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Coping with Things in Themselves: Heidegger's Robust Realism

Hubert L. Dreyfus

Science has long claimed to discover the relations among the natural kinds of the universe that exist independently of our minds or ways of coping. Today, most philosophers adopt an antirealism that consists in rejecting this thesis. Contemporary antirealists argue that the independence thesis is not just false but incoherent. Thus, these antirealists say they are as realist as it makes sense to be. Such deflationary realists, as I shall call them, claim that the objects studied by science are just as real as the baseballs, stones, and trees we encounter with our everyday coping practices, and no more. In contrast to deflationary realism, I shall defend a robust realism that argues that the independence claim makes sense, that science can in principle give us access to the functional components of the universe as they are in themselves in distinction from how they appear to us on the basis of our daily concerns, our sensory capacities, and even our way of making things intelligible.

The deflationary and the robust realist positions are each part of the heritage that Heidegger has left us. Consequently, I shall, in my first section, present the deflationary realist’s arguments against independence. Then, in the second section, I shall show that, although Heidegger pioneered the deflationary realist account of the everyday, he sought to establish a robust realist account of science. In the third and final section, I shall draw on Saul Kripke’s account of direct reference to work out Heidegger’s account of formal indication, and using this worked-out version of Heideggerian rigid designation, I will argue that we do, indeed, have practices for achieving access to things that are independent of all our practices.

I. The Argument for Deflationary Realism

The argument for deflationary realism turns on the rejection of the traditional Cartesian view of human beings as self-sufficient minds whose intentional content is directed toward the world. Both Heidegger and Donald Davidson, a leading antirealist, reject this view and substitute for it an account of human beings as inextricably involved with things and people. Heidegger holds that human beings have to take a stand on who they are by dealing with things and by assuming social roles. Davidson thinks of human beings as language users who, in order to have any mental content of their own, must take up the linguistic conventions of their community. I call Heidegger and Davidson practical holists because they both claim that meaning depends ultimately on the inseparability of practices, things, and mental contents. Heidegger captures this idea in his claim that human beings are essentially being-in-the-world; Davidson makes the same point in his causal theory of meaning.

Both thinkers claim that their holism enables them to answer the Cartesian skeptic. Heidegger argues that, if human beings are essentially being-in-the-world, then the skeptical question of whether the world and others exist cannot sensibly be raised by human beings, and, as Heidegger asks, "Who else would raise it?" Heidegger thus claims that any attempt to answer the skeptic is mistaken. The attempt to take the skeptic seriously and prove that we can know that there is an external world presupposes a separation of the mind from the world of things and other people which defies a phenomenological description of how human beings make sense of everyday things and of themselves. Davidson argues, on the basis of a logical reconstruction of the way people learn a language that, although people may differ concerning the truth of any particular belief, in order for a person to acquire a language at all that person must share most of the beliefs of those who speak the language and most of these shared beliefs must be true.

It follows that we cannot make sense of the question whether the totality of things could be independent of the totality of our practices or whether things are essentially dependent on our practices. To raise these questions meaningfully, requires thinking that we can conceive of the totality of things and of the totality of practices with sufficient independence from each other to claim that one is logically prior. But it turns out that we can get no perspective on our practices that does not already include things and no perspective on things that does not already involve our practices. Thus, practical holism seems to make unintelligible all claims about both things in themselves apart from our practices and the totality of practices apart from things. It seems that, since true statements about objects cannot imply either the dependence or the independence of objects vis á vis our practices, these statements must be understood as describing objects as they are in the only sense of "are" that is left, which is the "are" of ordinary situations. Thus we arrive at a deflationary view that repudiates both metaphysical realism and transcendental idealism.

Once the deflationary realist has argued that one cannot make sense of transcendental idealism or of metaphysical realism, he is able to accept the results of science at face value so long as he makes neither the robust realist’s claim that science gives us an account of the functional demarcations of the universe as it is in itself, on the one hand, nor the extreme constructivist’s claim that nature must be a cultural creation, on the other. When asked whether it makes sense to claim that things existed in nature before human beings came along and that they would have existed even if human beings had never existed, the deflationary realist can sound like a scientist, saying, on the basis of empirical findings, that of course it makes sense to claim that some types of entities were there before us and would still be there if we had never existed and others would not. But the Davidsonian practical holist says this on a background of meaning that makes any talk about nature as it is in itself incoherent.

II. Heidegger’s Attempt at Robust Realism

Like Davidson, Heidegger answers the skeptic by showing that our practices and the everyday world are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, he argues at length that "Dasein is the world existingly." Moreover, Heidegger seems to agree with the deflationary realists that, while entities show up as independent of us, the being or intelligibility of entities depends on our practices. So any talk of things in themselves must be put in scare quotes. Thus, Heidegger says of natural entities:

It must be stated that entities as entities are ‘in themselves’ and independent of any apprehension of them; yet, the being of entities is found only in encounter and can be explained, made understandable, only from the phenomenal exhibition and interpretation of the structure of encounter.

And he seems even more deflationary when he adds:

Of course only as long as Dasein [human being] is (that is, only as long as an understanding of being is ontically possible), ‘is there’ being. When Dasein does not exist, ‘independence’ ‘is’ not either, nor ‘is’ the ‘in-itself.’

Joseph Rouse, in his book Knowledge and Power, sees the parallel between Heidegger’s and Davidson’s holistic answer to the skeptic and wonders why I fail to see that Heidegger must therefore be a deflationary realist. But, as I will now seek to show, in Being and Time Heidegger describes phenomena that enable him to distinguish between the everyday world and the universe and so claim to be a robust realist about the entities discovered by natural science. Moreover, he has the conceptual resources to turn this phenomenon into a persuasive defense of robust realism.

The first two phenomena Heidegger calls to our attention are two different ways of being. He points out that normally we deal with things as equipment. Equipment gets its intelligibility from its relation to other equipment, human roles, and social goals. Heidegger calls the equipmental way of being availability [Zuhandenheit]. But Heidegger also points to another equally important phenomenon; we sometimes experience entities as independent of our instrumental coping practices. This happens in cases of equipmental breakdown. Heidegger calls the mode of being of entities so encountered, occurrentness [Vorhandenheit]. Occurrent beings are not only revealed in breakdown but also revealed when we take a detached attitude towards things that decontextualizes or–in Heidegger's terms–deworlds them. In this detached attitude, we encounter occurrent entities as substances with properties.

This experience of the occurrent is still contextual and meaningful in a weak sense. Were it not for a world in which entities could be encountered, the question of whether there could be entities independent of our concerns could not be asked, and, more importantly, without our giving meaning to the occurrent way of being, the question of independence would not make sense. So Heidegger concludes that the being or intelligibility of even the occurrent mode of being depends on us: "[B]eing ‘is’ only in the understanding of those entities to whose being something like an understanding of being belongs." But he still insists that, "entities are independently of the experience by which they are disclosed, the acquaintance in which they are discovered, and the grasping in which their nature is ascertained."

This amounts to the seemingly paradoxical claim that we have practices for making sense of entities as independent of those very practices. This intellectual gestalt figure can flip one of two ways depending upon whether one emphasizes the dependence on the practices or the independence from those very practices. It has thus led to a three-way debate in the scholarly literature over whether Heidegger is a robust realist, a transcendental idealist, or a deflationary realist. I’ve argued, using the above quotation from Being and Time to back me up, that Heidegger is a would-be robust realist. William Blattner has countered that Heidegger must be understood as a transcendental idealist and that, consequently, all the citations that seem to support robust realism, should be read as supporting merely empirical realism. David Cerbone has responded to Blattner with a reading in the spirit of Davidson in which Heidegger’s account of the inextricable involvement of human beings and the world commits him to the view that neither robust realism nor transcendental idealism is intelligible.

In order to see more clearly why I claim that Heidegger is a would-be robust realist, we must return to the phenomenon of deworlding. As I said, Heidegger points out that in situations of instrumental breakdown, we encounter things as occurrent, as independent of the instrumental world–that is, as having no essential relation to our everyday coping practices–and as all along underlying our everyday equipment.

[W]hat cannot be used just lies there; it shows itself as an equipmental thing which looks so and so, and which, in its availableness, as looking that way, has constantly been occurrent too.

Nature is thus revealed as having been there all along. In such cases, Heidegger holds, "The understanding of being by which our concernful dealings with entities within-the-world has been guided has changed over." Our practices for coping with the available are significantly different from our practices for dealing with the occurrent. Thus, Heidegger understands this changeover from dealing with things as available to occurrent as discontinuous. This discontinuous changeover is crucial for Heidegger’s answer to deflationary realism.

The radicality of this discontinuity is often hidden by inadequate phenomenological descriptions of breakdowns. When a hammer is so heavy that the carpenter cannot use it, it is then experienced as a combination of substances (the wood and metal) with the property "heaviness." But since heaviness is context-dependent, it still presupposes the equipmental nature of hammers. But breakdown can be so severe that all that is left in experience is a mere something–"just occurrent and no more"–whose properties are not connected to its function in any intelligible way and are thus beyond everyday understanding. Heidegger claims that, among other experiences, anxiety gives us access to this unintelligible occurrent. "Anxiety," he writes, "discloses . . . beings in their full but heretofore concealed strangeness as what is radically other."

Of course, the uninterpreted beings experienced as radically other are not theoretical entities. Heidegger knows that for us to have access to theoretical entities the beings revealed in total breakdown must be recontextualized or reinterpreted in theoretical terms. Heidegger is thus clear that the data used by science are theory-laden. He says, "The ‘grounding’ of ‘factical science’ was possible only because the researchers understood that in principle there are no ‘bare facts." He is, unfortunately, not clear how these theory-laden data are supposed to be related to the radically other that is revealed in extreme breakdown; that is, he is not clear about how theoretical recontextualization is supposed to work. The important thing for him is that theoretical entities are taken to be elements of nature, that is, of a universe that is anterior to and independent of our everyday mode of making sense of things. In this important sense, science is, according to Heidegger, about the incomprehensible. He writes:

Nature is what is in principle explainable and to be explained because it is in principle incomprehensible. It is the incomprehensible pure and simple. And it is the incomprehensible because it is the "unworlded" world [i.e. the universe], insofar as we take nature in this extreme sense of the entity as it is discovered in physics.

The point is not that the phenomenon of total breakdown, theoretical inspection, or anxiety gives us sufficient grounds for believing in the independent existence of natural things none of whose properties we understand. Although the quotation may suggest this, we shall see that the phenomenon of total breakdown cannot supply such grounds. What the phenomenon of total breakdown supports is the more minimal claim that nature can be experienced as independent of our coping practices and as underlying everyday things. If we had only the "available" mode of encountering entities, we could never encounter entities more independent of our coping practices than particular hammers are. But, if Heidegger is right, we can deworld such entities and be led to see them as occurrent components of the universe.

Heidegger clearly wants to embrace robust realism, for he exceeds the limits of deflationary realism when he writes: "[T]he fact that reality is ontologically grounded in the being of Dasein, does not signify that only when Dasein exists and as long as Dasein exists, can the real be as that which in itself it is."

We are now in a position to see that, in defending a robust realism concerning scientific entities, Heidegger makes two significant moves which, although they seem to be the right way to proceed, do not, as Heidegger presents them, fully succeed in supporting robust realism.

1. Heidegger points to two special attitudes (confronting equipmental breakdown and anxiety) that, on the face of it, break out of our everyday, equipment-using practices. Since Heidegger bases his account of meaning on equipment-using practices, he concludes that such special attitudes, by "deworlding" entities, break out of our everyday meanings altogether and give us access to the "incomprehensible" as it is in itself. But, if one has a broader conception of everyday meaning that includes merely perceiving things outside of use-relations, such a "switchover" would not get one outside the everyday.

2. Heidegger contends that the switchover he describes gives us beings that can be recontextualized in a theory that makes no reference to our everyday practices. But he has no account of how the meaningless beings revealed by breakdown can serve as data for science nor what sort of practices could be left after the switchover that would allow dealing with the incomprehensible while leaving it independent of all our practices. That is, in showing we can encounter things shorn of their everyday functionality, Heidegger has not shown that we can encounter them as independent of all our practices for making things intelligible. There are still the very peculiar practices of making them intelligible as unintelligible.

In addition, when Heidegger later investigates how scientific research as an institution works, Heidegger claims that research is based on what he calls the projection of a total ground-plan. Research, he claims, is a modern way of studying nature that proceeds by setting up a total theory of how nature works and then dealing with the anomalies that show up when the theory is assumed to cover all phenomena. Thus, normal science has, for Heidegger, the ongoing job of trying to account for anomalies, while revolutionary advances in science occur when resistant anomalies lead scientists to propose a new ground-plan.

What is essential for modern science as research, then, is its totalizing claim. Heidegger argues that this totalizing claim is the modern version of the series of totalizing claims about the beingness of beings that have characterized our metaphysical culture perhaps since Anaximander, certainly since Plato. Thus a pervasive cultural practice of just the sort that deworlding and recontextualization of the incomprehensible were meant to exclude turns out to be fundamental to Heidegger’s account of modern scientific research as an institution. This acknowledgment of the cultural practices of research would seem to undermine robust realism.

We shall soon see, however, that the practices of research could, nonetheless, constitute an institution that could intelligibly be said to get at the functional components of the universe as they are in themselves. To save his robust realism, Heidegger would have to argue that, although the practice-based structure of encounter that gives us access to entities depends on us essentially, what we encounter only contingently depends on this structure. Then both our everyday and scientific practices, although ineliminable from an account of the entities revealed by science, could be understood, not as constitutive practices, but as access practices allowing "genuine theoretical discovering."

To do this Heidegger would need, to begin with, to find a practical form of non-committal reference that could refer to entities in a way that both allowed that they could have essential properties and that no property that we used in referring to them need, in fact, be essential. It turns out that Heidegger had discovered such a practice in facing a different problem. In the 1920s he realized he wanted to talk about important features of human being and yet he could not claim at the beginning of his investigation that these were essential ones. This methodological requirement put him in opposition to Husserl in two related ways: Husserl held that (1) general terms refer by way of the essential features of the types the terms referred to and (2) that one could have an immediate eidetic intuition of essential structures. Since Heidegger saw that his hermeneutic method deprived Husserl’s eidetic intuition of any possible ground, he needed some other way to approach the essential structures of human being. How could he refer to kinds without knowing their essential features?

To solve this problem Heidegger developed an account of "non-committal" reference made possible by what he called formal indicators or designators (formalen Anzeige). Non-committal reference begins with contingent features and arrives at essential features, if there are any, only after an investigation. Heidegger explains:

The empty meaning structure [of the formal designator] gives a direction towards filling it in. Thus a unique binding character lies in the formal designator; I must follow in a determinate direction that, should it get to the essential, only gets there by fulfilling the designation by appreciating the non-essential."

Thus, Heidegger held that reference need not commit one to any essential features; rather, it binds one to investigate, in whatever way is appropriate to the domain, which features, if any, of an object referred to by its inessential features are essential. Heidegger continues:

[We must] make a leap and proceed resolutely from there! . . . One lives in a non-essential having that takes its specific direction toward completion from the maturing of the development of this having. . . . The evidence for the appropriateness of the original definition of the object is not essential and primordial; rather, the appropriateness is absolutely questionable and the definition must precisely be understood in this questionableness and lack of evidence.

Although he never used this idea of non-committal reference to defend his realism, this methodological principle–that one can designate something by its contingent properties and then be bound by that designation to research its essential properties–would have allowed Heidegger to use the switchover to the occurrent and its properties to show how access practices can break free of everyday meaning. One could consider the properties, revealed by theory-driven practices after the switchover, to be strictly contingent properties of the entities revealed–properties that could serve as a way of designating entities whose essential properties, if any, would have to be discovered by further investigation. The practices of investigation too would be considered contingent rather than constitutive

Thus, Heidegger has the basic resources to answer the objections that he can neither get outside everyday practices (in a broad sense) nor culturally determined practices. But he does not use these resources. To do so he would need to admit that our everyday skills survive the switchover and that, indeed, they are necessary for (1) identifying the occurrent entities that the detached attitude reveals and (2) working data over in labs so that they can be taken as evidence for the essential properties of theoretical entities. He could then add that none of these practices, however, was essential to what was revealed in the laboratory. For, after the switchover, everyday practices, as well as the practices of the scientific institution, would be themselves experienced and deployed as questionable or contingent, and so the entities encountered could, in principle, be encountered as essentially independent of us. Heidegger seems to say just this in an interesting passage in Basic Problems:

Intraworldliness does not belong to the essence of the occurrent things as such, but it is only the transcendental condition . . . for the possibility of occurrent things being able to emerge as they are [in themselves].

III. The Phenomenological Argument for Robust Realism

For the most part, we encounter people, equipment, and even natural things as both perceptually and instrumentally familiar and inextricably bound up with our everyday practices. We can, however–though we do it rarely–encounter things and even people in an attitude of unfamiliarity. A trivial instance of encountering something in this attitude can be produced quite easily. If we say a familiar word over and over, we eventually hear the word switch over into a strange acoustic blast. Let’s call this experience defamiliarization and the way of being it gives access to the strange.

Defamiliarization is the breakdown of everyday coping, and all that remains of intelligibility after defamiliarization are coping practices that enable us to identify things in a non-committal, contingent, prima facie not fully adequate way. Access to entities independent of our practices for making them intelligible is thus secured by a radical switchover in the role played by everyday practices so that they become contingent practices for identifying objects. If we were to engage in the investigation of the relation between the strange thing and its everyday mode of being, we might be able to describe it in terms of sufficient features to reidentify it, but we cannot even be sure of that. Hence, our everyday practices are understood as inappropriate for defining what shows up. As Heidegger puts it "the appropriateness is absolutely questionable and the definition must precisely be understood in this questionableness."

Reference here works as Saul Kripke describes the working of rigid designation, particularly the rigid designation of samples of a natural kind. So, to take two of Kripke’s examples, I start by investigating some shiny golden colored stuff and eventually find out that its essence is to have an atomic weight 197. Or, I contingently identify lightning as a flash of light in the night sky and eventually find out it is an electrical discharge. Thus something is designated by a description or by a pointing that is not taken to get at the thing’s essence and such a pointing or description leaves open the possibility that investigation may discover the thing’s essence. As we have seen, Heidegger calls this mode of reference "non-committal formal designation" and says it is empty but binding.

The practice of rigid or formal designation, as I have described it, shows that we do, indeed, have practices that enable us to read the paradox of practices for gain access to things independent of those very practices in a robust realist way. Moreover, we can make sense of the strange as possibly having some necessary unity underlying the contingent everyday properties by which it is identified. This unity is enough to make intelligible the notion of a natural kind whose essence is independent of our ways of making things intelligible.

IV. Conclusion

William Blattner criticizes Heidegger and me for giving an incoherent genetic account of the rise of the theoretical attitude from the breakdown of everyday coping. Blattner points out that even when there is a breakdown in our coping with available equipment, we do not normally find ourselves outside all practical activity. Rather, the occurrent stuff of the broken equipment is normally encountered on the background of activity with the available. Blattner goes on to argue, that if we did find ourselves outside all practice, as we do in Heideggerian anxiety, we would then have no motive for trying to find a scientific account of the meaningless stuff that appears in the total breakdown.

I agree with these descriptive psychological claims. But phenomenological description, as opposed to psychological or historical genetic reconstruction, looks for experiences that give rise to the intelligibility or unintelligibility of that toward which we comport ourselves. In the case of the occurrent, Heidegger claims that the experience we have of meaningless stuff either in equipmental breakdown or in anxiety allows us to make sense of things radically other than what our everyday practices could make sense of, and makes intelligible our sense that in our scientific practices we deal with objects as they are totally independent of our everyday concerns. That historical motivation and philosophical justification should come apart is not unusual. It happens frequently that the actual historical understanding that did indeed motivate (and was supposed to justify) the development of an important practice fails as justification. That money was valuable because it was made of or backed by gold is a good example of this. We now see that unthematized practices of trust were primarily responsible for the value of money; backing money by gold was merely a way of stimulating trust. Thus whether scientific practices are motivated by equipmental breakdown, anxiety, or any experience of the strange is irrelevant to the phenomenological question of what experience enables us to understand the mode of being of the objects of scientific practice. Arguing that the same practices that found the meaning of the occurrent also motivate our practices for dealing with the occurrent would be to commit the genetic fallacy. I, therefore, do not claim that a realist science would have, in fact, to develop from interactions with strange things. Indeed, a realist science could develop though the accretion of procedures for dealing with things gathered from many contingent circumstances where there had never been an encounter with the strange. But interactions with the strange provide two important ways of defending the possibility of a realist science. First, encounters with the strange enable us to make sense of the attempt to describe the components of the universe as they are in themselves. One can thus defend the pretension of natural science to a robust realism against arguments that such a notion is incoherent from the start. Second, encounters with the strange show us three basic structural elements that a realist science’s core practices would have to have. A realist science would have to reveal for us entities that are (1) defamiliarized, (2) identified by contingent properties, and (3) investigated without dependence on our everyday functional understanding for the determining the essences of things.

Three practices from today’s science provide an illustration of how a science could develop these three structural elements in order to ground its claims to realism.

The first structural element of a realist science is defamiliarization. A realist science could not simply deal with everyday objects as everyday objects. For the essence of everyday objects, if they have one, depends on us. Today, the institutional practice that most clearly provides for defamiliarization is the scientific practice of opening up a theoretical space or principle of recontextualization for understanding the phenomena of a particular domain. To take Heidegger’s example, the theoretical space of Newtonian physics focuses only on mass and motion, which, from the everyday point of view, seems a highly impoverished and arbitrary restriction of what counts as important. All theoretical spaces open us to objects under such a non-familiar aspect.

Second, objects within the theoretical space must be identified by contingent characteristics until their essences are known. A realist science would thus need practices of Kripkean reference to enable the scientist to remain detached from the everyday properties he uses in identifying the objects under investigation. Furthermore, a realist science would need to reidentify objects in a way that is independent of both the everyday way of making sense of things and of any particular theoretical projection. Such reidentification practices would have to be the accumulation of ad hoc developments and various theoretical contextualizations, minus any of those that a particular currently dominant theoretical contextualization excludes. This mix of reidentification practice would prevent practitioners from reidentifying things solely in terms of one or another explanatory perspective and therefore enables reidentification across scientific revolutions.

Third, a realist science would have to make sure that it had practices for seeking the essences of objects in its domain that did not depend on everyday cannons of what makes sense. Such a realist science could separate itself from the everyday by granting full autonomy to a discipline of puzzle-solving within the theoretical projection. Under such a regime, a solution that solves a puzzle, no matter how perceptually and intellectually counterintuitive, would have the power to force scientists to abandon even their current principles of intelligibility. Quantum physics is a case study of long-accepted principles of intelligibility being cast aside. That solutions to puzzles create more puzzles suggests that puzzle solving is the activity of letting the nature of the universe guide conceptions of it away from human ways of conceiving toward a view from nowhere, appropriate to the universe as it is in itself.

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