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Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments (1995)
Notes, Questions & Answers & #6: "Heidegger, Language, Ecology"


1. T. writes that Heidegger believes "that something beyond the human makes demands on us, or calls us. But this source can't be identified with nature [some objective thing or process] or with the universe" (cosmos), 100-1. What could this be?

Probably the best answer is that it is an enigmatic effect of language. It doesn't seem to make epistemological sense to construe it as a transcendental (e.g., Platonic Form; God). On the other hand H. doesn't concede to the opposition: that it is a personal fantasy (Freud) or will-to-power (Nietzsche). Freud presents an interesting parallel. The concrete form of psychic life is different in billions of individuals. Even identical twins have different memories, desired objects, etc. Nonetheless, Freud (as a modernist & reductionist) believes that this "many" is caused by a "One" (libido) operating in a very few fundamental ways. H. would likely charge Freud with the crime of trying to smuggle in transcendentals under the rubric of science. Libido seems suspiciously like Henri Bergson's elan vita (the stuff of life; life itself) & 19th c. vitalist theories. For this ghost H. would nominate language. If you continue to ask about its metaphysical standing (what is it?), some of us are driven towards Confucian flavored philosophy (including, perhaps, pragmatism) in which the Dao (reality) is necessarily a humanly perceived & named reality; it is always culture. 

2. H. "talks of language speaking rather than human beings speaking" (101). Why? Does this make sense?

Obviously it is a poetic usage. The intent is to deny the Romantic model in which:

  1. (divine)  inspiration exists pre-verbally & then
  2. searches for the appropriate
  3. word to express the latent idea (back to 1).

Notice that "inspiration" has mutated into "idea" before getting to the stage of language. However, ideas/concepts are language & do not exist outside language. Again H. sounds Confucian. People never have inspirations or any other human emotions outside (internalized) social contexts. Thus a Confucian would say that human relationships/contexts assign roles for identity (son, students, etc.) & optional scripts (good son, naughty son, etc.). H. would likely point out that language is the most fundamental human(izing) context & as such "causes" or partially causes who we are (humans, not monkeys) & what we do: language speaks to (partially) determines who & what we are.  Language speaks us.

3. T. writes, "I come up with a word to articulate [express] my feelings, & at the same time shape [order] them in a certain manner. * * * The term does its work because it is the right term," 104. How does one know when or if a term is the right one? The designative/correspondence model of truth does not seem adequate, does it?

A large part of the problem seems traceable to the temporal component of the Newtonian model, which features discrete temporal steps. As in #1 this model dictates that the inspiration/emotion exist completely as a discrete force in step 1 in order to cause step 2. Again Chinese thinking provides an alternative in which step 1 provides the preconditions (e.g., the pigments or parts) for #2, which is distinguished from #1 by the pattern/order.  In the case of language, perceptions, urges, feelings are transformed into words & patterned by grammar into sentences.  Something implicit is made explicit. What is implicit cannot be reached by language because language is inherently explicit/public. Notice what changes in the Western model where Platonic transcendentals operate. The correspondence model must have bridges from the instance to the Form; this reveals the order of the process. The West supposes that nouns/Forms are the point of origin for reality. Asia supposes that verbs are the point of origin; processes produce nouns. In the Chinese/pragmatic model order is inherent (not transcendental) in the system/process itself.

4. T. writes that the 18th c. believed that language originated "from the expressive cry" (106). Producing sound by beating drums & making music, perhaps like Bobby McFerrin, evolved into symbolic sounds, words & ostensive definitions. Why does this account fail, according to T.?

If it expresses pre-verbal, non-conceptual emotion (#1 in answer 2), then it cannot become conceptual & meaningful (words; #3 above) . If an expressive cry or sound becomes a word & is essentially changed, we must be able to locate what caused the difference. To say that it evolved or just happened is as unacceptable in an English class as in a chemistry class. Notice the foundationalist thinking which supposes that one side of the correspondence theory is in place before humans arrive: "What the expression conveyed was thought to exist independently of its utterance" (107). The concept/word evidently exists before any human expresses it. How can this be? It can't & consequently the correspondence model fails.

5. The empirical tradition -- Hume in particular -- said that "simple ideas" correspond exactly, as though they were photocopies of, "simple impressions" or sensations. Ideas are words; impressions are sensations. Can the two be virtually the same, as Hume claimed? T. says "language transforms our world," (107). How does this affect Hume's epistemology?

You do this one (1).

6. Read closely the top of 112: "language . . . opens access to meanings." Does this mean that the individual "paints" or poetically creates a gestalt or image from the pigments of his perceptions, as the Romantics said? Look back at the 1st paragraph of the essay where T. says that H. is not a Romantic, that he is "anti-subjectivist" (100). If one is anti-subjectivist (including anti-Romantic), then a good bet would suppose that one must be looking for objective reality/truth. Back to 112. What does H./T. means in saying, "The disclosure is not intrapsychic, but occurs in the space between humans"?

"Intrapsychic" implies privacy; that an event has meaning exclusively for me & no one else. Existentialism seems to say this. Foundationalism offers the opposite view: meaningfulness is objective regardless of what you may subjectively feel or think. H. says that language operates somewhere between these extremes. No individual can be thought to simply invent language the way God in Genesis creates the cosmos ex nihilo. Mothers teach infants how to speak over the course of years of intense tutoring. No relationship can be characterized by one party contributing 100% of the meaning & the other party passively receiving 100%. Every relationship can be characterized as dynamic, non-determinative, reciprocal, & organic in the sense that neither party can predict the outcome or even feel confident that she knows (objectively & completely) what is going on. Language works like this. It is not off the shelf, a priori. Neither is it a will-to-power by Adam, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.

Focusing on meaningfulness makes the same point. "Ours [the humanly understood world] is a world in which things have worth" (113). "Worth" is a social determination. Even when one attempts to escape, as a hermit (or more likely rebellious adolescent), the supposedly independent assessment of what to escape or destroy is made against a social background; to impress "them" with your power, independence, etc. If one where able to truly walk away, who would know?

Same issue; read closely the bottom of 113: "One immediate temptation is to see it [meaningfulness] as our power, something we exercise [or will, or create]; disclosure is what we bring about [of meaning]. For H. this is a deeply erroneous [Romantic] view."

Romanticism smuggles in the transcendental in the guise of immanence. This is why Daoism is more popular among Westerns who know a little something of Asian thinking than Confucianism. Romantics & Daoists believe that an objective (divine) force drives (determines) individual behavior &/or world events. The second version ends up in fascism. The first version fuels adolescent dreams of "finding my true self/identity," which supposedly exists independent from any social situation (cf. American Indian religion in which people have a secret, primal or profoundly true name/identity).

7. What is "the space between humans" or what is in "the space between humans?"

You do this one (2).

8. Translate: "the clearing should not be identified with any of the entities that show up in it," 114.

Pretty easy, but tricky. One has to periodically do the recursive function to clean house. This is why post-modernism is not modernism: it is on-guard against "discovering" the One, which supposedly causes the many. If anything, the One is dynamic, temporal, & non-empirical; a field & not an item in it. Buddhism offers an interesting parallel. One of its tenants is that the self is a temporal conception & does not name anything essential or transcendental. The believer accepts this conceptually but continues to organize events in a utilitarian fashion, so they are beneficial to me. Or she becomes enthusiastic about helping others. The recursive Buddhist question asks who these others are that one is so devoted to helping? Ultimately they can only be temporal phenomena, karmic patterns temporally working themselves out so that they will dissolve. Language works analogously. It disrupts the silence & psychic equanimity. It temporally proceeds until it dissolves. Language is literally the way (Dao) that human beings exist. Consequently, no item/theory that the process can focus on or propose could possibly replace or substitute for the process. As Heidegger said, language speaks man.

9. More translation: "The clearing in fact comes to be only around Dasein. It is our being-in-the-world which allows it to happen. . . . The clearing doesn't just happen within us," 115.

The fact that we articulate the clearing indicates that it "doesn't just happen within us." Hinduism identifies the clearing with a slippery kind of transcendental called Atman/Brahman. Atman designates a subjective/experiential knowledge; Brahman indicates the attempt to define the clearing in objective terms. However, "Brahman cannot be known . . . for to know necessitates a subject being aware of an object. Brahman can only be known by a 'knowing' which transcends subject & object" thinking. Part of this is familiar, resonating with T.'s embodied knowledge ("knowing" how to ride a bicycle, whether one is in love, etc.). "Brahman is unknowable by man because man, being Brahman, cannot achieve the necessary metaphysical distance in order to make Brahman an epistemological object" (T.O. Wilson. The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man, 108).

10. "The space of expression is not the same as, that is, can't be reduced to, either ordinary physical space or inner psychic space . . . . It only gets set up between speakers. . . . It cannot be placed 'within' minds," 116. How does this claim affect the status or definition of language?

The paradigm shift moves from spatial (Newtonian mechanics; Greek essentialism; Christian souls) metaphors to temporal metaphors: Confucian dao can only be discerned in human performance. Note that from a Confucian view, claims of transcendentalism by Daoists & Zen Buddhists must be framed or recognized against the appropriate background, i.e., these interpretative claims about transcendentals are made by Daoists or Buddhists. H.'s "clearing" is misleading in its spatial connotation. Confucians prefer to talk about hearing the melody or tune of sound, which is then transformed into music/language. The temporal dimension cannot be marginalized or overlooked. It is indispensable.

11. Clarify the 3 views on 117-8.

  1. Hegelian Romanticism: the creative activity is "something beyond the [human] self," usually associated with the divine ("a cosmic spirit or process," 117).
  2. "The space ["clearing" for H.] is something we make" or will into being (117); "the making of a medium in which the reality can for the first time appear" (118). This is the Nietzschean line followed by most posties (postmodernists), like Richard Rorty. They "see the clearing as something projected" by us 118.
  3. The intermediate position is occupied by pragmatism (Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Taylor), which considers that the clearing "arises out of conversation, so that its locus [of origination] is the speech community," 118.

I can't help but notice the strong connection with Confucianism here: "All speakers as they enter the conversation from infancy [always having a "ritual" or assigned role to play, as in a drama] find their identity shaped by their relations [the roles/identity they adopt for the occasion] within a preexisting [socially defined] space of expression," 118.

12. Translate: "the clearing is not to be ontically grounded, or locatable, [we should not] . . . see it as self-enclosed" (119), i.e., independent of our agency.

Now I am struck by the Hindu parallel: "It [the clearing; meaning] couldn't happen without us, but it is not our doing. It is the basis for all the sense that our lives make," 121. This sounds like the definition of Atman &/or Buddhist notions of human nature or Buddha nature. However, Hinduism & Buddhism profess in transcendentals. Once the karmic obstacles are removed (avidja/ignorance), human nature (i.e. Atman or Buddha nature) is self-disclosing; it blossoms like a flower. H. would insist on the Confucian nuance: the social dimension. No one becomes an authentic human (jen/ren) in isolation, by living alone from birth. In fact being an authentic human being is a temporal performance that requires 5 basic human relationships.

13. This essay promised to tell us about language. Read p. 124 carefully. "Our use of language is no longer arbitrary, up for grabs, a matter of our own feelings and purposes." So when I paraphrased "a preexisting space of expression" as socially defined or invented (in the note after #10), I was not entirely accurate. We know that Hegel's ghosts are out (a Romantic divine urge or power); that there is not a cosmic Atman of some kind causally at work. So, what is the status of this order/logos?

Notice the lecture against 20th c. fascism on 125-6: "the purposes [the goal or ends] are not simply human" (126); presumably they are divine - at least to those caught up or enthusiastic about the project. "Our goals here are fixed by something we should properly see ourselves as serving. Kant has a Western answer for this: anything that requires me to forfeit reason, so that I become enslaved by some passion or non-rational belief, diminishes rather than enhances my character/identity; because I am essentially reasonable.

Continue this (3). What is the status of order/logos/Dao or Truth? It isn't entirely objective, as a pre-existing pattern  It isn't entirely subjective as an Existential assertion.  What is its status?

On to #7: "Irreducibly Social Goods"