Cyril McDonnell: Heidegger’s Way Through Phenomenology to the Question of the Meaning of Being

Heidegger’s Way Through Phenomenology to the Question of the Meaning of Being Book Cover Heidegger’s Way Through Phenomenology to the Question of the Meaning of Being
Orbis Phaenomenologicus, Studien, Bd. 39
Cyril McDonnell
Königshausen & Neumann
Paperback €49,80

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Baton Rouge Community College, USA)

The stops and starts leading up to Heidegger’s completion of his masterwork have occupied scholars going back some decades. While it is easy to hold up Being and Time in the abstract as solely a product of Heidegger’s sweeping philosophical vision, it has been long known that Heidegger is as much of a patchwork philosopher as any other major historical philosopher. For Plato and Aristotle, the pre-Platonic philosophers were key predecessors. For Kant, it was German metaphysics and the British empiricists, and so on. Being and Time is a product of re-formulations and re-castings of many other important philosophical theses of the period. One could say that a significant part of Heidegger’s accomplishment lay in synthesizing just the right combination of ingredients in the service of a larger inquiry.

Probably best-known in Anglophone scholarship is Kisiel’s mammoth text The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time, which provides an exhaustive overview of the writings, lecture courses, and correspondence of Heidegger’s from the late 1910’s into the mid-1920’s. Kisiel’s definitive study traces Being and Time’s themes from the start of Heidegger’s career, laying out the smaller discoveries that later came to inform the much fuller vision of Heidegger’s masterwork.

Cyril McDonnell’s book, Heidegger’s Way Through Phenomenology to the Question of the Meaning of Being, takes a somewhat different approach than Kisiel. Whereas Kisiel’s book represents a thorough look at the buildup to Being and Time by way of dissecting the pre-Being and Time work that came from Heidegger’s own hand, as it were, what McDonnell does is examine in depth some of the influential sources that Heidegger grappled with as he matured from his study of phenomenology under Husserl and came to formulate his own vision of phenomenology. Thus, McDonnell’s book is a study of the sources that Heidegger appropriated in his formulation of the problematic regarding the meaning of being articulated in Being and Time, and specifically insofar as this work’s brand of phenomenology appropriates and transcends Husserl.

In McDonnell’s view, the chief philosophical commitments that most motivate Heidegger’s break with Husserl lay in the transcendental version of phenomenology formulated by Husserl in Ideas I, and in particular, Husserl’s account of the phenomenological reduction in that book’s central chapters. For McDonnell, the transcendental deduction of Ideas I represents the principal, decisive element of Husserlian phenomenology that cannot accommodate the phenomenon of factical, existing Dasein that is so central in Heidegger’s approach to fundamental ontology. In other words, the conception of finite, historical, lived experience as the early Heidegger understands it is at odds with Husserl’s reduction to pure consciousness. And this is because (as McDonnell argues) any phenomenological reduction (in Heidegger’s mind) will always be performed by and for factical, individual Dasein. According to this view, Husserl’s limitation is that he construes the transcendental reduction as an act performed by a history-less, abstract subject. So the difference between the two philosophers here stems from their competing views of philosophy’s starting point. For Heidegger it is the factical Dasein of today who philosophizes in and from the present; for Husserl philosophy starts from a suspension of the natural attitude, where one has distinguished consciousness of experience from consciousness of the object.

The individual chapters of McDonnell’s book provide a very thorough survey of the sources representing Heidegger’s encounter with and eventual response to these issues. The initial premise of the text as stated in the opening chapter is the lack of clarity regarding a claim Heidegger makes in the late essay “My Way to Phenomenology.” In that essay, Heidegger comments on his philosophical development to the effect that he “was brought onto the path of thinking about the question of being, illumined through the phenomenological manner of thinking” (3). McDonnell argues preliminarily that we must be able to follow Heidegger in this course through phenomenology to the question of the meaning of being in order to properly reckon with the task of Being and Time, particularly that book’s assessment and understanding of phenomenological philosophy. The point is not simply to unravel the meaning behind a casual statement made by the later Heidegger about his autobiography. Instead, McDonnell regards this quotation as posing a genuine question for Heidegger scholarship, namely, how are we to understand Heidegger’s encounter with phenomenology in the 1910’s and 20’s in its relationship to Heidegger’s eventual formulation of Being and Time’s guiding question? Is the guiding question something Heidegger discovers solely through his engagement with the Husserlian/Brentanian paradigm? Or does Being and Time’s guiding question develop out of some conflict with this school of thought? Above all, what continuity can be discerned in Heidegger’s appropriation of phenomenology from his teachers?

The central chapters of Heidegger’s Way Through Phenomenology take up various aspects of Heidegger’s philosophical development that speak to these questions. The first of the book’s five chapters examines the topics in Husserl’s Logical Investigations and Ideas I that most occupied the early Heidegger. It is well-known that the young Heidegger spent considerable time reading and re-reading the Logical Investigations; however, McDonnell makes a persuasive case that Heidegger’s eventual differences with Husserl’s conception of phenomenology stem from the transcendental idealism of the later Ideas I.

The middle chapters take up the alternate sources that, according to McDonnell, inform Heidegger’s own formulation of the task of phenomenology. Chapter Two presents a thorough, careful study of Heidegger’s encounter with Dilthey, with significant discussion of how Dilthey can be seen to figure into Heidegger’s lecture courses of the early 1920’s and his initial divergence from Husserl. According to the exegesis of this chapter, Heidegger appropriates from Dilthey the notion of lived experience, specifically insofar this notion becomes crucial for Being and Time’s starting claim that Dasein is always one’s own. In this light, the historical component of Dilthey’s notion of lived experience is to become the seed of what Heidegger will go on to label “facticity.” McDonnell also gives attention to Dilthey’s influence upon Heidegger’s interest in hermeneutics. Chapter Three takes up Heidegger’s appropriation of Kierkegaard’s philosophy of existence, although much of this chapter’s argumentation suggests that Heidegger’s existentialism is influenced by Augustine. In this light, McDonnell gives reasons supporting the notion that Heidegger is not an existentialist philosopher in the colloquial sense of the term. Chapter Four engages facets of Biblical hermeneutics. McDonnell suggests the issue of understanding the living word of God as it is encountered in the tradition of Biblical hermeneutics can be said to exhibit some parallels with understanding the meaning of being (as Heidegger would later come to describe this problem in Being and Time). McDonnell proceeds under the assumption that this development in Heidegger’s thought is influenced by Schleiermacher, but the treatment here is somewhat brief and still rooted very much in Dilthey. Of all the book’s chapters, this fourth chapter is perhaps the thinnest and most speculative in terms of the evidence it leverages for its position.

Chapter Five, the last main chapter, takes somewhat of a left turn.   This chapter gives a very long, though careful account of Heidegger’s conception of finitude as it appears in Being and Time. It considers the compatibility of this notion with Husserl’s view of phenomenology as expressed in the transcendental reduction. The approach of this chapter differs from the others in that McDonnell treats finitude – more precisely, Heidegger’s formulation of being-toward-death – as a concept principally of Heidegger’s own formulation. Whereas the previous chapters are more devoted to developing Heidegger’s appropriation of the thought of his predecessors from the side of these preceding sources. Thus, the fifth chapter reads more like an analysis of finitude in Being and Time posed against the question of whether finitude is has any coherence in Husserl. McDonnell’s primary motivation for this shift appears to be that, in his view, Dasein’s disclosure of its own finitude is the ultimate, definitive manifestation in which Heidegger’s phenomenology transcends the limits of Husserl’s reduction, especially vis-à-vis the alternative framework of human experience he appropriates from Dilthey and the Christian existentialists. McDonnell does not argue in favor of Heidegger against Husserl per se, but he does suggest that Heidegger’s brand of phenomenology can subsume Husserl’s transcendental reduction, whereas the reverse would not hold true.

This book genuinely shines in its extensive demonstration of secondary research and its broad survey of many important primary sources. McDonnell weaves together a vast array of material into an impressive, yet very accessible narrative. Readers who are interested in Heidegger’s pre-Being and Time development will find in this text a very readable, authoritative guide to a key period in Heidegger’s complex intellectual biography. It will also provide a very good complement to Kisiel’s book on the genesis of Being and Time; McDonnell’s book is more focused and contemplative in its examination of Heidegger’s influences without getting encumbered by the vast swath of primary writings from Heidegger that one could take up in such a study.

In terms of critical comments, my input is rather brief. On one hand, there is a definite need in Heidegger studies for careful examination of the influences on Heidegger’s thought during the 1910’s and 20’s. And given the extensive paper trail of published writings, lecture transcripts, letters and personal notes we have of Heidegger, Husserl, and others from this period, certainly there is ample material that can point the way toward unraveling the pre-Being and Time narrative. On the other hand, I believe where McDonnell’s book could succeed better is in demonstrating more correspondence between the historical sources he identifies, and the thought of Heidegger as exhibited in the published writings up to and including Being and Time. As written, this book’s exegesis comes across as somewhat speculative, with many moving parts. This issue is less prominent in the first two chapters, but it becomes more prominent from the third chapter onward. As a result, the connection of Heidegger with Kierkegaard, Augustine, and related figures comes across as incidental and under-defended. Occasionally in these contexts there is a noticeable lack of justification for why some sources are chosen as factually relevant to Heidegger’s development. Among the historic sources to which McDonnell ties Heidegger, Dilthey is the figure whose connection is illustrated best. This book may have been more successful if it were to focus just on Heidegger’s appropriation of Dilthey. In any event, the best antidote for these shortcomings would be a more rigorous analysis of how the historical influences figure into Heidegger’s writing, with more emphasis on primary sources in Heidegger. However, such improvements would require a much longer book or even a whole second volume. As it stands McDonnell’s book provides a great service to Heidegger studies.

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