Simon Critchley's Blog

March 26, 2014

How Heidegger turned Descartes upside down, so that we are, and only therefore think

I talked in my first blog entry about Heidegger's attempt to destroy our standard, traditional philosophical vocabulary and replace it with something new. What Heidegger seeks to destroy in particular is a certain picture of the relation between human beings and the world that is widespread in modern philosophy and whose source is Descartes (indeed Descartes is the philosopher who stands most accused in Being and Time). Roughly and readily, this is the idea that there are two sorts of substances in the world: thinking things like us and extended things, like tables, chairs and indeed the entire fabric of space and time.

The relation between thinking things and extended things is one of knowledge and the philosophical and indeed scientific task consists in ensuring that what a later tradition called "subject" might have access to a world of objects. This is what we might call the epistemological construal of the relation between human beings and the world, where epistemology means "theory of knowledge". Heidegger does not deny the importance of knowledge, he simply denies its primacy. Prior to this dualistic picture of the relation between human beings and the world lies a deeper unity that he tries to capture in the formula "Dasein is being-in-the-world". What might that mean?

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 27 views
How do we find ourselves in the world, and how can find our freedom here?

As I already tried to show, Heidegger seeks to reawaken perplexity about the question of being, the basic issue of metaphysics. In Being and Time, he pursues this question through an analysis of the human being or what he calls Dasein. The being of Dasein is existence, understood as average everyday existence or our life in the world, discussed in the last entry. But how might we give some more content to this rather formal idea of existence?

Heidegger gives us a strong clue in Division 1, Chapter 5 of Being and Time, which is a long, difficult, but immensely rewarding chapter and where things really begin to get interesting. The central claim of this chapter - which is deepened in the remainder of Being and Time - is that Dasein is thrown projection (Dasein ist geworfener Entwurf). Let me try and unravel this thought.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 12 views
Anxiety is the philosophical mood par excellence, the experience of detachment from which I can begin to think freely for myself

As I showed in the last blog, moods are essential ways of disclosing human existence for Heidegger. Yet, there is one mood in particular that reveals the self in stark profile for the first time. This is the function of anxiety (Angst), which Heidegger calls a basic or fundamental mood (Grundstimmung). Safranski rightly calls anxiety "a shadowy queen amongst moods".

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 11 views
Far from being morbid, Heidegger's conception of living in the knowledge of death is a liberating one

As I said some 6 weeks ago, in my first blog on Heidegger, the basic idea in Being and Time is very simple: being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death. This is what Heidegger famously calls "being-towards-death". If our being is finite, then an authentic human life can only be found by confronting finitude and trying to make a meaning out of the fact of our death. Heidegger subscribes to the ancient maxim that "to philosophise is to learn how to die". Mortality is that in relation to which we shape and fashion our selfhood.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 12 views
For Heidegger, the call of conscience is one that silences the chatter of the world and brings me back to myself

After the existential drama of Heidegger's notion of being-towards-death, why do we need a discussion of conscience? As so often in Being and Time, Heidegger insists that although his description of being-towards-death is formally or ontologically correct, it needs more compelling content at what Heidegger calls the "ontic" level, that is, at the level of experience. Finitude gets a grip on the self through the experience of conscience. For me, the discussion of conscience contains the most exciting and challenging pages in Being and Time. Let me try and sketch as simply as possible the complex line of Heidegger's argument.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 13 views
Time should be grasped in and of itself as the unity of the three dimensions of future, past and present

To try and compress 437 dense pages of Being and Time into eight brief blogs was obviously a difficult exercise from the start. But, I must admit, this was also part of the attraction. Despite the limits of this virtual medium, I hope that something of the book has been conveyed in a way that might encourage people to read more and further. Being and Time is extraordinarily rich, difficult and systematic work of philosophy that repays careful reading and rereading.

That Heidegger continues to arouse controversy and heated misunderstanding is evidenced by some of the responses to these blogs. All I would ask is that Heidegger's detractors (you know, the "this is bullshit" brigade) take the trouble to read his work with a little care and to pause before reacting.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 15 views
Those who don't learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, we learn again and again

What will be the defining issues of the coming decade? Consider the following three trends. First, ever-growing environmental devastation. Second, continuing growth of the already cavernous social inequalities between the rich and the poor that lead the rich to fear the poor and live in seclusion from them. Third, the further erosion of any remaining faith in liberal democracy and the precipitous slide away from "democratic capitalism".

If one has an interest in confronting and even reversing these three trends, then what is to be done? The first step is a systematic avoidance of the question of the future. That is, we have to resist the idea and ideology of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of capitalist narratives of progress.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 10 views
The political response to 9/11 has been pitiful. A new series invites leading thinkers to challenge conventional narratives

The 10 year distance from the attacks of 11 September 2001 gives us an opportunity to reflect on the significance of that day's violence. Common sense asserts that our world is changed for ever because of 9/11. But if true, shouldn't we have spent more time considering the stakes of the event? The attacks were abhorrent and criminal, but our response so far represents a profound failure of the political imagination.

The many human faces to the tragedy provided a passing glimpse into a genuine ethical response mobilised by grief. But all too quickly the mourning ended as matters turned to the usual militarism. The invasion of Afghanistan, the illegal bombardment of Iraq, the establishment of torture camps and, most recently, the execution of Osama bin Laden.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 11 views
Disaffected by a politics that only serves power, the people are reclaiming democracy. Where next to occupy the Olympics?

The Arab spring, notably in Egypt and Syria, seems to be running out of steam. The vivacious drive of the Occupy movement has faltered and it is not clear what new life will appear. Can popular protest regain its energy and inspiration, or is that it?

Rather than retreating into the comfort of despair or cynicism, perhaps this is a moment in which we can try and gain a broader view of matters.

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Published on March 26, 2014 07:04 • 7 views

September 20, 2013

The banal, biscuit-box Shakespeare – all humanism and moralism – needs to be broken up and his work made subversive again, argue Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster. They begin with his greatest play

Shakespeare is too often identified with a misty-eyed, middlebrow, nostalgic and undemanding picture of England and Englishness. Indeed, the Shakespeare industry is dependent on the marketing of this image – both in the production of goods for domestic consumption (whether fridge magnets or outdoor summer stagings) and for export (the "Global Hamlet" in 102 countries). But there is a more radical and subversive version of Shakespeare, which is most clearly evident in his greatest and best-known play: Hamlet.

In one of the several rejection letters we received when trying to publish The Hamlet Doctrine in the UK (we encountered no such problems in the US), one editor argued that the book was "essentially unpublishable" because it was "a condemnation of the literary culture of my country". And in one sense, he's right: our book is an implicit condemnation of a certain, mainstream, version of English culture.

The banal, biscuit-box Shakespeare needs to be broken up and his work made dangerous again. If the authorities really understood what was going on in Hamlet's head, students might never be allowed to study the text. Hamlet's world is a globe defined by the omnipresence of espionage, of which his self-surveillance is but a mirror. Hamlet is arguably the drama of a police state, rather like the Elizabethan police state of England in the late 16th century, or the multitude of surveillance cameras that track citizens as they cross London in the current, late-Elizabethan age. Hamlet's agonised paranoia is but a foretaste of our own.

Rather than look at Hamlet in the usual humanistic and moralistic manner – Hamlet is a nice guy who suffers from being given a task that is an unbearable burden – we approach the play in a spirit of what Virginia Woolf calls rashness, illness and irreverence. We look at the play through the lenses provided by a series of outsider interpretations that mirror our mutual occupations and preoccupations – philosophy and psychoanalysis – and that shed some light on the question of Shakespeare and Englishness: those of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Freud, Lacan, Nietzsche, Melville and Heiner Müller.

Schmitt makes a very intriguing claim at the end of his short book on Hamlet. He asserts that England at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century could in no way be described as a political state because it was still barbaric. Between the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688 (neither glorious nor a revolution), England was on its way to a form of statehood. But this was, Schmitt insists, a maritime conception of the state that did not need to pass through the constricted passage of the Continental model, where the state is identified with territory. In the 17th century, beginning with pirates, privateers and corsairs, and moving into the vast colonial trading companies, plantation slavery and eventually the Industrial Revolution, England came to define itself not through land, but by the sea. England became a looser eccentric state, more like a series of estates defined by the traces of the barbaric, where politics passes through piracy (plus ça change).

But it is not just the state that is loose and eccentric. The Clown-Gravedigger says in the beginning of Act 5 that Hamlet has been sent to England because he was mad, but, "Twill not be seen in him there, there the men are as mad as he."

What is the nature of Prince Hamlet madness? It is common knowledge that Freud said Hamlet suffers from his Oedipus complex, wanting to be Claudius who has fulfilled his secret desire to kill his father and marry his mother. But what happens when the Oedipus complex is really a Hamlet complex? Namely, we do not act on our desires, but instead loaf around inhibited and melancholic, sometimes lashing out impulsively with a series of jokes, puns or worse, cruelty and murderous rage. Hamlet is not a man who cannot make up his mind, as Laurence Olivier would have it, but rather a man whose desire is utterly lost to him. It is not that we don't know what to do, but that we know too much and do nothing.

For Freud, the character of Hamlet shows the terrifying effects of repression and inhibition of desire. As Dostoevsky said: "Hell is the inability to love." The Ghost may be in purgatory, but Hamlet lives in a loveless hell. Freud wrote about such country matters at the age of 44, having been unable to follow through on his research up until that point. He had a mightily hard time doing so, as can be seen in his letters to his quasi-analyst Wilhelm Fliess when he was minting his Hamlet theory. (He was also not happy with his wife, Martha.)

Our other psychoanalytic interpreter of Hamlet, Jacques Lacan, did not publish his major collected works until the age of 65. In a psychoanalytic battlefield on the question of Hamlet's madness, desire can be found only at great cost, at the most extreme limit of the self. Against the current cries of mental health professionals about the prevalence of acting out, disinhibition, dysregulation and the rest, Hamlet-style inhibition could not be more evident, four centuries after the play was written. There is so much that we cannot allow ourselves to do.

Benjamin gives a slightly bewildering reading of Hamlet in his wonderfully difficult 1928 book, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. After having described with power the world of the baroque, a world that is essentially dead – a rank and unweeded garden, as Hamlet would put it – Benjamin goes on to claim that Shakespeare's Hamlet, alone, achieves a Christian redemption from such rottenness, a kind of Messianic triumph. He needs to see Hamlet as a figure who rises Phoenix-like from the ashes and, with Harold Bloom, invents a new figure of humanity – someone who rushes into battle for Claudius, rather than against him, and waits to hear a truth he already knows from someone else's lips before finally acting (ie Laertes: "The king, the king's to blame").

Hegel, to his credit, offers no such Benjaminian cheer, and concludes his 1,230-odd pages of Lectures on Aesthetics with a stunning interpretation of Hamlet. The dialectical tension that, in ancient tragedy, constituted the public life of the city, becomes privatised and internalised inside Hamlet's skull, leaving him divided and paralysed. Indeed, Hegel goes further and claims that Hamlet is not only the wrong man for the task of revenge, but a lost and even doomed man, consumed by disgust.

Nietzsche places such disgust at the heart of a brief, but fascinating and overlooked, interpretation of Hamlet in The Birth of Tragedy. Hamlet is an anti-Oedipus. Where Oedipus acts, but does not know, Hamlet knows everything from the get-go from the mouth of the Ghost, but cannot act. Further, such inaction does not arise from any indecision or impotence on Hamlet's part, but rather from the fact that he is disgusted by the prospect of action. Given the horror that he knows, then why do anything? The world is screwed anyhow. Such is what Nietzsche calls, and we tip our hat to him, "The Hamlet Doctrine".

Müller, the East German avant-garde dramatist, places feminine sexuality at the heart of his extraordinary decomposition of Shakespeare in his 1978 Hamletmachine. The play is reduced to seven pages, a kind of shrunken, double-headed drama, where a terrifyingly powerful Ophelia steps forward alongside Hamlet and steals his limelight. The Prince is revealed as a vain transvestite and Ophelia – a kind of mask for Ulrike Meinhof – is a figure of titanic power. "Long live hate and contempt, rebellion and death. When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives you'll know the truth." What a woman! We want to be Ophelia.

But Herman Melville is our true hero. He gives an extraordinary interpretation of Hamlet in his prodigious failure of a book, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities. This was intended to be a bestselling, Gothic, sexy potboiler for the good wives of New England. Sadly for Melville, but happily for us, Melville couldn't stop being Melville – he wrote a brilliant book that was a total commercial flop. The eponymous Pierre can find no meaning in what he calls "the hopeless interior gloom" of Hamlet, or draw from the general story "those superficial and purely incidental lessons, wherein the painstaking moralist so complacently expatiates". We attempt to refrain from such complacent moralistic expatiation.

Heminge and Condell, the editors of the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare's works, end their short preface with the exhortation "Reade him, therefore; and againe and againe." We concur with this most conservative sounding of imperatives. The way in which to undermine the ideological uses of Shakespeare and to retrieve his subversive potential is through nothing more than reading him. Spend a few weeks reading Hamlet slowly. You'll see that it's a very weird play. Too weird for the rather complacent, middlebrow England of the Shakespeare industry, but suggestive of another way of imagining and inhabiting England and Englishness.

Melville, aware that his romance novel was approaching the unpublishable, most Shakespeare-like, brings Pierre to his demise as his mirror. Pierre receives the following letter:

"SIR:– You are a swindler. Upon the pretense of writing a popular novel for us, you have been receiving cash advances from us, while passing through our press the sheets of a blasphemous rhapsody, filched from the vile Atheists, Lucian and Voltaire … Our bill for printing thus far … is now in the hands of our lawyer, who is instructed to proceed with instant rigor. (Signed) STEEL, FLINT & ASBESTOS."

Pierre kills himself, together with his sister and lover, while in jail awaiting trial. We look forward to being sued for our own filched, blasphemous, suicidal rhapsody.

PhilosophyWilliam ShakespeareSimon Critchley
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Published on September 20, 2013 04:00 • 40 views

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