Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Existence being rather different from existence…

A subject denied me by my Philosophy department at Bristol was the work of Heidegger, despite his clear links to Wittgenstein and Kant, both of whom I struggled with to immense satisfaction. Never had understanding so little been so gratifying as when I encountered the thoughts of those two peculiar people; sadly Heidegger as interpreted by Hubert Dreyfus has not had the same effect.

I’ve been listening to his lectures, downloadable for free from Berkeley university (see the link on this page to Open Culture for a huge selection of course material from various American institutions), as I trudge beside the canal in London. I love this system of listening without the pressure of writing about it afterwards, and it’s taken me a while to reconcile myself to philosophical subjects rather than the fun and games of psychology and cognitive science. Now I am wondering whether philosophy without text to hand is such a good idea…

Hubert, working with a translation, admits to having read most of Heidegger in German at some point, but in his lectures is repeatedly foxed by Heidegger’s choice of words when he consults a student using the original text. This is not particularly surprising, in a way. I remember the frustration, culminating in a sense of pointlessness, studying Aristotle when my ancient Greek was still good enough to allow me to understand parts of the primary text. The English language seemed totally inadequate to the entirely different set of nuances and connotations associated with the Greek words, and that was before dealing with inevitably sloppy interpretation by translators apparently in a hurry.

Poor Hubert, I thought at first as I listened to him tie himself and his students in knots, trying to make a consistent picture out of a set of conflicting statements. I suspect I would do no better in this context; I certainly witnessed postgraduates do the same with Kant as they attempted to lead our second year seminars. I was grateful that I only ever taught classes on thinkers who expressed their ideas in English, which was challenging enough.

Perhaps the problem with Hubert is that he is too modest. He freely admits to his undergraduate audience that at least once during each lecture he discovers a phrase in the text that undermines his understanding of Heidegger’s view. Thus as a novice, you grasp something solid only to watch it turn to dust in your hands.

Poor Hubert is of course dealing with a slippery customer. Heidegger appropriates words that have one meaning in the everyday use of language and gives them a different, very specific new sense. For example, ‘existence’ is altered to be something that only human beings have; a direct consequence of this is that, in context, it now makes sense to say that trees and other objects do not exist.

This is fine, as Heidegger is hardly alone amongst philosophers in playing these sorts of language games. I did sympathise with Hubert’s lecture hall full of green shoots though, recalling how much harder it was to keep track of these special word meanings whilst being presented with a whole new world of concepts.

Having finished lecture one with a hazy vision of 'Dasein' – as if seen through a Diana camera lens perhaps – I will keep listening, in the hope that the more Hubert talks, the more outside possibilities of meanings I will be able to eliminate until I have a picture that is at least internally consistent.

I can’t count on this being the right picture though. as Hubert himself pointed out, you can use a paradigm to understand something for a very long time, and then one tiny phrase you’ve never noticed can force you to chuck the whole thing out and start from scratch. Given that this is still happening to him as he delivers his established lectures, I don’t know what hope I have of getting Heidegger into clear focus.


  1. Well, one way to look at this is that you've the rest of your life to figure that out, so in theory, you should never be bored...if only theories were perfect...

    Open Culture is a great link. I'll have some fun digging around there. Thanks!

  2. Oh, brrrrr.... Heidegger. Heidegger was one of the specialisms of my German philosophy tutor at university and I remember he reckoned it was an impossible task. Didn't Bertrand Russell also write that he thought Heideger was a load of unintelligible b****cks - or more polite words to that effect (might be wrong on that one). But regardless, difficult stuff I think. And Kant too - I once tried (in vain) to read an original translated text and was quickly defeated.