Overcoming Prejudice with Agape-Love

Hubert Dreyfus has argued[1] that The Brothers Karamazov[2] sets up an “existentialized form of Christianity” in which the religious practices retain meaning without relying on traditional metaphysical beliefs. Existentialized Christianity is founded upon agape-love. When one has agape-love, she sees the potential for good in people and tries to actualize that potential. Dreyfus argues that agape-love is “world transforming” in that it makes new possibilities come to light. However, Dreyfus did not explain exactly how agape-love does this. I will argue that agape-love makes new things possible by dissolving what Dostoyevsky calls prejudice. Prejudice is a mechanism or habit that was arbitrarily set beforehand to dictate how decisions should be made, particularly decisions involving one’s interactions with other people. I will discuss three cases that elucidate the relationship between agape-love and prejudice. First, agape-love constitutes Dostoyevsky’s response to the Grand Inquisitor’s prejudice against humanity. Second, Grushenka is able to overcome self-prejudice with the aid of agape-love. And finally, the prosecutor and the jury mistakenly convict Dmitry of murdering his father because they are not able to overcome their prejudice toward him. Agape-love is the antidote to prejudice.

Prejudices make decisions easier. For this reason, we use prejudices every day. They are often called habits, heuristics, or rules of thumb. By making tough or routine decisions ahead of time we prevent ourselves from getting bogged down with all the details surrounding each decision we have to make. To live without ever relying on a prejudice would certainly require superhuman ability. Whenever we use prejudice, we run the risk of making mistakes, but the chances of error are usually pretty low. However, when we are over reliant on our prejudices or when we refuse to give them up in the face of relevant details, when we force ourselves to be certain when there is a possibility that we may be wrong, they hurt more than they help. Prejudice covers up possibilities. By judging an individual or situation beforehand, one runs the risk of overlooking some beneficial possibilities. For example, racism covers up the possibility of mutually beneficial interactions with members of another race. Agape-love, on the other hand, sees the potential for good in people. Agape-love dissolves prejudices and thereby allows us to see the possibilities that our prejudice had covered up. By refraining from pre-judging others, one is able to see the possibility of a productive interaction.

The most important example of agape-love overcoming prejudice is Dostoyevsky’s solution to the dilemma presented by the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor argues that Christianity expects too much of us. Christianity, according to the Grand Inquisitor, expects its followers to believe without miracles, and even without food. The Grand Inquisitor believes that if people are given the freedom to choose, they will inevitably fall short of Christianity’s expectations and probably even do evil most of the time. In short, the Grand Inquisitor has a prejudice against humanity in general. The Grand Inquisitor is too pessimistic about humanity’s capability to overcome evil tendencies and earthly desires. It is clear that the rest of the novel after the Grand Inquisitor chapter, including the cases I will now discuss, constitutes a response to his attack. The book is meant to show that the Grand Inquisitor—or anyone who adopts a similar view—refuses to see that people are capable of good, even if it is not the amount of good that Christianity expects of them.

Alyosha’s encounter with Greshenka is another example of agape-love overcoming a prejudice. Grushenka is distraught about returning to see her former lover after he had rejected her before. To her, it seems that the only available options were to either go back “like a beaten dog” or to “take a knife with [her]” (429). Neither option is attractive to Grushenka. Each option would speak poorly of her moral character and individual worth. But Alyosha does not judge Grushenka, saying that he thinks she is “a true sister, a treasure, a loving soul” (425). This helps Grushenka to see herself in that way. She releases herself from a purely negative self-image. She then is able to see that there might be a non-self-destructive possibility open to her. She decides that she can go back to her former lover without having decided to take him back beforehand. She can retain her dignity and not make a violent scene. By pre-judging herself to be essentially “wicked and horrible” (427), the only options that seemed available to her were wicked and horrible ones. Alyosha helped her to see her own potential for good, or at least that she was not merely doomed to always do wrong. A new possibility was open to Grushenka, which was covered up by her prejudice against herself.

Finally, the trial at the end of the novel shows a failed case in which the prosecutor and the members of the jury are not able to overcome their prejudice and, as a result, they convict an innocent man. The defender claims that the prosecutor “has developed a mistaken and prejudiced opinion of my poor client” (876). He argues that the prosecutor must be prejudiced against Dmitry because his arguments are supported only by psychological “fictions.” Psychological support must be arbitrary because it can be used to come up with an opposing explanation “that is no less convincing” (877). The prosecutor’s argument only sounds convincing because psychology can be used to “arrive at whatever conclusions suit you best” (878). He claims that the prosecutor “arbitrarily decided not to suspect Smerdyakov” (890) and likewise simply chose to disbelieve Alyosha’s corroborating testimony (885). Prejudices are often arbitrary decisions made before seeing evidence that then lead one to disregard or reinterpret contradictory evidence.

The jury was also prejudiced against Dmitri. The defender accepts that Dmitry “may perhaps have offended as many as a hundred people in our town, thus prejudicing them against him” (875). And since the members of the jury were residents of the town—although not very well known members—it is reasonable to assume that they at least knew someone who had been offended by Dmitry. At the very least, the jury certainly knew that Dmitry had a reputation as a troublemaker. Due to his reputation, most people thought Dmitry was clearly guilty and that “the whole trial had been staged merely for form’s sake” (797). The jury most likely decided to convict Dmitry before the trial had even started. Even if they hadn’t decided to convict him beforehand, they see that as the case goes on “the case for the prosecution seemed more and more clear cut” (807). The “lopsidedness of the case” (797) made it all too easy for the jury to “put dear Mitya-boy right out of the way” (910).

We the readers know that however lopsided the case, Dmitry is innocent. The defender casts plenty of doubt upon the prosecutor’s argument and then justly argues that “as long as there is a shadow of a possibility that things might have happened as I suggested, you may not declare my client guilty as charged” (894). They decide that Dmitry is not only guilty, but guilty on every account for which he was accused “always without extenuating circumstances, without recommendation for leniency. That the jury produces an extremely condemning verdict when much of the prosecutor’s case could be doubted shows that they forced themselves to be certain. This shows that their prejudice is hindering their judgment. The evidence is insufficient to support their desired conclusion, but they accept it anyway. The jury has made a huge mistake by convicting Dmitry.

In convicting Dmitry, the jury overlooked another possibility. For them, the only options were to allow Dmitry’s troublemaking to continue or to get rid of him for good. The defender saw another option. He pleaded with the jury for a punishment that would “save his soul and regenerate him.” He wanted a “just punishment, but also the rehabilitation of our lost fellow [man]” (902). The jury did not see the change toward good that Dmitry had already undergone. Dmitry promised to “become a better man than I was before” (906) should they acquit him. The jury did not think Dmitry would follow through with his promise. They believed that he was troublemaker and would always be one. In short, the jury did not have agape-love. If they did have agape-love, they would not have judged Dmitri so harshly. They would have allowed for his innocence or at least they would have allowed for the possibility that he could change for the better.

In each of the cases I have presented, the presence of agape-love allows people to see productive possibilities that are missed when it is absent. The Grand Inquisitor cannot accept that a community might remain faithful without coercion or bribery. Grushenka comes to recognize her own worth despite her history of wrongdoing. And the jury is merciless to Dmitry because they cannot accept that he might change. When one refuses or is unable to see a potential for good in people, these possibilities do not even appear. A prejudiced view of humanity or of individuals often leads to terrible mistakes.

[1] Lecture course give at UC Berkeley, Spring of 2012. http://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/philosophy-7-001-spring-2012/id496140928

[2] Translated by Andrew MacAndrew. Bantam Classics, (1982).

Posted in Phil 7: Existentialism | Leave a comment

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on Commitment and the Constant Self

One of the main concerns for any existential thinker is to answer the question “How am I to lead a fulfilling life?” In this paper, I will compare answers to this question given by Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard. I will focus on their views on having a constant self. A constant self is maintained by a foundational belief or pursuit that gives continuity and unity to one’s life. Kierkegaard believes that without something to guarantee a constant self, one will necessarily come to despair. Nietzsche on the other hand, believes that the desire for constancy is a sign of weakness, and that freedom from enduring commitments leads to the most joyous life. Despite their disagreement on the importance of a constant self, I think Nietzsche and Kierkegaard actually agree on many points. Specifically, both thinkers value discipline, risk, uncertainty, and self-constraint as helps toward a fulfilling life. Every individual must answer the question “How shall I live?” And there is no reason to suppose that any one answer should apply to everyone. Thus, after comparing these two existential thinkers, I will explain why I believe that in the conditions in which I live, it takes more strength of will to maintain a constant self.

Kierkegaard believes that it only the strongest will “have the strength to concentrate the whole of his life’s content and the meaning of reality in a single wish” (F&T, 72)[1]. I will call the action of concentrating the whole content of one’s life an ‘unconditional commitment.’ Kierkegaard describes the experience: “he is not afraid to let his love steal upon his most secret, most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in countless coils around every ligament of his consciousness” (71). Kierkegaard thinks that unconditional commitments give one an identity, and thereby, a fulfilling purpose in life. A true unconditional commitment will last for the entirety of one’s life, whether the wish turns out to be attainable or not. For example, one might have an unconditional commitment to a romantic partner. In such a case, one will love the partner forever, even if the partner leaves or dies. “If the love becomes unhappy, he will never be able to wrench himself out of it” (71). To change one’s mind on a commitment is to change one’s identity. Kierkegaard recognizes the great amount of risk involved in making an unconditional commitment, and it is precisely the risk that keeps “lower natures”—as he calls them—from making such a commitment. In order to make an unconditional commitment, one needs to focus her entire being on to one thing. Those without unconditional commitments, according to Kierkegaard, lack an identity and are thus not fully human and will necessarily come to despair; not a fulfilling life to say the least.

Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche glorifies strength of will and believes that only by exercising a strong will can one live the best kind of life. However, Nietzsche believes strength is manifested in the exact opposite way as Kierkegaard. He thinks that desires for constancy, steadiness, or certainty are signs of weakness. “The demand that one wants by all means that something should be firm … is still the demand for support, a prop, in short that instinct of weakness” (GS, §347)[2]. Instead, he believes that the strong are continually outgrowing beliefs, desires, commitments, and anything else that might lean on for stability. Nietzsche’s pattern for the best life can be called ‘brief habits.’ “I love brief habits” (§295). A brief habit is a temporary commitment. Nietzsche describes the experience: “I always believe that here is something that will give me lasting satisfaction … [it] spreads a deep contentment all around itself and deep into me so that I desire nothing else” (§295). So far it sounds very similar to the committing experience Kierkegaard described. However, for a brief habit, “one day its time is up” (§295). When the time of a brief habit is up, one must move on the next brief habit. Anything that lasts too long is to be avoided. For Nietzsche, a constant self has no appeal, and he just flat out denies that lack of a constant self will lead to despair. In the aphorism entitled “The meaning of our cheerfulness” (§343) Nietzsche explains that the ability one has to be free of any long-lasting commitment is the greatest source of happiness for the strong. The strong, Nietzsche thinks, are continually growing and changing and cannot enjoy constancy even if they were to desire it.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche disagree on the importance of having a constant self, but they agree on more than one might think. Nietzsche thinks that faith is always a desire for certainty and stability. Kierkegaard may have thought that the common understanding of faith was just that, but he certainly did not think that a true understanding of faith amounted to a desire for certainty. For Kierkegaard, one’s commitment will sometimes require him to do very unusual things, and he will “never be assured” (F&T, 99) that what he is doing is right. The committed individual maintains her commitment despite “every moment [seeing] the sword hanging over the loved one’s head” (79). The committed individual is far from clinging to faith as a kind of life-support. For both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the strong must leave certainty behind.

At first, it might seem that Kierkegaard would criticize the ‘brief habits’ lifestyle for lacking risk and discipline. The ‘brief habits’ lifestyle seems like what Kierkegaard would call “immediacy,” which is a life devoid of thinking, in which one merely seeks to satisfy his immediate desires. Nietzsche’s brief habits seem like immediacy because one goes through life entertaining a habit only until a better one comes along. For Kierkegaard, it is a sign of strength to stay with a commitment even after it is no longer satisfying or easy. However, Nietzsche is no stranger to risk. He writes: “the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fulfillment and the greatest enjoyment is—to live dangerously!” (GS, §283). Nietzsche agrees that risk-taking is a sign of strength and a source of joy, but for him, the risk comes from the kinds of habits with which one engages rather than from the possibility of an unsatisfactory commitment. Nietzsche also values discipline. He thinks that each habit can teach us many things. But, after having learned whatever the habit has to offer, one must not become reliant upon it or unable to give it up. Those who are strong “will use religion [or any other habit] for his disciplining and educating work” (BG&E, §61)[3] but the weak “NEED its discipline for moralizing and humanizing” (§252). Once again, discipline comes from the content of the habit rather than a commitment to a particular habit. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard agree that discipline, constraint, and risk are necessary for the most fulfilling kind of life, but the disagree on how they are manifested.

For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the content of a fulfilling life is not simply handed down from some outside source. Rather, it must be actively taken up. Nietzsche explains that one must create a fulfilling life and then he writes: “It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own” (GS, §290). Kierkegaard’s story is less active—one must “let [his commitment] twine in countless coils…” (F&T, 71, emphasis added)—but it is still conditional upon his choice. A fulfilling life must be chosen and created. Self-constraint is a mark of strength for both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Despite these similarities, we are still left to decide whether a life of unconditional commitment or of brief habits is the best way to fulfillment. It seems one can be involved with risk, discipline, and the growth that come with them in either lifestyle. I think it is best to look at our current social situation in answering this question. In our current capitalistic and individualistic culture, one is enticed on all sides by advertisements for the ‘new best thing.’ We are constantly told we deserve a change or something better. Capitalism and the internet make any desire we may have available any time we want. Kierkegaard compared those unable to make unconditional commitments to capitalists, moving around from one pursuit to another basing decisions solely on what will grant the most immediate gratification. Nietzsche recognizes that “every action is unknowable” (GS, §335), that is, the motivation behind every action is unknowable. It is difficult to know whether our desire to leave a habit is motivated by boredom and distraction, or by growth. The same can be said about commitments. One might stay with a decision because of discipline and determination, or out of dependence and weakness. However, I believe that our current society is organized toward shallow ‘hyper-brief habits’. And I think Nietzsche would agree: a habit needs to last longer than most are willing to stick with their decisions. He writes “Most intolerable… [is] a life entirely devoid of habits” (§295). Many commitments these days do not last long enough to be called habits. Thus, I think it is more important in our society to emphasize lasting commitment than it is to speak of outgrowing our decisions.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche disagree on the importance of a constant self in living a fulfilling life. However, they agree on more than a few points along the way. Specifically, they both value strength, discipline, risk, and self-imposed constraints. They agree that a desire for certainty can hold one back from living a fulfilling life. The insights of both thinkers are much needed in modern society. But, I believe it is more important to emphasize commitment given the shallow tendencies of our society. It may be true that one can only learn so much from any one lifestyle, but in the current American society, lifestyle changes are more likely to be motivated by boredom and laziness than a need to continue growing.


[1] Fear and Trembling, translated by Allastair Hannay. London, England: Penguin Classics 1985.

[2] The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufman, New York: Vintage Books 1974.

[3] Beyond Good & Evil. Translated by Helen Zimmern. gutenberg.org

Posted in Papers, Phil 7: Existentialism | Leave a comment

Hume on ‘Persons’

In his “Of Personal Identity,”1 David Hume criticizes the idea of personal identity. “The identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one” (168). In this paper, I argue for an interpretation of the passage in Hume’s Treatise where he talks about the fiction called personal identity. In the passage that I will examine in this paper (pp. 169-170), Hume characterizes the identity that we ascribe to the perceptions that make up a single person as relations of resemblance or causation. I argue that there are two ways to interpret what Hume is doing in this passage. Either he is giving the necessary and sufficient conditions for the situations in which we judge identity to hold, or he is merely explaining where our idea of identity of persons comes from. In this paper, I will present an account of, and arguments for, the first interpretation and then reject it. I will then argue that, in the passage about resemblance and causation, Hume is presenting an account of how we form the idea of a person. This interpretation puts us into a better position to understand later passages in Hume’s Treatise.

First, as background for these two interpretations, it is important to get clear on what it might mean for perceptions to bear the relations of resemblance and causation. The relation of resemblance seems like it requires no clarification. Hume writes that “an image necessarily resembles its object,” so perceptions of the same object will necessarily resemble each other, and these resembling perceptions placed next to each other will “make the whole seem like continuance of one object” (170). Since the mind only perceives one thing at a time, placing ideas next to each other can only be done by the faculty of memory. Hume defines the memory as the “faculty by which we raise up the images of past perceptions” (169). It seems safe to say that resemblance between perceptions need not be so strict that perceptions of an object from multiple angles do not resemble each other. With such a strict requirement for resemblance hardly any of our perceptions would bear the relation. Hume’s idea of resemblance is not spelled out fully, but it seems to be something like ‘appearing, sounding, feeling, smelling, or tasting nearly the same.’

A causal relation between perceptions is a bit more difficult given Hume’s particular views on causation. Hume believes that in general, and not just with the separate perceptions in the mind, we do not perceive connections between things. Thus, we never actually perceive causal connections between things in the world. When we see something of a certain type always followed by something of another type, we posit a causal connection to account for this regularity. So, according to Hume, the idea of a causal relationship of the form ‘A causes B’ is established by repeatedly observing events of type A followed by events of type B. These ideas give us the general idea of causation which states that every event has a cause.

Thus, for perceptions to bear causal relations to each other, we must observe some regularity in how they succeed each other. Hume writes, “Our impressions give rise to their correspondent idea; and these ideas, in their turn, produce other impressions” (170). Impressions of a certain thing are regularly followed by the idea of that thing. This constant pairing of impressions with corresponding ideas leads us to posit a causal connection between them. Ideas also in turn are followed by other impressions. Hume calls these ‘impressions of reflection.’ For example, we might say that the impression of a spider causes the idea of a spider, and then that the idea of a spider causes the impression of fear. Ideas can also cause other ideas, such as someone who thinks of money every time she hears something about Wall Street. In that case, the idea is causally related to the idea of money because of the constant pairing of the two ideas. In these ways, perceptions can bear causal relationships with the perceptions that come after them. But they can also bear a causal relation to those that come before. New perceptions “destroy, influence, and modify” (170) older ones. To understand this it is helpful to remember that Hume likens the mind to a stage. At any one time there is one perception on the stage. Almost as soon as a perception ‘takes the stage’ so to speak, it is replaced by a new perception. Each new impression causes a new idea which forces the current perception ‘off the stage.’ Regardless of the direction of causation, our idea of identity entails that many of the perceptions of a person, if not all, are related causally.

Now, the first interpretation of resemblance and causation between perceptions is that they are intended as necessary and sufficient conditions for the times when we intuitively ascribe identity over time to a person. It takes Hume’s intent here to be that he wants to give an account of our concept of identity that incorporates all the situations in which our intuitions of personal identity are clear and also give predictions for cases that are unclear or that we had not considered yet. According to this interpretation, Hume will have succeeded if there are no cases where his proposed conditions hold and yet we do not intuitively ascribe personal identity, or vice versa. This kind of account is probably prompted by arguments in which Hume seems to be arguing based on our intuitions. For example, right after the passage with the explanation of the two relations we are considering, Hume argues against the Lockean memory criteria. He says that identity can continue even when memory does not. He argues this by appealing to our intuitions: “Will [anyone] affirm that, because he has entirely forgot the incidents of [past] days, that the present self is not the same person with the self of that time?” (171). This argument against Locke implies that these perceptions stand in the appropriate relations whether we remember them or not, and that he thinks he can account for this intuition because we judge identity based on these relations and not by whether they are accessible to memory. In other words, this interpretation takes ‘identity’ to be a shorthand for some other relation or relations that can hold between perceptions. Hume would then be simply spelling out what those relations are.

To make this interpretation plausible, one must make a few assumptions not explicitly spelled out in the text. Of course, several different persons can have perceptions that resemble each other. Thus, in order for us to attribute identity to a set of perceptions they must be aligned in a chain where each perception is related by resemblance and causation to other perceptions in the chain. According to this interpretation every perception of a particular person bears both causal and resemblance relations to some other perception or perceptions belonging to him. This is not too much of a stretch since the relation of causation already presupposes a resemblance relation. Recall that for Hume, causal relations are established by repeated observations of events of recognizable types. These resemblance relations are brought about by memory. Our memory places a copy of some past perception ‘on the stage’ as a result of our habitual connection between things. We are able to compare perceptions and identify resemblance relations only because we are able to retrieve past perceptions. With a few additions that Hume did not explicitly say, this view seems like a plausible view that someone could in fact hold.

This interpretation accounts for most of our intuitive judgments about which person a particular perception belongs to and the ways in which our judgments about whether someone is the same person differ in special cases. For example, any person living today is judged to be a different person from Socrates because his or her memory cannot produce perceptions that bear resemblance relations to those perceptions Socrates actually had. Also, any person who can bring up an image of the past through memory, must be the same person as the person who originally perceived the content that memory. Similarly, what one person currently perceives has no causal connection with what another person perceives at the same time. Much less is there a correlation constant enough to establish a causal link in Hume’s sense. And finally, if we know that two perceptions directly caused each other, it is probably safe to say that they belong to the same person. These principles seem to guide our judgments of personal identity over time in most cases.

Although these criteria account for the judgments we make about identity in most cases, we can still think of other cases in which these connections do not hold and yet we would say that they are perceived by the same person. For example, consider when a person gets knocked out in a fight and ‘the next thing he knows’ he wakes up in a hospital. This kind of case brings up the difficulty of specifying resemblance as a sufficient condition for establishing identity. We already saw that too strict of a definition of resemblance would disallow many of our own perceptions from bearing that relation. However, if we define resemblance loosely enough to account for this case—such that any perception of a hospital resembles any other perception of a hospital, for instance—we allow the perceptions of many persons to bear the relation. It cannot be a necessary condition for our judgments of identity that all perceptions bear the relation of resemblance to some other perception. And if perceptions do not have to be related by resemblance, they will not need to be related causally either since perceptions need to resemble each other in order for us to posit the causal link. We can also think of cases where the relations do hold between several perceptions and yet we would not say that they were perceived by the same person. For example, we can imagine a mind reader whose perceptions resemble and are caused by the perceptions in another person’s mind. Even if one thinks that such a case is impossible, if she still judges that in this imaginary case the perceptions belong to separate minds, then that is enough to prove that the judgment was not made by appealing to the relations of resemblance and causation. These perceptions would bear the relations in question and yet we would not say that they must be held by the same mind. So these relations cannot be sufficient conditions describing our judgments either.

In light of these criticisms, we might take another look at why Hume talks about resemblance and causation in relation to personal identity even though he has already denied that such an identity exists. Hume thinks that most of our ideas are derived from actual impressions. Yet, it is also possible that we combine impressions or ideas together such that the resulting idea has no corresponding impression. For example we might put together our idea of a horse and a bird to come up with the idea of a pegasus. So even though we never had the impression of a pegasus we are able to form the idea of it. If it is impossible to ever have an impression of such an idea, Hume says that we have made a mistake in combining ideas. So we will do better to understand Hume as simply telling the origin of our idea of personhood, or telling why we are led to make the mistake of forming the idea of a person. In the section on resemblance he says that perceptions that seem to us to resemble each other “convey the imagination more easily from one link to another” (170). If the perceptions resemble each other enough, we will mistake them to be exactly the same perception. Hume thinks we make this move with external objects as well. When an object changes by a small of imperceptible amount, we are very likely to call it the same thing. Certain classes of the perceptions that resemble each other display regularities for which we posit causal relationships. That our chain of perceptions displays these regularities convinces us all the more that there are connections between them. Thus, Hume is saying, not that we judge or should judge identity when perceptions resemble or seem to cause each other, but that when we think these relations hold, we will posit, incorrectly, that they belong to the same person.

The cases mentioned above do not pose counter-examples if we understand Hume to be offering conditions in which the idea of person arises. If this is true, Hume will not need to account for all the nuances of the situations in which we would or would not judge personal identity to hold. In fact, he writes that “we have no just standard by which we can decide any dispute concerning the time when they acquire or lose a title to the name of identity” (171). Nor does the problem of rigorously defining the relation of resemblance come up. We see that some of our own perceptions resemble each other, and thereby posit that both were perceived by the same person, namely ourselves. Other passages around the descriptions of resemblance and causation clarify Hume’s intent. “Our notions of personal identity proceed entirely from the smooth and uninterrupted progress of the thought along a train of connected ideas, according to the principles above explained” (169). He also says that these comments concern “the first origin and uncertainty of our notion of identity, as applied to the human mind” (171).

However, even if we take this to be Hume’s intention, the counter-examples from above still pose problems for Hume. We judge the knocked-out fighter to be the same person even while he is unconscious. We use the idea of person in cases where resemblance and causal relations do not hold, so our idea of personhood must contain more than just those two relations.

Hume noticed these problems and their implications as well. Later in the Treatise, Hume admits that he his account leads him to unsatisfactory results. Hume thinks that strictly speaking, we do not perceive that these relations hold between perceptions. We do not perceive any connection between any perceptions. But, something makes it the case that all of my perceptions are unified with each other while my perceptions are not unified with any of those of someone else. In his own words, Hume believes his account leads to two conflicting conclusions, “that all our perceptions are distinct existences and that the mind never perceives any real connexion between distinct existences” (175-176). These beliefs are only irreconcilable if we also hold that all of the perceptions of what we generally call a person are actually connected somehow. The way Hume phrases his result shows that he know he cannot account for these connections. His use of ‘Our perceptions’ implies that perceptions are owned by someone or something. But how can a perception be owed when all that exists besides it is more perceptions? All of my perceptions are connected and all of your perceptions are connected but my perceptions are not connected to yours. To even state this, one must recognize that there is why I call a certain set of perceptions “mine” in order to distinguish them from yours. Hume seems to be saying that ‘person’ can’t be a fiction after all since all these connections hold. But, he admits that he cannot account for how they are connected and how we know about the connections.

If one held the first interpretation, he might believe that Hume is admitting only that he cannot find the right relations that we posit when positing personal identity. He would believe that the two results mentioned above are incompatible insofar as he cannot discover the ‘non-real’ connections, i.e. those which we merely posit, between the distinct perceptions. Understanding the earlier passage in the way I have described allows us to see that Hume understood both ways to look at personal identity and anticipated the problems to both.

1 Quotations are taken from Section 6 of Part IV of Book I of the treatise as printed in Personal Identity. Ed. John Perry. University of California Press. 2008. Pages 161-172.

Posted in Papers, Phil 100: Methods | 1 Comment

Seeing What Will Be So?

What we can know through perception depends on what we get in perception. Barry Stroud1 and Fred Dretske2 espouse a view of perception that allows us to get much more in perception than has traditionally been thought possible. I will call their view “propositional perception” or PP for short. I call it this because what we see “is described in a sentence in which the compliment of the perceptual verb ‘see’ [for example] is a sentence with a truth-value, not a singular term referring to an object” (Stroud, 93). Many skeptical problems can be reduced by this new understanding of perception. But it also seems to imply that we can perceive the future. In this paper, I will show how PP comes to this result. I will then offer a possible response that Stroud or Dretske might give in order to avoid this result. Finally, I will offer some criticisms of this possible response. Thus, I will show that PP is not (at least now) able to avoid saying that we can perceive future events before they happen.

PP was developed in response to what can be called the restricted view of perception. Accounts involving sense data or mere appearances fall under this description. The idea is that strictly speaking, in experience we only get how things appear to be and that we need to add some other assuring element to this appearance in order to have knowledge of how things are. This view of perception led to major skeptical problems because nothing seemed to be able to offer enough assurance to such bare appearances. It could be, in any case, that we are presented with the exact same appearance that we now perceive and yet the world does not in fact match that appearance. Instead, PP holds that what we get in perception is much more than just an appearance of what may or not actually be the case.

The main insight of PP is that there is more going on in perception than just passively receiving appearances. PP holds that in perception we judge our experience to be the instantiation of some concept or other. For example, Dretske traces our difficulty in answering the problem of other minds to the fact that a person’s mental states are not able to be captured by this ‘appearance-only,’ view of perception. We run into a problem when we emphasize our inability to see someone’s pain. Instead, he thinks we should say that we see that someone is in pain. He thinks that with this description, we can better understand that we can directly perceive that someone is in a certain mental state. Similarly, Stroud writes that we can see (and thereby know) things “by perception alone” (92). These claims do not mean that our beliefs and knowledge do not play a role. Quite the opposite, Stroud and Dretske think that the major skeptical problems that have plagued philosophy for the past several centuries come about precisely by denying that beliefs are part of perception. The traditional view of perception is restricted in that it does not include our faculty for recognizing concepts in our experience.

PP also allows that we can come to incorporate more beliefs and knowledge into perception. For example, Dretske writes that he can tell what mood his wife is in better than others. “Knowing her as I do I can also see when she is tired, bored, uncomfortable, frustrated, and interested” (34). An example from Stroud is that he can see that his neighbor is home just by seeing her car in her driveway. He knows that she rarely takes the bus and so forth, so he is able to come to see this fact even when he cannot see her in her house. Under the restricted view of perception, these beliefs can only be added inferentially to the way things appear in order to become the corresponding belief. It may be the case that at first Stroud had to use his belief that his neighbor always travels by car inferentially, but over time the belief has been built into his perceptual faculty. Neither Stroud nor Dretske write much about the process of building beliefs into perception. They may even believe that simply holding a belief allows it to be used in perception. Regardless, it is this capability of using belief and knowledge non-inferentially in perception that allows PP to overcome many skeptical worries.

Stroud has also argued that PP is essential in a proof of the external world. Roughly, the idea is that the concepts we use in perception must be gained and mastered by actually experiencing the concept instantiated at some time prior. So, even though we cannot prove in a particular case that the concept we employ is actually instantiated, we must have correctly recognized the concept at some point. Dretske has argued that the problem of other minds is no different from the problem of other worlds, so it is easy to imagine a similar proof for the existence of other minds.

This same ability to incorporate beliefs into perception—which aids in solving these skeptical problems—seems to allow that we can see that future events will happen. For example based on our belief that unsupported bodies fall, we might say that we see that a rolling ball will fall once it reaches the edge of the table. Or we might say that we see that someone will respond when she is asked a question because we see that she is listening. Dretske writes that we can “tell by a person’s enthusiasm that cocktails are about to be served” (43). In general, if we are able to build our belief in the laws of physics into perception, PP would say that we are able to see that the events these laws predict will occur. Even without a belief in laws, these concepts themselves seem to imply future states of the things we ascribe them to. The concept of ‘rolling’ involves that a rolling object is in motion and therefore will soon be in a new position. Likewise, a person who is ‘listening’ will soon be thinking about whatever is said next. If we are able to incorporate these concepts into perception such that we are able to recognize them directly and non-inferentially in our experience, then we are able to perceive these events that are included in them.

I suppose it is possible that Stroud and Dretske might just accept that their view entails that we can see the future, but since that view differs so greatly from the common sense they believe to be vindicated by PP, I will assume that this is a problem for them. If they choose to reject that we can see that future events will happen, one way they may respond is that there are certain concepts that cannot be built into perception. Some concepts involve temporal extension of a certain state, like rolling or dancing or listening. Peter Strawson makes such a distinction with what he calls ‘P-predicates’ which are used in attributing intentions to persons. They “imply intention or a state of mind or at least consciousness in general, and which indicate a characteristic pattern, or range of patterns, of bodily movement” (111).3 Strawson realizes that these kinds of predicates give us reason to believe that future movements of a body will take place because the future movement is included in the predicate. So, the response would say, in cases where we use a temporal concepts like Strawson’s P-predicates, we can only make an inference about what will happen in the future. Our experience of the rolling ball or the dancing person should be described as seeing reason to believe that the ball will fall or that dancing person will continue dancing. After all, the ball might be picked up before it reaches the edge, but that would not negate our judgement that it was rolling. Other predicates that don’t include some future state can be built into perception.

This response seems incorrect for two reasons. First, as Dretske himself noticed, perceptual knowledge cannot be gained through inference. This is the reason PP was developed in the first place. Dretske spells this out and calls it the paradox of mediate knowledge. “Either P is the sort of thing that can be known immediately (non-inferentially, directly, with no evidential basis), or it is the sort of thing that can’t be known at all” (40). If P is not knowable directly then there is no way to know that something else can help us make a valid inference to know it. PP hoped to show that we can know things directly, rather than by inference as the restricted view of perception held. PP is based on the insight that nothing can validate inferences of this kind. Thus, future events must either be known directly, or they cannot be known at all.

The second reason why I think this response is flawed is that we cannot really distinguish temporal predicates from non-temporal ones. Tables continue to be tables in the same way that rolling things continue to roll. Our belief that the future will resemble the past leads us to believe that static states will continue just as much as it leads us to believe that dynamic states will alter something in time. If I saw that something is red and I also believe that nothing has changed its color, when I see that it is now green I will question our past perception. Did I really see that it was red? That I will predict it to remain red shows we can make a prediction even with predicates that do not seem to contain a temporal element. Even if we could distinguish temporal predicates, we predict future states based on non-temporal predicates just as much as we might based on temporal ones.

Stroud and Dretske developed PP because they believed that the traditional view of perception allowed us to gain too little from perception. But PP allows us to gain too much. Simply receiving appearances from perception does not allow any knowledge since all knowledge requires the application of a concept. But denying the separation of the faculties of perception and that of conceptual application allows knowledge that we are uncomfortable accepting. Unless there is some way to distinguish the concepts that can be incorporated into perception, PP in too powerful of a view of perception.

1 Stroud’s views on this topic are taken from “Seeing What Is So” Printed in Perception, Causation, and Objectivity. Roessler J. et al (eds). 2011. pp. 92-102.

2 Dretske’s views are taken from “Perception and Other Minds” Nous 7 (1). 1973. pp. 34-44.

3 Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Methuen & Co. 1959.

Posted in Papers, Phil 122: Knowledge | 3 Comments

Villa On Arendt On Thinking And Judgment

Dana Villa has attempted to resolve what appears to him to be a paradox in the thought of Hannah Arendt. She found Adolf Eichmann guilty of thoughtlessness. And yet, she excused the great thinker, Martin Heidegger, of his participation in National Socialism. For Villa these claims do not fit with the message he takes from Arendt’s essay “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” namely that “thinking/philosophy makes one moral” (Villa, 181). Villa argues that Arendt warns us against thinking in its purest form and that she actually condemns Heidegger for his over-insistence on purity of thought as the cause of his infamous “error in judgement.” I will show that Villa develops this paradox by misunderstanding the connection between thinking and judgement. I will argue that if we understand “Thinking and Moral Considerations” correctly, this paradox does not even come up. Arendt, like her model thinker Socrates, “denied that thinking corrupts” and yet “did not pretend that it improves” (TMC, 178).

Thinking and judgement are obviously the two main topics in “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” They are certainly the two concepts whose relationship Villa takes as his starting point in talking about the essay. But before talking about how Villa understands them to work together, I need to explain what they are on their own. “Thinking’s chief characteristic is that it interrupts all doing” (TMC, 164). Thinking is the activity of stepping back from our everyday tasks and examining them. We examine the concepts we use everyday in making decisions and communicating with each other. For this reason, thinking is an unnatural and exhausting process. Thinking is distinguished from mankind’s natural thirst for knowledge. The thirst for knowledge always seeks particular truths, it seeks useful results. Thinking produces no results; in fact it “dissolves” those concepts we previously believed that we knew. Arendt tries to learn about the experience of thinking from the man she believes to be the “purest thinker of the West.” Socrates always engaged learned men and tried to learn from them what a particular concept means. He was never successful in this regard because as soon as he inquired into the concept’s meaning, the concept only became much more obscure. Arendt calls this effect “the wind of thought.” It ‘blows down’ the structure behind all of our concepts as well as the structure of its own results. Following Kant, Arendt distinguishes the faculty of thinking and that of judgment. “Thinking deals with invisibles, with representations of things that are absent; judging always concerns particulars and things close at hand” (TMC, 189). Judgement is the ability to say “This is wrong” or “This is beautiful” etc. To judge particulars is to consider them “without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits” (TMC, 188-9). Since thinking dissolves these general rules, it obviously has a lot to do with our ability to judge. Thinking and judgment are central for Arendt’s intended conclusion and much hinges on their relationship.

In the introductory section of “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Arendt makes her intent clear. The essay is meant to answer the “quaestio juris,” or the question of justification concerning the use of the concept of ‘the banality of evil.’ This concept is that one can do evil without thinking about it or without personal motive. The banality of evil refers to “the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer” (TMC, 159), a phenomenon Arendt believed Eichmann to embody. Assuming that this phenomenon is possible and it is an accurate description of Eichmann, we have a problem in explaining our intuition that he is still guilty. In other words, Arendt wants to explain why we judge Eichmann to be guilty even though he “never realized what he was doing” (EIJ, 287). Arendt writes that Eichmann’s sole distinguishing characteristic is his inability to think. Taking this as her clue, she asks “Could the activity of thinking as such … be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evildoing?” (EIJ, 160)

Dana Villa believes that she ultimately answers this question with “a qualified yes” (180). Villa thinks that for Arendt, “thought and reflection promote the faculty of judgement” (180) which faculty Arendt describes as “the ability to tell right from wrong” (TMC, 189). He recognizes that “strictly speaking, thinking has no results,” but says that morality is a “side effect” (Villa, 186) of thinking. According to Villa, Arendt thinks that a characteristic problem of modern society is that we have lost the ability to judge. Eichmann, then, is only one instance of this problem. His story presents a dramatic case of the evils that this lack of judgement can allow. Villa writes that without the ability to judge, we rely on general rules to “navigate everyday life without having to stop and think” (184). Villa calls decisions we make according to these general rules “automatic judgements.” In other words, we lazily make whatever judgment the general rule dictates. Eichmann’s crime then, according to Villa’s Arendt, is that he thoughtlessly acted according to the set of rules given to him just like we thoughtlessly act according to whatever set of rules we have. It just so happens that Eichmann’s rules told him to commit evil, but—as Villa seems to have Arendt say—we all should take the lesson and think more about what we do. Since thinking effectively dissolves all moral systems and rules of conduct, it might seem that thinking would have prevented the evil Eichmann committed. He would have been able to step back from the orders he was given and recognize them for what they were.

These results create a great difficulty for Villa. How can Arendt be saying that thinking promotes judgment and yet excuse Heidegger’s error in judgment? Heidegger was certainly a great thinker in Arendt’s eyes, but he was also a member of the Nazi party for several years and did much to further the party’s cause. In order to resolve the conflict, Villa chooses to deny that Arendt excused Heidegger. Instead, he believes that Arendt condemns Heidegger and his way of thinking. He points to Arendt’s claim that thinking is inherently dangerous. For both Arendt and Heidegger, thinking disengages one from doing. The danger is that if one thinks too much, the “connection between thinking and judgment is severed once and for all” (Villa, 192). Thinking deals with invisibles and judgment deals with particulars. If one spends too much time with invisibles the ability to deal with particulars disappears. Villa takes Heidegger to prefer things that way. “Heidegger insists that thinking be released from the demand that it serve either acting or making” (188). Completely divorcing thinking from doing negates the moral side-effect thinking usually has. Arendt would have to condemn Heidegger if she believed that thinking prevents evil.

Villa takes Arendt’s essay to be an attack on Martin Heidegger’s over-pure style of thinking, but the essay displays many similarities to Heidegger’s thought and she never explicitly attacks his views. Arendt quotes Heidegger’s “Introduction to Metaphysics” in order to support her claim that thinking is an unnatural activity. If she wanted to denounce Heideggerian thinking she would not have taken his writings on the topic as informative. And if she wanted to warn the reader against evil to which she thought Heidegger’s thought led, she certainly would not have quoted the text in which Heidegger refers to the “inner truth and greatness” (IM, 166) of National Socialism. Arendt’s claim that thinking interrupts all doing is basically a paraphrase of a point in this lecture. Heidegger says when we think, “we set aside everything that is on the order of the day” (IM, 10). It is not clear where Villa finds Arendt warning against thinking too much. Arendt writes that the “danger inherent in thinking” is that some thinkers are tempted to desire results from this resultless enterprise. After having dissolved the current value system they replace it with the same system turned upside down. They are “as though they had never gone through the thinking process” (TMC, 177). She is really warning against not thinking enough. Arendt should not be taken to attack or condemn Heidegger for thinking too much or too purely.

Ultimately, I believe that Villa’s interpretation of “Thinking and Moral Considerations” springs from a mistaken understanding of the relationship of thinking and judgement. Villa is right that a condemnation of Heideggerian thought follows from the belief that thinking promotes judgment. So since she did not condemn him, she must not believe that thinking promotes judgement. Arendt never does claim that thinking promotes judgment, the ability to tell good from evil. The only causal claim linking thinking and evil that I can find in “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is this: Thoughtlessness can cause evil. This does not necessarily imply that thought prevents evil. Even if it is true that failure to water a plant causes it to die, it does not follow that properly watering plants prevents their death. Even in a case like Eichmann’s where it is known that a particular thoughtlessness caused evil, it does not follow that had that thoughtless not occurred, the evil would not have. Even if Eichmann thought about what he was doing, he still might have done it. He might have fallen for “the greatest danger of thinking” (TMC, 176) and reversed his previous value system. She even indirectly denies that morality is a side-effect of thinking. She writes that Socrates supposedly believed that “talking and thinking about piety justice, courage and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more courageous, even though they were not given either definitions or ‘values’ to direct their further conduct.” She then spends the next three pages explaining “what Socrates actually believed in in such matters” (TMC, 173). Since Socrates didn’t believe morality was a side-effect of thinking and Arendt takes him as her model thinker, we can conclude that she did not believe it either. Nothing in “Thinking and Moral Considerations” indicates that Arendt believed that “thinking/philosophy makes one moral” (Villa, 181).

Villa’s understanding of thinking and judgment seems to gain its greatest support from the last few lines of “Thinking and Moral Considerations” where Arendt writes “The manifestation of the wind of thought is no knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong” (189). Surely, Villa takes this to mean that in thinking we increase our ability to judge. I believe Arendt is really saying that in thinking we activate, or make possible the use of our ability to judge. On the previous page, Arendt says that thinking “will not find out, once and for all, what ‘the good’ is” (188). Thinking does not tell us what ‘the good’ is, nor does it tell us what is good. But it does allow us to see actions without the accepted rules of conduct that cloud such a vision. It an earlier essay “Introduction Into Politics,” Arendt writes that a prejudice, like an accepted rule of conduct, “not only anticipates and blocks judgment, but also makes both judgment and a genuine experience of the present impossible” (IP, 101). Villa believes we let the general rules tell us what judgments to make. He calls this “automatic judgment,” but now we can see that when general rules prevail, judgment is impossible. Decisions dictated by the general rules are not judgments at all. By dissolving these prejudices and general rules through thinking, it becomes possible to use the ability to judge that was dormant all along. And if thinking merely makes judgment possible—rather than promoting it—we can by no means expect every thinker to be a good judge.

Arendt cannot be understood as believing that thinking makes one infallible. Heidegger is the counter-example to this belief, not the exception to it. Eichmann’s main crime, among the many others, was what may be the most widespread crime of modernity; thoughtlessness. Had Eichmann been capable of thinking through the moral system handed to him, it is possible, maybe even probable that he would not have sent so many to their death. The possibility of preventing evil, even if remote, is enough to require all to think. Obviously, Heidegger’s case is very different from Eichmann’s, but oddly enough, the thinker and non-thinker alike can fall into similar mistakes.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Books.

—. “Introduction into Politics” The Promise of Politics. Ed. Kohn, Jerome. New York: Schocken Books, 2005.

—. “Thinking and Moral Considerations” Responsibility and Judgment. Ed. Kohn, Jerome. New York: Schocken Books, 2003.

Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961.

Villa, Dana R. “The Banality of Philosophy: Arendt on Heidegger and Eichmann” Hannah Arendt: Twenty Years Later. Eds. May, Larry and Kohn, Jerome. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1997.

Posted in Germ 157C: Heidegger and Arendt, Papers | 1 Comment

Parfit On Personal Identity

Derek Parfitproposes that we separate the notions of identity and survival. This follows, he thinks, from the results of certain thought experiments—such as one put forth by David Wiggins—which seem to suggest that it is possible for A to survive into the future even if nobody will be identical to A at that time. This does not mean, however, that he places no conditions on survival. The conditions Parfit places on survival are possession of “character and apparent memories” (200). These conditions map fairly well onto a common use of the word ‘survive.’ They also suggest that many important questions can be decided without the use of the notion of identity, as was previously thought. However, many more questions are still left unanswered. Parfit’s conditions also lead to some quite counter-intuitive results which leads me to question the validity of Parfit’s new definition of survival. I will argue that for these reasons we should not think that one survives into the future if Parfit’s proposed conditions obtain.

Parfit takes these conditions over from those used in thought experiments by Sydney Shoemaker. He proposes that it makes sense to think of someone surviving after having his or her brain transplanted into a new body because “the resulting person has [the original person’s] character and apparent memories” (200). David Wiggins goes on to imagine a case where one person’s brain is split in two and each hemisphere is transplanted into a new body. Parfit thinks that in this case we must say that the person survives as two persons. This case leads Parfit to say, in order to avoid contradictions, that we should separate survival and identity since the two resulting persons are clearly not identical.

Parfit then redefines memory and other psychological relationships such that one need not be the same person as the one who originally experienced the thing remembered. This implies that survival is not transitive. If X remembers most of Y’s life and Y remembers most of Z’s life, X will not necessarily remember most of Z’s life. For Z to survive as X, X must have direct memories of Z’s life. This notion of survival already has some use in our common ways of speaking. We sometimes say that one can survive through his or her children. Parfit’s conditions would make sense of this by pointing to character traits shared by the parent and the child. And, in line with Parfit’s proposal, as generations go on we would say less and less that grandparents and so on survive through currently living persons.

Parfit’s conditions suggest, as he notes, that certain important questions, such as that of survival, can be solved without reliance on the notion of identity. But many other questions are left unanswered. It seems possible, at least in theory, to survive a process of division into several different persons. If someone enters into a contract and then divides who is responsible for upholding the contract? If I borrow money from someone and then she divides, to whom do I owe money? If someone commits a crime and then divides, who should we arrest? If a married woman divides should we arrest the husband of these women for practicing bigamy (illegal in all 50 states and many other countries)? It does not seem that these questions can be decided in any principled way without reference to the notion of identity.

These conditions of survival also leave unanswered more relevant questions. Parfit notes that these conditions on survival imply that survival is a relation of degree. Possessing half of A’s memories means that A half-survives. But, suppose someone is subject to brain damage such that only one character trait and one apparent memory remain. Should we say in such a case, that he survives? We might say that he only ‘survives’ in that his body is still alive, but that an otherwise unrelated person now inhabits the body. If Parfit says that he does not survive, then he will need to revise his conditions such that one needs to possess a certain degree of character and apparent memories in order to count as surviving. This would then need to be supported by an argument that tell us why that specific degree is the condition for survival rather than an arbitrarily chosen degree.

It might seem easier then just to stick with the current account and say that someone suffering brain damage such that only one character trait and one memory remain does survive the brain damage. But this leads to results even less satisfactory than before. Certain cases of source amnesia involve a subject who comes to believe, on the basis of hearing a story for example, that he or she has actually experienced the events of the story. Thus it is possible to remember experiences that actually happened to another person. Similarly, it is common for character traits to ‘rub off’ onto others with whom one has close contact. Imagine two friends, A and B, such that both of these scenarios obtain. B has at least one of A’s traits and at least one of A’s memories. Parfit’s conditions lead to the unintuitive result that A will have survived as B.

I think the severe brain damage case poses a real problem for Parfit. Assuming that in every case, a person either survives or doesn’t, either way Parfit could decide the survival of the brain damage patient seems unsatisfactory. Either Parfit needs to supplement his account by saying to what degree these psychological connectedness must obtain in order to count as survival, or his theory predicts that one can survive as another person without dying. We can even imagine, in the scenario with A and B, that B dies before A. This suggests that we do not judge survival on the basis of connectedness of psychological states.

1) Parfit presents these claims in his essay “Personal Identity.” Quotations refer to the essay as printed in Personal Identity. Ed. John Perry. University of California Press. 2008. Pages 199-223.


Posted in Papers, Phil 100: Methods | Leave a comment

Heidegger On Philosophy Itself

It would seem that in order do philosophy at all, one must first know what philosophy is. Like many other philosophers, Martin Heidegger has a unique answer to the question “What is philosophy?” This paper will examine comments Heidegger has made on the nature and use of philosophy. I will draw these comments mainly from three of Heidegger’s works, What is Philosophy?1, Basic Questions of Philosophy2, and Being & Time3. In these works, Heidegger explains the correct way to reach a definition of philosophy, and the methods and attitudes with which philosophy should proceed given that definition. I will argue that in each of these three works, Heidegger teaches that philosophy is concerned with making explicit our pre-theoretical understanding of being. I will then discuss the importance of the philosophical mood, astonishment, (which he also describes as anxiety, perplexity, and awe) in helping us make this understanding explicit. I will also look at what value he thinks philosophy has (if any) for a society.

Heidegger deals with the question “What is Philosophy?” in a lecture of the same name. His treatment of the question is something like the following. Naturally, we must answer this question before we can engage with philosophy. But, in order to ask “What is X?” we must already know X, at least enough to differentiate it from other things. Thus, we should rephrase our question to “What is that which is called ‘Philosophy’?” Obviously, all past philosophers have known, at least in part, that with which they have engaged. If this is so, we can come to an understanding of philosophy simply by taking the common denominator abstracted from the projects of each of these philosophers. The result would then apply to every philosopher with equal validity. And this is precisely why it is the worst thing we can do to try to answer the question. We would need to know what philosophy is even to decide who qualifies as a philosopher. And even if this strategy worked, it would merely give us a historical answer. We need a philosophical answer to this question if ever a philosophical answer is appropriate. In that case, we need to be able to engage in philosophy before we can decide what philosophy is; just the opposite of what is natural. This seems like a circle. “Philosophy itself seems to be this circle” (WP, 43).

This treatment of the definition of philosophy is characteristic of Heidegger’s method of definition in general. In Basic Questions of Philosophy, he writes “Philosophy is knowledge of the essence of things” (BQ, 29). He tells of a similar mistaken way to grasp an essence. From Aristotle to Descartes and beyond, the essence of a thing has been sought through an accumulation of facts about that thing. “For in order to discover the facts pertaining to the essence and to select them and exhibit them as justifications for the legitimacy of this positing of the essence, the positing of the essence must already be presupposed” (BQ, 83). Aristotle’s method would be to round up all the Xs and see what they all have. But in order to round them all up, one would have to be able to distinguish them from non-Xs. And to distinguish them requires knowing what X is, and what it isn’t. If we must presuppose the essence before we know anything about it and yet we are able to ask about the essence, we must not know the essence in the normal way. We cannot know any fact about something without already grasping its essence in some way. This means the essence of something will not be established by more information about the thing. Our grasp of essence must somehow come from what we already know since we have to know this before we can even ask the question.

Heidegger goes on to talk about how we do grasp the essence. “The essence of something is not at all to be discovered simply like a fact; on the contrary, it must be brought forth, since it is not directly present in the sphere of immediate representing and intending” (BQ, 83). We have to grasp the essence already and we don’t know it explicitly, so we must bring it forth. Heidegger calls this act of bringing forth, “productive seeing” (84). Thus, the essence of that which we encounter depends on us in some way. However, we obviously don’t decide what the essence is since we have to ask what it is. Somehow we have implicitly brought forth the essence of the thing in order to interact with it at all.

Philosophical knowledge based on fact is similarly repudiated and replaced with a more primordial form of knowledge in Being & Time. Heidegger writes that Descartes envisioned the world being made up of extended substances with properties. The essence of a thing is given by those properties that are always present in the given substance. Properties are established the same way as facts. A property of a thing is just another way of saying fact about a thing. Instead, Heidegger thinks that we grasp the being of a thing by looking at the other things with which it is used in our everyday practices. Using things is a closer relationship in which things are revealed in their specific being. This is a closer relationship because the usefulness of things is what makes them meaningful to us. For example, a hammer refers to nails and wood, and these are involved in the practice of carpentry which is practiced to make shelter for ourselves or others. The network of all the references and involvements makes up what Heidegger calls the “world.” By only looking at the facts of individual things, Descartes passed over the phenomenon of world.

That wherein Dasein already understands itself in this way is always something with which it is primordially familiar. This familiarity with the world does not necessarily require that the relations which are constitutive for the world as world should be theoretically transparent. However, the possibility of giving these relations an explicit ontologico-existential Interpretation, is grounded in this familiarity with the world; and this familiarity, in turn, is constitutive for Dasein, and goes up to make up Dasein’s understanding of Being. (B&T 119 [86])

Just like our knowledge of essence or of philosophy, our understanding of the world is implicit and must be presupposed before inquiry can begin and, more importantly, before facts can show up to us. We already know what the being of things are, even though it is not transparent or explicitly known. If we were to make this understanding explicit though, we would find out our understanding of being.

In What is Philosophy?, Heidegger finally answers that philosophy “consists in our corresponding to [answering to] that towards which philosophy is on the way. And that is—the Being of being” (71). Philosophy is a dialogue with being. Being depends on us to bring it forth, but it is not all up to us. Being has something to say as well. Bringing forth the essence of a thing, and seeing the referential relationships that make a thing meaningful to us are examples of a correspondence with being. “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy” (WP, 75). We always already correspond with Being, just like how we are always already familiar with the world, just like how we already grasp the essence of things. We participate in a dialogue with being without even thinking about it. But to fully correspond with being, to really do philosophy, we must specifically adopt the attitude of corresponding with the unfolding of being. This means that philosophy is making these pre-theoretical understandings explicit.

Making our pre-theoretical understanding explicit is not easy. Heidegger thinks that we need to be in the right mood in order to explicitly see our correspondence with being. In the preface to Being & Time, Heidegger writes that philosophers have become perplexed or embarrassed with the word “being.” They previously thought that being was very simple and easy to understand, but when asked about it, they could not say anything illuminating. Later in that book he writes that we are so preoccupied with and absorbed in our dealings with the world, we generally take for granted (like Descartes) all the references that make up the world. We must become perplexed in order to raise the question, but even then, the answer we seek is so primordial, we can’t simply will ourselves to see it. Anxiety, however comes upon us at times and we are forced to see the world and in particular, that it is groundless. In Basic Questions of Philosophy, Heidegger roughly describes this process as “terror in the face of what is closest and most obtrusive, namely that beings are” followed by “awe in the face of what is remotest, namely that in beings, and before being, Being holds sway” (4). First, we realize that we took being for granted and that it is nothing like what we thought it was. And with this realization, we begin our inquiry. Then, through a similar mood, being is manifest to us and are able to find an answer to our question. What Heidegger writes in What is Philosophy? clarifies that these are two stages of the same mood which he there calls astonishment. “The pathos of astonishment thus does not simply stand at the beginning of philosophy, as, for example, the washing of his hands precedes the surgeon’s operation. Astonishment carries and pervades philosophy” (81). The philosophical mood not only brings up the questions philosophy is to deal with, it also provides the answers. It is both the spark that starts the engine and the fuel that propels it. Heidegger quotes Plato as saying “there is no other determining point of departure for philosophy than this” (WP, 79). We must experience the philosophical mood in order to see our pre-theoretical understanding.

Having laid out the proper subject matter, goals, and methodology of philosophy, one might still wonder “Why?” Why is it important not to pass over the phenomenon of world? Or Why should we adopt the attitude that unfolds being? Heidegger only offers negative answers to these questions. Along with his rejection of truth as correctness, he writes

Philosophy is immediately useless knowledge. Our reflection on correctness and on truth itself can accomplish nothing toward the correct solution of economic difficulties or toward the correct improvement and assurance of the public health, nor can it contribute anything to the correct increase of the speed of airplanes, or to the correct improvement of radio reception, and likewise just as little to the correct design of instructional projects in the schools. With regard to all these urgent matters of daily life, philosophy fails. (BQ, 29)

If philosophy is concerned with the essence of things, rather than the things themselves, it cannot provide any particular truth but only the essence of truth. This is a surprising result because if philosophy has no use, it would seem that we have no reason to read or study it. In the famous Der Spiegel interview, Heidegger repeatedly insisted that philosophy cannot do anything to save us from the crisis of the technological age. By the above described method Heidegger has discerned that the current understanding of being is to see things as resources, only valuable insofar as they may be used for our advantage. As noted earlier, in Being & Time Heidegger taught that a thing is seen in its specific being by looking at the practices it is used in. The practices which provide some benefit for the sake of ourselves or others. To even ask after the utility of philosophy shows the entrenchment of the technological understanding of being. Perhaps Heidegger wanted to shield philosophy from being turned into just another resource since this would only reinforce the problem. If philosophy is seen as useless, it might be spared from being taken over by the current understanding of being. Thus, Heidegger sees philosophy as an illuminating process which cannot solve the very problems it brings forth.

1 Translated by William Kluback and Jean T. Wilde. Twayne Publishers, 1958.

2 Translated by Richard Rojcewicz and Andre Schuwer. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN. 1994.

3 Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Harper Perennial, New York. 1962.

Posted in Germ 157C: Heidegger and Arendt, Papers | 14 Comments