David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: heidegger (page 5 of 7)

Heidegger on Mood

A human being who–as we say–is in good humour brings a lively atmosphere with them. Do they, in so doing, bring about an emotional experience which is then transmitted to others, in the manner in which infectious germs wander back and forth from one organism to another? We do indeed say that mood is infectious. Or another human being is with us, someone who through their manner of being makes everything depressing and puts a damper on everything: nobody steps out of their shell. What does this tell us? Moods are not side-effects, but are something which in advance determine our being with one another. It seems as though a mood is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which then attunes us through and through.

Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics

Even if you don’t buy the ontology, as I don’t, I think it’s right to say that the idea of pre-cognitive moods and their influence have been played down in notions of public discourse. The area in which they persist is, ironically, psychopathology. People talk about “depressed cognitions,” “manic cognitions,” “ideas of reference,” and so on, as though allowing one’s thoughts to be influenced by one’s prevailing mood sways one from the straight and narrow path of rationality. Of course, this is a total illusion, and the work of Antonio Damasio and other neurologists is confirming what should have been pretty obvious all along: that emotions are indispensable for cognition.

Still, I don’t think that it’s yet time to throw away cognitive-behavioral therapy, as boring as it is. (The old psychologist’s joke about CBT is that no matter what your problem is, the solution first involves making a giant list of things contributing to that problem and ranking them.) The very separation of mood from thought is wrong, so the only feasible model would be one of feedback, where thought influences mood and mood influences thought, and they team up in tandem to provide the inertia that keeps us in our befindlichkeit (i.e., our disposition towards the world).

Grondin on Gadamer

“Working out appropriate projections, anticipatory in nature, to be confirmed ‘by the things’ themselves, is the constant task of understanding” (Gadamer). This quotation does not fit the typical picture of Gadamer. His hermeneutic position is usually taken to be something for which there seems to be plentiful evidence: namely, that given the prejudice structure of understanding, there can never be any “confirmation by the things themselves.” But it is easy to show that his hermeneutics is quite misunderstood when taken thus. Even if Gadamer’s utterances are not always perfectly consistent, his “rehabilitation” of prejudices still warns us to be critically “aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” On the other hand, Gadamer does not fall into the positivist extreme of calling for a negation of the prejudice structure of understanding in order to let the thing speak for itself without being obfuscated by subjectivity. A reflexively critical understanding of the kind contended for will be concerned “not merely to form anticipatory ideas, but to make them conscious, so as to monitor them and thus acquire right understanding from the things themselves.” This is what Gadamer finds in Heidegger: the mean between the positivist dissolution of the self and Nietzsche’s universal perspectivism. The question is only how one is to come by the “appropriate” fore-projections that permit the “thing itself” to speak.

Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics

This has the ring of truth for me, and it embodies one of the central Gadamerian concepts of why a “method” is needed at all, or more accurately, how it comes into existence. Pace deconstructionism, Gadamer seeks to portray the process of how truth criteria evolve over time, not to postpone forever the idea that we could ever have them, but to indicate the persistence of changing standards of truth, verification, correctness, and understanding. The two extremes that Gadamer rejects are, first, the analytic (verificationist) pretense towards objectivity, and, second, the purely subjectivist account by which meaning and criteria fail to make any sense on their own terms, dismissing the first as impossible and the second as useless. The speaking of the “thing itself” is not some timeless universal innate to the text, but the arrival at a convention of truth under the current socio-historical horizon that can be seen as being as “accurate” as possible. The “method” for doing so is the process of questioning prejudice and, more simply, being aware of it. This “working out” involves strictures given to us by the text itself, not just our own prejudices. The understanding we obtain this way, for Gadamer, is as good as it gets. The reason the thing itself then speaks is that we have achieved the purest interaction with it possible under the inevitable influence of remaining subjective prejudices, partially cognitivized. Then, under the most successful application of this “method,” what we can glean from the text is what the text says to us. I take this to be the ontology of Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

A written tradition is not a fragment of a past world, but has already raised itself beyond this into the sphere of the meaning that it expresses. The ideality of the word is what raises everything linguistic beyond the finitude and transience that characterize other remnants of past existence. It is not this document, as a piece of the past, that is the bearer of tradition but the continuity of memory. Through it tradition becomes part of our own world, and thus what it communicates can be stated immediately. Where we have a written tradition, we are not just told a particular thing; a past humanity itself becomes present to us in its general relation to the world….

Thus written texts present the real hermeneutical task. Writing is self-alienation. Overcoming it, reading the text, is thus the highest task of understanding.

Gadamer, Truth and Method (392)

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Here I was about to write on Dante, and I hear that Rorty has passed away. Rorty is such a paradoxical and multifaceted figure that his death gives me cause to ponder my own philosophical orientations and biases. Even more than other analytic “slipstream” figures (my appropriated, tongue-in-cheek term for those analytics who headed, intentionally or unintentionally, towards an epistemological and hermeneutic rapprochement with continental developments: late Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom, all of whom owe some kind of debt to the American pragmatists, particularly Peirce), Rorty let himself abandon the analytic style and rigor and embrace far more historicist positions. And I feel this pull myself. But complicating this is the seeming existence of three Rortys. In roughly chronological order:

  1. the analytic “linguistic turn” Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, etc.)
  2. the pragmatic deconstructionist Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, etc.)
  3. the liberal populist Rorty (Achieving Our Country, late essays, etc.)

Even worse, the earlier Rortys continued to coexist with the later ones, although the analytic Rorty disappears mostly from the picture post-Contingency. The reason for this vanishing is that Rorty wisely realized that the post-Sellarsian philosophy of language was neither useful nor supportive of the relativistic pragmatic liberalism that the other two Rortys wanted to promote. Between the first two Rortys is Rorty turning his back on the analytic tradition and collapsing the lessons of Sellars and Quine into a roughly deconstructionist stance that Rorty inherits from Derrida, as well as an explicit embrace of historicism. There is little talk of sensing, mind, or language as practice in his later work, though clearly Rorty maintained enough affinities with his analytic forefathers to acutely criticize post-Kripkean analytic metaphysics. I am in great sympathy when in that article, he observes, criticizing Kripke-worshiper Scott Soames:

To my mind, the story of 20th-century analytic philosophy (including the role of Kripke in that story) is best told by highlighting questions about whether truth is a matter of correspondence, about what is and is not ‘out there’ to be corresponded to, and about whether there is any sense in which thought makes ‘direct contact’ with reality. So I regret that Soames’s history shoves these issues into the background. But perhaps correspondence is just my hobbyhorse, as necessity is his.

Couple “language” with “thought” and “truth,” and this is indeed my view of modern analytic philosophy as well. But even as he says this, his later work makes it clear that Rorty had lost interest in this question in and of itself, and was far more concerned with its implications and utility in political and cultural frameworks. His leap to an embrace of continental traditions is not surprising in this light, and his status as a maverick seems to be mostly due to this leap alone. His actual positions fit squarely into a deconstructionist (or “post-structuralist,” if you will) mainstream, with a little American flavoring. With regard to his treatment of meaning and language, Rorty’s actual separation from Derrida lies less in his ideology and more in the comparative clarity of his writing, which did as much to offer analytics a bridge to deconstructionist thought as it did to antagonize them towards it.

Perhaps it was this clarity that caused the third Rorty to evolve, in which he popularized his style even further and, most notably, wrote a little book called Achieving Our Country, celebrating Emerson and Dewey as models for a pragmatic politics. No matter that much of what he advocates in this book is unsubstantiable by Rortys 1 and 2. It was clear that after having embraced a heterodox liberalism under the guise of “liberal ironism” in his second incarnation, he was ready to put that into practice and drop the theory to attempt a concrete politics in the tradition of Dewey. Yet while Habermas attempted to ground such a liberalism in a dense, coherent account of intersubjectivity, Rorty seemed to have lost interest in fighting with other philosophers, and wanted to speak to the people. The book was not popular, though it earned an amusing rebuke from George Will in Time, who must have seen it as some sort of threat, or as a convenient strawman for attacking academia. That last point is particularly ironic, as Rorty #3 did indeed drop (or at least obscure) all of the relativist baggage that David “Black Panthers and Blacklists” Horowitz thinks threatens our nation. Some good it did him. In the late essays published (by Penguin!) in Philosophy and Social Hope, he is attacking Marx and criticizing philosophical leftists like Derrida for embracing Marxism, in between celebrating Forster and (again) Dewey.

Ironically enough, I see something of a parallel development in Derrida, who begins as an unorthodox but traditional Husserlian phenomenologist, then develops an aggressive deconstructionism in contrast to preceding structuralist trends, and finally ends his life advocating for the EU and Enlightenment values and making nice with arch-enemy Habermas in the name of liberalism. But Derrida never quite abandoned his audiences the way that Rorty 1 and Rorty 2 did.


There have been countless accounts of analytic vs. continental personalities, and I only offer this one on the
grounds that it’s purely anecdotal. (I use “continental” here as shorthand for the poststructuralist mainstream that holds sway in America: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Agamben. No need to correct me on this point; I know.) But my experience has been that on assuming a position, analytics are far more likely to take it as truth to be put into practice, while continentals tend to embrace a position as justificatory rhetoric. For instance, the analytic incompatibilist determinists I know, who believe in no free will and no moral responsibility, seriously apply such beliefs in their daily lives: they picture people as robots to be corrected when they malfunction, and they have no patience with even the idea of revenge. Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes. (Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.) On the other hand, the continentals I’ve known have been far more likely to stick with what is, in effect, a foundationalist standpoint, and use philosophical works, appropriately or otherwise, to justify them. I have seen many continentals discourse on the indefinite postponement and deferral of truth and meaning, only then to proclaim the moral evil of the Enlightenment, capitalism, the United States, Europe, etc. One could blame Heidegger for being especially bad at this, but my unjustified suspicion is that the indifference to rhetoric falls out of the modern continental approach itself, just as the analytic approach produces its dogmatists. For whatever reason, Rorty’s “irony” came to dominate his view to the point that such a serious embrace of analytic metaphysical positions became anathema to him. Yet because he was in America or because he was outside the continental scene or because he just was like that, he failed to feel the urgency to dive into the continental pool.

Many of the figures mentioned above, despite my complaints, were brilliant and did remarkable work in analytic or continental philosophy. I think Rorty will be remembered for pursuing a more aggressive synthesis than most more than for espousing a particular position. I don’t necessarily see this as a fault, because I think his intent ultimately was not to stake out a singular philosophical position, but it does complicate how to assess his stature. Maybe because I am something of a philosopher, I can’t think of him as being as important as Habermas, Davidson, or even Derrida, even though I have problems with all three of them. If Rorty had had another fifty years, perhaps he would have produced a big book that would have been a liberal, anti-communitarian version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; more likely, though, he would have gotten involved in politics (as another of his spiritual compatriots, Charles Taylor, actually did). He would have made a good columnist for the New York Times, certainly a better one than the universally ridiculed Stanley Fish. (But there I go, shooting Fish in a barrel again….)

Carl Schmitt

Long Sunday has been running a series of posts on Carl Schmitt. I am not at all a fan or a student of Schmitt, and I am not intimately familiar with his work. From what I have read of his work, however, I believe there is far more to learn about politics and political philosophy in the 20th century from, for example, Karl Polanyi, Richard J. Bernstein, Joseph Schumpeter, Fernand Braudel, Randolph Bourne, Benedict Anderson, Leszek Kolakowski, Barrington Moore, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, and Robert Musil. Conveniently for me, these thinkers are all free of the Nazi baggage with which Schmitt is saddled. While I don’t plan to participate in the discussion, I do want to examine some of the axiomatic statements that have been made, especially around Schmitt’s Nazi involvement.

Whatever their differences, there is one undoubted similarity between Schmitt and the Left (I capitalize it to distinguish its doctrinaire manifestation from the all-encompassing anti-Bush, pro-competence anti-imperialism that passes for leftism in the United States these days, on which I hope we all agree): their anti-liberalism. As I said, I think Stanley Fish’s recent op-ed is one of the more concise statements of this position. Craig picks up this thread when he says:

Perhaps, then, the fascination with Schmitt qua Nazi has more to do with the aspirations of left politics than with any real danger – at least insofar as that danger is fascist. Thus, the point in such ‘critiques’ isn’t fascism, but rather those who do not have the common sense to be decent, complacent liberals.

I.e., people who are attacking Schmitt for being a Nazi are really attacking him because he threatens their complacent liberal world-view. This is also something of an old saw, recently enshrined more convincingly in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, which was in essence a vicious attack on those who would try to work within a rotten system to change it. It reminds me of those lyrics that Lester Bangs quotes in his review of Chicago at Carnegie Hall (probably his defining moment):

For the “preaching” vocal improvisition in the Fourth Movement of “It Better End Soon”–“We’ve gotta do it right / Within this system / Gonna take over / But within this system”–the They Got the Guns But We Got the Numbers Award.

But this is a conception of liberalism not as an ideology but as a class phenomenon, that of sheltered middle-class complicity. Interesting how the term “liberal” slides from being an ideology to that of a generalized accomplice, much as it has to the extreme right factions in this country: not liking Bush makes you a liberal. At any rate, I don’t think this criticism really flies, since there are plenty of non-Nazi anti-liberal thinkers who are being mostly ignored as well. (Herbert von Karajan was far more of a Nazi than Wilhelm Furtwangler, but I do not believe that Furtwangler is less famous than Karajan these days because he was a vastly better and more challenging conductor.) But I digress; this is more a matter of positioning.

Craig notes two black marks on Schmitt’s record:

1933 and 1945. These two years have overdetermined the subsequent reception of Carl Schmitt’s thought and influence. In 1933, as we all know, Schmitt joined the Nazi party; the same month as Martin Heidegger. In 1945, Schmitt was released from internment at Nuremberg, at which point he entered exile, never again to teach in West Germany or to hold an academic position.

Craig implies that this list covers all the big-ticket items, but it does not. To make a case for Schmitt, it would first be necessary to lay out a few other ignominious dates. October, 1936, when he declared to a convention of law professors that German law must be cleansed of the “Jewish spirit.” June, 1934, when he called Hitler’s “Long Knives” purges “the highest form of administrative justice.” September, 1936, when with much contemporary resonance, he defends the Inquisition (though not its methods of torture) as a model of justice, since it requires confessions before convictions. October, 1936 again, when he quoted Hitler: “In that I defend myself against the Jews, I struggle to do the work of the Lord.” And many of the months and years after the war in which he wrote in his journals such statements as “Jews remain Jews while Communists can improve themselves and change. The real enemy is the assimilated Jew.” Edmund Fawcett writes:

Unlike the involvement of Heidegger, who largely fell silent after early pro-Nazi encomiums, Schmitt’s engagement with Hitlerism was nevertheless lasting and open. He re-edited his publications, playing down references to Jewish or left-wing thinkers and adding anti-Semitic asides. In October 1936, he spoke at a conference on “German law in the fight against the Jewish intellect”, ending with Hitler’s words, “By fending off the Jew, I struggle for the work of the Lord”. After 1940, Schmitt lectured in Occupied Europe on Nazi legal and cultural policy.

[In his post-war journals] He derided returning exiles who “treasured their virtue like booty” and mocked the German historians who were trying to tell the truth about what had happened. Thomas Mann came in for special scorn, a hated symbol to Schmitt of high-bourgeois probity, whom he called “a reputable fraud”.

That’s not to mention 1938, in which Schmitt wrote that Jews sit around waiting for Christians to die in battle and “then eat the flesh of those killed and live off it” (The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes).

So by all means, attempt to distinguish Schmitt’s philosophy from his Nazi activities, but let’s not downplay the latter when attempting to explicate them.

Craig asks a couple of rhetorical follow-ups, which I think deserve answers. The questions are in italics.

Why, then, is Heidegger spared the assault that Schmitt has suffered? Insomuch as there can be a distinction, I too find Schmitt to have been a more vigorous Nazi and anti-semite than Heidegger (or even Celine), but I see little point in measuring sins. My answer would be that Heidegger has not been spared such an assault. In his well-written introduction to Heidegger, George Steiner looks unflinchingly at the problem of Heidegger’s Nazism and excuses nothing. Contrast it with Craig’s remarks.

What about others who were either sympathizers or full members of the party? What about them indeed? As always in life, justice was not done. People like Karajan got off far too lightly, while people like Klages and Baeumler were justly marginalized. De Man and Heidegger have suffered their share of trouble as well, as well they should. We should be more than troubled by these things.

Why is it acceptable for artists, such as Eliot and Pound, to have had fascist sympathies? Is it? The problem of fascist, anti-semitic or otherwise repellent sympathies plagues the histories of all disciplines. Pound forever will stand with Wyndham Lewis and Lord Haw-haw as one of the more nauseating British fascists. Kipling was a colonialist. Dostoevsky and Celine were anti-semites. So was Thomas Edison. Their beliefs are inscribed in their records and we read them with that knowledge.

What was so dangerous about Schmitt that he was interned at Nuremberg in preparation for trial and then prohibited an academic job after the war? I confess to not understanding this question, as this fate befell many (but not all) of those who had similar Nazi memberships and sympathies. Neither Germany seemed to want much to do with them. Some (let me bash on Karajan some more, for example) were unfairly rehabilitated.

Why does such a pariah, such a horrendous figure appeal so greatly to certain segments of the left? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

I do ultimately find the Left’s tolerance for Schmitt somewhat ironic. In a Leftist arts community where there has been a litmus test of whether one’s poetry helps to establish socialism in the world today, it’s hard to imagine a litmus test that Schmitt could ever pass. Personally, I find the work of disentangling his political philosophy from his Nazi viewpoints to be unrewarding and possibly futile. Personally, I simply find Heidegger to be a far more original thinker, and I spend my time worrying about his Nazi associations rather than Schmitt’s. There is much room for disagreement on these points, but we must at least be honest about the degree and mode of Schmitt’s Nazi involvement and respect critiques based on them inasmuch as they are factual, regardless of motive. And to those who would say that my distaste towards Schmitt owing to his Nazi views has anything in the least to do with his challenging of my complacent liberalism, I cry bullshit.

J.M. Coetzee: Slow Man

The collective aggrievement from critics that greeted Elizabeth Costello’s appearance in Slow Man was the sigh of the Nobel prize winner again not doing what he was supposed to do. Instead of writing another Disgrace, he brings back the consternating title character of his last book, this time in a metafictional conceit, as she proclaims herself the author of Slow Man.

I argued before that the critics mostly got Elizabeth Costello wrong, particularly in identifying Costello with Coetzee. Here again the reviews make a mishmash of this superficially simple book. John Lanchester makes the huge mistake of saying that the titular slow man, Paul Rayment, “will not act. He refuses to animate the narrative he is in.” A read of the book reveals this to be false: Rayment actually traces a traditional narrative arc through the book. After losing his leg in a bicycle accient, he entangles himself in the life his at-home nurse Marijana because he is attracted to her, and eventually comes to fund the education of her son, though not without some conflict with her husband. His actions with Marijana are impetuous and embarrassing, but the ultimate end is a happy one, perhaps the happiest ending Coetzee has ever committed to paper. The injury serves a higher purpose.

There is a post-colonial aspect to the narrative of a relatively poor Croatian immigrant acting as a nurse to an injured, privileged white man. The main difficulties in the narrative arise from the white man’s burden tactics Paul adopts to get closer to Marijana, and Marijana’s discomfort with them. Through seeing her son as a person, not a means to an end, Paul grows out of this type of relation, but the connections with earlier Coetzee works, particularly Foe and Disgrace, are inarguably present, if not blatant. Pankaj Mishra teases out some of these connections in his review, but falls short of fitting the pieces together.

But this time the postcolonial theorizing is fake, or at least highly artificial. For the first seventy pages, before Costello shows up, it is all in Paul’s mind. He has an accident, and he feels a bit of attraction to Marijana, but he doesn’t do anything about it. Every action he takes that moves the actual plot along is contrived or advocated by Costello. She arranges an affair that spurs Paul to make a move on Marijana, then either berates or flatters him into keeping it up despite Marijana’s clear disapproval. Without Costello’s intervention, it is clear, Paul would quite sensibly have never acted on his feelings for Marijana, and the story–the meat of the book–would not have taken place. Likewise, Costello provides Paul with impeccable facts about Marijana and her family that he could not otherwise find out and verify.

Costello’s presence illuminates exactly how unlikely Paul’s actions are and how contrived the circumstances must be for them to come about. Costello browbeats him: “Become major, Paul. Live like a hero. That is what the classics teach us. Be a main character. Otherwise what is life for?” And he does. But Costello’s aims are hardly virtuous. She is not as irritating as she was in Elizabeth Costello, but her irrationality and wildly inflated sense of herself are still plenty obnoxious. We are given some excerpts from her fiction this time, and they are not good:

It is old plasticine, from the last Christmas stocking. The pristine cakes of brick red, leaf green, sky blue have bled into each other by now and become a leaden purple. Why, he wonders–why does the bright grow dull and the dull never bright? What would it need to make the purple fade away and the red and blue and green emerge again, like chicks from a shell?

[This raises the point that Costello is not likely to be the author of the pristine, controlled prose of Slow Man.]

Costello is ultimately in search of a story and the machinations she sets in motion are necessary to obtain it. People have focused on the tricky relationship between Costello and her characters, but Coetzee is more significantly focused on the relationship between author and reader. To what extent, he asks, does the effectiveness of fiction rely on these sorts of manipulations remaining hidden from the reader? Slow Man attempts to show a novel from the side of creation rather from the side of consumption, and the subject of the novel–this postcolonial narrative–self-destructs as a result of the exposure. It specifically damages the very symbolism and allegorical resonances that underpinned Disgrace and Foe, because Paul’s reticence is forever separating him (in the Heideggerian sense of alienation) from being thrown into the narrative role that he does eventually play. Costello’s presence amplifies this dissonance beyond all else.

I believe that Slow Man is more than anything a critique of Disgrace and his other past works, a way of Coetzee undermining his past techniques and renouncing the artificial narrativity that Galen Strawson has so pungently described. Costello is not a surrogate for Coetzee, but rather an incarnation of any writer’s will and the desire to shape reality into pleasing novelistic shapes through unpleasant means. I had issues with Disgrace because I believed that the character’s acts and destinies were overdetermined by the historical context Coetzee was trying to convey. (James Wood makes similar points.) Slow Man appears to be Coetzee’s confession. Always very self-aware, Coetzee seems to have abandoned the neat psychological and sociopolitical structures of authors like Alberto Moravia and turned not against their methods, but against their certainty.

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