The Masochistic Pleasure of Mourning a Tradition, Composing, 17/12/2014

Martin Heidegger appears a couple of times in my Ecophilosophy manuscript, and I edited the last half of chapter two today, which revolves around how he influenced environmental moral philosophy. Of course, Heidegger influenced one entire side of the disciplinary parallelism of the last century of philosophy.

He demands your absolute attention and obedience. No
wonder I don't like Heidegger.
His work has an unfortunate gravity to it. I remark when I first discuss him in chapter two that it is a difficult task to bring Heidegger into any philosophical discussion without it soon becoming all about Heidegger. Nietzsche wrote disparagingly of the spirit of gravity that appears in too much Western thinking of his own time (and later times as well), a powerful despair that brings forces and currents from far away spiralling down into its whole. Heidegger embodies such a spirit of gravity, possibly the greatest in the Western tradition.*

* I’d venture that Jacques Derrida offers a similar gravity, thanks to the density of his language and the hypnotic power of the cyclical aporias out of which he builds he arguments. But Derrida found his most powerful gravity when he was channelling Heidegger’s themes, carrying on a detailed post-mortem after his predecessor’s diagnosis of philosophy’s death.

Heidegger’s influence in environmental philosophy is amorphous. He’s often talked about by writers and activists informally, but never a figure of analysis. No one declares themselves a Heideggerian in the typically very left-wing communities of environmental philosophy and political activism (I wonder why?). But the basic idea in his critique of technology is profoundly insightful, even if its surrounding conceptual framework can be utterly hateful and contemptuous of human variety in a profoundly terrible sense.

The roots of technology go back a long way in Western culture, according to Heidegger. He thinks they only go back to Plato, thanks to his veneration of the pre-Socratic sage philosophers. I actually think the key attitude finds its origin in the early days of hominid species, maybe even in the imperatives of the most vestigial forms of self-consciousness. It is to see the world as a resource: all your thinking is ultimately oriented to working out different ways to use the world. Heidegger, and the more contemplative of environmentalist philosophers and activists, just want you to see it.

This insight led to Heidegger’s uptake by environmentalist philosophers. But it can only go so far. Environmental philosophy’s origin as a self-conscious sub-discipline lies in activism, and Heidegger’s thought includes a pervasive quietism. The actions of people cannot save humanity. “Only a god can save us.” Only the movements of nature itself, and a people’s readiness and capacity to be moved in the correct way by nature, can drive genuine change. 

For a writer who uses martial metaphors as much as Heidegger when discussing the practice of philosophy, the man’s work provokes a feeling of powerlessness. Here was a man who saw the entire history of the discipline and tradition of writing and thought, Western philosophy, as having been in decline almost from its very beginning, the downfall having begun with Plato and Socrates. Heidegger’s own era, in his view, was the aftermath of the final crash in the work of Nietzsche.** Just as the language and life of the Greek culture in the era of Anaximander revealed being itself in a moment when people could be perfect conduits of nature, so were the language and life of the German culture in the era of Heidegger ready for a new beginning.

** Another reason to despise Heidegger as much as he surely would have despised you: he treats Nietzsche as a crashing end, rather than the glorious new beginning that so much of his thought was. 

Instead, there was the crash of the Nazi era, and the growth of environmental catastrophe. Since Heidegger held such stringent beliefs about the impossibility of most peoples in most eras to think being, when the critical moment passes, there is no chance of salvation anymore. He spent his career chasing false gods, mourning lost opportunities, and pining for a future deliverance beyond any of our controls.

I think he enjoyed despair.

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