I began writing this post back in January, and it’s just been kicking around as a draft for a while, so I thought I’d post some of it and get some feed back on it before continuing.
It seems frequently the more verbose philosophers of the continental tradition are over looked because of their extreme ‘wordiness’ and overly confusing , nearly esoteric writing styles. I believe such is the case with Martin Heidegger, as who can blame any philosophy student for not wanting to put up with a writer who virtually invents his own language to impart his ideas. Thus whenever I come across an example that clarifies Heidegger’s typically confusing philosophy it is always quite exciting and I am left eager to share it with other people.
Such was the case about a month ago, when finally helping my parents to take down Christmas decorations. To liven the atmosphere I had put on one of my Grateful Dead albums, and mid-way through one of Jerry Garcia’s many 15 minute guitar solos, my mother abruptly put a stop to the music with the sentiment, “geez, how can you listen to this stuff?” Being a loyal Dead Head, my immediate response was, “it’s an acquired taste, you have to learn how to like it”, which got me thinking, what exactly happens when we acquire a taste for something? I mean, if you have to learn how to like something, why bother liking it at all? Lets consider the case of a person taking their first drink of wine, which is something I don’t know many people to enjoy on the first go round. The impetus behind our first encounter which such things is typically that we are raised to think they are good. I know growing up I frequently saw my parents and other adults enjoying a glass of wine and there was no doubt in my mind that the way they were enjoying that wine was for the most part equal to the way I enjoyed the occasional soda with dinner. This type of understanding is one with a very specific epistemic limit, we have an opinion about an object that we have not yet “used”.
Heidegger describes this as a ‘positive understanding’ or an understanding we receive entirely from our upbringing in a particular society. It is by this that we understand basic things like the way one properly plays the guitar is by manipulating the strings. Such an understanding is easy enough to come by without ever picking up the guitar as we can see others play the instrument or maybe even just hear other describe how the guitar is played. However when we ourselves sit down to play the guitar with such a limited understanding we quickly realize that a bit more knowledge is required if we are to be successful in such an endeavor (for those of you who are Heidegger savvy, I like to think this is an example of presence-at-hand or ‘occurentness’ as Hubert Dreyfus calls it). Thus from here we must move to what Heidegger calls ‘primordial understanding’. This type of understanding is more complete as it goes beyond what we may receive through mere upbringing. As we further attempt to play the guitar, primordial understanding is achieved as we learn scales, chords, basically how to manipulate the strings to achieve a pleasant sound from the instrument.
A similar process is at hand, I believe, when we acquire a taste for something. Let us return to the example of that first drink of wine. When my parents finally did give me my first glass of wine, I went about gulping it down with the positive understanding that it was just like soda, only to be mortified by what seemed like the most bitter taste possible. With my positive understanding of wine destroyed, I went about convinced for the next few years that wine was simply unpalatable and I would never take another sip again. Little else changed however, as I continued to see adults and eventually my peers enjoying wine, thus despite my bad experience it remained perpetually tempting to give the vile liquid another try. Though I eventually did try it again several times, the experience remained the same until I realized that if I wanted to enjoy wine, I simply had to learn how. With this in mind, the next time I had a drink of wine I expected the bitterness and was determined to do my best to appreciate it. Surprisingly enough the experience was not that bad and as I tried more wines I grew to like it more. It was merely the case that I had to understand what wine tasted like and how to enjoy it.