Tag Archives: Heidegger

In Search of Truth

Prior to university, I was like many students ignorant of philosophy and I was not expecting the trashing of my long held ideas and beliefs, that a study of philosophy entailed. After this numbing experience, I began to realise that there a something that I could take from philosophy, a more well founded and subtle understanding of the nature of truth.

When I started the study of philosophy, I and my fellow students were warned that it was not about the big questions of life. It was something much more modest in its ambitions. Our study of ethics was not about how to achieve the good life, but a study of what philosophers had to say about the nature of good. A course that contained a strong element of scepticism about it. One of the first texts we were introduced to was a G.E.Moore’s essay on the non existence of good. Locke’s statement on the purpose of philosophy perhaps best explains our course in ethics. He compared the role of the philosopher to that of the under labourer. The under labourer cleared the ground prior to the builder constructing a building on that site. A philosopher cleared the ground of the intellectual rubbish cluttering up the site, and in that act of clearance left or identified the key questions that had to be answered. In our study of ethics were learnt why all previous ethical philosophies of the good life were flawed. They had been looking for the answers to the wrong questions. They had muddled the study of ethics. Study after study had failed to demonstrate the nature of good, so the obvious conclusion was that what was called good, was in fact something else, an emotion or sentiment, not a thing as concluded by GE.Moore.

Probably in trying for brevity, I have done a disservice to my tutors by over simplifying their teaching.

As a student Ernest Gellner was the philosopher who impressed me most and who gave me a life long love of philosophy. His lectures were enlivened by his use of metaphors, which suggested a clarity of thought, not always apparent in others. One metaphor he used that has since remained lodged in my mind is this one. Imagine he said that you get of a train in a town with which you are unfamiliar. You immediately look for familiar buildings such as a church, you use these familiar seeming buildings on which to construct a mental map of the area. Without this internal map from which you can judge your location at a particular moment you would get lost. What he was stating was that without a prior orientation or commitment to a philosophical perspective, any intellectual investigation was doomed to failure, as it would lack a coherence of purpose becoming instead little more than a collection of interesting facts.

However he was not prescriptive, he never said what those philosophical reference points might be. It was up to the student to discover them for himself. Philosophy was an open ended pursuit, the last thing he intended was to recruit the student to a particular philosophical perspective. I studied philosophy in the 1960s, in what was the heyday for academic freedom. Since then there has been a closing down of the academic mind. Now an intellectual checklist has to met by students wishing to get a degree. Algis Uźdavinsys is justified in summing up so much contemporary philosophy as ‘The modern scholarly pursuit that also too often resembles a sort of self-confident obsession enacted by a host of hypocritical and angry ‘grammarians’. The emancipated philosophical discourse – their object of torture – is treated in accordance with certain language games and imagined history, which paradoxically, ends, by rejecting as ‘irrational’ the love of wisdom itself.’ *

What I think leads to a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of philosophy is the failure to recognise the paradox that lies at the heart of it. Philosophy is simultaneously both a nothing and an everything. The nothing is the irony of Socrates who demonstrated in market place of Athens that its citizen’s of new nothing. He observed the truth of the Delphi oracle, by demonstrating that although he knew that he knew nothing, others did not, until he informed them of the fact. Using his dialectal method he could show they thought was truth or justice was wrong. This philosophic nihilism can threaten to reduce everything to a condition of meaninglessness. Perhaps the exemplar of philosophy as nothing is Heidegger. All that existed is, what is, beyond what is, there is nothing. Underlying conscious thought is a nothing, the abyss, and human culture was a something constructed on this nothing. In consequence there is no must have belief system, the individual is free to choose. Unfortunately Heidegger choose Nazism, a choice he would come to regret as it that meant he was barred from teaching in post war German universities.

This philosophical nihilism is continued in post modernism. For post modernists truth, is the truth of or for a historical period. Socialism and Fordist capitalism etc. were the competing foundational truths of the modern age. They were not both timeless universal values. An age that is generally reckoned as ending in the 1960s.

However there is a contradiction inherent in post modernism. They use truth in two different but contrary ways. Truths are both something of a particular time period and that is a statement this is a truth. These two meanings of truth are in conflict. In making this statement they are using truth as a judgement of correctness or rightness,; truth that is the timeless and universal statement of rightness. If they assert that truth is time relative, they must admit that this is not a true statement, but a something else.

What I find true is Wittgenstein’s statement that if you have untruth, you must have truth, as without its opposite untruth is meaningless. We are trapped within our language and to communicate we must use the conventions of that language. Communication is only possible because we obey the grammar of our language. If we try to say things contrary to that grammar, they become nothing more than a jumble of words. Those who deny the foundational grammars of our language, that is the binaries of truth/untruth, good/bad are denying reality.

Truth may be one of the foundational grammars that I cannot know completely, as words cannot adequately express that fundamental something that gives them there meaning. Not knowing truth etc. in its entirety does not prevent me and others from using it. Accepting this truth does not mean we are trapped within this grammar of language. These grammars give an infinitely flexible structure and fluidity to language. Once these grammars are accepted, an infinite variety of beliefs, ideologies and understandings can be constructed using language. Yet with the proviso these constructions must remain within the limits imposed by the foundational grammar or they become meaningless. Rather than language trapping the individual within a particular reality, it provides the means for transcending the immediacy of the lived experience. Philosophers will hopefully continue to offer imaginative solutions to the problems humanity faces, particularly those of the lived experience of humanity.

Going back to my earlier paragraph, that critical study of philosophers of the past that we as students found to be wrong; revisiting that now I would claim that what those philosophers offered was an incomplete statement of the truth. There writings although flawed contained elements of rightness, that have added to man’s understanding of himself and nature. Reading them gives the individual not an incorrect or wrong understanding, but read correctly they add insight and depth to current understandings.

*Algis Uzdavinys Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity

A God for an Economist

Whenever I confess my belief in a God my friends are incredulous. They cannot understand how a person who they consider an intelligent rational thinker can believe in such a superstition. What makes my position seem even more ludicrous is that I am a negative theologian, that is I believe that God in his essence is unknowable. Bertrand Russell pointed out that is illogical to believe in something or someone that is unknowable as a knowledge of such a being is impossible, it’s a logical contradiction. How could you know if you did not know? However I want to turn these arguments on their head. As an economist I talk about the economy but I as with my thousands of fellow economists don’t really know what the economy is in its essence. I can talk about markets, the balance of payments but they are only certain highly visible parts of the economy. Classical economists and those of a Neo-Liberal persuasion will claim that the economy consists of a number of inter related markets. The falsity of this claim is demonstrated by this simple truth, if economists understood the true nature of the economy they would have at their disposal all the tools necessary to manage and control the economy. Economic crises would disappear instead of occurring at regular intervals and the economy would be on continuous trajectory of growth. The welfare of all would be maximised. History demonstrates the fallibility of economists, all to often they get it wrong. It should not be forgotten that when the financial crisis struck in 2008, the majority of economists were caught by surprise. Only a small minority expected a crisis, but they were a small disregarded and isolated minority.

I do then believe in the existence of two entities neither of which I can really know in essence. It can be argued that while I may not understand the real nature of the economy, I am every day affected by the reality of it, it is not something that I cannot ignore, it is just there. The economy generates the tax revenues from which my pension is funded, everyday I participate in this self same economy that has the shops and chains of distribution from which I buy the essentials and good things that make my life bearable. One such good thing is the cappuccino that I buy daily at my local Salumeria. Similarly nobody would deny that they are affected by the good and bad actions of others. What hurts most, being betrayed by a friend or being unable to buy the latest IPhone through lack of funds? We all participate daily in a network of relationships whose nature determines our sense of well being. However whether they are defined as spiteful, hurtful, mean, bad or evil actions, the consequences of such actions can be devastating for the victim, more so than any economic loss. Similarly friendly, helpful, kind or good actions can transform the life of the beneficiary of such actions.

Fiction provides the classic example of a life transforming good action. The Priest in ‘Les Miserables’ who forgives Jean Valjean for his theft of the church’s candle sticks. If he had not forgiven him, Jean Valjean would have been sent back to the prison galleys where he would have lived out a short and wretched life. Human relationships can be explained or described in many terms, but all too often they are permeated with a sense of good and bad. Theologians such as myself identify that sense of good with God.

There is a tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism that goes back to St.Augustine, a tradition to which I belong that identifies God with the Good. Identifying God with the good, transforms God into a solely moral entity, an identification which I find sufficient. God as the Good, that is the source of that sense of goodness that informs all moral actions. Constantly we speak of good actions that is actions which have in common that thing which we call good. Yet this good is indefinable except through descriptions of good actions. It is this indefinable essence that theologians such as myself call God.

Describing good as a moral sense derived from God is a pre modern concept, but one that is given a contemporary guise by the theologian Caputo. God he sees as a weak God in the sense that his is a God of moral sensibilities not power. This weak God exists outside human society but is constantly pushing in and that pushing in takes the form of a pushing in of moral sensibilities. Sensibilities which mankind is free to accept or reject. Given that all accept that good in its essence is indefinable I see this explanation of the origin of good as the most acceptable. Neither Caputo or I know God but we both know God as this moral sense or good itself. This to me is the most acceptable explanation of the existence of that moral sense known as the good. This understanding of good and the nature of God is a myth in the Platonic sense. It is a truth than can only be spoken of in terms of a myth, the myth of a weak but moral God, exist beyond but in constant contact with human society. Framing truths in mythological terms does not make them less true. Some truths because of their nature cannot be explained in other than the language of religious mythology.

There is a simple story that explains my reasoning. Heidegger was one the greatest 20th century German philosophers, the one who subjected the nature of being (humanity) to forensic scrutiny, yet he almost completely lacked any moral sense. When Hitler came to power he became an enthusiast for the Nazis. He refused to help his Jewish lover Hannah Arendt, he in fact abandoned her to her fate. Fortunately she was able to escape to the USA, but with no help from Heidegger. This supreme rationalist thinker eagerly participated in all the intellectual nonsense propagated by the Nazi regime. He believed that the of the philosophy of ‘sturm und drang’ captured the essence of the Germanic nation. A man who never understood why after the Second World War that is was right that he should be excluded from teaching in German universities. In contrast to him there was the lesser philosopher the catholic Jaspers, who opposed the Nazis and had to flee to Switzerland. What cannot be denied is that Jaspers moral sense was greater than Heidegger’s, although he was the inferior thinker. Jaspers had far more of the nature of goodness about him than did Heidegger. Hannah Arendt later described Heidegger as a man devoid of any moral sense. Perhaps because Jaspers knew that myth was a valid means of demonstrating truth, that he was able to comprehend the true meaning of the Christian myths and resist the evil of Nazism. An understanding denied to a purely rational thinker such as Heidegger.

At the end of his life Heidegger began to turn away from rationalism and began to look for truth as expressed in poetry. He found truth in the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin that was absent from his great work of philosophy ‘Being and Time’. This new searching for truth found him attending Sunday Mass at his local Catholic Church.

If I give an identity to good surely it is necessary to give an identity to evil, a theology such as mine requires a devil as the personification of evil. Admitting the existence of the devil would take my theology back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately Augustine provides an answer as to why there is evil in the world without needing to reference a devil. Evil acts according to Augustine are undertaken by those who do not know good or God. Rather than evil being a thing it is a not knowing, a not knowing God. Men with no moral reference points commit bad acts, because they have no knowledge of good. Knowing good means more than just knowing the word, it a knowing that penetrates the very fibre of existence. It’s a knowing that involves changing one’s persona according to the strictures of good or God. As Plato said once you know good you will not wish to do evil. The most extreme practice for the knowing of good was that undertaken by the hermits such as St. Anthony who spent a lifetime as a hermit living in exile in the desert struggling to know God or good. However Kierkegaard provides a more achievable alternative, he recognises the frailty of human nature. A Christian life for Kierkegaard is one of slipping in and out of that ecstatic knowing if God (good), it is impossible he says to constantly be know good, as we are all moral backsliders. In Augustine’s word we are the ‘not so good, saints but our actions are influenced by our understanding of the good.

The problem with theology as with philosophy is that once one starts to unpick the ideas that make up the content of the subject, the investigation into their significance and meaning can be endless. Rather than undertake such an investigation I prefer to state that this theologian and economist finds it sufficient to identify God with that moral sense we know as good. Other understandings of God are unnecessary, God might be a creator God, the Triune God (the one in three God) or the God that brings the world to an end at the end of days, but they are all irrelevant to how I act. They are questions that I don’t need answering. To put it in the language of the past I am an adept in two separate spheres of knowledge the non rational knowing of God and the rational understanding of economy. As with Jaspers I subordinate the knowledge of the second to the first, as moral sensibility must always take precedence over and inform my rational thinking. Never unlike many current economists and politicians could I subscribe to Says Law which states that in any recession unemployment and falling wages must be allowed to continue until the wages of the unemployed as so low that they price themselves back into employment. The misery that is consequent on adopting this policy disqualifies it as a viable policy option. How can it be right in a rich country such as Britain to have children going hungry and living in squalor? Yet our political class practises a more sophisticated version of Says law under the cover of globalisation, which states that to keep people in work in face of competition abroad it is necessary to reduce incomes to the lowest level to retain employment in this country. There are many alternative policies which could be adopted with better outcomes for all but which are never considered.