Recommending a change in focus: Yesterday morning, the New York Times offered a news report about Martin Heidegger’s notebooks.
At issue were a pair of long-standing questions—whether Heidegger was a Nazi, and if so to what extent? That said, we’ll admit that we were struck by the highlighted passage in Jennifer Schuessler’s second paragraph:
SCHUESSLER (3/31/14): To his strongest detractors, Heidegger was a committed National Socialist whose hugely influential ideas about the nature of being and the dehumanizing effects of modern technology and much of the modern philosophical tradition itself were fatally compromised by his membership in Hitler’s party from 1933 to 1945. To his staunchest defenders, however, he was a Nazi of convenience—a sometime personal anti-Semite, perhaps, but a philosopher whose towering intellectual achievements are undiminished by temporary political dalliances or everyday bias.For us, a question arose—what were Heidegger’s “hugely influential ideas about the nature of being?” Where has this supposed huge influence been felt?
While we’re at it, we’ll ask you a question: Do you even know what someone is talking about when she talks about “the nature of being?” Do you know what it’s like to have an idea about “the nature of being?”
We don’t have the slightest idea how to answer those questions, and we took a course in Heidegger when we were seniors in college! In truth, we doubt that anyone reading yesterday’s Times has any idea how to answer those questions. But Schuessler, who made the statements in question, didn’t stop to explain what she was talking about.
We’re always intrigued when that sort of thing happens—and before long, it happened again! Schuessler referred to “his 1927 masterpiece ‘Being and Time,’” then offered us this:
SCHUESSLER: The scandal over the notebooks, Mr. Sheehan added, should be a chance to “rethink, from scratch, what his work was about.”So far, we’ve been told that Heidegger produced “hugely influential ideas” about something described as “the nature of being.” We’ve also been told that Heidegger’s writing is so “difficult” that “it is impossible to translate even into German.”
That process will take years, given the volume and notorious difficulty of Heidegger’s writing, so chock-full of neologisms, the old joke goes, that it is impossible to translate even into German.
Heidegger wrote in German! Meanwhile, if you go to the leading authority on Heidegger to get an idea about his work, this is what you're going to find, allegedly written in English:
Heidegger maintained that our way of questioning defines our nature. He argued that Western thinking had lost sight of being. Finding ourselves as “always already” moving within ontological presuppositions, we lose touch with our grasp of being and its truth becomes “muddled.” As a solution to this condition, Heidegger advocated a change in focus from ontologies based on ontic determinants to the fundamental ontological elucidation of being-in-the-world in general, allowing it to reveal, or “unconceal” itself as concealment.There’s much more, but we’re hitting the highlights.
As with our previous post, you may think this is an April Fool’s joke. It isn’t! According to Heidegger, we should effect a change in focus from ontologies based on ontic determinants to the fundamental ontological elucidation of being-in-the-world in general, allowing it to reveal, or “unconceal” itself as concealment.
Or something like that. Translate into English!
For various reasons, we’re fascinated by this sort of thing. As we read yesterday’s news report, we were struck by the joke about the difficulty of translating Heidegger’s work into German.
In a way, that was what Wittgenstein said about all kinds of philosophical speech. When we engage in these types of speech, we think we’re speaking our native tongue, but our statements are, in effect, impossible to paraphrase. We produce vocalizations which sound like statements.
In the end, they actually aren’t.
Our favorite example was offered in passing in the Philosophical Investigations. We’re going to paraphrase as we churn our examples:
Statement 1: It’s now 3 o’clock in Los Angeles.Those statements may seem very much alike, especially Statements 1 and 3. At one time, Wittgenstein might have said they share a “surface grammar.”
Statement 2: It’s already Monday morning in Melbourne.
Statement 3: It’s now 3 o’clock on the moon.
In fact, Statements 1 and 3 are very different. We can imagine all sorts of contexts in which the first statement might be used in everyday life and would make perfect sense. On the surface, Statement 3 looks a lot like Statement 1, but it’s hard to imagine a context in which that statement would ever be used, or would seem to have any meaning.
Wittgenstein said that a lot of “philosophical” statements are like Statement 3. We produce vocalizations which sound like they make some sort of sense because they share a “surface grammar” which other statements—with statements which do make sense.
In fact, these statements don’t make any sense, at least not in the ways we might have thought. Under questioning, we will often find that we can’t explain what our own statement meant. We can’t translate our own statements into English.
On a simpler level, a great deal of our public discourse is a bit like that. Music men and women appear on TV, or perhaps in the Washington Post. (Good God. That’s truly awful.) With a highly convincing air, they proceed to make a series of statements which may in fact be inane, uninformed or illogical.
Often, their persuasive statements will be built around facts which are utterly false. Example: The Mastro report portrays Bridget Kelly weeping frequently.
These music men seem very sincere; their statements observe good sentence structure. It’s easy to think they’re making accurate statements, or that their statements make sense.
In the case of Rachel and Matthews and all the rest, we’re sorry to tell you—their statements often make no sense! And alas! There are quite a few music men and women coming at you in the world.
What’s our solution for this condition? On balance, we recommend a change in focus from ontologies based on ontic determinants to the fundamental ontological elucidation of being-in-the-world in general, allowing it to reveal, or unconceal itself as concealment.
It isn’t as easy as it sounds. That said, are you starting to capture our drift?