30 November 2023

Arguing positions — or interpreting phenomena?

In academic publishing and discourse, one standardly reads of an author "arguing" for a certain position, usually hinted at or formulated in the title of the book or article, when setting out his or her case.This argument is thus exposed to counter-argument in a back-and-forth between different positions that are more or less opposed. This is akin to how a case is argued between the adversaries in a court of law, at least in the Anglo-Saxon realm. It is also the way in which academic discourse in any field of inquiry, including philosophy,* is supposed to advance: rational argument with more or less logical cogency. Such argument aims at establishing conclusions as rigorously and tightly as possible, without internal contradictions and inconsistencies, given the nature of the field and its available evidence. The logical cogency depends upon the degree of indubitability, and hence incontrovertibility, of the argument's premises, which should possess truth-values of true (=1) as opposed to false (=0). 

In the sciences, the premises should be based on empirical evidence, the factual data gathered by experiment or survey. In other discourses, the premises may be generally accepted ideas, such as the 'idea' of democracy or personal freedom set down in a short definition. A conclusion reached from well-founded, maximally incontrovertible premises cannot be easily knocked over by an adversary and is therefore taken to be established as true. The conclusion as statement has a truth-value = 1. And truth is what any respectable author should be aiming at. 

Opponents of an argument presented in a book or article will say explicitly or implicitly that they do not agree with the author, that is, with his or her premises or chain of logical reasoning. They will point out the holes in the argument, its false premises, its inconsistencies, thus putting its conclusion into doubt. In the back-and-forth of controversy, these holes may or may not be filled or patched up, thus leading to a revised conclusion, perhaps based on different evidence or on a different path of argumentation. In this way, academic — including scientific — discourse is supposed to progress toward the truth that is accepted eventually as an opinio communis in general agreement, until one day it is overcome by better arguments based on more firmly established premises. The truth in this process of approximating the truth resides in the truth-values of the propositions serving as premises of the logically cogent argument. 

The process advances by counter-arguments being formulated by those who disagree in order finally to reach more or less provisional agreement among various opinionated positions. They argue differently from different premises. The controversy is therefore adversarial between or among positions, each formulating its respective position as incontrovertibly as it can to defeat the other's argument. One position may even be accepted as the victor in this adversarial contest.

There is something strange in this procedure, however. If, for example, my maths teacher presents me with the proof of a mathematical theorem, perhaps as simple as the Pythagorean theorem, I attempt to follow the argument presented by understanding it, by gaining for myself an insight into the steps of the proof. That is what is meant by following the argument of a proof. If I do not understand and cannot follow, it does not help for me to exclaim to my teacher, "I disagree". If I do, my teacher will simply smile and pity my lack of intellect. Maybe one day, something will click in my mind, and I will see clearly that the proof is well-founded because I have been able to follow its argument. Or I may even be able to find a hole in the mathematical proof and prove it! Or I may even, one day, find a more elegant proof of the theorem.

What is the case, however, when the discourse is about simple, elementary phenomena that everybody sees and understands one way or another? Phenomena comprise all that which shows itself. They are always already understood, or interpreted, as such-and-such in some way or other. The endeavour of hermeneutic phenomenology is to interpret, as closely as possible, the phenomena as such-and-such, where the 'as' is the hermeneutic As.**

Phenomena can be interpreted more or less adequately. The adequacy or inadequacy lies with our human understanding of the phenomenon or phenomena in question. How closely can it come to lovingly capturing the phenomenon in all its inconspicuous and shy subtlety? The truth of phenomena resides in their undistorted disclosure to our human mind, that is, in our more or less adequate interpretation of them, over which there is generally controversy. This controversy, however, in the first place, is not an argument between and among positions of proponents who agree or disagree with each other, but over the disclosure of the respective phenomenon itself. The touchstone is and remains the adequate or inadequate interpretation of the simple phenomenon itself, or the simple interconnected phenomena themselves. It does not suffice for two different adversarial positions to reach an agreement, for both positions may be phenomenally inadequate, considering as they do only matters of (scientific) fact, such as whether the universe is expanding or contracting. For phenomenological thinking, there must be a joint effort to gain insight into the phenomena themselves, and this is not a factual matter.

The disclosed truth of phenomena has to be wrested from their distorted, misconceived interpretations, their misinterpretations. The challenge is to disclose the phenomena by clearing away our own misconceptions that distort how they show themselves of themselves. This shared work of disclosure demands devotion to the phenomena themselves — hence critical self-questioning — rather than the effort to set up and defend an argumentative position against other positions. Therefore Plato characterizes philosophy as a dialogue of the soul with itself; questioning the phenomena themselves demands above all self-questioning. The aim is not to assert a position against another position — which is secondary —, but rather, together, to bring out a more 'close-fitting' interpretation of, and thus insight into, the phenomena in question. Does this make the striving for truth into an unprejudiced 'group effort', perhaps one stretching over centuries, in which there are long intervals of stagnation on certain crucial, foundational questions?

This sounds all very laudable and attractive. Philosophy has always been nominally the quest for truth, a lofty goal. But what if the truth is unwelcome, threatening, even ugly and unflattering? What if the suppression of truth contributes to the suppression of genuine human freedom by upholding a distorted conception of freedom as a cover for preserving the power of the status quo? What if the very conception of truth upheld and practised by the modern sciences (with their empiricist methodology) serves to obscure and suppress the deeper truth of today's world set-up, making it seem rosier than, in truth, it is? What if the kind of philosophy pursued in today's institutions of learning and research is only the kind compatible with the reigning, albeit skilfully camouflaged, will to power? What if this will to power has a vested interest in covering up and suppressing the disclosive truth of certain crucial elementary phenomena by interpreting them only in a way that is aligned with this will to power?

*) Cf. Heidegger's remark on this way of proceeding: 

"[...] merkwürdigerweise die Philosophie das Bestreben hat, nur dasjenige als Einsicht gelten zu lassen, was auf irgendeinem argumentativen Wege rational bewiesen ist, so daß man die Instanz einer unmittelbaren Anschauung in ihrer Unmittelbarkeit nicht mehr sieht." (GA27:70)

English translation (ME):

"[...] remarkably, philosophy has the ambition of only regarding as an insight that which is proven rationally via some argumentative path or other, so that one no longer sees the instance/case of an immediate intuition/looking-at in its immediacy." 

**) Thus, for instance, money shows itself and is understood (correctly) as a means of exchange, and exchange is understood as a kind of movement among two or more people. This leads to further questions about how movement itself is to be understood, what kinds of movement there are, and how each kind of movement is to be adequately interpreted.  Interrogating further, it can be seen that any movement is movement in time, but how is time itself to be adequately interpreted? Time itself is the most elementary of phenomena. How is time itself to be conceived in an adequate interpretation? This remains a challenge to today's thinking. Hermeneutic phenomenology's work is far from done.

Some further reading: On Human Temporality (forthcoming DeGruyter)

Martin Heidegger Einleitung in die Philosophie Band 27 Gesamtausgabe Freiburger Vorlesung WS 1928/29 hg. Otto Saame & Ina Saame-Speidel Klostermann, Frankfurt 1996.

English translation: Martin Heidegger Introduction to Philosophy William McNeil (transl.), Indiana University Press, Minnesota 2024.

Martin Heidegger Sein und Wahrheit Band 36/37 Gesamtausgabe Freiburger Vorlesungen SS 1933 u. WS 1933/34 Hg. Hartmut Tietjen, Klostermann, Frankfurt 2001.

English translation: Martin Heidegger Being and Truth Gregory Fried & Richard Polt (transl.), Indiana University Press, Minnesota 2010.

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