Heidegger: Most Overrated Philosopher?!?

The Setup

So, this is not like one of my more normal blog posts which tend to be a semi-extended analysis of something, usually from a networkological point of view. Rather, its a response to a series of blog posts going on recently, started by some ruminations by Graham Harman on his blog, about who is the most overrated philosopher of all time. So what follows is mostly some interbloggerish thoughts and improvisations.

The discussion on Graham’s original posting has generated some really interesting replies, such as Levi Bryant’s here. Graham nicely detailed some criteria, that likely this would be someone recent, someone who we now see as central, but who with the vagaries of time will seem less so. Heck, in the 19th century everyone thought Herbert Spencer was central!

I’m not sure I buy some of the folks suggested so far. Zizek brings together psychoanalysis and german idealism in fascinating ways, AND, his way of reinventing the way of writing the philosophical book is, I think, ingenious. Like Derrida, its not so much what he says, but how, and as with someone like Wittgenstein, its the process as much as the content which is the point at issue.  Likewise, Zizek enacts dialectics in really interesting ways, working to seduce those interested in pop-culture to philosophy, and vice-versa, in a manner whose form is itself a philosophical argument. Like Derrida and Wittgenstein, Zizek has presented us with a new image of what philosophical writing can look like.  And his ontology, as Adrian Johnston has shown, is quite developed, as is his theory of reading. Its a pretty original synthesis, if you ask me. As for Russell, well, does anybody really rate him highly anymore? Then again, there are some personal faves that are just starting to get the credit they deserve, like Whitehead (still, I think, very underrated), Bergson, Pierce, Dewey (the last two being odd to read, to say the least). I also tend to think that Hegel is too much loathed, and too little read.

But my vote for most underappreciated is the Roman Stoics. Of course, it makes sense why, their work is mostly lost, fragmentary, hearsay, and thus takes a lot of work to trace through. But I didn’t feel I even started to get Spinoza till I took a real dive into the Stoics, and I think they have so much to say to us today.

But overppreciated? Well, my vote is for Heidegger.

Caveats

Now, I don’t say this as a provocation (ok, a little provocation is fun, and can bring about interesting discussions), but mostly because I know that so many involved in this discussion, particularly those in the ‘speculative realist’ community, are Heideggereans, or came to speculative realism or whatever we want to call this new ‘post-continental-post-post-structuralist’ cosa nostra that is in the process of birthing itself. But I’m voting Heidegger for one reason – I just don’t get it. So many damn smart people are so into Heidegger. So there must be something there.

That is, there’s so many folks online whose thought I DO respect that like Heidegger, that I’m probably missing something. And I’m curious what that is. I’m curious, that’s what it comes down to. Was Heidegger essential as a path to where you are now, or do you think he has something lasting to say to us today? That’s my question.

So, its with that in mind that I followed Paul Ennis’ recent post, and read a nice recap by Dreyfus and Wrathall of Heiddegger’s ‘greatest hits’ that he recommended, to see if a contemporary take would re-remind me what’s so cool about the guy. And I’ve studied Heidegger with some pretty Heideggerrean folks, like a semester long seminar I took once on Heidegger and Nishida by Chris Finsk, in addition to lectures by Dreyfus and seminars that addressed him by folks like Avital Ronnell, etc., in addition to all the requisite reading on my own on the side during grad/undergrad.

And I just don’t see it.

And that’s why I’m asking the community of speculative realist-ish, object-oriented, etc. folks out there, why do you like Heidegger so much? I’m ready to be convinced, persuaded, cajoled, etc. We all have personal tastes, maybe that’s what this is. I have a personal affection for Bataille’s work, though I can’t necessarily find much use for it that often. Maybe Heidegger just isn’t to my taste, but I suspect there are generally reasons for such things. Anyway, I’m curious to what shows up on other blogs in response to this.

THE REASONS . . .

But first a few reasons why I find him unremarkable.

Phenomenology: I have great respect for Husserl, for he turned phenomenology into a rigorous method, he emerged from the experimental psychology of his training with a sense of scientific rigor which allowed him to give new birth to the Cartesian/Kantian cogito. So its not a distaste for phenomenology. But in terms of phenomenology, I find that Husserl is more satisfyingly Kantian, Merleau-Ponty is more satisfyingly anti-Kantian, and even folks not normally considered phenomenologists, like Bergson and Dewey, seem to be more interesting in their quirky quasi-phenomenological projects.

Affect: Yes, Heidegger does deal with affects, like dread or care, in ways that few others do. And the way he relates this to the ideas of developing an authentic relation to the world, well, this is new. But Sartre, it seems to me, does the existential stuff sooo much better. Sartre is hardly original, really just a synthesis of Hegel and the ‘existential’ sides of Nietzsche/Kierkegaard, but Sartre does update these approaches, and synthesize them in a way that speaks to the post-war period. I guess Heidegger seems to me to be so luke-warm, he’s neither this nor that on many levels.

Language and Technology: Granted, he was a way for the study of language and technology (including the whole zu-handen/vor-handen distinction, the poesis/praxis distinction, etc.) to enter into philosophy in essential rather than derivative forms. But the structuralists were doing this in their own way, as was Wittgenstein, as was Benjamin. These would have become parts of philosophy in the 20th century without Heidegger. And it seems to me that Heidegger makes them all part of his project, but doesn’t treat these as rigorously as any of these individual groups do. Its all subordinated to the analysis of Dasein, and then, to aletheia/ereignis.

Being and vagueness: Which brings us, I guess, to the problem of Being. I guess part of me sees Heidegger as a throwback. Hegel and Marx and Nietzsche were huge steps, each in their own way, for making philosophy deal ever more with the social world, with the specifics of history and place. Heidegger seems to do the opposite, he deals with history in the abstract, as a call, but he never gets into the particulars. Now, perhaps this is because when he did try to do this he sided with the Nazis, and spent the rest of his career trying to weasel around some sort of coming to responsibility for that. For a thinker of authenticity, that’s a big issue. But whereas Marx analyzed the commodity, Nietzsche analyzed specifics of the psychological motivations for the ideologies around him, and even Freud did analyses of specific issues, Heidegger brought philosophy back to the clouds. To Holderlin, away from real engagement. There was engagement with the lifeworld of affect, and with the abstract of one’s general comportment. But as soon as it came time for specfics, like, say, Hegel’s attempts to read world history from a philosphical lens, we get nothing. Perhaps his reading of technology comes the closest to this.

But its always so damn vague. Whenever I read Heidegger, I have this sense of, well, yes, this makes sense. But it seems to me obvious, wishy-washy, abstract. Whereas when I read Marx, I see him analyze the specifics of commodity structure, or Schelling or Whitehead, the experiments in contemporary science. And even when these thinkers are clearly wrong, they went there, and we learn from HOW they went there. But Heidegger’s vagueness leads him to ignore some of what I think are incredibly interesting areas of philosophy, like those of space and time, the deep structure of the world, as discussed by Leibniz and Whitehead, for example. But Heidegger’s philosophy is so damn human centered. And of course, everything is, ultimately, filtered through this for us. But we are also the stars and molecules. Heidegger’s approach seems preparatory, it never gets to the meat.

Politics: And of course, the politics of it all are very disturbing. That pull of the irrational. Luckily someone like Badiou has resurrected the study of the event in a way which is based fundamentally on avoiding Heidegger’s very dangerous errors in this regard.

General Thoughts

Please understand, I’m not writing what’s above to attack the Heideggereans who are doing interesting things these days. My path to things ‘speculatively realist’ comes through Lacan and Deleuze. And I can clearly see why anyone would dislike, or not see the importance of these folks. For Lacan in particular, I can see those trained in philosophy seeing him as, well, a strange path at best to the issues of our day. And many times those thinkers who were formative for us were only one path we could have taken to where we are. Some thinkers you come to after your own formation, and others ‘teach you to think’, so to speak, and they will likely always be a part of your constitution for having been so formative for you. I rarely do things Lacanian these days, but the trial by fire to understand Lacan shaped who I am as a thinker. But related insights could have formed from taking another path.

For those of you who took the Heideggeran path, do you think its because of the contingent formations of the programs of study you were in? An emphasis upon the Heidegger path? Would you have preferred a different one now in hindsight? Do you still see Heidegger as so essential, or was he simply a stepping stone in your development, and if so, why? Will we still be talking about Heidegger in 100 years, and if so, why? I doubt we will talk much about Sartre, except as a historical note. And while I love Lacan’s insights, I think his packaging of them is so damn annoying that it will be other thinkers use of some of these concepts that will transmit them to future generations, but not his own. I actually wonder the same with Deleuze as well. For me, these thinkers are essential. But they require an enormous labor of commitment to get what they are doing. You see the labor of the creation, but it is often hard to extract the results without going through much of this labor yourself. This makes these great teachers, but perhaps not thinkers who will speak past their times in the most direct of manners.

Of course, whether or not one should care about that is another issue. Why does it matter if a philosopher lives on through the ages? Might it not be more important what they cause to happen in the world around them?

Perhaps that’s another set of questions completely. But now, back to work for the day. Curious what people have to say, teach me why Heidegger matters to you!

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~ by chris on February 27, 2010.

10 Responses to “Heidegger: Most Overrated Philosopher?!?”

  1. Just to let you know I’m working on a response to this. Might take a few days because you raise some excellent questions here that are making me face up to exactly why I am committed to Heidegger.

    Paul

    • yeah, I just edited the post a bit for grammar and style, I hate that when you reread your posts after you first write them, you always make stupid grammar and phrasing errors! this one was also way too talky for my tastes. But hey, I’m curious what people think on this issue, so, curious what your thoughts are.

  2. “That is, there’s so many folks online whose thought I DO respect that like Heidegger, that I’m probably missing something. And I’m curious what that is, and figure you all can help key me in a bit. I’m curious, that’s what it comes down to. Was Heidegger essential as a path to where you are now, or do you think he has something lasting to say to us today? That’s my question.”

    I must admit that when Harman asked this question I had the nagging feeling that everyone was going to say Heidegger. Like most ‘Heideggerians’ (and no matter how far I stray this is always how people discuss me in the real world) I often find myself in a position where I am either defending Heidegger (to non-Heideggerians) or trying to call in the jargon (among Heideggerians). To the question as to whether Heidegger was the essential path to where I am now I would go even further (to the end!) and say that it is quite possible I would not even being studying philosophy if not for a lure of Heidegger. The odd thing is, and here I have to be careful, Heidegger has nothing to say to us today – as such. For me, and this is just a personal stance, Heidegger is a via negativa. He leads you down every dark path imaginable and you keep coming back for more. But I should say a few negative things that I think about Heidegger before defending his more positive aspects:

    Heidegger is a elitist, Heidegger is immensely conservative leaving aside the obvious for a moment, he has little or no concern for social issues, there is no ethics in his work (despite god knows how many attempts to find them there), he is a fetishist for of the rural, he uses a horrible etymological method from time to time that barely passes the standards of intellectual honesty, he is in thrall with some obviously nonsensical connection between the ‘Greek’ and ‘German’ people, his jargon (which can be understood with effort) alienates many younger/newer readers making dialogue difficult, he is a monologue style thinker, and I could go on…
    And yet Heidegger is also, and I am absolutely certain of this, the greatest thinker I have ever read. I will get to why in a moment, but first I want to address some of the tangential points.

    ‘’So, its with that in mind that I followed Paul Ennis’ recent post, and read a nice recap by Dreyfus and Wrathall of Heiddegger’s ’greatest hits’ that he recommended, to see if a contemporary take would re-remind me what’s so cool about the guy. And I’ve studied Heidegger with some pretty Heideggerrean folks, like a semester long seminar I took once on Heidegger and Nishida by Chris Finsk, in addition to lectures by Dreyfus and seminars that addressed him by folks like Avital Ronnell, etc., in addition to all the requisite reading on my own on the side during grad/undergrad.’’

    Just on this I would say that the Heidegger you have been exposed this is a Heidegger that, for the most part, leaves out precisely the good bits in Heidegger in an attempt to make him palatable to an Anglo-American audience. In fact I would go as far as to say that Dreyfus and Ronnell miss exactly what is essential in Heidegger and spend far too much time trying to make him a thinker of the ‘everyday’ or ‘public space’ or worldhood etc.

    ‘’For those of you who took the Heideggeran path, do you think its because of the contingent formations of the programs of study you were in? An emphasis upon the Heidegger path? Would you have preferred a different one now in hindsight? Do you still see Heidegger as so essential, or was he simply a stepping stone in your development, and if so, why? Will we still be talking about Heidegger in 100 years, and if so, why?’’

    To the first question I took the Heideggerian path because having read B&T I couldn’t imagine writing about anything else. So in a way the path was prescribed contingently in that the department did teach Heidegger and in a very old-school way since my department is a classic phenomenology department to the core (and not as I hear in America a comparative lit. department –and I immensely respect how they have managed to hold against the Anglo-American dominance of the philosophy departments). Heidegger was not the way we were pushed though. It was far more likely that’d I’d have ended up doing Husserl or even critical social theory but there was enough Heidegger there to allow me to follow him up. I couldn’t ask for a better basis than Heidegger for (tellingly) post-Heideggerian philosophy. I watch friends working on Derrida or Adorno struggling to read Being and Time because they need that background, that relating back to Heidegger that marks the contemporary battleground (admittedly less and less everyday) and I am glad that I have that basis in place. For example at the moment I am working on Deleuze and I can see how DR comes out of a kind of atmosphere of difference relating to Derrida who relates back to Heidegger and to his essay Identity and Difference or Heidegger’s deconstruction of Western metaphysics and the framework is always there. If for nothing else starting with Heidegger has relieved me of some heavy lifting down the line. For instance I would argue that in order to understand Derrida you must understand the later Heidegger. Like anything else context matters and Derridean themes have as their context in the later Heidegger (amongst many others of course including Husserl for sure).

    It is important to situate Heidegger in order to defend him. He only makes sense as a thinker of and within the tradition. He is self-consciously an ‘inheritor’ of the tradition – hell he even seems to be putting himself into it as it were. Now if you don’t agree with Heidegger that the subject matter of philosophy is being then you will never find him all that interesting. If you are unwilling to bracket all other questions in the name of this pursuit them you might even find him tedious. And if you find yourself talking like a Heideggerian you might find yourself saying things like ‘the thesis of Heidegger’s philosophy is that being is no thing or Nothing’ or ‘Against the charge that philosophy is useless I say Yes!’ etc. So why is this worth exploring? Well you can learn a lot from how Heidegger does philosophy.

    Because he is a slow and attentive writer, who refuses to be dragged along by trends or currents, he brings you, in the best phenomenological style, to the matters at hand – and nothing else besides. He also teaches one that at best a thinker can only properly unearth the contours of a single problem/question and that all answers are, at best, provisional. This has a way of forcing you to discover precisely what it is that you are concerned with personally and how to unfold the problem you must first find the right way to pose the question (you can think of Heidegger as a more traditional version of Deleuze i.e. in the same way Deleuze seeks out thinkers on the edge of philosophy Heidegger seeks out the edges of the thinkers at the heart of philosophy).

    But there is no reason why you should take this defence from me since I am personally someone who reads Heidegger in an odd way (although I am discovering like-minded souls thanks to the internet) i.e. as a realist. This would put me at the fringe of phenomenological orthodoxy somewhat – Heidegger wise but perhaps not with say Husserl and others – but again this is what makes Heidegger interesting. He is a spur to thought. Just think and here I am going into rhetoric, of his influence: Derrida, Levinas, Sartre, Marion, Gadamer, Arendt, Sloterdijk, Stiegler, Nancy, Henry…hell even Dreyfus! And with regard to politics think about just how many of these thinkers are Jewish and then add to this the influence on people like Celan. What they all find in Heidegger, I would wager, is a form of doing philosophy that takes philosophy immensely seriously and refuses to be swept up by ‘idle talk’ and allows one to treat the fringe issues: moods, place, dwelling, landscape, etc. in the ‘purest’ form (and not exactly content). Heidegger is kind of like an immense mooring that you can always rely on for inspiration – especially negative impetus [I can’t believe he just said that and before you know it you’re engaged in some deeply obscure, albeit pleasurable, aspect of existence that had been closed off to you due to the dry formalism of many other thinkers.

    So properly understood Heidegger is a thinker who makes one self-aware of their slumbering – he forces you to be alert to the downright oddness (throwness) that you find yourself in. He says ‘here is the world’ – is it not the most immensely interesting phenomenon? And why would you not dedicate your life (your only life!) to uncovering its secrets? This is beautiful stuff for those of a meditative disposition. And even better Heidegger tells you this is hard work – that perhaps as Hegel says – the task of philosophy is to aid consciousness in the violence it enacts on the self. I want to end on a quote, one of my personal favourites, that depicts what I take to be the essence of the Heideggerian form of thinking which could be condensed as follows: be alert, be awake, and be vigilant!
    “Hermeneutics has the task of making the Dasein which is in each case our own accessible to this Dasein itself with regard to the character of its being, communicating Dasein to itself in this regard, hunting down the alienation from itself with which it is smitten. In hermeneutics what is developed for Dasein is a possibility of its becoming and being for itself in the manner of an understanding of itself. This understanding which arises in interpretation cannot at all be compared to what is elsewhere called understanding in the sense of a knowing comportment toward the life of another. It is not comportment toward… (intentionality) in any sense, but rather a how of Dasein itself. Terminologically, it may be defined in advance as the wakefulness [das Wachsein] of Dasein for itself.” (Hermeneutics of Facticity, 11)*

    * das Wachsein – here too I am fond of Heidegger’s way with words. Consider how one might translate this? Vigilance would be my personal choice but it misses out on some nice connotations. Maybe alertness would work? No wakefulness is better because it makes us think about the connection to waking up etc. Even this to me is the joyful aspect to Heidegger. You find yourself looking at words in a whole new light.

    • wow! this most certainly deserves a real reply. I’ll get to work on it, and luckily now that I’ve got a small break between deadlines I can actually relax and spend some time on something like this.

  3. [...] take the bite, I want to answer Christoper Vitale’s question, which is itself a response to Graham Harman’s post on the “most overrated philosopher [...]

  4. Hi Chris,

    Just wanted to link you to my response to this post:

    http://philosophyandpsychology.com/?p=771

  5. I think your analysis is pretty spot on (for as much as I know Heidegger), but I worry about these kinds of discussions. Sure, they are fun, and certainly blog-worthy, and a fine distraction. But, isn’t so much ‘philosophical’ discussion these days (especially online) cultish pandering to personality? What of the problems? The logics? The issues?

  6. [...] philosopher the past month. Heidegger’s name came up a lot. (For one example among many, this Networkologies post) Let me say my own pick is Kant. Simply because I find him amazingly difficult to read – akin [...]

  7. Heidegger basically stated the most simplistic understanding of what humans are in an extremely complicated method and claimed it to be a philosophy. An individuals actions are the reaction caused by applying results from past actions to present stimuli. Then he tries to throw in some metaphysical claims about fearing or caring about stuff that don’t really exist on any level other than what he has already described as past experiences. It’s really quite trite and something I could’ve crapped out prior to puberty.

  8. The premise of hierarchically `rating’ Heidegger (e.g., `over’, `under’, etc.) reflects a metaphysical notion. Over the years, I have found it helpful to understand Heidegger’s exigesis of Nietzsche. Suffice it to say, to place extant entities in delimiting valuatory relations qua hierarchical notions of op-posit, i.e., via an analytic of duality whereby one is placed over and against the less-highly esteemed (and which thereby dissociates `one’ from the `other’ in ways Parminedes cautioned against), is to read a meta/physical premise into Martin’s work. Such must thereby always begin by assuming the definitively `known’ as a predicated subject: as a being. This method of coming to Heidegger’s work, it seems to me, fails to enter the in-between wherein the abgrund lights (qua the nothing/no-thing).

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