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Towards the Definition of Philosophy by Martin Heidegger

Roger Caldwell reads some never-before translated lectures by an ambitious young Martin Heidegger.

The year is 1919. The 29-year-old Heidegger – who has successfully masked his origins as a theologian – is clearly out to make his mark. He has aligned himself with Husserl and phenomenology, but has yet to prove his own credentials as an original thinker. Being and Time is still undreamt-of, some eight years in the future. What are we to make of the young lecturer with the magnetic personality?

This book translates Heidegger’s earliest extant lecture-courses at Freiburg into English for the first time. These might be thought to be primarily of historical interest, especially where he discusses the merits and demerits of the then-recent works of neo-Kantianism or Lebensphilosophie. For most of us, the likes of Windelband, Rickert, Natorp and Lask are only names at best, and scarcely living forces in contemporary philosophical debate. Are these lectures for the specialist only then?

The answer can only be: No. Even at this early stage, Heidegger is already sufficiently Heidegger to be compelling (albeit only intermittently). For all the obscurities of these lectures, and their slightly inchoate nature, they clearly show how forceful and confident a thinker he was, even at the outset of his career. There is early evidence of his determination to bring philosophy back to what he sees as the essentials, including formulations of pronouncements that will, in time, become famous (or – to his critics – infamous).

He takes a lofty view of philosophy here as primordial thinking; as the science of universal being from which every other discipline of knowledge is ultimately derived (a view from which he was never to dissent). Therefore, he stands opposed to “the dominating influence of modern science”, and his much later stance that science cannot think in any other than a superficial sense is already implicit in the position taken here.

In his concern for what is to count as essential in philosophy – “every great philosophy realizes itself in a world-view” – we have the familiar arrogance and authoritarian manner of the later Heidegger, confident of his ability to rule on what is to count in philosophy and what is not. If the position itself is not one he will adhere to, the manner in which he pronounces it certainly is. Of ‘special problems’, he loftily declares, “such things do not occur in philosophy”. He sarcastically describes the problem of the existence of the external world as a ‘burning’ question, only to dismiss it a few pages later as not a problem but an absurdity. If one here thinks of G.E. Moore’s famous refutation of idealism by holding out his hands as evidence that there are at least two things in the universe, the arguments given by Heidegger strike somewhat deeper, and are ones that will go to the heart of Being and Time.

Heidegger takes the path of repudiating the primacy of the theoretical attitude. For him, we are never in the position of experiencing the sensedata of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

According to this view, all perceptual experience involves awareness of an appearance, regardless of whether it is an experience of a physical object. Moreover, all our knowledge of the external world is said to be based upon our beliefs concerning the sense-data that we experience. For Heidegger, in contrast, the theoretical attitude is secondary, being predicated on the existence of a preconceptual understanding that is the basis on which we conduct our day-to-day life. We do not see sense-data, what we see – at least as students and lecturers – are, for example, chairs, desks, windows. There is no problem of the external world because we are always already in that world.

He gives the example of the lectern from which he is speaking. He doesn’t see brown surfaces, arranged in such and such a way, from which he infers the existence of a lectern; what he sees is the lectern ‘in one fell swoop’ as either too high or too low, as convenient to his purpose or not. He sees it as already something meaningful. No doubt a farmer from the Black Forest or a Negro from Senegal would see it somewhat differently, but for the young Heidegger and his audience it is simply part of the environment (Umwelt) in which they live, it has the character of a world (Welt). Further, in a neologism which is to become characteristic of his manner, he turns the noun into a verb – ‘es weltet’ – that is, ‘it worlds.’

Such neologisms are needed in order to return us to the preconceptual understanding of being, whereas the language of scientific enquiry in which we are saturated is secondary and derivative. “If we were not at all first here, then there would be no such question,” is how he formulates it here. He interrogates also the nature of ‘es gibt’ (literally ‘it gives’ and equivalent to the English ‘there is’ or ‘there are’) – an interrogation that is to continue throughout his career. What is it, he asks, that is given in the formulation ‘es gibt’?

For a Wittgensteinian or Rylean, this might be an example of someone misled by language: why should we suppose that anything at all is given? What we have is simply an idiom without philosophical significance. For Heidegger this is a superficial approach. How is that we can say that there are numbers, there are submarines, there is still rain about, there is honey for tea when in each case the meaning of the ‘there is’ is necessarily different though the way of saying it is the same? For him (if not for most of us) this is evidence of a prereflective acquaintance with being which is hidden from what passes for scientific enquiry. Natural science, he will say, lies at the level of the ontic: it deals only with existants. Philosophy or primordial science is ontological; it deals instead with being, which is anterior to the existence of individual beings.

It is fascinating to see how much Heidegger’s mature thought and manner is already present in these early lectures; many of the motifs that later come to make up Being and Time lie ready to be assembled. True, there is much to come. The notion of the historical remains relatively undeveloped. Only in his lengthy review of Karl Jaspers’ Psychology of Worldviews (completed in 1921) do the essential notions of anxiety and care appear. There, he declares that the sense of human existence is to be obtained, “from its own basic experience of having itself in an anxiously concerned manner.” Only in ‘Phenomenology and Theology’ (which appears in 1927) does he – overtly at least – throw off his theological past, arguing that there is no such thing as a Christian philosophy, that the very notion is an absolute ‘square circle’.

These texts show us “the small Swabian magician” (Karl Jaspers’ words) already well on route to the work that is to make him famous and, therefore, are of interest in their own right. The book is a straightforward translation from the German Collected Edition. Its value would have been greatly increased by an introduction and notes to elucidate some of the inevitable obscurities. It is hard to see at this early stage (perhaps at any stage) why ‘Being’ should have a capital letter – in some places here the practice is positively misleading in suggesting a weight it does not (yet) have. Nonetheless, it is a welcome addition to the already substantial number of Heidegger lecture-texts available in English.

© Roger Caldwell 2001

Roger Caldwell is a poet, philosopher and literary critic who lives in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry, This Being Eden, has just been published by Peterloo Press.

Towards the Definition of Philosophy by Martin Heidegger, translated by Ted Sadler (Athlone Press ISBN 0 485 11508 5 HB)

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