Friday, February 23, 2018

Modernity and its Critique

As mentioned before, I have been following the Heidegger scandal from afar. In short, it's apparent that Heidegger's Naziism runs deep. As far as I can tell, the scholarly discussion after the publication of the Black Notebooks has largely resulted in acceptance of the claim that his Naziism is not so easily divorced from aspects of his thinking that people have wanted to take up and incorporate into their own work. The hard task of seeing what can be disentangled and how thus begins in earnest!

Well, recently, a tweet, a book review, and a blog post, have all got me thinking more about this. In the below I am going to outline a thought I have discussed in conversation with a few people but never run past people who I think know enough about Heidegger or the present scholarly debate on his work to really have it tested. Like my first blog post on this (first link!) it's very much an outsider's perspective, which means it runs a high risk of being either so obviously false that it's barely worth discussing, or so obviously true to the same effect. But I have a job now so don't need to worry about looking silly on the internet, woohoo! Without further, ado, then, my own attempt a contribution to thinking through what Heidegger's anti-semitism means for us today.

Martin Heidegger - ``Ready to hand? More like ready
to heil! Eh? Eh? You feeling me? I know you get me.''

Ok so to recap my first blog post's take on this, I was there pretty optimistic about disentangling Heidegger's general thinking from his bigotry. My thought was that the various aspects of Heidegger's philosophy was by very conscious design not logically intertwined too tightly, so it would be quite possible to adopt take from one area without risking any unfortunate entailments.

Now I am not so sure.

What caught my attention was the following from the review linked above:
As part of this approach, Sander Gilman's essay provides a helpful account of broadly defined anti-Semitic themes within German culture focusing on topics such as the Jews' nomadism, homelessness, and rootless cosmopolitanism. Against this background, Gilman then attempts to situate Heidegger's anti-Semitism within both the history of German philosophy and within European culture at large. Eduardo Mendieta follows upon this theme by underscoring Heidegger's critique of the Jews in terms of the mathematical-economic rationalism that, as "the embodiment of the domination of calculation and machination" (43), marks them as "worldless."
So here is a thing I often found myself thinking when reading Heidegger - what's so bad about using maths or thinking of things abstractly, labour saving technologies, and cosmopolitanism? Heidegger is in the business of making normative or existential claims, but some of his base judgements just strike me as unmotivated, or at least I do not know how to enter into them and do not feel inclined to share them. Where they are argued for, the argument often seems to circle back to something in this cluster - it's been some years (again, I'm an outsider, making no claims to authority, all this is just me throwing ideas I am not confident in out there for general consideration and critique), but I recall getting the impression that for Heidegger the problem with thinking of things in too abstract a fashion was that it cuts us off from our authentic connection to place, which I think I am meant to agree is bad because I agree that cosmopolitanism is bad. (Or maybe cosmopolitanism is bad because without rootedness I will grow to see the world in a abstract formal kinda way.)

What if the only reason Heidegger has for thinking these are bad is that he associated them with Jewish people?

I think that a tempting route for those looking to rehabilitate Heidegger is to attribute to him a set of false empirical beliefs which, having abandoned them, free the rest of his philosophy from the Nazi contamination. So Heidegger in his new notebooks says that the problems with Jews are metaphysical problems - the thought then might be that he was wrong to think that the real actual people, flesh and blood Jews, instantiate or are bound to bring about or are essentially tied to (or whatever) these metaphysically problematic things, and having freed ourselves of that bit of anti-Semitic folklore we're safe to try and extract the critique of modernity's problematic metaphysic.

This route won't work unless we have some reason to think that the existential situation of moderns, cut off from Being as we are, is actually problematic, if not just for being too Jewish for Heidegger's case.  But what exactly is the problem here? Do people really find it just self evident that cosmopolitanism is objectionable? That washing machines make the world worse? (Of course there are some technologies that have made the world worse - but I think it's obvious that Heidegger isn't and can't be just noting that trivial fact,  or making a consequentialist argument that on net new technologies tend to decrease quality of life. Technical thinking itself has to be the problem) That using mathematical abstraction to think about hammers is in itself evil or distressingly alienating? After reading the quoted passage from the review, I can't help but suspect that the order of normative judgement was not, for Heidegger, that these things are bad, so the Jews who do these things must be bad too. I think it might be that he thinks the Jews do these things, and since the Jews are bad these things must be bad. Well, I hope we all agree that this gives no reason at all to see in those things something problematic - what then are we left with?

(Maybe there's an interesting version of Heidegger which is just cut off from any critique of the existential and metaphysical situation of moderns? I don't see how that would go, but I'll just note that possibility as another route to realising my original idea, consistent with all I say here, that the logical looseness means that one can still do Heidegger without taking on board the Naziism.)

Undeniably many people do in fact seem to find something resonant in Heidegger's critique of our modern situation, and take themselves to be justified in doing so on grounds that are not tacitly anti-Semitic. All I am saying here is that I think that our greater understanding of Heidegger's anti-Semitism should give us pause in the following ways. First, perhaps Heidegger was just unusually clear sighted and explicit in realising the connection between the anti-Semitic tropes of his broader culture and his own philosophical inclinations, but that while we don't realise it our own beliefs are caused by a similar chain of associations.  After all, it's not as if anti-Semitism has been a small scale affair in the history of Europe and its thought! Can we rule out its subtle influence in our own case?

Second, I suspect that in left wing land a kind of loose association with critical theory has given Heidegger's normative appraisals a bit more cred than they would otherwise deserve. The railing against instrumental reasoning can sound a bit similar, after all. This, though, I think involves a quite deep misunderstanding of the critical theorists. (Here I am, again, not expert, but at least drawing on more recent readings, as well as the scholarship of Ruth Groff.) The critical theorists' critique of subjective rationality, the kind of means end reasoning they associated with capitalist societies, was not per se that it involved abstraction and calculation. Rather, the critique is that it is limited in its domain of application -- if we only use reason to discern how we should go about achieving our ends, we can end up with the awful situation of utterly unreasonable, deeply cruel, socio-political ends being pursued with the utmost efficiency. Like, they would have said, in the holocaust. So they tried to uncover aspects of modern society - its ideology, its culture industry, its undemocratic institutional arrangements and social mores - which they thought got in the way of reason being given full sway to bring to bear a comprehensive critique and set the task of making a better world. (Turns out that jazz is a huge part of the problem?) Think what one may of this, but it's not the claim that technology, abstraction, and calculation are in themselves evil. In some sense the problem is rather that the rational thought that might underlie some of these things isn't being pressed far enough. More enlightenment, not less! So I do not think that Heidegger's critique of modernity will be so easily merged with the critical theorists as some folk in left land might think.

Ok so that's all I got. As I said, maybe in Heidegger scholarship everyone views this as just obvious. Or maybe, conversely, there is some wonderful argument for the evils of algebra and dishwashers that does not rely on either anti-Semitic association or a confusion with the critical theorists' project, that my ignorance has caused me to miss, and which invalidates the above. I am being quite sincere when I say that I do not confidently rule either of those out. But for now, at least, I suspect that some of the fundamental normative judgements of Heideggerian philosophy may be inextricably bound to his anti-Semitism. What is more, I shall end by noting, I think that Heideggerianism is in this regard just a case study, wherein the scholarly community dedicated to his work has been unusually conscientious in taking problems of disentanglement seriously. This is the point made in the Drabinski essay linked to before the cut. The full decolonisation of philosophy may require a complex reckoning indeed.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Philosophical Temperament

When I was 14 my mother died. By this point I was rather a bookish child, and so my instinct was to turn to some text and find solace therein. My faith made the choice of text obvious, but, still, the Bible is a big book containing many literary mansions; what to read therein? What I ended up settling on was the Book of Job --  I read and reread this text, and for some time could quote lengthy passages from the Authorised Version off by heart. No stranger to teenage melodrama, I found myself really identifying with Job's dignified resolve in the face of a fundamentally unfair and (to him) inexplicable cruelty. It brought me comfort to think that I might hope in my own way to exemplify the same sort of courage, to squarely face tragedy as tragedy, yet never give in to the temptation to simply curse God and die. However, some years later when somebody else I knew was faced with their own loss, I recommended reading Job to them - but they found this perverse, utterly unhelpful, if anything it made it worse for them.

This grim little anecdote came to mind because I have recently been reflecting on philosophical approaches to tragedy - death of those we love, fears for one's own health or mortality, oppression, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, etc. It struck me that while many philosophers and philosophies do emphasise the importance of a kind of attitude they hope to instill, a properly philosophical temperament, there are a number of considerably different approaches to tragedy adopted by different traditions and thinkers. This blog post is going to do nothing more than just sketch my loose impression of what they are at a high level of abstraction, with no claim to completeness or originality in these observation. 

The four styles of approach to tragedy I have identified are as follows:

1. Socialise -  here the idea is to emphasise that it is admirably human, even refined and civilised, to indeed feel deeply the pangs of sorrow, anger, and grief, at loss or tragedy - and to try and provide social structures and valorised practices that will allow the individual to come to terms where that is appropriate, and make changes to avoid future instances of the loss where that is appropriate. An outlet for the expression and full feeling of sorrow is provided, and in this way it is hoped that the suitably refined person can `work through' the feelings in some productive way, and eventually reenter (a perhaps changed) society once this process is carried out. I am primarily thinking of Confucianism as the exemplar of this, but I think a lot of folk mourning practices have something like this underlying rationale, and I detect this attitude underlying the Epic of Gilgamesh so perhaps the author(s) had this ideal.

2. Dissipate - here the idea is that there is something we could teach people, which if fully and properly internalised (perhaps accompanied by appropriate changes in attitude), will allow people to see apparent tragedies as no-real-tragedy at all. Perhaps, for instance, I can be made to see that the real cause of suffering is not intrinsic to the actual or feared event, but really in my own attitude to this event, and this latter is under my control and can be modified to eliminate or much reduce the unpleasant sensation. Some forms of Buddhism and Stoicism, and more recently the work of Derek Parfitt in analytic philosophy, all seem like clear examples.

3. Compensate - here the idea is that we recognise that the tragedy is indeed a tragedy, but can be convinced that it shall be compensated by (indeed may actively help bring about) some great good in the long run, and we overcome our loss by focusing instead on that great good. We shall be reunited with those we love in a better place, the meek shall inherit the earth whereas the rich shall find it easier to pass through the eye of the needle than join those they once oppressed in this paradise,  and out of the latest ``defeat'' the workers have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. For me the clearest examples of this sort of tendency come from Christianity and Marxism and the thinking of Condorcet, but if I were less (shamefully!) ignorant of Islamic philosophy I'd be willing to bet this is a common tendency therein too.

4. Heroise - here the idea is that our tragedies are, or at least can be, indeed gratuitous and utterly unjustified, shall not be compensated (and even if it were this could never really be enough), but counsels that there is none the less dignity in the struggle against this inevitability. Stark as this can be, it at least lends grandeur to our shared condition, and that in itself can be its own comfort. This is what the young me saw in Job (and in conversation about these ideas, Jewish friends tell me it is a note they frequently hear struck in their own tradition), I think it is also found in the existentialist idea of imagining Sisyphus happy, and one also sees it in the African American tradition of validating the struggle as itself an impressive cultural tradition even where it has not led to the promised land. 

There is something to all of these, I think. There is a kind of bracing honesty to (4), a valuable resilience taught by those in schools that preach (2), traditions of type (3) can lend hope and the motivating light of faith even in the face of utter defeat, and (1) is both a humane and productive attitude to acknowledging grief and turning it to the good. 

That makes it tempting to try and combine all of them in a grand synthesis. I would be fascinated to read attempts at just that, if anybody knows of some. But I suspect this would be hard to do - when one looks to the specifics of the various theories instantiating these options they pull in different directions, and often it is precisely those elements wherein they differ that allow them to promote the philosophical temperament they seek to valorise. Perhaps, as I suspect was going on in my opening anecdote, they each speak to different characters or life experiences. In that case, humanity is collectively better for having traditions of all sorts be developed and available to those in need of consolation, as we each shall surely find ourselves at some time or another.