Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading Heidegger

In 1995 I bought a copy of Martin Heidegger’s “Being & Time” from my local bookstore and took it home to read. I made myself some tea, sat down at my desk, and opened the book. After about a page and a half I closed the book, mumbled “what the hell . . .”, and put it on the shelf.

After a week or so I picked it up again. After reading 2 or 3 pages I was absolutely sure I was out of my league. I closed the book and put it back on the shelf.

The black dust cover with the white lettering beckoned me every time I walked past the bookshelf. After several more failed attempts at understanding I told myself not to worry about understanding and just read the damn book. When I reached the end of the 488 pages something had happened but I didn’t know what it was, so I started over.

Since 1995 I have read “Being & Time” over 70 times. Early on, about the 2nd or 3rd reading, I found that I was reading the book as if I already knew what Heidegger was talking about. It was a great way to find out that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. To force myself to slow down I decided to type the book. Over the next 6 or 7 months I typed all 488 pages on my computer.

After 14 years of study I know why people find Martin Heidegger difficult to read (more on that later).

Let’s step back into the history of philosophy for a moment. In 1637 Rene Descartes concluded that he is a “thinking thing” and he can be certain that he exists because he thinks. This is represented by his famous cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”).

How did he come to that conclusion?

In Part IV of “Discourse on the Method” he attempted to arrive at a fundamental set of principles, rules that he could know as true without any doubt. (He wanted proof of be-ing). Descartes arrived at a single principle: thought exists.

As he was sitting there thinking about “thought exists”, he could have noticed “I’m thinking.”

After a short while he probably could have come up with “I am = being” or “I am being, therefore I think”. From there it is a very short leap to “I am. I think.” or much more accurately “I am, thinking.” He could have then noticed that the “I”, the “am”, and the “thinking” are all be-ing.

How the hell do you write about “I am, thinking”?

If Descartes would have stopped at “I am, thinking” he wouldn’t have been able to publish his “Discourse on the Method.” He would have had nothing to write about.

He needed to re-configure “I am, thinking” into something he could write about.

So he went back to “I am, thinking.”

He flipped “I am, thinking” to “I think, therefore I am.” He now had something to write about.

Did you notice the subtle difference between “I am, thinking” and “I think, therefore I am”? In the first one the “I”, the “am”, and the “thinking” are all be-ing. In the second one, “I” and “think” are distinctions that are separate from each other.

Now that he made the separation between “I” and “think” all he had to do was to come up with a definition that supported his conclusion.

He wrote “the body is like a machine and has the material properties of extension and motion and that it is subject to the laws of physics.” In the very next sentence he then wrote “the mind (or soul) is a non-material entity that lacks extension and motion and does not follow the laws of physics.” He probably let out a huge sigh of relief when he put those words on paper.

Did you notice what just happened? He made body and mind two sides of the same coin.

So now when you read “the body is like a machine and has the material properties of extension and motion and that it is subject to the laws of physics” you assume he is talking about you.

On the other side of the coin, when you read “the mind or soul is a nonmaterial entity that lacks extension and motion, and does not follow the laws of physics” you assume he is talking about something the body does called “thinking” because “thinking” is “a non-material entity that lacks extension and motion.”

Descartes also concluded that “thinking is his essence as it is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted.”

If you read that conclusion again you will see that Descartes separates “his essence” from “thinking”, just like you do.

If Descartes were standing on different ground he could have come up with a different conclusion. He might have said “thinking/be-ing is the only thing that cannot be doubted.”

In summary let’s look at what Descartes actually did with his conclusions. 1) he proposed that the body is a material entity, 2) he determined that the mind (or soul) is a non-material entity, and 3) he stated that thinking is separate from his essence and it is the only thing that cannot be doubted. You put these three conclusions together in the same brain and you come up with “I think, therefore I am”.

A conclusion is that place where human beings refuse to think past.

Let’s introduce another variable into the mix and see what this does to Descartes’ thinking.

Imagine that you are standing there and holding your arms out in front of you. In the left hand you have the body and as you look at the body you are reminded of Descartes’ properties of the body (material entity, extension, and motion). In the right hand you hold the mind or soul (non-material entity, lacks extension and motion).

Let’s read that again, differently.

Imagine that you are standing there and holding your arms out in front of you. In the left hand you have the body and as you look at the body you are reminded of Descartes’ properties of the body (material entity, extension, and motion). Imagine that in the right hand you hold the mind or soul (nonmaterial entity, lacks extension and motion).

Who is the “you” that we’re talking about here? It looks to me like “you” have the body and “you” have the mind. If “you” have the body and the mind, “you” can’t be the body and the mind. You ever try to stand up and sit down at the same time? You can’t. Stay with me here. I’m not playing any mind games. I am uncovering something.

If you aren’t your body and you aren’t your mind, who are you?

Some religions have temples with 2 “beasts” at the front door. I opine that these temples represent humans “be-ing" and the beasts represent confusion and doubt.

As you go through life, you create an intricate web of conclusions so that you never have to deal with confusion and doubt. The conclusions you come to or have adopted keep you on the outside of the temple.

Once you muster up the courage to get past confusion and doubt you can step into the temple. Immediately upon entering you have a “sense”, a hint, that you may not know anything and your life has been a sham. That’s the good news.

As you stand there, you realize that none of the mentors you have chosen in life has been qualified to lead you to where you want to go. You know that because you have left them all in the dust. Once you determined that their answers didn’t even work for them (from your point-of-view) you discarded them. By the way, if they are still around it doesn’t mean they haven’t been discarded.

What happens when you discover that nobody on the planet can lead you in the direction you want to go? That nobody on the planet has anything to contribute to your quest? On top of all that, you realize that none of your “answers” have made any difference.

Despair creeps in. What the hell is left? If nobody has anything to contribute to you and you don’t have anything to contribute to them, where do you look?

You can’t look to philosophy. When you read philosophy you cover up be-ing with a tangled web of concepts, conclusions, presuppositions, and defendable positions. What you end up with is absolutely no clarity about who you are.

Let’s be honest with each other. There has been a lot of philosophy books published solely for the purpose of making money, securing one’s place in history, or to gain membership in the philosophy publishers club.

Imagine a planet full of people who don’t know what the hell they are talking about, quoting philosophers without having “picked at the fabric”. These same people are strutting around distracting themselves and the other inhabitants from the job at hand. No wonder the world is screaming for peace!

Reading Martin Heidegger is a calling. It is you calling your self to be-ing. Heidegger doesn’t write philosophy, he philosophizes. Philosophizing uncovers the cover-up.

There is no philosophy. There is only philosophizing!

Remember when we picked apart the “fabric” of Descartes’ conclusions?

The only way to create a clearing for your self to show up in is to “pick at” conclusions so they are brought into the light. “Picking at the fabric” allows you to see if the philosopher’s thinking is dead-on. Once you “pick at the fabric” you will uncover new distinctions (be-ing) and it won’t matter who the philosopher was because you will be the philosopher.

When you read Heidegger, what you are looking for doesn’t show up on the page that you are reading. What you are looking for can’t be written about; it can only be pointed to. Heidegger calls it “circular questioning.”

Martin Heidegger is “difficult” to read because as you and Heidegger walk around the circle together, you, not Heidegger, are peeling away the layers of misconceptions, mis-information, and presuppositions. As you peel away those layers you discover that you’ve always been there, waiting.

When you find your self standing in a clearing (and you will), you won’t pick up the turd again. This is freedom. This is the only freedom. This is the freedom you have been looking for your entire life.

There is only one philosopher you should place on a pedestal and listen to, that’s your self.

You want to make a difference? You want to change the world? Leave each other alone and get to work.

You can be who you are in a world of machines,
But you can’t be a machine and know who you are.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful.

    I believe Heidegger is one of the most maligned (and ripped off) as well as one of the greatest philosophers of these times.

    He brings a certain freshness in the room: all "beings" (from rocks, language, etc., to people) are unique.

    And that what is out in the open is most hidden.

    Thanks much for writing your observations.