Interview with Paul John Ennis

I’ve posted this on the realism course blog as well. Paul sets up well the problems we’ve been discussing in the course, and I’m grateful that he was kind enough to do it. I hope to follow up with interviews of others in the coming weeks for the course (and for the blog). (Any editing mistakes are my own…)

Thank you for taking the time to discuss Heidegger and realism. You are about to publish a book called Post Continental Voices (ZerO Books, 2010), which is an excellent set of interviews from some of the younger voices in the field and has a well-conceived introduction that takes the measure of a certain change taking place in what you are calling “Post Continental” philosophy. First, why don’t you tell us a bit about your own research….

PJE: Thank you for the kind words regarding Post-Continental Voices. As you put it I was trying to take the measure of some kind of shift and in many ways this is how I see my own research. In the draft paper I posted on my blog recently you also noted that I didn’t quite get to where I wanted to go and that is very much true. Like a lot of the ‘new’ generation I struggle to track the changes that are happening. Philosophy seems to be moving at a rapid pace. Badiou and Deleuze are already talked about as if they’d lived in the 19th century. Speculative realism is already discussed in the past tense. Derrida seems to come from the ancestral realm itself.

In my own research I’m mostly interested in how the mind and the world sync up. It is an age old question but one I remain fascinated with and, of course, it draws me into the realism/anti-realism debate quite a lot and makes me the weirdest kind of Heideggerian: a phenomenological realist.

I suppose the boldest move I attempt to make in my research is to temporarily open the ‘natural attitude’ in order to allow in a bit of the ‘real’ so that we come to understand the phenomenological subject with all the impressive new insights of evolutionary theory, naturalism, neuroscience and so on. But I think we can go much further than this, and here my speculative impulses emerge, and see that in turn the employment of technology also realizes something in whatever tool we are using. So I think these three aspects of the world (consciousness, technics, and nature) are locked in some kind of actualizing embrace. So I am fundamentally interested in ‘activity’ (my thesis is called ‘The Absolute as Activity’) and how it seems to be a consistent feature of reality and I would add that the ideal or phenomenal is already ‘within’ reality: as realized with/in the real. This means there is a place for both phenomenology and realism in my own schema and I don’t think we really need a bridge across the ideal and the real: we are, as Heidegger so nicely puts it, always already in the world.I would add the world is also always already operative within us. Now my argument is actually a defence of post-Kantian philosophy along these lines. I think Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger and many others were already working within a similar schema and that they recognized, especially the temporally inclined, that we would need to keep re-working this schema because, and here is where I am hoping to establish a lineage of sorts, they all know that activity always throws up new and surprising configurations. As Meillassoux would put it the only thing that is necessary is contingency.

What interests me is that you have one  foot firmly planted in the phenomenological tradition that Heidegger, for good or bad, represents. Do you think there is still a need for airing out the “pre-Continental” voices (that is, coming from before anyone recognized a “Continental” tradition)?…

PJE: In a way my position is somewhat odd. I came through my undergraduate degree thinking that phenomenology was still the main current in philosophy and my department was/is particularly strong in this area; for instance the editors of the ‘Phenomenology Reader’ Dermot Moran and Tim Mooney are both lecturers here, and my supervisor Joseph Cohen is convinced of the lasting value of phenomenology. I still operate in what could be seen as a traditionally correlationist nexus. My heroes are all the current targets of anti-correlationism but as I tried to sketch out already I think the critique is a little unfair. Meillassoux, of course, is more than aware of this and he stresses that the ancestral argument is an aporia and not a refutation – although he does challenge the classical conception of the correlation. It is often intimated, and I suspect someone will write a paper on it soon, that Meillassoux is very much a neo-Hegelian. And the very title speculative realism will always make people think of Hegel. The thing is I’m already convinced that speculative realism is airing out the continental tradition and that is the reason I am fascinated by it. Grant, after all, has brought Schelling back into the picture, Brassier covers a whole bunch of continental thinkers, and Harman has renewed interest in Heidegger. Meillassoux cannot help but bring us back into contact with the looming figure of Kant (who never seems to go away!). This is not even mentioning the Zizekian evocation of the transcendental subject of German idealism.

I think something that will happen more and more is that people will come to review the continental tradition and they will either come out on the side of the correlationists or the anti-correlationists but, in classic Hegelian fashion, this is a necessary fusion and perhaps precisely what is needed. Derrida struggled to articulate his attempts to instigate this confrontation and Derrida also knew that metaphysics is a framework (Gestell) that always regroups and in many ways, and I mean this positively, speculative realism is metaphysics reaffirming itself, but since thinking is ‘always on the way’ this will inevitably lead to a regrouping of the anti-metaphysical tradition. We can see this coming to a head in the Dundee ‘Real Objects versus Material Subjects’ conference. The Zizekians are perhaps the correlationists best placed to take on the anti-correlationist position.

And yet you also have another foot firmly planted in the new realism movement, blogging about it often and as editor of Speculations, a new online journal dedicated to work in this area? To mix up the metaphors a bit, are you able to bring some harmony to these pre and post-Continental voices in your head?

PJE: Yes it is certainly difficult and it is worth mentioning that in my work I also straddle the older divide between Anglo and Continental philosophy. But like Lee Braver I would argue that the problem is not that we don’t recognize each other’s problems so much as we speak different languages. I try to translate continental concerns into post-continental ones and vice versa and I’m not sure how successful I am at this and it is not for me to judge, but in my own head I try to operate somewhere on the middle ground. Since I have an established framework of problems, concerns and issues I try to read all thinkers through this framework but I also recognize that there will always be slippages and misinterpretations. This is why I characterize my position as phenomenological realism. It is an attempt to communicate to different audiences that my allegiance is not to any kind of ‘faction’ or tradition and I always try to name my papers in vaguely broad terms that might catch the eye of both sides (something I failed to do with my recent paper I think). I would also add that anyone interested in the coming strands of philosophy should try to attend papers, readings groups or social events with every type of philosophical strand because we are all trying to work out what is going on today. We have been bequeathed, and this is an excellent gift to young philosophers, with problems rather than dogmas. Even a casual cross-tradition conversation will reveal a shared attitude that there is much work to be done and that the time of exegesis is perhaps coming to an end for a short period.

Let’s turn more specifically to Heidegger. There has been, at least in the Anglo American tradition, a copious amount of work on Heidegger and the question of realism (Hubert Dreyfus’s edited collection on Heidegger has a least four essays on the topic). Yet, of course, this work also suggests that Heidegger is not an easy fit for the double test of what traditionally has been the two-pronged test of realism: independence and existence.

PJE: I should mention that in Europe the American interpretation of Heidegger is often dismissed as a pragmatist reading that misses the true import of Heidegger’s ‘task of thinking’. Before I ever engaged properly with the American reading of Heidegger I had never even thought about the realism/antirealism question and if you really wanted to you could pursue an education in Continental philosophy that never broaches the question (because the ideal or phenomenal is assumed to take precedence). It does not help that Heidegger’s remarks on realism are often cryptic. At times he seems to discuss the real as tied up with the ontic, which means it is a bad thing and you shouldn’t spend too much time on it because you are operating at a theoretical level: this is the worst crime for Heidegger, you are engaged with beings or presence and not being. This is why in Europe the pragmatist reading is seen to miss the point. The critic of the pragmatist reading will say that if you take Heidegger’s analysis of readiness-to-hand or his description of the everyday (or even the referential totality) as a point of departure you fail to recognize that the tool analysis is only the entry point into the question of the meaning of being.

Ignoring this critique for a moment there are certainly a few problems worth mentioning regarding Heidegger’s relationship to realism:

There is a very important sense that there are no singular things in Heidegger and by extension no independent things since things ‘are’ only in so much as they are used (that is in so much as they are equipment).

He clearly reserves the word existence for Dasein alone. There are many reasons for this and here we can see Heidegger’s anthropocentrism at work: Dasein is the questioner whose being is an issue for it, stones don’t care…they lie around like the geometric points of the Cartesian world. So Dasein has or ‘owns’ its existence. One might say that Dasein is special because it knows that it exists and that other things exist (although not exactly why).

Now Dasein’s special role is that of worlding, and even articulating being (language is the house of being). So Dasein, one might say, is the meaning giver (nature, Heidegger says, depends on its potency from us). So Dasein and being are in a kind of relationship of recognition. All the ‘real’ things only make ‘sense’ because they are within the world(s) produced by the many Daseins. One could conceivably imagine a world without Dasein but there would be no meaning produced in this world and technically it wouldn’t even be a world. So it all comes down to whether you think the real can still be made sense of without Dasein. This is where Meillassoux comes in of course. Such a place existed and it is called the ancestral realm!

You often hear in classes that teach Descartes that the Cartesian world sounds ‘empty’. It doesn’t really sound like the world we exist in. For Heidegger the Cartesian world is conceivable for sure but it would be populated by innerworldly beings. So if you proceed along the Cartesian route your picture of the real ends up sounding pretty bland and it cannot accommodate all kinds of interesting features of existence proper and this is how we come to see that existence proper would always have to be somehow human. It is a pretty convincing case against rationalist metaphysical realism but this is not the only form of realism available to us.

In some sense, the tension in Heidegger is that once we think the “independence” of some entity, it’s difficult then to appraise its “existence”….

PJE: I’d like to sneakily bring in Hegel for moment. Hegel, and I think Meillassoux quotes him on this, said we cannot sneak up on the ‘thing itself’ to see what it is really like or put differently consciousness cannot get around itself to know the really real (the correlationist circle in Meillassoux’s terms). Hegel has a wonderful solution to this problem in the Phenomenology of Spirit. He simply says that discussions of the ‘in itself’ is something that is only ‘really’ happening for consciousness so when it comes down to it the ‘in itself’ is ‘really’ a feature of thinking and so, technically, there is no in itself object out there to be understood. The ‘in itself’ is not something consciousness is unfamiliar with – it is something that belongs to thought itself (this solves Kant’s problem that many metaphysical claims have no corresponding object – and Hegel’s has already pointed out that thinking is an object that is easily accessible and not mixed up the world anyway).

But yes you touch on the classic problem for Heidegger—and Hegel too. If you are the one thinking the independent object then you are adding something additional to that object, in Hegel’s words the medium (i.e. you) is ‘reshaping’ the object. So how can you claim to be discussing the purely independent object? Heidegger would add, drawing on Kant, even the attribution of existence to some thing is coming from your end. The concept existence is not something one finds in objects (existence is not inherent in objects—it belongs to a very special being known as Dasein)—it is something we use to articulate our world, i.e. to make sense of things. As such, when Heidegger is disparaging people about talking about the existence of objects, this is not meant as an attempt to downgrade things but to show that (as the worlding or the house of being) it is you who is bringing that ‘layer’ of existence into the picture and in order to help you make sense of being in the world. The things are there, but without you they would not ‘exist’ but they do not need you to go about their business! This is why Heidegger wants to overcome metaphysical language. It is simply not up to the ‘task’ or as Derrida will try to show it is the language itself that leads to aporias. This brings us back to the aporia of the arche-fossil. The question about ancestral statements is, after all, whether they are literal or realist. To get over the problem we might need nothing less than a new vocabulary. To get over the problem we might nothing less than a need a new vocabulary. As far as I am aware nobody has pulled this off yet!

You’ve scoped out well the terrain that we’re trying to cover in this course. It seems the crucial problem is that we often mix up “meaning” and “existence,” and a lot of the problem of any discussion of “realism” is the fact that the word “real” is equivalent in English and a slew of other languages for “it’s meaningful.” I wonder if you could discuss the nature of this “aporia.” Just to define the term, as Derrida and others use it, it’s a Greek term that means “without-a-path” or “dead-end,” and Derrida held that in discussing certain concepts we will be led to certain impasses or dead-ends that can’t be surmounted. Thus, for example, one may say that in Heidegger we reach the limits of his thought with the “arche-fossil,” that is, with some entity that is neither a thing (in his later sense) nor another Dasein (I’ll leave aside the animal for now…) And I think you’re right to point out the different Heidegger here in the US than in Europe. In my own training, I tended to take up the Heidegger of Europe: the deconstructionist of the history of philosophy. But of course, in the US for years, Heidegger has been brought, by Hubert Dreyfus and others, to bear on contemporary debates in analytic philosophy, not least on the question of realism. But it seems, coming back to your suggestion about language, that Anglo American philosophy just uses Heidegger to augment the concepts on hand, and thus we don’t seem to have an advance over the question of the arche-fossil. In any event, I’ll end this question by keeping it simple: how would you define realism if for a phenomenologist like yourself, since as you suggest Heidegger can’t discuss the “independence” of things…

PJE: I think a major problem is the temptation to fit people into neat categories. We argue endlessly as to whether Hegel is an idealist or Derrida is a realist…It can be interesting but with a thinker like Heidegger it is not a case of discovering whether he a realist or an idealist because he simply not engaged in that kind of debate. He has a very peculiar, singular direction and it is foremost an ontological rather than an epistemological issue.

It is worth nothing that Heidegger would probably have shrugged his shoulders at the aporia of the arche-fossil. I can imagine him saying ‘It is all very well talking about this ancestral realm but what does it tell me about Being?’ Since the ancestral realm is the ‘time before being’ then it does not operate within the horizon that Heidegger is working – but I think, just to cover Heidegger a little, it would be more the case that the ancestral realm does not have temporality. So you can still have the ‘real’ and even assign it a ‘linear’ time and perhaps even a progressive stamp but this is an ontic concern and it does not help him answer the question of the meaning of being. So Heidegger has a space for the real, the ontic, and so on but for Heidegger it is not all that important (for his concerns that is).

I would add that since the ancestral realm is without being we can also add, and here Heidegger I think makes sense, that this is because there is no-one around to articulate being (so it might be sort of there in un-actualized ‘form’). So if we say language is the house of being then the time when language had no home (i.e. us). It is, to put it in a wry sense, not ‘there’ (Da).

So this to me would be a kind of deflated realism. My own personal take is that we are but one aspect to the world and that role could be described as ‘meaning-giver’. Now since human existence is by no means necessary then real things would carry on but without that interesting dimension we contribute. So the real carries on as normal but when we engage with it the encounter cannot be thought except as a phenomenal encounter. For me the phenomenal and the real are happening alongside each other.

I don’t want to take up too much of your time, and you’ve helped quite a bit already, but I would just follow up with a question about this last part: i worry that in Meillassoux and your answer here—and when I say “worry,” I mean I don’t know what to do with it myself—is this split between the real and phenomenal. For those who don’t know (and there are many people reading this not in the course) Meillassoux argues that there a “chaotic in-itself” fully describable through the mathematics of set theory. This would be his “real,” if one could put it that way. On the other hand, you would have the phenomenal: the world as it appears to us. Here you suggest something similar: sure, we can talk about meaning, but only in terms of the phenomenal; reality itself is ana-logos (without language or reason) and the moment we attempt to describe it we bring it into the phenomenal. Is this a fair summary? What I mean is that you say, look, we don’t need to choose sides: we can have our Heidegger and we can have our mathematical and other considerations of the in-itself. And Heidegger would be, I suppose, really good at giving description beyond Kant to your equipmental being in the world, and thus leave a certain division of labor to those who would describe the Real in scientific terms.

PJE: Personally I simply cannot vouch for Meillassoux’s mathematical real and I suspect, as with Badiou, many find it hard to follow that aspect of his thinking (for instance it is almost always the first chapter of After Finitude that gets discussed although this is changing). I suppose I could describe my position as follows: before I come across some small stone in the middle of the desert the stone is real. However when I come across it I engage it in a new way that draws it into, for however long I engage with it, or within the phenomenal. But I don’t think the stone depends on me for its ‘existence’ in itself and I’m certain it has a ‘world’ of sorts of its own but I have no idea how one could access that fabric of the real and since the mathematical is not something I am adapt at I may never know. But then again I do not see it as my task to describe the real. I am more than happy to hear from scientists who can tell me all about the happenings in the real but I also know that when they are telling me about it they are translating the ‘real’ into meaningful coordinates in order for the real to make sense and so it is always already implicated in the phenomenal. I suppose the hard part for philosophers to grasp is that this does not mean the real has been eradicated! Something real has to be translated into the space of the phenomenal. There is an old description of phenomenology that I picked up years ago that is helpful here.

Imagine for a moment that intentionality is a torch. The torch illuminates all kinds of things and if you think of the light emitted as including language, meaning and so on then the area that gets ‘trapped’ within its luminescence is the phenomenal. But we can move the torch around and uncover all kinds of things that were not lit up. This is how I tend to think of the idealist versus realist position. The idealist thinks the torch is all powerful and the realist thinks the torch over-estimates itself. We should just see this process as it is. The torch is both in the real and lighting up aspects of the real. Intentionality is an activity or process like any other.