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The Heidigger Problem

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So between comments and e-mail I got a lot of feedback on that last one that amounted to, “well, MY kind of writer is nice.  It’s that other kind that isn’t.”

As a matter of fact, thatisn’t true.  Among “storytellers,”for instance, there have been some notable pricks, including both Maugham and Hawthorne, neither of whom was in the least bit interested in changing the world.  Some writers who were passionately interested in changing the world–Orwell, for instance, and Ralph Waldo Emerson–were actually, by all accounts, unusually decent human beings.

One of the reasons we like naratives is precisely he fact that they fix he moral chaos of the world.  In narratives, heroes may have flaws, but justice is always done, and an evil skank is never a saint in her professional life.

If you want to know just how strongly we cling to our wish for a world that is morally cohesive, consider the response to a book of mine, now very far in the past, that was published under the title Dear Old Dead.

Not my title.  Don’t get me started on the early titles.  Really.

Anyway, the central character in Dear Old Dead is a physician by the name of Michail Pride, who chucked over a Park Avenue practice to open a clinic in Harlem with the help of a group of Augustinian nuns.  He is a truly remarkable man.  He works ceaselessly and at gteat hardship to himself to bring free medical care, and first class care, to people who would otherwise be reduced to emergency rooms and really bad doctors.

There’s just one thing–he’s not only a gay man, but a gay man with a complete obsession with sex in glory holes.  And he’s got AIDS, which of course he would have–but he’s still going to glory holes, which means he’s still infecting other people.

So what is Michael Pride–a saint or a piece of moral crap?  I’d say that what Michael Pride is is more realistically drawn than most fictional characters.  In the real world, it just isn’t true that anybody is ever a “good person” in every way, and my guess is that somebody who is spectacularly good in some ways will be spectacularly bad in others.

But Micheel Pride would have been even more realistically drawn if I’d given up the glory holes and simply made him petty and meanspirited in everyday life.  Because that’s more realistic, too, than what we normally get from fiction.  In fact, it’s the most realistic of all. 

It’s a good question, though, in terms of real life–what part of the human being should we count as definitive in our jedgments of him?  When, if ever, are we justified in rejecting a writer’s work because of what he is or has been in life?

Fiction may be the easy case here.  Fiction creates a world of its own, and lots of writers seem to crate that world on autopilot, so it relly doesn’t matter if Hawthorne was a racist, misogynist jerk, Hester Prynne is feminist enough for practically anybody, and a strong enough call for the rights of individual conscience aainst the pressures of conformity.

Science might not be too dificult a case, either.  Two plus two equal four no matter who discovers it.  Even if it had been Hitler who had first presented the world with the heliocentric solar system, the merits of the case for that system would not be weakened.  Science is supposed to be about the data, and the data are the same for everybody.  Liberals and conservatives do not get different answers to the question of the validity of the germ theory of disease.

Even so, ad hominem is the first of the logical fallacies for a reason.  Human beings are loath to give it up.  What do you mean it doesn’t matter if he’s scum of the earth?  If he’s scum of the earth, nothing he says can possibly be tue!

Francis Bacon was a nasty little man, a world-class opportunitst who took favors from people and then cheerfully threw them to the wolves as soon as the political winds changed.  He also laid the foundations for the scientific method, and the world has een immeasurab;y better because of the movement he started. 


Consider another kind of writer–the writer on philosophy.  Philosophy is ethics and politics as well as metaphysics.  In fact, almost nobody does metaphysics any more.  And seemingly obscure branches of philosophy can have enormous impact on history.  Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, what it means to say we “know” something, whether we can “know” anything at all.  It’s not just academic, whether we understand the world as being really out there or just a construction of our own minds.  It really matters what the rules of evidence are, and not just in courtrooms.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Hegel was the worst thing that ever happened to Western Civilization.  It was Hegel who apotheosized history in such a way that made both Naziism and Communism not only possible, but inevitable.  If you want to know why so many secular people think that those two movements were religious, not “atheistic,” go read Hegel.  It’s fairly clear.

But the philosopher that has had the most impact on Western philosophy in this century, the one whose insights have generated the most comment, and engagement, in the field and out, is Martin Heidigger.

He’s the counterexample to the old saw that academics will allow a Commu8nist anything but conservatives absolutely nothing.

Of course, Heidigger wasn’t a conservative.  He was a Nazi.  Literally  He was a member of the Nazi party.  He joined after the persecution of the Jews started, so he was not blind to what was going on.  His former student and longtime lover, Hannah Arendt, had to flee to New York to escape being placedin a concentration camp.  Heidigger sailed serrenly through the war, overseeing the expulsion of Jews from his university, hanging on to his position to the very end–and never, not once, apologizing for it afterward, or even really explaining himself.

And yet, after the war, his reputation was rehabilitated, his career was excused–he was only doing what he had to do to keep his job, people said, as if craven ambition is supposed to be a mitigating factor–and he became the foundation of a whole set of philosophical, literary and historicall movements, from that old saw moral relatiism to structuralism, deconstruction, and constructivism.

I really don’t expect my universe to be morally coherent.  I know that many atheists are more generous and upright than many Christians and that many religious people are more intelligent than people who do not believe. I knwo that there are lots of intelligent and compassionate Republicans and lots of stupid and selfish Democrats.  I know the world is not a narrative, no matter how much we would like to make it one.

But there is a part of my head that says philosophy–and that offshoot of philosophy which is intellectual religion (think Thomas Aquinas here)–is trying to tell us how to live, and looking at how well the philosophers themselves were able to live is a good place to start to judge their usefulness to the rest of the human race.

But then part of me remembers Saint Paul.  The spitit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  We often understand what would be the right thing to do and lack the whatever it is to carry it out.

Okay, I have to admit it.  In spiteof the silly nonsense about women, I often rather like St. Paul.

Written by janeh

December 15th, 2008 at 10:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Heidigger Problem'

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  1. The whole knot of ideas around judgement and forgiveness is very difficult to untangle. The contemporary solution is to refuse to judge at all – like the excuses made for Heidigger – but I can’t help thinking that there are circumstances – lots of them – in which a refusal to judge others causes or allows outright evil. If you don’t judge, you can’t choose which way of living to follow by observing and judging how others live, and although you don’t need to forgive since you don’t condemn, you also have no comeback if the person you are refusing to judge continues with anti-social behaviour.

    I think that people are even more complicated than you say. It’s tempting to think that if a philosopher has ideas that lend themselves to a good life, the philosopher himself will exemplify his ideas. But that never seems to happen. Or perhaps it very rarely does; after all, none of us know what goes on in all parts of anyone’s life, not even our own relatives, and it is possible that some of the very admirable people we know are admirable all through. They aren’t the type to be pleasant to co-workers and then go home and kick the dog and curse out their spouse, and they don’t even slip from the straight and narrow in a minor way once every year or so.

    People want others to be consistent – maybe that is just part of the desire for a satisfying story with good and bad people, or maybe it’s a desire for honesty. In spite of our knowledge of our own inconsistencies and faults, we think there’s something a bit dishonest about someone who claims to believe in respect for all humans and then insults a waiter or refuses to hire a black worker. We call it ‘hypocrisy’ and despise it.

    And yet, how much hypocrisy is simply a failure to live up to one’s own standards? I might have developed a fine philosophical system based on treating others well, but I won’t live up to it. Sooner or later, I’ll lose my temper, or misinterpret a situation, or interpret it all too correctly, and forget all about forgiveness and respect for others.

    This is perhaps a bit different than a philosopher who proposes ideas that lead, for example, to infanticide. His ideas will have far more influence than mine. I think some of them enjoy the intellectual activity of developing ideas and are rather startled when they find some people taking them to their logical conclusion. I’ve sometimes wondered if at some point Martin Luther wasn’t a bit startled at the results of his proposal of some topics for discussion!

    But I can also visualize a philosopher who compartmentalizes – he is convinced absolutely that , for example, infanticide is acceptable and mixed relationships aren’t, but in his own life, he doesn’t kill off his own infants, and marries someone from another religion or race. Maybe that’s just human inconsistency; maybe it’s the arrogance of someone who thinks my baby, my wife are different. Rules are for other people.


    15 Dec 08 at 12:59 pm

  2. I’d have said there was a fair bit of narativium to be found, though by all accounts if one searches for perfect people it’s going to be a long hunt.

    As you say, the truth of science has nothing to do with who pronounces it, and the fiction-writer’s universe is arguably self-contained. But the financial advisor who tells me to buy stocks while he buys CDs with his own money is suspect to say the very least, and some philosophers and political theorists are very much in that category.

    I think it’s worth distinguishing between men or women who set a high standard for all and in one area or in one instance fail to adhere to that standard, and those who conduct themselves by a different standard across the board. In the latter case, the philosophy may or may not be consistent or beneficial, but the endorsement by the philospher is worthless.

    For the rest, I will stand by my middlebrows–but only mine. I never claimed Hawthorne,


    15 Dec 08 at 7:26 pm

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