Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy

Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy Couverture du livre Heidegger's Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy
Mahon O'Brien
Rowman & Littlefield International
2020
Paperback $19.99
140

Reviewed by: Christos Hadjioannou (University of Cyprus)

Introductions are historical pieces of work conditioned by the tendencies and urgencies of the moment, and that means they need to be rewritten again and again. Still, one might be excused for thinking that the world doesn’t need another introduction to Heidegger. After reading O’Brien’s excellent book, though, one will be convinced otherwise. Accessible and intellectually honest, this critical introduction to Heidegger’s life and works is a timely contribution to the field, which I recommend highly to beginners as well as specialists.

Today, undergraduates and other first-time readers of Heidegger do not come to his works empty-handed. We can assume that most of them have been exposed to “the Heidegger controversy.” Preserving Heidegger’s legacy requires addressing that controversy. O’Brien is therefore wise not to bypass it, but instead tell the story of Heidegger’s thought partly against that political backdrop. Nor does the book pretend to offer a guide to Heideggerian philosophical concepts from a “neutral standpoint.” It is a polemical introduction, taking a stand on the political issues as well as important interpretive questions that haunt Heidegger scholarship.

In his preface, O’Brien clarifies what he takes to be uncontroversial about Heidegger’s works, and what remains contentious to this day. Instead of painting a sacrosanct picture, he thematizes the controversies and presents a nuanced picture—one that cancels out neither the controversies and weaknesses in Heidegger’s thought, nor the immense value of Heidegger’s philosophical insights.

O’Brien identifies two extreme positions in Heidegger interpretation and rejects the squabble between them as a false dilemma. One position holds that Heidegger is “the greatest scourge to have afflicted academic philosophy,” while to the other, he is “the most important philosopher to have emerged from the Western tradition since Hegel” (ix). O’Brien offers an interpretation that accepts a version of both positions. He argues that while it is undeniable that Heidegger’s association with National Socialism was neither brief not incidental to his thought, and that his commitment to it was based on some of the core elements of his magnum opus, Being and Time (BT), this does not justify “the extirpation of Heidegger’s thought from the canon” (ibid.). Heidegger’s impact remains profound, and striking him from the canon obliterates his intellectual achievements and makes it impossible to explain the origin of subsequent thinkers, who were influenced by him. But O’Brien also warns against the extreme devotion displayed by some commentators, who are “guilty of all kinds of intellectual acrobatics and apologetics in an attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger’s image” (xi). He vows to avoid such misplaced loyalty, which risks alienating prospective readers of Heidegger “who will eventually learn for themselves that Heidegger was a Nazi and a selfish, arrogant egomaniac to boot” (ibid.).

In Chapter One, entitled “Ways Not Works,” O’Brien addresses Heidegger’s methodology and influences, and takes a clear stand on the Kehre debate, which concerns the relationship between the early and later works. Although this issue is decisive in determining what narrative is offered not only regarding the late works but most crucially regarding BT, it is often set aside in introductory texts. O’Brien warns against the two extremes that see either radically disjointed efforts over the course of his oeuvre or an overt systematicity. Instead, he supports the so-called “continuity thesis,” which finds unity across the Heidegger corpus. Thus he sees Heidegger’s work as “a continuous, evolving, if not entirely seamless, enterprise” (xi). Invoking Heidegger’s maxim “ways not works”, O’Brien presents his oeuvre as a series of attempts at thematizing the question of the meaning of being (2-3), which question he addressed most rigorously in BT. This approach helps us appreciate the reasons why Heidegger moved beyond that central work without ever actually rejecting it. O’Brien’s narrative thus rejects a distinction between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II,” and counters the assumption that the later works are incompatible with the earlier (5).

O’Brien also does a fine job in this chapter of acknowledging the most important influences on Heidegger’s work without giving a reductive account that denies his philosophical originality. As he argues, Heidegger’s work cannot be categorized under any of the movements that influenced him. Nonetheless, O’Brien identifies Husserl’s phenomenology as having exerted the most influence on his early thought.

Chapter 2, “Early Life,” covers the most significant biographical information with bearing on Heidegger’s philosophical ideas (and is actually not confined only to his early years), including his attempts at a political philosophy. What is crucial to take away from this chapter is the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical confrontation with modernism and his sense of belonging to his native region and its heritage. O’Brien argues that Heidegger himself made it “very clear that the biographical details of his own life […] were crucial to an understanding of the manner in which his thinking developed” (8). Accordingly, he relates the basic facts about Heidegger’s upbringing and family: his father’s vocational connection to the Catholic Church, and his many ties to the countryside and peasant communities, including his mother’s farming background. Thus he contextualizes Heidegger’s distrust of city life and cosmopolitanism (9), which he associated with inauthenticity.

O’Brien draws attention to the interpretive difficulty that hampers any serious attempt to distinguish between those of Heidegger’s philosophical discoveries that resulted from honest thinking, and ideas he espoused disingenuously, ad hoc, in order to justify his private proclivities. It is challenging to identify and appreciate some of Heidegger’s important philosophical ideas on their own merit when he himself attaches them to ridiculous personal views. As a result, some interpreters end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater (12), allowing these associations to discredit profound insights.

In the chapter, O’Brien does not shy away from commenting on Heidegger’s bad personality traits, such as his feigned humility, his extraordinary arrogance and pretentiousness, his serious messiah complex, as well as his philandering (12). The chapter closes with references to his wife Elfride’s antisemitism and nationalism, and shows that also Heidegger himself was fiercely nationalistic (14).

Chapter 3, “Rumours of the Hidden King,” tracks Heidegger’s intellectual development from the early Freiburg period, when he served as Husserl’s teaching assistant, to his years lecturing at Marburg, in the early 1920s. Once he took up employment at Marburg, Heidegger begun formulating his own ideas and themes, moving away from neo-Kantianism and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and recognizing “the importance of time as history for the philosophical project he wished to inaugurate” (21).

One topic stands out in this chapter: Heidegger’s break from Husserlian phenomenology. Here the book’s characterizations of Heidegger’s person are again harsh: O’Brien claims that while Heidegger was indeed at one point deeply inspired by Husserl, nevertheless he “carefully choreographed” the impression that Husserl was his mentor, dedicating BT to him as part of a “calculated piece of manipulation designed to win the favour of one of the most important and influential philosophical voices in Germany at the time” (19).

Chapter 4, “The Hidden King Returns to Freiburg,” is the longest and most important chapter of the book. Here, O’Brien discusses BT and tries to properly contextualize its main arguments in relation to the entire corpus. Discussing the structure of BT, O’Brien analyzes its incompleteness in terms of both philosophical motivations and purely professional-strategic ones. He finds a deep consistency between the projected (missing) second part of BT with the work of his later period. Proponents of the discontinuity thesis, he argues, misinterpret the idea of a “turn” (Kehre), supposing that the new approach and language characteristic of Heidegger’s later texts represent a “reversal,” a “turning away from” and thus a repudiation of BT. But on the contrary, O’Brien points out, the later works constantly invoke BT in order to explain key developments. Heidegger himself recommended that the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics (IM), be read “as a companion piece to Being and Time” (30). While the later works are not reducible to the earlier, still “Heidegger never fully relinquishes some of the key ideas that he was developing in Being and Time” (28).

Having made his case for continuity, O’Brien is free to turn to important texts that postdate BT in order to clarify some of the latter’s central arguments. Interpreting BT as a book that tries to address the ontologically suppressed interplay of presence and absence, O’Brien refers to the 1949 introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?” (WM) (1929) in order to clarify the purpose that animates BT, which is none other than “to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics” (33). According to Heidegger, the meaning of being as traditionally understood in philosophy privileges presence, something which O’Brien says “distorts the nature of reality for us and indeed our own self-understanding” (30). Part of what Heidegger tries to do is challenge the prejudice that the word “being” and its cognates mean that something exists or is present (ibid.). In fact, when we say that things “are,” “it is not clear that that means that they exist as fully present or actualised before us” (32).

In WM, Heidegger would blame this “metaphysics of presence” for misrepresenting the way we actually experience the world (33). WM’s discussion of nothingness targets the principle of non-contradiction, O’Brien says—a principle “routinely invoked to dismiss all talk of the nothing as simply wrong-headed, illogical, unscientific, in short, as contradictory” (34). The tradition has decided in advance that being reduces to presence and that it itself is not nothing. According to O’Brien, this treatment of nothingness is anticipated early on in BT, specifically in the account of moods as the site which throws open the interplay of presence and absence (34). “Heidegger returns to and defends this idea in 1929, in 1935 and again in his 1940’s introduction and postscript to the 1929 lecture [WM]” (ibid.). Heidegger, O’Brien writes, is trying to show that “traditional approaches miss out on all of the possibilities inherent in what we ‘mean’ when we say that a [an entity] is here, or there, or is something or other” (39). Being means possibility—a multiplicity of possibilities—and although beings stand in Being, they never overcome the possibility of not-Being, something that the philosophical tradition has missed by conceiving being in terms of continuous presence. As O’Brien explains, “[w]hat is suppressed is the role that absence or nothingness plays in our experience and how most of our experience involves a constant interplay of presence and absence” (40).

O’Brien concedes that the existential analytic of Dasein does tend toward anthropocentrism or an excessive prioritization of human subjectivity, but he draws attention to the methodological reasons that led Heidegger to begin with Dasein. Heidegger was convinced that “a new brand of phenomenology, unencumbered with the transcendental baggage of the later Husserl, was the appropriate method, while recognizing that time (or temporality) should be central to any attempt to begin to investigate the meaning of being” (42). Rather than “beginning with some abstract theory or idea, Heidegger insisted that we should begin with ordinary, everyday existence, before any abstractions” (ibid.).

In the same chapter, O’Brien also critically responds to realist readings of Heidegger’s late work, which—as he convincingly argues—rely on a misreading of BT. Without attributing to Heidegger the view that Dasein actively creates meaning, O’Brien disagrees that the meaning of being subsists in the absence of Dasein. He clarifies that Heidegger does not deny that entities exist “out there,” only that their meaning (i.e. the phenomenological “world”) exists independently of Dasein. Here the analysis would benefit from a reference to Taylor Carman’s work, whose use of the term “ontic realism” could help O’Brien consolidate his position further.[1]

In the rest of the chapter, O’Brien offers an eloquent explication of the basic structures of Dasein as presented in BT, without ever becoming tiresome or overly technical. Thus he explains how “understanding” works in terms of projects and possibilities, how “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) works in terms of moods in which we already find ourselves, and how “falling” works in terms of understanding being as presence.

As regards the focus on death in BT, O’Brien argues that Heidegger is not interested in the actual event of death per se, but rather in the fact that our manner of understanding everything in the world around us is conditioned by our own finitude (47). Heidegger wants to move from the metaphysics of presence to an ontology which reckons with the role that absence or nothingness plays in the meaning of a thing’s being (48).

Chapter 5 is entitled “The 1930s – Politics, Art and Poetry.” The chapter begins with Heidegger’s so-called “linguistic turn,” in which the poetic use of language in particular emerged as a key concern. While some commentators see Heidegger’s focus on language, and particularly his preoccupation with Hölderlin’s poetry during the 1930s and 40s, as a shift away from the project of BT, O’Brien argues that if we remain faithful to the fact that BT is about the meaning of Being, then there’s no surprise in the linguistic turn. In my opinion, O’Brien’s thesis here would benefit from a reference to Heidegger’s early notion of “formal indication,” which is also a precursor to poetic language.

Next O’Brien turns to Heidegger’s linguistic chauvinism, which he argues contributed to shaping his political views. Heidegger believed that German and Ancient Greek were philosophically superior languages that could grasp the world in the origin of its being, and that other languages, such as French and English, were philosophically destitute (57). O’Brien brings up the worrisome recurrence of Heidegger’s prejudice about a supposed inner affinity between Germany and Ancient Greece. He also discusses Heidegger’s intense criticism of “everything in the Western tradition that has led to modernity and eventually the age of technology” (60). It is in this context, argues O’Brien, that Judaism is thrown “into the melting pot along with everything else that he sees as a consequence of the history of the metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics which he believes the German people alone can overcome” (ibid.).

One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when O’Brien questions whether Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity is really as unique as we have been taught to think. Thus he calls for an excavation and identification of the sinister and at times disappointingly derivative motivations behind ideas that many have taken to be unique features of Heidegger’s critique (60-61). Some aspects of Heidegger’s critique of modernity, O’Brien says, are but “a variant on what were ultimately a series of stock antisemitic prejudices that proliferated in Germany from the late 1700s onwards” (59). In some of the most nationalistic and antisemitic remarks to be found in the 1933-1934 seminar Nature, History, State, Heidegger argues that for Slavic people, German space would be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to Germans, and that to “Semitic nomads” it would “perhaps never be revealed at all” (62). O’Brien argues that these attempts to relate philosophical views to a renewal of German spiritual and cultural life under National Socialism can be registered under a certain tradition to which also Fichte belonged (ibid.). Yet Heidegger’s conviction that this “revolution” must be based on key elements of his own philosophical vision, i.e. the attempt to overcome the metaphysics of presence and the inauguration of a new beginning which was specifically tied to the destiny of the German people, makes him stand out in this tradition. Heidegger was “as naïve as he was megalomaniacal” (63), O’Brien says, while reminding us not to dismiss the philosophy just because of the political ends the philosopher thought it could serve.

The final part of the chapter turns to the topic of art and follows Heidegger’s engagement with Hölderlin’s poetry in his 1934 lectures, as well as his 1935-1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” According to O’Brien, Heidegger was keen to distance his discussion of the origin of art from any conventional aesthetics, and previous analyses of this work have overlooked how Heidegger situates his treatment of art within his larger political vision. Invoking the unique destiny of the German people, Heidegger identifies Hölderlin as the poet the Germans must heed in order to foster an authentic happening, a new political and cultural beginning (65).

In chapter 6, “The Nazi Rector,” O’Brien addresses the apogee of the “Heidegger controversy”: his involvement with Nazi politics and his rectorship at the University of Freiburg. His appointment as rector came as a complete surprise to his students, the Jewish ones included, because as far as they were concerned, “there had been nothing in his demeanor or attitude to that point to suggest that he might be sympathetic to Nazism” (71). On the other hand, argues O’Brien, it’s unlikely that Heidegger happened upon his political allegiances overnight in 1933 (71). He draws attention to the fact that Heidegger reportedly read and was impressed by Mein Kampf, and that he held  antisemitic and reactionary views from early on (ibid.). Thus on O’Brien’s view, the Black Notebooks only confirm previously available evidence that Heidegger was an antisemite who thought he could articulate antisemitic views from within his own philosophical framework.

The whole controversy, argues O’Brien, “should have and could have been dealt with comprehensively and exhaustively a long time ago” (74). He identifies two key factors that contributed to the unnecessary protraction of the whole issue: firstly, the drip-feeding of problematic texts, which created the impression that further revelations, which might complicate the picture, were continuously underway; secondly, the fact that the most critical voices were philosophically weak or obviously biased, resulting in a superficiality that “managed to conceal the deep underlying philosophical questions which must be put to Heidegger’s thought” (ibid.). The chapter offers a critical review of the most influential books on Heidegger’s Nazism, analyzing their scope and breadth and ideological bents, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Here, O’Brien shows his prowess, and demonstrates an excellent grasp of the topic.

As regards the political philosophy, O’Brien argues that Heidegger was not a bloodthirsty biological racist, but an archconservative and traditionalist “prone to some rather bizarre provincialist notions which he sought to justify philosophically” (74). Heidegger unsuccessfully tried to marry his own provincialism with a philosophical antimodernism and ethnic chauvinism, thinking this political philosophy was the way to resist the growing dominion of technology (74-75). O’Brien’s verdict is that Heidegger failed to articulate a coherent political philosophy, “owing in part to the fact that his philosophy doesn’t really admit to being employed in the manner in which he wants to use it” (75). O’Brien also finds that Heidegger’s flawed character must have played a role in his stint with National Socialism (76).

Chapter 7, “Return from Syracuse,” covers the period following his banishment from teaching after the denazification proceedings, especially his philosophical output of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It discusses Heidegger’s musings on language, poetry and technology, specifically his analysis of technology, of releasement (Gelassenheit) and the notion of “appropriation/enownment” (Ereignis) (79). While in chapter 5, O’Brien argued that some aspects of Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity might not be as original as initially thought, here he argues against a reductionist misapprehension that his work on technology is simply a symptom of his antimodernism (80). Instead, he says, Heidegger’s essay on technology stands today as the single most important philosophical work on some of the issues concerning the philosophical age we live in (81).

Turning to the Bremen lectures, O’Brien offers a nuanced analysis of the infamous “Agriculture Remark.” The point of the remark, he argues, is not to liken the Holocaust with the harvesting of grain, as some commentators have suggested, nor is Heidegger arguing that agricultural methods are morally equivalent to genocide. What interests him is the role that the essence of technology (Enframing) has figured into everything that has taken place in the twentieth century, including genocide, war and agriculture (82).

Next O’Brien discusses “The Question Concerning Technology”—a good text for a first-time reader of Heidegger to begin with, he says, because in this essay Heidegger touches upon most of his fundamental concepts and views, such as “equipmentality,” “publicness”, das Man, etc. (83). Here, O’Brien’s continuity thesis is on full display, as he argues that Heidegger’s worries about technology are already hinted at in BT: “it is clear that Heidegger’s thinking about technology was there in embryonic form in Being and Time” (85).

O’Brien interprets Heidegger’s critique of (the essence of) technology as a critique of eliminativism, i.e. a critique of positivist approaches that posit that classes of entities which do not fall within the horizon of their investigation do not exist (89). The problem of Enframing is its eliminative character, namely that it is a mode of revealing that governs the way beings come to presence. Other forms of revealing, like poetry, are necessary in order to “allow people to see things coming to presence in ways other than what is rather aggressively demanded by Enframing” (93). O’Brien then discusses “releasement” (Gelassenheit) as the appropriate comportment of human beings that will enable such a non-eliminative, pluralist disclosure of beings, and closes the chapter by contextualizing Enframing in the history of Being (94). Acquainted as I am with O’Brien’s earlier books,[2] I think he could have spent a few more paragraphs elaborating in greater detail how Gelassenheit relates to Entschlossenheit and the project of dismantling of the ontology of presence.

Chapter 8 is entitled “Heidegger ‘Abroad’.” This is a rather short chapter that breaks up into three sections. The first covers Heidegger’s remarkable success on the French intellectual scene, especially among the existentialists, and gives some historical context to that success. The second concerns Heidegger’s relation to Eastern thought and covers his interactions with a number of Eastern intellectuals, briefly also referring to the body of secondary literature devoted to the intersection between Heidegger’s philosophy and Eastern traditions. The third section covers the impact his thought has had in the United States.

Chapter 9, “The Final Years,” is only three pages long, and provides biographical details of the peaceful and happy years at the end of Heidegger’s life. It notes that he faced his own death with a certain “grace and serenity” (109), and that in the end he arranged a Christian burial for himself after all.

In the tenth and final chapter, “Heidegger’s Legacy,” O’Brien sums up his verdict as regards the “Heidegger controversy.” The recent publication of the Black Notebooks refuelled the controversy, O’Brien says, because it discredited Heidegger’s own “official story” about his association with National Socialism. Heidegger was a committed Nazi and an antisemite who “tried zealously to use some of his core elements of his thought to articulate a philosophy of National Socialism, for a period of time at least” (111). However, Heidegger’s own “political vision was ultimately at quite a remove from historical National Socialism, and he clearly became more and more disillusioned with the regime from the mid-1930s onwards” (ibid.). O’Brien reiterates his own position against other interpretations, insisting that despite claims made even by Heidegger himself, he did try to offer a political philosophy, and deep inside believed “he could be the spiritual and philosophical Führer of an awakening in Germany that would change the course of history in Europe and the Western world in general” (112).

In addition to the political controversy, Heidegger’s legacy is entangled in another controversy, argues O’Brien, namely the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic circles, “Heidegger is often portrayed as the arch-villain for having led philosophy astray through his promotion of ambiguity, imprecision, a lack of rigour and the proliferation of jargon, mysticism and bad poetry masquerading as philosophical profundity” (114). O’Brien defends Heidegger’s writing style, arguing that the subject itself demanded such a style, but lambasts those “disciples” who try to imitate Heidegger’s style simply because they themselves are unable to write more clearly.

O’Brien ends the book by reflecting on the future of Heidegger studies, saying that it is difficult to foretell what course it will take. He believes that the Heidegger controversy “is only truly beginning, as scholars face squarely the question of how to read the texts of a thinker whose work, while not reducible to National Socialism, was nevertheless twisted and manipulated in various ways owing to his own belief that a happy union could be forged between his own thought and the new awakening in Germany which he initially saw as an underlying possibility of National Socialism” (115).

References

Carman, Taylor. 2003. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2011. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2015. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

O’Brien, Mahon. 2020. Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy. London and New   York: Rowman & Littlefield.


[1] See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[2] See O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum, 2011; O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Christos Hadjioannou (Ed.): Heidegger on Affect

Heidegger on Affect Couverture du livre Heidegger on Affect
Philosophers in Depth
Christos Hadjioannou (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2019
Hardback 106,99 €
XXXIII, 294

Reviewed by:  Tijmen Lansdaal (Mary Immaculate College)

In this day and age the majority of Heidegger’s works have been published. As a result, there is plenty of opportunity for philosophical exegesis: his works evidence various phases of philosophical styles and interests, a diversity of recurring topics undergoing changes in their analyses over time, and a hard-to-oversee body of creative vocabulary. It might be considered striking that one of Heidegger’s most consistent concerns throughout his catalogue was how various affective phenomena influence the practice of philosophy. Although a reasonable number of papers and book chapters have been written on the topic (with a strong preference to the topic as it appears in Being and Time)[1], there has been, like Christos Hadjioannou says, ‘no single collection of essays exclusively dedicated to this theme’. For that reason, Hadjioannou dedicates this volume, Heidegger on Affect, to in-depth analysis of Heidegger’s many attempts at making ‘mood [Stimmung]’ and ‘disposition [Befindlichkeit]’ philosophically relevant, and conversely, at finding resources for understanding within the history of philosophy. With the objective of offering a comprehensive and relevant survey of Heidegger’s work on such matters, Hadjioannou has compiled essays by a variety of prominent contemporary Heidegger-scholars.

Overall the result is an unbiased, critical, and stimulating review of the resources Heidegger provides for thinking through affects. Thankfully, the chapters do not conform to a stereotype of Heideggerian scholarship: they do not present Heidegger’s considerations as an unfairly neglected and immeasurably valuable wellspring for endlessly fruitful contemplation. Instead, they take the more modest route of raising questions that are both inspired by and evaluative of said considerations. In this regard, Daniel O. Dahlstrom’s essay is exemplary of the collection’s often critical approach. His essay describes an issue with Heidegger’s writings that is indicative of what one may expect from this showcase of studies on affect: Heidegger’s considerations ultimately seem relatively limited. Aside from his surprising but altogether somewhat casual interest in the topic of love, as evidenced by atypical sources highlighted in a rich and enjoyable chapter from Tatjana Noemi Tömmel, Heidegger seems to have only a myopic interest in a small number of fairly dour moods, like angst and boredom. When Heidegger has the opportunity to talk about other kinds of affects, he mostly seems to divest for unclear reasons. It might disqualify Heidegger as a champion of phenomenological analysis of affects, and Dahlstrom is entirely right to challenge him (and his readers) on this point.

On the other hand, this lack of breadth does have a clear cause. Heidegger prefers analysing some moods over others, because he believes they are the ‘fundamental moods [Grundstimmunge]’. These in particular are intended to play an eminent role in his philosophy. Hadjioannou’s own chapter convincingly shows that the analysis of angst allows Heidegger to disavow Husserlian mentalism while retaining an epistemic norm for his own version of phenomenology. Hadjioannou argues that angst on Heidegger’s account is the quasi-evidentialist insight into ‘Being-in-the-world’ that serves as a methodological counterpoint to Husserl’s ‘original intuition’. In that way, angst is focal to Heidegger’s conception of phenomenology, and gets the elaborate treatment it deserves. In this way, the few moods that Heidegger does believe are deserving of his attention do compel him to write the kind of rich, unique, and interesting descriptions that serve as the inspiration for this collection of essays. A recurring theme in these descriptions, a theme subjected to much scrutiny in this volume, is the allegedly inherent opacity of moods and dispositions. From Heidegger’s perspective, enigmatic moods like angst and ‘profound boredom’ deserve the principal part in virtue of how telling they are with regard to this supposedly essential feature. Depending on how sympathetic a reader is towards this particular interest in moods, Heidegger’s limited focus will appear more or less justified.

Some of the essays in this collection are, unfortunately, suffering from minor issues that are a detriment to the presentation of their core content. Although most of the essays successfully mine ideas from the source material that would be interesting for a broader audience, not all of them put enough effort in to make the ideas accessible, or ensure clarity over how they relate to existing philosophical ideas. It results in interpretative work being done in a vacuum. Essays by Mahon O’Brien, Thomas Sheehan, Niall Keane, and François Raffoul all could have benefited from engaging with more critical literature on Heidegger and this topic. O’Brien sees his essay as part of an endeavour to criticize certain ‘readings of Heidegger in the literature’ (1-2), but a reference to only one author is made: Richard Capobianco. Capobianco also happens to be the sole Heidegger scholar Sheehan engages with, offering largely the same critique of Capobianco as he has offered in previous writings. In both essays, the reference to Capobianco is perfunctory, because Capobianco’s views either are not elaborated, or it is not explained how those views are relevant to specifically the matters discussed in these essays. In his essay, Keane wants to provide a helpful hermeneutic framework for Heidegger’s often complicated writings: his approach reads Heidegger as turning his readers’ attention to possibilities ‘blocked’ by the metaphysical tradition of philosophy. The framework is taken from Heidegger’s analysis of Aristotle’s work on rhetoric. After an interesting and elegant reconstruction of Heidegger’s appreciation of the intersubjective, affective basis of rhetoric in that account, Keane is incidentally in a great place to address a volume on the topic of Heidegger’s thoughts on rhetoric, but he references it without discussion of the claims made by the authors in it, which leads him (among other things) to ignore the sensitive, political overtones of Heidegger’s discussion[2]. Daniela Vallega-Neu’s contribution evinces a different issue. For the most part, the volume avoids Heideggerian jargon, but her essay is an unfortunate exception to this. Her essay is complicated by unnecessarily difficult sentences, abstruse claims, and unexplained jargon. She makes a commendable case against Heidegger’s prioritizing of fundamental moods over regular moods, and for appreciation of the body’s role in the latter, arguing that a person has no control over the ways in which moods become revelatory for us, and is not to a greater or lesser degree ‘erring’ by getting ‘caught up’ by the body. However, in the process, she surprisingly ends up acknowledging Heidegger’s ‘great concentric power’ and calling on extra argumentative support from the authority of independent meditation (223).

Other essays are excellent. Katherine Withy’s essay offers a nuanced and thorough exploration of Heidegger’s notion of ‘disposition’, here translated in a more active voice as ‘finding’, in the sense of ‘how one finds oneself’. Particularly helpful is the clear distinction of ‘finding’ from ‘mood’. Heidegger makes one passing remark on the matter in Sein und Zeit, stating that disposition is the ontological dimension of what ontically is familiar to anyone as moods[3]. With Withy’s commentary in mind one can conclude that Heidegger most certainly does not mean to use the two notions interchangeably (in contrast to Vallega-Neu: 207), and that his analyses of moods must be read from the perspective of his interest in finding. On Withy’s account, finding involves taking a practical identity to be vocational; it is the necessity of hearkening to one project rather than another, i.e. to be called to self-disclose in one particular way (155-157). Noticing a tension with the ecological psychology literature of James J. Gibson, she argues that affordances (the possibilities offered up by entities) become solicitings (possibilities that call for engagement) through finding, which is to say: through coordination with the projects that resonate with the person (165-166). Withy here finds the conceptual resources to argue against two authors: Matthew Ratcliffe and Lauren Freeman. Both are well-known for their work on Heideggerian interpretations of emotions and affects, and the latter is featured with an essay unrelated to this discussion, i.e. a comprehensive study contrasting various conceptions of boredom, written in collaboration with Andreas Elpidorou. These two authors have argued on the one hand that Heidegger seems unaware of distinctive features that would make certain moods into emotions and not moods, and on the other hand that Heidegger unfairly neglects the role of the body in affective phenomena. She replies to the first contention by noting the lack of relevance of any distinction between mood and emotion to Heidegger’s analysis of moods in terms of finding, and by stressing how moods are relative to our projects (citing Aristotle: “what is frightening is not the same for everyone”). To the second, she replies by arguing that it is not obvious that the body plays a necessary or essential role in finding, despite acknowledging the importance of embodiment as a project (170-171). These arguments result in a rich, intriguing analysis that leaves plenty of possibilities for further discussion.

Equally fecund is Denis McManus’ chapter, which brilliantly showcases the virtue of deftly setting limits to one’s exegetical goals and sustaining a focus on the matter under consideration, resulting in a modest and elegant argument for a new, recognizably Heideggerian understanding of practical deliberation. McManus considers two different models for the interpretation of Heidegger’s notoriously difficult notion of authenticity, and proposes a third of his own, in which authenticity is explained in more close conjunction to disposition. The first ‘decisionist’ model, held by Michael Friedman, claims that a person has the freedom to make a resolute decision, which takes action of its own accord and makes that person answerable with regard to it. McManus shows this model to be at odds with Heidegger’s ideas, in so far as a person always submits to a world by ‘constantly being summoned by the world’ (132), limiting the volitional mastery of such decision-making. McManus then underlines the problematic nature of the decisionist model by recounting criticisms of Heidegger by Iris Murdoch and Ernst Tugendhat. Both authors McManus takes to make the important point that such freedom removes the person from ‘the medium within which our thinking, doing and acting happen’ (134). The second model, the ‘standpoint’ model, points out the commonality between a variety of existing Heidegger interpretations. Authenticity is, according to this model, taken to be the owning of a standpoint, meaning something like a commitment to a project that involves a particular set of norms. Contra the decisionist model, this model accommodates the predisposed and embedded nature of resolutions by allowing for consistency in one’s subjection to characteristic affects. A person can, for instance, be committed to readiness for righteous indignation, outlining in advance how the principle of social injustice matters to that person (example drawn from Somogy Varga, 135-136). In order to substantiate the pluralist intuition that one may have to answer to all kinds of competing normative demands, McManus proposes an ‘All-Things-Considered Judgment’ model. He invokes Heidegger’s account of guilt to make the point that a person always already waives possibilities for the sake of others. This point shows that a person incorporates a multi-dimensional, guilt-laden treatment of possibilities in moments of action (140-141). Authenticity, therefore, must consist in meeting the challenge to “be open to my situation in its concretion in allowing my many emotions a voice in my deliberations, acknowledging rather than evading the full range of ways in which I am already attuned to my situation” (144). In this way, McManus makes a strong case for the way in which affects must condition the success of deliberation, even where one is confronted with ‘mixed feelings’.

On a whole, then, Heidegger on Affect is a worthwhile collection of essays on affectivity that is accessible to readers with broader interests than just ‘Heidegger’. Hadjioannou has included work that is representative of some of the weaknesses, but most of all of the imaginative strengths of the field. Heidegger’s work, although descriptively limited to a small number of moods, provides resources for philosophical discussion on a large variety of topics, and the authors in this volume put forward a number of interesting considerations in relation to them. Given that, as Hadjioannou has said, “affective phenomena are central to all of Heidegger’s work” and “no single collection of essays has been exclusively dedicated to this theme” (ix), this collection can be considered a major contribution to its own field, one that simultaneously invites further productive engagement with the theme from anyone interested in what Heidegger brings to bear on affects (be it from within the field or from without). The volume’s efficacy lies in seriously considering how affects are existentially pertinent to human beings, deepening the widely-held intuition that they are. For that reason, it is of considerable merit and should be of interest to many.

Bibliography

Golob, Sacha. 2017. ‘Methodological Anxiety: Heidegger on Moods and Emotions’. Chapter 12 in Thinking about the Emotions, A Philosophical History: 253-271. Edited by Alix Cohen & Robert Stern. Oxford University Press.

Gross, Daniel M. & Kemman, Ansgar. 2005. Heidegger and Rhetoric. State University of New York Press, Albany. Part of the SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy, edited by Dennis J. Schmidt.

Hatzimoysis, Anthony. 2009. ‘Emotions in Heidegger and Sartre’. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. Edited by Peter Goldie. Oxford University Press.

Martin Heidegger. 2005. Sein und Zeit. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen.

Ratcliffe, Matthew. 2009. ‘Why Mood Matters’. Chapter 7 in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Edited by Mark Wrathall. Cambridge University Press.

Shockey, R. Matthew. 2016. ‘Heidegger’s Anxiety: On the Role of Mood in Phenomenological Method’. Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique 12.1.

Staehler, Tanja. 2007. ‘How is a Phenomenology of Fundamental Moods Possible?’. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 15 (3): 415-433.


[1] My personal favourites include Golob 2017, Hatzimoysis 2009, Shockey 2016, Staehler 2007, and works from Ratcliffe – 2009 for instance – and from the various authors in this book.

[2] Gross & Kemman 2005.

[3] Heidegger 2005: 134.

Matthew Eshleman, Constance Mui (Eds.): The Sartrean Mind, Routledge, 2019

The Sartrean Mind Couverture du livre The Sartrean Mind
Routledge Philosophical Minds
Matthew Eshleman, Constance Mui (Eds.)
Routledge
2019
Hardback £190.00
664

David Egan: The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday

The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday Couverture du livre The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday
David Egan
Oxford University Press
2019
Hardback £55.00
272

Reviewed by: Zachary Mabee (Catholic priest and graduate student in philosophy at the University of Reading)

As neither a Wittgenstein nor a Heidegger specialist, I found David Egan’s The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday to be a fascinating, creative, accessible study of perhaps the two most noteworthy figures of 20th-century philosophy.[1] One would think that such studies would be more plentiful than they are, given (as Egan reminds us) that these two monumental figures were born into the German-speaking world in the same year (1889) and then came, as he extensively argues, to advocate not so much a positive body of philosophical work but instead a sustained effort at linguistic and conceptual “disencumbrance” (6).[2] Though this dearth of comparative studies could be accounted for variously, an unfortunately obvious aspect of it would seem to be the ready-made tendency to cast Wittgenstein into the Anglo-American or “analytic” wing of contemporary philosophy (though his principal works were composed in his native tongue) and Heidegger into the “continental.” Wisely, I think, Egan avoids this simplistic and over-played distinction and instead showcases how both thinkers were monumentally first-rate philosophers who deeply engaged the aporetic task that is most characteristic of their discipline.

Interestingly, Egan introduces his study by recalling Tower of Babel, recounted in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, and the “baffling” of human languages that resulted in this proud human exercise of “attempting to arrogate to themselves the powers of naming and creation that are proper to their creator” (2). He notes that Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophical projects have both already been likened to the Babel episode; and he does likewise, highlighting how they both sought to undo the self-made exile into which philosophers’ “metaphysical” aspirations too often lead us. For Wittgenstein, this undoing crucially involves allowing words to “have a home” in their everyday usage rather than in the sought-after “essences” of philosophers. For Heidegger, it involves allowing Dasein (our characteristic mode of being) to be “in the truth,” as it is; not as we otherwise posture it to be (6). They both seek to move us away, then, in their respective manners, from the frictionless vacuum of philosophical essentialisms to the concepts and being of our ordinary experience and the practices within which they are intelligible.

Chapter 1 deals with concerns of grammar and ontology, the former of which are more relevant to Wittgenstein and the latter to Heidegger. Egan commences by considering the famous Heraclitan reflection regarding whether one can step into the same river twice. Whereas this philosophical challenge is constructed so as to cast doubt on whether one in fact can step into the same river twice, Wittgenstein invites us instead to consider the “home” that talk of rivers has in our ordinary language and discourse. Within it, we quite obviously can and do speak of doing just that: having a swim in the Thames today and then, tomorrow, dipping our toes into it. The point he seeks to highlight, Egan contends, is that Heraclitan-type philosophers tend to err in thinking that they will somehow discover, through their inquiries, a deeper, metaphysical essence to what a river is; or, perhaps just that they will discover some empirical facts about rivers and how they are. Instead, for Wittgenstein, that “one can step into the same river twice” is “the expression … of a rule” and so a matter of grammar within this language-game that we play (21). The mistake that the Heraclitan philosopher makes is to aspire to a fantastical point of view—a “sideways” one, to use McDowell’s expression—according to which one can, as it were, examine one’s concepts independently of their usage or vis-à-vis the standard of concepts-as-such. For Wittgenstein, “ordinary language is all the language there is” (28).

Heidegger, as noted, takes a more “ontological” angle on our everyday practices, seeking to highlight their “significance” in this vein, which he finds too often overlooked (29). He wants to direct his inquiry toward a “fundamental ontology” that considers being more simply than in the categorized, observational manner of the “ontic sciences” (30ff.) and that, through phenomenological methodology, uncovers the ways in which it self-discloses. Like Wittgenstein, though, for Egan, Heidegger is not concerned through his philosophy to argue for or establish some new instance, class, or category of knowledge, but instead to chip away at nefarious theoretical constructions, thereby allowing our words, concepts, and ordinary practices to be more simply what and how they are—though in Heidegger’s case, more through a process of revealing discovery.

Chapter 2 begins with some helpful explication of key Heideggerian terminology: Dasein as (our) being that has an understanding of being, which is analyzed existentially in “fundamental ontology” (37–9). Egan then proceeds to discuss the noteworthy distinction that Heidegger draws between the present-at-hand and the ready-at-hand. The former deals with what we can reflectively consider, whereas the latter treats what is present to us and accessible in our environment for use, particularly in the form of tools or equipment. Heidegger notes that our being-in-the-world is often most transparent and perspicuous when we are engaging some object or thing with a tool, in a ready-at-hand manner. For while doing so, we are able to look through or beyond the tool being used to the object or thing engaged. The tool serves, as it were, as a more vivid point of connection with the world—a point of connection of which we are reminded perhaps most poignantly when our activity employing it is interrupted.

Then, following Cavell—with whose interpretations of Wittgenstein Egan is often quite sympathetic—Egan draws a parallel in Wittgenstein’s thought, noting that the ordinary-language criteria of Wittgensteinian (and Austinian) philosophy in their own way orient us to the world, and not just the words we use and the language games we play. It is just, again, that Wittgenstein takes our concepts, which we deploy linguistically, not to be independently or metaphysically discoverable from a sideways perspective, but rather disclosed, in a way, in the grammatical criteria at play in the language games in which they are deployed, and the practices relevant to these games. So knowing what a chair is or means crucially involves understanding our use of chairs, the dining practices in which they are implicated at tables, for instance, and so on (60). To return to our earlier example, the fact that one can indeed enter the same river twice is a fact intimately pertinent to the people’s interaction with and use of rivers and what is and is not grammatically admissible in such contexts (61). Egan’s broader contention in this chapter is, again, that we undertake a fool’s errand, for Wittgenstein and Heidegger alike, if we seek to find our words, concepts, or being outside the realms they normally inhabit, where they ordinarily find their home.

A critical point that is worth noting here, which is relevant in subsequent chapters, too: Egan’s engagement with secondary literature at times seems a bit sparing or perhaps selective. His bibliography is sufficiently thorough, but his deferential preference for Cavell’s Wittgenstein is at times annoyingly on display. Charles Taylor, e.g., is another commentarial voice who does garner mention but whose most obvious essay dealing with these two thinkers and their philosophical likeness does not.[3] I wondered at several junctures if a more variegated engagement with secondary literature, particularly that dealing directly with Wittgenstein and Heidegger and their work, could have helped this project.

Chapter 3 moves into an interesting discussion of Wittgensteinian attunement and Heideggerian being-with, particularly with regard to Das Man. Following upon his treatment of language games, Egan stresses that, for Wittgenstein, “attunement” is the kind of working agreement that we have in our shared forms of life, within which we converse, discuss, agree or disagree, and justify various claims. It gets at, for Cavell, the difficult and “terrifying” way in which, say, to allege truth or falsehood in some given case, there must more deeply be a working agreement with respect to the forms of life we share and that our discourse reflects (65). The claim here is not that there is some deeper underlying (or metaphysical) arrangement in such situations that we rightly call “attunement” but more simply just that our engagement in such shared activities and forms of life manifests attunement (69). This seems a further development of the previous chapter’s notion that criteria, grammar, and word usage do indeed, in surprising ways, connect us with the world and the forms of life that are home to our discourse.

Egan’s discussion continues with an illuminating treatment of Heidegger’s sense of being-with and the ways in which this pertains to the normative authority of what he terms Das Man. Egan begins by noting the way in which our interaction with other persons is similar to or reflective of the dynamic that we see on display more broadly with our use of tools, equipment, and other ready-at-hand objects. That is, when we encounter and experience other persons, we typically do not do so in the abstracted present-at-hand manner, in which they become to us objects of reflection or theoretical inquiry; instead, we encounter and experience them much in the same manner as we do tools or worldly objects that we use—as readily available to us, as co-involved in our activity in the world. They are accessible to us, often, in our engagement with the world, much in the way that a pair of shoes might be (73–5).

Egan also helpfully outlines Das Man in Heidegger, which is, as Carman notes, “the impersonal normative authority underwriting the social practices that makes things intelligible on a mundane level” (75). Comprising dimensions such as agreement in judgments and basic definitions; use of equipment; social and historical situatedness; moral and social norms; etiquette; ceremonies; shared wisdom, and so on, Das Man highlights for Heidegger the way in which Dasein is never abstractly autonomous but always, instead, embedded in a social order—even if one opts to rebel against it. One is, in a way, the milieu in which she finds herself (76). Egan stresses how Das Man can be especially vexing, among the Heideggerian lexicon, and how it, even for eminent commentators like Dreyfus, fails to stake out territory between a healthy conformity, within the world one inhabits, and an unhealthy conformism to prevailing norms.

Chapter 4 commences Egan’s broader treatment of what he terms “authentic everydayness.” To begin, he segues from his treatment of Das Man into the notion of inauthenticity in Heidegger, which amounts to an over-reliance upon Das Man in its ever-present task of self-interpretation. Egan notes:

Dasein is the being that relates to itself as a question. Accordingly, Dasein’s flourishing qua Dasein is a matter of fulfilling its nature as self-interpreting. Authentic Dasein explicitly owns up to this task of self-interpretation, whereas inauthentic Dasein hides from it. Inauthentic Dasein does a poor job or manifesting its distinctive Daseinhood (93).

[…]

Inauthenticity is not a failure of self-interpretation but is rather a mode of self-interpretation that defers the interpretive work as much as possible to Das Man, and reaches for the interpretive resources that are closest at hand (94).

Heideggerian anxiety, then, becomes a “special kind of fear” that is not so much directed at other beings that we encounter in the world, whether present- or ready-at-hand, but toward Dasein itself as being-in-the-world and so what is bound up with this. Dasein customarily seeks “absorption with innerworldly beings that anxiety disrupts” (95).

Egan then follows this discussion of Heideggerian anxiety with a treatment of what he takes to be a similar dynamic in Wittgenstein, though which more readily appears in the secondary literature on the latter under the rubric of “skepticism.” Wittgenstein famously notes that, at some point, our explanations will run out and our justifications be exhausted, and also that any set of rules we seek to abide by or implement will ultimately be subject to a variety of irresolvable interpretations, whether they regard following signposts down a trail or algorithms for adding sequentially to a numerical series (99–101). Egan seems to see a kind of isomorphism in the two authors’ work on these sorts of “anxiety.” To be sure, Heidegger’s is more chiefly concerned with the coherence of our practices and the anxiety that arises regarding them, vis-à-vis the self-interpreting tendency of Dasein; whereas Wittgenstein’s is more regarding our search for explanations, particularly final ones, and the situation that we face when we in fact do not reach them, or come to see them as unreachable. Nonetheless, Egan thinks—and I would concur—there is a noteworthy consonance between the two accounts.

The denouement of chapter 4 consists of a kind of reflective consideration of Wittgenstein as a philosopher, and is an attempt by Egan to resolve some of the aforementioned concerns, namely that the Heideggerian approach is more practical-existential, whereas the Wittgensteinian one is more conceptual-linguistic. Indeed, Egan notes that Wittgenstein had a lively sense that we are all rightly engaged in the sorts of philosophical questions that he treats—hence, for instance, his characteristic point of departure from humanly vexing questions rather than from the texts or arguments of the discipline’s “greats.” In this sense, Egan thinks, we can see Wittgenstein with Cavell, more in the vein of Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Emerson, or Austin, whose points of departure were the problematics disclosed by human experience more than they were the standard disciplinary texts (108). (And thus he stands in contrast, say, to Plato, Nietzsche, or Derrida, for whom philosophy involved a more cultural, institutional form of life and theorizing.)

I did find myself, at this point in the text and certain others, wishing that perhaps Egan would have engaged these two thinkers biographically a bit more. Such a move might not be apt in many philosophical settings, but it certainly seems more so in one such as this, where the leitmotif is a recovery of the “everyday” and a more authentic approach to the philosophical project. One thinks straightaway, for instance, of Wittgenstein’s sabbatical in the Austrian hills, teaching kindergarten; or perhaps his experience in the trenches in the First World War; or even his neurotic, suicidal, late-night strolls deliberating philosophical and existential questions. Likewise, Heidegger’s disreputable wartime political affiliations and administrative decisions or his tryst with his student Hannah Arendt come to mind in a similar vein. This is not to say that I think any one or other episode of either thinker’s life should be adduced in such a setting; but more just that I found myself as a reader wishing a bit more of an effort to this effect had been made, especially amidst a chapter on anxiety as a broadly philosophical topic.

Chapter 5 deals with an expected topic, Wittgenstein’s treatment of rule-following, and particularly Kripke’s take on it. Kripke, Egan contends, sees Wittgenstein as fundamentally presenting readers with a choice in such matters, in the face of the interpretive impasse with which they leave us: either skepticism or Platonism, the former which Kripke takes to be Wittgenstein’s preference. But Egan, once again, wants to re-situate or -contextualize our reading of Wittgenstein: here particularly as challenging our assumption as to whether or not there “is a coherent question to be asked about what justifies us in playing the language-games that we do” (115, emphasis mine). That is, the skeptic would have us doubt whether there is such an answer or justification, and the Platonist would have us look for some sort of external grounding to our language games; but Wittgenstein himself, for Egan—as we have seen already—would have us simply take them as the given, such that these sorts of meta-level questions would eventually dissolve (114). He then wonders, too, about how we might construe a Kripkean reading of Heidegger, “Kripkendegger,” as Egan terms this (117ff.).

The next section treats Heidegger’s notion of conscience, which Egan handles deftly, particularly for an issue that seems to invoke a stereotypically cluttered family of Heideggerian terms and concepts. Fundamentally, Egan links Heideggerian “conscience” to Dasein’s being-its-own whilst being-in-the world, such that its interpretive self-understanding constitutes a correlative understanding and appreciation of the world in which it is and in which it discloses itself (118–9). The conscience which at times comes “over” us serves as a kind of check against the inauthentic tendencies against which we steadily live and operate (120). The chapter continues with a broader foray into aspects of the everyday and, particularly, with a vindication of it in the two authors—in Wittgenstein, more via allowing ordinary language to be where it is, at home in its ordinariness; and in Heidegger, to allow Dasein to be as it is or inclines to be, rather than being consumed or distorted by preoccupation with Das Man.

Once again, with his treatment of Heideggerian conscience, Egan misses, I think, an opportunity to allow his work to veer more into the terrain of the “everyday,” both in a philosophical and a more ordinary sense. He notes throughout this section the uncharacteristic, and at times maddening, style of both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and especially the latter’s sometimes befuddling lexicon. The notion of “conscience” seems to be one that highlights this tendency; but I wonder, in looking back upon it, whether Egan could have done us the service of engaging some broader literature, historical or current, regarding conscience and how others’ approaches might dovetail or conflict with Heidegger’s. (One thinks here, for instance, of the Kantian notion of conscience, which no doubt would be apt, given the ways in which the Kantian project helped shape the phenomenological tradition.) This sort of move would have been especially fitting for a notion like conscience which is, philosophically and ordinarily, quite “everyday.”[4]

Chapter 6 begins with a reiteration of Egan’s aspiration to find something of a balance between the typical “therapeutic” (later) Wittgenstein, who would have us count metaphysical and skeptical considerations as “ultimately empty” and a more “existential” Wittgenstein who, in harmony with Heidegger, is subtly attempting to draw us back to our being-in-the-world and its “uncanniness” (138). Egan leads us on an interesting foray through some of the game metaphors that Wittgenstein employs to help us understand language games and how they are constitutively embedded in various forms of life. He returns here to the key notion of attunement and to the idea that, for Wittgenstein, our attunement is manifest in the forms of life that we share and in which we participate; it is not, that is, something superadded onto them or metaphysically beneath them. Fundamental to language games and the forms of life where they are at home is education or training. The initiation that they call for is not so much typically a matter of explanation, but instead one of training and so familiarization with the various words and concepts that have meaning within them. True, there are correct and incorrect moves that one can make within the game of chess; but is also is inapt to describe (or critique) the rules themselves as correct or incorrect. They are simply the rules of the game (145). For Egan’s Wittgenstein, reasons, like explanations, will eventually “give out” (146). What matters in playing games—language games or other games, considered more broadly—is not so much having the rules down (explicitly), but instead having with the other participants a sufficient degree of attunement, such that they can together play the game.

Egan continues, noting that there are some interesting similarities between Wittgenstein’s work on rule-following and Heidegger’s on anxiety, sometimes termed the “motivation problem”—both of which can leave us wondering how to cope once our reasons or the foundations of our ordinary practices are exhausted (153). He also then engages in a fascinating aside dealing with Wittgenstein’s noteworthy pupil Rush Rhees and his concerns about the language-game approach: concerns dealing chiefly with the fact that these considerations might seem to make the ultimate goal of linguistic practice something like skill—the concern being that language use would ultimately seem to be about our practical ends and so come dangerously close to sophistry. Egan nicely, I think, deflects these concerns, following Huizinga, Gadamer, et al., by reminding us of the seriousness that games indeed demand, lest one become a spoilsport, a trifler, or a cheat (157ff). Egan closes this chapter with another nice restatement of his broader sense of the two thinkers’ respective projects, which fundamentally amounts to flagging and helping to remedy the (linguistic or ontological) blindness in which we so often, especially in philosophical circumstances, find ourselves (165–6).

Chapter 7 is largely a reckoning with the two thinkers’ treatments of typical or traditional doctrines of assertion, but also of their related conceptions of reality and theories of truth. Egan sees in Wittgenstein and Heidegger alike a criticism of a certain sort of naïve realism, no doubt predominant in popular discourse, but also perhaps surprisingly in philosophical domains. According to this sort of sensibility, things basically are the way that we think them to be, and in accordance with the ways in which we speak of them. But, again, for Wittgenstein, this tendency manifests a foundational confusion between the grammatical and the empirical and so leads to the metaphysical tendency toward nonsensical theorizing that is too often, in his view, on display in philosophical work, let alone in popular discourse. Heidegger’s work on this front is more historical and genealogical than Wittgenstein’s; and he wants to move philosophical thinking away from the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of truth—adaequatio intellectus et rei—toward a more primitively classical one: aletheia, or truth as a kind of discoveredness of what is disclosed (183). This jostling effort, to dislodge certain of our comfortably stable presuppositions, for Egan, significantly accounts for the two thinkers’ unique philosophical idioms and for their at times vexing word-choice and argumentative structure.

Chapter 8 continues this analysis, in closing the book, with a return to the two thinkers’ notions of ordinary language and discourse. Whereas Wittgenstein seems more content to allow ordinary language to be “at home,” as it is and to shake us free from the “picture” that has held us captive, Heidegger see his phenomenological method as affording a kind of “uncovering” potential that allows us (in principle) to come into contact with deeper aspects of being. The corollary of this is that, for Wittgenstein, the key discoveries that we are likely to make philosophically are that we are variously engaged in speaking and trading in nonsense (195ff.). Accordingly, Wittgenstein is not involved—as, say, those advocates of the hermeneutic of “suspicion” are—in directing us toward some sort of deeper, more fundamental reality that our modes of speech and practice are obscuring; instead, he seems keen on helping us to see that our debates—say among solipsists, realists, and idealists—are just not as contentious or substantive as we tend to think them (202ff.). We are simply misled if we think that those various doctrines can be adjudicated in the ways that we normally attempt. An example of this tendency, for Egan, is Carnap, vis-à-vis the later Wittgenstein, as the former seeks to set up a methodological procedure for settling such disputes and then funnel various such doctrines through it, to find a victor (ibid.). Instead, the methodology that the later Wittgenstein prizes is that of offering aspectual descriptions and employing particularly the metaphor of pictures and how looking at them offers us different (and manifold) perspectives on various matters. Indeed, he takes language to be as a picture, whose use and exact purposes remain opaque, but which is rightly to be explored from various angles (210).

In closing, Egan finds Wittgenstein’s later approach to be decidedly aesthetic in its character—less about asserting propositions or claims about this or that, or how things are, and rather more about suggesting angles, perspectives, or views on various issues, which could no doubt be multiplied (as in the famous case of the duck-rabbit image). Indeed, for Egan, this is what Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, along with Heidegger’s, tends to do: Not to argue for this or that point or claim, but instead—and particularly through idiosyncratic word-choice, structure, punctuation, rhetorical strategies, and the like—to peel back this problematic with which we have become accustomed; to shake our captive gaze to our inherited picture; and instead to help us appreciate the ordinary as it is, and whatever it would happen to disclose.

One final concern I would like to register, somewhat in accord with the previous ones: This book could have profited from greater engagement with ethics and religion, two regularly philosophical topics that are decidedly commonplace—in their own ways, “everyday.” Wittgenstein famously lectured, though very sparingly, on the two in conjunction; and they do not seem to have been a focal point for Heidegger. But both areas, I think, crucially draw together “everyday” thought and action in conjunction with philosophical interest and reflection. Both areas also, I think, raise some significant concerns for the arguably more quietist tendency on display in both authors, particularly on Egan’s reading of them. For it might be fine and well to be concerned mainly with chipping away at misunderstanding and pretenses about our language and thought, whilst claiming not to be saying much in the positive sense about the world or our involvement in it. But our practical, “everyday” engagement often seems to suggest otherwise: We find ourselves needing to say various things about a whole host of matters and affairs: tax policy, what we observe in outer space, our and our loved ones’ moral choices, foods’ nutritional value, the political and military stability of various regions, how religion should interact with politics, and so on. And we often think that judgments within such debates and matters of discourse are, to varying degrees, disputable or judicable, correct or incorrect, right or wrong—and, indeed, accessible as such through clarifying philosophical reflection. I do not mean to suggest that (Egan’s) Wittgenstein or Heidegger could not somehow deal ably with our ordinary practical discourse and its significance in such “everyday” affairs; but it does strike me that attempting to deal with such points of practical connection—particularly within a book with the thrust of The Pursuit—would have been helpful and constructive, and would have expanded the scope of this work beyond its more characteristically linguistic-cum-metaphysical purview. Nonetheless, this work, as noted throughout, is instructive, edifying, and humane—an expository homage, without being unduly deferential, to these two monumental thinkers; and now a crucial addition to the joint literature regarding them.


[1] Given my non-specialist’s status, I shall at times gloss over, throughout the review, some of the more intensely exegetical points that emerge.

[2] Egan also recently helped edit Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. David Egan, Stephen Reynolds, and Aaron Wendland (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[3] See Charles Taylor, “Lichtung or Lebensform: Parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 61–78.

[4] I acknowledge here and throughout that “everyday” is being used in a somewhat more precise sense by Egan, and indeed by Wittgenstein and Heidegger. But I do not think such proposed extensions are at all specious or unreasonable.

Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism

Rethinking Existentialism Couverture du livre Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £45.00
256

Reviewed by: Kyle Michael James Shuttleworth (Queens University Belfast)

‘Existentialism’ has long been held as a concept of contention. It has been used as a buzzword for bleakness, and a synonym for pessimism. Despite its misuse within popular culture, it has also been employed as an umbrella term to denote a philosophical movement. The conflation of this concept has led to a legacy of confusion regarding precisely that which constitutes existential thought, and who ought to be considered as an existentialist. Even much of the secondary literature has failed to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘existentialism’. Instead, we are often offered a constitutive list of themes which ‘existentialists’ supposedly share in common, such as nihilism, absurdity, and authenticity. It is precisely this linguistic ambiguity that causes Jonathan Webber to rethink existentialism, and that which he sets about dispelling. In the first chapter, he begins by discarding the outdated interpretations which actively incorporate non-philosophers, and those who rejected this label. Instead, Webber offers a carefully considered account, defining existentialism in accordance with the Sartrean maxim ‘existence precedes essence’. It is from this standpoint that Webber takes the reader on a journey of rethinking ‘existentialism’.

Webber begins to clear the confusion by demonstrating why the label ‘existentialist’ should not be applied to certain associated thinkers. In the second chapter, Webber addresses the misattribution of Camus to the inner circle. Here it is illustrated that Camus rejects the central tenants of existentialism, and that the disagreement between Sartre and Camus is a consequence of their subsequent philosophical stances. Another thinker who was initially associated with existentialism, but whom Webber demonstrates to be on the periphery, is Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In chapter three, Webber depicts Merleau-Ponty’s divergence in terms of his criticism of Sartre’s concept of radical freedom and Beauvoir’s defence that Merleau-Ponty has misunderstood Sartre. Although Webber does an excellent job of disentangling the intellectual connections between these theorists, one would appreciate further elucidation as to why additional thinkers ought to be excluded. Whilst Webber focused his attention on the development of existentialism in post-war France, there are two further thinkers who could have been addressed. Gabriel Marcel, for example, released his Philosophy of Existentialism in 1946, and Jacques Maritain published his Existence and Existent in 1947. As contemporaries of Sartre and self-proclaimed existentialists (at least initially) it would be interesting to see how they fit into Webber’s narrative.
In the positive phase of his project, Webber sets about determining who ought to be included. Until recently, Simone de Beauvoir has been believed to be without philosophical merit. The reason for overlooking her intellectual prowess is often attributed to her own rejection of the label ‘philosopher’ and referral to Sartre as the brains behind their project. Webber takes this to task in chapter four, where he demonstrates that Beauvoir articulates the existential ideal ‘existence precedes essence’ within her metaphysical novel She Came to Stay. Moreover, that the account which Beauvoir presents contains the concept of ‘commitment’ which presents a significant development upon Sartre’s theory of mind. Within chapter eight, a further important, and unexpected, contribution which Webber makes, is to include Frantz Fanon within the existentialist camp. Webber argues that within Black Skin, White Masks Fanon can be seen to ground his theory on the definition of existentialism insofar as he rejects that there is any essential difference between black people and white people. That is, for Fanon the belief that black people are inferior is caused by the sedimentation of a negative cultural representation in the collective consciousness. This is shown to make a significant development from Sartre’s own attempt to explain racial prejudice in terms of bad faith in Anti-Semite and the Jew.

Although Webber defines existentialism in accordance with the maxim ‘existence precedes essence’, he notes that Sartre and Beauvoir initially disagreed upon what this concept entailed. In this way, he maps the development of the definition amongst the advocates themselves. Whilst Sartre is usually considered to be synonymous with existentialism, Webber illustrates that Sartre’s early work is flawed in terms of addressing the problem of absurdity. By tracing the development of Sartre’s thought, Webber shows that Sartre later comes to adopt Beauvoir’s position to reach the mature position where his version of existentialism corresponds to those of Beauvoir and Fanon in terms of their respective concepts of commitment. Having illustrated the various stages in the development of the concept of existentialism, Webber differentiates these forms, which includes Sartre’s early approach, from what he terms the canonical account. Existentialism proper, for Webber, entails that there is no predetermined nature, and that one’s essence is formed through the sedimentation of projects. The canonical accounts of existentialism, according to Webber, are represented by Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Sartre’s Saint Genet.

The ethical ideal espoused by existentialism is ‘authenticity’ and which is a response to absurdity. Sartre and Fanon are shown to offer eudaimonian arguments for authenticity, which suggests that the desire for authenticity emerges in relation to the realisation that inauthenticity leads to psychological distress. However, Webber notes that Sartre’s and Fanon’s accounts of authenticity fail to sufficiently overcome the issue of absurdity because they cannot address the meta-ethical problem of the grounding of normativity. Although Sartre appears to be at the centre of attention at the beginning of the book, it is Beauvoir who emerges as the hero of absurdity, insofar as she is shown to present the most fully articulated account of authenticity. Beauvoir’s concept of authenticity is shown to be supported by the categorical imperative that we should not value any ends which conflict with the value of human nature. Throughout the text, Webber refers to the ‘virtue of authenticity’, however, he does not explain why we ought to conceive of authenticity as a virtue. It is also difficult to understand the way in which authenticity could be construed as a virtue. If in relation eudaimonia, it does not make sense to refer to authenticity as a virtue because eudaimonia is not a virtue for Aristotle, but the end which the virtues lead to. Again, on the Kantian account, virtues are ends which are also duties, but it is questionable whether a way of life could be considered authentic if we have a duty to live in that particular way. Thus, clarity regarding that which is meant by ‘virtue of authenticity’ would be appreciated in avoiding any such confusion.

Webber makes a number of interesting observations and insights within his book. Whilst existentialism is often thought to be at odds with Freudian psychoanalysis, it is demonstrated that this is not the case. In chapter five, it is argued on the contrary that existentialism in fact falls within the Freudian tradition. Although Freud’s account appeals to innate drives, and the existentialists reject the idea of a predetermined essential-self, Webber illustrates that there is no contradiction, but instead a sustained engagement with Freud in attempting to overcome the Cartesian subject. In chapter six, Webber offers an original interpretation of Sartre’s play No Exit. The standard interpretation is that since ‘hell is other people’, we ought to prefer our own image of ourselves as opposed to that projected upon us by other people. Webber, however, claims that the real moral of the play is that bad faith inevitably impairs our relations with others. In each of these chapters, Webber offers interesting insights which make original contributions to the literature. However, with regards to the overall aim of defining a canonical account of existentialism, neither of these chapters seem directly related.

In the final chapter, Webber brings his analysis to a close by discussing the future direction of existentialism. In particular, he illustrates the practicality of his canonical account and the impact that it could have upon interdisciplinary exchange. Namely, he portrays what experimental science can learn from a more refined account of existentialism, and that this will enable existential-infused approaches to develop further. Although psychoanalytic approaches which have been built upon Sartre’s concept of radical freedom are subject to the same criticism as Sartre, Webber claims this field could undergo a revival were it to instead be built upon the theory of commitment.  Webber also notes that there are further lessons which can be learnt from existentialism. Whilst certain insights have been confirmed by experimental psychology, other claims, such as Fanon’s suggestion that psychiatric problems stem from the internalisation of stereotypes by the victim, remain unexplored. Thus, not only does Webber provides us with an analytically satisfactory account of existentialism, but also demonstrates the benefits possessing a more accurately defined theory.

The current political landscape has been marked by the sustained engagement with race and gender discourse. One can hardly open a newspaper, or read a social media news-feed without encountering a story about gender wage gaps, for example, or racism within first world countries. Whilst much philosophy remains decisively abstract in terms of application, Webber demonstrates how existential philosophers, such as Beauvoir and Fanon, engage with these very issues. In this respect, Rethinking Existentialism is a timely text which demonstrates the contemporary relevance of existential philosophy. Moreover, Webber’s book is lucidly written, and composed in an accessible manner which navigates both the personal relationships between theorists, and the development of their thoughts. Rather than individual sections which trace the trajectory of each theorist’s isolated intellectual development, Webber presents an interwoven account, articulating the development of particular existentialist figures in relation to one another. Whilst other authors confuse and conflate existentialism and existentialists, Webber clears the rubble piled-up and built upon by previous commentators. Webber provides elucidation and a clearing for those with an obscured view of existentialism, and a fresh and coherent perspective for those first approaching the subject. In this way, Webber’s Rethinking Existentialism is not only essential reading for anyone interested in existentialism, but the only book one needs.

Jean Wahl: Philosophies of Existence, Routledge, 2019

Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre Couverture du livre Philosophies of Existence: An Introduction to the Basic Thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, Sartre
Routledge Library Editions: Existentialism
Jean Wahl
Routledge
2019
Hardback £80.00
132

Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood: The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, 2018

The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives Couverture du livre The Power of Phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and Philosophical Perspectives
Robert D. Stolorow, George E. Atwood
Routledge
2018
Hardback
142

Andrea Altobrando, Takuya Niikawa, Richard Stone (Eds.): The Realizations of the Self, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

The Realizations of the Self Couverture du livre The Realizations of the Self
Andrea Altobrando, Takuya Niikawa, Richard Stone (Eds.)
Palgrave Macmillan
2018
Hardback $119.99
IX, 292

Jonathan Webber: Rethinking Existentialism, Oxford University Press, 2018

Rethinking Existentialism Couverture du livre Rethinking Existentialism
Jonathan Webber
Oxford University Press
2018
Hardback £45.00
256

Hans Bernhard Schmid, Gerhard Thonhauser (Eds.): From Conventionalism to Social Authenticity: Heidegger’s Anyone and Contemporary Social Theory, Springer, 2017

From Conventionalism to Social Authenticity: Heidegger’s Anyone and Contemporary Social Theory Couverture du livre From Conventionalism to Social Authenticity: Heidegger’s Anyone and Contemporary Social Theory
Studies in the Philosophy of Sociality
Hans Bernhard Schmid, Gerhard Thonhauser (Eds.)
Springer International Publishing
2017
Hardcover 96,29 €
VI, 278