Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Philosophy and Ethics
Friday, 20 February 2015
Wittgenstein & Heidegger: Parallel Spiritual Lives (Part Three)
Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Philosophy and Ethics
“…a philosophy which is going to be ethics and metaphysics in one, though they have previously been so falsely separated, like soul and body.” (Schopenhauer, 1813/1988)
“…he inherited from Hegel…the recognition that an individual life means very little in isolation, that what we are is defined by our place in a community and in history. We make our choices only within a social and historical context, and they have no significance outside such a context. Thus Heidegger, like Hegel, emphasises the historicity of Dasein and the ultimate insignificance of the individual even while he praises individual resolution. Our resolution is not (as in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) one of going against the crowd but rather of giving it our personal affirmation. Taken as a whole the message of Heidegger’s philosophy is unabashedly conservative.” (Continental Philosophy Since 1750: the Rise and Fall of the Self, 166)
Returning to Heidegger.
Let’s turn away from Heidegger’s attitudes towards science, etc., which we covered earlier, and turn instead towards his positions on philosophy itself.
Heidegger distrusted traditional western philosophy and what he saw as its basically Aristotelian urge to trap things in categories. Essentially, Heidegger’s stance on these issues was ethical, if not actually or overtly religious/spiritual. Derrida neatly expresses Heidegger’s fears about, for example, traditional ontology:
“Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other…ontology would be [a] philosophy of violence.” (1967/1978)
Heidegger himself wrote:
“If the other could be possessed, seized, and known, it would not be the other. To possess, to know, to grasp are all synonyms of power.” (1978/67)
In the following passage there are further elaborations on the dangers of an all encompassing “instrumental rationality”:
“…Heidegger says that when ‘the spirit is degraded into intelligence, into a tool…the energies of the spiritual process, poetry and art, statesmanship and religion, become subject to conscious cultivation and planning’…” (1926/1962)
The essential ethical or even spiritual pull of such positions can be more clearly seen if one compares such views to the positions of (straight) theological writers and philosophers of religion (or religious philosophers).
For example, Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) believed that in the “standpoint of objectivity” one must assume the position of a “spectator” rather than a “participator”. It will therefore follow from this that one will also conceive of oneself as external to - and detached from - the object, person or event under scrutiny (1950). Marcel’s position is therefore not unlike Wittgenstein’s anti-Cartesian externalism.
Martin Buber too expresses a quasi-Wittgensteinian attitude (not unlike the one above); though this time within a slightly more epistemological context. (This position too has an ethical dimension that isn't so explicitly or overtly found in Wittgenstein himself.) That is, Buber stressed the importance of the “presentness” and “concreteness” that's clearly apparent when we come across or scrutinise persons or objects (or, in Buber’s ethical sense, the “other”). In this externalist manner, Buber believed that one should stay well clear of the methods and beliefs of the Cartesian epistemological tradition (in which the subject both is - and is required to be - purified from external world excrescences (1990)). That is, the Cartesian epistemic spectator wants to replace the clear “singularity” or particularity of each unique interaction with objects, persons or events (1967). However,
“[Reason] cannot replace the smallest perception of something particular and unique with its gigantic structure of general concepts.” (1964, Buber)
Schopenhauer (who is particularly relevant to this essay) also offers us a quasi-ethical take on the problems of ontological scrutiny. He writes:
“To intuit, to let the things themselves speak to us…only afterwards to deposit and store this in concepts in order to possess it securely…” (Schopenhauer, 1813/1969)
The ethico-religious dimensions of the passages quoted above can also be contrasted here with Gilbert Ryle’s somewhat ethico-religious take on the Cartesian individualistic [i.e., subjectivist] philosophy of mind and also Cartesian internalist epistemology:
“When the [Cartesian] epistemologists’ concept of consciousness first became popular, it [was]…in part a transformed application of the Protestant notion of conscience. The Protestant had to hold that a man could know the moral state of his mind…without the aid of confessors and scholars…” (Ryle, 1949)
That is, just as introspective moral indubitability was needed by the Protestant to keep himself well clear of Catholic (as well as Protestant) scholars and other intellectuals, so too was introspective epistemological indubitability needed by the Cartesian epistemologist to keep himself clear of the Scholastic philosophical tradition and the falsehoods of other people and the external world (amongst other things).
Cartesians, just like good Protestants, were thoroughly autonomous beings.
Looking forward, perhaps 20th century “ontology of the social”, “or social ontology”, has been just a little bit too catholic in its general attitudes. It's therefore no coincidence that both Wittgenstein and Heidegger were brought up in Catholic environments. Though despite the fact, for example, of Heidegger’s semi-negative attitude towards Thomist- Aristotelian ontology, he still embraced, at one time, Catholic Scottist ontology. And it's also worth mentioning here that Wittgenstein had certain strong affinities with Protestantism, which perhaps can be seen in his less political (than Heidegger’s) “social ontology” and also in the philosophical social positions of Wittgenstein that have been and will be commented upon.
Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s Ethico-Ontological Particularism
Heidegger, like Wittgenstein, was what I call a particularist rather than a generalist. And like Wittgenstein in, say, his Philosophical Investigations, Heidegger, say, in his Being and Time, also provided very many particular examples and illustrations (e.g., the often-quoted mundane one about a hammer). Indeed Wittgenstein himself was such a diligent and particular particularist that he might well have hated my term “particularist” - it too is an example of a generalisation (i.e., a generalisation about particularism and, for that matter, generalism). Wittgenstein might have thought that this term (as he thought with all other ’isms and ’ists) would have somehow trapped his thoughts (or unthoughts) in its tiny semantic box.
Wittgenstein once claimed to have never read the arch-generalist Aristotle. Heidegger, on the other hand, did read the Greek philosopher and in considerable detail. And from that deep knowledge of Aristotle he developed a deep distrust of Aristotle’s generalisations and the general Aristotelian “craving for generality” (Wittgenstein’s term). Heidegger saw Aristotle’s categorial obsessions as a desire to “seize…[the] object” (Caputo, 224). That is, Aristotle and other philosophers used categories and concepts to “master…[their] material [and] reduce the individual to an instance of the general” (Caputo, 1998). In so doing, many philosophers (Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian alike) thought that they had succeeded in creating a hierarchical relationship between the “imperfect” and the “perfect” (1998). And, implicitly (or, sometimes, explicitly), it was always the imperfect (or particular) that was subsumed under the perfect (or general).
This is Christopher Norris’s take on Heidegger’s anti-Aristotelian particularism:
“Language itself perpetuates the rationalist parcelling-out of experience into categories like ‘subject’ and ‘object’…the mastery of nature by reason. To think one’s way beyond such categories is to ask, with Heidegger, not how things exist, but why they should exist in the first place.” (Norris, 1982/1999)
One can’t help but notice affinities in the above with a famous passage in the Tractatus:
“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” (1921, 6.44)
Heidegger found a way of thinking that he believed is superior to post-Socratic and Aristotelian thought. He found it in certain pre-Socratics.
For example, he might well have been inspired by Heraclites’s teachings in which processes, rather than discrete things, were the prime ontological category. In fact Heidegger might have even seen Heraclites’s position as going against the very idea of categorisation altogether and not, instead, of mistakenly putting processes at the top of the ontological hierarchy (as was the case with A. N. Whitehead).
Heidegger also thought that the post-Socratics and Aristotle were guilty of supplanting the “poetic thinking” of the earlier Greeks. So whereas Heidegger’s great bugbear was Aristotelian categorisation, perhaps Wittgenstein’s bugbear (as it was with the logical positivists, etc.) was Hegelian generalisation. Actually, Wittgenstein did once say:
“Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things which look different are really the same, whereas my interest is in showing that things which look the same are really different.” (1946).
Wittgenstein even criticised Darwin along similar lines. He said that the great biologist’s evolutionary theory “hasn’t the necessary multiplicity” (1946). Freud, on the other hand and according to Wittgenstein, was actually a particularist with delusions of being a generalist (i.e., a scientist!). Wittgenstein thought that Freud “had been seduced by the method of science” (1943) and the “craving for generality”. (Deconstruction also sees itself as defending and stressing “singularities”.)
Heidegger too thought that philosophy had “been in the constant predicament of having to justify its existence before the ‘sciences’”. Philosophy therefore believed, according to Heidegger, that “it [could] do that most effectively by elevating itself to the rank of a science” (Heidegger, trans 1977).
Heidegger wanted to escape from this science-worship or science-envy and “return thinking to its element” (trans 1977). Of course such a return to tribal thought or thoughtlessness, as it were, was, as Heidegger conceded, almost bound to be called “irrationalism” by positivistic philosophers (trans 1977). So almost inevitably Heidegger’s creed was indeed deemed to be a creed of irrationalism by the logical positivists or logical empiricists. (As well as by, it must be added, by the English and American analytics who were themselves under the spell of a – possible? – “verificationist mis-reading” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.)
Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Society
“…. the Greek states, in which every individual enjoyed an independent existence but could when the need arose, grow into the whole organism…now made way for an ingenious clockwork, out of the piecing together of innumerable but lifeless parts, a mechanical kind of collective life ensues…[the individual] never develops the harmony of his being…he becomes nothing more than the imprint…of his specialised knowledge.” (Friedrich Schiller)
Heidegger hated science-worship and despaired because of what he thought was the resultant “flight of the gods”. Heidegger essentially looked back to the pre-Socratics for a vision of “Being” that was unencumbered by “instrumental rationality”. He had a lot of admiration for the early Greeks. Indeed the idealisation of the ancient Greeks was by Heidegger’s day a firmly entrenched Austro-German custom. Heidegger himself thought, particularly, that the ancient Greeks didn't experience anxiety in quite the same way that modern Western man experiences anxiety. The early Greeks, therefore, had no big problem with the “meaninglessness of life” (or even the meaninglessness of particular existences). Of course Nietzsche too (another admirer of the Greeks and also a strong influence on Heidegger), for example, had many positive things to say about the ancient Greeks. ⁷
Heidegger believed that “modern man” suffered from anxiety or angst because he had a rootless, nihilistic and technological “understanding of Being”. So, unlike Hegel and, say, 19th century British Victorians, Heidegger saw the history of the west as a gradual decline.
Heidegger also gave his reasons why past eras didn't experience anxiety, nihilism and the sense of meaninglessness in quite the way that 20th century man did.
For example, he thought that the temple, in certain past cultures, provided an axis around which the rest of society revolved. The temple gave them rules and regulations on how to live “good lives”. Later we had the medieval cathedral. This in turn taught the people the concepts of, for example, salvation and damnation. In this period everyone knew their place in the “larger scheme of things” and also knew precisely what they had to do in this earthly life. However, our own culture has become more and more inclined to treat all things as “mere objects”. Also, most of modern man’s moral and social guidelines had been jettisoned. He didn't know how to behave or even what to think. This was indeed a state of “nihilism”, according to Heidegger.
It may well be too easy to take a rather cynical view of Heidegger’s love for past eras:
“…Heidegger’s critique of technology and science...[may] sound merely nostalgic for a shadowy past of natural peasant respect for things and for the surrounding world…” (Marian Hobson, 1998)
Wittgenstein too had a similarly negative view of 20th century existence. He believed that Western culture had lost the cohesiveness that had existed in the past between different “forms of life”. The result of this was that generations of Europeans had suffered from a slow decay: as Heidegger also thought. Indeed Wittgenstein believed that many 20th century western Europeans essentially lived in an world without any culture. That is, it was an age in which everyone had nothing but private ends to work towards.
Wittgenstein, like many of his predecessors (as well as his contemporary Heidegger), blamed all the foregoing on the rise of the scientific-industrial “civilisation”. This was a civilisation within which there was a naïve and superficial belief that technological “progress” would solve our physical and spiritual problems. It was also a civilisation in which people had a somewhat superficial attitude towards philosophical knowledge.
Early Wittgenstein believed that much of his philosophy could be used as a solution to many of these inconsequential forms of thinking and acting.
Much of what Wittgenstein believed might well have been influenced by his reading, in his Tractarian period, of Spengler’s famous The Decline of the West (1918-22). In this once-popular book it is stated that in a strong society and culture there must be an equally strong “public space” in which there would be opportunities for people to share their beliefs and pursuits; as well as to allow less direct interrelationships between social areas as diverse as science, art, religion, social policy and so on. In this Spenglerian society, each individual happily contributed to many areas of communal interaction and organisation.