I’m back to working on the thesis now. It’s a hard slog, but I made some good progress yesterday. I’ve been in denial about a serious structural problem in the thesis for a while now, and it’s prevented me from getting anything constructive done. I think I’ve tackled it head on now, and even though I haven’t fixed the problem, I think I now know how to do so, which is good. Given that my head is in Heidegger mode, I’m in the right frame of mind to respond to the question Paul has just posed over at anotherheideggerblog (here): ‘What do we know about Ereignis?’
Now, I haven’t performed an exhaustive reading of Heidegger (I can’t even read him in the original German, alas), but I’ve got a rough reading of what Ereignis is. I’ve mentioned this a bit before, but it can’t hurt to repeat myself a bit. On my account, it’s pretty much synonymous with a couple of other terms: Seyn, Being as such (as opposed to the Being of beings), Truth, and the Fourfold. The best way to understand this is in relation to an important duality that runs throughout Heidegger’s thought: that between beings as such and beings as a whole. Heidegger takes it that this duality presents the object of all metaphysics (i.e., beings as such as a whole). However, he takes it that the metaphysical tradition has systematically misunderstood this insofar as it thinks both in terms of beings. Heidegger’s relation to metaphysics is complicated. In his early work, he tries to leverage the criticisms of the tradition in order to complete the project of metaphysics, whereas in his later work he comes to see the problem of the tradition as an essential aspect of metaphysics, and thus attempts to overcome metaphysics entirely.
Following up yesterday’s the day before yesterday’s post, I should probably just add a few notes in response to Graham (see here). I’ll try and not let this spiral into a 7 message exchange though. I’ve always wanted one of those epic sounding monikers you have to put in quote marks, and I think Pete “the relentless” is the best suggestion I’ve come across so far (I take everything Graham says in good spirit). Before leaping in though, I should perhaps say a little bit about the way I approach philosophical disputes like this.
Graham does rightly note that I have a habit of trying to point out what I see as confusions or insufficiently precise uses of terminology, and this does reflect a bit of my more analytic background (although I’m sure if you ask those analyticians who know me I’d get accused of being wildly speculative!). This kind of nitpicking can come across as pedantic, or as labelling the other person as ‘confused’, ‘muddled’ or something similar. I’m trying to avoid this, as such things can be quite offensive, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that it’s much easier to offend people by accident here (there’s so little way of modulating one’s tone that attempts to do so can wildly backfire), so it’s at the very least good practice to be careful with one’s words.
However, I’d like to defend my nitpicking to some extent. It’s all well and good to say that we should just take our (and by this I mean more than just myself and Graham) differences to be disagreements in all cases, and then to try and resolve them directly, but I think that it’s often the case that it’s not entirely clear what exactly we’re disagreeing about. Sometimes you have to do a bit of preparatory work in order to figure out where a given disagreement lies. It can be very frustrating for all involved, but it can pay us back for this frustration tenfold if done right. Of course, perspicuity can devolve into pedantry, and this can lead to obscuring what is genuinely important in a discussion. Perspicuity is a virtue, and as such, the Aristotelian in me strives for a golden mean. I don’t always find it, but I try regardless.
Brevity, on the other hand, isn’t a virtue I have any success with. This post will be quite long (8,000 words or so), largely because it includes the additional material hinted at in the last post, which is quite in depth. To Graham: don’t think I’m forcing you to ratchet up a current account deficit in our discussion. You’re a much busier man than I, and you can feel free to get back to me whenever you like (or not to at all). As our Australian friends say: no worries.
Paul Ennis (here), Jon Cogburn (here) and Gary Williams (here), have been having a conversation about whether Heidegger is a realist or not on their respective blogs. Since I’ve been trying to come up with a coherent interpretation of Heidegger for the past 2 years, causing much woe and confusion, I thought I’d chip in. What appears below was meant to be a comment on Jon’s blog, but turned out to be too big (surprise surprise). Some of what I say here might differ from my previous posts on Heidegger, as my interpretation has evolve a bit. Hopefully I’ll post a synthesis of all this stuff at some point which gives an updated version of my position, but for now, you’ll have to make do with this. Anyway, enjoy…
When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.
There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.
Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).
One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.