Monday, November 22, 2010

Quotation for the Day

In my spare time, when not reading academically motivated texts, I am currently reading Chalmers Johnson's book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. So far it is an exceptional, if rather depressing and disturbing, book. In the course of reading it I came upon a quotation from Hannah Arendt discussing Eichmann and the banality of evil which I thought I would share:

"However monsterous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect... was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Heidegger's "Evening Conversation"

As tends to happen, the SPEP discounts led to an influx of new books at my home. Amongst them are Tracy Colony's translation of Heidegger's 1920 lecture course Phenomenology of Intuition and Expression, Richard Capobianco's Engaging Heidegger, and Bret Davis' translation of Heidegger's Country Path Conversations. It is this last text I would like to briefly discuss now.

I had heard Davis discuss the process of translating the Country Path Conversations while at the meeting of the Heidegger Circle this past May and so had been looking forward to getting my hands on the book. As Davis tells us in his Afterword, Heidegger wrote these dialogues in the winter of 1944-45 when World War II was drawing to its end. We are familiar in translation with the nature of these dialogues primarily from "Conversations on a Country Path" which appears in the Discourse on Thinking and consists of a portion of the larger "Triadic Conversation" which is the first of the three dialogues in Davis' translation.

When I received the book I went immediate to the final dialogue entitled "Evening Conversation: In a Prisoner of War Camp in Russian, between a Younger and an Older Man". Although these dialogues represent an essential move in the changes in Heidegger's thought which occurred throughout the 30s and 40s, I have to admit that what drew me to this last dialogue was more of a historical and biographical than a strictly philosophical interest. Heidegger's sons were held in a Russian prisoner of war camp and were, I believe, still being so held at the time when he wrote this dialogue. If ever there was to be an insight into Heidegger's feelings towards the catastrophic events through which the world passed during the 30s and 40s it would, I felt, be found here. I was not, I feel, disappointed. This dialogue, which is born from a sudden feeling of healing experienced by a younger prisoner, becomes a meditation upon healing, waiting, devastation, malice and rage as well as the question of the identity of a people and the problem of nationalism. In the course of it Heidegger, although not in his own voice, offers us some of the most direct expressions of his feelings towards Nazis Germany I have seen (the places where he claimed to have struggled in thought against the Nazis during the 1930s, for example in his Nietzsche lectures and his Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), tend to be far less transparent.) If, however, we want to mention some elements of philosophical import I was particularly struck by the way in which the dialogue identifies the concept of a nation and the connected nationalism with subjectivism and the dominance of an interest in "work for the sake of increased possibility of work".

Here then are a few striking moments, without further comment on my part, from the dialogue:

"Older Man: ...And what is not all wounded and torn apart in us? - us, for whom a blinded leading-astray of our own people is too deplorable to permit wasting a complaint on, despite the devastation that covers our native soil and its helplessly perplexed humans."

"Older Man: This waiting people would - especially during a time when its essence still eludes it, and precisely because of this still unexperienced waiting essence - be endangered like no other.
Younger Man: And indeed, this people would be endangered not by threats from outside, but rather by the fact that it would tyrannize itself with its own ignorant impatience, and so would spur itself on to continual mistakes.
Older Man: And it would even do all this in the opinion that it is thereby following its essence, which would have to finally fight to win recognition from the side of other peoples.
Younger Man: While in fact this rash pseudo-essence remains a perpetually maldroit imitation of the foreign.
Older Man: It this people were to ever become a people that waits, then it would have to remain indifferent to whether others listen to it or not.
Younger Man: This people could also never, so long as it would know its essence, insist on its waiting essence as on a special calling and distinction.
Older Man: You mean that by becoming those who wait, we first become German?
Younger Man: Not only is this what I mean - since early this morning, it is what I know. Yet we will not become German so long as we plan to find 'the German' by means of analyzing our supposed 'nature'. Entangled in such intentions we merely chase after what is national, which, after all, as the word says, insists on what is naturally given.
Older Man: Why do you speak so severely against the national?
Younger Man: The idea of the nation is that representation in whose circle-of-vision a people bases itself on itself as a foundation given from somewhere, and makes itself into a subject. And to this subject everything then appears as what is objective, which means that everything appears only in the light of its subjectivity.
Older Man: Nationality is nothing other than the pure subjectivity of a people that purports to rely on its 'nature' as what is actual, from out of which and back to which all effecting is supposed to go.
Younger Man: Subjectivity has its essence in that the human - the individual, groups, and the realms of humanity - rises up to base itself on himself and to assert himself as the ground and measure of what is actual. With this rebellious uprising into subjectivity emerges the uprising into work as that form of achieving by means of which the devastation of the earth is everywhere prepared for and ultimately established as unconditional.
Young Man: The national and international are so decidedly the selfsame that both, by basing themselves on subjectivity and insisting on what is actual, know just as little - and above all can know just as little - whose business it is that they are incessantly conducting.
Older Man: The business of the devastation, and that means of work for the sake of increased possibilities for work. Thus we cannot become German - which means those who poetize and think, that is, those who wait - so long as we chase after the German in the sense of something national."

"Younger Man: And for a long time this may perhaps be the sole content of our teaching: the need and the necessity of the unnecessary."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Snapshots from SPEP, Montreal

I am back from this year's meeting of SPEP (The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) in Montreal. Montreal is a wonderful city and, as always, SPEP was very enjoyable. In fact, I have found that attending SPEP in the fall of each year re-energizes and refocuses me for the coming year. Unsurprisingly there was far too much going on to share it all but here are some brief highlights for anyone who is interested.

I got to see Charles Taylor discuss the possibility of conversation across religious boundaries and between theists and atheists. Although I am not particularly interested in theology or the new atheism, I found actually watching Taylor speak very fulfilling. I am a fan of much of his work and have presented papers expanding upon some of what he has done. In person he is exceptionally clear, direct, and likable.

I never miss a chance to see Babette Babich present. Not only are her papers always insightful, complex and thought provoking, her presentation style is entrancing such that every paper presentation counts as an artistic creation in its own right. Her paper addressed the ancient models for Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and ended with the suggestion that the work can be read such that Zarathustra is undergoing the process of dying throughout the work. I intend to reread Zarathustra with this in mind.

Peg Birmingham's Andre Schuwer Lecture on Arendt and Hobbes was also very enjoyable. She suggested that the will to Life is over emphasized in most readings of Hobbes' work and that, instead, much of what drives violence and social tension is the will to Glory. This, in turn, becomes the engine of social order insofar as what the state offers is not just protection for our lives (interestingly if we only cared about life security the state would be unable to provide it, as no one would be willing to risk their lives to fight for the state) but instead the chance for a meaningful death through sacrifice to the state rather than a lowly brutish death without glory as occurs in the state of nature. Hannah Arendt comes into play in the attempt to think through a non-sacrificial model for political action. Oddly enough what I was most struck by in the discussion of Arendt, however, was the extent to which her thinking in the 1940s associated the formation of a political people with the willingness to engage in violence and sacrifice. In general I am now interested in rethinking my previous engagements with Arendt.

Two papers were given by friends of mine who had also attended the University of South Florida for graduate school. West Gurley, who now teaches at Sam Houston State University, presented his paper "Reconsidering what it is to Pay Attention: Heidegger and Letting-Be-Ness" and Jessica Williams, who is still working on her Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, presented her paper "Kant and the Ideological Effect of Judgment".

Gurley's paper argued that empirical attention studies have limited themselves to an intentionality derived conception of attention which assumed all attention to be divisible into subject and object poles. Such a model ignores, however, a more primordial state of attention when no object is focused upon but rather an openness is maintained within which alone subjects and objects can arise. Gurley further suggested that the limitation of attention studies to subject-object models may originate from the dominance of calculative thought as presented in Heidegger's "Memorial Address".

William's paper traced the influence of Kant's judgments of beauty and reflective judgments on contemporary discussions of ideology as found in Zizek and Jameson. Based upon the details of the relation between Kant's First and Third Critiques Williams then pointed out the limitations of the conception of ideology found in both Zizek and Jameson.

My own paper "Pushing the Hegelian Front: On Heidegger's Renovation of Dilthey" went well and I was very pleased with the audience, both in terms of the turn out and several of the people who specifically showed up. Presenting at SPEP is always a great honor, especially because it gives one the chance to present one's work to many people who have been essentially influential upon the formation of that very work. I had anticipated, and desired, more of the question and answer period to deal with interpretations of Hegel and Dilthey as well as their influence upon Heidegger but it mainly revolved around my ongoing project of developing an interpretation of Heidegger as "Realist-Historicist". Having noted that very sympathetic listeners often agree with my interpretation of Heidegger but object to my use of the terms "realism" and "historicism" I have decided that, in the process of translating my dissertation into a book, I need to better explain and justify my use of these terms. Admittedly, Heidegger himself rejected these terms when discussing them individually and believed himself to have escaped the epistemic picture which necessitated the divide between, for example, realism and idealism. But I do think my position is provocatively and productively different from standard understandings of either realism or historicism and is true to Heidegger's actual concerns and insights. I will be posting some brief thoughts which begin to organize some of my reflections on this matter soon by way of brainstorming for additions to the introduction to my book.

The paper which followed mine was by Francois Jaran and concerned the influence of Rickert upon Heidegger's turn to history in 1912. I found his paper to be both fascinating and very historically careful. It powerfully made the argument that Heidegger's first engagement with the work of Dilthey provoked in him resistance to the priority of history in Dilthey's work due to Heidegger's own interest in the seemingly ahistorical nature of mathematics. It took a real involvement with Rickert's Neo-Kantian conception of the history of philosophy as a history of problems for Heidegger to gain enough interest in history to re-evaluate Dilthey's importance.