Ethical Criticism in Heidegger's Early Freiburg Lectures

By Reid, James D. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Ethical Criticism in Heidegger's Early Freiburg Lectures


Reid, James D., The Review of Metaphysics


I

HISTORY, PHILOSOPHY, CRITICISM. Philosophy has a history because human life is historical. This truism assumes a deeper, more puzzling, and unsettling significance in the programmatic section 6 of Sein und Zeit, which promises nothing less than a Destruktion of the history of philosophy centered on a few pivotal figures and guided by the problem of temporality as the horizon and transcendental condition of any understanding and explicit interpretation of the sense of being. If the Seinsfrage cannot be formulated, let alone answered, without this detour through the history of ontology, it is precisely because the philosophizing human being is its past, because the philosopher's past does not merely trail behind the present as a foregone conclusion but "always already advances ahead of it." (1) Every effort to free ourselves from tradition and to begin with a tabula rasa "is pervaded by traditional concepts and ... horizons and traditional angles of approach." (2) An understanding shaped and governed by the past plays its enabling role whether the individual recognizes and welcomes it or not, whether he makes the past an object of study and cultivates an interest in tradition or abandons history to the historian or philosopher. An individual or a people or an entire era can lack historical consciousness, philosophy of history, and historiography, and can remain indifferent to tradition only because the human being is historical "in the ground of its being." (3)

But this indebtedness is as equivocal as it is obvious. If history were not at once obstacle and vital impetus, there would be no need to dismantle our intellectual and cultural inheritance: the very tradition that makes the Seinsfrage and any other philosophical question possible at the same time "uproots the historicity of Dasein" and inhibits the "productive appropriation" of the past. (4) Human life is both enabled by tradition and entangled in its obviousness, simultaneously nourished and dominated by the heritage it takes over or carelessly imbibes and takes for granted. This holds true even when the past has been explicitly interpreted and criticized in a substantial body of written and oral work undertaken from a variety of points of view and with different philosophical and ideological agendas. A culture rich in historical and philosophical self-interpretation and criticism runs the risk of losing itself in an empty and aimless proliferation of standpoints and opinions and has to struggle more vigilantly than its so-called naive counterpart against the seduction of words divorced from serious engagement with issues and, ultimately, with life. The responsible philosopher, attuned to his embeddedness in a tradition that envelops and sustains him but troubled by the facile familiarity of his interpreted world and the questionable variety of philosophical concepts and propositions that circulate freely in the conversations and works that surround him, cannot develop a more penetrating understanding of the basic problems of philosophy without critical scrutiny of the traditional prejudices that inform his gaze.

The train of thought just sketched is almost too obvious, too much a part of how some of us think and live and what most of us take for granted to merit rehearsal. There is, it appears, little to quibble over and less to add to what has become a commonplace, with few exceptions and rare opposition, in the reception of Heidegger and, more generally, if without reference to or dependence upon Heidegger, in contemporary philosophy and the culture at large. That this train of thought sounds as plausible as it does and strikes us as unworthy of explicit comment and serious argument and debate should draw attention to philosophical problems concealed beneath the obviousness of unquestioned philosophical and cultural convictions circulating in the agora of public opinion. It is the easiness itself that arouses our initial suspicions. …

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