Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Science and Self: Ontological Commitments in Hegel and Heidegger

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Science and Self: Ontological Commitments in Hegel and Heidegger

Article excerpt

Imagine saying to Hegel that his dialectic patterns occur in the behavior of magnets and rivers and trees, and that the self-understanding of spirit is an operation going on in brain tissue. That the descriptions in his Phenomenology of Spirit picture the behavior of social groups and changes in cultural norms and memes. Hegel's reaction would be complex but not hostile. You would find yourself in a discussion with him about different kinds and levels of categories, and the relation of physical science to his overall logic.

Now imagine saying to Heidegger that his description of the care structure of Dasein is a sophisticated reworking of folk psychology, and that it is the result of what amounts to a software program. That his Fourfold is a description of the appearing of a world, based upon neurological and social processes. That his history of being is open to sociological analysis and historical and economic explanation. Heidegger would react to such claims more sharply. You would find yourself in a discussion with him about being caught in das Gestell, and the need to "step back" from attempts to absolutize one language and one revelation of beings.

How would these different reactions play out in a discussion of the ontology of the self? This present essay approaches these major continental thinkers with a question from analytic philosophy, to see how they might respond.

In standard mind/body discussions we find two rival descriptive languages with different sets of entities. One talks about ideas, purposes, awareness, meanings, concepts, norms, intentions, and so on. The other talks about the behavior of cells and electrical currents, brain activities, and entities described by physics.

There are thinkers who argue that folk talk about thoughts and meanings could be in principle abandoned even in everyday life, replaced by descriptions that involved only physical scientific entities. Others argue that folk talk is not dispensable. Daniel Dennett and Wilfrid Sellars would say that we need to take up the intentional stance and avow social and linguistic norms in order to function in a meaningful social world. Kant had already argued that there is a practical necessity to view ourselves as free agents, no matter what our science may say. These considerations suggest that the tension between the modes of discussion cannot be easily wished away by eliminating one of them.


One could say that these two languages are using different ontologies. I am using ontology here in a sense derived from analytic philosophers who ask "does your ontology include . . . [relations, sets, second level properties, mereological wholes, abstract entities, Cartesian souls, etc.]?" An ontology in this sense is the list of approved types of entities that are being affirmed as ultimately real. In most such discussions there is little talk about ontology in an older sense, namely, about the mode of being of those beings which analytic discussions often presuppose to be immediate factual presence. Much more active modes of being are affirmed in Whitehead or in Bergson or Deleuze, or in Aristotle's doctrine of potentiality. For none of these thinkers does being equal simple, positive presence. For them such presence is a result, and it is so independently of whatever processes bring it to presence for us in experience.

But if we do ask about modes of being, beyond the factual lists, then other more traditional ontological questions arise: In Aristotle's terms, are the movements of Hegel's dialectic substantial changes or accidental, or relational, or what? Is Heidegger's Dasein or Hegel's spirit a substance? Or a set of emergent properties? How do we individuate Dasein(s)? Does Hegel's spirit have its own individuated self-consciousness? What kind of being do the components of the Fourfold have, and how do they relate to everyday objects and scientific entities?

Ontology matters. When David Hume looks for his self, he can't find it. …

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