Understanding Heidegger II Part two - Fritz the Cat

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Understanding Heidegger
Second Approximation  Part Two

Heidegger presented himself as a revolutionary in the face of Western metaphysical assumptions regarding time (as eternity), nature (as substance), thinking (as representation), truth (as correctness), and language (as conceptual). To be a revolutionary one must profoundly alter existing cultural institutions, not, as in most wars, merely replace one set of leaders with another. If we take "being" to be that which makes us the way we are, and as a set of unquestioned, unmentioned cultural background understandings, then those five items listed above may help make more concrete the abstract idea of being. The very thought (destined for the rack) of the truth (to the rack) of any of these words (to the rack) is enough to shake ones confidence in reality.

But what is reality? One of Heidegger's key concepts is that of Dasein's "thrownness" into this world. I take this to be more or the less the same as the Mahayana Buddhist concept of "emptiness", that man is not created and has no immutable or individualistic character. Heidegger sees Dasein (being-there, man's particular and exclusive type, mode, quality of being) as being thrown into the world not of his making, surrounded from infancy by rules, norms, understandings, and a myriad of things to make sense of if he is to become a competent member of the culture he was born into, born into the very beating heart of a culture constantly changing, always already different at every instant, always already the same as it always was.

Fortunately the new born is surrounded by a world of helpers anxious and sometimes overly anxious to help him make the world cohere. This brings us to another of Heidegger's key words, the "they" or the "one". "They¨ begin from day one to comfort the little one newly departed from its Nirvana of amniotic fluid and umbilical cord, and teach it not only to breathe and eat for itself, but to act so as to fit into its surroundings with minimal disruption. Ideally, for any culture, there is one way to do things. In reality a certain amount of flexibility is allowed and even encouraged in modern societies if a culture is not to remain static while the rest of the world moves on. But flexibility is not needed, wanted or allowed for the little one. He will learn eventually that freedom is taken and not given, but for now his totalitarian surroundings suit him just fine, thank you.

At some point the little one is encouraged to quit "being a child", or to quit "acting like a child", and the hammer blows of estrogen and testosterone impose a sort of atavistic pulpal metamorphosis to ensure the things of childhood are left behind, including the certainties of the "they". Along with breasts or a beard comes an adolescent rejection of nearly everything, including everything "they" try to impose. One becomes an individual, unique. But of course that doesn't happen, regardless of what one tells oneself. One merely becomes part of a new they, of one's peer group instead of one's elders. Whether it is nature or nurture that powers this change into sameness need not detain or worry us here. It is what it is. What will be will be.

Adolescent rebellion does not stop with adulthood, but it does lose some of the adolescent certainty that was a holdover from childhood. In varying degrees one chooses not to act as one should, as they expect you to, but in a manner to suit oneself, regardless of what they say or think.
Recall the Old Testament Jews demanding that their God place a king over them, like all their neighbors had. God wanted them to grow up and stop acting like children, but even an all-powerful god apparently lacks the power to make children grow up against their will, so god made Solomon king. If, counterfactually, the Jews had not been given a king, and had been forced to act like adults, and take responsibility for their actions, would the Old Testament have been filled with the societal version of the adult emotion known as anxiety? Anxiety is another major facet of Heidegger's theory, a free floating, generalized worry about something threatening, not something particular approaching one, which would result in a rational fear. Something vague, unknown, perhaps unknowable, that doesn't approach, but surrounds one, ever present and all pervading. For Heidegger, the source of anxiety is the transgression of what one does, and what they say. It is the price of one's individualization. For the price of leaving the beaten path and striking off into the unknown all alone are unforeseeable. The possibility of more than the mere appearance of madness lurks, which is why most challenges to the authority of the they are incremental, tentative, reformation, not revolution, the work of a bureaucrat and not a prophet. Not without reason, as William Blake's long suffering wife knew as she set an empty dinner plate before him, these "mind forged manacles" are necessary not only for social cohesion but, apparently, for social and personal existence as well. Focus on the visionary for too long and you run out of food. Wander alone in the wilderness and you can, perhaps, live off locusts and wild honey, but a tribe needs manna from heaven, and even then recalls the flesh pots of slavery.

Heidegger’s vision of the New Jerusalem rested, interestingly, not on some imagined or logically deduced pie-in-the-sky eternally true and necessary utopia as dreamers from Moses to Marx had proposed. Nor were the benefits to be enjoyed by ones distant descendants. Heidegger, following Nietzsche, chose to put at the both the base of his structure and at its very pinnacle the complete opposite, finitude, not to be worshiped, certainly, but to be recognized and esteemed. Not the eternal, changeless god of Abraham and Jacob; not god made flesh, not Marx's classless and stateless society; not Hegel's Absolute Spirit of History; but the actual, concrete event that comes and goes in the blink-of-an-eye, that very event that is happening at any given moment to everyone on earth, to every individual on earth, both the same and different. Different because everyone is different, and the same because everyone is the same.

Think of your life as a story. Start with a blank page. Goo-goos turn into da-das and ma-mas, and form sentences, and then paragraphs, the pages turn and every now and again we start a new chapter. Every sentence ends in a period. All past sentences, paragraphs, pages and chapters lead up to that period. That period forces us not to reflect on all that has come previously, but to be all that has come previously, in the blink-of-an-eye. We are summed up in every instant, and in every instant we prepare the ground for our future being. Heidegger encourages us not to be "beach reads", merely distracting ourselves while we wait for the next distraction. Not to be formulaic page turners, all structured the same from book to book with familiar villains and familiar heroes repeating familiar stock in trade episodes endlessly.

The period at the end of the sentence that is now. The one moment we have. The story we have been and the story we will be meet at that period. We alone determine what the story we have been means. The past is not immutable. It is not even past. We drag it around like a viscous liquid follows an object drug through it.  Some people live in the past, more´s the pity. They think the past is over and done with, fixed like a photograph. No! By the simple expedient of reinterpreting the past, we change it. This is the heart of Freud´s psychoanalysis. Unfortunately Freud chose a one-size-fits-all, quasi metaphysical, theory laden formulaic, psycho-sexual beach read to sell to his followers. Heidegger, on the other hand, insists that existence is not an eternal verity, not to be cataloged or categorized, not to be taken for granted, constantly changing and constantly the same, not to be pinned down like an insect in a collection box, yours and not quite all yours. Suggesting and demanding. Here today and gone tomorrow.

The West's notion of time could hardly be more opposed. Past, present, future, and less explicitly in our secular culture, eternity, are the categories of time. The present, which should equate to Heidegger’s moment, is never treated rigorously, but allowed to blur into last week or later today. The razor's edge where past meets future is dulled, that one still point that everything revolves around is lost. Past as history is lived and relived in pride or remorse or willed forgetfulness. The future is anticipated or dreaded or merely accepted. Eternity is increasingly discounted in the modern world, and even among believers it hardly gets the attention it once did. Living in the moment, in the beating heart of being, in the very white hot heat of existence is seen as shallow, not serious, lacking in gravitas and dignity. They say working and planning for the future is what one ought to do. In thrall to the future, in Blake's mind formed manacles.

Looming large in Heidegger's rogue's gallery is Rene Descartes, mathematician and philosopher, forger of the manacle of correct representation as truth. Descartes is a super hero of mathematics, creator of analytic geometry and the Cartesian coordinate system with its x and y axis, say x being speed and y being time equals a position on the graph. Descartes most-enduring philosophical proposition being the replacement of God as Supreme Being and first principle in Aristotelian logic, with mind as creator of truth through the correct representation of external reality with its corresponding concept.

Descartes "I think, therefore I am", end result of his thought experiment where he proposed to doubt everything, is the scientific secular Enlightenment establishment's replacement of the logic of god with the logic of mind, giving rationality the exalted position from which everything must be deduced, and bringing man's disguised self-worship a step further out of the shadows, dragging with it man's self-deception. Changing everything and changing nothing. Replacing the priest as god's representative on earth with the scientist as truth's representative on earth.  God, priest, science and truth all having feet of clay.

Blasphemy! Not against the old god of course, hardly anyone assuming that position any more, but against the rational mind and its handmaidens, truth and science. But what is truth? Already an old question when Pontius Pilot put it to Jesus at the beginning of his passion, Descartes and his followers claim that the truth is the correct correspondence of a concept in the mind with the phenomena in reality it purports to represent, the truth as representation claim.

If, as logical first principle, rationality could not be questioned, on pain of infinite regress (justification has to stop somewhere), it can at least be required to meet the standards it sets for the rest of creation. Nietzsche questioned the scientific validity of truth as representation and found it wanting. If religion could merely claim "god's ways are mysterious", and leave it at that, science's self-conception didn't allow it that enviable option.

Science is the analysis of problems. Theoretically an insolvable problem can be broken down into as many pieces and parts as necessary to make each piece solvable, then reassembled according to the rules of logic, the end result being the truth. Nietzsche and later Heidegger questioned the assumptions behind this theory. Was it true, or reasonable to assume that a problem could be disassembled and reassembled and remain the same problem? Was it true or reasonable to assume that this analysis separated the problem at its true joints and the truth claims attached to these parts were the only ones possible? Was it true or rational to assume the infallibility of the physical instruments in getting whatever  electro magnetic impulses chosen from the object of investigation converted into chemical impulses in the brain of the scientist? Infallible the path through the mind-brain into the concept? Concept into word?

What about this logical assumption that the first premise of logic needs no justification? True, justification must stop somewhere, on pain of infinite regress, if deduction is to have a starting point. What is it about first principles that put them beyond question? This is an enviable position, to be sure, but one that is neither rational nor logical, if rationality and logic are required to meet the requirements that they set for the rest of us.

Recall that the Old Testament god, who early on could not even be named, put himself beyond question by declaring "I am what I am". Perhaps the Hebrew religion is the set of deductions derived from that first premise?  And a later group of malcontents set forth a new first principle:
¨The law is made for man, and not man for the law", and the history of Christianity is the set of deductions, derived under the direction of the church elders, primarily St. Augustine and later St. Thomas Aquinas, who knew the work of Aristotle, from that first principle? Is not the Catholic Pope, under certain circumstances, able to declare himself infallible, and would these ex cathedra statements entail a new set of logical deductions? Is not the U.S. Congress exempt from the laws it makes? Is the U.S. Constitution a first principle from which deductions can be derived?

Perhaps I have just been playing with words here, but as I examined in "My first trip to Heideggerland: Derrida's ¨On Grammatology¨", words interconnected by a fragile tension of sameness and difference are our only safety net, below that the abyss of nihilism. I have just laid out my layman's version of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger's much more nuanced interpretation of Plato's and Aristotle's take on truth.

Nietzsche and Heidegger are the foundation of post-modernism, an important, current philosophical school. Should this school catch on, and other professional philosophers put truth on the rack and make it confess its many sins, all bets are off. Behind truth stand other of Plato's and Aristotle's contributions to Western civilization: the essence of the soul, motion, place, time, friendship, justice, the state, man, and more.

I took a brief look at Aristotle's conception of motion in this paper. Perhaps it was plausible in his day. Surely all that preserved it over the ages was Aristotle's early entry into a wide open field, and the prestige accruing to anything long lasting, even if through inertia. The logical necessity of an unmoved mover hardly seems a solid enough base to support every law written for the past two millennia, but that is all we have since the French and American revolutions put an end to the divine right of kings.

The rational mind seems a thin reed to be supporting such a mighty structure as Western civilization, but there you have it.  Only a madman would knock the props out from under the civilization he depends on, but the last century has displayed madmen aplenty. Heidegger did, I feel, what wise men do: alert the rest of as to a danger we were too distracted to notice in time to do something about it.

The Japanese maintain some of their temples, made of wood some 600-700 years ago, in like new condition by being constantly on the lookout for signs of decay, and replacing each timber as needed, doing whatever is necessary to support the rest of the structure while that piece is removed and replaced.

Perhaps Heidegger, early in his church career, saw that the God of Abraham and Jacob could not resist the secular attack of the Enlightenment. He studied mathematics briefly at university, perhaps he thought to invigorate society as had Euclid, Descartes, and Newton, with a new system.

In bouncing back and forth between the ancient world and the modern one, between Greece and Europe, I have neglected Rome and the rule of law, but now I have need of it. Like the Greek rationality and the Hebrew transcendental god and associated ethics, the Roman rule of law and its associated bureaucracy is a recognized pillar of Western society. But after ignoring it for so long, I had to bring it in so I could use not only the metaphor of pillars supporting a structure, but the one of the three legged stool.

I've turned the corner. Writing the history of the world, it had to be depressing. But  suddenly, unannounced, I came to a door, apparently no different from any other door I passed through in this dreary exercise in discourse. I open the door, surprise, hope. Heidegger is not only deconstruction. Like the Japanese temple, western civilization needs to be propped up, supported while one of the three legs supporting it is replaced. Is Being a stand in for Supreme Being?

One thing does pop up here, so to speak. Heidegger's steady denigration of theory has been validated in my mind by the sudden appearance of this Japanese temple motif, and its seeming hand glove fit into my Heidegger story. Where it came from I have no idea. Recall that no theory can do justice to lived reality. If I had had a plan in my mind, say like Plato's carpenter, but no, I had no plan. I started, drew conclusions, stopped, started again, back tracked, with a goal in mind: understand Heidegger.

I had no plan, but I did have a background cultural experience to draw on. Several years of reading Heidegger, and the past 6-8 months reading him pretty intensely, every day. This could be seen as an analog of Heidegger's being-in-the-world.

It also bears some resemblance to the Zen Buddhist koan used by some schools as an aid to Enlightenment. As explained in more detail in my earlier paper on brainwashing, a koan is a mind puzzle designed to distract the conscious mind and give the rest of the mind/brain (which the rational mind denigrates as irrational) a chance to push a missing piece into consciousness. "The sound of one hand clapping" is a familiar koan. Should this missing piece find acceptance in the conscious mind, a new point of view is attained, which I suspect equals enlightenment.

Socrates' admonition to know thyself can be a poisoned chalice embittering someone who drinks too deeply and sees the animal that drives us at our most profound levels. Or it can be the prod that awakens the voice of conscience. The voice of conscience.  It is Dasein calling itself out of the existence of the they and into genuine, authentic existence. The call of conscience is the call to think for yourself, to quit existing as a function of the crowd that surrounds you.

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