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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Heidegger and Pilate

I could not sleep, so I read an essay by Martin Heidegger called "Hegel and the Greeks" which would be impossible to summarize and is near impossible to read. But I would urge you to try it anyway, like cliff diving, but with less adrenaline.

Heidegger has taken a lot of flak, from all sides, for smashing our comfortable notions of truth. Many mainstream philosophers discount him for ruining their party. Many thinkers find it impossible to forgive his German Nazi identity in the 1930's. Most Christians, especially those who need the idea of truth to stay put, find his existentialism much too relativistic for their taste.

This is perhaps the most comprehensible paragraph in the essay:
But every historical statement and legitimization itself moves within a certain relation to history. Prior to a decision as to the historical correctness of the representation it is therefore necessary to consider if and how history is experienced, from whence does it determine its fundamental traits.
The above paragraph occurs 3/4 of the way through the essay, after he explains in painful detail what Hegel's philosophy of history consists of. At this point, he is getting ready to strongly, massively, disagree with Hegel. He does so in the following paragraph, which I apologize for in advance:
With regards to Hegel and the Greeks this means: all correct or incorrect historical statements presuppose that Hegel has experienced the essence of history out of the essence of being in the sense of absolute subjectivity. There is at this hour no experience of history that can, philosophically speaking, historically correspond to it. However, the speculative-dialectical determination of history brings with as consequence that it prohibits Hegel from regarding 'Aletheia' and its prevalence as the proper matter of thought, and this, precisely, in that philosophy that determines the "reign of truth" as the "purpose" of philosophy. Because Hegel experiences being, when he conceives it as the indeterminate immediate, as the determining and comprehending subject's posited. Consequently, he cannot disassociate being in the Greek sense, the 'einai', from its relation to the subject, and release it to its proper essence. This latter however is pre-sence [An-wesen], that which out of concealedness abides [vor-Wahren] in disclosedness. In pre-sence the unconcealed plays. It plays within 'en' and within 'logos', within the properly gathered bestowment [Vorliegen] - that which lets truth be [An-wahren-lassen]. 'Aletheia' plays within the 'idea' and within the 'choinomia' of the ideas, insofar as these mutually bring to appearance and so compose the existent being, the 'ontos on'. 'Aletheia' plays within 'Energeia' which has nothing in common with actuality, but only with the Greek experience of 'ergon' and its manner of being produced before us within pre-sence.
The passage above captures Heidegger's departure from the rest of philosophy. But it is essentially non-understandable without a whole lot of explanation. I can say that I just barely understand what he's doing. So here's the rundown on this bizarre paragraph:

1. One of the main ways Heidegger "does philosophy" is by picking apart the meaning of words (usually Greek, Latin and German words that ground the language used by philosophers). He does this with hundreds of words in hundreds of contexts all through his writings. In this paragraph he chooses the following words to pick apart:

1a. Aletheia is Greek and usually translated as "truth" - a pretty important word. But it is formed from the root parts "a-" meaning not or opposite from, and "letheia" meaning hidden. So the root meaning is "not hidden" or "unconcealed" and Heidegger makes much of this meaning. Our ordinary sense of truth is that truth is truth whether it is hidden or not - it stays the same before and after we discover it. Heidegger disagrees. He says truth is properly that which is disclosed, not that from which it emerges (hiddenness). This alone is a huge philosophical leap. It suggests that the only things we can say anything meaningful (or truthful) about are the things we have "brought out" of concealment - mainly by seeing them, and thinking about them.

1b. einai is Greek for being, that is, just being there - "is-ness" if you will. Heidegger extends this with the Latin word "presence" and characteristically splits it up for emphasis. The derivation of presence implies it is before (pre) perceptions come into us (sence). Something similar is behind German An-wesen but I can't figure out what. The basic idea is that there is something that comes before our awareness of something. Hegel thinks that thing is truth. Heidegger thinks that thing is more or less "hidden" until it hits us - then it becomes "disclosed" and is true. The rest of the word analysis seems somewhat less important, and the "choinomia" Greek word is a total mystery - even Google can't find it anywhere other than in this essay. Maybe it's a typo.

2. Heidegger saw himself as going against the entire train of philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to Kant and Hegel. In attempting to overturn this locomotive, he had earlier help from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who also called a lot of the standard philosophical assumptions into question. The way Heidegger proceeds is to point out ways in which the basic assumptions everyone took for granted were subtly flawed. In this paragraph, he is attempting to shift the focus from logic, which is the ultimate outcome and triumph of Greek philosophy, made much more powerful by modern science, to that which is non-logical. That which is hidden cannot be made logical. In a sense, it is pre-rational. The logical and rational is what most certainly is not hidden. It may be difficult, but it's clear when you study it how logic works. Heidegger does not question that. He questions whether it is the foundational tool needed for understanding the truth. He suggests that we cannot understand the (disclosed) truth without looking at the (hidden) un-truth that lies behind it. This essentially boils down to mysticism.

Heidegger is following in the footsteps of Pontius Pilate, who when questioning Jesus at trial asked him if he was guilty of the obvious crime of proclaiming himself a king in rebellion to Rome's rule. Jesus answered that Pilate was correct, that he was a king. But then he extended this comment with a comment about truth, saying that he had come to demonstrate the truth, and that those who know or want truth should pay attention. So, his life is on the line, and he starts a philosophical discussion with the judge! We can imagine Pilate's snort, as he answers that bizarre statement with the rhetorical question "what is truth?"

I feel more like Pilate than Jesus. Pilate knew that truth was up for grabs. Jesus had an immense certainty that truth was in him, in his words and deeds. Pilate knew that given power, the governor of a Roman province could, in effect, fabricate the truth and make it stick. He could have, he tried to, let Jesus off alive. There is a real question whether if Jesus had responded "of course I'm not a king - anyone can see that!" he would never have been crucified under Roman edict. Pilate was fishing for something he could work with.

I also am fishing for something I can work with. The truth that Jesus represents feels much more like a Heideggerian un-truth, a truth that is not yet discernible, than the truth we associate so readily with scientific logic. Pilate, like so many spin-meisters of our own time, knew that logical truth was subject to manipulation. Pilate wanted an appearance of truth (for instance, Jesus did not appear to be a rebel king to him). Jesus testified to an as yet undisclosed truth (that his lived-out ethics of kindness, caring and self-abnegation would come to dominate the lived experience of the next two millenia in western history).

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