johngoff

Jan 242013
 

Nihilism

Over the years that I have been reading Heidegger, I have tried to discern why Heidegger thinks that the question of meaning of being must be posed, and, in my reading never really come across any satisfactory proposals.

Most accounts begin, of course academically – who else really writes about this stuff – in the explanatory voice, telling us how Heidegger thought that we (‘we’ being the ‘western tradition’) had thought about Being as a kind of (particular) being and that this was where we had ‘gone wrong.’

However, I wonder whether Heidegger, like every other philosopher, didn’t start with some plan, but actually didn’t really have much of an idea of what he was doing, which is why he started writing to try and get a handle on what he was doing. What began to take shape was a concern with Being, that he spent the rest of his days trying to make some sense of, and in the process producing some very compelling and interesting writing. I find myself returning to and reading Heidegger without really having to try.

Reading Heidegger, I don’t get much sense of him writing as though from ‘on high,’ he seems to be in process of thinking through, pondering, sometimes somewhat laboriously, the set of ideas that he found compelling. The tendency to attempt to ‘explain’ philosophers may perhaps be somewhat against the spirit of a philosopher like Heidegger. Does it matter if you don’t ‘understand’ what a philosopher is writing. Maybe the philosopher – however, elevated in the opinion of the academy – doesn’t ‘understand’ what they are writing either. Their writing is somewhat more like an electroencephalogram, or the weaving of a web. Afterwards we see the pattern, which then becomes fixed in diverse schools of interpretation – this can hardly be helped, of course, but one hopes always to maintain philosophy as a set of ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ writings.

The idea that the philosopher is writing themselves out, is key to the idea that philosophy is not like a ‘Moses coming down from the mountain’ – everything is all arrayed cleanly in thought, it just has now to be transcribed into words. The arbitrariness of philosophy lies in its genealogy, which is as accidental as any other endeavour. Philosophers find, or lose, themselves, and each other, in their philosophies.

Suppose one simply allows such accidents to be present? And allows philosophy to be arbitrary? One thinks first this, then that, and so on. This is why one may be surprised from time to time.

I don’t think that Heidegger’s thinking turns back on itself, it doesn’t seem reflexive like that, it is not trying to catch itself – whereas, Nietzsche’s thinking does have that sense of being very concerned with itself, and saturated with itself.

A key question for me is: why does the ‘question of the meaning of being’ matter to Heidegger? What makes him want to ask this question?

There is, of course, something like an academic approach – the question arose out of his studies of Aristotle in which it occurred to him that Aristotle took ‘to be’ or ‘exist’ for granted and so Heidegger decided to clear-up the unintended mess that Aristotle left. The ‘question of the meaning of being.’ by these lights is an intellectual matter that one might approach in a purely problem-solving fashion. ‘Being and Time’ can be understood as a high-level intellectual exercise.

But is this all, really? Was Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of being’ simply something he came upon and then found that it involved a much greater task than he might have anticipated, and then 40 odd years later, Martin Heidegger has become ‘Heidegger’ a master of 20th Century thought?

Or is it that Heidegger codified a sense of crisis in this question? If one thinks that by making headway on some question one might also resolve some pervasive fault in human affairs, then the question becomes both urgent and motivating.

I am inclined to the latter – the question codified a sense of crisis and enabled Heidegger to cope with this crisis. But why think that there is a crisis at all? It is here that one might propose that Ernst Jünger enters the picture. Heidegger was concerned, effectively, with a nihilism he understood to arise from the scientific worldview and the technological overcoming of nature. Jünger’s analysis of the technological condition as that of ‘total mobilization’ in the form of the worker as the instrument of modernity, deeply challenged Heidegger’s natural and even nature conservatism, and thus this technological condition (modernity) was understood, by Heidegger, as nihilistic.

Heidegger effectively took a different route to that of Nietzsche’s overcoming of nihilism, by trying to get at the root of what makes nihilism possible at all. Nihilism became, effectively, the ‘forgetting’ of Being in Heidegger’s thinking. He had to meet modernity’s forgetting of Being with the philosophical tools at hand – in his case, a version of Husserl’s phenomenological method.

This is not to say that Heidegger approached all of this in a linear fashion, “oh my god, there’s nihilism, what do we do? I know, let’s ask the question of the meaning of being!” Rather, Heidegger worked his way into a complex – both conceptual and psychological – that had the knot of nihilism at its centre. Rethinking ‘Being’ was Heidegger’s alexandrian sword. Jünger brought nihilism relative to the machine (total mobilisation) into a deeper focus, later on – Heidegger’s ‘question of technology’ arose out of his engagement with Jünger. Heidegger’s ‘The Question of Being’ which directly engages Jünger is central here.

Just as nihilism was Nietzsche’s concern, so it was Heidegger’s. And Heidegger engaged with Nietzsche to a very significant extent. Whereas Nietzsche proposed the will-to-power in the figure of the superman as the antidote to nihilism, Heidegger proposed his existential analysis of human-Being (‘dasein’; there-being) – by dealing with the is, one could overcome the is not. In ‘forgetting’ Being, beings are effectively empty, we hang as though in nothing. For Heidegger, science ‘forgets’ the Being of beings – including human-Beings – through its method of reduction to abstract categories and modes of formal explanation. It achieves the separation of Being from beings.

Heidegger is addressing modernity as nihilistic … however, in order to diagnose the roots of nihilism, Heidegger reaches into the depths of Greek thought and returns with a claim to ‘ek-stasis’, the standing-out of being … Being overcomes Nothing (nihil) … It was rethinking human existence from a ‘remembering’ of Being, that marked Heidegger’s later philosophy, where Being as such more than human-Being takes centre stage.

Jan 192013
 

Nietzsche’s thought might be understood to be centred on his phrase “God is dead!” (and we have killed him).

By this we might take Nietzsche to be more than simply acknowledging a shift towards a secular or scientific worldview, and more than acknowledging the rational and materialist currents of the Enlightenment as given in figures such as La Mettrie.

Nietzsche is saying something more like ‘The Gods are dead!’ where ‘The Gods’ are those overarching principles of human understanding and organisation that we have inherited in one way or another from Plato and from Christianity.

If one equates the ‘Gods’ with the ideal forms of the good, beauty, truth, and justice, then we might begin to understand Nietzsche as claiming that a civilizational era has passed, been shown to be empty, and that a radical new beginning from the ground upwards is required.

Nietzsche effectively charges philosophy with the role of gatekeeper to an entire civilizational epoch that began with the Greeks. Nietzsche effectively calls ‘The Decline of The West.’

For Nietzsche, this is no small matter.

The death of God, or of the Gods, leaves us without moorings. Without our familiar orientations to the good, beauty, truth, and justice, we are adrift. We no longer know how to know, nor how to act.

Nietzsche traces diverse underlying assumptions of western thought, but key for Nietzsche is the ‘despisers of the body’ and the other-worldly orientation of both Christianity and philosophy. Whether the other world is that of platonism or of the christian afterlife, Nietzsche diagnoses a refusal of human-being as bodily, natural being.

Herein lies Nietzsche’s answer to the death of God: the celebration of one’s life as life.

This lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s ‘will-to-power’ or ‘will to life’ and doctrine of the ‘superman.’

Whether Nietzsche elevates will-to-power as another ‘God’ or not, might be much disputed.

Nietzsche’s thought might thus be taken to engage a deep critique of western thought and culture, and a corresponding constructive project of renewal.

Nietzsche’s ‘anti-philosophical’ metaphilosophy (philosophy of philosophy) may be taken to inaugurate the critique of roots that is taken further by Heidegger, and later Derrida. Those other critics of roots – the underlying assumptions of a civilizational worldview – such as Deleuze and Foucault may also be traced to Nietzsche.

Arguably, Nietzsche’s critique is still radical if one takes the mainstream of western thought to lie within a platonic-aristotelian humanistic framework that places truth (reason), the good, beauty, and justice above and outside of us but uniquely accessible to human-beings. Only those critiques that emanate from Marxism, in the form of a radical materialism and anti-humanism, match Nietzsche in their consequences for human self-understanding.

Nietzsche thus attempts to follow the consequences of the challenge to the platonic ‘Gods’ and the christian ‘God’ through a critique of nihilism – his key anxiety – and a model for meaning-creation out of oneself.

‘overcoming metaphysics …’

What is not a unity is treated as one, and what is not procedural is treated as such – thus the critics of western thought isolate certain elements of its traditions (namely the platonic-aristotelian) and then seek to undermine them through a counter-metaphysics that is non-unitary and non-procedural.

The so-called ‘destruction’ of metaphysics is not that, it is more like a kind of changing of its underlying assumptions such that concepts such as substance, unity, identity, and so on, truly reflect reality, and a refusal of foundations of knowing guaranteed by such concepts. We can no longer be taken to know reality in any transcendental or true sense. Our knowing is arbitrarily constitutive of reality, there are thus several ‘realities’ – this is Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivalism’.

Later philosophers, such as Foucault, begin to refuse any clear distinction between philosophy proper and history of ideas, and begin to analyze the knowledge-constitutive practices of philosophy, science, law, and so on in their claims to truth. Such claims to truth amount to setting certain concepts at the centre of a practice and proceeding to reinforce them thereon. Reason has played this role since Plato, is carried from Aristotle through to Descartes and Kant, and currently resides in contemporary science both in its empirical and a priori (mathematical, theoretical) forms.

However, if not truth-orientated reason, then what?

It is here that Nietzsche’s claim (and that of Heidegger) that we have identified thought with reason – the doctrine of the logos from Heraclitus and Parmenides onwards – takes force. If we are to think, it will be ecstatically, and thus as poetry – not a seeking of some other world, but the ecstatic presentation of of our worldly immediacy. One might think, by way of illustration, of haiku – short poems that are ‘world stating’ as is. (This is also the sense of Heidegger’s understanding of truth as ‘unconcealment’ or ‘revealing’). But also of the vague boundaries between poetry and argument in early Greek philosophy. Arguably, the dialogue form of Plato is the step from the discursive, ‘rational’ poetry of pre-Socratic writings ‘on nature’ to the more linear, argumentative and categorical style of Aristotle and subsequent western philosophy.

Being is revealed in and through beings but is not exhausted by them (is this rather like God being revealed in and through beings but not being exhausted by them?), furthermore Being is revealed through non-being or nothingness. We cannot get at Being directly, this would be to treat of Being as a being, nor can we get at Being through philosophical-scientific analysis as though a some thing. However, Being is that which is most fundamental and yet that which cannot be stated. Heidegger’s problem is that he tries to think Being, and yet it seems that Being cannot be thought. At least not in any traditional, philosophical sense. We can, however, think from Being, but not to it (as object of thought). This thinking from is not a rational process of philosophy, it is more like a poetic process of philosophy. We are not doing philosophy in the aristotelian-rational, axiomatic-deductive framework. Heidegger has no objection to such a rational framework if it is understood clearly to be a technical means (it is perhaps this distinction that Habermas occults in ‘Philosophical Discourse of Modernity’).

Nietzsche is engaged in a kind of self-overcoming of western philosophy (i.e., western modes of thought and thinking), that Heidegger takes up, and which is prosecuted with vigour by later thinkers such as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, and, arguably, Rorty.

The civilizational consequences of this critique of roots, and the question as to what it is that is constructive that emerges from it, are questions that remain. Are we to seek meaning in any ‘platonic’ sense, as that which stands outside of us? Nietzsche’s answer is somewhat equivocal. In his ‘myth of eternal recurrence’ he appears to restate something akin to a platonic ideal – except that this ideal is something like the ‘best possible life’ that one could choose, and affirm to choose.

One might surmise that in overcoming platonism, one would accept the spontaneous, messy, contingent, and unpredictable and begin to work with, rather than against, error as the grain of existence. In short, to frame and state what appears as is.

The existentialist idea of the absurd, for Nietzsche, is perhaps too close to the nihilism that he wanted to overcome. And Zen was not available to him. This ultimately left him with Art. One had to make of oneself a kind of art. Whether this opened him, once again, to platonic reification, or the hypostatisation of oneself as one’s ‘life’, remains in question.

For Nietzsche, as for Heidegger, and their subsequent followers, western science remains metaphysical in the platonic-aristotelian mould – it continues a rationalist tradition that affirms foundations and a reality graspable in its fundamentals by reason and thought (logos). Arguably, even empirical investigation is only to open and reveal the transcendent logos.

A ‘scientific’ philosophy, such as that of Analytic philosophy, remains, finally, at odds with Nietzsche – for better or for worse.

However, if we refuse the idea of western thought as shaped by a platonic-aristotelian (socratic) framework, and take it to be vastly more diverse and differentiated than this, then both Nietzsche and Heidegger’s philosophies appear more rhetorical, and perhaps ‘ideological,’ rather than ‘critical.’ Perhaps, this latter point forms a core principle of Habermas’s critique of the (Heideggerian) ‘overcoming of metaphysics’ in ‘The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.’

Deleuze was perhaps more alive to the more likely plurality of western thought than as it is presented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and even, apparently, Derrida. None of whom, it seems have overcome the Greeks. Such ‘overcoming’ remains part of the ‘crisis’ rhetoric of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger.

A more general unframing of thought is now underway, as the civilizational traditions from which philosophy, in all its varieties, has sprung are receding into the further horizons of history – both Nietzsche and Heidegger prefigure this unframing.