Why Everyone Hates Heidegger, But Gives Frege a Break

No, it’s not just Analytic chauvinism, if that’s what you’re thinking.

Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism and his notorious claim that the Nazi movement represented a great “inner truth” are well documented. Those who claim any sort of intellectual lineage from Heidegger have all wrestled with the reality of his political life. For the Left-leaning readers of his work, such as the young Habermas, this represented a great moral and intellectual dilemma, if not casting doubt upon the Heideggerian project, at the very least requiring serious deliberation upon the consequences of his thought. For the intellectual historian Richard Wolin, Heidegger’s relationship to the Third Reich entails disregarding him entirely as a moral, ethical, or political thinker. For the pragmatist readers of Heidegger, such as Hubert Dreyfus, the former’s Nazi past is largely irrelevant – what is to be taken away from Heidegger’s thought is the overcoming of Cartesian dualism and the atomized, rationalist subject. For Dreyfus and his students, Heidegger is to be read as something like a philosopher of mind, the history of his participation in history’s most wicked regime as irrelevant to his work as that of a brilliant German rocket scientist who had either the misfortune, or moral failing, to be involved with the same movement at the same moment in history. For the pragmatist readers of Heidegger, his thought is to be read as a sort of scientific theory – works for which the validity or invalidity is independent of the character of its author.

This dispassionate, historically detached reading of Heidegger’s work, is similiar to the manner in which most readers of philosophy engage a thinker like Gottlob Frege, one of the founding figures of the Analytic tradition. As Frege’s claims are largely limited to logic and mathematics, his personal history as a vile anti-Semite (as well as a vile anti-Socialist, anti-liberal, anti-Catholic Francophobe) is of little relevance. In fact, most philosophers would agree that to attack him on these grounds is nothing more than a weak ad hominem.

But there is a certain sense in which the same cannot be said for Heidegger’s work. Unlike Frege, Heidegger is not simply concerned with logic or propositional truth, rather he makes a wide range of claims concerning what it means to live an authentic life, and as far as these claims are or have been associated with the legacy of the Third Reich, we are well within our rights to look critically – as both his Left wing admirers and detractors have – at where the consequences of his thought lead us, and whether the connection to this “inner truth” is really essential or an accident of history.

Criticism is Not a Grenade

I came of intellectual age after the Humanities had, for better or worse, made the transition from being a safe house for introverts who read Emerson and Sylvia Plath to the gathering point of tattooed and hipper-than-thou Foucauldians, Lacanians, Negriists, queer theorists, post-colonialists, and endless stream of hyphens denoting a combination of all the above and more.  Countless Liberal Arts Colleges across the nation had produced a generation of newly minted anti-foundationalists. Armed with a novelty of a Francophonic few ideas, they set forth upon institutions, texts, notions, and personalities that they had likely never cared for in the first place.

Basking in the self-congratulation of what they believed to be a higher level of  understanding as it concerned means through which power functions, they had little interest in Western Philosophy prior to the 20th century, save perhaps for Marx. Anyone or anything else in the line of thinkers, thoughts, and movements was treated with an attitude that was simultaneously ignorant and condescending. For these fledgling critics,  French “Theory” in the late twentieth century had struck a radical break in the chain of dead old white man – the Vienna Circle now as irrelevant as the Scholastics (a strange gesture, to be sure, to claim a break from the past while at the same time proclaiming modernity to be either a finished or botched project.) Though an ignorance of the history of philosophy or its central figures in such quarters was not in itself surprising, I was taken aback by the lack of understanding, or even basic knowledge, of the intellectual forebearers of the thinkers whom they celebrated and claimed as their own. Few of those I encountered had made any serious effort to engage with Nietzsche or Heidegger, despite the indebtedness owed to both men by “Theory.”

But the ignorance I observed, and it’s still very much alive today, was not accidental. It is a consequence of the manner in which scholars in the Humanities encounter the Continental tradition as a tool, something to be utilized in the class/anti-imperialist/anti-patriarchal struggle. Theory, almost always deconstructive, is a manner of obliterating the assumptions of one’s opponents, something that detonates his foundational artifice. Theory, as it is understood, is a grenade.

But Continental Philosophy, as a historically conscious tradition that necessitates self-reflection concerning its own methods and concepts, not only has more to offer than its supposed utility as a missile of cultural warfare. In fact, an understanding of Continental Philosophy in these terms will likely lead the activist-minded scholar astray from the truly radical implications of the thinkers and ideas that constitute this tradition.  We can see an example of this in the reception of Nietzschean genealogy. As it is commonly understood, Nietzsche primary contribution to our understanding is that of a means through which one can trace a widely held value judgement or belief to its intellectual origins (which, of course, in the eyes of the self-assured critic, always turn out to be pathological). Through this method, the critic exposes the clandestine racism, sexism, or desire for domination that underlie our beliefs. Now that the opponent’s intellectual bourgeois, patriarchal pedestal has been flattened, we might go about establishing a more moral, socially just world.

Setting aside the obvious fact that such an approach is liable to lead one into the genetic fallacy (because one has identified the origins of belief does not mean that he has refuted it), this approach ignores the most important consequences of the intellectual enterprise of a thinker like Nietzsche. Properly understood, it is not merely the moral and ethical norms of the politically and religious “traditional” segment of society that are uprooted by his overturning of the Platonic and Christian tradition in Western thought. In fact his critique goes far beyond the ethical and the moral in its scope.  Thinking and its representations in culture, from aesthetics to epistemology to metaphysics, is so permeated with the intellectual inheritance of Platonism and Christianity that the entirety of this thing we call “Western Civilization” is in crisis the moment it is understood that the philosophical justifications for the claims of these traditions are no longer tenable. This isn’t a crisis from which we can comfortably separate ourselves due to our understanding of the problem. We cannot afford ourselves a sense of superiority in comparison with the succession of dead thinkers  who may failed to apprehend the dilemma or even ask the questions from which it might emerge. Rather the problem is one in which we exist, precisely because it is in our time that this crisis shows itself – and it is very much our thinking, our values, and our center of meaning which is the last scion of the tradition under question. Nor are we permitted to take refuge in our own self-proclaimed “radical politics.” As Nietzsche recognized in the rise of the nascent Left-wing movements of late 19th century Europe, it does not follow that the “radical” edge of the political spectrum is anyway a break-from or a challenge-to the assumptions and values of the dominant culture, rather they are “radical” only in the sense that they are the most extreme realization of them. Far from being a threat to the cultural inheritance of the Occident, the recently 19th century Anarchists, were simultaneously a symptom and a product of it, embodying ressentiment and placing value upon world to come rather than the world at hand.

Criticism is not a grenade to be hurled, either across the battlefields of time or that of the political spectrum –  neither in the direction of our intellectual and historical ancestors, nor at those we find repulsive. Rather, it razes the field of battle entirely, dramatically altering the manner through which we decide which questions are thought to be meaningful and which battles are even relevant. To see it as weapon is to conceal its own purpose, and to ensure that beliefs and values from which one seeks to distance himself will be faithfully reproduced in his own actions and thinking.

The Fetishization of the “Authentic” and the Crisis of Authenticity

The 2000s to be sure, and perhaps the early 2010’s, were defined by a shift in the manner in which Americans thought about, codified, and lived social status. The structural girth of McMansions and the growl of high performance sports cars gave way to new means of signifying that one was in-tuned to the tastes of elites. Fair trade organic coffee, vintage furniture, and renovated homes in urban neighborhoods with “character” –  often areas abandoned a generation ago by middle class whites – served as the new markers of upper middle class sensibilities. ” The “authentic” had replaced the luxurious as a consumer preference.

My intention, however, is not to undertake an historical analysis as to the manner in which this shift took place. Nor do I intend to put forth a polemic denouncing the “co-optation of working class identity.” In fact, I will admit that there may be beneficial aspects to this shift in social preferences. A younger generation has the possibility to cultivate a forgotten aesthetic appreciation in areas such as furniture and decore, a desire to break from the stereotyped “national” dishes into regional traditions might reinvigorate culinary imaginations, a rejection of mass production and an emphasis upon skilled craft may empower the master artisan against the sterile empire of the strip mall.

Nevertheless, there is a consequence to this fetishization of what we call “authenticity,” and that is the forgetfulness of authenticity itself. Our most recent cultural inclination toward “the authentic” is such that it takes objects that supposedly possess “authenticity” as what Heidegger called the “present-at-hand,” that is to say as objects with predicates or properties (“This hammer is brown. It weighs 18 ounces. It is made of steel and plastic”). In this same manner a piece of furniture, an article of vintage clothing, a neighborhood is thought to be authentic – authenticity being conceived as something existing in the entity in an external world. It is thought that this entity is “authentic” in the same way the other is thought to be “fashionable.” Authenticity is considered to be an attribute of an object.

The implications of this manner of thinking about authenticity are two fold. The first is that, in the case of a product to be consumed, the “authentic” item is often either alienated from the original world of its involvement or that world is forgotten altogether. When on purchases an Amish table and (dis)places it in a completely foreign environment, it loses what makes it “genuine” or “authentic” in the first place – that is to say, not some property or essence of the table, but its involvement in a totality of equipment that people utilize in the most concernful, and most meaningful activities. The table is no longer the table of the family dinner, but a receptacle for derelict papers and gas receipts. Its being in the world, its meaning, have been lost.

The second is far more pathological. As “authenticity” comes to be considered as a property or attribute of an entity, particularly one that might be commodified and consumed in accordance with social preferences, “authenticity” is lost in the discourse of the They – the “every man but really no man” of Keirkegaard’s public, the voice of what “one” generally does, what “one” finds appealing. This is particularly pernicious, as it is this falling into the they-self that conceals Dasein’s (“Being-there” – Heidegger’s term for the kind beings we, human beings, are) ownmost possibility for being from itself.

Authenticity, properly understood in the Heideggerian usage of the concept, is the means through which Dasein responds in a unique manner to the specificity of its own situation, casting off the limitations placed upon it by the they-self – what “one does in this case.” If authenticity is reduced to a property of an entity as it relates to a judgement of taste, a social norm, authentic existence becomes even further concealed from Dasein.

The more we search for the authentic, the more it evades. The more we seek to acquire it, the less likely we are to embody it.

The Fallacy of the Argument-via-Identity

In recent years an old argument, though never very strong in the first place, has found new popularity, especially amongst a few who fancy themselves as cultural critics – the argument-via-identity. Sometimes it takes the positive form: “As a member of group X, my understanding (or knowledge) of this phenomenon that is related to group X is the correct one.” Sometimes it takes the negative form: “As non-X , your understanding of the phenomenon that effects group X is incorrect. On occasion, it is even prohibitive: “As non-X, you have no right to discuss phenomena that effects group X.”

This argument is often evoked during emotionally loaded issues, particularly those that concern historically oppressed and marginalized groups, and no doubt our politeness toward our interlocutors as well as our defense mechanism that is triggered when someone insinuates that we might be a racist, a homophobe, or some other kind of bigot coerces us into a denial of a (sometimes potential) accusation rather than confronting the weakness of the argument. However, upon any honest analysis , the argument in its positive form is nothing more than the argument-via-authority, in its negative form it is nothing more than an ad hominem attack – in either case a fallacy of reasoning. It would seem like a waste of time to take this argument to task on its own terms. After all, its manifest weakness seems obvious enough. However, because the ubiquity of the rhetorical gesture, I feel obliged to reveal the underlying fallacy of the argument.

In its most facile form, the argument takes the following assertion: “As a member of group X, I know what is to be X, and thus have a greater knowledge concerning issues related to X than non-X.”

However, the argument breaks down the moment that we reflect upon what constitutes identity. To claim an identity is to have certain beliefs – historical, sociological, linguistic – about who one is. These beliefs exist in relation to facts and may be either true or false, their veracity or falsehood existing independently of whoever asserts them. And, as beliefs, their truth value is always open to questioning. If the claim is that belonging to group X (putting aside for a moment the question as to who gets to claim this identity) provides one with knowledge concerning phenomena related to group X, then the validity of this knowledge claim itself is dependent upon the truth or falsity of the beliefs that constitute the identity X. Even if we accept the apocryphal assertion that there exists a relationship between one’s identity and the truth or falsity of a given claim, the argument results in the following problem:

I) Knowledge claim A is dependent on identity X

II) Identity X is dependent on knowledge claim/belief B

III) If B is false, X is not X

IV) If X is not X, A cannot be derived from X

Furthermore, if it is claimed that “as X, X determines the validity of all assertions that constitute X”, we witness the absurdity for what it is. Imagine, for a moment, someone claiming to have authority upon matters related to Serbian history due to his identity as a Serb, even though these historical claims are precisely what comprises his identity as a Serb. Arguments-via-authority are tautological, and the argument-via-identity is no different.

It is sometimes said that one’s identity better places him to understand the issues that effect the group with whom he identifies. With his identity comes experiences that he would not have attained had he not belonged to this group. Not only is he better positioned to understand the problems associated with his identity, he has an understanding that cannot possibly be accessed by someone outside of his group. This is a slightly more sophisticated permutation of the argument-via-identity, and for some, it may even seem like common sense.  However, a closer look at its underlying assumptions reveals a similar fallacy to the previous permutation of the argument.

In this case, what is under consideration is not so much the truth or falsity of a proposition as it is the validity of an understanding as it is comprised through experience. But if our experiences of the world, and subsequently our understanding of it, are inseparable from our beliefs about the world and ourselves, then we face the same regress as was found the weaker form of the argument. If our beliefs about the world and our own identity are false, then our understanding and character of our experience will be colored by false beliefs.

In either case, the argument-via-identity fails.

Racist “Logic” Analyzed

A few weeks ago, it came to my attention that a number of apologists for slavery defended their beloved institution with an unfortunately common, but nevertheless remarkable argument. The familiar line goes something like this:

“Black people should be thankful for slavery since, after all, they aren’t in Africa, with all of its problems, and they received basic shelter, clothing, and food in exchange for their labor.”

To me, the lapse in reasoning is even more shocking than the willingness to express such an opinion in a society that has rightfully become more sensitive to racism. To make the argument that black people in the Americas were “spared” the horrors of Africa – interstate as well as civil conflict, genocide, abject poverty – is a complete failure, or unwillingness, to recognize causality. The trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, the institutions which the racist attempts to defend “on behalf of” black Africans, are the very causes of that from which the slave or subject is supposedly delivered. It is, of course, a counter factual to imagine how the peoples and cultures Africa would have developed had the slave trade never occurred. To argue that the horrors of the 20th and 21st century “would have happened anyway” without the European encroachment upon the continent that created the arbitrary borders and unjust institutions that resulted in widespread ethnic and religious resentment is too weak and uncorroborated to take seriously.

If two effects are dependent upon the same cause, then there is a contradiction in the claim that these effects exist independently of one another, and that the cause of both might serve as means through which one effect is negated by the other. In the case of Europe’s incursion into Africa, it is inanity to say that anyone was “saved” by slavery or colonialism, since the question must be asked as to whether the African would be better off had the white man never made his presence felt at all.   

It is a wicked and strange reasoning that asks one to be thankful for the creation of his own suffering. The white apologist for slavery is more ethically debauched than (but logically equivalent to) the protection racketeer who asks his victim to be grateful for unbroken knee-caps while taking his life-savings.

“Respect,” The Mormon Experiment, and The Courage to Think

My previous post, in which I addressed the common appeal to “the sacred” that is often made either in defense of blasphemy laws, or as a means to dismiss criticism of religion, was not addressed to those who might employ this argument as a cover for their own machinations, but rather to the well meaning liberal, who confuses tolerance of people with tolerance of ideas or beliefs.

In our culture we are often admonished to respect the beliefs of others, but rarely do we reflect upon what this “respect” actually entails. Is it at all productive or defensible, either ethically or intellectually, to respect false beliefs, especially if these beliefs are dangerous? Isn’t the ethical imperative quite the opposite? Are we not morally bound to attempt to disabuse the believer of his falsehood, particularly if it consists of a violent delusion? I believe that our commitment to respect needs to be reformulated. We are in no way bound to respect anyone’s beliefs, especially if they are not attended with evidence. Rather we are only bound to respect the believer’s right to believe. Intelligent design, Holocaust denial, and the theories found on “Ancient Aliens” are completely undeserving of our respect, and we are normally unashamed to say so. In fact, our utter disrespect for this nonsense usually extends beyond the claims themselves to whoever is making them. A confrontation with this species of crackpot requires neither courage nor much thought. We are all experts when it comes to rejecting ill conceived theories when they exist safely outside of the mainstream or when their proponents are ostensibly vile racists and fascists. We are not so courageous, I’m afraid, when we face implausible claims that are held by completely sane (at least by most definitions) people in large numbers – the kind of people, we are told, that we are bound to respect.

Upon closer examination, we can see that the criteria that determines which beliefs are deserving of “respect” and which are not often rely upon the prejudices of custom and broad acceptance, the foundations of what we call “mainstream” , rather than reason. I will provide an example to illustrate my point.

Stimulate a group of generally “respectful” liberal intellectuals on the subject of Mormonism and suddenly you will find yourself in whirlwind of well-founded disrespect. They will remind you of the implausibility of the occurrence of a revelation in upstate New York, Joseph’s Smith charlatanism, the supposed existence of the Garden of Eden somewhere in Missouri held to be fact by the faithful, and so on. Amongst themselves at least, most liberals are pretty honest about what Mormonism is – a documented fraud – and they won’t hesitate to have a laugh at it.

If you find yourself laughing it up at the expense of the Mormons with your liberal friends, you might consider performing the following experiment. Remind your mirthful liberals that there is no logical or scientific reason why a divine revelation is any more likely in ancient Palestine or the Arabian peninsula than it is upstate New York. After all it is only through the legacy of the Abrahamic religions, and the contingencies of history that put them at the for front of the collective conscience of a huge portion of the human race, that we consider the Middle East to be the “land of the great faiths.” You could remind your friends that, as the miraculous claims made by the Bible and the Koran, such as resurrection and human flight (without the assistance of helicopter, airplane, or any other flying machine) require a complete suspension of the laws of nature, the claims made by the world’s “great faith’s” aren’t all that more plausible than the ravings of Joseph Smith. And you might remind them that the fact that Smith’s assertions were largely greeted with incredulity in the 19th century, a time of relative literacy and skepticism, should encourage us to look back upon those miracles and divinely inspired events that occurred during the superstitious stupor of antiquity with a greater sense of doubt.

Watch as the laughing stops.

You will likely be told in response (probably rather dismissively) that the two situations are not analogous. After all, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been around for thousands of years, billions of people around the world adhere to them, and as global religions they encompass numerous longstanding cultures and traditions. Take notice of the rhetorical move that has just been made. The emphasis has been reoriented away from the assertions about the world that these particular faiths put forth, such as exclusive claims to truth, the existence of miracles and divine revelation (all of which, if you remember, served as the justification for subjecting Mormonism to such ridicule) to facts about the Abrahamic religions that are utterly irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the assertions being made. Clearly, to hold greater regard for a belief because it is believed by billions of people rather than a few million is a species of the argumentum ad populum (a fallacy that appeals to popular belief rather than evidence), to respect it due its longevity is to affirm the prejudice of custom, to appeal to the intellectual or artistic tradition associated with a particular belief is to confuse a judgement of the understanding (our judgement concerning an external, knowable reality) with an aesthetic judgement.

As far as their truth or falsity are concerned, the claims of the Abrahamic faiths do little better than Mormonism. Are we not justified, then, in proportioning our “respect” for these beliefs in relation to their plausibility? But this undertaking requires something that is in short supply. Courage. In a culture that consistently evokes the confusion that it is beliefs, rather than human beings, who are deserving of respect, intellectual honesty not only entails bringing the self-righteous disdain of the “mainstream,” but also transforming friends into enemies, potentially alienating not only the most venial, but also the genuinely sincere and goodhearted. Afterall, since these beliefs are widely held, you’re likely to hurt the sentiments of some good people along the way. It means that your enemies will feel justified in imputing all manner of views and positions unto you, political or otherwise. In the case of Sam Harris, it even means being labeled a “racist.”

The courage to think is the courage to be hated.

In Support of the International Day to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates: A Refutation of a Tired Argument

March 13, 2013, was a paramount date for Catholics around the world. It marked the beginning of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s papacy. As leader of the Catholic Church, he will assume a position of authority concerning ethical and spiritual matters that is unequaled by virtually any other religious leader in the world. But for those of us who do not determine our ethical lives in accordance with a largely discredited institution, March 14th rather than March 13th, should hold a greater significance. On March 14th we recognize not those who ascend to positions of authority, but those who dare to challenge it.

As you might not know, March 14th has been recognized as the International Day of Action to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates. Throughout the Islamic world, but particularly in authoritarian regimes such as Iran and the Western ally Saudi Arabia, countless individuals have been imprisoned for the crimes of thought and writing, of critical thinking and satire. Most notably, there is the case of Hamza Kashgari, who was arrested by Malaysian authorities after attempting to flee from his native Saudi Arabia following comments that he made on Twitter concerning the legitimacy of the prophet Muhammad. Despite the fact that Malaysia does not have extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia, Kashgari was deported back to his home country where he faces charges of blasphemy and numerous death threats. Nor is this disconcerting phenomena restricted to what we believe to be the Middle East’s most authoritarian regimes. In post-revolutionary Egypt, the activist Alber Saber Ayed faces three years in prison after an angry mob surrounded his house, prompting police to respond – not to the mob’s threats of divinely inspired violence – but the claims that Ayed was an apostate. Even in Turkey, with its tradition of secularism, the classical pianist Fazil Say has been indicted for the crime of “publicly insulting religious values.”

The concept of blasphemy serves a very instrumental purpose for those in power, not the least of which is that it sets boundaries to what is admissible in the public sphere and political discourse by making reference to “the sacred” – something that transcends politics. As Marx had noted, all criticism begins with the criticism of religion; the ontological assumptions that constitutes one’s notion of reality being the foundation for ideology of any kind. Related to this prohibition, we recognize the second, more vulgar utility that the charge of blasphemy holds – that is, the effect of killing two birds with one stone. Those who ask skeptical questions concerning something as foundational as our assumptions concerning the universe are also likely to question those in much more mundane positions of authority.

It shouldn’t surprise us that authoritarian regimes and their apologists should back and support blasphemy laws. Those in authority love nothing more than to preserve the argument-via-authority, which, at bottom, lies at the essence of what blasphemy laws are. What is more disconcerting is the support for restrictions upon free expression by those who usually purport to support those who have been marginalized by power in the name of the “values of the community” or the “identity” of those who might take a offense from a critical evaluation of their beliefs. It is not my aim to impute any ill intention upon those who employ this argument, rather my goal is to show that the argument itself is predicated upon fallacious thinking. It evokes prejudices in the faculty of judgement rather than reason, and thus cannot withstand rational criticism. We have all heard it before:

“Religion is sacred to billions of people around the world.”

This argument contains two fallacies, the first being the confusion between the intensity of belief that one might have in a proposition (and thus the sanctity of the proposition to the believer) with the truth of the proposition itself, the second is an example of the error in judgment that takes the fact that a large number of people believe a claim as evidence in favor of that claim.

But there is an even more insidious assumption behind this statement and its employment of the “sacred.” Though it might seem self-evident that simply because someone believes something deeply – and that this belief provides his existence with a profound sense of meaning – it does follow that it is true, it may be less obvious as to why this belief can and should be subjected to the most rigorous criticism. Are we not assaulting not just the belief, but the man – the very identity through which he understands himself and orients himself in the world? Is this not what it means for something to be sacred, not the actual veracity of the claim itself?

My response is that it is precisely the sanctity of the belief that renders the need to discover it’s truth or falsity all the more important. No one kills or dies for what he believes to be a cliche. It is precisely what is sacred to the believer, what is closest to whom he imagines himself to be, that inspires his actions in the world, whether they be wicked or saintly. White pride, Serbian nationalism, and Scientology may all provide a profound sense of meaning to their adherents, but it makes the content of their thoughts no more truthful, nor any less dangerous. Needless to say, these belief systems have inspired their followers to undertake actions that have had repercussions for those who do not share their convictions. The manner in which one identifies with a belief, far from being a reason to refrain from critique, is actually the greatest vindication of it – a proof of its necessity.

The same imperative that holds for the veracity of belief also holds for number. If a billion people hold a belief that might lead them to act in the world, then it becomes all the more important to seek the truth or falsity of it, as the sheer number of believers will ensure that the effect of this belief, positive or negative, will be felt throughout the world.

As well meaning as those who espouse this belief might be, it’s argumentation can hardly hold up to a critical analysis. Let it not be mistaken, it is the good intentions, not good argumentation, that has kept this argument going past its expiration date.