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It’s often remarked that philosophy and its questions, especially as practiced in academic contexts, seems pointless. After all, scientific methods and technology enable us now to reach definitive scientific conclusions and results in our inquiries and practical pursuits, right?
This is a very difficult contemporary opinion to counter, and perhaps the difficulty in responding to this challenge is the reason why science and technology have come to so overshadow the humanities in education. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that philosophy is the true genesis and the obscured foundation behind all of our modern science and technology, and if we want to think creatively it is the ultimate source for doing so.
In my experience and judgment Martin Heidegger, the controversial 20th-century German philosopher, offers the most compelling account for why we need philosophy and its way of returning to the most basic questions and source problems, in contrast to the sciences and normal everyday business, where the intent is normally to leave basic questions behind while reaching and building upon conclusions and results.
On Heidegger’s account, philosophy or theory began when the Greeks explicitly articulated the question of “being”, from which has unfolded historically all the various branches and species of theoretically grounded knowledge. Thus in Western civilization a particular answer to the question of “being” lies implicitly at the root of all our modern and functional species of knowledge, such that we tend to think it pointless, trivial, or useless to examine our underlying historical assumptions about what we mean by the “being” of things we think we know and understand.
The assumption we’ve inherited from particular past philosophers is that “being” means “what is (truly) present”, or more exactly: what can be rendered present to us in or about some object of theoretical inquiry, because it is what finally underlies various false appearances, how things have merely seemed to be. Once false instances of appearing are scraped away, then we will have exclusively what is present.
But notice that there is implicit or suppressed in this historical assumption of ours (a) a temporal character and a bias for the “present” aspect or moment of temporality, which is a bias against the past and future aspects intrinsic to temporality also; and (b) a relative character in that what “is” must be rendered present-to-us.
Having disclosed this temporal character of theoretical knowledge, Heidegger finds by phenomenological analysis that it derives and unfolds from the underlying practical, laboring, and temporal character of “Da-sein”. In Da-sein or human “being-there”, phenomenologically, we find things initially appear as most solid or ‘real’ in their being there as Tools for our use. Since Theoretical Objects are themselves ‘like’ Tools, Heidegger thus offers an Instrumentalist account or theory of Science itself.
But this does NOT mean that Heidegger is a mere “relativist” regarding all our sciences and claims, or that he is seeking to undermine them in an illegitimate or unreasonable manner, as many of his critics unfairly charge. Rather, the substantive reality he means to uncover in his work is that the implicit and suppressed meaning of “being” is Time or Temporality, including a past, present, and future — and this entails — “it” entails — that nothing can ever be rendered completely “present” by us once-and-for-all. Rather, we must continually in philosophical thinking and practice (by which I include science as a branch of applied theory) bring the being of things forth to-presence in some particular way, manner, or practice, repeatedly.
This answers the question why philosophy “continues”: it must continually return to the question of “being” which by its nature is never finally “present”; it has to return to the original, generative question that remains implicit, only ever seemingly resolved within any particular, momentary claim or any particular science.
We in the West have been operating for centuries with a faulty underlying assumption that “being” is merely a “present-ness” in things that can be overlooked once we move on to more specialized knowledges. Instead the “being” of things is never rendered finally-present and so we must constantly engage in the philosophical activity of bringing-to-presence temporally and historically.
Now, none of this means that the sciences as we know them today will not reify or ossify into forms that become increasingly oblivious to their own grounding in a particular answer to the question of “being”. It might be expected that insofar as they are ignorant or forgetful of this basis they will become increasingly defensive regarding their “relative” status as uncovered by those who ‘continually’ create a distraction in their view by raising philosophical questions. I think we see this in the recent attempts by some scientists to banish philosophy — to banish thinking (!) — once and for all. Isn’t it a great irony that some prominent scientists today are becoming in certain crucial respects dogmatists and thus enemies of thought?
It is thus vitally important for philosophers to give appropriate respect to the achievements of modern sciences and systems but not thereby to disown their own unique calling to deeply question the assumptions underlying modern views no matter how seemingly final.
Heidegger’s philosophy is often maligned as mystical or obfuscating. This is because of the great generality of the terms with which he is working, e.g., “being”, “world”, etc. But these terms are not found to be too general when we investigate them in a concrete phenomenological manner, i.e., from their origin in the primordial experience of Dasein. The reason or prompt or solicitation for such an investigation by Heidegger is a residual dissatisfaction among people with the modern abstract conception of mind as an isolated entity or atom. In this Cartesian sense, the mind is supposed to exist independently of the world it studies. This Cartesian formulation of the mind-world relation made possible modern mathematical physics along with the correlated engineering and technological attitude which has shaped the modern approach to nature. The key to understanding Heidegger’s philosophical project is thus as a kind of neo-Aristotelian counterpoint, responding to what we have lost by way of modern mathematical physics. The latter approach to nature is in Heidegger’s analysis essentially a technological framework recognizing no essential or meaningful place or ground or telos for any of its objects. In this world-view the things of nature — as well as human beings — are rendered into abstract variables, abstract objects, stripped of any essential nature or place of being. Modern mathematical physics is in this sense — ironically, despite its own claims to the contrary — a kind of alienating anti-naturalism. The phenomenological analysis of Dasein in Being and Time is intended to lay the groundwork for retrieving and restoring some Aristotelian sense of ontological place or home for Dasein despite the impossibility of simply returning to an Aristotelian teleological cosmos.
The totality of things, [says Heraclitus], are given in exchange for fire, and fire is given in exchange for all things, in the way goods (are given in exchange) for gold, and gold for goods.
– Heraclitus (c. 500 BC) via Plutarch, Heraclitus Fragment 90
I just started reading Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (1984). Weizenbaum was not a philosopher. He was a computer science researcher at MIT who became a philosophical thinker when he began to grasp how the people around him had become overly entranced by the the computer metaphor of mind. Weizenbaum writes powerfully on the inadequacy of formal logic for dealing with human problems. Formal logic is not only the logic by which computers operate, but is also the narrow focus of most academic philosophy departments in the Anglo world. I quote him here at length:“I want [teachers of computer science] to have heard me affirm that the computer is a powerful new metaphor for helping us understand many aspects of the world, but that it enslaves [a] mind that has no other metaphors and few other resources to call on.” “Just because so much of a computer-science curriculum is concerned with the craft of computation, it is perhaps easy for the teacher of computer science to fall into the habit of merely training. But, were he to do that, he would surely diminish himself and his profession. He would also detach himself from the rest of the intellectual and moral life of the university. The univerity should hold before each of its citizens, and before the world at large as well, a vision of what is possible for a man or a woman to become. It does this by giving ever-fresh life to the ideas of men and women who, by virtue of their own achievements, have contributed to the house we live in. And it does this, for better or for worse, by means of the example each of the university’s citizens is for every other. The teacher of computer science, no more or less than any other faculty member, is in effect constantly inviting his students to become what he himself is. If he views himself as a mere trainer, as a mere applier of “methods” for achieving ends determined by others, then he does his students two disservices. First, he invites them to become less than fully autonomous persons. He invites them to become mere followers of other people’s orders, and finally no better than the machines that might someday replace them in that function. Second, he robs them of the glimpse of the ideas that alone purchase for computer science a place in the university’s curriculum at all. And in doing that, he blinds them to the examples that computer scientists as creative human beings might have provided for them, hence of their very best chance to become truly good computer scientists themselves.”
The design of this mobile dreadnaught, with its steel-tired, spoked wheels, suggests that its inventor may have been influenced by agricultural tractors or perhaps an amusement park Ferris wheel. The trench destroyer also embodies the common goal of military visionaries: maximum offensive power with total defensive security.
Reading Bergson’s “La pensée et le mouvant” is a revelation. The title was questionably translated into English as “The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics”, which may have had a certain mainstream or New Age appeal in early 20th-century America. Today a literal translation, “Thought and Movement”, would do justice to the importance of this work for understanding the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze in particular and the tremendous influence of French poststructuralism in general.
Bergson is revealed here as another of Heidegger’s hidden (ungenerously concealed) influences. Bergson’s critique of the rationalistic, representational concept of time which undergirds Western philosophy from Zeno and Plato to today, is the same critique Heidegger makes of Hegel’s concept of time in his brilliant lectures on “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit”.
The gist of the argument is that there is a habit or practical prejudice of human thought to represent things in static images which can be found throughout the history of common sense as well as the philosophical tradition.
Hegel comes very close to recognizing this as the fundamental problem which gave rise to the questions of metaphysics from Zeno and Plato up to Kant. For Bergson, Heidegger, and Deleuze, Hegel marks an important turn in philosophy toward rethinking temporality, but his system (though perhaps less so his historical anthropology) seems to remain bound to the idea of a fundamentally grounding presence — an eternal present — graspable once reason dialectically ascends to the Platonic view of the world. Why? Because Hegel seems to conceive time as a calculable series of dialectical encounters between a presence or present and a negativity which transforms it. In this we may find the flaw cited by many readers that there is no future dimension in Hegel, no possibility of radical novelty, since in Hegel’s system everything must ultimately be accounted for in a final, absolute present or presence to reason. I am not sure this charge sticks though. There are remarks by Hegel that indicate he was not so presentist and acknowledged the need for an ongoing community of philosophical inquiry.
Yet Bergson’s rethinking of time as real duration, which can vary radically in itself, stands in contrast to the tradition, which thinks time in terms of an artificial series of mental representations. This is just one of the great secrets to Heidegger’s and Deleuze’s brilliant critiques of Western philosophy.
In the final analysis however, the radical rejection of representation by reason implicit in the Deleuzean critique seems to me self-destroying.
For thinking Deleuze’s concepts of movement-image and time-image, consider the questions:
Can time exist apart from movement? Might time live some kind of life apart from movement? Or is time merely the measure of movement? If time might have a life other than being the measure of movement, can you describe how?
Consider the following as a start:
In one sense time seems to be nothing but a measure of movement. For instance, if you move your hand from resting on the table (point A) to resting on your thigh (point B) and you count two seconds during the movement, then it would seem time is nothing but the abstract division of movement into a series of uniform units (two in this case). You could say this way of thinking makes time the being-measured of movement, makes time subordinate to movement.
However, is there another way of thinking about time? Is there another mode of being where time becomes something that actually exists for itself (not as a mere abstraction subordinated to movement)? For instance, you have an hour to wait for the arrival by train of a loved one you haven’t seen in years. In this situation the very sense of time itself would seem to take on a character which cannot be subordinated to movement as in the above example. While waiting, diverse stretches of historical images reflect on and color each other in the form of a variety of memories, while one anticipates a new image of this person which will affect the meaning or trajectory of the past images, etc. All the while the movements of bodies around oneself are now clearly subordinated to time as a way being-historical in and for itself.
Deleuze’s philosophy of cinema is about exploring these two modes of cinematic or narrative construction: (1) movement-images (where time is subordinated to movement) and (2) time-images (where movement is subordinated to time).
Gawker posts today “a wonderful piece of alternate universe American history, in which President Nixon had to explain to a nation that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were going to die on the moon.” The post includes an image of William Safire’s original text for the contingency speech, titled “In event of moon disaster”: