Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Heidegger's Cartesian Nihilism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Heidegger's Cartesian Nihilism

Article excerpt

EVER SINCE MARTIN HEIDEGGER initiated the destruction of the Western philosophical tradition, we have heard that philosophy has come to an end, that metaphysics has exhausted all of its possibilities, that the history of philosophy terminates in nihilism, that we require "another beginning" and a return to the tradition of first philosophy and the question of being. (1) Thinking in our postmetaphysical epoch must therefore begin with thinking about being, with the consequence that whatever ethical or political conclusions we may legitimately hold must pay their adequate respects to whatever is turned up by the inquiry into the meaning of being. In the following pages, I want to call this methodological presupposition into question, with emphasis on the sense in which the inquiry into the meaning of being is "first." My aim is critical rather than constructive. I want to show how the primacy that Heidegger gives to the question of being has served only to intensify the crisis of modern philosophical nihilism, and I want to demonstrate the specific sense in which this crisis has its legacy in Rene Descartes, while at the same time exposing what is required for a renewed inquiry into the possibility of philosophy.

My thesis is that philosophy legitimates itself, indeed it is required to legitimate itself, through a confrontation with nihilism. Along these lines, our conception of the possibility of philosophy, by which I mean the possibility of philosophical experience, hangs on its reflexive capacity to account for its own possibility. Philosophical nihilism, as I shall elaborate, is accordingly the most severe consequence of our failure to account for the possibility of philosophy. Where Heidegger's destruction of the metaphysical tradition is concerned, we shall therefore require a rational justification for the turn to the question of being, that is, if the question of being is in some sense foundational for the future of philosophy in a postmetaphysical epoch.

The importance of Heidegger to a contemporary inquiry into the possibility of philosophy may be framed in terms of two opposing, yet closely related responses to the question concerning the genuine foundations of philosophy. These responses consist in the attempt to found philosophy on thoroughgoing insight into the meaning of being on the one hand, and, on the other, a critique of that very same attempt to reduce the genuine foundations of philosophy to an interpretation of the meaning of being. There are, then, two fundamental versions of the initial, ontocentric, response. First: the version exemplified by the method of Cartesian science, which models itself on the paradigm of mathematical certainty and makes of the philosophical foundations an abstract theoretical artifact; in Descartes, a res cogitans or thinking thing. Second: the version that attempts to retain what is thought to be the high level of certainty produced by the Cartesian method, while at the same time radicalizing the end toward which that method aims. To name but two of the most important late modern examples: in Husserl this would be the standpoint of transcendental subjectivity in its constitution of the lifeworld; in Heidegger, the ontological priority of being-here (Dasein), the clearing (Lichtung), or, per Heidegger's later formulation, the event (Ereignis). Common to all of these responses, however, is the subordination of ethics to ontology (or being-thinking, in a properly qualified sense), which has the effect of stripping away any conception of the good or the human relation to an idea of the good, from the foundations of philosophy. They are thus each tasked with retroactively building an account of the human relation to the good back into their philosophical systems or else conceding philosophy's inability to speak intelligibly about the good, or the human relation to an idea of the good. The latter is precisely the situation in Heidegger, who is at once the most extreme and the most influential late modern example, meaning (so I shall argue) that despite his protestations to the contrary, fundamental ontology and its subsequent permutations--with its stated aim of putting Forschung, that is, "research" or philosophy and the sciences in general (2) on "new foundations" (3)--does not in fact "twist free" from Cartesian rationalism, but is rather a continuation of the Cartesian legacy. …

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