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Diacritics 30.4 (2000) 83-101
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Martin Heidegger and his Japanese Interlocutors
About A Limit of Western Metaphysics
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Quite obviously, the central position that Western philosophical discourses have assigned, over the past two centuries, to the concept of "sense" hinges upon the epistemological dominance of the Subject/Object paradigm. In whichever specific ways this concept has been defined (and we all know how confusing the range of those proposals has become), 1 it always ends up referring to the modalities in which an "Observer-Subject" can refer to what (s)he is observing as the "World of Objects." "Making sense," then, may be described as the selection, performed by an observer, of a specific object of reference among all the objects of which the world is believed to consist; or as the drawing of a line by which (s)he makes a distinction, at every given moment, between those parts of the world that (s)he is observing and those that (s)he is not observing; or as the positioning of a chosen topic within a preexisting context of possible associations. All these different descriptions can be turned into definitions of "sense making" as long as they point to the awareness that whatever has been chosen, divided, or contextualized could have been chosen, divided, or contextualized differently. Another way of evoking the same type of relation between what remains "potential" and what becomes "actual" would be to say that the concept of "sense" always refers to cases of entropy transformed into structure—under the condition that alternative patterns of transforming entropy into structure remain available. What we call the Subject's consciousness (Bewusstsein) is the place where these selections take place and where their alternatives are held available.
If we consider the Subject/Object paradigm as the core element of that style of philosophizing which has been called (sometimes from a purely descriptive and sometimes from a critical angle) "Western metaphysics," then it is a both true and trivial conclusion to say that, within Western metaphysics, sense making is inevitable (that is, that Subjects cannot help producing sense and, also, that there can be no effects of sense without pointing to a Subject). An interesting case that proves the point of this implicational relationship is Niklas Luhmann's systems theory. Despite Luhmann's sustained effort to be epistemologically eccentric, despite all his great conceptual ambition to bypass the instance of the Subject, 2 his books (and, above all, their reception) make it [End Page 83] very clear how a philosophical discourse that gives as central a position to the concept of "sense" as Luhmann's cannot help producing Subject-effects. The frequently used everyday expression, on the other hand, that "something makes no sense" is not in conflict with our point about the inevitability of sense making within the metaphysical—and also within our Western everyday—framework of discursive presuppositions.
For if we say that "something makes no sense," we are not using the word "sense" in accordance with the conventional philosophical meaning of "sense making," and we are thus not referring to individual phenomena that would "resist" individual acts of sense attribution. 3 Rather, when we say that "something makes no sense," we react to situations where a (shorter or longer) sequence of those elementary and inevitable acts of sense attribution does not produce an impression of "coherence" or "consistency"; we refer to situations where we lack a larger perspective from which we could subsume the results of different individual acts of sense making [see Hahn]. Astonishingly enough (or not astonishingly at all), all those loud intellectual slogans from a decade or two ago about the "death of the Subject" never reached this—altogether unsurprising—point: that any attempt at (or the mere historical process of) overcoming a Subject-centered epistemological tradition (or, with the more Heideggerian concept, of overcoming "metaphysics") would have to ask how one could—begin to—avoid sense making. On the contrary, that "weak subject" and that so-called "weak thinking" as which the Subject/Object paradigm seems to...