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Heidegger’s Turn Against Humanism

Monday, 5 Aug 2013

Martin Heidegger on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn First posted on Saturday, 29 September 2012 at 16:48

I’m posting my notes on the Youtube public video lecture Heidegger’s Turn Against Humanism. Heidegger’s anti-humanist position fascinates me and, in many respects, remains the unexploded political bomb shell of history. For the time being, neo-liberalism has managed to contain it within a compliant academia.

Heidegger’s Turn Against Humanism.

Almost from the start, Heidegger was against philosophies of the subject.

He triggered the collapse of fundamentalism, the view that, in Descarte’s sense, we can find the ultimate sources of human knowledge and certainty about the world; the view that the subject, even though it might be alienated, is the true source of meaning.

This collapse would lead philosophy into post-modernism.

For post-modernism, all the metaphysical and epistemological aims of modern philosophy since the the 17th century, since Descartes, are bankrupt.

In Heidegger’s Being and Time, the true goal was the meaning of being itself.

Heidegger chose Dasein as the mode of access to the larger questions of the meaning of being.

In his later work, shortly after Being and Time, he came to see his starting point with Dasein as a humanist or anthropocentric mistake and he came to reject what was most existential in his early work.

Jacque Derrida wrote an article, Ousia and Gramme: Note on a Note in Being and Time, about the metaphysical residue in Being and Time, disingenuously claiming to have discovered it himself. Derrida built an academic career out of repackaging Heidegger in various ways, but that is an argument for development at some other time.

We can disregard Derrida’s claim, as it was Heidegger’s self-acknowledgement of a metaphysical residue in his early work that came to be his ‘turn’; his call for an end to philosophy itself. He saw the entire western tradition since the Greeks as an error, a mistaken approach to being, from which he himself was not immune in the first stages of his philosophical development.

This mistaken approach was connected to the notion of fallenness in Being and Time, i.e. our fallen everyday selves, concerned with the they-self and things, the component of Dasein’s existence that deals with the present.

For Heidegger, the focus on presence, things here and now, this moment, understood outside the context of time, was central to the mistake of western philosophy throughout its history.

His solution was not to replace western philosophy’s mistaken concepts with a new set of concepts, but to think about what was being revealed in the very origin of the era at the beginning of western philosophy. He would return to the fork in the road, where the wrong fork was taken, and meditate on that moment.

His later work became an unremitting criticism of the whole genre of western philosophy, a truly radical view, potentially a world-changing view.

Heidegger turned more towards being, trying to think the meaning of being without thinking through or following Dasein.

He pressed the ontological difference between being and beings.

Herecognised that being could not be formulated or described in the propositional language of traditional philosophy, logic or science.

Hethought so radically that, in order to talk about the meaning of being,he had to abandon the very logical form of the proposition and discussion that most philosophical enquirers engage in.

Indeed, being, for Heidegger, was equivalent to nothing, in the sense of no-thing, i.e. not being an entity.

Crucial to this turning was the concept of truth.

In Being and Time, Heidegger defined truth not as correspondence, but as Aletheia, which means disclosure or unconcealment.

Instead of thinking about truth as a characteristic of belief or ideas in our heads, what we mean by truth is just that things are revealed to us.

In Being and Time he had called man the clearing. Dasein is the place where being reveals itself or, what other philosophers would say, how we experience the world.

However, in his later work, he avoided discussion of Dasein, instead arguing that being is responsible for disclosure and concealment. Truth is when being reveals itself. Falsehood or error is when being conceals itself.

Heidegger wrote an essay in 1943 called On the Essence of Truth. Appended to it in 1949 was a note. He wrote - “the essence of truth is the truth of essence”. The being of truth is the unconcealment of being. Truth is being’s self-disclosure.

He turned around the subject and predicate.

Dasein does not reveal the world through its presence. Being is a sheltering that lightens, that in its nature shows or conceals itself.

Such a presentation of being had remained unthought in philosophy until Heidegger. Philosophy by its nature since Plato, has been unable to see this. Philosophy could not get beyond the light that Dasein brings, tosee that which is lightened or revealed by being itself, in its various epochs of history.

Heidegger turned the tables on the idealism that began with Kant and was continued in a different way by Husserl.

He pressed his critique hard enough to regard his own Being and Time as an outworn continuation of that tradition and came to believe his groundbreaking work was flawed.

All philosophy, from Plato, through Being and Time, shared a humanism, i.e. the philosophical tradition in the west had conceived being through human being or Dasein,or some feature of Dasein like experience or ideas or understanding or concepts, e.g. Descarte’s notion of the mental substance, or of Kant’s synthetic a priori, claiming that being had always been understood through some piece of ourselves or piece of our mind.

Platonism in its various guises had always tried to portray whatever appears, phenomena, reality, as the work of being’s self-discourse.

All former philosophical thought was now seen by Heidegger as human centred and anthropocentric.

Ina series of lectures on Nietzsche, Heidegger held that Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ was the fulfilment of the metaphysics of ideas begun by Plato.

Nietzsche did not think he was continuing anything that Plato had said, but Heidegger believed that at the heart of Western thought’s approach to being is power.

The attempt had always been to understand being through and something about us, not being itself, and thereby gain a kind of conceptual control over being.

Humanism, in Heidegger’s opinion, had now run its course.

Plato’s understanding of form, compounded by Kant’s Copernican revolution, held that experience, reality or objectivity must always conform to the individual’s concepts, not the other way around.

Just as in the naturalist’s tradition, the Aristotelian conception of substance and modern science and technology, being is made subject to human creation.

We think of being as something over which we have control; as something that’s strained through some feature of our understanding.

Heidegger believed that this human-centric worldview was at the root of what Nietzsche would call our will to power.

The whole tradition of western philosophy had been an expression of the human will to power, by which we seek to dominate being rather than understand it.

In the 1947 paper, Letter on Humanism, Heidegger repudiated Satre’s explicit identification of existentialism with humanism. For Satre, existentialism and humanism were almost the same thing.

In Satrian existentialism, there is no God, nature, no society to guide or tell me what to do. Satre had a Promethean, heroic notion of the human subject. We must make choices as individuals and that is what gives human beings their dignity.

So existentialism,by negating God, in Satre’s version, left us with ourselves. Nature in Satre does not matter. Being is all-important, not consciousness, which is an entirely different thing. And so for Satre, humanism and existentialism are the same thing.

This conflation of humanism and existentialism was exactly what Heidegger criticised, because he now said that all humanism did was provide man with a warrant to override and dictate a conceptual scheme to being.

Humanism is traditionally connected to idealism and subjectivity, the notion that the human subject is the centre of things or is the most valuable of things; that through which we find a reflection of true being.

This same viewpoint has always been true in western religious traditions, i.e. I live in a natural world, but if I am made in the likeness of God I have a closer relationship to the origin of all things, to being itself, than everything else I am surrounded by in nature.

Satre’s humanism is just an extenuation of the history of western metaphysics, the inner meaning of which was made most explicit in Nietzsche’s will topower.

A true humanism that recognised the truth of being, would know that the essence of the human is simply its openness to being.

Heidegger says that man should not concern himself as the lord of being, but as the shepherd of being.

He wrote in conclusion to his Letter on Humanism that “the thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics, a name identical to philosophy”. Philosophy itself, like metaphysics, has placed humanity in the centre rather than being itself. That must come to an end he thinks, if we are to think in any new way.

In the 1953 essay, The Question Concerning Technology, Hiedegger said that technology enframes beings as standing reserve.

By standing reserve he meant technology treats being as stuff.

A metaphor for standing reserve is inventory, i.e. all the materials waiting to be used.

Technology enframes beings that way.

The use of modern technological devices along with the scientific theories that understand them, justify them and are used in operating them, impose a framework, or a structure though which we understand the world.

This treats all being as resource or inventory, a status which covers over the being that is disclosed.

We,in the modern world, no longer experience being as it disclosed itself to earlier human beings. At all times in history being has disclosed itself and also concealed itself. We understood some things and not others.

But in our age, there is a threat to our understanding of being.

Science and technology are themselves the completion of the metaphysics that began with Plato, which treated being through presence or the present, one mode of time, and projected onto this presence the ideas or concepts that were once the creation of the philosophical imagination. Being is then shrunk to what is present, and the present is made dependent on the mind’s ideas.

For example, the question, what is this lectern?

Heidegger would say - at the very moment that I frame the question in that way, I have already obliterated any chance of thinking about being, because what I have done is shrink time to the present moment and said, in effect, what is here right now. Here’s a physical object, a bit of presence, a thing.

It has no other meanings or roles in life. I don’t look at the possibilities. I don’t look at its history. I don’t look at where its going, where it has been. I take it here, now, and ignore everything else. I shrink being to the present moment.

And then I try to use ideas and say the ideas presently in my mind are the key to understanding the thing. So I have both shrunk to the present and claimed that the concept of ‘lectern’ in my head is somehow the key to understanding this being, this entity which is being disclosed.

How can we overcome this, our ignoring being as it reveals itself?

This can only be overcome by returning to the notion of Aletheia, or truth as unconcealment, rather than accurate representation of propositional truth, all those philosophical ideas we’ve developed for 2000 years.

Only then can we safeguard the mysterious non-entitative disclosure of being.

Being discloses itself. There is mystery in that. Our job is to think that without destroying it, and the philosophical tradition destroys it. Or,rather, destroys the possibility of thinking about it in any deep way.

Overcoming technology does not mean rejecting or destroying it. It’s a bit more sophisticated than that. It means returning to the concealed truth that technology has covered over. That technology was itself a creative act. Attending to the creative act of the invention of technology can be a way to understand what lies beneath the technology.

At some point in the philosophical fork in the road, human beings created something novel. That creation can teach us something, because being has disclosed something to us whenever we create something new. But quickly we get so concerned with the created thing, with the new technology for example, that we forget the being that lies under it. So the technology fascinates us and lets our attention pass over being without noticing what has been granted by being.

What we need is not the absence of technology, but sensitivity to the truth, Aletheia, that which has been disclosed by the creation and use of the technology.

Being itself must grant and frame the oblivion of itself.

Being has granted us marvelous new means by which we are able to ignore being.

It is our task to turn again, to turn that moment into unconcealment.

Technology,the very heart of our greatest mistake, is the place to look to try to understand what we have forgotten and what has been concealed from us.

What is needed then to do this is not philosophy, but what Heidegger called thinking.

In thinking technology, Heidegger believed that we must return to the ancient Greek notion of Techne, the spirit (daimona) of art, technical skill and craft. The concept of Techne precedes the historic separation of fine art and utilitarian creation. This was the purpose of his essay on technology, to get us back to that point.

In the later essay, 1966, The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking, Heidegger made the remarkable claim that cybernetics or information technology (we would say today the telecommunications revolution) is the final fulfilment of philosophy.

Because it is an example of the will to power, an understanding of reality as pure information.

Information is, after all, something immediately accessible to the mind.

To try to understand being as if it were information is like trying to say, in Plato’s sense, that the true reality is an idea.

All this is wrong of course from Heidegger’s point of view.

Heidegger claimed that philosophy has been completed by science and technology.

Contemporary science and technology have finished doing the thing that Plato started doing 2400 years ago - that which is called called philosophy.

Information technology completed the western search for power over being, substituting the idea or concept for being itself and reifying being as an entity.

What Heidegger wished for instead was a kind of thinking that will remain when such philosophy ends, a thinking that thinks as, in his language, the opening of Aletheia, the unconcealment which is the source of both being and thinking.

The task is to think that source of unconcealment that being accomplishes, which is the source of everything we know.

This thinking is ecstatic or, to apply the translation of the Greek, is being outside the self.

Sothe whole method of thinking that imposes concepts of the self on being, was rejected by Heidegger in favour of something more like ontological poetry, a way of writing that’s no longer propositional. Such writing would not look like normal enquiry, with logical form and logical propositions, but be an attempt to write and think the moment of revelation of being by itself.

Some have interpreted Heidegger’s late work as a religious and mystical phase, or as a kind of quietism, are treat from action and from public matters.

And some have gone further to say that this turn results from the debacle of his political association with the Nazi regime.

Whatever the motivation, or inner meaning, Heidegger certainly called for an end to what we have called philosophy. To him it was a mistaken genre, requiring replacement by an open-ended sensibility to being.

If we asked for a more precise formulation than that, Heidegger would have responded, “you are trying to impose on my answer precisely the kind of framework that I’ve been criticising all along”.

Nevertheless, Heidegger continued to think that society in the second half of the twentieth century, epitomised in the developed world and especially in the US and USSR during the Cold War, embodied the technological domination of being. It had covered over the roots of the other path towards listening to being, which he thought had been an undercurrent of thinking from ancient (pre-Platonic) Greek to modern German thought, and Heidegger hoped for the emergence of that undercurrent.

Notes completed by John Dunn.

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