Friday, July 15, 2016

My Adventures with Martin Heidegger (and How a "Heidegger" Could Have Helped Me)

Ninja turtles in my garage about to be sold.

My introduction to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger was as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. One of my favorite professors, Michael Gelven, was a Heidegger scholar. (See Gelven's A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time.) Gelven made Heidegger accessible, at least to the extent that Heidegger is accessible to anyone, even to his own self. Gelven was a compelling, engaging philosopher to me. I owe much of how I teach philosophy to his influence.

At Northern Baptist Theological Seminary I discovered the influence Heidegger had on theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. Tom Finger was Professor of Theology at Northern at the time. Tom was a Heidegger scholar. It was my privilege to take an independent study with Tom on Heidegger's Being and Time, with a follow-up independent study on Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method. Under Tom's tutelage I began understanding more of Heidegger, yet I confess that the going was slow. One reason for the slowness was that Heidegger's use of language intended to be itself reflective of his method, which was not rooted in the Western soil of Plato and Aristotle. Thus, we have the many abstruse Heidegger sentences, such as “Das Nichts nichtet” ("The Nothing nothings.").  

In my doctoral work at Northwestern I again studied Heidegger, this time in a seminar with the brilliant professor David Michael Levin. I knew Levin knew his Heidegger because I could barely understand him (Levin, that is). In class We studied Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought. For me this was tough stuff to understand, and Levin assumed a familiarity with Heidegger greater than what I had. Nonetheless I remained fascinated with both Levin and Heidegger. I have often been drawn to the confusing. Plus, I was writing my doctoral dissertation on metaphorical language and thought.

Which brings me to the present moment. I'm reading a book review of At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. (To buy, or not to buy?)  The reviewer gives a very nice little synopsis about how Heidegger is situated in the phenomenological movement, and then illustrates the opaqueness of Heideggarian thinking (if it can even be called "thinking," which Heidegger denied). It reads: 

Bakewell "quotes the satirical Philosophical Lexicon compiled by Daniel Dennett and Asbjorn Steglich-Petersen, which defines a “heidegger” as “a ponderous device for boring through thick layers of substance”, as in, “It’s buried so deep we’ll have to use a heidegger”."

If you only knew how funny that is. Perhaps this is what I've needed all along.