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Tallis in Wonderland

On Being (Roughly) Here

Raymond Tallis tries to work out where he is.

Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) is one of the greatest works of twentieth century philosophy. At its heart is the notion of human being as Da-sein or ‘being-there’. This is a profound and complex thought, which Heidegger unpacks through nearly 500 densely argued pages. By making being-there fundamental, Heidegger aims to by-pass the hoary problem of the relationship between mind and body and some of the epistemological anxieties that have haunted Western philosophy. Instead of having a consciousness as a mere spectator – a mind mysteriously located in the cabinet of a body trying to construct a world out of data generated through interaction with a putatively external reality – human being is being-in-the-world. The sceptical argument about how we can know what is out there is brushed aside: we are out there.

Heidegger’s masterpiece (like its author) is seriously flawed, as I have discussed in A Conversation with Martin Heidegger (2002) and subsequently in I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being (2004). One of the problems that bothered me was that his ontology of human being was one-legged. You cannot, I argued, have a ‘being-there’ without also a ‘being-here’ for ‘there’ to be defined by. So Da-sein requires a complementary Hier-sein, as recto requires verso or as a view ‘out there’ requires a viewpoint ‘here’. When we try to specify the basis of the human viewpoint we end up with something like the conscious body, and sooner or later problems that Heidegger thought he had put to bed, such as the relationship between consciousness and material reality, are reinstated. But that’s for another time. More relevant to my present concern – affirmative action for being-here – is that Hier-sein proves to be at least as rich and complex as Da-sein.

What do we mean by ‘here’? Well, its capital is my body, currently warming and being kept warm by my clothes: ‘here’ is arranged around the fleshly platform that I am looking from, listening from, touching from, smelling and tasting from. Hence re-locating my body – walking, taxiing, taking a plane – re-defines what I legitimately call ‘here’. And here is where my body is because my body is where I am.

Well, sort of. Things are more complicated than that. Firstly, the relationship between I and my body (and hence between ‘I’ and ‘here’) is far from straightforward. “I am here” does not translate into “A body-shaped blob is located at the centre of a patch of space encircled by an horizon.” Ultimately, this is because RT (Raymond Tallis) is not identical with RT’s body in the way that a pebble is a pebble.

If you didn’t need to be told that your columnist is not just a lump of inedible livestock, I apologise for wasting your time. But I wanted to make the point that he is not merely a body but em bodied: more precisely he is an embodied subject, to borrow an indispensable term from the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. That is why, although RT is inseparable from his body, his relationship to it is difficult to characterise, not the least because it has many facets. RT directly experiences his body through so-called proprioception, as exemplified in his awareness of his folded arms, sun-warmed skin, rumbling tum, and trousered bottom. But this direct bodily self-revelation is patchy. We experientially inhabit or suffer only a small part of our body at any given time. Indeed much of our carnal being – for example our spleen or bone marrow – may not be inhabited by us at any time in our life. Nevertheless, this direct apprehension of our bio-stuff is the primordial or basic relationship we have to our body. It is the ground floor of our first-person being, or ‘I-am-ing’ as embodied subjects. But there are other relationships. I can see, hear, and touch etc bits of my body as objects – as when I look at the back of my hand or hear my shod feet incising the snow. In addition, I possess my body. I speak of ‘my’ head, or ‘my’ knees, or even ‘my’ appearance, as if they belonged to me. This possessive attitude is expressed in the fact that even our public parts may be touched or examined only by permission. Uninvited exploration is trespass on private property. My body is also the most immediate and universal mediator of my agency. I utilise it, or parts of it, in all my voluntary activity. This use may be explicitly tool-like, as when I shade my eyes with my hands, or use my weight to compress the contents of an over-filled suitcase. And, finally, I may know my body in a literally detached way, as an object out there in the world, as when I catch sight of myself in a mirror (a reliably disappointing experience), or when I acquire facts about it – simple ones such as ‘my’ height, or more esoteric ones such as ‘my’ serum potassium.

It will be evident, therefore, that while the body that anchors ‘here’ occupies space, there is more to embodied being-here than space occupancy. But things get even more confusing. RT’s body is as it were hollowed out and lit from inside, and in many different ways at once. Bodily sensations (warmths, coolths, tingles and gurgles) mingle in the stream of consciousness with perceptions of things out there, memories, thoughts, and emotions. Mysteriously, while I am conscious of these entities as part of a unified experience, I am also able to sense them, and indeed voluntarily focus on them, as separate items. Tingles, patches of sunlight, images from last summer’s holiday, the reflection that it was a bit expensive, and the sadness that it was so long ago, all belong together in a conscious field whilst retaining their distinctness. The present moment is not merely pregnant with the past. It owes its very intelligibility to it. The future is of course equally important, and equally folded: its many layers house immediate, nearby, and distant goals. I am steeped in – filled and emptied by – yesterdays and tomorrows. And RT may be here and yet still be ‘miles away’.

So the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘here’, as mediated through the body, is hardly straightforward. They are, nevertheless, inseparable, as is evident when we use the word ‘here’. By definition, ‘here’ refers to a location centred on the person who utters the word. ‘Here’, like ‘I’, is what linguists call a ‘deictic’ term – its reference is determined by the location of the person who is using it at the time they are using it: ‘here’ is where I am when I say ‘here’, just as ‘I’ is refers to the person who says ‘I’. Nevertheless, when you can’t see me in the dark and call out “Where are you?” and I reply “I’m here!” I am not responding to your inquiry with an unhelpful, empty statement. The direction and timbre of the sound I emit betrays the location of my head, and, it is safe to assume, the rest of my body.

This everyday use of ‘here’ does not get snagged on the complexities that attend the relationship between the person and the body. But there is another layer of complexity. If you were in the same room as me, it would be perfectly legitimate for me to say that you and I are both here, not because we have become fused into a single ‘I’ but because we can think of our location as a space big enough to be shared. This is allowable because ‘here’ is defined in opposition to ‘there’ and the two grow and shrink in parallel. However, if we switch from our joint attention to a third party, and turn our gaze on each other, then we are re-installed in our separate heres: I am here and you are there. This underlines how ‘here’ is irreducibly personal – unlike ‘now’, which, at the speed of daily life, in which distant simultaneity is a lived reality, is shared by everyone. Indeed, we could say that the need for communication arises out of the fact that (in the last analysis) we have different heres; and the possibility of communication out of the fact that we are apparently in the same now. I hear (now) when you speak (now).

‘Here’ and ‘there’ have more layers than an onion, because jointly or singly occupied heres may grow in parallel with jointly and singly occupied theres. The room in which I am writing is ‘up here’, as opposed to the kitchen, which is ‘down there’. If ‘here’ is the house, my room is ‘in here’, as opposed to the street, which is ‘out there’. ‘Here’ may mean Stockport if my interlocutor is in London; or England if opposed to Continental Europe; the terrestrial ‘here’ may even be opposed to a lunar ‘there’. It’s a bit like ‘inside’ versus ‘outside’. The grain of the one is defined in relation to the grain of the other: ‘here’ gets fatter as ‘there’ expands. That’s why you and I can consider ourselves as being in a shared here, although for me ‘here’ is established by my body, just as your ‘here’ is by your body. Yet ‘joint-here’ would not be possible if our heres were defined by the boundaries of our bodies – say by our skins – as would be the case if we were simply identical with our bodies, as a pebble is a pebble. Being-here is not an out-of-body experience; nor is it an entirely in-body one.

This is connected with something else. As ‘here’ expands from the space inside my clothes to ‘this room’, ‘this house’, ‘this street’, ‘this town’ and so on, the I that inhabits it seems to become attenuated. ‘Here’ and ‘there’ are joined by a third realm: ‘elsewhere’. In the kingdom of elsewhere, which is out of reach, out of sight, out of earshot, or even smellshot, I fade away. I am (in) elsewhere only by proxy or imagination. Ultimately, ‘elsewhere’ is a space, of knowledge, quite different from the ‘there’ that is before us and the ‘here’ from which we experience ‘there’. It is a thicket of rumours, built up out of guesswork and information, both to be tested in the tribunal of experience when we re-locate, and elsewhere becomes the latest here.

One of the bitterest ironies of illness is that it imports ‘elsewhere’ into ‘here’ whilst nailing you to the capital of ‘here’ that is your body so that ‘there’ shrinks to the margins. When you are ill, you are here in italics, and yet there are aspects of your case – all the most important facts – that are in the space of knowledge that is not here and is not over there, but is in the neither-here-nor-there land of elsewhere. Illness is the most insistent reminder that elsewhere also has a foothold at the heart of our here. Those aching joints, insisting that you become a pattern of pains decorating your body schema like the lights on a Christmas tree, fill more and more of the space of meaning, and at the same time there are fundamental truths about your illness that belong to the elsewhere of objectivity. Lying in your hospital bed, you see that elsewhere in the opaque heads conferring at the end of the ward, interpreting the shadows on an X-ray.

This tension between the immediate experience of ‘here’ and the experience mediated through language and held in the form of facts of ‘elsewhere’ pervades our lives. It goes to the heart of human consciousness, and makes being-there, Heidegger’s Da-sein, only a part of the being of human being. So let’s hear it for Hier-sein – and, while we are it, two metaphysical cheers for Woanders-sein: being-elsewhere.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2015

Raymond Tallis’s latest book is Summers of Discontent: The Purpose of the Arts Today with Julian Spalding (Wilmington Square). His website is raymondtallis.com.

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