Saturday, February 8, 2014

Being and B.S.

Review of Martin Heidegger's Being and Time.

Martin Heidegger was a philosopher of the interwar and post-world war 2 period, and one of the founders of the continental school of modern philosophy which has headed into deconstruction and postmodernism. He coined the term existentialism, and is thought by many a leading or even the leading philosopher of the 20th century. His personal fixation was the question of being, to which he devoted what is deemed his greatest work, or even "towering achievement": "Being and Time".

In the development of modern philosophy, Heidegger stands against positivism and the whole analytical school, so I thought it worthwhile to read up on his ouvre. Surely something is lost in translation, but one does what one can. I can do no better than provide a few quotes, from a translation by Joan Stambaugh, 1977.

At the outset, he tries to forestall doubters:
"It is said that 'Being' is the most universal and the emptiest concept. As such it resists every attempt at definition. Nor does this most universal and thus undefinable concept need any definition. Everybody uses it constantly and also already understands what he means by it. Thus what made ancient philosophizing uneasy and kept it so by virtue of its obscurity has become obvious, clear as day; and this to the point that whoever pursues it is accused of an error of method."

And in the same vein...
" 'Being' is the self-evident concept. 'Being' is used in all knowing and predicating, in every relation to being and every relation to one's self, and the expression is understandable 'without further ado'. Everybody understands 'The sky is blue,' 'I am happy,' and similar statements. But this average comprehensibility only demonstrates incomprehensibility. It shows that an enigma lies a priori in every relation and being toward beings as beings. The fact that we live already in an understanding of Being and that the meaning of Being is at the same time shrouded in darkness proves the fundamental necessity of recapitulating the question of the meaning of 'Being.'"

He then discusses the origins of a scientific field from a vague intution to a metaphysical speculation, till finally it becomes a well-defined discipline, with methods, laws, theories, etc. Or at least I imagine that is what he is driving at.
"Being is always the Being of a being. The totality of beings can, with respect to its various domains, become the field where definite areas of knowledge- for example, history, nature, space, life, human being, and so on- can in their turn become thematic objects of scientific investigations. Scientific research demarcates and first establishes these areas of knowledge in rough and ready fashion. The elaboration of the area in its fundamental structures is in a way already accomplished by prescientific experience and interpretation of the domain of Being to which the area of knowledge is itself confined. The resulting 'fundamental concepts' comprise the guidelines for the first disclosure of the area. Whether or not the importance of the research always lies in such establishment of concepts, it true progress comes about not so much in collecting results and storing them in 'handbooks' as in being forced to ask questions about the basic constitution of each area, those questions being chiefly a reaction to increasing knowledge in each area."

Now we get into some heavy weather...
"The ontic priority of the question of Being. 
Science in general can be defined as the totality of fundamentally coherent true propositions. This definition is not complete, nor does it get at the meaning of science. As ways in which man behaves, sciences have this beings (man's) kind of Being. We are defining this being terminologically as Dasein. Scientific research is neither the sole nor the primary kind of Being of this being that is possible. Moreover, Dasein itself is distinctly different from other beings. We must make this distinct difference visible in a preliminary way. Here the discussion must anticipate the subsequent analyses which only later will become really demonstrative. 
Dasein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather, it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its Being this being is concerned about its very being. Thus it is constitutive of the Being of Dasein to have, in its very Being, a relation of Being to this Being. And this in turn means that Dasein understands itself in its Being in some way and with explicitness. It is proper to this being that it be disclosed to itself with and through its Being. Understanding of Being is itself a determination of Being of Dasein. The ontic distinction of Dasein lies in the fact that it is ontological."

He seems to be trying to establish a conscious and self-reflective being as a special case of the general case of "being". In German, "dasein" means being (sein) there (da), which does not seem to add very much ... it is "existence" in any case, here or there.

Anyhow, one can imagine pages and pages of this, leading nowhere, and get a thorough sense of this text. It shares with its descendent postmodernism (not to mention its cousin theology) a sort of linguistic propulsiveness (with plenty of italics) and conviction of purpose without actually saying anything. Whether one agrees that, as Heidegger says, "The concept of 'Being' is rather the most obscure of all", he makes whatever it is less clear rather than more. It is a flood of sophism and pomposity that has led generations of all-too-serious students to strain their eyes and waste their talents, while setting itself up as some kind of tribunal of the highest, metaphysical kind over other fields.

  • Free markets for thee, but not for me.
  • Financial criminals reward each other with pay raises. And sycophantic press. And the uniquely powerful incentives to loot your own bank.
  • Workers of the world will not unite.
  • Yet unemployment is the worst fate of all.
  • NASA is a happy-talk disaster zone.
  • Eric Snowden's background.. how he reacted to army atmosphere: "Few of his new army colleagues, he maintained, shared his sense of noble purpose, or his desire to help oppressed citizens throw off their chains. Instead, his superiors merely wanted to shoot people. Preferably Muslims. ‘Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone,’ he says."
  • PIMCO guru pushes MMT: deficits create money and credit, which we need to support growth. Don't pay attention to all the mistakes I made last year, though, and the year before that, and ...
  • This week in the Wall $treet Journal: "But the lesson from Europe is that the environmentalists who have been relentlessly hawking renewables are the real deniers." This piece makes a valid point, despite its hypocritical evasion of the appalling conservative denial of climate heating generally ... which is that transitioning to renewable energy is costly and difficult. Which is why we need a big carbon tax sooner, not later.

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