Nicolai K. Knudsen: Heidegger’s Social Ontology

Heidegger’s Social Ontology. The Phenomenology of Self, World, and Others Book Cover Heidegger’s Social Ontology. The Phenomenology of Self, World, and Others
Part of Modern European Philosophy
Nicolai K. Knudsen
Cambridge UP
2023
Paperback
288

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (North-West University, Potchefstroom)

The aim of this work is to examine Heidegger’s social ontology, roughly the human being’s relation to others. In eight chapters Knudsen elaborates Heidegger’s thinking of being-with, different forms of being-with (such as shared action) and, say, the politics of being-with. Knudsen, understandably, focuses on the early Heidegger and attempts to relate Heidegger’s thinking concerning social relations to fields that, quite often, have not studied Heidegger at length to develop their positions: one will find, for instance, accounts of Hilary Putnam alongside Heidegger.

This dialogue between the two big strands of contemporary philosophy is perhaps not always successful even though it at times surely is illuminating. Knudsen’s book, however, takes a slow start and at times gets lost somewhat in the definition-craze that haunts much of analytical philosophy (a craze that is a bit ironic when compared to Heidegger’s questioning of what a being actually “is”, for Heidegger obviously never allowed a definition to exhaust the being of an entity). Knudsen throughout offers a very lucid account of Heidegger’s positions—certainly when it comes to Being and Time—and of contemporary thinkers in the field of social ontology. It is clear, too, that Knudsen is somewhat enamored with phenomenology—who can blame him! Yet, although Knudsen for instance assumes the normativity of phenomenology—one must “get the phenomenology right” (130-1)—it is hard to imagine whether this alone will convince his dialogue partners. It is this that makes this reader wonder whether the dialogue between the two strands of philosophy here has always succeeded.

In the Introduction already, Knudsen describes Heidegger as an externalist: the reality of the outside world, better, the “solicitations of the environment” (2), make for the fact that the human being is always caught in, and claimed by, a network of relations on which he or she, in turn “constitutively depends” which puts Heidegger “at odds with […] contemporary analytical social ontology as well as recent social phenomenology” (5) which both see individuals or the dyadic relation between the other and me as the ultimate level of explanation. Using a term from Donald Davidson, Knudsen describes Dasein’s relation to the world and to others as triangulation: Dasein understands itself through the world which it always shares with others.

Chapter one sets out to elaborate Heidegger’s social ontology by pointing to a transcendental social structure according to which entities, properties, social and natural alike, appear as they do because “subjectivity itself implies a set of necessary and a priori social relations” (19) that is, the transcendental structure of intentionality as such already “implies a form of intersubjectivity” (22). I am who I am only by virtue of others. Sociality, then, is not something that is construed, constructed or constituted afterwards, after, that is, the ego is fully erected. This is why social ontology is an ontology precisely: it does not pertain to just a domain of existence, but rather is a dimension of existence itself (23).

Knudsen then proceeds by showing how Heidegger early on attempted to integrate “social ontology into fundamental ontology” (23), an attempt that, for Knudsen, is complete only in 1924 in Heidegger’s The Concept of Time, when he finally abandons all ambiguous distinctions between the surrounding world, the self-world and the with-world by pointing to a fundamental Miteinandersein of all beings with all beings. (24-28). Other Dasein are strictly speaking not a part of the world, a “form of world” (29), they share world with us because being-in-the-world, as an ontological dimension, is itself shared and spread out through all Dasein. Of course, the world of the other is different than my world. Yet the social ontological dimension of ‘being-in-the-world’ points to an underlying structure which is shared in all different and particular worlds. Being-in-the-world therefore consists in a “non-thematic awareness” (32) that is only “tacitly operative in our thematic awareness of an object” (32): we are hammering with this particular hammer long before this hammer shows up as a hammer precisely. Being-in-the-world, then, ultimately “is the relational whole of significance that makes our involvement with entities possible” (33). Our being-in-the-world is, however, not strictly formal or void. The world of the other and my world both share certain characteristics. Heidegger points here to in-order-to relations (Umzu) and the for-sake-of-which of these relations (Worumwillen). I hammer with the hammer in order to build the shed for the sake of the dog. Knudsen likens these in-order-to’s to the contemporary concept of affordances and the for-the-sake-of-which to a form of commitment (33).

Knudsen then quite poignantly warns us not to see this being-in-the-world solely as a “basic layer” or rather as “the non-social building blocks needed to understand all features of social life” (35). It is not because Dasein always and already has this transcendental make-up that it can turn to others. On the contrary: it is because Dasein is already turned to others that this transcendental-make up can be detected in the various particular worlds. Knudsen concludes by stating, intriguingly, that “there is a very minimal sense of the word to share at stake here” (38)

Chapter two compares the transcendental social ontologies of Husserl and Heidegger. In Husserl, there are for Knudsen two approaches, the one beginning from empathy—which Heidegger for the most part rejects—and the other starting from “open subjectivity” which is closer to Heidegger (38-45). Meaning is neither constructed by or given to a subject (which it then compares to the meaning of and for others), meaning has meaning only because it ‘shows up’ between us and because there are others in the first place. There is no meaning for one alone. Herein too lies Heidegger’s critique of Husserl’s layered ontology (48): there is no real and objective meaning that then needs to be traced back to the transcendental structure of an ego that then builds a spiritual community with other egos. On the contrary, for Heidegger, all of these are there quite immediately. Knudsen concludes that Husserl, for Heidegger, “proceeds in an unphenomenological way” (51).

The question is in what way Heidegger’s approach then is still to be considered transcendental. Knudsen correctly points to Heidegger’s use of “transcendence” in Being and Time. “Transcendence is the primordial surpassing of entities towards the structure that makes them intelligible [which is] the world. Transcendence names the phenomenological correlation between mind and world, and the investigation of this correlation is rightly called transcendental” (56). In a beautiful definition, Knudsen defines Heidegger’s phenomenological approach as follows: “Phenomenologically, to be a subject is to exist in an experiential field as the one to whom experiences are given” (57). One will then see that the “mind is intrinsically world-directed and -engaged, while the world is phenomenologically senseless apart from the mind” (ibid.). Heidegger so adds a worldly, experiential, almost empirical, but in any case utterly historical dimension to transcendental thinking. Indeed, “our surpassing entities towards the world always take place in a particular or finite way” (58). Dasein’s transcending is always particular—it transcends to this rather than that, at this particular place rather than there—but it is a transcending nevertheless. It is open to the field of possibilities opened up to it by this particular place in time.

Chapter three’s worry about this historical dimension is that it might be an instance of relativism. If “different people have different understandings of being” (69), how then can they “refer to the same objects” (71)? The chapter focuses on Lafont’s account of linguistic idealism and Dreyfus’ pragmatic conventionalism but sometimes seems to get lost somewhat in the peculiarities of these positions. It takes Knudsen a long time to get their points straight and to bring his own point home. Let us therefore turn to its conclusion and Heidegger’s take on the problem mentioned. Knudsen finds in Heidegger’s Introduction to Philosophy (from 1928/29) an example of joint attention, in which “there is a mutual non-thematic awareness between the co-intenders, who are thematically oriented towards an object that is, accordingly, experienced as a shared object of attention” (78). Here Heidegger had in fact asked “what enables several people to intend the same piece of chalk?” (ibid.) when attending his lecture. All of them are looking at the piece of chalk, for a while unawares of the precise educational point of the shared attention for this object and non-thematically aware that the others, too, are watching this piece of chalk held up by Heidegger. Yet all, because their field of possibilities in this case too is determined by their particular situation and backgrounds will look at the object differently. The teacher looks at the chalk differently than the students do: for the teacher it is a tool in order to teach, whereas for the student the tool is unnoticed—surpassed say—in order to focus on what will be taught. “This leads Heidegger to argue that a strict similarity in our practical comportment is simply too demanding a criterion for determining what constitutes their jointness” (79)—“even if we see things differently, we do not see different things” (78).

It is this play of sharing and dividing that now attracts Knudsen’s attention: for Heidegger, “we share and divide ourselves in [the] unconcealment [of entities]” (81, cf. GA27, 105)—we share the very looking at this object yet are divided in the meaning our comportment towards them attributes to these objects. “Two Dasein can intend the same object in roughly similar ways if they share an understanding of being by being raised in the same social practices” (82). Yet this doesn’t make Heidegger a relativist or a strong social externalist like Lafont or Dreyfus, where (social) meaning solely determines reference. Instead, “Heidegger endorse a weak or open-ended social externalism according to which meaning depends on ongoing social interaction” (83). These Dasein, however foreign to one another, will figure it out simply because Dasein is such a figuring out (of potential uses for objects).

This “figuring-out” is used here figuratively, although it is described by Heidegger quite literally as a “non-thematic other-awareness” (84) even when no others are around. Objects take on meaning because their use is useful if and only if it can be, sooner or later, related to others. Usefulness only ever arises because each Dasein is as the sharing of world with others. Knudsen emphasizes rightly that this transcendental-ontological condition of being-with, this non-thematic awareness is a form of communication. For Knudsen, “Heidegger’s point is that whenever another Dasein shows up in my realm of manifestation, his behavior will affect how I comport myself towards the surrounding entities” (85) because, in effect, we are constitutively open towards others” (86). It is because we are constitutively open to others—share ourselves in and as world, are broken open toward world—that not one object is without a reference to others even when no others are around to communicate with.

Knudsen likens this openness to Donald Davidson’s idea of triangulation where, on the one hand, we adjust our understanding of objects in light of other’s behavior, of social relations, and, on the other hand, we adjust our understanding of these others through sharing the environment, through objective relations (87). Such, if I may, transcendental triangulation is first. Prior to “shared conventions, rules, or routines” (88) there is, Heidegger says, an “originary, essential agreement” of human beings with one another (ibid., Cf. GA 29/30, 447f) and through which Dasein, throughout, comport themselves to entities in roughly the same ontological way. The remainder of the chapter explores the differences between Heidegger’s take on language and that of Davidson, Lafont, or Dreyfus who all, in one way or another, want to trace this linguistic condition of possibility back to propositional attitudes or at least shared linguistic conventions whereas for Heidegger the sharing of world goes “beyond the exchange of linguistic utterances” (92).

Heidegger’s “pre-reflective triangulation” (93) is such that even if we would meet someone who is totally other, we would still see and use the same entity, simply because our diverse interactions with it, and the possible uses the other of this entity that the other might manifest to us. Even if we do not share the same understanding of being, we will nonetheless both have an understanding of being. In the case of the lectern or the piece of chalk, this open interaction would show “the lectern not simply in light of the usage characteristic of the social practices that he is socialized into” (94) but as an entity toward which other comportments are possible too. Knudsen, quite rightly, concludes that “the idea that different people live in different worlds should be rejected” (95).

The second part of the book focuses on different forms of being-with, and opens with a chapter on interpersonal understanding. What indeed do we know about others? What do others know and how do we know others? Knudsen explores the phenomenological tradition of empathy, ranging from Theodor Lipps up to Edith Stein and Husserl as well as more contemporary (but analogous) debates on social cognition. Heidegger however was no clear partisan of these theories of empathy: the fact that an ego would need to ‘think about’ how the other would possibly feel only then to imagine if and whether the ego ‘would feel’ roughly the same thing, simply contradicts Heidegger’s non-reflective, immediate dealing with the other and others where we recognize the other as other before we would even try to project upon or reproduce artificially the other’s supposedly mental states. Heidegger, in this sense, “effectively dissolves the traditional problem of other minds” (109), since this problem is from the outset regulated by “non-thematic awareness”. It is because the other shares a world with me, constituted by a similar Umzu and Worumwillen, that we can “read [intentional statements] off the practical comportment of others” (109).

When we see a human being, we do not first wonder whether this is in fact a human being who thinks, feels and senses like me, we simply see a human being with whom we are interacting. This turns Heidegger, for Knudsen, into a “proto-enactivist” (ibid.), one of those recent theories nowadays advocated by Hanne De Jaegher’s research into participatory sense-making. Over and against the theoretical and cognitive bias of many of contemporary theories, Heidegger also criticizes the older phenomenological tradition for wrongfully prioritizing the face-to-face relation. Our understanding with others is “cut from the same holistic cloth as our understanding of ourselves” (112). For Knudsen’s Heidegger, this means that “interpersonal understanding cannot be a relation between two distinct entities. It can only take place by virtue of the transcendence of the shared world in which I and you coexist as different polarisations of a field of possibilities” (114). I understand the other, and the other understands me, because both of us live similarly in a roughly similar world with roughly similar entities at hand. It is by “going along with”—Mitgehen—the other seeing how he or she is and comports his-or herself that we discover what it is like to be this entity. It is therefore through an immediate non-reflective Versetzen or “transposition” that we understand the place of the other (Cf. 114-5; GA 29/30, 296) and discover that the other’s behavior is appropriate for a being that is being-in-the-world. There is little interaction with the stone, for instance. The stone, for Heidegger, does not have a world: it lack all Worumwillen and Umzu. In this regard, the other turns out to be just another “polarization of the same matrix of salience” living in a world which is “meaningful” and “makes sense” from the very start.

Here Knudsen disagrees with some commentators of Heidegger who argued that his account of solicitude—roughly: the care for the other—contains an “inauthentic” mode in which the other would be, à la Kant, reduced to a mere means to an end. Knudsen, interestingly, argues that all forms of solicitude, even those where we leap in for others and take their tasks away from them, “involve a minimal level” (119) of the acknowledgement of the other’s Dasein-like character. The distinction between leaping-in and leaping ahead is then not an ethical one (where the former would be bad and the latter good) but rather an ontological one: it depicts two ontological extremes of intersubjective care for the other (120). Knudsen convincingly concludes this discussion with some examples of his own that in effect carefully deconstruct why leaping-in would always be a bad thing and leaping-ahead would everywhere be a good thing.

Is there a transpositioning, a “going-along-with”, a walking the ways, with dogs, animals and stones? Heidegger’s example of the dog “under the table” became famous (notably through Jacques Derrida’s unrelenting analysis). Heidegger, one might say, directs his attention phenomenologically to the dog: he goes up the stairs with us, eats with us, and walks the same pathways as Heidegger once did. “There is a going-along-with […] a transposedness, and yet not” (121, GA 29: 308). Something is different. Heidegger says: the animal is poor in world. The animal, Knudsen states, “can only experience entities as correlates of its drives and capabilities” (125). The dog’s world only pertains to his next meal, say, whereas the world of humans is open-ended and characterized by a multiplication, Vermehrbarkeit (GA 29, 285) through which ever more entities can obtain ever more uses. This makes for the fact that, in the end, for Heidegger “the world sharing is asymmetrical” (127): we can transpose ourselves in the dog, know immediately to run away from a snake, and know not to run away from the gorilla if he’s in a cage in a zoo. We transpose ourselves into animals but animals cannot be expected to transpose themselves into us (127).

Chapter five focuses on shared action and opens with the constatation that many of the contemporary accounts—Knudsen mentions Gilbert, Searle, and Bratman—are overly intellectualistic and should be complemented with a phenomenology of action, which will speak, again, of a “pre-reflective agency” (131) responding as it does to solicitations of the surrounding world. Knudsen pays attention to “small-scale, egalitarian, and temporary group formations” (ibid.), say, people involved in dancing, in order to argue for a “plural pre-reflective self-awareness” (ibid.) whereas existential phenomenology, in its early days at least, tended to focus on rather individualistic actions.

Shared action meets three conditions: we are with more than one, we are forming a group, and we are aware of us forming a group (132). We are doing things together when we know that we are doing things together. It is on the latter, quite intellectualistic, aspect that Gilbert and Bratman focus. Once more Knudsen shows himself to be enamored with phenomenology: “we often engage in intentional activity without being aware of the desire and beliefs that supposedly distinguish our actions from mere bodily movement” (136). Yet such “pre-reflective action” does carry some awareness with it: I know that I am dancing and know that we are dancing without consciously representing a desired goal for this action. It is clear that most of our actions are in this sense pre-reflective. The rest of the chapter asks whether such a prereflective awareness is also present in groups. In this regard, Knudsen discusses Hans Bernhard Schmid’s work on plural action and argues that it misses precisely an account of “holistic singular self-awareness” (141) through which actions are always and already a response (rather than a reaction) to what is happening in the surrounding world: we go dancing, for instance, because suddenly there is a good tune or a good ‘vibe’. At best, Schmid arrives at a “formal social mind” (144)—we are aware that we are dancing—but not at an, say, empirical one, one that is “unified by the solicitations that prompt us to respond” (144): it is this particular song that got us on the dancefloor. To elaborate such an awareness, Knudsen then develops and expands an example of Heidegger describing the joint goals and joint actions of two campers (GA 27, 91).

Interestingly, Knudsen returns to Heidegger’s account of language—Gerede—to show how individual action is transformed into shared action. The simple exclamation, ‘Dance with me’, for instance, changes one kind of solicitation into another kind, shared this time, of solicitation of the environment (152). More than in the earlier chapters on intersubjectivity, Knudsen focuses on the ontological aspects of Heidegger’s social ontology, for just as we are with others even when we are alone, just so are we speaking even when we are silent or just listen or read (154, Cf GA 12, 9). There is an overlap between world and speech: world is what is spoken about, what “makes sense” prior to being put into one or the other proposition. In this regard, the song that get us on the dancefloor is just the empirical case that expresses, makes salient, an environment that already is “inherently shared [,] inherently expressive [and to which we are] inherently responsive” (156).

Chapter six discusses social normativity. Here too Heidegger’s account, for Knudsen, is “phenomenologically crucial” (166) amidst the ongoing contemporary debates. Heidegger was no fan of social conventions and his discussion of Das Man—the anyone—makes this quite clear. Knudsen engages in very detailed and intriguing reading of the ambiguities in Heidegger’s thinking of the anyone’s mediocrity where everyone does, reads, and says what everyone does, reads and says. Knudsen argues that “the anyone [is] reproduced by the weight of precedent alone” (168): we read what everyone reads, in a sense, because people have been reading this all along. Heidegger’s ultimate aim here is to “uncover the ontological foundation of our responsiveness to social norms” (170) rather than describe Dasein’s “desire for social affirmation”, as Fredrik Westerlund has it (ibid.). With Haugeland, Knudsen explores the ‘weight of precedent’: we do as always has been done because we are “temporal creatures with habits and memories” (171) and so tend to “reproduce” certain behavioral norms rather than others. This process of “stabilization” (ibid.), as Haugeland names it, will for Heidegger always amount to a sort of primacy of averageness and levelling down. “We unconsciously accept a standard way of doing things” (172).

Knudsen quite convincingly shows that there is no one-way ticket from the inauthenticity of the Anyone to the authenticity of a “proper” Dasein. Instead, the Anyone for Knudsen is a “necessary feature of Dasein” (173) that, at times however, can be reconciled with the quest for an authentic self. Dasein does “have options” (174): it is not condemned to the unfreedom dominating the Anyone. Knudsen ultimately argues that the Anyone or the “public” covers up aspects of the accepted and prevailing social norms in a very peculiar way: it tends to turn the current and standard set of social norms into an ahistorical, absolute set of social norms (175). Our way of doing things then becomes the way of doing things. With this thesis, we have reached the heart of Knudsen’s book—at least for this reader coming from the phenomenological tradition. For Knudsen, it is, on the one hand, necessary “that there are social norms”—this is the transcendental, existential aspect—yet what these norms concretely and empirically are differs throughout history—they are ontic, historical indeed, and therefore provisional. It is these latter chapters, in which Knudsen develops this insight, that one finds the most read-worthy passages of the book.

Especially interesting is Knudsen’s take on Heidegger’s odd, if not awkward, stress on the “destiny of the people” which, as we all know, starts in Being and Time and only keeps worsening after 1927. Knudsen turns to Heidegger’s account of historicity, late in Being and Time, and considers that there is a distinction between the Anyone and the concrete “happening of community” (176, SZ, 384) what Knudsen calls “historical social normativity” and through which “the same content, the same social norms are […] disclosed as historical rather than as universal defaults” (176).

Yet what to make of Heidegger’s thinking of the “people”, the Volk? Knudsen makes a great deal of Heidegger’s statement in Being and Time that it is possible for us to disclose “history emphatically” (SZ, 376). This would make it possible for an authentic self to both recognize the normative content of social norms and their historical, provisional character (179). It is in this sense that, to echo Heidegger’s wording, authenticity is a “new modality” (ibid.) of the existence of the Anyone. “In resoluteness […] social norms are handed down as handed down. We thereby come to see our socially inflected factical possibilities as heritage rather than as defaults” (180). We have inherited this possibility of organizing a society rather than that one, yet it is entirely possible and legitimate for a society to organize itself in an entirely other way. If we want to belong to a certain group and certain people then there is always, apart from awareness of all historicity of these social norms, the possibility of explicitly repeating them. In effect, “repetition”, is the more or less explicit choice to hand down the earlier norms again. “Dasein now chooses to follow a precent as a precedent or as heritage” (181), yet that still is “an ultimately contingent product of our historical situation” (ibid.). Dasein so becomes aware of its own historical community as a particular community which happens here, now and for the time being: the “destiny of this people”, of this particular community, is nothing more than the co-happening of all its constituents for this particular amount of time. I can decide to take part in, say, the Belgian community, to claim this as “my own”, to use the possibilities and habits and memories the Belgian community offers me, and so commit myself to the prolongation of this community by realizing that these possibilities are offered up here, now as possibilities next to a dozen of other, historical possibilities (of others, of other communities).

It is clear that Knudsen sees in Being and Time no “precursor to Heidegger’s fatal politics” (182) as early on Karl Löwith did. This is quite right. Being and Time was one of the first metaphysical works ever to be immersed in historicity that it would be downright strange if it in its concluding pages would settle for one or the other predestined destiny. Such a thing comes to Heidegger’s mind only later. But one needs to acknowledge, too, that Being and Time was not finished (and breaks off quite suddenly, with a question that was already present at the beginning): it is possible that Heidegger realized that with the “destiny” of the people, why not of being, other, less commendable, options were opened and that the book “failed” for the simple reason that its author could not decide where he wanted to stand, what choices had to be made. Knudsen concludes: “there is no necessary connection between Heidegger’s conception of history and his political engagement” (184). Let it be noted indeed.

It is true that in the thirties and early fourties Heidegger thinks he must, and can, think politically. “The general idea is that Hölderlin’s poetry can bring about an awareness of and a commitment to the particularity of the community” (185). At the very least, there is the willingness and desire to make people commit to a certain community. One might suspect that existentialism’s insistence on the freedom of the individual was, at best, a productive misunderstanding. In this period, though, Knudsen states Heidegger is occupied by three themes: the fragility of communal life, the pressure toward social coherence and the significance of communal commitments (186). At one of the rare moments Knudsen turns to late Heidegger, he reads this important distinction into the difference between polis and dike: the first is equivalent “to the existential-ontological sense of the shared world”, the latter “names the particular regime of historical normativity” (187) to which Dasein, always already, falls prey (and commits to, or not). This is why the latter is labelled as strife or conflict: decisions need to be made, there needs to be education, and institutions to enable these decisions. The question remains: if one realizes the utter contingency of one’s own community, how and why prolong this community? (Existentialism’s questions are philosophically legitimate). Yet, “on a personal level’, Knudsen states, “Heidegger took this idea to imply authoritarianism and nationalism” (192): someone will tell us that and how we need to commit and that we should commit to this particular community. However, and Knudsen is right here, one might just as well find oneself within a particular community without perhaps too much commitment, and just ask questions as Heidegger used to do: why and what does it mean to be in this community for seventy odd years or so, and why should I commit to these norms rather than others? There is indeed no need for “reactionary politics” like Heidegger’s very particular stance (192).

“Heidegger’s answer to why we should hold exactly these communal commitments is [more] interesting” (199). Indeed it is. Chapter seven opens with precisely this question. At least from 1935 onward, Heidegger believed that the historical task fell to Germany to prevent, as Derrida stated in Of Spirit, the phenomenon of the world from becoming obscured. It was the German state, with the aid of a thorough educational system, in which the people, Das Volk, would give itself a lasting body in which the people becomes an issue for itself (203). It is known, especially from the account of the seminars gathered in Nature, History, State, that Heidegger endorsed, perhaps somewhat unthoughtfully, the Führerprinzip. Yet, Knudsen argues, “Heidegger never offers any argument for this authoritarianism, but it is an intrinsic part of his politics” (ibid.). Authoritarianism is needed to enforce the goal of the state and of the people. Yet Heidegger, here too, wants that these people actually adhere to these goals, and consciously will them by committing to them. In this regard, “Heidegger sees education as a way of tying studentS to the state” (204), as a way of making them aware of the “historical task” weighing on them when taking part in the state and the community.

With Löwith, Knudsen therefore contends that Heidegger’s politics is built upon his conception of historicity from Being and Time onward. Yet, Knudsen, contra Löwith, wants us to distinguish between the need and possibility of communal commitments—an adherence to a particular, historical community—and authoritarianism or fascism (206). There is something to be said about the fact that Heidegger’s fascism is tied up with his notion of the “history of being”. But Knudsen is lucid enough to pinpoint the “highly ambiguous” (206) character of this concept in Heidegger’s writings and offers no less than five different definitions of the term of which only a moderate version is “fine-grained enough to yield convincing phenomenological analysis” (208). This moderate version instruct us “that each historical age is characterized by a particular understanding of being” (206). This, say, historicity of being is incompatible with the larger (and somewhat grandiose) claim that this history of being is nothing but a history of decline and that only a particular state is able to remedy or otherwise turnaround this nihilistic unfolding of being. In this sense, the “geopolitical knot” that Heidegger superimposed on the historicity of being, through which certain people are more (or less) nihilistic than others simply does not hold (209). Heidegger’s “politics”, in that sense, was never a “political philosophy”: these politics, Knudsen argues, were only indirectly important and were to aid the “metaphysical revolution” (208) Heidegger deemed necessary through which his students, through studying “relentlessly the craft of interpreting the great thinkers” (ibid.; GA 94, 389), would awaken to a new understanding of being that stepped outside of nihilism.

Heidegger’s efforts “to [map] different peoples onto the history of being” (212) are obviously “appalling” (209). Yet it should not make us blind for the fact that, in the Notebooks recording his disappointment with the movement, Heidegger realized that the ease with which he spoke of the “Russians”, the “Americans” and the “Jews” did not hold even for the “Germans”: “somewhat despite himself, [he] realized that the Germans are not a unified people with a single fate” (212). Heidegger realized, in effect, and to put it bluntly, that these students couldn’t care less about his metaphysical revolution—“they are disappointing all along the line” (GA 94, 116). Will he have realized that there was no way to educate the nazis, that they were “without world”, so to say, or at least without German Bildung? Perhaps.

In any case, Heidegger abandons all hope in the movement for a metaphysical revolution. The point is, Knudsen says, that “from this tension emerges another conception of the history of being” (213) no longer bound to “geopolitics and communal commitments” (ibid.): Only a God, supposedly the last one, can save us now. The importance of this chapter lies, however, elsewhere, in the mistakes against his own social ontology Knudsen mentions. First, Heidegger’s insistence that the Führer can act as an “ontological sovereign” (215) that can inaugurate a new epoch of being disregards the fact that no one can “step outside” being-with, where “meaning is an indeterminate product of social interaction. [Now] Heidegger takes meaning to be the product of creative acts of creative individuals” (ibid). Over and against the “high-brow” accounts of poets, leaders, and, why not, philosophers, there still stands the phenomenological messiness of being-with certain people in a certain place at a certain time. Next comes, with this, the confusion between ontic and ontological conceptions of community: “the world is no longer shared by equals” (216). Rather, someone steps out to once and for all distribute the terms and goals of this world-sharing. Meaning is then no longer open-ended, surging forth to speak like late Heidegger, from our different interactions, meaning is stabilized—a word Heidegger did not like—in its distribution from the leader to the all members of a community. What is more, once the “phenomenological sense of the historical” (217), through which we become aware of our historical norms as just that, contingent and historical norms, loses its formal character but “concerns content” (ibid.) through which certain people are lesser (or more) able to disclose historicity, “an element of historiological historicity [is] incorporated (ibid.). In other words, something very ontic enters into the mix which Heidegger, in Being and Time at least (but later too, when distinguishing between Historie and Geschichte) always wanted to avoid. Yet, the phenomenological sense mentioned above would “have avoided these problems […] different people or different communities instantiate this condition [of being-with] in different ways depending on their facticity but they never inhabit different worlds” (218). Heidegger’s historicism is, Knudsen concludes, no longer radical enough, no longer able to combine transcendentalism and historicity through which the transcendental take on being-in-the-world becomes aware of its own historical stance as well—we all have world but the world we have differs from people to people and from era to era.

Knudsen’s last chapter discusses Heidegger’s early take on authenticity. How are we take up our own historical fate, especially given no poets or philosophers can tell us once and for all what to do? Knudsen’ aim is “to dispel”, here too, “th[e] individualistic worry” (227). Knudsen understands authenticity first and foremost as a formal framework: I am not authentic when I understand my self from out of one or the other innerworldly entity or activity. Very much like one needs to become aware of social historical normativity as a historical normativity, so too Dasein must become aware of itself as a particular being that ‘is’ only as this particular, individual historical being. It is here, obviously, that the analysis of death plays a prominent role: nothing makes me more aware of my own contingency than a sense of my mortality. Dasein now understands that “it lives its life with reference to the possibilities afforded to it by its being along things and with others” (247) as a “being-possible” (246) amidst all finite possibilities. This formal being-possible is the only constancy that determinate Dasein is granted amidst all “ontological insecurity” (247). It is this ontological transparency—we become a question to ourselves precisely because we understand ourselves as a question, that is, as being thrown into a contingent, open-ended, finite world—that makes for a “non-political way in which the philosopher might become the leader […] of others” (256) by awakening these others too to this ontological question mark that we all are, yet, that we all are together.

Knudsen’s book contains some very thoughtful analysis and shows a deep understanding of Being and Time especially. Certainly, one needs patience to read Knudsen’s book, but such a slow read will pay off and one will be thoroughly instructed about Heidegger’s rightful place within the field of social ontology, mainly through Knudsen’s useful overviews of the extant secondary literature. The links between the sometimes quite diverse chapters, however, might have been somewhat better elaborated.

Yet one can wonder what the target-audience, as publishers call it these days, of the book precisely is: it risks to leave both Heideggerians and the analytical audience somewhat unsatisfied. Readers of Heidegger will at times be bothered by the overly anthropological reading of his work and, certainly the readers of later Heidegger, will search in vain for the ontological viewpoint that is present even in Heidegger’s history of being and thinking of Ereignis. As mentioned, the author is clearly enamored with the discipline of phenomenology and I have listed those instances when it is commended that we must get the phenomenology right. Yet, his appeal to phenomenology is at times somewhat naïve, if not superficial. There’s more to phenomenology than just an appeal to the immediacy of experience. Heidegger’s entire endeavor, furthermore, is an account of what is, not of what we experience—there’s a subtle difference to be noted. As it now stands, this account of phenomenology is far from convincing for those who still think that truth is indeed a property of a set of propositions. That there is a social ontology in Heidegger, however, and one that is thoroughly to be reckoned with in the current debates, that is shown more than convincingly.

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