Interview: Why Heidegger?

Martin Heidegger is widely hailed as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century for, among other things, re-thinking the history of Western philosophy and for identifying a major gap in that tradition. Heidegger argued that the great thinkers--Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and Kant--focused too much on understanding the permanent thereby missing the significance of the temporal and historical.

The originality of Heidegger's thinking revolutionized contemporary philosophy, influencing such fields as psychology, history, art and architectural studies, theology and literary criticism. For an appreciation of Heidegger's work, we turn to Professor of Philosophy Richard Capobianco, author of the acclaimed Engaging Heidegger, in this extended version of a recent interview with Stonehill Alumni Magazine.

SAM: What is authentic existence for Heidegger?

RC: In his early masterwork Being and Time, he gives a rigorous analysis of how we are as being-in-the-world. In brief, to live authentically is to take up with ‘resoluteness' our radically finite existence, which includes what he calls our ‘thrownness' and our ‘being-unto-death.' That is, it takes courage for us to live well and live strongly even though we have no control over how we arrived in this world or how we depart it. In his later work, Heidegger also spoke about thinking as thanking--humbly celebrating that we existat all upon the earth, beneath the sky, in the company of other beings.

SAM: What's the implication of his understanding that being itself is not permanent or fixed?

: There are many important implications, and that is why his thinking has been so influential across the disciplines. Above all, we learn to accept the dynamic character of our existence, to embrace the flow and flux of ourselves and of all things. We come to understand that we are not simply in time, but that we aretemporal and historical through and through; even our stillness is a moving stillness. As in some non-Western traditions of thinking such as Zen Buddhism, Heidegger understands the ‘self' as a temporal phenomenon rather than as a time-less, unchanging ‘substance,' which was a central tenet in traditional Western metaphysics.

SAM: Explain Heidegger's insight on the limits of science in interpreting reality.

: This past semester, I gave a college-wide talk exploring this complex issue. On the one hand, Heidegger gives us the philosophical resources to affirm that science discloses something decisively important about things. On the other hand, he was deeply concerned that the scientific interpretation of reality has become so dominant in our contemporary world that we are increasingly losing sight of the ‘truth' of the poetic and humane interpretations of what is. In other words, not just the sciences speak to us about what is ‘true,' the humanities do as well.

SAM: Can you give us a practical example?

: Yes, the ‘truth' of a tree is made manifest as much by the poetic language of Robert Frost as by the language of ‘cells' and ‘photosynthesis.' Heidegger's lesson for us is that we must learn to live with a multiplicity of unfolding truths about reality.

SAM: What is unique about his perspective on art?

: Heidegger took note that ever since Plato, metaphysical thinking had demeaned or largely disregarded the work of art. Plus, in his own time, he observed that ‘aesthetics' had become preoccupied with technical concerns about craft or with the details of historical context. What he wanted to show was that ‘art,' fundamentally understood, is a ‘language' that makes manifest what is ‘true.' As he famously put it, ‘art' opens up a ‘world' in which the ‘truth' shines forth.

SAM: But Heidegger is not just talking about an opening to truth, he goes deeper?

: For him, the ‘world' thus opened up is always in tension with ‘earth,' which is his way of saying that in all ‘truth' that comes to pass there always remains a dimension of concealment and even untruth. Heidegger elevated the importance of art, and he saw in it a ‘saving power' that could lift us out of our increasingly technologized civilization.

SAM: Why has his thinking been so influential in the environmental movement?

: Heidegger worried that in our ‘age of technology' there is a growing tendency to view all that is as merely ‘stuff' to be used, and when done with, discarded. He did not deny the great benefits of technology, but he sternly warned against the growing ‘danger' of this ‘calculative thinking' that aims to master and manipulate nature and everything else.

SAM: Did he suggest a counterpoint to this danger?

: The antidote to this ‘enframing' outlook is what he called a ‘meditative thinking' that ‘releases' ourselves to things. In ‘releasement,' we allow beings to be; thereby, we give to natural things the space and freedom to be as they are rather than always dictating to them what they must be for us. It is this aspect of Heidegger's thinking that has been especially appealing--and helpful--to those involved in the green movement.

Engaging HeideggerPublished by the University of Toronto Press, Engaging Heidegger (April 2010) is a collection of essays that, in the words of William J. Richardson, the dean of Heidegger scholars, "shine by reason of the thoroughness of their textual foundation, the clarity of their presentation, and the simplicity of a relatively jargon-free style."