Wednesday, May 26, 2010

May 26th – Martin Heidegger Day

Stories: Martin Heidegger, born 1889 - and died May 26th, 1976 and it’s not at all clear he should be thought of as a saint. He undoubtedly had 2 extra marital affairs, for example, with Hannah Arendt and Elisabeth Blochmann. But the real kicker has always been that he was a Nazi. But, well, not much of a Nazi. He was a member of the party and gave a few pro-Nazi speeches, but he never rose in the ranks and the other Nazis had contempt for him. Heidegger has had detractors and defenders over the years, even a number of European Jews have apologized for him. Heidegger claimed that he was initially attracted to the hopes the Nazis offer, but by 1934 had decided they were a bunch of hateful and worthless thugs, but that someone needed to pretend to join them to protect the future of the University.

Perhaps he was a comical toady, sliming up to the Nazis; perhaps he was a bitter collaborator trying to restrain the worst of the Nazi’s from within. Either way, he was a towering philosopher with a huge influence on Western philosophy, (and indeed, both Japanese and Chinese thought), from 1927 to today. Although, I frequently disagree with him, he’s certainly influenced me. He was also by all accounts a great teacher and several of his students became important in their own rights with time.

It’s hard to explain exactly why he was so influential, or what his “contributions” to our society have been. His first major contribution is the re-raising of fundamental ontology. His most famous work “Being and Time” begins by noting that we have lost the ability to even wonder what exactly being is. He claims that Western Philosophy has sold us on a story about the nature of being, re-affirmed in many ways from Aristotle, to Christianity, to Descartes, to his own mentor Husserl. There are objects which have properties, the world is a place of things, and ways for things to be. People, books, blogs. Liberal people, conservative people, people jogging, smutty books, blogs that are just starting and so on. But if I say “Brett is a liberal,” even if I understand the terms “Brett” and “liberal” what the heck does that “is” mean? Is it just a piece of grammar, or is it trying to tell us something, adding something to the sentence? Once philosophers were puzzled over the meaning of being, but now its almost impossible to even raise the question of the meaning of being again.

And that’s his second contribution, his understanding of “hermeneutics.” For Heidegger, we have habitual ways of understanding things which “covers over” our ability to understand things in deeply new ways. Progress involves digging under what we think we already know, and exposing things once again, so that they can be re-interpreted in new ways. Truth is not ultimately a matter of mathematics, or simple fact-checking, or adherence to an intellectual system, it is more like the process of interpreting art. We look at what we think we see, and we reach past it to search out new understandings, and the truth is the moments of “discovery” or “uncovering” where we “wrestle away” what we think we know and encounter something else. For Heidegger, this is not just how science comes upon new paradigms, but upending the old, but is also the process of us re-understanding our lives and our selves, in search of the meaning of our being, as part of the search for the meaning of being itself.

Heidegger had lots of other cool insights too. He traveled from Phenomenology to Existentialism, before Sartre made it cool, and pioneered much of that trip. He developed a notion of “handiness” that he used to express many ideas reminiscent of American Pragmatism within the idioms of Germany. He has a discussion of the three levels of human consciousness that my undergrad always found genuinely helpful, and that rather revolutionized how artificial intelligence theorists approached computerized intelligence in the 90s, when they re-discovered him. Heidegger explored how “care” is central to human experience. He meditated on the role of death in our lives. He has several remarks on the formal logic of questions that I have always admired. Late Heidegger, after the war thought a lot about technology, and feared that it had subtler philosophical effects than are typically appreciated. He was one of the first in Europe to express fear of industrial agriculture, saying in 1949
“Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”

Heidegger failed in his principle philosophical project, “Being and Time” was intended to explore human-being (Dasein) and use that to shed light on the nature of capital B. Being. But it didn’t work - he could link our own beings, with time, and care and mortality, but never showed how any of this linked to capital B, Being. Heidegger failed in his personal and political life, casting shadows on every interesting insight he ever had. His writings were opaque enough that he often failed to be comprehensible at all. Yet something of his thought transcends all his failures. Some hint of yearning to search out deeper matters than most have settled with. Some insight that truth is more about discovering than it is about being right.

I’m grateful for inquiry into the deepest questions of being.
I’m grateful for the picture of truth as discovery, rather than just truth as being right.
I’m grateful for value transcending the failures of our lives.

Other notables for me for this day:
Birth of Miles Davis (musician), Jack Kevorkian (suicide activist), Stevie Nicks (musician), Sally Ride (astronaut), Matsuhiro Morimoto (chef), Bobcat Goldthwait (comedian), Lenny Kravitz (musician)

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