Thursday, October 21, 2010

Footnote to a Common, All Too Common "Explanation" of Seynsgeschichte

I find myself regularly marveling at the attempts, made by many an otherwise adept reader, to explicate Heidegger's understanding of the History of Being in a manner that inevitably ends up reducing the whole affair to a cultural historicism (sometimes even empirically ascertained!). What's worse, Heidegger's "idea about Western history" is depicted as one that is not even aware of its own vulnerability to the liar's paradox! Thus, either the question of how Heidegger himself would be able to 'access' the meaning of previous ages or the question of how he would be able to access the fact that he could not access such meaning often goes entirely neglected in such historicistic readings. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't insightful inquiries and honest work being done on Heidegger's seynsgeschichtliche denken, even in the abbreviated form afforded by the "blogosphere" (see, for example, the excellent William Koch's Philosophy Blog among others). Nor am I suggesting that the thought take only one form of articulation --indeed by definition, as it were, it cannot. But there is a persistent and often even crude misunderstanding of Heidegger's Seynsgeschichte that seems to me to have plagued its English-speaking reception, and it should be purged.

It is fortuitous, then, that even a reader who finds himself inept in the art of interpreting Heidegger carefully has been provided many passages in which Heidegger is nearly vitriolic in his appraisal of both "culture" and historicism. In Besinnung (1938-9), Heidegger writes:

   "Finally, the thinking in terms of values is the most superficial superficialization of Being as objectness...Domination of cultural consciousness and consequently domination of cutural politics pursues a growing consolidation of modernity in the direction of that which modernity as such pursues, namely, the forgottenness of Sein. The uprootedness of man does not consist in a certain shaping and particular degeneration of culture and cultural consciousness. Rather, culture as such is this uprootedness and indicates the severance of man's as yet ungrounded ownmost from history...Historicism is the total domination of history in the sense of reckoning with what is past in view of what is present, all in order to claim thereby once and for all man's ownmost as 'historical' --not geschichtliche. The domination of history will be overcome only through geschichte, through a novel decision and through an ever-first inquiry into the truth of Seyn."  (GA 66, pg. 147 in the English translation (poorly) entitled "Mindfulness").

Here it is quite obvious that historicism is not only being deliberately contrasted with Seynsgeschichte but that the latter is proposed as a manner of overcoming the former. What are people thinking when they try to 'describe' the history of Being as a succession of cultural understandings that are simply not governed by any overarching rationality? With such a description, one may have succeeded in offering an understanding of history that has lost --or rather simply negated --any resemblance to Hegelian Universal History, but they are equally (if not further) removed from Heidegger's Seynsgeschichte. As if Heidegger were speaking of a sociological version of Kuhnian paradigm shift. What could be more facile? (And, in fact, that is not being fair to Kuhn). It is perhaps well past time to take seriously Heidegger's insistence that in order to think the History of Being we must first of all understand that and how it is something yet to come, something which properly lies in the future (zukunft). The History of Being is no account of past cultures, practices, or even concepts. It is no account of the past at all.  Rather, as Heidegger reminds us in his widely read letter to Jean Beaufret, the History of Being lies imminently before us. It is the History of what has not yet been thought --and this now means: the way the unthought intiates and rules the very movement of History. What is still unthought: this criterion should be applied to all 'synoptic accounts' or 'explanations' of seynsgeschichte --not as a measure that can be replaced by or confused with the explanatory grounds of irrationality (say, the id or unconscious), but as a measure which always separates itself off from such explanatory conceptions by differing from them in a manner that relies on the future. 

13 comments:

  1. I wonder if this is where Derrida got his notion of the messianic without a messiah. Promises, always promises.

    Heid puts us in the position of one who has fallen from Eden into perpetual sin, the sin of wanting to know where we are and where we are going. Whatever happened to "half a loaf is better than none"?

    I am grateful for Heid's relentless pursuit of "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" (only found in the truth of Being/the Being of truth). But some of us have to settle for values, the merely poetic, and a technology that allows us to correspond. I thought it was only the wicked who were never content.

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  2. Thanks for the thoughts, January! I am grateful for the way you structured your comment --allow me to follow suit as I try to throw a few responses to your "tri-fectah" of a comment.

    1.) I think your right about the origin of Derrida's thought of a futural "l'avenir", a messianic "Event". And it is true also that Derrida often enough acknowledges his overwhelming debt to Heidegger. But this acknowledgment can to our great peril serve as something of a sedative to a reader who would otherwise be more vigilant in distinguishing the thought of Derrida from that of his mentor; destruktion is without a doubt the catalyst for Derrida's deconstruction, and the ontological difference is just as surely for Derrida the "irreversible advance" that engendered his notion of differance, but between the thought of Heidegger and Derrida there lies an inconspicuous --and thus all the more dangerous --abyss. When Derrida maintains that he "parts company with Heidegger on the issue of epochality as well as "technics" or technology, we should take the man very seriously. These are not trivial or superficial tweakings. They are tantamount to saying: "I follow Heidegger in everything but his attempt to raise the Seinsfrage" --which is to say, I do not walk in Heidegger's denkweg at all. Derrida does not think in the WAY Heidegger did. Of course, we must add, that the nature of such a negation may not be identifiable with the usual meaning of negation. And I think that this difference comes to the fore in a pronounced way in the difference between Heidegger's "promises" and those of Derrida.

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  3. 2.) It is of fundamental importance that Heidegger's thought, with the initial steps that it takes in order to find the way it must go for the remainder of Heidegger's life, confronts in passing Christian revelation, and especially that revelation in the form of its Catholic proclamation and lived-appropriation. On the other hand, it would be hasty to immediately draw lines of correspondence to all those themes of, say, the existential analytic and the Christian doctrines of fallenness and conscience. It is not that a relation does not obtain between these such things, but the nature of that relation is quite elusive. The problematic predicament of living in a hermeneutical situation, or, to say the same, of finding oneself thrown into and as In-Der-Welt-Sein, or to say the same again, of the finitude of transcendence, is not capable of being understood IN THE SAME MANNER as something like sin. Why? Because the problem of finitude not only should not but cannot be resolved irradicated, purified or condemned. It cannot be thought as a privation of an ideal origin, an Eden. This is not to deny the possibility of the truth of such revelation as original sin, it is only to suggest that such a truth does not relate to the fundamental concepts of our most basic enterprises of knowing (i.e. ontological endeavor) in same manner as all other truth do and must. Put another way, errancy and the finitude of which it is an indication can never be said to be "bad" unless we forget the very mutability of its essence. Thinking requires that one move into and through errancy and not away from it.

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  4. 3.)Finally, you astutely observe "some of us have to settle for values, the merely poetic, and a technology that allows us to correspond." This is an important insight that should never --at least for too long --be lost sight of whenever thinking gets underway. But my question for you is: how should we think about who you are designating when you say "some of us". Does this designation separate a group of individuals from another and thus prove to be a political designation? Or does it function in a more radical way, that is to say, does it include EVERYONE --everyone and no one, or in other words Das Man?

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  5. What's worse, Heidegger's "idea about Western history" is depicted as one that is not even aware of its own vulnerability to the liar's paradox! Thus, either the question of how Heidegger himself would be able to 'access' the meaning of previous ages or the question of how he would be able to access the fact that he could not access such meaning often goes entirely neglected in such historicistic readings.

    Interesting, Pseudi, but I don't quite understand how that relates to the Liar's Paradox, and/or so-called Epimenides (ie. a Cretan says all cretans always lie). Is Heidegger lying about history?

    Logic always gets messy when we insert human agents into the propositions. When one gets rid of the problem of human self-referentiality, it works quite well (at least First Order), though the more formal paradoxes--such Russell's-- present some issues, depending on one's foundational ontology (theory of types, or the set theorists', nominalism, etc). In some ...odd inchoate sense I think the continentalist concern with "finitude" (at least of Hegelian sort) was a type of anti-platonic move, and slightly nominalist (though not necessarily ...physicalist).

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  6. Well, J, Let me try to offer a quick formal sketch to elaborate on what I meant above. If I were to come up with a rough and ready logical definition of the Liar's Paradox, it would be this: The "Liar's Paradox" names any proposition the form of which contradicts that same proposition's content due to the manner in which the latter referentially contains the former." The Liar's Paradox as I have just formulated it can assume either a universal or a particular form, in keeping with the twofold possibility of the form of all predication (or if you prefer, propositional formation).
    An example of its universal form would be: "All propositions are false". An example of its particular form would be "This proposition is false". In the post above, I refer to the universal, and not the particular form of the Liar's Paradox. Thus, what I am claiming is the following: if you read Heidegger's Seynsgeschichte as an instance of historicism, then the underlying claim of his interpretation of history runs something like: "Every attempt to understand what-is is a function of and is entirely confined to the historical context or 'epoch' in which it takes place." This is a universal proposition which bears reference to itself in such a way that it must undermine its own universality: the proposition can only be true if it is also a function of it own time, and yet it makes a claim about truths outside of its own time, thereby contradicting itself. But my claim above --and I cite Heidegger's own critique of historicism in support of this claim --is that Heidegger did not intend his articulation of seynsgeschichte to be 'compatible' with any such historicism; rather he saw the History of Being as the definitive and ultimately only way to overcome such historicism. Thus, to answer your question, did Heidegger avoid lapsing into the unwitting role of telling Lies about history.

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  7. For a devilish description of Seyngeschichte, Froment Meurice (THAT IS TO SAY) caricatures Heidegger's another beginning as, "The Occident (...)is this old man crying like a baby, looking to cut his own umbilical cord even in making himself his own grave-digger (or in writing his epthalamium in advance). It is the Republic giving itself as the year zero of a new age of the world, Hitler killing himself after the end of the world: a single figure with two heads, the obsession to be Being itself, and if that is impossible, if we must necessarily share with the other, to be, all alone, nothingness itself." Cross-posted from enowning.

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  8. Haha! Based on the authority of the context of that text, I think it is fair to say that the end of Froment-Meurice's remark is a cheap shot. In my reading of "That is to Say:Heidegger's Poetics" --a book which I hold in very high esteem --I think I allow Meurice the Spielraum he needs to heat-up as he spproaches some of the white heat profundity that marks that book. But he is always a little flippant in order to be rigorous, and he is always a little deviant and long winded in order to approach his dense insights; he is, in a word, a thinker who is French. By contrast Heidegger may be able to sustain the longest of digressions, but he is also percussive, staccato, even as he is incalculably patient. So from your quote above, I think the image is marvelous and its first half is true --there is even some merit in tying the figure of hitler into the end, but all talk about the "obsession to be Being itself" directly contravenes Heidegger's own insight into the seynsgeschichtlich essence of the technology and machination which has inscribed itself into the ground of the present age: Heidegger's understanding of the saving power hidden in the growing danger of the age of technology is motivated by the insight that the effort to be "lord of all beings", to be Being itself, (which has characterized the subjectivity of modernity from Descartes to Nietzsche poignantly, but which has also characterized all ontotheology in its failure to differentiate Being from beings) is on the brink of catching insight into the suicidal race it has been running. This is insight, if it arrives, is not a theoretical grasp on the nature of technology but a response to the call whereby Being has need of man --and is therefore always already before him, as a call precedes a response. So in short, Heidegger's appraisal of the seinsvergessenheit of the West is only possible in tandem with his proposal of the unique difference between Being and beings, his proposal that we can never "be Being itself" --nor does the desire to do so make any SENSE --and so such a pursuit must end in a nihilistic senselessness. Meurice's claim about Heidegger is, in truth, Heidegger's claim about the culmination of the history of metaphysics.

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  9. Thanks for the favorable mention and link! I started writing up a comment attempting to defend the applicability of historicism to Heidegger when historicism is conceived in what I consider the right way but it became a massive unwieldy nightmare of a comment. Much of the ground was also covered in our earlier exchanges. I think what I will do is post, one of these days, a description and defense of a Heideggerian understanding of historicism. Just recently, however, I got wrapped up in posting something about "The Question Concerning Technology".

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  10. That is exactly what a post like this one is working to elicit: careful reinterpretations of Heidegger's supposed "historicism". I am eager to learn more about alternative approaches that could in some measure support an historicistic reading ---as you say with all due caution: "when historicism is conceived in what I consider the right way". But more generally the almost polemic tone that I allowed this post to lapse into is risked in order to rattle what seems to be to be ossifying into something almost selbtverstaendlich. I do not wish to dismiss it out of hand, but to purge it of its obviousness. And it seems to me that if, in the course of such purgation, it comes to pass that "historicism" itself --like, for example, another "ism", namely "humanism", is laid to rest, then it will be so not in blind polemic but because of the inexorable pull by which we are drawn to favor the unsaid.
    I look forward to reading the QCT post!

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  11. Humanism is precisely the comparison I had in mind. The "Letter on Humanism" is usually read as a rejection of humanism but Heidegger's actual claim is that humanism when properly understood isn't a problem. It is just that the French existentialist humanists don't understand it properly. I feel a similar point can be made about historicism.

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  12. That makes sense, and I am sure something worthwhile lies under that rock, awaiting a positive elucidation. As a smaller point of concern, however, I am not sure I would characterize Heidegger's relinquishment of the word "humanism" in LOH in the quite the way you have above; it seems to me the Letter on Humanism is much stronger in its conclusion about all such words. Thus, at the decisive point regarding the fate of that word, Heidegger takes up Beaufret's question again and responds: "You ask: How can we restore meaning to the word 'humanism'? This question proceeds from your intention to retain the word 'humanism'. I wonder whether this is necessary. Or is the damage caused by ALL SUCH TERMS still not sufficiently obvious? True, "-isms" have for a long time now been suspect. But the market of public opinion continually demands new ones. We are always prepared to supply the demand." (caps mine). Isn't historicism such a term? If Heidegger discards humanism for the sake of the essence of the human being in LOH, does/would he not elsewhere discard historicism for the sake of the essence of history? This is how I read his remarks in Besinnung.

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  13. You aren't wrong. Certainly there are problems with the armies of -isms and certain Heidegger is concerned with these problems and points them out throughout his career. However, I find the tone of the Letter to be more ambiguous. He makes clear the reasons we should avoid what I would call "lazy -isms" and he makes clear how we could restore meaning to the term "humanism". I think he wants to do both.

    In general I feel that his consistent tendency was to restore meanings to words rather than dismissing their use. I think Heidegger's work gives us reasons to believe that there are no bad, meaningless or purely distortive words. Rather, words can come to be more or less disclosive but always harbor the possibility of new disclosive power.

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