Does the Soul Exist? (2 of 2)

Make sure to read part 1 first!

Ontological Monism

Classical phenomenology cont.

downloadAnother example is Maurice Merleau-Ponty who, putting the body at the center of his philosophy, interpreted us humans as transcendence. If this is the case, then the body merely serves as a vehicle for us, a sensory apparatus by which we apprehend and access the world. Even in moments of withdrawal, like when, after a long, tiring day, we come home, lie on the bed, and close our eyes, taking a brief retreat from the world and the concerns of life; when we would like to block out all the stimulus in order to rest within ourselves—even then, Henry says, we cannot ignore the fact that this is a reprieve that is nonetheless in the world from which we are trying to escape, according to Merleau-Ponty, considering not only that there is no interior into which to go, but also that every action of ours, “private” or not, is configured in the world, outside of itself. Henry argues that the problem created here is one-sided.

download-3The body, for Merleau-Ponty, is subjectivity; it is not that we “have” bodies, but that we are our bodies. Yet by committing himself to a phenomenological paradigm that excludes all non-representability, he cannot answer the following essential question: “How does this body which knows a world, know itself?” (107). Henry is asking how it is possible that we, as our bodies, can know ourselves from within, given that the body only gives us access to the world, to what is beyond us, what transcends our very bodies. Since we are our bodies, we cannot somehow get outside ourselves. But could we not use a mirror, as I mentioned previously? Yes—except, that only represents our physical appearance, which is literally skin-deep. Does the burden not rest on Henry, therefore, to prove to us why there should be anything beneath our skin, something that we might be able to see that the mirror cannot?

He seems to when he explains that “the power which opens us up to the world cannot do what it does unless it is first of all our power, unless it is in our possession” (Ibid.). In order for the world to be visible and for me to then see it, I must have vision, the power of sight; otherwise, my relation to the world is a blind, empty relating that has no content. My transcendence, which puts me “in touch” with the world, so downloadto speak, must have some basis in my body that is under my control. Must this really be the case? Why cannot transcendence merely transcend by itself? Cannot transcendence be mine without necessarily being voluntary? This is a good question, but we must remember that Henry is writing from a phenomenological basis, that is, from the first-person view. When I tap the keys on my computer to type this, I am certainly transcending myself, interacting with an external object in the world, producing words on the screen; but more importantly, it is I who am producing the transcendence in the first place with every use of my hands that I make. With this insight in mind, Henry ultimately wants to prove that “the body is… the true subject, as the source of our sensitive knowledge”—in fact, “the sum and the foundation of all possible knowledge” (106; emphasis mine).

A Phenomenology of the Soul

The Subjective Body

download-6Up to this point, little-to-nothing has been said about the soul, despite that being the subject of the article. Henry seems more interested in criticizing Kant and previous phenomenologists than he does in proving the soul, as he announced he would be doing. However, everything that has been said so far has been necessary, for based on the criticisms he makes, you might have caught on to his strategy: Henry has to first establish that we can experience things which, until now, we thought we could not experience—things which are not empirical, physical, or external—before he can proceed to give his evidence for the mysterious phenomenon we call the soul, which is traditionally conceived of as non-empirical, non-physical, and internal.

On the other hand, Henry does want to alter what we mean by “empirical,” such that, if he can provide a phenomenological description of the soul by which we can experience it, then it will indeed count as a phenomenon. In the end, it is a matter of criteria: Henry cares very much about what we can experience and what goes by the name of “empirical,” but it all depends on what we think stands up to scrutiny under that definition; and, in his analysis, the criteria of exteriority, transcendence, and representation are not wrong, per se—just limiting.

8430282209_72d1abcf48_bSo at this point, Henry introduces the notion of the “subjective body,” that is, the body as we experience it firsthand, as distinguished from the body visible in the mirror and to others. In principle, the subjective body must be invisible. Here, too, we must clarify that “invisibility” should not be thought of magically—as, say, a puff of smoke or something nonexistent—but exactly as it sounds like: What is invisible, cannot be seen—that is all. To be invisible is not to not exist. If we were to believe that, then we would once again fall into ocularcentrism. Each of us has thoughts (often more than we would like), yet we cannot see them. Thoughts are not visible, cannot be put before our eyes, so does that mean we should consider them as nothing? But then, when we cannot sleep at night for too much thinking, when we worry how others perceive us, when we plan out our days—are we being affected by “nothing”? If we can reject this, then we can accept the idea (or reality) of the subjective body.

download-4To speak of the knowledge of the body is really to speak of two things: first, the knowledge acquired through the body, i.e., knowledge of the world, which is what all other philosophers have discussed; and second, the knowledge of the body through the body itself, which is what Henry wants to describe. How do I know my subjective body? Well, surely not by looking down at my hands as they type or my legs hanging over the edge of my chair, since then I am observing my objective body. Henry’s philosophical hero, Maine de Biran (1766-1824), provides the answer in his refutation of an earlier philosopher, Condillac. According to Condillac, if we close our eyes and remain still, feeling the various sensations present, then we cannot technically localize these feelings without first mapping out the body in order to recognize them as such; therefore, we must outline our bodies—for example, by hand—with reference to some solidity, i.e., resistance.

Biran noticed a circular fallacy here. The goal is to know our bodies, to “discover” them, as it were, so Condillac’s solution is to identify the body through the touch of the hand (Condillac was, in Beyoncé’s words, “feeling himself”). Yet to discover the body with the hand requires that we have first discovered the hand itself, which is part of the body. We would need another hand to discover the hand that discovers the body, for how else would we know our hands belong to us? Such a view is ridiculous. As such, the hand must be known, must know itself—and by extension, the body as a whole must, too. This primordial power of movement is what Henry was referring to earlier when of having certain “power[s]… in our possession.”

The Power of Life

grayscale photo of human hand

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Going back to the mirror example, transcendent intentionality, e.g., sight, cannot account for the movement of our eyes, hands, legs, etc. When I look from left to right quickly enough and see the shift happen in the mirror with a slight delay, I am merely seeing an effect, not the cause. Henry writes, “Intentional knowledge consists in the establishment of a distance which insurmountably separates us from that to which it unites us. It opens beneath us an unbridgeable gap. It is in and through this gap that the ‘giving’ of something takes place” (109); in contrast, “The original knowledge which we have of the power of grasping is not intentional and it cannot be such” (Ibid.). To summarize: Seeing my hand move is not the same operation by which I move my hand; the first is intentional in that it occurs at a distance, whereas the second is kinesic in that it is willed without distance from itself.

download-1“[F]or every true power,” Henry continues, “a first power is given, precisely that of being itself, of being master of itself… in the immanence of its radical interiority” (110). This essentially means that every sense of ours, even the intentional ones—especially the intentional ones—is mine. The power of smell, of hearing, of sight—these all have a “first power”: That of being usable/sensible. They are “radical[ly] interior” insofar as I experience them internally, not externally. Yes, it is true that the birdsong that I hear is external to me, coming from beyond my room, and that the floor is literally beneath my foot, beneath me; regardless, I receive these impressions within and feel them there. It may well be that the pressure I currently feel is created by the contact between my foot and the carpet, but notice what I just said: “the pressure I currently feel.” I know of the pressure on my soles not by looking down and seeing that, oh yes, my foot is pressing against the carpet, but by feeling the pressure in my feet, which requires no mediation whatsoever, e.g., by sight.

download-5External stimuli impact us, to be sure, but for those who are physiologically or neurologically minded, we know, first, that these data need to be interpreted by the brain; and second, that in order to be interpreted at all, they must first be received. Henry is making an argument that many might find laughable: I prove my free will by willing freely. If a neurologist or cognitive psychologist informs me that I do not have free will since my brain, and not “I,” makes my decisions, or if a skeptic instills doubt that my actions are really caused by an evil demon, then Henry’s response is the same as that of Diogenes the Cynic to the Eleatics, or of Samuel Johnson to George Berkeley: I simply walk, or else I kick a stone, exclaiming, “I refute it thus!” For this reason, Henry warns against the disjunction of the “I” from its powers, because this leads to the reduction of our senses to pure transcendence, which in turn reinstates the mind-body problem.

14766610782_30be89eb41_bHenry thus overcomes Cartesian dualism, the split between mind and body, by means of a different dualism—the objective, external body and the subjective, internal body. It is not a matter of their being two different entities, as if one body were stuffed into the other and wore it as a suit; instead, Henry understands these to be two different modes of manifestation, different ways of being. Prioritizing the objective body leads to the instrumentalization, and with it the alienation, of the lived body. Reduced to purely objective parts, stripped of any causal power, constituted entirely by intentionality, our body would be lifeless and inert; the brain, as pure matter charged with electricity, is on the same level as every other organ, and so cannot properly discharge the action which, at a phenomenological level, we experience. I must be identified with my body and its powers in order to dispose of them. Against Kant and Condillac, Henry maintains, “We do not sense our original body and we cannot sense it” (111). With everything that has just been said, this may seem surprising. But Henry is using “sense” here to refer to a transcendent reception, that is, a Kantian intuition. The body is insensible because it is the ability to feel at all.

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To illustrate this, and to contest the explanatory power of behaviorism and neurology, Henry uses the example of two wrestlers fighting. We might say that we are moving our body because we can feel our muscles being engaged. Wrestler B locks his arm around wrestler A’s neck, and wrestler A pushes against the chest of his antagonist. Here, we must say that since wrestler A’s neck and arm muscles are activated, he is moving his neck and arm; however, this is only half correct, as it is only the case that he is using his arm, whereas pressure is exerted on him by wrestler B. Whether the sensation is caused internally, by wrestler A, or externally, by Wrestler B, is indeterminable from an observational point of view. An fMRI or EEG scan can show that sensation is being felt in a particular part of the body, but it can say nothing about the origin of that sensation. Only wrestler A, who is in the heat of the action, the one actually fighting in the ring, has the right to say whether he moved his limbs or not; a spectator cannot determine this. As a result, “movement is not known by anything other than itself” (Ibid.).

imagesAnd it is this self-knowing, this self-sensing that Henry calls auto-affection. Tilting my head to the side to get a better view of the landscape, lifting a barbell in the gym, washing my hands in the sink—in each of these cases, I am both the subject and the object, so to speak; my ipseity, that is, my selfhood, that about which I can say “I,” is constituted by this reflexivity. Squatting down, I feel the contraction in my glutes and hamstrings, and this self-inflicted sensation is mine, is me. It is not that I order my body to squat, and then I squat; rather, I am the movement of the squat in the movement itself, in and through it. Receiving a high five from a friend, I am affected by something other than myself, but the stinging that lingers afterward and that I cannot shake off is an instance of auto-affection, leading Henry to declare, “Corporeity is a radical interiority” (112). I feel myself in my feeling (myself).

Consequently, the lived, subjective body, “this dwelling-place which we are,” says Henry, “is also what we can call our soul” (Ibid.; emphasis mine). Behold!—the magic word for which we have been waiting. Of course, this is a conception of the soul to which we are not accustomed, and for that reason, it may seem familiar to us. The selfhood which the soul generates is a “radical passivity,” and Henry expresses this almost graphically as “the being-riveted to self, without distance, without surpassing, without any possible re-coil, the being which is its own living content, its own life, in an inexorable way, which it cannot not be, cannot escape, nor assume, nor refuse, nor even accept” (113). Plato was fond of comparing the body to a tomb in which the soul was trapped, and this short passage seems to echo the sentiment.

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We experience ourselves every day, every moment, and we have no choice but to experience ourselves constantly. The soul is the blessing of life and the curse of imprisonment. Whereas Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty investigated the human condition as an external one, in which we are left abandoned in a world of which we have to make sense, Henry, on the other hand, sees our situation as an internal one; the human condition is not about where I happen to be and what I do with that information, but the fact that I am at all, that I am alive, that I feel, that I am self-conscious: “what makes our situation is not the fact that we are in the world, but, more originally… the fact that we are an ‘I'”  (114). 


In conclusion, for Michel Henry, the soul has a phenomenological reality, namely, that of our individual, finite, powerful, and feeling existence. My life is fundamentally embodied, and I know myself not through purely speculative knowledge nor because “I think, therefore I am,” but because above and before all else, I affect myself. Through the inner force of my will, acting as my body, I experience the richness of Inner-Voicethe world sensorily and affectively. Western philosophy, whose rationality reached its clearest summation in the philosophy of Kant, and which received further elaboration through the classic phenomenologists, has always considered real only that which can be observed externally, everything else being reduced to an illusory status. While it is true that Henry was a Christian, I do not think that his argumentation for his eccentric idea of the soul in the article necessarily relies upon or even involves any religious appeals or attempts at indoctrination. Perhaps you disagree with Henry about the soul. What matters, and what makes Henry a good phenomenologist, is that the phenomenon in question be experienceable. The matter should speak for itself; if not, it remains mute. So what do you think?—do you now believe in the/a soul? 




Henry, Michel. “Does the Concept “Soul” Mean Anything?” Philosophy Today (Celina), vol. 13, no. 2, 1969, pp. 94-114.

Does the Soul Exist? (1 of 2)

download-3In 1966, the French philosopher Michel Henry published the relatively obscure article “Le concept d’âme a-t-il un sens?”, which Girard Etzkorn translated as “Does the concept ‘soul’ mean anything?” Right away, the fact that the “soul” is mentioned is already striking; for to our contemporary ears, the notion of a soul is outdated and mystical, a remnant from the religious past, when, in the earliest civilizations and faith systems, e.g., India, Greece, Rome, China, Judaism, and Christianity, it was associated with the vital force of the breath, immortality, and personal identity. Today, in the largely secular Western world, where science has ruled out the metaphysical claim of an immaterial, invisible, and unobservable entity, talk of a “soul” is obsolete, except metaphorically, as when we call someone who is uncaring “soulless.” Even philosophy has no interest in it! The nearest equivalent, if we could speak of one, is arguably consciousness, considering few doubt it and science cannot fully explain it.

UnknownSuffice it to say, it would be difficult to find someone on a city street who believes in a theological or spiritual doctrine of the soul. Interestingly, as a Christian, Henry’s expertise was in phenomenology, which you can think of as a “science of experience” in that it seeks to study how we interact with and perceive the world, usually with a view to articulating its universal structures. Hence, one might be curious whether there is not a conflict of interest here—that is, whether as a phenomenologist one can even study, let alone seriously entertain, the soul. After all, where, in our everyday experiences, do we encounter or perceive such a thing? In this post, I’ll walk through Henry’s article, in which he proposes a unique (and perhaps palatable) conception of the soul. By the end, you can decide for yourself if, in fact, you do have one.

Ontological Monism 

Critiquing the Critique

download-4One of the contributing factors to the decline of taking the soul seriously was the work of Immanuel Kant, an influential German philosopher who wrote at the height of the Enlightenment in the late 18th-century. The book in question is the Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. Kant’s philosophy is complex, to say the least, and for that reason formidable. Toward the end of the book, in a section titled “The Transcendental Dialectic” (which I have written about elsewhere), he set about dismantling the domain of philosophy known as metaphysics. Physics deals with observable entities and their laws, so metaphysics deals with those entities and laws which cannot be observed or else which go beyond the ordinary scope of science, making it more fundamental, but also more speculative.

Metaphysical speculation, Kant believed, had gone awry, becoming too pure, that is, too abstract, too divorced from the real world; hence, his goal was a critique of pure reason, the end result ideally being a more tame and grounded investigation of reality. According to Kant’s philosophical position, known as download-5transcendental idealism, our knowledge of the world consists of two elements: sensibility and understanding. Whenever we intuit, or perceive, an object, we receive sensations—this is the job of sensibility; and in addition to this, our understanding applies certain categories to the object, enabling intelligibility. For example, the other day, while riding in the car, I saw a stop sign. The red of the sign, its color, immediately struck me; I received the sensation of redness. At the same time, it was not as if I just saw an infinite blob of red, but rather a bounded, octagonal formation of it. Hence, my knowledge of the stop sign was constituted by a combination of sensation, which provides the material basis, and certain categories of understanding, like the fact that the sign was shaped as a polygon, took up space, and was three-dimensional, etc.

What is key here, Michel Henry emphasizes, is that because the understanding imposes formal structure and intelligibility, it is purely logical in the relationship, lacking any effective power; whereas sensibility, on Unknown-5the other hand, is actually intuited as empirical. In other words, what is more striking in my experience of the stop sign is not that it takes up space, but that it is red, metallic, and stiff—after all, if there were no steel, and if the steel were not painted red, then there would be nothing to take up space. Without any empirical content, a pure form is empty. The problem with the metaphysical notion of the soul, therefore, is that it is a pure concept, a mental idea that has no physical correspondence of which we are aware. This rational psychology—as exemplified by the French philosopher René Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore I am,” on which basis he argued that the “I,” the mind, was an immaterial substance, the soul—was entirely dependent upon abstract categories like simplicity, self-causality, non-extension, and immortality, none of which can be verified synthetically, i.e., by experience.

downloadConversely, Kant asserted that the “possibility of access to that which is, is objectivity itself in its first arising; it is the formation of this horizon of visibility” (96). In other words, for something to be experienced, it must be objective, meaning that it must be able to be seen; we require an empirical object if we want to represent it to ourselves. However, it is precisely this doctrine of the “horizon of visibility” that Henry wants to subject to an “ontological destruction,” in the hopes of revising Kant’s “idea of being” (95). Doing this is necessary, Henry tells us, because if we take Kant at his word, if we accept his criteria for representability, and if we take a look at his own defense of the ego, which he proposes as an alternative to the soul, then we shall find that he fails to live up to his own standards. For Kant, the self is intuited via an internal sense, which is made up of sensation and time. When I am happy, for instance, I feel the sensations of being uplifted, light, and agreeable, and all of this occurs in a duration, e.g., all afternoon. Introspecting, I recognize this happiness as being mine; I am the one who is happy.

Yet Henry rejects this: “[T]he ego is that which in principle is not capable of being intuited” (99). If we recall Kant’s theory of intuition, then we know that he defined it as a receptive transcendence: I can only intuit objects, which means things that are outside of, and therefore visible to, me. Intuition reaches out toward an existing external reality, so “how,” Henry asks, “would an ego be able to present itself to us in the milieu of the non-ego as such? The structure of intuition excludes a priori the possibility of an intuition of the ego” (Ibid.). The ego, we say, is inside us, and it perceives things; therefore, it makes no sense, sticking with Kant, for us to perceive the ego as an object, as if it, too, were outside us.

But the internal sense is a sensation occurring in time, is it not?—so surely Kant can sense his own self, can’t he? Well, not if time is thought as a pure intuition, which, according to Kant, can tell us nothing; for Unknown-1pure time, deprived of any content, is just a theoretical container in which external things come and go. But internal sensations exist, providing us with content! Yet sensation, Kant also tells us, is blind in itself; before it can really be anything, it must be shaped and determined by a form, and a form, in turn, applies only to externally intuited things. Consequently, the internal sense is really just a reverse projection—an introjection of objectivity. Henry clarifies this further: “[T]he ego cannot be found first of all on the side of the content of the internal sense,” but rather “must first of all be on the side of the power which intuits and thinks. It cannot be a content of experience, but must belong to its [i.e., experience’s] subjective condition” (101).

The problem is that Kant, in his desire to purify knowledge of purity, succumbs to his overly strict view of what it means to be, namely, representability. Although the ego is that which knows, Kant refuses to acknowledge this ego unless it itself can be known, i.e., subjected to itself; it is only by turning himself inside-out that Kant can be assured of himself. Our selves are what enable knowledge in the first place, are the cause rather than the effect. Thus, Henry accuses Kant of being a hypocrite insofar as he reduces the “I,” the self, into a pure thought, just as Descartes and the rational psychologists did. When “the ‘I think’ is [made into] an intellectual representation,” the self is made into a content of, not a condition for, knowledge (102).

Kant’s one-sided ontology, his stubbornness in acknowledging “only one dimension of phenomenality, that of representation” (Ibid.), leads to what Henry perceives to be a dire “ontological need”: the “indigence of representation” (103). Because Kant disqualified all inner experience in favor of external Unknown-2reality, he ended up with a flat, two-dimensional view of the world, one lacking in depth, unable to account for the thickness of living. Like the rationalists he criticized, he left us with a flimsy and ghostlike “I” that lacks any substance: Kant defined the “I” as the “unity of apperception,” meaning that it is what accompanies every one of our experiences as a kind of mental check. For example, this morning, cereal was eaten, teeth were brushed, a computer was opened—and during all of this, an “I,” supposedly my “I,” me myself, was there in the background. Such a view of the self, though, which considers it as a kind of afterthought, a floating and coldly depersonalized logical connector, hardly seems satisfying or accurate, except, perhaps, in some of our less lucid moments. Since this approach is untenable, Henry declares that “the ego cannot arise and show itself, cannot be except in a dimension of radical interiority” (104; emphasis mine).

Classical Phenomenology

At this point, Henry moves onto his next target: The classical phenomenologists, like Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and co. Commenting on the character of phenomenology in his day, Henry admits,

Today, to speak of interiority can actually appear anachronistic, for if there is any concept which modem philosophy has refuted, it is surely this one. Doubtless many philosophers today remain attached to this idea of a fundamental ‘intimateness’ of man, of an interior and personal life which seems to them the most precious thing of all (104). 

Augustine’s inward turn in the Confessions and Descartes’ nearly solipsistic “I think, therefore I am” are less credible these days among philosophers. Gilbert Ryles, who derided Cartesian dualism as promoting a “ghost in the machine”; Daniel Dennett, who criticizes the metaphor of a “Cartesian theater” in our heads; and Charles Taylor, who, in tracing the concept of the self, argues that it is a historical product of Western thought, are a few examples of fundamental critiques of the interiority of human life—that is, the belief that who we are, our identity, is inside of us somewhere, inaccessible to others except imperfectly, through modes of expression like language and art.

Unknown-1Likewise, phenomenology itself, Henry contends, has either neglected our inner life or else laughed off the notion entirely. If you are familiar with Husserl, though, then this may sound strange, seeing as his transcendental phenomenology aims to provide a “map” of consciousness, as it were, investigating how different mental acts of intentionality, or directedness, constitute their intended objects; in short, Husserl was interested in how our mental processes operate in perceiving the world. Although this is true, Husserl commits the same mistake Kant did, introducing the twin concepts of “noesis”—the mental act—and “noema”—the mental object, which roughly mirrors Kant’s split of intuition into sensibility and understanding. Additionally, all phenomenologists up to Henry have worked under a more-or-less consistent idea of what phenomenology actually is, an idea that finds its clearest expression in the writings of Martin Heidegger.

In §7 of Being and Time, Heidegger provides the etymology of “phenomenology,” by which he arrives at a definition of it. The study of phenomena, from the Greek φαίνεσθαι, roughly meaning “to-bring-into-light,” is the study of what appears to us, appearance in this case being synonymous with what is visible download-1to us, something external to us. Therefore, we might say that Henry’s criticism of classical phenomenology is that it is ocularcentric; in other words, it privileges the sense of sight above all others. It is not as if phenomenologists have paid no attention to hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, etc.; rather, they have focused primarily on what our eyes can see, and in so doing, have made it the rigorous standard by which all other phenomena are to be judged. As a result, with “the need to cause to be seen the reality of which one speaks, if one makes a pretense of claiming that it is a reality,” phenomenology ends up becoming a crude form of positivism, which is one of the movements against which phenomenology sprung up to challenge (104)!

Only what is present before me, only what can be seen with my own eyes (“seeing is believing”), can be real. According to this view, Henry writes, “There is a sort of radical exteriority which permeates everything and which, putting it actually exterior to itself, gives it, in this exteriority with relationship to self, the possibility of being by manifesting itself” (105). His writing is incredibly unclear here, but what he means to say in describing “exteriority” as something “exterior to itself” is that when outsideness is taken as the sole criterion of any reality whatsoever, it results in the self-alienation of all things, considering they can no longer be themselves. Another way to explain this is that everything becomes a surface, a façade lacking any depth or dimensionality, any self-identity, because if something were to “be itself,” then it would, in a sense, have some sort of inside, inaccessible to us, hidden from view; whereas the requirement of “radical exteriority” renders this impossible, forcing everything to become literally extroverted—turned out toward us in order to face us, and so away from itself.

download-2By this logic, the only way I could perceive myself phenomenologically would be by looking at a mirror, since my thoughts, feelings, and urges are nowhere to be seen. Psychology, “psych-,” ψυχή, spirit/breath/soul—when appraised by either Kant or, say, Husserl, psychology can be nothing else but behaviorism, the external observation of humans without any regard for consciousness, intention, drive, or desire. An example of this can be found in none other than Heidegger’s Being and Time, where any reference to an “inside” of human life, or Dasein, is dismissed as confused or false. Did Heidegger, who was well aware of the depths of human feeling, who was greatly impressed with the religious devotion and agony of Saint Augustine and Martin Luther, who analyzed anxiety and boredom in great detail, and who felt the fires of love—did he really deny that humans possessed, in the words of the British critic Matthew Arnold and the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, “buried lives”?

Heidegger_3_(1960)In all likelihood, he did not. However, if you read Being and Time, it becomes clear that he had obvious motivations for his delegitimization of inner life. Specifically, Heidegger was trying to overcome the dead-ends of Cartesian dualism and skepticism. Questions like “Does the external world exist?”, “Is the mind separate from the body?,” and “How can we, as internal subjects, come to reliably know external objects?” irritated Heidegger as a phenomenologist because, to his mind, they obstructed any progress in understanding ourselves; such questions are thorns that not only impede serious philosophical inquiry but that also can be ignored entirely. The subject/object distinction is nothing but a logic puzzle, a Rubik’s cube for philosophers to keep them occupied. By sidestepping the problem entirely, we forgo the need of “a miraculous leap to the outside of this so-called interior sphere” (Ibid.). Instead, Heidegger proposes that Dasein is fundamentally in-the-world, meaning the two are inseparable; in fact, “they” are not really “two” things, but a single unity: Being-in-the-world. Dasein exists as transcendence, opening itself up/on to the world.




Henry, Michel. “Does the Concept “Soul” Mean Anything?” Philosophy Today (Celina), vol. 13, no. 2, 1969, pp. 94-114.

Max Weber on the Role of Science in Society (2 of 2)

Click here to read part 1!


download-3Historically, science/natural philosophy played an important role in service of human life, giving it a sense of meaning: In ancient Greece, the Socratic/Platonic metaphor of the Sun and its light, that is, of the universal Form, the concept, exemplified natural philosophy’s aspiration toward the truth, which was also put to practical use in warfare, as in the developments of, say, Archimedes and later, in Rome, Vitruvius; in the Middle Ages, natural philosophy complemented theology, with Roger Bacon, a friar, conducting Church-sponsored experiments, as well as investments in mining technology; and during the Renaissance, up through the Scientific Revolution, science was a means to perfecting art, which in turn revealed Nature (Leonardo da Vinci), and thus God (Isaac Newton).

Yet what of modern science in 1917? In the 21st-century? Does science lead us to God?—surely not, with the growth and (arguable) ascendancy of naturalistic secularism. To happiness?—authors like Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground vehemently denied that science could institute a utilitarian utopia without infringing upon our humanity. To knowledge and truth?—perhaps, but even this has met with resistance, even from scientists themselves, like Henri Poincaré and Ernst Mach; and what, then, is the value of knowledge or truth? Weber pushed the point even further: 

Who… still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics, or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?… [T]hese natural sciences… are apt to make the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe die out at its very roots (115c).

And also, 

it [cannot] be proved that the existence of the world which these sciences describe is worth while, that it has any ‘meaning,’ or that it makes sense to live in such a world. Science does not ask for the answers to such questions (116c).

imagesAccordingly, by Weber’s standards, science has been unparalleled in advancing society, but it has done nothing—or rather, it has blocked any progress whatsoever—in providing clarification about our existential condition. Because of their positive character, the hard sciences do not bother themselves with non-empirical or philosophical speculations. Although this, to reiterate, is not saying enough: Weber was not just saying that science is silent about such matters, but that it actually undermines them. It would be a mistake at this point to declare Weber a hater or rejector of science—this is overly hasty. When we read these quotations carefully, we recognize Weber was merely identifying the limitations of science, its blind spots, not impulsively distrusting the entire discipline. In the first quote, toward the end, one can certainly detect a more negative tone, but the point still stands that he was only criticizing an aspect of natural investigations.

Facts vs. Values

download-4At this juncture, Weber introduces another of his notable ideas: The fact-value distinction. Technically, this is not a new problem: It was first formulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume as the “is-ought gap.” What I think is distinct about Weber’s version, is that it applies specifically to the sciences, both natural and social, whereas Hume’s was strictly about moral arguments within philosophy. The fact-value distinction states, simply, that facts about the world are not the same as, and also cannot justify, values about the world. For example, that water is composed of two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules, is a fact about the world; contrarily, that I enjoy water and think it the best beverage ever, is a value I hold about the world/water. The first of these has nothing to do with the second; water’s molecular structure does not legitimize any preference or obligation toward it.

Seeing as science is concerned with facts, it stands that science has no jurisdiction, no say in determining our morals or telling us how we ought to live. I think this is the most relevant part of Weber’s lecture for the 21st-century. Today, I think the (perceived) line between facts and values has diminished download-5or blurred. Two brief contemporary examples will highlight how a certain ambiguity has emerged between stating something (fact) and proving something, in a moral sense (value). In 2010, neuroscientist Sam Harris published The Moral Landscape, in which he argued expressly against Hume (and so implicitly Weber). Harris believes that science can decide things like moral values, lifestyles, and happiness empirically, using data and a rational framework. The book was a large success in that it generated plenty of discussion, with both scientists and philosophers weighing in, some in support of Harris, some against him. I cite this example because it is recent and because it shows that in 100 years, Weber’s position has finally met a formidable challenge; the fact that the fact-value distinction is under attack shows how perspectives change over time, with new responsibilities building up.

The other example is evolutionary psychology, which is quite popular these days. Evolutionary psychology is interesting for two reasons. First, its status as a science is widely contested. Is it a natural or a social science? Then, how legitimate are its methods, and how much validity do its conclusions download-6have? Second, it seems to always walk a very fine line, a tightrope, between facts and values. For example, Jordan Peterson, a(n) (in)famous Canadian clinical psychologist, often cites evolutionary psychological findings in conversations about dating and sociopolitical systems. When he talks about the sexual preferences of males, the biological roles of females, the naturalness of hierarchies of power, and other topics, is he merely making descriptive statements about “the facts,” or is he actually making implicit prescriptions about our behaviors under the guise of empirical objectivity? The need to even raise these critical questions and be on our guard amidst scientific (im)plausibility—consider the debates on climate change, euthanasia, genetic engineering, and evolutionism, among others—points to the intensified imbrication of science and ethics. On this, Weber’s opinion was clear: “whenever the man of science introduces his personal value judgment, a full understanding of the facts ceases” (118a).


Laboratory_scientist_conducts_an_experiment_with_a_Rotary_evaporatorPart of the difficulty lies in what makes science science. Weber asserted that science has presuppositions, and moreover, that science cannot exist without presuppositions. In other words, science must always rely upon certain values, not facts, that must be taken for granted, their being unprovable; in order to function, each branch of science rests upon indemonstrable expectations. That science is not without presuppositions, is not an inherently negative thing, then; these foundational axioms are necessary for its functioning. The belief that logic and rationality are guarantors of objectivity, the belief in the efficacy of experiments, in the veritability of the scientific method, and in the worthiness of scientific knowledge—all of these are fundamental to science, yet science cannot prove them scientifically. At its heart, science is a-scientific.

Weber remarked that the natural sciences, æsthetics, jurisprudence, history, and the social sciences are all culturally significant inquiries, yet none of them can justify themselves or provide their own grounding. Here, we can revisit Martin Heidegger, who stated in his book What is Called Thinking?, “Science does not think” (8). This is clarified later on: “there is [a] side in every science which that science as such can never reach: the essential origin of the manner of knowing which it cultivates… In this sense they are one-sided” (33). Elsewhere, he wrote the following: 

[T]he sciences are not in a position at any time to represent themselves to themselves, to set themselves before themselves, by means of their theory and through the modes of procedure belonging to theory. 

If it is entirely denied to science scientifically to arrive at its own essence, then the sciences are utterly incapable of gaining access to that which is not to be gotten around holding sway in their essence (The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p. 177).

Another, more concrete way of putting this is as such: “Physics itself is not a possible object of a physical experiment” (QCT, p. 176). Seen this way, no matter how far any science, any Wissenschaft advances, no matter how much it may manage to explain successfully and convincingly, there will always be a haunting emptiness in the knowledge that a science cannot understand itself. For a science to challenge itself would be its own self-destruction, necessarily; certain things must go unquestioned and accepted as they are, which is what makes the sciences what they are. Weber and Heidegger see philosophy as having the special privilege of criticizing and grounding other disciplines.

Unknown-3And so, circling back to the question at hand, “What is the value of science?”, Weber answered that whether or not science is an intrinsically rewarding activity and whether its fruits are worthwhile “can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning, which we must reject or accept according to our ultimate position towards life” (116b). One of the keys to this sentence is the verb “interpreted,” because it relates to a debate in late-19th-century German intellectual life regarding what the proper method of the social sciences should be. Wilhelm Dilthey advocated for a hermeneutic approach as opposed to an experimental one, meaning that the humanities and social sciences, unlike the natural sciences, were all about interpretation instead of explanation. Hence, Weber was taking a firm stand in subjecting science to the greater judgment of subjective interpretation.

downloadSuch a stance is easy to misinterpret: The implication is not that science is useless or without value and that, if we took a vote, we could agree to halt scientific progress merely because we decided that, in the end, science was worth it. Science can, and will, continue to go on; the interpretation is purely about the worth we attribute to science, independent of the research itself. Plus, we must keep in mind the title of the lecture: “Science as a Vocation.” To be a scientist, one must decide that what one is doing is in the service of something higher, whether it be humanity, truth, the greater good, God, glory, or something else. We can decide that, but science itself cannot. Weber’s attitude was quintessentially pragmatic because he made life the ultimate reference. If, as someone who sees themselves becoming a scientist, you find that it gives your life meaning, then, by all means, follow your heart! If you think good will come of it, if it fires you up, if you have a cause to go on, then go research and try to change the world!

On this note, Weber anticipated the ethics of Jacques Derrida, contending that although the facts and explanations of science may help us to clarify our current predicament in life, e.g., about cause and effect, they cannot decide for us. Science is purely logistical. It can tell us “all we need to know,” but that is not sufficient for making a choice. When it comes to the “truly ‘ultimate’ problems” of life, like what job we pursue, whom we should spend our lives with, where to go from here, etc., we encounter “the limits of science” (120d). In recognition of this, Weber remarked,

What is hard for modern man, and especially for the younger generation, is to measure up to workaday existence. The ubiquitous chase for ‘experience’ stems from this weakness; for it is weakness not to be able to countenance the stern seriousness of our fateful times (119b).

download-7Weber had good reason to be grave here. A war of unprecedented size and brutality was gripping Europe, and so pessimism in the face of this enormity was prevalent. We are similarly faced with crises. My peers and I have grown up in a precarious world that has been rocked by financial crises, a pandemic, ongoing wars, threats to democracy and human rights, and, above all, the looming catastrophes of climate change. It is important, Weber told us, not to hide or escape from our problems, but to face them head-on, to have courage in “fateful times,” to “measure up to workaday existence”—change occurs from the ground-up, starting with us. It is no help if we cower in intimidation and feel ourselves too powerless to change anything.

download-1There is much to be done in the world. We have choices to make, and “the ultimately possible attitudes toward life,” Weber commented, “are irreconcilable, and hence their struggle can never be brought to a final conclusion. Thus it is necessary to make a decisive choice” (121a). A message like this is inspiring, but at the same time, its subjectivist tone opens it up to abuse. Like the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of the teleological suspension of the ethical, which says that an unethical action is justified so long as it serves a higher, i.e. divine purpose, Weber’s doctrine of the “decisive choice” relies upon the inner passion and integrity of the individual. What, when it comes to science, does this entail? I’m sure most, though ideally all, of us would not like to see the return or institutionalization of scientific racism or eugenics; though when it comes to something like climate change, surely we would agree that timely action that is informed by science is better than either inaction or ignorant impulsivity. 


At the end of “Science as a Vocation,” Weber gave a good summary of some of his basic ideas, covering the function of science, its distance from ethics, the role of the individual scientist, and disenchantment:

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplating of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the universe. This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation (121b).


The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the most ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations” (122d).

imagesWe must remember that, although it may seem like it at times, science is not omnipotent; science is not some autonomous entity, but a fundamentally human and historical practice. In the past, it is true that evil, inhumane things have been done under the name of science; however, it is only a narrow and superficial mind which would then do away with the whole. That this “is the inescapable condition of our historical situation,” only means that we find ourselves in it, and does not mean that we cannot change it. The plight of disenchantment, the unresolved situation of ethics, and the meaning of life—these are not arguments against science that necessitate its dissolution; rather, they are questions which we must directly confront, and with which we must learn to live.

download-1The scientist is not a “seer” or a “prophet”: the scientist is a human who is fallible and who lives according to values, just like the rest of us. Our age has seen an increase in mental health and, as Weber noted, loneliness, coming in part from the breakdown of our close communities. On this point, I think Weber’s analysis is underdeveloped, but where we would agree is that science will not take us out of these epidemics; again, that is not to say that it cannot contribute in any way. In the end, it depends upon us—it requires that we ask the difficult questions, that we not disregard the research, that we engage with each other as equals, as people. One last thing that Weber left us with, and which we should meditate upon, is the following gem: “[N]othing is worthy of man as man unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion” (111c).


The letters (a-d) after the page numbers designate the quadrant in which the quote appears, as I am relying upon Encyclopædia Britannica’s The Great Books, Vol. 58, which is printed in two columns.

Read a digital copy of the speech here.

Max Weber on the Role of Science in Society (1 of 2)

In 1917, the German sociologist Max Weber delivered a speech titled “Science as a Vocation” (Wissenschaft als Beruf) at the University of Munich. It would be published two years later, a year before his death in 1920. The 19th-century had been a productive century for science, which was no longer download-3known as “natural philosophy.” Various branches, like chemistry and biology, were codified and given the systematic rigor by which we know them today, while influential ideas like Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Hermann von Helmholtz’s formulas on the conservation of energy drastically revised our conception of the Universe. But the success of science was not just theoretical, for it was also applied to everyday life, leading to the invention of lightbulbs, cars, and cameras. Then, in 1905, Weber lived through the overturning of the Newtonian, or classical, paradigm of physics, which had been in place for two centuries since the 18th-century, when Einstein and his contemporaries revealed the quantum realm and the relativity of space and time. Thus, from amidst the First World War, Weber’s reflections on the role of science, and on science as a calling, can perhaps speak to us at a time when science’s hold is even greater.

The State of Modern Science

Having been in academia since the early 1890s, Weber was able to see the development of the scientific profession around him. It is important to note that in German, the term Wissenschaft refers to “knowledge” in general, not necessarily science in the sense of the hard or natural sciences; therefore, the social sciences and the humanities, too, fell under the title. Nonetheless, it is evident throughout his lecture, by references to either individual scientists or else the disciplines themselves, that for the most part, he has in mind the natural sciences. And it is just this feature, namely the fragmentation of the sciences, which he addressed first: “A really definitive and good accomplishment,” he observed, “is today always a specialized accomplishment” (111b-c*; emphasis mine).

download-4Roughly until the 19th-century, and more so before the 18th, before science assumed its official role, and when it was still called natural philosophy, the study of natural phenomena was a bit more unified, such that many people who contributed in some way to math or science, like Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz, and Johann Gœthe, were polymaths who had expertise in several domains, not just one. By the 1900s, though, particularly in Western Europe, science as a unified system rendered this well-roundedness practically impossible with its increasing academic divisions. If one wanted to answer to “the inward calling [Beruf] for science” (111b), then one had necessarily “to put on blinders” (111c), realizing that it was a narrow commitment to which one was devoting oneself. A biologist can do biology very well, since that is what she was trained for, but if she were asked to study a supernova, then she would be close to useless. To be sure, her scientific training would give her a baseline, but as Weber indicated, she would by no means be accomplished.

downloadFor Weber, this was a drawback in pursuing science, but he realized something more important—that the investigations and experiments that a scientist carries out are not deadening, emotionless, or stultifying. The image of a sanitized researcher working in a white coat who is surrounded by equipment and charts and figures contains a few kernels of truth, but it by no means representative; what this stereotype of the scientist conceals, is the humanity of science, the fact that “science” is not some monolith but actually a collection of scientists, that is, people, real people, whom an inward drive compels onward in the search for—well, many things: truth, power, success, progress, etc. Although much of modern science relies to a high degree upon mathematics, this does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that scientific work itself is mathematical. On the contrary, the design and execution of experiments requires an experimenter who devises it, who sets out with an idea in mind, a hypothesis that he is excited to test out because there are things at stake!

In this respect, Weber interestingly compared the scientist to the artist in that both of them require creativity, intuition, and inspiration for their work. One of the greatest scientists, with whom Weber would have been well acquainted, comes to mind here: the legendary Albert Einstein, for whom science was download-5impossible without intuition. Many of Einstein’s insights, for example, came from vivid thought experiments and revelatory flashes, things that could not be found in the laboratory or at the research table. This is why I think that Weber would not fear the growth of A.I. in science: I think that if he were alive today, then he would argue that a program or algorithm could never do the work that a human scientist does because it is not about computations or simple strings of processing; rather, science is driven, as we have said, by the force or passion within us that cannot be reduced to a binary code, the force that gives rise to seemingly outlandish theories and the madness to test them, to think outside the box. Science, like the humanities, cannot be automated—the calculations can be calculated, obviously, as is being done right now, but not the science.

download-6The humanness of science, however, also has a negative tendency, one which is not reserved just for Weber’s time: The tendency for the scientist to become, in Weber’s words, a personality, that is, a celebrity. This happened to Einstein. Often, and for understandable reasons, a scientist who achieves a breakthrough and is regarded as a genius will become revered and sought out by everyone—not just the experts, but the media, the pundits, and the average person. Suddenly, this figure is put into the limelight and expected to give their opinion—not necessarily a scientifically based one—on such diverse matters as global politics, warfare, the existence of God, love, the meaning of life, whether pineapples go on pizza, etc. The 19th-century had Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” and Ernst Hæckel, for example; and more recently, we have had the likes of Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others.

download-7The problem that Weber was addressing was not that scientists were being asked such questions, nor that they were answering them; instead, it seems to have been the fact that the questions were being asked because they were scientists, with the expectation that, owing to their “genius” and “privileged insight,” despite not pertaining to their area of expertise, their answers would thereby retain the character of being “scientific” and hence automatically correct and unassailable—in a word, dogmatic, and taken for granted. Weber preferred that a scientist’s work speak for itself; a humble researcher who dedicates herself to her work without making a fuss about it or herself is a testament to success, according to him. The question of success leads to another insight of Weber’s: “[I]t is the very meaning of scientific work…. to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated,” with the “hop[e] that others will advance further than we have” (113b).

Here, Weber returned to his comparison of the scientist and the artist, this time negatively; for whereas the artist’s work is relative—one can judge for oneself whether it is good or not, and no painting or style, e.g., neoclassical or cubist, can be said to have “advanced” beyond the other, except in purely download-1chronological terms—the scientist’s is the exact opposite, having an objective and progressive basis for judgment. It is tempting to describe scientific advancements as “linear” because they move forward, but any look at the history of science will immediately disprove such a straightforward interpretation; therefore, I think Weber would agree more with “progressive,” since even a “wrong turn,” so to speak, like Newtonian physics when viewed in retrospect, is never entirely discarded or made obsolete. Hence, Newton is just as important today as he was between 1700 and 1900 because, in being overridden (at the subatomic level, that is), he provided the necessary grounding for future developments. Having said this, Weber asked an incisive question: What, then, is the point of science, if it seemingly never ends and if, viewed from outside, it consists only of theories that happen to be truer than the previous ones, only to be discarded ad infinitum?

The Disenchantment of the World

The most obvious value of science is its material contribution to society. Thanks to science, we live with unprecedented comfort, health, and convenience. Through the collective research of scientists, others—engineers, technicians, and inventors—can apply the findings of even the most abstract or seemingly ungrounded principles of the natural sciences, like friction, the universal law of gravitation, and the chemical properties of substances, in order to create things of utility. Thus, the “applied sciences.” Besides practicality, science is valuable for another reason: It has given us an intellectualized and naturalized account of the world and its innermost workings.

download-8Weber was quick to qualify this statement, as while it is true that we understand the world better scientifically, this “we” does not actually mean “all of us.” As we have noted, science became highly specialized over a century ago, and it has only become more complex over time. Consequently, it is more accurate to say that science has provided us the possibility, or the capacity, to understand the world. How many of us know the ins and outs of the hardware and/or software of our computers? Or how about the nanochip, touch screen, or GUI of our smartphones? Indeed, how many of us, which is to say those of us who are not professionally educated in the sciences, have forgotten the basic scientific facts that we learned back in our schooling, since elementary school? The facts are all there, available to us, but the sheer extent, complexity, and sophistication of many of them prevent us from achieving the same level of understanding as a Ph.D. student, senior researcher, or engineer. Regardless, we still rely on these people and their findings to keep the world running. Our devices work, and that is enough for us.

download-10Overall, this scientific intelligibility led Weber to assert one of his most well-known theses: “[O]ne can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted” (114a; emphasis mine). By this, Weber meant that science had basically ruled out any superstitious or religious understanding of the world. In this way, fulfilling the mission of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, science has liberated us from the darkness of irrationality. But for some, this liberation is not a positive thing; on the contrary, it could be argued that science’s supposed liberation is just a new form of bondage that goes by a new name. A discontentment with this stifling rationality can be heard in a familiar criticism of modern science: “[T]he intellectual constructions of science constitute an unreal realm of artificial abstractions, which with their bony hands seek to grasp the blood-and-the-sap of true life without ever catching up with it” (114d).

Heidegger_3_(1960)Martin Heidegger, a 20th-century German philosopher, saw modern science as being rooted, counterintuitively, in what he called the “essence of technology.” According to his analysis, science frames the world in terms of objectivity, which really means measurability and calculability. Heidegger’s concern was not that science was false or evil or anything, but that, having become the arbiter of truth and reality, it gets to decide what is real or not, based solely on its own criteria, viz. experimental, measurable demonstrability; anything else, if it is not measurable or if it cannot be conceptualized objectively, is unscientific, and thus unreal. As a result, Heidegger’s view was not quite the same as Weber’s: Whereas we might say that Heidegger built upon Weber in targeting scientism, Weber was more so lamenting, or maybe just observing, that science obviates the need for myths, transcendent ideals, and supernatural explanations.

Recently, Weber’s disenchantment thesis has been challenged. Josephson-Smith’s book The Myth of Disenchantment (2017) complicates Weber’s declaration, showing how the perceived threat of disenchantment is actually a means of resurrecting enchantment. He writes about how Weber himself, download-11despite pronouncing the end of enchantment, engaged in the very practices whose deaths he announced, like occultism. In my opinion, I don’t find this a compelling dismantling of Weber’s position, though. Just because there were still lots of people not just in Weber’s time, but also our own, who were fascinated by magic, cults, and spiritualism, does not change the substance of what Weber was saying; I believe the diagnosis of disenchantment is a bit more nuanced, insofar as the respectability and authority of science is generally accepted worldwide, in comparison to which everything else is unscientific. The point is not that science has outright eradicated alternative forms of knowledge; rather, it has (mostly) successfully invalidated, or at least challenged the foothold of, them. Outliers, of course, exist; Shintoists in Japan or Natives in North America certainly retain their enchantment. I do not think Weber was naïve enough to not consider this, and not to think that science had simply wiped out its competition.

download-2Furthermore, Josephson-Smith characterizes the rise of new forms of enchantment as either “ironic” or “paradoxical,” directly disproving Weber’s point; however, again, I think Josephson-Smith is off the mark, for Weber himself predicted this very phenomenon (115d), i.e. the reactionary resurgence and growth of religiosity and irrationalism. The whole point is that these emerge in response to disenchantment; hence, the fact that people today believe in QAnon, astrology, New Age spirituality, neopaganism, haunted houses, etc., or that Weber was personally interested in such ideas, is precisely evidence for, not against, disenchantment. These are active attempts to fight back against scientific rationality and to preserve or bring back a sense of lost enchantment.

download-9Leaving aside the legitimacy of disenchantment, we arrive at another of Weber’s key propositions. He cited the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who believed that in the modern world, meaning was unattainable. An interesting distinction is brought up between being “satiated with” life versus being “tired of” life, the former belonging to pre-modern life and the latter to modernity. According to Weber, Tolstoy found death meaningless due to science, and by extension, life, too. It is difficult to tell whether Weber discussed Tolstoy because he agreed with him and felt similarly or whether he merely brought him up as an example of such a view. His wording does not seem to betray any partiality, so I’m not sure if Weber himself thought that science rendered death and life meaningless. What exactly it means for death to have meaning or not, remains unclear to me; nor does the logical leap from death’s being meaningless to life becoming meaningless seem to me entirely justified. Whatever the case, Weber’s reference to Tolstoy was meant to problematize science’s role in everyday life.




* The letters (a-d) after the page numbers designate the quadrant in which the quote appears, as I am relying upon Encyclopædia Britannica’s The Great Books, Vol. 58, which is printed in two columns.

Read a digital copy of the speech here

Contributions to Philosophy – §259 (2 of 2)

Read part 1 here.

download-6Understandably, Heidegger diagnosed a double plight; for not only is it the case that we do not question Being, but we do not question that we do not question Being! Whether or not this has led, as Heidegger believed, (too sensationally, in my view) to the spiritual desolation and nihilism of our world, it is undeniable that he is correct, at the very least, with regard to our indifference to the question of Being (Seinsfrage). Our current juncture in history, according to Heidegger’s analysis, is the culmination of Western metaphysics since Plato; it found its completion in Friedrich Nietzsche, which is why he is of particular interest in the later writings. Just as Derrida saw the supposed “death of Communism” in 1989 as its true birth, the beginning of its haunting, so Heidegger interpreted Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics as its hidden domination, leading to its incorporation into everyday, ordinary thinking, e.g., our noun-based grammar, scientism, and the dominance of technological thinking.

download-3The only cure for our time is to stop pairing Being with thinking, as has been done in metaphysics, and instead to pair Being with time (an allusion, of sorts, to the unfinished and abandoned Being and Time). Of course, one should not confuse thinking for inventive thinking; the former is metaphysical, the latter not. Whereas metaphysical thinking is governed by logic, relying on a propositional and representational approach, inventive thinking encounters Being by means of time, considering that, as we saw, Being is temporal. Heidegger, in Heideggerese, describes time as “the open (by way of transport) clearing of the field in which beyng conceals itself and in so doing first bestows itself explicitly in its truth” (342). It is not that Being appears within time; Being appears as time, specifically in the way it “open[s]” the “clearing of the field.” That is to say, Being’s appearance is its disappearance; it is seen in its absence.

My wallet, glasses case, and copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude stand out to me on my desk, which is in my room, so I experience them all within a horizon, a horizon made possible only by their coming to presence temporally. Everything within my room and, in fact, my room itself, are beings, yet that which allows them to be, Being, is nowhere “in” my room to be seen, heard, smelled, etc.; regardless, in being able to encounter any and all of them, Being occurs and, in so doing, “conceals itself.” The fact that Being hides itself, while beings show themselves—this is what intrigued Heidegger, this was the truth of Being’s self-bestowal. It is in this sense that we must recall his definition of philosophy: “the questioning of being.” Like we said, the “of” plays a special role. The questioning is Being’s doing, not ours. Thinking is not an action that we initiate ourselves; thinking is a response, on our part, to Being. In this way, philosophy is a vocation, literally something to which we are called: “[B]eyng itself must appropriate thinking to itself,” Heidegger wrote (341).

The Transition

downloadThe goal of inventive thinking is to transition into what Heidegger names the “other beginning.” In this transition, answering to the call of Being, we lay “the preparation for that humanity which… acts as steward… to receive… the refused thrust of beyng… in a unique moment of history” (340). Such a transition is actualized in an event—or rather, in the event, that is, the event of Being. This is arguably the most important element in Heidegger’s later philosophy, and forms the subtitle for the Contributions.

Das Ereignis translates into the event of Being, or “the event of appropriation” (why this translation matters, would take too long to explain; I’ll write a separate post later dedicated to the Ereignis). Suffice it to say, the event of appropriation claims and takes us humans over and brings us into our own. There is a hint of authenticity here, too, in which we are made to be who we are supposed to be. Coming into our own, we properly see things and relate to Being. Whether you think this vague, mysterious event sounds too much like a religious doctrine of eventual salvation, like Millenarianism, is up to you to decide; although Heidegger, to be sure, would have denied this.

Either way, he claimed that in the arrival of this new epoch, our “thoroughly used up” and “splintered essence” would be “claimed” in a historically unique “transformation of humans” (347). This way of talking is inspired by his desire to escape, or overturn, traditional views of subjectivity. Again, he had in mind the Cartesian/Kantian view, in which we are self-enclosed, free minds who perceive and form Unknown-6theories about the world, forcing it to conform thereto. At the beginning of metaphysics, Aristotle determined humans to be animales rationales, rational animals; and at the end of metaphysics, Nietzsche determined us to be expressions of a primal will-to-power. For Heidegger, this is no coincidence. The two are related, with Aristotle creating the foundation for Nietzsche. By equating humans with what he judged to be their highest capacity, Aristotle created the criterion for the rest of Western philosophy: rationality. By 1900, the animal who possesses reason is also a willing animal. The two are united in man, who becomes a reason-will hybrid, and technological enframing dominates our view of the world; a sort of techno-capitalism, in which everything is judged according to utility, exchange-value, and productivity, prevents us from seeing the world in any other way, which Heidegger saw as a crisis.

Despite his criticism of metaphysics, Nietzsche actually succeeded in affirming it, propping up a rationalistic subjectivism (insofar as we “create” the world) that, deriving from vitalism (life as will-to-power), objectifies Being. In contrast to this vision of man, Heidegger wanted to restore to us the position of custodians. Man ought not represent, conceptualize, or objectify Being; rather, he ought to imagesdisclose, care for, and preserve Being’s opening. Due to Being and Time, Heidegger was described as an existentialist philosopher (I agree—but only before the ‘30s). His vision in Contributions of custodial man is thus a response to his earlier work, where fundamental ontology, the analysis of Dasein, is privileged. Early Heidegger, he thought, was too anthropocentric, too subjectivist. Now, Dasein, being-there, is no longer intrinsic to humanity. Whereas in Being and Time we humans were Dasein, entities for whom their Being is an issue, and who are capable of being either authentic or inauthentic, in the Contributions that is no longer the case; Dasein is a condition to be achieved and earned. Being-there can no longer be taken for granted. The question is no longer whether Dasein is authentic or not, but whether man is Dasein or not. Dasein, in other words, is authentic humanity.

Unknown-2And as authentic, inventively thinking Dasein’s task is to transition into the other beginning. If you were to ask what the “first beginning” is, then you would have the right idea. In Heidegger’s history of Being, the first beginning occurred with the Pre-Socratics, philosophers like Anaximander, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, who came before Socrates and Plato. Because they are the first Western philosophers to have their thoughts recorded, they are regarded as the first to have encountered and given credence to the question of Being. Therefore, inventive thinking is intended to be a repetition or retrieval of the first beginning. The goal is to effect a paradigm shift; Heidegger wanted us to see beings differently, and thus to experience Being differently, more authentically. But the other beginning is not just a simple repetition of the first beginning, because if that were the case, then we would merely repeat the history of Western metaphysics; and as we know from George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As a result, this retrieval of the past is more about keeping it in mind, remembering what happened so that we can avoid the same mistaken thinking patterns of our predecessors. Moreover, we ought to keep in mind that “repetition” had a special meaning for Heidegger, one that derives from Being and Time, §74, where he discussed authentic historicality. Repetition is not doing something the same way again; download-1repetition is taking something up again, picking up from where others left off, and furthering certain fruitful possibilities. Understood like this, repetition is neither “old,” as when we commit the same mistake for the sake of tradition, nor “new,” as when we rush after and get ourselves caught up in the latest trends without any thought for our roots—it is something in between. For this reason, “just to be able to communicate, [inventive thinking] must often still tread the paths of metaphysical thinking and yet must constantly know the other” (340). The philosopher walks a tightrope of sorts, from the past to the future, risking a fall into the void of metaphysics, guided only by the faltering light of Being’s truth. Now, we can finally return to the beginning of this post. Here is the paragraph, and the one preceding it, from which Heidegger’s first remark was drawn:

The transitional and essentially ambiguous thinkers must also know explicitly that their questioning and speaking are not understandable to our times…. That is not because our contemporaries are too deficient in cleverness or too little informed for what is said but because understandability compels everything back into the sphere of the previous representations… The transitional thinkers must ultimately know what all insistence upon understandability especially fails to realize, that no thinking of being, no philosophy, could ever be verified by ‘facts,’ i.e., by beings. To make itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy. The idolizers of ‘facts’ [beings] never realize that their idols shine only in a borrowed light [beyng] (343-4). 

We know why the transitional thinkers are “essentially ambiguous”: they are bilingual, speaking the language of both metaphysics (beingness) and Being, occasionally having to lapse into the former “just to be able to communicate.” And philosophy, as the questioning or thinking of Being, can never be factual, can never “be verified by ‘facts'” since facts “shine only in a borrowed light”—that is, a true philosopher is interested not in beings, in what appears, but in Being, or the appearing as such of what appears. “[U]nderstandability,” Heidegger said, “compels everything back into the sphere of the previous representations.” Earlier in §259, Heidegger wrote that we belong to “the era of the calculable understandability of everything” (341), in which “the always persistent everyday opinion” (344) steers all talk. Each of these remarks tells us something crucial.

  1. First, to understand something is to put it into terms we already understand; knowledge that is unfamiliar to us is made familiar by being restated or contextualized. That which is most familiar to us today is metaphysical thinking, which is found in science. So to understand philosophy, is to make it accommodate it to scientific discourse or to make it conform to metaphysics.
  2. download-4Second, we can all verify firsthand in this technological age how everything is “calculable” with an aim to the “understandability of everything”; cable news, Wikipedia, and YouTube are three examples of how we learn “all we need to know.” Videos and articles are made shorter, more entertaining, and more sensational so that we can “learn” quantum physics and nuclear energy in just five minutes, if we really want; the limits shrink on how attractive, simple, and easy we can make information. The simpler and more dumbed-down info is, the better, the more accessible it is.
  3. Third, this language is highly reminiscent of Being and Time to anyone who is familiar with it. There, Heidegger spoke of the “average intelligibility,” “everyday inauthenticity,” “leveling,” “idle talk,” and “ambiguity”—all of which have, despite his protestations, negative connotations. The average person, stopped on the street, would have no insight into Being, having been socialized into thinking a certain way, with hidden, unquestioned metaphysical assumptions. “[E]veryday opinion” is too confused, too “worldly,” to grasp the importance of the Being-question.

download-5A few scholars have identified this disdain for the masses and what is popular as a recurring theme in Heidegger’s life and works. One can decide for oneself to what degree Heidegger’s elitism is justifiable. On the one hand, it is true that one cannot expect everyone to philosophize in the manner Heidegger demanded; appeals to common sense and science satisfy people enough. On the other hand, Heidegger seems to discount the possibility of understanding to many, subscribing to a “Great Man” view of history. Heidegger’s talk of the “transitional thinkers,” e.g., the poet Hölderlin and Nietzsche, whom he calls “the most solitary ones” (341), sounds very much like when one talks of “the chosen ones.” His language here is Romantic, and carries in it the angst of the poet who fears she will never be understood by society because it will never grasp her meaning. Only the select few, the special ones, the creative souls—the boundary between Heidegger and Nietzsche blurs—who are forced to suffer under the weight of their greatness, will usher in the other beginning. A common note is heard in Nietzsche:

It is by no means an objection to a book when someone finds it unintelligible: perhaps this might just have been the intention of its author—perhaps he did not want to be understood by ‘anyone.’ A distinguished intellect and taste, when it wants to communicate its thoughts, always selects its hearers; by selecting them, it at the same time closes its barriers against ‘the others.’… [T]he more refined laws of style… prevent ‘access’ (intelligibility, as we have said)—while they open the ears of those who are acoustically related to them” (The Gay Science, V.§381, pp. 222-3; trans. Common).

Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s assurance is also reminiscent of Plato who, in the Republic, introduces the famous idea of the philosopher-king: Only philosophers are fit to rule a society, as only they know best. Philosophy is not science, not metaphysics, and not about cultural worldviews. Another misunderstanding against which Heidegger warns is seeing his ontrocentrism as a simple inversion of metaphysics. Inventive thinking is not just anti-metaphysics. Doing that means thinking in the same terms, and is a form of “entrenchment” (344). The intention is to go beyond metaphysics, not to reverse it in some way: “The questioning of beyng… is instead a de-cision as the projection of the ground of that difference to which even the inversion must adhere” (344). Questioning comes before, not after, metaphysics; and in so preceding, it avoids the same impasses.  


Knowing this, Heidegger’s comment is intelligible, for better or worse. To make itself intelligible is, indeed, suicide for philosophy, when we define philosophy as the inventive questioning of Being, and intelligibility as the prevailing paradigm of metaphysics. I chose §259 to analyze specifically because of the quote within it, but upon reading the whole section, I thought it a good selection to explain not just Heidegger_3_(1960)what Heidegger meant, but also how to read Heidegger and to show how his thinking changed and remained the same. The Later Heidegger, thinking the event of appropriation, turned away from a subjective approach, demonstrating the importance of language in experiencing Being’s occurrence, rather than its presence. Nietzsche’s presence is felt throughout, with its harsh anti-metaphysical tone, its doctrine of “the future ones” (Nietzsche’s Übermensch is analogous to Heidegger’s transitional thinker), and its concern with language. Two things I wish impart to you are this: first, I do not think Heidegger was an obscurantist, but that does not mean he is not difficult to read and interpret. I think it is careless to refuse to deal with Heidegger for this reason. He has some insightful things to say. Second, reading Heidegger, whether Early or Late, is a personal experience; one should feel free to question and criticize him. In the end, the important thing is to question and think through things for oneself.

Contributions to Philosophy – §259 (1 of 2)

download-2In section 259 of Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), a cryptic work written in the late 1930s, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote the following sentence: “To make itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy” (344). If you know anything about Heidegger or have tried reading any of his works, whether before or after Being and Time from 1927, then this proclamation may not be all that surprising; on the contrary, it makes perfect sense that it should come from him, seeing as Heidegger is often cited as not just one of the most confusing philosophers, but one of the most confusing German philosophers, which is really saying something. Indeed, Heidegger is often criticized or dismissed as an obscurantist, someone who purposefully wrote in an incomprehensible way because he either had nothing to say or was trying to make what he did have to say seem smarter than it was.

images-1But why should Heidegger have demanded that philosophy be unintelligible, when he constantly stressed the necessity of philosophizing in order to recover the meaning of Being? Should not philosophy be intelligible precisely for this reason, so that we can all begin to re-ask the question of what it means to be? The quote in question comes toward the end of §259, meaning that much of the context is missing. As I will illustrate in this post, the key to understanding Heidegger’s odd, challenging statement lies in two of the words: “intelligible” and “philosophy”—what is “philosophy” as Heidegger conceives it, and what does it really mean for it to be “intelligible”? An exploration of this one section from the Contributions, and in particular, of this isolated and easily misunderstandable statement, will serve, I think, as a good introduction to the thought of the “Later Heidegger,” highlighting such themes as his rejection (more like revision) of his earlier thinking, the overcoming of metaphysics, the ontological difference, the importance of language, the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, the history of Being, and elitism.

Section 259 opens directly and unambiguously: “Philosophy is the questioning of being” (335). Actually, the sentence is far from unambiguous; it can be read in two ways, each of which leads to a different form of philosophy. The typical meaning of the above sentence is that, in philosophy, we ask questions and think about being. This, for Heidegger, leads to metaphysics. On the other hand, taking into account the peculiar quality of the preposition “of,” we get another, stranger meaning: philosophy is the questioning that being itself does—that is, philosophy, as questioning, is done by, and belongs to, Being. For this, Heidegger uses the title “inventive thinking,” in German Erkdenken, to distinguish it from metaphysics. Already, we are beginning to grasp what exactly Heidegger meant in his controversial pronouncement. But first, both metaphysics and inventive thinking need to be sketched out more fully. 


imagesAccording to Heidegger, metaphysics, “the questioning of”—i.e., about—”being,” has been the dominant tradition in Western philosophy, and it takes place as soon as we try to locate Being. (A quick word on convention: throughout the Contributions, unlike his earlier work, Heidegger tends not to capitalize “being” or “beyng,” an archaic spelling, whereas I prefer to do so, to distinguish it from “beings.” There are legitimate reasons that relate to this convention that I cannot go into here for sake of space, but I will personally be using capitals for sake of clarity.) To put this more concretely, if I look at the couch on which I am sitting right now or the computer at which I am typing, then I recognize them as beings, as things that are; the couch, the computer, and I myself have Being because we are beings. But where and what is this “thing,” Being? Through what senses or reasoning can I reach it? As soon as I begin this line of analysis, I am doing metaphysics.

The problem, Heidegger pointed out, is that I have made Being into a “thing,” even though this is a circular process, for things are only possible because of Being. To search for that which allows beings to be, that which makes a being a being—in short, the Being or beingness of a being—is to either forget or intentionally ignore what Heidegger calls the “ontological difference.” Simply, this means that Being is not download-1a being. I will elaborate on this later. Metaphysics has dominated the history of philosophy, and it is problematic for Heidegger because it violates the ontological difference. Medieval philosophers, for example, when inquiring into beingness, determined its meaning according to their theological beliefs, making the Christian God into the highest being there was, i.e., Being itself. To be, was to be created. Even modern science, Heidegger believed, has its own metaphysical underpinning, namely, the idea that the true nature of reality, the truth of Being, must be discovered by empirical measurement—consider the success of particle accelerators, like the discovery a decade ago of the Higgs Boson, and how, with their highly sophisticated methods of observation and data collection, they have bolstered the Standard Model within particle physics.

Despite their disparities, what unites the Middle Ages and the 21st-century is their metaphysical consideration that Being exists as some universal essence, an essence that takes the form of a property or trait existing in beings. The word metaphysics, from the Greek μετά-φυσική, literally means “that which is beyond/above/over what is/nature.” Seeing as a property, say, measurability, is still something that is, it contradicts the ontological difference. Additionally, as soon as Being is reduced to something universal, a trait that applies to all things, it becomes nothing more than a category, a mere term, an empty genus. Once Being has been made into an essence, it is graspable; Being is conceptualized and made representable. Finally, as a representation, Being, said Heidegger, is made “objective” by way of “presentifying” (338). In other words, a Scholastic philosopher turns Being into something that is “really there” because it has been made present as something which, right now, is existent due to God. Today, under modern science and technology, this objectivity takes on a more pronounced role.

Just as science is equated with objective truth, so its discoveries of reality are defined with regard to objecthood. Hence, Heidegger said that ob-jectivity—in German, Gegen-ständigkeit, meaning “standing against,” similar to how, in English, it derives from “throwing-against/-toward”—is always determined in unknown-1advance, on the basis, ironically, of subjectivity; for that which exists objectively exists as standing apart from the subject, the experimenter, or the viewer. The object is subject to the subject. Heidegger, to be clear, was not criticizing science per se, but rather scientism, the view that anything that exists, has its reality in empirical or experimental measurability a priori (before anything else). Heidegger argued that the debate in philosophy between realism and idealism, about whether the world is material or mental, is merely a red herring. This is because while realism overlooks the problem of Being entirely, naïvely identifying it with the world, idealism is no better, whether of the transcendental (Kantian) or absolute (Hegelian) variety: in either case, “beyng is determined on the basis of the subject, which means, at the same time, on the basis of the object” (337). That is, for Kant and Hegel, beingness consists, once more, in objectivity, in what is represented in the consciousness of the thinker; the world, as what stands apart from me, is subject to my thinking and perception.

The realism-idealism debate, in Heidegger’s eyes, is a false dichotomy, for both ultimately converge on the fact that the external, as something objective, is based in the subject, who, as pure presence, determines beingness: Being has been made into a property. The great motif of metaphysics is encapsulated in two words: “constant presence” (338). Whatever exists presently, is. Being is what exists for me right now. Jacques Derrida, the postmodernist philosopher responsible for Deconstruction, was inspired by Heidegger on this point, and called it the “metaphysics of presence.” 

Inventive Thinking

UnknownWhat, then, is the alternative to metaphysics, and what is it like? Heidegger called it inventive thinking, which can be taken in two ways: first, it is inventive in that it is creative, seeking to come up with new ways of approaching Being other than that of metaphysical presence; second, drawing again from etymology, in-venire is a coming-into, a discovering, such that inventive thinking enters into the domain of Being itself and tries to explicate it on its own terms. Here, rather than trying to grasp the beingness of beings, or that which lies behind beings, Heidegger sought to articulate what he called “the truth of beyng,” its “essential occurrence” (338). Thus, “beyng ‘is’ not a supplement to beings, but is what essentially occurs such that in its truth they (beings) can first attain the preservation proper to beings” (338; emphasis mine).

Several key points appear here. “Beyng ‘is’ not…, but… essentially occurs.” This remark stays true to the ontological difference because Being is not taken as a being, something that “is,” but as an occurrence, something that happens. Definitively, we can say that Being is not a substantial entity or noun; Being is a verb, is verbal, a happening—an event. Nonetheless, beings are not inessential; Being enables beings to be beings. So beings are not left out of the picture; Being always manifests a world and things within it, but we must not therefore take Being to be any such manifestation, any particular being. Although Heidegger would object to my term here, Being is like a transcendental grounding. Transcendental refers to the possibility of a possibility, and a ground is a foundation, meaning that in order for anything to be, Being must first occur and let things be. This specific formulation is possibly objectionable since it verges on turning Being back into a being. To describe Being as a transcendental grounding is helpful, in my defense, but it also sounds suspiciously like Being is a god of some sort, of which Heidegger was wary. Then again, the use of “grounding,” being a verb, is preferable to the noun “ground,” in which case the image of God is inescapable (consider theologian Paul Tillich’s idea that God is the “ground of Being”).

Another choice of Heidegger’s is to describe the temporal sense of action in “occurrence” as “essential.” Together, “essential occurrence” in German is Wesung, related to the word for “essence,” Wesen, both of which come from the old verb Wesan, meaning “to be.” This convoluted genealogy is more important than you might think, as Heidegger pays close attention to his use of language. Metaphysics, we said, produces an essence of Being, which makes it subject to conceptual representation, which makes Being mere presence. Consequently, when Heidegger uses the adjectival and adverbial forms—essential and essentially—he is drawing on Wesan being at the root of Wesen, and by extension Wesung; the essence of Being is no longer a What, a being, but a How, a way-of-being. Thought metaphysically, Being is a noun, and its essence is found in what it “is,” characterizing it in its qualities, adjectivally; thought inventively, Being is a verb, and its essence is found in how it manifests, in an adverbial sense. Our grammar, Heidegger pointed out, following Friedrich Nietzsche, shapes how we experience anything at all. We can say, then, that Being occurs, essentially; its essence is its occurring.

Unknown-5On top of this, “an inventive thinking of beyng… is compelled by being itself” (338). What this means is that, properly speaking, it is not we who initiate thought; instead, Being calls us, compels us to think it. The agency of inventive thinking is taken away from the subject and given to the supposed “object” of thought. This is a direct inversion of the classical schema of thinking, as exemplified in the philosophy of René Descartes, whose famous saying, “I think, therefore I am,” places certainty in the mind of the thinker. My thinking ensures me of my knowledge, and provides me a secure basis from which to survey, classify, and master the world around me. The Cartesian paradigm is then radicalized by Kant and Hegel, as I hinted above. To escape the hold of metaphysics, Heidegger made us the ones who are put into question. It occurs to us to think Being only because Being grants us the ability to; after all, if we did not exist, if we were not human beings, then we would not be able to think whatsoever.

downloadYet Heidegger warned against interpreting him to mean that, as the thinkers of Being, we could determine it. In his earlier work, Being and Time, published a decade before the Contributions was written, Heidegger did precisely this, declaring that it was only through our—humans’—access to Being that Being could be grasped. By the 1930s, though, he recognized his error of privileging Dasein, his term for us, over Being. Truly, thinking must begin with, and end at, Being. It is only by starting from Being that we can arrive at it, by thinking through it, in it; any recourse to beings, as we have seen, automatically falls into metaphysics. But if Being “is” not something, and if all we encounter are beings, then how can inventive thinking think inventively? Heidegger did not supply a direct answer. His main concern in §259 is rather to argue that to think Being in itself must be done, for it is the only way.

A further reason Heidegger is criticized as an obscurantist is his resistance to logic. This sidestepping of logic, however, must be seen in the same way as science: it is not that we should do away with logic or science, but we must recognize that they apply to specific domains and that there are some things, like Being, which fall outside their reach. Logic and science are successful and important modes of thinking, but they have a time and a place, of which ontology, the study of Being, is not one. Logic hinders rather than helps ontology because, as Heidegger observed, it developed straight from Aristotle’s metaphysical assumptions, viz., Being as substance, οὐσία (ousia), and so operates in too static and rigid a manner, forcing phenomena into frozen, formal relations.

Unknown-2These obstacles to a proper ontology have resulted in “the lack of a sense of plight,” which Heidegger referred to as the “extreme form of this plight,” by which he meant “the abandonment of beings by being” (339). Ever since Being and Time, Heidegger named this phenomenon Seinsvergessenheit, signifying the “forgottenness/forgetting of Being.” What all this translates to, is an ignorance on our part with regard to the meaning, or truth, of existence. Today, nobody asks what it means to be. We take it for granted that the materialist view of science is correct, failing to question that the materialist view is itself something which is and, as such, presupposes Being without directly confronting it. Technology enchants us and tempts us away from thinking about our lives in a probing way, such that my computer, for instance, with all its magical and wondrous capabilities, is nothing more than a device, a gadget at my disposal—as if that were not worthy of awe!