Are We More Than Things?

G. Anders and M. Heidegger ask: What are we?

“Who are we?” is one of those questions one might begin to ask in an Introduction to Philosophy lecture, among other questions such as “why is there something, and not nothing?”, one of those questions which tend to escalate into very tedious discussion. In the following we do not want to answer any such question — indeed thinking it is an answer one hopes for might be the most fatal step taken when undertaking philosophical thought — but rather question our intuitions regarding who we, or maybe what we are. There are countless reasons for posing such a question: my personal one being that I recently read Günther Anders critique on Heidegger’s thought. Yet even if you have nothing to do with Heidegger, Anders or any (academic) philosophy, I do still believe that by following along our Denkweg — our pathway of thought — you too will find the questions raised somewhat interesting, especially regarding the relationship between philosophies such as Anders’ or Heidegger’s and modern science, or even mental illness. A questioned life is an easier one.

Being Among Being and Beings

The basic groundwork for our Denkweg shall be supplied by Martin Heidegger. But don’t be frightened by the strange vocabulary! We shall see that philosophy, especially phenomenology, is actually quite forgiving when one doesn’t understand every single word, but does grasp the broader concepts, from which afterwards one may begin to understand the words — the basic method of hermeneutics. Though we don’t want to be dependent on convoluted philosophical terms, we do have to engage with some of them in order to reach a vantage point from which we can start posing questions which go beyond idle musings.

Phenomenology, as a more or less recent branch of philosophy, tries to answer questions by analyzing our experience. This may seem like a very ‘trivial’ method at first: Doesn’t science also explain reality through our experience, e.g. empirical research? Yet phenomenology has one important rule that sets it apart from all other sciences and philosophies: we try to presuppose nothing — the technical term for which is εποχή (epoché). Again we might be tempted to say that this is precisely what science does! But does science really presuppose nothing? One would have to delve more deeply into certain scientific fields to give a precise answer, but it is clear that neuroscience would be quite pointless if we didn’t presuppose that there is a connection between experiential content and MRI images, or physics if we didn’t presuppose the electron, or even more fundamentally that there are such things such as natural laws which remain constant! Where are the real experiences we have behind all these presuppositions? There are none. In his early work, Heidegger’s teacher — Edmund Husserl — even calls into question if we can experience our world as being real, and not imagined. He believes we can’t.

So what does all this mean beyond philosophical self-indulgence? Well Heidegger begins his magnum opus Being and Time by asking, in the aforementioned phenomenological fashion, how we are in the world, and before that why we should begin to ask how we are in the world. We do not want to summarize Heidegger’s philosophy here, but would rather like to pick out one concept that is fundamental for our question:

“Da-sein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is […] distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being. Thus it is constitutive of the being of Da-sein to have, in its very being, a relation of being to this being.” — Being and Time §4, Translated by Joan Stambaugh

Dasein, to keep our discussion short, is who/what we are. All Heidegger says in the paragraph above is that we are inherently different from beings, from things such as stones or water — mostly inanimate objects, though an interesting argument can be made for/against the Dasein of animals. The reason we are different is that we do not ‘just’ occur in the world, but have a certain relationship with the world around us and more importantly ourselves, we give things meaning. This relationship may be called existence which is essential to us. We shall now see where the conflict with modern science, and Günther Anders arises.

Humiliations Of Humankind

From a historical standpoint Sigmund Freud famously makes out three essential humiliations of humankind, which seem to concur with the development of science, at least at his time. The first such humiliation was the Copernican Revolution, the realization that we are in fact not the center of the universe. The second humiliation was the Theory of Evolution put forth by Charles Darwin, in which we as humans appear as nothing special, but as something that has evolved along with all other living things from common ancestors, which is of course in its own way ‘special’. The third humiliation, at least in Freud’s mind, was his own finding that we are in fact not in complete control of our unconscious. As Freud has mostly been given up by the academic community, we may replace the third humiliation as the logical consequence of the modern scientific method: explaining our world, and especially ourselves, through the reduction of reality to observable physical events.

It is here that our Denkweg intersects once again with Heidegger’s. We have seen that, at least in Heidegger’s mind, we are fundamentally different from stones and such because we can relate to ourselves and other things. Yet the course of science has shown us that we may be nothing more than things, that we are just the same as other ‘physical events’, and that our unease regarding this fact may be just the same unease people must have felt when they realized they were not in fact at the center of the universe or created separately from all other creatures by a (Christian) god. From this vantage point the often posed problem of consciousness arises, even in science. We have reached a point where we are skeptical of consciousness — some regarding it as an illusion — because it doesn’t seem to quite fit into the theme of modern science and it’s humiliations, and are not skeptical of the modern scientific method, because it fails to account for consciousness. An issue that has recently leaked into popular culture with HBO’s True Detective:

“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” — True Detective: The Long Bright Dark (Episode #1)

Given a phenomenological view point all this must seem strange to us. How is our self an illusion when it is one of our few experiences which are unmediated? Wouldn’t we have to presuppose much more in order to think of our consciousness as a somehow secondary fact which is wholly determined by a physically describable world?

We have purposefully avoided the term consciousness up until now because the term itself seems to inherently presuppose that there is something which then becomes conscious, that having a self is somehow a secondary fact apart from our physical reality. Yet phenomenologically speaking we are initially in relation to ourselves and other things around us: being in such a relationship is a necessary condition for any theory which supposes that what is ‘most’ real is our purely physical reality. Since I don’t want to implicitly indoctrinate any more theories of self here, it would seem best to pose a question/paradox which captures the main tension in our reading so far:

Does a theory on the illusion of self contradict itself when the condition for posing a theory of self-hood is a self?

It seems, at least phenomenologically speaking — ridding ourselves from all non-experiential presuppositions — it would. And yet, in true philosophical fashion, another phenomenologist, or at least once a student of two phenomenologists (Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger) would disagree.

The Obsolescence of Humankind

Günther Anders, a less well known philosopher who studied among Husserl, Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, wrote a two part work over the period of many centuries titled The Obsolescence Of Humankind. In it he criticizes how technology, in a broad sense, has made humans and many of our traditional concepts obsolete. We shall not delve into Anders’ critical work on technology, but reflect on a very short chapter in the second part of said work titled The Obsolescence Of Philosophical Anthropology. He poses the question, which answer we await when we ask what we are. To him such a question is only meaningful when put forth in a theological context — philosophically it is meaningless.

“In reality every non-corrupted atheist will hold the question of our ‘essence’ as meaningless.”

It seems Anders carries forth said humiliations to the field of philosophical inquiry: “Would you ask a horse: What are you horse?”, Anders asks. Yet his criticism doesn’t stem from a naturalistic view of our world, but rather he believes that asking who we are itself presupposes that we are something special, that we have a special metaphysical status. Indeed, our phenomenological inquiry seems quite anthropocentric in this respect — but any analysis which is strictly based on our experience must be.

Anders himself admits to never having had a positive definition of what we may be. Rather, in a somewhat circular argument, he believes to have realized that there is no such thing as a healthy human whose essence we could analyze, but rather that humans are ‘essentially’ beings which cannot be healthy, do not want to be healthy and thus are undefined beings for whom it would be paradox to want to find an essence.

Image 1 (Heidegger Title) from:
Image 2 (Freud) from:
Image 3 (True Detective) from: HBO
Image 4 (Anders) from:
Image 5 (The End) painting from Ed Ruscha: