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Take the B Train

Martin Heidegger

by George Steiner
Viking (Modern Masters series), 173 pp., $10.95

On Difficulty and Other Essays

by George Steiner
Oxford University Press, 209 pp., $10.95

As George Steiner remarks, the name and the work of Heidegger are apt to evoke extreme and violently opposed reactions. To some he appears as a thinker of unique depth and power who points the way to the only kind of salvation that can be hoped for in a posttheological age. Others, and particularly those who have been intellectually reared in the tradition of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, see him as the embodiment of Teutonic pseudo profundity, a charlatan who peddles, in a rebarbative and barely penetrable idiom, a distasteful mixture of nonsense and banality.

Both reactions are intelligible and both are, to different degrees, exaggerated. Heidegger is both philosopher and preacher, metaphysician and prophet. In each role he is, up to a point, a genuine performer; he has—however opaque or distressing his way of saying it—something significant to say. The link between the roles is more questionable, though it is the supposition of such a link that must account, in part, for the enthusiasm of his wholehearted admirers; for, while an oft-told tale about how to live, about supreme values, may, in itself, be worth retelling, it seems to gain an extra force if backed by the authority of first philosophy, a disclosure of the ultimate nature of Being. The philosopher of modern times who wrote most impressively in this mode wrote also with a succinct dignity in comparison with which Heidegger often appears merely clownish; but Spinoza’s name does not figure in Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Following his phenomenologist predecessors and teachers, Heidegger draws a sharp distinction between, on the one hand, philosophical investigation and, on the other, all those departmental inquiries whose fruits make up the corpus of “human knowledge”: the natural and formal sciences and such empirical studies of man as psychology, anthropology, and history. On this point he is in harmony with one strong stream of analytical philosophy. His distinctive opening move is to declare that since it is we who hope, and we alone who can hope, to achieve philosophical understanding, such understanding in general must begin with the understanding of ourselves (of Dasein). In his words: “Philosophy is universal phenomenological ontology and takes its departure from the hermeneutic of Dasein.”

The point is susceptible of both a wider and a narrower interpretation. A wider interpretation would hold that while one can be guided and helped in philosophy, it is not a subject that can be learned; rather, all individuals and generations must start over again for themselves. It is plausible to hold that this is because what is in question is a kind of self-analysis, aiming at conceptual self-consciousness, at bringing to the surface our unreflective and largely unconscious grasp of the basic general structure of interconnected concepts or categories in terms of which we think about the world and ourselves; and, ideally, also of the finer substructures which fill the larger structure. In this sense, self-understanding can be seen not only as the beginning but as the whole of the philosophical enterprise.

Heidegger sees it differently: “We shall proceed toward the concept of Being by way of an Interpretation of a certain special entity, Dasein, in which we shall arrive at the horizon for the understanding of Being and for the possibility of interpreting it.” So this “special” investigation will take us only to the horizon, will do no more than bring the Seinsfrage, the question of Being, into view.

Here we have the clue to what is amiss in Heidegger’s thinking. It is indeed true, on a narrower interpretation of the phrase, that the correct understanding of ourselves, of the concept of a person, is not the whole of self-understanding in that wider sense I have just sketched. But it is a part of it, and an important part, and a part to which Heidegger makes a significant contribution. And in so far as ontology, the “question of Being,” is a genuine and substantial inquiry, it is precisely an inquiry into that comprehensive structure of which the concept of ourselves forms a fundamental part. If we refuse so to construe ontology and remain fixed and fascinated before the perfectly general question, “But what is Being itself?” then we can expect none but formal or trivial answers, however portentous we may be tempted to make them sound. Heidegger, it must be said, became fixed and fascinated in this way. And this is perhaps a part of the explanation of his sheering away from the analytical (or phenomenological) task and betaking himself, instead, to preaching and prophecy.

But before he sheers away, he has excellent and telling things to say about Dasein, about ourselves-in-the-world. His criticisms of some great predecessors are shrewd, penetrating, and fundamental. Descartes in particular—the only philosopher who is neither Greek nor German to whom Heidegger pays any measure of attention in Being and Time—is an obvious target. For Descartes, too, starts, or claims to start, his investigation from the concept of the self. But Descartes’s conception of the self suffers in the highest degree from that fatal tendency against which Heidegger so vehemently contends in the first part of Being and Time, the tendency to abstract, to separate, to treat the essentially complex as somehow compounded out of separately intelligible elements.

Thus, against the Cartesian conception of a res cogitans (“in the first instance,” as Heidegger mockingly puts it, “a spiritual Thing which subsequently gets misplaced ‘into’ a Space”), a thing whose essential achievement is theoretical knowledge, Heidegger argues that we are, on the contrary, essentially practical beings, purposive agents, involved in a world of objects our theoretical knowledge of which is secondary to our grasp of them as instruments of, or obstacles to, our purposes. Equally, our involvement with other persons is not something simply added to our essential nature, but an integral part of it; and our knowledge of others, and of ourselves as well, is, at its foundations, an inseparable aspect of our interpersonal transactions. Once the primacy of our roles, our “concerns,” as agents and as social beings, is understood, then the place of that less immediate kind of “concern” which expresses itself in the quest for theoretical knowledge can be understood as well.

At the same time the artificiality of much previous philosophy becomes clear. Thus, to Kant’s complaint that it is “a scandal of philosophy and of human reason in general” that no cogent proof has yet been provided of the existence of external things, Heidegger ripostes that the “scandal of philosophy” is not that this proof has yet to be given, but “that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.” Here he seems to anticipate Wittgenstein, as he does also in rejecting the softer notion of presupposition: “Even if one should invoke the doctrine that the subject must presuppose and indeed always does unconsciously presuppose the presence-at-hand of the ‘external world,’ one would still be starting with the construct of an isolated subject.”

Time and again, then, in the first few chapters of his major work, Heidegger fights against the wrong kind of analysis, the “splitting of the phenomenon” in such a way that

there is no prospect of putting it together again from the fragments. Not only do we lack the “cement”; not even the “schema” in accordance with which this joining-together is to be accomplished…[is] as yet unveiled.

He insists that what is basic (“primordial” or “underivable”) in systematic philosophy need not be simple: “the fact that something primordial is underivable does not rule out the possibility that a multiplicity of characteristics…may be constitutive of it,…equiprimordial. The phenomenon of the equiprimordiality of constitutive items has often been disregarded in ontology because of a methodologically unrestrained tendency to derive anything and everything from some simple ‘primal’ ground.”

There are good precepts here, not very darkly expressed and reasonably clearly illustrated in these opening chapters of Being and Time. So the way seems to lie open to a thorough and systematic analysis. But Heidegger does not take it. He sheers away; partly, perhaps, as I have suggested, because of the fascination of the empty question about “Being itself,” but more fundamentally, one suspects, for reasons of temperament.

The sheering-away beings just after the point at which he has been at pams to stress the inseparability of our understanding of ourselves from our understanding of our role as social, mutually communicating beings. There is an extraordinary irony, even paradox, in the form his evasion takes. He argues, in effect, that what is essential to our nature is also what falsifies it, makes us less than, or foreign to, ourselves. For it is precisely our involvement with others, our role in society, which introduces “inauthenticity,” a secondhand, second-rate conventionality, into our lives. We lose ourselves in idle chatter, in daily business, in absorption in conventional projects and small purposes, finding superficial comfort and reassurance in these distractions, but also suffering from a profound confusion, alienation, dissatisfaction. Thus Heidegger’s diagnosis of our “fallen” condition.

His positive recommendations are less clear. We are to be resolutely aware of our temporal situation between birth and death, resolutely and fully aware of the contingency of our origin and the inevitability of our end. Deliberately freeing ourselves from the buzz of “average everydayness,” we may, in moments of vision, through communion with nature, through art and, above all, through poetry, achieve our own authentic Being and an authentic awareness of, and responsiveness to, Being in general. Here we see that the notion of Being has taken on an entirely new and quasi-mystical tone, inviting a comparison, indeed, with the Deus sive Natura of Spinoza, but a comparison which makes us only the more aware of the contrast between the strict intellectualism of Spinoza and Heidegger’s fervid emotionalism; an emotionalism which assumes a more sinister form in the collectivist, nationalist note he sometimes sounds alongside the emphasis on art and poetry.

He sounds the nationalist note in another and more specific way. Apart from Greek, the original language of fundamental philosophic thought in the writings of the pre-Socratics (before what Heidegger sees as the perversion of metaphysics began at the hands of Plato and Aristotle), German alone is exalted as the truly philosophical and—what is the same thing—the truly poetic tongue. George Steiner writes of “the total inherence of his [Heidegger’s] meaning in German and in its linguistic past” and adds, acknowledging the highly idiosyncratic character of Heidegger’s own use of this uniquely qualified language, that “no aspect of Heideggerian thought can be divorced from the phenomenon of Heidegger’s prose style.”

If these things were indeed so, the claims of “Heideggerian thought” to universal validity or to any but a highly parochial interest would seem, at least, dubious. Indeed it is hard to think of more (unintentionally) damaging comments than those just quoted. But they are less than just. For some reasonably clear philosophical criticism and a reasonably clear “message” can alike be detached from Heidegger’s opaque idiom and his endlessly repetitive prose; and only those—they are not few—who are titillated or excited by obscurity will regret the dispelling of the fog. Of the value of Heidegger’s philosophical criticism something has already been said. What, then, of his “message”?

Here each will react for himself. Everyone of any sensitivity, one supposes, understands well enough the notion of inauthenticity and of secondhand, second-rate conventionality; and also has some acquaintance with those moments in which the world appears “appareled in celestial light.” These and other ingredients of Heidegger’s message have been dealt with often enough in literature, and often enough in styles less pretentious and more aesthetically appealing than that of the sage of Freiburg. But this is not all. To hold that inauthenticity is the primal condition of social man, for which there is no remedy except resolutely to confront one’s predicament and to have an acute awareness, transcending both practical concern and scientific analysis, of the dense reality of things—to hold this is surely to fall into one of the over simplifications of romanticism. It is as gross an oversimplification as those against which Heidegger contends, to some purpose, in metaphysics. It is to take just two aspects of a far more complex reality for the whole of it. There is more to human life and human nature than a sense of the numinous on the one hand and a blind and trivial busyness on the other. Many people, for much of the time, are seriously or lightly engaged in projects, enterprises, roles, or social relations which are not worthless, even if they are conventionally valued or generally approved. Our choice does not lie between being busy, insensitive gossips or exalted enthusiasts. We may, and should, for much of the time, be neither.

George Steiner’s treatment of this over- and underestimated figure is exemplary, or very nearly so. Only very nearly so, because he too shares, to different degrees, in both the under- and the overestimation. He admits, modestly, to lack of professional expertise in philosophy; and this doubtless accounts for his limited recognition of the large measure of good sense which is discernible in Heidegger’s strictly philosophical criticism. On the other hand, it is hard not to feel that Steiner overestimates the ultimate importance of Heidegger for philosophy and for the history of human thought in general. There is, after all, something absurd in the suggestion that he belongs in the class of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant. It is absurd because, in spite of the genuine critical insights to be found in Heidegger’s masterwork, the actual, detailed intellectual content that can be distilled from page after page of its cumbrous wordplay is simply too little; which is not to deny that, read as a preacher or a visionary, he may continue to be found impressive by some who like their sermons long and their visions dark. But these strictures are strictures on Heidegger rather than on Steiner. It is better that a thinker should have an oversympathetic, rather than an undersympathetic, interpreter; and Steiner’s short book, in its generosity of feeling and range of reference, is a continuous pleasure to read.

There is much pleasure to be derived, too, from the deeply conservative essays which Steiner has collected under the title of one of them, On Difficulty. The themes are various: Steiner discusses the different species of difficulty one may encounter in reading a literary text, particularly a poem; the variations in the habits of discourse as between different social groups, as between the sexes, as between the inner-directed and the public uses of languages. He traces, from Jane Austen through Flaubert and George Eliot to Norman Mailer, the evolution toward a total and regrettable explicitness of the idioms in which the theme of the erotic is handled in literature. He touches on the opposition between Whorfian and universalist views of language; discusses the structural unity of the Divina Commedia; and, finally, examines the place of the book in contemporary culture.

But throughout the variety of themes there runs a single, steady note, a note of lament; of lament for the decline of a once dominant literary culture, now overwhelmed by the combined hostile forces of mass democracy and modern technology. Steiner is a sensitive man and a devoted lover of language and literature who has perhaps read more widely in cognate fields than anyone else alive. But he is frequently betrayed by haste, by a passionate volubility, by a fondness for resonant or technical words or phrases which he parades, as an infatuated lover might parade his mistress, too often or in inappropriate places. He makes blunders which lesser, but more careful, men would have avoided.

In the very essay in which he refers approvingly to the ars memoriae of the Renaissance, he misquotes quite disastrously from Yeats, making the poet speak of love as having “pitched its mansion in the house of excrement.” He finds a conflict between Chomsky’s belief in the existence of “formal universals” of language and his disbelief in the existence, in general, of any “reasonable procedure for translation between…languages,” seeming quite to overlook Chomsky’s explicitly drawn distinction between formal and substantive universals. The expression “truthfunctions,” which belongs to modern logic, is ludicrously out of place in the following sentence: “We deal far more warily than did Dr. Johnson or Matthew Arnold with…the supposition that such practices as metaphor generate a system of ‘truth-functions.’ ”

Such blunders (of which examples could be multiplied), emerging from the incessant bubble of an over-rich vocabulary loosely employed, detract from, but do not destroy, one’s pleasure in the zest, the range, and the genuine passion of Steiner’s writing. If one’s confidence sometimes falters, it is largely restored at those points at which he does what he does best: which is, to exercise the function of the critic, reflecting on the works, or particular passages from the works, of chosen authors. I think particularly of a brilliant analysis of Lovelace’s fifteen-line poem beginning

I cannot tell who loves the skele- ton
Of a poor marmoset, nought but bone, bone;

of comments on some passages from Middlemarch; and of the instructive essay on Dante. At these moments his true sensitivity displays itself, his readings and interpretations are admirably just and illuminating, and his style purifies itself of the excesses to which he is prone when swept away by the current of cultural generalization or lost in the ivresse des grandes profondeurs.

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