Thursday, April 22, 2010

Things and People

Much of what I'm doing here can be found in Heidegger's Being and Time, but I like to think I'm doing it more, if you will, plainly.

Let's begin with a simple phenomenological distinction. There are, immediately, things and people. All of experience is filled with things and people; we are surrounded by things or people or both at all times. That's plain enough, but why bother with it?

Well, in ordinary talk there's a tendency to identify people with their bodies and let everything else be a thing. This ultimately makes the naked body a very strange thing, or nothing at all. When we are dressed, are we really best understood as "people covered in things"? Is your hair a part of your personality or a thing in its own right? What of wigs? Enough.

My view is that we can't divide all the stuff of the world into things and people. Hammer on one side of the distinction, Thomas on the other, a chair is a thing, the body that occupies it, a person, etc. That's not going to work.

A piece of writing in your hand can be as personal as a lover in your bed. A body, even perfectly alive, walking down the street, can be entirely soulless, a mere "extra" in your experience. A thing. To make sense of the difference between people and things we have distinguish them as immediate experiences.

And here Heidegger, drawing on Scheler, gets it entirely right: "A person is ... given as a performer of intentional acts which are bound together by the unity of meaning" (H. 73). Now, I would say simply that people are to acts as things are to facts: implicated in them. A thing, then, is given as the substance of an extended fact that is bound together by the unity of meaning.

We experience things only when faced with facts. The same "thing", however, can be implicated in an act. And then everything changes.

There's a knife on the ground. James and John are standing in the street. Their standing there is an act, performed by two people. But the knife, implicated in the fact of lying on the ground, is a thing. When James steps forward and picks up the knife, however, it ceases to be implicated merely in a fact. There is, in fact, no longer a fact to speak of, not immediately. The knife is now implicated in James's act. To stand there, James only needed his body. But to stab John, he needs the knife.

The thing appears as such in intuition when the fact in which it is implicated is immediately meaningful. The knife on the ground is its own thing because John knows immediately that the knife is on the ground. (The ground, too, derives its thinghood from this immediacy.) If I have a contribution to make to philosophy it is to propose that the person surfaces as such in institution when the act in which he is implicated is immediately meaningful. James wields the knife immediately, he steps into character as the assailant. The knife that once made plain sense to John is now imbued, just as plainly, with a motive. The motive may wholly or partly supplant the sense John made of the knife before James picked it up. It may become an entirely personal experience, all motive.

There is such a "thing" as senseless violence. The limit of institution.


Justin said...

The thing exists; the body reproduces; the mind reflects.

How you gonna say that what a thing does isn't intentional? Don't the rock want to fall?

Say you have a collection of entities. The collection has a state associated with it for each time period. If I can completely determine the state at time t+1 by knowing the state at time t, then I've got a dynamic system and I'm gonna say that I have a collection of things. Otherwise, I'm gonna call those entities something else - people? Maybe.

Heidegger was a poet. But I get where he's coming from in talking about the experiential continuity between person and thing.

Presskorn said...

This is all really sensible, good stuff. But I'm not quite sure get the role of "immediacy" in your argument. Why is this concept of immediacy needed here, i.e. in order to make your point?

Also: "in ORDINARY talk there's a tendency to identify people with their bodies and let everything else be a thing."
- Surely, this is mistaken; you mean PHILOSOPHICAL talk (if this is "ordinary" to you, you hang out with too many philosophers!).

When you talk of persons in ordinary parlance, you very rarely talk of them as bodies: My "body" doesn't have a job, doesn't get paid, doesn't text people, don't attend parties etc. etc. (This is of course just another way of phrasing your own point about persons.)

That is to say, I don't quite buy your contrast between the "ordinary" view and the "immediate" view: The immediate view is just the ordinary view.

Thomas said...

If you were to ask Ryle's "man on the street" to identify a person and then a thing and then a person, he'd point to human body and then something that wasn't a human body and then another human body.

Say he pointed to a guy with a hat. You could then take his hat off his head and ask him: is this a person or a thing. He'd tell you it's a thing.

This has something to do with how things appear to us "immediately". But the ordinary simplifies or forgets another kind of immediate personality. If you get a letter from someone you interpret it as human behaviour, even though it's just a piece of paper in your hand.

Wittgenstein's best question: In what sense is a piece of paper with black marks on it "like" a human body? That's where the real difference between people and things is to be spotted.

Presskorn said...

Hmmm... I think you are getting your own examples somewhat backwards:

Having the phrase "the man on the street" in a description of a situation does not make that situation ordinary. In fact, your example of someone being queried on the street to "identify" a person or a thing is an EXTREMELY unusual situation. (Dare I say, that it is a very “philosophical” situation?)

(On the street all they ordinarily ask you for is to sign up for some damn newspaper... And if someone actually signs up, that person does not ordinarily think that he is signing up his "body" for the newspaper, right? :-) ..)

On the other hand, receiving a letter from some person you know, love or like and then recognizing that person and her intentions in the letter; that's a perfectly ordinary situation.

So, in my view, what you and Heidegger are saying is perfectly correct. But it is not something that the ordinary "simplifies or forgets". On the contrary, you are taking note of something quite ordinary with regard to the concepts of a "person" and a "thing". You're simply putting forward a 'reminder', as Wittgenstein would have said.

Thomas said...

I like that observation. And I think it's important.

But I do think we can make a distinction between the everyday immediacy in which we don't make the philosophical mistake and the ordinary fact that, when asked a philosophical question, most people (including philosophers) will (ahem) "immediately" identify persons with bodies and things with non-bodies.

That is, our first intuition (which lets us read the letter as "personal") is perfectly correct, but our "philosophical" intuitions are an error. I have some ideas about why that might be.

Presskorn said...

BTW, I was flickering through The Concept of Mind and while Ryle is fond of 'John Doe', he doesn't really seem into 'the man on the street', so did you mean Dewey's 'man on the street' rather than Ryle's?...

I am thinking of this passage from Dewey's 'Art as Experience' (p.54) specifically - which is relevant regardless of what you meant:,+not+for+the+sakeof+seeing+what+is+there&source=bl&ots=XS7aXByiwM&sig=4ASMQEf0IoOEwNQXM6XrcoPDcpA&hl=da&ei=GzLWS5nKNaGHOOPiheIN&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CDYQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=In%20recognition%20there%20is%20the%20beginning%20of%20an%20act%20of%20perception.%20But%20this%20beginning%20is%20not%20allowed%20to%20serve%20the%20development%20of%20a%20full%20perception%20of%20the%20thing%20recognized.%20It%20is%20arrested%20at%20the%20point%20where%20it%20will%20serve%20the%20development%20of%20some%20other%20purpose%20as%20we%20recognize%20a%20man%20on%20the%20street%20in%20order%20to%20greet%20or%20avoid%20him%2C%20not%20for%20the%20sakeof%20seeing%20what%20is%20there&f=false

Thomas said...

I must've misremembered. I think I meant Ryle's Doe, not Dewey's (though I'm not sure how different they are.) I'm going to write another post on this soon.