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Reinhold Messner as Nietzschean Übermensch

(Article originally appeared on Wrath-BearingTree)

One month ago, on July 24, 2015, the sixth and final Messner Mountain Museum opened to the public on the top of a mountain in northern Italy, a couple hours from where I live. This newest museum is a futuristic design by an Iraqi architect, and is the brainchild and property of famed mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who comes from the Italian region of Alto-Adige. In this post I will give a brief summary of the almost unbelievably interesting life of this living legend, and give some thoughts on how he fits philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “Übermensch” (“Superman”, or “Overman” as it is commonly referred by scholars to avoid association with the cape-wearing superhero).

His Life and Deeds

Reinhold Messner in his 1980s prime

Reinhold Messner in his 1980s prime

Messner was born in 1944 in the Italian German-speaking town of Brixen surrounded by the Dolomite mountains. He was the oldest of nine brothers and one sister. From an early age, he and the second oldest brother, Günther, had a passion for climbing and would escape from church and school to climb the stone walls around the village. By their early twenties, Reinhold and Günther were among the best climbers in Europe in the relatively new style of free climbing, and had put together an impressive resume of climbs in the Alps. In 1970, they were invited to a Himalayan expedition to climb the 8000-meter Nanga Parbat. Trying to beat the bad weather forecast, Reinhold left camp alone to make the peak’s summit, followed secretly by Günther. They both reached the top, climbing the tallest continuous rock face in the world (which is still unrepeated today), but got lost in a storm on the descent and took an alternate traverse route down the other side (which is also unrepeated). After four days without food in -40C temperatures, they became separated and Günther lost to an avalanche while Reinhold crawled and limped his way to a village, where he was carried to safety. He had severe frostbite and seven toes were amputated. The psychological scars have haunted Reinhold ever since (it was only in 2005 that some of Gunther’s body was found and recovered), and the physical damage of frostbite forced him to change his climbing style and focus more on high mountaineering rather than free climbing. The events of this perilous expedition were told in a 2010 German movie entitled Nanga Parbat.

After 1970, Messner began compiling amazing feats of mountain climbing and pushing the limits of what was considered physically possible. Over the next 35 years or so he would go on annual expeditions to every corner of the planet with the highest mountains, coldest temperatures, and most extreme conditions. In 1978 he, along with his partner Peter Habeler, became the first to climb Mt. Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen, which was long thought to be impossible. Many people did not believe that they had actually achieved this feat, so two years later, in 1980, Messner climbed Everest again without oxygen by another more difficult route, and was the first person to climb the mountain alone (previously thought to be a suicidal endeavor). Already by 1975 he became the first person to have climbed three of the 8000-meter mountains. In 1986 with his ascent of Lhotse, he became the first person to climb all 14 8000-meter peaks, all done without supplemental oxygen. Today, only 15 people have accomplished this feat. In 1979 on K2, the most fatal peak in the world, Messner led a team that featured Renato Casarotto, an Italian who hailed from my adopted home of Vicenza. In 1984, along with Hans Kammerlander, Messner climbed two 8000-meter peaks consecutively without returning to base camp–Gasherbrum I and II. Out of the dozens of ascents and attempted ascents in the Himalayas, Messner put up many new routes that had never been done before, made the first winter ascent of several peaks, and survived many huge high-mountain storms and illnesses.

The newest Messner Mountain Museum

The newest Messner Mountain Museum “Corones”, built into the peak of the mountain.

The list of things done by Messner even outside of Himalayan and Karakorum alpinism is too long to tell. Here are some highlights. In 1986 he became the second person to complete the “Messner list” of the highest mountain on each continent (and first person to not use oxygen). In 1974 he set a speed record for the Eiger North Face of 10 hours, which stood for 34 years. He established new routes on Denali, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, and at least 100 other mountains around the world. He led rescue expeditions and mountain cleaning expeditions on multiple continents. He did a solo expedition in 1988 beginning a 12-year search for the mythical Yeti that he had seen several times (spoiler: he concluded that they are some type of nocturnal bear; his critics thought he had become a crackpot whose brain had been deprived of too much oxygen, but an independent Japanese study later confirmed the rare Himalayan bear). In 1989, he, along with Arved Fuchs, became the first person to cross Antarctica over the South Pole on foot with only human power — a 2800-kilometer journey. In 1993 he also crossed the length of Greenland on foot — a 2200-kilometer journey, and in 2004 he did a 2000-kilometer crossing of the Gobi Desert on foot. He has written or contributed to over 60 books about his various expeditions, and eventually became personally wealthy from his sponsorships, speaking fees, and book sales. His primary summer residence since 1983 has been the 13th century Juval Castle in apple-growing Val Venosta near the borders of Austria and Switzerland, which is now one of his six museums. From 1999-2004 he was an elected Member of the European Parliament with the Green Party. Since 2004 or so, he has mostly been retired from climbing and adventure and spends his time planning and managing the Messner Mountain Museums. He speaks fluent Italian, German, and English, and is an interesting and entertaining speaker on any subject as a quick Youtube search will attest.

Messner is famous for his fierce advocacy of “Alpine-style” climbing, rather than the traditional “expedition style” which he referred to as “siege tactics”. His goal was to climb a mountain quickly with a light load using speed and skill of individual climbers rather than teams of dozens of porters and base camps crawling up the mountains and relying on set ropes and pre-location of stores. This style has since become the only respectable method of high mountaineering. He is also deeply concerned with environmental issues and conservation, especially in the mountainous areas of the world. He is an advocate for Tibetan independence, and has great respect and concern for the cultures of traditional peoples around the world he has encountered throughout his life. One of his museums, in Bruneck Castle, is dedicated to the cultures of mountain peoples around the world.

Is Messner a Nietzschean Übermensch?

Messner, fit and hirsute at age 72, at the opening of his last museum

Messner, fit and hirsute at age 72, at the opening of his last museum

Nietzsche is one of those philosophers who are still controversial amongst other philosophers, and is only known by a couple famous phrases to most of the public. His works are aphoristic and open to a variety of interpretations. People associate him with the Nazi regime because they used his ideas for their own purposes, even though he hated Germany, nationalism, and authority. I have commented on Nietzsche at further length in a previous post (Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche), but after additional reflection and perspective my views towards Nietzsche are more open now than before. I think that like almost anyone who had many ideas, some of them are useful, some of them not so much; that is my feeling about Nietzsche. Regardless, I think his is a personal, not a political, philosophy, and should be used for personal development rather than for social or political change.

Messner has stated that his favorite philosopher is Milarepa, an 11th century Tibetan master who climbed mountains and eventually flew away. Messner also quotes directly or indirectly in his books and interviews from Nietzsche, whom he obviously admires. Like Nietzsche, Messner is a controversial figure, mostly due to his enormous ego and inability to take criticism. As all of Messner’s peers attest, however, he has walked the walk and someone of his stature has the right to make his own rules and act his own way. Messner shares traits with people who are considered the best in their field, be it sport or the arts or business; unlike most every other field, though, extreme mountain climbing carries high risk of death on every expedition. Anyone who has spent time doing serious mountaineering, rock climbing, or any extreme cold weather activity knows that no words can describe the feeling of a timeless present pushing forward against the force of nature, brain emptied of all worries except survival. This is why there is nothing else like it. Messner is a larger than life personality with unreal achievements, a living tour de force who redefines the limits of human potential not only in sport but in any activity.

I will end with a few select quotes by Messner and then by Nietzsche, and you can ponder and perhaps take some useful example for your own life, some boundaries to push or challenge to undertake.

Quotes by Reinhold Messner

“The truly free climber is the one who obeys no rules.”

“My Übermensch is a self-determined person who would never accept something, some rules from up high up. He would say, This is my way, and I go this way. And this would be the great enemy of the fascist.”

“I expose myself, I accept the natural powers as the rulers of my world,” Reinhold says of being on the mountains. “There’s no more human rulers if I’m out there. There’s no religion which is controlling me and telling me how I have to behave. There’s just pure nature, which I have to respect. The nature is myself, and the nature outside.”

“When I finished the 8000-meter peaks, I understood, now I could only repeat myself. What I did is boring now. But I like to go somewhere where everything is new, and to begin again an activity.”

Quotes by Friedrich Nietzsche (especially from Thus Spake Zarathustra)

“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Übermensch–a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”

“You say ‘I’ and you are proud of this word. But greater than this–although you will not believe in it–is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say ‘I’ but performs ‘I’.”

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”

“On the mountains of truth, you never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.”

“Those who can breathe the air of my writings know that it is an air of the heights, a strong air. One must be able to be made for it. Otherwise there is no small danger that one may catch cold in it. The ice is near, the solitude tremendous–but how calmly all things lie in the light! How freely one breathes! How much one feels beneath oneself! Philosophy, as I have so far understood and lived it, means living voluntarily among ice and high mountains–seeking out everything strange and questionable in existence, everything so far placed under a ban by morality.”

“A mind that aspires to great things, and that wills the means thereto, is necessarily skeptical. Freedom from any sort of conviction belongs to strength, and to an independent point of view.”

“I am impassioned for independence; I sacrifice all for it, and am tortured more by the smallest strings than others are by chains.”

“Danger alone points us with our own resources: our virtues, our armor and weapons, our spirit, and forces us to be strong. First principle: one must need to be strong–otherwise one will never become strong.”

Philosophy as the Art of Dying

"Skeleton pondering", a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical "memento mori" image.

“Skeleton pondering”, a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical “memento mori” image, and reminiscent of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick

“Who would Fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.”                                  Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Hamlet is commonly considered the greatest achievement of that most superlative paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare. What is greatest about the play is not its action, but its sublime lack of action. Hamlet’s dilemma is how to balance his desire for revenge with his fear of its consequences–namely, death. Hamlet’s fear of death paralyzes him and leads to much philosophizing throughout the play; indeed, perhaps it is no coincidence that Hamlet was a student of philosophy. Fear of death is an attribute common to all animals, but existential angst is a condition which seems to only affect mankind. The limits of philosophy are the limits of life itself, but at its heart it is a way to put our mortality into proper perspective and ward off the fear of death. As Montaigne said, channeling Cicero, “That to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, in philosophizing we also learn how to live, and how to prepare for our own death and non-existence.

There are various ways to think about death, and one fruitful exercise is to look at what dead philosophers and writers of the past had to say about it. After all, we are alive and they are not, so are we not superior to them in one aspect? But they know something that we do not, which is the precise geography of that undiscovered country. A philosopher was “an apprentice to death” according to Montaigne, an author who is especially relevant because his Essays were begun after the death of a close friend and written as a way of meditating on death and his own life in order to find personal solace and happiness.

In the 6th century AD, the last Classical philosopher Boëthius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written from prison while awaiting execution for treason against the Gothic King of Italy Theoderic, is a dialogue between the author and the personified female form of Philosophy. One of the main arguments is the paradox that misfortune is better than good fortune because the former teaches us a lesson while the latter always deceives us about the illusory nature of all earthly happiness. This is reminiscent of the dialogue in Herodotus between Solon, one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, and Croesus, King of Lydia and the richest of men. Croesus beseeches Solon to tell him, from his wisdom and experience, who the happiest of men is (expecting himself to be named because of his great wealth and worldly success). Solon, instead, tells of a noble warrior who died on the battlefield; when pressed, he tells another story of two brothers who died in their sleep after carrying their mother to a temple. Croesus intervenes and asks why he has not been named, and Solon tells him that he can count no man happy until he is dead (that is, it is impossible to weigh the balance of a person’s happiness while he is still alive). Later, Croesus is defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and, just before being burned alive, cries out that Solon was right. Cyrus hears this and asks what he means, whereupon Croesus recounts the story to Cyrus and is subsequently released and made an advisor to the victorious king. The lesson, of course, is to take everything in stride–don’t be overly pleased in the good times, but don’t overly despair during the bad times. Things have a tendency to equal out over time as part of the normal vicissitudes of life. This basic lesson is similar to those taught by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Buddhists.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death"

Hans Holbein, “The Dance of Death”

Contrary to the common use of the word today, the Stoics were not merely unemotional people, but practiced control of extreme emotions in the face of misfortune. For them, virtue was sufficient for human happiness, and freedom was to be used in the practice of constant virtue. It is interesting that the two most famous Stoic philosophers were a slave (Epictetus) and a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), both of whose writings show the tempering of emotions as a way to virtuous happiness despite their opposite positions in life. Like Platonism, it was a popular school in the Roman Empire that heavily influenced early Christianity, which is ironic considering that the Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD as being at odds with Christianity.

Contrary to the common idea today, the Epicureans did not merely seek pleasure as the ultimate happiness. Rather, such pleasure is achieved through modest living and the limits of one’s desires (and so the limits of one’s needs), and the search for knowledge of the world. This led eventually to a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, which constitute the highest form of happiness. Very little of the writings of Epicurus survive, but the sublime “On the Nature of Things”, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is an encapsulation of Epicurean thought. On death, Epicurus was the author of the famous maxim, “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us” (or more simply “when death is, I am not; when I am, death is not”).

Just as the Stoics knew that “we should not complain of life, for the door of the prison is open”, Camus claimed that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy. As much as they may discuss the act, philosophers do not kill themselves at a higher rate than other people (one of several notable exceptions was the cynic Diogenes, who reportedly died by holding his breath). Rather than lamenting or killing oneself, there are other recourses for finding a meaning to life. According to Schopenhauer, there are four “avenues of escape”: aesthetic contemplation; cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings; music; lose the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche, also a great admirer of music, found that struggle was the key to transcendence into some type of being above that which is all too human. Marx said that “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” That is, to make the world better than it currently is, though your idea of better will be different from mine. Sometimes, then, the collective spirit of community and sympathy with others gives purpose in life, but for the most part this is just a remedy and not the cause. The search for meaning is always an individual one, just as one’s life and death are always one person’s alone. Wittgenstein expressed his thoughts as, “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” Solipsistic perhaps, but there is a lot of leeway to the injunction of “improve yourself”.

As Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, sometimes it is the struggle to live that gives life its meaning, especially in opposition to some great burden. Thus, opposing death can be seen as an end in itself. I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death. The film is a metaphor for coming to terms with death in general, and the great struggle is ended with a sort of satisfaction of the resignation to one’s fate despite doing one’s best. Living with a sense of humor and irony helps gives this satisfaction. One of the countless epigrams of the great skeptic philosopher George Santayana is, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Compare a line of Milan Kundera in the novel Immortality, “You make a common error: namely, considering death a tragedy”, or the famous humor of Mark Twain in the following bon mots which strikes an almost Epicurean tone: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Such irreverence is contrasted with high-minded seriousness as written by the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, “The image of death is enough to occupy the entire intellect. The efforts needed to restrain and repel it is titanic”. (L’immagine della morte è bastevole ad occupare tutto un intelletto. Gli sforzi per trattenerla o per respingerla sono titanici.) Another modernist writer, Vladimir Nabokov had this to say, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” I find this line by the philosophical writer Jorge Luis Borges telling: “I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” Like almost all writers, Borges’ main theme was human mortality, which drew him often to the concept of infinity (a relevant example is his short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia”).

For courage in facing death, philosophers give many examples. Most obviously, Socrates refused to fight against the injustice of his death sentence or to escape, and spent the last hours of his life in carefree conversation with his closest friends. Georg Hegel said, “Dialectics (or Philosophy) does not run from death and devastation. But it tarries with it a while, and looks it in the face.” Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.” Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely, as Bertrand Russell comments in his A History of Western Philosophy. Russell himself penned these singularly eloquent lines, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I’m not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold. Surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Philosophy, especially as understood by the ancients after Socrates, is not merely its intellectual content and doctrines, but rather an art of living that can transform our lives and help us develop ourselves day by day. This is shown once again by Montaigne, whose friend’s death caused him to write his Essays and to seek a good and fully realized life, which led him to quit his job, travel widely, get into and then out of politics, and deal with a disease and then death with dignity.

There have been a number of recent books by both academic philosophers and popular thinkers which directly confront these issues of philosophy as a way of living and dying, including but not limited to: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton; How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly; Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, by Costica Bradatan; The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley. All of these seem like worthy and fruitful reads, but I can only personally attest to the first and the last. De Botton’s book does well by the original version by Boëthius. He uses six historical philosophers’ ideas (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) as ways to potentially deal with six different everyday problems everyone encounters in life at some time or other. He gives funny and easy to understand examples and generally tries to make philosophy more useful and accessible to normal readers, part of his on-going life project.

Simon Critchley’s 2008 The Book of Dead Philosophers is what he calls a “romp” through how 190 or so philosophers’ deaths related to their ideas. Nearly every entry is full of funny and irreverent quips about the protagonists’ lives and deaths, and is not a bad survey of a wide range of philosophers from around the world, men and women. Some examples of short summaries given in the intro are: “Pythagoras allowed himself to be slaughtered rather than cross a field of beans”; “Bacon died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the streets of London to assess the effects of refrigeration”; “Diderot choked to death on an apricot, presumably to show that pleasure could be had until the very last breath.” One of the book’s strengths (besides the excellent bibliography) lies in its long introductory essay thoughtfully preparing us for how to use the examples given, which is to begin to think clearly about what death is and how to face it. It does not provide any solutions, for there are none to be had, but raises some of the questions that we all must ask ourselves of our place in the world. Since to be a philosopher is to learn how to die, it is first necessary to have a proper attitude towards death. Critchley quotes Marcus Aurelius as writing “it is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” “Unknowing and uncertain,” Critchley comments, “the philosopher walks.” Indeed, in this case we must all be philosophers, not crawling, and not running away, but walking upright towards our fate while looking it squarely in the eye. Only when we confront our own mortality can be be truly human, and truly free to live our lives. The Greek writer Kazantzakis chose for his epitaph these lines, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” That is the goal not only of the philosopher, but of mankind.

Notes on Analytic Philosophy: Ludwig Wittgenstein

American philosopher Daniel Dennett begins a 1999 Time Magazine article on Ludwig Wittgenstein with the following scenario:

If you would like to watch philosophers squirm — and who wouldn’t? — pose this tough question: Suppose you may either a) solve a major philosophical problem so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history); or b) write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required-reading list for centuries to come. Which would you choose? Many philosophers will reluctantly admit that they would go for option b). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein tried brilliantly to go for a) and ended up with b).

In my last post I discussed the most important philosopher in the tradition of Continental philosophy — Martin Heidegger. Changing perspectives, I would now like to spend some time with the central character in the tradition of Analytic philosophy — Ludwig Wittgenstein — who is often considered (mostly by Analytic philosophers, admittedly) the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. His two most important works, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1921, and Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953, are generally considered two of the most important works in modern philosophy, despite having quite different styles, methodology, and conclusions. The amount of secondary literature he has inspired in the 60 years since his death would probably rival any philosopher since Kant, and he continues to exert influence far beyond the field of philosophy itself. In academics and research, his ideas are important in evolutionary biology, theoretical linguistics, computer science, and human psychology; in popular culture, the force of his captivating personality exerts a strange cross-over appeal in the form of novels, art, TV and film, and memoirs by even his briefest acquaintances. In this post, I will give a brief biographical sketch of the man (as befitting my opinion that biography is important as a part of the study of history and ideas — my best resource, in this case, was Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, which you can read or download here), followed by a summary of his two main works, and concluding with some of my thoughts about why Wittgenstein is a significant figure in philosophy and what we can make of his ideas.

His Life

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the eighth and youngest child of Karl Wittgenstein, who was the biggest steel tycoon of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of the richest men in Europe. The Wittgensteins were great patrons of the arts, especially music, and Ludwig was raised in an incredibly cultured and privileged environment in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The family was of Jewish descent but had been Christianized for three generations and had no involvement in Jewish culture or community. Karl had his children privately educated in a manner to make them follow in his footsteps as captains of industry, science, and commerce. This partly led to the oldest three sons all eventually committing suicide (Ludwig himself also considered this option for most of his adult life as well). In 1903 he was sent to a technical school in Linz where Hitler was a student contemporaneously (there is no conclusive evidence that they had any contact, as Wittgenstein was moved forward a grade and the dim-witted Hitler was held back a grade). Eventually Wittgenstein went to Manchester to study engineering and aeronautics, where he designed and patented a new airplane propeller. At this time he became interested in mathematics after discovering the works of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, two of the founders of what would later be known as the Analytic school of philosophy. He travelled to Germany to meet with Frege, who recommended that he go to Cambridge to study with Russell. Wittgenstein thus appeared one day in Russell’s office to present himself and begin his apprenticeship. After a period as Russell’s pupil, in which he attended and dominated lectures and then had hours-long discussions (or monologues) late into the night, Wittgenstein began to challenge Russell’s ideas and reverse the nature of their relationship. Russell considered Wittgenstein a genius (“the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”), and also thought of him as his successor who would continue to work on the problems of logic and mathematics that Russell could no longer solve. Russell lost so much confidence in his own abilities due to the criticisms of Wittgenstein that he later wrote, “His criticism, tho I don’t think he realized it at the time, was an event of first-rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since. I saw that he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.”

Before finishing his degree or publishing his own ideas on logic, Wittgenstein moved to Norway to live in seclusion in a hut he built and concentrate on his work, and then volunteered in the Austro-Hungarian army immediately after World War I broke out. He spent the next four years mostly in lonely despair, and began to develop his lifelong mystical side after reading Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, as well as Schopenhauer. At the end of the war, he spent a year in an Italian POW camp and completed the only philosophical work published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. So strong was his belief that in this short treatise he had solved all problems of philosophy, that, after giving away his entire enormous recently inherited fortune, he abandoned philosophy for the next 10 years while working as a gardener, a school teacher, and an architect for his sister’s house. He would meet occasionally with the group known as the Vienna Circle, who had been inspired by the Tractatus, but Wittgenstein held little regard for their interpretations of his work and he spent his time with them reciting poetry. Eventually, he was persuaded to re-enter the world of philosophy due to widespread lack of understanding of his Tractatus, as well as his own doubts about its faultlessness. In 1929, with assistance from John Maynard Keynes and a token PhD examination administered by Russell and G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein was made a lecturer and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, he became a British citizen (his sisters made a deal with to give money and stocks to the Nazis in return for being immune to the Nuremberg laws and to remain unmolested in their Vienna palaces; his older brother Paul, a concert pianist who lost an arm in WWI and commissioned such works as Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, moved to America and continued to perform). When G.E. Moore retired in 1939, Wittgenstein was made Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, where he attracted many devoted disciples of his innovative new method of philosophizing (a young Alan Turing was certainly not one of these disciples during his attendance of Wittgenstein’s lectures in 1939; Turing was the sole courageous defender of the importance of mathematical logic during these dialogues, contra Wittgenstein, which is fortunate since his own ideas were fundamental in the development of the digital computer). Wittgenstein retired in 1947 to focus on his writing, and spent the next three years reworking and adding to his 20-year unpublished project, Philosophical Investigations, as well as several notebooks later published as Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (1956), On Certainty (1969), Remarks on Colour (1977), and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology (1980). He died of prostate cancer in 1951 three days after his 62nd birthday, with his last words: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (read and download here, with original German and both English translations side-by-side)

This 75-page work consists entirely of 7 main propositions each followed by numbered sub-propositions, which shows it to be a long formal proof rather than a discussion or explanation. The first proposition is “The world is all that is the case.” Its original aim, deriving from the time when he began at Cambridge in 1911, was to continue Russell’s search for an explicit foundation of logical rules based on an ideal language that could explain mathematics and would solve Russell’s paradox (which involves the fact that any class or set or list of objects can neither belong or not belong to any higher order classification of such classes, sets, or lists) which was left somewhat unresolved at the end of Russell and Whitehead’s monumental 10-year project Principia Mathematica. The final result of the Tractatus was a much broader attempt to reveal the relationship between language and the world, not only logically, but also in terms of ethics, aesthetics, and the meaning of life. The cause of this expanded subject matter probably had to do with Wittgenstein’s expanded worldview brought about by the devastation he witnessed during the war, especially after being moved to the front lines in 1916. It must be difficult to maintain the airy metaphysics of logic in such a tragic and illogical real world, and it is indeed the final main purpose of the Tractatus to only show what can be demonstrated by logic through use of atomic propositions of facts, but also what are the limits of what can be described or understood by logic and language. Accordingly, it ends with a solitary and oracular proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein was convinced that philosophy was limited by language itself, and that much of human experience which cannot be explained clearly is not necessarily untrue, but is outside the bounds of philosophical understanding. We are reminded of Hamlet’s “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Interestingly, Russell was also forced by the war to descend from the mountain of reason and speculation to enter the real world beyond philosophy–he spent the rest of his long life writing popular and political works and spreading ideas of peaceful understanding and social and political reform).

Another of the points of the Tractatus is to distinguish what can be said, with words, and what can only be shown in actuality, outside of language. Thus, while he was confident that he had built the logical foundation for all philosophical explanations, there nevertheless remained a body of facts that could not be explained within this logical system and would only be reduced to nonsense if someone attempted to explain them in terms of logical atomic propositions. The penultimate proposition in the Tractatus, 6.54, reads: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” The world beyond logic can only be shown, not said. And, prefiguring the final proposition, Wittgenstein wrote in the preface that, “Its whole meaning could be summed up somewhat as follows: What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” Ultimately, according to Wittgenstein, neither science nor philosophy could show us the meaning of life; of the few things that philosophy could do for us, he believed that he had now demonstrated how to do them. Thus, after writing it he gave up philosophy.

Philosophical Investigations (read or download here)

Wittgenstein began working on many of the ideas for this book as soon as he returned to Cambridge to begin lecturing in 1929. He struggled for two decades to express his thoughts in writing (perhaps running into trouble from his own view about the disparity between what can be said and what can only be shown). He wrote much of Part One during WWII while serving as a hospital assistant, though he was still unhappy with much of it and he added many notes, which became Part Two, while living in Ireland and Wales in the years before his death. He left the final manuscript in the hands of Georg Henrik von Wright, his successor at Cambridge, and Elizabeth Anscombe, another colleague who translated it into English.

While PI shares with the Tractatus a focus on language, the latter work no longer favors explicit fundamental logical rules, but instead speaks of ‘language games’ as a way towards mutual understanding and philosophical problem-solving. Unlike almost every preceding work of philosophy, he invites the reader to participate in the act of thinking along with the author — an almost Socratic method of philosophizing rather than advancing a specific theory or system of ideas. The result is therefore an intense method of thinking about problems, especially as regards the use of language and semantics in understanding the problem, rather than necessarily advocating solutions. One famous expression of this was his statement, “Philosophy is the battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Unlike some Analytic philosophers, Wittgenstein was not concerned with science or the amassing of empirical knowledge; he saw philosophy merely as a method of understanding and clarifying what we already know. “Philosophy only states what everyone admits.”

The content of PI consists in a series of dialogues and puzzles which attempts to show this method of clarification (“to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”) in regards to language meaning and use. Wittgenstein claimed that the meanings of words are acquired through the use of sentences in a practical context, as part of everyday human social activity and interaction. Basically, meaning is use, and the use totally depends on the social environment (he said that, for example, if a lion could speak, we [humans] would not be able to understand it). He also rejected the common notion of the existence of private languages, since a language depends not on an individual’s private and subjective sensibilities, but on its use in social context.

He determined that, contrary to much philosophical tradition since Descartes, not every word can stand for an object, nor do concepts have an essence (though they might share a ‘family resemblance’). The ramifications for these critiques show that language does not mirror the world, thus language and logic cannot be the source for philosophical principles. For Wittgenstein, instead, philosophy begins in the world of real people and things; therefore, philosophical problems can be resolved only by clarifying the role that words play, and nothing more. In this way, philosophy is a therapy that eliminates confusion by focusing on the use of language that causes such confusion, with the end goal being the end of the need for theorizing.

An example of one his language games on the topic of private languages is the ‘beetle in the box’ scenario: imagine a room with 6 people each containing a small box; no one can see the contents of any box but his own; when questioned as to the contents of his box, each person responds, “beetle”; Wittgenstein asks: If each person had his own private language, how could anyone know the meaning of the word ‘beetle’ in any language but his own? How could anyone, seeing something in the box, know it to be a beetle, without prior agreement on what a beetle is? Thus, meaning is socially constructed only through the actual practices of a community (and, therefore, not private).

Last photograph of Wittgenstein (left), with G.H. von Wright (right)

According to Wittgenstein, Philosophy, which is a search for meanings, truth, knowledge, etc., can only be understood as a social undertaking proceeding accorded to grammatical forms. All philosophical problems are not real problems but only part of a language game — instead of epistemology or metaphysics, what is called for is linguistic analysis. Going back to the ‘fly in the fly-bottle’, we must remember that the nature of the fly has not changed once it has left the bottle, and there is no guarantee that it will not fly into another bottle later if it feels so compelled. Likewise, philosophy is an activity which can be therapeutic and lead to understanding, but can only describe things as they are in the world, and not vice versa.

What to Make of Wittgenstein

The life and thoughts of Wittgenstein are full of paradoxes. His centrality to Analytic philosophy is unquestioned, given his influence by Frege, Russell, and Moore, his influence on Russell, Moore, the Logical Positivists, and every subsequent Anglo-American philosopher, his focus on logic, mathematics, and mind, and his disregard for historicism (his ignorance of vast swathes of the history of ideas from Plato and Aristotle onwards is legendary — even if some of his own ideas seem a bit Aristotelian). At the same time, he would have never considered himself a part of any ‘school’ of ideas, and he criticized philosophy as much as he influenced it. As much as he is central to Analytic philosophy, he also seems to have surpassed it and to stand somewhat apart from it, sharing some resemblance to Heidegger (they were exact contemporaries, even though Heidegger lived 25 years longer) as well as to the American Pragmatists. Like Heidegger, he wanted to redefine the meaning, use, language, and aim of philosophy itself, and to help it carve out a niche away from the sciences. Like the Pragmatists, he saw philosophy as an activity useful for understanding the world in its social, subjective, and historical context, rather than in the Cartesian/Kantian paradigm of a search for absolute truth and analytic/synthetic distinctions. Wittgenstein’s work is both groundbreaking and revolutionary. Willard Van Orman Quine, who is considered the most important successor to Wittgenstein in the English-speaking world, followed in the latter’s footsteps by more clearly delineating the limits of Analytic and empirically-based philosophy, settling instead on a similar pseudo-Pragmatic idea of “ontological relativism”.

While his ideas are generally respected and influential across the board in philosophy and other fields, Wittgenstein has not been immune to criticisms. Bertrand Russell, a figure of almost singular importance for Wittgenstein’s development, wrote in 1959 that “the later Wittgenstein seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.” Kurt Gödel, whose ‘Incompleteness Theorems’ are considered to have shown the impossibility of the project of Frege, Russell, and early Wittgenstein to provide a logical basis for mathematics, stated, “Has Wittgenstein lost his mind? Does he mean it seriously?” when he read the negative remarks about his theorems by Wittgenstein in the posthumous Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Wittgenstein is similar to Nietzsche in that he is sometimes considered a new starting point in philosophy, and sometimes dismissed as not a philosopher at all. His work is very technical and detailed, devoid of the usual theorizing and full of aphorisms, and often contains anti-philosophical and existential sentiments. “What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.”

There is enough material in Wittgenstein’s works to keep the philosophical community occupied into some point far in the future, and I have obviously just scratched the surface here. What we have in Wittgenstein is a sort of modern-day Socrates, who engages in dialogues and questions that make us rethink our own opinions and knowledge. He invites us to participate in the act of thinking and philosophizing with him, rather than simply presenting us with more dogmatic statements of truth. For this reason, discounting whether we ultimately find ourselves in acquiescence with his own conclusions, he is important, because he shows us a method of thinking in new ways and seeing problems in a new light. For this alone, he could be considered, like Socrates, a model philosopher.

As I opened this essay with a quotation from Dennett’s article, now I finish with another one expressed more eloquently than I could:

The fact remains that one’s first exposure to either the Tractatus or Philosophical Investigations is a liberating and exhilarating experience. Here is a model of thinking so intense, so pure, so self-critical that even its mistakes are gifts.

Notes on Continental Philosophy: Martin Heidegger

For the last two centuries or so, there has been a so-called ‘divide’ in the world of western philosophy between the traditions of mainland Europe (mostly Germany and France), and those of England. The former, following Kant, are referred to as Continental Philosophy, and collectively comprise a number of offshoots such as idealism, phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, and others. The tradition from England, following the empiricism of Locke, Hume, and Bentham, is called Analytic Philosophy. Four basic themes that characterize Continental Philosophy, especially as opposed to Analytic, can be broadly stated as the following: a rejection of scientific methods as the best or only way to understand natural phenomena; a dependence on historical context for formulating philosophic problems and solutions; a belief in human agency as the basis for any possible experience or transformation (personal, moral, political, etc.); and a general reaction against the success of the natural sciences in lieu of emphasis on metaphysics and the redefinition or formulation of philosophy itself.

The topic of this essay will be a brief summary and discussion of the ideas of Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher who has been called the most important and influential thinker of the 20th century in the Continental tradition. In a certain sense, Heidegger is the prototype of the modern Continental philosopher, and to understand him will allow us to grasp much of what came before and after, including the state of the ‘divide’ today (for a recent discussion on this last topic, see the interesting articles here and here). One of the major criticisms directed towards Heidegger is the inaccessibility of both his writing style and his ideas (called obscurantism by some critics), which I find to be an almost unforgivable fault in any philosopher (which is also ubiquitous in the Analytic school). In my opinion, a philosopher should help to unravel reality and explain things clearly, rather than rendering them even more unintelligible. The main reason for his difficult style is that he was attempting to invent a whole new philosophical vocabulary and to change the course of philosophy after what he saw as a wrong turn as early as the time of Plato. His main focus was the idea of Being itself, and what it means to exist. My reason for writing on Heidegger is to begin to express my own evolving opinion, which has so far moved through three phases: curious interest in his ideas and influence; dismissal of him as misguided and possibly irrelevant; and gradual pragmatic acceptance of the potential usefulness, and maybe even deceptive simplicity, of his ideas. Being as brief as possible, I will give an outline of his life, his most important work Being and Time, his later works, some criticisms, and, most importantly for me, how we might understand and use his philosophy.

His Life

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Heidegger was born in 1889 in south-west Germany, raised as a Roman Catholic, and prepared to enter the priesthood. He became interested in philosophy, however, and completed his doctorate in this area in 1913. He began teaching at the University of Freiburg from this time as a junior associate of Edmund Husserl, the philosopher of the new school of phenomenology. Heidegger continued teaching without interruption until the end of World War II, including dozens of students who would later become highly important philosophers in various of the Continental traditions. In 1927 he published Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), which revealed a break with Husserl and all modern philosophy, and a new emphasis on a fundamental ‘phenomenological ontology’. He became politically involved with the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, which he seemingly supported until their final downfall in 1945. He was quickly appointed as the rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933 because of his political support, and was forced to retire in 1946 after the process of ‘denazification’. He was allowed to regain his post and teach regularly in 1951 until 1958, when he retired and spent most of his time in seclusion at his home in the Black Forest, near the mouth of the Danube. He died in 1976 at the age of 86.

The level of his personal support of the Nazi party is obviously a highly controversial issue. In a 1966 interview with the magazine Der Spiegel, he attempted to portray his support as a way to exert a positive influence on the Nazis, and to protect his university from becoming politicized. He claimed that he was an early idealistic supporter until he changed his mind after the 1934 ‘Night of the Long Knives’. There is certain evidence that points to the fact that he was much more involved than he claimed, and quite sympathetic to the Nazi cause even until the end of the war. His student Emmanuel Levinas later said, “One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger.” The main issue for philosophers and historians is to decide how much these sympathies could have influenced his philosophy itself. The subject should always be brought into consideration when discussing Heidegger, with the understanding that he most likely made abhorrent personal political choices, either for self-preservation or because of outright support of Nazism. From my reading, I am of the opinion that his political involvement does not necessarily undermine or discount his unique theoretical philosophy.

Being and Time

Heidegger’s magnum opus has a completely metaphysical focus, which is more specifically the area of metaphysics called ontology, the study of being. It goes without saying that it takes none of its subjects, evidence, or methods from any actual sciences, but relies on the ‘phenomenological’ method inspired by Husserl. While Husserl saw Phenomenology as a whole philosophical construct (claiming that all of our experience or phenomena, including everything mental, has an object outside of us, independent of us in the world), Heidegger used it as his method to direct our consciousness indirectly towards an access of understanding of our existing state of being, if not the overall idea of Being itself. Heidegger called this access ‘Dasein’, which means ‘existence’, but which Heidegger explained to mean ‘being there’, or the time and place of our already existing being in the world.

As you can already see, this is highly abstract stuff, and even the English translations of Heidegger’s terms are less than enlightening. They highlight more of a process for understanding than a simple definition, which is part of the intent, no doubt. I will try to move through his explanation of Being as if it were a map, and which you can hopefully see more clearly with the use of the helpful chart below. At the end, according to my interpretation, you might find that the result of all this abstraction can be surprisingly simple to understand.

Heidegger’s Dasein, or ‘being-there’, leads more concretely to the fact of ‘Being-in-the-World’, since it is only in the world that we can exist. The three main aspects of this existing state are called ‘projection’, ‘throwness’, and ‘fallenness’. ‘Projection’ leads to understanding of our existence and future potentiality, ‘throwness’ (because we are always already thrown into the world) leads to our state of mind of ‘facticity’ (that is, the fact of our limitedness), and ‘fallenness’ shows how we are surrounded only by things that are either Dasein or not Dasein, and therefore we understand our falling in time and authenticity towards others (‘the They’). These three aspects add up to the ‘anxiety’ of our existence, because we understand that we are beings moving towards Death. This realization causes both a sense of guilt, as well as our conscienceness of the need to find a solution. This solution, according to Heidegger, is to have ‘anticipatory resoluteness’ towards our impending death. His conclusion is that the nature of Being is only possible to understand through means of ‘Temporality’– that is, all Being is predicated on Time, or, all beings have an end time limit, which is death. So the rather simple result that I referred to earlier is that Being depends on Time, and that Time defines every aspect of our Being.

[For more detailed explication of Being and Time, a series of articles by Simon Critchley can be read here].

Later Works

Soon after publication of Being and Time, Heidegger began a self-confessed ‘turn’ (die Kehre’) in thought that would continue for the rest of his life and comprise the second half of his career. A recurrent theme of this shift seems to be a change in perspective of the entities of Being and Dasein (which is, once again, is merely an instantiation of an already existing being, rather than the separate and independent object of Being itself). In Being and Time, he portrayed Dasein as a sort of ‘clearing’ (as in a thick forest) where phenomena are revealed or uncovered for our understanding; later, the roles reversed as he emphasized the active agency of Being revealing or uncovering itself on Dasein. Some recurring themes in his later works include discussions of technology, poetry, and a reexamination of ancient Greek philosophy.

Technology, rendered from its Greek root of tekhne, means the use of tools or craft (mental, as well as physical) to build, create, or control something. Rather than focusing on the tools themselves or the creative result of the technological craft, Heidegger is more interested in the process of revealing of truth that a Being encounters during the process of creation. He thus sees the positive potential in the creation through technology, but that this potential is often squandered because we direct our attention not on the process but on the end result of the action. In fact, Heidegger writes very negatively about what we consider modern technology, and seems to always search for a solution in earlier, pre-technological ages or in natural setting untouched by modern developments or improvements of any kind. What he actually might be intending is rather a way for humans to live peacefully with technology while not letting it distract from our true being. Furthermore, while technology can be dangerous, he thinks it can also be a means of salvation towards our revealing of the truth of Being, which is also the way towards the most profound kind of freedom. This theme, developed over several decades and perhaps best represented in the 1954 essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, is quite difficult to grasp, let alone describe in one paragraph. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it might represent some of the most useful, forward-looking, and fruitful thought in all of Heidegger’s work.

Poetry, according to Heidegger, shares the same possibility of technology of revealing something through the act of creation (in this case, the original Greek root for poem comes from poiein, “to create”). He wrote much on the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin. Some associated metaphysical themes related to poetry (or described in somewhat transcendental or poetic terms) are Heidegger’s attempt to describe being as a ‘dwelling’ in the world. He writes openly of the mystery of this dwelling or habitation, saying that the mystery of being is unintelligible, or a ‘no-thing’. This ‘nothingness’, he claims, is nevertheless a positive ontological aspect. In one sense, our being is simultaneously understood as how we dwell in the world. There is an interesting documentary film called The Ister, based on Heidegger’s lecture on Hölderlin’s poem of that name, in which a long journey up the Danube river accompanies Heideggerian discussions on poetry and technology by four contemporary philosophers.

Heidegger working to reveal his Dasein while drawing water from his Black Forest mountain hut.

Heidegger came to the view that the line of thinking of all philosophy from Plato through Descartes to the present had been in fundamental error, not only in the loss of the questioning of Being, but also in the preoccupation with science and technology, and by the fact that (so he thought) mistranslations of the original Greek words had clouded our knowledge of the experience of the earliest philosophers. He saw the pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, as authentically focused on an openness to the question of Being. Much of his later work incorporates ideas and reinterpretations from these philosophers alongside his own ontological ‘uncoverings’. In a certain sense, it seems like Heidegger wanted his own writings to have a similar mysterious and oracular tone of that of the pre-Socratics, some of whose writings only exist in a few paragraphs or scattered apothegms.


Walter Kaufman, a scholar of Nietzsche and Heidegger, wrote of the latter in his 1956 book Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre: “His detractors see him as an obscurantist whose involved constructions with their multiple plays on words conceal a mixture of banalities and falsehoods. His admirers say that he has shown the temporality of man’s existence, that he strikes new paths by raising the question of Being, and that he is the great anti-Cartesian who has overcome the fatal bifurcation of matter and mind and the isolation of the thinking self. His critics, in turn, retort that this last feat is common to most modern philosophers and that Heidegger, unlike some of the others, achieved it only by renouncing Descartes’ rule that we must think as clearly and distinctly as the mathematicians. This, say his admirers, leads to positivism; what is wanted is a new way of thinking.”

Some of these logical positivist detractors include Rudolf Carnap, who said Heidegger’s violation of logical syntax led to nonsensical pseudo-propositions, and A.J. Ayer, who considered Heidegger to be completely useless because of his unverifiable and illogical all-encompassing theories of existence. Bertrand Russell, speaking more or less for the Analytic school as a whole, wrote of Heidegger: “Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic.”

Even among later Continental philosophers, many of whom were students or followers of Heidegger, almost everyone has something to criticize. Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Jürgen Habermas have all, sooner or later, rejected large parts of Heidegger’s work. Sartre took many of the ideas that comprised his existentialist philosophy directly from Heidegger’s work, but Heidegger stated explicitly that Sartre had misunderstood most of his ideas (who can blame him!), especially concerning the role of humanism in metaphysics. Alas, when dealing with someone like Heidegger who wanted to redefine the nature, vocabulary, and purpose of philosophy itself, it is obvious that he will become a polarizing figure. This brings us to the final topic of this essay.

What to make of Heidegger

After this short summary of Heidegger’s ideas, we must now ask how we can begin to understand his philosophy, and to what use it might possibly be to us. As Russell claimed, I think much of Heidegger’s work is, in fact, psychological in nature– this is a common and seemingly harmless characterization that was nonetheless vehemently denied by Heidegger himself. But why should he deny it? Perhaps he thought the profundity of his thought would be harmed by a relegation to mere psychology. The field of psychology only became independent from that of philosophy after the work of William James at the turn of the 20th century, and even Nietzsche, whose influence on Heidegger was enormous, proudly claimed to be a psychologist as well as a philosopher (asking in the last chapter of Ecce Homo, “Who among philosophers before me has been a psychologist?”). Heidegger certainly has virtually nothing to do with logic, ethics, politics, or any of the traditional sciences. He is almost totally consumed with metaphysical questions; specifically, that branch of metaphysics involving being (ontology). Seen from almost any angle, the questions in this field deal directly with a person’s mental and intellectually understanding of his existence which can only really take place rather subjectively in the mind (aka, the psyche). His questions of being, anxiety, fear, and death are fundamentally psychological in nature, but with an interpretive approach rather than the modern emphasis on scientific method and experimentation. This aspect of interpretation, called Hermeneutics, also strongly characterizes Heidegger and later Continental followers. As a side note, Heidegger compares in some respects to a Western version of a Taoist philosopher, or other oriental-style mystagogue. Though thoroughly unliterary, the nature of his psychological work in philosophy, which is expressive and interpretive, would seem to fit more within the tradition of poetry, literature, and art, which figure often in existential philosophies, and which were embraced by Sartre and Camus, for example (both winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature). If we accept this understanding of Heidegger as a sort of ontological psychologist, that now leaves the final question of what use (if any) we can derive from his ideas.

There is another documentary film, 2010’s Being in the World, in which five contemporary philosophers discuss aspects related to Heidegger’s philosophy, and we are presented with four different ‘craftsmen’ at work: a Flamenco guitarist, a New Orleans chef, a Japanese carpenter, and an improvisational Jazz ensemble. The point of the film, in my understanding, is to show real-life examples of Heidegger’s idea of the creative impulse as ‘authentic’ beings in the world, showing ‘anticipatory resoluteness’ in the face of ‘temporality’. It is the idea of defining and giving meaning and purpose to our existence through our own personal projects, freeing ourselves from the yoke of conformity of ‘the They’, and, in the process, coming closer to an understanding of our true, ineffable existence. In a nutshell, this sums up both my understanding of the positive aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy, and my idea of how it can also be applied to life. It is something transcendental and poetic, and probably already intuitive to anyone who wants to enjoy or maximize life. Indeed, I do not know that it is not too reductive to claim that my interpretation would be somewhat self-evident to any creative person, even without the need for thousands of pages of somewhat mystifying philosophical text!

Satisfied with my own life-affirming psychological interpretation of Heidegger (and I will be skeptical about any accusations that I have misinterpreted him, because his work is clearly too obscure and inaccessible to be open to any single correct and expressible interpretation), I now return to the idea of its place within Philosophy. As I began to describe in an earlier post, Defining Philosophy and Its Uses, my personal definition for Philosophy is the method by which we attempt to analyze truth and synthesize wisdom, which can then be used in the real world either at the level of individual or society. Basically, I think that there are pros and cons with both the Analytic and Continental traditions of philosophy, and that positive aspects can be taken from both, which would seem to make me into something like a Pragmatist. Personally, I am most interested in Ethics and Politics, both in theory and practice, rather than fields such as Epistemology or Metaphysics, which tend to be at the heart of the Analytic/Continental debate.

The type of metaphysics in which Heidegger engages has sometimes been considered the very epitome of philosophy, or of doing philosophy, or of philosophizing, in general. As a whole, it is something that can be interesting to certain curious individuals, but which can arguably never achieve much certainty or have any real-world effect beyond the individual psychological level. In fact, whenever new knowledge has been discovered in metaphysics, those areas become separate new sciences, such as astrophysics, neuroscience, linguistics, or even experimental psychology. This is not to say that there is no use for metaphysics today– far from it– but that it may often be best expressed in the form of personal beliefs (religious or otherwise) or creative impulses (art, literature, tekhne). But, contrary to modern sciences or empirical studies, it really cannot prove anything. Another way to put it is that this type of metaphysical speculation might be an engaging activity or an intellectual journey for it adherents, it can never come to any conclusions or increase in knowledge so long as it remains divorced from actual science and the real world. For that reason, I am prepared to deal with questions of metaphysics from the point of view of Pragmatism, while regarding as more immediate and concrete such political and ethical questions as “what is the best balance between freedom, justice, and equality, and the best relationship between the state and the individual.” Accordingly, while we may choose to spend our time in the process of revealing our essence of Being, maybe we could also use some of our limited Temporality to improve something that matters– the state of Being and quality of Existence for some real-life examples of Dasein, otherwise known as Humanity.

The Political Importance of the Liberal Arts

We have heard much about the relative decline of the American education system over the past decade (or two, or three). While there is much truth to these various assertions and statistics that document the decline, there have been a wide-range of different diagnoses of the root source of this general decline, as well as different proposed solutions. A common political response is broad rhetoric calling for an increase in development of the so-called STEM fields– Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The last two American presidents have both specifically cited this solution in their State of the Union addresses, and have both increased funding for organizations and initiatives in these fields. Additionally, work visas for immigrants to the US are more readily available to applicants with a skilled background in the STEM fields. The thinking is that this type of expertise is necessary for innovation, and that this innovation will drive the economy and secure the future for the ‘winners’ of the most well-educated nation competition. All of this information is rather uncontroversial, and I certainly have no problem with more focus and funding for education on any kind, whether it is STEM-oriented or otherwise. An objection I have, however, is that the emphasis on STEM field competition seems to be in danger of becoming a sort of Zero-Sum game, in which a top-down political and corporate mandate for more STEM education means a corresponding decrease of perceived importance or respect for other fields or types of education that may not seem to lead to instant innovation or economic dynamism. I am speaking especially about the cultural fields of education known as the Liberal Arts, or the Humanities.

The Liberal Arts encompass areas such as History, the Arts (Performing and Visual), Literature, Languages, and Philosophy, among many more. If we wanted to compare them with the STEM fields on more equal footing, we would need to call them by an easily-understood acronym– HALP (or perhaps HALLP?). Since this obviously not very appealing, we will stick with either of the classical phrases of Liberal Arts or Humanities. The original Latin meaning of artes liberales signifies what was thought necessary for a free citizen to study. This is exactly the case I would like to make here in regards to the political importance of the Liberal Arts.

I would characterize professional, technical, or vocational curricula as various types of training, with a goal of developing specific skill-sets for a particular employment. The areas of the Liberal Arts, however, lead to a more universal and well-rounded education. In this sense, Education, derived from its original Latin meaning of “leading out of”, is conducted not for any specific end in itself, other than a more general and complete individual intellectual development and understanding of the world. I would argue that a person with this type of education could be taught virtually any skill with a certain amount of training, but that education itself is a more profound and long-term (ideally lifelong) personal development.

Once again, I have no problem at all with the emphasis on the advanced training in the STEM fields, but I am afraid that, in the current social and political environment, this emphasis can lead to a drastic undervaluing of the conception of a more universal education as represented especially through study of the Liberal Arts. The USA is fortunate to have a strong system of universities which still maintain a rich Liberal Arts tradition. I do not think this system can remain strong indefinitely given the social and financial pressures. When I was entering college over a decade ago, I knew that I wanted to do my ‘major’ in History, not because I was planning for any specific future employment but because I liked it and was interested in it (a quick glance at the topics on this website will reveal that I still hold this and other humanistic interests). In a scene that has no doubt occurred to many students countless times over the past decades, I was always asked by acquaintances and interlocutors “what I wanted to do with that degree after I graduated…become a teacher?” It is maintained by many folks that someone who studies history is either unemployable, or can only work as a teacher (in history, of course). The pressure is great to spend the valuable formative years on training that leads to employment, rather than education that is interesting and intellectually and personally fulfilling.

I recently returned to school and earned a Master’s degree, which was quite rewarding for me even if it did not directly lead to new or higher-paying employment, or necessary on-the-job skills. In the United Kingdom, where I studied, I became aware of the fact that upcoming budget cuts from the government would slash and burn a number of departments throughout the university system. My own department of Classical Studies would soon be phased out permanently, as well as several modern language programs and countless others. This is a failure of leadership.  In America, while I am happy that STEM fields are apparently receiving better funding and support, I have to take strong issue with the harsh budget cuts at the federal, state, and local levels. For shamefully short-sighted reasons, a number of politicians feel that the best way to make up for their (mostly self-inflicted) budgetary shortfalls is to cut funding for education. It is inconceivable how people could be elected or certainly re-elected who support such measures. Many politicians consider the enormously outsized and wasteful military budget to be sacrosanct, while having no qualms in cutting off any education programs whatever (not to mention the select few who want to eliminate the Department of Education altogether). I would submit that re-allocating even 10% of the monstrous “defense” budget towards education would be a more efficient, forward-looking, ethical, and a valuable use of public funds (and who could disagree that a more well-educated population itself would do more for the ‘defense’ of a country than the newest redundant fighter plane or missile). I will rest my case (and my rant) with the support of the two charts below.

Back to the topic at hand, I maintain that education, especially universal liberal education, is necessary for the maintenance of a healthy democratic society. This is exactly the position of American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952), who was one of the most important and influential theorists and reformers of modern school systems (not only in America, but in Turkey and China). In several books, especially his 1916 Democracy and Education, Dewey describes how education should be a synthesis between the needs of the individual and the society, whose ultimate aim is to teach a person how to live. As a tireless defender of democracy, Dewey knew that a well-educated population was necessary for the survival of an ordered society. For example, without learning how to think independently and use critical judgment, how can a person be expected to choose leaders or public policies? This type of independent and critical thinking, as well as broad cultural and historical perspective, is developed especially through engagement with the Liberal Arts. Dewey’s progressive style of education fell somewhat out of favor during the Cold War, when technological and scientific education was promoted as essential for national survival (e.g.: the “Sputnik” moment and the Space Race). With the political, financial, and rhetorical emphasis now finding favor with the STEM fields, it is, in my opinion, imperative to not lose sight of the importance of liberal, progressive, humanistic studies as well. While better STEM training can lead to technological, industrial, and economical growth and innovation, a more universal Liberal Arts education can lead to a stronger Democracy– that is, a body politic that is curious, cultured, creative, and critical.

(For some further reading, I can endorse these related opinions about justifying culture by Alain de Botton, why knowledge is not about securing a gain on student debt by Emmanuel Jaffelin, and how higher education became corporatized.)

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