The Question of Being

In Being and Time (1927) Heidegger says that he wrote the book in order to “reawaken the question of the meaning of Being.” It’s important to pay attention to all the words in this phrase.

Heidegger’s question is not the one that Leibniz asked, namely “Why is there something rather than nothing?” That question asks for an explanation – a cause, a sufficient reason – of the fact that anything exists at all. Heidegger, on the other hand, wants to know what it means to say that something exists. Or rather, he wants to ask what it means. That implies that the meaning of Being is not well-understood, which, Heidegger thinks, is significant in ways we don’t sufficiently appreciate.

Asking “What is the meaning of Being?” is paradoxical in that the use of the word “is” in the sentence implies that the meaning of Being is already known. The meaning of a sentence such as “The scarf is blue,” for example, seems clear enough.

That isn’t to say that “is” is completely unambiguous. According to logicians, “is” as used in the sentence above is just one of four ordinary uses of the verb “to be”: predication (as in the sentence), identity, subsumption, and existence. Logicians use different symbols for each sense of “is” to remove the ambiguity, but in ordinary communication it is usually clear which sense is intended – if not from the sentence, then from the context.

Heidegger argues that each of the four senses derives from a more fundamental sense, although that sense has receded so deeply into the background that we’re not fully aware of it. Being, Heidegger says, means that something is present to to us in a way that makes sense. In Heidegger’s various formulations, it has been “uncovered,” “unconcealed,” “disclosed,” “granted,” or “bestowed.” To put it differently, Being is that which reveals. In Being and Time, that which reveals is our comportment – the “understanding of (the meaning of) Being” that’s embodied in our ability to differentially respond to the various entities in the world. For the later Heidegger, that which reveals is language, and changes in philosophical language over time track the variations on the Platonic understanding of Being that constitutes much of our spiritual history.

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What did Gilles Deleuze mean by “multiplicities”?

In thinking about any aspect of Deleuze’s work it’s helpful to keep in mind his overall motivation: he aspired to a fully naturalistic and materialist metaphysics, one that would adequately embody the modern scientific worldview and extend it to the entire field of human action. He seems to have believed that this required that normative concepts (ideas about how things ought to be, such as justice and morality) be completely purged from accounts of human phenomena. To accomplish this, Deleuze re-described political, economic, psychological, linguistic, and moral phenomena in terms and concepts taken from physics, chemistry, the earth sciences, and dynamics (especially self-assembly, self-organization, and chaos theory).

Many philosophers are naturalists of one sort or another, but most don’t want to simply do away with normative concepts. Instead the idea is to find ways of understanding the normative world (the world of reasons) that are consistent with the naturalistic explanations of science (the world of causes), without abandoning the sense most of us have that human behavior cannot adequately be described without recourse to concepts of justification, responsibility, obligation, and the like. Deleuze dissented from this view in an especially relentless, uncompromising, and highly original and imaginative way. Continue reading

What is the idea of “difference” in Gilles Deleuze’s “Difference and Repetition”?

Deleuze used the eternal return as a metaphor to talk about something that mattered more to him than getting Nietzsche right: the nature of identity. Deleuze’s real inspirations were Heraclitus and the Stoics. (But then, so were Nietzsche’s.)

In fragment 59, Heraclitus says that any object consists of an “opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre.” The string of a bow appears to be (and is) a stable and unified thing, but that is because it is being pulled in two opposite directions at once. The persistence of the bow over time depends on the persistence of this dynamic tension, not that of its constituent parts.

An object might also persist by changing its constituent parts. A river, for example, consists of flowing water. If you step into one, you’ll step into different water than you would have if you’d stepped in a moment earlier or later. Yet it would still be the same river, because a river is flowing water.

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When René Descartes proposed the thesis “I think, therefore I am,” what did he mean? For example, what distinguishes the thoughts of a human from all other animals?

What distinguishes the thoughts of a human being from the thoughts of other animals is that the latter don’t think about their thoughts.

For example, my cat occasionally believes that a mouse is within striking distance. She doesn’t ask herself whether this belief is true or false, or whether the evidence justifies her belief. She merely believes.

Something similar is true of her inclination to pounce on the mouse. She doesn’t ask herself whether attacking and killing the mouse is morally permissible, or not. She merely attacks and kills.

Descartes’s thought – “I think, therefore I am” – is reflexive. Not only does Descartes think, he understands that he thinks, and that other thoughts follow from what he thinks – or so he thinks, and hopes.

As for what Descartes meant, that’s a long and controversial story. The consensus seems to be that it’s impossible to say precisely what he thought, because he was thinking many different things. He might have thought that “I think, therefore I am” was a logical inference. He might have thought it was a self-evident intuition. He might have confused the two.

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