Sunday, October 25, 2009

Do You Know What You're Thinking?

My title question is not meant to be frivolous. It came to me after reading Carlin Romano's excellent article, "Heil Heidegger!" in the Chronicle of Higher education. Link here. For my own comments on Heidegger and deconstruction, see this post.

In his article Romano sets out to sink the reputation of a man who many consider the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. To the dismay of Heidegger's acolytes, Romano does it with ridicule rather than with argument.

He is right to do so. As it happens, Heidegger's thought is communicated more by fictional representation than by philosophical argument. It is presented as drama more than as philosophy. Heidegger is more involved with creating philosophical myths than with the work of reason.

This being the case, it should not be a surprise that Anglo-American academic philosophers have mostly ignored Heidegger, while literary scholars have adored and idolized him.

Martin Heidegger wanted to the philosopher-king of the Third Reich. He wanted to be Hitler's brain, as it were. His fate was to become the king philosopher of literature departments: progenitor of deconstruction, patron saint of multiculturalism, and presiding genius of critical theory.

After reading Romano's article, I strongly recommend that you read the comments. You will see therein that many Heideggerians are outraged by the attack on their sacred idol.

While Romano is trying to sink Heidegger, his cult followers are furiously trying to bale out his reputation. The more it takes on water, the more furiously they are working to bale him out.

If you had a problem with government bailouts, you will not be happy to see the way intellectuals are trying to bail out Heidegger.

But, why the outrage? Why the vigorous defense of a man who declared that the Third Reich was the best earthly embodiment of his philosophy?

Surely, many commenters are sorely offended at the notion that they have been duped. But it is worse than that. Romano is also following the argument of Emmanuel Frye's forthcoming book, to the effect that academic intellectuals have been propagating a mental virus, without knowing what they are doing.

Doubtless, they are immune to the kinds of actions that people who believe these things have taken in the past, but that just makes them the intellectual equivalent of what physicians call: carriers. They are passing on a disease without knowing it because they are not suffering the symptoms themselves.

This discovery does not count as good news.

So, how do you get people to think like Nazis? Simple, you tell them that if they learn to practice this kind of thought they will become bona fide radical leftists. Heidegger may have been a Nazi, they seem to be saying, but at least he wasn't a Republican?

If you want people to appreciate pogroms, you rebrand them as deconstruction. Instead of applying the technique to villages, you apply it to texts. Then, as a sidelight, you declare that villages are texts.

If you want people to believe in propaganda, thus to devalue the tradition of Anglo-American liberal thought, you convince them that there is really no such thing as objective fact or reality. If everything is propaganda, you need not feel any qualms about propagandizing your own point of view.

Ideas do not much care how they are transmitted. They simply want to grow and multiply. They want to be propagated. They want especially to stay alive.

The end of World War II seemed to spell the end of Heidegger's philosophical influence. As Karl Popper put it: "I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger."

Yet, under the aegis of French philosophers, Heidegger's reputation arose from the ashes of World War II. From there to American literature departments was not too great a leap.

Literature professors, looking to raise the status of their own discipline, were more than happy to hitch their wagons to a genuine philosophical star.

Then, in 1987 Victor Farias published a book entitled, "Heidegger and Nazism" that showed the deconstruction crowd that they had been lying in bed with a believing Nazi. For a full account of the turmoil caused by the Farias book and by the discovery that the patron of deconstruction in America, Yale Professor Paul de Man, had been a Nazi propagandist, see David Lehman's "Signs of the Times."

Obviously, it would not do. The great practitioners of deconstructions rebranded their enterprise as critical theory. This is best know for its assertion that reality, gender differences, the marketplace itself are merely social constructs. There is no reality, there is only the way we interpret things.

Reality is something we create. If we create it wrongly we should deconstruct it, or criticize it. We do not have to deal with it; we do not have to negotiate with; we can exercise our creative faculties and create it anew.

Are the theorists who promote critical theory merely carriers for Heideggerian thoughts? Are they the means through which these thoughts have gone forth and multiplied? And if so, is it about time that the reputation of Martin Heidegger was sunk, once and for all?

That is the wager that Carlin Romano makes in his article. I, for one, consider it well worth taking up.

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