Saturday, December 5, 2009

Heidegger, the subject and the individual

Alain Renaut begins The Era of the Individual, A Contribution to a History of Subjectivity (French 1989, English translation 1997) with Heidegger.  As we saw in the books he wrote with Luc Ferry (French Philosophy of the Sixties, An Essay on Antihumanism, and Heidegger and Modernity) he blames Heidegger (among others) for “loss of the subject”; although it might be better to say “the deconstruction of the subject” for it is only “lost” for Existentialists.   Why is “the subject” important?
Many today associate Humanism with Atheism and it is often true that Humanists are also atheists, but it needn’t be so.  The “Enlightenment” (another term for “Humanism” began in association with God.  Those “enlightened” early “Humanists” rejected “The idea that God could have created a world that was inconsistent with the principles of our rationality . . .”
Renaut on page 8 and following writes, “Leibniz . . . reduced the real to the possible . . . whose application is strongly underscored by Heidegger:  If the real is only the possible (meaning the noncontradictory, and hence the rational) actualizing itself (solely on condition of its compatibility with other possible), we can already have an inkling of the absolute identification of the real with the rational that in Hegel was the culmination of the campaign to assert subjectivity as imposing its law on the real and subjecting reality to reason, both literally and figuratively.”
Perhaps most of us today would find this rudimentary – mere common sense.  Those of us who still believe in God do not feel blasphemous in insisting that God did not contradict himself in his creation.  If God could contradict himself, or if his creation were inconsistent or chaotic then science would be impossible.  Today the atheist substitutes “Nature” for “God” and continues his scientific studies unabated, but he does so as subject.  Or does he?
Heidegger, following Kant, who argued that we could only know phenomena and not the noumena, that is the “thing in itself,” argued that the “subject” was not sensing reality, was not sensing “the thing in itself,” but was instead seeing his own illusions.  Heidegger admired Kant but didn’t think he went far enough.  “. . . Kant . . . profoundly relativized the specificity of the criticist moment, reducing it [to criticize a] subjectivity that (unlike Heidegger’s own) does not completely eliminate the subject, but merely deconstructs its illusions about itself.”
We who grew up with Kant had no difficulty with these “illusions.”  For example, we could accept that we could not see with our eyes what a microscope or a telescope could see, and we used that fact as a synechdoche to describe the “reality” our minds understand but our senses cannot directly sense.  We didn’t take Kant’s noumenon as having threatened us as subjecs in this matter.  We merely accepted our limitations and sought to build more powerful microscopes and telescopes.  Heidegger in his philosophy said ‘not so fast’ and challenged our ability “as subjects” to understand “the real.”  Descartes said “I think” and went on to say that he thought about reality.  Heidegger says ‘oh no you don’t.’  You can’t think about reality.  All you can think about is your own existence.

The anti-humanists say that what I’m engaged in is a nonsensical argument.  “Aren’t we all individuals.  Of course we are.  We anti-humanists aren’t saying that we aren’t.”  But this response confuses “individual” with “subject.”  Anti-Humanists are comfortable with people being “individuals,” but it denies them the right to be “subjects.”  Here are the definitions Renaut accepts for these concepts (the definition of “individualism” is primarily from Benjamin Constant):
“Humanism is basically the valorization of humanity in its capacity for autonomy.  What I mean by this . . . is that what constitutes Modernity is the fact that man thinks of himself as the source of his acts and representations, as their foundation (read subject) or author. . .  The humanistic man is one who does not receive his norms and laws either from the nature of things (as per Aristotle) or from God, but who establishes them himself, on the basis of his own reason and will.  Thus modern natural right is a subjective right, posited and defined by human reason . . . or by human will. . .”
“Individualism, on the other hand [places] less stress on the valorization of autonomy than on independence [which can be illustrated] in terms of the Athenee Royal in Paris in 1819 [where] freedom was defined in terms of participation in public affairs and the direct exercise of sovereignty, by this, ‘collective freedom’ was held to be ‘compatible’ with . . . the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community,’ to the point that ‘[n]o importance was given to the individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion’; in contrast, among the moderns, for whom sovereignty of the individual was profoundly restricted, being publicly exercised only ‘at fixed and rare intervals,’ the individual nonetheless thinks of himself as free because he is ‘independent’ in his private life.’  ‘our own freedom consists of peaceful enjoyment and private independence, . . lost in the multitude, the individual can almost never perceive the influence he exercises, . . . .”
Further down Renaut refers to Humanism as “the valorization of autonomy” and Individualism as “the valorization of independence.”

COMMENT:  One can understand, perhaps, why Heidegger is one of those Ferry and Renaut hold accountable for the “loss of the subject.”  One can also see that Heidegger’s Existentialism demands the deconstruction of the subject.  Man isn’t capable of doing all those things the “Renaissance  Man” was thought to be capable of.  Western man has deluded himself from the time of the “Enlightenment” (about his being “subject”) and has finally been able to abandon his delusion thanks to Heidegger (and a few others). 
            I have a bit of trouble with Renaut’s definition of Humanism because most of the Humanists never abandoned either tradition or God.  Modern Humanists have done that, but some are seeing the importance of revalorizing tradition and God.  The anti-Modernist can know no “reality” and as a consequence has no standard by which to judge his future actions.  Some have suggested that this was the element in Heidegger’s philosophy that seduced him into opting for Nazism. 
Sartre believed that since we cannot know reality, we should make choices that would be good for humanity.  He chose to be a Communism.  Camus could write in The Stranger about Meursault who practices his existentialism by killing an Arab. 
Heidegger thought the Germans should seek “authenticity” in their tradition.  But for him “Tradition” wasn’t what it was for the Humanist.  It wasn’t a standard by which to judge excellence or the common language and heritage we (Humanists) want to familiar with if we are to consider ourselves educated and part of the Western Tradition.  It was more primal and because it had no clear objective (reasonable) definition, Heidegger (believing his own theory) thought it might be embodied (for the Germans) in Nazism and that Adolf Hitler might indeed be an ubermensch.

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