Being in the World: A Recovery of the Sacred?

What does it mean to be in the world as a human being rather than to observe the world as a Cartesian subject? Italian-American filmmaker Tao Ruspoli tries to answer this question in his documentary Being In The World, which features prominent philosophers Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor, and others (most of them students of Dreyfus). His answer is a Heideggerian one: The film “is a celebration of human beings, and our ability, through the mastery of physical, intellectual and creative skills, to find meaning in the world around us” (film website, italics added).

The first half of the film recounts the history of the quest to create artificial intelligence (AI). Dreyfus persistently critiqued this endeavor in the 1980s, even though he was ridiculed by computer scientists. He argued that the whole project of AI rests upon a misconception of human beings, and that this misconception has its origins in the ideas of 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, who famously wrote, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). Descartes’s maxim presupposes substance dualism, the position that there is a distinction between mind and body. This dualism generated a major epistemological problem (i.e., evil demon/brain in vat/The Matrix): How can I know that the representations of reality in my mind actually correspond to reality as it is? On Descartes’ view, humans are reduced to thinking subjects, detached observers who can view the external world without participating in it.

Continental philosophers—and the documentary focuses on Martin Heidegger—take Descartes to task, though, arguing that his subject-object paradigm is a bad one because it doesn’t admit subjects’ situatedness. We are neither distinct from the external world nor able to see things from a God’s-eye point of view. We are in the world, and we always understand things as finite, temporal beings. (See James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, in which he argues that these realities are due to our creaturehood, not to our fallenness).

Heidegger thought that we should dispose of the subject-object terminology, and speak instead of Dasein, which means “existence” or “being there.” As philosopher Frederick A. Olafson writes,

By using it as a replacement for “consciousness” and “mind,” Heidegger intended to suggest that a human being is in the world in the mode of “uncovering” and is thus disclosing other entities as well as itself. Dasein is, in other words, the “there”—or the locus—of being and thus the metaphorical place where entities “show themselves” as what they are. Instead of being sealed off within a specially designed compartment within a human being, the functions that have been misdescribed as “mental” now become the defining characteristics of human existence. (Britannica, emphasis added)

To get at this idea of “uncovering” and “disclosing,” Ruspoli interviews masters of different arts, such as Japanese carpentry, Creole cooking, and gypsy flamenco. Philosopher Taylor Carman says in the film, “What we are at bottom, much more than being thinking subjects, is that we care about something; something matters to us.” And we engage with those persons and things that we care about. We come to know things through our practical, embodied engagement with them, not through thinking. Our capacity to think is not the most central quality of our being because it is not the original way that we come to know things. Contra Descartes, like master carpenters, cooks, and musicians, we come to know things through encounter. Through encounters with things, ontological worlds—”pre-interpreted and holistically structured background[s] of meaning”—are disclosed (rather than projected onto things) (Wikipedia).

“Life is made most meaningful when you respond to meanings that are independent of you,” suggests philosopher Iain Thomson. Whereas much of our modern society is predicated upon a Cartesian metaphysic through which we conceive of everything as an object within a system to be optimized, the philosophers in Ruspoli’s film call us to a different way, one by which we might be able to recover a sense of the sacred. The saints of this new way are the skilled—those who have an “authentic” relationship with the world as opposed to those who live in a mode of existence whereby the world is seen to be  the “chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve” (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”). For Heidegger, this latter mode is potentially dangerous because it threatens to eclipse the possibility of other ways of revealing the world.

On the whole, Being In The World is an informative, moderately entertaining documentary. Ruspoli is trying to communicate Heidegger’s ideas to people who wouldn’t read Heidegger. We can commend him and the philosophers in his film for giving an account of what it means to be human that is closer to the Christian account than Descartes’s. True, they are trying to discover the sacred within the “immanent frame,” to use Charles Taylor’s phrase—that is, they are looking for ultimate significance within creation—but they are looking. And that’s what interests me.

“Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” (Augustine, Confessions, Book I).