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July 10, 2010

[2b2k] Understanding’s web

I’m on a mailing list that discusses the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Many years ago I was a fledgling Heidegger scholar, but now I am on the list strictly as a tourist.

Today someone posted: “If you don’t know German you don’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding Heidegger.” A few people posted immediately in reaction to the “dismissive” tone of the comment. I felt the same way, but then thought, hmm, this is an empirical question, isn’t it? List the people you think understand Heidegger best — or pick some other writer in some other language — and see how many of them don’t read him in his original language. There is something true about the dismissive remark.

But, there is something false as well. It draws too strong a line between understanding and not understanding. I obviously don’t understand Heidegger as well as the full-time scholars on the mailing list do. But, having studied Heidegger for several years of my life (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on him), I’m pretty sure I understand him better than most who haven’t studied him do. If we acknowledge that our understanding improves as we read and study more, we acknowledge that understanding doesn’t fall into only two buckets: understands or doesn’t have a ghost of a chance of understanding.

For the original comment to be empirically true, we’d either have to show that (a) there is a clear line between those who understand and those who do not (and that reading the original language is a requirement for getting into that first bucket). Or, (b) we could say that the commenter is actually talking about having professional standing as a scholar: You cannot claim to be a Heidegger scholar if you can only read him in translation. The first alternative seems to me to be ridiculous. The second seems far more plausible. The problems arise when someone applies the bright perimeter of professionalism to the messy web of understanding.

I certainly do believe that had my German been better — it was barely adequate at the time, and now has devolved into very basic travel glossary stuff — I could have understood Heidegger better. Likewise, better understanding the history of philosophy, knowing early 20th century German politics, reading Greek and Latin, and being conversant in German poetry all would have helped me understand Heidegger better. There is no end to what we need to know in order to understand the thought of another, because there is no such state as Understanding that excludes all doubt, excludes all errors, and excludes all others.

Finally, it’s not at all clear to me that if we list those whose understanding of a thinker we most respect, they will be in rank order based upon how many of the Professional Requirements they’ve mastered. Some of the best Heidegger scholars — and you can pick your own criteria of bestness — may be weak in Greek, weaker in German politics, but very strong in poetry. Others might have other sets of strengths and weaknesses. Not only doesn’t understanding necessarily correspond to the fields mastered, the community of scholars ameliorates the weaknesses of individuals by writing works that others read: A scholar weak on politics reads the work of scholars strong on politics. Understanding in this sense is a networked property, and a very messy one indeed.

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April 22, 2010

Heidegger film’s reception

A mailing list I’m on had a discussion about the movie “Only a God Can Save Us” (amazon) about Martin Heidegger’s Nazism. One of the contributors to the mailing list quoted a length from a personal communication with Jeffrey Van Davis, the creator of the film. I wrote to Jeffrey and asked permission to post the following lightly edited version (removing some of the comments that pertained to the person who posted it to the list), because I thought it might be of interest to others. (I have not seen the film.)

The film premiered in the Aula (auditorium) of Freiburg University on July 23 of this year. The response was phenomenal and I was invited back by popular demand to show the film again in Freiburg on October 21. The Heidegger family came and caused quite an incident. Hermann Heidegger kept yelling out during the film “Lüge, alles Lüge.” (Lies, all lies!”) and “nicht Wahr!” (“not true!”). People began yelling back at him to shut up. During the postfilm panel discussion which included Hugo Ott, Bernd Martin, Rainer Marten, Silke Seemann, Tom Rockmore and myself, Herman Heidegger insisted on coming up to the podium to speak. We said yes and even helped him up the steps to the stage. He is over 90 and recently had a serious cancer operation. He immediately began to attack the Freiburg philosophers and historians on the stage and myself for our lies and deceit. Things almost got out of hand with people from the audience yelling “Nazi” at Heidegger. After the discussion the Heidegger family descended upon me with all their complaints and criticism. I know Hermann Heidegger and spent over six hours with him doing an interview, but he wouldn’t allow it on film. He told me he liked the first part of the film but thinks that I came under the influence of Ott, Marten, and Rockmore too much. He told me that film was too one-sided and that outside of Alfred Denker there were no pro-Heideggerians in the film. I pointed out to him that Iain Thomson was in the film as well as Ted Kisiel. He doesn’t think you are pro enough Heidegger, I guess. … An interview of Hermann Heidegger which is in the Heidegger archive in Messkirch, I was not allowed to use. I do have a copy of it, however.

Frankly I could write a book about the city of Freiburg and how it has tried to deal with the Heidegger scandal, the whole Nazi past. There are powerful Freiburg families some affiliated with the university who have swept a lot under the rug in part because many members of these families were enthusiastic Nazis themselves. There were so many records and documents destroyed or stolen from the university archives, libraries, etc. Hugo Ott told me that many times files would be missing in the archive, yet he knew which families had taken them and he was able to get some of his information through these kinds of unofficial back channels. Anger, resentment, guilt and shame are alive and well among many in Freiburg. 60 plus years after the end of World War II, my film presentation and post film discussion at Freiburg University showed only too clearly how just below the surface these emotions are still boiling. I was surprised to see the vindictive, angry and sometimes out of control verbal attacks between the different camps in an audience of over 400 people. One man got so angry he left the Aula screaming and the audience applauded his exit. I have attended many academic conferences, film showings, etc and never experienced what I did in Freiburg. The response was so great that I was invited back to show the film again to an even larger audience on Oct. 21. Hermann brought more friends and allies and the discussion was just as lively as the first. Sorry, I begin to ramble. I have so many stories and anecdotes to tell from the many years I spent making my film. I interviewed over 25 people, each interview 2 to 3 hours long. I am now in discussion with a publisher about writing a book which would include all the interviews unedited with hundreds of photographs.

… I was an enthusiastic Heideggerian as a young man, but I have to tell you that based upon the interviews I have in my film and the research that I have done, I find it difficult to see Heidegger in a positive light. I know that you and many other excellent scholars have found Emmanuel Faye’s book to be shoddy, terrible, and down right bad scholarship…. I have recently finished reading it and I find it quite disturbing. Faye is also in my film and although one may find my film one-sided, no one can deny that the film is a good jumping off place to intense discussion of Heidegger and his thought.

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May 31, 2009

Utopianism: Threat or danger?

Shannon Bain has posted a long, thoughtful probing of Everything Is Miscellaneous and my defense of cyber-utopianism. It’s philosophical, serious, and generally right in its criticisms. He writes about my ideas in their philosophical context, as few have. I am very grateful for (and flattered by) this extended piece of clear-headed, morally-centered thinking.

His most telling criticism is (imo, anyway) that although he and I agree the Web is revolutionary, I assume the revolution will be for the good. Shannon worries that Cass Sunstein is right, and the Web’s openness and linkiness is really leading us to harden our positions, rather than opening up us to more diversity of thought.

My position has changed over the years on this, in part because I’ve had to the opportunity to hang out with folks at the Berkman Center. So, I now accept that the danger Sunstein points to is real. But, my reaction to this “echo chamber” argument is complex and confusing. I think (a) there are enormous challenges to evaluating the extent to which the Web is closing off thought; (b) the Web is probably leading us to be both more closed and more open simultaneously; (c) there is something wrong with the formulation itself; (d) the question probably mythologizes the degree of our openness in the pre-Web world. So, ultimately my position is: I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter too much because even if Sunstein is totally wrong (which he’s not), we’re still not doing enough to increase our interests and enlarge our sympathies. The Web won’t have this beneficial effect on us by itself; we must be ever vigilant and purposeful.

Shannon usefully connects this to my out-of-the-closet Heideggerianism. He wonders if I think cocooning (or, echo-chambering, if you prefer) “isn’t all bad”:

Maybe these cocoons of confirmation – these little webs of shared connotations and self-reinforced absolutist understandings, which I claim are negative aspects of a naturally biased humanity – are really what Heidegger’s beleaguered teacher Edmund Husserl called “lifeworlds:” the necessary and inescapable social, cultural and historical contexts within and through which we experience the world. Maybe so, but the problem is, these life worlds are hermetically sealed wholes of historical and cultural prejudice, incommensurable and unassailable. As Heidegger’s most influential student Hans-Georg Gadamer formulated it, prejudice – the historical, social and cultural “situatedness” we’re born into – is essential to Being-in-the-world. Outside of your lifeworld, your cocoon of prejudice, you simply aren’t… in the big metaphysical sense. Thus primordial prejudice – our cocoon of reinforcing ideas ever ready to disregard inconvenient or inconsistent “facts” – is the foundation of meaning in this Heideggerian sense.

Shannon’s right to see a connection, but I disagree with the conclusion he draws. I do strongly believe that we are inescapably thrown into a culture, language and history, and these determine much of who we are and how we thinkg. But, I don’t think that echo chambers are ok because of that. We cannot fully escape our context, but being a small-minded bigot who assumes that your beliefs and values are right simply because you believe them is not virtuous, wise, good, or acceptable.

This is, indeed, one of the reasons I think the “echo chambers” argument is mis-founded. The sharing of ideas, language, and values is essential to who we are. Without it, there is no culture and no conversation. But we are almost always in a complex dialectic of agreement and disagreement, identity and difference: We can only argue about something because we agree about so much already. So, in most arenas of life, we do better (as people, as a society) if we try to get past our own assumptions and sympathetically try to understand how the world matters to others. (FWIW, that’s what I found appealing about the academic study of philosophy. I saw it as a way to pry up the floor I was standing on, to see how many of the ideas I take for granted in fact have long, complex histories, and thus are not as “natural” and “self-evident” as I’d thought.)

(Also FWIW, I do think there are lots of areas in which asserting one’s agreement or identity has positive value, because it forms social and political bonds. But if that’s all you do, then you’re a small-minded nebbish.)

Shannon then tries to hang some anti-scientific beliefs on me, which I’m surprised he thinks I might hold. I don’t think science is just a Western superstition. Or whatever. But — and I’m sure Shannon agrees — I also don’t think science is the only way of thinking. It works at what it does. It doesn’t work at what it doesn’t work at. But, I love science. Sign me up for my flu shots!

Now, that doesn’t mean that every question can be settled, by facts, science, or by superstition for that matter. For example, in the piece Shannon refers to, I try to argue that the dispute among cyber-utopians, cyber-dystopians, and realists won’t be settled by facts because we are engaged in a political struggle, and the unknowable outcome of that struggle will give us the lens through we we look back and say “Hurray for the utopians!” or “Damn those utopians!” or whatever.

That criticism is toward the end of the piece, where Shannon then proceeds to argue against what I think is a strawman:

So, back to Weinberger’s utopianism. Remember that utopianism is the idea that the web is essentially good or for the best. Specifically that its native capacity to allow users to add metadata to content and make subtle, personal connections and relations is fundamentally and wholly positive.

Let’s drop the “wholly” from that last sentence. I never thought that the Web is wholly positive and I doubt I ever said it. (I am, however, quite capable of overstatement, so maybe I did. I am a writer with political interests, not a philosopher.) Shannon and I are closer than he thinks. He gives two alternatives to validate my utopianism. Either (says Shannon) I’m saying that we “Ignore the unfortunate facts about humans’ tendency to avoid disconfirmation…” or that we “embrace these tendencies as a prerequisite of authentic, human meaning.” I agree with Shannon that neither of these are acceptable. In order:

(1) I acknowledge our tendency to prefer the comfortable and closed. I acknowledge that the Web won’t magically overcome that. Rather, it is an unprecedented opportunity to work on overcoming it. Constant vigilance. And I think that may be a change in my thinking over the past decade. As I’ve said, I think the echo-chamber alarmists sometimes fail to acknowledge what sharing assumptions and values enables for us humans. But, my utopianism is not based on Shannon’s first alternative.

(2) I know ten years ago I thought “authenticity” was a good idea. But for the majority of the years since then, I’ve thought it’s a pretty bad idea. It does capture something that we want to be able to talk about — a country-western singer who grew up rich but pretends to be hardscrabble — but the metaphysics of authenticity is all screwed up…and within Heidegger it’s an unfortunately throwback to the essentialism he hated. (It did give philosophically-minded Germans a rationale for dying for their fatherland, however. Fucking Nazi.) I do think it’s good to acknowledge the inescapable effects of our birth, language, culture, history, family, etc. But acknowledging that doesn’t mean you can just settle into your prejudices. The reality is that we share our world with lots of people. They care about their lives and their world. If you reject that realization, you’re schizophrenic or evil. It’s our responsibility to always try to expand our circle of sympathy, to understand and care about how the world matters to others.

So, in what sense do I call myself a cyber-utopian? Applying that admittedly ridiculous term to myself is a political act. As I tried to say in the piece Shannon is commenting on, there are political consequences to these labels. I am a utopian because (in my view) it is useful to The Struggle to be one. Utopians remind us that the opportunity in front of us is epochal, and keep us from settling for too little imagination and hope. But the good the Web can do will not happen automatically, as we sit passively on our couches and let the Web work its magic on us. It will only manifest itself if we work tirelessly. My utopianism, as I understand it, is a denial of the sort of technological determinism that Shannon criticizes me for.

But, when you come down to it, I am indeed optimistic about the change we’re going through. It’s not inevitably or purely good, of course. And Shannon is completely right that I do tend to overstate the positive and understate the negatives. I tell myself that I do that for political reasons — there are enough fear mongers, and if they get their way, the Web gets restricted in ways I don’t want — but it means that I’m often writing a form of polemics. We are living through a “transvaluation of values,” and at this stage I feel a need to push on the door that’s opening. That undoubtedly means I need to acknowledge the risks and dangers more than I do, but I still want us to push on that door until it’s all the way open.

Thanks, Shannon, for your post. Truly. [Tags: ]

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