My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.
Like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche before him, Heidegger struggled with the damage that too much navel gazing a la Plato and Descartes inflicted on men. Whilst Kierkegaard saw this as insult to his Christian faith, Nietzsche saw it as a desperate (yet doomed) attempt to fill the gap left by the ‘Death of God’, which he’d taken upon himself to so scandalously pronounce.
But Heidegger saw this navel gazing – with or without God – as an affront to the reality of man; to wit – men are, have always been, and will always be not of heaven, but of earth – the earth upon which we live and upon which we must toil for our existence. Heidegger figured that it was about time that we started ‘thinking’ rather than navel gazing and, in this regard, ‘thinking’ had nothing to do with Platonic ideas but instead everything to do with the practicalities of Being.
What exactly is Being?
To get to the bottom of this, says Heidegger, we need to jettison 2500 years of Western thought and philosophy which has focused solely on what it means ‘to be’ rather than what it means ‘to be of something’.
Navel gazing again, you say?
Well, not exactly, says Barrett. This distinction is more than a ‘piece of scholarly pettifoggery’. For example, saying ‘this is a table’ is an empty abstraction leaving each of us to fill in the details with our own preconception of tables. Worse, in doing so we do not even realise – much less question – what it is that we are actually doing. This, Heidegger warns, is the slippery slope to navel gazing and the only antidote is Phenomenology, a concept he borrows from his old teacher, Husserl.
Phenomenology is about setting aside obfuscating preconceptions and letting the ‘thing’ reveal itself to us. This is not to be accomplished, as Nietzsche might suggest, by pushing, prodding, and/or exercising ‘power over’ the ‘thing’. Instead, we must look at the thing with virgin eyes.
Our table might well be made of oak or pine or plywood and it may smell of resin or paint or glue. It is perhaps one metre by one metre square or even rectangular or oblong. It might be pink or blue or red or yellow, all important details to note. Assuming it is yellow, flush this out more – is it mustard yellow, canary yellow, daffodil yellow or a combination of all three? The point is that this table isn’t any old table, it is this table and that is extremely important, whatever that means.
This is all very well and good when dealing with tables, but the plot thickens when we come to describing human existence. Yet this is exactly what Heidegger says we must do and to do this, he sets out.
(to be continued)