Contemporary European Philosophy Class

I wanted to post a brief summary of what we have been working on in the Contemporary Euro Philosophy class, in case people are interested.  We’ve been reading Heidegger (Being and Time, Question Concerning Technology) as well as Levinas (articles from his Collected Philosophical Papers).

Here seems to be one of the central phenomenological insights (I’ll use mostly language from Heidegger’s BT):  Dasein (man) is not a being among others, and so our ordinary / ontic ways of understanding objects are simply misplaced when applied to man.  Heidegger calls the tendency to explain ourselves in terms of the ordinary objects of concern we encounter ‘falling’ and highlights, in QCT, the danger of man ‘being forgotten’.  Levinas wants to explain this using much different language (and wants to escape ontology altogether), but makes the same basic point when he suggests that the ‘face’ (the person?) is beyond being or ‘otherwise than essence’.

To give this some traction with other philosophical interests – I take it that Heidegger would find it simply absurd to think one could give an account of man in naturalistic terms.  The scientific method (fundamentally ‘technological’ in the Heideggerian sense) is a tool for manipulating (and ultimately reducing) objects, not understanding Dasein.  Frankly, we could say the same thing about more analytic philosophical arguments (phil of mind) that aim to prove the ultimate nature of the human being (arguments about the immortality of the soul, etc).  All of these arguments and approaches are fundamentally technological and reductive and so treat humanity as an object, not Dasein. 

Here is what is interesting.  While Heidegger shows that naturalism and materialism fail, any attempts to go further are basically inhumane – they reduce man to an object among others.  We are seeing the most radical articulation of this problem now in the course as we read Derrida’s ‘The Gift of Death’.  Dasein is mysterious (Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida all agree on this point), and the mystery cannot be explained away.  The transcendence of man makes it impossible to explain man in terms of some category. Hence Heidegger’s developing concern with ‘thinking’, and the morphing of his project into a task of ‘learning how to think without thinking’ (learning how to think without being technological and reductionistic about it).  

Obligatory Thomistic point:  Aquinas’ arguments against materialism are, I think, brilliant and pretty decisive.  But his attempts to say what the human soul is are really murky, and if you press on the Summa it is not long before you get mired in a really stretched notion of hylomorphism.  What it is to be human may not be irrational per se, but it is mysterious, and the attempt to explain man in simply Aristotelian terms will fail like all other ontic categorizations.  It is worth noting, though, that Aquinas was too wise to attempt such a thing when it came to the Person, something he considers basically irreducible.  

Might we be left with not only negative theology, but also negative anthropology? (the ability to say what man is not – merely matter, merely another object – but an incapacity to say what man is).  And how do we respond to this situation?  This is both a ‘how to think about the other’ question as well as an ethical question.  That is the task of the rest of the course in PHIL 3180 Contemporary Euro Phil.  We’ll be turning back to the great master Heidegger for more insight, then to Kierkegaard, Jean-Luc Marion, and even some John Paul the Great.  We won’t be reading Buber, but he has plenty to say about all of this too.  

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

7 thoughts on “Contemporary European Philosophy Class”

  1. For a humorous — but profound — challenge to the notion that negative theology (or its Heideggarian or pomo avatars) represents the latest development in European philosophy (in contrast to, say, European theology), check out “The Ass Festival” (the title of an earlier manuscript for which is “On the Old Faith and the New”) in Book Four of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the Oxford UP Parkes translation). For a serious and sustained, but no less profound, challenge to such “ascetic self-contempt, self-derision of reason”, see the entirety of the Third Treatise of the Genealogy of Morality (the Hackett Clark/Swenson translation).

    And though Heidegger’s aggressive lack of interpretive probity towards Nietzsche is, I think, redeemed by its service to a deep and powerful critique of contemporary Western civilization, I nevertheless find it irresistibly tempting to apply Nietzsche to Heidegger by subjecting the latter’s infamous assertion in that late <Der Spiegel interview to a treatment akin to the diagnosis Nietzsche applies to Socrates (in “The Problem of Socrates”). In Heidegger’s case, I think the “Only a god can save us” remark captures a suspicious hankering for authority, for ravishment by the ineffable.


  2. The old pope to Zarathustra:

    ‘He who said, “God is spirit” — he took the greatest step and leap on earth so far toward unbelief: such a word is on earth not easily made good again!’

    But nor, I think Zarathustra might have quipped, is it easily gotten rid of.


  3. I don’t know that Heidegger has a ‘suspicious hankering for authority’ in any ordinary religious sense (which I read between the lines in Rob’s post). That said, he certainly has a thirst for ‘transcendence’ – though I hesitate to use even that word because of its metaphysical connotations. So the remark that ‘only a god can save us’ cannot really be understood in the terms of ordinary theology or religiousity. Heidegger wants what he calls ‘a god we can sing and dance to’ (metaphysical idols need not apply, and that includes the Xian God who has been overly identified with metaphysics and what has come to be called ‘ontotheology’). The kinds of gods Heidegger is talking about are beyond being and so are immune from Nz’s attack, Nz did not proclaim the death of them.
    Still, Rob is right that Heidegger looks for man to be shepherded by something beyond man. ‘Piety’ and ‘fidelity are important things for Heidegger, even if it remains unclear exactly what we should heed (Being, the task of thought, etc). Nz would have none of that. But this is not a count in favor of Nz, in my view. Rather it simply speaks to how metaphysical Nz is in his thought, how intimately connected he is to the ideas of freedom, autonomy, and mastery. (That is why Heidegger calls Nz the ‘last metaphysician’ and why I think he sometimes sounds very modern).


  4. Yes, Heidegger’s hankering is not of any ordinary religious sort, but the despairingly messianic register of that Der Spiegel remark crystallizes for me something that is deeply repellent in the demands his meticulously turgid prose makes upon the reader. I can’t find a better way to capture the sublimely refined kind of performative oppression his writing trades in than by contrasting it to how Nietzsche conceives of his own influence (BGE 295; EH, “Books”, 6):

    …the genius of the heart, that enriches everyone who has come into contact with it, not making them blessed or surprised, or leaving them feeling as if they have been gladdened or saddened by external goods; rather they are made richer in themselves, newer than before, broken open, blown on, and sounded out by a thawing wind…

    By the way, in case you might find this TLS letter to the editor as interesting as I did:

    Also, did you know that Terrence Malick translated Essense of Reasons before making films? I’ve been told that after a screening among philosophers (circa 1980s, presumably), he vaguely characterized Badlands as early-Heideggerian and Days of Heaven as late-Heideggarian… Still dying to catch The Ister:


  5. Heidegger’s writing is ‘performative oppression’? I’ve heard it called a lot of things, but never that! You are taking quite a lot from that one line in Der Spiegel (though he says similar things in other places). I actually think Heidegger is closer to Nz here than you think. Thinking is a task that is never complete, and Heidegger wanted no ‘followers’. Sure, he characterizes this more as ‘being on a way’ rather than being ‘broken open’, but I think there are important similarities here. Needless to say, I think you are way off the mark on Heidegger and his intended influence.
    If one thinks Nz is the be all and end all, then one probably thinks everyone after Nz misses the point. I appreciate Nz, but am eager to think not just with his critique but also beyond him. You might argue that any mention of something like ‘piety’, the ‘other’ (gods) or ‘fidelity’ necessarily involves religious weakness (‘despairing messianism’). To my mind, Nz’s idol (a metaphysics of freedom articulated in the will to power) is far more dangerous and ugly than any of the gods Heidegger is interested in. I think not only Heidegger, but also Levinas, totally expose the inadequacy of Nz’s thought in this regard.


  6. I don’t know that I understand your post, Vince. I am going to post a few thoughts to see if they get something started, but please clarify.

    Heidegger’s use of the word ‘Being’ is deceptive, because he means something by it that is completely different than what anyone before him had really meant by it. Being is not the first cause or the final cause of anything (that is onto-theology). For Heidegger, Being is not a being. In fact, I think Heideggerian ‘Being’ is more like ‘difference’ – it is that non-thing that lets things be seen as a this instead of a that.
    Your point about the ‘who of Dasein’ is important. Heidegger (and postmodernity) moves away from ‘what’ questions to ‘who’ questions. Hylomorphism (Aristotelian and probably Thomistic) still focuses on ‘what’ questions. This is why I raise the ‘who’ point above with respect to Thomas and the person. For many pomo thinkers (Levinas and Buber come to mind) and perhaps for Aquinas, the ‘who’ question (the question of the person) will take on a decidedly more relational tone.


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