Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rorty, Heidegger, and whether language can be transcendent

In his essay, “Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the reification of language” (on page 50 of Essays on Heidegger and Others), Rorty writes, “What Gustav Bergmann christened ‘the linguistic turn’ was a rather desperate attempt to keep philosophy an armchair discipline.  The idea was to mark off a space for a priori knowledge into which neither sociology nor history nor art nor natural science could intrude.  It was an attempt to find a substitute for Kant’s ‘transcendental standpoint.’  The replacement of ‘mind’ or ‘experience’ by ‘meaning’ was supposed to insure the purity and autonomy of philosophy by providing it with a nonempirical subject matter.
“Linguistic philosophy was, however, too honest to survive.  When, with the later Wittgenstein, this kind of philosophy turned its attention to the question of how such a ‘pure’ study of language was possible, it realized that it was not possible – that semantics had to be naturalized if it were to be, in Donald Davidson’s phrase, ‘reserved as a serious subject.’  The upshot of linguistic philosophy is, I would suggest, Davidson’s remark that ‘there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what philosophers . . . have supposed. . . .  We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users master and then apply to cases.’  This remark epitomizes what Ian Hacking has called ‘the death of meaning’ – the end of the attempt to make language a transcendental topic.
“I take Frege and the early Wittgenstein to be the philosophers primarily responsible for imposing on us the idea that there was such a clearly defined shared structure.  In particular, we owe to Wittgenstein the idea that all philosophical problems can in principle be finally solved by exhibiting that structure.  I take the later Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson to be the philosophers who freed us from the idea that there is any such structure.  The early Wittgenstein had defined the mystical sense as ‘the sense of the world as a limited whole.’  By contrast, the later Wittgenstein triumphed over his younger, more Schopenhauerian self by no longer feeling the need to be mystical, no longer needing to set himself over against the world as ‘the unsayable limit of the world.’
“The younger Heidegger, the author of Being and Time, was much more free of this Schopenhauerian urge than was the younger Wittgenstein.  That book was filled with protests against the idea of philosophy as theoria.  Heidegger saw that idea as an attempt to rise above the ‘guilt’ and ‘throwness’ which he claimed were inseparable from Dasein’s worldly and historical existence an attempt to escape from the contingency of that  existence.  The younger Heidegger, had he read the Tractatus, would have dismissed that book in the same way as the older Wittgenstein dismissed it – as one more attempt to preserve the philosopher’s autonomy and self-sufficiency by letting him picture himself as somehow above, or beyond, the world.  The young Heidegger would have seen the linguistic turn recommended by Frege and Wittgenstein as merely one more variation on the Platonic attempt to distance oneself from time and chance.”
COMMENT:  There seem to be at least two axes Rorty is grinding here.  The first is to make Heidegger almost as much a pragmatist as Dewey, and the second is perhaps an academic shot at those who sought (are there any who still seek?) to keep a pristine Platonic ivory tower and hold its ramparts against Pragmatists (like Dewey and Rorty) who have left that tower.  They left much like a man once left Plato’s cave, and saw that it was “safe” outside in the real world.  Philosophy, at least Pragmatic philosophy, needn’t feel threatened by science and technology.  In another place Rorty sees Heidegger’s fear of technology as being wrong.  It is of course antithetical to American Pragmatism and Rorty argues that technology isn’t the threat Heidegger imagined it to be.  It is certainly not a dangerous force requiring an ubermensche to manage it.   Once that Heideggerian error is swept away then other elements of his philosophy are seen as approaching American Pragmatism quite closely (Rorty assures us).
If we consider again some of the thoughts from , we might be tempted to make Analytic Philosophy a philosophy of engineers who wanted to define all meaning based upon a Tractatus-type structure.  Since the Analytic School has collapsed (or has it?) this might be moot.  Several philosophers, including Grice described ways in which philosophical analysis did not end up in incontrovertible meanings.  The engineers couldn’t make it work.
But not to worry, Rorty would tell us, we have Heidegger and Dewey to tell us that we can relate to whatever it is we find or know or think in the world, just not in any absolute way that would apply to all languages, all histories and all traditions.  Language is not transcendent in any manner that the engineer can make use of.  The poet (Holderlin, but also Heidegger) and what the poet writes will be transcendent, but this transcendence cannot be grasped by the engineer and made use of with any sort of precision.  It remains transcendent.  It may inspire engineers to act in the world, but no one can follow “the poet” such that he grasps his transcendence utterly.
Heidegger’s authentic language can be considered transcendent.  And what of those who made use of it?  Richard Wolin writes of Heidegger’s Children, Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse.  Each of these “children” diverged from Heideggerian philosophy, but how could they not if it was “transcendent”?  They must diverge and fall short.   And yet each one made use of Heidegger’s philosophy.  They took what they thought was valuable and then made of it something of their own – engineer’s perhaps, but also creating something, Wolin thought, that was authentic.  They thought certain issues through, not thinking Heidegger’s thoughts after him perhaps, but thinking somewhat in rhyme with him, hearing something of the transcendence of his poetry. 


Dasein said...


I invite you to read my recently posted blog "The 'Leap'" at It my clear a few things up for
you or it will add to any confusion you may have. Read it anyway, I think you will enjoy it.

Lawrence Helm said...


I read your entire blog with interest. I have never read anything as many times as you have read Heidegger, but I have read a great many things. I have too many interests and am too easily bored. You remind me of Siddartha a bit, with a bit of Kafka ironed in.

As it happens I am on other subjects at the present time and not in a Heideggerian mood at the present time. What it would be like to be in a Heideggerian mood all the time is unimaginable to me -- but interesting.