Thursday, June 11, 2009

Heidegger: Introduction to Metaphysics

(Yale University Press, 2000)

In any book or lecture by Heidegger, it usually appears as though he not only discusses issues in a way that’s unnecessarily difficult; sometimes you’d almost swear that he’s doing it on purpose. There are plenty of people (including philosophers) who would say that this is the case. The reasons they give are often not very kind; the reason Heidegger does what he does, it is said, is because he has nothing to say. Heidegger is obscure for the same reason that Hegel, Sartre, and the lot of them are obscure: because what they’re talking about has no standard, no sense of form or consistency, and so it’s just a lot of talking without anything being said. Who, after all, can figure out what they’re actually saying?

At the current time, I think it strange that philosophers, anyway, might feel this way about Heidegger. By comparison, in the case of Nietzsche, while he was mocked or rejected for some time, the direction in his philosophy and his importance have come to be by and large acknowledged by the philosophical establishment, including by those who disagree with him utterly. It is true that there are those who dismiss Nietzsche off-handedly, but the perception of those people is generally that it is they, and not Nietzsche, who are acting foolish. With Heidegger things have not advanced up to this point. Heidegger’s influence during and after his life to the present has been huge, yet one can still simply ignore or dismiss him, and it is acceptable. The argument given in a case like this is the “common knowledge” argument: it’s Heidegger, so apparently it’s okay to dismiss him, not just as having bad arguments, but as being a bad philosopher. He makes no sense, it would be best if we left him behind.

To go back to Nietzsche for a moment, if one had asked him what he thought about people at large rejecting him . . . well, we already know the answer, since it happened in his lifetime (at its most intense, for that matter). Nietzsche decided to stand on his own, despite what others said, and perhaps in part because of that he’s had a life extending far beyond his lived one. One is tempted to wonder how Heidegger would answer the same question, and how we should take his answer. In fact, he was aware of the question of the relevance of his philosophy, and was so by 1935, when he gave the lectures that comprised Introduction to Metaphysics. At the point I’m referring to, he’s in the middle of a hundred-plus page interpretation of Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, and he’s doing the usual thing. Nowhere will you find an interpretation (or a translation of Greek, for that matter) that matches up to what Heidegger says. Is he aware of this? He is. In something of an aside, he says:

From the point of view of the customary and dominant definitions . . . our interpretation of the saying must appear as a willful interpretation, as one that reads into the saying what an ‘exact exegesis’ can never ascertain. That is correct. According to the usual opinion of today, what we have said is in fact just a result of that violent character and one-sidedness, which has already become proverbial, of the Heideggerian mode of interpretation. (Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics 187)

He is certainly aware, and early on, of the general opinion of his work (and this is some time before Rudolph Carnap singles him out for attack in The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language). Amongst the students of his lectures, as well, he saw frequent misunderstanding, as he refers to in this work (which itself was a lecture course). One then feels compelled to ask: couldn’t Heidegger try a bit harder to make himself understood? Did he really feel the need to be so difficult.

The answer is yes, he did. In fact, Heidegger felt that philosophy must precisely not be something refined and clear-cut, straightforward and easy to put together. It must always be new and difficult, for “whenever a philosophy becomes fashion, either there is no actual philosophy or else philosophy is misinterpreted and, according to some intentions alien to it, misused for the needs of the day.” (9) Easy philosophy is not philosophy at all.

Why is this? The answer one might want to call out is, “To protect the jobs of the philosophers,” for of course philosophy would serve no purpose if everybody saw their bullshit for what it was. Philosophy does not produce anything, it does not give us a knowledge which improves the material conditions of life, and as a pastime it’s a whole lot of effort for no tangible payoff outside of smugness. This view is not lost on Heidegger, and in fact he thinks it technically correct. “It is entirely correct and completely in order to say, ‘You can’t do anything with philosophy . . . .’” (13) So why bother? He continues: “The only mistake is to believe that with this, the judgment concerning philosophy is at an end. For a little epilogue arises in the form of a counterquestion: even if we can’t do anything with it, may not philosophy in the end do something with us, provided that we engage ourselves with it?”

Heidegger’s response to the question of the point of philosophy is not simply a matter of justification. His claim comes from a view of history, of human nature, and from Heidegger’s understanding of Being itself. For Heidegger, our answer to the fundamental question of metaphysics, “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” is not the speculation of an idle mind. It is human destiny. To say “It is human destiny” is not to make out some grand human destiny in the cosmos; to say that the understanding of Being is human destiny is to say that our understanding of Being is what decides our understanding of and relationship to the world. Our metaphysics is the ground of our physics, our ethics, and our world itself. But to see this why this is, and to see why the question of metaphysics must necessarily be a difficult one according to Heidegger, we must first know something about Being.

When he wants to make a statement about something, for example, Being, Heidegger can be very straightforward if he feels so inclined. “Being means: to appear in emerging, to step forth out of concealment . . . .” (121) is one of many formulations of the definition of what Being is. Specifically, says Heidegger, Being as emergence/unconcealment is the ancient Greek definition of Being, one which we have taken over and transmuted into simple “presence.” If, as Heidegger says, “this conception, though entirely flattened out and rendered unrecognizable, is the conception that still rules even today in the West – not only in the doctrines of philosophy but in the most everyday routines,” (62) then we must understand our own understanding of Being as, in a word, emergence and unconcealment. That is, a being is such in the act of revealing itself; it emerges; it step forth; it is the unity of the “it” that appears in conflict (that is, distinction and separating the self) from the total. The Being of a being is its emergence.

Yet athough Heidegger offers such definitions in various ways throughout the course of any of his works, he never begins with such a definition nor goes straight to it through argument or inference. Instead he develops interpretations and reevealuations. He takes simple concepts and, before even explaining what they are, goes to great lengths to make them complicated. The reason he does this (for it is certainly intentional) is actually implicit in his definition of Being, properly understood. Being is emergence; that is, a being appears when it reveals itself, when it comes to the fore of our apprehension and, in a manner of speaking, announces its presence (the tie between Being as emergence and Being as presence can be seen here). I can state this in so many words. So can Heidegger. But, given what is to be understood in the very definition of Being given, it absolutely must be understood that Being itself, nor the Being of any being, can never be given by a definition. To understand something by its definition is basically to understand it by the structure of the sentence, which is to say, by the relationship of subject and predicate. ‘Being is . . .’ emergence. The thing, Being, has this trait, emergence. Thus we have a thing that has this act imputed to it. But is Being a thing? It cannot be, for then it would be a being, and Being is what makes beings beings. Rather, Being is emergence itself, the emerging of a being. The problem here is that Being and emergence are not in a relationship of subject and predicate. We can answer questions about Being with definitions, but they don’t actually give the sense of emergence that Heidegger is seeking. We want emergence itself. When something emerges, what does it do? It arises from depths unseen. From an abyss, an object suddenly surfaces. The space around it has to deal with this new thing, which establishes its own rules. The world, in a sense, shifts. Being is the raw experience of an event, one where something is revealed, taken out of concealment and non-presence and revealed as a being – not through definition, not by deduction, but by emergence. This event cannot possibly be given in a definition; “[T]he best professional ability will never replace the authentic strength of seeing and questioning and saying.” (22) Being is only experienced, for the same reason that one can only understand the definition of emergence when one forms in one’s mind the image of something emerging, such as the submarine from water, arising from the depths unseen, and for the same reason that the definitions of “running,” “seeing,” and “eating,” are all empty before one is aware of a runner, a seer, an eater. Being is not a thing to be defined; it happens.

So if Being is emergence (and unconcealment), then it is still legitimate and necessary to ask in greater detail what exactly emergence (and unconcealment) is. My room is full of beings; the door, the desk, the chair. When I look around, according to Heidegger, I see them emerge. I guess they do so, in some sense. When I walk into the room, beings are automatically and without my guidance unconcealed from the chaos of raw existence. But it would have to be an awfully weak conception of emergence if one was to say with truth that my chair “emerges” when I look at what I am sitting on. It certainly doesn’t arise from the depths; at most it floats in a still pond. Heidegger is aware of this, and calls it the fallen sense of Being. Specifically, the causal, uninterested view of objects as just being there, as “constant presence” (216), is Being set into stone and placed in an equally stone world. It is Being when the phenomena that actually constitute Being are ignored, and only “the fact” remains, the fact being the presence of some being. For Heidegger, the problem isn’t that Beings don’t exist in this way: “[T]he subsistence of the building does not depend on this scent [of its Being] that is hovering around somewhere.” (36) The problem, which simply must to be understood in order to understand Heidegger, is that the idea of Being as mere presence, as static, fails to give Being’s fundamental nature as emergence; the emergence, the revelation of Being disappears, and only as this phenomena of emergence, as this actual, flesh-and-blood phenomena, can one know Being.

This state of affairs has consequences. For example: writing books, even difficult ones, is alone insufficient to reveal Being. One cannot offer definitions and deductions that get at Being, because through direct words one is only given a concept, an objectified relation between things in presence. Relations, concepts, and actions are the same: they are given as impersonal events that happen to things, and nothing more. Being is understood in all these cases, but left stilted. Thus the fallacy of the definition gives a building, for example, as a structure with walls and a floor, not as that building, the structure that was built at the height of city expansion and shows signs of lost grandeur, the building that has seen thousands of tenants and one bombing, that has seen the feet of the famous and the bottom of the barrel. One can say that it has seen those things, but of course, that is not the same as having the Being felt first-hand. And Being lies in the latter, not the former. A being’s Being is not its objective, static characteristics, according to Heidegger. It is what is revealed to us in unconcealing emergence:

It is simply a matter of not being seduced by overhasty theories, but instead experiencing things as they are in whatever may be nearest. This piece of chalk here is an extended, relatively stable, definitely formed, grayish-white thing, and, furthermore, a thing for writing . . . . The possibility of being drawn along the blackboard and being used up is not something that we merely add onto the thing with our thought. The chalk itself, as this being, is in this possibility; otherwise it would not be chalk as a writing implement. (32)

If Heidegger wants to give the reader or the listener a genuine understanding of Being, and not a stale scholastic understanding, it would be pointless to give a definition, delineate its characteristics, and give an argument for that definition. To be sure, he actually does that. He defines Being several times, discusses its characteristics and history, and gives reasons that other definitions of Being fail. But that is not all he does. In fact, in his lectures and writings Heidegger has two goals: to delineate what Being is, and, in order to do that properly, to engender the sense for Being within those to whom he speaks. This second mission requires a different sense of education; as he says twenty years later, “what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.” (Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? 15) In simple lectures and books, nothing but facts are transmitted. The name Heidegger gives to this phenomenon, where “how things stand” is given in terms of words that are supposed to link up with a totality of facts, with the world being nothing but the totality of all totalities, the fact of all facts, is idle talk. Idle talk, which Heidegger discusses at length in Being and Time, is a threat to philosophy not because it is impractical (it is eminently practical, of that one can be sure), but because it is static, definite, dull, un-emergent and un-unconcealing. It is the mind as machine, as cog, and thus torn from its humanity as a revealer of beings. Thence emerges Heidegger’s critique of modern society and instrumental thought, which we will not go into here.

Heidegger wants to re-introduce Being as emergence to the world. Is there really anything he can do to bring this about, if we assume that Being is something only experienced? Absolutely. If Being is emergence, then, no matter how far we drift from Being, it is simply impossible that we can lose it altogether, or never have it in the first place. Emergence is the field in which beings first arise in their Being; we simply cannot have beings without Being. Emergence, Being, is not only present, but necessarily at the fore in any act whereby something presents itself to us anew, be it a new being or an old one. The problem is that Being as emergence is stifled in favor of Being as presence; the phenomena, the revelatory manner of Being is ignored in favor of demonstrations or propositions. The new is understood in terms of the old; nothing is given as emergence, but rather everything is explained in terms of causes and impersonal events. The wonder at the world is killed off, basically, and the question of Being ignored. To return to Being as emergence, we must return to where Being emerges in its strongest form, which happens in two cases: (1) When something emerges for the first time, and (2) when something previously “known” emerges as something new. In reality the second is the first; the re-emergence of something in a new light is the emergence of something new. In both cases emergence shatters our old world with the power of its presence. This type of emergence, that which reaches into Being in its greatest conflict and openness, is appropriately called originary. An originary interpretation of a being brings it forth anew and as it emerges, not as a given, not as the definition in idle talk, but in its self-revelatory emergence into unconcealment, and therefore in its Being. Only an originary thinking has the power to break our inauthentic, pre-established world for the sake of genuine emergence, one which is our own and thus not limited to the words which are given to us by a stale history. Thus, for example, “The misinterpretation of thinking and the misuse of misinterpreted thinking can be overcome only by a genuine and originary thinking, and by nothing else.” (Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics 129) When we live in a world where all the questions of metaphysics are, if not answered, placed in a framework that already determines the form of the answer, where the explicit goal is to establish the law of the universe and thus render everything simple and therefore impotent, the only way to reestablish the sense of Being is through a questioning that breaks into new territory. When we call something into question, we look closely at it. We ask what it really is, what is revealed as being the thing itself. From a vague and impersonal Being, questioning drags forth a strong sense of emergent Being, of what is actually before ourselves. Therefore we must avoid “the crippling of all passion for questioning, a crippling that has already held us back too long.” (152) The silencing of questioning is not only a tyranny over the mind; it suppresses emergence, and thus a genuine understanding of Being. “This question has today been forgotten.” (Heidegger, Being and Time 3) The only way to respond is to reopen the questioning. One must recall Being, and must do so in a questioning way.

Why does Heidegger make understanding his work so difficult? Because only by forcing us to wretch our minds, by making us step away from what are given uncritically as already finished and see it in its essential being-ness, its emergence. We cannot just say that Being is emergence; Being must emerge. Thus, in Being and Time, “Our aim in the following treatise is to work out the question of the meaning of Being and to do so correctly.” (1) Yet it is not a question we will ever answer, for recall: “[W]henever a philosophy becomes fashion, either there is no actual philosophy or else philosophy is misinterpreted and, according to some intentions alien to it, misused for the needs of the day.” No, our goal is to ask the question, for only with the question and the search will Being emerge.

2 Comments:

Blogger aimcinto said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 14, 2012 at 8:06 PM  
Blogger aimcinto said...

Bravo! Your little succinct commentary made ItM much more flavorful and understandable. Thank you.

August 14, 2012 at 8:07 PM  

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