The courtesy of clarity: a profound philosophical point can be stated in clear language
What Heidegger took reams of obscure prose to do, C.S.Lewis expressed in a few, clear paragraphs.
I have been struggling to get through Martin Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time. I gave up on my first attempt. Fortunately, I then completed reading Thomas McEvilley’s much clearer, and historically informative, magnum opus, The Shape of Ancient Thought: an examination of the history of Greek and Indian philosophy and the interactions between them. Re-attempting Being and Time, I found it still unnecessarily obscure, but somewhat more approachable.
It was more approachable because Heidegger is attempting to supersede the entire Western philosophical tradition by going back to pre-Socratic thinkers and their wrestling with question of what is, and what it is to be. Subjects that many Indian thinkers wrestled with. Hence reading a history of Indian philosophy (and its interactions with Greek philosophy) was helpful.
The shape of ancient thought
The Shape of Ancient Thought makes clear that Indian philosophy had much stronger rational (even rationalist) traditions than Western philosophers and historians of ideas have often assumed while the Greek philosophy had much stronger mystical traditions than Western philosophers and historians of ideas have typically been willing to admit or be comfortable with.
McEvilley also makes a powerful case for each set of traditions having influenced the other. At the time of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, there was precisely one state between the Greek world and the Indian world: the Achaemenid Empire, the first mega-empire. As the Achaemenid rulers patronised philosophers and sages (both Greek and Indian), and attracted them to their court, this made it relatively easy for ideas to flow each way.
Moreover, trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley dates back many centuries prior to the Achaemenid Empire. Similarly for trade between Mesopotamia and Egypt and, particularly via Phoenicia, the wider Mediterranean world. There were plenty of vectors for Mesopotamian ideas (e.g. Babylonian astronomy and mathematics) to flow both east and west, influencing both Greek and Indian philosophy.
Later, in the person of Alexander the Great (student of Aristotle) and his armies, the Greek world violently intruded on the Indian world.
McEvilley traces all sorts of convergences between Greek and Indian philosophy, including levels of specificity in ideas that make happenstance convergence implausible. Embracing the reality of the mystical in Greek thought, and the power of rationality in Indian thought, makes tracing the interactions both easier and much more vivid.
In his introduction to Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, philosopher William Barrett writes:
A German friend of Heidegger told me that one day when he visited Heidegger he found him reading one of Suzuki’s works. ‘If I understand this man correctly,’ Heidegger remarked, ‘this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings.’
This convergence in ideas between Heidegger and Zen is not surprising. First, the Indian tradition and its derivatives (which, via Buddhism, spread to China, Korea and to Japan) continued to explicitly wrestle with the nature of being. Second, influential German philosopher Schopenhauer had been directly influenced by what he understood of Buddhist thought, so it was part of the backdrop of German philosophy.
After the publication of Being and Time, Heidegger entered into discussions with various Japanese interlocutors. This may have helped lead to that fact that, in the words of philosopher David Storey:
… he later recanted the residual metaphysics of subjectivity that he came to believe encumbered [Being and Time].
Storey also makes the point that both Heidegger and Zen hold that:
…the drive toward metaphysics — in the sense of a theory about reality — is a hindrance that draws us away from the richness of experience.
Being and Time is still a very difficult text and, about a fifth of the way in, I am still wondering whether there is any valuable point to be had at the end of it. Especially as it is easy enough to find summaries and explorations of Heidegger’s thinking that are much more approachable.
It was therefore striking to come across a short essay by C.S. Lewis, a preface to a forgotten book, Douglas Harding’s Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in the Universe, that put the concerns Heidegger wrestles with much more clearly. Lewis writes:
This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a process which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy.
The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. We can observe a single one-way progression. At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. But the matter does not rest there. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed ‘souls’, or ‘selves’ or ‘minds’ to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods: that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a ‘ghost’, an abbreviated symbol for all the facts we know about the tree foolishly mistaken for a mysterious entity over and above the facts, so man’s ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ is an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men: a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items which the Object had lost. There is no ‘consciousness’ to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is ‘not the sort of noun that can be used that way’.
For we are given to understand that our mistake was a linguistic one. All our previous theologies, metaphysics, and psychologies were a by-product of our bad grammar. Max Müller’s formula (Mythology is a disease of language) thus returns with a wider scope than he ever dreamed of. We were not even imagining these things, we were only talking confusedly. All the questions which humanity has hitherto asked with deepest concern for the answer turn out to be unanswerable; not because the answers are hidden from us like ‘goddes privitee’, but because they are nonsense questions like ‘How far is it from London Bridge to Christmas Day?’ What we thought we were loving when we loved a woman or a friend was not even a phantom like the phantom sail which starving sailors think they see on the horizon. It was something more like a pun or a sophisma per figuram dictionis. It is as though a man, deceived by the linguistic similarity between ‘myself’ and ‘my spectacles’, should start looking round for his ‘self’ to put in his pocket before he left his bedroom in the morning: he might want it during the course of the day. If we lament the discovery that our friends have no ‘selves’ in the old sense, we shall be behaving like a man who shed bitter tears at being unable to find his ‘self’ anywhere on the dressing-table or even underneath it.
And thus we arrive at a result uncommonly like zero. While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled condition) as ‘things in our own mind’. Apparently we had no mind of the sort required. The Subject is as empty as the Object. Almost nobody has been making linguistic mistakes about almost nothing. By and large, this is the only thing that has ever happened.
This does not remotely cover Heidegger’s entire enterprise in Being and Time. But it is the key problem he wrestles with, put far more clearly and succinctly than he does.
One is tempted to draw a distinction between English verbal parsimony seeking the courtesy of clarity contrasted with German verbal prolixity and insecure intellectual arrogance. But a deeper difference is that C.S. Lewis, as a Christian, has access to a wisdom tradition that Heidegger entirely lacks (despite him going on about the importance of being rooted in a specific cultural tradition). Indeed, Heidegger’s lack of any connection to a wisdom tradition is also a difference between Heidegger and Zen thought more generally. A sense of the pervasiveness of blindness and error, including one’s own, so pervasive in wisdom traditions, perhaps gives one a clearer place to stand.
Heidegger’s influence on various French theorists is not surprising. Not only is there the grandeur of seeking to supersede the entire Western philosophical tradition, Heidegger also, in Storey’s words aimed:
… at unseating the very notion of there being a master narrative, a complete system, a coherent body of doctrine.
Given how dominant Marxism, even Stalinism, had been in French intellectual life, those struggling with the shock of the manifest failures of Marxism could console themselves with not having made a singular mistake but a general one. A general mistake that they could now show everyone how to supersede. Heidegger’s own Nazi entanglements become, not a singular embarrassment, but the sort of error we all need to liberate ourselves from.
Heidegger’s opposition to the notion that philosophy could be a mirror of nature, his problems with language as a distorting medium, with subject-object distinctions, with the importance of lived experience, would all be picked up by the post-Marxist French theorists. As Storey says:
The attempt to get back to Being — to re-awaken to the forgotten meaning of Being, re-peat a heritage, re-tap some dormant reservoirs, to return to the roots and origins — that inheres in Heidegger’s early and late work lends itself to the idea that the modern world, and the mode of cognition by which it was constituted, namely, monological reason or calculative thinking, is a great mistake, a collective entanglement with entities in the world, and that we should therefore seek to regress to some sort of pre-modern, pre-rational form of society.
Or disconnect language from the world, and so from truth, and see Western society and civilisation as nothing beyond structures of power and oppression. The entire critical social justice apparatus that is grounded in the marriage of neo-Marxist critical theory with adaptations from post-Marxist French theory passing through Heidegger on the way.
The corruption from critical theory
The ‘social justice’ apparatus built on critical theory is grounded in a morally and intellectually corrupt choice. Faced with the failure of revolutions to either happen or, with the exception of Russia, succeed after the mass slaughter of the Great War, a group of German Marxists come together to answer why, even with all the blood and mass death of the Great War, the working classes failed to revolt, as Marxist theory says they should be primed to do.
One possibility was that the theory (or their understanding of it) was fundamentally wrong. The third possibility was that there was something wrong with the working class. As they were devout Marxists, the first hypotheses was unacceptable, the second version was too confronting for such self-consciously perceptive folk, so the third was adopted. The working classes were declared to be cognitively incompetent at judging their own interests. This was justified by notions such as false consciousness and cultural hegemony, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci famously going on to develop the latter idea. It also required some re-working of Marxism by going back to its Hegelian roots.
This morally and intellectually corrupt choice, protecting the splendour of their commitment to the transformative future at the cost of cognitively dismissing millions of their fellow citizens, the putative objects of their social concern, is the very opposite of wisdom. From this cognitively corrupt origin has grown a poisonous tree bearing many toxic fruits.
Such grounding of normative commitment in an unimpeachable imagined future functions much as revelation does in a religious system. It becomes the unchallengeable ground of authority. It is therefore not surprising that critical-theory derived faith systems have come to so resemble religions in their denunciation of sin and sinners, their blasphemy and heresy hunts, their identification of infidels. They even have, institutional penetration permitting, developed inquisitions. (In contemporary US academe, the flying squads of the new secular inquisition are called “bias response teams”.) One can even purchase latter-day indulgences, via diversity training and lectures. Hitler has become the secular Satan, the personification of evil, and Nazis (and the allegedly Nazi-adjacent) the demonic opposers of the unimpeachable future, the embrace of which is the source of all moral authority.
Embracing this collective self-worship of the splendour in their heads has meant a spiralling pattern of theorists and activists insulating said splendour from critique by declaring those who disagree cognitively delinquent. Thereby motivating and justifying using mimetic shaming to destroy the reputations and livelihoods of those that fail to conform. A mimetic shaming that the destructive attention-algorithms of Big Tech both encourage and give power to.
In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, published (as per his instructions) posthumously, Heidegger famously said “only a god can save us”. Only something superhuman in its reach and depth of meaning and psychic entanglement can save us from being lost in our technical, calculative, utterly disenchanted world. (One doubts that activists collectively worshipping the splendour in their heads was quite what he had in mind.)
Some folk have suggested that Western civilisation is suffering from a God-hole, a vacuum where the idea of God used to be. That we are suffering from the consequences of Nietzsche’s murder of God.
Yet monotheism is not the only basis for enduring culture and civilisations. I would suggest that we are suffering from a mythos vacuum, from the absence of a shared anchor of myth and meaning.
This is, after all, the burden of what C.S.Lewis is saying in the passage quoted above. In the search for explanatory power we shrank the realm which could provide such an anchor so completely that there is not enough to rest anything sufficiently useful and resonant on. Leading into what psychologist John Vervaeke calls the meaning crisis.
Destructive keyboard activism is a pathological response, fuelled by corporate algorithms seeking to profit from holding our attention, to a much deeper problem.
And always be wary of thinkers who do not seem to be able to manage the courtesy of clarity.