The New York Times and the nature of being!


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.”

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.
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.”

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.
Statement 2: It’s already Monday morning in Melbourne.
Statement 3: It’s now 3 o’clock on the moon.
Those statements may seem very much alike, especially Statements 1 and 3. At one time, Wittgenstein might have said they share a “surface grammar.”

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?


  1. Wow. Dude! And to think you went, like, straight from Heidegger to fifth graders in Baltimore.

  2. OK, Heidegger is baloney. But quantum mechanics and general relativity aren't baloney. They're the real deal. If popularizations don't help you, study them for yourself.

  3. There go those damned kids again using big words Somerby can't understand. And they're walking across his lawn again.

    1. My mom makes the "get off my lawn" joke which is at least 33 years past sell-by. She's 72. Just thought someone should let you know it's a "mom joke" and embarrassing for those who still use it.

    2. According to Wikipedia, the "get off my lawn" joke has been used by both Letterman and Jon Stewart in the not so distant past. I believe they are considered rather successful comedians.!

    3. I first heard letterman use it on his daytime talk show circa 1981 or '82. Old.

    4. Old people are so cute. Like the little ones they can be such adorable stinkers at times.

  4. I get your drift, man. You churn some mean ass examples. Like, its already tomorrow in Melbourne, where they're flying those planes looking for dead jellyfish and they might as well be looking for the jet on the moon. Or anywhere. Time stands still. Chris Matthews almost killed somebody. And fifteen years later some lady gets paid millions to proclaim he's her friend.

    1. Chris Matthews didn't nearly kill anyone. He merely whored himself out to the right wing for a time.

    2. Did you read all six episodes, man? It's been what, fifteen years? I'd like to know how the guy who almost got killed and the crazy relative of Pat Buchanan are doing. We all know Chris Matthews is still roaming our cableways a free man, man. That sucks.

    3. Fifteen years and I bet he's still spending that filthy lucre. Didn't need to read any episodes, remember it in real time. Matthews was such a loyal bitch he even got the "honor" of sticking the shove in Phil Donohue, the only guy on cable willing to speak out in the lead up to Iraq with his infamous why do you hate America interview days before Donohue was fired. He pissed on liberals' interests and fifteen years later liberals still haven't been able to muster up the balls to say boo. Jeez, maybe conservatives are right about it, maybe liberals are gutless wimps.

    4. That would be shive not shove

    5. Shiv not shive

    6. Yeah, I have read How He Got There. Interesting lesson in recent history and examination of shameful corporate media behavior. Some people lose all credibility once and for all. Matthews went well beyond that point.

    7. Anonymous @ 2:37 AM

      I think an online discussion group of How He Got There would make a worthwhile addition to this site. As long as it is troll free.

  5. When are we going to find out why liberals hate farmers and what it is they have against rape culture?

  6. Internet post of the day. Thanks, Bob.

  7. Superb essay, Bob. Thanks ever so much.

  8. I had always thought that philosophy as a discipline was irrelevant to everyday life. I am changing my mind.

  9. The last three comments show how thought provoking the interchange can be here when threads are troll free! And nice! They all came in during the dinner hour.

    1. For those interested in some reading about man and his place in nature you might try Loren Eiseley's The Firmament of Time (1960). It was a book I was supposed to read for Freshman Week at Wittenberg in 1967. I finished yesterday. Would that I had actually finished it in 1967.

    2. Time passes when you don't care what it is on the moon or in Melbourne.

      Does your final comment indicate the remained of your
      Wittenberg experience was less than it might have been had you been more diligent? When do you think you will get through the rest of your college reading list? Do you think your completion of this task auger's well for Somerby finishing How He Got There? Eventually?

      I sure hope TDH gives us the discussion thread.

    3. They call 'em "shanks" now
      Shiv is soooo '50's