Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ill Communication

My friends and I used to play a game. The goal was to come up with the most ridiculous dissertation title. For instance: Carnap and Hintikka: Solitude in the Face of the Other; Derrida and Kripke: What’s the Differance? Not funny per se, I admit, but philosophy-geek amusing. My favorites always involved the pairing of Heidegger and Quine. Par example: Bound Variables and Finitude: Enframing Quine. It might start something like this:

‘Let’s consider the question of being. Here’s what Heidegger has to say about the subject: "Something like 'being' discloses itself in the understanding of being that belongs to existing Da-sein as a way in which it understands. The preliminary disclosure of being, although it is unconceptual, makes it possible for Da-sein as existing being-in-the-world to be related to beings, to those it encounters in the world as well as to itself in existing" (Being and Time, p 398, Stambaugh Translation). Here's what Quine--not so many years later--has to say: "To be is…purely and simply, to be…the value of a bound variable" (From a Logical Point of View, W. V. Quine, p13). Both of these statements are, I venture, rather clear on the terms each has set. This may be a bit hard for the analytic-leaning to accept on Heidegger’s part, but honestly, this is one of the clearer statements he makes on the topic.

Now, imagine Heidegger responding to Quine: “You just don’t get it. You talk only about beings, about rocks and flies and pimples, while you completely miss the question of being itself. If you don’t understand that distinction, I would direct you to the opening sections of my own Being and Time. There you will discover that the question of being is the fundamental question, that it comes before any question about beings can be asked, and therefore that the only arena in which one can even begin to investigate the notion of being is through fundamental ontology. Have you noticed that in all your talk about ontological commitment, you never once ask about the being of the being to which you are commited? And how can you talk about a world without first discussing the worldliness of the world? And are you actually so ignorant of the fact that your very way of thinking about being is an inheritance from a Western tradition rooted in Greek thought that you have not ever asked about this tradition itself? You’ve been entwurfed and enframed and technized so profoundly, and you’re so deep in inauthenticity, that you can’t tell which way’s up! Where’s your conscience, Mann?

Now consider Quine’s counter-reply: “What one earth are you talking about? Quite literally, you make no sense. It is not prudeness, ontological or otherwise, that advises my use of the tools of quantification to solve this little problem of being. If you weren’t such a boor, you’d have realized long ago that quantification precisely is the ‘worldliness’ of the world, only it doesn’t sound nearly so f@#king pretentious. Plus, when we restrict existence (or Being or Be-ing or Seyn or whatever the hell you want to call it) to the definitions in quantification, perennial problems like the ones you traffic in are nicely and neatly resolved. In your ‘Contributions’ (which yes, I’ve read with keen interest, and disdain) you seem proud of your concept of das Nicht. Of course, you prance around the issue for a good 500 ponderous and insufferable pages, getting nowhere (which I’m sure you’ll say is exactly where das Nicht is found), whereas I would direct your attention to my short and sweet little paper, ‘On What there Is,’ where I clear up the entire issue in just 18 pages. Of course, if you’d spent more time studying logic and less trying to cull trite nonsense out of the mystic ramblings of hairy, pudgy-eyed shamans dead since two millennia, maybe you’d have realized this already. So, feel free to write book after book if you like about das Nicht nichting and being withdrawing and free-throws and four-folds, but seriously, you’d produce more profoundity growing Spargel in your garden. ”

Is there a point to any of this? Well, comparing Quine and Heidegger is something of a joke, but I still think that there is common if contested ground where the two unwittingly meet. For instance, a discussion about whether Heidegger’s ‘worldliness’ really could be understood as the logical framework of language is not nonsense, and could be interesting. Heideggarians might have more of a stake in this discussion, but it is nonetheless a discussion in which Quineans could engage, if so obliged. I can also envision a discussion with the onus reversed: Quine is after all a bit blas√© about whether other sorts of conditions might have to be met, besides linguistic competence and behavior, in order to get radical translation off the ground. Davidson criticizes Quine on this score, arguing that some awareness of an objective world, in addition to behavior and utterances, is a necessary third condition needed to make the notion of radical translation complete. Davidson says very little about what this awareness of an objective world might amount to, but perhaps it is, like Heidegger argues vis-√†-vis the notion of ‘worldliness’, much more variegated, complicated, and yes, wooly, than either Davidson or Quine consider. Anyway, maybe both of these lines of discussion would fizzle under further scrutiny, but even so, the idea is not intrinsically laughable.

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