Glancing back at Heidegger

The response I wrote to Martin Heidegger’s reading of Antigone was originally composed some 10 years ago. It was the last reading of Heidegger I engaged in. I had learned everything I could from him. (There is always a moment, reading any writer, when one says, ‘yes, that’s it, I know this thinking now.’ If one can never say that, even about one’s favored writers, one has not learned how to read, or one has not read deeply. This does not preclude reading such writers later, as visiting friends from the past. But we move on, or we admit we somehow learned less than we thought.)

Heidegger was, to me, the last philosopher of the tradition beginning with Plato. Just as Plato was in many ways a preparation for Aristotle, so Heidegger is a last glance backward at Kant. (It should be noted that Heidegger’s early lectures on historical topics in philosophy, especially readings of Kant and Hegel, are lucid and precise, belying the common notion that he could only write obscurely.)

Kant might be considered the last philosopher to develop what might be called a “systematic philosophy,” i.e., a philosophy that effectively, taken as a whole, answered the fundamental problems of philosophy; except for one problem. His major texts are overtly and aggressively critical, attempting, not to answer questions, but to discover the limits of possible answers. There is evidence that he had hoped to develop a positive system within these limits, but he didn’t. For the next century or so, a number of philosophers pursued the vainglorious effort at constructing a systematic philosophy. Some were actually successful at writing one out – e.g., Hegel, or Spencer. Unfortunately, history has not been kind to them. It is not that one cannot learn from the systematic philosophies of the 19th Century, but as whole systems they are embarrassingly inadequate.

Other philosophers could not get even this far. Charles Sanders Pierce’s texts often appear fragmentary, incomplete. There are important changes to his thinking over the years, so that sometimes a later writing, rather than inform a previous text, actually contradicts it. One reason for this is that Pierce was trying desperately to outdo Kant and Hegel, and come up with a systematic philosophy. Unlike Hegel, however, Pierce could not turn his back on developments in the science and logic of his day. And unlike the German Idealists as a whole, he recognized that a truly systematic philosophy would have to address common daily life with all its messy empirical details. That means that his search for a system took place in a context of rapid change in the very experiences and knowledges that such a system was supposed to provide a foundation for. The effort failed.

Sein und Zeit, Being and Time, is undeniable evidence that Heidegger was also bent on developing a foundational systematic philosophy. And Being and Time also shows that Heidegger ran into the same problems as Pierce in doing so. If his language sounds overly technical and overly inflated, it is because (I suggest) he was trying to develop asystem that could effectively change over time and account for details of common experience even before they happened, by finding essential issues at their core that would always return as concerns of knowledge. Heidegger, after all, had read Pierce, and was aware of the problems that surfaced in Pierce’s failed attempts at systematization; and of course he had a ready-to-hand instant of failed systematization, the work of his teacher, Husserl. But his strategy, deploying technical language to treat simple experiences as large concepts, merely ended up providing a language that effectively obscured the problem of the changes going on in knowledge and experience, rather than getting beneath those changes. Being and Time was the last effort to produce a systematic philosophy. It also failed.

Heidegger spent some years pursuing the hope of accomplishing such a system – but history intervened. That history is well known and much debated. Beyond it, we have Heidegger after the war. My own interpretation of Heidegger’s work in the last 25 years of his life, is that he was engaged in a meditation on why it was that the philosophy he loved, was no longer of interest in the cultures developing around him, and on the question of whether it could become interesting, and even useful, again. And of course, we should bear in mind that in Germany and France, he was still treated with respect, and so, many intellectuals paid attention to the public expressions of such meditations. And there is a lot to learn from even later Heidegger, although I think that what one learns is a matter of personal perspective. The kind of metaphysics Heidegger practices even while critically questioning it, is simply unsustainable. Even if it were true, we couldn’t use it for anything anymore.

Again, that doesn’t mean that there is no further use for Heidegger.

One instance, having to do with the posted essay on Heidegger’s reading of Antigone: As I noted, one of Heidegger’s chief problems, as with Pierce, has to do with common experience, particularly the experience of the individual. It is the individual who must experience any kind of knowledge, but especially the knowledge of himself or herself, a knowledge the individual can articulate for others, yet never quite share.

My essay, Obligations of Being, in the context in which it was written, needed to be written using Heidegger’s language, and in doing so I played a number of Heideggerian language games – questioning generalizations, ambiguating signifiers, etc. But the matter is both simpler and more difficult than I let on.  So let me clarify:

“Antigone” is the name of the person as perceived by others. “Antigone-Dasein” is the person as she herself knows herself. So, “Antigone” is the one to whom the question is addressed (‘should this be done, should you bury your brother and face death doing so?’). “Antigone-Dasein” is the person who makes the decision (answering, ‘yes’), because she knows herself and cannot do otherwise.

Heidegger helped me clarify the distinction between the individual as known by others, and the individual knowing himself or herself. That was ten years ago. Now I realize that the distinction has greater importance than I thought at the time. As an individual (and as a Buddhist), I am always wrestling with the problem of a having to deal with my (in)convenient (and possibly fictitious) self as it wends its way through a world filled with other individuals who know little of me and who couldn’t care less.  And I am content with that.

But I think now that there’s another issue I’ve missed along the way. Knowledge, in the collective sense, as articulated in the sciences , social sciences, history, philosophy, etc. – is generalized; as it must be. But anyone knowing anything is an individual; and the individual, although having access to generalized knowledge, is not adequately addressed in that knowledge. And this is a problem I think worth considering.

Hopefully, this will attain greater clarity as it is more carefully considered….


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