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.

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