Thursday, May 26, 2005

Book 8: Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger

A Translation of Sein und Zeit by Joan Stambaugh
Paperback: 487 pages
Publisher: State University of New York Press (October 30, 1996)

Reading Heidegger is like trying to learn to ride a bike in the thickest of San Francisco fogs during an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale. At certain times in his most renowned work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), Heidegger’s density of language makes reading Nietzsche or Kierkegaard seem like perusing Tuesdays With Morrie in comparison. Two oft-quoted examples of Heideggerrean constructions are the sentences, “Being is always the being of a being” (7) and “’I’ means the being that is concerned about the being of the being which it is” (296). But despite the gravity of Heidegger’s writing, his influence on contemporary philosophy in general and existentialism in particular (especially Sartre), are undeniable. He is a thinker that rewards rereading and focused self-reflection.

To many readers, the complexity of philosophical treatises tend to beg the question, “What is the point of reading this”. If the writing is overly confounded, few of us are willing to stay the course on a book, no matter the quality of ideas expressed. Admittedly, Being and Time is arduous – I started reading it in Professor Alan Megill’s course on contemporary thought during my third year at the University of Virginia and it took be until now, nearly three years later to finish the volume. However, my steadfastness was justly rewarded by Heidegger’s insights. Especially in today’s world that is dominated by Dr. Phil self-help guides and pop psychology, reading Heidegger reminds one that not all self-conscious analysis must be subsumed by jarringly simplified platitudes.

Being and Time’s core argument is that Dasein (the only Being that is cognizant of its own being – namely, humans) is the most important creature in the world. While one can see how the Nazis could and did exploit this for their own ends (Heidegger briefly joined (reminiscent of the Pope) the Nazi party in order to maintain his university professorship and the decision has damaged his legacy), in Being and Time, Heidegger is much less interested in a Nietzschean Zarathustra-esque dominant Will to Power than he is by every individual’s possibility of being. Read one way, Heidegger could be considered one of the most optimistic 20th century philosophers. His belief that Dasein is always in the process of becoming, moving towards the utmost possibilities they can strive for, is existentialism at its most progressive. Implicit in this “being towards” is that we never can reach the end of possibility – life presents us with projects to undertake and these can improve us but Dasein’s personal evolution is never complete. We’re never an end. Clearly influenced by Asian religious ideology, Being and Time presents various ways to live a more satisfying and meaningful life.

The concept of the “Other” or the “They” permeates Being and Time. Dasein’s essence is defined by care, namely interest and activity in the world consummated by the projects we undertake. However, the “They” keep us from living our authentic existence, distracting us with their water cooler talks about American Idol and pressure to accept cultural conformity. Heidegger seems to be calling for a more intellectual version of the mantra favored by pre-school teachers and guidance counselors alike, specifically “You are unique and like no one else in the world.” Heidegger’s position on the “They” has corollaries to works on exploitation, imperialism, and post-colonialism, by writers diverse as Fanon, Foucault, and Naipaul. It is an update to Kant’s “social unsociability” – we need society, but as it pulls us into its web of uniformity, our individuality (exemplified in “being-towards” our greatest possibilities) is watered down and destroyed. This conflict is ongoing and Heidegger beckons us to attune our awareness to the struggle.

In the same way the “They” keeps us from ourselves, it keeps us from thinking about and fully understanding the only inescapable and universal possibility of life –death. When we are mired in the influence of the “They” we don’t properly comprehend that all life leads towards death and that we are mortal whether we want to believe that or not. Roger Daltry might rock about his generations desire to die young, but this doesn’t mean they’re any closer to accommodating the reality. Like Sartre, Heidegger views anyone that decides to not commit suicide as accepting all that life brings, including our ultimate demise. Strangely, Heidegger’s words on the subject are far from morose or depressing. Without death we would have no reason to force ourselves to progress. We could be happily complacent. But faced with death, we have to act and act decisively.

Being and Time weighs heavily, both literally and figuratively. Heidegger’s lines of reasoning are often impossible to follow and his references are obscure. Yet, like most philosophers, he’s better read in the original than in someone else’s synopsis. If for no other reason than to be exposed to a towering intellect whose thought affected many of the 20th century’s brightest minds, Heidegger returns the time investment of readers many times over.

No comments: