He threw the immaterial Cartesian soul into the world and defined him mostly and profoundly as a being in the world (Dasein). He broke the epistemological bridge between the subject and the object, and literally ended the Western metaphysics as we know it. Nothing would remain the same after him. I am talking about Martin Heidegger, who was arguably the most influential philosopher of the 20th century. This blogpost has too little space and I am too mortal and naive to go too deep into Heidegger’s philosophy, but I will survey the basic insights of his work that are still resonating with us today (Thanks to my good friend Larry for recently pointing out Heidegger’s significance for metaphysics that gave me an inspiration for this post).
I sometimes wonder how philosophy would develop if Descartes never existed (no pun intended). Much of the philosophy came after him was shaped by his ideas and many legends were born through their rebellion to Descartes. Ever since Descartes philosophers were stuck in this question of knowing about the existence of an external world. Following the old tradition of subject/object ontology, one of the number of bad legacies Descartes left was defining the subject as an immaterial soul (res cogitans) that is separated from the world and the body (res extensia). Is there a world out there that exist independent of us, or all we can access is our representations of a world? Immanuel Kant called it a scandal that this question had not been answered before. But Heidegger said the real scandal was the very attempt to pose this question over and over again. This was the fundamental ontological break of Heidegger from what preceded him. Heidegger said posing of this question left the very investigation the word “to exist” untouched. He pointed a very simple question that surprisingly went unasked throughout history: What is this being we are talking about, e.g. what is this thing called sum in ‘cogito ergo sum’? Heidegger took up the challenge to answer this question, and the result was a formulation of a whole new vocabulary that culminated in a phenomenal and yet quite difficult book called “Being and Time” (1927).
Heidegger said we were essentially coping with the world rather than setting back and thinking about it. He gave his famous example of hammering. In the act of masterful hammering there was no Cartesian split between the subject and the object. There was just hammering without reflection. Subject melted in the activity, the division between a subject and object disappeared (Merleu Ponty would later call this “skillfull coping” with the world). Now I am not a masterful carpenter so perhaps I would be too Cartesian in the act of hammering but you can think of other examples which involve such ‘procedural acts’ such as driving, opening the doors, playing guitar etc. These Zen-like smooth coping with the world were our fundamental mode of activity (Given this priority of the ‘bodily’ actions, it is so strange that Heidegger did not elaborate on the body in Being and Time- a project left to Maurice Merleu Ponty).
First and foremost, being (Dasein) was in the world and always grounded in the world. Being was fundamentally temporal: it was thrown into the world that he did not choose (past), always participating in the world as a skillful coping (present) and fundamentally open to the possibilities (future). And being always had an attunement (mood) in everyday activity. His mode of being always resonated in a certain emotional frequency, constantly shifting and drifting through time. This projection to the future allowed the being to face the reality of his own death and this knowledge of it’s own finitude was the fundamental source of meaning of it’s existence (a link to existentialism).
I will here focus on the extent his ideas resonate in the field of cognitive science. Heidegger crashed the subject/object ontology and the Cartesian tradition, but ironically cognitivism had it’s prime years long after Being and Time was published. Cognitivism, using the computer metaphor and the Cartesian subject/object ontology, basically claimed that what we call thinking is a symbol manipulation based on the stored representations about the world. You can see the Cartesian link here: there is an epistemological barrier between the subject (mind) and the world, and the only way to generate cognition is taking input (sensory information) from the world, doing bunch of manipulations to them according to certain algorithms, and then producing the output (behavior). Cognitivists working in the field of artificial intelligence were really hopeful that they would produce human-like robots within few years. Now in retrospection it would be fair to say that this ideal failed completely. It produced some success in purely abstract domains like chess but the robots were and still are far from skillfully hammering nails or navigate their way smoothly in the world. Why? It was not because the machines processing power were not good enough. It was because of the following foundational mistake: abstract, ungrounded and detached model of cognition simply did not come close to how human cognition actually operated in the world. The body was neglected.
It was another influential philosopher, Maurice Merleu Ponty who carried Heidegger’s ideas to the next level and brought the body into the picture. In his monumental book “The Phenomenology of Perception” (1945), he described how body and perception allows a skillful coping with the world and this process was the foundation of all cognition. Similar to Heidegger’s example about hammering, Ponty pointed to the fact that our bodies allow us to increase our grip to the world in the act of perception: when we are looking at a picture in an art gallery, we move our bodies to an optimal distance to the picture that allows a meaningful interaction with it. Perception is fundamentally a sensorimotor process and following Heideggerian tradition, there is no intermediary between perception and action. No symbol manipulation, no representation. Sensing and acting are fundamentally coupled to each other and the action flows from perception in a dynamic process involving the body and sensorimotor structures.
Ponty’s ideas did not go unnoticed. Many failures of the cognitivism framework was calling for a paradigm shift. The shift came with the new framework that is called embodied cognition. Especially Gibson’s work on affordances was influential to lead way to this new framework. In a nutshell, instead of talking about symbol manipulatins and representations in the brain, embodiment researchers were articulating the tight coupling between body, environment, history; and cognition was generated from the historical process of organisms bodily interactions with their environment.
A very influential book called “The Embodied Mind” (1991) pointed a link between Heidegger/Ponty and the embodiment framework. They also articulated how buddhistic teachings were much more compatible with the new framework compared to the western metaphysical tradition. According to those writers a fundamental paradigm shift comes from the realization that there is not a fixed Cartesian ego to be found. The mind is fundamentally without a ground. It’s a dance of interaction between the body and the world that we call cognition. Thoughts and experiences are always fleeting, they are like clouds coming and passing. There is no ‘owner’ of cognition. It’s all a process. Even memories do not stay the same, they are constructed each and every time of recollection, and just as you cannot swim in the same river twice, you cannot have two identical memories at different times.
Why did Heidegger only grant Being (Dasein) to human beings? Why did he exclude animals? Why did he never talk about evolution of Dasein? Knowledge of one’s own death could be one of the reasons. Knowledge of it’s own existence could be another. But we have to answer a simple question: At which point during evolution the being and meaning emerges? Can’t we claim that animals are also sense-making creatures with their own sensorimotor interaction with their environment? Of course they are lacking general knowledge about the world and most of them are not pondering about the meaning of life like we do, but they have bodies, moods, memories and foresight abilities. They are skillfully coping with the world and are much better at that compared to the most intelligent robots today. Today many subfields are dealing with this question of evolutionary meaning generation, such as biosemiotics. They claim that meaning and semiosis (interpretation of signs) constitute intrinsic parts of life processes. Thus we can talk about meaning even in life of bacteria: it can interpret glucose as good and swims towards it while it avoids other chemicals.
Going back to artificial intelligence (AI), the field of robotics at last accepted the failure of cognitivism and they are now using the embodied approach to build robots that learn about the world through their bodily interactions. However, they are not ‘Heideggarian enough’ according to the famous Heidegger scholar Hubert Dreyfus. In his 2007 article he suggests everyone working in this field should study Being and Time but he is still pessimistic when it comes to achieving a human-level intelligence. He claims this would fail due to the problem of significance such that we assign significance to the objects in the world depending on our specific needs, cultural backgrounds and bodily structures. In order to solve this issue, Dreyfus offers the following far-fetched recommendation: “… we would also need- and here’s the rub—a model of our particular way of being embedded and embodied such that what we experience is significant for us in the particular way that it is. That is, we would have to include in our program a model of a body very much like ours with our needs, desires, pleasures, pains, ways of moving, cultural background, etc.” Does it sound like a tenable implementation? It does not seem so.
Of course many AI researchers do not give up so easily. They claim that machines are already more intelligent than humans in many domains and they could be excused for not being able to boil a cup of tea. In this video one of the AI researchers mentions a scary scenerio (around 05:30 min.) where the military missile system guided by robots is attacking us and we are making fun of them because they can’t make a cup of tea. This is precisely a scary scenerio not because machines can’t make a cup of tea but because the machines lack of normativity could be used badly in evil hands. In Heideggerian terms those machines are not Dasein, they are just zombies.
P.S. I want to recommend a great radio show called ”Entitled Opinions” hosted by Robert Harrison. He is a big Heidegger fan and the intellectual quality of the show is enormous. Secondly, you can watch Hubert Dreyfus’ full 28 lectures on Being and Time here.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, (1927). Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1962).
Maurice Merleu Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945). Colin Smith New York: Humanities Press (1962).
Eleanor Rosch, Evan Thompson, Francisco J. Varela (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press.
Hubert Dreyfus, (2007). Why Heideggerian AI Failed and how fixing it would require making it more Heideggerian. Philosophical Psychology, 20 (2) (2007), pp. 247–268.
Gibson J, (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
Gibson J, (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin, New York.