Whooshup Reorganization

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Discussion: Heidegger, existentialism, a paradox

This discussion item is geared towards virtually all the Phil 185 - Heidegger: Being and Time Division I from Fall 2007.

The teaching seems to be that as human beings, or Daseins, we act most primitively and most authentically when we are coping, or dealing, in a totally absorbed way, with the interconnected, transparent, background elements of the world. Thus, when we hammer without thinking about the hammer, but rather as an non-conspicuous part of the task of building a house for Dasein to live in, then we are being in the world and the hammer is ready to hand and neither it nor our actions fall into the foreground of our attention. And that is somehow a right way to be, as opposed to the alternative possibility that would make the hammer, the house, and the human into an interaction of mental representations and goals, and physical substances with properties, the way we might script a computer to simulate the given situation. This phenomenon appears to be Heidegger's essential insight.

That description is totally inadequate to summarize Division I, but I suppose it will have to do. I just want to set up a paradox that has been bothering me. This paradox may apply to existentialism in general, or there may be a very simple answer to it. I'd really like to know.

The paradox is simply this: the teaching of existentialism appears to elevate the act of absorbed coping, or being, bodily, in the world; yet it does so in a framework that requires constant interpretation and excessive introspection, which must happen (or at least we must experience as happening) in the learner's "mind," whatever that means. Therefore, we use the most intensely individualist Cartesian mental faculties of analysis to unfold the most Heideggerian themes, such as a pleasant drinking party where everyone toasts the divinities of friendliness. This raises the question why we study Heidegger in a university classroom, by dicing text, rather than in a cafe, by getting sloshed.

Worse, we suspect, after listening to the class and reflecting just a bit, that the students who skipped the lecture and sat around drinking espresso, flirting, and throwing insults and accolades at each other, already had a better notion of the teaching than the studious ones who attended every lecture and parsed every sentence, simply because they were being in the flow, unconscious of it, rather than stepping out of the flow and attempting to systematize a better phenomenological understanding of it.

Dreyfus claims, and I completely agree, that Heidegger's anti-Cartesian perspective is revolutionary. It frees us to attend to our embodied existence in an endlessly connected world. But the philosophy remains trapped in a traditional Cartesian-dominated environment - the elite university classroom and its western analytical and interpretive protocol. The teaching makes me want to go outside and hammer something, unconsciously, with my "...body and its great reason: that does not say 'I' but does 'I'" (Nietzsche in Zarathustra). Is not any teaching like this an effort to say, not do?

Please give me refutations! I would love to get past this nagging paradox. I'm sure every student of existentialism goes through something like this. Have you had any startling "wait just a minute" moments too?


Demographer said...

Just a quick comment: I don't know where Heidegger or Dreyfus say that "ready to hand" is somehow *better* than "present to had". Ready to hand is epistemologically *prior*, and without lots of stuff ready to hand we never get to the ability to logically name things and make them "present to hand", but I don't remember a normative stance being taken. Posessing ready to hand skill is orthogonal to authenticity.

And if there isn't such a normative stance, than you can't use Heidegger or Dreyfus to defend the students who skip class and "live life". I think Heidegger would say that authenticity comes from a synthesis of Being-With your World and embracing the present to hand knowledge of it, through your apprehension of your own mortality. But I am probably wrong about that...

Karl Tyson said...

Yes, I agree Heidegger takes great care to neutralize his description of the structure of Dasein. If there is a bias, it lies simply in the observation that absorbed coping is by far the more "usual" activity for us, while interpretation is in some way an accidental descent from coping to philosphizing (e.g. positing Platonic forms).

In the broader context of existentialism, though, I think value is placed on grappling with existing things as opposed to non-existent, purely theoretical things, and I believe it is normative, although I can't closely argue that yet. Maybe someone else can help.

In Phil 7, Dreyfus spends about 10 lectures on Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, which he seems to hold up as the last, best, existentialist re-interpretation of the 2000 year old christianity story. In these lectures he outlines how the central supernatural themes of the religion are existentialized in the real-world lurching-about of flawed but striving characters such as Alyosha and Dmitri. The anti-hero, Ivan, is, on the other hand, an intellectual, the university student, wrapped in incommunicable ponderings about how life and society should be re-designed and improved. He inadvertently orders the murder of his father, thus (in my interpretation), presaging the bolsheviks who, in their theoretical quest for a rational reorganization of the state, only succeed in killing their own country.

My point is that Ivan, the bolsheviks, the intelligentsia, the meticulous ones, stay in class, and court disaster. The Dmitris of the world chase skirts and drink and overspend, harmlessly doing what Heidegger points out we all do, without thinking.