Heidegger: Response to Paul Ennis and Gary Williams

I’ve been a little swamped with work, hence the delay, but wanted to finally respond back to Paul Ennis and Gary Williams’ great responses to my post suggesting Heidegger as ‘most overrated philosopher.’

My first attempt to respond to these posts didn’t quite succeed, because in the process of trying to respond, I ended up getting self-seduced into writing my entire philosophical-intellectual auto-bio. A totally fun yet completely narcissistic exercise that I don’t regret in the least, even if it didn’t quite answer the question.

But I think why it was so hard to reply without the approach to auto-bio is that, having read both Paul and Gary’s posts, I realize just how much their institutional contexts is so radically different from mine, and how this relates to the Heidegger issue. Paul is coming from what he describes as a very traditional phenomenology department, while Gary is working in a cognitive science department in the middle of a shift to a more embodied notion of cognition (something which I discuss at length in the completed manuscript I’m proofreading called ‘The Networked Mind.’) And after reading this, I could totally see WHY Heidegger would be so important. Certainly for Gary, Heidegger provides a way to think embodiment and affect in a way which goes beyond all the biases of traditional cognitivism, and this is why he mentions Andy Clarke, who I think does an AMAZING job of doing this within cognitive studies (though I didn’t realize he was using Heidegger for this, I wonder, which of Clarke’s texts? Is this in the new one? Haven’t read that on yet . . .)

But I guess here in the US, if you want to study philosophy, there’s such a small handful of programs, that this wasn’t the route I took, I went for comparative literature. And Paul mentions this. My undergrad I actually did study Heidegger with a Heidegger scholar (Chris Fynsk) and  Merleau-Ponty scholar, and with Avital Ronnell (a Derridean with a strong Blanchot side) in grad school. So, its not that I was trained with an analytically palatable Heidegger, but rather, a relatively continental one. In grad school, Heidegger was an extension of the linguistic cage that seemed to embroil post-structuralism, part of the cage. Reading Heidegger in German was so much more a confirmation of this – it all but rhymes, there’s such a play of sound, assonance and consonance, whole word parts appearing multiple times per sentence in different permutations, that its almost cheating. It reminds me of contemporary hip-hop in English – when you can get the poetry to work that way, the form and content seem as if to merge. It feels like a major injustice to change any part of it, the writing takes on the feel of holy writ. It was that fetishization of the text that bothered me in the Derrida/Blanchot/DeMan side of thing that I was finding as the inheritance of Heidegger in my grad school education.

But I can see that if you’re being trained in phenomenology, then Heidegger is the path to affect, to all that Husserl foreclosed with the epoche. And if you’re coming from cog-sci, he can be the path to embodiment. I find it really interesting that Gary talks about Heidegger as path to getting thought out of the cogito of Descartes/Kant, and into the world. Because for me, the Dasein of the early works is still just another version of that, if expanded, and the later works place the cogito within language, which is, to me, another sort of cage. This is where I think Schelling and Hegel, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze are a path out of the linguistic impasse.

All of which is interesting, because I think if I came from phenomenology, I’d find Heidegger’s approach to language refreshing, because so many philosophers just assume that language is transparent, and Heidegger and Derrida are certainly those who alert us to the dangers of this. But my own background also shows that this approach can, if followed to the nth degree, also lead to its own issues – and in many comparative literature departments in the US, particularly those influenced by the so-called ‘Yale School’ of Paul DeMan, that was certainly the case till rather recently. Of course, this all has to be seen against the background of the US debacle which is ‘analytic philosophy.’ To these folks, language is transparent, and to be removed from the philosophical enterprise as much as possible, so it doesn’t interfere with the work. It makes sense that comparative literature depts, the home to so many escapees from the hegemony of the analytics over philosophy depts in the US, would perhaps exaggerate their emphasis on language in response thereto.

But I think for me that part of what makes speculative realism interesting is that it is a chance for philosophy once again to speak about the world beyond the cogito and language. Its about time.

As for the analytic/continental thing, it sounds silly, perhaps, in the light of the large inequities in the world, but why can’t schools just have two parts to their philosophy programs in the US, a continental and analytic track? Because continental thought has influenced every part of the humanities, and many of the social sciences, yet can be studied in itself in so few schools, because of these silly academic politics. I must admit I find analytic philosophy strange, but I don’t question their right to exist, or call themselves philosophy. It would be nice if we continentals were acknowledged that way too!

But I think that our very different takes on Heidegger come from our institutional histories. Which is a fascinating insight in itself.

I still feel, however, that my biggest gripe against Heidegger is the fact that he does cut himself off from history, context, etc. I mean, its important to talk about dwelling, but it is also important to talk about hourly wages, surplus value, etc. I’ve always felt that philosophy needs to relate back to inequality and the attempt to make a better world, to the question of historico-political context, etc. And Heidegger is of course a very particular case in regard to this, with his early politics being a REAL problem, and his later studied excision of politics being the obverse of the same. But I guess its the navel-gazey aspect of Heidegger that still irks me. Don’t get me wrong, I like my philosophy very abstract, but I need to be able to see the tie to activism in some way. And I guess that’s where I find Heidegger starts to bore me, or concern me, or both. Even someone like Bergson, who I love, has an implicit politics that can be applied to activist questions. I can’t find these in Heidegger without it becoming a big problem. Badiou, however, is I think the one to save this, because he manages to think ereignis within the context of a being which is necessarily never at one with itself, giving us an event which is fundamentally open to difference, that which is excluded from the polis, world, etc.

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~ by chris on March 10, 2010.

2 Responses to “Heidegger: Response to Paul Ennis and Gary Williams”

  1. >Andy Clarke, who I think does an AMAZING job of doing this within cognitive studies (though I didn’t realize he was using Heidegger for this, I wonder, which of Clarke’s texts? Is this in the new one? Haven’t read that on yet . . .)

    Well, I am pretty sure that the title of his book “Being There” is a direct reference to Heidegger and Da-sein. Moreover, he references Heidegger a few times as an intellectual precursor to the embodied mind thesis. Also, in his latest book, the last subsection of the book is entitled “The Heideggerian Theater”, which lays out an alternative picture than the classic Cartesian Theater model. I wouldn’t say Clark deals explicitly with phenomenology, but I think his entire approach to mind is grounded in Heideggerian concepts.

    >I find it really interesting that Gary talks about Heidegger as path to getting thought out of the cogito of Descartes/Kant, and into the world. Because for me, the Dasein of the early works is still just another version of that, if expanded, and the later works place the cogito within language, which is, to me, another sort of cage.

    If you read section 7 in Being and Time on the method of phenomenology, Heidegger provides a critique of the Kantian notion that all we ever access is “mere representations” of a noumenal reality. Heidegger levels a critique against this notion by arguing that the true phenomenon is never a “mere appearance” behind which something else stands which we don’t have access to. I read this as a critique of indirect representationalism, and accordingly, such a definition of phenomenon gets us out of the Kantian subjective sphere and into a more messy and concrete world of experience grounded in the Real, including nature in the broadest sense. Basic Problems of Phenomenology is much more clear than BT on this issue, but I am convinced that such a realism is implicit within all his early work.

    And with that framework in mind, his later “caged” approach to language isn’t so much a true Cartesian cage, but rather, an expansion of his earlier concept of world-projection such that language reconstitutes our perceptual access through the interpretative as-structure that permeates our cognitive world. If we are projecting a world, upon what are we projecting it? I say it can’t be anything other than the natural earth. So it isn’t so much that language cages us within a cogito, but rather, language structures our cognition by providing a scaffold for categorial nonsensory perception, often referred to as “superposition”. This allows for a deeper hermeneutic dimension to our perceptual life than a purely utilitarian calculus affords. So in one sense it certainly embroils us within “language-games”, but in another, it opens us up towards reality rather than enclosing us within a subjective sphere.

  2. Regarding Heidegerrian groundings of the whole 4EA movement in cognitive science, you might want to check out Michael Wheeler’s “Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step” if you haven’t already, it’s a clearly articulated position which covers some of the same ground as Clarke,

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