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.