It is perhaps some measure of the virulence of opinion, both pro and con, that Martin Heidegger engenders, that in discussing his philosophy one is placed in the position of not simply explicating its meaning, but defending against the charge that the philosophy means either nothing at all or, more generously, that it represents a particularly tortured rendering of remarkably prosaic ideas.
It would not overstate the case to say that today Heidegger studies represents not so much debate as a kind of internecine warfare by other means over the issue of the propriety of studying Heidegger at all seriously. For the uninitiated who might find interesting the nature of this dispute, I would recommend Thomas Sheehan's essay in the New York Review of Books for June 16, 1988 as a reasonable start. (This article will also give a sense for the seemingly endless deep water that surrounds the issue of Heidegger's connection with the Nazi party.)
Without dwelling on the similarly frequent assertion that Heidegger's views are unintelligible, I would like to address in this article the question of whether the points that Heidegger does make are no more than reiterations of the obvious what the writer Anthony Gottlieb once termed, "...crashing platitudes...disguised for what they are by Heideggerian jargon...".
I have chosen to discuss a piece that by all rights should embody all of the worst traits of Heidegger's philosophy. The essay A Dialogue on Language (contained in the collection On the Way to Language, Harper & Row (1971)) purports to reflect a discussion between a Japanese visitor (a Professor Tezuka of the Imperial University) and an Inquirer (Heidegger) over the vagaries of translation between European and East Asian languages. As the talk advances, the conversation departs from the issue of translation to confront the question of the nature of language itself. The discussion that ensues is a kind of monument to digression and inarticulation, with a seemingly endless stream of entries mysteriously concluding with open ellipses.
And yet I would argue that even here there is method to Heidegger's particular "madness."
First let us view Heidegger's piece as a whole. What it is generally about, its central platitude, if you will, is the idea that it is impossible to formulate through language the relationship between language and the reality it is intended to convey. If this is nothing more than the analytic endgame that says that the ideal of a language isomorphic with reality is an illusion, that has surely been said before and no doubt better. But like the devil, I would argue that the true value of Heidegger's insights lies in the details.
Let us begin as Heidegger does, with the odd framing device of the conversation between Heidegger and his Japanese visitor. After the briefest of pleasantries, the discussion moves awkwardly to the problem of understanding the Japanese word Iki. In pondering the impossibility of that enterprise, Heidegger and his Japanese friend find themselves confronted with a problem at once more serious and vastly less clear than what they had appeared to be discussing. Slowly, almost painfully so, Heidegger alludes to this central point: Any metaphysical communication across the divide that separates each and every culture from the other fails, to the extent that it attempts to communicate anything about existence or any manifestation of existence. If one returns to the impossibility of creating a transparent, isomorphic language, Heidegger's point seems even more meager in import. Rather than stating that language is incapable of capturing the fullness of reality, Heidegger appears only to be telling us that we are unable to speak about fundamental ontology with people who come from different cultures from our own.
But in telling us this, Heidegger offers us a hint about where such an observation might lead. He describes, without the slightest obtrusiveness, the manner in which his cultural insight arose.
Can Heidegger really mean that clothes can evoke for us both the existence of another culture, or "world," and the impossibility of garnering the understanding to be found in it? Yes, and Heidegger goes on to say a good deal more. Heidegger explicitly states that words as such are useless in our attempts to bridge this gap of understanding in the arena of existence. What then can provide us some insight into a fundamental metaphysics that crosses every cultural divide? Heidegger provides only the slightest of clues, but they are clues that resonate in each instance with a strange, compelling power.
Heidegger's process of clue-giving begins with a retreat to his own past and the earliest experience in which he became aware of the problem concerning the nature of existence, although at that time his understanding of what was involved was at best oblique.
In the earliest instances, Heidegger's interest was piqued by works of theology and philosophy (The Bible, Bretano's On the Manifold Meaning of Being According to Aristotle, and Husserl's Logical Investigations), but as Heidegger describes these events, he mentions as an aside that perhaps there was, in these first steps, more that was instructive in determining how to understand existence than he would realize for a long time. And to emphasize this point, Heidegger quotes from a poem by Holderlin, which can be translated as "For as you began, so you will remain." For two reasons, as will be pointed up in a moment, this brief aside will echo throughout the remainder of the discussion.
The conversation next moves its focus to Heidegger's attempt to explore the idea of a fundamental understanding of existence in his work Being and Time, and its failure. Heidegger states expressly that his failure was the result of attempting to bridge this understanding with the tool of language, where language itself was infirmed by the culture out of which it had arisen (in the sense that only a European view of existence could be communicated by this means, not existence in its fundamental or universal incarnation). Heidegger makes the point somewhat lyrically,
The foregoing point being made, the dialogue proceeds to an extended discussion of the meaning of term "hermeneutics". Generally speaking, "hermeneutics" is taken to mean the study of interpretation. Heidegger begins his discussion of hermeneutics with the first of those "echoes" mentioned earlier. In this case, the echo returns us again to Heidegger's own past and to his earliest attempts at fashioning insight into questions of metaphysics. Heidegger describes his years as a theology student and the frustration he encountered in attempting to fathom the relationship between the Scriptures as language, and as the vehicle for conveying a sense of the Christian view of reality. Here Heidegger makes plain that this was, again, an instance of his unformed ideas being direct precursors of his present views about the relation between language and existence. But Heidegger conveys more than just this. What Heidegger goes on to mention, in a wholly elliptical way, is that the process that leads from the floundering theology student to the graying philosopher is itself the only insight deserving of the label "profound". Heidegger proposes that interpretation in the sense of "getting at" a meaning is fruitless, and that the only way we interpret meaningfully is when we dwell on the limit of what can be interpreted at all what Heidegger calls, "... the attempt first of all to define the nature of interpretation on hermeneutic grounds." (OTWTL p.11)
But is this all there is to Heidegger's hermeneutic endeavor? No: Later in the same discussion, Heidegger provides another piece to the puzzle. While we proceed through our existence (from student to philosopher, if you will), we lead not just any existence, but a human existence. And as such, we exist with a peculiar self-consciousness that allows us to enter into dialogue, with others or with ourselves, and this process can allow us to intersect with another kind of "interpretation" altogether. This is understanding in its broadest sense, in which we can communicate feelings, or senses, or a whole range of "realities" that cannot be conceptualized in any narrow linguistic manner a way of "speaking" in which a whole world of ideas can be sensed in particularly gay Japanese garment.
Heidegger goes on to make this further point, that this kind of non-verbal communication is interpretive in a way in that is primordial to linguistic discourse itself. And from this position "above" the relation between language and existence, it can inform us regarding the nature of this relation. We are freed from the analytical trap wherein any language is doomed to failure when it is called upon to convey existence as such. In Heidegger's words:
The conversationalists next enlarge their circle of inquiry by posing the question of whether or not this problem of too narrowly conceiving of the manner of interpretation informs the entire enterprise of rationalism, as it has developed historically in the Western world. Heidegger suggests that to the extent that the inquiry at hand is directed to fundamental questions of existence, rather than issues of technological accomplishment, rationalism is as infirmed by its one-dimensionality as is hermeneutics, at least in the way it is generally understood. In the case of rationalism, its flaws flow directly from its roots in the conceptual framework of Cartesian dualism. From this philosophical stance, there can be no "useful" considerations outside the analytical scope of our ability to define the nonsensual say existence as such as representable through the tool of language. This is a fundamental precept of the rational project. But Heidegger suggests this precept is only a dangerous illusion born of the failure to remember that existence and its relation to language preceded all conceptual constructs constructs that are nothing more than a manifestation of the language/culture itself. So Heidegger ruefully observes, "... any thinking which rejects the claim of reason as not originary, simply has to be maligned today as unreason." (OTWTL p. 15)
The conversation between Heidegger and his Japanese companion then takes what would appear to be a jarring digression: an extended discussion of the film Rashomon, by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. What is perhaps most amazing about this part of the dialogue is that Heidegger, by accident or by design, portrays himself as woefully unaware of the real significance of this film as proposed by his Japanese interlocutor. Heidegger, when the film is mentioned, responds enthusiastically to what he perceives to be its insightful portrayal of Japanese ideas, conveyed through non-verbal gesture and visual atmospherics. But the Japanese professor brings Heidegger up short and tells him he is mistaken, and that those parts of the film that Heidegger has admired are, in fact, artificially constructed within the larger framework of the film's cinematic and narrative structures. The professor asserts plainly that the film provides only the pretense of insight into its universe: that in reality, it only reflects the Western concepts of linearity and definitional certainty. So seen, the film corresponds to the overarching way in which rationalism attempts to coop the universe of all thought, even in the realm of the purely metaphysical.
But where are those insights that a film like Rashomon strives so mightily, and unsuccessfully, to imitate? Do they exist at all, and can they be appreciated by us? The answer that follows is a kind of qualified "Yes." Heidegger and his companion discuss Japanese Noh plays, and, through them, the notion of communication (dialogue) that only intimates what cannot be said. What is proposed is a kind of suggestive communication that is both non-verbal and non-causal. As in Noh drama, Heidegger alludes to a timeless emptiness where the communication is as subtle as the lifting of a hand, and where the prevailing backdrop is silence a broadening of what we mean when we speak of language, which Heidegger terms "saying".
Heidegger preempts the inevitable objection, that what is proposed is not suggestive through nothingness, it is nothingness. Heidegger addresses the question of how this formulation differs from mere nihilism by returning us (another echo) to the idea that the process is the means for achieving an understanding of the relation of language to existence, but that the process can chiefly be understood in this way only when the noise of analytical discourse is silenced.
The discussion next turns to the word that the Japanese professor suggests as his translation of "language": Koto ba. Literally, we are told, Koto ba means the petals that stem from the moment of the illuminating message of grace. Heidegger uses this definition as a stepping-off point to suggest that language, properly understood, should encompass any communication, as is suggested in the limitlessness of the Japanese word Koto ba. Further, language need not be explicit should mere hinting convey more clearly a given idea. Thus, a message can be illuminated rather than expressed outright. This, again, is a way of understanding what Heidegger has suggested in his word "saying."
Finally, Heidegger concludes with a return to the explicit connection between the relationship among human existence, existence as such, and language. Heidegger describes what he terms the two-fold: that existence as such can only be experienced for us as our own human existence. And this truth compels us to consider that the relationship of language to our existence can arise only within the context of our human existence. And how does our human existence manifest itself in relation to language? Only in the process of continual dialogue dialogue with the past, as represented by philosophy's historical tradition; with sympathetic searchers like ourselves who understand that the search is not, in truth, after "something"; and finally with ourselves.
Thus, what Heidegger has painstakingly laid the groundwork for in his own "conversation" is finally made apparent. And it is the truly novel idea that this "saying" process is itself the answer to the question of the relationship between language and reality as such. In the end, Heidegger says nothing more than that our attempt to understand the relationship between language and existence and, just as crucially, our failure in that endeavor tells us all that we can know about the relation itself. But, as Heidegger clearly sets out, this is not some form of nihilism that tells us only that we are limited in our capacity to understand certain types of issues about language; that these are nonsense statements in the analytic sense. Heidegger turns such nihilism on its head. His notion is that the process of coming upon our failure to understand, of thinking about our failure, of conceding we cannot "talk" meaningfully about our failure, of inching in the tiniest degree toward a furtive insight here and there, is the beginning (or the end, since it makes no difference from this view) of a fundamental understanding of the relationship between language (and now we understand we must always think to ourselves "human" language, because it is a human endeavor) and existence.
Although it seems to me that this essay gets some important parts of Heidegger's ideas "right," it can in no way provide the peculiar frisson which Heidegger's own mode of presentation effects again and again in the sympathetic reader an excitement produced through its evocation of things that we ordinarily perceive only rarely, and through the densest of cultural filters. This excitement is described perhaps most memorably by Hannah Arendt:
In closing, I would recommend that anyone with interest in the ideas I have discussed here, or in Heidegger generally, attempt to read the text himself. To those for whom Heidegger's works are not immediately offputting (what one wit has called "a shoal of hyphens swimming in a sea of confusing neologisms..."), the process that reading them can become provides a feverish excitement not unlike the heightened sensation produced in the most "disconcerting" of our physical or mental life experiences.
About the author: Henry Nicholls has studied law and physics and works in insurance defense. In his spare time he collects classics of world literature, cinema, and rock music. His idea of a nice vacation is to sit by a swimming pool at a posh hotel working on physics problems. He is survived by a photo-snapping wife and a daughter who thinks he is weird.
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© Copyright 1998 by Henry Nicholls