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Heidegger’s Theology of Being

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being, Herman Philipse (Princeton, 1998) 

Herman Philipse makes very fine tombstones. Recently he published a book, God in the Age of Science?, criticizing much modern philosophical theology (e.g., purportedly rational arguments for being Christian) in far greater depth than atheist gadflies like Dawkins and Dennett have ever felt necessary. This particular tombstone is for Martin Heidegger: a very critical exegesis of his philosophy that ends with a damning verdict.

People have wondered for whom Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being was intended, since anyone willing to read this much about Heidegger is probably going to be favorably biased toward him. I suppose I am part of the target audience. I have an inclination toward what is evidently Philipse’s vice: getting inside of dubious systems and seeing how they collapse. I’m glad he has done the work on this one, though.

I take Heidegger seriously as a philosopher, unlike many of his scions. There’s no question that in terms of influence, he has wielded real substantive power over the 20th century, and there is certainly something compelling about his work. It is also very elusive and blatantly evasive. Philipse’s book is the first comprehensive synthesis of Heidegger’s work that I have read: all the other books I know of (almost all in English) either stick to Being and Time or else settle for summary overview or simple paraphrase. Philipse, having ingested as much of the literature as anyone, attempts to identify the driving motives behind all of Heidegger’s work and trace their course chronologically.

I think his attempt is for the most part convincing; where the details are debatable, the high level still seems broadly on the mark. Philipse takes Heidegger seriously. He scolds those who call Heidegger’s writing garbage, fascist, and/or pure nonsense. Heidegger’s work is obscure, probably needlessly so, but it’s not nonsense. Philipse criticizes Victor Farias and Tom Rockmore for calling Heidegger’s work intrinsically fascist, and he even chides Jürgen Habermas for condemning Heidegger too quickly. That Philipse nonetheless concludes with an extremely harsh assessment of Heidegger’s philosophy is a real problem for Heideggerians, one that cannot easily be dismissed. I have not seen a comprehensive competing account that contests Philipse’s book.

The estimable Taylor Carman, who has done some intriguing work on Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, took great issue with Philipse, but I think that Philipse easily came out the victor in the argument. William Blattner, another sharp Heidegger scholar, was more willing to recognize the difficulties posed:

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being presents significant challenges to the legitimacy of Heidegger’s ontological discussions. Unless we can justify Heidegger’s assumption that being must enjoy a form of unity that transcends its diversity into regions and epochs, and unless we can free his texts from their pseudo-religious, postmonotheist mythology, Heidegger’s celebrated Seinsfrage will collapse (as a piece of philosophy).

William Blattner, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sep., 2002), pp. 478-481

I think Philipse’s challenge still stands unanswered.


The Thesis

Central is Philipse’s thesis that Heidegger maintained a fundamentally religious tenor throughout all his work. Philipse is a staunch atheist and the association of Heidegger with religion is a dire sign, but it’s worth pausing to assess exactly what is meant by religious. Heidegger was raised Catholic and started in theology but rejected Catholicism utterly. The persistence of a religious framework in his writing is best expressed by his methodological appeal to a non-rational, ineffable fundamental and transcendent truth not subject to analysis or debate. (Note that I say “transcendent,” not “transcendental.”)

In this Heidegger follows Luther and Kierkegaard, as well as adopting Nietzsche’s methods and flipping them on their head to reject materialism instead of embracing it. Such claims are, of course, radically anti-pluralistic, anti-multicultural, anti-tolerant, and anti-liberal, and so Heidegger’s anti-humanistic positions follow from this method as much as they do from his philosophical ideas. Such values of rational assessment and debate would jeopardize the philosophy and so must be rejected.

It is this seizing of quasi-religious authority that bothers Philipse, and it bothers me as well. Philipse tries to evaluate the philosophy once removed from such self-puffery, and finds the remainder wanting. Heidegger indisputably cast a great spell over those he came into contact with, and over many who read his work. They included his teacher Husserl, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Karl Löwith, and many others. He was able to convince a great many people that he was wrestling with something primordial and essential. Just in changing the terminology from that of Husserl’s phenomenology to his own phenomenological ontology, he staked out a seemingly higher ground. This orientation to an authority about the fundamental is what underlies Philipse’s claim that a religious authority underpinned all of Heidegger’s work from beginning to end.

Ironically, Philipse’s conclusion is not so far from that of Heidegger scholar Theodore Kisiel. Chakira recommended Kisiel’s The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time as one of the best works on Heidegger, and indeed Kisiel is extremely comprehensive and thoughtful about the development of Heidegger’s early thought. Kisiel’s conclusion is that the essential bits of Heidegger’s philosophy were in place by 1919, expressed most coherently in Being and Time in 1927, and remained fundamentally unchanged thereafter until his death in 1976:

Could it be that the hermeneutic breakthrough of 1919 already contains in ovo everything essential that came to light in the later Heidegger’s thought? Could it be that there is nothing essentially new in the later Heidegger after the turn, for all is to be found at least incipiently in that initial breakthrough of the early Heidegger? Could it be that not only B T but all of Heidegger can be reduced to this First Genesis, the hermeneutic breakthrough to the topic in KNS 1919? Heidegger seems to suggest as much by using Holderlin’s line, “For as you began, so will you remain” (US 9317) to place his entire career of thought under a single “guiding star.”

Theodore Kisiel, The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being in Time (Conclusion)

This is, to some extent, a problem for some Heidegger scholars who would like to treat Being and Time as uniquely belonging to an early period of thought and the later, far less systematic work as fundamentally different and far less significant. In addition, after Being and Time Heidegger’s work is haunted by the specter of his mid-1930s Nazism and apparent lack of repentance thereafter, and so this problem is also avoided by way of a dividing line placed before the Nazi period. After Being and Time, Philipse sees a change in approach and presentation, but not in substance.


The Five Leitmotifs

Philipse posits five “leitmotifs” present in Heidegger’s work, one ever-present, two dominant in the early work and two in the latter. Blattner summarizes them more concisely than Philipse does, so I quote him here:

Philipse argues that in place of a coherent ontological theory, Heidegger weaves together five “leitmotifs.” There is

(1) a meta-Aristotelian theme: philosophy aims at discovering the unity of being beyond its diversification into subordinate categories.

In the early thought, the diversity of being is spelled out in

(2) a phenomenological-hermeneutic leitmotif: we access being through a series of regional ontologies that expose the holistic patterns of unity within various domains of entity, such as nature and Dasein. This “diversity pole” is complemented by

(3) a transcendental “unity pole:” the unity of being is uncovered through a regional ontology of the human, which simultaneously serves as an investigation of the possibility of the understanding of being in general.

After Being and Time the transcendental unity for which Heidegger strove gets historicized, yielding

(4) a neo-Hegelian deep history: Western culture is grounded in a series of global epochs of being, each of which makes possible a distinctive, transcendental sort of being. This “diversity pole” is then itself complemented by

(5) a postmonotheist mythology: each epoch of being is a dispensation of Being as a transcendent, concealed non-phenomenon, from which Western culture has been falling away since the time of the presocratics and for a second coming of which we must prepare ourselves by way of a radical, non-rational form of “thinking.”

William Blattner, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sep., 2002), pp. 478-481

In addition, the change of method after Being and Time, as well as the switch from “being” (the gerund) to “Being” (the proper noun), stem from Heidegger’s failure to make the second and third leitmotifs work together in a systematic fashion. So all traces of phenomenology and phenomenological method get dropped, along with much of the philosophical framework that led up to them, in favor of a vigorously irrational and mystical theology that attempts to combine Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

I will not try to tackle the sufficiency or the accuracy of these leitmotifs here. Philipse works hard to close-read huge chunks of Heidegger’s corpus within this framework. Lacking such familiarity, I can only say that Philipse seems to conduct his analysis fairly and thoroughly. I was in the best place to judge with regard to Being and Time and some of the later work, and while many of his points seem debatable, Philipse never appeared to lose the plot in the way that Carman accuses him of doing.

Philipse emphasizes the purely negative approach of so much of Heidegger’s work, which consists of discarding or otherwise demoting methods of inquiry that could compete with his own ontological investigations. These are not incidental to Heidegger’s philosophy. They are a necessary component to it because, as Philipse repeatedly shows, treating Heidegger’s philosophy critically, from the outside, by nearly any alternative approach, exposes gaping chasms. Only from within does the edifice hold up, and even then….


Being and Time

Philipse’s treatment of Being and Time focuses on its methodology, which time and again shows up as deficient. The main problems are that Heidegger frequently begs the question, or else muddies the waters by drawing a distinction between what he is doing and what everyone else has done, which then does not stand up to scrutiny.

Philipse demystifies it piece by piece. I’ll focus on only one particular and significant problem here, which is Heidegger’s crucial yet unjustified claim to have access to the question and structure of being, independent of all particulars and all theory: one white European man has grasped the fundamental ontology of being without needing to so much as glance at another culture.

Dasein has understanding not only of its ontical possibilities, but also of its essential constitution of being (Seinsverstandnis). If this is the case, Heidegger assumes, Dasein will be able to articulate conceptually its understanding of its essential constitution of being, that is, to develop an ontology of itself, independently of empirical research on the varieties of human life and culture. Because we allegedly possess this possibility, Heidegger says that Dasein is ontological. Unfortunately, in giving this answer Heidegger assumes what is to be explained, to wit, how it is possible to understand the essence of being human without doing ample empirical research in anthropology.

This is a very old sin, yet far less justifiable in 1927 post-Sapir/Whorf, when the cracks in the universalist tendencies of Western Culture had long been on display for all to see. But leaving the problems of universalism itself aside, Heidegger is nonetheless depending on some kind of transcendental framework to justify his claim of access to ontological structures.

Assuming that the ontological interpretation of Dasein is based on a presupposed ontic ideal, will its results not be arbitrary, because the presupposed ideal is a matter of free choice? Will we not interpret the ontological structure of Dasein differently if we choose another ontic ideal of authentic existence? If this is the case, as it seems to be in view of the many different interpretations of human existence by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and others, should we not abandon the claim that the ontological analysis of Dasein yields knowledge? In section 63, Heidegger denies that this skeptical conclusion is justified. But his argument confronts him with a dilemma. He stresses that there are formal aspects of the ontological structure of Dasein as interpreted by him, such as the self-interpretative nature of Dasein in general, which do not depend on a particular ontical project. The problem is that this thesis conflicts with Heidegger’s theory of interpretation, according to which all features of Dasein’s ontological structure can be discerned only in the light of a specific existentiell project and its forestructure. As a consequence, Heidegger should either admit that he contradicts his theory of interpretation, or he should restrict the scope of this theory to applicative interpretations and leave room for other types of interpretation, such as objective or theoretical interpretations. In the latter case, he could draw a distinction within the analysis of Dasein in Sein und Zeit between purely ontological analyses, which are independent of any specific ontic ideal, except of course the ideal of seeing the ontological constitution of human life as it is, and ontically contaminated analyses, which presuppose a specific ontical ideal. I argue below that amending Sein und Zeit in the latter sense is mandatory.

In brief, Philipse here criticizes Heidegger for formulating a single ultimate notion of “authenticity.” Not only does Heidegger not justify his notion of authenticity, but the very framework he has embraced–the “phenomenological-hermeneutic” and “transcendental” leitmotifs, specifically–makes it impossible to privilege any particular notion of authenticity as being ultimate.

Philipse lays some of the blame at Husserl’s feet, saying that Heidegger simply brought to an extreme longstanding problems with the very notion of access to phenomenological structures of experience.

Husserl’s mature conception of phenomenology is characterized by four elements: (1) phenomenology is a purely descriptive discipline, which avoids all theorizing; (2) phenomenological description of the way in which entities are “given to” or “constituted in” transcendental consciousness is equivalent to an ontological elucidation of their mode of being (Seinsweise, Seinssinn), because (3) the “being” of entities is identical with their being constituted in transcendental consciousness. Finally, (4) transcendental phenomenology is possible as an “eidetic” discipline, which consists of synthetic a priori propositions about essential structures. Clearly, each of these four tenets is problematic. The principle of description (1) presupposes that theory-free description is possible. The idea of a phenomenological ontology (2) assumes that the manner of being of entities or their ontological constitution is identical to the manner in which they appear to us, and this, in its turn, presupposes Husserl’s transcendental idealism (3), that is, the view that the world, and all entities other than transcendental consciousness, are ontologically dependent on transcendental consciousness because they are constituted by it. Element (4), finally, will be rejected by the great majority of modern philosophers, for they repudiate the notion of a synthetic a priori discipline. In section 7 of Sein und Zeit, where he elucidates his notion of phenomenology, Heidegger at first endorses (1), (2), and (4), whereas he rejects Husserl’s transcendental idealism (3).

Now, the rejection of transcendental idealism is a major problem for Heidegger. Taylor Carman’s critique of Philipse insists that Heidegger’s modifications to Husserlian phenomenology in fact allow Heidegger to escape these charges. I am with Philipse, however, in thinking that Heidegger’s modifications simply result in rendering phenomenology incoherent. Husserl, who never begged off a difficult problem, knew that transcendental idealism was required if there was going to be any possible way of justifying the eidetic phenomenological method–mind, object structure, and world could not line up properly otherwise. (I’ve never seen an account that manages it, anyway.) By cavalierly ignoring the problem and appealing to some sort of basic realism, Heidegger has devoured a supersized transcendental free lunch. His postulation of moods as more fundamental than intentions is interesting, but in no way logically coherent in the way that he claims. Jumping to the assumption of privileged access, of course, makes Heidegger’s work more immediately appealing and less leaden than Husserl’s, at the cost of its internal coherence.

Philipse puts it as follows:

We must conclude that in this intuitive sense of the term “category” Heidegger was wrong in claiming that the same categories cannot apply both to inanimate things or tools and to Dasein, whereas we did not succeed in finding another sense of “category” that would make Heidegger’s claim plausible. As a consequence, there simply is no interesting philosophical program of constructing specific categories for human life. A philosopher might explore a great number of concepts in which human beings express their understanding of life. But it is not fruitful to claim that some of these concepts are categories or “existentialia,” whereas others are not. In other words, there is no distinction left between the ontological and the ontical if Heidegger’s theory of essential structures is discarded.

Another way of phrasing this point would be: categories require theory and theory requires categories. There are no pre-theoretical categories.

Given that the methodology of Being and Time is fatally compromised and its authority cosmically self-inflated, what remains? A fair bit of stuff about everyday practices, how we engage with the world, how we conceive of ourselves vis-a-vis death, and other talk about the human condition. Much of this forms the basis of the quasi-pragmatic interpretation of Heidegger formulated most famously by Hubert Dreyfus in Being-in-the-World, a book which Philipse cites approvingly as a rigorous and critical engagement with Being and Time. This effectively gives up the transcendental pole and renders much of Being and Time irrelevant, preserving only certain epistemological aspects. One could argue that Sartre rescues other aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy in Being and Nothingness through a somewhat similar mechanism, as Sartre simply argues that authenticity is simply something that we can’t reach.

So some of Heidegger’s concepts, extracted and reprocessed, partly survive their faulty surroundings. The methodology and the system do not, however. The methodology, it seems, also failed for Heidegger, since he never even attempted such a systematic philosophical project again.


The Turn and the Later Work

Heidegger abandons systematic philosophy completely after Being and Time and turns to a historical and essayistic approach with more overt mythologizing. (“Only a god can save us now,” etc.) Philipse’s most intriguing analogy here is that Heidegger was posturing himself as a post-Nietzschean Martin Luther, trying to wipe away the human and social crud separating us from God (or whatever is left of him). Since Heidegger wished to save religion in the absence of a god, his attempt was fundamentally doomed, and so his later work is at odds with itself substantively in a way that the earlier work is not.

The core of the postmonotheist leitmotif is the idea that traditional monotheism died because Being was misinterpreted as a being, God. The postmonotheist strategy purports to destroy monotheism and to rescue religion by arguing that monotheist faith, which died, is not the true religion. True and authentic faith is the thinking of Being. This strategy faces a dilemma. On the one hand, postmonotheology should resemble traditional monotheism sufficiently for satisfying similar religious cravings. Indeed, we saw that the meaning of Heidegger’s postmonotheist thought is parasitic on the Christian tradition. On the other hand, postmonotheism should not resemble traditional monotheism too closely. For in that case, it could be interpreted as just another variety of the deceased monotheist tradition, as a watered-down and more abstract version of Christianity, a substitute religion, and the postmonotheist strategy will fail altogether.

Philipse maintains, however, that the religion was present in Heidegger’s work all along, and perhaps the central piece of evidence here is Heidegger’s assessment of his philosophical development from 1938:

But who would want to deny that on this entire road up to the present day the discussion [Auseinandersetzung] with Christianity went along secretly and discreetly [verschwiegen]—a discussion which was and is not a “problem” that I picked up, but both the way to safeguard my ownmost origin—parental home, native region [Heimat], and youth— and painful separation from it, both in one. Only someone who has similar roots in a real and lived catholic world may guess something of the necessities that were operative like subterranean seismic shocks [unterirdische Erdstöβe] on the way of my questioning up to the present day …

It is not proper to talk about these most inner confrontations [innersten Auseinandersetzungen], which are not concerned with questions of Church doctrine and articles of faith, but only with the Unique Question, whether God is fleeing from us or not and whether we still experience this truly, that is, as creators [als Schaffende]…

What is at stake is not a mere “religious” background of philosophy either, but the Unique Question regarding the truth of Being, which alone decides about the “time” and the “place” which is kept open for us historically within the history of the Occident and its gods …

But because the most inner experiences and decisions remain the essential thing, for that very reason they have to be kept out of the public sphere [öffentlichkeit].

Heidegger, My Way Up to This Moment (1937-1938)

Religion, at least in the broadest sense of the term, has been on Heidegger’s mind the whole time.

And so Philipse tells a story stressing the continuity of Heidegger’s thought despite the change in approach. What remains after the systems and methods of Being and Time are discarded are the same fundamental elements: privileged access to the essence of being/Being, and the dismissal of all other methodologies and disciplines (politics, science, technology, materialism) as superficial, incomplete, or irrelevant. His work, if anything, becomes more solipsistic, as engagement with any other thought would be enough to threaten the unjustified seizure of authority upon which it relies.

His aggressive misreading of Nietzsche is his last sustained engagement with philosophy, which then gives way to short quotes from writers and philosophers and generalizations about culture and history. (And puns.) There is always the insistence that humanity is ignoring some “more original” and “more primordial” truth that Heidegger, naturally, is trying to illuminate. (I take those phrases from what must be Heidegger’s most overrated work, “The Question Concerning Technology.”)

Taking the lead from Nietzsche, his method of of interpretation becomes explicitly violent and presumptuous:

The authentic interpretation [eigentliche Auslegung] should show that which is not stated in words anymore but which yet is said. In doing so, the interpretation must necessarily use violence. The proper sense [das Eigentliche] should be looked for where a scholarly [wissenschaftliche] interpretation does not find anything anymore, although the latter stigmatizes as unscholarly [unwissenschaftlich] everything that transcends its domain.

Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics (1935)

Yet whatever subversive cool hovers around such violent and authentic interpretation should not disguise what this method is and has remained from Heidegger through Derrida, de Man, and Fish: the assumption of privilege. Here it is undisguised, in Philipse’s words:

Sometimes Heidegger claims that he has a specific epistemic gift for discerning what Being sends us, and he compares those who do not have this gift to people who are color-blind. Unfortunately, this analogy with color-blindness does not withstand critical scrutiny. Color-blindness can be explained by specific defects in our visual apparatus, whereas I suppose that the inability to grasp what Heidegger claims to be discerning cannot be so explained. Heidegger relies on a epistemic model derived from theology, and assumes that he is the recipient of some kind of revelation.

What Heidegger counts on, then, is that we will simply believe what he says. He uses a number of authoritarian rhetorical stratagems in order to obtain this perlocutionary effect, and he is remarkably successful in securing it.

Philipse points out that the unwarranted, rhetorical assumption of privilege weaves its way through all of Heidegger, as when Heidegger disregards plain old empirical “vulgar” history in favor of his own practice of “real history.”  Once again, the empirical and methodological legwork usually required in such disciplines is trumped by Heidegger’s claim to have made an end-run around them to the very depths of being.

“History” in the habitual sense of the word designates both the sum of human actions, artifacts, and forms of life in the past, and the discipline that studies these actions and forms of life. Because Heidegger in section 7 of Sein und Zeit calls empirical phenomena “vulgar” phenomena, we might label empirical history “vulgar” history. To vulgar history, Heidegger opposes real or authentic history (eigentliche Geschichte), which is the sequence of fundamental stances underlying vulgar history. Real history is “necessarily hidden to the normal eye.” It is the history of the “revealedness of being” (Offenbarkeit des Seins). Heidegger’s later “historical mode of questioning” (geschichtliches Fragen) aims at making explicit fundamental stances of Dasein amidst the totality of beings. Since these stances allegedly can be studied independently of empirical history as an intellectual discipline, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history implies that the philosopher is the real historian, and that by reconstructing the sequence of metaphysical structures, he does a more fundamental job than the historian in the usual sense is able to do. Heidegger often intimates that his historical questioning is also more fundamental than historical research done by historians of philosophy, and that it may brush aside the methodological canon of historical philology and interpretation. As Joseph Margolis observes, Heidegger’s doctrine of real history “manages to ignore the concrete history of actual existence and actual inquiry.”

Which is not to say that Heidegger is not capable of insight, only that the insights are repeatedly and terminally dressed up in almost unforgivable pomposity and presumption.


The Assessment

The latter, critical parts of Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being are less effective than the analysis because Philipse has already done the heavy lifting just in uncovering the structure of Heidegger’s thought. The five leitmotifs, if truly present and central, are already so damning that when Philipse later slices and dices Heidegger’s language to show that it’s slippery and bad philosophy, his arguments follow very easily from his earlier analytic interpretation.

Philipse has a great fondness for the ordinary language philosophy of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Ryle, but his methodological application of it to Heidegger’s thought yields its most fruitful results in his structural analysis, before Philipse critiques Heidegger and explicitly contrasts these thinkers favorably with Heidegger. Philipse’s comprehensive structural organization and presentation of Heidegger’s thought is the major achievement here, in itself enough to relay much of the criticism he subsequently makes.

Despite Philipse finding methodological failings in Habermas’ assessment of Heidegger, their accounts dovetail in certain important respects, particularly how Heidegger’s methodological failures make his results arbitrary:

The language of Being and Time had suggested the decisionism of empty resoluteness; the later philosophy suggests the sub­missiveness of an equally empty readiness for subjugation. To be sure, the empty formula of “thoughtful remembrance” can also be filled in with a different attitudinal syndrome, for ex­ample with the anarchist demand for a subversive stance of refusal, which corresponds more to present moods than does blind submission to something superior. But the arbitrariness with which the same thought-figure can be given contemporary actualization remains irritating.

Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

Being and Time inspired far less self-contradictory work by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, but the roots of their work are arguably more in Husserl more than Heidegger. Heidegger’s work, however, may have provided a rhetorical force for some of Husserl’s observations that the brilliant but chronically leaden Husserl never managed. Heidegger, patricidal to the end, played down his debts to Husserl as much as possible, but it is unclear both to me and to Philipse what Being and Time added to phenomenology, substantively. Ernst Tugendhat put the point this way:

What Heidegger obtained through his argumentation is only the position of Husserl. The decisive step beyond Husserl is no longer substantiated through argumentation; indeed, it is not even recognizable as an independent step.

Ernst Tugendhat, “Heidegger’s Idea of Truth” (1984)

What remains then? Metaphors, or, as Carnap would say, poetry. And while Carnap called it bad poetry, I’d say some of it is fairly good poetry. “The Origin of the Work of Art” remains a forceful and evocative essay, and especially in light of the collapse of Being and Time‘s foundations, I’m nearly ready to rank it over Being and Time.

Of the Nazism, I broadly agree with Philipse. Heidegger’s philosophy does not necessarily imply Nazism, but following it does make it more likely that one will embrace of something like Nazism: a blunt, irrational, cult of tribalism uniting people around a charismatic leader. There is no question that Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism gained strength from his philosophical convictions, but those convictions did not mandate Nazism per se. Heidegger was unlucky in having the particular cult to which he was attracted turn out to be one of the most virulent of all time. This excuses him in no way, but it does remove the stigma from the work itself. Such is not the case for Carl Schmitt or Ludwig Klages, whose philosophy contains far more inherently fascist elements rather than merely cultic or irrationalist ones. Nonetheless, you’d have to be nuts to use Heidegger’s work as political philosophy; likewise, I’m mildly horrified whenever someone like Avital Ronell praises Heidegger’s personal choices in his life.

Likewise, I think that Heidegger’s philosophy is not coincidentally the product of his being a generally horrible person. Leaving aside the Nazi issue, his treatment of basically everyone he ever came into contact with, from Husserl to Hannah Arendt to his colleagues and students, tended toward the selfish, callous, and profoundly exploitative. Few philosophers seemed to treat people as means to an end as exclusively as Heidegger did. Both of the Heidegger biographies by Hugo Ott and Rüdiger Safranski paint the man as frighteningly charismatic but devoid of warmth and loyalty. I may write a follow-up post about Heidegger’s life to talk further about his personality traits, but for now I will just say that I draw a connection between such callousness and Heidegger’s conviction that he was dealing with a realm of truth greater than that which any other human being had touched in millennia.

I think that Philipse does, however, give an impression of there being too much calculated intention behind Heidegger’s philosophy. I believe that the unity he observes is present, but I think Philipse somewhat overstates the degree to which Heidegger’s philosophy was a conscious attempt to instill a new religion of Being. I think Heidegger was too disorganized and confused to pull something like that off. Philipse, quite organized and systematic himself, may have read too much of those traits into Heidegger. This is a small point, but I think it does result in Philipse giving Heidegger a bit too much credit.

Yet Philipse has a second interpretation to unify Heidegger’s work which bears mentioning, tracing the problem of authenticity as Heidegger himself might have faced it:

Now I want to suggest that the burden of authentic resoluteness as Heidegger sees it is in principle unbearable. It is simply impossible to be resolute without relying somehow and to some extent on preexisting cultural roles and norms. This is why Heidegger’s individualistic notion of authenticity, according to which Dasein has to liberate itself from common moral rules in order to choose one’s hero freely, tends to collapse into a collectivist notion, according to which the choice is not made by an individual at all, but is predetermined by the destiny of the Volk to which one belongs. Once Dasein has become authentic by liberating itself from standard morality, life becomes unbearable, and the liberated individual will seek to shake off the burden of radical individuation (vereinzelung) by joining a collectivist mob.

If this interpretation is acceptable, there is no direct relationship between the ideal of authenticity in Sein und Zeit and Heidegger’s turn to Nazism. The unbearable burden of authentic life can be relieved in two ways: by a leap to faith and by a totalitarian commitment. Only when the first solution seemed to be ruled out did Heidegger jump to the second. Nietzsche’s thesis of God’s death explained why the first solution was not available, and the metaphysics of the will to power paved the way to a second solution: Nazism.

I want to look at this psychologically and biographically. As depicted in biographies, the unempathetic and selfish Heidegger never seems to possess any sense of belonging to a group of peers. Lacking human compassion and solidarity, his search for authenticity had no choice but to take theological and tribal forms. His relations to others were those of power: he was a student (of Christ, of Husserl, of Hitler), or more often he was a teacher, or rather a leader, since “teaching” is not quite the word for what Heidegger intended to do. His dictum to his students was always, “I don’t want you to think. I want you to see.”

Milton set about to “justify the ways of God to man.” Once God is in the business of needing justification, He is doomed. Heidegger’s project was to disassemble that need, for God and for himself.


Appendix: Heidegger’s Sophistry of Being

If nothing else, Heidegger was a brilliant rhetorician, and though not as important to the book’s thesis as the points above, Philipse’s list of his authoritarian rhetorical stratagems is quite handy, if only to see how they too have woven their way through so much philosophy before and since. I have abbreviated this section heavily and excluded two more specialized stratagems. Philipse counts them as characteristic of the later work in particular.

1. The Stratagem of the Fall. If the Neo-Hegelian and postmonotheist doctrines were true, modern man would be fated to err. Heidegger erred grandly, because he erred in accordance with the present fundamental stance of the will to power. His opponents, however, err in petty ways, because, disagreeing with Heidegger, they do not acknowledge what is in our times, even though they are unwittingly determined by the present fundamental stance. Heidegger holds that logic is bound up with a false metaphysics that conceals Being, and that language in its ordinary uses blinds us to the light of Being as well. For this reason, opponents of Heidegger’s philosophy who try to state their objections clearly and pay heed to the principles of logic, need not be refuted: the very medium of their thought is condemned beforehand, because they have fallen from the House of Being. Christians sometimes held that everything, from language to inanimate matter, had been corrupted by the Fall. Similarly, Heideggerians suggest that all ways of philosophizing other than their own are contaminated, and that one does not need to show this in detail. These ways of philosophizing simply belong to the “reign of technology” (das Wesen der Technik), or to the “era of information,” to “logocentrism,” or to whatever other pejoratively labeled comprehensive category Heideggerians may invent. All philosophers are in Plato’s cave, except the Heideggerians.

2. The Stratagem of the Radical Alternative. If everything that human beings do or think is contaminated by the Fall, redemption must consist in an alternative that is radically different from anything we are able to conceive of: an entirely new Beginning. The conjunction of stratagems (1) and (2) puts the Heideggerian in a comfortable, because unassailable, “position”: he may condemn all other philosophical doctrines and movements in the name of an alternative that is ineffable because it is radically different: the Saving Event.

3. The Stratagem of Undifferentiating Abstraction. Heidegger tries to characterize the fundamental stance of the present epoch by stretching indefinitely the extension of nouns such as “technology” and “information.” We have seen that these nouns become meaningless by such an abstraction, even though Heidegger pretends that he is still using them meaningfully. I call this type of abstraction undifferentiating because Heidegger suggests that differences between items within the extension of these empty terms do not really matter and are indifferent. In 1935 he said that Russia and the United States are “metaphysically the same”; in 1945 he contended that communism, fascism, and democracy belong to one and the same metaphysical reality of the will to power; and in 1949 he ventured the opinion (which I quoted already) that “agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps.”

4. The Stratagem of Persuasive Redefinition. Theologians are masters of persuasive redefinition. It used to be the case that believing Christians were not allowed to doubt religious dogmas, but as soon as doubting the literal truth of the New Testament became widespread, theologians such as Paul Tillich were quick to point out that “real” faith does not exclude doubt. One has “faith” as long as one has an “ultimate concern” in life. Nearly all core concepts of Christianity have been redefined in the course of Western history, because religious dogmas had become unacceptable in their original sense. Heidegger often uses this strategy of persuasive redefinition, and he applies it not only in the later works.

5. Strategies of Immunization. Heidegger’s notion of thinking as questioning is one strategy of immunization among others. Heideggerians often claim that criticism of what Heidegger says must be due to misunderstandings. This is a time-honored theological strategy: if the Bible is God’s word and if God is infallible, we will never criticize the Bible as long as we understand it well. Similarly, if what Heidegger says is in fact what Being gives us to understand, and if Being is the only source of Truth, as Heidegger suggests, then we should not criticize Heidegger’s later writings. I do not want to deny that criticisms may be unfair; surely they might be due to misunderstandings. But this cannot be the a priori predicament of all possible criticisms, unless Heidegger’s postmonotheist doctrine of being is true and unless Heidegger is infallible. It is at this very doctrine that my criticisms are aimed.

8. Stratagem of the Elect. One will wonder how Heidegger could claim that he was able to raise and understand the question of Being, if Being is concealed and the Fall has been completed. How could he gain access to the impenetrable and hidden place from where he was able to experience the Truth of Being, if this truth remains concealed to ordinary mortals? Heidegger lectured repeatedly on Plato’s simile of the cave, and Plato’s simile provided him with the solution to this problem. Heidegger belonged to the elect, to those favored by Being, who were destined to hear Being’s voice. In Beitrage zur Philosophie, the theme of the elect occurs again and again. Perhaps it had to overcompensate for Heidegger’s isolation and lack of success in the Nazi movement.

Philipse links these stratagems to religion. While the links are obvious, I would not say they originate with religion nor are they necessarily indicative of religious thinking per se–certainly secular politics and science have made use of them as well. They are so ubiquitous that Heidegger stands out mostly for the force and skill with which he deployed them, which would do Grover Norquist proud. Likewise, I think that many of the people who have been attracted to Heidegger’s philosophy and methodology have done so not because of its religious revivalist content (though some, such as Levinas, clearly were attracted to it for precisely this reason) but because of the authoritarian rhetoric it offers.

David Quint on Structuralism and New Historicism and Theory in General

David Quint, in his estimable book Epic and Empire, argues against the totalizing tendency of much literary theory and criticism of the 20th century. He speaks of poststructuralism and New Historicism but the general argument could apply to any number of other theories as well. (This is, essentially, what I criticized Derrida for doing in his attack on Husserl.)

I register here my methodological distance from, while acknowledging my indebtedness to, a poststructuralist critical practice that, in turning literary studies back toward history, has incorporated the models of structuralist anthropology. In this line of work, which is sometimes broadly called New Historicism, the literary text is one of an array of cultural products that share a single deep structure or mentality.

My reservations about this practice are partly conditioned by the more local explanations I have arrived at concerning epic and its relationship to the political order. In the widely conceived web of intertextual relationships that constitute the structuralist-historicist slice of history—in which all components of the culture are presupposed to develop at more or less the same rate at any historical moment—the literary text seems capable of being linked with almost any other text of the culture, and there appears to be no control to determine the juxtaposition. The text’s own explicit allusive network becomes only one element of this intertextuality, and certainly not a privileged one. Politics, too, the social disposition of coercive power, becomes one more product of this patterned mentality or “poetics.” That is, politics is necessarily aestheticized by the interpreter. It is one thing to acknowledge that power to some degree depends on the manipulation of semiotic and symbolic order—I do, in fact, argue this—but quite another to conflate the two.

Furthermore, attention to synchronous historical relationships can cause the text’s participation in a diachronic literary history to be overlooked.

David Quint, Epic and Empire (14)

Similar points have been made by many critics of such overarching theories, but this is the most compact statement of the critique that I’ve seen, so I thought it deserved quoting. The underlying irony Quint seems to emphasize is that the conflation of power and semiotics is, in fact, a semiotic power grab.

Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose

Xorandor (1986) is a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-). Jip and Zab are preteen twins who speak a weird, unfamiliar slang and meet up with a talking rock that turns out to be a foreign lifeform from Mars, which they dub Xorandor. They communicate with it using a programming language somewhat akin to BASIC, and they discover it can consume radiation particles. This then spins into a tale of spies, nuclear disarmament, and a disorganized offspring of Xorandor who gets scrambled, decides it is Lady Macbeth, and demands that it and its brethren be given endless radiation or it will create a critical mass and destroy a good part of England. Jip and Zab work with Xorandor to stop its mad offspring, speaking to it in that same programming language, and they also discover more about Xorandor’s real provenance and nature.

My criticisms of the book ultimately fall away in the face of its mere existence. Boy is it a strange one. Thomas M. Disch reviewed it when it first came out, comparing it to A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, clearly on the grounds of its distended language. But Brooke-Rose’s use of code snippets (in a BASIC-like language of her own design) as well as a certain lack of fluency with the concepts of computer science makes it both less and more than those other two books.

It is more in that neither Burgess nor Hoban attempted to graft a formal symbolic language onto English, preferring instead to deform English into a new, imagined human language. It is less in that the graft does not take: Brooke-Rose cannot create the hybrid she attempts, because she treats the symbolic language as human language when it is is not. To explain the nature of this failure is to understand the multilayered nature of metaphor and analogy in natural language.

Before critiquing, though, let me praise Brooke-Rose’s achievement. She engaged with the syntax and semantics of what I gather to be a genuinely foreign domain, and she managed to utilize them logically and cogently in a novel, at a level that I’ve only seen in Vernor Vinge (who, besides having background in the relevant domains, is a far more conventional and unimaginative writer). She did this well into her career, and she did this in the mid-80s, well before any such concepts had penetrated into the mainstream. Compared to the contemporaneous Tron, Xorandor is an algorithms textbook.

I caught a few slip-ups where she uses terminology in an invalid way or attempts to draw an analogy based on a misunderstanding of a particular formal concept, but really only a handful, which is really rather stunning for someone coming to the material for the first time. So my aesthetic criticism is balanced by my immense admiration for Brooke-Rose’s adventurousness, curiosity, and diligence.

The only hint of previous background I’ve found is in Frank Kermode’s piece on Brooke-Rose, where he says she served at Bletchley Park in World War II, alongside the likes of Alan Turing. Yet there is little here that has to do with the theoretical aspects of computer science. Brooke-Rose is interested in computer languages as language, not as a practical tool. Yet the problem lies in the inseparability of these two aspects.

Consider this representative piece of code from the book:


The vast majority of the code, in fact, ends up being DEC and REM statements, which allow Brooke-Rose to use English primarily in the code. These statements are made to seem more computer-like by mutilating English syntax, but they are no closer to actual computer language than English. She has taken the syntax of computer language and some of its semantics, but overlaid it with slightly altered natural language semantics. Within a REM or a DEC statement, anything goes.

Brooke-Rose makes steps toward accommodating formal language semantics within the DEC and REM statements, such as pointing out the problems of indefinite antecedents, but they are small and tentative, and these issues, which would be at the heart of an effort to deal with the difference between logical and natural language, fall by the wayside in favor of moves that belong purely in the realm of natural language.

The problem is that Brooke-Rose has not lived the language she is appropriating. This is as great a problem with a programming language as it is with a human language, although the nature of the problem is different. By utilizing programming language to serve the purposes of a human language, she neglects the very nature of the language, and so the result is akin to what would happen if one were to write poetry in an unknown foreign language with only a translating dictionary as a guide. It is the confusion of the (partial) definition of a word with the knowledge of its many uses and place in the language. Programming language is simpler than natural language, but by ignoring the greater part of the purposes the language can serve, Brooke-Rose’s code is enfeebled.

The problem manifests itself in Jip and Zab’s slang as well. Here is a brief bit of dialog:

Zab, do we have to reconstruct every conv?

That’s what storytellers do Jip, or else they invent them. But we can’t, this is real.

Floating-point real or fixed-point real?


This rings false because this is not a joke programmers would make. (There are many others like it in the book.) The mere dual definition of “real” as both meaning “actual” as well as “a number belonging to a continuum” does not make it suitable grounds for a pun. Even puns, which exist on the surface level of language, require some conceptual apparatus to link their two meanings. By making the linkages purely on the lexical level, Brooke-Rose betrays a lack of conceptual knowledge of the language she is adopting.

To recast this exchange with German instead of computer language:

I have committed a mortal sin.

Are you sure it wasn’t merely a mortal bedeutung?


Punning on Frege’s Sinn/Bedeutung distinction in this context serves no purpose. We can have some fun this way (I originally tried to do it with kind, kinder, and art), but it does not lend any greater meaning to the matter at hand or illuminate the connections between English and German. If anything, it trivializes them.

I have criticized science and engineering people for adopting too literal and too concrete metaphorical models of emotion and humanity. Rod Humble’s The Marriage was a model example, in my opinion. But this is a critique in the other direction, of the fact that Brooke-Rose has adopted the syntax and semantics of a domain without understanding their practical usage. That practical layer, which I hesitate to call sub-linguistic because it is still linguistic, is one that writers too often ignore. Beneath the shuffling of imagery and semantic ambiguity often lies a linguo-conceptual level as arid and stale as a formulaic plot.

The grammatical, rhetorical, lexical material of computer science have been employed without much of their actual content. Very little of the code apparatus serves much purpose except to give shape to the narrative that would otherwise be done with the usual natural language devices. Because Brooke-Rose chose a computer language rather than a natural language, the gap between the two languages is huge and starkly reveals what more subtle shifts do not. It is not always so clear what gets left out when interweaving two languages.

An analogical strategy of linguistic substitution is one of the core skills of any writer. Xorandor very clearly shows what such strategies easily miss or take for granted: the underlying, mutable conceptual matter, made to seem irrelevant by the manipulation of surface-level syntax and semantics, but in fact distinctively present. This matter is not plot, though it can take the form of plot; it is the subcutaneous ideological and structural stuff of writing and life that language captures inexactly, imprecisely and in multifold ways, but which is nonetheless there. It is present in the technical uses of computer language that Brooke-Rose did not make use of. This matter lies not in syntax or semantics, but in pragmatics and superstructure. And that is what is precisely missing, almost totally, in Brooke-Rose’s use of computer code. The deficiency of the book is astonishingly illuminating.

In this sense, Brooke-Rose is firmly ensconced in her time, in the post-structuralist milieu in which language slippages occur purely at the surface level of syntax and atomic signification. This anti-conceptualist dogma of deconstruction has been tremendously detrimental to the creative spirits of many writers, who too often forsake all thoughts of a deeper conceptual structure underpinning languages in favor of an emaciated, localized play on the simplest of word associations, as prescribed by the primitive associative models of Derrida and Lacan and the rigid structuralist networks of Barthes. Puns often come to dictate analogies rather than analogies dictating metaphors.

Brett Bourbon mischaracterized this deeper conceptual realm as the realm of nonsense, talking about deformations of language. But these deformations of language, exemplified by those of Finnegans Wake, are not excursions into nonsense, but attempts to pull and reshape our conceptual language in unfamiliar directions.

Most literature, of course, settles for much less than this. It is not necessarily a writer’s responsibility to operate on this linguo-conceptual (linguo-pragmatic?) level, but I believe the mark of truly substantial literature (as opposed to merely great writing) is indeed a work’s ability to wreak havoc to existing linguo-conceptual structures.

The challenge in addressing these structures and grasping them even partly is immense, and falling back on simplifications is tempting and sometimes sufficient to create a decent work of art. But only decent. The human tendency to reduce and simplify into models is unavoidable, but complacency with them, an unwilingness to accept their provisionality, is an unforgivable offense against our rational and creative powers. Every writer of “experimental” prose should reflect on this book and wonder if their amalgamation of novel lexical and semantic overlaps is only serving to reiterate unoriginal macrostructures.

Yet Brooke-Rose is smart enough to recognize this, and her essay collection Stories, Theories and Things (1991) shows her to be a keen and precise critic who draws on structuralist, deconstructionist, and speech act theory without becoming obfuscatory and usually not too straitjacketed. The essays on gender and writing, in particular, are some of the best I’ve read on the subject in ages.

And here she speaks, I think, exactly to the problem I describe above, the narrowness of the conceptual apparatus so often at work in writing:

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. If I may make a personal digression here, this is particularly true of women writers, who are assumed to write only of their personal situations and problems, and I have often been blamed for parading my knowledge, although I have never seen this being regarded as a flaw in male writers; on the contrary. Nevertheless (end of personal digression), even as praise, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience and the successful expression of it. In the last resort a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organize it well, and write well.

What she also implies, which is something worth spelling out, is that the most egregious exponents of this anti-conceptual anti-knowledge tendency have not been novelists, but literary theorists, who too often not only sought little knowledge beyond their narrowly-focused reading, but then built even more constraining systems around those impoverished areas!

I will not analyze her criticism in detail here; I am only interested in how it serves to illuminate further the noble failure of Xorandor, as well as the less noble failures of countless other books. If Xorandor does not free itself from its theoretical shackles, its immersion into foreign territory remains a notable effort to escape the orbit around the endless deferral of signification.

That is to say: when we are captivated by the shiny surface of language, when pyrotechnics and puns and prestidigitation of words comes to substitute for attention to the far deeper realms of the conceptual and practical use of even the most ordinary language, then we have come to treat language as a solipsistic activity that turns us inward and away from the world. And so such linguistic activity becomes a way of avoiding life.

If we are content to refine and nourish only the epidermis of language, we let the innards rot.

Ernst Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Pitfall of Being Reasonable (or: Fashionable Radicalism)

What of Ernst Cassirer? Hans Sluga wrote a few months ago:

Cassirer does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure.

Hans Sluga, Review of Peter E. Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos

The two words “stature” and “radicalism” should awaken suspicion at the terms of the judgment. They also hint at one possible reason why so much of the recent press on Cassirer has been lukewarm or dismissive: He is too reasonable.

First, a little context: hyper-learned philosophy scholar Frederick Beiser, who is also an avowed exponent of the cultural-historical tradition of which Cassirer was a part, recently criticized a history of 19th century continental philosophy for being, essentially, a dictionary of received ideas, an anthology of current trends and little else:

The editors might grumble here that in chiding them for not including Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians I have not judged them by their own criteria. For their volume is meant to describe “revolutionary responses to the existing order“, and Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians were not revolutionary; indeed, they represented the establishment and existing order, given their opposition to materialism and given their ensconced place in German university life.

It is precisely here, however, that it is necessary to raise questions about the editors’ criteria and their guiding themes of “revolutionary responses to the existing order.” That theme is so vague and equivocal that it signifies contradictory viewpoints. The revolutionary response to the existing order can mean the revolution on behalf of modern values by Feuerbach, Marx and the German materialists; or it can also mean the reaction against modern values by Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. The existing order can be pre-secular, non-liberal and monarchical society prior to 1848, the remaining traces of the ancien régime; and it can also be the more secular, liberal and democratic order circa 1870. The editors never spell out this ambiguity; they simply exploit it, so that they have a convenient device for including everyone according to the exigencies of the standard curriculum. 

Behind the editors’ theme of “revolutionary responses to the existing order” there lies an old myth, one that the editors have scarcely articulated yet tacitly adopted: namely, that the important philosophy of the nineteenth century came not from “academic philosophers” but from the radical individual thinkers outside the university, viz., from such solitary thinkers as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

Not the least troublesome aspect of this myth is that some of these so-called revolutionary thinkers were themselves deeply reactionary. It is only by turning a blind eye to Nietzsche’s reactionary politics and to Kierkegaard’s and Dostoyevsky’s fundamentalist Christianity that it is possible to make them relevant to us today. Any impartial contemporary student of nineteenth-century philosophy who knows the movement in all its breadth will find Cohen, Simmel and Weber more sympathetic company than Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky.

Frederick Beiser, Review of Alan D. Schrift and Daniel Conway (eds.), Nineteenth Century Philosophy: Revolutionary Responses to the Existing Order

Behind this chronologically localized criticism is a larger specter haunting the history of philosophy, which is the extent to which the history of philosophy is chronicled as a history of radicalism. There is a persistent urge to reject any uniformitarian or gradualist model of philosophy in favor of a history of wild, epochal thinkers making fundamental changes to the ways that we see the world.

Not only does this provide for a more exciting model of punctuated equilibrium, but it also makes for a much simpler and more teachable one, as we can leap from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel without bothering to examine the secondary, non-epochal thinkers in between them.

And the insidious nature of this assumption goes beyond Beiser’s specific criticisms. The criticism of Cassirer reinforces the more general problem at work. I’m not interested in defending Cassirer here per se, but in showing that many of the criticisms seem to be made in bad faith.

Edward Skidelsky wrote a recent book on Cassirer, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, in which he opened with a confession that Cassirer had let him down, and declares a lowered estimation of Cassirer:

I now saw that the problems facing Cassirer’s enterprise were far more serious than I had initially supposed. It was not just that many individual aspects of his system had fallen into disrepair, but that the whole thing was no longer obviously philosophy at all. Cassirer’s thought is inductive, not deductive in its method. Setting out from the variety of human culture, it attempts to comprehend it as an organic whole. But most twentieth-century philosophy, analytic and continental, has sought a standpoint beyond the variety of culture—an absolute conception of consciousness, meaning, or the world. Viewed from this angle, Cassirer does not so much mediate between analytic and continental traditions as fall foul of them both. His “reconciliation” is on terms that neither can accept.

There is, of course, no reason to accept as final the conception of philosophy prevailing in modern philosophy departments. But there are reasons to doubt whether Cassirer’s inductivist conception of the discipline could readily be revived. Cassirer was able to conceive of philosophy as the interpretation of culture only because he shared with most of his generation a conception of culture itself as an essentially liberating force.

The twentieth century was not kind to that idea. The cancerous growth of bureaucracy, the murderous perversion of science, the self-prostitution of the humanities—none of this portended liberation. The younger generation accordingly sought a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides. The logical positivists found it in the verification principle, Heidegger in authentic existence. Others turned to the Bible or the wisdom of ancient Greece. All agreed that the humanism of the past two centuries had failed. “We encountered situations,” wrote Karl Jaspers in 1948, “in which we no longer had any inclination to read Goethe, but seized on Shakespeare, the Bible or Aeschylus, if indeed we could still read at all.”

We have inherited Cassirer’s liberal political attitudes, but not the cultural sensibility that underlay them. With our skepticism toward progress, our distaste for “bourgeois” formalities, our fascination with charisma, and our endless talk of commitment, authenticity, and roots, we remain, consciously or not, Heidegger’s children. We are politically liberal, spiritually illiberal. Is this combination a stable one? And if not, how long can it last? These are questions that this book raises, but cannot answer.

Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture

Skidelsky berates Cassirer for working from a conception that he thinks unrecoverable. Yet consider how he describes the alternative conceptions: “a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides.” An absolutist, acultural view of truth. This is bizarre, partly because Cassirer hardly held to cultural relativism, but also because Heidegger’s influence has been primarily shunted through cultural relativism. (I’ll get to the logical positivists later.)

As evidence, I present David Simpson’s equally odd review of Skidelsky’s book from the London Review of Books, in which he doesn’t seem to realize he’s attacking Cassirer from the opposite side that Skidelsky is:

While we should not slavishly follow Heidegger’s every move, we can’t really get behind Cassirer, however benign his intentions, however serene his demeanour. Standing between us and him are the massive intellectual forces of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Adorno and many others; not all of them Heidegger’s children, all of the time, but none of them relatives of Cassirer’s. These forces are not just intellectual or ‘authentically philosophical’; they articulate a profound scepticism about the project of progressive culture in the light of world events that are not at all comfortably consigned to a vanished past.

To return to the question with which I began: are these books the sign of a return to Cassirer? I doubt it, and so do most of these authors. Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Blumenberg and Carnap all found Cassirer wanting, and those who attend conferences about him are also unable to convince themselves that he can be reinvented for the 21st century.

David Simpson, A Positive Future

How did the opposing attacks get so confused? I contend it is because their essence is identical: Cassirer was not a radical. Whether the radicalism was in the form of metaphysical absolutism or cultural relativism, what matters is that the position was radical.

Meanwhile, there is the trendy criterion that a thinker must be able to be “reinvented for the 21st century” in order to merit study. What does that even mean? I suspect it is just another way of saying that a thinker must be radical. (If Carl Schmitt can be “reinvented” for the 21st century, I daresay there’s nothing stopping Cassirer.)

And indeed, Simpson cites four problematic thinkers as “massive intellectual forces,” who have little in common besides being indisputably radical: Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno.

Derrida and Lacan lead nowhere but back to themselves, solipsists far less successful than Freud, makers of minor metaphors that will hang on through their cults but slowly dissipate from cultural memory, their best arguments returned to the sources from whom they were borrowed.

I have far more patience for Foucault and Adorno, who are serious and durable thinkers, but as Habermas among many others have pointed out, both of their systems offer no escape, rational or otherwise. Their critique can only be used in part, or else it is simply so self-negating as to be pointless. It is no insult to say that they reject Cassirer, because they reject everyone.

But when taken in part, Foucault and Adorno can only be used to argue for reform of a Cassirer-like project of intellectual rationalism, not an indisputable indictment of it. I suppose this is a good thing as it permits scholarship to continue.

Meanwhile, Simpson bizarrely lists Blumenberg as a detractor from Cassirer; I suppose when evidence is not at issue, you might as well pile on the names. Blumenberg does convincingly criticize Cassirer’s terminus ad quem view of myth as uniformly directed to one ideal outcome, but that hardly is an indictment of the man’s whole work.

Yet in looking at Heidegger, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno, one is struck ultimately by their comparative inconsequentiality. These “massive intellectual forces” simply have not dominated intellectual discourse outside of their disciplines: Habermas and Sartre loomed far larger in public life. (Indeed, Sartre’s disappearance over the last 30 years should serve as a warning to all never to trust the current canon.)

Instead, consider this sample of hugely influential intellectual forces of the 20th century: Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Sigmund Freud, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Martin Luther King.

Yes, many of them made their mark through practical action, but that does not disqualify their influence. All of them, without exception, fall closer philosophically to Carnap and Cassirer than to Heidegger or any of the other names Simpson or Skidelsky cites. Simpson is using a rather parochial measure of massiveness.

Which brings us to Carnap. The logical positivist view is certainly one that has held greater sway Cassirer’s cultural view. Contra Skidelsky, we are vastly more Carnap’s children than we are Heidegger’s, and thank goodness for that. So the charge of Cassirer’s irrelevance relative to Carnap is at least plausible.

Yet Skidelsky and Simpson have it wrong in opposing Carnap and Cassirer. As Michael Friedman points out, Cassirer had already moved toward admitting a logical absolutism into his philosophy, undercutting Skidelsky’s attack:

By sharply distinguishing between intuitive or representative meaning and the purely formal or significative meaning characteristic of modern abstract mathematics, in the tradition of Leibniz’s “universal characteristic,” Helmholtz’s theory of signs, and Hilbert’s axiomatic conception of geometry, Cassirer has clearly moved out of the Kantian camp and has come extremely close, in fact, to the position of Carnap and the logical positivists.

Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000)

And as was recently demonstrated in these pages, logical positivism was hardly as absolutist as its most extreme exponents and detractors made it out to be: in Carnap’s own words, “The fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.” Logical positivism does not exclude Cassirer’s empirical philosophy of culture from the world.

Friedman, who has argued in the past with Sluga over Cassirer, makes the following case for Cassirer’s relevance, which I cite simply in order to contrast its rhetoric with that of Cassirer’s critics above:

The essence of Cassirer’s approach is to employ the most sophisticated and comprehensive resources of conceptual intellectual history (and thus the resources of a paradigmatic Geisteswissenschaft) in attempting to craft a new philosophical orientation appropriate to the problems and predicaments of the present.

For Cassirer this meant, in particular, that we attempt to trace the conceptual evolution of both modern science and modern philosophy – and the conceptual interactions between them – within the framework of an historicized (and to this extent Hegelian) version of a broadly Kantian theory of the most general forms and categories of human thought, and this approach was later generalized and extended, in the philosophy of symbolic forms, to embrace what we might call the conceptual history of all of human culture as a whole.

Now this last step, as I have said, is one that I myself am not prepared to take. But Cassirer’s earlier approach, exemplified in his more narrowly scientific works, makes particularly good sense, I believe, within our present, post-logical-empiricist and post-Kuhnian situation in philosophy of science and scientific epistemology.

Michael Friedman, “Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger” (2002)

And this all seems very reasonable and sensible, and indeed not so far off from the realms which many subsequent thinkers, from Quine to Sellars to Kuhn to Blumenberg to Apel to Habermas, have explored.

If anything, the bashing of Cassirer seems to be an outgrowth of his being too reasonable, too sensible, too down-to-earth, as though admitting the tenability of his position would put the more abstruse theorists out of a job. The embrace of radicalism appears to be a desperate stab at relevancy for areas of the profession feeling increasingly at risk of complete inconsequentiality. I believe this tendency to be self-defeating.

Embracing radicalism is an understandable reaction to the actual victory of science and the problems that it has brought, but it is not a particularly credible or respectable one. It does explain, though, the phenomenon of someone like Slavoj Zizek, who offers all of the radicalism of a Foucault with none of the content.

Beiser, who is something of an iconoclastic establishmentarian, seems far more heterodox by prescribing the truly deviant step of deep research, something that he follows Cassirer in practicing:

There are two kinds of philosophical historians: derivative and original. While the derivative follow the standard curriculum, the original have the powers to reform and create a new curriculum. It is the ideal and obligation of every genuine philosophical historian to be original, to get beyond the standard curriculum, to resist the pressure of pedagogical interests and intellectual fashions, so that he can give an accurate account of the depth and breadth of an historical period. No period of the philosophical past stands in more need of an original historian than nineteenth century philosophy. The standard tropes and figures do no justice to its depths, riches and powers. The ultimate purpose of this review is to give the reader some indication of how we must strive to get beyond them.

Frederick Beiser, Review of Alan D. Schrift and Daniel Conway (eds.), Nineteenth Century Philosophy: Revolutionary Responses to the Existing Order

The derivative historians are that much more harmful when they dismiss unfashionable thinkers as unrecoverable. When Skidelsky calls Cassirer “old Europe’s answer to Francis Fukuyama,” he only sounds small and myopic.

To answer Skidelsky’s implied question from earlier: Is culture an essentially liberating force? Not necessarily. Does it have the potential to be? Yes. That is sufficient.

9 Tired and Wrong Received Ideas

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, by Guy Davenport

These nine ideas are all wrong. (I believed many of these, whether explicitly or as an unstated assumption, at some point or another, so this post is directed at my past self as much as anyone.)

  1. The Greeks (Athens specifically) had a free direct democracy with open discussion, free of tyranny.
  2. Descartes formulated the fundamental concepts of rational subjectivity and selfhood under which we all still operate today, thus originating modernity.
  3. Enlightenment thinkers shared a rationalist, Panglossian optimism about controlling humanity and the state.
  4. The French Revolution was a seminal, epochal event that drastically and uniquely changed attitudes toward humanity, history, and politics.
  5. American religious fanaticism originates with the Puritans and associated peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  6. Hegel’s dialectic is of the form “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”
  7. Prior to the 20th century (or prior to Schleiermacher, Saussure, Wittgenstein, Derrida, etc.), language was taken to have determinate, definite meaning that directly referred to reality.
  8. Universal laws of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, hard-wired into the brain, have been discovered, which apply to all known languages.
  9. A two part slippage of political terms (note how one term appears in both lists):
    1. Capitalism = libetarianism = free markets = laissez-faire = trickle-down = globalization = free trade = neoliberalism = liberalism = supply-side = mercantilism = etc.
    2. Communism = Marxism = Leninism = socialism = regulated market = welfare state = liberalism = Keynesianism = Great Society = etc.

These are some of the ones that I think about most often, ones that are taken seriously by some people I respect. (I’m not going to list “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States” or “Edward Said was a Muslim fundamentalist,” because I’m lucky enough not to deal with people who believe these things, and I’m trying to list these in order to change people’s minds, which would be impossible with anyone who believes those two.)

These ideas are frequently debunked or contested, but still I frequently hear them stated with blithe certainty. Even when the case is debatable, as with the French Revolution, there is such exaggeration of its singular importance that no event short of the Second Coming could fulfill the importance assigned to it.

Oversimplification is the main sin here. Two forms of it present here are origination and conflation. Origination states that a certain idea, concept, or practice began with a certain person or people at a certain time and place, and simply did not exist before that. Conflation simply packages together terms like “subjectivity” and “selfhood” and “rationalism,” so that an attack on one serves as an attack on all of them. And with both of these these goes Inflation, where the key idea/event/person is elevated to such singular importance that it becomes an excuse not to search for any lesser-known ideas/events/people that might serve to complicate matters.

While discussing Derrida’s critique of Husserl, I criticized Derrida for invoking a simplistic, received view of language, and then tarring huge swaths of the linguistic and philosophical tradition with it. I’m far from the first to make that critique, and he’s far from the first to make that move. It’s a variation on the straw man argument. Via conflation, the straw man is used against many opponents, not just one. (It’s far more efficient.) By finding the same straw man in thinker after thinker, entire traditions can be invalidated and subverted, so much the better to make the critique appear more sweeping, profound, and revolutionary. Derrida was taking after Heidegger here, who was the absolute master of this technique. (Presence is always present.)

But such straw man arguments aren’t necessarily used for critiques. The ideas above are used both positively and negatively. They are pieces of conceptual history that seem so widely accepted that in a hundred years, people may have trouble figuring out that these assumptions underlay so much contemporary writing. People often no longer bother to explain them or even to state them. As an analogy, Frederick Beiser has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at the time, but people like me read Kant with no knowledge of it.

I’ll close with some wise words about conceptual generalization and simplification  from Albert O. Hirschman, who inspired this post. Here he is remarking on Marx’s famous “history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce” remark:

This is the second time I find a well-known generalization or aphorism about the history of events to be more nearly correct when applied to the history of ideas. The first time was with regard to Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Generalizing on the firm basis of this sample of two, I am tempted to formulate a “metalaw”: historical “laws” that are supposed to provide insights into the history of events come truly into their own in the history of ideas.

Does anyone else have particular favorite received ideas they’d like to give?

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