Hubert L. Dreyfus Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Meaning, Relevance, and the Limits of Technology: Conversations with Hubert L. Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy, UCB; November 2, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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[Let's go back to Merleau-Ponty.]

Heidegger's the important one. He saw that what Kierkegaard was saying in a Christian context, in 1850 in Denmark, was a deep, important thing about what it was to be a human being, which nobody had seen, and he wrote Being and Time which now, I think, practically everybody thinks is the great book of twentieth century philosophy. A famous philosopher named Habermas who really hates Heidegger said, grudgingly I presume, that Being and Time is the greatest philosophy book since Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind. And the way you can tell it's great -- Merleau-Ponty will show up in this in a minute -- is that all the people who were important in what's sometimes called Continental philosophy -- not analytic, not Anglo-American -- are Heideggerians of some sort.

Sartre was the first to take over Heidegger. Being and Nothingness is a brilliant misunderstanding of Being and Time from a French Cartesian perspective. Michel Foucault, on his deathbed, said that he was a Heideggerian, and he said that Heidegger was the main influence on him. Let's see. Pierre Bourdieu, who's a very important French thinker, said to me his first love in philosophy was Heidegger. There's another one before we get to Merleau-Ponty, I was thinking of.

We'll come to that in a minute. Talk about Merleau-Ponty.

Okay, let's go to Merleau-Ponty. He reads Heidegger and sees that it could be transposed into talk about skill and perception, and how you respond to the particular situation. All the existentialist stuff I'm telling you about -- anxiety, risk -- that doesn't interest him. What interests him is coping, how you are able to be an expert and respond to the particular situation. The Phenomenology of Perception is a brilliant book that goes against the whole philosophical tradition, saying that you don't need concepts, you don't need rules, they don't guide action, they don't organize your perceptual experience. Your body has an immediate grasp of what's going on, or fails to, and then does it better next time. So, naturally, now I teach the The Phenomenology of Perception, though I teach Heidegger every year and I teach Merleau-Ponty maybe every two or three years because it's very hard -- well, they're both hard. But Heidegger's the source. It all comes from him.

But let's talk a little about Merleau-Ponty because this notion which seems to be central to your critique of what computers can do helps one burst that balloon, and that is this notion of getting a grip on reality. Our dialogue here is showing us the way in which you came to an understanding of the humanness of the individual, whether in learning or in acting, and how he, in Merleau-Ponty's term, gets a grip on reality.

Good. I see.

So, let's pursue that a little, because in a way it's not just about learning. It's not just what a distinguished doctor does in the surgery room or what a pilot does when he's flying a plane and is confronted with an emergency. Talk a little about that, the elements of this, because the assumption, before you and philosophers like you came along, was the notion [that skills are based on unconscious theories or] a set of rules: you go to the text and you find the rule. When the blood starts spurting out of the artery as you're operating, you do such-and-such. But much more is involved.

Right. Well, I never thought of it the way you're putting it, putting these two together, but I see now. Yes, the basic idea in Merleau-Ponty is that we're always moving to get an optimal grip, and now comes the place where he goes beneath what Heidegger was doing. Even in perception, just in perceiving, say, this table -- I mean, I'm now at a comfortable distance. If I were up this close I would sense that that was not the way to see it in its best. Merleau-Ponty says if you get too close, then there's too many details, if you get too far away, you've lost the details, and he talks about how in a museum your body is led by a picture to move to the optimal distance where you see the maximum richness, as he puts it, of the detail and the maximum clarity of the form. And when you perceive ordinary objects there's a further thing, you move around them, and so forth, and you are led by the object calling on your body -- it's just outside of what your mind does or could do. The object just calls you to get in the best relation to see it. If you're looking at a house from the front, you also sense that you'd see it even better if you could also see the back.

So, what's fascinating about this is that for Merleau-Ponty (he's the first to see this), normativity, that is better and worse, goes down to the bottom of our experience. It's in our perception of objects. No philosopher, I think, had said that. When you're skillfully coping in flow, without thinking, without rules, your body and its skills are drawing you to get this optimal grip on the situation. And the situation is always completely concrete. It's something that you've never been in before and the other people haven't been in before and you'll never be in it again because having been in it this time has changed you.

Aristotle already saw that. It was lost, sort of, until Heidegger found it in Aristotle. Aristotle says if you keep acting and getting experiences and making mistakes and learning, you will finally become phronemos, a person of practical wisdom, and that means you'll do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, to talk like Aristotle. And that's being a master. That's the highest thing you can be.

So, does Merleau-Ponty (I'm asking myself) ever talk about mastery like that, or expertise? No; just that every philosoper has his job. Merleau-Ponty's job is to go beneath Heidegger and ground it in everyday skillful action and everyday perception. Heidegger's goes to the other end and talks about mastery and how you can become a person of practical wisdom, and even further than that, you can become somebody who changes the world by not just responding in an original way to the situation but responding in a way that changes people's perceptions of the situation. That's the best thing you can do, according to Heidegger.

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