Heidegger on Thinking 1.1


Following on from this enormously thought-provoking paper by Richard Swedberg on the sociology of thinking, I’ve decided to return to Heidegger for the first time since I was a philosophy student. I really struggled with Heidegger and ultimately justified giving up conditional on the promise that I would one day learn German and read the original texts. Suffice to say I’m not enormously confident when it comes to primary texts in continental philosophy in general and particularly not with Heidegger. But in the spirit of strong misreading I’ll give it a go with the aim of developing my own understanding of thinking rather than deciphering the truth of the text.

When I say ‘thinking’ I actually mean the craft of thinking. This is the frame through which I’m reading the text and, though it means I’m engaging in the slightly unusual practice of partially reading Heidegger through C Wright Mills, it seems to be giving me more of a purchase on a text by Heidegger than I’ve ever achieved in the past. It does also seem to accord with his own intentions. Heidegger’s invocation of craft, summarised by Swedberg, caught my imagination when I read it at the weekend:

A cabinetmaker’s apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not merely practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather information about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood – to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintain the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings are constantly in that danger. The writing of poetry is no more exempt from it than is thinking.  (pg 14-15)

I understand this relatedness as an attentiveness to the object, preserved in motion through our sustained engagement in what we are doing. It is not rumination as a prelude to action, such that we deeply ponder our plan before enacting it. The attentiveness towards the object is constitutive of our engagement, rather than being a phenomenological extra on top of our physical doing. In attending to the object in a sustained way, the practice is transformed. We enter into a ‘current’ and ‘maintain [ourselves] in it’ (pg 17) rather than standing over and above the object in pursuit of its transformation in line with a pre-existing schema. In doing so, we attend to the possibilities inherent in the object – not in the sense of voluntaristically choosing between them but rather responding to them as someone caught in the ‘current’ through our engagement with the object.

Much as the cabinetmaker attends to the potential ‘shapes slumbering with wood’, the thinker inclines “toward what addresses itself to thought” (pg 17). In the half hour I’ve spent writing this post thus far, I’ve noticed my attention be dragged away as the mailbox icon on my browser’s toolbar went from ‘1’ to ‘2’ to ‘3’ before I eventually gave in and checked my e-mail. I’ve now removed the button. Phenomenologically I feel pulled from the current, withdrawn from immersion in a task and once more aware of sitting at my desk, with coffee that’s now run out and a distressingly large list of things I have to do today. From past experience I’m aware that in a similar situation, as a to do list involuntarily stays flagged somewhere at the periphery of my consciousness, I’ll rush a piece of writing like this once I reach the half way point so that I can move on to the pressing exigencies of life. In such case I think I’m no longer responding to the potential forms within the ideas which are my object, closing down possibilities rather than opening them up.

I’ve written a few times this year about the phenomenology of blogging. I’m sometimes amazed at how quickly I can write if I sit down and write while the thought is live in my mind. There’s not an article or a post in my mind but simply a thought. It’s at the forefront of my consciousness and it feels different to abstract rumination. On these occasions, I find that writing I’m always pleased with spills out of my mind if I let myself attend to the thought that is pressing me for a response. As I described it over the summer: “when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world”. This is the experience I want to better understand. I can only do this with a keyboard. I’ve tried many times with pen and paper but my handwriting becomes unreadable and, as with writing in a document for myself, without the awareness of its ensuing visibility I don’t attend sufficiently to the elaboration of the thought(s) as I objectify them in writing. I simply externalise internal thought, with all its contraction and personalisation, which does not feel like it constitutes the creation of something. It just feels like I’m reiterating things which were already in my mind rather than creating something new, no matter how trivial or mundane that novelty may or may not be.

There are elements of this first lecture which I’m slightly confused by. The historicisation of our ‘still not thinking’ repels me. Not because of the history but because of the intellectual conceit I take to be inherent in making sweeping historical claims at this level of abstraction. Likewise I’m not sure if Heidegger’s repetition of this is a rhetorical device (given it’s a lecture) or if it is an expression of the gravity with which he feels this world-historical failure pressing down upon his soul. Perhaps it’s both. But I will persist because these lectures are thought-provoking and, as he says, “thought-provoking matter already is intrinsically what must be thought about” (pg 4). This is probably the most important statement of the first lecture from the perspective of my strong misreading: “what is thought-provoking, what gives us to think, is then not anything that we determine, not anything that only we are instituting, only we are proposing” (pg 6). This is the root of the experience of urgency I’ve described while writing, the particular experience of attending to an idea and elaborating it while it is still pressing upon you. This is the primordial reality confronted through the craft of thinking. I’ve been talking about mainly in terms of writing, largely as a consequence of my own proclivity for thinking-through-writing, but I want to avoid getting stuck in these terms. More broadly, I’d like to understand what is ‘thought-provoking’, what is ‘fascinating’ etc.

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