Thursday, February 02, 2006
The Nation has a review by Richard Wolin of a book on Levinas and another on Heidegger's influence on French intellectual circles before the sixties.
In Heidegger Levinas encountered a richness and philosophical daring that were otherwise wanting in contemporary thought. With Heidegger, philosophy transcended the self-referential confines of "consciousness" and acceded to the planes of "life" and "world." Levinas felt that Husserl's phenomenology remained wedded to the arid rationalism of the reigning neo-Kantianism. As such, it was narrowly focused on perception and cognition. With Heidegger's philosophy, conversely, there was talk of "everydayness," "authenticity," "historicity" and "Being-towards-death." Levinas found these topics highly stimulating--as did an entire generation of German youth who, upon hearing "the rumor of the hidden King," flocked to attend Heidegger's lectures. In order to keep the throngs of eager students at bay, Heidegger often had to hold his classes at 7 AM.
The title of the review, Heidegger Made Kosher, strikes me a fairly silly (Did Spinoza make Descartes kosher?), if not insulting to some in its frivolity. The review seems to spend more time lionizing Sartre more than anything else. It takes the position that Sartre's embrace of Marxism was something positive.
Unlike Heidegger, he sincerely believed that the problem of freedom still mattered. His oeuvre constituted a lifelong meditation on the significance and parameters of this fundamental moral and existential imperative. The turning point came during the 1950s, when Sartre realized the inadequacies of the Stoic-Cartesian conception of freedom presented in Being and Nothingness. Thereafter, in order to rethink the problem of freedom in light of the omnipresence of social injustice, he turned to history--and to Marx.
So Sartre embraced Stalin and Mao because of their contributions to human freedom? More than anything else, notions like that indicate where on the political spectrum The Nation shakes its fist from. Heidegger grasped the Cartesian problems at the core of Sartre's existentialism immediately, without going off the deep end and embracing dictatorships. Heidegger had already made his political mistakes, and wasn't about to return to Syracuse. Heidegger also had things to say about freedom, but he was not a political philosopher. The review castigates Heidegger for being an ontologist, and not a moral philosopher or an ethicist, and there lies its central flaw. It presupposes that everyone must take an absolute position for or against this or the other. Heidegger's popularity as a philosopher comes not from a position his readers must occupy, but rather from the insights his take on ontology can give those who study him. This should be obvious when one sees his influence across a broad spectrum of disciplines and the diversity in political opinions of those he has influenced.
"The review castigates Heidegger for being an ontologist, and not a moral philosopher or an ethicist, and there lies its central flaw."

This is good stuff. That's exactly it, isn't it? Heidegger's questions about the nature of Being looked beyond ethics -- and yet provided the foundation for a more complete (authentic) approach to ethics.

And so on and so forth.
It seems that ever since Aristole wrote Metaphysics and Nicomachean Ethics, any philsopher that writes an important book about fundamental matters is greeted with a: "Good job! Now go write an ethics."

To me the two are too far apart to make that leap--not that I'm against people trying. Ontology may provide some insights into ethical issues, but I'm suspicious of claims that ethics must be a certain way because some metaphysical principles require it. Ethics must come from how humans should comport themselves to lead better lives and get along. For example, atheists and theists should behave around each other, even if they consider the other to be wrong about the basic issues of reality.
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