Friday, July 17, 2009

"Always Already"

I've grown accustomed to seeing the term "always already" in works of shabby philosophy. I once figured that the term was employed by philosophers who could not bear to use a term like "necessarily": That which is "always already" the case is that which is necessarily the case.

Then I began to think that "always already" was a happily non-Kantian-sounding way of deploying a transcendental argument: That which we are "always already" committed to is that which supplies the conditions for (the possibility of) reflection itself, or some such. In any case, I figured that the expression was popular among a certain stripe of philosopher because it was imprecise and flaky but sounded sophisticated.

However, I'm now finding the term in the work of more respectable philosophers. Can anyone tell me in non-obscurantist language what it means to say, for example, that "we are always already under an obligation to X" (where X names some action)?

26 comments:

Juan said...

Heidegger.

Anonymous said...

I also first saw the expression in Heidegger. I don't understand Heidegger extremely well, but my recollection is that he used it in relation to things that were part of our lived experience in certain ways, and didn't want to use "necessary" as that seemed to imply a logical or physical (as in law of nature) sort of relationship that wasn't what he was after. But then, as I said, I don't feel that I understand Heidegger very well, and I don't know what the German was hear, so I might be off on my understanding. It certainly is something that can be used as an obscuring bit of jargon, though.

PA said...

Here's a literal interpretation which almost certainly no one who uses the expression has in mind.

Always already P = for any time t, there is a time t* such that t* is earlier than t and P is true at t*

I hope this doesn't help.

Anonymous said...

it's obscurantist jargon

Mostly Anonymous said...

I have no idea how the expression is being used in the literature, but I think PA's emphasis on time suggests a way of seeing the difference (if there is one) between "always already" and "necessarily".

Suppose we have two possible worlds, A and B. World A is such that for all times t in A, some proposition P is true, but world B is such that P is false. At world A, P is always already true. But P is not necessary.

Glaucon said...

Enough already with the 'always already.'

Anonymous said...

How about explaining this explanation of "always already" (from the wikipedia entry)?

"The central idea behind the phrase “always already” is that once a certain place in time is achieved, the being of places in time earlier than that place is ‘transient’, problematic, or unthinkable. For example, after I finish reading Hamlet for the first time, we may say that I have “always already” read Hamlet, and that the time before I had read Hamlet, being now past, was or is ‘always’ past."

Justin said...

The example that comes to mind for me is the refrigerator light: It is always already on when I go to check it. In this case I know that my checking causes the light to come on, but I don't know that just from checking; it could be that the light is always on, for example. I would have read "we are always already under an obligation to X" in a similar way, taking the real upshot to be that being able to do X, one is obligated to do X.

Kevin said...

It should not be seen automatically as obscurantist jargon. It is found in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, I believe Husserl. Certainly none of them mean anything like pointing out propositional truths within a sequence of events, or else going into possible worlds. The key point is that in perception, conscious reflection, etc., the "world" is in every case presupposed. On every occassion of perception (always), the world is the background for the experience's intelligiblity (already there). So, from M-P: "The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions." I gather one of the reasons that necessity is effaced is that this would make the world a discrete term in a logical implication, whereas it is said to be the very field within which logical implication is possible. Hopefully that helps; I think it is a bit difficult, but not thereby obscurantist (i.e. vague for the sake of vague).

Anonymous said...

Kevin is spot on with his explanation for how Continentals utilize the term. An example might help. Heidegger talked about the givenness of a table. When Husserl (initially) wanted to do the phenomenological reduction he attempted to look past aspects of the table that Heidegger thought we could not. So when Heidegger utilized the example of a table he had his students start their phenomenological reductions on it and then he said to the class, "Why hasn't anyone told me that this is a place where we eat?" So the point is that the initial givenness of the table is already given to us in a world and valued. And we cannot "bracket" this out. This was one of Heidegger's problems with Husserl. So when someone uses "always already" this is the sort of thing that he or she is talking about. So, for Heidegger we are always already: in a world, have objects which are present to hand, mooded, etc. This is the very cheap explanation. But it gets at the central usage of the term, at least by Continentals.

How are Analytics using it?

improfound said...

In Norman Kemp Smith's translation of the First Critique, one finds "jederzeit schon" translated as "always already." "[The transcendental subject] is knowon only through the thoughts of which are its predicates, and of it, apart from them, we cannot have any concept whatsoever, but can only revolve in a perpetual circle, since any judgment upon it has always already made use of its representation." [A346/B404]

Garlf said...

Spiros:

However, I'm now finding the term in the work of more respectable philosophers.

I'm incredulous. Who are they?

Jose said...

A scope distinction might help to clarify. Should the 'always' be read de dicto (e.g. 'always, we are already...) or de re (we are always already...)?

Anonymous said...

Whatever its meaning, "immer schon" is a perfectly natural German idiomatic phrase. (E.g., "Er ist immer schon da gewesen".) Whether it should be translated as "always already" is a separate question. In colloquial contexts, "always" is often best.

Krinos said...

Garlf:
I found the locution recently in David Estlund's _Democratic Authority_ -- that we are 'always already' under some form of authority, independent of our consent to have someone be authoritative. (see p. 130)

Anonymous said...

"When you say 'now' it's always already later."

Makes perfectly good sense, but yes, in Heidegger circles the phrase is intoned as if something deep is going on.

Garlf said...

Krinos:

Yeah, David Estlund certainly counts as "more respectable."

I'm reeling. This upsets my whole view of the life-world.

Thanks for the reply.

praisegod said...

I think that its a trnaslation of Heidegger's phrase 'je schon'.

j matthias dow said...

i cannot say how the "analytic philosophers" that you are reading use it, but i consider myself an analytic philosopher, and use the phrase occasionally. i do not intend for the phrase to be obscurantist, unclear, or imprecise. your request was to make sense of "we are always already under an obligation to X," where 'X' names some action. first, why isn't this a veiled way of saying that there exists a necessary obligation to X or that it is necessary to X? neither of these capture the kind of constitutive relation that is implicit in "always already" talk. the claim that we are always already under an obligation to X is meant to capture the relation between the conditions that make possible the obligation to X and that obligation to X. let's consider two claims that this is not meant to capture, in order to trying to make this more clear and precise: (1) other beings like oneself in being the same species are under the obligation to X; (2) other people like oneself, for instance one's siblings or parents, are under the obligation to X. these present a phylogenetic and ontogenetic IMMER SCHON (respectively). but, you can start to get some purchase on the IMMER SCHON through these notions, because in each, we have conditions that make possible (in some sense) the obligation. in the first case, it's evolution; in the second case, it's upbringing. the always already phrase, however, is meant to capture a constitutive condition, however, what makes possible the very existence of an obligation to X. in that sense, it is a claim about what constructs obligations. i'm not sure what your analytic philosophers have in mind. do they give an example of an obligation to X that is pivotal to the very existence of obligations in general? for instance, one might say that the obligation to consider one's commitments and entitlements to X is always already an obligation, since it would not be possible to have an obligation to X without that obligation being in play. i'm not arguing for that conditional, just trying to make progress in making it more clear and precise... i hope this helps...

English Jerk said...

Here's a typical example of Heidegger's usage: "If Da-sein is, it already has directing and de-distancing, its discovered region" (S&Z 108). The first thing to note is that this is a conditional construction, and I think that even if a particular instance doesn't take that grammatical form it's always logically conditional. And the conditional can, I think, reasonably be glossed as "If x, then y must be presupposed" or "If x, then necessarily already y." The reason why Heidegger doesn't use the more familiar vocabulary of presupposition or necessity is that he thinks that it brings with it a set of traditional assumptions (psychologistic and metaphysical, respectively) that he wants to avoid or repudiate. He typically does so by inventing awkward neologisms (as with "de-distancing" above) or by endowing ordinary phrases with strange technical meanings (as with "always already" or "discovered" above). Whether Heidegger succeeds, either in undoing the tradition or in constructing a plausible alternative, is of course another question entirely. In the absence of Heidegger's assumptions (or equivalent ones), it's not obvious to me why anyone would want to use the phrase.

English Jerk said...

Sorry--the Heidegger quotation does use "always already" not just "already." I must be unconsciously averse to the phrase.

Anonymous said...

Just found Appiah using this expression in *Experiments in Ethics*:

"If, by the nature of a creature, you mean the ways it can behave--its behavioral possibilities--then human nature is always already cultural twice over" (p.125).

Anonymous said...

'The very condition of a deconstruction may be at work in the work, within the system to be deconstructed. It may already be located there, already at work. Not at the center, but in an eccentric center, in a corner whose eccentricity assures the solid concentration of the system, participating in the construction of what it, at the same time, threatens to deconstruct. One might then be inclined to reach this conclusion: deconstruction is not an operation that supervenes afterwards, from the outside, one fine day. It is always already at work in the work. Since the destructive force of Deconstruction is always already contained within the very architecture of the work, all one would finally have to do to be able to deconstruct, given this always already, is to do memory work. Yet since I want neither to accept nor to reject a conclusion formulated in precisely these terms, let us leave this question suspended for the moment.'
JACQUES DERRIDA
MEMOIRES FOR PAUL DEMAN
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1986

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DK said...

I tend to associate the 'always already' idea with Althusser and his work on interpallation which is a fancy way to say the social interactive processes of naming / describing that then determine identity in ways that are unrefusable. I think he suggests that when named in such ways. "hey boy" - Hey girl" 'hey old fat white guy" etc. then the discursive sets of interwoven discourses that render that 'naming' into active and complex intelligibility blossom in such ways that it doesn't need a detailed spelling out. Its as if we always-already know just exactly what it means to be a boy or girl or old fat white guy.
in a sense perhaps its as simple as saying we are socially constructed beings and well marinated in all possible variations of our cultures versions of the subject and when named in particular ways we know 'always-already' what that means in terms of who one is and what particular logics of action apply.
To get really simple - its like my computer that has lots of quite complex 'preloaded' programmes I never use but when I call on them they are 'always-already' there.

Bad Horse said...

Hubert Dreyfus used that term in his critiques of artificial intelligence. The intent and falseness of the concept can be seen most clearly in an examination of recurrent neural networks.

The term is a critique of "Good Old-Fashioned Art. Int." (GOFAI), which presumes that you can encode a bunch of knowledge into an AI and then turn it on. Whereas an actual evolved intelligence in the world learns almost only through its perceptions, and its perceptions are determined by what it has learned.

Anyone familiar with neural networks or other self-bootstrapping procedures can understand how it is possible to begin with a small amount of knowledge and use it to acquire more knowledge, which is used to acquire more knowledge, etc. But this is perplexing to philosophers, who lack the practical training or the math needed to deal with information and semantics, and so Dreyfus objects that an intelligent agent can learn only after it has already learned. It is "always already" in an environment; which seems to be his shorthand for saying that the bi-directional causal connections between the AI's perceptions and knowledge cannot be programmed in nor learned in an information-theoretic way. (Actually he's only clear that they can't be programmed in. It isn't clear whether he considers gradual learning.)

But all this is just my recollection from 30 years ago.