Michael Bavidge 

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). 

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Philosophers are embarrassed by the instability of their discipline. It is not a recent predicament. Philosophy has always struggled to justify its own existence. However, it has not only to live with this insecurity, but to cultivate it. I hope to illustrate philosophy’s discomfort by tracking certain questions raised by Martin Heidegger, showing how it results in the instability of the philosophic voice – the silence, the reticence, the discretion, that characterises philosophical reflection.


How can we approach the questions about Being that Heidegger raises? In particular how are suspicious, empirically-minded philosophers to be encouraged to board the train that is heading towards a Heideggerian destination? They can be reassured that there are plenty of stations en route at which they can jump train. Here is a familiar point of departure: predication often involves including an individual in a class and that class in turn can be included in a larger class. If this process is taken as far as it will go, we end up with a supreme class. It must be immediately conceded, before they have time to object, that this supreme class, let’s call it by its traditional name, Being, is a funny sort of class and its funniness emerges in many ways. For example, unlike other classes, it cannot be split into sub-classes by introducing differences from beyond the defining criteria of the class – as human beings are traditionally distinguished from brutes by introducing rationality into the class of animals.


Or coming from an epistemological angle, everything known or experienced appears in a particular context: I see this desk within this room and this room within this building; and that in turn within the town. 2 + 2 = 4 is a proposition within an arithmetical system. The system is not itself a proposition within the system; the building is not a room in the building; the town not a building within the town. Again following the direction of travel, we end up with the universal stage on which everything appears – and it in turn does not appear on stage.

Certainly giving Being a capital letter and deploying it in the nominative case at the head of a sentence is, at least, to ask for trouble.

Already some philosophers will be waving us off having alighted onto a more solid platform. They will think that there is nothing more to say: the notion of the supreme class, the universal London Palladium on which all acts appear, is a nonsense. Certainly giving Being a capital letter and deploying it in the nominative case at the head of a sentence is, at least, to ask for trouble. But we may want to stay on the train because we feel, however hesitantly, that we have some sort of cognitive relationship not only with things or items of experience but with the contexts, the spaces in which they appear. There has to be a moment – “before” we talk about individual things – at which we take in, and are taken in by, the space. We enter a room; then we take an inventory of its contents. The inventory is silent about the room. But we are present in the room. Our presence is part of the topography of knowledge. There is no reason to deny our relation to the totality, other than a dogma which itself is notoriously difficult to formulate coherently.

The Verification Principle attempted to draw a boundary between meaningful statements and nonsense. But it soon became clear that the Principle itself cannot be verified. This is not just an embarrassment. The failure to formulate a defensible version of the Principle shows that constraints on what can be said cannot be substantial: setting limits is just as problematic as stepping beyond the limits that would be in place, if the limits could be demarcated.

Wittgenstein made some famously unstable remarks on this subject. He wrote in the Preface to the Tractatus:

 "... the aim of this book is to set a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts; for in order to be able to set a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to think what cannot be thought). It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense."

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Recently there has been a controversy about how to interpret Tractarian nonsense. Peter Hacker has suggested that his colleagues should get on with applying Wittgensteinian methods to philosophical problems and stop discussing what sort of nonsense he was talking in the Tractatus. Good advice perhaps, but the issue cannot be avoided. The Tractarian paradoxes are the form that disquietude with the philosophical voice takes when it comes at problems from a Fregean/Russellian direction.

So the first move, as the train leaves the station, is to realise that there is always a setting in which possible objects of experience occur; and the setting is cognitively significant. It is not another object and cannot be talked about as if it were. When this way of thinking is extended to the world as a whole, there is nowhere to go. An attempt is made to construct the final inventory, but the construct itself cannot be included – not even the statement that this is the final inventory. “The world is determined by the facts”; but where is Wittgenstein standing when he adds, “and these are all the facts”? As if he stood facing the whole of Being and then casts a sideways glance at Non-being to reassure himself that nothing has been left out. There can be no limits set to experience, and yet there is no straightforward way of saying this.

The problems that go along with talking about the supreme class are not just paradoxes of class-inclusion. The problem is not a housekeeping problem: it is not an inconsistency or infelicity internal to language, as if there were a conflict within the Dewey Decimal Classificatory System that is embarrassing but which leaves the books unchanged. We are talking about the real world and our involvement in it – Being and the presence of beings, as Heidegger puts it.


This difficulty becomes acute when we ourselves are included in the final inventory. Well, say the physicalists (if they are still on the train), we know that we are part of the natural world. So there is no new problem here. We are included in the inventory, under numerous headings, in particular the life sciences. There is no more problem about including experience of the world in the totality than there is about including hippopotamuses or electrons. When physiology, neurology and psychology have made their contributions, everything real about our experience will have been incorporated. But there seems to be an insurmountable problem: we cannot make our own subjectivity an object for us without forgetting about the “us” before whom we are now an object.


But now the distinction between subject and object, on which the whole way of thinking until now has been based, is engulfed in a maelstrom. Now subjectivity is enfolded into Reality itself. It cannot be ignored or put off; it cannot be included later as an appendix or a postscript. Thoughts about the world both demand inclusion in the totality and make inclusion impossible.

The problem of including subjectivity is familiar in the Analytic tradition and continues to cause major splits within it. For the most part, subjectivity has been thought of in severely cognitive terms, almost always using visual imagery. The title of Thomas Nagel’s influential book, The View from Nowhere, is a typical example. An aspect of Heidegger’s thinking that ought to recommend itself is the extension of “subjectivity” to include the widest possible range of personal experiences. It is not only the subject and the object that cannot be subsumed in a single over-all picture. “[T]hose first-born affinities that fit/ Our new existence to existing things” of which Wordsworth talks cannot be adequately expressed in terms of perceiver and perceived. In the Heideggerian tradition, we have “a participatory engagement” with the world; our encounter with the world is “a transformative personal involvement”; we have to “attune ourselves to the experience of the world”. Gabriel Marcel resorts to an oxymoron, “receptive creativity”, to capture the nature of our interrelationship with the world, “before”, as it were, we separate ourselves out and turn the world into a spectacle.


Heidegger tries again and again to characterize the bind we are in. In Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking, he asks: what are we to do when “we are searching for the nature, in itself, of the openness that surrounds us?”  His answer: “We are to do nothing; but wait ...” Think of it this way: here we are, philosophers, wondering how we get to understand the world, how we can talk about it and discover the truth. We put everything on one side and call it the World, and on the other side we put ourselves. Then we wonder how we, speechless, get to talk about it. We feel we had better get to work. Perhaps we can begin by representing the world, by making models of it; we could start by putting names on things, as Hobbes and Locke thought. We imagine we are facing a challenging task. We take language to the world as we take a spade to the allotment. Language is thought of as a tool we use to dig over the world and make it productive and habitable.


But when we try, as philosophers, to re-imagine the introduction of intelligible order into Reality as a whole, there is no challenging task; there is nothing we can do because there is nothing to be done. Max Picard comes out with a striking fantasy thought: “Of his own accord, man could never have been able to create language out of silence. Speech is so completely different from silence that man himself would never have been able to make the leap from silence to speech.”  He is imagining the situation in which we, without resources, absolutely speechless, face a world absolutely un-talked about.


There is a real affinity between these thoughts and Wittgenstein’s remarks about the inaugural moves that get language. Whether we start with the Tractatus: “Objects can only be named. Signs are their representatives. I can only speak about them. I cannot put them into words” or with the Investigations: “If a lion could speak we could not understand him”, the conclusion is the same – the philosopher, in reaching for the foundations of what can be said or thought, finds beneath him a limit. There are, of course, empirical sciences, developmental psychology for example, but no science will provide a straightforward explanation of the emergence of meaning in the natural world.


Heidegger finds himself in a similar situation; he writes: We can only wait. But then he asks: “what are we to wait for? And where are we to wait? I hardly know anymore who and where I am.” This is our predicament. “And yet,” he says, “we still have our path?” This is the only consolation (and it is not really that). We are still on the move, but going nowhere. It is a traditional image: we are travellers with no destination, pilgrims with no shrine to arrive at.


This waiting is not like waiting for a bus – it is not like waiting for something we can already specify; it is waiting for some possibility to open up. Picard says we cannot put the world into words by our own efforts; “We are trying to listen to the voice of being”, Heidegger says. “We are able to speak only because we have already listened to language. What do we hear there? We hear language speaking”. To an analytic philosopher this rhetoric may not be helpful. But perhaps it can be tolerated as a dramatic way of saying that the distinction between what we do and what we undergo breaks down in relation to the acquisition of language.


If all we can do is wait, above all we must not fill the air with chatter. Heidegger talks about how this primal conversation might get going:


"J: The course of such a dialogue would have to have a character all its own, with more silence than talk.

I: Above all, silence about silence...

J: Because to talk and write about silence is what produces the most obnoxious chatter...

I: Who could simply be silent about silence?

J: That would be authentic saying...

I: ...and would remain the constant prologue to the authentic dialogue of language.

J: Are we not attempting the impossible?

I: Indeed.!"


Despite the paradoxical situation, Heidegger thinks that philosophy must not opt out of this strained conversation: “then man would have denied and thrown away his own special nature – that he is a meditative being. Therefore, the issue is the saving of man’s essential nature.” Philosophy is not merely a theoretical reflection on the human condition; if it fails, our understanding of ourselves will be flawed. If we think of our attunement to the world in terms of information processing, our attitude to nature will be impoverished, as Heidegger notes: “Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”


If language fails to oversee the connection between itself and the world, perhaps there are other dimensions of experience that can be exploited. Heidegger talks of “moods” which are not formulated as statements, but which give access to something more fundamental than information. But what is the appropriate mood to feel in the face of Being? In his book The Spirit of the Age, William Hazlitt wrote: “Mr Wordsworth has passed his life in solitary musing or in daily converse with the face of nature… to the author of the Lyrical Ballads, nature is a kind of home; and he may be said to take a personal interest in the universe.”


Can we ever affect a disinterested attitude to anything? Even the most austere philosophical statements come with an attitude attached. Philosophers who aim to see the world sub specie aeternitatis, cannot avoid a tone of voice. The youthful Wittgenstein mystically shows what he cannot say; the disappointed theologian reluctantly accepts that he cannot capture the transcendent; the Positivist sounds like an irritated schoolmaster faced by unruly 4th Formers who will keep talking when they have been told to keep quiet. The Stoic sighs as goes off to dig his garden.


What mood is appropriate for a subject before the world? Heidegger talks about anxiety – the state of mind of a finite being which finds itself thrown into a reality which it cannot comprehend or choose, and which engulfs it, and yet for which it has a responsibility.


In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf gives a beautiful description of a more gentle, philosophic mood:


"It was odd, she thought, how if one was alone, one leant on things, inanimate things, trees, streams, flowers; felt they expressed one; felt they became one; felt they knew one; in a sense, were one; felt an irrational tenderness thus (she looked at that long steady light) as for oneself. They rose, as she looked and looked with her needles suspended, there curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist, a bride to meet her lover."


We don’t observe things, we lean on them. We are pressed up against the world, not observing it from a distance. Things give expression to us; they are not waiting for us to describe them as we see fit. They know us: our experience reaches deeper than reports or theories; it takes us deep down into a cognitive community. We cannot separate ourselves out from the world and, being caring animals, we cannot but feel a spontaneous unreasoned affection for the world.


With lines like, “curled up off the floor of the mind, rose from the lake of one’s being, a mist”, Woolf offers a description which is just this side of silence. She is close to a language that is nothing but breath.

Michael Bavidge is former lecturer in philosophy at Newcastle University, and author of the essay collection Philosophy in the Borders, published in 2019 by Bigg Books. An updated version of this essay appears in the book. 

From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy'). 

Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.