Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mark Wrathall: How to Read Heidegger

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy.

Mark Wrathall
How to Read Heidegger
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN-13: 987-1-86207-766-9 (pb), pp. viii + 135.

This book offers introductory accounts of several central themes from Being and Time and from Heidegger’s later writings. As is the custom in the How to Read series, each chapter begins with a selection from a primary source (in this case, an English translation of a primary source). Given the notorious obscurity of Heideggerian texts, Mark Wrathal can hardly be blamed for not really equipping his readers with the tools and background implied by the series’ title. At best his readers will be able to discern some kind of a connection between the quoted passages and Wrathall’s explanations.

The book opens with a programmatic introduction that treats the question of how Heidegger should be approached by today’s reader. Wrathall is tired of the analytic/continental split in contemporary philosophy. Following the lead of writers such as Hubert Dreyfus, he wants to present Heidegger as a philosopher who can speak to the analytic tradition and who can serve as a corrective to its overly scientistic tendencies.

The first six chapters are devoted to themes from Being and Time. Chapter one begins with a quick introduction to Heidegger’s phenomenological method and moves swiftly on to Heidegger’s vision of human beings as Dasein (entities for whom being is itself an issue) who can live in Eigentlichkeit, the authenticity achieved by Dasein when “it has become its own” (pg. 14). Although Eigentlichkeit does involve a kind of individual autonomy, Wrathall is careful to point out how Heidegger’s recognition of the limits placed upon our choices by the world contrasts with Sartre’s more radical view of a completely unencumbered human freedom. This leads naturally into chapter two, which describes Heidegger’s replacement of the Cartesian self/world dichotomy with the idea that Dasein is always already existing in a world. Heidegger insists that we do not relate to the world primarily as a collection of objects for our dispassionate observation, but rather we encounter the world as “that wherein all of our actions make sense” (pg. 28), a world containing (among other things) the immediately intelligible tools and materials with which we execute our projects. Unfortunately, Wrathall does not make it sufficiently clear to the reader that Heidegger is far from being a lone voice of anti-Cartesian dissent among twentieth century philosophers. Chapter three discusses how our moods and emotional attitudes inform our experience of the world, while chapter four concludes the discussion of Dasein’s world with an account of “understanding” and “interpretation.” In this context, these terms refer to our modes of grasping and making sense of the world, which are themselves integral to the practical business of existing in that world (as against purely intellectual theorizing about the world).

Chapters five and six complete Wrathall’s treatment of Being and Time with a return to issues of authenticity. First we are told about Heidegger’s das Man, the omnipresent “one” of “that’s what one does,” which represents the unquestioned societal norms that threaten the authenticity of the individual. Next comes an explanation of Heidegger’s dark insistence that one’s attitude towards one’s own mortality is essential for the achievement of authenticity.

The book’s remaining four chapters treat some of Heidegger’s most celebrated later essays. A chapter on “The Origin of the Work of Art” unpacks the claim that art reveals the truth about its subjects. The discussion of On the Way to Language deals with the way ordinary language serves as the orienting underpinning for the way we live our lives. Discussions of “The Question Concerning Technology” and “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” offer opportunities to explore Heidegger’s critique of modern technological existence.

All-in-all Wrathall has given us a quite readable and useful introduction to Heidegger’s thought. If only the Master himself had written so clearly! My only real qualm concerning this book is its nearly complete lack of critical perspective. While some pages are devoted to describing and denouncing Heidegger’s attachment to Nazism, Wrathall basically treats it as something of a tragic aberration, a terrible misapplication of a critique of modernity which is in itself basically sound.

Heidegger is the kind of philosopher who offers pronouncements rather than arguments. This makes it difficult to know even how to begin criticizing his work. By the time people manage to eke out meaning from his forbidding prose, they often have little energy left to consider whether what he says is actually true. As a result, expositors of Heidegger – especially those writing introductory expositions – bear a special responsibility to their readers to mention some of the main criticisms that have been directed against his work.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College
Akko, Israel

No comments: