means to be in time is to grasp what it means for Dasein to be at all

Heidegger claims the temporality of Dasein has been long ignored since questions are always temporal and partially determined by the context of the culture they emerge from. It seems reasonable because the questions we are likely to bring up in our culture are based on culture itself. We ask questions about the environment when the relationship between the environment and our culture become a problem.

The question about Being has to be temporal as well, and Heidegger says this has been forgotten. The tradition has hidden its foundations too well from itself. This is where Heidegger unleashes his most creative idea: the entire history of Western philosophy has been a progressive cumulation of forgetting, and we must return to the very core to reinterpret the thinkers of antiquity.

They were the original context in which the question of Being emerged first, and that context has been buried by the tradition that dropped the problem and ran away with the answers.

Here, Heidegger brings up the idea of "Destruction" in which tradition has to be shattered into pieces in order to reveal what was buried within. Then we shall navigate back through 2300 years of philosophy to its core to rehabilitate the meaning of Being.


It's important to note that Heidegger chose the Latinate Destruktion instead of the German word for destruction (Zerstorung). Destruktion should be understood as de-struere, 'de-construct' or 'ab-bauen' rather than devastation. That which covers up the sense of being or structures that pile on top of each other, making the sense unrecognizable is deconstructed.

Thus, destruction doesn't mean Heidegger is about to destroy or overthrow the entire history of philosophy. However, one must do violence to the history of thought. Destruction is hermeneutic violence, for it resists the traditional understanding and goes against it. Take your own approach and problem and under the guiding rules of this problem prod the thinker with your questions and reinterpret what they actually said and test the spirit or power of their thought. Heidegger engages the past thinkers in a dialogue about his topic, the meaning of being.

Due to the impediment of the traditional meaning of Being the past thinkers ended up speaking of existents instead. Despite their failure, given that they're the greatest thinkers they did implicitly say much to add to the meaning of being.

Heidegger has a strategy when confronting the past thinkers:
I. First, point out the major error they made in failing to recognize difference between Sein and Seienden (things that exist).
II. Then show how much what they said is relevant to the question of being.

Heidegger breaks the ice to loosen the tradition that froze around the ideas of the past thinkers. Traditions i.e. the work of lesser minds freezes and destroy the creativity of the Great thinkers. School of philosophies do more damage and dishonor to a thinker than a violent antagonist.

If Heidegger distills insights from Kant, Aristotle, or Descartes about question of being that no tradition has heard of, then what the thinkers actually meant becomes trivial. Heidegger doesn't change what they said but instead force them to give-up a secret that wasn't obvious before. If Heidegger does succeed then the complaint the older thinkers didn't mean what Heidegger says, because it's not traditional, merely begs the question. How they implicitly dealt w the question of Being affect our understanding of it & a legitimate part of the inquiry as to how Dasein understands it's own being.

Dasein understands itself in time & through time. Therefore, a historical approach of Dasein is necessary and to uncover the foundations of this understanding all that is piled on it and obstructs it must be removed through the method of Heideggerian destruction.

So the study begins from time and the way Dasein understands itself in time, and through the foundations that are unhidden, we can attempt to understand the more general Being.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

BEING & TIME Reading Schedule

We'll start BEING & TIME on 8/24 and finish by 9/24.

I'll be using the Harper Collins 1962 translation by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. There are newer translations out there. It won't matter too much, in terms of following along, which translation you use, as we'll be going by chapters/units, as follows:
Week One: Introduction through Division One, Section III

Week Two: Division One, Section IV through Section V

Week Three: Division One, Section VI through Division Two, Section II

Week Four: Division Two, Section III through End
I'd like to get thoughts and reactions on the blog every week. These can be short or long, half-baked or burnt to a crisp. If you'd like to post some reactions to the reading, please let me know, and we'll get you set up to post.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Middlemarch: Preliminary Final Thoughts

So I seem to have skipped a whole bunch of weeks here. I apologize: I was too busy day trading on recent market gyrations.

Finally finished with Middlemarch. The book, all 791 pages (including the Notes section) now sits on the table before me, spent and exhausted. I gave my summer over to this book, toting it around with me on the train, to lunches eaten by myself, to the bathroom, to hotel rooms, bus stops. It seems fitting to be done with the book now, just as summer is ending, as the kids are picking out new clothes and backpacks for going back to school, as co-workers head out on final vacations in the empty bottom half of August in which nothing really happens and where substitute hosts fill in on radio programs for the regulars who are out of town.

I used to have assigned reading in high school. I remember the summer I had to read GREAT EXPECTATIONS. I had a copy of the book out from the local library. (I had to renew it a couple times.) I spent a lot of time in the car, on the porch, and in the one room in the house with air conditioning (my parents' bedroom) lying around reading that book. I distinctly remember the experience of reaching the final pages of that book, some time in the early evening on a day in August, lying on my parents' bed with the A/C on, while everyone else was downstairs getting dinner ready -- the sadness and satisfaction of completion, the letting go of the characters I had been carrying around in my head all summer, the closing of the book and, after a few moments of letting the ending sink in, the thought -- what next?

Why do we read long books? Maybe part of the reason is to engage with a story, a setting, and a set of characters over a long period of time; to carry them around with you for weeks, inevitably weaving the story and the characters into the events of your own life during the time you're reading the book. A summer becomes the summer you read WAR AND PEACE; or WAR AND PEACE is inextricably bound up with the things you did and saw and felt during the summer of 2010.

So what does it mean that we've given this summer over to MIDDLEMARCH? We've spent the last eight weeks following Dorothea into a loveless, cold, and sexless marriage, Lydgate into a conventionally attractive but ultimately disastrous marriage of his own, Ladislaw flitting in and out of the picture, the sudden arrival of Raffles and a wholly new storyline that would come to dominate the closing sections of the book, the moral triumph of Dorothea's actions, etc.

The book was largely excellent (though Eliot certainly did not wear her learning lightly), but I could not help but feel, especially as I got to the Raffles-dominated final portion of the book, that, after some point, Eliot was simply making stuff up as she went along. She clearly had an initial idea about following Dorothea into her hopelessly naive marriage, and the fiasco that would become; and perhaps Eliot also had some vague initial plans for Lydgate and his medical struggles. But the reliance on the introduction of Raffles, out of nowhere, to pull Bulstrode, a character in whose head we had spent little time for most of the book, into the forefront, and to make him into the most prominent character of the final portion of the book, with his downfall somehow, like the falling of the Berlin Wall, acting as a sea change, making room for all sorts of other possibilities for others (i.e., Fred Vincy, Dorothea, Ladislaw, et al.) had about it the whiff of a deus ex machina.

The end of the book did not leave me reeling, or in tears, or all that moved. And I don't think Eliot intended any such ending. The point she seemed to be making, through Dorothea's final actions, was that even noble, great characters can find their ways to middling, normal, unexceptional lives, though they continue to improve the world around them through small, unremembered, unhistoric acts:
Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Such an ending for Dorothea is, of course, less dramatic than the end of Captain Ahab, more mundane and unspectacular than the final fate of Anna Karenina. In a way, the ending reminded me of the "incalculably diffusive" end of another great hero in literature: Tyrone Slothrop. After following him for hundreds of pages through GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, at some point, near the end, Slothrop simply disappears into the world around him:
There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly -- perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly -- and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down, Celtic style, in the order suggested by Mr. A.E. Waite, laid out and read, bu they are the cards of a tanker and feeb: they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity (not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too, yes yes nothing like getting the 3 of Pentacles upside down covering the significator on the second try to send you to the tube to watch a seventh rerun of the Takeshi and Ichizo Show, light a cigarette and try to forget the whole thing) -- to no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm.

Dorothea's end is plainfly not quite so obscure or bizarre as Tyrone Slothrop's -- her ending is of course more conventional -- but it remains middling, with no real "redeeming cataclysm." Perhaps she does find "clear happiness" with Ladislaw, though her final fate seems less than ideal, given the extravagant promise with which she is depicted at the book's opening. (Lydgate, the book's sub-hero, suffers a more serious decline and disappointment, a steeper descent from the outsized ambition and promise with which he was introduced.)

Most everyone in MIDDLEMARCH gets taken down a peg or two (think Casaubon, Bulstrode, Fred, Ladislaw, Rosamond, et al.). That is, of course, in keeping with the general theme of regret, choices that turn out to be disastrous, etc. What, one wonders, was the point Eliot was trying to make (besides being a general killjoy and downer)? I'm not sure if it's entirely clear, but perhaps it's something along the lines of this: even great souls are bent and constrained by the mores and prejudices of the societies in which they happen to find themselves. Given the limits of what is possible in a given society and the petty pressures and demands of one's social milieu -- here, the provincial eighteenth-century setting of Middlemarch, -- one's original intentions and plans for one's self are often "broken down . . . and scattered." The "full nature[s]" of individuals like Dorothea and Lydgate are fragmented and disintegrated "[spend themselves] in channels which ha[ve] no great name on earth." The good one can do is often done in small "diffusive" ways, through a series of tiny "unhistoric acts."

One gets the sense that this might have been how Eliot viewed her own life. She didn't start writing until relatively late in life. Perhaps she viewed herself, for much of her life, a bit like Dorothea (or even Lydgate or Casaubon): full of ambition, but unable to produce any major works or acts to show for it. Of course, in the end, Eliot did produce several timeless novels, but she couldn't have known the worth of her work at the time. Perhaps she worried that her own life would, in the end, be seen as one like Dorothea's: begun with tremendous ambition, ended in relative obscurity, mostly unremembered. Perhaps Eliot worried that, in the absence of her production of great works or acts, her own tomb would remain "unvisited." If that was the case, that fear obviously turned out to be unwarranted; but in any event, she clearly understood the fear of not achieving all that one imagined. It's fascinating and perhaps inevitable that it takes a great, historic book for the ages to get across the message that the true work most of us will do in our unhistoric lives toward the "growing good of the world" will be found in our small, unremarked, and unhistoric acts.