– 20th Century AD –
Having touched on the prehistory of the birth of Western philosophy, let’s jump forward 25 centuries to its recent flirtation with death. We’re going to discuss a supposed modern classic and argue that it doesn’t deserve the name.
Classics are worth reading because they’ve been tested by time. So when people ask me for my top 10 or 20 classics to read, the most recent writer I’ll mention is Darwin, because each entry on my list post-1871 may be a passing fad.
Still, it’s worth having a provisional list of greatest books right up to the present. If you look at lists of classics you’ll see they agree on most ancient works and then wildly diverge when it comes to the last 150 years. Over time these lists will compete. Lists that lead down blind alleys will lead to frustration and neglect. Lists that have a better influence on people are more likely to be suggested to the next generation. This is Darwinian selection at work.
For my own top-66 list see A List of Classics. I plan to discuss many of these works on this blog. But I also plan to discuss certain works that are not on my list, but are on most other lists. Some of these works I’d like to torpedo, to blast out of the canon.
First among these is Heidegger’s 1927 Being and Time. Though it was never finished (only the first half of his planned work was published) it sits at the top of several lists of the greatest philosophical works of the 20th century, including those of Allan Bloom (Closing of the American Mind) and Mortimer Adler (of “Great Books” fame). Bloom calls the study of the problems raised by Heidegger “the one thing most needful.”
There is no denying Being and Time is a work of brilliance. But I will argue it is brilliance put to evil use. It is a work of genius that seduces genius into wayward speculations on challenging but ultimately irrelevant questions.
In order to judge good philosophy from bad we must understand the purpose of philosophy. As commonly understood, part of what philosophy does is to contemplate the purpose of life in general. So it would seem we are led in a strange kind of circle, asking why we are asking why.
But this popular notion of philosophy is a result of modern forgetfulness. It has lost the point. Originally, the purpose of philosophy was to gain wisdom. Wisdom is not staring into space contemplating obscure, irrelevant questions. Wisdom is knowledge about how to live life well.
Originally, philosophy was about virtue. Read any dialogue of Plato and you will find a Socrates who cares about nothing else. What is courage? What is temperance? What is piety? Sure, he never finds a fully satisfactory answer to these questions. But many useful answers are found, many delusions dispelled, many hypocrisies exposed. This is why Plato has done so many people so much good for over 2000 years. If Plato were nothing but aimless speculation, without relevance to virtuous living, he would have been forgotten along with the hundreds of other ancient philosophers who went astray.
To lose oneself in speculation has always been a danger in philosophy. Long before Heidegger, the ancients argued endlessly about the nature of “being” or “existence.” In his dialogue the Sophist, Plato ironically called it the “battle of giants concerning being.” Xenophase, Parmenides, Xeno, Thales, and dozens of other famous Greek philosophers had already discussed the question over the centuries, without any basic agreement being reached. Was all being matter? If so, was it fundamentally earth, air, fire, water, atoms, or something else? If it was not matter, then what was it? How could you account for the existence of Mind, or Beauty, or Truth if they were not made from matter?
By Plato’s time, such questions were already being ridiculed as “sophistry.” The term “sophist” came from the word “sophos,” wisdom, and meant someone who claimed to teach wisdom and charged money for it. Plato’s mentor Socrates could generally avoid the label because he did not ask for money. He was merely a “philosopher” or “lover of wisdom.”
Plato’s Sophist, in fact, argued that the question of being had been used as a kind of smokescreen to hide the sophists’ lack of knowledge. By discussing such obscure questions as “the meaning of being”, the sophists impressed the masses with their profundity and wooed many rich disciples.
For example, Parmenides had taught the doctrine that “Not-being cannot even be thought.” His reasoning was that no thought could both be and not-be at the same time. Ingenious! mocked Plato. Now you sophists can pretend to know what you don’t, and if anyone accuses you of saying what isn’t you can simply argue that “what isn’t” can’t even be thought!
To argue with such slippery opponents, Plato is forced to delve into a dry and trivial analysis of the terms “being” and “not-being.” Essentially, he argues that something can both “be” and “not be” in manifold senses. So, for example, a thought can “be” as a thought and “not-be” as a true image of reality, even if it might seem a contradiction. A simple observation, but fatal to many of the worst kinds of sophistry of his day. In Plato’s words,
He who is skeptical of this contradiction, must think how he can find something better to say; or if he sees a puzzle, and his pleasure is to drag words this way and that, the argument will prove to him, that he is not making a worthy use of his faculties; for there is no charm in such puzzles, and there is no difficulty in detecting them …
But ah, the 20th century has seen Plato forgotten … and the Sophist return, wilier in his puzzles than ever.
Heidegger’s epigram to Being and Time is, intriguingly, a quote from Plato’s Sophist:
For it is clear that you have known what you mean by ‘being’ all along, whereas we formerly thought we knew, but are now perplexed.
In context, this passage is spoken by Plato’s mouthpiece, the “Stranger,” who is having a mock dialogue with the sophists, merely pointing out that they are being inconsistent and needlessly confusing about the term “being.”
But Heidegger ignores the context of his epigram completely, taking it in the opposite direction from what Plato intended:
Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’? Not at all.
And Heidegger proceeds to present an entire book on the question—Being and Time itself—seemingly oblivious to Plato’s dismissal of “such puzzles” worthy of a “new-born babe.” (Sophist, 259)
Where Plato seeks to diminish our awe at this question, and make us immune to the sophist’s mystique, Heidegger readily admits that his goal is not to explain or define being in any useful way, but to rekindle the mystery of being:
But are we nowadays even perplexed at our inability to understand the expression ‘being’? Not at all. So first of all we must reawaken an understanding for the meaning of the question. Or aim in the following treatise is to work out the question of the meaning of being …
But why? What relevance does the question of being have to the good life? You will search in vain for an answer from Heidegger. In answer to the objection that we already know the concept of being well-enough, he says,
The fact that we live already in an understanding of being and that the meaning of being is at the same time shrouded in darkness proves the fundamental necessity of repeating the question of the meaning of ‘being.’
Proves how? Why “being” and not “space” or “reason” or “mind” or “nothingness” or “matter” or “number” or “unity” or any of the other countless fundamental notions in life? All of these things are both familiar and—if you really think about them—obscure. Heidegger gives no reason whatever to think that a questioning of being would be fruitful to how we live our lives, nor why we shouldn’t also spend our lives questioning every other commonplace mystery.
And this is precisely where Heidegger has led much of 20th century philosophy astray. Philosophy’s primary task is to contemplate what it means to live a virtuous life. When philosophy becomes puzzle-seeking for its own sake, you get sophistry—the teaching of obscure doctrines, fake wisdom, for fame and profit.
In his Metaphysics, Aristotle called the study of being the most noble science. This attitude, I suspect, was a pose taken out of respect for the long tradition of debating being in Greek philosophy. Aristotle’s treatment of being is dry, precise, and—to his own mind—decisive. It stands in stark contrast to Heidegger’s treatment, often described as more poetic than scientific.
Many will object, in fact, that we are being unfair to Heidegger if we judge Being and Time as an analysis like Aristotle’s. Actually, they will argue, it should be read as a kind of poetry, or meditation. Couldn’t it be that Heidegger is seeking an aesthetic ground for thinking, that his work should not be judged as a pretentious, possibly sophistic, claim to deep wisdom, but rather as a humble contemplation of the mysteries of existence? Couldn’t there be a kind of virtue to be learned here, a kind of intellectual mildness and modesty? What, indeed, could be pretentious about a book that was never even finished, whose only purpose is to rekindle the mere question of being?
Poetry must be judged as poetry. And as poetry, Heidegger’s work falls short.
Heidegger does, in many interesting ways, play with words and phraseology and syntax. Translating him into English is notoriously difficult, and he himself was skeptical that it was even possible.
A look at some of his section headings will show what I mean. My favorite ones are from Sections IV. and V. from “Division One” of the Stambaugh translation:
IV. Being-in-the-World as Being-with and Being a Self: The “They”
25. The Approach to the Existential Question of the Who of Da-sein [there-being/existence]
26. The Mitda-sein[withthere-being] of the Others and Everday Being-with
27. Everyday Being One’s Self and the They
V. Being-in as Such
28. The Task of a Thematic Analysis of Being-in
A. The Existential Constitution of the
29. Da-sein as Attunement
30. Fear as a Mode of Attunement
31. Da-sein as Understanding
32. Understanding and Interpretation
33. Statement as a Derivative Mode of Interpretation
34. Da-sein and Discourse: Language
B. The Everyday Being of the There and the Falling Prey of Da-sein
35. Idle Talk
38. Falling Prey and Throwness
“Idle Talk”? “Curiosity”? “Ambiguity?” Already we’re getting an idea of the extreme tepidness of the waters he’d like us to swim.
To really see what is lacking in Heidegger as a poet, let’s try and give an overview of Heidegger’s development of the question of being. He begins section one by immediately narrowing the account to human beings: “The being whose analysis our task is, is always we ourselves.” (This already stands in contrast with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which considers all being, whether animate or inanimate.) Heidegger’s book, then, is about humans being humans, and the question of what that means. And as the book proceeds, we see that it is more specifically about what it is like to be a human—being-human from a human’s point of view.
Admittedly, this is probably a more interesting question that that of being-rock from a rock’s point of view.
But not by much, not the way Heidegger approaches the problem. You will not find any poetic exploration of the beauties and tragedies of living life, no vivid descriptions of sunsets or wars, religious faith or marriage, childrearing or struggling to get by, let alone struggling to make a mark on the world. Rather, we find ourselves trapped in a generic human Da-sein (there-being or existence), whose essence is “everydayness,” “indifference,” “averageness,” “care.” At one point he writes:
The expression ‘idle talk’ is not used here in a disparaging sense. Terminologically, it means the positive phenomenon which constitutes the mode of being of the understanding and interpretation of everyday Da-sein. For the most part discourse expresses itself … Discourse expressing itself is communication.
So for Heidegger, communication is not the imparting of needed information, but merely idle talk, something that expresses itself.
I can’t help but feeling that this all-pervasive indifference was the basic reason Heidegger simply went along with Nazism, joined the party and, as rector of the university at Freiburg, urged the rest of the faculty to join as well. Mitda-sein as nothing more than going-along-with.
As poetry, Being and Time is not merely a celebration of mildness, but of the timidly vague—the pathologically mild.
Contrast the bold definiteness of Aristotle: “The kinds of essential being are precisely those that are indicated by the figures of predication” (Metaphysics, Bk 5, Ch 7). By predication he just means statements such as “The man is walking.” or “Socrates is in the room.” Aristotle, like Plato and Kant and most other reasonable philosophers prior to Heidegger, sees no difference between the statement “Socrates exists,” and “Socrates is in the world.” There is no great mystery here. The term “is” or “to be” is simply a way of connecting a thing and its properties. Being is not itself a property to be explained, but simply the possession of some property. As Aristotle puts it, “‘Being’ and ‘is’ mean that a statement is true, ‘not being’ that it is not true but false.”
There is nothing essential about humanness to being. Heidegger’s book would be less misleading if it were titled “Being Human and Experiencing Time.” But then again we would be misled, because he does not speak of what should really interest us, “Being a Virtuous Human,” but rather of what is quite uninteresting, “Being a Timorously-Mild Human in Tepid Averageness.”
Let’s be rid of such unassertive modes of philosophizing. They are merely the result of our fossil-fuel-spoiled consciences. Never before has a civilization been so wealthy, so safe and protected from the elements, so everyday as that of the modern West. It cannot last. The best we can do is to avoid complacency, to avoid forgetting what courage and forthrightness used to mean.
Let’s not shrink from that fighting spirit that is common to all virtuous beings of the past, simply for fear that we will look uncivilized. If anything we are too civilized. Philosophies such as Heidegger’s are symptomatic of this decline. Let us not become weak, and allow sweet-talking sophists to lull us into some warm-blanket-padded-cell of Being.
According to Allan Bloom and other commentators, Heidegger’s project was to overturn the complacently-accepted theory of Being given by Plato and Aristotle. But if this is to be our project, to overturn the misconceptions of the past, let us enter that Great Conversation not through some backdoor of mystical vagueness, but courageously with:
i. hard logic (not fuzzy)
ii. bold virtue (not retiring)
iii. noble defiance (not petty)
iv. valorous clarity (not fragile)
v. exquisite poetry (not frail).
This is my challenge to the philosophers of the coming century.