This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."
1. I believe that “What Is Metaphysics?” must be read as a polemical lecture. Specifically, I believe Heidegger is trying to rebut the logical positivists of his day, who said that man’s only true knowledge of the world is given by the positive sciences and these sciences tell us only what sorts of things exist. Heidegger wishes to show that there is knowledge beyond (meta) this knowledge of existent-identities (physika), and that this knowledge is vital to living a truly human life.
2. I shall try to vindicate Heidegger’s argument, as best I can. I shall do so by following the course of the argument (as best I can) and suggesting the most charitable possible readings. (“Charitable” from an Objectivist standpoint.) In an afterword, I will make some comments on the essay as it relates to Postmodernism and Objectivism .
3. Heidegger’s lecture comprises 107 paragraphs, divided into five unequal sections.
I. Untitled Introduction: §§ 1-2.
II. The Presentation of a Metaphysical Question: §§ 3-18
III. The Development of the Question §§ 19-47
IV. The Answer to the Question §§ 48-88
V. Postscript §§ 89-107
I. Untitled Introduction §§ 1-2
4. Were an Objectivist striving to answer the question “What Is Metaphysics?” or, “What Does ‘Metaphysics’ Mean?” he would take a variety of topics indisputably considered metaphysical, another variety of topics indisputably considered not metaphysical, and he would employ the Objectivist method of concept-formation to arrive at an answer. That is not Heidegger’s approach.
5. But at least Heidegger is not on a disastrous track methodologically. We may applaud him for not setting forth a spectrum of received opinions about what constitutes metaphysics and then proceeding dialectically to extract an answer. (“The question leads one to expect a discussion about metaphysics. Such is not our intention.” [§1]) By striving to analyze one metaphysical inquiry, as a way to understand what metaphysics is, he is at least proceeding empirically. And, in his own view, he needs only one metaphysical question, because “every metaphysical question always covers the whole range of metaphysical problems” (§3). His idea seems to be this: Metaphysics inquires into the nature of beings just in so far as they are beings. Thus, there are no truly independent sub-questions because if there were they would have to focus on some aspect of beings--and then one would not be discussing beings just in so far as they are beings.
6. Moreover, as far as having a contrast object, we may be presumed to have in our mental storehouse a wide variety of inquiries that are clearly not metaphysical. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the polemic here (see my point 1 above) that Heidegger is contrasting metaphysical knowledge with the knowledge given by the positive sciences.
II. The Presentation of a Metaphysical Question: §§ 3-18
7. Heidegger begins by discussing positive science, which he takes very broadly to include all of the sciences and humanities. The activity of scientific inquiry, he finds, has three aspects which he calls “the world-relationship,” “the attitude,” and “the irruption.” The world-relationship of the positive sciences is that they “seek what-is in itself with a view to rendering it...an object of investigation and basic definition” (§7). The attitude of science is “that it and it alone explicitly allows the object itself the first and last word” (§8). The “irruption” of science is that it involves existence coming to know existence. “In this ‘pursuit’ [science’s pursuit of knowledge] what is happening is nothing less than the irruption of a particular entity called ‘Man’ into the whole of what-is, in such a way that in and through this irruption what-is manifests itself as and how it is” (§8).
8. Now the logical positivists in Heidegger’s day wanted to insist that the knowledge provided by the sciences was the only possible knowledge of the world. In particular, they wanted to insist that all propositions previously termed “metaphysical” were nonsense. To these assertions, Heidegger now turns his attention. These philosophers, he observes, declare that we can talk about the objects of positive science and nothing else. “What is to be investigated [by science] is what-is-and nothing else; only what-is-and nothing more; simply and solely what-is-and beyond that, nothing” (§13). Clearly, Heidegger is tweaking the positivists. “What is this ‘nothing’ you are talking about?”
9. But Heidegger then asks the question more seriously. “Is it only an accident that we speak like that quite naturally?” (§14) Of course, he knows that the positivists will reply: “Yes. To take that way of speaking as other than an accident is a verbal error.” And Heidegger is prepared to admit the possibility: “Perhaps this sort of cross-talk is already degenerating into an empty wrangling about words” (§15). But, he says, let’s find out: “In the course of this argument a question has already presented itself. The question only requires putting specifically: What about Nothing?” (§18)
10. Here, then, is the acid test for metaphysics: the topic of nothing. Positivists might be persuaded that talk about essences, or prime matter, or souls is really talk about some scientific object or relationship among objects. But to take seriously references to “nothing,” they will say, is inevitably a mistake. Conversely, if we can vindicate serious references to nothing, we will have put paid to positivism and redeemed the role of metaphysics.
III. The Development of the Question (§§ 19-47)
11. Notice that in §18, Heidegger puts his question as “What about Nothing?” As he begins to develop the question, he admits the more natural phrasing would be “What is Nothing?” (§ 20) But that question posits a Nothing which is a thing and thus the “no thing” we are seeking disappears. What shall we do? Shall we accept that: “The commonly cited basic rule of all thinking--the proposition that contradiction must be avoided--and common ‘logic’ rule out the question” (§22). What is the alternative? “Can the law of ‘logic’ be assailed?” (§ 24)
12. It is not a genuine dilemma. We shall simply point out that this so-called logic is assuming Nothing is the negation of everything. It assumes that the term means “Not this, and not this, and not this...” Heidegger replies, “Nothing is more original than the Not and negation” (§ 24). It is something we can “encounter” (§ 26). ( Michael Young’s comment forces me to be more precise. Michael writes: “[Heidegger] insists that this [nothing of negation] is not what we contrast existence with. This insistence is prior to his treatment of our experience of nothing, but it is unclear to me that he has given any argument for his claim.” Quite right. He has not. Heidegger says that for him to uphold his claim, “We must be able to encounter it [i.e., Nothing].” He does not actually state that we can encounter it, but he proceeds as if we can.)
13. “Where shall we seek Nothing? Where shall we find Nothing?” (§27) Though the “logicians” are wrong about Nothing, they give us a hint about where to find it when they say, “Nothing is the complete negation of the totality of what-is” (§ 29). We shall find that our encounter with Nothing will emerge from “the totality of what-is.” [For shorthand, I will occasionally use the term “Everything”--my term, not Heidegger’s--for “the totality of what-is.”]
14. Yet how can we, as finite beings, truly grasp “the totality of what-is”? We can talk about it as the logical positivists do: “This, plus this, plus this..." But that is just a notional “Everything” and, as we saw above, it leads to a notional Nothing, via negation. “In this way we arrive at the formal concept of an imaginary Nothing, but never Nothing itself” (§32). What we are looking for is Nothing itself, an “authentic” Nothing.
15. Perhaps I should here bring my reading of Heidegger into conjunction with Bryan Register’s . My point (14) reverses his reading of §32. Bryan says: “The idea is that ‘the nothing’ expresses just what we get when we perform the mental logical act of negation on everything. But then we have in fact gotten the nothing from a logical act performed on a contentful mental state....So the logical objections don’t work after all.” On my reading of §32, Heidegger is saying: “The logical positivists’ ‘nothing’ is simply the negation of every thing. And, yes, when you try to turn that notional ‘nothing’ into the subject of a real search you run into logical problems. But, as I have said, ‘Nothing is more original than the Not and negation’” (§ 24).
“Where shall we seek Nothing? Where shall we find Nothing?”
16. Let us now return to our quest. I suggested in (13) above that our encounter with Nothing will emerge from an encounter with “the totality of what-is.” We then asked how we might come to a more-than-notional Everything. Here is an answer: Consider existence as a social get-together. If I immerse myself in deep conversation with this person, then that person, then those people, I may be aware of the party, but I will not really grasp it as a whole. On the other hand, I may grasp it as a whole if I become bored with talking to people and cease to focus on individuals. If I just let the party flow over and around me, I may then experience this-party’s-attendees-in-totality and myself as part of it. So, too, in daily life: We are absorbed with this or that part of the world. Yet, these fragmentary parts are, in fact, parts of Everything and that Everything consequently exists on the periphery of our consciousness while we are focused on one small section of it. When we withdraw our focus from a part of Everything (not to shift to another part, but just withdraw it from any and all parts), “this ‘wholeness’ comes over us” (§ 34). Thus, Heidegger cites profound boredom as a mode in which we grasp “what-is in totality.”
17. Between this Everything and the Nothing we are seeking, some relation exists. But “we are now less than ever of the opinion that mere negation of what-is-in-totality as revealed by these moods of ours can in fact lead us to Nothing” (§ 38). In short, we cannot reach Nothing by negating Everything. But we may encounter Nothing by finding a mood such as revealed Everything to us.
18. “Does there ever occur in human existence a mood of this kind, through which we are brought face to face with Nothing itself?” (§ 39) Yes, says Heidegger. It is Angst (Anxiety, Dread). Dread is always “about”--it is an experience of unease directed outward. Yet it is not about this or that particular. It is not the fear of something (§ 40). It is, of its essence, indefinite (§ 41). So far as I can see, Heidegger does not tell us in this essay what brings on a sense of dread. But commentators frequently say something like this: Dread is the mood I experience when I grasp my world (including my life) as a whole, perceiving that my death is an inevitable part of that world. Thus, W.T. Jones quotes Being and Time: “That in the face of which one has anxiety is Being-in-the-world as such” (A History of Western Philosophy: Volume V, The Twentieth Century to Wittgenstein and Sartre, p. 308). Michael Inwood says: “What Angst is for is the same as what it is about: Dasein and being-in-the-world” (A Heidegger Dictionary, p. 97). And Marjorie Grene writes: “Dread is of life as a whole--that is, of death as end, ground, and boundary of life. Life in its entirety is life facing death” (“Heidegger” in Paul Edwards’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 3, p. 460). (Consequently, I do not think Heidegger is making the argument: “Dread reveals Nothing because it has no object. He says only: It focuses on no entity-object.)
19. Given the source of dread, in what sense can Heidegger say that it brings one “face to face with Nothing”? Is that simply to say: In dread, I am brought face to face with the certainty of my future death? Is it my death, my non-existence, that constitutes the Nothing? That is not what Heidegger says in this lecture. Rather, he says, in a state of dread, “all things, and we with them, sink into a sort of indifference” (§ 42). Note the parallel with “true boredom,” in which we also become indifferent to all things. In boredom, however, our indifference is lack of special concern for this or that particular; the indifference then produces a sense of the whole and ourselves as part of it. In dread, our indifference generates an “uncanny feeling,” and this is very unlike the indifference of boredom. The word here translated “uncanny” is “unheimlich,” “not-at-home.”
20. Recall the metaphor of a party. Suppose one suddenly experiences a profoundly disquieting feeling about the party, such that one has an intense experience of “not being at home” with these people. One will still be aware of the party-goers and of oneself amid them. Indeed, one may be more aware of them than before. But one will be aware of them in a very different manner. One will feel that they have “slipped away” emotionally, and in that sense one will feel “indifferent.” This slipping away is the act of noth-ing. (Until point 38, where I undertake to explicate the substantive “Nothing,” I shall explain Heidegger’s meaning largely by using the gerund “Noth-ing,” except in direct citation.)
21. Now let us try to make the metaphor literal. When one feels dread, one feels “not-at-home” in the universe. One is intensely aware of being amid the world but one is aware of it in a very different way. One feels that Everything is “slipping away,” losing its relationship to oneself. And this slipping away is felt oppressively. “There is nothing to hold on to” (§42). Thus, “dread holds us in suspense because it makes what-is-in-totality slip away from us” (§44). The suspense arises because things seem (increasingly) to lack relation to us, and unless we perceive our relationships to things we do not know what to expect.
22. If this reading is correct, noth-ing is in some sense opposed to (though not the negation of) what-is-in-its-totality, where every thing is seen as having some relationship to every other thing, including myself. Seen under the aspect noth-ing, things (increasingly) cease to have relationships to oneself or to each other, insofar as they related through one’s relation to each. And even oneself, as the person who previously had those relations, slips away. “Hence we too, as existents in the midst of what-is, slip away from ourselves” (§44).
23. Suppose we grant that Heidegger has pointed out a genuine phenomenon. We still may want to ask: “Why should this be dubbed ‘Nothing’ or ‘Noth-ing’”? Why not “alienation”? So far as I can see, Heidegger does not address this question, but it is a logical question and this is a logical point at which to answer it. Look at it this way: One common (non-Objectivist) view of entities is that they have potentialities, some of which are actualized and some of which are not. That which makes the actualized potentialities actual is Be-ing. (“[Being] gives every being the warrant to be” [§97].) Conversely, then, that which would render certain actualized potentialities merely potential we might well call Noth-ing. Thus, noth-ing creates a “de-actualization” of certain elements in actual existent-identities, and that is the “slipping away” we grasp in dread. (I could try to make this more plausible in ordinary-language terms but I could never convince an Objectivist, so I shall not try.)
24. Now that we have “encountered” Nothing, we may return to our metaphysical question: “What about Nothing?” (§47) For, as I said above, Heidegger wants to show not only that there is metaphysical knowledge but that it is necessary for living a truly human life.
IV. The Answer to the Question. (§ 48-88)
25. In the last section, we learned that Nothing is not “detached and apart from what-is-in-totality” (§49). Indeed, “Nothing shows itself as essentially belonging to what-is while this is slipping away in totality” (§50). Put otherwise: Noth-ing is not the annihilation (Vernichtung) of what-is, but the “nihilation” (Nichtung) of what-is: “the relegation [of every existent-identity, including myself] to the vanishing what-is-in-totality” (§53).
26. Let me return to my metaphor of a party. The not-at-home feeling has put into question one’s every possible relationship and therefore every possible value. Yet this is to the good. (One reason for eschewing the term “alienation.”) If I had not had my experience of being “not at home” with these people, I would have passed the time exchanging the predictable small-talk with the predictable people for the usual ends. Only by putting all that into question, by seeing it under the nihilating aspect of Nothing, can I re-enter the world that is, go beyond it, and re-make it to my own purposes. I may ask such simple questions as “What did I hope to get out of coming here, and what good will it do me anyway? Haven’t I got better things to do?” Or, if my emotional distance is greater, I might ask more improbable questions. In this connection, I cannot forbear relating the following story (New York Times, 9/17/99): James R. West was a cultural attaché in Warsaw, in 1960, when the novelist Mary McCarthy came on a tour. After their first dance, he remarked to her (correctly, as it turned out) that they would marry--although they were both married at the time. That is nihilation in spades.
It is this free action of determining my world that makes me a self.
27. Now let me be literal: When we look at the world under the aspect of nihilation, our perspective strips away all the artificial identities and relationships that have both constituted my world and concealed the world as such. Why, given the source of dread, should it produce this result? Here is a suggestion: Young people frequently see their possibilities as a cone opening out to ever greater breadth. What we realize in the experience of dread is that our possibilities are a cone that comes to a point at some (uncertain) future time. The shock of that realization strips away all the arbitrary identities that we have imposed on ourselves and on the things around us, arbitrary identities that in turn produce artificial limitations on our possibilities. Yet without these conventional and familiar identities, we feel things “slipping away.” They seem not to have meaning anymore but just to be. Alternatively put: Every thing seems meaningless. And “this disturbing meaninglessness is the ‘nothing’ that Heidegger wants to explore. In a way [the logical positivist Rudolf] Carnap is right: the nothing is nonsense. It is the non-sense that constantly threatens the sense of the world” (Richard Polt, Heidegger: An Introduction, p. 124).
28. Yet this slipping away of the world also reveals the world “in all its original overtness” (§54). The word here translated “overtness” is “Offenheit,” which Inwood renders as “openness.” In this way, Noth-ing “brings Da-sein face to face with what-is as such” (§54)--what is, in all its openness. So we may say: “Only on the basis of the original manifestation of Nothing can our human Da-sein advance towards and enter into the world” (§55). And this is what it means to be truly human. “Da-sein means being projected into Nothing” (§56) living “beyond what-is-in-totality” (§57). Moreover, “this ‘being beyond’ what-is we call Transcendence” (§57). For “without the original manifest character of Nothing there is no self-hood and no freedom” (§58).
29. Why is there “no self-hood and no freedom”? The two go together. If I am a wholly determinate being amid a world of wholly determinate beings, what I do will be determined. But if I strip away the artificial identities of beings, I can redetermine their identities in accordance with my own purposes and projects. And it is this free action of determining my world that makes me a self.
30. “Here we have the answer to our question about Nothing. Nothing is neither an object nor anything that ‘is’ at all. Nothing occurs neither by itself nor ‘apart from’ what-is, as a sort of adjunct. Nothing is that which makes the revelation of what-is as such possible for our human existence. (Emphasis added.)...It is in the Being of what-is that the nihilation of Nothing occurs” (§59).
31. After a digression (§§60-70), Heidegger returns to the question of what metaphysics is and what good it is: “Metaphysics,” he says, relying on etymology, is an enquiry that goes beyond (meta) what-is, existent-identities (physika) (§71). And what purpose does such an enquiry have? That has been shown. Only by grasping facts that go beyond what is can man enter into his truly human way of being, because the truly human way of being involves going beyond what-is-in-totality. Incorporating that purpose into our definition, then we may say: “Metaphysics is an enquiry over and above what-is, with a view to winning it back again as such and in totality for our understanding” (§72).
V. Postscript. (§§89-107)
32. In his postscript, Heidegger writes: “The chief misgivings and misconceptions to which the [preceding] lecture gives rise may be grouped under three heads” (§93). (1) It says “everything is nothing,” implying that it doesn’t matter whether we live or die. (2) It says dread is a key emotion, and thus devalues courage. (3) It attacks logic and elevates emotion.
33. But noth-ing is not “the not-existent.” It is the slipping away of what-is, of existent-identities. And the more those identities slip away, the closer we come to pure Being and its openness to determination.
34. As for devaluing courage, the essay shows that it requires courage to experience dread, for “readiness for dread is to say ‘Yes!’ to the inwardness of things, to fulfill the highest demand which alone touches man to the quick” (§99). “To the degree that we degrade this essential dread and the relationship cleared within it for Man to Being, we demean the essence of courage” (§100).
35. As for “the animus against ‘logic,’” Heidegger protests that he is only demanding human rules not prevent us from speaking about what we experience (§101). Let experience determine the rules of knowledge. “Obedient to the voice of Being, thought seeks the Word through which the truth of Being may be expressed” (§104).
36. Lastly, let me offer a comment on the final stunning question of the lecture: “Why is there any Being at all--why not far rather Nothing?” But before I do so, I must (in effect) re-write all that I have just said, for the following reason. Most commentaries on Heidegger’s thought quite rightly place their chief dependence on his magnum opus: Being and Time. Yet the meaning of “nothing” that I found in these commentaries was not the meaning I found in “What Is Metaphysics?” Worse by far: I could not take the concept of “nothing” set forth in the commentaries and make it fit with what I read in “What Is Metaphysics?” For this reason, I was pleased to run across Marjorie Grene’s remark: “Apart from this passage [in the Introduction to Metaphysics], the Nothingness of Being and Time plays very little part in the later publications.” And Grene specifically identifies the concept “nothing” employed in “What Is Metaphysics?” as quite different from the “nothing” employed in Being and Time.
Why does existence clump into entities?
37. Can we state the connection between the meaning of Nothing as specified by the commentators and the meaning of Nothing as set forth in “What is Metaphysics?” Yes, the link is not hard to spell out but it is hard to make sense of. In Being and Time, Nothingness exists only for man and that is how I have described it in my comments above. In “What is Metaphysics,” however, noth-ing is a fact pertaining to all beings, though of course only man can grasp it. As Grene puts it, “this second new meaning of nothingness may then be said to be the ontological offshoot of dread, since, like human being, Being itself must confront Nothing” (p. 463). How can this be? Isn’t this like describing the phenomenon of romantic love and then remarking: “Oh, by the way, this concept may apply to any two beings.” Yes, it is just like that. Still, we must try to make sense of what is being said.
38. Here is an attempt. I said above (point 23) that Be-ing actualizes potentialities and Noth-ing reduces actualities to potentials. In that light, consider the following remarks from the Postscript. Heidegger writes: “No matter where and however deeply science investigates what-is it will never find Being. All it encounters, always, is what-is....But Being is not an existing quality of what-is...This, the purely ‘Other’ than everything that ‘is,’ is that-which-is-not...Yet this ‘Nothing’ [is not] the non-existent....[Rather, this Nothing] is the vastness of that which gives every being the warrant to be. That is Being itself” (§97). In short, Nothing and Being are two different ways of looking at the same thing, depending upon what they are doing. Insofar as we are looking at the actualization of potentials, we speak of it as resulting from the activity of Being. Insofar as we are looking at the de-actualization of actualities, we speak of it as resulting from the activity of Nothing. But that which acts is the same in each case.
39. Now for “the question.” In “What Is Metaphysics,” it is rendered: “Why is there any Being at all--why not far rather Nothing?” Elsewhere (“Existence and Being”), Heidegger says that this means: “How did it come about that beings take precedence everywhere and lay claim to every ‘is’ while that which is not a being is understood as Nothing, though it is Being itself?” Again, observe that Nothing and Being are equated. One must also realize that Heidegger believes “it is of the truth of Being that Being may be without what-is, but never what-is without Being” (§97). Thus, if we also accept that beings-existent-identities-are constantly Noth-ing, independently of human experience, we may well wonder why there are any entities at all. And so we may ask: “Why are there beings (existent-identities)--and not far rather Being that does not take the form of any what-is; why not far rather that Being which is other than everything that is, and which (in that sense) might be called Nothing?” The closest approximation to this question that I can formulate in Objectivist language is: Why does existence clump into entities?
A. Heidegger and Postmodernism. The following features of Heidegger’s writing, in “What Is Metaphysics?” seem to me to have some affinities with postmodernists.
1. First and foremost, Heidegger believes “it is of the truth of Being that Being may be without what-is, but never what-is without Being” (§97). In short, he separates existence and identity, leaving open the possibility that people can determine the identities of things in a very radical sense.
2. The converse of #1 is his notion that the identities of things may be stripped away, in part or (in some sense) whole; that they are to a large degree artificial creations; and that by a shift of attitude we may remake them nearer our heart’s desire. In this essay, the creation and the stripping away appear to be personal. In postmodernism, it is done by interest groups. (Ironically, Heidegger’s weird shift toward making noth-ing a metaphysical process and not a human one renders him less vulnerable to this charge.)
Mystic or not, Heidegger was certainly a mystagogue of muddy waters.
3. Heidegger tries to justify his opposition to logic by saying that it is “only one exposition of the nature of thinking” (§101). And because, in his day, the positivists were the high priests of logic, it is easy to sympathize. But he himself, in his exposition of scientific thinking (§§7-8), identified quite accurately and broadly the nature of the scientific method; he did not identify it with narrow positivistic techniques. Yet in §101, he speaks of a different type of thinking “which has its source not in the observation of the objectivity of what-is, but in the experience of the truth of Being.” “Experience of the truth of Being” that does not conform to “the observation of the objectivity of what-is” sounds very like mysticism.
4. Mystic or not, Heidegger was certainly a mystagogue of muddy waters. I realize that he was trying to say something unusual. But that is all the more reason why he should have spelled out his meaning clearly. Just why he wrote in convoluted fashion, I shall not judge. Perhaps he did so in order to seem profound, perhaps to dissuade superficial critics, perhaps for some other reason. But the fact remains that he employed recondite language unnecessarily and in this he has been a stylistic progenitor of the postmoderns.
5. One result of Heidegger’s convoluted writing is that it induces the reader to let him get away with arbitrary assertions. While reading this essay, I frequently found myself struggling to think of a meaning or justification for Heidegger’s words. Then I would stop and say, “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t I being getting some help from the author? Isn’t it his job to convince me of what he is saying?” In this, too, Heidegger sets a precedent for postmodernists.
6. A second result of Heidegger’s obscurity can be found in the estimable History of Western Philosophy, by W.T. Jones. Jones suggests that we read Heidegger as a poet manqué. “Whenever what Heidegger the ontologist says about Being seems impenetrable, the puzzled reader may find it helpful to try translating it into the language of religious mysticism” (p. 293). Which is to say: If you can’t make sense of the words, see if you can respond to them with feelings.” The trouble is that we are then applying a double standard: We are responding to the words of a poet, but we are expected to treat them as the propositions of a philosopher.
7. Another drawback to accepting Jones’s advice is that we get as many valid readings of Heidegger as there are intelligent readers. Not all readings will be plausible, and certainly not all readings will be equally plausible. But obviously we increase greatly the number of plausible readings when we allow interpreters to say, “That’s just a metaphor,” or “That’s just hyperbole,” or “That’s a reification.”
8. Early in my essay, I said that “Heidegger is clearly tweaking the positivists.” It seems a mild discourtesy by today’s standards (and it was heartily reciprocated), but it serves as a precedent for the “ludic” philosophy of the postmodernists. Let me be clear. Playful writing is wonderful in its place and I have written satires of philosophy. But there is a distinction between writing humor that satirizes philosophy and writing philosophy. Introducing “playfulness” into philosophy, I believe, implies a disrespect for one’s topic, one’s reader, and even oneself.
B. Heidegger and Objectivism . 1. W.T. Jones says flatly: “That moods in general are cognitive follows from Heidegger’s account of understanding” (p. 308). Yet in my exposition of Heidegger’s essay, I strove to find charitable interpretations for his words. One such charitable interpretation was: that emotions--such as boredom and dread--are not cognitive but paths to cognition. If an emotion is a psychosomatic value response, then when we feel an emotion we can search for the evaluation producing it. If we can find that evaluation, then we can search for the factual beliefs underlying it. Nathaniel Branden made the relevant point in his book Taking Responsibility: “The importance of feelings here--and they are important--is that they can reflect perceptions and integrations taking place outside explicit, verbal consciousness. They must not be ignored or dismissed. They need to be examined to learn whether they offer a pathway to valuable information. All of us have felt things passionately that proved to be mistaken. All of us have felt things passionately that against all belief to the contrary turned out to be right” (p. 88). This is also a path to philosophic knowledge. And though it is admittedly fraught with hazard, it is not therefore a path Objectivist philosophers must shun. Still, it is probably superior as a path to personal insight and very much inferior as a mode of public proof.
2. Expositions of Heidegger’s thought commonly dwell on the importance of contemplating one’s own death. But this is not well phrased. As Polt writes: “The word ‘death’ makes it difficult to distinguish the phenomenon Heidegger is discussing from what he calls ‘demise’--the actual event in which a human being ceases to function. The word ‘mortality’ would probably have been more helpful, if slightly less dramatic., than ‘death’” (p. 86). And yet, Heidegger’s concept of death seems different again from what Ayn Rand had in mind when she wrote: “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence--and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms.” If the human life span were potentially infinite, man would still face Rand’s problem of mortality but not Heidegger’s. What the latter has in mind is something like “the ineluctable finitude of human life.” This is not an idea much discussed in Objectivism but it might deserve more attention. Should it color one’s attitude toward values? If so, should it do so in one objective way? Or is there a range of ways it might color one’s attitude toward values, consistent with a benevolent sense of life? I believe the most extended Objectivist meditation on the finitude of human life is Stephen Hicks’s “Would Immortality Be Worth It?” (Objectivity, Volume 1, Number 4, pp. 81-96)
3. Heidegger uses a bewildering variety of terms related to the fundamental phenomenon of existence: Being, beings, existence, what-is, what-is-in-totality, the world, the real. We could add: the Objectivist concept of “existence,” that which presently exists, identity, the universe, the intrinsic, and perhaps several more. Metaphysics is not a field that Objectivists have written much about and perhaps it deserves to be mapped out better.
4. Meaning and purpose. It is common for Objectivists to say that one’s classification of entities “depends on your purpose.” Children correctly group dogs and cats to form the genus “pet.” Biologists correctly group them to form the concept "carnivore." Heidegger seems to insist that, to a very radical level, neither classification takes precedence. Is this true or not? On the one hand, since the purpose of concepts is to understand entities, one might argue that there is a widest possible context (all existing knowledge about those entities) that is in some sense preferred. On the other hand, the purpose of gaining knowledge is to guide action, and so one might rejoin that certain narrower contexts can actually relate more essentially to certain purposes.
5. On the ethical level, Heidegger suggests that we live a most truly human life when we set aside the relationships things happen to bear to us and recreate them afresh. This will resonate with Objectivists, who claim to hold an entrepreneurial view of life. But surely it is always going to be a miniscule undertaking in the context of a general acceptance of things as they are. Once in his life, a married man may decide to look seriously upon a married woman as a potential wife, despite conventions. But he cannot constantly question at the same profound level his relationship to his country, his family, his friends, his employer, his co-workers, and all his correspondents. Or can he? And if he can, if all such relationships are constantly up for question, can a person ever feel “at home” in them? Should he?
6. Pace Bryan Register I do not find in this essay a significant meditation on causality and free will, although such may exist elsewhere in Heidegger’s writings. What I find here is a rhetorically overblown foreshadowing of David Kelley’s “I Don't Have To” (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996). And, without suggesting that the pun carries over into German, I find a weak attempt to generate a doctrine of free will by playing on the two senses of “have to.”
> Return to the parent page for this 1999 online CyberSeminar, "The Continental Origins of Postmodernism."