Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Existential thought


I had a dream last night that has largely faded away, but one part of it somehow had to do with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. I have been troubled by Heidegger since I was in high school, when my favorite teacher handed me a copy of Being and Time and invited me to give it a try. I gave it back a couple days later, having found it more or less unintelligible, but returned to the book later and have been haunted by Heidegger's thought ever since.

The central and most interesting Heideggerean thought to me echoes a Heraclitean saying, "Nature loves to hide." This is the thought--the personal thought--that my life will end in death, that I will cease, like all of us mortals, to be. What Heidegger brings into focus is the realization that I can grasp this illuminating thought only on occasion, and that for the most part I live my life with the 'natural' assumption that I will go on forever, that all that exists is bounded within the framework of my time. The human nature in me is at ease within that concealment, that world of untruth.

Heidegger does much to describe the practical goal-directed structure of modern historical time lived within the human technological and social illusion, of preoccupation with the world of careers and mass media and political opinion and social values, of life that looks only obliquely and then averts its gaze from the existential revelation of personal death and meaning found, if at all, within the shadow of death. For Heidegger, the entire history of 'objective' philosophy--from Plato through Descartes and Kant to modern analytic and linguistic philosophy--has been written, no less than the history of religion, in the cave of inauthentic human nature. Against this, he seeks: a courageous mode of philosophizing--"thinking"--that exists in the other, almost blinding light; a resolute mode of human being that does not repress our limitedness, that does not rely on any of the multiplicity of opiates available to us to enable a truth-evasive, inauthentic life.

That is the first part of the story, which, like Sophocles' Herakles, is broken in two disjointed halves, with the second part more disturbing. Heidegger was a Nazi. He thought of democratic-capitalistic America and totalitarian-communistic Russia as on an ideological par. He lacked political sense and judgment. And every student of his thought has had to wonder, why? Is there an intrinsic connection between his 'metaphysical' thinking and his politics?

In one simple way, the answer seems to be "yes." This has to do with Heidegger's repudiation of science, epistemology and logic as the orienting ground from which philosophical thinking operates. Once you make these the ground, you commit yourself to the idea of a critical community of thinkers and inquirers, within which knowledge is revealed and tested, and to the skeptical notion of truth as a regulative idea, which can only be tentatively achieved. From that point there it is much easier to transition to the democratic idea of a political community of persons, within which the common good is deliberated and struggled for, a diverse and limited community in which persons are all regarded as having equal worth and the right to pursue their own happiness--as opposed to the idea of the individual as serving or participating in a more unified and dynamic community oriented to one general will and one dominating truth.

In the end, Heideggeran existentialism, however profound its insight into the 'historicity' of human being, however powerful its representation of our cultural blindness to the meaning of existence, fails as a life-philosophy, because it does not respect the plurality of human action. We are all and always beginners in this world, each with the right to make or re-make a life, find and persuade others of our truth. In his own pursuit of truth, Heidegger lost sight of the interpersonal ground within which not only truth, but also justice, must be contested.