Last night I finished reading Martin Heidegger’s classic philosophy text, Being and Time. (That makes 98 books finished before the end of June 2021, which means I am on roughly the same reading pace that I was last year, but no one but me is measuring.) Heidegger’s mention of “falling prey” prompted me to write a recent post, which led to a comment by Slim Jim (whose blog I strongly recommend) that he would like to read some of Heidegger’s work. I was going to respond to his comment, but I think that instead I will share my impression of Heidegger with the world in general.
As a philosopher working in the first half of the twentieth century, Heidegger had a long tradition preceding him, one that had thoroughly inquired into many of the key questions that philosophy generally addresses. At the same time, many philosophical questions were beginning to be handed off to various branches of science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, and so on. Heidegger found himself returning to some of the questions that many people considered solved already in the work of Plato and Aristotle: what does it mean for someone or something to exist? What does it mean to speak of existence? Is existence a quality like size or shape or color? The study of existence (technically called ontology) opened new doors for Heidegger to explore. His entire career consisted of various approaches to the meaning of existence and how a definition of existence shapes all the other philosophical questions we might ask about ourselves and about the world around us.
For others inclined, like Slim Jim, to go online or to the library and tackle some of Heidegger’s work, I have four suggestions to keep in mind:
- Like most professional philosophers, Martin Heidegger used a carefully defined vocabulary in which some common words have very narrow and specific meanings. Other words you find in Heidegger’s work are used only by philosophers, and many of the words he uses, Heidegger himself invented. Philosophers do not write this way became they are trying to be difficult or to look smart. They do this so that, as they write, they say exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
- Not only is the vocabulary challenging, but the sentence structure is also more complex in Heidegger and in most other philosophers than it is in (for example) a typical novel or newspaper story or Reader’s Digest article. The reason for such a complex style of writing matches that of the difficult vocabulary: Heidegger and other philosophers are trying to make sure that they write exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
- Because of the difficult vocabulary and structure, the writing of philosophers such as Heidegger must be read slowly and repeatedly. Reading the same work five times is considered typical for the reader who wants to grasp what the writer is saying. (I will address this from a different angle in a few seconds.)
- When you have taken the trouble to learn a philosopher’s vocabulary, to adjust to that philosopher’s writing style, to read slowly, and to read that philosopher’s work several times, you may find that the philosopher’s conclusions are startlingly simple. Perhaps they even seem like common sense. This does not mean that the philosopher wasted his or her time spent in writing or wasted your time spent in reading. The philosopher may have reached a conclusion that you already believed, but the philosopher has taken the difficult road to reach that conclusion. The philosopher’s conclusion is not a guess; it is based on long and deep thinking, consideration of many other options that never occurred to you, and considerable caution to make sure that no false steps were taken at any part of the journey.
My senior year of college, I was one of a team of students who came early to campus to help orient the incoming freshmen. College orientation means more than standing in the quad and pointing east. (The term, however, comes from the practice of observing the sunrise at the beginning of the day, knowing that the sun rises in the east, and using that information to identify north, south, and west.) During that orientation weekend, I had ten or twelve freshmen sitting in my dormitory room where we had a scheduled visit from their faculty advisor. Standing in my room, leaning against my closet door, this professor told the new students that they should consider college a full-time job. It was not enough to attend classes and do a little homework; they should expect to spend hours outside the classroom reading the assigned work, researching and writing, and thinking about what they were learning. One of the points he made was that, to understand a book well, one must read that book five times.
After the professor left, the freshmen asked me whether it is true that they had to read their books five times to understand them. “It depends upon the book,” I told them. I reminded them that this professor taught philosophy, where the five-times rule is generally true. Other books might be grasped in a first or second reading. With many more years to consider the five-times rule, though, I have come to the conclusion that any good book requires and deserves multiple readings. The books of the Bible require multiple readings—the five-time rule is a worthy guide for the Bible. Great literature needs repeated reading. Many science and history textbooks need more than one reading before they start to make sense. In our busy, hurried world, most of us read a document (on paper or on a screen) only once. Even our own writing, we often read once and then click “publish.” Good writing merits re-reading. When we want our writing to be good, we must read it again and again, verifying that we have written what we want to say—no more and no less.
Two little things (aside from “falling prey”) captured my attention in the last part of Heidegger’s book. One was his examination of conscience. Normal people (excluding psychopaths or sociopaths) have a conscience, an inner voice that warns us when we are wrong. Heidegger asks what we call that inner voice when it persistently reminds us that we have been wrong: is that a “bad conscience” or a “good conscience”? Stop and think about that for a moment. As a Christian, I have an answer Heidegger did not propose: a bad conscience reminds us of our guilt and keeps on warning us we were wrong but offers no hope to change our condition; a good conscience also reminds us of our guilt but leads us to repent of our sin, to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and to trust his promise of forgiveness.
Dealing with the themes of being and time, Heidegger spoke about the items on display in a museum. We often say that we look at them to learn about the past. But, as Heidegger reminds his readers, we see them in the museum only because they exist in the present. Their meaning and significance may be altered now that they are displayed in a museum—they are not, in that sense, identical to what they were when they existed as everyday items in common usage. But they cannot bring us into their past because our being, our existence, our Da-sein, is seeing them only in the present, not in our personal past.
That’s enough deep thinking for tonight. J.