Dancing with the Devil

A good, very good, review of some unfortunate books.

One of the cool things that Fried’s review does is present the emotional stakes of Heidegger’s thought. What world-historical stakes the humanities and philosophy have in contemporary society, how they’re relevant, remains a major component of the kvetching about the subjects these days. It’s the area where self-styled “analytic” philosophy fails. Much of it reduces the subject to a Hawking-esque “handmaiden of the sciences” (Fried’s citation) on the one end and tries to dispel all mystery as so much linguistic imprecision on the other.[1] Mystery can be beautiful and discourse aesthetically compelling, and the best philosophy doesn’t just answer questions, but also captures the spirit[2] and moves the will. A professor once characterized Heidegger’s writing style as a kind of “dark poetry” and descriptions of his performance at Davos in 1929 characterize a thunderous fury underscoring his argument.[3]

For what it’s worth Heidegger’s reinterpretation of the question of Being as thrown into the world and radically finite, the description of which Fried here presents so clearly and so well, is actually that captivating. Being and Time, once you get a hang of the language, even today remains an astonishing text that punches far above its weight. It seeks to overthrow centuries of thought about the most fundamental questions of human experience by reworking Husserl’s phenomenology[4] into a method of self-interrogation, and, ultimately, self-comprehension. It aspires to a revolutionary mission different from, though not entirely unlike, Marx’s.

Perhaps that’s why Heidegger thought he could be the Marx of the Nazi movement. As Fried describes, he saw a historical opening for a transformation in thought that good old Martin thought Hitler & co. could help invigorate. And, of course, Heidegger embittered when that movement failed to live up to his fantasies, as any failed revolutionary would. Yet Heidegger did a lot of damage on the way.[5] It’s important to keep in mind that philosophers can become enraptured by the charisma of their own ideas as much as any of that philosopher’s followers can. That’s not because it’s bad to be carried away by ideas—the opposite, in fact—but it’s crucial to set off down paths that are ethically consistent with the world you want to see. The most interesting questions to address when a prominent figure fails, as Heidegger or Paul de Man did, are not whether they’re guilty or whether we should never read these peoples’ works again[6], but which new pathways those failings expose in the big questions these thinkers address, what their responsibility entails, and what sorts of demands the motion of History places on us now to generate novel, equally compelling, alternatives.

[1] Which totally isn’t to say some of it isn’t really interesting or useful! In much the same way that happens a lot in critical theory circles with Derrida especially, overzealous Wittgenstein devotees over the last couple of decades have, probably, taken a cool system of thought, loaded the gun with too much powder, and entirely missed the target, as the case may be. The analytic-continental divide in philosophy is mostly a myth, and there’s a lot of work that can be done by freely disregarding it.

[2] Of an individual or an age, really. Both work, though you do have to be careful of the incipient fascism thing with the latter.

[3] I’m thinking of Peter Gordon’s wonderful book Continental Divide especially, but can’t recall his exact phrasing, so I left out the direct citation. But go pick it up—lovely and evenhanded analysis of a moment in the history of philosophy where big things happened.

[4] Which, while exceedingly interesting does on face seem to be playing a small game. I disagree that it is, as I talked about in an earlier post.

[5] It makes you appreciate people like Derrida slightly more—as an interesting, compelling philosophical figure who at least seems to be a pretty stand-up guy.

[6] This post was, in part, spurred through a conversation with someone I met recently whose undergraduate English department had some sort of informal convention about never assigning de Man on syllabi because of his collaborationism.


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