Michael Bérubé on truth, babies, and words of advice
to young students.
You know the genre, surely: crazed, anxious graduate student expounds on the details of a promising but never-to-be-written essay. The first two and a half pages walk through the half-formed argument, in which I suggest that what Rorty took to be the “pragmatist” aspects of Being and Time (the categories of the vorhanden and zuhanden, or “present-at-hand” and “ready-to-hand”) are just setups for the real payload, the insistence that “truth” is a matter of “disclosure” (aletheia), and that one of the reasons Heidegger goes to such trouble to establish those categories is to persuade us that factual assertions, far from being the locus of truth, are mere present-at-hand entities that get stuff done. This may sound like a pragmatist critique of positivism (which is no doubt why Rorty liked it), but it ain’t where Heidegger’s going; in sections 43 and 44, he’s going to show us that since assertions are not the locus of truth (as he has conclusively demonstrated), truth must something else, namely, the disclosure of Being specific to Dasein.
This much is probably obvious to Heideggerians, but give me a break. I was 23. The tricky part—the part on which I was stuck—lay in the realization that I was more or less saying that part one of Being and Time involves this elaborate performative contradiction whereby Heidegger argues logically and patiently (and laboriously, good lord) that argument is not where truth lives. I had the idea that perhaps this might shed some light on the famous “turn,” which, for me, might amount to Heidegger saying (among other things), “you know, I’m not going to argue anymore that assertions are merely present-at-hand—I’m just going to go straight to aletheia and disclosure, and write sweeping accounts of philosophy since the pre-Socratics, meditations on Romantic poets and the phrase ‘it gives being,’ and a bunch of stuff about the clearing and the jug and the fourfold, so there.”
And that paper probably would remain unwritten to this day (with the world so much the poorer for it), had Janet not realized, some months after I asked Rorty for that extension, that she was pregnant. “ZOMG,” I said (no, not really), “if we’re going to have a baby, I need to finish that damn Rorty paper.” My anxiety about the-entity-that-would-become-Nick quashed all my anxiety about the-entity-that-was-the-paper-I-could-not-write, and I wrote it in a frenzy over four or five days. It turned out to be the last paper I would ever write out longhand before typing. And it turned out, when I finally finished typing, to be fifty pages. After stewing over the essay for months and months, I had become the Graduate Student From Hell, turning in my paper very late and very long.
If there are any graduate students reading this, do not do this. It is bad.
But it was a formative experience.