Monday, January 18, 2010

Heidegger and authentic thinking

On page 44 of Essays On Heidegger and Others, Richard Rorty quotes Heidegger to say, “History only begins when beings themselves are expressly drawn up in their unconcealment and conserved in it, only when the conservation is conceived on the basis of questioning regarding beings as such.  The primordial disclosure of being as a whole, the question concerning beings as such, and the beginning of Western history are the same.”

Rorty then goes on to explain what he thinks Heidegger means: “I interpret this as saying that prehistorical people living in the west may have played sophisticated language-games, written epics, built temples, and predicted planetary motions, but they didn’t count either as ‘thinking’ or as ‘historical’ until somebody asked ‘Are we doing the right things?’  ‘Are our social practices the right ones to engage in?’

“Thought, in Heidegger’s honorific sense of the term, begins with a willing suspension of verificationism.  It begins when somebody starts asking question such that nobody, including himself or herself, can verify the answers for correctness.  These are questions like ‘What is Being?’ or ‘What is a cherry blossom?’  Only when we escape from the verificationist impulse to ask ‘How can we tell a right answer when we hear one?’ are we asking questions which Heidegger thinks worth asking. . . .”

COMMENT:  Taking the above second and third paragraphs together we see that the sort of thinking Heidegger believes is authentic is the sort for which verification doesn’t exist.  An engineer might figure out how to build a pyramid out of stones, but that sort of figuring wouldn’t qualify as authentic thinking for Heidegger.  Not even the sort of thinking that created the milieu and framework within which Pharaohs felt a need to construct such pyramids to secure their happiness in an afterlife would qualify as authentic thinking.  If we accept the theses of Sir James G. Frazer (in The Golden Bough), we can see that a sort of pragmatism went into the creation of the Egyptian religion.  Certain things pleased the gods, that is had a beneficial result, and others didn’t.  Certain actions worked, or worked most of the time, and others didn’t. 

Later on the Egyptian and indeed all other religions were rejected by atheists, but did these atheists engage in “authentic thinking”?  Not the ones who followed Darwin.  Darwin was a sort of engineer in such matters.  He studied the fossil record and certain animals such as pigeons, and drew conclusions based upon that evidence.  He accounted for all animal life that he saw or envisioned and developed a principle from his observations: the creation of species through natural selection.  Modern day atheists follow his “verifications,” but such following (and probably not Darwin’s thinking itself) does not comprise authentic thinking.

Taking one of Rorty’s examples, Marx engaged in authentic thinking when he questioned the “social practices” of his time – unless we call him an “engineer” for correcting the authentic thinking of Hegel.  But let’s for the sake of discussion assume that Marx did engage in “authentic thinking” about the social practices of his time.  The result of this thinking resulted in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, The Poverty of Philosophy, Wage-Labor and Capital, Manifesto of the Communist Party, and his magnum opus, Capital.    Thus, if Marx was an authentic thinker, we see that all those who came after him, who sought to apply his philosophy, were being engineers.  However much they sought to promulgate his ideas and however persuasive their arguments, they were not engaged in “authentic thinking” but in applying, as engineers, the authentic thinking of another.

But what about the person who developed the ability to think authentically who happened to have lived in the USSR during the Stalinist period.   He might have thought authentically, even rethought Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies and been more authentic about his thoughts than Marx was about his, but the times would have been against him.  If he voiced his authentic thoughts, he might well have been shipped off to a Gulag, but being a philosopher, which is what a person capable of authentic thinking is, he probably would have thought through all the possibilities resulting from speaking his thoughts and decided to keep them to himself. 

But all those non-authentic thinkers who followed Marx as engineers would have rejoiced in the oneness they felt with the master.  They would have joyfully burned at the stake any authentic thinker who disagreed with him.  There was no premium on authentic thinking in the days of Stalin, nor is there today -- or any other day.  We today in the U.S. are successful not because we think authentically, or admire those who do, but because we are very good at applying the innovative (whether authentic or not) thoughts of others.   We value the entrepreneur, the person who can apply thoughts (whether authentic or not) in such a way as to result in a profit.  

Consider the authentic thinking of Jesus Christ, e.g., “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. . . .Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. . .  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  What do those words mean?  However the engineers apply themselves to their exegesis, they slip away.  The engineers can’t apply this authentic thinking in any very practical way.  And if one of them tries, whatever he comes up with is sure to be contradicted by the conclusions of some other engineer.  Look now at Paul at any part of Paul’s writings.  He is often called the real founder of Christianity because he thought as an engineer about what Christ taught.  We are comfortable with Paul because he tells us what to do, but what are we to do with Jesus Christ, that is the difficult question Christians have to grapple with – unless they would rather follow some engineer who filters the teachings of Jesus in some pragmatic way.

And what do we do with Heidegger?  That is a question that more of us as time goes on decide to grapple with.  He is being applied but the steps taken in the application are mysterious.  How does Derrida derive himself from Heidegger for example?  And what of Heidegger’s students, Arendt, Lowith, Jonas and Marcuse, whom Richard Wolin sees as deriving from Heidegger, but they do not – or do so only grudgingly?  In the end, everyone becomes an engineer.  The “authentic thought” is nothing, so the thinker thinks, unless it can be applied; so Arendt, Lowith, Jonas Marcuse and others set about applying Heidegger or applying their “own” thoughts (only coincidentally related to Heidegger’s), but they did it, notice, in different ways.  Heidegger spent much of his academic life seeking to think authentically and did not worry about being applied – except now and again usually during an interview, and he often sounded (and probably was) out of his element.

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