Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Reading Heidegger

My relationship to Heidegger is always rough. When you read him, it is hard to come away unscathed. Your thoughts take on his troubles as if someone had scratched you with mental sandpaper and once you wipe away the dust, you find a lingering smoothness you don't want to admit is there. I have never had this experience with any "analytic philosopher" before though perhaps there is an admitted love of Bernard Williams, W.D. Ross and Martha Nussbaum I find comforting. It is definitely not the same.

In a alluring passage, Heidegger illuminates what he thinks the "ultimate business of philosophy is," or at least one of its many features.
Nevertheless, the ultimate business of philosophy is to preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself, and to keep common understanding from leveling them off to that unintelligibility which functions in turn as a source of pseudo-problems (section 44 in BT).
I love that phrase preserving "the force of the most elemental words" through which undergo life. We live through life in its depth and mystery. In this way, Heidegger has always had a poetic bent to a phenomenological orientation to human life. Moreover, this is also suggestive as to why Heidegger finds all art poetic, and why I find his works preserving this elemental force and restoring wonder to philosophy from my brief excursion into analytic philosophy. Some insights escape us if we do not hold fast to how we undergo and experience them firsthand, and some structures of experience cannot be encapsulated by previous philosophical frameworks. Therefore, a new vocabulary that attends to the phenomenological mystery must be brought to the fore while at the same time not creating an "uninhibited word mysticism" in Heidegger's own words.

Preservation of elemental force in Western philosophy reveals one of the many currents operating in Being and Time. In BT, Heidegger is worried about how we relate and actualize the past into the present while simultaneously acknowledging the limits of human finitude. Central to his concern is the possibility of philosophizing itself, and even though Heidegger is suspicious of elements from that past as forming likely possibilities for the future of philosophy, he is deeply aware of the imposed limits of philosophy. It is no surprise that the above passage occurs in the section on truth. For him, "truth" is a time-honored concept and though it has been distorted by the past, it is still one of the most elemental words in philosophy. However, at the end of that section, Heidegger re-infuses the word with an almost poetic quality that many might not tolerate.

On the flip side, Heidegger intimates the sense to which some philosophical terminology can obfuscate the dimension of lived-experience by simply imposing a technical jargon on a series of problems. One could argue this is what actually was going on in ordinary language philosophy where, for instance, the analysis of the concept good could illuminate an entire system of ethics for Moore. Now, perhaps, that's not entirely fair. Moore had inherited the problem of value as how value-predicates functioned in moral propositions. Even so, one could sympathize with Heidegger about a clever and often called analytic proclivity to merely think about "philosophical problems." I have never trusted that there are cottage industry of philosophical problems on their own. However, I do think that there are problems enmeshed in a history of thinking that constantly repeat and challenge thinking. It is simply not possible to get at the problem on its own -- as if one is distilling the essence of it -- without also thinking how such historical elements are appropriated by those thinking through them.

So, if you are reading philosophers and your soul is not enlivened, if the text stays dry and dull in your hands, then either you or the text is doing something wrong. Maybe a little bit of both?...Philosophy cannot survive if the wonder of its engagement is not conveyed in the reading of it and its elemental force is lost.

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