Once again, I find occasion to quote liberally from John Gray’s Straw Dogs. I had no idea that book would prove so useful! This time, it’s because Stephen Metcalf is complaining that Martin Heidegger deserves better than to be mocked and dismissed with “a volley of snotty jibes.” (I’m going to suggest with only the barest hint of a smirk that a better metaphor could have been employed here.)
Heidegger’s prose is notoriously difficult. To his critics, wresting clarity from Being and Time is like trying to inhale the proverbial smoke from the mirror. (His admirers reply: Heidegger’s prose is difficult because his truth was difficult, as was Kant’s, as was Hegel’s.)
When is a reader free to dismiss a difficult writer as an obfuscatory charlatan?
It depends, of course; there is no hard-and-fast rule that can be applied across the board. Schopenhauer, who aimed to write in German the way David Hume wrote in English, proved that one could understand Kant’s philosophy and still employ lucid prose in the course of engaging with it. He also (rightly) despised Hegel as a fatuous gasbag who could go on and on for page after page about absolutely nothing. Most philosophical ideas can be explained clearly enough without jargon if one desires, so I tend to assume that when a writer is being repeatedly difficult and vague, it’s by design.
Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.
Anyway, I tend to agree with the assessment by Carlin Romano that has Metcalf so vexed, and while I would concur with Metcalf that I certainly don’t think Heidegger’s philosophy should be shunned and dismissed solely because of his Nazism, I also really don’t consider it to be worth much exploration or argument; your mileage may vary. But Gray has done us the favor of elaborating a bit on some reasons for taking such a stance:
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger was a postmonotheist – an unbeliever who could not give up Christian hopes. In his great first book, Being and Time, he sets out a view of human existence that is supposed to depend at no point on religion. Yet every one of the categories of thought he deploys – ‘thrownness’ (Dasein), ‘uncanniness’ (Unheimlichkeit), ‘guilt’ (Schuld) – is a secular version of a Christian idea. We are ‘thrown’ into the world, which remains always foreign or ‘uncanny’ to us, and in which we can never truly be at home. Again, whatever we do, we cannot escape guilt; we are condemned to choose without having any ground for our choices, which will always be somehow mysteriously at fault. Obviously, these are the Christian ideas of the Fall of Man and Original Sin, recycled by Heidegger with an existential-sounding twist.
…For Heidegger, humans are the site in which Being is disclosed. Without humans, Being would be silent. Meister Eckardt and Angelus Silesius, German mystics whose writings Heidegger seems to have studied closely, said much the same: God needs man as much as man needs God. For these mystics, humans stand at the center of the world, everything else is marginal. Other animals are deaf-mutes; only through humans can God speak and be heard.
Heidegger sees everything that lives solely from the standpoint of its relations with humans. The differences between living creatures count for nothing in comparison with their difference from humans. Molluscs and mice are the same as bats and gorillas, badgers and wolves are no different from crabs and gnats. All are ‘world-poor’, none has the power to ‘disclose Being’. This is only the old anthropocentric conceit, rendered anew in the idiom of a secular Gnostic.
…But Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism went deeper than cowardice and power worship. It expressed an impulse integral to his thinking. By contrast with Nietzsche, a nomad who wrote for travelers like himself and who was able to put so much into question because he belonged nowhere, Heidegger always yearned desperately to belong. For him, thinking was not an adventure whose charm comes from the fact that one cannot know where it leads. It was a long detour, at the end of which lay the peace that comes from no longer having to think. In his rectorial address at Freiburg, Heidegger came close to saying as much, leading the observer Karl Lowith to comment that it was not quite clear whether one should now study the pre-Socratic philosophers or join the Brownshirts.
…He held resolutely to the European tradition because he believed that in it alone ‘the question of Being’ had been rightly posed. It was this belief that led him to assert that Greek and German are the only true ‘philosophical’ languages – as if the subtle reasonings of Nagarjuna, Chuang-Tzu and Dogen, Jey Tsong Khapa, Averroes and Maimonides could not be philosophy because Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Arab and Jewish thinkers did not write in these European tongues.
On a different note – speaking of Nagarjuna, I was glad to see this from Brad Warner’s blog:
In Buddhist philosophy, we do not accept the division of the observer and what is observed. The combination of these two is the back and the face of one single undivided fact at the present moment. Still, the action of seeing is real. We see here that Master Nagarjuna’s philosophy does not negate the reality we experience. It is not nihilism.
Italics mine. That made me smile; I remember having an online argument years ago with some pseudonymous “spiritualist” (gods, how I hate that word) who insisted otherwise, also claiming that Nagarjuna was “no materialist”. Spiritualist, materialist, nihilist — I tried in vain to convince him that these were all abstract concepts that only got in the way of perception. Western philosophy has never had much use for such a worldview.