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Heidegger and Being

May 2, 2013

In the past I’ve often been very dismissive of continental philosophy. In comparison to analytic philosophy it has seemed less rigorous, more dismissive of knowledge claims and to be the source of the relativism and post-modernism that I dislike in much contemporary discourse. That dismissiveness is now changing. I’ve been trying to expose myself to a wider range of philosophy, including continental philosophy, and I think it actually has a lot of important things to tell us. Like any philosophical tradition it gets it wrong at times, but such is life.

The first thing that I now realise about continental philosophers is that even if I don’t agree with all (or any) of their conclusions often they are still talking about issues that are important to me, in ways that can start me thinking about deep and meaningful questions. Camus’ discussion of suicide for example, or Sartre’s “existence precedes essence”. And I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard for just this reason. Now I’ve discovered Heidegger, who for some reason has got me very interested in his take on “being”.

The question Heidegger asks is “what is ‘is’?” He thinks that there is something fundamentally flawed with the approach that philosophy had previously taken to the nature of being. When we ask “what is a chair?” or some such question, we miss an implicit assumption in the use of the word “is” – we assume we know what it means for something to be.

I have a copy of Being and Time that I have been reading about more than actually reading, but which I will be getting stuck into soon. In it, Heidegger lays out what he sees as the three modes of being.

Firstly we have the “present-at-hand”. This is the traditional “substance ontology” – there are objects and they have properties. The presence of the object is in terms of it’s properties: “This wooden stick is brown”, “this lump of metal is solid” etc. This is the sort of being that Heidegger takes to be at the heart of how Western philosophers have treated metaphysics. It is rooted in the use of the word “is” to denote presence in the present – “what is a hammer” means “what are the properties of that object that I call a hammer now” or something like that.

But, says Heidegger, there is a second kind of “being”, the “ready-at-hand”. Consider the wooden stick and the lump of metal. When they are combined in the form of a hammer we do not perceive them (at least when we are hammering and the hammer is functioning properly). We perceive the hammer as a hammer, we use it without being conscious of the present-at-hand nature that it may possess.

Finally there is the mode of being called “Dasein”. This seemingly untranslatable German term is the mode of being that we as humans have (that isn’t to say that non-humans couldn’t also have it, but we are the only beings we are aware of who do). It is that mode of being for which this being is itself an issue (to paraphrase Heidegger). We are entities that exist in such a way that we have a pre-reflective understanding of being, distinguishing us (or our mode of being) from the present- and ready-at-hand. However, we shouldn’t think of Dasein as a subject, something separate, an entity in its own right. Rather, Dasein emerges from our interactions with the world and our understanding of “being”. Obviously this is all rather complex, and I need to get stuck into Being and Time before I can actually claim to understand any of it.

So, after that cursory summary, an obvious question is why we should care if this is true or not. Listening to a series of lectures on Heidegger by Dreyfus he gave a striking example of how Heideggerian philosophy has impacted the field of artificial intelligence that I think shows why this sort of talk matters.

What Dreyfus calls “good old-fashioned AI” has as its basis the idea that artificial intelligence can be formed on a basis of facts about the world – what objects there are and what their properties are. According to this view the present-at-hand is all that is necessary for an intelligence to interact with. However, Dreyfus came along and pointed out that there is something missing.

Consider an AI system that has a description of a hammer. It knows what the object is made of, what its properties are. But there are two important things to note. The first is that there is a fact missing from the substance ontology, the fact that “this is a hammer”. How do we know that it is a hammer? It is something that we learn by using tools in a ready-at-hand way. We may be able to recognise equipment as a hammer, but only through having learnt that it is indeed a hammer by using one as a hammer. It is not simply present-at-hand.

Secondly, what are the relevant facts about the hammer that we have to know in order to use it? We should know for instance that the grooves on the handle are designed our us to grip better. Which means we need some facts about hands and how we hold things. But what is a hand? Do we need facts about the body? Where do we stop. The problem of deciding what facts are relevant is difficult to solve. It was proposed to have a list of facts and a list of which facts were relevant. But which of these “relevances” are themselves relevant?? And so on.

These are both points that come from a Heideggerian standpoint. His philosophy was used to demonstrate that good old-fashioned AI was a doomed project – and indeed it hasn’t gone anywhere. So Heidegger and his concept of “being” has something important to tell us and can help us think about interesting problems.

And one final reason to like Heidegger – Terrence Malick was a Heidegger scholar at MIT. He studied Heidegger and proposed a phd thesis on “worlds” in Heidegger, but was told he had to do real philosophy. So he quit philosophy, went to film school and made some awesome films that make use of Heideggerian concepts. The Thin Red Line is one of my favourite films, and it turns out that when I thought is was more philosophical than most films I wasn’t imagining it…

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