Sunday, June 11, 2023


Time it was
And what a time it was
It was....

Thus begin the brief lyrics for the tune bookending Simon and Garfunkle's third album.

Bookends were what the Old Friends sat on a park bench like, occasioning Paul's "How terribly strange to be seventy."

 Not there yet, but close enough to know he was right.

So, it occurred to me, in the last post, that I have increasingly been doing what there I described, re-reading something that I read when young, sometimes in the original language, and not only remembering what I had forgotten, but seeing much new in it, and bringing a new understanding to it.  Thus with Hegel's Philosophie des Weltgeschichtes, now with Heidegger's Sein und Zeit.

Please don't misunderstand--I'm still over a hundred pages from China in Hegel.  This is the usual overreach.

But, as I've noted before (see two posts on August 8, 2014 and another on March 11, 2020) Martin Heidegger was a particular interest of mine in college, having finished up a philosophy major with an "honors thesis" (a kind of lengthy undergraduate paper) comparing some of his ideas to those of the English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead.  It's still the longest thing I've ever written.

Now the volume of Sein und Zeit I've just started I actually purchased in college before starting the honors thesis, but of course I relied almost entirely on the English translation, Being and Time, with a major assist from Michael Gelvin's A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time.

But why in heaven's name start the thing when there are so many reasons I may not want to or be able to finish it?  Partly, for me, it's a more significant "bookend" than Hegel.  And part of it is that odd dissatisfaction that this is something I've already read, already studied, but that I didn't really grasp it then, and what I did grasp I didn't really retain.   And he seems important enough to the course of my lifetime to make that effort.

Why?  Well, there is the attraction to what came to be called the existentialist tradition, conventionally attributed to the anxious cry of Kierkegaard, to the obsessions of Nietzsche, to the anguish of Unamuno, suddenly taken up analytically and set out in technical German by Heidegger--and then read backwards into Pascal, Augustine, and the psalmists.  As one who's been attracted to philosophy since I was able to ask questions it's always seemed the closest to the heart of things, not divorced from the great tradition starting with the Greeks, but presupposing it and asking, That's all very well, but what does that mean for me, for us, those of us who don't sit outside of it all, but are caught up in it, a part of it, who must live and die in it?

This is part of the paradox--all these writers who today are almost universally considered so difficult, so obscure, so elusive, are remembered because they are striving after what is arguably the  simplest, the most central, the most burning questions of the heart, all stemming from the stubborn remembrance of one's own existence.

I think of a wonderful passage from Fielding's Tom Jones.  Tom and his friend Partridge have been pressed into the English army and are marching to battle.  Tom, good-hearted and clear-eyed, exhorts Partridge to courage:  "Nothing can be more likely to happen than death to men who go into battle.  Perhaps we shall both fall in it--and what then?"  Partridge knows exactly:  "What, then? why, then there is an end of us, is there not?  when I am gone, all is over with me.  What matters the cause to me, or who gets the victory, if I am killed.  I shall never enjoy any advantage from it.  What are all the ringing of bells and bonfires to one that is six foot under ground?  there will be an end of poor Partridge."  He is perhaps not a model existentialist, but he does remember his own existence.  Tom, though he loves Partridge dearly, can't help but think of him as something of a coward.  Neither can we--but we see he has a certain point.

So, existentialism.  What else?  I have always had a certain attraction, not only to philosophy, but to Christian theology.  I don't know why; to me it's more puzzling that so many people don't.  But in looking at many of the most original twentieth century Christian theologians, the seminarian-turned-(conventional)-atheist Martin Heidegger seems to have had a decisive influence.  Bultmann knew him and corresponded with him throughout his career.  Rahner studied under him.  Tillich, like the other two, considers Heidegger the embodiment of the modern, and shapes his theology around his categories of Being and Existence.  Even Barth, whose landmark commentary on Romans was published shortly before Sein und Zeit, was so influenced by Kierkegaard that he and Heidegger come to look like intellectual cousins.

And then I guess there is the challenge.  Many not unintelligent people have waded into Sein und Zeit and found it unintelligible gibberish.  The old joke is that, before you translate it into English, you have to translate it into German.  Its hard going, and since Heidegger himself abandoned the thing before being near finished with it, there may be always the sneaking suspicion that he gave up on it as well.  ("Later Heidegger" is still a closed book to me, though I own a couple of volumes of essays that I may someday finish.)

I toyed with the idea of comparing it to Finnegans Wake, but the obscurities are really entirely different in nature.  Joyce is trying to obscure, trying to parallel the patchwork obscurity of life, of dreams, of the night.  And he loves to joke, and make puns, and use portmanteau words.  Heidegger is working as hard as he can (I am convinced) to make clear and intelligible something that is hard to express, maybe impossible, the working out of what it means to be.  Yes, I think at one point he did say something about his work being akin to a poetry of Being--but it's not.  Though Heidegger has famously pointed to Holderlin as a poet sharing his sense of Being, Der Ister does not in the least read like Sein und Zeit.

He starts off with his fundamental distinction of Sein and Seiende, of Being Itself from particular beings.  He is interested in the former, but recognizes that he can only get at it through the latter.  He wants to investigate a forgotten, pre-Socratic concern with what it means to be, and considers the focus of all Western philosophy on beings--things--or their totality--nature--not so much as misguided as premature.

Now Heidegger hardly can set out forgetting about the last 2500 years.  In fact he takes us through a brief history of our false starts, though Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Suarez, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Bergson.  But his program is explicitly destructive, and I have just reached his exposition of the method that must be followed to make progress--phenomenology.

Oh, and before I forget, he has also identified the being, the Seiende, whose analysis will be our focus:  Dasein.  Now Dasein in German is ordinarily translated into English simply as "existence."  But Heidegger identifies it as the being which I am, which, being the same as the investigator, is the natural one to investigate.  Or something like that.  It seems a little rushed, and that fact that the being being investigated is human being seems a little, well, anthropocentric.  Yes, human being is one I'm most concerned with, but human being seems rather a small part of Being Itself, and rather peculiar, and might possibly skew our results.  No matter, that is where we will begin.