In a recent short little essay, Ashok Karra reflects on some of the introductory remarks of Heidegger’s 1935 lecture, Introduction to Metaphysics. While I largely agree with Karra, I want to tease out a bit more of what Heidegger’s getting at, as well as some of my own recent thoughts on philosophy more generally.
To begin with, lets turn to the lecture itself, translated into English by Richard Polt and Gregory Fried. Heidegger begins thus:
Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? That is the question. Presumably it is no arbitrary question. “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” - this is obviously the first of all questions. Of course, it is not the first question in the chronological sense. Individuals as well as peoples ask many questions in the course of their historical passage through time. They explore, investigate, and test many sorts of things before they run into the question, “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Many never run into this question at all, if running into the question means not only hearing and reading the interrogative sentence as uttered, but asking the question, that is, taking a stand on it, posing it, compelling oneself into the state of this questioning. (Heidegger 2014, 1)
Readers of Being and Time, published a few years earlier, will hear echoes of the opening of that text as well. After quoting from Plato’s dialogue Sophist, where the visitor asks Theaetetus “What do you want to signify when you say being? Obviously you’ve known for a long time. We thought we did, but now we’re confused about it.” (PCW 244a), Heidegger opens with his own prefatory remarks.
Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’? Not at all. So it is fitting that we should raise anew the questions of the meaning of Being. But are we nowadays even perplexed at our inability to understand the expression ‘Being’? Not at all. So first of all we must reawaken an understanding for the meaning of this question. Our aim in the following treatise is to work out the question of the meaning of Being and to do so concretely.
In both cases, the point is the same. We encounter a question, but cannot proceed to answer it until we have truly grasped it, understood it. But there is something of a difference in these two texts. For lack of more sophisticated language, Being and Time proceeds with a methodological exposition of the question, teasing out the right approach to the question, explaining his hermeneutic phenomenology of everyday existence as the correct foundation for getting to the question of existence in general. It is by studying the enquirer that we will come to understand the enquiry itself. Introduction to Metaphysics kicks off on an explicitly more existential approach, one that argues the question of Being is not just the first question in a methodological sense, but the first or most foundational question for a new sort of life. We already saw him note that some people may rarely or never bother with philosophy, may never wonder what this is all for or about,
we are each touched once, maybe even now and then, by the concealed power of this question, without properly grasping what is happening to us. In great despair, for example, when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark, the question looms. Perhaps it strikes only once, like the muffled tolling of a bell that resounds into Dasein and gradually fades away. The question is there in heartfelt joy, for then all things are transformed and surround us as if for the first time, as if it were easier to grasp that they were not, rather than that they are, and are as they are. The question is there in a spell of boredom, when we are equally distant from despair and joy, but when the stubborn ordinariness of beings lays open a wasteland in which it makes no difference to us whether beings are or are not – and then, in a distinctive form, the question resonates once again: Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? (Heidegger 2014, 1-2)
Like Karra, I similarly was perplexed when first attempting to tackle Heidegger, and I think in large part it is because I was caught up more by the specific questions (What is the meaning of Being?/Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?) rather than the underlying point he was trying to make, namely that we are either for methodological or existential reasons not open to these deeper questions. Ironically, this proved the very point that Heidegger was trying to make; I was, when I first tried to tackle Heidegger, a young philosophy student, largely uninterested in ‘real life,’ more interested in ‘logic’ (albeit of a very juvenile sort that a lot of young philosophy majors are ‘interested’ in) and constructing a complete system. Heidegger is uninterested in all that, instead trying to get us to grasp and embody a disposition, a realization that what we thought was a solid foundation is actually nothing of the sort. We’ve all had times like this, especially when we’re young, when we realize what we took for Reality is really just reality, an interpretation of sorts. But how do we awaken that questioning spirit in people? In Being and Time, he starts small and slowly expands. First there is the famous discussion of hammering; normally you are simply engrossed in hammering nails with a hammer, but then the hammer breaks, and only then are you aware of it’s structure, form, and the way that form is perfect for hammering nails, and you’ll have that relation between structure and function in your mind while at the hardware store, looking for a hammer that will fit your hand just right, and be a good fit for the type of nails you’re hammering. But then he expands outwards; you find yourself thrown and fallen into a world that is alienating. You find out that you are finite, mortal, and that your time on this earth is limited, and in this moment you hear a call that yanks you out of the everydayness of the They that brings back the possibility of a more authentic life. The parallel is that a brokenness reveals the underlying structure of an activity (or life in general), giving us a brief chance to question and rethink it. This is the attitude Heidegger is interested in cultivating in his 1935 lecture; the sense that in certain moments, particularly where we are lost or perplexed, we get back to the first questions. Not first in the sense of the first ones we ask, but first as in foundational; we get back to thinking about the most fundamental ideas, but it’s not enough to tackle them as a detached spectator. Philosophy in this sense is not something a computer can do; it’s a fundamentally human activity, driven by our anxieties and desires as much as by our reason. This is actually one of Heidegger’s earliest philosophical discoveries, long before even Being and Time was released. In his 1919 lectures on phenomenology, he was starting to tap into something unique about the way humans philosophize, and starting to ask where this philosophizing comes from. As Theodore Kisiel writes,
For all that Eckhart, Schleiermacher, Dilthey contributed to shaping the phenomenological topic for young Heidegger, there is a qualification to such assertions as “The stream of consciousness is already religious” which must be kept in mind. The “is” here is not an expression of identity between religion and life but of the identification of the motivating ground of religion. But the very same vital source is also the motivating ground of philosophy, art, morality, science, in short, of all human culture. The conditions that make the soul receptive to religion thus also make it receptive to philosophy. For all their efforts to go beyond the theoretical paradigm of consciousness-over-against-an-object, Schleiermacher and Dilthey still tend to stress the certitudes that reside in immediate experience, while Heidegger will eventually stress the disquieting character that resides at the very heart of life and serves as a motivation to both religion and philosophy. (Kisiel 1993, 113)
This is often how I explain Heidegger to people who don’t read much philosophy; he’s interested in the origins of philosophy itself, and he believes that there’s something in our everyday lives that gives rise to philosophizing. Whether it’s a feeling of uncanniness, alienation, fear of mortality or something else, there is something wired into humans that at some point puts them at odds with themselves, and those antagonisms give birth to the big ‘why’ questions. In rereading the passages of Heidegger’s about the moments where the world suddenly seems to fade away, leaving only a silence in which philosophical inquiry comes forward, I am reminded of Kierkegaard’s warning of the eleventh hour, the moment where you are forced to face yourself without evasion, to answer God with nowhere to hide, notably also describing a ‘call’ that comes forth, “the call to find the road again by seeking God in the confession of sins…” (KW XV, 14) The eleventh hour, whenever it may be for you, is a moment in which everything changes, where suddenly your everyday busyness disappears as vanity, and I don’t use that word for nothing. Throughout his remarks on the eleventh hour and the moment of confession, Kierkegaard cites a few Biblical passages, a couple of which is Ecclesiastes, another place at which the writers everyday busyness disappears, and a deeper philosophical question emerges amidst the despair: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity! What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (ESV III, 436) This attitude is the predecessor to the existentialists angst, where nothing may have happened, and yet we are suddenly altered, and with us, the world. As Jean-Luc Marion notes,
the term we traditionally render by ‘vanity’ the Hebrew hebhel, cannot be translated by ‘nothingness’ but suggests the image of steam, a condensation, a breath of air...Hence no reality disappears, but only a certain aspect of the reality: the cohesion, the consistency, the opaque compactness, which, with miniscule droplets and minute particles, erected an enclosure of space. Condensation, mist, steam disappear – as soon as another wind, stronger and more violent, picks up...The spirit undoes every reality in suspension, dissipates every suspension that appeared, before it and by rights, as a realty...Under the force of an overly violent spirit the days of man dissipate, just as the blade of grass flies away, as does the tree, and even the abode, if the wind become a storm. (Marion 2012, 125)
So Heidegger and Kierkegaard are not getting at anything new, just putting a new gloss on an old, profoundly human experience of the world suddenly appearing to be naught but a child’s planetary mobile above their crib, suspended by a thread that could be cut at any moment. Interestingly, the idea of a moment that cuts through the noise and brings one back to oneself is not new either. We can again follow Marion in his reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans, which notes that God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” [kalountos ta me onta hos onta]. (ESV VI, 11) Here the non-beings, the noughts and nobodies of the world, are called as if [hos] they are, because for the converted Christian, everything is to be seen through the lens of love, as if it is God (who is love) is looking at it. Therefore “the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (ESV VI, 50)
What I am tracing through all this is what Heidegger is getting at in the prefatory remarks of his 1935 lectures; that philosophical contemplation, religious conversion and aesthetic experience do not come simply from looking at text on a page and then waiting for an answer to fit it, like two puzzle pieces that go together. Instead, philosophical inquiry is a fundamentally human activity responding the very human tensions and antagonisms that will emerge from living it, and it’s only if this human element is cultivated, in all its anxiety and desire, that true philosophy will emerge. The same can be said of political commitments, Lukacs being an excellent example. Pre-History and Class Consciousness, he is often described as a sort of existentialist, one concerned with the individual in search of emotional and psychological unity. A 1910 essay, ‘The Metaphysics of Tragedy’ brings with it the thesis about the defining element of the human condition, that “The deepest longing of human existence is the metaphysical root of tragedy: the longing of man for selfhood.” (Lukacs 1974, 162) However, this was Lukacs’ pre-Marxist and pre-materialist period, and so he could not offer any real concrete action at this point in time. Instead, various attempts at emotional and psychological reconciliation to the world were posited as the only possibility. As one of his students would later remark, “he could only derive from the arbitrarily decreed, merely verbal identity of form and ethics a paralyzing and resignatory stalemate, instead of an invitation to committed and effective action in the real world.” (Meszaros 1995, 291). Of course, this would all change in October 1917 with the Bolshevik revolution, which would radically rewire everyone’s sense of what was possible. This led to a substantial revision on Lukacs’ part of his philosophical ideas; not a wholesale abandonment, as questions of subjectivity and ethics remained at the forefront, but were now rearranged via the mediation of the questions posed by revolutionary politics. In his early work, Lukacs had unwittingly thought his way to the heart of his historical moment, the last days of a bourgeois that had no philosophical way forward. Now he was free not just to commit to Marxism as a static dogma but to open up to it as a method, a way of thinking about the world, and his own ideas he’d previously had about it.
The negated target was now characterized by Lukacs as a tendentious philosophical conception that arises not from subjective theoretical mistakes or distortions (which would be in principle corrigible), nor indeed from the metaphysically determined defectiveness of history itself (which would in principle be insurmountable), but – as a matter of man-made and thus humanly alterable necessity – from reflecting the innermost nature and historically concrete articulation of the given social order...Thus, according to the author of History and Class Consciousness, not only ‘inwardness’ and ‘soul’ but also, and indeed most importantly, the category of ‘form’ had to be given a demystified, materially grounded meaning. All this had to be done not only in order to make truly intelligible what he called the ideological structure of capitalism but also to irreversibly deprive that structure of its suffocating effectiveness. (Meszaros 1995, 294-5)
What I’m trying to highlight is not just how best to understand Lukacs finer philosophical points, but that those points are part of a project that emerged from a very particular set of experiences. In Lukacs’ early work, he wrote as someone dissatisfied with the world, but resigned to it, only able to try and reconcile to the contradictions of the world with contradictions of the self. With Marxism came new possibilities, not just for pushing philosophy forward but for reflecting on itself. Lukacs saw that he had unwittingly embodied and tried to develop an ethics for a world that did not permit ethical life, only resignation, until he discovered a philosophy of resistance. This discovery would’ve been far less lively and inventive, however, had there not been the years of soul-crushing despair, the person desperately wishing a new horizon might emerge. But the new horizon needed a subject as well, one ready to commit himself wholly to it’s expression and development via questions and inquiry.
This was the early discovery for Kierkegaard of his own project, that of rediscovering the importance of the individual for faith, as he remarked in an 1835 journal entry where he remarks that even if he can accept Christian theology as a logically coherent system, understanding all its finer points, without a believer, all these ideas will simply whither like seeds among the rocks (KJN I, 17), a clear reference to Christs parable of the sower, whose seeds may either whither on the rocks or flourish in good soil (ESV V, 32-3). Ironically, this parable draws complaints from the disciples that it impossible to understand one who speaks only in parables. Apparently it’s also not new that people demand of wisdom that it be immediate, accessible, and it’s relevance easily apparent, to which I now want to turn.
I’ve spoken already about my philosophical ‘isolation,’ and there are many reasons for it, but I’m in a somewhat different place than I was a few years ago. I’ve been reading more philosophy lately, as well as more literature, history, and a host of other things. What changed? Many things, but one I’ve noticed is I’ve begun to rediscover privacy. I’ve severely cut down on social media usage, and doing so has allowed a certain sort of quiet back into my life. This isn’t to say I’ve cut myself off from the world; far from it as an active, dues-paying document-studying meeting-attending and generally class-struggling member of a very busy Marxist international. My use of philosophy in this group is limited, however, and I’ve stopped trying to force it into every moment I can. Instead, I let my political engagement be my political engagement and my philosophical inquiry be my philosophical inquiry. These two certainly interact and depend on one another, but they are not entirely the same. The volumes I have on Marx and Trotsky are on one shelf, and the volumes of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre are on another, literally and figuratively. I no longer post about philosophy, or try to make it tangibly relevant to my everyday life, instead letting it be it’s own thing. What I’m trying to say is my study of philosophy is because of a spark in my own life that can only be answered by patient, extended inquiry, mostly via textual study that’s permeated by long walks, and I know that spark isn’t there for everyone. It will come eventually, but it probably won’t come from me simply beating them over the head with a jargon-filled text. There have been a number of times where someone asks what sorts of philosophers I’m into or what I happen to be reading at the moment and shortly after I try to begin an explanation (often somewhat broken if it’s a text I’m still working through) they’ll interrupt and ask ‘Okay, but why does this matter?’ Historically, I’ve tried to explain particular philosophical problems and questions, but that often ends up leading to a problem of infinite regress; they’re not interested in the answer or the question because if you haven’t had the experience of asking ‘Why are there beings instead of nothing?’ then you can’t really understand the question, why anyone would ask it or what it’s really getting at. I don’t think I’m special for having this spark in me; I think life has a way of giving everyone moments that generate a spark, a desire, an anxiety, a question. I only happened to turn it into a lifelong project, but I don’t know how to bring it about in others. This isn't to maroon myself or anyone else on isolated islands, incapable of communicating with each other about life's biggest questions, only that a time will come for them as well, an eleventh hour, or perhaps something less dramatic where they have a question, and it'll be theirs, their own unique way into philosophy or literature or art from but most broadly to being human in their own unique way. Hopefully they hold onto it long enough to start looking around, and maybe then we'll finally be able to find each other in that unique space. Until then, I'll do my best to keep my own little flame alive, and maybe in my own way be a spark for someone else.