Thomas Sheehan on Heidegger

Free Photo: Mail Chute of the Lusitania

For anyone who has been perplexed by some of this blog’s past references to Heidegger, I wanted to draw attention to some recent appearances on the Internet by Thomas Sheehan, a professor at Stanford. Sheehan’s writings, some of which are available on his Stanford website, are the route I would recommend to anyone trying to make sense of Heidegger. The appearances coincide with Sheehan’s new book, which is called, appropriately enough, Making Sense of Heidegger.

Sheehan is apparently a little controversial in the world of Heidegger scholarship — a student in Germany once responded to my mentioning him by saying: “Thomas Sheehan? Oh, you mean the one who says ‘everyone is wrong about Heidegger except me’?” But based on my limited reading of Heidegger, Sheehan actually is right. He’s right by a standard that even non-experts can use: when you adopt Sheehan’s understanding of what Heidegger is getting at, Heidegger’s otherwise impenetrable texts make sense. By contrast, other interpretations — especially, I’m sad to say, many interpretations by literary scholars — all too frequently seem simply incorrect, as when the interpreter treats Heidegger’s ontological claims about the structure of human existence as though they were evocative literary descriptions of common emotions. Or they take Heidegger’s initially mystifying language and use it to spin further mystifications — as Sheehan criticizes in both of the pieces below.

The first piece I wanted to draw attention to is Sheehan’s review of Krzysztof Ziarek’s Language After Heidegger. It appears on the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews website — which is, by the way, one of the most valuable philosophy-related sites out there, in my opinion, along with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy3:AM Magazine, and 3QuarksDaily. In the review, Sheehan offers gems such as the following:

This is not to say the later Heidegger does not make sense. The challenge, rather, is to ferret out the sense he does make from the eccentric language and rhetoric he employs. One approach (the one that I prefer) is to hose down Heidegger’s language to get at what he was trying to articulate, and then to express that in what Milton called “an answerable style.” An alternative approach is the circular one of remaining within Heidegger’s language while attempting to explain it. This approach, which medieval logicians called modus psittacinus (Aristotle, τρόπος ψιττάκινος, Hist. anim. VIII 12, 597b27-29), is widely favored in contemporary Heidegger scholarship and is exemplified by the work of such European Heideggerians as F.-W. von Herrmann and François Fédier, and in the Anglophone scholarship of Richard Capobianco, Parvis Emad, and contributors to the journal Heidegger Studies.

Krzysztof Ziarek is professor of comparative literature at SUNY Buffalo, where he teaches avant-garde poetry, philosophy and literature, and literary theory. He is well known in continental circles for his earlier book on Heidegger, Inflected Language: Towards a Hermeneutic of Nearness (1994). Those who appreciated that volume will find Language After Heidegger a condign continuation of its rhetoric and methodology, both of which are firmly embedded in the second approach above. Those who prefer the hosing-down approach can certainly learn something from this book but may find it rather tough going.

The second piece is an interview in 3:AM Magazine. In the interview, Sheehan summarizes how his new book departs from the “classical paradigm” of Heidegger scholarship:

First, the book argues that Heidegger was a phenomenologist from beginning to end and that phenomenology is not about the “being” of things (i.e., the fact that they exist “out there” in the world and have a traditional “essence”). Rather, phenomenology is about the meaningful presence (Anwesen) of things within contexts of human concerns and interests.

Secondly, the book argues that the final focus of Heidegger’s work was not the meaningful presence (aka “being”) of things. Rather—and thirdly—his final focus was on the structure of human being that requires us to deal with things only discursively and thus only in terms of such meaningful presence. He called this structure “thrown-openness” or, in his later work, “appropriation.”

Finally, the book argues that (1) the classical paradigm got it wrong on both “appropriation” and the so-called “turn in Heidegger’s thinking”; (2) Heidegger’s so-called “history of being” is utterly inadequate to explain the condition of the modern world; and (3) that Heidegger’s reflections on technology are among the least convincing texts in his oeuvre.

The book also and importantly retranslates key terms in Heidegger’s lexicon, for example: “ex-sistence” for Da-sein and “appropriation” for Ereignis. In the latter case, “ap-propri-ation” refers to the fact that ex-sistence is a priori “thrown” into its proper condition of being, the openness that makes meaning possible and necessary.

The interview also contains, among other things, a great passage pushing back against those who would criticize Sheehan’s reading of Heidegger as being “anthropocentric.”


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