Two different ways of Looking at and Interpreting the World (A Heideggerrian Critique of Cartesianism)

[Originally published on 13 March, 2013]

How do we interpret/understand objects in the world?

Consider how we might analyze a ball of wax.  Descartes (in his second Meditation), discusses and analyzes a ball of wax as it takes different forms. He points out that it may have a certain look, feel, smell, etc, in its many forms (depending on whether it is heated up and melts, for instance), but these, Descartes says, are mere ‘accidents’ of this substance under different circumstances which the wax ball finds itself in.

But this approach of Descartes, according to Heidegger, has left the world a very sterile place. Descartes is not taking into account the different purposes, services, and functions that an entity like a ball of wax has as possibilities. That is, a ball of wax as Heidegger sees it can be poured into a mould to make a candle, or it can be used to seal a letter – Heidegger wants to know what the wax means to the person who is performing these different activities.

But surely, you might say, Heidegger is now attributing some very subjective characteristics to the wax ball, for if we are to understand the ball of wax, we need to look at it in an abstract, distant, and sterile way – this is the only way we can objectively analyze it. For example, think of how a ‘primitive’ person may see something and interpret this as an animal spirit, or a child may see a fluffy caterpillar and interpret it as a small stuffed animal. We would say that the primitive person and the child were mistaken.  Taking this into account, surely the Cartesian method of breaking things down into abstract terms allows us to avoid this problem?

But a Heideggerrian can reply that when you are attributing purely abstract characteristics to an object (and to the world in general), that this is also a subjective imposition. The Heideggerrian might say that the ball of wax is not some kind of ‘extended substance’  with different ‘accidental’ characteristics of ‘warmth,’ or ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ that are added to it under different circumstances, rather, a ball of wax is something we use (i.e. to seal letters, or to make candles). Thus, we could say that the Heideggerrian is providing us with a description of the wax and indeed is  telling us something about the world – primarily what it is used for, and it is this use which the Heideggerrian would state is primary; any abstract analysis is secondary to this.

The Cartesian can reply by looking at the ball of wax moulded into a candle and say that this is what it is, and that this is true independent of anyone’s interpretation.

But the Heideggerrian says: ‘How do you know that?’ ‘You have come to this conclusion by thinking!’ The Cartesian approach, says the Heideggerrian, simply tells us how we can think about it.  Heidegger says that we don’t ever hear “noises or complexes of sounds, [instead we hear] the creaking of wagon wheels, or the motor-cycle, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling…It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise.'” (Being & Time, 207).  A Cartesian worldview rests on many unexplored assumptions regarding the phenomena it targets.

What about the External World and Reality itself?

The Cartesian sometimes puzzles over trying to ‘prove’ the existence of an external world which has large numbers of isolated objects and subjects.  Heidegger says that Dasein (the human way of existing) is already in the world. Dasein is constituted by the world.  When one tries to ‘prove’ that the world exists, they have overlooked the a priori nature of our Being-in-the-world.

Heidegger is in part both a realist and an idealist. He is a realist in that he accepts the present-at-hand (or ontic, or scientific) objects that are in the world. Yet he shares with the idealist that one has to begin with a description – or an awareness – of the self or subject. Our self is already in a world, and we cannot isolate it except in circumstances of abstraction.

Rather than start – as the Cartesian does – with ‘the problem of reality,’ the Heideggerrian wants to start with ‘the problem of existence.’  Reality (and let me emphasize this clearly, we are not referring to the things within reality), could not exist without human beings – reality is a mode of human existence.  Reality is simply a mode of our interpretation of the world, as a result, it depends on us existing.  Any talk we might engage in about ‘substances’, ‘things’, and ‘reality’ are all derivative.  The whole, as significance, is prior to its parts.  Our commonsense understanding of the world is a knowing-how, not a propositional knowing-that.  Facts and rules are meaningless by themselves, they need to be assigned relevance by us.  Whatever shows up as intelligible for us, shows up or emerges from a background of significance.

[A large part of this note relies on an interpretation given by Michael Gelven in his book “A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time.”]