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.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Deep Thought

I am humiliated by how things work.

97 Years on the Case

Robert Reich has an interesting post over at TPM on the Fed's role in the rescue of Bear Stearns.

Thomas Jefferson put a stop to Alexander Hamilton's idea of a powerful central bank out of fear it would be unaccountable to the public. The Fed has just proven Jefferson's point.

And John Adams's. And Ezra Pound's.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


Q: What is the difference between a concept and a mere word?
A: Logic, a certain rigour of usage.