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Heidegger's Place?

In light of Martin Heidegger's enrollment in Nazism during the early days of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and his failure to recant or explain himself (though he did resign his position under the Nazis and go into semi-retirement after a year), and in light of evidence of his complicity with Nazi anti-Semitism in those first days when he was a spokesman for National Socialism in the German academy) . . . and, given the opacity of his thinking itself . . . why does he continue to be an object of philosophical interest for so many in philosophy today? Hasn't his engagement with Nazism fatally undermined his credibility, even if one can make sense of his thinking?

Heidegger took philosophy away from the subject-object distinction that has engaged it in the West since Descartes, arguing that there is no real separation between us and the things of our world because the world is neither constituted by subjects in a world of objects (dualism which conceives subjects and objects as distinctly separate modes of being or substances) nor is it just subjects holding ideas of objects in their minds (idealism), nor merely physical stuff which has the power in some configurations to masquerade as the mental (materialism). Instead he rejects these categories in favor of refocusing our attention on what it means to stand and operate in a world as aspects of it characterized by awareness.

For Heidegger the world is a kind of continuum and human beings, as subjects, are inextricably in it, immersed in the world because this is our mode of being. Like everything else we are part of the continuous flux of existence but what distinguishes human beings (and any other creatures, should there be any, with capacities comparable to our own) from other existents is that we can know ourselves in the flow while other entities and creatures, lacking our capacity (awareness attaining to self-reflection), are merely part of the flow without knowing it. Heidegger's philosophy was devoted to recognizing this reality about our own existence and aimed at reinterpreting the world in these terms.

This interest in the capacity to recognize our own self-hood(which other creatures and entities seem to lack) led him to articulate a philosophy which became a cornerstone of modern Existentialism, an approach which finds its subject matter in the self's effort to come to terms with its existential condition, i.e., being finite (living with the knowledge of its own end). Heidegger, a student of the German phenomenologist (and idealist) Edmund Husserl, became the "father" of existentialist thinkers like Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers, Hans Jonas, Emanuel Levinas and others. He sought to enunciate a program through which the self can affirm its own existence by coming to terms with its own nature and condition (its limitation and its finitude), rather than hiding from these behind a facade of artificial constructions characterized by denial and pretense. He emphasized the need to live authentically, that is, to embrace one's condition (being immersed in a world not of our own making). Put another way, living in the condition of "thrownness" (being, as he put it, thrown into a world we did not make nor can we change in terms of its most fundamental nature). Thus, he argued, we must find ways to be ourselves in the truest possible sense of our own selfhood. We must, that is, embrace the world as we find it, doing so by acting in ways that are most consistent with our underlying condition (i.e., of being thrown into the world without our say-so).

It's hard to escape the sense that this philosophy was basically an appeal to the concerns of the individual's own psychological condition, namely to the choices and actions one can make which can affect our states of mind, rather than being about knowing the world in a broad, even objective, way. But there is another question to be asked about this, namely what is philosophical about this concern, at least in the sense of the Western philosophical tradition? One can argue that "philosophy" is a term with many different uses ("there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies" Hamlet tells his friend in an edifying moment). But in the sense in which philosophy is a systematic discipline of inquiry in our Western sense, is it fair to lump this Heideggerian concern for the way we think about, and so see ourselves in, our world with the philosophical condition begun by the ancient Greeks in their drive to understand their world, the approach to inquiry that has characterized the rise of modern philosophy as well?

That we can lose ourselves in what we do and, if we lose ourselves in the wrong things, namely the empty distractions which cause us to forget our fundamental human condition which Heidegger decries (that we are at every moment in a world of myriad things and possibilities) has very real psychological implications. But is it philosophy?

How is it that and not just a matter of psychology, resolvable by changing our attitudes about the things we do or are inclined to do? Aren't these kinds of answers to be found in the counseling of professional psychologists and therapists rather than through philosophical inquiry? Or perhaps through the fundamental reorientation of our lives via religious conversion? Or in the rise of National Socialism in Germany to which Heidegger famously succumbed in his effort to find an authenticity in his life through the melding of his and his fellow Germans' individual existence with that of a greater community or cause? The philosophical dimension of Heidegger's approach here seems hard to pin down but it doesn't seem on a par with the mainstream in the Western philosophical tradition.

How, we must ask, does an approach like Heidegger's make our understanding of the knowledge we possess about the world and which we rely on to get around in it (the usual focus of the philosophical project) clearer?

Thinkers like Robert Brandom argue that Heidegger shows us something important, namely the significance of the practical in our lives (i.e., that doing is more important than knowing) and, in this, Brandom argues Heidegger stood in a long line that commences with Kant, proceeds through Hegel and on to the American Pragmatists and thence to thinkers like Wittgenstein and to Heidegger, himself. Well, in favor of that line of connection, we can certainly recognize that Wittgenstein did throw over his early infatuation with, and commitment, to developing an ideal language (a formalized language purged of everyday ambiguities to render it more suitable for the work of the sciences) a la Frege and Russell, in favor of a recognition that language itself is practice, is doing, and can only be fully understood and effectively utilized in our lives when we realize this. Wittgenstein picked up and elaborated the pragmatic elements of earlier thinkers going back, as Brandom argues, to Kant himself. And Wittgenstein's insights about the role of language and its ramifications for thought do capture this pragmatic dimension, having important implications for other thinkers around him and after him.

But where is the comparable gain from Heidegger's obscurantist references to Being and Being-in-the-World and to "thrownness," to the psychological phenomena, that is, of how we see ourselves in our world? While Wittgenstein's work had very important implications for other fields and thinkers attacking other problems (particularly in terms of the social sciences) what was Heidegger's real long term impact except to leave a legacy of hard to fathom and even harder to explicate ruminations on the nature of man in his world, ruminations whose only mark seems to have been in the way others picked up and elaborated the theme within a fairly narrow pathway of European philosophy?

Perhaps this says more about philosophy and what it is than about Heidegger and his place within the larger field though. His writing strikes some (certainly me) as hopelessly obscurantist, characterized by a made-up vocabulary verging on incomprehensibility, at least when translated into English. What seems to come through in his work is exclusively this obsessive concern with how human beings see, or ought to see themselves -- psychology again, a question of self-image! It's more like religion, isn't it, if not psychology, and hardly seems to be philosophy in the tradition that has developed in the Anglo-American philosophical domain at all, where the concern is to grasp HOW we know things and WHAT is knowable and HOW our capacities for knowing anything distinguish us as creatures in the world.

Anglo-American philosophical writers want to explore things like what kind of a world this is and how we fit into it vis a vis its other denizens. They want to know what WE CAN KNOW and what sorts of things we can have knowledge about. Epistemology, in other words, the core concern in the Anglo-American tradition. But philosophy has not always been about epistemology, of course, and for Heidegger and for much of the thinking that falls under the rubric of "continental" (or, better, European) philosophy, that is not the issue at all, or at least such questions are seen to be peripheral to other more pressing concerns. The European or Continental philosopher want's to talk about human beings and their status in the world. He or she (the term "Continental" is a bit misleading here since many in the analytic tradition, which has become associated with Anglo-American philosophy, hailed from Europe, too) is interested less in the realm of our knowledge about knowledge itself (that is, understanding the different forms and possibilities of what can be known) and more about how we as individuals see ourselves in the world (and thus how we comport ourselves within it).

In an important sense this European perspective is more about understanding as such rather than about knowledge because its focus is to understand our place in the world.

In a sense, of course, UNDERSTANDING IS always the real bottom line for both traditions since the point of knowledge is to understand in the end, isn't it? But where philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition want to understand WHAT UNDERSTANDING ITSELF IS, i.e., what makes our knowledge of the world possible and what forms it can take, philosophers in the European tradition want to understand not the objects of understanding better or the nature of what it means to understand but, rather, the UNDERSTANDER him or herself, i.e., the one who seeks and can achieve understanding. it is THAT project that leads away from the epistemological concerns which define the Anglo-American philosophical perspective (what can we know and how can we know it?) to the socio-personal issues that interest the Existentialists, Structuralists and De-Constructionists of modern Europe, i.e., what is man's place in the world, in society, in existence itself, and how can each of us best find our way around within those domains?

The core focus of the Continentals turns out to be ethical in an important sense, even if they do not make a fetish of exploring and categorizing ethical concerns as a distinct domain of philosophical inquiry as Anglo-American Analytic practitioners do. For the latter, ethics is a domain within the broader discipline of philosophical inquiry while for the former, ethics and philosophy are one and the concern for ethics absorbs and subsumes everything else. Ethics is about selves and living in the world and so, it turns out, is the philosophy of people like Heidegger -- even if to many of us Heidegger seems to have gone astray with his Nazi affiliations. But then who is to say that ethics, understood as the effort to find the best way for human beings to live, will always succeed?

Then again, perhaps the reason Heidegger seems remote to some in the Anglo-American tradition, while remaining a star in other quadrants of the philosophical firmament, is that he makes ethical issues central while the Analytic tradition sees them as merely part of a broader field of inquiry?

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