Which Is A Very Important Element Of Early Twentieth-Century Music Understanding Heidegger’s Notion of Dasein – Part 1

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Understanding Heidegger’s Notion of Dasein – Part 1

“There is music in the midst of desolation/ And a glory that shines upon our tears.”

Laurence Binyon, For the Fallen (1914).

Contemporary Western philosophy is divided in two main branches: continental philosophy and analytical philosophy. The former developed many movements or fields like phenomenology, hermeneutics, Marxism, existentialism, structuralism, postmodernism, etc. The latter studies mainly language, truth and logic. To the followers of analytic philosophy, philosophy ought to be restricted to the analysis of language, especially to the study of meaning. On the other hand, the most persistent feature of continental philosophy is the commitment to the questioning of foundations. Despite the vast range of themes, we can say that subject and truth are the two big themes which have dominated the contemporary philosophical discussion.

A survey of the history of continental philosophy reveals the name of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) as one of the most innovative thinkers of the 20th century. Like Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, Wittgenstein and Adorno, Heidegger was a critic of modern culture. Writing in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918), he tried to understand the intimate relationship between ourselves and world through the study of the nature of being. Heidegger believed that the entire philosophical tradition was misdirected. As Heidegger sees it, Western philosophy from Plato to modern times has been preoccupied chiefly with entities or things of the world, without seeing that the more primordial fact is the very existence of the world. In other words, the Western philosophical tradition has forgotten the “question of being”, the Seinsfrage.

George Steiner observes that the leitmotiv of Heidegger’s task was the question formulated by Leibniz: why is there something rather than nothing? In that sense, Sokolowski notes that Heidegger formulates his task on classical terms and shows profound knowledge of the history of philosophy. In fact, Heidegger was a philosopher which always had an eye on the history of philosophy. His work represents a constant dialogue with historical sources. Besides, it was Heidegger’s deep conviction that Germans inherited the philosophical mission from the Greeks. Our aim in this essay is to sketch out a broad picture of Heidegger’s thought in order to deal with the account of Dasein.

For Heidegger, the central mystery is not the knowledge, but the Being, the existence. So that, he emphasizes the importance of understanding what is “to be” in the world and not “to know” it. Heidegger was mainly interested in the question that has escaped the consideration of philosophers throughout history, to know: what is Being? Or in other words, what does Being mean? Heidegger wanted to define our place in the world, since Being is the most fundamental aspect of life. In truth, the question of being was formulated by Aristotle and had been a preoccupation to the medieval Scholastics. So, what is the novelty of Heidegger’s approach? Heidegger notes explicitly that his way of questioning being is more original than the metaphysic way. Surely Heidegger rejuvenated the study of the nature of Being by means of the phenomenological reflection. Now recall that Heidegger worked with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) at Freeburg University. Husserl is the founder of twentieth-century phenomenological philosophy. Saying in a few words, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience, or consciousness. Earlier in his career, Heidegger was attracted by Husserl’s phenomenological call: “back to things themselves”. That is, the attempt to describe things and experiences without metaphysical and theoretical speculations.

Phenomenology is entirely dominated, or at least its first phase, by the modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. In Husserl’s perspective mind or consciousness are taken as a self-evident starting point for any account of reality and that is a common tenet in Kant and German Idealism. In fact, Husserl’s phenomenology is grounded on the Cartesian method of phenomenological reduction also referred on the literature as the Cartesian way (chemin cartésien). Either way, we will see that Husserl’s phenomenology is not a kind of neo-Cartesianism. For now, it suffices to say that Heidegger created an original method, the ontological phenomenology, working in opposition to the main ideas of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Christopher Macann observes that Heidegger’s break with the phenomenological tradition represents a “quest for concrecity”. In the same way, Ernst Tugendhat observes that the question for the meaning of Being represents a radicalization of the phenomenological thematic, which was possible only through a methodical breakage.

By the time Heidegger appears on the intellectual scene in the 1920s, German culture was completely disoriented. In effect, the post-First World War era in which Heidegger wrote reveals a period of deep reflection about the end of German cultural and imperial hegemony in Europe. As a consequence of that defeat, there was the creation of the Republic of Weimar (1918-1933), which was the first truly democratic state in the history of Germany. In philosophy, following the tradition of elaborating big systems initiated by Hegel, thinkers like Ernst Bloch and Oswald Spengler wrote between 1918 and 1927 extensively about utopia and decadence. The horrors of the war were reflected in the cultural despair of this period. Artists were trying to create an ideal world. They were angry with the destruction inflicted on Europe in the name of patriotism. Surely the destiny of man became a current issue. The necessity of a renovation of man was in the air.

According to Karen Leeder, after those disastrous events German writers like Rilke, George, and von Hofmannsthal rejected the spiritual impoverishment of modern living and sought redemption in a transcendent realm. This is not all. At the outbreak of war, the movement known internationally as Dada or Dadaism embraced a quest for a human language completely new, which could express the desolation and frustration found in that epoch. German Expressionism also aimed at creating language and world anew by the creation of new forms. Significantly, the German language was fully open to such renewal. This is because after the war German language sought a breakage with its past. Judging from this viewpoint, Heidegger’s proposal of reopening up the question of being and his new philosophical vocabulary may be viewed as a response to that situation. George Steiner tells us that the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal questioned the adequacy of the old words; he was skeptical about the possibility of communication and believed that words had no more meaning. Surely Wittgenstein and Heidegger heard attentively von Hofmannsthal’s question. This is one reason why Heidegger wrote in a sort of German-Greek idiolect. Another reason is his desire of starting genuinely at the beginning with a vocabulary uninfected by earlier theorizing.

With Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Heidegger is one of the most important critics of the classical period of German philosophy known as German Idealism. It is true that Heidegger was influenced by both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Basically, Heidegger’s philosophy is a discourse built on two elements: a criticism of the traditional notion of subject and a reconstruction of language to permit the understanding of Being. Heidegger’s magnum opus Being and Time (1927) is a masterwork of artistic and technical skill, although the project as designed in two parts was not completed. It was a reaction against empiricist reductionism and transcendentalism which still dominated the philosophical research. This work represents Heidegger’s effort to bring a new understanding of ourselves and the world rooted in the phenomena of time to the core of the philosophical discussion. Heidegger tried to articulate by means of phenomenology his own field of ontological investigation. In short, Heidegger worked against two tendencies of the Western thought: the traditional metaphysics of Plato and Descartes and the ninetieth century positivism, including its later version known as the school of logical positivism.

Copyright: Marco Antonio Bomfoco 2009

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