Monday, November 13, 2017

Introduction to Martin Heidegger's Philosophy

Heidegger’s Being & Time (1927) has been considered as merely a new move in transcendental philosophy with its anthropocentric view.  Heidegger himself became increasingly unsatisfied with the role of human agency in Being and Time.  His later work shifts away from human being-in-the-world (Dasein) as a source of intelligibility of things.  He embarks on the project of thinking the history of being where humans and their modes of understanding are offshoots of a wider historical unfolding.

In understanding why being is important to Heidegger, keep in mind the difference between
being and entities. Entities are things as they exist, but what upholds the thing as thing is being? People through comportment and gathering together make manifest and make to stand how entities count and have meaning within a world. Heidegger regards the connection between the coming-into-presence of entities and the role of human practices in articulating what shows up as fundamental to understanding being.

*The event of being (that things stand forth) is made possible by the understanding of being embodied in the practices of a historical culture. Being shows itself and unfolds differently in different cultures at different times. In Western culture our beginnings—primordial experiences—predefine all subsequent ways of experiencing entities. Historically shifting ways of understanding being in our culture have been permutations of these early understandings. Physis, as emerging and abiding, is not one outlook among others but who we are as participants in Western history.

Over centuries the history of metaphysics has masked or concealed the primordial experience.  *In asking about entities and experiencing entities as what come to presence, we have overlooked what makes this presence possible—the presencing of what is present.  So, for Heidegger, being remains forgotten.  Instead of thinking being, from the beginning of Greek thought, we have focused on beingness understood as the essential property of actual existent entities. Being is considered as what is always there and what endures—that which remains through all changes (Descartes & his mallible  piece of wax, the shape changes but the wax endures). To the extent that we focus on beingness and are blind to the conditions that let anything show up, to that extent we are dominated by error and going astray.

How, then, can we begin to think being? Ereignis –event and appropriation (eigen), an event coming-into-its-own. Concealment or unconcealment is not something humans do, it is something that happens to being itself.  Concealment inevitably accompanies every emerging-into-presence.  Just as the items in a room can become visible only if the lighting that illuminates them itself remains invisible, so things can become manifest only if this manifesting itself ‘stays away’ or ‘withdraws.’ This first-order concealment is unavoidable and innocuous.  But it becomes aggravated by a second-order concealment that occurs when the original concealment itself is concealed.  That is, insofar as humans are oblivious to the fact that every disclosedness involves concealment (of being), they fall into the illusion of thinking that nothing is hidden and that everything is totally out front.  They forget being which conceals itself as it reveals entities.  For example, modern individualism conceals the social practices that make this mode of self-understanding possible.  Such cloaking of the concealment makes it seem like the current way of thinking about reality is the only game in town, that our current way of thinking about reality is self-evident and the only way.

In our age, being’s withdrawal has been aggravated by a complete abandonment of the question of being in modern technology.  We live in an age that is characterized by the thinking that “nothing is any longer essentially impossible or inaccessible.  Everything ‘can be done’ and ‘lets itself be done’ if one only has the will for it.”  We interpret entities as (fully) representable and capable of being brought forth into production. The domination of ordering is “enframing” that reduces entities, including humans, to the homogenized level of resources ready at hand (standing reserve) to be ordered and used according to maximum efficiency.  We experience reality as a world picture set before us to be challenged and controlled.  In this way of being, enframing, being withdraws.  Being as that which gives coherence, belonging and richness of possibilities is obscured from view.  This withdrawal is evident in the natural sciences that conceal the “essential fullness of nature” that is, the rich possibilities for cohering and belonging together harbored within things.  When entities are treated as interchangeable or quantifiable sums cut off from their place or “region” they become “unbeings” devoid of connectedness to context and meaning that allows them become revealed as beings.

The danger that the essence of technology brings is also its hope.  If we can see that this way of thinking blots out being, then we become aware of both the first order (necessary) concealing and the second order forgetting of being.  We can then, again, ask what is being (the guiding question) and what is the truth of being (the basic question).  As in the case of the first beginning, this new beginning will not be something humans do.  Rather, something will happen within being itself.  We will then experience ourselves as “thrown” or “projected” into the clearing that allows an unconcealing.  Truth allows humans to show up in the midst of things “Truth contains and grants that which is, grants beings in the midst of which man himself is a being, in such a way that he relates to beings.”  We experience ourselves as thrown into an open space (Da-sein or “being there”—see the movie with Peter Sellers) where our task is to act responsibly, to shepherd being, protecting and preserving the being in entities.

In “The Origin of the work of Art” Heidegger situates a great work of art as the means of crystallizing an understanding of being for a people, giving them a coherent focus and direction for their lives.  The Greek temples is one such work:

Sanding there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so makes the storm itself manifest in its violence.  The luster and gleam of the stone . . . first brings to light the light of the day. . . . Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are.

What Heidegger wants us to see in this description is the way a work of art can open a clearing in which things become accessible and intelligible (unveiled, unconcealed) and thereby bring to realization the being of entities in a world.  What was initially only incoherent, fragmentary, and unclear is allowed to stand forth [ver-stellung] as something or other in its “thing-ness.” “But men and animals, plants and things, are never [just] present and familiar as unchangeable objects, only to represent incidentally also a fitting environment for the temple, which one fine day is added to what is already there.”  Such would be a shoebox theory of the world, a container theory.  On the contrary, Heidegger offers a dynamic theory of relation determining identity.  The appearance of the temple lets things show up as having a definite articulation and so belonging in some determinate way within the totality of the world: “The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves.”  This crafting [techne] of the temple becomes an “event of being” that realizes (makes real) the world in a certain way.  The work of art becomes the “measure of all measuring,” the standard that discloses how things are for people.

For Heidegger, all truth happens through articulation and composition.  In a sense, all art is poetry and poetry (in the narrow sense) has a privileged position among the arts.  Poetry draw on the background folktales, slang, ways of saying and being of a people.  It transforms this saying into an articulation for people of their understanding of reality.  They can look to and through this articulation, this poetry, to the world.  Homer, the Psalms, the Sermon on the Mount are not just aesthetic objects.  They formulate and bring to realization what is definitive of a people’s way of life.

Heidegger—especially his work of the 1920s—is influenced by existentialism (Kierkegaard and Nietzsche).  Existentialist believe that there is no objective, detached, disinterested point of view from which to think.  All thinking is situated.  For Kierkegaard, our primary access to reality is through action.  We define ourselves not by what we think but what we do (which then influences what we think). The present action takes our past self with all its history and throws it into the future.  Identity is a temporal structure.  Kierkegaard saw a loss of values in society and considered the way to maintain one’s identity in such a culture was to make an absolute commitment.  If you can commit yourself unconditionally, then that becomes a focus for your whole sense of reality.  You’re life takes on meaning through commitments.  Heidegger sees recent undermining of commitment in society due not to a failure of individuals but because there is nothing in the modern world to solicit commitment from us and sustain us in it.  The things that used to evoke commitment—gods, heroes, statesmen, thinkers—have lost their authority.  To make this more complicated, Heidegger rejects Nietzsche’s idea that we once had values but do not have them now and that we should regain values or choose new ones.  The essence of value for Heidegger is something that is completely independent of us.  He cites Plato who claims that the good shines on us and draws us to it.  During the Enlightenment we arrive at a notion of values that are objective, passive objects that we must choose between.  These values have no claim on us till we decide which ones to adopt.  With Nietzsche, if we can choose values, we can also un-choose them or make new ones.  For Heidegger this is a problem since as long as we think in terms of value positing rather than being gripped by shared concerns, we will not find anything that elicits our commitment.

According to Heidegger the trouble begins with Socrates’ and Plato’s claim that true moral knowledge, like scientific knowledge, is disinterested.  Heidegger questions this possibility and desirability of making everyday understanding totally explicit (objective & disinterested).  He introduces the idea that the shared everyday skills, concerns, and practices into which we are socialized provide the conditions necessary for people to make sense of the world and their lives.  Our general know-how (“readiness-to-hand”) is the social tools for understanding the world. Dreyfus’s uses a Styrofoam cup and a Japanese tea cup as an example of cultural know-how.  Each arises out of a different cultural milieu, a different comportment and a different way of presenting being.  The Styrofoam cup arises out of a challenging forth (our comportment) and an enframing (our way of presenting being).  In contrast, great works of art such as the Greek temple, show a different society’s means of being-in-the-world.  This art work stood as an action and construction of values.  It stood for and was a part of an Athenian’s values.  The Greeks whose practices were manifested and focused by the temple lived in a moral space of gods, heroes, and slaves, a moral space that gave direction and meaning to their lives.  As an exemplar, the work of art is beyond any rational system of articulating values.  It is too deeply woven into the way we live to be full articulated.  (If a rational system were possible, the exemplar would not be necessary.) Further, the work of art is situated between world (culture) and the earth (nature) from which the materials for art come.  The material side of the work of art, like the earth itself, resists rationalization.  The work of art clarifies and unifies practices but being a concrete thing it resists rationalization. Between earth and (human) world, the work of art helps us stand in the clearing, yet as the work participates in the earth, we realize that what is unconcealed in the clearing is not the whole picture, the full disclosure of being.  Since no interpretation can ever completely capture what the work means, the work of art sets up a struggle between earth and world.  This struggle is a necessary aspect of the way meaning inheres in human practices.  It is a fruitful struggle in that the conflict of interpretations it sets up generates a culture’s history.  Technology’s enframing demands full disclosure and accounting of entities as standing reserve.  In doing so, it forgets the guiding question of being. The challenge, then, is to find marginal practices and works of art that allow are common meanings for us.  Something we can all participate in and look to as focusing and manifesting a moral space, how to live and die, what matters, etc.

See also: Heidegger: Building Dwelling Thinking


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