Friday, January 22, 2010

Rorty and Heidegger: Narrative and Essentialism

In his essay, Heidegger, Kundera, and Dickens (page 69 of Essays on Heidegger and Others), Richard Rorty writes, “. . . In 1935 Heidegger saw Stalin’s Russia and Roosevelt’s America as ‘metaphysically speaking, the same.’  In 1945 he saw the Holocaust and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe as two instances of the same phenomenon.  As Habermas puts it, ‘under the leveling gaze of the philosopher of Being even the extermination of the Jews seems merely an event equivalent to many others.’  Heidegger specializes in rising above the need to calculate relative quantities of human happiness, in taking a larger view.  For him, successful and unsuccessful adventures – Gandhi’s success and Dubcek’s failure, for example – are just surface perturbations, distractions from essence by accidents, hindrances to an understanding of what is really going on.

“Heidegger’s refusal to take much interest in the Holocaust typifies the urge to look beneath or behind the narrative of the West for the essence of the West, the urge which separates the philosophers from the novelists.  Someone dominated by this urge will tell a story only as part of the process of clearing away appearance in order to reveal reality.  Narrative is, for Heidegger, always a second-rate genre – a tempting but dangerous one.  At the beginning of Being and Time, Heidegger warned against the temptation to confuse ontology with a story which relates beings to other beings.  At the end of his career he takes back his earlier suggestion that what he called ‘the task of thinking’ might be accomplished by narrating the History of Being, by telling a story about how metaphysics and the West exhausted their possibilities.  In 1962 he cautions himself that he must cease to tell stories about metaphysics, must leave metaphysics to itself, if he is ever to undertake this task.

“Despite this suspicion of epic and preference for lyric, the ability to spin a dramatic tale was Heidegger’s greatest gift.  What is most memorable and original in his writings, it seems to me, is the new dialectical pattern he finds in the canonical sequence of Western philosophical texts.  I think that his clue to this pattern was Nietzsche’s interpretation of the attempts at wisdom, contemplation, and imperturbability by the people whom he called ‘the ascetic priests’ as furtive and resentful expressions of those priests’ will to power.”

            COMMENT:  Rorty disagrees with Heidegger’s belief that the West has fallen, or collapsed, or become exhausted.  Earlier, Rorty writes, “Heidegger and, more generally, the kind of post-Heideggerian thinking which refuses to see the West as a continuing adventure, I want to put forward Charles Dickens as a sort of anti-Heidegger.”  I sort of see what Rorty has in mind by using Dickens.  Although I would prefer a more modern example, Dickens’ oeuvre fits the West as Rorty’s “continuing adventure.”

            Heidegger would have enjoyed Battlestar Galactica.  The collapse he envisioned in his philosophy is graphically illustrated.  Technology turns against humanity with a vengeance.  And as humans continue to squabble amongst themselves, we are reminded in each episode, of the small number of humans who remain in the Universe.  Despite that, the Cylons, the robots who “evolved” have more attractive personalities than the humans.  The end of the series is near (as far as I’ve watched) and the number of Cylons has also been reduced.  If I had to choose just one set of beings to save (based upon what the writers of Battlestar Galactica have shown me), I would select the Cylons.  What does about the philosophical beliefs of these writers?

            The Battlestar Galactica writers anthropomorphized Technology, but Heidegger reified it, as he did “The West.”  The West cannot be literally reified.  I know people do, or think that they do, but they create imaginary images that bear no reality.  Someone disagreeing with me could say the West is this and this and this, and go on enumerating whatever it is that he would put in a category he considers “the West,” but then it is no longer a unity.  There is no essence to it.  Why stop with such an enumeration?  Why not go on and list everything that has ever existed?

Is there a definition of “the West” we can all sign up to?  I think of Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations at this pointWould he disagree with what I have written?  He refers to the various civilizations, but if we read what they are, they prominently include “religion,” for example. The Orthodox Civilization was shaped by Orthodox Christianity and the West by Catholic and Protestant Christianity, but is that not the “Narrative” of the West rather than its “Essence”?   Huntington was not interested in establishing essences of the various “civilizations,” only narratives, only where they have brought themselves by the point in time in which he wrote his book. 

Who in America today could read Spengler’s or Heidegger’s narratives of “The West” and recognize themselves or their beliefs?  Which American could read Heidegger and say, “wretched man that I am, who can save me from this narrative of failure and collapse?”   No, we won’t say that.  We may very well say “those people over there have caused lots of trouble.”  If we could only render them inactive we could move ahead smartly and progressively, but we are a long way from failure or collapse.  And Rorty would interject at this point, “and don’t you see?  That is the continuing adventure of The West.”


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