Thursday, October 21, 2010

Footnote to a Common, All Too Common "Explanation" of Seynsgeschichte

I find myself regularly marveling at the attempts, made by many an otherwise adept reader, to explicate Heidegger's understanding of the History of Being in a manner that inevitably ends up reducing the whole affair to a cultural historicism (sometimes even empirically ascertained!). What's worse, Heidegger's "idea about Western history" is depicted as one that is not even aware of its own vulnerability to the liar's paradox! Thus, either the question of how Heidegger himself would be able to 'access' the meaning of previous ages or the question of how he would be able to access the fact that he could not access such meaning often goes entirely neglected in such historicistic readings. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't insightful inquiries and honest work being done on Heidegger's seynsgeschichtliche denken, even in the abbreviated form afforded by the "blogosphere" (see, for example, the excellent William Koch's Philosophy Blog among others). Nor am I suggesting that the thought take only one form of articulation --indeed by definition, as it were, it cannot. But there is a persistent and often even crude misunderstanding of Heidegger's Seynsgeschichte that seems to me to have plagued its English-speaking reception, and it should be purged.

It is fortuitous, then, that even a reader who finds himself inept in the art of interpreting Heidegger carefully has been provided many passages in which Heidegger is nearly vitriolic in his appraisal of both "culture" and historicism. In Besinnung (1938-9), Heidegger writes:

   "Finally, the thinking in terms of values is the most superficial superficialization of Being as objectness...Domination of cultural consciousness and consequently domination of cutural politics pursues a growing consolidation of modernity in the direction of that which modernity as such pursues, namely, the forgottenness of Sein. The uprootedness of man does not consist in a certain shaping and particular degeneration of culture and cultural consciousness. Rather, culture as such is this uprootedness and indicates the severance of man's as yet ungrounded ownmost from history...Historicism is the total domination of history in the sense of reckoning with what is past in view of what is present, all in order to claim thereby once and for all man's ownmost as 'historical' --not geschichtliche. The domination of history will be overcome only through geschichte, through a novel decision and through an ever-first inquiry into the truth of Seyn."  (GA 66, pg. 147 in the English translation (poorly) entitled "Mindfulness").

Here it is quite obvious that historicism is not only being deliberately contrasted with Seynsgeschichte but that the latter is proposed as a manner of overcoming the former. What are people thinking when they try to 'describe' the history of Being as a succession of cultural understandings that are simply not governed by any overarching rationality? With such a description, one may have succeeded in offering an understanding of history that has lost --or rather simply negated --any resemblance to Hegelian Universal History, but they are equally (if not further) removed from Heidegger's Seynsgeschichte. As if Heidegger were speaking of a sociological version of Kuhnian paradigm shift. What could be more facile? (And, in fact, that is not being fair to Kuhn). It is perhaps well past time to take seriously Heidegger's insistence that in order to think the History of Being we must first of all understand that and how it is something yet to come, something which properly lies in the future (zukunft). The History of Being is no account of past cultures, practices, or even concepts. It is no account of the past at all.  Rather, as Heidegger reminds us in his widely read letter to Jean Beaufret, the History of Being lies imminently before us. It is the History of what has not yet been thought --and this now means: the way the unthought intiates and rules the very movement of History. What is still unthought: this criterion should be applied to all 'synoptic accounts' or 'explanations' of seynsgeschichte --not as a measure that can be replaced by or confused with the explanatory grounds of irrationality (say, the id or unconscious), but as a measure which always separates itself off from such explanatory conceptions by differing from them in a manner that relies on the future.