Heidegger on Thinking 1.3

hIn the previous post I asked “what is one-track thinking”. Fortunately, Heidegger is kind enough to offer an answer (of sorts) in the next lecture. One-track thinking is grounded in one-sidedness. The sciences, claim Heidegger, “have infinitely more knowledge than thinking does” but they are nonetheless one-sided. The “sciences qua sciences” have no access to the “essence of their sphere – history, art, poetry, language, nature, man, God” (pg 33). So  that “historical science may thoroughly explore a period, for instance, in every possible respect, and yet never explore what history is” because it cannot do so (pg 32).

His point seems to be that sciences are concerned with states of affairs and, in their apparently all encompassing nature, can occlude those things which are not states of affairs that are the proper concerns of thinking. I’m surprised at his statement that this is a matter of “the essential nature and origin of its sphere, the essence and essential origin of the manner of knowing which it cultivates, and other things besides” (pg 33). Depending on how much weight is placed on the ‘other things besides’ and how the ‘essential nature and origin of its sphere’ is construed, this has an oddly anthropocentric tenor. I assume he means much more than that sciences are bad at asking “what is Physics for?” (etc) but I’m not sure what this something more is exactly. Another instinctive reaction I had to this was to ponder how a concern for states of affairs can preclude an engagement with the conditions of possibility for knowledge of such states of affairs. But that would be to impose a Bhaskarian slant on things which is patently inappropriate. I suspect the most accurate* reading would be that the ‘essence’ is a matter of modes of relatedness e.g. “the manner of knowing”.

The apparently all-encompassing nature of science, its seeming applicability to everything, means that this one-sidedness can come to appear as a fallacious many-sidedness… “and when man no longer sees the one side as one side, he has lost sight of the other side as well” (pg 33). Heidegger sees the manifestation of this in a uniformity of thought, entrenched by the manner in which “every newspaper, every illustrated magazine, and every radio program offers all things in the identical way to uniform views” (pg 34). The one-sided view which occludes the ‘essence of things’ has “puffed itself up into an all-sidedness which in turn is masked so as to look harmless and natural” (pg 34). This is what allows one-track thinking to entrench itself:

For it is only on the plane of the one-sided uniform view that one-track thinking takes its start. It reduces everything to a univocity of concepts and specifications the precision of which not only corresponds to but has the same essential origin as, the precision of technological process. For the moment, we need to keep in mind only that one-track thinking is not co-extensive with the on-sided view, but rather is building on it even while transforming it. (pg 34)

It is against a backdrop of the ‘one-sided uniform view’, in which we accumulate knowledge about states of affairs while fundamental questions about their essential conditions are rendered ever more obscure, that ‘one-track thinking’ takes root. The ‘univocity of concepts’ is an interesting phrase. Is Heidegger talking about positivism here? As ideology and sensibility rather than meta-theoretical standpoint? In his invocation of the ‘univocity of concepts’ and ‘precision’ he seems to point at the impulse towards fixity and closure: the erasure of ambiguity in the name of precision, the shutting down of spaces of thought rather than their opening up. Everything becomes concerned with positive knowledge about states of affairs. Anything to the contrary is seen as nothing more than it’s absence – it’s positive knowledge we have yet to acquire.

Yet this takes us away from what is ‘thought-provoking’. As Heidegger says, “insofar as we are at all, we are already in a relatedness to what gives food for thought” (pg 36). This I think explains his complicated attitude towards cultural pessimism. On the one hand, his account is clearly a pessimistic one in at least some sense:

Devastation is more than destruction. Devastation is more unearthly than destruction. Destruction only sweeps aside all that has grown up or been built up so far; but devastation blocks all future growth and prevents all building. Devastation is more unearthly than mere destruction. Mere destruction sweeps aside all things including even nothingness, while devastation on the contrary establishes and spreads everything that blocks and prevents. The African Sahara is only one kind of wasteland. The devastation of the earth can easily go hand in hand with a guaranteed supreme living standard for man, and just as easily with the organized establishment of a uniform state of happiness for all men. Devastation can be the same as both, and can haunt us everywhere in the most unearthly way – by keeping itself hidden. (pg 29-30).

So while the entrenchment of one-track thinking in technological society risks for him not only destruction but devastation, the prevention of future growth, it does not sever our “relatedness to what gives us food for thought”. His point is not “that we are no longer thinking” or “that we are not thinking at all” but rather that we are “already on our way toward thinking” and “on our way within thinking” (pg 30). He wants to get beyond “pessimism and optimism, both, together with the indifference and its variants which they support” because they all “stem from a peculiar relatedness of man to what we call history” that has now become utterly habitual (pg 32). Instead he wants us to turn towards that which is ‘thought-provoking’:

These things will give us food for thought, if only we do not reject the gift by regarding everything that is joyful, beautiful, and gracious as the kind of thing which should be left to feeling and experience, and kept out of the winds of thought. Only after we have let ourselves become involved with the mysterious and gracious things as those which properly give food for thought, only then can we take thought also of how we should regard the malice of evil. (pg 31)

*Given I don’t believe in the need for an ‘accurate’ reading and am slightly skeptical about the notion itself, my tendency to think in terms of it is bemusing me. I’m not attempting an exegesis, which the category of accuracy would be appropriate to. I’m engaging with the book and evaluating this in terms of accuracy/inaccuracy seems an obvious category error to me.

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