WHERE TO BEGIN?

Let’s get back to Dennett. images“It is really quite clear,” he says, “what the raw material or input to the perception and comprehension systems is: wave forms of certain sorts in the air, or strings of marks on various plane surfaces. And although there is considerable fog obscuring the controversies about just what the end product of the comprehension process is, at least this deep disagreement comes at the end of the process being studied, not the beginning. A race with a clear starting line can at least be rationally begun, even if no one is quite sure where it is going to end.”

But is there even agreement on this starting line? Against what Dennett says above, I want to contrast an extended passage from a lecture Heidegger gave in 1918:

“You come as usual into this lecture room at the usual hour and go to your usual place. Now focus on this experience of ‘seeing your place.’ Or you can in turn put yourselves in my own position: coming into the lecture-room, I see the lectern. We dispense with a verbal formulation of this. What do I see? Brown surfaces at right angles to one another? No, I see something else. A largish box with another smaller one set upon it? Not at all. I see the lectern at which I am to speak. You see the lectern, from which you are to be addressed, and from where I have spoken to you previously. In pure experience there is no ‘founding’ interconnection, as if I first of all see intersecting brown surfaces, which then reveal themselves to me as a box, then as a desk, then as an academic lecturing desk, a lectern, so that I attach lecternhood to the box like a label. All that is simply bad and misguided interpretation, diversion from a pure seeing into the experience. I see the lectern in one fell swoop, so to speak, and not in isolation, but as adjusted a bit too high for me. I see — and immediately so — a book lying upon it as annoying to me (a book, not a collection of layered pages with black marks strewn upon them), I see the lectern in an orientation, an illumination, a background…

This environmental milieu…does not consist just of things, objects, which are then conceived as meaning this and this; rather, the meaningful is primary and immediately given to me without any mental detours across thing-oriented apprehension…Starting from what is here experienced I proceed to theorize: it [the lectern] is brown; brown is a color; color is a genuine sense datum; a sense datum is the result of physical or physiological processes; the primary cause is physical; this cause objectively is a determinate number of waves traveling through the air; air is made up of simple elements; linking these are simple laws; the elements are ultimate; the elements are something in general.

But what if we have never seen a lectern before? Heidegger imagines “a Negro from Senegal suddenly transplanted here from his hut.”

“What he would see, gazing at this object, is difficult to say precisely: perhaps something to do with magic, or something behind which one could find good protection against arrows and flying stones. Or would he not know what to make of it at all, just seeing complexes of colors and surfaces, simply a thing, a something which simply is?…Even if he saw the lectern simply as a bare something that is there, it would have a meaning for him, a moment of signification…The transplanted unscientific (not culture-less) Negro…will see the lectern much more as something ‘which he does not know what to make of’…’instrumental strangeness…” Martin_Heidegger

While Dennett starts with wave forms and ends up with conscious environmental experience, Heidegger begins with conscious environmental experience and, illustrating the theorizing process of abstracting from reality, ends up with de-(or re)-contextualized (that is, de-vivified and de-worlded) wave forms. The point here is to notice the different starting points since they all but define the difference between science and phenomenology.

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