Phenomenological Psychology

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Primitive Dasein

May 11th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

At ¶11 of Being and Time, tr. Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E., Heidegger distinguishes between “The interpretation of Dasien in its everydayness” and “the describing of some primitive stage of Dasein.”  Fair enough – it’s easy to see how these are different.  Then, however, Heidegger goes on – tantalizingly – to suggest:

To orient the analysis of Dasein towards the ‘life of primitive peoples’ can have positive significance as a method because ‘primitive phenomena’ are often less concealed and less complicated by extensive self-interpretation on the part of the Dasein in question.  Primitive Dasein often speaks to us more directly in terms of a primordial absorption in ‘phenomena’ (taken in a pre-phenomenological sense).  A way of conceiving things which seems, perhaps, rather clumsy and crude from our standpoint, can be positively helpful in bringing out the ontological structures of phenomena in a genuine way. 76.

Before we accuse Heidegger of latter-day Rousseau-ism, we should note he is not the first to appeal to the ways and notions of a hypothetical primitive culture, as a heuristic device.  In Word and Object, for example, Quine founds the enterprise of radical translation on the work of a forlorn (albeit imaginary) linguist, stranded, presumably, in the jungle (actually, a place Quine identifies as “the darkest archipelago”).  “All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native‘s surfaces and the observable behavior, vocal and otherwise, of the native,” 28.  “The utterances first and most surely translated in such a case are ones keyed to present events that are conspicuous to the linguist and his informant,” 29.  Thus, when the native utters that famous word “gavagi” as a rabbit hops by, the linguist, at least initially, is bewildered, because he does not know if the native is referring to rabbits, the color white, animals, or rabbit parts or stages. 

In this manner, the native – understood as an exemplar of primitive Dasein – has done his work.  He has facilitated a mode of analysis with far more explanatory power than if, for example, Quine simply had dived in to looking at the way words are used in contemporary settings, à la J. L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words. 

Other writers with a fondness for the practices of the native include most of the cultural evolutionistas, going as far back as Hume.  In The Natural History of Religion, Hume starts with the “rude beginnings” of “savage tribes,” all of whom happened to be idolaters.  “Not a single exception to this rule.”  Only through progressive enlightenment – the “natural progress of human thought” – were these heathens able to reason towards more abstract (and preferable) concepts, such as that of a monotheistic deity.  Hume’s method, though not necessarily his conclusions, lately have been taken up by such present-day idolaters as Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained – The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene).

But Heidegger didn’t do this.  Rather, he was content to analyze Dasein’s being-in-the-world from what might be called a “contemporary” perspective – at least, one not uniquely situated in space and time (which is ironic, as one of Heidegger’s main points is that Dasein cannot be understood apart from the totality of circumstances comprising its world, and its interaction with that world). 

Furthermore, I don’t think Heidegger is on solid ground when he puts down primitive Dasein.  Surely the primitive Dasein was every bit as bound up in the world as contemporary Dasein.  Primitive Dasein’s interaction with equipment was every bit as revealing of its being-in-the-world, as that of contemporary Dasein.  In a way, I feel as though we should make Heidegger watch the GEICO “caveman” commercials.  (Wikipedia: “In these commercials a GEICO spokesman explains that using is ‘so easy a caveman could do it.’  This slogan offends cavemen who are shown to still exist in modern society and, in fact, are quite urbane.”)  I think the primitive Dasein approach has a lot going for it, and Heidegger was wrong to be so dismissive.  I will explore this in some subsequent posts, particularly with respect to primitive Dasein’s use of equipment.