Hermeneutics and Deconstruction: Heidegger/Derrida; Heidegger’s Plato, Derrida’s Plato (a)
This week and next week we’ll be dealing with hermeneutics and deconstruction: specifically, Heideggerian hermeneutics and Derridean deconstruction; specifically Heidegger’s Plato and Derrida’s Plato. This doesn't exactly follow Alain Badiou’s anti-platonic delimitation, in that, as we see again, Derrida belongs in it with the post-moderns, with the interminable and totalising obsession with de-totalisation.
But we know that Derrida remains onto-logically Heideggerian if not ontico-methodologically: deconstruction is not a hermenueticism, to make a play in the language. Language, of course, being key for both. It's a century of language this passed one and still. The century of the so-called linguistic turn. We know that in it philosophy almost tout court registers language as, to speak in Heideggerian, wherein man qua being dwells. It's the site of his finitude or his limit or horizon as Dasein, and that of his impossibility to say all.
Certainly, this turn applies directly to the analytic current’s adhesion to 20th century logic, whose metaphysical animus grounds itself in constructivist and or intuitionist mathematics – the post-Cantorian strand that rejects the actualisation of the infinite and so maintains thereby, by new methods to be sure, the old style of Aristotle in its refusal to treat with the infinite as any thing but potential, and thus, then, with any subject other than that of a well-made language – the medium, we might say, of our desultory finitude.
It’s instructive, given our Platonic concerns, to listen to some of the influential figures of this early mathematical reformation in logic, speaking of Georg Cantor’s shocking discovery:
Leopold Kronecker who, by the way, had form for intervening over questions of the infinite and the irrational, blocking publication, refusing promotion etc., says of Cantor, "I don't know what predominates in Cantor's theory, philosophy or theology, but I am sure that there is no mathematics there. Cantor is a charlatan and a corruptor of youth, luring people into a dangerous world of mathematical insanity’. So he’s a Socrates or better a Platocrates.
Henri Poincare, a very prominent and influential figure in mathematics says, in terms exactly those of Nietzsche describing Plato, that transfinite numbers are a ‘disease from which he was certain mathematics would someday be cured’.
Carl Gauss, another prominent figure, claimed that ‘actual infinity does not exist. What we call infinite is only the endless possibility of creating new objects no matter how many exist already’. Hence, as you can see, the potential infinite, the infinite of the one-more. 'Infinity, Gauss continues, ‘is nothing more than a ‘figure of speech’ which helps us talk about limits. The notion of a completed infinity doesn't belong in mathematics. In other words, the only access we have to the infinite is through the notion of limits, and hence, we must not treat infinite sets as if they have an existence exactly comparable to the existence of finite sets.’
So you see that the infinite or trans-finite is precisely the name of that which cannot be known but is at the same time the basis for the very knowledge of what we are limited to. We can always add something to the mix but that constitutes the end and the basis of what we can do and what we can know. All knowledge, then, is the knowledge of this limit. Of course Cantor's ideas ultimately were largely accepted by mathematicians in the course of the 20th century, the great David Hilbert famously said: ‘From this paradise that Cantor with us unfolded, we hold our breath in awe; knowing, we shall not be expelled.’
Of course that well known relativist, mystic and advocate of the saving sanctity of poetic utterance, Wittgenstein, replied to this: "if one person can see it as a paradise of mathematicians, why should not another see it as a joke?’ I think the answer is that well anyone can see anything however they want – but that doesn't change a demonstrable proof.
You can always attack the veracity of a discourse – that's to say, do something like make an equation between, say science and PR for example, by recourse to some other qualifier like language for example, whose instabilities at the limit suggest nothing holds. But then it's tautological.
But as noted, the mathematisation of logic that occurred in the early 20th century was based on the constructivist cum intuitionist rejection of Cantor and so stuck to the infinite of limits, which is to say, there remains a large gap between what is possible in contemporary mathematics and what is impossible for analytic logic. Or rather, they are basically the same thing.
Of course the analytics don't do poetry and notions like the absence of presence, which a dwelling poetically would express or the presence of absence, which all expression poeticises into existence, to bind Heidegger and Derrida in a cheap-shot dualism, don't make sense to the logicians and analytics even if both Heidegger and Derrida pronounce their opposition to ‘infinitism’.
Logic makes all voids void and all presents present after all – no fucking around in analytic philosophy, ask John R. Searle. But my point is to note that despite this great divide between analytics and continentals here – both work with the same infinite, the same limit and accordingly the same knowledge of what cannot and indeed must not be thought. Inside that limit they diverge massively and their divergence is infinitely interesting – in the old sense.
This is how Badiou describes what academic aconceptual hipsterism would call the intersectionality:
‘The moderate, analytic procedure of Anglo-Saxon philosophy appears completely contrary to the etymological and historical meditations of Heidegger’s work. However, it, too, imputes to Plato a realist and obsolete vision of mathematical objects, an underestimation of the impact of forms of language on thought and a metaphysics of the super-sensible. In a certain sense, both Heidegger and Carnap undertook to ruin or close metaphysics, and both their procedures of critical thinking, despite their divergence of method, nonetheless designate Plato as the emblem of what is to be overcome in philosophy.’
But ok, enough fun with words, enough using the fullness of them to present nothing at all to you of the things that are and are not – which are the matter at hand.
As I said, the chronology of the course is a bit messy – we started with Kierkegaard and Sartre last week, which is right and wrong. Kierkegaard is certainly the precursor to existentialism and is prior to Nietzsche but Sartre is after Heidegger whom he takes much from. Nietzsche is important to Heidegger to some extent – especially in what Nietzsche leaves behind from his overcoming to be over come. But Nietzsche is also the one who gets the ball rolling, telling us in Beyond Good and Evil that we need to be cured of the Plato sickness – which is to repeat the sceptics in some real ways – but he won’t feature for a few more weeks because his vitalism – his will to power – demands it.
But to speak of Hermenuetics is to jump over what makes it possible, which is phenomenology, which influences Sartre and Derrida and a whole large swathe of continental philosophy. So before we speak of the (Heideggerian) hermeneutic bent, let alone the deconstructive sublime, we should take a look at what’s at stake in phenomenology especially insofar as it registers thought as other than understanding.
This occurs to me for another reason too: having thought a bit more about Badiou’s anti-Platonist Platonism it occurs to me that almost everyone on the list – apart from the Logicians and the straight Marxists – is oriented by Heidegger. Even Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are here oriented to him as key, to a certain extent, to their future in continental philosophy. This makes sense in this context because it is clear that Badiou’s target in making what he calls his Platonic gesture, that's to say, to keep going in philosophy and so metaphysics, conditionally but not reductively ‘at the limit’, is Heidegger and this means also the Heideggerianisation of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and the Heidegger in everyone else – Sartre, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, post-modernism generally, perhaps even Arendt.
So Heidegger is the beginning of the end whose end must begin, for Badiou. (Let me just note that Heidegger’s student, Gadamer, was also not convinced by his masters poetic-fatalism and thought it in fact contradicted the very notion of the open that underpinned his critique of what he considers Plato’s closing of being in the Idea – (unfortunately, I cannot fit in much Gadamer).
Of course we know that the medium of all this for everyone bar Sartre is language, one way or another, so what is it about phenomenology that we should mark before we see it in its Heideggerian re-originary bent – thus as critical of Husserl. Sartre, whose own Being and Nothingness is a part Heideggerisation of Hegel, says this about phenomenology: ‘for centuries we have not felt in philosophy so realistic a current. The phenomenologists have plunged man back into the world; they have given full measure to man’s agonies and sufferings, and also to his rebellions.’
Clearly Sartre is already thinking about what this means for the existential-subject, which is finally not as it is for Husserl or Heidegger, but this captures something of the supposed anti-idealist impact of it – accounting for the run it still gets today – whereby thought is brought back to what is supposed to think it and thereby being is conditioned by an existence that – depending on who you ask, may or may not be somehow equated with it.
Of course, this phenomenology is not what Kant and Hegel talk about, which is more in line with the Greek etymology – to do with the study of appearing as such – an ‘as such’ which for Heidegger has lacked that which alone can give it sense – i.e. its history. Indeed, what is phenomenology as such seems to be a matter of ones experience of phenomenology. But let’s mark some points that can be said to pertain to the contemporary strain, which includes within it subtle and not so subtle variations in its trajectory.
To use the commonest definition or perhaps description, it is ‘the study of the structures of experience and consciousness’. As such, ‘it seeks to treat objectively, as the matter of analysis, things which you’d assume to be subjective,’ especially in a psychological sense; experience, which everyone likes to closely guard as specific to them in some fashion – hence that horrible logic that says the we can’t know what something is unless we too have experienced it – and of course consciousness which again would seem to be specific to each individual psychology and development.
More acutely, for Husserl, phenomenology focusses on the ‘systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness’ and, and this is the point, ‘those phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness.’ In a real way, it’s about the disclosure of what he calls ‘lived experience’ rather than, say, rational demonstration or deduction. The basis of it is pseudo-intuitionist insofar as judgment and cognition are to be suspended in favour of working out the pre-reflective and thus intuitive attachment we have to our objects of knowledge.
Thus intention is the name for this movement between us and our objects and it’s ‘anti-representational’ – indeed in a classical sense ‘platonist’ – insofar as what we know of these objects is not a matter for the mind alone but is itself out there in the world – hence consciousness is always consciousness of something and as such is not reducible to individual psychologies. So it’s about the ‘to and fro’ between objects in the world and our knowledge of these objects in the world itself, which neither privileges the objects or the psyche but conceptualises our intuition as intention.
Critical to the philosophical method of Husserl is what is called the reduction or epoche (or even ‘bracketing’) and again its twofold: In Audi’s description, ‘Husserl distinguishes between the ‘natural attitude,’ our straightforward involvement with things and the world, and the ‘phenomenological attitude,’ the reflective point of view from which we carry out philosophical analysis of the intentions exercised in the natural attitude and the objective correlates of these intentions.’
Husserl argues that ‘when we enter the phenomenological attitude, we put out of action or suspend all the intentions and convictions of the natural attitude; this does not mean that we doubt or negate them, only that we take a distance from them and contemplate their structure.’ This suspension is what he calls ‘the phenomenological epoché.’
In our human life we begin, of course, in the natural attitude, and the name for the process by which we move to the phenomenological attitude is called the phenomenological reduction: ‘a “leading back” from natural beliefs to the reflective consideration of intentions and their objects. In the phenomenological attitude’, Husserl continues, ‘we look at the intentions that we normally look through, those that function anonymously in our straightforward involvement with the world.’
You might see in this epistemological set up the basis for Heidegger’s ontologisation of it – thus from beings (in the world) back to what being in the world offers for disclosure – which is Being as such. Thus, speaking of the Greek conception of Being, Heidegger’s position is that they had not actually asked the question of the Being of being per se, but that question was included in their search for a being that would give a meaning of Being.
‘Their not asking the question does not mean the Greeks did not have a concept of Being; on the contrary, it shows that the meaning of Being was self-evident for them. They did not think out their implicit understanding of Being as presence (Anwesenheit); it was what life itself, factual Dasein bears in it, so far as all human Dasein is explicating itself as well as all being.’ Thus Heidegger begins with this meaning of Being because ‘the whole problem of time and therewith the ontology of Dasein lies enclosed therein.’
We can note in passing that for Husserl, Heidegger’s, to put it crudely, assumption of ontology as first philosophy and so assuming a full precedence over science, made him a bit of a mystic and Husserl criticised as consequence Heidegger’s conflating, with regard to being, of the ontological and existential.
Phenomenology, at least in terms of what takes place within the framework that it is, is always, via Husserl, this doubling: of object and perception. Thus, deploying the famous terminology, the noema is the object as described phenomenologically, while the noesis is the corresponding mental activity, also as described by phenomenology. The objective and the subjective are correlative but never reducible to one another. But also it is the theory of this double at once, so to speak – of the possible ways and means of the phenomena of the various regions of being, being together. Of course, the terminology of this ‘double’ differs depending on which phenomenology or insofar as it emerges relation to the ‘reduction’, might not feature at all.
Thus we can cite several things: ‘that phenomenology is indeed the study of essences, but it also attempts to place essences back into existence; that it is a transcendental philosophy interested only in what is ‘left behind’ after the phenomenological reduction is performed, but it also considers the world to be already there before reflection begins; that phenomenology is speculation on transcendental subjectivity – that knowledge of the object is in the knower so to speak – and that it is a method for approaching concrete existence; that it can be used as a research modality to account for space, time, and the world as lived and experienced; that it’s an attempt to give a direct description of our experience as it is in itself without taking into account its psychological origin and its causal explanation.’
Hence, Husserl speaks of a ‘genetic’ as well as a ‘constitutive’ phenomenology. Which is to say, the genesis of meanings of things within one's own stream of experience and something like the inner awareness of an experience takes the form of an integral reflexive awareness of ‘this very experience’.
All this fits the profile – whose specificity as a philosophy is not easily pinned down.
Further to this delimitation there are some generalities that pertain across the phenomenological board: a radical difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘philosophical’ attitude – which would be to say between being and thought – thus phenomenology is not Parmenidean and this avers the concomitant assertion of an equally radical difference between philosophy and science. In a Husserlian sense, this is an epistemological difference, for Heidegger, it’s ontological. Science as technique is one of those things which falsifies Being in beings for Heidegger.
Such a radical difference, means precisely that there necessarily exists a complicated relationship between philosophy and science, but for phenomenology it is basically that philosophy remains foundational for science – such that the latter’s concepts, we might say, are never finally its own, needing philosophy to properly ground what it realises in its own terms. For example, Husserl claims and Heidegger follows in this, though with the above distinctions in mind, that scientific and mathematical abstraction has roots in the prescientific world, the world in which we live. This world has its own structures of appearance, identification, evidence, and truth, and the scientific world is established on its basis.
Do note the structure of this division – it is fundamental insofar as it is either breached or foundational.
One of the tasks of phenomenology is to show how the idealised entities of science draw their sense from the life-world. Husserl claims, e.g., ‘that geometrical forms have their roots in the activity of measuring and in the idealisation of the volumes, surfaces, edges, and intersections we experience in the life-world.’ He says: ‘The sense of the scientific world and its entities should not be placed in opposition to the life-world, but should be shown, by phenomenological analysis, to be a development of appearances found in it.’
So, again, to be foundational means that philosophy, with respect to its approach or method performs a certain reduction, or epoche; ‘thus a radical change of attitude in terms of enquiry; turning from things to their meanings or from the ontic to the ontological, from the realm of the objectified meaning as found in the sciences to the realm of meaning as immediately experienced in the ‘life-world.’’
After all, you cannot be foundational for the sciences and be a science as well. Philosophy has to be something else: to, then, deal with something not dealt with in science with regard to its objects. And so as noted, all phenomenology subscribes to the doctrine of intentionality even if these are diverse.
‘For Husserl, intentionality is a characteristic of conscious phenomena or acts; in a deeper sense, it is the characteristic of a finite consciousness that originally finds itself without a world.’ Whereas for Heidegger and, as we saw in other language, for most existentialists, it is the human reality itself that is intentional. As Being-in-the-world its ‘essence consists in its eksistence,’ i.e., in its ‘standing out toward the world.’
The key question of phenomenology – which in some sense is the intention of every being in the world, so to speak, is to answer the question concerning the ‘meaning and Being’ of beings – which for Heidegger is simply the meaning of Being, given beings have been the mistaken focus or alibi of all metaphysics hitherto.
The methodological focus is not on some notion of the ultimate cause of all finite beings, but in how the Being of beings and the Being of the world are to be constituted. Moreover to answer this question concerning the meaning of Being, a privileged position is to be attributed to subjectivity, i.e., to that being which questions the Being of beings. Of course subjectivity is then at issue – what is a subject such that the meaning of being is constitutive of it and so on. ‘Husserl conceives it as a worldless monad, Heidegger conceives it as being-in-the-world or as we know, Dasein.’
Now to bring this back to our logicists, what we can still manage to see in this simplified delimitation is that like anti-metaphysical logicists and logical positivists around at the same time, basically all phenomenologists defend a certain form of intuitionism which for Husserl is the ‘principle of all principles’: that ‘whatever presents itself in ‘intuition’ in primordial form (as it were in its bodily reality), is simply to be accepted as it gives itself out to be, though only within the limits in which it then presents itself.’
In other words, there is nothing but what gives itself to be known and to be known is to be subject to the limit. As I said, the logical positivists take their cue from mathematical intuitionism but the resonances are clear – not least because Husserl was also a logician who studied with Kronecker and Weierstrass – who themselves fell out over Cantor. But anyway, as you might see, this phenomenological version leads intuitively to another variety of its constitution.
So where is hermeneutics in all this, especially as it develops in Heidegger’s hands, for whom it was a matter of reading Being itself or in other words of organising the interpretation of its full disclosure – which is of course to say that any such disclosure is at the same time the limit of Being?
Ok, well, let me give a sort of basic text book version of hermeneutics which I’ll comment on as necessary. All we want from it is to see some of the basic moves in the method and the basic assumptions behind this – we saw these somewhat in the phenomenology run down. I think there are a few things in this to note that are critical for an anti-Platonism.
Firstly, it’s basically historicist – if not genealogical which means, reductively, that all knowledge is both situated and finite. Which is to say, there is a knowledge of something only as relevant to its given time and place and because any knowledge is that of a given time and place the knowledge of that thing will change – and hence, more radically still, that thing itself will thereby be changed. Stability is determined by some finite structure at the limit. Thus as we’ll see for Heidegger, to find where the thinking of being begins, as it were, is to find what it means and then to track the forgetting over time, in the various epochs of its forgetting, so as to rewrite this very history as disclosure and opening.
Originally, as you may know, hermeneutics concerned the interpretation of sacred texts. It was much used in ancient Greece concerning oracles and so on and Socrates himself can be associated with this given he operated under the oracular determination that ‘no one you see, was wiser than he …’ yes, Socrates is Flipper!
But of course whether Socrates was a hermeneut is another question; I think Gadamer thought that this was the case, the dialogues of Plato being the written form of ‘Socrates’ dialogical efforts’ to find out what the oracle meant. It's a big deal in Jewish life, it’s how you learn the Torah – the science of biblical exegesis – which as such follows certain methodological rules, but rules out also knowing the mind of God as opposed to what he means, what sense we can make, given the strength of the application of method.
The term took on philosophical provenance properly speaking in twentieth-century German philosophy. ‘There are two competing positions in this context: that of Dilthey, which pretty much consigns interpretation as a method to the historical and human sciences; and that of Heidegger who sees it as what we might call an ‘ontological event’, insofar anyway as we understand that the method – the interaction between interpreter and text – opens up the history of Being in an unheralded way – this because Dasein, being a being in the world, for the first time takes the question of its Being as an issue for it.’ We’ll come back to this radicalisation of what becomes known as the Hermeneutic circle.
In the 19th Century, Schleiermacher’s analysis of ‘understanding and expression related to texts and speech marked the beginning of hermeneutics in the modern sense of a scientific methodology – thus in Heidegger the science of Being – and it underpins Dilthey’s conception of interpretation as the imaginative but publicly verifiable reenactment of the subjective experiences of others.’
Thus the idea is we can get knowledge of who and what we are as human beings apart from and not accessible to empiricist forms of inquiry. Something that came out of Schleiermacher’s efforts, based on the observations of a philologist called Ast, was what is called ‘the hermeneutic circle,’ which again is the problem of limits (and thus openings) but is couched in terms of the parts and wholes such that the interpretation of each part is dependent on the interpretation of the whole. Or as Ast himself put it ‘[T]he foundational law of all understanding and knowledge is to find the spirit of the whole through the individual, and through the whole to grasp the individual.’
The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor puts it this way: ‘What we are trying to establish is a certain reading of text or expressions, and what we appeal to as our grounds for this reading can only be other readings. The circle can also be put in terms of part-whole relations: we are trying to establish a reading for the whole text, and for this we appeal to readings of its partial expressions; and yet because we are dealing with meaning, with making sense, where expressions only make sense or not in relation to others, the readings of partial expressions depend on those of others, and ultimately of the whole.’ Note this ‘mereologic’ is un or even anti-Cantorian, our youth corrupting contemporary.
It’s interesting that the text is approached as a whole – this is something that Derrida won’t accept, by the way, when he goes about juxtaposing insides and outsides and frames and paintings and so on – which is to say, as a finite and fixed substance but within which, and thus as its parts, all manner of multiples swarm about whose correlation to the whole, while necessary in each and every effort to render meaning, must be otherwise assumed as open for recapitulation.
Most often the circle is taken for being a methodological problem: some think it’s specific to certain disciplines approaches, others think it's a matter for all disciplines as each hits up against it somewhere somehow. But it is really the problem of parts and wholes as the very framework of understanding. It is discussed at the ontological level in the Parmenides and not solved there, even as they go through nine possible arguments in doing so.
And it is at this ontological level that Heidegger takes it up. His radicalisation of the circle goes like this: ‘the ‘circle’ in understanding belongs to the structure of meaning, and the latter phenomenon is rooted in the existential constitution of Dasein—that is, in the understanding which interprets. An entity for which, as Being-in-the-world, its Being is itself an issue, has, ontologically, a circular structure.’
Hermeneutics or interpretation thus is ‘universal’ – it's the manner of beings like us putting ourselves into question in terms of the Being whose being we are and interpretation is part of the finite and situated character of all human knowing – which is essentially Dasein. You can see, though, the form of the infinite at work here – Being essentially takes the place of the whole, which is to say, the sum of the parts but is no part itself. To put this another way, the question of the meaning of Being is concerned with what it is that makes beings intelligible as beings, and whatever that factor (Being) is, it is seemingly not itself simply another being among beings. Heidegger is absolutely concerned to avoid, idealism, subjectivism, humanism as well – anything that puts thought before Being.
Within this Being all beings are essentially assigned their place and remain as such insofar as the enquiry into the Being of which they are a being is suspended under conditions of known knowledge – essentially objectivists or rationalist or formal in some scientist type of way – they presume what grounds them and thus do not question these presumptions.
Interpretation not only breaks with that knowledge internally, so to speak – it operates differently – but also totally insofar as being a method in itself it is not one subject to scientistic or realist protocols, and yet it can render a knowledge of human being irreducible to it and this because it takes the whole, or in Heidegger, Being, as its question while being a being of that whole.
The evental aspect is that this being of Being takes Being as a question despite existing knowledge, which operates precisely as the veil thrown over this very question or, in other words, is the entirety of what we know as knowledge. Heidegger, with this hermeneutical-phenomenology, re-configures the relation of parts to whole by way of the whole itself. What he doesn’t do though is undo the whole itself and so every expanse of the whole, every opening, every extension of the horizon of being so to speak is an effect of Being itself being itself.
Heidegger claims that phenomenology is not just transcendental, it is hermeneutic – it is ‘the science of Being or ontology’, he says. In other words, its goal is always ‘to deliver an interpretation of Being, an interpretation that, on the one hand, is guided by certain historically embedded ways of thinking (ways of taking-as reflected in Dasein's preontological understanding of Being) that the philosopher as Dasein and as interpreter brings to the task, and, on the other hand, is ceaselessly open to revision, enhancement and replacement. For Heidegger, this hermeneutic structure is not a limitation on understanding, but a precondition of it, and philosophical understanding (conceived as fundamental ontology) is no exception.’ As Heidegger puts it in Being and Time:
‘What is decisive is not to get out of the circle but to come into it the right way. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing. To be sure, we genuinely take hold of this possibility only when, in our interpretation, we have understood that our first, last and constant task is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves.’
Let’s look quickly at what sets up Being and Time.
R. Audi, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.
Catalin Partenie and Tom Rockmore (Eds), Heidegger and Plato: Toward Dialogue.
Catherine H. Zuckert, Post Modern Platos.
Drew A. Hyland, Questioning Platonism.
Hans George Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato.
John D. Caputo, Radical Hermenutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project.
Kurt Mueller-Vollmer (Ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader.
Martin Heidegger, Ontology - The Hermeneutics of Facticity.
Martin Heidegger, Essence of Truth.
Robert J. Dostal, ‘Beyond Being: Heidegger’s Plato’, Journal of the History of Philosophy; Jan 1, 1985; 23, 1.