Brief glimpse at John Searle's Heidegger

This is a quasi-rant, which I think nonetheless has enough ‘philosophical’ content to at least begin its life here, in the philosophy forum.

I post this not because I am prepared to depart on any exhaustive rebuttals, but because it is mildly distressing, and I thought it might be of interest to some of you.

I had been of the opinion that Richard Rorty was missing a bit of depth in his reading of Heidegger, but now that I have witnessed the abomination that is John Searle’s Heidegger, I have cause to reevaluate my judgement. In all fairness, I guess, he has not really taken up any exhaustive study of Heidegger, and relies mostly on Hubert Dreyfus to give him the gist of his positions and arguments.

What I sense though is that Searle believes he has landed a whole load of valid criticisms. He says as much here;

And it is true, I will concede, that there are several interesting observations in his analysis. But there are also several seemingly absurd assertions that make me doubt the rigor of his engagement with the material.

Don’t get me wrong; I want to like Searle, and Dreyfus also, because they have been influential in their fields, and of all the thinkers that comprise the current canon of philosophical literature, they are amongst the ever dwindling few that are actually still living.

But really, in what intellectual nether-realm are the following assertions (amongst many others which I may perhaps post in the next couple of days) considered valid?..;

I must admit I was quite speechless when I first saw these words. The paper in question, called ‘The Phenomenological Illusion’ (2005), seems to me to be the quintessential statement of the realist, analytic attitude. I will have to read it again, once my head-ache has subsided (seriously speaking); because I think it will make for some interesting discussion here on the forum.

Searle’s position, stated with such beautifully estranging self-assuredness, is as fascinating to me as it is foreign and, no less powerfully, disturbing.




I don’t know why you even bother with Searle and Rorty and the rest of the ultra-fabulous capitalistic dossier-of-dead-philosopher money-mongers. You know as well as I that Sartre and Heidegger finished the cake. I guess, unfortunately, that for three easy monthly installments, you can order the complete set of “How I make money by pretending I’m doing something with Heidegger,” and also get the free book-lamp as well.

No, I’m just talking shit. I love all Thinkers…even the evil Dunamis. I just don’t like Capitalists, which sort of puts me in a bind regarding Thinker-Capitalists. Hmm…

That’s Heideggerian allright. All meaning is value-laden for Heidegger, and a Being cannot be meaningful outside of its context of use by the Dasein. As such, consciousness is required to make meaningful because of its intentional activity, where objects in themselves have no intention- are inert. A thing can never have an entirely epistemological definition, because nothing is defined from without the conscious grasp for use.

This is a good opportunity to explain the former quote. Heidegger calls the Being of an object a vorhanden, which means “present-at-hand.” The hammer is never an object of a disinterested description. It can only be defined in connection to its use rather than as a set of properties and dimensions, such as its predicates. The “in-itself,” (and I don’t think Heidegger is using this terms a Kant would) of the hammer is in being “good at nailing” or “too heavy,” etc. The hammer cannot be defined by ignoring the carpenter who uses it, it is both the physical object and the effort of the carpenter that defines its Being. Heidegger was big on the “whole” of being and the interconnection of every meaningful thing to be defined as a process rather than an essential characteristic. As with Sartre, it is as it exists by being used, not by being a “hammer essence.”

Yeah, I don’t get that either. Its almost a stupid question. I think he is trying to bond the phenomenological with the physiological, and that is a matter of neurology. The question is pointless as far as an attempt to understand Heidegger, I think. It is outside of the realm in which Heidegger works.

I wish it could be explained to me how it is possible to define a hammer. Hammers are objects I find in my tool box. Objects cannot be defined. It is words that are defined. Now the word “hammer” (note the inverted commas) can, of course, be defined. It is an English term (which has synonyms in other languages) and you can look it up in any dictionary of the English language. This business of defining things. rather than words, is the start of a lot of confusion, and the beginning of a dead end. The cul-de-sac which is continental phenomenology.

in the same way one defines the mona lisa, or makes any aesthetic judgement for that matter…

putting definition and meaning behind anything that can be considered symbolic is a question of semiotics…

and far more than simple letters and numbers can be given definition and meaning…


What does it mean to “define the Mona Lisa”? You mean when I judge that the Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting I am “defining the Mona Lisa”? When did that happen? That’s what I meant by “a dead end”. You use words with no regard to their meaning, and you spin a tale out of it that masquerades as philosophy.


What about Derrida then? He had to feed his family too you know… :wink:

Where’s the love, Detrop? Where?

Wow man - shouldn’t you be giving seminars on Heidegger or something? Just the other day you became an expert on Spinoza, now you’re an expert on Heidegger…; is there anything you can’t do? :wink:

(1) Yes ‘meaning’ is something vaguely ‘anthropocentric’ for Heidegger, except this term must be qualified by the fact that he is referring to Dasein, not man (the difference being in the extent and content of historical baggage assigned to the latter); especially but not exclusively as regards Cartesian dualism and, by extension, epistemology.

Fortuitously enough, I was in Messkirch the other day, muttering this very same thing to myself as I walked briskly past the grave of the Great Man, and I could almost have sworn that a muffled voice spoke to me thus;

[size=150]“No! A being cannot be meaningful or meaningless outside of the relation which a being characterised by understanding has with Being. Now get me out of here you numbskull - can’t you see that I’m trapped!?”[/size]

At which point, of course, I began to run.

I am not certain who this is (Husserl perhaps?), but it is not Heidegger.

What is an object, in Heidegger?

(a rhetorical question)

I think that for Heidegger, there is something to be said for the argument that a thing does not ever have an ‘epistemological definition’, per se, unless of course you want to play with the meaning of the word ‘epistemological’.

I don’t think he is using it at all.

The question is lost.


Strictly speaking, ‘continental phenomenology’ is concerned with description, not definition.

You seem to be working with an implicit philosophy of language. Whose is it, may I ask? What can you recommend for me to read?



Professor Kennethamy:

Would an object of the same physical properties as the hammer I have now, be called a “hammer” by a neanderthal? No.

Would, then, the properties of the hammer I have now, be called “brown,” “solid,” and “heavy,” by a neanderthal? No.

How did the neanderthal define the “hammer” that he used? He defined it by actualizing its use, by the activity he provided with it. Did he do that with language? That depends.

There was a period when language wasn’t developed and communication was conducted by signals and behavior.

Without language, he had to use the hammer to evidence its object-ness. The hammer wasn’t a coconut because he didn’t eat it. The coconut wasn’t a hammer because he didn’t hit things with it. The deer-skin wasn’t a flint because he didn’t start fires with it. The flint wasn’t a Dunamis or a Kennethamy because he didn’t waste his time proving the phenomenological irrelevancy of language at ILP, with it. [grin]

I have no idea what a Neanderthal would say. I don’t think they even had a language. But why not ask whether, for instance, an Eskimo who had had not contact with western society would call a hammer or a ladder whatever the word for a ladder or hammer was in his language. Well, obviously not. The question is contrary to fact, since he would not have the vocabulary to say such a thing. Just as we, 100 years ago, would not have been able to call DNA “DNA”. But so what? What is that supposed to show? But, suppose he actually constructed a primitive hammer. Somehow. He might then coin a word to denote the object. And, if, let’s speculate, there was an eskimo lexicographer, he might put that word into the eskimo dictionary, and define it as denoting a tool used for striking or pounding. But he would not then be defining the tool, he would be defining the eskimo word for the tool, whatever it was.

in a manner of speaking, yes… when you see the text “beautiful painting” part of your definition includes the non textual mona lisa…

and yet you understood enough to answer… you use the same meaningless words… some masquerade…


  1. So are screwdrivers, wrenches, etc. That it is found in a tool box does not necessarily mean it is a hammer.

  2. Are ‘hammers’ (as in the actual tools) found in tool boxes or are ‘hammers’ (as in the signifiers we use to denote the actual tools) found in tools boxes?

So it is the word ‘hammer’ and the word ‘screwdriver’ that is found in a toolbox? You’ve confused me. What are we talking about?

If you mean it can be used consistently over time, then sure. If you mean anything above and beyond habitual use then you’ve lost me again.

Given that the dictionary is arranged in a way that is antithetical to language use (the first and foremost concern of any philosophy of language) I’d consider it to be rather irrelevant. It’s more an example of what cannot be done with language (i.e. one cannot use language to state anything ostensive about language and hope to be successful) that what can be done with language.

And you are as cofusing as those blasted continentals. The fact is that when we utter ‘hammer’ we are dependent on words other than the one uttered for the utterance to have any hope of being successful in whatever aim the utterance has. We are also dependent on some degree of stuff other than language (sensory experience, which of course cannot be adequately descibed in language) for there to be any hope of being successful. When we define we don’t simply define words, we define words as the markers of (typically) habitual experience. We cannot simply ignore the experience and talk about the words alone, we cannot isolate language with itself.

That’s one of the main confusions of analytical philosophy. Those blasted analyticals!

The word “hammer” is found in the dictionary. Hammers are found in tool boxes. The usual convention is to distinguish between the mention of a word and the use of a word. You mention a word when you say something about the word. As in, “cat” has three letters. You use a word when you talk about the object (if any) that the word denotes. As in, cats have whiskers. The word “cat” has no whiskers, and cats don’t have letters. We show the difference between mention and use by placing the word between inverted commas ( “…”) like this when we want to mention it.

No confusion. Just confused people.


Hardly. I am an expert in detropinology.

Heidegger was spood fed by Husserl. Husserl is the mac-daddy.

“The expression “phenomenology” signifies primarily a methodological conception. This expression does not characterize the what of the objects of philosophical research as subject-matter, but rather the how of that research…Thus the term “phenomenology” expresses a maxim which can be formulated as “To the things themselves!” It is opposed to all free-floating constructions and accidental findings; it is opposed to taking over any conceptions which only seem to have been demonstrated; it is opposed to those pseudo-questions which parade themselves as “problems,” often for generations at a time.”- Heidegger (Being and Time)


In the second sentence are you talking about the signifier for the object or the object itself? It is still unclear, by the standards of semantic rigour demanded by yourself.

My point was that you are either defining an object when you say ‘Hammers are found in tool boxes’ (i.e. contradicting your claim that we define words and not objects) or you are defining a word and you are literally saying that words are found in tool boxes.

Those blasted confused people!

Objects are not signifiers. Words are. As I said, hammers (the objects I hit my thumb with all the time) are found in tool boxes, and the word, “hammer” is found in the dictionary. Couldn’t be plainer than that.

When I say that hammers are found in tool boxes I am not defining anything. I am just informing you of a fact (although I should think that you already knew that fact) I am not saying (literally, or any other way) that words are found in tool boxes. Although I cannot imagine why would you think I would assert something so absurd?

Not “blasted confused people” But confused nevertheless. Partly because they read people who are themselves confused (Derrida for one, or even for two) and who, like the Shadow, the famous character of radio and television, “has the power to cloud men’s minds”,