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Philosophy of Science

The Problem of Science in Heidegger's Thought

Daniel Videla
New School for Social Research

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ABSTRACT: In this paper I deal with the status of science in Heidegger's thought. Particularly, I pose to Heidegger the question whether science can constitute a problem for philosophy, once one has cast doubt on philosophy's rank as first science whose prerogative is to establish the truth-criteria of the particular sciences. To express it with the convenience cliches always afford, this is the question of knowledge in the postmodern epoch. The paper traces the transition from the early "fundamental ontology" to the late notion of a thinking that is to come at the end of philosophy. It will include some reflections on the role of an education for science at the end of modernity. The texts analyzed include Being and Time, "What calls for thinking," and "The end of philosophy and the task of thinking."

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I. Introduction

In this paper I wish to draw from Heidegger's writings what could be called his "philosophy of science". Particularly, I pose to Heidegger the question whether philosophy can still claim science as one of its subject matters, once doubt has been cast on philosophy's rank of first science endowed with the prerogative to establish the truth-criteria of the particular sciences. Such prerogative is none other than what Habermas has called the role of a Platzanweiser für die Wissenschaften, (1) entitled to indicate the place that the sciences occupy in the universe of human knowledge. Expressed with the convenience clichés always afford, this is the question of knowledge in the post-modern epoch.

If the main trait of the condition of knowledge at the close of the millenium is—as Lyotard has it—that science no longer needs to take recourse to any philosophical (narrative, non-denotative) discourse to legitimate the production of knowledge, (2) one may well be entitled to ask what role, if any, is left to an academic discipline that, having science as its object, calls itself philosophical.

Such is the claim of Anglo-Saxon philosophy of science. Rooted in logical positivism, this type of philosophy offers theories that are far more close to science's scientific self-understanding as an independent body of knowledge, than any product of the so-called continental tradition, however sympathetic it may be to the achievements of positive science. For this reason, philosophy has survived, as academic discipline, in its Anglo-Saxon version. Obviously, it would have not been admitted to such institutional place if its claims did not harmonize with the given order of discourse, that is, if it disturbed the epochal arrangement of knowledge that has rendered science capable of justifying its own claims. In order to survive in the age of legitimacy-crisis, the "official" philosophy of science has then taken its cue from science itself: it has remained as little philosophical as possible. It has consequently ceased to ask questions of legitimacy—quid juris—contenting itself instead with description, clarification, analysis, and elucidation. Because such healthy, humble purpose is so unlike the traditional character of philosophy, it should be no surprise that, already early in the 20th century, logical positivism proclaimed that the logical analysis of language was also the Ueberwindung of metaphysics. (3)

The paradoxical results of this situation strike us immediately. Insofar as it has been able to retain its academic status, philosophy has become the maid of science—ancilla scientiae. Following the direction set by the Wiener Kreis, it has remained far too close to science to be able to call into question science's historical and discursive conditions. Is this surrender of knowledge-jurisdiction the necessary result of giving up that discredited mode of knowledge, traditionally called metaphysics? What are we left with, if we acknowledge the present arrangement of knowledge but do not want to go with its scientistic version of philosophy?

II. Being and Time: science in the project of fundamental ontology

When addressed by Heidegger, the issue of philosophy's historical marginalization becomes that of its crisis as the discourse that lays the foundations of the sciences. Expressed in the vocabulary of Being and Time, this is philosophy's crisis as ontology, its failing to properly ask the question of Being or Seinsfrage. Itself, this book is aimed at the question's retrieval (Wiederholung), and makes of it thematic beginning. Yet, as explained in Being and Time, the inquiry is not at all something direct, but a hermeneutic exercise.

To ask about Being (Sein) is to actually interrogate the being of beings or entities (Seiende) and then again, only in order to intend or ascertain something else—Being's "sense" (Sinn), term we must unfortunately render in English as "meaning". Now, according to Heidegger, the meaning of Being is to be intimated as time—at least temporality is the meaning of Dasein's being, out of which the meaning of Being will be obtained. This temporal meaning, in turn, has been suppressed or forgotten as Being has been conflated with one of its time-determinations, the present, and as beings, or being-in-the world, have been understood as presence-to-hand, Vorhandenheit. This interpretation is to be undone by the Destruktion proposed by Heidegger: (4)

[I]n our process of destruction (....) it will be manifest that the ancient way of interpreting the Being of entities is oriented towards the 'world' or 'nature' in the widest sense, and that it is indeed in terms of 'time' that its understanding of Being is obtained. (....) The Légein itself—or rather noein, the simple awareness of something present at hand in its sheer presence-at-hand, which Parmenides had already taken to guide him in his interpretation of being—has the temporal structure (my emphasis D.V) of a pure 'making present' of something. Those entitities which show themselves in this and for it (....) thus get interpreted with regard to the present; that is, they are conceived as presence (ousia). Yet the Greeks have managed to interpret Being in this way without any explicit knowledge of the clues which function here. BT 47-48, SZ 25-26

One could therefore say that the book brings to relief a philosophical error that goes back to Parmenides: objectifying Being as presence when interpreting the being of entities. Somehow, between our (Dasein's) raw awareness of being in time and the formation of the basic philosophical concepts, a certain slippage of meaning has taken place, falsely rendering time under the guise of one of its determinations: the present. Thus, philosophy has come to operate with a notion of being that orients itself towards an outer object, nature or the world. The foremost example is the interpretation of the world as res extensa appearing to a no less a-temporal res cogitans, or subject of cognition. Philosophy, according to Being and Time, is therefore in need to clarify the often confused understanding of temporality, and the extent to which a one-sided interpretation of time is at work when we "define" or grasp the world as divided among entities of different sorts, as divided between "man" and a "nature" that appears to the man's cognition, or légein.

It is clear that the (objectifying) oblivion of the meaning of temporality only anticipates the modern scientific attitude. In order for the sciences to have objects of research, there must be a previous assignment of (ontological) territories, as well as an interpretation of Being upon which the latter is based. This is the task of ontology, the indication of a place (Platzanweisung, to say it with Habermas) which Kant accomplishes in the first Critique, a task the sciences need not constantly remember (although it runs constantly ahead of them) as they research their assigned domains of knowledge:

"Basic concept determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject matter underlying all objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding, [This preliminary] research must run ahead of the sciences and it can. Here the work of Plato an Aristotle is evidence enough." (BT 30/SZ 10)

If ontology has effectively forgotten the original (temporal) meaning of being, it has nonetheless accomplished a basic crucial assignment: the assignment of objects to scientific research—in the broadest possible terms, man and nature. Clinging to a one-sided notion of Being that is actually best suited to scientific endeavors—presence—ontology has forgotten other ways in which Being may be said to be. It has restricted itself to a very narrow interpretation of Being, forgetting at the same time other possibilities of Being.

On the other hand, the revision proposed in Being and Time seeks to yield a standpoint from which what has been forgotten can be—if only partially—remembered. It is as though the book suggested that our knowledge of the world would be different could we only remember that the present is only a determination of Being's time. The task of the destruction of the history of ontology must therefore undo the misguided interpretation of the being of entities that has founded their ontological assignment as scientific objects of research. It must be accomplished as a different ontology, one which is more fundamental, in that it recalls the long forgotten ontological assignment that precedes scientific research:

"The Seinsfrage aims therefore at ascertaining the a priori conditions not only for the possibility of the sciences which examine entities as entities of such and such a type, and in so doing, already operate with an understanding of Being, but also the possibility of those ontologies themselves which are prior to the ontical sciences and which provide their foundations. Basically, all ontology, no matter how rich and firmly compacted a system of categories it has as its disposal, remains blind and perverted from its ownmost aim, if it has not first adequately clarified the meaning of Being, and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task." (BT 31/SZ 11)

Oblivion or blindness deserve to be called perversion, to the extent that the original and crucial meaning of Being in terms of time remains concealed. The Seinsfrage therefore calls for correcting the ontological basis upon which the foundations of the sciences have been laid down. It calls for making explicit the understanding of Being that makes it possible for the sciences to have at their disposal regional ontologies. It is, as we have said, an understanding of Being as presence that allows the constitution of objectivity in the different sciences. The task of the destruction of the history is to make that process explicit once again, in order to regain the possibilities it may have displaced. Otherwise, the ontological assignment will remain fundamentally misguided, no matter how rich or complex its basic concepts may be.

But let it be noted that the aim of the Seinsfrage is ascertaining a priori conditions, those of the sciences, and also those of the ontologies that make the latter possible. The clarification called for does to ontology what ontology does to science. For that reason, the transcendental step is twofold: from the ontical sciences to the ontologies which provide their foundations, and from the latter's "rich and compact" systems of categories to the meaning of Being to which they remain blind.

Does this transcendental move, similar to that of the Critique of Pure Reason, imply that Being and Time raises also a quid juris quaestio? If so, then, does fundamental ontology fulfill the above-mentioned role of a Platzanweiser for the sciences, in Habermas' words? (5) Finally, what kind of an arrangement of knowledge can be revealed by an ontology that is more fundamental than the modern, Kantian, one?

One thing seems to be clear: what is to be retrieved is not knowledge of any kind. For, is not the meaning of Being something not knowable as object of research, but a condition of science? Even if here Heidegger does not explicitly invoke the Kantian distinction, the quasi-transcendental purpose of the fundamental ontology requires that we distinguish between (scientific) knowledge and the thinking that thematizes the meaning of Being. Furthermore, one has to pay closer attention to the coexisting deconstructive and hermeneutic traits of the attempted task, the one giving it an essentially negative direction, the other making of hermeneutics the indirect starting point of an ambitious (yet unfinished) enterprise.

In the first place, and in so far as the fundamental ontology is the offspring of a destruction of the history of ontology, it does not ground the empirical sciences, but subverts the very foundations that make these sciences possible. What is subverted here is the "trivial" understanding of Being as presence that has been sanctioned by the tradition, the "prejudices" that make unnecessary any revision of the starting point of Greek philosophy. (BT 21/SZ 2) If the investigation is to yield any results, one might surmise they would make up a reorganization of the regional domains of beings, the Bezirke or Felder (regions) cut up by the traditional interpretations. One might perhaps entertain new concepts taking the place of "man" and "nature", perhaps one might altogether dispense with them. But one can only speculate about this matter for the book was never finish and the author himself never went beyond sketching what an understanding of Being—of Being as time—would be like, once the task of destruction has been brought to conclusion.

In the second place, fundamental ontology proceeds as hermeneutics, that is, it asks about Being through an interrogation of Dasein's about its own Being (actually it is the development of Dasein's own preoccupation with its being): "[T]o work out the question of Being adequately, we must make one entity—the inquirer—transparent in its own being" (Dursichtigmachen eines Seienden—des Fragenden—in seinem Sein). As we have pointed out, the final meaning to be arrived will actually be that of Dasein's being, and only as the horizon of temporality out of which the meaning of Being is to be obtained. Thus, if this hermeneutic question is the positive side of fundamental ontology, it is nonetheless also indirect and fragmentary. It asks what determines beings in their being, but never actually proceeds to directly spell out such determination.

Therefore, even if Being and Time does raise a questio juris, it looks as though it finally withheld the answer in order simply to prepare—through the hermeneutics of Dasein's—the task of thinking Being beyond the narrow scheme of Vorhandenheit. Neither is philosophy the Platzanweiser for the sciences, nor is it philosophy of science proper. Close to Kant in its transcendental aspiration (to indicate what could belong to a specific domain of Being), it falls short to actually answer this question, contenting itself with working out the a priori of a restricted domain, Dasein's everydayness.

III. The late Heidegger: science and the task of thinking

It is certainly necessary to follow the development of the position regarding science originally stated by Heidegger in Being and Time. For the sake of brevity, I would like to finish this paper pointing out to some continuities and differences between that book and the later thinking. In Being and Time, the interpretation of Being (as presence-at-hand) that grounds the sciences is called ontological, in order to show—not at all surprisingly—the inner affinity between science and a philosophical tradition that is to be de(con)structed. In the late Heidegger however, that grounding interpretation is not understood as a forgotten establishment to be recalled at the level of a discourse more fundamental, but as an event (rather a withdrawal) of Being itself which is not up to a conscious philosophical act (destruction of ontology, fundamental ontology, etc.) to reverse.

In the late Heidegger, one finds still two levels, as it were, one belonging to objectifying knowledge, the other assigned the task of reversing the objectification by making visible the temporality of Being (if I may use this term without further exegesis). It is clear that the attempt to reach a level that is more foundational than traditional ontology—let alone than that of the ontical sciences—runs through the whole Hedeggerian opus, leading all the way up to the late affirmation that science "does not think" (BW 349). (6) One should however proceed cautiously when drawing such continuities, because the late Heidegger retreats from identifying thinking and philosophical thinking, just as he had before reneged science. Thinking is indeed a good candidate for what, in the late texts, stands for the early fundamental ontology. But the emphasis on thinking in the new Heideggerian vocabulary not only serves the purposes of eliminating the academic overtones of the early fundamental ontology, but also expresses a key tenet of Heidegger's turn: that it is Being itself, and not man, what dictates (through its own withdrawal) all concealment and metaphysical error. The task of thinking cannot therefore be seen as a conscious, purposeful doing (as the former Destruktion of the history of ontology was), but only as an event of Being itself. Thus we read, in the essay that contains the late Heidegger's most frequently quoted indictment of science:

That we are still not thinking is by no means only because man does not yet turn sufficiently toward that which, by origin an innately, wants to be thought about since in its essence it remains what must be thought about. Rather, that we are still not thinking stems from the fact that what is to be thought about turns away from man, has turned away long ago. (BW 348, ZSD, II, 6)

The passivity of the attitude required for thinking follows that it is thinking itself that asks one to be thought, or that withdraws from man's thought altogether. That withdrawal is now epochalized, identified with the economy of discourse of a given epochs—modernity for example—both in as far as it has produced an objectifying science and an objectifying metaphysics.

One can now notice how the former three-fold quasi-transcendental distinction between the levels of science, ontology, and fundamental ontology has turned into the gulf between thoughtless science (or metaphysics) on the one hand, and thinking for which man is not ready yet, on the other. On the side of thoughtlessness stands now philosophy, whose epochal marginalization by no means amount to the outright disappearance of metaphysics. Instead, the decline of academic philosophy amounts only to the completion of metaphysics, to its full-development or Vollendung in science.

This the thesis of the late lecture, "The end of philosophy and the task of thinking", (7) where once again thinking is opposed to academic (philosophical or scientific) error:

"We forget that already in the age of Greek philosophy a decisive characteristic of philosophy appears: the development of the sciences within the field which philosophy opened up. The development of the sciences is already at the same time their separation from philosophy and the establishment of their independence. This process belongs to the completion of philosophy.... The sciences are now taking over as their own task what philosophy in the course of its history tried to present in certain places and even there only inadequately, that is, the ontologies of the various regions of beings (nature, history, law, art)." (BW 375-377)

The autonomy gained by scientific knowledge (the separation of the sciences from philosophy and the establishment of their independence) is once again identified with an inadequate parceling of Being. That such assertion strikes us as new is only because, at the end of modernity, the assignment of types or classes of beings to the different sciences has become a matter of course. That is, the foundational gesture of philosophy has been forgotten or dispensed with.

But because the issue of such foundation is the understanding of Being as mere presence, and therefore the confusion of beings with what makes them present, it matters little how those beings are subsequently investigated, that is, whether they are known philosophically or scientifically. More so, the empiricism of the modern scientific attitude represents an improvement in grasping beings as presence to the senses, positivism. It is for such reason that Heidegger speaks in this context of Marxism as reversed Platonism, and that he maintains that the end of philosophy is the gathering into the most extreme possibilities. To understand the sensorial as more real than the ideal and to make technological use of it is but the utmost possibility of understanding of being as presence.

IV. Conclusion:

Let us go back to the question with which I started, the possibility of a philosophy of science in the late-modern epoch. Here we may say that the survival of a parasitic philosophy of science as academic discipline becomes a further proof that in the sciences metaphysics has attained its completion. Whereas the sciences have remained true to, and further pursued, the allocation of regions within Being, in its analytical incarnation metaphysics has simply confirmed the self-understanding of a privileged region, science, where Being is also understood as mere presence-at-hand. Indeed, in as much as they are a reaction against the so-called continental tradition, the analytic and post-empiricist styles of philosophizing are more a continuation than a rupture with European metaphysics. Both traditions, continental metaphysics and Anglo-Saxon philosophy of science, share the premise, best phrased by Heidegger, that being is presence to a subject of cognition, be it in metaphysical or in scientific cognition. Accordingly, both have equally forgotten the directionality, historicality or event-character of Being, traits that let one surmise that the meaning (the sense or direction) of Being may be time. In so doing they have conflated Being with one of its determinations, the present, and beings with presence-at-hand. The difference resides only in that for traditional metaphysics being appears sub specie aeternitatis, while for positive science, being is presence manifested in empirical knowledge, in the no less eternal, yet more banal regularity of natural phenomena. The demise of philosophy heralded by positivism is therefore the completion of philosophy, a conclusion that can be teased out of the early Heidegger without one having to take recourse to his late texts.

Nevertheless, metaphysics in its traditional form had to be rejected by those who follow the direction of logical positivism. The sheer fact of science's discursive autonomy makes the obsolescence of metaphysics only too obvious. With modernity, the production of knowledge is a process in perpetual, self-referential and self-legitimating motion. It is a production process—a mode of technological production of knowledge—that needs not be legitimated, but only acknowledged, or acquiesced. In so doing, however, the prevailing, scientistic or analytic of philosophy of science remains far too close to science to even notice that there has been a metaphysical establishment at the inception of the scientific disciplines. Let us call this inception, establishment or Stiftung an epochal condition whereby being is understood as presence of objects to empirical research. In so far as it is an epochal condition, the demise of philosophy and the rise of science as autonomous body of knowledge belongs to the peculiar discursive constellation we call modernity. In so far as it is a condition, the historical establishment that makes this events possible—the set of historical conditions thereof—constitutes the given or starting point that must be acknowledged by any discipline that, calling itself philosophy or anything else, attempts to raise the question of the human sciences' place in the late-modern constellation of discourse.

What is then left for philosophy at the end of modernity, when one refuses to comply with the only admitted type of discourse, the analytic one, precisely on account of its complicity with science self-understanding? Not certainly a kind of philosophical or narrative knowledge, but a thinking that—while irrevocably exterior to scientific practice--raises the issue of the latter's conditions from the standpoint of the history of Being. Translated into the late-Heideggerian framework, such is the question posed in the second section of the above quoted essay, "what task is reserved for thinking at the end of philosophy?". (BW 378)

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(1) Habermas, J. (1983). "Die Philosophie als Platzhalter und Interpret", in D. Henrich (ed.): Kant oder Hegel. Über Formen der Begründung in der Philosophie. Stuttgart, 43.

(2) Lyotard, J. (1979): The Postmodern condition: a report on knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minessota Press.

(3) Carnap, Rudolph (1932). "The elimination of metaphysics through logical analysis of language", in Ayer, A. J. (ed), Logical positivism. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 60. Schlick, Moritz (1930/31). "The turning point in philosophy", ibid., p, 53.

(4) All quotations are adapted from the available standard English translation: Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and time (BT). Trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, after confrontation with the standard German edition: Heidegger, M. (1927). Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer (SZ).

(5) Habermas, J. (1983), cit.

(6) Heidegger, M. (1977). Basic writings (BW). New York: Harper and Row, 349. [German: Vortraege und Aufsaetze, II, 7]

(7) Ibid. 375-377. [German: Zur Sache des Denkens (ZSD), 63-65]

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