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Heidegger and the purpose of philosophy

There is a contention that philosophy works as an operation to tidy up an era on the intellectual level. So, for example, in the 1980s you have the networked society, you have a fungible society characterised by computer networks and airlines and Aids—so along come Derrida and Lyotard and they put all that on a rational basis, put it into a logical and coherent system called “postmodernism”; and that’s the age summed up in a practical way—“the spirit of the age”, the zeitgeist (to use a very ’80s term).

Heidegger turns that assumption round: he says that philosophy precedes other developments—it is up to philosophy to change “the thoughts that can be thought” so that people can do new things in life. Hence he says that Rudolf Diesel could not have invented the diesel engine without certain philosophical concepts being thought through first—even though that never impinged on Diesel’s mind, he just carried out his work in its own terms.

I think that is correct. For example, there was a change in perspective wrought by philosophy when people moved from Aristotle’s ideas around “force” to “cause”. Today, I think it’s second-nature, it certainly is for me, to ask “what caused that?”—yet that is an innovation introduced within the last 400 years. The area it most pertains to is Newtonian physics—to the classic image of billiard balls careening around a table (although Newton himself speaks of “force”, “what ‘force’ drew the apple from the tree?”).

It’s hard to imagine our mechanical civilisation without people who think about “causes”—and yet that change in perspective had to be brought about through a change in thought, and that was a philosophical endeavour. It often pertains to “categories”—to “how the motorcycle is divided into parts”, to use an example from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The author, Pirsig, talks about the way no two motorcycle firms divide the parts on a motorcycle in the same way (the crankshaft may or may not extend to a t-junction and yet still be called “a crankshaft”). Yet the firms still make objects that are recognisable as motorcycles—although the parts are often not mutually recognisable to mechanics.

Heidegger raises the same question on a broader plane—the philosophers change the categories with which we operate, then new “engineering” projects become viable; but without the change in “how the motorcycle is apportioned” certain projects are not possible at all.

The other view, the view that has philosophy as a “clearing up operation” at the end of a process, is also implicitly materialist—the economy, the political situation, the work of inventors, and so on give rise to conditions that require an intellectual summary. Hence the philosopher steps in. As Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.” Here the philosopher steps in to interpret “events”.

Heidegger says the opposite to Marx: philosophers make any change that occurs in the world possible through their interpretations. It’s an idealist view in the philosophical sense—change comes from somewhere non-material, from philosophic inspiration; and that, in turn, is daemonic inspiration (from another world, divine).

And that is what really changes the world—pure thought, pure new ways of seeing. You couldn’t even think it—until I provided the intellectual base to stand on, now your options to change the world, to “build the diesel engine”, are widened, but never so widened that you can transcend the tools philosophy provided for you.


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