Sunday, September 14, 2008

Why Heidegger?

I have been asked to explain why I take Being and Time to be "a crucial pivot point above all other philosophical texts (Wittgenstein excluded)". It is a very good question that is related to this curriculum suggestion, which I have been thinking about for some time.

What makes Being and Time and the Philosophical Investigations pivotal like few others (if any)? I chose them because they make an important contribution to our understanding of modern language, and are themselves important moments in the development of modern thought. They are also, and more importantly, inexhaustible sources of literary pleasure.

You go back to them again and again and each time you learn something about thought and language. Other texts, you get through. But not these. In fact, I'm always skeptical of people who say they are trying to get "beyond Heidegger". How far did Heidegger get with Being and Time? How far did you get in your reading of Being and Time? In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Heidegger's own attempts to get beyond himself are ridiculous. (As a person, Heidegger may well have been ridiculous. So was Wittgenstein.) He hadn't even let anyone try to understand him before he was profoundly undertaking his "turning". A turn I believe I have thoroughly deconstructed in paraphrase.

You don't get "beyond" these works. You use them to improve your understanding of thought and language. Another work that has the same quality is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Before announcing that Kant was profoundly wrong, we should acknowledge everything he got right on the surface of things. That precision is what makes modern thinking possible, whether we know it or not. Whether we like it or not.

Heidegger and Wittgenstein themselves, arguably, got "beyond" Kant. But mostly they understood what Kant understood. (Heidegger seems to have learned it by reading Kant himself. Wittgenstein may have found some other way.) We can't know how far they got until we acquaint ourselves with their work in detail. That's what the curriculum I propose is designed to do: to acquaint students with the basis of philosophical insight.


artownsend said...

Many thanks for the explication, Thomas.

Anonymous said...

In a recent interview danish poet Thomas Boberg aired an interesting idea relevant to the whole scheme of canonized literature. (Sorry, Thomas, all this to initiate an attack on that ideal world you conjure;-)) When asked to name his all-time favorites, Boberg answered that he thinks of books as something that comes and goes. So, he went on to offer a long list of books that were relevant to him at different times in his life. A list that loops on itself, thus marking the reintroduction of a book for another brief revival... The reason I rather liked this idea is the same as why I dislike the ideas of the canon: it presupposes that some books are privileged and universal. I believe they may seem to be, but, crucially, only at some point in time./Soren

Kirby Olson said...

I do like the idea of a canon because it means that these ideas will be taught, and thus they will be kept in print, since there will be a demand. I'd argue that Heidegger and Wittgenstein are too close to our own time to know yet if they truly matter. Against chronocentrism, since new books like those will probably stay in print for a while if they are any good.

I do like the Kant idea. Kant had an interesting friend named Georg Hamann who I think is also worth reading. (It is Hamann who introduced Kant to Hume's work, and thus set off the first critique, or the critique of pure reason.)

There is a nice little intro to Hamann by Isaiah Berlin. I like Berlin's little books. He wrote another one on Tolstoy's view of history that I enjoyed.

But much older works are even probably better to retain, and since they are somewhat ancient, it's more important to build them into the canon.

Augustine is certainly worth his salt, as is Aquinas, and Luther.

Reading outside of our own time can steady us, and give us ballast.

I'd like to see work that is at least five hundred years old on the list. Shakespeare isn't too bad. In addition to Hamlet, I think Henry VIII is an important play since it provides such an immensely different viewpoint of our own time.

I also like Henry VIth since it makes fun of Obama types when they run into the Richards, and are run through by the Richard 2s and 3s.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I agree with Kirby: Kant is indisputable. Wittgenstein and Heidgger are my best guesses, and anything after 1955 is definitely too soon to tell. (Though I also have some ideas there.)

A canon is not a constraint. It's a resource. It's a list of works that you can go to in order to efficiently learn what we as a species have learned so far. (A European canon, BTW, does not assume that only Europeans know something; it assumes that the best European writers are best at teaching Europeans what the species knows.)

Boberg's position is the somewhat silly posture of a moderately successful poet. I don't really believe him. Hamlet is rock solid. Permanent.

It won't survive a really major asteroid impact, of course. But it is very difficult to make it culturally irrelevant. "At some point in time" is a perfectly good point. The thing with real classics (like the six books I'm proposing) as that they WOULD be relevant (if one bothered to read them) pretty much ANYTIME.

But I should add that a list like mine is a suggestion for people looking for a place to start (or undergraduates). That is, people who don't yet know what books are worth reading and don't want to spend a lot of time reading garbage. It's a very "safe" approach. Risk takers will discover other, perfectly good, books by a less efficient method. That's fine too.

Anonymous said...

Re Boberg's "somewhat silly posture": we shouldn't make it our mission to universalize certain approaches to literature (as for democracy, Thomas). We should rather respect and even honour the multiple legitimate ways of reading.
A canon is the sort of thing old men produce before they turn their backs to the world.../Soren

soren buhl said...

(I managed to log on:)
Re Boberg's "somewhat silly posture": we shouldn't make it our mission to universalize certain approaches to literature (as for democracy, Thomas). We should rather respect and even honour the multiple legitimate ways of reading.
A canon is the sort of thing old men produce before they turn their backs to the world.../Soren

Thomas Basbøll said...

I'm not sure this is what you were suggesting, Søren, but look here: I wasn't disrespecting Boberg's approach to reading. I was rejecting his disrespectful (if not quite dishonorourable) rejection of the canonical approach. Call me an old man, will ya? Very well, I will call you a silly poser.

My view is taken loosely from Ezra Pound: read whatever you like. But if you have gone to the trouble to enroll in a class, it won't do for the teacher (or dean) to tell you a canon is nonsense. Okay, "whatever!", the student might say, but of the 100,000,000 books I MIGHT read, which 10 or 12 do you SUGGEST if I want to understand this particular field? That's all a canon needs to be.

soren buhl said...

man, you are a tough blogger. I like your softer approach, though, and only want to add that perhaps Boberg's point was that canons are alright as long as we acknowledge our own desire to discuss and lot least CHANGE them as we go along.
Cheers from the silly poser

Thomas Basbøll said...

If you want to see a tough blogger, try Jonathan.

Looking back on your original comment, I can see that we may be talking past each other a bit. Boberg was talking about his "favourites", I am talking about the books that determine my Anschauung. (So they are "canonical" in a rather Kantian sense).

I can't get around them. And they are the best way into how and why I think. I don't think the canonicity of Hamlet and the Investigations can really change over time. And reading them will always be a way of discovering my secret (i.e., my infuences). But the immediate pleasure you derive from reading them at a particular moment will of course change.

soren buhl said...

Concepts of the canonical:
Kantian: Canons are constants because they represent universal traits of subjects. If they work for the teacher they should work for the student as well (provided that the students are human and good readers too).
Bobergian/cronocentric: Canons come and go, like favorites or songs on your playlist. There's little chance that what works for the teacher works for his/her students, because what works for the teacher now might be dated tomorrow.

Thomas Basbøll said...

But that's my point. I'm not against a playlist. Nor am I really for a universal standard. I'm for a working distinction between the principle that organizes your playlist and the principle that organizes your canon. I'm against treating a canon as a playlist.

Kirby Olson said...

Playlist is composed of contemporary songs that are instantly available. Canon is a list of works that are taught in a field, and that teachers more or less agree have a high value, which means they will teach them and keep them available.

1984, by Orwell, would be more important in that regard than Raymond Chandler, because it shows the problems with one-party systems, and helps move the reader toward DEMOCRATIC socialism, an idea that many teachers might sympathize with.

For example.

Plato is important because he tries to develop the notion of absolutism, on the other hand, esp. in the Republic, which gives the case for why one dictator should be in charge.

It develops an important idea and gives powerful reasons.

Students naturally object, but they never forget the book.

Plus it gives a generation a set of common reference points to which the educated class can refer in making their arguments on more localized issues.

soren buhl said...

I like the distinction between principles. It sounds right. Perhaps the ability to maintain this distinction is what defines the intellectual (I make this as a sociological, not philosophical point). Personally, I find it hard to uphold different principles and thus struggle to convince myself that canons are not playlists.
Re Kirbys notion of the instantly accessible content of playlists: there is no scarcity of books either, but of the time necessary to build understanding of narratives that stretch beyond the 3-minute MP3.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Canonical work is actually perhaps more available than the content of playlist. At least in a sense: playlists consist of commodified content. It normally much easier to find a free copy of a canonical text. Playlist items are available on a pay-per-view basis. They're often cheap, of course. But there is that irritating little barrier. Canonical work is also usually translated into whatever language you find convenient.

Steck said...

In order to get beyond any person one must believe in that person whole heartedly at least for a time. And a canon is a good idea but there are always so many works, so little time.

Kirby Olson said...

Canonical books are available because they are canonical.

It's kind of a Moebius strip.

Some books will still exist in libraries for a while if they are canonical, even if they no longer are canonical. Hemingway, for instance, is no longer AS canonical as he was because he's a tough white male.

He's on his way out, to make room for Toni Morrison.

The canon to some extent is determined by politics, and the usefulness of some authors to a given claque, or faction.

Some authors continue to be canonical because they are so good, or because they are so multivalent that one can make them say almost anything.

Shakespeare is like that.

He's a handpuppet for every side, and when you use him you always sound good.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes! A truly canonical work makes you sound good no matter what side you're on.

My suggested curriculum would foster articulateness as such, regardless of what policies the graduates might later support.

Laura Carter said...

What are some of your ideas for later literature?

PS What do you think of Hegel and Marx?

Thomas Basbøll said...

From a straight craft-of-philosophy perspective, my view is that you get all the Hegel you need through Heidegger. Reading Hegel teaches you about Hegel, not philosophy. I feel about him like Pound felt about Whitman: you can't really deny his importance. He broke important ground. It might even be argued that we could not be where we are today without him. But there is nothing of technical relevance left in HIS works (after you read the three books I propose). There is some immediate pleasure in the reading, of course. So it falls into the "read whatever you like" category.

I don't have much practical experience with Marx as a writer. I wouldn't have him competing on the same field as Kant and Wittgenstein. He's not a "philosopher" in that sense.

Later stuff: My feeling is that (for very, very, different reasons), Kuhn (Structure) and Foucault (Archaeology) are the next two markers. After 1970, I'm not really sure.