This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

Methodology and General Approach

Bryan’s general strategy in approaching Heidegger seems to be that of putting himself in Heidegger’s shoes and pushing through with Heidegger’s points and arguments as best he can, so as to get a better understanding of Heidegger and of what valuable questions and/or answers he might be posing for us. His primary aim does not seem to be criticism of Heidegger. Such charitable strategies or interpretation or criticism can be invaluable in helping to really understand a thinker who is worth understanding. But they can also be dangerous. Unless you thoroughly root out the stolen concepts, bad inferences, hazy metaphors, etc. after you argue convincingly on a thinker’s behalf (in good Millean fashion), you run the risk of poisoning your own psychoepistemology--especially if you are not offering much in the way of criticism. In Bryan’s case, because of the lack of outright criticism of Heidegger, I got the impression of genuine sympathy for Heidegger’s views.
The tone of Bryan’s discussion, though fairly informal at points, is unmistakably academic. What I mean by this is that the tone is that of searching for truth in a fairly disinterested way--truth for truth’s sake. This is a good thing! Though ultimately ideas matter practically (in living one’s life), if this is one’s *immediate* psychological focus in evaluating the truth of an idea, one will not do as well at it as one might otherwise. One’s immediate psychological focus needs to be on justification and truth, period. This may mean being tentative, speculative, “trying on” candidate ideas for size, etc. Especially when one is dealing with an issue which, in one’s eyes, has not been definitively settled. And what is it for an idea to be definitively settled? Even axioms and axiomatic concepts are open to new evidence and interpretation, after all. I think we should respect and admire Bryan’s academic tone and be alert to the the openness to evidence of even the most basic tenets of Objectivism as well as the dangers of taking Objectivism to be a “fighting creed.”

Heidegger’s Argument for the Nothing

I do think Heidegger is employing something like the stolen concept argument. He is arguing just as Objectivists argue against dream-skepticism. Moreover, he does seem to be arguing that concepts in general need to have contrast objects. That is the specific logical relation which is being violated when the concept “existence” is stolen (to put his argument in Objectivist terminology). So Bryan is right that Heidegger’s discussion raises an important logical issue in concept-formation: do all concepts have contrast objects? In particular: does “existence” have a contrast object? (This is Bryan’s Question #1.)
Heidegger does not argue that, in forming the concept “existence,” we contrast existence or existing things with other things in a field of awareness--at least not in a straightforward way. Rather, he asks, since there is the correlative concept “nonexistence,” must there not be nonexistence? Unsuccessfully, he argues that the appearance of contradiction in even asking this question is only illusory. And he is well aware that nothing might be something created by the mental act of negating things or imagining them away (“This apple is red. But what if it were not? What if the red of the apple were *nonexistent* and the apple were instead green?”) rather than some first-order object of awareness of the world. He concedes that there is such a concept of nothing, but insists that this is not what we contrast existence with. This insistence is prior to his treatment of our experience of nothing, but it is unclear to me that he has given any argument for his claim. Indeed, my reading of Heidegger is that he is aware of this and aware that he needs to show how the nothing appears in experience if he is to show that the nothing “exists.”
(Why not call Heidegger on his contradiction and then stop reading? There are two related reasons. First, because he has raised interesting issues which lead him to think that the nothing “exists” in some sense. Second, these issues are what matters evidentially. To catch someone in a contradiction is to say: p is absurd, so you must have gone wrong somewhere in your reasoning. But we still need to find out just where the error is!)
In any case, what is most important in the order of evidence is Heidegger’s claim that we experience the nothing. Heidegger is not defending the nothing as a theoretical posit, but as a metaphysical presupposition or axiom. And it is at this crucial point that his argument is weak. He takes anxiety as an awareness of the nothing. As far as I can tell, he thinks anxiety makes us aware of the nothing for either or both of two reasons: a) because anxiety, as a mood, appears to have no particular intentional object and b) because, as a valuer, one is isolated from all of existence when one experiences anxiety (or dread). Both of these reasons are no good. Even if anxiety had no intentional object (contra both Brentano and Rand’s primacy of existence), why wouldn’t it simply be nonawareness rather than an awareness of the nothing? And though perhaps there is a unity of consciousness such that one responds emotionally and as a valuer and goal-seeker to objects in general (so that one experiences the world as teleological, the-world-as-viewed-through-my-purposes), this does not mean that emotions reveal objects. After all, the “receding” of things which Heidegger describes is not a perceived physical motion away from oneself, but rather a reaction to those objects in light of one’s values. There appears to be ample evidence that cognition is a grasp of objects, while emotion is a response to them based on one’s values.

Is Identity Dependent on Consciousness?

Bryan’s Question #3 is troubling. “What is the relation of ontological dependence between consciousness and the identities of objects?” In making Heidegger’s case, Bryan equivocates on the use of the term “property” (or “feature”). If he means particular, determine[d] properties (“tropes”), then it is unclear why these would exist only in relation to consciousness. If he means groupings of particular, similar properties, ditto. If he means the mental process or product of abstraction, then he is right in thinking Heidegger’s suggestion to have merit. Generally, the particular properties of a similarity-grouping are *not* qualitatively identical--this is something we bring to cognition and which we should not attribute to the world. In the case of the perceptual discrimination of objects, it seems even more clear that we are talking about an act of discovery, not an act of creation.
As I understand it, Heidegger is an epistemological realist in the following minimal sense: he embraces the identity of consciousness but holds that we are in direct relation to things-in-themselves, even if we have no idea what the things-in-themselves are. The problem with this position is that it is hard to see how the relation is cognitive. It still seems like we end up knowing only about appearances--about things we create in our interaction with things-in-themselves--not about the mind-independent world.
Bryan Register wrote:
 
Thanks to Michael Young for his kind comments on my interpretive approach, which he assesses correctly. Let me say a word or two on this.
 
Michael says: “In Bryan's case, because of the lack of outright criticism of Heidegger, I got the impression of genuine sympathy for Heidegger’s views.”
 
This is correct, but ‘sympathy’ should not be asked to bear too much weight. My sense for interpretation is as follows. If, when reading or discussing an issue, you never have even the slightest desire to agree with him, you never sympathize with his view, then you have not understood him. The great thinkers--even the ones who are wrong--are all terrifically intelligent and creative persons. They took their position for a reason. If you never have the feel that their position might be right (even for a moment) then you have not ascertained that reason. (All other things being equal--having rejected Marx, we need not sympathize with Lenin, and some archaic views are so bizarre to us as to belong outside this rule.)
 
“Heidegger does not argue that, in forming the concept ‘existence,’ we contrast existence or existing things with other things in a field of awareness--at least not in a straightforward way. Rather, he asks, since there is the correlative concept ‘nonexistence,’ must there not be nonexistence?”
 
Well, if this is how we wish to take him, then he wins in two ways.
1) You can’t have a concept ‘non-existence’ with non-existences to be its units.
2) You can’t have a concept ‘existence’ without *objects*, not just a concept for those objects, serving as contrasts.
 
Of course, each of these may be wrong. For #1: What about the concept ‘unicorn’? And for #2, of course, are the familiar points about ‘existence’ being a very special concept which is formed in a way radically different from the ordinary way we form concepts.
 
“Unsuccessfully, he argues that the appearance of contradiction in even asking this question is only illusory. And he is well aware that nothing might be something created by the mental act of negating things or imagining them away...rather than some first-order object of awareness of the world. He concedes that there is such a concept of nothing, but insists that this is not what we contrast existence with.”
 
Michael Young goes on to say that this seems to be an unwarranted assertion on Heidegger’s part, but I’m not so sure. As I saw it, Heidegger’s argument was that, since you (I mean, you the positivist or at least skeptical reader) don’t believe in nothing, you certainly won’t believe in two nothings. But we can get a certain concept of the nothing by negating ‘being.’ Now, if we can have this concept of the nothing, then we can’t help but have any other concept of the nothing that Heidegger plausibly suggests we have *because two nothings are indistinguishable*. He suggests a different, more original sense of ‘the nothing’ which Roger describes very aptly in his essay. Moreover, since we have to have a nothing to serve as contrast for ‘being’ in order to form the concept ‘being,’ we can’t rest on the concept ‘being’ to get the concept ‘nothing.’ It would be to steal the concept ‘nothing’ to suggest that it is preceded by what it must be a contrast for.
Back to Bryan Register, "Getting a Grip on Nothing"

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