On Failure Memorabilia And Knowing Nothing


Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) is a long and painful and beautiful book. It has one ultimate goal, which is to figure out how to ask the question: what is the meaning of life? And Heidegger, in those hundreds upon hundreds of pages, can’t do it satisfactorily. Being and Time thus serves as failure memorabilia, a textual artifact of Heidegger’s inability to posit a question let alone answer it. That intellectual defeat though is the grand accomplishment of what is one the greatest philosophical texts of the 20th century. “We once believed ourselves to understand, reads Being and Time’s Socratic epigraph, “but are now in difficulty.” And this constant revaluation of every evaluation is the algorithm of the book because, for Heidegger, truth is more of a dynamic exchange than a discoverable content. Truth is something we’re always, infinitely searching for — not something acquired and ossified.

“The ways of reflection constantly are changing, according to the station along the way at which the journey begins, according to the distance along the way that it traverses, according to the vision that opens up while underway into what is question worthy.” So says Heidegger, and what of it? What use is this gobbledygook? Perhaps it can humble us. It can remind us that answers might actually be mirages concealing more questions. That certainty might be more of a sign of arrogance than intelligence. “No one knows what the fate of thinking will look like” says Heidegger, and really how do we know what new truths are latent in time? To make this less abstract, consider the debate about the shape of the world. It was once common knowledge, scientific sense, that the world was flat. From this assumption: maps were made. Facts were institutionalized. Worldviews were solidified. The globe was seemingly made known, the truth of space was etched in stone.

And where did thinking take us? It took us to the moon — first figuratively with Galileo Galilei, then literally with Neil Armstrong. A new, groundbreaking reality was disclosed and we declared the world was round, and science empirically made space known again. But, as Heidegger would point out, isn’t definitively saying the world is round in 2012 just as naive as saying the world was flat in 2012? Doesn’t in focus just mean something else must be out of focus? From the ground, the world reveals itself to us as essentially flat. From outer space, it discloses itself as essentially round. But where will thinking bring us next? What does the Earth look like from beyond outer space? Or beyond that?

Heidegger, of course, would accept the proposition — the world is round (or flat). This corresponds with a reality. It agrees with the way things appear to a particular historical configuration. But his move is to show that this isn’t the whole truth or the final conclusion, rather it’s a basis for further inquiry. Heidegger thus makes the distinction between two ways things come to us: “the present” and “the presencing.” The present is what is prepared today, what is ready and easily digestible at a certain time and place. It’s a kind of conservative force saying the world is round, now memorize your facts! While the presencing clears a way for tomorrow saying the world is round isn’t it? What is a shape anyway, though? That is, for Heidegger, truth is a hyperlink, a Chinese box leading to another Chinese box: a present leading to presencing for seemingly an eternity.

Where is the horizon? Heidegger was fond of quoting the philosopher Heinrich von Kleist, who said, “I step back before one who is not yet here, and bow, a millennium before him, to his spirit.” The first geologists only got a preliminary grasp of the globe, just as the first astronauts only got a preliminary grasp of the universe. This is why Being and Time is failure memorabilia. Heidegger recognizes it’s only a preliminary grasp, a limited beam of insight, and it will be superseded in the future. To make this more concrete, imagine a more advanced society of, say, cyborgs who have chips in their brains which allow them to access all the data stored on the internet in milliseconds. (Really is this so hard to imagine? Isn’t Google working on this?) Perhaps these beings will be so advanced that one word in their language will contain as much data as our entire dictionary. Under this light, we can appreciate why one of the greatest philosophical works of the 20th century fails to figure out how to ask the question, yet nevertheless succeeds. It paves the way for a new way, preparing us for the appearing of new phenomena. It opens a portal of presencing. It advents.

While Heidegger is one of the most important and influential philosophers of the last hundred years, he is also one of the most lambasted due to his involvement with radical politics from 1933-34. After Heidegger’s death in 1976, the German news weekly, Der Spiegel, published an interview with Heidegger from 1966, which he gave granted it would only be published posthumously. Heidegger’s final words in this infamous interview perfectly capture the essence of his own project and the point of this essay: “The greatness of what is to be thought is too great for us today. Perhaps we can struggle with building narrow and not very far-reaching footbridges for a crossing.” And this is Being and Time, the book and actual living: a seemingly never-ending struggle to build and cross a bridge to an always already elusive place called truth.

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