Wednesday, October 14, 2009

For Serious?

Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology":
Lying before and lying ready (hypokeisthai) characterize the presencing of something that presences.


Sentences like this are why I hate reading continental philosophers, especially the Germans. Maybe if I read it in German it would make more sense.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

No, but if you read it in German you wouldn't care. dave.s.

Withywindle said...

It's Heidegger, Jake. He goes on about the thingness of things thinging. He writes so badly, he doesn't deserve to be right about anything, even if he is.

The Ancient said...

FLG --

You are a very young person. (It may feel otherwise, but still.) Heidegger will for all his faults be read for centuries. Long past Ayers, Putnam, Kripke, even Wittgenstein. That doesn't mean he has anything useful to say. (Duns Scotus, anyone?) But it does mean that he took the old questions seriously. And those who are drawn to philosophy tend to be drawn to the old questions.

P.S. Personal aside to FLG -- Through another curious biographical incident, I dug WVOQ out his house on Chestnut Street in the aftermath of the 1978 snowstorm, which left most cars in Harvard Square completely covered. Afterwords, I asked him over chocolate about that infamous line about Heidegger and all he could do was laugh. (Of course, he was then so old that he wore a silly black beret three months out of the year.)

He was a hell of a guy.

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm going to assume that Ayers refers to A.J. Ayer rather than Bill Ayers. I sadly agree that Heidegger will probably outlast Ayer, Putnam, and Kripke, though Putnam and Kripke at least were far superior philosophers. (Ayer was too, even though Ayer was wrong about everything as well.) Heidegger has no chance, however, of outlasting Wittgenstein (or Quine, for that matter).

The charge against philosophy, once upon a time, was that philosophers were lost in cloudy generalities. Nowadays, the criticism of analytic philosophy is that it neglects the great questions in favor of small and pointless technicalities. This criticism is not true, but I can see why you might think so. The standard of rigor is now so steep that the big questions have been broken down into a great many small ones and the whole process has been considerably slowed down. If you stand on the outside looking at individual philosophers, it is easy to say that nothing Putnam or Kripke has done is very important, but this isn't true. They are cogs in an enormous machine which is actually attempting to solve the big questions. I.e. by looking at the trees, you are missing the forest. The analytic tradition will ultimately win because it rejects the idea that the true philosophy can only be reached by one super-genius rather than through the concerted work of thousands of individuals.

This isn't to say, by the by, that analytic philosophy doesn't have its blind spots, taken as a whole. The obsession with language is unfortunate, for example, just as the obsession with theology was unfortunate for medieval philosophy and the obsession with idealism for 19th century philosophy.

FLG said...

The Ancient:

It is my firm contention that one can take on the big questions and still write in concise, lucid prose. To be completely honest I have no clue what his conclusion in the essay even is, and I've read it previously. So, it's not like I'm reading it blind.

Also, Andrew, please explain:
"The analytic tradition will ultimately win because it rejects the idea that the true philosophy can only be reached by one super-genius rather than through the concerted work of thousands of individuals."

Are you saying this is more appealing? More effective?

The Ancient said...

FLG --

You should put that question to Andrew Stevens -- if only because the Anglo-American tradition he defends has grown as abstruse as Continental philosophy.

AS --

I hope you're right about Wittgenstein. (And you are certainly right about Freddie and not Billy.)

As for chopping the big questions up into bite-size pieces: Was that a conscious decision or the necessary consequence of the professionalization of philosophy? A hundred years ago, you could gather everyone who did philosophy in a serious way (or even had a substantial knowledge of the field) into one fairly large lecture hall. Now it's all different. Every school in the Western world has a philosophy department, and every department is filled with people striving for tenure, or a better job. Is it just a coincidence that the old issues are sliced into every smaller pieces?

(Personally, I like to think of the old questions as having fallen into the hands of quants -- just like the securities market. Sliced into smaller and smaller pieces and parceled out to a community that is now measured in thousands. From the standpoint of any one individual, the belief that these small pieces have value is professionally necessary. But I wonder what Wittgenstein would have to say about it.)

Withywindle --

Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Derrida. Is there something about their topics that compels obscurity?

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, Andrew, please explain:
"The analytic tradition will ultimately win because it rejects the idea that the true philosophy can only be reached by one super-genius rather than through the concerted work of thousands of individuals."

Are you saying this is more appealing? More effective?


More effective. Beginning some time around the 17th century, philosophers were likely to know very little about the philosophy which had come before then. They would just invent a whole grand system entirely from scratch. This worked about as well as you'd expect it to work in any other field.

You should put that question to Andrew Stevens -- if only because the Anglo-American tradition he defends has grown as abstruse as Continental philosophy.

Fair to some extent. Analytic philosophy still prizes clarity of expression, but certainly it has its share of bad philosophers who are impossible to understand. However, the analytic tradition is far more likely to call them out on this and/or ignore them.

Was that a conscious decision or the necessary consequence of the professionalization of philosophy?

It was a necessary consequence of the increased demand for rigor in philosophy. (But you can certainly argue that that is a consequence of its professionalization.)

The Ancient said...

AS --

FYI: From an interview with Stanley Cavell:

You're suggesting that not knowing the answers is part of the game of philosophy, but developing a rigor and precision allows you to pursue the answers in a professional way.

Yes. Now, the issue of professionalization strikes another note. I don't mean you didn't deliberately strike this note. But for the past 200 years, let's say, philosophers have been professors of philosophy. Kant is the philosopher that showed us that you can be a professor and produce great philosophy. It wasn't clear before. Descartes wasn't a professor of philosophy, Locke wasn't, Hume wasn't, Schopenhauer wasn't, Spinoza wasn't. But you could say of them and of their successors that they attempt to produce a system that answers the basic questions of existence. That system, or something of the sort, has since the 17th century converged on questions of knowledge, rather than on the questions of beauty or of goodness, though every philosopher has some view of all of these things. Or, philosophers can undertake to question all efforts to create a system of philosophy. But in my book, the compulsion to systematization and the compulsion to question systematization are equal human drives. And so I question both of them.

Withywindle said...

The Ancient: I have read that there has been a deliberate decision by many philosophers, particularly in the German tradition, to use difficult language, to limit philosophy to those who were wise enough to read closely and carefully enough to understand the clear meaning through the difficulties. Strauss may or may not have been right about Plato's intentions, but he was apparently describing what modern German philosophers did. The distinction between difficult writing and bad writing, of course, very thin; and it is easy for people unfamiliar with the tradition (=American literature professors) to take the cue as "bad" rather than as "difficult."

Andrew: I grant the aspiration to Great Philosopher in the Continental tradition; I think you underestimate the number of modest philosophers who still tried to make a contribution just as cogs in a greater machine. For example, I imagine a modern German aestheticians has a fair knowledge of a large number of quietly competent German aestheticians from the nineteenth century. Likewise, I think you underestimate the knowledge of the great philosophical tradition, and I don't think most of the good ones were ignorant of what came before. That can't describe, for example, Kant, Marx, Nietzche, or Heidegger. If there is any forgettery of the past, I think it would be most pronounced 1) in England, and 2) in the colonial countries, Russia and America.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was principally thinking of Bacon, Locke, and Descartes, who kicked off the modern era of philosophy by completely reinventing the wheel (for the most part badly). I agree that later Continental philosophers are generally familiar with earlier Continental philosophers.

Deliberately difficult does indeed equal bad. American literature professors, of course, were the people most enamored with the incomprehensible and amazingly bad writing of Derrida, a philosophy taken seriously by virtually no philosophers, but virtually all American professors of literary criticism.

Andrew Stevens said...

Before I am too badly misunderstood, however, I should say that the analytic tradition's attack on Continental philosophy is plainly too harsh (Carnap, for example). Continental philosophy's critique of scientism is quite correct and analytic philosophy has tended too much toward scientism. It has also been useful that Continental philosophy continued to think about ethics and aesthetics when analytic philosophy was almost entirely neglecting them (prior to the 1970s, when they staged a comeback).

The historicism of most Continental philosophy is plainly mistaken, though, and the supposed intentional use of "difficult language" is so much nonsense. There is little doubt in my mind that these people's thoughts were no clearer than their writing. Truly great thinkers, in my experience, tend to write clearly perforce, even on difficult subjects, because they think clearly.

The Ancient said...

AS --

I completely agree with your conclusions, even if I can't entirely subscribe to your certainty (or perhaps "confidence" is the better word).

I heard Derrida talk a few times about "reading" and how individuals "experienced" "texts". (This was just after he published Glas, his Hegel book.)

After one of these talks, a very attractive, chain-smoking English professor cracked that the whole conflagation of language we had just experienced could have been reduced to Barthes's remark that "no one ever skips the same parts of Proust twice."

(Everything you say about English departments is spot on. Just as Psychology departments have no use for Freud...)

Anonymous said...

http://chronicle.com/article/Heil-Heidegger-/48806/

The comments are fun, too.

 
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