Courtesy of the New York Times
A cognitive scientist and a German philosopher walk into the woods and come upon a tree in bloom: What does each one see? And why does it matter?
While that may sound like the set-up to a joke making the rounds at a philosophy conference, I pose it here sincerely, as a way to explore the implications of two distinct strains of thought — that of cognitive science and that of phenomenology, in particular, the thought of Martin Heidegger, who offers a most compelling vision of the ultimate significance of our being here, and what it means to be fully human.
When we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.
It can be argued that cognitive scientists tend to ignore the importance of what many consider to be essential features of human existence, preferring to see us as information processors rather than full-blooded human beings immersed in worlds of significance. In general, their intent is to explain human activity and life as we experience it on the basis of physical and physiological processes, the implicit assumption being that this is the domain of what is ultimately real. Since virtually everything that matters to us as human beings can be traced back to life as it is experienced, such thinking is bound to be unsettling.
For instance, an article in The Times last year by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton, about whether we humans are “really conscious,” argued, among other things, that “we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.”
One feature of this line of thought that may strike us as particularly strange is that rather than being in direct contact with people and things, we are said to process bits of information that go to form representations of the world that are the basis for any relations that we have with our fellows. That would appear to be quite different from the way we actually experience things, but we are told to trust that science is more reliable because experience is often misleading in this regard.
This is not to say that all cognitive scientists see things this way; in fact there is a burgeoning school of thought referred to as the “4 E’s” (embedded, embodied, extended and enactive), inspired in part by Heidegger and like-minded philosophers, that seeks to develop a richer view of life than is found in the cognitive science mainstream. But for now, I would like to focus on how Heidegger treats a topic of considerable importance in cognitive science, which is the phenomenon of attention.
On this basis I will show that, for Heidegger, not only are we in direct contact with the people and things of this world, but also that our presence matters for how they are made manifest — how they come into presence — in the full potential that is associated with the sort of beings that they are. This is not our presence in a physical sense, but rather in the sense of how we are engaged as living, experiencing human beings — what Heidegger famously refers to as our “being in the world.” The thought is that our worldly presence matters for how things actually unfold, well beyond any physical or physiological processes that would purport to be the ultimate basis for human activity. So, for example, when we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.
If attention is how we gain access to things in the world, then staying with an entity would enable a deeper revelation of its nature.
Attention is one of the more intensively studied areas in cognitive science. As is well recognized in this literature, we cannot take in all of the stimuli that impinge upon the senses at a given time, so there must be some sort of filtering mechanism (that goes by the name of attention) before we get down to the business of representing reality. The question of attention has to do with all possible modes of human existence — all senses (visual, auditory, etc.) and other modalities such as thought, emotion and the imagination. Any information processing that provides access to things so they can be represented must first go through the filter of attention.
Heidegger similarly sees attention as the way we gain access to things, but otherwise he sees it quite differently from how it is conceived in cognitive science. For Heidegger attention is how things come into presence for us. (His most sustained meditation on attention can be found in his lectures, “What Is Called Thinking?”) To see this, note that if we stay with the movement of attention from moment to moment, we see that it moves from entity to entity; that is, things come into presence at the foreground and then recede into the background.
For example, suppose I have to write a report, but there is noise in the other room, I have a pain in my leg, and I am worried that my spouse’s eye may be wandering. To get the report done attention has to stay with the task, but there are competing influences that can take over the foreground and relegate the task to the background. All of these are potential foci of attention that come to the surface and then withdraw as another comes to the fore.
Heidegger’s approach is to inquire into the nature of “being,” which is simply understood to be how things in general come into presence and then withdraw. This means that attention is the human side of a universal process of manifestation of entities, with an associated effort that is referred to as vigilance in the cognitive science literature. This effort of staying with the entities that we encounter is crucially important for Heidegger, for if attention is how we gain access to anything at all, then staying with an entity would enable a deeper revelation of its nature. In this regard he emphasizes the fact that entities are made manifest over the course of time (hence his famous 1927 work, “Being and Time”). The idea is that staying with an entity as it unfolds affects the manner in which it is made manifest.
Heidegger does not even make the distinction between the mental and the physical; for him our experience is an event in the world.
For instance, if I pay better attention to my spouse over the course of our relationship, I see more deeply into what she is about, she may respond in kind, and our relationship develops in unanticipated ways as a result. The same general principle applies to a purely physical object such as a stone. The manner in which such an object is made manifest can be affected by the quality of my presence, which explains why Heidegger was so interested in how poets experience the world in a fresh manner and bring that experience to language.
To verify the truth of such an assertion, it would be necessary to put it to the test of experience; that is, it would be necessary to see what happens when we deal with an entity such as a stone with an acute and sustained attentiveness, just staying open to what may be made manifest in the encounter. The hypothesis is that acute attentiveness can lead to a sense of an entity that goes beyond the way it is typically experienced. I can feel something more deeply because I come in direct contact with it in my worldly presence.
For instance, in one of the lectures mentioned above, Heidegger considers what it is to stand before a tree in bloom in a meadow. He asks how science decides which dimensions of the tree are considered to be real; is it the tree viewed at the cellular level, or as a mechanical system of sustenance, or is it the tree as we experience it? Indeed, how does science derive the authority to opine on such matters? He writes:
We are today rather inclined to favor a supposedly superior physical and physiological knowledge, and to drop the blooming tree … The thing that matters first and foremost … is not to drop the tree in bloom, but for once to let it stand where it stands…. To this day thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.
This means that staying with the experience of the tree enables it to come to full fruition, and that such experience matters in the overall scheme of being itself. For we are more deeply alive and in profound contact with all of the entities that we encounter when such a state is achieved, which means that we participate more fully in this universal process of manifestation.
At this point the objection will undoubtedly be raised, “Surely you don’t mean to say that a tree or a stone can be made manifest in a more profound fashion. How can our presence affect the being of a such an entity?” This brings us to the depth of Heidegger’s thought and his notion of being as a process of manifestation. For it is not unreasonable to ask, given that I experience a stone in a more profound manner, what does that have to do with the being of the stone itself?
We have come up against a deeply ingrained view of what it is to be a human being (which lends credence to views that our experience ultimately does not matter), which is that subjective experience takes place in a private realm that is cut off from the rest of reality. But Heidegger does not even make the distinction between the mental and the physical; for him our experience is an event in the world. The experience of the stone that I come to is part of the process of its manifestation in all of its possibilities. In this manner we are intimately related to the stone in our worldly presence, which is the site of its more profound manifestation. The claim is that the being of the stone itself is not independent of such an event.
For the question is, what is the stone and how are we related to it? The being of the stone and our relation to it cannot be conceived independently of the whole context in which we arise. The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws. We relate to other entities by way of mental representations of the whole — something like scientific observers who don’t really belong here. Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.
Such an approach is bound to seem strange to modern sensibilities, but we have to look at what is at stake. On one view we are fundamentally cut off from the world, while on the other we are in direct and potentially profound relation with the people and things that we encounter. On this latter view there is unlimited potential for what can be made manifest by way of the effort that is called for; indeed, Heidegger suggests that there may be glimmers of the divine that await those who prepare the way. There can be little doubt that our presence matters if this is any indication of our true vocation.
Lawrence Berger is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was formerly a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.