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Monday, August 9, 2021

Reading the Unreadable #7: Being and Time by Martin Heidegger


Anyone who's known me for a long time knows that I enjoy reading books on philosophy, both classic and modern.  Although I've studied logic and philosophy in university, I consider myself more of an enthusiastic amateur than any kind of serious student of the subject.  

My personal preference in philosophical schools has always tended towards the "can you eat it" variety, meaning the grounded sort of philosophies that can be of some practical use in daily living.  I'm aware that there are people who consider philosophy as a purely theoretical exercise, but it always seemed to me that from the classical times on down, the main thrust of the subject has been to find ways to live life better, more fully and more in harmony with the world. I have, therefore, always tended towards schools of thought ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Confucious and Lao Tzu down to Ayn Rand's Objectivism and (my current philosophical crush) Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics.  The philosophers I consider more esoteric, such as Epicurus, Nietzsche and Proust, I have read for enjoyment but without any serious expectations.

So it was that I approached Heidegger's "Being and Time" with the mindset that I have a grounding in this sort of writing and, despite it being on the list of the most difficult books to read, I thought I would navigate its content skilfully if not easily.

Hoo boy, was I wrong.

One of the most annoying things about the study of philosophy is the tendency of some thinking and authors to get caught up in semantics and ontology to the extent that the work loses any useful meaning and becomes self-absorbed to the point of being unable to express ideas clearly.  It's what led me to conclude at one point that philosophy is the most roundabout way of ending up exactly where you started.  Heidegger takes that problem to an extreme, with an absorption in a highly specific use of language that either a)almost immediately loses any practical meaning for the reader or b) is couched in a language that is understandable only to Heidegger and his two closest friends. Probably cats.

Reading "Being and Time" is an exercise in literacy and a test of patience.  Ideas and sentences recur and are reiterated in new contexts in so many ways that one is not sure if one has actually made any progress in the book, or if the publisher just reprinted early chapters later in the book. It is the literary equivalent of "The Song That Never Ends". Without the entertainment value. It is the quintessential existential work, in that by the end of it, if one endures that long, the reader questions whether anything outside the book, including the reader themselves, does, can or should exist. 

I mean, what can you say about a book that contains passages like this:

 "In understanding a context of relations, Dasein has been referred to an in-order-to in terms of an explicitly or inexplicitly grasped potentiality for being (Seinkonnen) for the sake of which it is, which can be authentic or inauthentic.  This prefigures a what-for as the possible letting something be relevant which structurally allows for relevance to something else.  Dasein is always in each case already referred in terms of a for-the-sake-of-which to the with-what of relevance.  This means that, insofar as it is, it always already lets beings be encountered as things as hand."

 Still awake?  Good.  That's from early in the book, before things get complicated. From there, it slips steadily off the linguistic rails and ends up ultimately as meaningful (for the standard reader) as the content of an ASMR video.  And just as sleep-inducing.  

If I gleaned anything useful from "Being and Time", aside from the joy of knowing that I need never pick up a copy of Heidegger again in my life, it is the origin of the the idea that 'horror is seeing something approach" that I know from William Friedkin.  I could probably find you a chapter and verse reference for this, but I think it would be more fun to let you test your own patience in attempting to read this thing.  Otherwise, the only use I can think of for this book is propping up a table leg.

Up next, "Our Lady of the Flowers" by Jean Genet.  Things can only get better from here, can't they?

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