Fredrik Westerlund: Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena

Michael Mosely

Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena Book Cover Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena
Fredrik Westerlund
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback $62.10

Reviewed by: Michael Mosely (University of Sydney)

In Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena, Fredrik Westerlund characterises Heidegger’s thinking from the time of his early Freiburg lecture courses, up until his late writings of the 1960s, as a struggle to understand the question of phenomena and the inherently related question of phenomenology. For Westerlund, the question of phenomena is an enquiry into what it means for anything to come to, or give itself, in meaningful appearance, and the question of phenomenology is an enquiry into what it means to explain and articulate how our experience of phenomena is structured.

Westerlund calls attention to the fact that there are two schools of thought on the question of phenomena/phenomenology in Heidegger scholarship. A transcendental, phenomenological reading and a historical, hermeneutic reading. In the former, Heidegger, although critical of Husserl, is nevertheless understood to be essentially offering an elaboration of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. This reading claims that Heidegger remains committed to the notion that it is possible to uncover the structures of our experience that allow phenomena to be meaningful through direct intuitive reflection. In the latter reading this notion is rejected because the historical contexts of meaning in which we find ourselves predetermine our experience of phenomena. For this reason, this reading holds that phenomenology must proceed through hermeneutic reflection on our current, historical context of meaning, or by “tracing and answering to the groundless differential logic at the basis of every historical formation of meaning” (5).

For Westerlund, these two opposed interpretations reflect a tension at the heart of Heidegger’s thinking. While Heidegger repudiates the possibility of phenomenologically direct reflections on the structures of experience on the basis of the radically historical foundation of our meaningful experience, in practice, much of Heidegger’s writings consist of phenomenologically direct reflections. Thus, rather than side with either interpretation, Westerlund sets out to attend to and explore the effects of this tension throughout Heidegger’s writings. This task is undertaken in Parts 1–3 of the book. Yet Westerlund does not only offer an exegesis of Heidegger but also a critical and systematic reading. The contradictions and blindspots of Heidegger’s claims are laid bare throughout the book and in the fourth and final part, the Epilogue, Westerlund offers a more extended critique. Here Westerlund argues that, contra Heidegger, it is our first-person experience that provides direct access to phenomena beyond their historical determination and that as such we are essentially open to the call of the other as someone to love and care for, which is a source of moral meaning not confined to a historical context .

The first part of Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena contains three chapters and aims to show that in Heidegger’s earliest Freiburg lecture courses his philosophy is essentially a critical appropriation of Husserl’s phenomenology in that Heidegger’s thinking proceeds through “intuitive reflection on the essential structures of our first-person experiences” (15). Westerlund begins this task in Chapter One by giving a brief introduction to Husserl’s understanding of the problem of phenomena. In Westerlund’s account of Husserl’s phenomenology, the meaning of things and the structure of experience cannot be explained by reference to any ground of knowledge other than phenomenal self-presentation. The task of phenomenology is to turn our gaze away from the objects that we focus on in the natural attitude and examine experience as it is given in consciousness. Specifically, Husserl is held to seek to determine the essential structures of experience, such as how when we see one side of an object we nevertheless move within the horizon of possible perceptions of its other sides.

Following his discussion of Husserl’s phenomenology, Westerlund provides an exposition of the conception of philosophy put forth by Heidegger in his early Freiburg lecture courses as a primordial science of life. He shows that, for Heidegger, our primary experience of the world is our encounter with the pretheoretical significances of things. Highlighting Heidegger’s questioning of the given in his 1919 war emergency semester course, Westerlund explains that the domain of pretheoretical givenness is, for Heidegger, “nothing less than the basic domain of given meaningful being” (23). Subsequently Westerlund outlines Heidegger’s criticism of theoretical philosophy for its failure to recognise the primacy of pretheoretical experience, as well as Heidegger’s criticism of Husserl specifically for his remaining within the theoretical attitude of philosophy his and attempt to ground pretheoretical significance theoretically. Westerlund concludes the chapter by assessing Heidegger’s critique of Husserl and he argues that while Husserl’s focus on the comprehension of objects through perception leaves the connection between existentially and practically concerned experience unclarified, this does not diminish the capability for intuitive reflection on the structures of experience to uncover truths about our experience of phenomena.

In Chapter Two Westerlund outlines how Heidegger understands phenomenology and the structure of phenomena explicitly, with the aim of showing that Heidegger’s philosophy is, in 1919 and 1920, a critical appropriation of Husserl’s phenomenology. He shows that Heidegger’s phenomenology can be characterised as proceeding through intuitive seeing during this period by drawing attention to Heidegger’s account of the kind of experience of a Senegalese tribesman would have if transported to the lecture hall in Freiburg. Heidegger states here explicitly that the Senegalese’s experience of equipmental strangeness when looking at the lectern is identical with Heidegger’s own experience of the significance of the lectern as a place from which to lecture. Thus, Westerlund concludes, the aim of Heidegger’s phenomenological descriptions during this period is not to uncover the sense of a particular historical context but rather to use intuition to uncover the basic structure of pretheoretical life. Westerlund also shows that Heidegger’s phenomenology is reflective during this period. The description of the method of phenomenology Heidegger offers in his 1919–20 lecture course Basic Problems of Phenomenology begins with a going along with life without reflection, but ends with a leaping ahead into the horizons of experience and its motives, and an articulating of the structures of experience—that is, with reflection. Thus although Heidegger recognises during this period that historical concepts can distort phenomenologically intuitive seeing and reflection, and that we must therefore subject these concepts to critical destruction, this does not indicate that he has developed a historicist conception of phenomenology. Rather Heidegger’s phenomenology is Husserlian as he “both articulates and practices phenomenology as direct intuitive reflection on the constitutive structures of our experience” (48).

In Chapter Three Westerlund shows how the philosophy Heidegger develops in his early Freiburg lecture courses undermines itself with respect to its purpose. If, as Heidegger claims, our factical pretheoretical experience of phenomena is primary then what is left for philosophy to do? Westerlund highlights how Heidegger seems confused on this question, as he argues that philosophy is needed for a transparent enactment of life but also seems to suggest that the task of philosophy is only to remove theoretical abstraction so that we can live in unadulterated pretheroretical significance. For Westerlund, this problem can ultimately be traced to Heidegger’s desires to “critically regenerate…the age-old ambition of philosophy to explicate the basic sense of life and Being” as well as make philosophy relevant for “the challenge of facing and understanding the acute ethical-existential problems of our personal life” (54). At this early stage of Heidegger’s thinking, Heidegger cannot unite these two desires.

In Part Two Westerlund provides an account of Heidegger’s understanding of the question of phenomena/phenomenology in Being and Time (1927) and explains how Heidegger’s philosophy changed during the years intervening between his engagement with Aristotle’s De Anima in his 1921 summer semester seminar and the publication of his major work. In Chapter Four, Westerlund outlines how Heidegger’s historicist conception of phenomenology emerges. Heidegger’s engagement with Aristotle during the early 1920s is shown to be the occasion for the initial development of the historical as-structure, the notion that our pretheoretical experience of the world is determined by our prior understanding of the historical contexts of meaning in which we live. For Westerlund, Heidegger develops this notion through his interpretation of Aristotle’s concepts of phronēsis and nous. Phronēsis is understood as practical coping with the world that highlights the way that the significance of beings is founded on the basis of preceding concerns. Nous is the prior understanding that conditions our experience of beings; it is an understanding of eidē, of form, and additionally, an understanding of archai, the ultimate ‘from -out-of-which’ that determines the regions of Being from which different beings get their sense. Taken together, these concepts suggest to Heidegger that the significance of beings is determined by a historical as-structure or context of meaning.

Westerlund also in this chapter highlights Heidegger’s discovery of Aristotle’s privileging of sofia over phronsis, that is, the privileging of the pure perception of the eidē determining different beings. This privileging leads Aristotle to define Being as ousia, as constant presence, which determines the subsequent theoretical focus of philosophy. This discovery further suggests to Heidegger that phenomenology is fundamentally historical; if Being is determined historically then direct intuitive seeing is not possible. Rather it is necessary to undertake a hermeneutic destruction of the historical concepts latent in our tradition. Westerlund concludes the chapter with a lengthy exposition of Heidegger’s engagement with Husserl in Heidegger’s 1925 course and shows that Husserl’s categorial intuition, in its general form, becomes, for Heidegger, indicative of the way that our understanding of the world is guided by a pre-given historical context of meaning.

In the remaining chapters of Part Two Westerlund turns his attention to Being and Time. In Chapter 5 he considers the way that Heidegger’s elaboration of the ontological difference—the notion that our prior understanding of Being determines how beings appear—necessitates the enactment of fundamental ontology so that we might gain “clarity about ourselves and the world” (82). And he also outlines his problems with this view, namely, that our historically influenced understandings of the ontological structure of the world do not determine how we experience beings in a necessary manner. Westerlund additionally highlights the fact that the Heidegger’s project of fundamental ontology is not historical but seeks to determine the transhistorical structure of Dasein that constitutes the sense of Being itself. Chapter 6 contains Westerlund’s exposition of Heidegger’s account of Being-in-the-world. Here he highlights the way that our understanding of the historical world cannot be, for Heidegger, true or false. For Westerlund, this undermines the notion that it is necessary to distinguish between the historical prejudices of the They and a genuine understanding of phenomena, which he perceives as a significant problem. Chapter 7 treats this problem with reference to Heidegger’s concept of authenticity, which, for Westerlund, has a central role to play in Heidegger’s understanding of phenomena.

On Westerlund’s reading, Dasein is inherently challenged to acknowledge the utterly historically determined and therefore groundless nature of the possibilities it has available to choose for its identity. While inauthentic Dasein shirks this challenge and rather is guided by the They, to be authentic Dasein must meet this challenge. There is a problem with this notion, however. It does not seem possible for authentic historical possibilities to address Dasein as binding, as worth pursuing, without the binding character of these possibilities finding its source in the They. Westerlund identifies an oscillation between collectivism and subjectivism in Heidegger’s account of authenticity. It is collectivist in that it is the They that is the source of all ethical-existential normativity and it is subjectivist in that even if Dasein’s choosing itself apart from the They is possible, there is nothing to guide its choice other than “its own blind whims and impulses” (112). From this impasse Westerlund sees it as important to investigate into how life possibilities can appear as obligating at all and he argues that in Heidegger’s conception of both authentic and inauthentic Dasein, Dasein’s actions in life are motivated by a desire for social affirmation. Dasein seeks to live up to the collective values and norms of the They or those of the authentically chosen hero. This is problematic, for Westerlund, because it rules out the possibility of the ethical claim of the other. It is not possible, with this motivation, to care about the other as such, because all care is directed towards preventing the self from feeling the shame of failing to follow the norms that guide it. This problem is addressed at greater length in the Epilogue.

Chapter Eight, the final chapter of the second part, concerns Heidegger’s method in Being and Time. Westerlund opens this chapter by comparing and contrasting the interpretations of Heidegger’s method offered by Overgaard and Guignon. For Overgaard, the destruction is not a necessary part of fundamental ontology because the destruction itself presupposes an experience of Being that is phenomenologically basic—without this experience the historical senses of Being could not be identified as distortions. Guignon, on the other hand, hews closer to Heidegger’s actual comments in Being and Time that concern the necessity of the destruction for the retrieval and appropriation of Being. For Westerlund, like Overgaard, Heidegger does not follow through on his claim to be undertaking a hermeneutic-destructive mode of thinking and rather does presuppose that he is able to distinguish between our current prejudiced conception of Being and something more primordial. He highlights the fact that Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein is not an account of contemporary Dasein’s implicit, historical prior conceptions, but rather offers phenomenological descriptions of the basic structures of Dasein and its factical experience. Furthermore, it is the capacity of Heidegger’s descriptions to reveal truths about our day-today experience of the world, rather than their relation to the philosophical tradition, that gives them their validity. Thus direct, intuitive, phenomenological seeing remains a central feature of Heidegger’s method in Being and Time.

In the third part of Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena, Westerlund discusses Heidegger’s later philosophy, with chapters on the turn [Kehre], Ereignis as the opening of the world, and the method Heidegger’s late thinking. Westerlund seeks to show in this part that Heidegger’s phenomenological method becomes more historical after the publication of Being and Time. There is also a chapter on Heidegger’s relation to National Socialism in this part. Chapter Nine contains Westerlund’s interpretation of Heidegger’s turn, which he understands as Heidegger’s turn from phenomenology to historical reflection. To support this claim Westerlund examines Heidegger’s discussion, in his 1937–38 lecture course Basic Questions of Philosophy, of the inherent turning of the question of the essence of truth into the question of the truth of essence. For Westerlund, this ‘turning’ is the turning from Heidegger’s explication of the basic structures of Dasein, which are that through which beings become unconcealed (and are the essence of truth), so that true or false judgements might be expressed about them, to “a historical interrogation of the openness and givenness of historical being itself” (the truth of essence). Heidegger’s philosophy is no longer concerned in the mid 1930s with structure of phenomena or intuitive reflection on the structures of experience but rather seeks to determine the “phenomenality of Being” and proceeds through historical reflection (143).

It is therefore the turn that motivates Heidegger’s engagement with the history of philosophy in the mid 1930s and Westerlund demonstrates the historical character of Heidegger’s thinking by providing an account of Heidegger’s conception of the task of philosophy at this time. During this period of his thinking the history of philosophy is understood by Heidegger to have been determined by the Greek, metaphysical designation of Being as constant presence and to free ourselves from this understanding of Being it is necessary to return to the Greek beginning of philosophy in order to determine whether it contains a more primordial understanding of Being. Heidegger finds just such a primordial understanding in the pre-Socratic conception of Being as φύσις and in the Greek word for truth, ἀλήθεια. Together these terms reflect a view of Being as an event that is opened up.

In Chapter 10 Westerlund addresses Heidegger’s relation to National Socialism and offers a number of criticisms of Heidegger’s thinking. In the 1930s Heidegger no longer advocates becoming authentic but holds that it is necessary to open a binding historical world. Westerlund points out that as for Heidegger ontology has ultimate priority over ethics there is no check on the establishing of a new world that ignores the ethical claim of the other, such as the world that National Socialism wished to erect. Furthermore, Westerlund criticises Heidegger’s framing of his anti-semitism in ‘metaphysical’ terms. He shows that in Heidegger’s making use of many common anti-Semitic stereotypes, his position essentially becomes only a “philosophically inflated version of the kind of cultural racism that vilifies a certain culture or religion on the basis of crude and falsifying stereotypes” (149). Westerlund also sees in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks an additional problem for Heidegger scholarship, namely that they seriously displace our view of the ‘spirit’ of Heidegger’s thinking. In Heidegger’s utter failure to offer any remarks that reflect sympathy towards those who were subject to violence, persecution, and murder at the hands of the NSDAP, and in his explaining away of the events of the 1930s and 40s in being-historical terms, his philosophy appears abhorrent. If thinking the history of Being fully inures one to the ethical claim of the other in the manner it appears to have done to Heidegger, then there is little to recommend such a thinking.

In Chapter Eleven Westerlund returns to explicating the historical character of Heidegger’s philosophy with his account of Heidegger’s conception of art as that which opens a binding historical world. On Westerlund’s interpretation, the thinking of Being prepares the way for the poetry that opens the ‘holy’. Art in general, but poetry especially, is understood to reveal as important a set of highest values and ideals that are to guide our experience of phenomena and this is the opening of a binding historical world. Westerlund explains that art establishes a binding historical world through the openness of the poet or artist to the address of history “as our as yet undetermined manifold of being-possibilities” and the poet or artist’s subsequent gathering  of “this manifold into a unified and limited historical world” (171). This gathering and presenting additionally requires founding the world on what Heidegger calls the earth. The world set up by the work of art must also be, for Westerlund, grounded in the natural surroundings in which we live and shaped by the materiality and sensuousness of the medium of the work of art. It is in this way that the meanings of history can become anchored in the earth and the purposes and meanings, the guiding ideals and values, can “shine forth in a concrete paradigmatic form” (174). Westerlund also addresses in this chapter how in Heidegger’s thinking of the 1950s and later, the earth and world binary is expanded into the fourfold of earth, sky, mortals, and gods, and that in this period things, such as a bridge, can also open a world.

Chapter Twelve contains a discussion of Heidegger’s own account of the method of his late thinking. Heidegger unsurprisingly is critical of Husserl’s phenomenology at this time and champions historical reflection. For Westerlund, however, Heidegger’s criticisms of Husserl’s thinking fail to distinguish between the content of Husserl’s phenomenology and its method. While Husserl is influenced by scientific abstraction and seeks certain truth, this does not establish a necessary connection between intuition-based reflection and the metaphysical desire for ultimate grounds. Westerlund further indicates the historical character of Heidegger’s philosophy by showing how Heidegger pursues his investigation of the event of the opening of a world. Westerlund highlights that Heidegger examines texts from the history of metaphysics to show that the understanding of Being as presence that the texts utilise is not accounted for within them, and that he also examines poems by Hölderlin, George Trakl, and Stefan George, and the work of the pre-Socratics, to show that these texts hint at clearing. He also points out that Heidegger’s analysis of word etymologies is used for this end. In the final section of the chapter, to combat the assertion that there are phenomenological analyses in the later Heidegger, Westerlund shows that the late Heidegger’s phenomenological analyses of objects, such as a jug (in relation to the fourfold), do not take place within accounts of concrete use-cases. These accounts therefore “threaten to remain unphenomenological constructions of the same kind as all other conceptual and theoretical projections that dogmatically postulate meanings that they cannot account for” (192).

In the final part of the book, the Epilogue, Westerlund subjects Heidegger’s thinking to a more thorough  critique, one that is a development of criticisms of Heidegger made by Levinas, Tugendhat, and Cristina Lafont and that is an elaboration on criticisms of Heidegger’s thinking he has offered throughout his study. In Chapter 13, Westerlund engages with Levinas’ critique of Heidegger in which Heidegger is charged with covering over our direct ethical relation to the other with the question of Being. For Westerlund, Heidegger’s philosophy relies on the human desire for social affirmation motivating all action (works of art only persuade us to follow historical norms) which defines Dasein as essentially egoistic and rules out the possibility of responding to the other with love and care. Furthermore, Heidegger’s concern for the task of “reflecting on the openness of being in order to make possible the establishment of a binding world” has absolute primacy, and supersedes all ethical concern for individuals. This is not only a drawback in itself, but Westerlund also sees that the world Heidegger desires, one that is structured by a set of highest values and ideals that all must follow, can very easily become a world of control, repression, and persecution. That Heidegger does not consider such dangers further indicates the ethically problematic status of his philosophy.

In Chapter 14, Westerlund, drawing on Cristina Lafont’s criticism of Heidegger, is concerned with Heidegger’s claim that our historical understanding of Being cannot be true or false because it determines the meaningfulness of beings, which necessitates taking over our historical context as groundless. Westerlund argues against this notion. He holds that Heidegger provides no phenomenological evidence to show that our understanding of Being cannot be considered true or false. For Westerlund, we are claimed by the other regardless of our historical context and it is for its alignment with the claim of the other that the ethical status of an understanding of Being and its values can be judged. Westerlund ultimately holds that we possess an openness of conceptual understanding that allows us understand and appropriate aspects of our own cultural worlds, and recognise that there is an irreducible dimension of experience that grounds other cultural worlds.

In Chapter 15 Westerlund argues against Heidegger’s view that historical reflection is the necessary method of phenomenology. For Westerlund, Heidegger also offers no evidence that our understanding of Being is determined by our historical situation. Rather our understanding of Being consists of openly seeing and grasping the structures of experience over our historical preconceptions. Even though our historical contexts guide our thinking primarily and may offer up distortions, we are always free to discard these distortions and examine the structure of experience, which determines the truth of our concepts. Furthermore, Westerlund argues, Heidegger’s historical method cannot actually demonstrate that the event or the clearing is the source of historical Being. Even if Heidegger could demonstrate that the event or the clearing is the foundational concept of the Western tradition, this would not show that it is the source of Being. Rather it would show only that the event or the clearing is the “philosophical horizon of the Western tradition”, and the truth of the concept would remain undetermined (220). As Westerlund puts it, “Heidegger’s metaunderstanding of the radically historicist character of his method does not allow him to account for what it is that gives to his thinking whatever truth or clarificatory force it possesses” (221). Ultimately, for Westerlund, while it is very difficult to accurately reflect on our own experiences and to free ourselves from prior prejudices this is precisely the task of phenomenology. The difficulty of phenomenology does not undermine its validity.

Westerlund’s Heidegger and the Problem of Phenomena is a valuable addition to contemporary Heidegger scholarship. It contains a number of sections that clarify central issues in the study of Heidegger. Westerlund’s accounts of Heidegger’s relation to Husserl’s phenomenology in his early Freiburg lecture courses, and of Heidegger’s development of a more thoroughgoing historicism through his engagement with Aristotle in the early 1920s, are excellent. Similarly, Westerlund’s treatment of Heidegger’s 1925 engagement with Husserl is the clearest I have encountered. Furthermore, Westerlund’s undertaking of a “philosophical“ rather than “exegetical” reading of Heidegger in which he is not constrained by the horizon of the texts he treats but rather provides independent articulations of what these texts show and fail to show is also very welcome. Heidegger scholarship can certainly benefit from more studies that take this kind of approach. The study is not, however, without its flaws. Westerlund covers a lot of ground in this work and as a result his treatment of individual topics often proceeds quite quickly. This sometimes prevents him from addressing relevant issues in a topic. He does not, for example, discuss how a work of art like van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes, discussed by Heidegger in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, could reveal the highest ideals and values of a culture. The speed at which Westerlund proceeds through Heidegger’s material also causes his overarching arguments to fade into the background at times and make the relation of some sections to these arguments unclear. Westerlund’s arguments would likely have been served better through structuring his book around his criticisms of Heidegger, rather than the chronological progression of Heidegger’s thought.

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