A Quick Response to Graham Harman

I’m glad to know that Graham thinks my criticisms are thoughtful. He put up a few quick responses to my last post yesterday (here and here). I understand he has a busy schedule, and thus can’t always respond in detail (I still would really like to hear his response to this post), but I think it might be helpful to briefly clarify some of my remarks in the last post in response to him.

His first point is that I’m overdetermining his use of ‘scientific’ and ‘metaphysical’, and that this produces some misunderstandings on my part. This is thoroughly possible, and I understand that he put them in scare quotes for a reason. However, his response reinforces one of my problems, namely, that he is confusing specific issues to do with the metaphysics of consciousness with issues about the role of philosophy as such. To explain further, Graham says in his response that the distinction was mainly meant to distinguish between himself and Whitehead on the one hand, who take it that there is some metaphysics of consciousness that escapes scientific description, and those who take consciousness to be fully described by the sciences. However, his major criticism of those in the latter position was that they try “to turn philosophy into something it is not”, by making philosophy a slave to science. This strikes me as too bold a conclusion to draw solely on the basis of their attitude to consciousness. I’ll admit up front that I’ve got my own (very deflationary) opinions on the philosophy of consciousness, but I don’t think the standard for what counts as proper philosophy should be determined by this particular area.

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The Question of Being

When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.

There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).

One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.

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