OWA 3 Ways of Being a Thing

Whenever you get stuck with Heidegger, always go back and try to think about what he is talking about for yourself, and then compare what you came up with what he is talking about. And the other trick is to always think negatively; how to differentiate what is being talked about from similar or related things, so that we can get at what is particular about the topic.

So, take things. If I had to describe what a thing is, I might firstly say, well, it’s a bunch of sensations, coming from the same place at the same time. Over there (where there is a chair) I see some black flat shapes and some silvery tubes; and when I touch those shapes, the black, soft (leather) shapes are slightly warmer and wetter than the cold, smooth silvery tubes (of the legs and braces); etc. Then I might say, well, I do actually know already that this will support my weight and is about the height of my knees, and large enough for my butt, etc. But then, in order to differentiate this chair, from other pieces of leather and steel, and other things that might be sat upon, I would say that this chair is recognizable for being a particular ensemble of certain materials in certain shapes. This chair is consistently made out of these materials in these shapes; that is its design. That is why I can say that this is a Breurer chair; it is one of thousands of identical chairs; the design is consistent.

So, having run through this thought experiment, it is now apparent that the nature of a thing comprises; a set of sensations; that are interpreted as properties; that derive from the combination of that shape and those materials.

The 3 versions of thing-being are all derived from Greek philosophy. There are some interesting things to note in passing. The first (the second in the reading) is what the Greeks called ‘aesthesis,’ the sensual experience of things, how they appear to an experiencer (like humans). The second (the first in the reading) is what we call the properties of a material: a metal has a certain tensile strength and ductility, etc. In the Greek tradition, these are considered to be accidental or incidental to the material, because they have to do with it being used, rather than what it inherently is; they are interpretations of its qualities. The last is the traditional version of ‘form and content.’ As I tried to show in the example above, the Aristotlean version of material-put-into-a-form is a precursor of what we understand by design. It should also be noted that Heidegger often draws attention to (Latinate) words that have roots in ideas of ‘standing’, as in standing up or forth, being present. ‘Consistency’ is a word that contains a ‘standing’ stem: ‘sist.’ So a thing has a design that manifests as the standing together of certain shapes and materials. That they stand there as this or that thing is a result of their design, which can almost be said to be holding the materials in that shape consistently over time, standing them together. It feels to me like design is being understood here as like playing with blocks: piling or placing things together so that they stand up or out as this is that castle.

Some of you asked about non-material things, like notions or ideas. You wondered how such concepts could have form and content consistency. Your answer lies in reflecting upon education, and your education in philosophy in this course. It is all about learning what is and is not implied by a concept. Invariably you have a general sense of something, like ‘evolution.’ But over time you learn that evolution is more properly understood as involving certain principles and relations, that evolution, as a concept, has unity of form and content. This is like learning what a Breuer chair is. It is possible to make a Breuer-like chair out of other materials, or to use the materials of a Breuer chair to make a variant on a Breuer chair, just as it is possible to talk about evolution in lots of ways. But in the end, a thing like evolution, at least in the natural sciences and philosophy, aims to be a particular set of observations and notions (its ‘material’) explained, or under-stood (notice the ‘standing’ again) in particular ways. Evolution, properly understood, should be fairly consistent.


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