Hubert Dreyfus on Husserl and Heidegger

1. Introduction

Bryan Magee’s “The Great Philosophers -” Hubert Dreyfus on Husserl and Heidegger

Hubert Dreyfus is an American philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His main interests include phenomenology, existentialism and the philosophy of both psychology and literature, as well as the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. He is perhaps the leading exponent of exegesis of Martin Heidegger (known by some as "Dreydegger"). The video is presented as five clips of 10 minutes each and feature an interview with Dreyfus discussing Husserl and Heidegger.

This summary attempts to describe phenomenology and the way in which Heidegger appropriates the methods of phenomenology. It will also explore Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, the relationship between Heidegger and Husserl and Heidegger’s reaction to the Cartesian philosophical tradition.

2. What is Phenomenology ? 

Husserl’s basic idea: For each one of us there is one thing that is indubitably certain – our own conscious awareness. Therefore, our knowledge of reality must be grounded in this. However, awareness has to be awareness of something, consciousness must be consciousness of something – and we are unable to distinguish between states of consciousness and objects of consciousness, which seem to be the same thing. However, Husserl argued that these objects do exist as objects of consciousness for us (whatever other status they may have/not have) – therefore, we have direct access to them as objects of consciousness and so can investigate them as such. This is the basis of phenomenology, a systematic analysis of consciousness and its objects.

3. Encounters with Edmund Husserl  

3.1 Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology

Husserl believed he had developed a system in which we could ground an understanding of everything. The basic approach is that the mind is always directed towards some object under some aspect. I perceive this computer screen and can remember it, have ideas about it, perhaps desires related to it. Thus, my mental content is directed. Husserl thought this was the essence of the mind – the only thing in the Universe which has this kind of directedness (known as ‘intentionality’ in philosophy) to things outside of it, other than it. Husserl thought that, for instance, the fact that we can relate to distant galaxies, is a wunderbar phenomenon and wanted to understand it.
He thought there was a kind of intentional content in the mind which is kind of like a description of reality, which is how I can perceive, remember this computer screen under some aspect (we might know this now as a kind of metadata).

Husserl felt that his system was an impressive, finished edifice – in such a system, it really didn’t matter if the computer screen was there or not because it is possible to describe it, to describe the whole world, under the assumption that we understand that there is a computer screen here. He reflected on his own intentional content (‘phenomenological reduction’) which gave him an indubitable basis to start from – we produce our own evidence which takes this to be a computer screen and we can’t be wrong about it.

Husserl felt that he had absolute grounding because we can’t experience anything – computer screens, music, other people, distant galaxies – except by virtue of our own mental content.

3.2 The relationship between Heidegger and Husserl

So, Husserl believed he had discovered the foundation of the condition of the possibility of our being able to encounter anything. This was founded in the relation of subjects directed towards objects. This is the culmination of a whole tradition of philosophy – stemming from Descartes, if not before – seeing man as a subject confronted by objects. And this is what Heidegger reacted against.
Husserl believed that we have to go to the things themselves, and let them show themselves, as they are in themselves.

Heidegger’s investigations found that human being-in-the-world is not as subjects related to objects at all. Awareness, consciousness didn’t play any role. Heidegger’s example is a person hammering, where the hammer becomes transparent to the hammerer, not a subject contemplating an object at all. The person might pay attention to the nails, but after a while even they lessen in the person’s attention – and that person may well have a conversation with a friend whilst hammering. A familiar example might be driving – how many times have you arrived at a destination and realised that you haven’t given the journey much conscious thought at all, you barely remember it? As a subject, you weren’t conscious of the objects around you – they were transparent, even when you were perhaps going at some speed! Heidegger calls this relationship to things as ‘ready-to-hand’ – and here you don’t find subjects contemplating objects. Heidegger said that we are coping beings, already involved in the world. If something goes wrong with, say, the hammer – the head comes off – then we become observers, problem-solvers, in that traditional subject-object sense. We only become conscious of things when they go wrong – for the most part, we operate in a taken-for-granted way. We don’t infer the world, we start with it, we are of it.

Kant said it was a scandal that nobody had proved the existence of the external world – Heidegger said it was a scandal that people are trying to prove the existence of the external world, as if we were stuck with the internal world and couldn’t get out – whereas we are ‘being-in-the-world’. The hammer only makes sense in terms of nails, and houses, and lives – a totality of equipment, which Heidegger calls ‘significance’. My skills of hammering only make sense in terms of other skills – standing, moving, talking, wearing clothes.

4. The Development of Existenzphilosophie  

4.1 Dreyfus’ characterization of Heidegger’s ontology, his theory of being. 

Heidegger’s new position means that he can’t talk about ‘subjects’, ‘persons’ or ‘minds’ – so he needs a new word to talk about this ongoing activity and he chooses: Dasein, which means, in German, ‘existence’ but as ‘da sein’ it means ‘being the there’. Being a human is an activity, human being, being the there, being the situation in which this coping is going on. So, for example, driving and not being aware of it, is just being, where driving is the activity of being where the driver is coping with being in the world, actively being a situation in which directed activity is going on. Dasein also offers the possibility of talking about the activity of human being or a particular human being, an instance of that activity.

4.1.1 The relationship of being to time in Heidegger’s philosophy

The relationship of ‘opening a clearing’ – another word for the situation – the activity of clearing the clearing, which we are, has a threefold structure:
  1. Dasein has ‘disposition’ – the best example of which is moods. Thanks to a basic characteristic of us, things show up for us as mattering – threatening, attractive, stubborn – and the tradition overlooks this, as it doesn’t fall into ‘knowing’. We are always already in a situation and it always already matters. We can’t take mood away, start from no mood and step into one – we always have a disposition. 
  2. ‘Discourse’ – the world is always articulated. Right now, everything is already laid out in the ‘context of significance’, the pieces of equipment fitting together so that we can use any particular one. If I take a hammer from this ‘totality of significance’ I can articulate it as a hammer, as a nail-puller and I can talk about how tricky it was to get the nail out, thus articulating further what I have already articulated. This is constantly going on, it is ‘discourse’. 
  3. Dasein is always pressing into the future. If I’m hammering then it’s in order to repair a house in order to live more securely in that house. Dasien is always pursuing goals ‘towards which’ in pursuit of some life plan or ‘for-the-sake-of’. But ‘goals’ or ‘life plans’ are what you have in your mind. Heidegger rather says that Dasein is always oriented toward the future - we do something now in order to get to do something later. 
Being already in, amidst things and always ahead of itself is the structure of time. In the second half of Being and Time, the three-part structure of being-in-the-world turns out to be mappable on past, present and future.

We are embodied time. Dasein is ‘care’ and the structure of ‘care’ is temporality.

4.1.2 Anxiety and Authenticity

Heidegger rejected the idea that most of our activity is directed by conscious choices and decisions and mentally aware reflection. Does this reduce the human agent to an unaware, unreflecting zombie? Heidegger shows how free individuals can crystallise out of this amorphic us – this is the subject of division two of Being and Time – authenticity, the part that is existentialist. This is where Heidegger talks about ‘guilt’ and ‘death’, which turn out to be versions of ‘anxiety’.

Any Dasein anywhere is dimly aware that the world is ungrounded – there are no reasons to do things this way, it’s not ‘rational’, it’s not ‘god’ and it’s not ‘human nature requiring us to do things this way. Heidegger said that the essence of Dasein is its existence – there is no human nature, we are what we take ourselves to be, how we interpret ourselves in our practices. And this is fundamentally ‘unsettling’ – anxiety is the disposition, our response, to the fundamentally unsettling character of being Dasein.

The question then becomes what to do about it?
  1. Inauthenticity. You can flee, run away from anxiety, and into inauthenticity, which means going back to the kind of conformity required just to be intelligible. You try even more to shape up to the norms, to pronounce things the right way, dress the right way and so on. This involves dis-owning what it is to be Dasein. 
  2. Authenticity. Or you can own up to what it is to be Dasein – which means holding on to anxiety, not fleeing it. This will catapult you into an entirely different way of being human. This does not change what you do, you carry on doing the same things, but how you do things changes completely. You no longer expect to get any deep, final meaning out of anything – embracing projects without the idea that now, finally, this is going to make sense of your life – but also don’t drop all your projects for the same reason, that they don’t make your final meaning for you. You can then respond to the unique, rather than general, situation. The carpenter can go and enjoy the flowers if he wishes, responding to the unique situation without concern for respectability or conformity. 
An authentic existence involves  not trying to get absolute meaning and responding to the current situation makes you an individual, makes you flexible, alive – joyous (fröh).

4.2 Dreyfus’ account of Heideggers reaction to the Cartesian tradition of philosophy 

The philosophical tradition relating to the works of rationalist René Descartes sees human beings as subjects relating to objects, so that the central philosophical problem becomes ‘how do we as subjects have knowledge of these objects’? So, the central issues concern perception, do we have certain knowledge at all, does it exist, and so on. Heidegger doesn’t dispute this, but he says that this is not central to the human situation. We aren’t simple observers of an objective reality ‘out there’. Rather, from the beginning, we are in amongst it all, coping with it. We are not primarily observing or knowing beings at all, as traditional philosophers would have it, we’re coping beings or being beings – and it’s from there that we start.

4.3 Dreyfus on ‘The Turn’

How does Heidegger’s later work differ from Being and Time?
This is not a settled question. Heidegger himself said that he changed to thinking being historically, something he wasn’t doing before, where he essentially wrote about all human beings anywhere anytime. He now understands that each epoch is important in our understanding of being – he had previously only talked about the modern epoch without realising it. So, he then tries to describe the various epochs:
  • the Greeks felt rooted, they weren’t unsettled, and things showed up to them as natural, and they appreciated them. 
  • the Christians felt that they were created and all the things they dealt with were creatures (and I’ve never realised the loaded, Christian, origins of that word before now!) and they could read god’s plan out of the world.
  • Our own understanding of being is that everything is objects for us to control and use and we are subjects with desires to satisfy. 
These are all different understandings of what it is to be a thing, a person, an institution – of what it is to be. This means that different things show up – for the Greeks, it was heroes and beautiful things in Homer – for the Christians, saints and sinners showed up (they weren’t there in Greece in the same way that Heroes aren’t there in the middle ages). This leads Heidegger to show which things show up in our own understanding of being.

Anxiety is ours (lucky us!). The Greeks didn’t have it and the Christians didn’t have it. We have it because we have a technological, nihilistic understanding of being, a distressing, rootless, anxious-making understanding of being. Nihilism is Heidegger’s way of representing our understanding of being, our technological mode which now dominates every understanding of being, over the whole planet, and has come to a dead end.

Heidegger’s later deep focus on language shows the importance of language in shaping our practices – it is only through language that we can change the practice and understanding of being: it is the poets not the philosophers, the priests or the scientists, who are the vanguard of humanity and the hope of some new understanding of being.