Commentary Magazine


Philosophy & the Disappearing Self

The 19th is still a century we are struggling to extricate ourselves from. It has thus something of the ambiguity of a parental image for us, and our grasp of it, in consequence, is still somewhat uncertain and confused. It was, for example, a century of quite overwhelming materialism and positivism, and with these doctrines the notion of mind or consciousness receives very short shrift. Yet in philosophy itself, the first part of the century was to witness an almost bacchanalian celebration of consciousness in the form of German idealism, and in its principal figure, Hegel.

To be sure, Hegel and idealism are subjects that have fallen pretty much by the wayside. The dominant Anglo-American philosophy of the last fifty years, for example, hardly betrays any acquaintance at all with idealism and its contributions. The tide has simply moved away from any concern with the human subject and subjectivity. Yet there are signs here and there that we may have to pay attention to Hegel once again, if only to correct some of the ideas about history that have become dominant among our professional historians.

These historians practice what they call “social history,” which aims to describe the routine external behavior of a society. As a reaction against an earlier overdose of ideology, when large and sweeping abstractions were thrown too easily about, this emphasis is perhaps understandable. But surely it goes too far in its rejection of mind when it excludes from the concern of the historian the events of intellectual culture, the struggle for and about ideas. We get, as it were, a kind of mindless behaviorism transposed from psychology to the field of history. And it is here that we have to recall the figure of Hegel, the first and greatest philosopher of history, who insisted that history was primarily a history of the human mind.

Only a conscious animal has a history because it can recall the past and seek to make something significantly different for the future. Only the power of consciousness and the change it can bring deliver history from the aimless and monotonous repetition of the chronicle. In the scale of human consciousness, those primitive peoples are lowest who have not yet risen to the level of history. The Greeks spoke of man as the rational animal; following Hegel, perhaps we should speak of man as the historical animal.

The principle at issue cuts both ways. If human consciousness is essential to history, if indeed the change and development of consciousness are what essentially constitute history, the corollary is also true: history is essential to consciousness. Human consciousness will differ from one epoch to another. And here Hegel’s boldness and originality as a philosopher come to the fore: he speaks, for example, of a Weltgeist and a Zeitgeist, a world-spirit and a time-spirit. Because of the sweep of his language, some readers have taken him to be lapsing here into metaphor and mythology. Not at all. He is referring to something well known to anyone who has delved even a little bit into history: that the mentality of one historical epoch may differ very much from that of another, and that as individual minds we are very much creatures of our time and its particular historical climate.

Consider works of art. We do not need very much expertise in the history of art to be able to situate a given work in its approximate historical period. Somehow the individual work carries the look of its time about it. It bears all the pressures of its period, however individual and rebellious the artist may have wished to be. And perhaps the more he seeks to escape them, the more crudely his work will bear the historic marks of his period.

Art and the artist are under no special dispensation here. We are all, as conscious humans, under the pressure of time and history and we carry the marks of these deep in our persons as, conversely, the work of art brings them eloquently to the surface. Nor is this historical part of our being something that holds only for those who may be gifted with some special “historical consciousness.” The ordinary man in the street, the man packed next to his neighbor on the subway, belong to their epoch as much as the savant pondering the meaning of history. The consciousness of the ordinary man today, whether he is aware of it or not, is different from that of the medieval peasant. We sometimes refer to the consciousness of this ordinary man today as undifferentiated and ahistorical. In fact, it is not. We have to think of the individual mind as a bubble on a vast sea. It somehow retains its identity, but it is not separated from the surrounding ocean, whose waters flow through and around it, and perpetually sustain it.

Given this immersion in history, what becomes our human task in confronting it? How does the individual self realize itself within the toils of the historic process? Hegel’s answer is radically different from the traditional philosophic attitude usually associated with Plato and Platonism. The realization of the self is not an escape from time or the historic process; we do not realize the fullness of the self in a timeless vision that delivers us from history. On the contrary, since we are condemned in any case to be historical, we had best strive to be deliberately and consciously so. The task of human consciousness is to gather into itself all the significant strands of its history and make them fully explicit. The authentic consciousness is not one that seeks an escape from history but one that brings history to its culmination in consciousness.

Hegel called this kind of consciousness concrete mind. Perhaps he would have been more accurate to call it encyclopedic mind.

What Hegel does, in short, is to single out the kind of mind that particularly engages him as a professor: the mind of the Gelehrter, the savant, the self-consciously learned man. But the reality of consciousness transcends any of its special types. Mind or consciousness is real wherever we find it, even in its most humdrum and ordinary manifestations. Indeed, it is with these more humble and ordinary facts that we may renew a contact with consciousness that a more cerebral philosophy has lost. Such, in any case, was the revolt that Kierkegaard declared against Hegel and the philosophers a little more than a century ago; and with that revolt he launched the philosophy that has come to be known as existentialism.

Unfortunately, as we shall see, by one of those ironic twists of history, certain contemporary versions of that philosophy have reversed field and become as destructive of the individual and individual consciousness as the rest of our culture.

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Despite all the publicity that has surrounded existentialism, an adequate evaluation of Kierkegaard has hardly arrived among our philosophers. For one thing, he seems to speak with a voice that is alien to theirs. He is not a philosopher but a religious writer—something of a prophet, perhaps a religious poet. And yet, I believe, his central message should be of the utmost significance for philosophy and philosophers. How is this seeming paradox possible?

First of all, we have to notice that there is something of a paradox inherent in the notion of “Christian philosophy” itself. In one sense, there is no such thing as Christian philosophy at all. Christian faith falls outside of philosophy—either above or below, or however you wish to situate it, but in any case beyond philosophy. The advent of this faith marked a revolutionary break with the philosophic consciousness of the pagan world.

Yet there is the fact of Christian experience, which the philosopher cannot blithely ignore. Strictly speaking, philosophy is supposed to take cognizance of all kinds of human experience, even if the particular philosopher has a personal distaste for one or the other kind. In the absence of Christian belief, the philosopher may not be able to enter into all modes of Christian experience, but he must struggle to take stock of them as best he can, even if at something of a distance. Above all, he should not dogmatically deny that such experience exists. Moreover, there is one central area of human experience that, whether we are believers or not, we all share—and that is the search for personal salvation. We may understand this salvation differently, and we may not even choose to use the word itself, but the fact remains that this struggle lies at the center of the self. And here Kierkegaard may be taken as a profound and illuminating guide.

At the center of the self, then, lies a passionate self-concern. This has nothing to do with egotism, for the self-concern could be that of the saint struggling to sink his own private will in God’s. The point is that at the center of the self lies a vital passion, not some inert mental stuff or amalgam of perceptions. Consider what a radical departure Kierkegaard’s is from some of the older theories of mind—for example, how different it is from the view of the empiricist David Hume that mind is merely an inert aggregate or heap of sense-impressions. Kierkegaard supplies the vital spark, and in the long run, as we shall see, he is more empirical, more true to experience, than the empiricists.

Kierkegaard deepens the note of subjectivity beyond these earlier thinkers. This does not mean that he adds any new epistemological doubts to those of Descartes or Hume—doubts which serve only to relativize and weaken the stance of the ego as it confronts the world. On the contrary, he is concerned with strengthening the self in the face of the world. Or, to put it another way, he is interested in subjectivity as an existential fact and not in subjectivism as a problem for the theory of knowledge. The distinction here is central, and we may pause for one more moment to try to fix it as clearly as we can.

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Wherever there is consciousness, there is a point of view from which things are seen, and hence subjectivity of one kind or another. We cannot imagine a consciousness which is just consciousness, but not the consciousness of some being or other, whether bird, bat, fish, or human. Consciousness and subjectivity are thus coextensive. This conclusion is forced upon us by an examination of consciousness itself, a purely phenomenological conclusion that seems emotionally neutral to any kind of human pathos. Thus we have not yet arrived at the concrete subjectivity which Kierkegaard is after. We have to see this consciousness in its existential situation.

There is, for example, the fact of death. The conscious subject comes into a world where people die, and he among them. He exists, then, in a world where anxiety, in one form or another and in one degree or another, must be the common lot of all. How to cope with it becomes the personal problem of each individual self, whatever portion of fate it draws. The struggle of the self to preserve itself takes many forms of strategy, sometimes a desperate flight from oneself. It might be said, paradoxically but truly, that sometimes we are never more absorbed in the self than when we are plotting desperate and devious devices of escape from that self.

On this matter Kierkegaard offers us some of the most penetrating and eloquent pages in the world’s literature. I refer to his famous description of the stages of human existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. We need not go into detail here to recapitulate the stages, or levels, of human existence; it is sufficient for our purposes to notice their general direction—from a desperate effort to escape from the self to a final surrender and commitment. The strategies of escape may be subtle and devious—we lose ourselves in sensation, pleasure, or the refinements of art and beauty; or perhaps in philosophy in its more grandiose abstractions, like the world-spirit—but these strategies fail in the end, they collapse in despair, and we come back to the humble self that we are and that we cannot escape. We have to be who we are, however we may seek eventually to transform ourselves.

Those of us who profess to be Christian might do well here to remember that the central figure of the Christian religion is a man nailed to a cross. In one way or another, we are all nailed to the cross of ourselves. This is a stark and brutal image, I realize, to throw before people who are likely to be saturated with self-help pamphlets or even taking expensive courses designed to develop a new self, or a new personality, that they may present to the world. I would not in the least wish to decry these impulses toward self-improvement, only to point out that they must all start from the recognition of that concrete and humble self we are. And if these efforts toward change and self-transformation should be successful, they will also return us to a concrete self, however changed, that we shall have to learn to suffer and abide in turn.

We have here passed to a deeper degree of subjectivity when we deal with a self that makes decisions about itself, and seeks to change itself or its way of life. At its most elementary stage, subjectivity is merely the essential accompaniment of consciousness as such, any consciousness: to be aware is to be conscious from some point of view or other. But we pass to a more concrete level of subjectivity when we deal with an actual subject who is possessed by self-concern, and who makes decisions about himself and his life. Nor are these decisions merely peripheral; on the contrary, they can enter into the very substance of that person’s life and make it what it is. We are here at the farthest remove from the empiricist view of David Hume that the self is merely a passive bundle of sense-impressions; an aggregate of sense-impressions does not make decisions about itself. And the same point might be made against our latter-day behaviorists who would seek to treat the human self as nothing but a bundle of behavior patterns; a bundle of behavior patterns does not confront itself decisively in self-questioning and seek its change.

Surely, then, Kierkegaard would seem to have brought a new and penetrating light to our understanding of the self, and one would have expected subsequent thinkers to have followed the leads he had thrown out. To be sure, he came to be acknowledged as one of the founding spirits in the existential mode of thought in philosophy, and existentialism became a movement that attracted much attention in recent years both here and abroad. But this notoriety does not mean that appropriate notice was taken of the message of the founder. On the contrary, by one of those ironic twists in which intellectual history abounds, the dominant influence of existentialism has moved in a direction opposite to Kierkegaard—toward a disintegration of the self, which Kierkegaard struggled so energetically to hold together.

Here, perhaps, existentialism was merely carried along in that vast and powerful movement of modern society toward the disintegration of the individual. Certainly, we have heard the words often enough—depersonalization, fragmentation, and the rest—from our concerned critics, so that it should come as no surprise to us that modern mass society, simply by its size and impersonality, tends to absorb and obliterate the individual. But what should surprise us is that philosophers and intellectuals should construct theories which, in their intricate and sometimes fanciful ways, serve really to abet this depersonalizing process.

This is a serious charge, and we have now to offer an outline in documentation of it. We shall proceed backward, from the later and more widespread movement, to the originating or at least contributing source in thinkers like Sartre and Heidegger.

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In France any intellectual cause that attains sufficient notoriety is likely to end as a literary movement. The practice has its faults; the issues can sometimes be overdramatized or otherwise distorted when they enter the literary arena. Yet on the whole this French habit has its value: we are more likely to see some of the human implications of a doctrine if we have turned it over to literary expression and the literary imagination.

The literary cause in France that has attracted most attention in the past two decades is the critical movement known as deconstructionism. Originally, the deconstructionists brought forth a special mode of literary criticism; but since literary criticism, if systematically carried out, entails a theory of literature, deconstructionism has become a whole philosophy in itself, though pursued usually for the destruction of philosophy. It has attracted a certain following in the United States, particularly among academics who are attracted by what is recherché and fashionable.

As the name implies, deconstructionism is a method of dissecting and disassembling a literary text. In a sense, of course, all literary interpretation does such dissecting to one degree or another; but the degree, in the case of the deconstructionists, amounts to a difference in kind from all the usual forms of literary criticism. The deconstructionists claim as an intellectual predecessor Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of a science of linguistics or semiotics; and linguistic or semiotic considerations bulk large for them. Thus the poem, or other literary work, is to be seen first and foremost as a linguistic fact—a fact within the network of human language.

The poem is a piece of human language. Hardly news, you might say. But everything here depends on the thoroughness and completeness with which we follow through on this lead. The literary work is to be taken merely as one item in that vast network of signs that constitute our human existence. The individual work, the work in its individuality, thus becomes like a tiny atoll lost in the vastness of the ocean. The poem as we usually recognize it disappears into the network of signs into which it must be reabsorbed if we are to see it rightly. The poet also disappears; as an individual, or even as an individual aesthetic voice, he vanishes into that vast free-floating matrix of signs. Indeed, the deconstructionists would have us give up the notion of the self altogether; we have simply to learn to “desubstantialize” our thinking. And this work of desubstantialization they see as one of the primary tasks of our culture.

The word “desubstantialization” is a significant cue here. It indicates that the deconstructionists are against the notion or category of substance. In this, of course, they are not alone; most of our literate and philosophic culture runs in the same direction. Even two very significant philosophers like Whitehead and Heidegger, otherwise so very different, are united in their suspicion or open condemnation of substance. It is as if we had all been traumatized by Descartes, and in flight from him were in pursuit of anything and everything that is insubstantial.

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In the case of literary analysis this process of desubstantialization has some curious and far-reaching effects. Certain simple lyrical poems seem to express their subject so clearly and directly that there appears to be no question what they are about. Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is about what its title indicates: the poet stops by a woods to watch the snow falling. But hold a moment: we must not assume so quickly that the references of language are so clear and easy to spot. Indeed, for the deconstructionist, the referential aspects of language—the claim that language refers to definite things, objects, people—are not the central fact about language. More important in the case of any symbol are the multiple links it establishes with all other symbols within the whole symbolic matrix. Thus Frost’s “woods” may not be woods at all, in the simple sense of the plain reader. The poet speaks of them as “lovely, dark and deep,” and he would linger with them if he were free, but he has “promises to keep,” and he must go on with his journey. The “woods” here could be anything dark and inviting—perhaps the female genitalia to whose seductiveness the poet would, but for other reasons cannot, yield, etc., etc.

We are thus launched on an absurd travesty of an “interpretation”—no more absurd, however, than many that circulate in critical circles today. Now, a certain type of crude and doctrinaire Freudian, if we can imagine him, might insist that this sexual interpretation is at bottom the real and true one. The deconstructionist, however, is far more subtle—we must at least give him credit for that. He would not argue that the Freudian interpretation is wrong as such; it is one of the countless possible views, all equally valid, that we might take of the poem. The error of the Freudian is that he “substantializes,” that he thinks of one kind of interpretation as the meaning of the work. On the contrary, the poem means whatever symbolic links we can establish between it and the total network of human language. With the deconstructionist, in short, we are in a world of total relativism where anything goes.

I do not believe this is an exaggeration. The point is that if you abandon the notion of substance—that there are definite things, and that language, at least in some of its uses, can and does clearly refer to them—then you float in a sea of indefiniteness where anything goes. To have meanings at all does require a certain degree of fixity—of persistent identity—in the objects of discourse.

The issue becomes more subtle—and perhaps also more significant—when one comes to the identity of the poet. If we are readers of poetry, we do not read only isolated single poems, we read a sizable body of the poet’s work, particularly if we like the poet, and his poetry means much to us. He becomes an individual and continuing voice to us, a poetic presence and a poetic identity. This poetic identity is not altogether the same as his identity as an actual person; in life the poet may have had rough edges of which the poetry might leave us unsuspecting. But poet and man are not altogether unrelated; the poetic voice—the poetic identity—is after all a part of the total identity of that human being. At a certain point in his development, for example, the poetry of Yeats begins to speak with a different voice—more simple, direct, and powerful. T.S. Eliot refers to the change as a “miracle of development.” One suspects that this development was not altogether independent of certain changes in the life of Yeats the man—his aging and the passing of time, the death and loss of certain friends, the loss of one wild love and the finding of a more stable one, but perhaps above all the ceaseless meditation on life and its meaning.

In any case, the point is that a great deal is lost from our appreciation of poetry if we lose the sense of the poet as a continuing presence and voice in his work. If we are not always priggishly academic in our responses, then we may even experience the poet in his poem as one human soul speaking to another, to our self. But the deconstructionists’ doctrine would make any experience like this impossible, for they flatly deny the self. Language is thus cut off from its human base, and becomes a free-floating system of signs. Without a reference to this human base, the self, deconstructionism becomes merely another manifestation of the nihilism that in so many guises, subtle and otherwise, pervades our culture.

From its generally intemperate and reckless tone, one might conclude that deconstructionism is just another Bohemian product of Left Bank Paris, still eager after all these years to shock the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it has drawn some quite solemn literary scholars in its wake, and it does have some serious philosophic sponsorship. Thus one of the significant figures among its leaders is the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is, among other things, a serious student of Heidegger. And here a significant question of philosophic derivation arises. What is the connection, is there one, between the philosophy of Heidegger, so solemn and earnest in tone, and this nihilistic doctrine of literature? Is it the case that in our culture even the most serious products of the human spirit harbor a nihilistic tendency? Are we that far gone into human decline?

The fact is that there is a more specific connection between the doctrine of the deconstructionists and the philosophy of Heidegger, and for our understanding of that philosophy I think it important to grasp this connection. But for this purpose we have, as it were, to proceed backward through the figure of Jean-Paul Sartre, remembering that it was largely through him that existentialism entered French intellectual life.

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It was a unique combination of gifts that enabled Sartre to become the primary spokesman for the movement of existentialism, and to provide the eloquence to project that movement to the center of the French intellectual scene. On the one hand, he was gifted with the power of philosophical imagination—a power that enabled him to paint the human condition in terms of bold contrasts. The metaphysical situation of man, in Sartre’s hands, has something melodramatic about it; and Sartre is willing to exploit melodrama to the hilt when the opportunity presents itself. And if the melodrama sometimes oversimplifies the philosophical issues, it can nevertheless also make a page of otherwise abstruse philosophy exciting.

The other part of his gift was an unusual sensitivity to the historical situation of the particular time, a sensitivity to what the French call le moment, the moment. For the youth of Sartre’s generation the historical moment was the rise of Nazism, World War II, the defeat and collapse of the French bourgeois republic, the humiliating years of the Occupation by the Nazis, and finally the resurgence through the French Resistance. Here was a sequence of actual historical events that, to an imagination like Sartre’s, had the unity of a philosophical drama. And the central theme of this drama, the loss and the retrieval of human liberty, was to become the central theme of his whole philosophy. Indeed, liberty is taken by him as the central or defining fact of the human condition: we cannot evade it, cannot escape it; we are condemned to be free. Since Sartre says so many other things that are unflattering about us, it is well to remember at least this thing in his favor: that he does make liberty a central fact of human being.

Nevertheless, Sartre’s view of human freedom has no connection with the concrete self who is to be free. Indeed, Sartre has no adequate grasp or concept of this concrete self; the result is that this human liberty of ours which he exalts as total can also become demonic and unbalanced. It floats in the void.

A sidelong glance at Sartre in one of his political involvements may tell us a good deal about some of the particular twists of his mind. Thus, this champion of metaphysical liberty never took a persistent stand against the Soviet Union; the modern evil he attacks is the Nazi Gestapo, never the Soviet secret police. His reason is that the Soviet Union is, after all, socialist, and socialism represents the positive part of mankind’s future. To criticize the Soviet Union would give aid and comfort to the enemies of socialism. Without going into the parts of Sartre’s reasoning that are specifically questionable from a political point of view, we note that here he is subordinating the demand for liberty, supposed to be unconditional and absolute, to a single overarching view of history. The unconditional turns out to be conditioned; and in this case, conditioned by an apriori conviction about the ultimate direction of history.

However we may hide from it, Sartre holds, our freedom is always total and absolute: the victim can always say No to the tyrant. To be sure, he may have to give up his life in the process, but that is a power, the ultimate and extreme power, that always lies in our hands. Sartre’s is a liberty of extreme situations; the question is whether this view can do justice to the ordinary and everyday situations in which we have to exercise our liberty—always a liberty conditioned by circumstances.

It is revealing in examining a philosopher on the subject of liberty to notice the particular examples of freedom he favors. What are the individuals or types in whom he sees freedom realized? These examples may tell us more about the conditions and circumstances of liberty than his abstract and general theory actually states. The examples Sartre is attracted to are usually rebels, abnormal in one way or another. One such example, and one very close to Sartre’s heart, is the writer Jean Genet.

Genet seems almost prefabricated for Sartre’s philosophical purposes: a thief, convict, male prostitute, collaborator with the Nazis. Genet represents for Sartre the free and deliberate choice of evil. Every way of life is a choice of the self we are to be; Genet chose himself as evil. He happened also to be a writer of genius, or we might not otherwise be interested in him at all. The discovery of his literary vocation is of a piece with the rest of his life: in prison, in solitary confinement, Genet suddenly found himself writing. The warden confiscated his paper; Genet went on writing with whatever scraps of material he could find about his prison. He had to write, he was not to be thwarted. Was this urge to write simply the result of some deep compulsion or was it a free choice of himself?

Sartre here places himself on the side of freedom. Even the yielding to a compulsion is an act of freedom: it is the choice of our self as the self that submits to that compulsion. The system is dialectically rigged so that freedom can be said to prevail in any case. But is this triumph of liberty merely verbal or is it real?

Genet, for example, had other compulsions besides the drive toward writing. There were the compulsions toward crime and toward homosexuality. Did these enhance or diminish his freedom? The touches of depravity give a certain power of shock to the writing—at least for a while. Thereafter they begin to pall; the compulsions toward sex and crime become obsessive and narrowing. They cut off the author from certain wider ranges of human feeling and sensitivity to which he is altogether unable to respond. Thus the choice of freedom in one direction may very well limit our being and therefore our freedom in another direction. That absolute power of freedom that Sartre celebrates so ecstatically begins to look very conditioned indeed.

It is conditioned in the first place by the character of the individual who is to exert that freedom. What we choose and how much of that choice we may be able to realize are sometimes very different matters. We are limited by the abilities, talents, and powers that make up our character. But at this point Sartre takes his most radical step: he rejects the idea of a definite or fixed self that would limit our liberty. There is no definite human nature or fixed individual character that can be a real bar to our freedom. We are always free to remake the self that seems so persistently to dog our footsteps.

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Lest we think this merely a bit of exuberant rhetoric on Sartre’s part, he has nailed it down as a fundamental part of his basic philosophic doctrine. Being, he tells us, is divided into two kinds: the being of things (being-in-itself) on the one hand, and on the other, conscious being, or being-for-itself. The being of a thing is inert being; the thing is what it is, no more and no less. A conscious being, on the other hand, is never just what it is: it falls below the level of its capacity, or it reaches out beyond its actual state in expectation. Our consciousness never quite coincides with our being. And if this sounds paradoxical to our ears, the paradox really comes from our own unconscious category mistake in thinking of the being of a conscious person as if it were merely the being of a thing.

Thus the man who declares “I am what I am,” in refusing to rise to the challenge of changing himself, is committing a double error: one philosophical, the other human. He is thinking of his own human being as no more than the being of a thing (“I am what I am”); the moral error is that he is practicing bad faith: if he were really to tell the truth, he would say, “I choose to remain as I am.” But instead, he chooses to hide from his freedom, and pretend that what is really his own free choice is an unalterable fact of his nature.

What are we to make of all this? No doubt Sartre is a shrewd observer of one fact about our human condition: namely, our desire to escape from the claims of freedom whenever we can by one excuse or another. But having granted this, we have to note that his whole scheme is much too tidy and symmetrical, too neatly dualistic. There are things and there are persons, and never the twain shall meet. But our ordinary experience presents us with quite different realities: when we find stability and constancy in a person, we do not ascribe them necessarily to the inertia of a mere thing. On the contrary, the constancy of our being may in fact be a conscious project, deliberately and energetically renewed. Why should stability be taken merely as a sign of the dead hand of inertia?

Sartre wishes to eliminate a fixed or enduring self in order to increase the range of our freedom. With no such stable or enduring self to oppose us we can remake ourselves whenever we choose to. We can be a different self tomorrow from what we are today. The promise of such total freedom sounds heady and exhilarating on first hearing; but very shortly it begins to pall and we find the idea self-defeating. How are we to go about changing ourselves if there are no persisting features of the old self to provide leverage? At the center of the Sartrean self there is only a pure potentiality, which seems at first glance to be potent and overmastering, but in fact floats in the void.

What is happening here (at the heart of modernism) is no less than an attempt to reverse the whole philosophic tradition of the West. This tradition, first expressed in the luminous common sense of Aristotle, had held that actuality is prior to potentiality. Because a thing is actually constituted in a certain way, it will have some definite powers or potentialities. The axe has the power to cut because it actually has a metal blade structured and sharpened in a certain way. The Sartrean may immediately cry that we are here talking about things, and illicitly transposing the thing-mode to all cases of power and act. But in fact we have to deal with conscious human agents in this same straightforward way: because they have certain definite characteristics—of intelligence, character, or whatever—we do say that certain actions are or are not possible to them. Here again, actuality has a priority in being over possibility. Unless we are counting on miracles, we do not expect a sow’s ear to turn into a silk purse. Possibilities are circumscribed by the actual nature of the person.

This question of the priority of actuality over potentiality may have a scholastic ring to some ears, and may therefore seem a trivial and remote matter. On the contrary, the question takes us to the heart of modernism and to the philosophy of being in which this modernism finds expression. In the modern era our human powers over nature have been greatly extended. It is only natural, then, that power and possibility should come to assume a more pronounced and dominant role in our thinking—until, indeed, they become dominant marks by which we would understand being itself. But on this central point the crucial figure is not Sartre but his master, Heidegger.

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That there is anything “insubstantial” about Heidegger’s thought, or even that it might in any way point in such a direction, seems to be very plainly contradicted by the solemnity of his text. He writes about death, anxiety, human finitude; and what subjects are more heavy and grave than these? The question remains, however, whether in the end he leaves us something substantial to hold on to.

Solemnity and seriousness, of course, can be quite different qualities, and a thinker can turn out to be solemnly frivolous without being aware of it. But here too we have to grant Heidegger his seriousness. Indeed, he is one of the really serious thinkers of our period—a period in which triviality has almost become an occupational hazard among philosophers. His seriousness lies in the boldness and ambition of his central project, which is nothing less than to reinterpret the meaning of being in a way that is different from the whole tradition of the West. Yet after all these centuries, can we really expect a philosopher to come up with some radically new answer to the ancient but persistent question, What is being? That is the question we shall have to put to Heidegger. But whatever our answer, his real significance may lie elsewhere: namely, that he gives us the meaning of being that is at work in a large part of modern culture. And that is no trivial accomplishment.

Every significant thinker, Heidegger tells us, has one central intuition that runs through all his work, and he himself is no exception. Heidegger does have a single original insight, bold but surprisingly simple, that is basic to all his thinking about being. This insight has to do with the nature of truth. And as we should expect from a thinker of Heidegger’s style, it starts with the traditional view that is found in Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas.

In this traditional view, truth consists in “correspondence” or “agreement”: a statement is true when it agrees or corresponds with fact or reality. Thus I judge that there is a tree outside the window; I look and see that there is indeed a tree there, and my statement, accordingly, is true: it agrees with fact. Heidegger does not disagree with this simple explication of the nature of truth. Indeed, how could he? It is the meaning of truth as it figures in the humblest walks of ordinary life as well as in the more abstract and theoretic assertions of the sciences. Instead, Heidegger pushes his question into the basis, or ground, of this correspondence: how is truth possible? How is it possible that thought and its object can coincide?

His answer here is of such direct and overwhelming simplicity that we are not likely to grasp its significance at once. Statement and thing can correspond because there is an open realm in which they can meet. If I am to match statement with thing, there must be this open space where the two can be put together. It is in this realm, or field, of the open that things show themselves, and truth comes to be.

There is nothing esoteric or “mystical” about this field of the open. On the contrary, we live and move through and within it all the time, so much so in fact that we hardly note that it is there. And yet it is only in this open realm that anything like truth can come about. And therefore with it, says Heidegger, we must take up our search for being. We do not begin our study of being with things or substances in the ordinary and traditional way, but with something less substantial yet more pervasive: the open field or region in which such entities manifest themselves.

This is a radical proposal indeed, and there is no doubt of the originality of Heidegger’s basic insight. Yet it often happens with a philosopher who has had an original perception that he rides it too intensely and exclusively while shutting off other and more usual points of view. You can go through the history of philosophy and tick off the philosophers who became blinded by the brilliance of their own original insight. And this, I think, is what happened to Heidegger: we do not need an either-or here—either the tradition or his insubstantial approach—but a both-and. His insight should be added to the tradition and not seek to replace it. Otherwise we get a philosophy that tends to become insubstantial and vaporous.

Consider, for example, his treatment of human beings in his greatest work, Being and Time. The analysis proceeds by exhibiting the various modes of our being—that is, the ways in which we are in the world. In each of our moods the world is disclosed to us in a certain way, and the way of its disclosure is that particular mode of our being. But then we ask the question: who is the being who is undergoing all these various modes of being? (Or, in more traditional language: who is the subject, the I, that underlies or persists through all these varying modes of our being?) And here Heidegger evades us.

Not that he does not have an answer, but his answer is evasive because it merely turns the question back upon itself in an endless circle. The “I” here is not to be understood as a subject, but in Heidegger’s expression, as Ichsein (I-being), just another mode of being, another way in which we are, along with the others. We are nothing but an aggregate of modes of being, and any organizing or unifying center we profess to find there is something we ourselves have forged or contrived.

Thus there is a gaping hole at the center of our human being—at least as Heidegger describes this being. Consequently, we have in the end to acknowledge a certain desolate and empty quality about his thought, however we may admire the originality and novelty of its construction. Much has been made of the criticism that he lacks an ethics, and that his picture of man is without any significant ethical or moral traits. But how could this be otherwise? How could a being without a center be really ethical?

All of this is not meant to dismiss Heidegger. For he cannot be dismissed; that desolate and empty picture of being he gives us may be just the sense of being that is at work in our whole culture, and we are in his debt for having brought it to the surface. To get beyond him we shall have to live through that sense of being in order to reach the other side.

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