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Thomas Sheehan on Heidegger

Free Photo: Mail Chute of the Lusitania

For anyone who has been perplexed by some of this blog’s past references to Heidegger, I wanted to draw attention to some recent appearances on the Internet by Thomas Sheehan, a professor at Stanford. Sheehan’s writings, some of which are available on his Stanford website, are the route I would recommend to anyone trying to make sense of Heidegger. The appearances coincide with Sheehan’s new book, which is called, appropriately enough, Making Sense of Heidegger.

Sheehan is apparently a little controversial in the world of Heidegger scholarship — a student in Germany once responded to my mentioning him by saying: “Thomas Sheehan? Oh, you mean the one who says ‘everyone is wrong about Heidegger except me’?” But based on my limited reading of Heidegger, Sheehan actually is right. He’s right by a standard that even non-experts can use: when you adopt Sheehan’s understanding of what Heidegger is getting at, Heidegger’s otherwise impenetrable texts make sense. By contrast, other interpretations — especially, I’m sad to say, many interpretations by literary scholars — all too frequently seem simply incorrect, as when the interpreter treats Heidegger’s ontological claims about the structure of human existence as though they were evocative literary descriptions of common emotions. Or they take Heidegger’s initially mystifying language and use it to spin further mystifications — as Sheehan criticizes in both of the pieces below.

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

Free Photo: Columns at the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Deleuze’s production of concepts

Free Photo: Man Drinking Milk

For those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?

Continuing from where an earlier post left off, one answer would be to agree with Gilles Deleuze that philosophy should be engaged in “the production of concepts.” This is very different from the puzzle-solving philosophy that Wittgenstein critiques. Whether this puzzle-solving is labeled by its practitioners as a form of analytic philosophy or an alternative to it, it is motivated by the attempt to discover the answers to philosophical problems. It assumes, against Wittgenstein, that there are correct answers to these problems, and that these answers can be determined by logical inference from the linguistic materials at hand, whether these materials come from intuition, natural science, or psychological experiment.

A philosophy based on the production of concepts, by contrast, would seek to create rather than discover, to make rather than find. It could be seen as dedicated to the creation of new “vocabularies,” in Richard Rorty’s use of the term. These new vocabularies might serve some of our ends better than the vocabularies we already use.

What kinds of vocabularies does Deleuze himself create?

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Philosophy

Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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I’ve mentioned before my view that the later Wittgenstein, nearly three quarters of a century ago, persuasively showed the hopelessness of most of the linguistic puzzle-solving that dominates academic philosophy today. Wittgenstein’s later work shows why the puzzles cannot be solved, why there is no need to solve them, and why attempts to solve the puzzles will only lead to interminable philosophical disputes.

Of course, many professional philosophers seem unaware of Wittgenstein’s critique of what they do, or perhaps unable to understand the critique due to methodological blinders unwittingly slipped on during their training. At the very least, many professional philosophers seem unwilling to accept the implications of Wittgenstein’s critique for their own work. At this point, I doubt there’s much that anyone can say that will succeed in changing the minds of those philosophers who have already committed themselves to a life of the mind hopeless puzzle-solving.

My question here, and hopefully in a few subsequent posts, will be different. Leaving puzzle-solving philosophy to itself, I want to ask: for those who understand and accept Wittgenstein’s critique, what is philosophy supposed to do? Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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Literature, Science

Hubert Dreyfus, Artificial Intelligence, and the Needing Machine

“You helped me discover my ability to want.” — Samantha, the operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her

As I understand it, research into computers and thinking has basically proceeded along two tracks. In the spirit of a thought experiment, I’d like to suggest a third track — the creation of what I’ll call a “needing machine.”

But first, let me sketch the two main tracks. My sketch is based largely on a narrative offered by Edward Feigenbaum in a recent interview. The first main track of research into computers and thinking belongs to the field of cognitive science, which is closely aligned with psychology. Cognitive science focuses on the attempt to formalize the ways that human beings think. The idea is that once human thought has been formalized, it could conceivably be programmed into a computer that would then be able to mimic human thought. The dream would be the creation of an artificial brain embodied in a computer, capable of understanding in ways that are similar to the ways a human being understands.

The second main track of research is what gets called “artificial intelligence.” Unlike cognitive science, artificial intelligence is less concerned with how humans think, and more concerned with using computers to accomplish particular, concrete tasks. It’s more aligned with computer science than with psychology. Initially, some computer scientists assumed that the path toward useful computer cognition would rely on insights into human cognition. But this isn’t how things turned out. The achievements of artificial intelligence have not resulted from building computers that think like human beings any more than the achievements of mechanized flight have resulted from building airplanes whose wings flap like the wings of birds. Deep Blue didn’t think like a human chess player, and Google’s search engine doesn’t think like a human librarian. Both were designed by human beings to solve very particular problems using methods suited to computers with little or no concern for whether those methods resembled the methods used by human beings to solve similar problems. The fact that a computer was able to outperform an exceptionally qualified human being in chess says more about the limits of chess as a test of cognition than it does about computers’ thinking abilities.

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