Heidegger: Most Overrated Philosopher?!?
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.
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.
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!