A Study in Existentialist Philosophy (Part 11)

My summer reading: Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

Describing human existence is different from describing a table. For sure, we are looking for ‘truth’ in both cases. But in philosophy, there are many different definitions of ‘truth’ and it’s important in each situation to pick the one most appropriate.

For Heidegger, when it comes to describing human existence, ‘truth’ has nothing to do with correspondence to observable facts, as it might with the table. When discovering truth about the table, we had only to look at it with new eyes and start describing what we see. By contrast, Heidegger was convinced that discovering truth about humanity requires uncovering something that is hidden from view.

Descartes

In this endeavour, Heidegger believed that modern philosophy was not helpful. With Descartes, said Heidegger, western philosophy had come off the rails. With the belief ‘I think therefore I am’, western man has become ‘locked up in his own ego’; in other words, the Cartesian man is the subject (‘I’) that manipulates objects (‘the world’) and that’s not at all how it works.

Dasein

Heidegger saw human existence as more dynamic, more inclusive than Descartes. He summed this up as Dasein – ‘being there’ – ‘being here’  or Being (in the world). With Dasein, man is too embedded in the world of subjects/objects for the ‘truth’ to be mere subject- object manipulation. For Heidegger, the world in which men are embedded has its own ‘truth’. Further, this ‘truth’ is imposed upon us from outside and not the other way around. It is this external ‘truth’ (with or without God) with which we must grapple.

Imagine the world in which we are embedded as a ‘ field’ – scene and setting – in which we must live, work, and play. Heidegger labelled the driving energy behind this living and working and playing as our ‘care and concern’. To me, this sounds similar as to how I understand the interaction of (1) dharma (our calling, vocation, or destined path in the world) with (2) karma or fate; in turn, this interaction is called soul. 

Soul

Think of that ‘field’ (scene and setting) as karma and the man living and playing and working in it as a character. If we subscribe to Descartes, this character is pretty much in charge of how all this plays out. But that is not how the ancient Greeks saw it. After digging into the entomology of the word phenomenology, Heidegger did warn that to get to the bottom of all this we would need to jettison 2500 years of Western thought and philosophy and that includes Descartes.

Conveniently, this brings us to Heraclitus who taught that a man’s character is his fate. The idea is that when man – i.e. through his character – aligns himself to soul , then his karma becomes one with his dharma, or calling/vocation. To me, dharma defined in this way seems to be similar to what Heidegger calls ‘care and concern’.

Heidegger also said phenomenology (description) 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’. That is too Cartesian.

When it comes to looking at ‘care and concern’ or what I call dharma, Heidegger believed that the ‘truth’ about human existence would reveal itself not through pushing and prodding or even intellectual speculation but instead through thoughtful observation of our everyday, lives – i.e. our embedded existence.

Dharma

Dharma is the most personal way that each of us (in our guise as character)  can be in the here and now. To get in touch with dharma, we need an open line of communication with soul.

Imagine soul sleepwalking through the universe looking for ‘love’ (a complex mix of truth, beauty, good, and justice). To find ‘love’, soul must ‘yoke’ (think yoga) itself to character and work through the dharma of character.

The only way to determine how well this partnership or yoking is working, is to measure one’s emotional response or moods (Angst or anxiety) to Being (in the world). In other words, if you’re happy, all is well and if you’re not, best to understand what’s wrong and why. For Heidegger, moods are not temporary fleeting fancies but modes of Being. Remember the game plan here was to allow Being to reveal itself from its hidden depths rather than to push or prod it as would the Cartesians.

If, as Heidegger suggests, truth is Being and our moods are modes of Being, then by attending to our moods perhaps in the same way one comes to trust his or her intuition, truth is revealed. Perhaps more importantly, when we allow ourselves to be at one with this truth (rather than trying to escape it by intellectualising it away as would Cartesians), we are fully embedded in our world and this is good.

Returning to dharma and karma and soul, I suggest that for Heidegger, rather than being more useless navel gazing, attending to our moods is soul making/connection or getting back to the source and that source is truth. It only makes sense that we are better off when living our truth then when denying it. Implications of this, I suggest, is that we do ourselves no favours when feeling uncomfortable (Angst or anxiety) we race off to find some drug or other practice to ease or escape our existential pain. This line of thinking, I suspect, will be more fully developed by Sartre, who comes next. Let’s wait and see, yes?

Final Thoughts

If all this seems unbearably complex, it is. This is why Heidegger is one of the most difficult philosophers to read. Nonetheless, efforts to understand Heidegger are generously rewarded. His ideas have exerted an immeasurable influence not just on existentialist thought but on all of European philosophy.

But it doesn’t stop there. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy notes, the work of Martin Heidegger has influenced such widely flung disciplines such as architectural theory, literary criticism, theology, psychotherapy and cognitive science. 

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