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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.

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Philosophy

Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

Free Photo: Columns at the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

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