Why Heidegger Needs to Be Impossible to Understand, and Why it Might be Worth Calling Things The Wrong Name.

I.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks working through Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s fascinating, but also super difficult to understand.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to understand is that Heidegger insists on inventing specialist terminology. I really understand the motivation behind it, which is that language can often obfuscate the truth of Being if Being is seen only through the lens that language allows, but I also think it might be worth trying to get some of his ideas out in plain-er English.

Instead of talking about some of his ideas, it’s probably worth puzzling over the idea that language can obfuscate Being. But first, let’s see what he means by ‘Being’ as opposed to ‘being/s.’

For Heidegger, Being-with-a-big-B is something like ‘what it is to be.’ It’s something more and also something less than just ‘the sum of all the beings.’ He sees it as the main thing worth investigating, because it seems to be the thing that is always relevant to any investigation, but which has been mostly ignored since Plato’s Sophist and Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Now, on to justifying all his weird mystical terminology.

II.

From the perspective of cognitive theory, more specifically map theory, we get an idea of the relationship between a representation and the represented. The phrase the map is not the territory is an expression of the idea that we might potentially confuse the representation of something with the thing itself. Kant figured that we could never understand the thing in itself because the way it presented itself to us always alienated it from us. The noumenon is always separated from us by the phenomena.

For Heidegger, there’s a real worry that language will separate us from the phenomena. The language at fault is the language of an outdated Philosophy. Heidegger would claim that the ontologies of the past– the metaphysical attempts made by previous philosophers like Descartes– ran us down a track of thinking which was a sort of dead end.

It’s no secret that Philosophical terms like ‘essence’; ‘category’; etc., end up working their way into every-day language. For example, the English ‘idea’ finds its origin in the Greek ‘eidos’, which originally expressed something like ‘the view of x’ where x is whatever the eidos is of.

If that’s true, and if a particular language implies a particular mode of looking at the world, then we ought to be very careful with the language we use when we’re asking questions about really fundamental topics. The more fundamental a topic is, the less we can allow external preconceptions to influence us. Speaking metaphorically, I suppose we need more sensitive instruments to examine more fundamental topics: in the same way we need an electron microscope to examine very small objects, we need a very clean language to examine topics like Being.

But it’s not at all obvious why language needs to be especially clear in order to talk about Being. I’ll have to admit this is where my understanding starts to break down, but I’ll try and make my best argument to see what I can come up with.

As far as I can see, Heidegger emphasises language free of preconception because he’s trying to avoid invoking any particular ontological perspective. If Metaphysics asks questions like ‘how many kinds of substance are there?’, then Heidegger is asking questions that are really quite prior to that. Let’s say that there is some set of specialist vocabulary A, and some set of specialist vocabulary B, and that using either of those sets of specialist vocabulary seems to prompt you to view the world from the perspective of the group of people who originated either set.

An example of this sort of arrangement might be Marxist and Capitalist ways of viewing the world. It seems to be the case that really committing yourself to understanding Marxist concepts prompts you to view the world in a Marxist way. If we accept the Marxist definition between use-value and Capital value, for example, then we’ll start to experience the world in those terms. If we start to look at the world in terms of marginal gains, expenditures and over-heads, then we’ll start to see the world in Capitalist terms.

These is somewhat like Heidegger’s idea of handiness. For Heidegger, an object is handy if I relate to it with a particular purpose or essence involved. It’s handiness is the function it presents itself to me as having. Heidegger probably invented the ecological theory of visual perception.

Chairs are handy, and so are any people that I bear determinate relationships to. This isn’t to say I objectify people, just that I relate to them in such a way that their value to me cannot be divorced from how I experience them. Chairs are handy in that I set in them. People are handy in that they tell me good jokes and might want to share dinner with me. The potential actionality of something can’t be ignored when I relate to it, or when I relate it to someone else.

A bar of chocolate on a table is edible. That it’s edible is unavoidably part of the way it presents itself to me. If the same bar of chocolate was in an unbreakable box of transparent material, it would become some sort of odd art installation, and it would cease to present itself to me as food. But if that same box also had a hungry child in it, the same chocolate bar would present itself to me again as food, but simply for someone else. In the third case, it presented itself as food to me again because it presented itself as food to someone else. The actionality of the child affected the handiness of the food.

The language available to me affects what I can pay attention to. If you have ever studied anatomy, then you’ll know about the strange and pleasing sensations of realizing that your body is far more detailed and intricate than you ever realized. It’s quite possible that this changed your perception of yourself. Perhaps it made you more aware of the relationship between your emotions and your body, or perhaps it made you more calm in general.

If this happened, then it’s because the your body presented itself in a different way to you. If that was so, then the way the world presented itself to you differed. There is a connection, then, between the maps of reality that are entailed by our vocabularies and the way the world itself emerges.

The problem with Being is that it neither is any being, nor is directly apparent. That means to get an idea of it, we have to look at all the beings very closely and carefully. If our linguistic tools aren’t up to snuff, we’re going to miss detail in the phenomena; we’re going to have wrong ideas; or we may accidentally conflate categories that are distinct.

III.

Now, this was my best attempt at justifying Heidegger’s odd use of language, and it strikes me as somewhat odd that I’ve done so by being simultaneously very sloppy with my language. If I’ve been able to do that, it’s probably because Heidegger’s thinking was so clear in his invented terms. It’s also worth noting that I’m stealing perspectives and arguments from Logical Positivism and Wittgenstein, who I see as taking a very similar approach towards a sort of conceptual sensitivity in language.

One interesting question for Science would be to ask whether the ways we label things actually affect the implicit predictions we make about those objects. For example, in a priming paradigm: if I convinced you that there was such a language wherein children were called ‘dogs’, would you be less amused by the child barking due to some judgement on an implicit level? Would the presence of the child in a glass box with a Frisbee change the handiness of the Frisbee?

Or another fun possible experiment, slightly less ethically dubious, and also possible less related. I’m including it because I think it would probably be interesting: we could spend a whole day teaching participants to use the wrong words for things, and then put them in time-limited situations where they had to be able to quickly reach for a particular object. For instance, we might put a knife, a lighter, a fan and a bottle of water in front of them, and then teach them to habitually use the term ‘water-bottle’ when they mean ‘lighter’ and vice versa.

I’m not sure what my hypothesis here would be. One question to examine would be whether or not it made any of the participants anxious on some level to put a water-bottle next to a big puddle of conspicuously flammable material.

If this experiment were to shine any light on Heidegger, it would probably be because I had completely misunderstood him. I’m just going to put that out there now.

But in any case, these are not questions for Philosophy; these are questions for Psychology– or perhaps, if you want to be fancy, Cognitive Science. That means trying to do hypotheticals on them is a waste of time. As it stands, nobody will give me volunteers to lie to or children to lock in glass boxes. Instead, I’ll just have to hope that someday, someone else is more able to persuade an ethics committee to let them have those things than I am.

IV.

One final note: it wouldn’t be one of my essays if I didn’t recommend an experiment at the end.

I was recently reading Impro by Keith Johnstone, which is full of interesting exercises designed to prompt you to drop the sort of overly restrictive cultural-cognitive-affective bondage that he figures school imposes on you.

The one I found most valuable was to go around for about ten seconds shouting out the wrong names for things in a room. It’s really simple. Just go around for ten seconds and call things whatever they aren’t. I called a lamp a Fishman, and a punnet of cherry tomatoes were simply ‘Sperm.’ The point isn’t to make sense. In fact, the point is probably to try and suspend sense in order to see what you can learn about it.

You will probably realize something about just how tenuously words are related to ‘reality.’ Or maybe you’ll just call a punnet of cherry tomatoes ‘Sperm’ and feel like a real wanker afterwards. Who knows?

What’s most interesting is that he claims that you’ll get a little giddy and that the colors in the world will seem somewhat brighter and more saturated at the end. In my experience, and in my partner’s experience, this was absolutely the case. I would encourage you to try it, just once or twice. He claims that he can produce this experience in his students, but then that might just be suggestion.

This sort of discussion does make you wonder whether those Zen types like Dogen were on to something when they advised us to ‘think not thinking.’