Monday, July 09, 2007

Martin Heidegger's Being and Time Intro

Martin Heidegger's Being and Time is one of the monsters of 20th century philosophy. Its influence ranges far and wide, and the extent of this influence is matched by the extent of its difficulty. It is an attempt to answer the stereotypical philosopher's question, "what is the meaning of being?"

This is the text of another assignment, just like the Theory of Religion posts. It was written for classmates who hadn't yet read Being and Time, so it shouldn't be too technical. This is only an introduction to roughly the first half of the book, since that was all that was assigned. Still, there's an awful lot of meat.

When I was thinking about how to begin this introduction, one particular difficulty kept coming back to me. Part of the reason this book is such a pleasure to read is the way the ideas move; the form and the content of Being and Time (B&T) reflect one another. We’ve seen this in other readings this year - for example, in the way Spinoza’s Ethics works in a geometrical fashion. Definitions followed by explanations followed by axioms followed by scholia; the form and the content work together. B&T has an entirely different set of internal movements. It is not a linear progression of arguments; individual chapters are not self-contained works that can be read on their own. My presentation won’t mimic that, of course. To try and compensate for this, I’m going to talk about three movements that take place in the text; I think being able to watch out for these movements will help you read it.

If one were going to spatially represent the overall movement of ideas in this book, it would have to be in the form of a spiral. Like I said, it’s not a linear movement, and absolutely nothing is self contained, like one might be able to say for Kant’s Critique. The part is the whole and the whole is in the part. If you only read the first half of a more typically structured book, then you’re just missing the end. You don’t know whodunnit, you don’t know why the cosmological argument for the existence of God doesn’t work, etc. etc. If you only read Division I of Being and Time, then what you’re doing is erasing half the spiral. There are all these little points that where its almost as if Heidegger stopped halfway through the sentence. I don’t say that to suggest a clumsiness or a fault, but to say that the book only works as a whole.

A second movement involves repeated demonstration of the ontological difference. I’ll explain that term below. Anyways, Heidegger very often takes a common concept; explains our usual notions of it, and then shows how that typical, common sense notion isn’t so much wrong as insufficient. For example, truth as correspondence; what exactly this “correspondence” is supposed to be is entirely obscure. So Heidegger moves underneath this to find the ontological basis. I’d suggest this offers a good way to read B&T for the first time; find the common sense notions that you already have, than follow Marty to their foundations. I’ll come to a few more examples later on.

Another movement in the text, the purpose of which I guess doesn’t become obvious until Division II, is the way the text is constantly reaching back and projecting forward. Heidegger is always either saying “remember when we said this? Now we’re going to retrieve this idea and modify it” or he’s dropping hints about the future of the book. It is worthwhile to watch out for this moments while you read, because they offer useful recaps of what has come before.

That’s my little preamble, and ever so subtle injunction to just read the whole freakin’

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