Monday, August 7, 2017

what the ordinary person in everyday life sees?

"Pudovkin has said film strives to lead the spectator beyond the sphere of ordinary human conceptions.  For the ordinary person in everyday life, sight is merely a means of finding his bearings in the natural world.  Roughly speaking, he sees only so much of the object surrounding him as is necessary for his purpose.  If a man is standing at the counter of a haberdasher's shop, the salesman will presumably pay less attention to the customer's facial expression than to the kind of tie he is wearing (so as to guess his taste) and to the quality of his clothes...."  (Rudolf Arnheim  Film as Art).   The first sentence seems fine, but the second is false.  The ordinary person in everyday life might use sight just to find his bearings in the natural world:  for example, I am walking in the woods and I want to know where north is, so I look to see where the sun is setting.  But this is not the only ordinary use of sight.   Sight is ordinarily often used just to entertain oneself ...for example in observing the people in a museum during an interval between looking at artworks.  The next sentence may be true, although not only for the ordinary person in everyday life but for everyone at least some of the time: for example, a great pianist may focus just on what is necessary for realizing this work by Beethoven in front of this audience.  Also the mind of the ordinary person often wanders from the purpose is at hand.  The next sentence seems wrong too since the salesman, although clearly focusing on what is necessary for the situation, is in fact focusing on aesthetic qualities. He is simply focusing on aesthetic qualities of the clothes and not on the aesthetic qualities of the face.  So, what does this say about the first sentence?   The film maker could focus on the aesthetic qualities of the face, but could equally well focus on the same aesthetic qualities of the clothes that the salesman would focus on.   The filmmaker could give us the world through the eyes of the salesman.  Yes, films take us beyond the ordinary, but let us not think that the ordinary itself is so mechanical and bland.  As Dewey would say, film as art abstracts and intensifies the aesthetics of everyday life. 

Arnheim is not out of accord with this.  For he also gives an excellent description of how a film maker can make something ordinary extraordinary and, through doing so, can highlight features of the world surrounding us that we do not normally notice.

"If an ordinary picture of some men in a rowing boat appears on the screen, the spectator will perhaps perceive that there is a boat, and nothing further.  But if, for example, the camera is suspended high up, so that the spectator sees the boat and the men from above, the result is a view very seldom seen in real life.  The interest is thereby diverted from the subject to the form.  The spectator notices how strikingly spindle-shaped is the boat and how curiously the bodies of the men swing to and fro.  Things that previously remained unnoticed are the more striking because, the object itself appears strange and unusual.  The spectator is thus brought to see something familiar as something new."  (Arnheim  Film as Art)   

Notice that this transformation is not fully described when it is described as a change from subject to form.  It could better be described as a change from seeing the subject just in terms of conventional labels and noticing other features of the subject through seeing it "as something new."  Seeing something formally is not the same as seeing "as something new"!  

To continue on the same quote:  "At this moment, he becomes capable of true observation.  For it is not only that he is now stimulated to notice whether the natural objects have been rendered characteristically or colorlessly, with originality or obviously, but by stimulating the interest through the unusualness of the aspect the objects themselves become more vivid and therefore more capable of effect.  In watching a good shot of a horse I shall have a much stronger feeling that 'here is an actual horse - a big beast with satiny skin and with such a smell...'  That is to say, therefore, not only form but objective qualities will impose themselves more compellingly."  (Film as Art  43-44)  

Thanks to Noel Carroll  Philosophical Problems of Classical Film Theory (Princeton U. Press, 1988)  for drawing my attention to these quotes.  

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Shimmering of Being

This is an experiment in exploring the core of my philosophical position.  Although I have always been closely associated with the American Society for Aesthetics, an essentially analytic philosophy institution, I have an even more fundamental equipment to something else, something more metaphysical.  My early article "Sparkle and Shine" began to indicate this tendency.   My chapter on "aura" in The Extraordinary in the Ordinary pushes it further.   My main heroes in philosophy have been Plato, Nietzsche and Dewey, although other figures have of course played a prominent role, for instance Aristotle, Marx, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Goodman.  From Plato I have learned that the philosophical quest leads to grasping of the good which allows us to see the good in things, the axiological dimension, and, in particular, the ways in which things participate in their essences.  Beauty is the most prominent manifestation of this experience.  From Aristotle I have learned that things are greater than the sums of their parts if those things are organic wholes.  From Kant I have learned that works of genius give us aesthetic ideas which provide us with as if unending thought and connect us to the idea of the supersensible.,  From Nietzsche I have learned that to be true to the earth is to learn how to dance.  From Goodman I have learned that there are many ways the world is. From Wittgenstein I have learned that philosophy is not science and that the search for essences is deeply connected with seeing as.  From Dewey I have learned most everything else, that we need to recover the continuity between everyday life and the fine arts.  From Husserl I learned to look for essences in life experience.  From Heidegger I have learned that what we have forgotten is Being.  

What have religion, art, and even philosophy in one of its modes, looked for?  It is the shimmering of Being.  Being shimmers when it goes beyond itself.  This happens by way of the eruption of consciousness.  I think, therefore Being shimmers.  We see Being when we see/grasp the shimmer of Being.  Being becomes evident when the essential nature of things is revealed.  Essences are emergent upon things and practices, especially those practices aimed towards essences.  Essences, as emergent, and change within the field of consciousness.   A somewhat misleading way to search for essences is to try to come up with a definition in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  A better way is to look for a philosophical definition in terms of a key metaphor.  The great definitions of philosophy are the ones that captured a things essential nature in the sense that they were able to light a path to future creation.   Great definitions are evaluative as well as classificatory.  Revelation of essences is worthless without a path to creativity opening up.   Essences are tied to paradigms.  New definitions of essences happen in tandem with new paradigms.  For example Danto's new definition of art was tied to the paradigm of Warhol's Brillo Boxes.   The search for essences is a cultural thing in which philosophy and the arts, for example, work in tandem.  To look at the search for essences just in philosophy is to miss the organic nature of the cultural quest.  Moreover, the essence is not an abstraction:  it is to be found closely associated with the paradigmatic particular.   New revelations of essence are both ideal and real.  The dichotomy of idealism and realism is the great hangup for philosophy.  Plato discovered the shimmering of Being. The point for the philosopher king is not to have a list of definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions but to see how the light of Being reveals things.  The important part of the allegory of the cave comes at the end.  What really is is what shimmers with possibility, or better, with potential.  There is a language game involved with the search for Being:  this is a philosophical language game.  Today we are at a loss for Being.  We are alienated from the quest for Being.  

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Film Aesthetics and the pursuit of knowledge 2001 A Space Odyssey

Most philosophical discussions of whether film can give us knowledge are disappointing to me.   I think this is because they begin with a certain overly narrow notion of knowledge, one that sees knowledge either on a strictly scientific model or as a matter of belief supported by sufficient reasons, the belief expressed in some specific proposition.  Knowledge could be understood in a broader way however.  I like to think of culture in a Hegel-like way as consisting of a number of closely interrelated disciplines that evolve over time.  To see knowledge as somehow isolated, restrained within the domains of science or science plus philosophy, is to deny the depth of these inter-relations.  Philosophers, for example, do not think their thoughts in isolation from every other aspect of the culture.  The films I have seen in my life have played an important role in the ongoing development of my philosophical thoughts and writings.  This must be true for others as well.  There is an overly narrow conception of knowledge which sees is as based on reasoning of a mechanical sort.  Much of this, I believe, quite controversially I know, is based on over-reliance on the syllogism as the main basis for knowledge.  I am not by any means anti-logic, but I am against the primacy of the syllogism.  The syllogism provides us the the idea that two premises can automatically guarantee a conclusion.  If A then B, A, therefore B, is one example.   The reality of reasoning is usually more a matter of trying to get from A to B, and if the inference seems powerful we hypothesize a hypothetical, if A than B.  The real question is what prompts us to see B as necessarily following from A.  Cultural background usually provides the basis for what we consider an obvious inference.  

Turn now to film and its interrelations with philosophy.  When I was in my teens the minister of my church, Episcopalian, gave a sermon based on a movie by Stanley Kubrick that had just come out, 2001: A Space Odyssey .  Father Wilder was convinced that this movie said something deep about our relationship to the universe, something that connected up with his notion of Christianity.  Although I was already beginning to have deep doubts about Christianity and even about the existence of God I was moved not only by the movie but also by the sermon.  I believe that the movie and the sermon had together a profound affect on my belief-system.  

Let's consider knowledge in a different way than it is usually considered.  Knowledge is a matter of belief systems, or, better, a space or field of belief, and the fit between such a field and the world.  I agree with Nelson Goodman that there are many ways the world is:  but there is still "the world."  My Hegelian side adds that these different ways the world is, whether through film or through philosophy, or through a specific philosophy, interact with each other dialectically.  I even think that there are religious ways the world is and that these religious ways also relate dialectically with ways the world is that are more prominent in the mind of an atheist.  Movies do not usually reshape belief space by presenting arguments but rather by making it more likely that we see B as following from A.   2001  implied some things explicitly that, in my own thinking, had no impact, for example that mankind might evolve into something much more profound through contact with mysterious more highly evolved species.  Sure, that might be true, but what was more moving about this movie was, and still is, harder to describe.  It is partly that we should see evolution as having a possible upbeat side and that technology as it advances may contain possibilities that go beyond our expectations.  The opening up of possibilities for thinking rather than actual support for propositions is how movies can contribute to knowledge.  Wikipedia observes that the movie :   "deals with the themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life."  Again, it does not proves points in any of these areas, but it does transform the belief space of receptive audience members concerning these things.  If knowledge is understood not just as justified true belief but as an ability to achieve improved interaction with the world through improved models of that world, then changed belief space falls within the domain of knowledge.  

Wartenberg notes "a number of philosophers have argued that films can have at most a heuristic or pedagogic function in relation to philosophy. Others have asserted that there are clear limits to what films can accomplish philosophically. Both of these types of views regard the narrative character of fiction films as disqualifying them from genuinely being or doing philosophy."   I count myself in the other group of philosophers, the small group that believes that the role of film in relation to philosophy (and even in relation to science) is not heuristic or pedagogic.  I also question whether there are clear limits to what films can accomplish philosophically, but only because I do not see many instances of "clear limits" in this domain.  I do agree that films do not provide arguments.  However I question the dominance of the syllogism as a picture of what we do in argumentation.  Actually, philosophical argumentation is always a form of narrative:  a form of story-telling.  This is true even when everything is done to hide it narrative nature.  The syllogistic form is just distorted story-telling.   The greatness of a great work of philosophy is not the conclusion it proves but the story it tells.  This is why we have philosophical classics, for example Plato's Symposium, and why we go back to them again and again.  I do not want to simply say that philosophy is just another form of literature;  but it does share more in common with literature than most philosophers are willing to admit.  And also with film.  

I have a problem with the typical way that philosophers of film defend the idea that films can give us knowledge.  The idea is that film can do philosophy via giving us thought experiments.  Sure, film can do this and in this way film is much like much of contemporary philosophy.  But film's capacity to give us knowledge should not be limited to paradigms like The Matrix which seems to raise again problems first brought up by Descartes.   The idea of "themes" suggested above by our discussion of 2001 and constantly brought up by high school teachers when discussing literature can perhaps be more helpful here.  By bringing up themes and raising issues film can affect our belief space.  By the way, belief space can be affected by not actually changing beliefs, if by a belief one simply means holding a proposition to be true.  Changing belief space is more like changing an attitude or set of attitudes:  changing what one considers to be important in relation to belief.  A film might not convince me that there is a God but might change my attitude towards what is rationally possible for those who believe in God.  We constantly build and work on belief spaces for beliefs we do not actually hold.  Even though I am no longer an Episcopalian I still have a belief space with regards to Episcopalian belief, about what is possible there and about what follows from what.  



Friday, July 7, 2017

Dewey's advice for studio art education

Dewey wrote a lot about education early in his life, but very little about art education.  Later he wrote Art as Experience which was his most influential writing in aesthetics, and yet this book says little directly about art education.  My experiment here is to imagine a list of practical recommendations for the art studio based on this later work.  I'll try to provide quotes and page references (from the Perigree printing of 2005) to back this up.  I will probably add to this and revise over the next month.  

Advice to Artists

1.     The business of an artist is to create “an experience” for herself and for audience members.  An experience is an organic whole.
2.     The creative process, when authentic, begins with a striking moment followed by development towards completion.
3.     The artist should also attend to how the audience will respond creatively to her work:  the audience members too will undergo development towards conclusion.
4.     Attend always to your medium:  the arts are different based on the exploitation “of the energy that is characteristic of the material used as a medium.”  (253)
5.     Art is a matter of self-expression.
6.     Just as the physical materials change so too  inner materials are progressively reformed in the creative process. (77)  It is through this that the expressive at is built up.
7.     Take materials from the public realm, transmit and intensify the qualities in your medium.  Then put back into the public realm.
8.     Focus on developing rhythm in your work.  “Rhythm is rationality among qualities.” (175)
9.     Rhythm requires both repetition and variation.
10. A work that has rhythm is one in which parts and whole interpret each other.  (177)  Good work allows the distinctive parts to re-enforce each other, building up a complex integrated experience.
11.   Rhythms  “consolidate and organize the energies involved in having an experience” (177)
12.  Art is the organization of energies.  (192)
13.   Rhythm of nature comes before rhythm of art:  artistic form is rooted in these rhythms.  Bring the rhythms of everyday life into the studio.  (153)
14.   The studio artist should also be creative in her appreciation of art.  She should seek to “grasp the phases of objects that specially interest a particular artist.”  (134)
15.   The artist should see her work as drawing from the past into the present and projecting into the future:  “the expressiveness of the object of art is due to the fact that it presents a thorough and complete interpenetration of the materials of undergoing and action.”   (107) 

16.   In good art the means are fused with the ends.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

On Heidegger on the relation between metaphysics and aesthetics.

I am currently reading Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics. Far from being an introduction, this is one of the hardest books I have ever read.  I am attracted to it from the standpoint of thinking about the relationship between aesthetics and metaphysics.  My working hypothesis is that aesthetics has been vastly under-related in its importance to philosophy and to the central problems of philosophy.   Heidegger, it seems to me, is onto something with regards to this topic.  Heidegger seeks for the roots of philosophy in the pre-Socratic philosophers and, in particular, in Heraclitus and Parmenides.  The question at issue is "what is being?"  Heraclitus understands being in terms of "logos."  And of course Heidegger has his own interpretation of "logos" via Heraclitus and Parmenides.  For Heidegger, logos is a gathering and togetherness  (134).  It is also a gathering and togetherness that shines.  Being disclosed itself to the Greeks as physis which Heidegger describes in this way "the realm of emerging and abiding is intrinsically at the same time a shining appearing" as he identifies the root of physis with phainesthai:  "Phyein, self-sufficient emergence, is phainesthai, to flare up, to show itself, to appear." (101)  So this unity this appearing is a shining forth which is also a collection. Further, the gathering we are talking about is not just a heaping but a unity of things that conflict:  "It does not let them fall into haphazard dispersion.   In thus maintaining a bond, the logos has the character of permeating power, of physis."  (134)  There is a uniting of oppositions that also maintains their tension.  

This I propose is the root also of aesthetic experience.  To experience something aesthetically is to experience it as something that shines (metaphorically) due to emergence of a unity that pulls together tensions and opposites. Here is one possible way to interpret this:  Being is not just a bare "is" of identity or predication or even existence but something more like Danto's "is" of artistic identification. Being happens when the essentiality of something shines forth for us as a gathering that overcoming opposition. When this happens we have "aura":  i.e. the intensification of experience associated with the various aesthetic terms, most significantly "beauty."  This is, of course, beyond the dichotomy of subjective/objective.  

Heidegger connects all of this interestingly with the nature of man himself:  "We do not learn who man is by learned definitions;  we learn it only when man contends with the essent, striving to bring it into its being, i.e. into limit and form, that is to say when he projects something new (not yet present), when he creates original poetry, when he builds poetically."  (144)  If that is right then it follows that finding out who man is would be only possible through looking at his artistic creative activity.






Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Heidegger's Other Passage on Van Gogh

The first chapter of Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics is titled "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics."  It was one of a series of lectures first delivered in 1935 and then revised in 1953. Aestheticians have long been interested in Heidegger's discussion of a painting of shoes by Van Gogh which appears in his "The Origin of the Work of Art" which also was drafted between 1935 and 1937 and was also re-edited in 1950 and again in 1960.  So it is not surprising that Van Gogh's painting also appears in "The Fundamental Question."  It is a short passage and it, of course, serves a somewhat different purpose than in the other essay.  I am working here from the Ralph Manheim translation (Yale University Press, 1959).  Here is the quote:

"A painting by Van Gogh.  A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing.  But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here?  The canvas?  The brush strokes?  The spots of color?"  (35)

The point at issue in this passage is not the nature or origin or the work of art.  Rather Heidegger is interested in the question of being.  A few paragraphs earlier he asks "Wherein lies and wherein consists being?"  The question is also reformulated as "Wherein consists its being?" when referring to a heavy storm "coming up in the mountains."  The next few paragraphs cover a "mountain range under a broad sky,"  "the door of any early romanesque church," and "a state," all before we get to Van Gogh case.  After this Heidegger asks "what in all these things we have just mentioned is the being of the essent [thing]?"   In each case there are a lot of questions, and it is not at all clear what Heidegger is intending to say or how he would answer these questions.  Aesthetic issues play a role in some of these cases, but not all, and they are not dominant. When discussing the mountain range, he does consider that it might reveal itself to the traveler who "enjoys the landscape" but also to the meteorologist preparing a weather report.  And he also considers that each of these may only be an aspect of the object and Being may be either be behind these aspects or in them.  

In the Van Gogh paragraph Heidegger assumes, as in "Origin," that we are looking at peasant shoes.  (It has been argued that these are actually Van Gogh's own shoes.)  The sentence fragment that opens the paragraph seems to indicate that we are concerned here with the being of the painting, not of the shoes.  So we have him ask "wherein consists being in the painting?"  He says that the painting "represents nothing" although that is odd since it represents peasant shoes.  The next sentence also refers not to what we would ordinarily think of as the being of the painting but rather to the experiences of a particularly imaginative viewer of the painting. What "is" in the picture turns out to be related to how the picture is experienced by this imaginative viewer.  To repeat:  "you are immediately alone with it [being] as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe...."  The imaginative viewer imagines being a very specific peasant at a certain time of day and year.  Somehow this is in the experience of the painting, or in the painting, or the Being in the painting.  The end of the paragraph comes as an even greater surprise since, after asking "What is here?" i.e. in the panting we have additional questions, which are also possible answers, and which actually refer to the physical substances of the painting:  "The canvas?  The brush strokes? The spots of color?" It is being suggested here that the being is encountered through the imaginative viewing of the painting, but is also there on the canvas, and in the brush strokes.

The rest of the essay has its own disturbing nature.  Heidegger has joined the Nazi party two years previously, and, although he resigned from the Rectorship of his university in 1934 he continued to be a member of the party until the end of WWII.  Moreover, in the essay he makes some pronounced political statements, mostly pro-German and anti both American and Russian.  

He spends some pages worrying over a comment by Nietzsche that "Being" is a "high concept" that is also "the last cloudy streak of evaporating reality."  Nietzsche even refers to Being as an "error," this in The Twilight of Idols.  Heidegger takes Nietzsche to be saying something more like that Being is seen by people today as a mere vapor:  sure the word is empty but it is no fault of the word. Rather, we have "fallen out of" Being, and without knowing it. Being, he suggests, is not a mere word but "the spiritual destiny of the Western world."  

It is odd today to take seriously notions of the spiritual destiny of the Western world, as though the Western world is all that important. I know all about the ideas of a history of the West, one which sees Europe as central.  But, being a Californian, living in a multi-ethnic community, and teaching students from all countries in the 21st. century, it just doesn't make any sense to me to worry about the spiritual destiny of the Western world any more than it makes sense for me to worry about the spiritual destiny of Germany.  I could see a German worrying about that, just as I can see myself worrying about the spiritual destiny of America.  But I am not sure that the spiritual destiny of America, if there is such, is any closer to the spiritual destiny of Europe than it is to that of Humanity or The World.  Let's just say we feel a special affinity to Europe.

Of course Heidegger would not be sympathetic, partly because he already has a role for America to play in his story:  "This Europe, in its ruinous blindness forever on the point of cutting its own throat, lies today in a great pincers, squeezed between Russia on the one side and America on the other."  (37)  And in a few short years Europe (by which he mainly means Germany) is fighting both. America and Russia are the sources of spiritual decline. 

This is not to say that he has no enduring insight.  He associates America and Russia with something that is still problematic today:  "the same dreary technological frenzy, the same unrestricted organization of the average man....and time as history has vanished from the lives of all peoples"  (37-38)  The illness he associates with America and Russia is actually just universal, taking in German and Europe every bit as much as every other part of our civilized world.  Set aside the mistake about Germany (at least the Germany of his time) it might still be worthwhile to look for "new spiritual energies unfolding historically from out of the center."  (39)  We just need to reinterpret "the center."

Of course the bigger issue is how to interpret "spiritual."  

 


Monday, June 5, 2017

Aesthetics and the Being of beings

I had previously posted on Heidegger and everyday aesthetics here  Here are some further thoughts.

I have been returning to Heidegger to think about the meaning of aesthetics and more specifically of everyday aesthetics.  Nothing I say here should be taken to imply that I am a follower of Heidegger.  Let’s just say that I take inspiration from some of the things he says.  The immediate impetus of my discussion has been reading George Steiner’s Martin Heidegger (University of Chicago Press, 1989).   

The question Heidegger was most interested in concerned the Being of beings.  Unlike Heidegger, I interpret this as a deeply aesthetic notion.  This is how I take this in a nutshell:  when we experience something with heightened aesthetic intensity we are experiencing the Being of beings, and conversely when we experience the Being of beings we experience with heightened aesthetic intensity.   The Being of a being is the dynamic essential nature of the thing under consideration.   But, as we shall see, my notion of "essence" is very unlike that of Plato or Aristotle.  Philosophy and Art are concerned with the Being of beings.   Heidegger sensed this when he placed so much attention on the arts of poetry, architecture and painting in his quest for the Being of beings.  Yet Heidegger does not seem to be aware that Being is something fundamentally aesthetic.   

(Steiner indicates that Heidegger ultimately failed to answer the question "What is the Being of beings?"  I think that what I am providing here is an answer.)

I should also note that my view could be made consistent with a certain reading of Plato, a certain reading of Kant, and a certain reading of Nietzsche.  I am very unlike Heidegger in this respect:  whereas Heidegger sees his work as a radical rejection of previous philosophers, based usually on a rather willful misreading of these figures, I see continuities and deep affinities.  When Plato, for example, talks about grasping Beauty itself in the Symposium and also talks about grasping The Good in The Republic he is talking about the same thing as when Heidegger and I talk about grasping the Being of beings.  For Plato, grasping The Beautiful and The Good (the same thing, really) is the goal of philosophy:  and that is not a matter of coming up with a definition but a matter of being able to see essences in the world.  (It is more than that, but that's a start).  What Heidegger calls "the is of what is" is just the essentiality of what is:  but a lot depends here on how we take "essences."  We cannot take them to be entities, beings.  Rather, search for essences is searching for the Being of beings.  I agree with Heidegger that Being is not a being.  Heidegger’s attacks on Plato work only as attacks on the kind of characterization we get of Plato’s ideas in introductory classes.  To think Being for Plato is every bit as much an activity as it is for Heidegger.   The path up out of the cave is a path of activity, of dialectic.  Moreover, the path down from perception of the Good is also a path of activity.  

Heidegger’s own confusion about Being needs to be cleared up, however.  Heidegger confuses mere existence with heightened experience of Being, an experience which, in my view, is also, at the same time, an emergence.  That something exists or does not exist is of little interest to the philosophy of Being.   We concern ourselves with existence in cases like "does global warming exist?" and this is only a question of whether the term "global warming" with its implied definition accurately describes the state of the world.  Modern science confirms that global warming exists.  This has nothing to do with what we are discussing here.

The philosophy of Being is only mistakenly seen as a theory about the word “is.”  The question “why is there something rather than nothing?”  is a case in point.  Heidegger made a big deal about the importance of this question.  It seems at first to be simply a religious question, one that begs the question.  That is, it simply assumes that there is an explanation for why the universe (not only this universe, but any universe) exists.  God has been the traditional answer.  Or perhaps it is thought that the question is somehow important, even though clearly God is not the best answer.  I do not think that this question is very interesting, at least not when taken literally.  But I do not think Heidegger always took it literally.

The real question (the one the stated question was really trying to ask) is rather, “why is there creativity?”  That is, "why is it that sometimes we seem to get something from nothing?"  Why is there an emergence of Being?  Why do we experience certain things as more than the sum of their parts?  Why is there potentiality as well as actuality?   Why is there meaning at all?  The question "why is there something rather than nothing" directs us to these other questions, which, when taken together, much better represent what we are getting at.  Being, as Heidegger well saw, is the ontological question, and that is quite distinct from questions of ontics.

Except that we should be suspicious of the “why” word.   Philosophy cannot really provide explanations, and certainly not causal explanations.  The characteristic philosophical question is a what question, not a why question.  Perhaps to some extent these questions just intend to get us to pay attention to the emergence of Being.  

Another area in which Heidegger and I disagree is that I see Being as emergent from natural processes, from biological, cultural and personal evolution.  I agree that Being arises from the interaction of language (in the broadest sense of that term, including all symbol systems) and the world.   But this just means that the emergence of Being is phenomenological:  it happens in consciousness.  Being happens when truth emerges in experience.  "Truth" in this sense has an ineliminable personal dimension.  Being doesn’t just happen in the thing-in-itself.  Or if it does, this is not our concern.  But Being also emerges in shared experience:  it is not purely subjective. 

Investigation into the essences of things is investigation into the ways in which  Being emerges.  Plato saw this as investigation into Forms:  asking the "what is" question, for example "what is piety?" Whenever we ask the "what is?" question of philosophy in a deep way we are trying to get at Being.   Heidegger is right, however, to see this in a different way from Plato:  Plato asks us to leave the sensuous world to experience Being.  Nietzsche and Dewey taught us otherwise.  Being emerges only through our interaction with materials, with media:  it is when, for example, the architect allows Being to emerge through the materials of wood or stone.   

Again, Heidegger thinks that existence is the key, and to a certain extent he is right.  But, to put it better, that which gives rise to the experience of awe “exists” in the strong sense that Heidegger is indicating.  So when Heidegger says that hidden being gives the rock its dense thereness (a point made by Steiner on pg. 66), I think this is best understood in terms of what Yuriko Saito has said about the Japanese gardenist's way of experiencing a rock:  the rock has a dense thereness when we see it as manifesting Being, as manifesting essentiality.   The Japanese gardenist listens to the request of the rock in the way that Heidegger asks us to return to a point at which we listen to Being.

I think that we have always been listening to Being, but I agree that this is rare and made difficult by contemporary life.  To listen to Being is to open up to the way things in the world that speak to us about inner nature (not only their inner nature, but ours) through a medium, i.e. of language, paint, or the stone as used by the architect.

Interestingly, essentiality here is not just what it is defined as but rather the way in which it manifests reality itself.  I said earlier that even Kant is misinterpreted here.   A point at which Kant and Heidegger intersect is at the notion of “aesthetic ideas” developed in Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  The Being of beings is aesthetical.

This of course is all in tune what I have previously said in this blog on aesthetic atheism.  See also my posts on Kant on aesthetical ideas.

Nothingness.  Being does not emerge out of nothingness in a straightforward way.  We should beware of hypostatizing nothingness.  Being emerges by way of negation of that which is irrelevant in the construction of a perceived/conceived whole.  But Being can just as well be said to emerge from fullness, or rather from over-fullness.   It emerges from full engagement.  If one fully engages with one's craft then sometimes light shines forth:  Being emerges.  This is creative intuition.