Friday, October 17, 2008

Winding Paths, Entangling Shadows

What is the role of the philosopher and to what goal is philosophy written? I ask myself these questions often as I have a graduate degree in philosophy and fancy myself of a philosophical disposition. After two plus years away from academic halls I ask these questions anew and now with an ethical searchlight: to what extent should one's philosophy influence the thinker's behavior and ideological affiliations? Perhaps I should arrive at a solution before writing here, but, in the words of the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, "We write at the boundary of knowledge; for if we wrote only that which were certain no one should ever write anything."

My struggle to answer these foundational questions makes me consider the life of the German thinker Martin Heidegger. His philosophical mind is powerful and thought provoking, yet I find the most intriguing questions are asked outside the bindings of his books. Heidegger's life forces me to ask my questions earnestly, and, in some respects, judgementally.

Martin Heidegger seen by many the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. His 1927 release of Being and Time, shook the foundations of western philosophy, mainly because it questioned the very foundation of western philosophy by examining Being. Yes that is Being with a "big B." For many people, me included, Being isn't a topic I ponder in my daily life. But alas, Heidegger pondered the hell out of it and wrote a 488 page book detailing his thoughts.

The book is a gauntlet. Of all the books on my self I am proudest that I read the whole of it. A monster text and imposing, I waded through it at a snail's pace of 5 pages/hour; meaning I spent 100 hours with the book. With 4 days of my life scribbled on its pages you might begin to understand the attachment I have to the book.

Heidegger's mind was sharp as a Ginsu -no one, whether they agree or disagree with his work questions that. The questions Heidegger's shadow faces most often are those of an ideological nature, and for no small reason: Heidegger was a Nazi. -Did you say Nazi? -Sure did, call Dr. Jones.

Yes, Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party until the party was over. During the first year of his Nazi affiliation he was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, an occasion historically marked by his speech praising National Socialism and its merits. About a year after resigning as rector of the university, Heidegger, in his 1935 work An Introduction to Metaphysics, praises National Socialism and it's "inner truth" writing:

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man)-have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities."

Heidegger was greatly interested in technology's effects on humanity, effects most egregiously witnessed in the concentration camps, where Heidegger writes in his piece The Danger:

Hundreds of thousands die in masses. Do they die? They come undone. They are disposed of. Do they die? They become part of the stock to supply the fabrication of corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated inconspicuously in extermination camps.

Using Heidegger's philosophy of death, I interpret Heidegger's seemingly cold words to mean that those dying in the camps are being stripped of the human being's right to a meaningful death. Death in Heidegger's thought is the moment we face ourselves at our most honestly and authentically, and should no one should be robbed of that moment of vision. He roughs this idea out in the following paragraph:

To die, however, means to carry death out in its essence. To be able to die, means to be capable of this commission. We are capable of it only if our essence inclines to the essence of death.

Whether one agrees with my sympathetic reading of Heidegger's questionable "Do they die?" section, one fact is clear: it was the Nazis who created the means to murder so many Jewish people in their camps, thanks in no small part to their technological twistedness. "Yes they did die Heidegger, and your own Nazi party is wholly responsible for the genocide."

With the Nazi party dismantled after WWII, Heidegger was banned from teaching in German universities due to his involvement. Heidegger never apologized or offered a retrospective justification for his membership in the Nazi party. He never slapped himself on the head and thought himself misguided for his affiliations; at least not publicly, and I doubt he did so in private either.

Can one separate Heidegger's Nazi ideology from his written philosophy? Sure. It's easy to read books out of their historical contexts --it happens with the bible all the time. It's even easier to forget that Heidegger was a Nazi because he makes so little reference to the ideology in his published work, philosophical or otherwise.

And how does an examination of Heidegger's life and work help me answer the questions above? What role should philosophers play in society and how should their work guide their conduct and ideological convictions?

Well, philosophers are societies' thinkers, that's about all their good at, and they should be good thinkers because that is their speciality. Joe the plumber unclogs drains, Neil the accountant balances the books, Norm the carpenter builds cabinets, and philosophers think, teach, and write books. Each is held to standards of quality and value.

While the majority of philosophers' work takes place in the classroom and in the mind, the goal should, in my thinking, always be to illuminate the world in which we live by inspiring a thirst for deeper meanings, fed by limitless curiosity. Philosophers should embody their convictions and write from those convictions. While everyone lives out of different values, the ultimate value of any philosophy need be one that draws its readers closer to attaining their human potential.

This goal of bringing people into their full humanity is the chief aim of philosophy and education. Of course when we talk of values today we enter a battleground with muddy footing. The questions which occupy philosophy are questions of values, and they are difficult questions. On what scales are philosophers weighed? How does one determine the value of thought and what is worth thinking? What is ultimate value of Value? Tricky questions inspired by my first questions; a deepening of the issue by an uncomfortable excavation of the heart. Heidegger himself acknowledges the difficulty of securing values by anchoring them to a center, and I conclude this difficult blog post with one his thoughts:

Even if a future philosopher should reach this center [of value]-- we of the present day can only work toward it-- he will not escape entanglement, but it will be a different entanglement. No one can jump over his own shadow.

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Quotations: Line from Deleuze is from his introduction in Difference in Repitition (I can't provide more info because I seem to have left my copy in Japan. It's a tough book anyhow.) Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Ralph Manheim, (Yale 1959). Heidegger, The Danger, translated by Frank Seeburger, (from University of Denver in class discussion 2005). Final qoute from An Introduction of Metaphysics, ibid, brackets mine. Picture: Rodin's "The Thinker," the consumate image of the philosopher.

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