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Mature: heidegger and merleau-ponty

Taylor Carman interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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Taylor Carman is the go-to guy on 19th and 20th century European philosophy who broods on Heidegger and what an understanding of being means, why it rules out a lot of contemporary philosophy, about the difference between Husserl and Heidegger and why Husserl was wrong, about what Searle and Dennett miss out, about convergences and divergences between Heidegger and Tyler Burge, why charity can’t be fundamental to linguistic meaning, about why Heidegger isn’t a transcendentalist idealist, about why Merleau-Ponty is one of the most interesting and original philosophers of the twentieth century although his politics are his least fruitful efforts and about the friendship between Merleau-Ponty and Levi-Strauss. Continental philosophy in the pellucid register. You’re most welcome!

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always philosophical?

Taylor Carman: When I was eleven, I had to write a paper making an argument for a position of some kind, and I needed a topic. I wanted to defend atheism, and my father, a clinical psychologist, gave me some books about existential psychotherapy. That got me onto Sartre, who became a kind of hero of mine. I read his novels and plays and Beauvoir’s memoirs. I envied them their brutal candor and intellectualism. Sartre seemed radical and exotic, and I wanted to think like he did (as it then seemed to me): sharp and clear as a diamond, unsentimental, and full of hope. From about the age of twelve I think I also had a kind of inchoate feeling of sadness and awe that, combined with some analytical acuity, perhaps constitutes something like a philosophical temperament. Apart from my juvenile atheism, however, my first philosophical conviction was hopelessly misguided: something like phenomenalism (though I didn’t know that’s what it’s called). Not until I got to college did I start reading what I came to see as the deepest and best philosophy: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein.

3:AM: In your book on Heidegger you suggest that Heidegger in ‘Being and Time’ maintains that interpretation ‘by which he means explicit understanding’ is definitive of human existence. It’s crucial for what you call the existential analytic of Dasein. You summarise what this means as being the claim that ‘human beings have an understanding of what it means to be and this can be made explicit. So what does ‘to be’ mean here, and what’s at stake here? I guess I’m wondering about the scope of Heidegger’s claim here – just what alternatives is he ruling out with his statement?

TC: An understanding of being is an ability to see and make sense of things, first, as either simply existing or not – in the case of physical objects, either being somewhere or being nowhere (now); in the case of human beings, living a life or being dead – and, second, as hanging together more or less coherently, more or less intelligibly. Both of these (call them thatness and whatness) have a normative dimension: to understand the being of things is to know what’s proper to them, what they can and can’t do, how they ought and ought not to be. So, an understanding of being is something more than just animal intelligence: it’s a sense of things generally as being right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, true or false, real or unreal.
Can that be made explicit? Yes, but only up to a point. It’s not clear exactly what Heidegger himself meant by “explicit” (ausdrücklich), but I think the “out in the world” (not in the head) spirit of his phenomenology suggests that we should hear it literally as meaning express or expressed. So, interpretation is understanding manifest in expression (Ausdrück), which is to say in the shared space of communicative intelligibility. Heidegger’s project in Being and Time I take to be an attempt to describe the conditions of the express intelligibility of anything, so yes, expressedness is central to my interpretation. But it’s only part of the story. In the book I say it’s like the ninth of the iceberg that’s above water: most of the berg has to be submerged, but at least part of it has to rise above the surface. That is, most of our understanding of things is tacit, but some of it must also be manifest in some kind of communicative sense-making (not necessarily linguistic).

What does all this rule out? A lot of traditional and contemporary philosophy. Most philosophers probably think the concept of being is either primitive or empty, or both. Many since Descartes have believed that all this talk of making sense of things in the world either consists in or presupposes our being in certain kinds of mental states, rather than, as Heidegger would have it, the intelligibility of anything like mind and the mental piggybacking on the more basic phenomena of world and person and action and talk. Heidegger was trying to remind us of all the things we must already have understood even to begin making sense of what philosophers have supposed to be essential and fundamental: form, substance, soul, mind, freedom, will, value.

3:AM: You say the book grew out of your thinking about differences between Husserl and Heidegger on intentionality. If they had conflicting views about intentionality then presumably one of them was wrong, or they were talking past each other. What do you think now about this?

TC: Husserl was wrong. I don’t think they were talking past each other. I think Heidegger was deliberately subverting what he understood – correctly, in my opinion – to be the vestiges of Cartesianism in Husserl’s theory of intentionality. Husserl took it for granted that the object of phenomenological inquiry is consciousness, or what we might more broadly call the mind. Heidegger wanted to show that those notions are derivative of phenomena much more basic – “basic” in the sense of having to have been already understood and interpreted in some definite way prior to any mention of mind or consciousness.

The fatal flaw in the Husserlian program, according to Heidegger, was not just that Husserl happened to get things wrong by misdescribing the phenomena, but that he simply ignored the question of the being of the entity (ourselves) that we know at the outset is the subject of phenomenological description. We know it’s us, that is, embodied persons in natural and social worlds, that we’re really describing, but Husserl wants to put the person, the body, and the world aside as mere distractions from what he feels entitled to take for granted as self-evident, namely the transparently given contents of consciousness. Heidegger doesn’t say there is no such thing as the mind or consciousness, only that it makes no sense to begin a phenomenology at that level of abstraction, with all the theoretical presuppositions lurking behind it.

3:AM: An interesting part of your work on intentionality is the way you bring contemporary discussions about intentionality from analytic philosophy into your work on Husserl and Heidegger. You discuss Searle and Dennett in particular. So are there connections between these two and Heidegger’s position? In particular, you argue that they fail to ask the ‘transcendental question that Heidegger is concerned with. Can you say what this element is that they are missing and why it is so important?

3:AM: Like Husserl, Searle and Dennett ignore the background context of hermeneutic conditions that render their own conceptions of intentionality intelligible to begin with. Dennett speaks of the “intentional stance” as a quasi-scientific, third-person point of view we take up in explaining and predicting behavior. That’s fine, but how does that notion even arise in our experience of ourselves and each other? What is its basis? How are we able to understand it? Dennett just helps himself to the notion, which is to say, he ignores the understanding we must already have of ourselves and of each other that underlies and underwrites the entire theoretical vocabulary of belief and desire. But that theoretical vocabulary doesn’t just grow on trees. Dennett’s view is in this sense scientistic and uncritical, in the Kantian sense.

Searle’s theory is more like Husserl’s in substance, since, unlike Dennett, he conceives of intentional content as given to the first-person point of view, not just the third. Moreover, to his credit, he has a concept of a “Background” of noncognitive skills that makes intentional mental states possible. Unlike Heidegger’s notion of world, however, Searle’s “Background” turns out not to be a background of intelligibility and understanding, though he often describes it with intentional terms like “expectation.” Instead, he insists, it consists of nonintentional causal capacities that allow intentional states to function. The concept therefore does nothing to answer the critical or transcendental question, What makes concepts like consciousness and mind and intentionality intelligible in the first place? How is it possible for such notions even to make sense to us as they do? That’s the deep question Heidegger was asking, and neither Husserlian phenomenology nor most contemporary philosophy of mind for that matter even addresses let alone answers it.

3:AM: You also make an interesting connection between Heidegger’s notion of ‘social externalism’ conception of discourse and the anti-individualism of Tyler Burge, another analytic. Can you say how this convergence works – as well as pointing out why aim and method diverge.

TC: The divergence in aim and method is, of course, more glaring than the convergence of their views. And I don’t mean to suggest that Heidegger anticipated anything like the details of Burge’s argument for externalism. What I would say instead is that Burge devised an ingenious way to point out something that Heidegger also recognized and wanted to assert in his own (very different) jargon. In the language of Being and Time, Dasein (the human being) is not an object with intrinsic properties, as the Cartesian conception of the mind would have it. The contents of our understanding, including what we mean when we speak, cannot be understood as a quality inhering in a self-contained subject. To say that Dasein’s being is essentially being-in-the-world is to say that it cannot be understood in abstraction from its environment, and Burge’s argument that belief and meaning are constituted by relations to a linguistic community is, I believe, another way of making the same basic point.

My purpose in drawing the comparison between Heidegger and Burge, however, was to criticize Mark Wrathall’s assimilation of Heidegger to Davidson, who, I think, for all his anti-Cartesian innovations, clung to a somewhat abstract picture of the self as a discrete rational subject. That picture is bolstered by the principle of charity, which ties meaning very closely to belief and rationality at the level of the individual. Heidegger’s claim that “the anyone” (das Man) – that is, the public normativity of our practices – articulates the intelligibility of the world we inhabit is, it seems to me, much closer to Burge’s anti-individualism.

Charity is all well and good, but I think it cannot be fundamental to linguistic meaning. It kicks in only after we have already assumed identities and responsibilities in a world beyond our grasp, in every sense. To put it both crudely and dramatically, we’re always already responsible for what we do and what we say even before we know what we’re doing and saying. Meaning is something we inherit from the world. You can’t mean something just by meaning to mean it, just as you can’t do good just by intending to.

3:AM: Why isn’t Heidegger a kind of Kantian transcendental idealist given that you make so much of the transcendental issue? Is it that the hermeneutical turn you read in Heidegger twists him away from a direct metaphysical treatise that would put him in a neo-Kantian place?

TC: Right, I think it’s very important to see that Being and Time, like The Critique of Pure Reason, is not straightforward metaphysics, but a kind of critical propaedeutic. This is crucial for understanding what Heidegger says there about truth, reality, and time. He doesn’t say that truth is not (nor that it is) correspondence, for example, only that it must already be unconcealment in order for anything like the idea of correspondence even to make sense. Similarly, he doesn’t say that objective reality is dependent upon Dasein, only that things being intelligible as objectively real depends on a world already having been disclosed in a different, nonobjective way. Finally, he doesn’t say there is no such thing as linear sequential (or “clock”) time (9:47 am), only that the idea of linear sequential time is an abstraction from everyday world time (“bedtime”).

There are lots of ways in which Heidegger is not a Kantian transcendental idealist. First of all, he’s not a Kantian because he rejects the concept of the subject that stands at the center of Kant’s thought. He’s also not an idealist because he’s not addressing questions concerning the ontological status of natural objects, let alone denying that they exist independently of us. He wants to know instead how they are intelligible to us as objective, indeed as existing independently of us. The natural world makes sense to us precisely as existing whether or not we know or care that it does. I think Heidegger (rightly) takes that understanding of nature at face value and doesn’t try to second guess it, as idealists do.

3:AM: In your book on Merleau-Ponty you claim that he was ‘one of the most interesting and original philosophers of the twentieth century.’ You say that there are four central points that support this claim – that perception is not an event or state of mind but is an organism’s entire relation to its environment; that perception is essentially finite and perspectival; that our natural absorption in the world distorts how we conceive perception; and that he attempts to broaden his phenomenological insights from just sense perception to all human experience and understanding. How far do these insights converge with thinking in the analytic philosophical approaches to perception and those of contemporary cognitive science and other sciences looking at perception?

TC: Although Descartes has been the “go to” philosophical bad guy for the past century, much contemporary philosophy of mind is in many ways still held captive by a Cartesian picture of the human being. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is a radical repudiation of that picture, so his work remains outside the orbit of mainstream analytical philosophy. He has nothing to add, for example, to tedious debates about the metaphysics of consciousness. Which makes sense, since it’s only by isolating that (ill-defined) phenomenon in an absurdly abstract way that you can generate pseudo-problems about how to fit it back into your conception of objective nature, in particular the equally abstract – though entirely legitimate – picture of the world you find in advanced physics. I consider Merleau-Ponty’s silence on that question a sign of his philosophical maturity.

There are two other areas of contemporary thought, however, in which his ideas do find strong parallels. The first is the broadly speaking deflationary or antitheoretical strain of thought in pragmatism and the later Wittgenstein. There is a very powerful, but I think underappreciated and too little discussed diagnostic or therapeutic line of argument in Phenomenology of Perception. Much of what he does there aims at finding the source of various distorted images of perception and theories of intentionality and retracing the steps philosophers and psychologists have taken from the phenomena, away from the phenomena, misled by dubious metaphors, into caricatures and abstractions.

Another area is, of course, contemporary cognitive neuroscience. In addition to his negative or critical dismantling of traditional theories of perception, a number of Merleau-Ponty’s positive phenomenological descriptions are prescient anticipations of recent discoveries. For example, his description of our immediate perceptual attunement to others has found empirical confirmation in the discovery of (so-called) “mirror neurons,” and his discussion of “motor intentionality” bears comparison with Melvyn Goodale and David Milner’s account of the way in which at least part of the visual system is essentially integrated into action rather than representation.

3:AM: You find Merleau-Ponty’s politics important and interesting don’t you? Is this where his existentialism and phenomenology come together?

TC: To be honest, I don’t find his political thought to be particular deep or original. His disillusionment with communism was typical of an entire generation of leftist intellectuals. Merleau-Ponty was a highly synthetic, integrative thinker. He wanted everything – philosophy, psychology, biology, linguistics, politics, art, literature – to hang together in some kind of coherent way, and he tried to find the concepts and the language in which to describe that coherence. But the result was that he often brought things together at too high a level of abstraction, only sometimes managing to ground the resemblances he saw in fine detail. His political writings are, it seems to me, his least grounded, least fruitful efforts of that kind.

3:AM: Why do you find him different in fundamental ways from the other three big names in phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre? Is he just smarter?

TC: What distinguished him from all of them was the seriousness with which he tried to tie his phenomenology to empirical work in the human sciences. He was far more interested than they were in developments in Gestalt psychology, biology, neuroscience, structural linguistics, and anthropology.

3:AM: He was a close friend of Claude Levi-Strauss wasn’t he? So did structuralism form any part of his philosophical approach?

TC: They were very good friends, and Merleau-Ponty was instrumental in securing Lévi-Strauss’s appointment to the Collège de France. Also, by lecturing on Saussure in the 1950s, he played a key role in setting the stage for the emergence of what came to be called “structuralism.” It’s important to remember that that term didn’t really exist until the 1960s, after Merleau-Ponty’s death. (The “structure” referred to in the title of his first book, The Structure of Behavior, had an entirely different meaning; it was the Gestalt of Gestalt psychology.)

In his later lectures and essays, Merleau-Ponty – ever the grand reconciler – was trying to integrate aspects of Saussurean linguistics into his phenomenology of language and perception, but the effort was tentative, and he didn’t live long enough to work out its implications. All evidence suggests that Lévi-Strauss and Merleau-Ponty knew that they had deeply different philosophical orientations. Merleau-Ponty was and remained a phenomenologist, while Lévi-Strauss thought phenomenology was as irrelevant to anthropology as it is to physics.

3:AM: And finally, could you recommend five books (other than your own which we’ll all be dashing away to read straight after this!) that would take us further into this philosophical discussion?

TC: Apart from the obvious primary sources, I would recommend anything by Hubert Dreyfus, William Blattner, and Mark Wrathall. Komarine Romdenh-Romluc’s book, Merleau-Ponty and “Phenomenology of Perception” is probably the best thing to read to try to understand that daunting volume. Denis McManus’s Heidegger and the Measure of Truth is also excellent.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 26th, 2013.