Understanding Heidegger II Part One - Fritz the Cat

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Understanding Heidegger
Second Approximation  Part One

The fundamental 'distinction of Heidegger’s philosophy is that between  being and beings, which he called the ontological difference. It is easy enough to define beings, they are things, entities, everything in the world including the mental world, such as ideas, concepts, moods, attitudes, etc.  But being is a bit harder to pin down. Heidegger, quoting Parmenides, says it prefers to hide, indicating its ultimate unknowability. As far as I can tell, and for the purposes of this paper, I will define being as that which makes us the way we are.

If someone says to you "Don't do that", you know what it is that you did. If someone says "Don't be that way", your response is not so clear cut, because in "being that way" you probable haven't broken any clear cut rules. Rather than breaking any rules, you just haven't lived up to expectations. Something one would tell a child, or perhaps someone just learning the lover's game, for not sharing toys or for skulking.

"Being" is the results of cultural background beliefs and practices, the presuppositions and taken for granted things we learn without learning them. One example would be the "personal space", how close you stand to someone before you are too close. As culturally determined, cross cultural misapprehensions occur when a person from one culture moves closer to get into his comfort zone, while the person from the other culture backs away to maintain his, giving rise to the feeling that the other is cold or over familiar.  At the diplomatic level protocol officers make living guiding visiting dignitaries through these minefields.  Within a culture you learn these lessons with your mother's milk, at school, and for the socially ambitious there finishing schools to teach the cultural norms of a class not one's own.

It should be no surprise that a finishing school graduate is soon known as such to the practiced eye, for how could any amount of schooling substitute for a lifetime's emersion in a culture? This is the point which led Heidegger to break away from previous social theorists. His theory was that previous theory, if not fundamentally mistaken, was at least inadequate to the task, for how could any theory do anything but muddle and short change any concrete real life lived experience? How could any theory encompass reality? For Heidegger, the riddle of existence could only be answered by existing.

Heidegger wrote a theory questioning theory, a theory to end all theories so to speak. Is this a paradox, a contradiction in terms, illogical, or what? Heidegger wrote a rational argument questioning rationality. The logic of his argument led him to dismiss logic, or rather to say that Aristotle's logic was only one of many possible logics. Perhaps it was something in the air, because at the same time Einstein, influenced by Riemann’s non-Euclidian geometry, proved mathematically that things were not as they seemed.

Recall that Euclid described how lines and angles behaved on a flat (plane) surface, while Riemann described how they behaved on another mathematically described surface that was not flat, that was donut shaped, saddle shaped, something. Both systems were internally consistent and invariable for the surface they described. Euclid created a system that was immensely beneficial for the real world, even though the real world was not flat. Tangible benefits such as surveying land (indispensable for private ownership), and intangible ones such as teaching elite young boys, for 20 centuries, the value of precision, logic, memorization, rote learning and internal consistency.

Useful as these habits of mind were in solving technical problems, they were of little use in solving Greece's social problems.  Increasingly these problems revolved around polytheism´s tendency to create more gods than it could consume, and the tendency of these gods to act human, all too human.  When humanity was still in its hunter-gatherer phase the creation of gods, probably resulting from an innate need to beg and push our problems off onto someone else, was self-limiting due to the short life span of tribes which depended on the unforced benevolence of Mother Nature (more like stepmother) to give them this day their daily roots and berries.

However, when the newly discovered trick of planting seeds instead of eating them caught on, tribes began to prosper and then bump up against one another. They soon discovered that their neighbors preferred to worship a different all powerful god than them, leading to scuffles, sometimes bloody, and worse, the puzzling paradox of two all-powerful gods. Suggestions that the people fight it out to see which god was more all-powerful met with enthusiasm from the more belligerent types, but a complaint of "what do we pay tithes for" from the more business oriented.

Turmoil reigned for some centuries until some clever fellow, Abraham gets credit, figured out that there was actually only one god. This solution so enthused his fellow tribesmen that they were unbeatable in battle.  Word of this one god idea got back to the Greeks who could see the advantages it held, but were reluctant to take a barbarian's word for it. The idea just sat around for quite a while. Eventually another clever fellow, Aristotle gets credit, fooling around with his newly invented logos, trying  to figure out how Euclid did what he did with numbers, applied the logos to motion, just to see what would happen.

The Greeks had a tough time with motion. Recall the paradox of the arrow in flight. At each instant it is stationary, but it reaches its target in a remarkably short time. Or the race between the tortoise and the hare, which revolves around a similar logic. Both revolved around the Greek solution to the riddle of time. They watched the sun rise end set, the tides come and go, the seasons, birth and death, etc., and the first thing they did to explain it was to name it. Time.  The clever fellows, who sat around figuring out problems, eating up the public tax Drachma, couldn't go any further, so they sent it to committee, in those days handled by a god, in his case Chronos.

The gods had been around since time out of mind.  It would seem they appeared around the same time as the first inexplicable problem, fire. Fire was great, once you got used to it. It was associated with rain, another inexplicable problem pushed into committee. It seemed they were fighting. First it rained, then fire came out of the sky to dry it up, then more rain came to put out the fire. To play it safe early man worshipped both, which in those days amounted to assuming a position of utmost submission, as our animal ancestors do to this day. The battle between the rain god and the fire god as settled when some clever fellow, Prometheus gets credit, figured out how man himself could make fire and keep the home fire burning, thus not needing is assume the position and wait for more fire to fall from the sky. Pissed, of course, and vindictive, the gods water boarded him into eternity, or so the story goes.

The great river valleys of the world, the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris Euphrates in Babylonia (today Iraq), and the Indus in India, became the cradles of the first civilizations. Just as early man had learned the secret of fire and so freed himself from abject servility before the fire god, so the river civilizations learned the secret of irrigation and freed themselves from a rain god, Gradually, as man began to recognize his difference from and superiority to everything that surrounded him, be began first to give human characteristics to things of nature (anthropomorphism), and later to create gods in his own image, which we probably wouldn't be too far off the mark in calling self-worship.

Having retained the lessons learned while still part of animal kingdom, the most insistent and enduring remains "the big dog eats first", early man elevated to deity status as god of war its most powerful tribes man, who led them in looting and pillaging, and sometimes eating their neighbors, theft being another survival mechanism learned while in the animal state.

In Greece Chronos, the impersonal god of time, fathered Zeus, the first war lord god, who then proceeded to eat his father, surely proof positive of his superiority, Soon a whole pantheon of gods populated Mt. Olympus, some kind of half-way house between heaven and earth, as each earthly faction projected its ideal image into ethereality, the shepherd´s pan, the sailor's Poseidon, the women's Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.

Agriculture produced a goddess and not a god, and matriarchy and not patriarchy because of the mystical connection between female fertility and agricultural fertility. Matriarchy was eclipsed by patriarchy due to the former's inability to raise a warrior cult to protect it from the predation of the latter, and the gradual acquisition of the techniques that insured good harvests.

It is with the gradual acquisition of technique that we can return to Heidegger.  Heidegger felt that the original question of being had between proceeding nicely until  Socrates and his apologist Plato took the love of understanding they inherited from their predecessors, Heraclitus and Parmenides stand out, and turned it into the love of making things. Recall that Plato's system's foundation was the "idea", which he also called "form". These ideas, or forms existed in an eternal, unchanging world that man could access through the faculty of the understanding mind that Plato called intuition (nous). Intuition itself came with the mastery of definitions. In Plato's most famous explication of the idea he used a bed as an example. The highest, most exalted, eternal bed existed in the realm of ideas. The next lower level existed in the mind of the carpenter in the form of a model or representation of this ideal or eternal bed which he had put together using the definitions of a bed. The third, lowest example of a bed was the material entity that the carpenter made and someone actually slept in.

This incipient science Plato passed along to his most illustrious pupil, Aristotle, the great categorizer and systematizer of nature, science's first steps. All important in his system was logic (logos): the relationships among propositions, their implications, contradictions, conversions and outcomes, and in general, correct reasoning. Aristotle used his system of logic to understand Euclid´s geometry and later applied it to motion, as mentioned and seemingly dropped several pages back.

Motion was quite a problem for Plato's unchanging, eternal and inherently static world of ideas. Perhaps his predecessor's view of reality, as ceaseless change (you can't step into the same river twice) and becoming had an answer that has been lost.  Motion was important because to the early Greeks it was the defining characteristic of life. All living things moved, did they not? Aristotle finessed the problem of motion into the problem of the moved thing. Anything moved must be moved by something, right? Shoving that into committee, it was the gods that moved things. But what moved the gods, then? Aristotle's logic demanded a first principle, a foundation to reason from, to build off of. An unmoved mover. Voila! Eureka! With Aristotle's unparalleled command of Greek definitions he immediately intuited the connection between this unmoved mover and the old Semitic idea of one supreme god.  They were one and the same!  At last, that desirable proposition of a supreme being could be lifted from the barbarian's superstitious system and inserted Into Greek rationality. But quietly, Socrates death was still a fresh memory. Indeed, Aristotle later fled into exile to avoid Socrates' fate.

Aristotle’s' logic, Euclid's geography, and the grammar of both the Greek and Roman languages have been the bedrock of the West's elite educational system right up into the 20th century. What these all have in common is being closed systems that are internally coherent and invariable. They were in tension with the other pole of Western civilization, Hebraic revealed religion and its associated ethical system, obviously not a closed system, not internally consistent, and not invariable. As these two systems developed along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, first under Greek influence and later under Roman domination, the Greek pole of technique steadily advanced over the Hebraic ethical pole. This new incipient proto scientific logical system encouraged new ways of thought: experimentation, openness to the new, collection of data, thinking for yourself.

When the Romans later came to dominate the southern shore of the Mediterranean, these two poles began to influence each other.  Residents of Greek colonies that had been overcome and annexed by the Jewish state were given the right to claim a quasi-Jewish identity. One of these was Saul, an educated Greek who worked for the Romans as a tax collector. One day while going to Damascus to render up an account of his tax collection (rumors suggests malfeasance), Saul was struck  by the blinding realization that a particular cult that he had been collecting taxes from possessed, potentially, a solution to some of the problems facing the polytheistic world.

Their problems were many and seemingly all derived from worshiping gods that were outdated. Gods and goddesses who fornicated with wild abandon, with animals, with their children and parents, with each other's wives and husbands, with humans, gods that ate each other, gods that required human sacrifice.  Worst of all, the polytheistic citizens, who Saul knew intimately from his tax collection duties, used these god's behavior to justify their own.

Saul also knew the Jews. He was one, sort of. He knew the Jews profited greatly from their religion, the discipline, the sobriety, the solidarity brought about by worshipping one god. Incest was unknown, and adultery was punished by death. But to ask a polytheist to become more like the Jews was impossible. They didn't like each other. They had been fighting for centuries. The Jews were stand offish and had strict and constraining laws, and they didn't eat pork, blessed pork.

But perhaps a new religion, keep the best of the Jew's ideas, especially the supreme being-unmoved mover one, soften some of the restrictions, like pork (what god has made clean), adultery (cast the first stone), cannibalism, (this is my body), spiritualize god-human sex, one last human sacrifice to end them all, fire a bunch of gods and demote the rest. Everything could be worked out. Throw in a little sweetener, what was it these Christ worshippers believed about going to live with the gods after death?

As mentioned earlier, Heidegger, founder of the atheistic pole of existentialism, was intensely interested in the daily lived experience of the early Christians, just as Soren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855) founder of the theistic pole of existentialism, was intensely interested in the daily lives of the early Jews. Both men had at one time dedicated their lives to teaching their respective faiths, but had then broken with that faith. Kierkegaard felt that the established faith in Denmark was Christian in name only, having drifted away from the teaching of its founder, Jesus Christ, and in fact was only a social club for the self-satisfied middle class of Copenhagen. Heidegger felt that the Catholic church hierarchy’s unshakeable insistence on its unchanging dogma was both a mistake and a roadblock to the further development of both the church and its members. Heidegger was also an intense student of the life and work of Martin Luther and surely the most informed Catholic on the great reformer's life and work.

The common thread in all these interests was the conversion experience, surely something existentialism had to understand before human existence could be fathomed, and for Heidegger at least, something that had to be understood without any supernatural, transcendental influences. Both men were theologians (the logic of god) well versed in the Christian conversion literature, primarily the Acts of the Apostles and Paul´s various letters. In addition Heidegger had studied the Christian mystical experience, especially that of his fellow German, Meister Eckhart. Heidegger felt that the mystical state or trance had much in common with the early Christian conversion experience.

The Christian conversion experience was vouchsafed by the pouring out into the new convert of the Holy Spirit, imparting the worldly benefits of comfort, confidence, fearlessness, and wisdom. The divinity of Christ was taken as beyond doubt and his resurrection from the dead as a true reality. In addition were given such supernatural gifts as the power to heal, and the ability to converse in unknown languages.  The mystical trance state, to the degree it is spoken of at all, is described as bliss beyond words, peace that passes understanding, the utter conviction of the oneness and wholeness of the world, and the complete disregard for any distinction or discrimination between things, including man and the supernatural.

Heidegger also made intense study of the various Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism, but also Taoism and Confucianism.  He worked for over a year with a top Japanese scholar of Confucius on a translation of the I Ching, a Confucian book of wisdom and divination.  Japanese receptivity to Heidegger's thought is shown by the seven translations of Heidegger’s masterpiece, Being and Time, into the Japanese language.

Heidegger’s thought and that of Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen, are close in several respects. First, both maintain that inauthenticity, or suffering, arises from viewing oneself in a restricted manner:  as an isolated ego craving security, avoiding pain, and seeking distraction. Both maintain that the "self" is not a thing, but rather an openness or nothingness in which the incessant play of phenomena can occur.

Renzai Zen (like the early Heidegger) emphasizes resoluteness in the face of the ego's resistance to transformation, while Soto Zen (like the later Heidegger) maintains that enlightenment can only be cultivated by "letting things be" in everyday life. They share the belief that "authenticity" or "salvation" lie in becoming the nothingness that we already are, such that we are open to and responsive to the phenomena that show up moment to moment in everyday life.

I have spent much time in the first part of my second approximation of understanding Heidegger in my take on the history and pre-history of religion, and touched on Heidegger only in passing. Heidegger, it would seem, started as a theologian, turned to philosophy, and toward the end of his career returned to theology. Theology is, of course, metaphysical. Why did this man, arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, who had vowed to rid the world of metaphysics, return to theology in his old age? Theology and philosophy are both attempts to unravel the riddle of man, philosophy from the inside and theology from the outside.  Did Heidegger, in his old age, despair of explaining the enigma that we are in self-contained and internally consistent terms?

There is in Heidegger being, beings, and Being, this last always capitalized in the manner that the West always capitalizes the God of Abraham and Jacob, and does not when referring to pagan gods or primitive gods. Heidegger's "Letter On Humanism", his much belated apology or rationalization or excuse for his inexcusable behavior during WW2, contains the pronouncement that "only a god can save us now". Not the God of d Abraham, but a god, a new god. Perhaps to be capitalized if it performs as advertised.

Heidegger’s life and work could possibly be clarified as his reaction to two events in modern times:  the lingering illness and final death of God, as announced by Nietzsche, and two unspeakably brutal wars during Heidegger’s life that put to question, if indeed not putting a full stop to, all talk of humanity’s progress, rationality, and perfectibility.

Especially troubling to Heidegger and anyone else who gives serious thought to the subject, was the rounding up like cattle, and the shipping and killing like cattle, of a religious minority by the religious majority, seemingly for the crime of trying to get ahead. If what the Jewish call the Shoah, the disaster, and what the gentiles call the Holocaust, the total destruction or the burnt offering, if this were an isolated event in the 20th century, we could blame German barbarism. That won’t do. The Russian Army stood outside Warsaw while the German Army annihilated a much belated Jewish resistance to being treated like animals, the Russians seemingly not wanting to be contested in their domination and subjugation of Poland by a heroic, indigenous opposition.

The predictable behavior of two totalitarian nations, perhaps?  Democratic Britain and the United States flew thousands of bombing missions over Germany, reducing the entire nation to rubble, yet couldn´t be bothered to blow up the rail lines to the extermination camps. A distraction from the war effort is the explanation coming from Supreme headquarters. This when the German Army was collapsing on all fronts, Patton's tanks raced across Germany all but unimpeded, and the crème of the U.S. Army raced, to the Bavarian Alps, to Hitler's Eagle’s Nest, to be the first to get their hands on the treasure that the Nazis had looted in their rampage across Europe. At least the Nazi's Visigoth and Vandal ancestors had left the Romans their lives.

The Jews are not an isolated example. Earlier in the 20th century the Turks had massacred one or two million Christian Armenians, This while the west was occupied sending its young men charging machine gun nests.  Tens of thousands of casualties a day, hundreds of thousands dead fighting over a few miles of ground.  What could they have been thinking of? And the young men, indoctrinated with notions of honor, duty, glory, the mother land. Words. Within the last 20 years in Central Africa the dominant Tutsi minority was chopped to pieces with axes by a Hutu majority tired of subjugation. Tribalism, true. But are not the Turks and Germans tribes? And the English and Americans tribes, in a way?

Is there some form of mass insanity that overcomes humanity under conditions of pressure caused by overpopulation? This condition is demonstrable in laboratory conditions with rats. Culture overcomes nature, we are taught, Hobbes, close to the 30 Year's War between Protestants and Catholics that wiped large swaths of Europe clear of civilization, spoke of man bloody in tooth and claw, and of a war of all against all. A little later Locke spoke of utilitarianism being man's guiding light. The thought that annihilation as useful is more than just a little depressing. Primo Levy, one of the most articulate of the death camp survivors, came to the conclusion that those Jews who were the most solicitous of the welfare of others were the first to die, and only those who made some kind of pact with the Nazi devils were likely to survive. Self-knowledge, far from a Socratic ideal, is more like a poisoned chalice, and sometimes fatal. Primo Levy committed suicide. He could survive hell, but not himself.

Heidegger spoke of a Western civilization that had misfired with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But he also spoke of western civilization’s mission, which must be completed. What this mission might be I have no idea. Heidegger spoke of modern man not feeling at home in the world.  I'm starting to understand that, having drunk from Socrates' poisoned chalice. Periodic waves of mass murder going on in the room next door does not make for a comfortable home. Sooner or later someone will kick down the door.

In this first part of my second approximation to Heidegger I have added my penny's worth to the deconstruction going on in the postmodern world. In the next part I will (hopefully) look at Heidegger's contribution to that deconstruction. Heidegger presented himself as a revolutionary in the face of Western metaphysical assumptions regarding thinking (as representation), time (as eternity), nature (as substance), truth (as correctness), and language (as conceptual). Stick with me while I try to puzzle these out. Then comes the hard part.

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