Posts Tagged ‘Heidegger’

Alexander von Schoenborn, Plutarchian

August 1, 2011

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted. Plutarch

Just received word this weekend that a beloved early mentor from my undergrad “glory days,” Alexander von Schoenborn, is retiring. Jeez, how old must that make me?

When I knew him back then, in the late ’70s, I’d have described him as intense, serious, enigmatic, intimidating, pipe-smoking, and above all inspiring. My fellow philosophy majors and I were on tenterhooks whenever he responded to one of our comments or questions by pausing, tamping the pipe, lighting, and puffing before offering his measured response.  We wanted desperately to impress him, at least with our sincerity if not with our brilliance.

One evening, I recall, we convened an impromptu meeting in the department seminar room to discuss our mutual consternation over the opacities and obscurities of Sein und Zeit, and were so pleased and proud of ourselves when Herr Doktor Professor unexpectedly popped his head in the door at one point long after sundown. We weren’t especially surprised to see him there that night. Now I know how exceptional and devoted it was of him to be there in the department, working late into a school-night. But we were more focused at the time on his noticing the unlikelihood of our studious diligence.  Not sure we did any better on the next quiz, but at least (we hoped) he’d know we were trying.

He introduced us to Plato’s cave (and escape therefrom) as an apt analogy for the educational enterprise in general, whether we favored the Platonic Idealism or not.

He brought a raft of post-Kantian/pre-Hegelian German metaphysicians and poets (is there a distinction?) to our attention. He told me, before I wrote a contest-winning essay I didn’t really understand about Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, that my style was reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

He got me to want to understand Heidegger. And, here on the far side of decades and biographies that have not been friendly to “Friend Heidegger,” I still do want to understand. That’s a testament to Professor vonS’s teaching.

Good luck in your retirement, Professor. Thanks for the light.


December 7, 2010

It’s the last day of class in Intro to Philosophy, before exams next week, so some of us are happy. But the last day is also always a little bittersweet. Seems we just get started, then before you know it comes the time we have to say good-bye. But, I’m so glad we had this time together

Sisyphus was happy too, according to Camus. (“One must consider Sisyphus happy.”) Did he  understand the secret of life to be meaningful work? Any work can be made meaningful enough to make life worth living, seems to be his point, for those who throw themselves into their lives and help others.

“The point is to live,” said Camus, before his life ended in a pointless car crash at age 44. We must consider him no longer happy. But I’ll bet he’d get a laugh out of the recent controversy over his mortal remains.

Heidegger talked a lot about being thrown, too. [That’s Simon Critchley on “geworfenheit,” or thrownness… and here he is on learning to die and other fun stuff.] Evidently he threw himself into his work for the Reich, and lately is reaping the reward of a  bad reputation. His being-in-the-world, his Dasein, has departed. There’s no longer any there worth Being, there. [heroes & villains]

Jean-Paul Sartre said we exist before we acquire any specific or essential identity, leaving us either dreadfully or bracingly free (depending on attitude) to invent ourselves. But it’s very hard to be free in good faith, since our perpetual tendency is to objectify ourselves and one another. But you can’t be a free person in the same way an inkwell is an inkwell. Well, duh.

Here’s Sartre hosting Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion.

Sartre’s paramour Simone de Beauvoir pushed him to place his abstract talk about freedom in its real world social contexts, and to acknowledge the additional patriarchal obstacles in the way of women’s liberation.

Postmodernists say philosophy, defined as the search for truth, is moribund. But New Agers, even the looniest, show there’s still an appetite and an audience for wisdom pursued passionately.

And with that, we ring down the curtain on another semester of Intro to Philosophy. I hope everyone takes this away:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

-Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

And as promised, Mr. Einstein gets the last word: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”

That’s what I’ll leave you with, for now. The last slide says it all:

NOTE TO STUDENTS: All presenters need to be present today. All others need to turn in final essays and 3 journal entries, stapled. Older Daughter says the High Schoolers are docked points for lacking staples. Don’t let it happen to you.

heroes & villains

April 7, 2010

We read about most of these guys for Monday’s class…

Edmund Husserl, besides being the founding phenomenologist— a radical empiricist on steroids, I called him on Monday– was also Heidegger’s teacher. The contrast between them couldn’t be sharper. Heidegger, succeeding Husserl at Freiburg, denied his former mentor library privileges. That’s low!

For Husserl, philosophy is the freedom of absolute self-responsibility and the philosopher is “the civil servant of humanity.” That first phrase sounds Sartrean. The second doesn’t at all, to Husserl’s credit. He “died as a philosopher”– no foxhole conversions for him.

George Santayana, James’s student and then colleague in the glory days of Harvard philosophy, died in a convent during the Second World War. He professed to take no interest in the event (of the war), however. “I know nothing, I live in the Eternal.”  But he was no Roman Catholic, either.  Mostly he was a man of the margins, a keen spectator of the passing “genteel” American scene but not an active participant. American philosophers sometimes lay claim to some aspects of his elegantly-composed philosophy as representative of the American grain, but he was no pragmatist. He was an inspiration to his students, some of whom– Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens– became our greatest poets. As Stevens would write, he did indeed live in two worlds… but mostly, as time went by, in the eternity of his own mind.  He was a wise man by any measure. My favorite Santayana line: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” These last several glorious spring days in middle Tennessee remind me that I’m hopeless, in these terms. But as Older Daughter likes to say, I’m working on it.

Despite a reputation for austerity, there was a strong Epicurean side to him, too. He said “there’s no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.” And I love Critchley’s wine anecdote, next time I have more than I can swallow, I’ll douse my cake just like George.

I think my favorite Santayana book, and the one that brings him closest to the American tradition in philosophy, is Scepticism & Animal Faith. How wonderfully it begins

A recent reviewer notes:

Santayana is most remembered today for a single, painfully overquoted sentence: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But in his lifetime he achieved stature as a philosopher for a whole series of books about the nature of human reason, the sense of beauty and the value of religion. His greatest subject was perhaps his adopted homeland. His writings about America still have the freshness of new discoveries, and they are enlivened—like nearly everything he wrote—by sharp turns of phrase and pungent judgments.

And he thought his adopted homeland was full of secretly-unhappy people whose false cheer made them superficial and unserious. But he seems to have liked it here well enough. I recall reading somewhere that one of his favorite diversions was to take in a Harvard baseball game from time to time. He enjoyed being an observer of spectators, even further removed from the action.

Antonio Gramsci, the greatest communist philosopher in Italy or arguably anywhere (aren’t you embarrassed to know so little of him?), is important if only because he shows that a Marxist does not have to be a narrow historical determinist, explaining all events strictly in terms of their economic causes.

Bertrand Russell we already know a lot about. His words as he approached the end of a very long, very un-religious road that spurned the solace of any “divine plan,” are spine-stiffening:

I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to and end…

I cringe to speak of Moritz Schlick, he reminds me of the crazed woman in Huntsville who couldn’t handle not being tenured a few weeks ago. The Vienna Circle positivist was murdered by a mentally deranged student… Serious stuff, but Critchley still finds a funny angle. Schlick said, before he died (as Yogi Berra might point out), that he could imagine witnessing his own funeral. It is not known whether Schlick was able to empirically verify this remark. Ha! So it might be meaningless.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (who didn’t really look this much like Lyle Lovett) famously echoed Epicurus’ view that “death is not an event in life.” Sounds good, doesn’t play so well in practice for most of us. But it’s not a bad place to set the bar, most of the time.

Same for his statement, when he knew his cancer had  nearly run its course, that my interest is still all in this life. Critchley may be thinking of William Blake when he says this attitude bought Wittgenstein an eternity in those waning days:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

Reminds me of the late sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, who said if he was told he had an hour to live he’d “just type faster.” Me too, I hope. (Unless the loved ones were less than an hour away, of course.)

Wittgenstein was a model conversationalist, to judge from his view that a discussion shoyuld not be broken off until it had reached its proper end. “Model” for philosophers, anyway. Socrates felt the same way, and many of his interlocutors were only too happy to break it off.

The single factoid I’ve learned from Critchley that I love the most: Wittgenstein’s alleged last (or nearly last) words, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” May we all have the opportunity and the impulse to make that our parting instruction too.

When Wittgenstein survived Russian attack in the First World War it left him with such a desire to live.

Heidegger, by contrast, steered clear of the shooting but thought a lot about death. Being and Time is a meditation on death, and time. Authentic living requires us to project our lives onto the horizon of our death. Grasp your finitude, consider your own life-and-death more important than others’. But this is “morally pernicious.” Insulating oneself from grief and mourning for the loss of others is inhuman. [A pilgrimage to Heidegger’s hutHeil HeideggerDoes A Nazi deserve a place?]

A recent review notes: Emmanuel Faye has done both history and philosophy a valuable service, digging up documentary proof of Heidegger’s real sympathies: “Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realisation of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. The existence and the superiority of the Fuhrer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task.”

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [What the [bleep’]The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

“the philosopher walks”

January 20, 2010

That’s from my favorite line so far in Simon Critchley’s surprisingly sprightly Book of Dead Philosophers, which I’m using for the first time as a supplemental text in the Intro classes.  Concluding the introductory section on Socrates he writes:

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.

Walks on, that is, not out. This point calls Socrates’ martyrdom into question, it seems to me. We don’t know what, if anything, awaits the dead: permanent deep sleep, or unending intellectual gabfest with all the great dead spirits who’ve gone before, or who knows? Philosophizing is for the living.

Walking– literal walking– is one of my personal metaphors for living, and one of my favorite pastimes. Not only do the dead tell no tales, they pound no pavements or greenway trails either.

Being a walker gives a philosopher a pragmatic bent. For instance: when Diogenes the Cynic heard someone declare [after encountering Zeno of Elea‘s paradoxes of motion] that there was no such thing as motion, he got up and walked about. The best refutation is sometimes simply to walk.

But we need to acknowledge that our motion is not perpetual. Death is real. That’s how this book differs from the Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead, which aim to gain an “Enlightened” denial of death. Critchley’s approach is to draw us closer to the philosophers by highlighting our common humanity and mortality. In the process he tells some funny stories and brings the whole subject out into the lovely light of day. Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos, larger than we can fathom. As I was saying yesterday in A&S, Carl Sagan put it smartly: our proper loyalty (and identity) belongs to the stars. Their atoms are ours too.

Which brings us to Democritus, “the laughing philosopher” who (legend has it)  lived an incredibly long and healthy life. He might have lived longer, but– noticing in his 109th year (!)  that his mind was beginning to show its age– he “cheerfully committed suicide.”

On the other hand consider Heraclitus, “the weeping philosopher,” who wept for humanity’s irrationality. But how did he treat his own illness? With cow dung. The treatment was unsuccessful.

The lives and deaths of the philosophers are entertaining and instructive, often in unintended ways. How ironic that Heidegger, whom I mentioned in class last week as an example of a philosopher whose biography had been so neglected that his despicable politics went unremarked by generations of professors (including my own), put the feeble case for the very approach that has shielded him against sharper scrutiny:

The personality of a philosopher is of interest only to this extent: he was born at such and such a time, he worked, and died.

And if he hooked up with the Nazis in the interim? Irrelevant, says Herr Doktor Proffessor H. Since that was also the view of most of my teachers, just about every page in this book is full of biographical detail that is new to me. What emerges most clearly is that their big ideas made them no less fallible or prone to error than any of us. So go ahead, everybody, be as philosophical as you please. It’s only human.