My research has two central focuses. My primary interest is in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, particularly his theories of language and meaning. I am also interested in the relationship between these theories and social and political theory. Broadly, as I read Heidegger, speech is a dynamic event in which speakers articulate their understanding of the world, making explicit and drawing into relief their practical familiarity with common scenes of everyday life. For Heidegger, this involves bringing entities to view under an aspect, relating to them as something or other. From this perspective, meaning is not an ideal entity or mental content; it is, rather, the contextual background against which entities are intelligible. An important consequence of this view of language is that it allows us to see that speech may be systematically distorted and that such distortions may likewise distort our view of the world.
I developed the groundwork for my interpretation of Heidegger in my dissertation, Situating Language: Language, Practice and Meaning in the Thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, which I defended in 2010. In the dissertation, I argued that both Wittgenstein and Heidegger rejected what I call “semantic mentalism” – the view that linguistic means of representation are meaningful because of their relation to internal mental representations. This view arises, I claimed, when one takes an observational stance toward words and treats them as objects. In contrast to this view, Wittgenstein and Heidegger present theories of language and meaning according to which words are meaningful in the sense that they have roles in familiar social practices. I contended, moreover, that Wittgenstein and Heidegger are “embedded externalists,” according to whom social practices are fundamentally embedded within broader social and natural environments. Speech, for these two philosophers, is not primarily a matter of the representation of fundamentally separate states of affairs, but the manifestation of affective conditions and the articulation of a shared understanding of the world – an expression of our intersubjective or interpersonal relations to one another and to other things. This theory of language and meaning continues to guide my research.
I further develop the arguments and insights of my dissertation in my recently published “Speaking of Being: Language, Speech, and Silence in Being and Time” in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. In this essay, I propose an interpretation of Heidegger’s early accounts of language and speech that breaks with frameworks commonly cited in the English-language reception of Heidegger’s thought about language. For Heidegger, I argue, authentic speech designates ontology – a speaking grounded in silent listening to being itself. In contrast to common interpretive devices, then, Heidegger understands language as the expression of ontology, not the representation of entities. Ultimately, for Heidegger, genuine silence is not merely the absence of words or vocalized speech, it is a form of discovery in which individuals are allowed to manifest themselves in anxious anticipation of their own deaths. Human existence is itself, then, genuinely discovered only in silence in which one hearkens to the call of conscience. Other interpretations of Heidegger, however, fail to incorporate his discussion of these phenomena and, more importantly, participate in the objectifying views of language that Heidegger criticizes. Ultimately, I suggest, it is through language that we express or speak out (Aussprechen) our understanding of being, becoming, to use a phrase of Nietzsche’s, who we are.
I also continue to work on the connections between Heidegger’s philosophy of language and meaning and his later critique of modern technology. Heidegger’s critique begins with a rejection of what he terms the “anthropological” conception of technology. According to this view, artifacts are the result of conscious human design and instruments for meeting pre-established human ends. According to Heidegger’s theory of technology, by contrast, technology is a disclosure of the world – artifacts are part of and structure the discursive social practices through which things in the world come to appearance. As Heidegger sees it, modern artifacts structure discursive practices in such a way that they place a demand on the world and disclose it as a reserve of consumable energy. He refers to this way of looking at things as the “Enframing” (Ge-Stell). I argue that the Enframing affects both the way we speak and the way we conceive language, reimagining speech as the transmission of information by means of words and images. This view of language, I suggest, is built into the very artifacts that form the infrastructure of many of our modern communicative practices, shaping the ends of our communication and the discourses through which we come to understand ourselves and the world. Such a view is expressed most forcefully, I claim, in the discourse surrounding what is called “Big Data,” where information is commodified, sold, and “mined” to discover and predict, among other things, consumer preferences, likely votes, or criminal behavior.
As part of my focus on political and social theory, I have also begun to engage with the work of Heidegger’s student Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s analysis of “one-dimensional society” and the “one-dimensional thinking” characteristic of this society further developed Heidegger’s critique of technology, bringing it into productive relation with Marxism and psychoanalysis. In the essay “Beyond the One-Dimensional University: A Marcusean Critique of Outcomes Assessment,” recently published in New Political Science, I show how Marcuse’s critique of one-dimensional thinking may be applied in the realm of educational policy. The contemporary focus on educational outcomes, I argue, is a form of “one-dimensional thought” as this concept is developed in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Ultimately, I suggest, this one-dimensional thinking serves to maintain the illusion that, in the infamous words of Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal restructuring of the university as a private consumer good. In recent work, I have also begun to incorporate decolonial frameworks into this analysis. Combining the insights of Heideggerian and Marcusean critiques of technology with those of decolonial theorists, I argue that contemporary computing and information technologies manifest what Nelson Maldonado-Torres refers to as the “coloniality of being.” The coloniality of being refers to the structuring of language and everyday life by the demands of coloniality in such a way that the world is cleaved by a “colonial difference.” Thus, the “Enframing” described by Heidegger not only inscribes relationships of oppression and domination, as theorized by Marcuse, but we can see that these relations are integrated into a broader colonial disclosure of the world marked by the colonial difference. I recently presented the first fruits of this new approach at the International Herbert Marcuse Society in an essay titled “Decolonizing Marcuse: One-Dimensionality, Decoloniality, and the Critique of Neo-Liberalism.”
Finally, I am currently working on a book project that draws these threads together, tentatively titled The House of Being: Language, Technology, and Dwelling in an Information Age. In the book, I develop a comprehensive account of Heidegger’s philosophy of language, drawing my interpretations of his early philosophy together with new interpretations of his “Letter on Humanism,” “The Question Concerning Technology,” and “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer,” among other works. This book develops a critique of information and communications technology by applying Heidegger’s theories of language and technology to contemporary information and communications technologies. In sum, I posit that modern information and communications technologies at once make possible and serve to curtail liberated forms of speech and poetic forms of existence.