Best known for his work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger has been hailed by many as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.
Martin Heidegger is the Continental philosopher most analytic philosophers love to hate. I actually never knew enough about Heidegger to form much of an opinion. I knew that he said that “Nothings noths” (Das Nichts nichtet), giving Carnap a paradigm of meaningless, unverifiable, unfalsifiable, metaphysical gibberish. I knew that he invented the term “Dasein” – “Being There”, for human beings, or human existence, or something like that, and it sounded profound. And over the years I met many thoughtful philosophers who thought highly of his ideas, like Burt Dreyfus, Mark Wrathall, and Tom Sheehan. But my attempts to read Heidegger were few, far between, and frustrating.
Recently one of these thoughtful philosophers, Kevin Gin, a graduate student at UC Riverside, a student of Wrathall’s, convinced me to take another look. He sees a connection between some of my ideas, about unarticulated constituents and self-knowledge, and various thoughts of Heidegger. So maybe the guy is profound, after all! With Kevin’s help, I’m getting a bit of a sense of some of what Heidegger was doing, and find it interesting.
As for Dasein, Rocks aren’t Daseins (or Daseine? My German is rusty, to put it charitably). Lizards aren’t, but they come closer than rocks. And at least most other animals aren’t. But we are.
I think the terminology is supposed to get at how Heidegger conceives of human beings. Daseins contrast with a Cartesian egos. The Cartesian ego is basically a thinker and an observer, who reasons from its existence and its ideas, to God’s existence, and hence to the world and other people. The starting point in this immaterial ego with its ideas; the struggle is to justify belief in the rest of the world.
With Dasein, as I get it, it kind of goes the other way. Considering myself as Dasein, I am not basically a thinker and an observer, but an agent, a do-er immersed in the world from the getgo. And things in the world aren’t basically presented to me as what my ideas might or might not stand for, but as tools I have to use for various purposes. The Cartesian picture, seeing myself as a separate entity, a mind, the world as something quite separate, and my ideas as linking the two by the relation of representation is, insofar as it makes sense, is the result of an intellectual struggle, recapitulated in a more reflective way in philosophy, not the starting point for human cognition or philosophical thinking.
Rocks simply persist through time. Animals, and plants too, for that matter, react to circumstances, in order to survive and reproduce. But humans lead lives, forming projects --- goals --- and making choices about how to achieve them. And our world, or worlds, arise out of this.
Put this way, Heidegger sounds sort of naturalistic --- that is, a philosopher who wants to understand consciousness, thought, freedom and the like in the natural world as natural processes, based in evolution It seems to me that, in pursuing his project, Heidegger’s was led to some of the same insights about representation and thought as philosophers like Dretske, Dennett or Millikan, insights that, IMHO, I’m getting at too. But we explicitly see humans as basically biological beings, with capacities for handling information developed by evolution. Heidegger never says anything like that, as far as I know.
To move on to a different issue about Heidegger, should we be comfortable in finding good ideas in someone who was a member of the Nazi party?
Well, I suppose, good ideas are where you find them. All I really know is that Heidegger joined the Nazi party in the early thirties, probably as a condition for becoming rector of Freiburg. He gave up that job a couple of years later. In the meantime, he dutifully implemented some Nazi policies at Freiburg. People disagree on whether he was an enthusiastic Nazi or a reluctant and somewhat opportunistic dupe. He never tells us much. Apparently in his diaries, the “Black Books”, Heidegger linked anti-Semitic ideas with themes in his philosophy, even before joining the Nazi Party. But he dedicates his major work, Sein und Seit, to Husserl, and he had an affair with his pre-war student Hannah Arendt, both Jews. Ambivalence? Duplicity? Deprativity? All I know is that if he read Mein Kampf before joining the Nazi Party, I’d have to see him as more than merely naïve (Arendt’s defense of him, after World War II, when she helped get him the right to teach again). Shuka Kalantari will tell us a bit about this is her report, and I’m sure Thomas Sheehan, our guest, will shed some light on it.
Final deep thought:
Now that I know I am but Dasein
I’m thinking things will turn out fine
First I’ll be something,
And then I’ll be nothing
And noth away til the end of time