Monday, June 06, 2005

Goodbye Heidegger, Hello Sunshine!


And that's a wrap. Today I sat my exam for the rightly maligned "Philosophy and Existentialism" course. As much as I hate the use of "I" on this blog, today it could not be avoided. Today let us pose the question - why do I hate Heidegger, but love philosophy? How is it that the opinions of one man could so change my attitudes to this subject that provides so much depth of thought and richness of understanding? How can so many ardent fans of his work be wrong?

Commence Very Long Rant.

Heidegger is a kind of hero-figure, one of the Great Ancestors of existentialism, and the lifeblood of modern philosophy - or so some would have you believe. This German cut a grouchy but imposing figure, producing his opus "Being and Time" in an almost violent rebellion against philosophical history since ancient times.

The chief difficulty I have with Heidegger is his love of complexity and alienating language. If Wittgenstein were alive today, he might well accuse the big H of playing an enormous language-game, the result of which is to confound the truth so completely that one no longer recognise it. An obsession with partially borrowed meanings and philosophical mumbo jumbo is his sin.

The central tenet of Heidegger's thought is that there is some unifying concept which underlies the meaning of all human existence. Of course, he only reaches this point on about page 300. He starts, instead, with a discussion the meaning of which cannot be guessed at. Life in its every-dayness. Being as such. He tries so hard to find an underlying system for understanding living and dying that he finds one. For him, phenomenology is an attempt to capture existence as though it itself has structure. The existence of "Dasein" - in a nutshell human existence - he argues has certain structures and ways of existing which are revealed by looking at all the different ways they can exist.

It is my firm belief that he has fallen into a language trap - the trap of is. What "is" existence. What is being "as" such. All these phrases which he so dearly uses contain within them the linguistic feature of describing a thing. Not necessarily an existing thing, but nonetheless a conceptual unit which can be talked about meaningfully.

For me, there is no "answer" to what it means to exist. The answer, as I have stated before, is just the meaning we give to it. For Heidegger, the mission is to discover unifying consistencies between all the different ways in which humans exist. Is this possible? Even he admits not. What he proposes is that there are unifying structures to the modes of existence we find ourselves in.

Underlying that structure is itself another common element. Each can be seen as an example of a human showing concern for the world around him. Humans have existential - which in this case means a kind of pre-theoretical capacity - for understanding the world around them. Any specific account of existence is assigned another moniker - existentiell.

Well, I think it's an easy claim to accept that man's mental structures allow him to interpret the world in many ways. But is this really the meaning of life? At the end of the chain of reasoning, is our life merely a kind of hard-wired concern for the world in which we find ourselves? Are we simply curious? Do we really need thirty new words, cut from bastardised English and German to put forward the position that man has certain natural structures of interpreting the world?

Even more ridiculous I find are his claims about authenticity and in-authenticity. Inauthenticity is the simplest to consider - a naive understanding of the world in terms of that which we have been merely taught, rather than analysing ourselves. This position is hardly new - it is put as strongly by the most opposite view I can think of, that of objectivism - so I am discinclined to be amazed. Authenticity is the awareness that our own nature is colouring and defining our view.

Spread out over hundreds of incomprehensible pages are such simple observations, couched in language such as ready-at-hand, worldhood, thrownness, existential and existentiell, ontic and ontological, factical and factual, historical and historicity - ridiculous terms used and altered to reflect a confused thought process, created to escape a confusion that was created only by failing to understand the difference between grammatical structure and meaning.

Heidegger is sent spinning the the admittedly sometimes irritating tendency of philosopher to argue for particular interpretations of the world which are clearly equally valid or invalid. Theories of existence are overturned daily, leaving one frustrated and angry at out inability to come to any sensible conclusions about our own lives.

The search for a meta-structure to existence, the boiling down of meaning into an overcomplex theoretical superstructure of human understanding is an attempt to answer why the questions of philosophy seem to so quickly fall apart.

Heidegger was left with the only two certainties which he could see - mortality and care for the world. However he himself was guilty of his own sin. He created a system, and argued for it, and now its fundamentals are in question. Perhaps he himself could not concieve of a world in which conscious beings did not die, or of people who did not fit his pre-theoretic structures, but every day I see reasons to deviate from the structure he puts forward.

His observations are sometimes acute, but the language-world he has constructed for himself to me seems to be merely a sytematic shield by which he severs the connection between his claims and true meaning. For me, something is true if one can act in the world as though it were true. Heidegger has created a system which is not falsifiable. By thinking and acting, per se, I am proving his system. What he has described is the meaning of life in terms which have no meaning, and thus no falsehood - and no truth.

Anyone who's still with me, sorry for the rant. Oh, and I believe existentialism gets much better than Heidegger.

So, the conclusion? Heidegger attacks everything which I hold valuable about philosophy. He travels from observation not toward meaning but away from it. Not toward meaningful statements but toward statements which are so general as to have no meaning - to make no claim. Instead of adding richness to our language and thoughts, he adds complexity and descriptions only of themselves.



Blogger Helen said...

And hello to you,too! Nice to meet you.

6/06/2005 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I believe philosophy is the love of wisdom and should be the guide for us to live a good life. I think it has degenerated in modern times into the study of words.

6/07/2005 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

I agree with you Paul! Sometimes how we use words gives us extra hints about how we are thinking, but sometimes one can lose the wood, on account of all the trees in the way.


6/07/2005 10:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you so much. You make me feel less stupid for hating Heidegger.

9/29/2010 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger anatole said...

What most disgusts me with Heidegger is his undisciplined, utterly superficial treatment of "die Welt." Only those who are both astronomers and geologists (like me) ought to be on such familiar terms with the term.

5/24/2014 09:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For H you are being 'authentic' if you are doing what he thinks you should be doing. Presumably being a nazi got you the badge in his day. Great arcticle.

6/23/2017 02:22:00 PM  

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