The partially examined podcasters raised a series of very difficult questions in their recent discussion of Heidegger, particularly during a ten-minute stretch beginning about one hour and ten minutes into the 80th episode. These questions all seemed to pivot around one central problem: what does it mean to get right with Being? Should we take this as a kind of negative theology despite Heidegger’s denials, as Mark tempted us to do? Is this something like getting right with God or aligning yourself with the logos? Is this Heidegger’s way of calling us to a life of contemplation, as Wes suggested? Or is it about a Zen-like mindfulness or a matter of being “open-minded in a certain way,” as Mark put it? Can we get at the question via the artistic use of language, as Seth suggested?
While it isn’t even clear what the question means, some of these answers led to the issue of language, particularly the novel and poetic use of language. If language is the House of Being, Seth asked, “can you actually invent a new way of talking and could that project ever work? Even poetically, could you effectuate the kind of change we’re talking about”? If language is the house of Being and shapes our ways of thinking, then how is it even possible to invent new ways of talking? Shall we discuss this change using jailhouse metaphors and devise an escape plan?
I’d guess that Heidegger would expect us to be a bit mystified or disoriented because he’s not just calling for a change, a kind of paradigm shift, he’s already trying to talk to us from the other side or it, so to speak. It’s perplexing, I think, because he wants to bring new and true things into view even while he’s rejecting the way we normally construe truth as the right “view” of “things”. He wants to overcome the traditional view of truth, wherein the human subject can conceptually represent the world of objects so that true ideas correspond to objective realities. He wants to overcome the traditional view of human subject too, overcome the pure cogito or transcendental subject. Heidegger’s strange way of talking, I think, is meant to subvert much of the philosophical tradition going all the way back to Plato. As Seth once pointed out, Heidegger is giving a performance. He’s doing what he’s talking about doing. As confusing as it might be, there’s an admirable consistency to it. (One does hope to avoid an error known as the “performative contradiction, which is a kind of philosophical hypocrisy.) He doesn’t want to talk about truth in the usual terms, or the traditional ontological assumptions that go with it, because he’s trying to effectuate the change he’s calling for.
He says “Being” is closer to us than beings, for example, which I take to mean that our immediately lived experience is more real and more concrete than things or objects. The Cartesian subject, traditionally conceived as a mental being set over and against an external world, is rejected and replaced by Da-sein or being-in-the-world. The Platonic notion of seeing reality clearly – as opposed to seeing through a glass darkly or seeing only shadows on the cave wall – is dropped in favor of “World disclosure“. These kinds of changes add up to create a radically different picture wherein the world is not an object of knowledge existing outside of us but the whole background of intelligible meanings in which we are always, already situated. Language is where we dwell and it’s the site of “world disclosure”. This Heideggerian world is a “holistically structured background of meaning”. It may help to think of this “meaning” in terms of Husserl’s phenomenology. In the same way that Husserl’s consciousness always has a content, Heidegger is saying that consciousness always has a meaningful content. This is meaningful in an immediate, pre-reflective sense. This is a phenomenological claim about the quality of experience as such. A thirsty gal knows exactly what a cool glass of water “means” without having to think about it, for example.
I think classical pragmatists like John Dewey and Robert Pirsig can help shallow and naive Americans like myself to make sense of Heidegger’s strange way of talking. They make very similar moves against subject-object dualism, against the correspondence theory of truth, against the Cartesian subject, and it seems that they also share Heidegger’s desire for some kind of paradigm shift or, as one William James scholar put it, a “radical reconstruction of philosophy”. If I understand this business about World disclosure, Heidegger is basically saying that art creates worlds and philosophy is a form of art. If such a claim is made from within a subject-object metaphysics, it sounds quite implausible – if not delusional. All this fancy philosophical background forms the context in which these claims can start to make sense and bring out a new “world” which rejects the old one.
As Daniel A. Palmer explains it, “Heidegger explicitly rejects the aesthetic approach to art. The aesthetic view of art is firmly entrenched within the subject-object dichotomy that is characteristic of Western metaphysics and prejudices the enquiry into art…” (Heidegger and the Ontological Significance of the Work of Art, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No 4, October 1998, page 402). Likewise, David A. Granger’s paper compares Dewey to Pirsig and he says they “both defy traditional transcendent, foundationalist and subject-object metaphysics” (John Dewey and Robert Pirsig: An Invitation to ‘Fresh Seeing, page 1). Nikolas Kompridis (On World Disclosure: Heidegger, Habermas and Dewey, Thesis Eleven, no 37, 1994, page 31) compares some of these key ideas in Heidegger to the central ideas in Dewey and Habermas, and he says that all three of them take up new terms as an alternative to traditional subject-object dualism.
Heidegger’s analysis of ‘being-in-the-world’, Habermas’s of the ‘lifeworld’, and Dewey’s of the ‘situation’ are analogous attempts to show that we are always already situated in a pre-reflective, holistically structured, and grammatically regulated world.
These new terms don’t rhyme and they’re unlikely to fit anyone’s idea of poetry but they’ve been created and they play their roles as parts of a new vision. They are terms invented to subvert a former vision. It does seem to be a new type of language. Is this a poetic form of philosophy? Is this what world disclosure looks like? I don’t know. Maybe. Heidegger, Dewey and Pirsig certainly had things to say about actual art, or rather the fine arts, and it seems that the same ideas show up there too. As we just saw, Heidegger rejects the traditional “aesthetic view” of art and Dewey also says that the traditional conception of art fails, for example (PA 523).
It fails to see or at all events to state how poetry is a criticism of life; namely, not directly, but by disclosure, through imaginative vision addressed to imaginative experience (not to set judgment) of possibilities that contrast with actual conditions.
In the final chapter of his book Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey makes a particularly striking claim about the relationship between art and morality. He said, “Art is more moral than moralities” (The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern, edited by Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1995, page 524). Like Heidegger and Pirsig, Dewey thinks art should play a larger and more central role in our lives and culture, as opposed to being displayed under glass or behind velvet ropes. “’Poetical values are, after all, values in a human life. You cannot mark them off from other values, as though the nature of man were built in bulkheads’” (PA, page 524). We aren’t necessarily talking about the class of objects we usually associate with the fine arts. The artist’s vision allows us to conceive of a better future but this imaginative conception doesn’t necessarily involve actual poems, oil paints or bronze.
For Dewey, the “poet” is one who produces an imaginative vision in any medium so that figures such as Copernicus and Einstein, Lincoln and Gandhi, Buddha and Christ can be counted among the poets. Similarly, Dewey’s conception of morality is not limited to taboos, behavioral codes, conventional rights and wrongs, church morals or civilized behavior. Morality also extends to whatever is taken to be correct, true, good or otherwise right in general. Morality in this sense includes the way we see the world, includes the entire inherited system of values with which we interpret the world. Morality is the status quo in the broadest sense. As Dewey himself puts it, morals should be “understood to be identical with every aspect of value that is shared in experience” (PA, page 525). Dewey’s claim depends upon these expanded notions of both art and morality.
The role of art, Dewey thinks, is to subvert and refresh the status quo and that’s the sense in which art is more moral than moralities. As Dewey see it, moralities are essentially conservative and art is inherently subversive. This opposition sets up a basic dualism that we find in Heidegger and Pirsig as well, I think. Dewey was not a Satanic fan of evil, of course, and he wasn’t advocating immorality, but simply saying that art offers a critique of what is deemed normal, offers an imaginative vision that subverts the status quo precisely by offering a fresh vision of something better. “The first stirrings of dissatisfaction and the first intimations of a better future are always found in works of art,” Dewey writes, “It is by a sense of possibilities opening before us that we become aware of constrictions that hem us in and of burdens that oppress” (PA 523).
As Kompridis explains it, Heidegger’s version of this dualism is found his concept of art as world disclosure. World disclosure is, roughly speaking, a more grandiose version of the disclosure of imaginative vision as described by Dewey. Roughly speaking, Heidegger thinks of this disclosure as an epic, world-shattering act of rare genius while Dewey and Pirsig see it as an ongoing process that also happens in countless, smaller ways. For Heidegger the two sides of the process, the undermining subversive side and the creative envisioning side, are described in terms of “decentering” and “unifying-repair”. He describes the decentration process as “the scrambling and defamiliarizing of existing patterns of interpretation, action and belief and he says the unifying-repair side “refers as much to the disclosure of new horizons of meaning as to the disclosure of previously hidden or unthematized dimensions of meaning”. (Kompridis, page 29 and 30).
Interestingly, I think, Kompridis says, “the phenomenon of world disclosure has been taken up and energetically pursued in two directions. The direction taken depends on whether the decentering or unifying-repairing power of world disclosure is emphasized” (Kompridis, page 37). He names Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida as examples of thinkers who emphasize the subversive, decentering aspect and he says Charles Taylor, Hubert Dreyfus and Heidegger are among those who emphasize the unifying aspect. Both sides risk distortion, he says. The first group risks “an incoherent pluralism” and the second group risks a world “too tightly woven” (Kompridis, page 37). In other words, the first one is too dynamic and the second is too static. This is one of the areas where Heidegger parts ways with Dewey and Pirsig, I think. Because of his “too tightly woven” conception of cultural change, Heidegger paid little heed to the constant smaller changes and instead treated the phenomenon of world disclosure as a few, rare “world-historical events” or “the next verse in Being’s poem” (Kompridis, page 44, endnote #13). Kompridis thinks that Dewey strikes a good balance between these two tendencies because of the way he viewed any kind of experience as a continuous process of adjustment, of change and adaptation in an ongoing relationship. As Kompridis (page 42) explains it:
The crisis-inducing effects of disclosure, that is, its decentering effects, can be handled properly only through our constant activity of reconstructing shattered interpretations of the world in light of new ones. Dewey understood this reconstructive process as the continuous readjustment of the relationship between the ‘discrete’ and the ‘continuous’
The problem is that the “poet’s” fresh vision eventually hardens into fact and becomes the established truth. Who was it that said “truth” is a brief period between heresy and platitude? When stability turns into rigidity, when status quo becomes too oppressive, brittle, limiting or otherwise obsolete, along comes another poet to shatter that previously disclosed world. As Pirsig puts it, “In the West progress seems to proceed by a series of spasms of alternating freedom and ritual. A revolution of freedom against old rituals produces a new order, which soon becomes another old ritual for the next generation to revolt against, on and on” (Lila, page 384). Cultural change or world disclosure is rarely the aim, Pirsig thinks. The struggle is usually personal. But changes move out in waves from each center and sometimes big things happen as a result. Pirsig uses a wide range of examples, including the Bohemian revolt against Victorian morality and the hippie revolution against square America, man. He calls them “contrarians” and counts himself among them.
That’s what drives the really creative people – the artists, composers, revolutionaries and the like – the feeling that if they don’t break out of this jailhouse somebody has built around them, they’re going to die.
Finally, it would be gross negligence if I failed to mention Patrick Doorly’s new book, The Truth About Art, because it was the subject of my last blog post and it includes a version of this same dualism. He takes up Pirsig’s central terms, static and dynamic, and he makes a case that, in the fine arts or any other skilled activity, “this distinction refers to two facets of any high-quality endeavour”. It doesn’t matter if the endeavor is motorcycle maintenance and easel painting, he says, “both depend on the interaction of Static Patterns and Dynamic Quality”. Innovations and creative leaps, imaginative visions and even scientific revolutions, always begin with the status quo, with the world as previously disclosed and it happens within that house of Being, if you will. The stable order and the freedom to subvert it are both necessary, are the “two facets” of art. In practice, Doorly says, “nobody becomes an accomplished painter, sculptor, writer, musician or architect without having recognized excellence in previous examples of those arts, and taken that excellence as the starting point for new work.” I think it’s safe to say the same thing about accomplished philosophers.