Sunday, December 21, 2014

Resistance to Heidegger: Reading Graham Harman’s Heidegger Explained

Philosopher Graham Harman

It’s a simple enough question, but perhaps difficult of answer: If Martin Heidegger was the major philosopher of the twentieth century, as Graham Harman argues, why has he not become a more central guide to philosophers since? And why has Heidegger’s work not had an impact on the West even remotely similar to that of thinkers like Freud or Marx, or even Nietzsche?

Harman is one of the key philosophers working in the rising Speculative Realist movement. Much of Harman’s project emerges from his reading of Heidegger, particularly Heidegger’s brilliant tool analysis, which makes his 2007 book length portrait of the great philosopher, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Tool, doubly interesting.

I’ve been an occasional student of Heidegger since my university years in the 1980s. As it’s been a while since I’ve seriously engaged the philosopher’s texts, I decided to read Harman’s book to re-enter the realm. I couldn’t have chosen better. Harman has written what is certainly the clearest, most comprehensive introduction to Heidegger yet published in English. He covers the whole scope of Heidegger’s career, addresses the dismal turn of the war years, and, for me at least, clarifies things that had previously been murky, specifically Heidegger’s later writing on the fourfold.

But Harman’s work also led me to ask, given my own political concerns, if it is really worth seriously re-engaging Heidegger’s thought. Can Heidegger stand as a guide or teacher to those struggling with the demands of the present?

Heidegger insists that the history of metaphysics has come to an end and that we await a new beginning in philosophy. One of the main problems facing this "new beginning", at least in terms of its calling to those like me who might (modestly) engage it, is that based on Heidegger’s own work we sense that it will prove insular, self-enclosed, ultimately unproductive. One suspects that any such philosophical beginning could not actually change the facts of the political world in the ways that seem necessary--given our ever graver ecological/technological predicament. Such a beginning would be, rather, a local philosophical shift; it would be yet another philosophical school easily ignored by the machine now running roughshod over us, just as it ignored the philosopher’s work during his lifetime and after.

I’m aware of the irony of criticizing Heidegger’s new beginning as “unproductive”. One of the salient problems of the old metaphysics of presence is, certainly, its very productiveness. But even so, I suspect that many thinkers continue to neglect the Heideggerian path because they sense, quite simply, that it would not catch--it would gain no hold on the forces now rushing us toward annihilation.

Thus the conundrum facing thinkers tempted by Heidegger’s formidable project. We still hope to change or help rescue the world; we still hope to harness some of the power of metaphysics, even if at the same time undermining its totalizing power. Is this hope at all valid? I'm not certain. But next to this hope, the philosophy that begins with the “revealing/self-concealing event” seems to lead fatally to a kind of quietism. Or at least it did so in Heidegger's case.

Explicating the Heideggerian prognosis, Harman argues that all attempts to manage technology through technical means (which here would include everything from statistical analysis to environmental protection committees to land use laws) are doomed to failure from the start, as they still function within the metaphysics of presence that fosters technology's rampant growth. But is this prognosticated failure really so absolute? Might not such "technical means" be at least preliminary to, or attendant upon, a developing awareness of the crisis, which awareness, which danger, might then prepare the ground for the more fundamental "turn" Heidegger envisions?

One could argue that with these comments I’m putting too much of a political or practical burden on philosophy. One does not take up philosophy in order to accomplish certain goals with it. Asked the question of what one can do with philosophy, Heidegger once answered that the point is not what we do with philosophy, but what philosophy does with us.

But what is the place of philosophy once those political ills become potentially synonymous with our self-induced extinction as a species? Does the Heideggarian argue that we do not fundamentally exist as "a species”, but always rather as individual Dasein? If Dasein always means my ownmost, historically grounded existence, how do we think our ownmost historically grounded existence as species? Is such a thought possible in Heideggerian terms?

Harman's last three titled sections before his conclusion are "Heidegger's Vices", "First Objection to Heidegger" and "Second Objection to Heidegger". On Heidegger's vices, Harman doesn't merely restate his earlier points regarding the philosopher's disastrous failure of judgment during the war years, but, rightly I think, traces this failure to a more fundamental one: the lack of any true political philosophy in Heidegger's work.

Of course this lack is apposite to the questions I pose above. My own sense is that it stemmed from a certain fatality in the periodization of Heidegger's career. First, before the war, Heidegger was grappling with the questions that culminated in Being and Time. Subsequent to the war, and more problematically, his avoidance of writing directly on the political had more personal causes. The philosopher was no doubt aware that any attempt to weigh in directly on questions of the West's "political order" would only serve to re-ignite the question of the war years. It would provide an easy pretext for his philosophical foes to repeat: "Who are you to philosophize on these questions? Haven't we already heard enough in your Rector's Address?" In short, had Heidegger not made the mistakes he did during the war, he may have been emboldened over the following decades to develop his philosophy in ways more directly challenging to Anglo-American capitalism on the one hand and Soviet communism on the other. As is, he shrewdly (and perhaps inevitably) avoided political philosophy altogether.

Which leads readers of Heidegger like myself to ask: What would a true Heideggerian political philosophy look like? It is clear to me that the stances he took during the war in no way represented a rigorous development of his thought. They represented rather a poorly thought out attempt to paste his thought onto a political movement whose deeper meaning offended against that thought. Heidegger himself, though a supremely powerful thinker, was too immature politically to recognize this.

This leads me to wonder if Harman's section "Heidegger's Vices" wouldn't better be titled "First Objection to Heidegger", as it is in his lack of political philosophy, I suspect, that we should approach both his fall into Nazism and the problem of his incongruously small impact on the contemporary West. Heidegger insisted that thinkers are to be the "shepherd's of being", but apparently viewed the shepherd only as one who watches and waits. In fact, to develop the metaphor, shepherds must also at times ward off wolves and seek out new pasture.

In the two "Objections" to Heidegger with which Harman closes his book, he raises important challenges to Heidegger's thinking on the status of things and the interrelations of entities in the world. Each of these challenges lead into Harman's own work in what he calls "object-oriented ontology". Not familiar with Harman's work, I'd mainly be curious to know how he might address this question of what a Heideggerian political philosophy would consist in. Perhaps he's already taken up this question somewhere in his work. Or it may be another Heideggerian path which he may some day be interested to develop.

And of course: If Prof. Harman himself can spare time to answer an amateur, I’d be very curious to know how he might address these questions. I’ll be sending this link to him and will post any reply.

In any case, Harman’s book should be on the shelf of anyone engaged in the strenuous but always rewarding work of reading Martin Heidegger. Explanations of difficult philosophical arguments don’t get better than this.

Eric Mader


Graham Harman kindly responded to my brief review with some remarks on Heideggerian politics.

Important in Harman’s thinking on Heidegger is the recognition that whereas the the philosopher himself fell for fascism, his philosophy is of a different order. Its basic gestures and modalities, the approach to truth it sketches out, would on more careful consideration lead to a different politics.

In his book, as I've said, Harman argues that one of Heidegger's main flaws was his clear lack of a developed political philosophy. Which left him easy prey to the allure of the rising fascist movement.

First, Harman writes me that “the easy guess is that [Heidegger’s politics, made explicit,] would be like the politics of Carl Schmitt”--i.e., they'd be a product of where Heidegger was already headed under Hitler: “At a certain point rational negotiation disappears and there is simply an existential struggle with the enemy, who need only be defeated rather than wiped out completely. This would appear to fit very well with Heidegger's decision-based model of human action in Being and Time.”

This is an assessment of how Heidegger himself likely would have characterized his political stance had he been asked to declare it during those years.

Harman, however, sees a different politics implicit in Heidegger’s more rigorous side (that side where he actually wrestled):

But I think Heidegger's philosophy actually leads us in a different direction politically, if he had thought it through more carefully. Since Being is that which withdraws, this means that political decision always excludes an outside and focuses on what is present. I've written a whole book on Bruno Latour's politics that ends where I wish Heidegger could have ended politically, which is by saying that politics is based neither on truth or sheer decision, but on a collective dealing with issues whose solution is never fully known. Even Latour drifts a bit in Schmitt's direction in his recent work on ecology, but the Latour of the early 2000s was really onto something politically, I think.

To further the questions implicit in Harman's monograph on Heidegger, then--or at least the questions that most nagged me--one might move on to Harman’s book on Latour.

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