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 …

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