The Normativity of the World; Thoughts on Heidegger

[Long and technical post alert!] One of the philosophers I enjoyed studying the past semester was Martin Heidegger — not the easiest philosopher, I probably understand maybe 20% of him, and certainly not the nicest guy in Christian or even secular terms either (he was a registered Nazi) but I found many valuable insights into the human condition in his seminal work, Being and Time. The chief insight I have gleaned from him and which I discuss in this blog post is this: one cannot give a purely descriptive account of the world, instead all our observations of the world are always shot through with normativity. Now, to understand the jargon I just said, some discussion needs to be made about the difference between description and normativity. I shall do that and then talk a bit about how Heidegger bridges the gap between description and normativity and then draw some implications from this. Hopefully in some future post (because I realise that this is already too darn long) I might engage more critically with some of these implications.

Is and Ought

The difference between a normative statement and a descriptive statement is that a descriptive statement tells you how the world is or describes a certain state of affairs in the world whereas a normative statement tells you how the world ought to be. For example, ‘The bible and a book of Platonic Dialogues is on my table’ is a descriptive statement whereas ‘I ought to read my bible more instead of Plato’ is a normative statement. One describes how the world actually is while the other tells me something that should be done.

Many times in ordinary speech, we derive normative claims straightforwardly from descriptive claims. For example we see that genocide results in thousands of deaths (a descriptive claim) and say that genocide should be stopped (a normative claim). However, philosophers have noted that we cannot make such a derivation straightforwardly. Why is this so? Such a move would fall foul of what is called Hume’s Is/Ought gap. The idea is that you cannot derive a normative claim (what you ought to do), from a purely descriptive claim (about what is going on in the world). This is because claims about what one ought to do are different in kind from claims about what states of affairs hold in the world.

To see this, consider the normative claim ‘We ought not commit genocide’. We cannot derive this simply from purely descriptive claims such as ‘genocide kills thousands of people’ or ‘genocide discriminates against a certain race’ — a normative claim needs to be established, such as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’. Thus, to claim that ‘We ought not commit genocide’, we need to do more than make purely descriptive assertions of the states of affairs that would result from genocide, we need to establish some kind of claim that connects the normative with the descriptive. Such a claim, as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’, is said to be able to bridge the Is/Ought gap and thus allow one to legitimately derive normative claims.

The problem is with deriving such a bridge principle. We all know where to get descriptive statements — we just get them from observation of the world around us. But a normative claim cannot be found anywhere in the world. A scientific account of the world providing say a description of genocide can tell you that it results in multitudes of deaths, that it disadvantages a certain race and that it ravages a nation in socio-economic terms— but why should these be reasons for us to prevent genocide? The scientific account is silent.

Philosophers have, of course, various ways of circumventing this problem, but this discussion is simply to flesh out the difference between descriptive and normative statements. Heidegger’s conception of human beings provides some resources into overcoming this and through him we shall see that in fact, a purely descriptive account of the world is impossible.

Being-in-the-world

In Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to give an existential analytic of the being of Dasein. Dasein is simply the type of being which we are ourselves, which Heidegger claims is ‘the being for whom its being is a question’. The thought is that for human beings to exist simply is for them to take a stand on the type of being they wish to be at every moment of their life — in other words, humans are the type of being that leads its life. For reasons that I will not go into, Heidegger calls this type of being Dasein (lit. being there) and his book attempts to analyse and give an account of Dasein.

Heidegger claims that philosophers since at least Descartes have an impoverished view of human beings because they have been attempting to explore the world as if we were spectators looking in from a detached viewpoint. This assumes that our human existence is one that is fundamentally isolated from the world. The world is as “a play staged before us; and the world of a play is one from which its audience is essentially excluded.” (Mulhall, 2005) However, Heidegger asserts that such a picture is mistaken. According to him, human existence cannot be comprehended apart from its being ‘in’ the world. Try to think about human beings without them existing in a world — it seems incoherent to call what you are still thinking of a human being at all. This reveals a tight conceptual connection between Dasein and the world, which Heidegger formulates as Being-in-the-world.

Now, if Dasein is essentially engaged in the world, it can never be a mere spectator and thus cannot give a detached, purely descriptive account of the world. Heidegger explains this by saying that objects in the world are primarily conceived as ready-to-hand as opposed to present-at-hand. A present-at-hand account of objects is one that simply observes and describes properties e.g. we give a present-at-hand account of a hammer by talking about its shape, material constitution etc. A ready-to-hand account, however, considers our engagement with objects as equipment; our actually using the hammer for a certain task. Heidegger notes:

“[H]ammering does not simply have knowledge about the hammer’s character as equipment, but it has appropriated this equipment in a way that could not possibly be more suitable. . . . [T]he less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment … The kind of Being which equipment possesses – in which it manifests itself in its own right – we call readiness-to-hand.” (BT 15:98)

A present-at-hand account of objects cannot exhaust the meaning of an object — I can describe the hammer and know how it functions, but I primarily encounter the hammer in the act of hammering. I do not fully understand the hammer if I just look at its properties until I start hammering. As noted above, Heidegger considers our engagement with objects as more primordial than our descriptive account of them. A more crucial point is this: we stop hammering and enter into a mode of exploring the properties of equipment only when it fails to serve its ready-to-hand function:

“If knowing is to be possible as a way of determining the nature of the present-at-hand by observing it, then there must first be a deficiency in our having-to-do [i.e. engagement] with the world concernfully …” (BT 13:88)

For example, we stop to examine the properties of the hammer in closer detail when it becomes unusable as a tool and we want to fix it. A descriptive enterprise is thus undertaken when a piece of equipment becomes unhandy for a larger task. This implies that the descriptive enterprise can never be purely descriptive, for its very undertaking is to the end of using the object as equipment for a larger project. All our present-at-hand accounts of knowing are always embedded within a larger picture of ready-to-hand engagement.

In other words, even though a scientist does experiments in the lab and makes the seemingly purely descriptive statement ‘The gravitational constant is 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2’. This statement, as he makes it, has implications on his life and the lives of others because the scientist, as Being-in-the-world, can only make such a statement from the context of his own practical dealings with the world. Thus, the scientist’s analysis of a substance in the laboratory always happens in the context of other more practical human concerns. If Dasein is Being-in-the-World, any descriptive enterprise it undertakes can therefore never be one that is wholly detached from its engagement with the world.

Normativity in the World

And so any description that is given is always and inevitably shot through with normativity. Mulhall makes this point when he observes that “the utility of a tool presupposes something for which it is usable, an end product – a pen is an implement for writing letters, … This directedness is the ‘towards-which’ of equipment.” To encounter objects as ready-to-hand is to engage with equipment for a certain goal or purpose. The descriptive facts about the equipment which are derived from a present-at-hand analysis therefore contain normative implications, because they are derived in the context where the object is a piece of equipment ultimately for a certain goal that Dasein wishes to achieve. As Heidegger notes:

“[When dealing in a ready-to-hand manner with] ‘a hammer’, there is an involvement in hammering; with hammering there is an involvement in making something fast; with making something fast, there is an involvement in protection against bad weather; and this protection ‘is’ for the sake of providing shelter for Dasein — that is to say, for the sake of a possibility of Dasein’s Being” (BT, 18:116)

A conception of Dasein as Being-in-the-World is one where Dasein encounters the world primarily as equipment and thus where descriptions of objects in the world carry normative implications. Conceiving the relationship between Dasein and the world this way bridges the Is/Ought gap. We can derive normative implications from descriptive statements because those statements are never purely descriptive, they are made from within the context of active engagement.

I don’t think Christians can accept everything Heidegger says uncritically. For one, Heidegger’s view does not provide a set of objective norms (he ends up with a kind of ‘ethics of authenticity’) because he makes it seem as if the normativity of the world is derived primarily from the kind of being we are as opposed to there being some sort of independent standard. Nonetheless, I think that his conclusions are mainly right in elucidating our relationship with the world around us. Let me draw two implications that are important and right from a Christian point of view that I might reflect on in some future post:

  1. Descriptive statements have normative implications. This is probably the main thing I have been talking about. Not just statements about the world, but any descriptive statement we make, about ourselves, about God will inevitably have normative implications on us because of the type of being we are. We must not talk about theology or even philosophy while imagining that these things have no impact on how we should live, for they will inevitably will have such an impact! Failure to think about these things will only mean that we are naive or uncritical about the normative implications that holding certain positions have on us already.
  2. There is no neutral or presuppositionless position from which we observe and study in the world, instead even if we try to enter into a detached state in order to make empirical or philosophical observations, we still bring along with us our practical concerns. Indeed we can only enter into such a detached state by being extremely interested in something in the first place. All our descriptive inquiries are made in the context of practical concerns with their own presuppositions.

Finally, I hope that despite the technical discussion you can see something wondrous from Heidegger’s conception of the self and the world. Our living in the world is dynamic and living instead of static and lifeless. We engage and interact with the world not from a detached perspective but as readily occupied in it. To use an analogy my professor constantly employed, we deal with the world not as one stares at a violin and examines its shape and material, but as one plays the violin along with the orchestra of a thousand instruments. The world is more an object of wondrous engagement than of detached observation.

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