For Heidegger our experience is an event in the world.

K.  —Here’s a question that I’ve wanted to ask you for a long time. You seem to read the Wash Post regularly, nothing wrong with that. But do you also read the NYTimes? I hope you do for the Times, in my opinion, is by far the best news publication online, and I’ve never ceased to read it and learn from it. It has by far the greatest variety of points of view of any publication out there (again, don’t confuse the Times editorials with the newspaper, the editorials being usually predictable and uninteresting).

But that isn’t really what was on my mind to say to you this morning, it was something I just read in a Times op ed piece by Lawrence Berger, entitled: Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters

Here I think, at least in my experience, is stated what I would see as an essential characteristic of art, or painting, and in particular of your painting. I’m not going to try to say in my own words what Heidegger and the writer, Lawrence Berger, are saying. Instead I’ll just give you the passage below from the piece that so interested me. The bold emphasis is my addition. (And K. so far there have been 301 comments! I hope you’ll have one of your own.)


In one of the lectures mentioned above, Heidegger considers what it is to stand before a tree in bloom in a meadow. He asks how science decides which dimensions of the tree are considered to be real; is it the tree viewed at the cellular level, or as a mechanical system of sustenance, or is it the tree as we experience it? Indeed, how does science derive the authority to opine on such matters? He writes:

We are today rather inclined to favor a supposedly superior physical and physiological knowledge, and to drop the blooming tree … The thing that matters first and foremost … is not to drop the tree in bloom, but for once to let it stand where it stands…. To this day thought has never let the tree stand where it stands.

This means that staying with the experience of the tree enables it to come to full fruition, and that such experience matters in the overall scheme of being itself. For we are more deeply alive and in profound contact with all of the entities that we encounter when such a state is achieved, which means that we participate more fully in this universal process of manifestation.

At this point the objection will undoubtedly be raised, “Surely you don’t mean to say that a tree or a stone can be made manifest in a more profound fashion. How can our presence affect the being of a such an entity?” This brings us to the depth of Heidegger’s thought and his notion of being as a process of manifestation. For it is not unreasonable to ask, given that I experience a stone in a more profound manner, what does that have to do with the being of the stone itself?

We have come up against a deeply ingrained view of what it is to be a human being (which lends credence to views that our experience ultimately does not matter), which is that subjective experience takes place in a private realm that is cut off from the rest of reality. But Heidegger does not even make the distinction between the mental and the physical; for him our experience is an event in the world. The experience of the stone that I come to is part of the process of its manifestation in all of its possibilities. In this manner we are intimately related to the stone in our worldly presence, which is the site of its more profound manifestation. The claim is that the being of the stone itself is not independent of such an event.

For the question is, what is the stone and how are we related to it? The being of the stone and our relation to it cannot be conceived independently of the whole context in which we arise. The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws. We relate to other entities by way of mental representations of the whole — something like scientific observers who don’t really belong here. Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.

Such an approach is bound to seem strange to modern sensibilities, but we have to look at what is at stake. On one view we are fundamentally cut off from the world, while on the other we are in direct and potentially profound relation with the people and things that we encounter. On this latter view there is unlimited potential for what can be made manifest by way of the effort that is called for; indeed, Heidegger suggests that there may be glimmers of the divine that await those who prepare the way. There can be little doubt that our presence matters if this is any indication of our true vocation.

(Lawrence Berger is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was formerly a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.)

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