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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.

Criticism

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.

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Defining Philosophy and its Uses

The unexamined life is not worth living for man. Thus spoke Socrates through the writings of his greatest pupil, Plato. With this remark, Socrates, who is acknowledged as the first philosopher to direct his attention primarily at ethics in human affairs, might have come as close as anyone ever has in finding the solution to the questions of what is philosophy and how is it used. To him, it is an examination of one’s life. Nevertheless, let us expand on these questions to search for its role in the modern world, in which it is sometimes believed that science and technology have rendered obsolete the “love of wisdom.”

I believe it is de rigueur, when discussing any point about philosophy, to first refer to the twin titans of ancient Greece thought for their opinions on the matter (pun intended)–even if their opinions tend to be somewhat less than credible by today’s standards.

Plato, Theaetetus:

Wonder (Greek: thaumata) is the only beginning of philosophy.” (155d)

Aristotle, Metaphysics:

It is owing to their wonder (thaumata) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” (982b)

They unexpectedly seem to agree on something in this case. To my mind, however, the sense of wonder brought about by pondering the mysteries of nature does not necessarily lead directly to philosophy. Nor does philosophy always begin with this sense of wonder. It could come from, say, doubt, or perhaps insatiable curiosity. As for the uses of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle spend the rest of their respective careers attempting to expound on them. They rarely came to the same conclusions, and today we are unlikely to find much sense in either one, but they both are entitled to the claim of setting the boundaries of philosophy and its subfields.

Martin Heidegger, from the essay What is Philosophy? (1955):

Thaumazein (to wonder or marvel at) is the astonishment wherein philosophizing originates.

There seems to be, in this case, a curious similarity between the Athenian and the Stagirite, and the German. In his essay, Heidegger further explains that “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy.” (75) Even if I can try to make myself understand what Heidegger is talking about, it is hard for me to grasp anything meaningful and useful in his abstractions. A definition or description should be, at a minimum, comprehensible (which is a word seldom ascribed to Heidegger). Let’s move on.

Bertrand Russell, from ‘Introduction’ of A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge-so I should contend-belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and  water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. This interaction throughout the centuries will be the topic of the following pages.

There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

I have already written a two-part essay based around excerpts from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and this segment is taken from the introduction in which he gives his definition and use of philosophy. It is self-explanatory, and I have nothing to add other than to say that I hope the reader is as inspired by Russell as the author of this website.

Ludwig WittgensteinPhilosophical Investigations (1953):

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” (§ 109)

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” (§ 127)

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.‘” (§123), therefore the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly out of the fly-bottle.” (§ 309)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I have cited Russell’s brilliant protégé because his position represents arguably the furthest possible development of thought within logical and philosophical analysis. Wittgenstein attempted to prove that all philosophical problems could be attributed simply to problems of language involving grammar and syntax, as shown in his ‘language games’. Here, logic is king and mathematical precision can be used to solve formerly insoluble problems. This conclusion is useful in some respects, but, I think, clearly lacks something substantial. Ethics and politics, for example. In his own life, Wittgenstein was a restless man of action who in a certain sense had no use for his own philosophical conclusions, rather embodying the maxim of primum vivere, deinde philosophari–“first one must live, then one may philosophize.”

Will Durant (1885-1981), from ‘Introduction’ to The Story of Philosophy (1926):

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and. when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.

Durant continues by listing the five fields of philosophical study and discourse: logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. Logic, though it has been instrumental in improving methods of thinking and research, has been relocated, since the developments of Frege, Cantor, and Russell and Whitehead, into the field of pure science and mathematics. Aesthetics is the most subjective of the five fields, and ultimately finds a better fit in the area of psychology rather than philosophy. According to Durant, ontology (the study of ‘being’) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) are subsets of metaphysics. Epistemology, which must now be considered within the province of neuroscience, was unapologetically neglected by Durant except in the chapter on Kant, and it was, he claims, “largely responsible for the decadence of philosophy” in the 19th century by the followers of Kant. I happily concur with Durant on this point. I also find it more than mere coincidence that one of the few points of convergence between the Analytic and Continental traditions is the insignificance or total irrelevance of metaphysics in modern philosophy.

There remain only two fields of interest, then, that are applicable, in theory and in practice, to the modern, non-scientific but practical-minded philosopher: ethics and politics. The former is “the study of ideal conduct”, which emphasizes especially individual behavior (How should we act?); the latter is “the study of ideal social organization”, and, thus, focuses on the role of individuals within society (What kind of government should we have? What is freedom?).

I have chosen to conclude with the wonderful prose excerpt from Durant because, in this case, on the definition of philosophy and its uses, I agree with his position that philosophy is necessary to synthesize knowledge from diverse areas into something understandable.

Here is a shorter version of the same idea from the article “What is Philosophy?”:

We shall define philosophy as “total perspective,” as mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity… Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which leads us to security and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

And here is an examination of the idea of ‘wisdom’ from the article “What is Wisdom?” (1957):

The first lesson of philosophy is that philosophy is the study of any part of experience in the light of our whole experience; the second lesson is that the philosopher is a very small part in a very large whole. Just as philosopher means not a “possessor” but a “lover” of wisdom, so we can only seek wisdom devotedly, like a lover fated, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, never to possess, but only to desire. Perhaps it is more blessed to desire than to possess.

Bertrand Russell on Nietzsche

Russell in 1907 (from Wikipedia)

In my last post, Part One of a two-part series on Bertrand Russell’s monumental A History of Western Philosophy, I highlighted the author’s critical views of Plato and Aristotle from the ‘Ancient Philosophy’ section of the work. Now, in Part Two, I will summarize and comment on just one chapter from the ‘Modern Philosophy’ section of this same work–the one dealing with the German-born philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with Plato and Aristotle, Russell is highly disapproving of the outcome of much of Nietzsche’s thought; unlike with the former two thinkers, however, Russell’s critique of Nietzsche seems like a personal ad hominem polemic against the latter. Russell does not only seek to demonstrate scientific, logical, or methodical errors or prejudices, as with many of the philosophers he discusses, but intends to completely ridicule, demolish, and discredit the entire foundation on which Nietzsche’s ideas are built. In addition to prima facie philosophical disagreement, most of the hostility of Russell (who was writing this book in the last years of WWII) comes from the fact that he sees Nietzsche as the most recent example of a European philosophical tradition that has culminated in, or at least prepared the way for, Fascism. Though he would not find Plato innocent of these same charges, it was difficult to trace such a direct line of influence from antiquity to the modern age and the war that was then in progress. This, according to Russell, could not be said about many philosophers of the modern era ever since the successors of John Locke. Here is an example of Russell’s commentary from the chapter entitled “Locke’s Influence”:

Since Rousseau and Kant, there have been two schools of liberalism, which may be distinguished as the hard-headed and the soft-hearted. The hard-headed developed, through Bentham, Ricardo, and Marx, by logical stages into Stalin; the soft-hearted, by other logical stages, through Fichte, Byron, Carlyle, and Nietzsche, into Hitler. This statement, of course, is too schematic to be quite true, but it may serve as a map and a mnemonic… A man’s ethic usually reflects his character, and benevolence leads to a desire for the general happiness. Thus the men who thought happiness the end of life tended to be the more benevolent, while those who proposed other ends were often dominated, unconsciously, by cruelty or love of power.

Russell further compares the evolution of ideas to the present day in terms of romanticism, which he opposed, and rationalism, which he supported. From the chapter entitled “Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century”:

This revolt (against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics) had two very different forms, one romantic, the other rationalistic. The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler; the rationalistic revolt begins with the French philosophers of the Revolution, passes on, somewhat softened, to the philosophical radicals in England, then acquires a deeper form in Marx and issues in Soviet Russia.

Nietzsche in 1869 (from Wikipedia)

For me, one of the most interesting things about Russell’s views on Nietzsche, and the reason I have chosen to comment on this chapter, is the fact that it is perhaps the only place in A History of Western Philosophy in which I found myself in something less than complete substantive acquiescence with Russell. For reasons that are not entirely known to me, I think Russell’s assessment of Nietzsche was too harsh, too biased, or possibly based on an incomplete reading, interpretation, translation, or understanding.

The following series of quotes will provide a brief, but representative, synopsis of Russell’s chapter entitled “Nietzsche”, which will be followed by a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

His general outlook remained very similar to that of Wagner in the Ring; Nietzsche’s superman is very like Siegfried, except that he knows Greek. This may seem odd, but that is not my fault.

Lord Byron, Romantic rogue

In spite of Nietzsche’s criticism of the romantics, his outlook owes much to them; it is that of aristocratic anarchism, like Byron’s, and one is not surprised to find him admiring Byron. He attempts to combine two sets of values which are not easily harmonized: on the one hand he likes ruthlessness, war, and aristocratic pride; on the other hand, he loves philosophy and literature and the arts, especially music. Historically, these values coexisted in the Renaissance; Pope Julius II, fighting for Bologna and employing Michelangelo, might be taken as the sort of man whom Nietzsche would wish to see in control of governments. It is natural to compare Nietzsche with Machiavelli, in spite of important differences between the two men… Both have an ethic which aims at power and is deliberately anti-Christian, though Nietzsche is more frank in this respect. What Caesar Borgia was to Machiavelli, Napoleon was to Nietzsche: a great man defeated by petty opponents.

Nietzsche alludes habitually to ordinary human beings as the “bungled and botched,” and sees no objection to their suffering if it is necessary for the production of a great man. Thus the whole importance of the period from 1789 to 1815 is summed up in Napoleon: “The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification…”

It is necessary for higher men to make war upon the masses, and resist the democratic tendencies of the age, for in all directions mediocre people are joining hands to make themselves masters… He regards compassion as a weakness to be combated… He prophesied with a certain glee an era of great wars; one wonders whether he would have been happy if he had lived to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.

There is a great deal in Nietzsche that must be dismissed as merely megalomaniac… It is obvious that in his day-dreams he is a warrior, not a professor; all the men he admires were military. His opinion of women, like every man’s, is an objectification of his own emotion towards them, which is obviously one of fear. “Forget not thy whip”–but nine women out of ten would get the whip away from him, and he knew it, so he kept away from women, and soothed his wounded vanity with unkind remarks.

He condemns Christian love because he thinks it is an outcome of fear… It does not occur to Nietzsche as possible that a man should genuinely feel universal love, obviously because he himself feels almost universal hatred and fear, which he would fain disguise as lordly indifference. His “noble” man–who is himself in day-dreams–is a being wholly devoid of sympathy, ruthless, cunning, concerned only with his own power. King Lear, on the verge of madness, says: “I will do such things–what they are yet I know not–but they shall be the terror of the earth.” This is Nietzsche’s philosophy in a nutshell.

It never occurred to Nietzsche that the lust for power, with which he endows his superman, is itself an outcome of fear. Those who do not fear their neighbours see no necessity to tyrannize over them… I will not deny that, partly as a result of his teaching, the real world has become very like his nightmare, but that does not make it any the less horrible.

We can now state Nietzsche’s ethic. I think what follows is a fair analysis of it: Victors in war, and their descendants, are usually biologically superior to the vanquished. It is therefore desirable that they should hold all the power, and should manage affairs exclusively in their own interests.

Suppose we wish–as I certainly do–to find arguments against Nietzsche’s ethics and politics, what arguments can we find?… The ethical, as opposed to the political, question is one as to sympathy. Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the sufferings of others, is to some extent natural to human beings. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.)

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.

So what are we to make of Russell’s scathing indictment of Nietzsche? Russell has certainly made a strong and convincing case for his opinions, but one that I feel is only one possible interpretation and in one historical context. This interpretation seems too shallow and dismissive of such a complex well-spring of ideas that was Nietzsche. For example, I understand and sympathize with Russell’s rejection of the concept of the Übermensch and the Will to Power as an ‘aristocratic lust for power’. I am not so sure about the validity of Russell’s conclusion that Nietzsche’s philosophy was the result of universal hatred and fear. My reading of Nietzsche is incomplete, but it is already clear to me that he is more important and useful than Russell gives him credit for. He is one of the most original and captivating Western thinkers of modern times (or probably of any age), and the breadth of his influence already shows that his ideas cannot be pigeon-holed or dismissed so easily.

As for the historical context, Russell was writing during World War II, as an obvious opponent of Fascism and war in general. It is true that Nietzsche’s works had influenced German militarism and nationalism in both world wars, including misuse by the Nazis. This cannot necessarily be understood as a fault of Nietzsche, who was an opponent of Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and Germany itself (he renounced his citizenship and was officially stateless for the last 31 years of his life). Hitler probably never actually read Nietzsche, and the Nazis mostly cherry-picked lines that seemed convenient to them. This is hardly a surprise in the case of such a multi-layered and open-to-interpretation thinker such as Nietzsche. Indeed, some of his earliest followers were not Fascists but left-wing anarchists and Zionists, and poets such as Yeats and Mencken, as well as virtually every ‘Continental’ philosopher of the 20th century–Heidegger, Sartre, Strauss, Camus, Derrida, Foucault, etc. It is with them in mind that I shall conclude this post.

(The above video is a spoken excerpt from Russell’s chapter on Nietzsche, followed by Martin Heidegger’s contradictory remarks on the importance of Nietzsche).

Martin Heidegger was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and wrote a 4-volume work on him. Though I am less familiar with the notoriously difficult Heidegger than I am with Nietzsche, the emphasis of the former seems to be much more on the individualistic and ontological aspects inspired by the latter. For example, Heidegger continues Nietzsche’s veneration of pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus over Parmenides and the Platonic tradition. Heraclitus believed that everything was in a state of flux, famously stating that a person cannot step twice into the same river, and therefore the focus was on the process of Becoming. Parmenides, followed by Plato, believed that everything is eternal and unchanging, with the focus on the state of Being. Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche led to his own attempt to redefine the meaning of Being itself and its consequences for human affairs. I have found here a useful synthesis and exegesis of many of Heidegger’s working notes on Nietzsche.

Existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, though opposed by Heidegger on different grounds, continued this line of thought further from its Nietzschean origins. When taken out of his political context, it is in this regard that I think Nietzsche may still be useful, contra Russell. The fact that Nietzsche helped diminish the role of metaphysics has led to questions as to the nature of our existence, which was expressed by Sartre as “existence precedes essence.” From a certain perspective, it even seems possible that Nietzsche’s philosophy has much in common with Russell’s Analytical school in that they, too, had no use for metaphysics. Their solutions to this problem differed, with Nietzsche prophesying and attempting to create a new morality “beyond good and evil”, and Russell adamantly advocating the case for logic, reason, and liberalism.

This is certainly not a closed book, and at this point I can come to no definite conclusions, except for a tentative belief that Russell’s criticism is not wholly valid, and that other uses of Nietzsche are possible. For example, here is a curious article I have found that attempts to portray Nietzsche as a proto-egalitarian. As with most thinkers, Nietzsche is often misunderstood and can quite easily be exploited or twisted into service for many ends. I will have some occasion to discuss this in the future, as, for example, in the unfortunate case of Ayn Rand. On the other hand, I believe there is still a place for a positive and empowering individualistic interpretation of Nietzsche, such as was used, I believe, by Nikos Kazantzakis (whom I discussed here). Walter Kaufman’s excellent translation and commentary (which I employ) has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s post-WWII image in the Anglo-American world. I will continue to search for a common-ground between divergent modern philosophical ideas as represented by Russell and Nietzsche (which sums up, on a smaller scale, the ongoing conflict between Analytic and Continental philosophy), as I believe both provide useful tools for asking questions and finding solutions as to the nature of truth and existence in the universe and in our lives.

The Tree of Terrence Malick

How fortunate we are, cinephiles, to experience the works of Terrence Malick–auteur, philosopher, and man of mystery. After writing/directing Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 70’s, he vanished from the world of film for 20 years. Since 1998, he has completed The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life, and is already finishing two more highly-anticipated films that will appear in the next two years. Malick is also famously camera-shy, giving no interviews, allowing no photographs, and refusing to comment on his work. What we do know about him is that he is from Texas, he studied philosophy at Harvard and then Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and translated a minor work of Heidegger as part of his thesis. I will discuss (rather: speculate on) this in greater detail momentarily. Each of his movies is seemingly more profound and beautifully photographed than the last, with the only cause for debate being in what order to rank the movies. I will present my personal rankings, as well as some quick thoughts about each movie.

1.  The Thin Red Line (1998)

There are several reasons I love this movie. It is Malick’s only war movie, and represents his triumphant return to cinema after two decades. The cast is stacked with big name actors, a fact which only Malick himself was unimpressed with. There is reportedly something like 20 hours of footage for this movie, which was edited down to 3 (there is an online petition for the release of Malick’s first 6-hour cut that was rejected by the studio). Apparently, within that footage lie entire undeveloped stories that did not make it into the final cut. Adrien Brody (not exactly the biggest star in 1998, or even today) only agreed to do the film because he thought he was one of the main characters, CPL Fife; he only had about 10 minutes of screentime and three lines of dialogue in the final cut. Malick also did not hesitate to leave entirely on the cutting-room floor the presence of such typically-headlining actors as Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Pullman. George Clooney made a two-minute appearance in the final minutes of the movie. Detractors of the film will show their disdain by saying things like “the grass was the main character.” TTRL also had the dubious distinction of being the second big-budget WWII film in the same year, and competing for the same Oscars. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was almost universally recognized as the better movie, and took home all the awards. I think there is no doubt that SPR is a good war movie, with good performances, and which elicits an emotional connection from multiple generations of audiences– Spielberg’s specialty.  But TTRL is more profound, and more truthful, by a couple orders of magnitude. It is gorgeously filmed, Malick’s specialty, though perhaps it is not his absolute best work in this area. The Hans Zimmer soundtrack is good, but the best songs are the joyful patois chantings of the local Melanesian villagers. The dialogue is somewhat sparse, interlaid with interior monologue of the characters’ true thoughts (again, a Malick trademark). The film opens with beautiful images of life on a utopian Pacific island. The inner monologue, from Jim Caviezel’s PVT Witt, the film’s ostensible protagonist, informs us about the themes of the film: war (in nature and in man) and death (in war, but representing all life).

What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? I remember my mother when she was dying. Looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her is she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died. What it’d be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did. With the same…calm. ‘Cos that’s where it’s hidden– the immortality I hadn’t seen.

Witt represents grace and redemption in the movie. He senses his fate and wants only to find the courage to accept it. In his final scene, time seems to come to a halt– his life flashing before his eyes?– as he begins to understand the enormity, and the inconsequentiality, of his death. The real-life juxtaposition of these themes is interesting, as between Caviezel and Sean Penn, for example. In the Malick-themed documentary, Rosy-Fingered Dawn, Sean Penn describes how the relationship between 1SG Walsh and PVT Witt mirrored the one between the two actors. Penn asked Caviezel what drove him as a person, to which he was given the reply “Jesus Christ.” Penn was skeptical about his colleague’s faith, and saw nothing but cynicism in the world. One of my remaining questions about Malick’s films is how he justifies his philosophical beliefs (how much does he actually follow Heidegger, for example?) with his apparent Christianity (of the Protestant variety). I am not nearly well-read enough in Heidegger at this point, but if I understand it correctly, Heidegger describes the natural anxiety that accompanies our being thrust into the world and awaiting certain death; his answer to this anxiety is not to ignore it and retreat to the unthinking mass of men (the ‘They’), but rather to use this insight to give meaning and purpose to our life’s ‘projects’. These projects are free from conformity or outside opinions, and help us to embrace our freedom and purpose in the world. PVT Witt had a similar purpose, to help bring comfort to the suffering in the world, and to sacrifice himself with grace and calmness. Another main sub-plot is Ben Chaplin’s PVT Bell reminiscing about his wife, for whom he had already sacrificed his career. Their love scenes are narrated with inner monologue, and it is he who reads the final lines as the ship leaves the island, the scene of tragedy and death, which already becomes a memory and a dream for the survivors (in fact, the only thing that matters, in the end, is that they have survived):

Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness from light. Strife from love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? O my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.

2.  Badlands (1973)

This is quite an achievement for a directorial debut. Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers, a dispassionate killer, is perhaps his best career performance. The film suspends any and all moral judgment of the incomprehensible murders, and makes the murderer a refreshingly sympathetic character. The bubble-gum-pop sound of the interior monologue by Sissy Spacek only adds to this mood, as does the addictive soundtrack highlighted by Carl Orff’s music-class, zylophone-driven ‘Gassenhauer’. The exact mood, monologue, and song (slightly modified by Hans Zimmer) was copied in tribute in Tony Scott’s (and Tarantino’s) True Romance. The entire film oozes simple perfection, and should be enjoyed without any reductive or over-thinking discussion.

3.  The Tree of Life (2011)

While this qualified as a rare cinema experience for me (I only watch about one movie per year in the cinema), it is almost too soon for me to comment on it. I claim to have no certain understanding of much of it, and plan on a second viewing in the near future. I do know that this is, to date, the most autobiographical Malick piece, and one which he was writing and planning for several decades. The younger brother who mysteriously dies is clearly based on Malick’s own younger brother. It seems that the brother was a classical guitarist who went to Spain to study under the great Segovia, fell into desperation over his musical abilities, and broke his own hands. He killed himself sometime later, and the older Malick maintains a sense of guilt and questioning that manifests itself in TToL. Sean Penn’s character (though the actor himself has stated his confusion over his meaning) inhabits a modern world of unnatural buildings, and is overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic youth in 1950’s Texas suburbia. The photography is exquisite, and the long sequences of the birth and early life of the universe, derided by some critics, is actually one of my favorite aspects of the movie. Malick shows, once again, no lack of fortitude in making his own artistic vision however he wants, and the result is sublime, to be digested slowly, perhaps over a lifetime.

4.  The New World (2005)

I liked Colin Farrell’s John Smith. I think his haunting and taciturn portrayal is much better than he gets credit for. The visual images in this film are possibly the best of Malick, and it makes me long for some non-existent pre-European New World, free of disease, conflict, and death. It is like the Pacific island of TTRL, both before and after the European settlers (and American soldiers) invade. The opening sequence with the forest primeval and the growing waters of the Rhine, rendered by Richard Wagner’s Vorspiel of Das Rheingold, is moving. Overall, the film strangely feels too long, a rare trait for Malick’s work. It seems like he was trying to be too conventional, or please somebody in a studio, and lost some of the Malick magic. What remains is still better than the best possible work of lesser directors.

5.  Days of Heaven (1978)

Visually beautiful, called his masterpiece by some, but not my favorite. The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone also did not impress me (though there are some who will think I’m crazy for such heresy). Since I don’t know what else to say about it, I will relate an anecdote about why Morricone is overrated. Two weeks ago in Vicenza, there was a big celebration planned by the city for the completion of the restoration of the Palladian Basilica in the central piazza. It is a monumental piece of architecture, and for four years it has been surrounded by scaffolding (and on its backside it is still being restored, though no one seems to care about this annoying detail). The party included a concert given by maestro Morricone on Sunday night. The maestro requested that all the shops in the city center be closed the entire weekend so that: 1) his rehearsals could proceed without disturbance on Saturday, and 2) so that no one will be distracted by such things as buying shoes and ice cream in Italy on the same weekend of a free concert by Morricone.

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