In his Debating Humanity, Daniel Chernilo compares the approaches taken by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to the question of thinking. Both began with the philosophical tradition’s opposition between thinking and action: in this sense it implies withdrawal in some sense, relative to a world of activity. However Heidegger saw this thinking as an activity for the chosen few. From pg 80:

For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is defined in terms of the fundamental realisation that thinking is exclusively to do with thinking itself. Thinking is the professional craft of the philosopher; the slow, painful and authoritative listening to the great minds of the past in a process that leads to understand the one idea that a genuine thinker may be able to develop over the course of a lifetime.

This is a radically slow conception of thinking. So slow as to preclude the vast majority of humanity from truly engaging in it. The human disappears in Heidegger’s conception of thought, as the irrelevant site through which thought occurs. His approach to thinking entailed that we leave out the thinker, as thought itself proceeds on a level which is entirely independent of the one who thinks. In contrast, Arendt casts thinking in a thoroughly quotidian frame as “the internal dialogue of a thinking ego that is directed to objects in the world”, ascribing to this “general anthropological capacity of stop and think” the ability of humans “not only to regain some control over their lives but to creatively envisage something that is new” (pg. 80). It is, as Chernilo puts it, “precisely the human quality of thinking that makes thinking worthy of attention” for Ardent (pg. 81).

What caught my imagination about Chernilo’s account is his contrast between the worldliness of Arendt’s conception of thought in contrast to the worldlessness of Heidegger’s. This distinction is one we could usefully apply to contemporary debates on distraction, distinguishing between what I think are two clear tendencies:

  • Constructing ‘distraction’ in terms of a lost past, contrasting the attentional commitment presumed to have once been possible with the fragmentation assumed to define the life of the contemporary mind. What was one slow has become fast, what was once quiet has become loud and human beings (or in some cases only ‘millennials’) are seen to have undergone a process of loss.
  • Constructing ‘distraction’ as a practical impediment to the capacity to withdraw from the world so as to reflect on it. Distraction is cashed out in terms of specific impediments to thought, inviting us to consider what withdrawal actually means and the socio-temporal conditions which can facilitate it.

If we reject the former in favour of the latter, it no longer seems plausible to frame ‘distraction’ in epochal terms. Perhaps more importantly, we can begin to explore the socio-temporal and socio-technical conditions within which we ‘stop and think’, as well as how we can individually and collectively exercise an influence over them. We must insist on worldliness in how we characterise the life of the mind. Or at the very least I should finally get round to reading this book I’ve intended to for years.

Another startlingly illuminating point in Retrieving Realism by Dreyfus and Taylor. At loc 665, they observe how Heidegger’s early work “undercuts another basic feature of the classical picture: that the primary input is neutral, and is only at a later stage attributed some meaning by the agent.” This is a familiar point but I’ve never encountered it stated so lucidly before. It has important connotations for how we conceive of digital distraction. Broadly, we could take two paths:

  1. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information to which they must attribute meaning, or forgo this with potential consequences 
  2. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information, which is already meaningful due to the relations of complementarity and contradiction which obtain between this novelty and already encountered variety (or forgo this with potential consequences)

The first view sees digital distraction as an information processing challenging. The second view sees digital distraction as an existential challenge. This has important implications for how we make sense of it sociologically.

hIn this lecture Heidegger’s philosophical claims come to be made much more explicitly, leaving me on more comfortable territory than in previous lectures. In order to proceed with the broader project of the series, he turns to the question “what is this anyway – to form an idea, a representation?” (pg 39). In addressing this question he intends to “leave the field of philosophical speculation behind us, and first of all investigate carefully and scientifically how matters really stand with the ideas that occur in living beings, especially in men and animals” (pg 40). However to do this ‘scientifically’ does not mean that this will be a matter of ‘scientific findings’. Such findings are important and correct but they still, for Heidegger, ‘operate within a realm’ which we must leave behind in order to address the more fundamental question at stake. This is not done “in the proud delusion that we have all the answers, but out of discretion inspired by a lack of knowledge” (pg 41). So what is an idea? It comes from the Greek word ειδω meaning “to see, face, meet, be face-to-face” (pg 41). In contrary to the representational understanding which has long prevailed upon the ‘field of philosophical speculation’, such as would see ideas as things we have in our heads, Heidegger wishes to reclaim the meeting involved here:

Instead we stand before a tree in bloom, for example – and the tree stands before us. The tree faces us. The tree and we meet one another, as the tree stands there and we stand face to face with it. As we are in this relation of one to the other and before the other, the tree and we are. This face-to-face meeting is not, then, one of these “ideas” buzzing around in our heads. (pg 41)

In making this claim, argues Heidegger, we “have leapt, out of the familiar realm of science and even, as we shall see, out of the realm of philosophy”. But in doing so we do not find ourselves in “an abyss”. Rather we are on “firm soil”. This is “that soil upon which we live and die”. It is “the soil on which we really stand” (pg 41). What I take him to be saying here is that the representationalism dominant upon the ‘field of philosophical speculation’ is fundamentally grounded in a process of abstraction from our day-to-day existence. We live and die face-to-face with things, not locked inside private universes forever cut off from a cold world devoid of meaning. This does not entail a denial of our physiology, after all “many things may take place in our brain when we stand on a meadow and have standing before us a blossoming tree in all its radiance and fragrance” (pg 42), but it is rather to insist upon asking:

While science records the brain currents, what becomes of the tree in bloom? What becomes of the meadow? What becomes of the man – not of the brain but of the man, who may die under our hands tomorrow and be lost to us, and who at one time came to our encounter? What becomes of the face-to-face, the meeting, the seeing, the forming of the idea, in which the tree presents itself and man comes to stand face-to-face with the tree?

When ideas are formed in this way, a variety of things happen presumably also in what is described as the sphere of consciousness and regarded as pertaining to the soul. But does the tree stand “in our consciousness,” or does it stand on the meadow? Does the meadow lie in the soul, as experience, or is it spread out there on earth? Is the earth in our head? Or do we stand on the earth? (pg 42-43)

The last question best conveys the essence of this: is the earth in our heads or do we stand on the earth? That question is perhaps the most concisely polemic affirmation of realism I’ve ever encountered. Returning to the example of the tree in bloom, Heidegger’s point is that we not “drop the tree in bloom, but for once let it stand where it stands”. Our thought “has never let the tree stands where it stands” (pg 44). This insistence that we recognise the being of things, our capacity to meet them as they stand, has implications for how Heidegger views scientific explanation which I’m unsure how I feel about:

For we shall forfeit everything before we know it, once the sciences of physics, physiology , and psychology, not to forget scientific philosophy, display the panoply of their documents and proofs, to explain to us that what we see and accept is properly not a tree but in reality a void, thinly sprinkled with electric charges here and there that race hither and yon at enormous speeds. It will not do to admit, just for the scientifically unguarded moments, so to speak, that, naturally, we are standing face to face with a tree in bloom, only to affirm the very next moment as equally obvious that this view, naturally, typifies only the naive, because pre-scientific, comprehension of things. For with that affirmation we have conceded something whose consequences we have hardly considered, and that is: that those sciences do in face decide what of the tree in bloom may or may not be considered valid reality. Whence do the sciences – which necessarily are always in the dark about the origin of their own nature – derive the authority to pronounce such verdicts? Whence do the sciences derive the right to decide what man’s place is, and to offer themselves as the standard that justifies such decisions? (pg 45)

Leaving aside my uncertainty about this passage for now, it seems that for Heidegger thinking involves a capacity for relatedness. We need to meet that which is thought-provoking so as to let it “stand where it stands”. The question “what is thinking?” is not an end in itself, rather it is a waymark we use to “remind ourselves of the way we are trying to walk” (pg 44). We are seeking to to take “our departure from a thinking whose essential nature seems to lie in the forming of ideas and to exhaust itself in that” (pg 45). This ‘traditional nature of thinking’, encompassing the formation of representational ideas about states of affairs, might be left behind if we “give particularly close attention to that stretch of way on which we are putting our feet” (pg 46).

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.

hAgain I find myself somewhat repelled, though perhaps with less justification than in the previous lecture. The second lecture opens with the pronouncement that “we modern men presumably have not the slightest notion how thoughtfully the Greeks experienced their lofty poetry, their works of art – no, not experienced, but let them stand there in the presence of their radiant appearance” (pg 19). However I do see the importance of what he is saying is lost here. As he puts it, “we are compelled to let the poetic word stand in its truth, in beauty” (pg 19). He cites Holderlin to elaborate upon this point:

Who the deepest has thought, loves what is most alive,
Who have looked at the world, understands youth at its height,
And wise men in the end
Often incline towards beauty.

What I understand him to be saying is that aesthetic response involves a relatedness analogous to that enjoyed by the cabinet maker in relation to the shapes ‘slumbering within the wood’. It is only through an attentiveness in our engagement with the object (the deepness of thought) that we can be alive to its reality, responding to it as it ‘stands in its truth’. Heidegger claims that “what the line tells us we can fathom only when we are capable of thinking” (pg 21). We can only learn through doing:

We shall never learn what ‘is called’ swimming, for example, or what it ‘calls for,’ by reading a treatise on swimming. Only the leap into the river tells us what is called swimming. The question ‘what is called thinking?’ can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept thinking, and then diligently explaining what is contained in that definition. In what follows, we shall not think about what thinking is. We remain outside that mere reflection which makes thinking its object. (pg 21)

This ‘mere reflection’ precludes the relatedness necessary to let an object ‘stand in its truth’. I think this is something akin to the Buddhist notion of Tathatā (“thusness”) which I’ve always understood, perhaps incorrectly, to gesture towards the reality of an object beyond symbolisation. We rarely encounter this quiddity because of our propensity for ‘mere reflection’: we encounter partial aspects, mediated through our intellectualised concepts and past experience, rather than the thusness of the object. But if we do encounter the reality of the object, its ‘reality’ as an object immediately reveals itself as a function of symbolisation. If we really encounter an object in its thusnessit simply stands in its reality in relation to other existents rather than as something independently self-subsistent.

Is ‘thinking’ in Heidegger’s sense a matter of cultivating attentiveness to things and our relation to them? Or am I simply misreading Heidegger through what might very well be a longstanding misreading of Buddhism on my part? I’m aware as I’m writing this (in fact I’m thinking about it) that textual analysis of this sort engenders a feeling of intellectual insecurity in me which runs completely contrary to my considered views about the point of analysing texts. I’m deliberately throwing myself into this book without consulting secondary texts and I’m aware that the insecurity would likely vanish if I were not doing this. But this strategy actually seems deeply appropriate to the book now that I’ve got started. Given I’m not, nor have any aspiration to be, a continental philosopher, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether I read the book ‘correctly’. Though does that mean I’m treating it as a resource to be mined* for insights? I hope not. I think there’s a middle ground between the two but I’m less than sure about what it is exactly and how to articulate it.

Another motivation for engaging with this text was my interest in Heidegger’s account of technology, which he begins to discuss in this lecture. However I’m confused by the distinction between technology and the essence of technology. I understand his argument that industrialisation destroys craft, in so far as that it preludes “the relatedness to such things as the shapes slumbering within wood” (pg 23). In so far as thinking necessitates an attentiveness to this relatedness then modernity will tend to preclude thought. But I don’t understand what he means when he says that “our age is not a technological age because it is the age of the machine; it is an age of the machine because it is the technological age” (pg 24). Presumably part of this distinction rests on his sense that we must avoid conflating the instances of technology (machines) with technology as such for risk that a preoccupation with the former obscures the nature of the latter. But what is the ‘essence of technology’? What is the ‘core of the matter’ which is not reached by the “economic, social, political, moral, and even religious questions” concerning technological labour?

I’m confused but intrigued by the prospect that we might “attain relatedness to what is most thought-provoking” (pg 25). The “listening closely” necessary for this means we must rid ourselves of the habit of “one-track thinking”: “track has to do with rails, and rails with technology” (pg 26). This one-track thinking is “one of those unsuspected and inconspicuous forms, mentioned earlier, in which the essence of technology assumes dominion”. But what is it?

Previous post about lecture 1.1 here.

*I originally typed ‘minded’ here. As Freudian slips go that was an interesting one.

h

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.