PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 88 18th July 2004
I. 'Moral Dialogue' by Vasco Kunft
II. 'Free Will Versus Determinism' by Stuart Burns
III. 'Reflections on The Hat' by Brian Tee and Geoffrey Klempner
This issue sees work by two Pathways students and two Pathways mentors.
Vasco Kunft from the Czech Republic is taking the Pathways Moral Philosophy program. He has written a perceptive essay which explores the difficulties which stand in the way of a genuine 'moral dialogue'.
Pathways contributor Stuart Burns from Canada has recently started the Introduction to Philosophy program, 'Possible World Machine'. He argues that the age-old clash between free will and determinism can be resolved.
Not to be out-done, Pathways mentor Brian Tee and myself offer some philosophical reflections on Zsuzsanna Ardo's play The Hat, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe at the beginning of August, and featured in Philosophy Pathways Issue 86.
I. 'MORAL DIALOGUE' BY VASCO KUNFT
Dialogue can be described as the oldest philosophical tool. Its flexibility and the unpredictability of its outcome make it ideal tool for moral negotiation. Sometimes mere willingness to engage in dialogue can bring tacit agreement to accept 'usance', our customary understandings and accommodations.
Usance which arose from previous dialogues. Usance which is very important, because we have to make time for deliberation before we arrive at judgement, but we do not always have the time before we take action.
Although the question is dialogue between an 'I' and 'thou', the many pitfalls of such a dialogue apply to all types of dialogue.
Ideally one should enter into a moral dialogue with out any preconception and be prepared that at the end one may be proven totally wrong. Not many people I know are willing to start on that premise. We have our values (which we deem to be objective), beliefs, rules, expectations etc. which we want to present and defend. Yet if we take this stance we are entering the dialogue weighed down with a priori baggage of what the other party can justifiably claim to be prejudices. We should enter the dialogue with out any expectations, only with hope that it will be successful.
Should we then abandon our beliefs? Of course not, but we must be prepared to revise or adjust them if and only if the counter-argument is reasonable, believable and acceptable to us. We have to always bear in mind that dialogue is not a fight between two dogmas, but a way to reach agreement and, failing that, at least an acceptable compromise.
This sounds relatively easy, two reasonable beings reaching tHrough exchange of views a common solution. Dream on. How many times we have to reach decision on an action where the other is not available for consultation, never mind dialogue.
We then have to enter into a dialogue where we represent both sides and to make things bit more difficult we must avoid the temptation of impartiality. We must not only try to see through the others eyes, but we have to defend his point of view (as we see it) with the same vigour as we defend ours.
The imaginary dialogue becomes even more difficult when the consequent action affect others. The prism through which we have to look becomes multifaceted and our position nay impossible. To complicate things even more, imagine that we are aiming at something new, untried, but something we strongly believe in, something we deem worthwhile, something we believe will be at the end beneficiary to all affected. How ruthlessly we will defend our view, how ruthlessly we will pursue our aim? Only as far as we are willing to accept full responsibility and full blame for, should we be proven wrong. (Not a rule, but my personal feeling.)
Not all moral negotiations are so precarious. More often then not we are not even aware that we have entered moral dialogue, and the outcome is usually satisfactory compromise. On the other hand how often we see skilled negotiator outmanoeuvre less sophisticated opponent. Such a negotiation then can not be called moral negotiation but a mere horse-trading.
We can see that despite the fact that there are not many rules governing true moral dialogue, they have to be strictly observed in order to avoid it sliding in to something entirely different and that the moral dialogue is a very strenuous and demanding exercise. We are not talking about mere willingness, but an honest effort to see through the others eyes, balancing self-assertion and self-sacrifice, being ruthless when necessary, being open minded, but defending our views without being dogmatic, trying to reach convergence, but be prepared to accept compromise. All that without the aid of some universal truth serving as a criterion.
Is there a way out of this seeming circularity? Is there practical use for moral dialogue?
We can not hope (at present) that moral dialogue will bring the ideal criterion, but any dialogue, which reaches mutually acceptable judgement, provides a comparative criterion on which to build and improve. Any successful dialogue is an added incentive to persuade those so far unwilling or unprepared to engage in it.
We see in every day life some form of moral dialogue taking place without being recognised as such. Therefore moral dialogue is not exclusive to philosophy, or everybody is a philosopher. Philosophy can provide and illuminate the metaphysic leading to the desirability of moral dialogue, but it should not end it there. The time, skill and moral qualities required for a true moral negotiation are not always readily available in any given situation. Role models provided by natural authority, cultivation of useful traditions, setting of standards, disseminating true and creating theoretical scenarios to follow, all this based on previous moral dialogues can be invaluable tool for smoothing the rocky path.
(c) Vasco Kunft 2004
II. 'FREE WILL VERSUS DETERMINISM' BY STUART BURNS
The arguments for Determinism come primarily from the realm of the sciences. The more science learns about the nature of Man and the Universe, the more likely it seems that the future is predictable. If the future is predictable, then it is possible that the decisions you think you make freely, are not so free.
The arguments for Free Will come primarily from the fact that our concepts of morality and personal responsibility for our actions are based on the assumption that the acting agent is able to choose otherwise. We need to be able to assign responsibility, bestow blame and praise, and allocate punishments and rewards.
The essence of "not responsible" is "not able to influence the outcome". The fear is that if Determinism is true, then we cannot choose otherwise than we do, and therefore are not responsible for our actions. Morality and civil law disintegrate into chaos.
The "Compatibilist" argument I will present here maintains that Free Will is not incompatible with Determinism. I will argue that once one understands what we are really talking about when we talk about "Free Will", we will realise that Determinism is actually no threat to Free Will. And that the apparent conflict between the two arises from a fundamental misconception of just what "Free Will" is.
(This is an abridged version of a longer essay that appears on the Web at http:---)
RESOLVING THE CONFLICT
Free Will is incompatible with Determinism. Man has Free Will. Therefore Determinism is false. This is the argument of those who consider the need for Free Will to be more important than the evidence from science for Determinism. There are essentially two different approaches to this way of resolving the conflict.
The scientific approach is to attack the underlying premises of scientific determinism. Quantum Indeterminacy is a favourite escape hatch. As is the "Multiple Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Physics. But scientific libertarians face a serious challenge. If your actions are not the result of your moral evaluation of the desirability of the consequences, then you are not morally responsible for the results. Depending on scientific indeterminacy to escape from Determinism is morally equivalent to rolling the die instead of making your own choices.
The dualist approach is to maintain that whatever it is in the human mind that exercises Free Will (let's call it a "soul"), it is not subject to the constraints of materialist science. But dualist libertarians also face a serious challenge. The dualist must provide a means whereby the immaterial soul, not subject to the constraints of materialist science, initiates the clearly materialist nerve impulses that generate our behaviour. So far, there has been no success at providing such an explanation.
Free Will is incompatible with Determinism. Determinism is true. Therefore Man does not have Free Will. This is the argument of the "Hard Determinist" or "Hard Incompatibilist". The argument is that "Free Will" is an illusion. Perhaps a necessary one, in order for us to function properly. But an illusion none the less. The challenge that the Hard Determinist faces is the relevance of such a conclusion. It seems difficult to understand how such a conclusion matters. The critical social importance of "Moral Responsibility" demands that we ignore the Determinist conclusion, and proceed on the alternate hypothesis that we do indeed have Free Will.
Free Will is not incompatible with Determinism. Determinism is true, and Man does have Free Will. This is the argument of the Compatibilist. It is based on the argument that the concept of "Free Will" is poorly defined and misunderstood.
The remainder of this essay will discuss the Compatibilist concept of "Free Will" and present the arguments for the compatibility of Free Will and Determinism.
COMPATIBILIST FREE WILL IN A DETERMINISTIC REALITY
In order to explore the concept of "Free Will" in more depth lets consider a game of chess between you and a chess program running on your computer. And let's examine what is taking place from the perspective of Daniel C. Dennett's "Stances". (As outlined in his "The Intentional Stance", and "Elbow Room")
It is your move. You examine the chessboard, identify some possible moves, and evaluate their desirability against your knowledge of chess strategy and your projections of how your opponent will respond. You choose a move, and (say) move your bishop. You could have chosen otherwise. It has all of the characteristics of a "Free Will" decision. Yet if we replayed the game tomorrow, and reached exactly the same point in the game, your analysis would be the same, and you would again choose to move the bishop, for the same reasons as you did today. (Assuming, of course, that you do not learn anything new in the interim.)
But now consider the move the computer responds with. The chess program examines the chessboard, identifies some possible moves, and evaluates their desirability against its knowledge of chess strategy, and its projections of how its opponent will respond. The program chooses a move, and (say) moves its knight. Did the computer program not freely choose to make that particular knight move? There was nothing in the situation that would render that particular move forced. It was not coerced. The move was not the result of random quantum events, or the flip of a coin, because a computer is specifically designed to preclude such things. It has clear strategic reasons for the move. There were a number of attractive looking legal moves available to it. It could have chosen otherwise. Doesn't this choice also have all of the characteristics of a "free will" decision? Or is there something different going on here? If this is not an exercise of "Free Will", what's the difference?
The Physical Stance.
At the physical level, the chess program running on your computer is a completely deterministic chunk of software, running on a completely deterministic chunk of hardware. The designers of computer chips and software programs go to great lengths to design out any potential quantum indeterminacies or "cause-less" idiosyncrasies. The process of testing consists of providing the same inputs repeatedly, and ensuring that the outputs are identical to what is expected. The nature of binary coding in the hardware and the software is designed to mask the microvariability of electrical voltages, currents, and charges. A more complete model of a deterministic universe could not be found.
Yet, at the physical level the chess program running on the computer between your ears is also a completely deterministic chunk of software, running on a completely deterministic chunk of hardware. The processes of evolution that designed the hardware between your ears had to design out any potential quantum indeterminacies or "cause-less" idiosyncrasies. The process of natural selection, of differential rates of procreation, would weed out any design where the same inputs did not generate the "expected" outputs from generation to generation. Evolutionary adaptations "work" only so far as they enable marginally more successful rates of procreation over may generations. Biologists have demonstrated that the nature of our genetic coding masks any microvariability of chemical affinities when replicating DNA, translating DNA to RNA, or RNA to proteins. A more complete model of a deterministic universe also could not be found. There is no meaningful difference between the computer chess program, and the human chess player, at the physical level.
The Intentional Stance.
Now think of the computer chess program not as manmade software running on manmade hardware, but as an intelligent agent. Think of the computer program the same way you would think of another person. Here is a self-interested, self-governing, self-motivating agent who wants, thinks, desires, values, contemplates, evaluates, and - chooses. The computer wants to win the game. It thinks that when I move my bishop to that spot, I am threatening its queen. It fears that threat. It hunts for a good move to protect itself from my threat. And, from the available alternatives freely chooses what it judges is a good response. Here now, at this level of analysis, we have something that looks like "Free Will".
Behaviour that looks like "Free Will" appears when we view whoever or whatever we are dealing with as an independent agent, and dismiss as irrelevant detail all of the mess at the physical levels that muddies our understanding of events. What matters to us when we are playing chess against a computer program, is how to win the game. To best accomplish that goal, the details of program design, computer language design, computer chip design, or the physics of electrons through semi-conductors are all irrelevant. What is relevant is how well we can predict the behaviour of our opponent. And it is easier, simpler, and less resource expensive for us to predict what the opposition will do, if we adopt the stance that the opposition is something just like us. We do better at predicting the behaviour of opponents, of friends, and of ourselves, when we treat them as agents who feel like they have Free Will. We invest "Free Will" (among a whole host of other self-like feelings and motivations) in ourselves, our friends, our enemies, our pets, our predators, our prey, even our cars, our folding chairs, and our computer programs. It is an evolutionarily adaptive strategy.
"Free Will", then, is a concept from the Intentional Stance, applicable to Intentional Systems. We feel we have Free Will because we can observe ourselves thinking, desiring, valuing, contemplating, evaluating, and - choosing. Determinism, on the other hand, is a concept from the Physical Stance, applicable to physical systems. We are not aware of the physical processes that take place within us. The apparent conflict between the two concepts disappears once one firms up our understanding of just what we are talking about when we discuss "Free Will". It is a "frame error" to compare or contrast the two. Both can be, and are, true. A completely deterministic device - be it a mind or a computer program - can have and exercise Free Will.
Just what exactly is "Free Will"? We can start by taking a minimalist stance, and define "Free Will" as whatever aspect of the mind would be necessary to enable "Moral Responsibility". That means that "Free Will" is that capacity of the mind that chooses and could choose otherwise.
The verb "to choose" means to evaluate the alternatives and select that alternative that appears to be the "best" according to some standard. The verbs "to decide" and "to judge" mean the same thing. If you do not deliberate over your choice, and have no reasons or justification for your choice when you make it, then you have not "chosen".
"Free Will" cannot mean a "cause-less" source of choice. How can such a "cause-less" source for your choices constitute your choices. Any attempt at such an explanation would have to address how a "cause-less" source becomes an evaluation of alternatives.
"Free Will" cannot mean a "random" source of choice. You are not normally held directly responsible for the "accidental" results of the roll of a die, because they are not your choices.
"Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil." - David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part 2). In short, how you choose between alternatives is determined by who and what you are. So if your choice is caused by anything, it is caused by the sum total of your past history because that is what you are. If you make a deliberate choice, you do so because you have reasons. And given those reasons, you would not have chosen otherwise.
For any choice to be your free choice, and not the result of someone else's control of, or influence on you, you have to make the choice based on your own understanding of your options, as evaluated by the values and priorities you have learned through experience. A choice is not freely yours if it is not based on your beliefs and your character, your experiences and your goals. Yet with all of these constraints, you still feel that the choice is a free one. That is because these constraints that I have listed are what you are. In many cases, your friends can predict the way that you will choose, because they know who you are. And if you were to choose other than you would normally choose, your friends would look for some unusual reason for this unusual choice. If these constraints are not operational when you make your choice, then you are not making the choice.
What does it mean to be able to "choose otherwise" than you did? The cause of your choice was your reasons and justifications. Given those reasons and those justifications, and given your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, you judged the choice you made to be the best of the available alternatives. Unless you learn something new to change your evaluation of the situation, you would be making the wrong choice to choose otherwise. Yet it is certainly possible that you would have chosen otherwise, had your reasons and justification been different. It is, therefore, an error in conception to presume that Free Will must involve an ability to choose otherwise, given the reasons and justification that exist. But it is not at all extraordinary to understand Free Will as including an ability to choose otherwise than you did, had the reasons and justifications been different.
The Fallacy of Fatalism
The doctrine of Determinism merely asserts that nothing happens without a cause, that every state of affairs is the outcome of a preceding state of affairs. But more importantly, Determinism does not assert that a given future will unfold regardless of what you or I may do to promote or prevent it. Yet this is the assumption implicit in Fatalism. Just because a Compatibilist believes that Determinism is true does not imply a Fatalist attitude about the uncontrollability of the future. The future is what we choose to make it.
Moral Judgements from a Compatibilist
The primary challenge facing the Compatibilist, is explaining the purpose and function of moral judgements. The answer is that we are all learning machines. Unlike the chess program, if we replay the match, we will bring to the rerun all the things we have learned in the interim. We learn from all experiences, and we can never exactly rerun a "test scenario" and expect exactly the same output.
We learn to improve our processes of evaluation and choice by distinguishing "good" choices from "bad" ones. Therefore, as an aide to learning - both for ourselves and for others - it pays to advertise those decisions that are notable for being "good" and "bad". Passing judgement on one's own choices, and the choices of others, serves the purpose of making plain how such choices "ought" to be made. Hence the purpose of praise and blame, punishment and reward.
Does the morally culpable miscreant deserve to be punished? What is the meaning of "deserve" in this context? The dictionary says it means "be worthy of, merit, earn". Surely then, the miscreant's behaviour is worthy of, merits, has earned the punishment? The objection that the miscreant could not have chosen other than he did, and is therefore not morally responsible, is invalid. What is deserving of punishment is the behavior observed, not the myriad of causes that generated it - determined or otherwise.
So the answer is "Yes!" For three reasons:
(i) to teach him to change his ways (punishment tends to reduce repetition);
(ii) to teach me what kinds of bad choices to avoid (I can learn by example); and
(iii) to teach you that I mean what I say when I tell you that certain of your choices will result in undesirable consequences for you (advertised punishments make for good deterrents).
The human brain is an incredibly complex, and deterministic, biological computer. "Free Will" is just exactly that mental process that evaluates, deliberates, and chooses the most appropriate response to the current situation.
Free Will is not represented by choices, decisions, or judgements that are uncaused, or caused by random or indeterminate events. Free Will is represented by choices, decisions and judgements that are caused by your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications that you perceive at the time.
Given the character, beliefs, values, and experiences, and the reasons and justifications that are perceived at the time, you could not have chosen other than you did. But given any difference to this long list of inputs, and you might have chosen other than you did.
The judgements we make, and the emotional reactions we feel, about the choices we and others make, serve the purpose of training the evaluative processes of the mind. We cannot learn to choose more wisely, unless we can recognise when someone makes a particularly good or bad choice. We react the way we do because we are learning machines, and that is how this particular kind of learning machine learns.
(c) Stuart Burns 2004
Web site: http:---
III. 'REFLECTIONS ON THE HAT' BY BRIAN TEE AND GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
[Excerpt from The Hat by Zsuzsanna Ardo]
MARTIN Now. Back to the mystery of existence. The oldest
mystery on earth. Let's see some of the solutions to it.
(turning back to HANNAH) How did Plato see it?
(He mercilessly puts her on the spot. Their exchange is
like shots fired with increasing speed and intensity.)
HANNAH (tentatively first) The world is... but a copy.
A copy of a perfect realm.
MARTIN And Pythagoras?
HANNAH Mathematical. For him, the world is mathematics.
HANNAH Cogito ergo sum. The world is the result of our
HANNAH It's the product of our mental structures.
HANNAH Will to power. A game of chaos and power.
HANNAH The world is a phenomenon of our existence.
MARTIN (softening a bit, nodding jokingly) Phenomenal. And
of course what they ALL forget... What they all forget to
even consider is the fundamental mystery. (Beat.) The
fundamental mystery... that something... exists. Rather
than nothing. (Beat.) That the world IS.
(As he scribbles 'Being' and 'being' on the blackboard)
BEING is the primordial condition for beings to exist.
(He walks over to the light switch and turns off the light.
Complete darkness as he speaks.) Without light... we can't
see. (Silence. Only the clock is ticking on the wall. He
switches on the light, points at the words on the
blackboard.) Without light, we can't see. Without BEING,
beings can't be.
(He takes in the mesmerized HANNAH.) And that's
comes in. As opposed to Being, each being - each of us - is
temporal. I'll grow old. You'll grow old. We all go from
Being to Nothingness. (Beat.) We all depart.
(HANNAH starts writing.)
MARTIN We all die. (Beat.) Consequently...
(Silence. Ticking of the clock invades the space.)
HANNAH We must... We must face up to the... departures. To
Nothingness. (Beat.) To death.
MARTIN (impressed, but not wanting to show) We're
going to die - so might as well take responsibility for the life
we're going to live. (a quick side glance at her) No one
else is accountable for your life. Except you.
(Walking around.) Now. If you live in the knowledge that
your own being has to depart one day from Being into
Nothingness - if you live as a being-towards-death - then
you make the most of your possibilities. You must.
(MARTIN walks back towards HANNAH, circling her in, though
keeping his gaze to himself) Then, and only then, you live
an authentic life. (side-glance at HANNAH) Then you CARE.
Then you start CARING about your world. (to himself) The
key to authentic existence is then taking responsibility
for your life. For your actions.
- o O o -
What is the connection between Philosophy and Love? Between Heidegger's philosophy and love? Not a lot you might think. In fact philosophy and love are intertwined concepts.
'Philosophy' the word translates in two ways; the traditional rendition is 'Love of Wisdom'; a less familiar yet, according Luce Irigaray, perhaps more meaningful description is the 'Wisdom of Love'.
This duality of meaning is not just wordplay but reflects a deep concern about the priority of philosophy's values: Knowledge or Kindness?
Philosophers are in love with ideas, with concepts. Philosophers need to know, the desire to find out about the Fundamental Questions Of Life takes hold and obsesses them just as Romeo desires Juliet. The philosopher's language and the lover's language are the same.
Love is what drives the philosopher.
Philosophy as the wisdom of love is concerned at a very fundamental level with how it is that we can be-with other people, with all the facets this opens up: how we can share our lives with other people, how we can cooperate and how we can even recognise that other people exist, along with how it is we can love and care for others.
It is in this sense of philosophy that 'The Hat' starts us thinking.
As a lover of wisdom Martin Heidegger is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers, not just of the 20th century, but throughout the history of western thought. Here is a man driven all his life by one love, one question: 'The Question of the Meaning of Being'. What does it mean to be, to exist as such? Yet this supreme philosopher is at the same time the man who deceived his wife, cheated his colleagues, was a member of the Nazi party. Some have complained that his philosophy of Being is unethical, ultimately non-considerate of other people: In his world, the objection goes, other people exist indiscriminately as a 'crowd' as 'things.' They are thought of in terms of what they are, what they do and not as 'people', as individuals. Any knowledge we have of them is ultimately subverted in our understanding of Being. The wisdom of love is ignored in favour of the love of wisdom.
Does this mean then that to love wisdom you have to sacrifice the wisdom of love? Is it impossible to be a loving person and a philosopher at the same time? Or is it possible to reconcile the two meanings of 'Philosophy'? Does the relation between Martin and Hannah in 'The Hat' show us how?
Heidegger's philosophical project was to understand the meaning of Being. We learn in the play that Care is in some way important to this understanding. Care is the 'letting be' of things, it is seeing the 'shown-ness' of the world, seeing that things are rather than just what they are.
How? For Heidegger it is through language that the world is disclosed. It is language that provides a space for the that-ness of things to appear. Think of the way good poetry captures the whole essence of the world without actually saying much...
Importantly the play itself is focused on these issue of language as Care and as the wisdom of love; in the words of Zsuzsanna Ardo 'the process of seduction by words'. But what words, what language? It would be language in a special sense. What is this special sense? What is language?
Language is a tool, it tell us about things, what they are, and how we can use them for our purposes. Language categorises. Language is the ultimate expression of the 'technological attitude to life' which Heidegger talks about at the end of Scene Two.
Language is also essentially communal, shared: we speak with or to someone about something, language is a being-with-others. If this is so how then can Heidegger be accused of not taking other people into account, of not recognising the wisdom of love?
Because even as being-with others language is structured towards the talking 'about something'. When we discuss we communicate information. This is a necessary aspect of language. Just imagine trying to hire a plumber to fix the sink if it was impossible to discuss his qualities or even to describe anyone as a plumber! So it is necessary but it is not enough if we aim to fully respect individuals.
This is evident in the play from the conversations of Hannah, Anne and Paul. They are talking about Martin; discussing his qualities, who he is, what he has done, they are categorising him, focusing on his 'what-ness'. Hannah and her friends discuss about Martin, while Martin is not allowed 'to be'. What is strange about this situation is that while Martin is being talked about , in a positive sense, as a great individual, from the perspective of the wisdom of love, even this is not enough to count as respecting him as a person.
So while Heidegger acknowledges a kind of being-with other people, and acknowledges that other people are necessary and important, ultimately they are instruments. People serve as a conduit for knowledge to advance. The wisdom of love turns out to be in the service of the love of wisdom
How then is it possible to justify saying that language is Care?
For that we simply have to look at the conversations between Hannah and Martin themselves. In these scenes language seems to take on a different aspect than just a relayer of information, what is important here is not simply what is said but also what is not said, the silences, the listening and the hearing. This aspect of language which Heidegger thinks is more fundamental than the fact of communication he calls 'Talk'. Language as Talk becomes a meeting between two people. This is language in the special sense called on earlier.
Of course they still have to talk about something: the Hat. And in a sense this is incidental, but it is exactly here that the being of the hat is finally shown or is seen the that-ness has been revealed in talk.
Language not as a being-with, but as this encountering, this between-ness is what is important. Hannah and her friend discuss about Martin. Hannah and Martin talk between themselves, each is seen in his or her being.
It is here then that the wisdom of love asserts itself and is taken on board in Heidegger's philosophy: 'Philosophy' as the wisdom of love would be this between-ness that comes from care and from language: It is the recognition of people not as things to be known, but as real individuals to be concerned for.
(c) Brian Tee 2004
Why did Hannah Arendt fall for Martin Heidegger? Why did Martin Heidegger fall for Hannah Arendt?
When unlikely couples get together it is easy to fall back on the vacuous explanation in terms of 'chemistry', or in this case the barely less vacuous observation about female students and their professors.
But I have a theory. Could philosophy itself have played a decisive part? Can philosophy be sexy?
In Zsuzsanna Ardo's The Hat, we are presented with Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt as an unlikely couple indeed. This elegant, fashionable young woman about town is unimpressed by the professor's 'sporty philosopher image'. Yet in the end Martin seduces Hannah with his philosophy.
What was it about Martin's philosophy that Hannah found so seductive?
Philosophy has traditionally had an unhappy relationship to sexuality. Plato's Symposium is best known for Socrates' praise for agape, what we now term 'platonic love'. Yet the language which Socrates uses in describing his love for the minds of his young male proteges betrays a powerful, and barely suppressed undercurrent of eroticism.
When moral philosophers talk about the conflict between 'reason and passion', you can be sure that their minds are on sex.
Yet, paradoxically, the language of philosophy - and in particular the language of metaphysics, the traditional core of philosophy - is shot through with priapic metaphors.
Nowhere is this clearer than the extravagantly optimistic advice which Hegel gave his students, in the introduction to his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:
'Man... cannot think too highly of the greatness and the
power of his mind... The Being of the universe, at first
hidden and concealed, has no power which can offer
resistance to the search for knowledge; it has to lay
itself open before the seeker - to set before his eyes and
give for his enjoyment, its riches and its depths.'
Philosophers uncover, reveal, penetrate. What is striking is not just the sexual undertones of the language of the philosopher's 'pursuit and capture' of truth and reality, but its aggressively male bias. It is not too great an exaggeration to say that any woman of intellect attracted by the questions of philosophy must feel the strong temptation to overcome her femininity and transform her brain into a phallus.
Hannah Arendt is one of only a handful of women who belong in the top rank of twentieth century philosophy. Her work is strikingly different in tone and character to the main currents of twentieth century thought. Arendt is hard to categorize as either a 'continental' or 'analytic' philosopher. Her greatest work, The Human Condition, invites us to share her vision of humanity rather than aggressively seeking to convert or persuade.
So how did they get together?
Heidegger was a metaphysician who sought to overcome metaphysics. Herein lies the clue.
First, we have to understand why Heidegger is so different from other philosophers of his time. The twentieth century is a saga of 'overcomings' of metaphysics. Positivism, Pragmatism, Logical Analysis - each of these movements sought to combat metaphysics. The ground was to be levelled so that the edifice of philosophy could be rebuilt once more.
By contrast, Heidegger retains the utmost respect for the Ancient notion of an 'ultimate ground of existence', an 'ultimate reality', Aristotle's 'Being qua Being'. He shares Plato's belief that human reason has the power to extend beyond experience to a 'higher' world. Yet he interprets this in a radically different way. The philosopher is not the one who is seeking, uncovering, penetrating, but rather the one who is receptive to Being, the one who by thinking creates the space for Being to be.
This is not an overcoming of metaphysics as such, but rather a repudiation of its masculist bias. The metaphors which pervade Heidegger's work are predominantly feminine.
As Martin explains to Hannah, previous philosophers have been unreceptive to 'The fundamental mystery that something exists... Without Being, beings can't be.' Recognition that we, by contrast with the being of material things, are beings who must inevitably die leads to a new way of conceiving of our relation to those things. Instead of viewing things technologically as material to use for our purposes, 'putty in our hands', metaphysics teaches us that every example of a material 'being' has a history and a context. 'Every dimple and wrinkle on your hat is evidence of your whole existence,' Martin says.
In an essay, 'Building, Dwelling, Thinking', Heidegger describes in loving detail a two hundred year old peasant farmhouse. You might well ask what relevance that could possibly have to philosophy. To leave an open space for something beyond our finite world - for the 'godhead', or 'Being' - that seems to be the core vision. For all its rugged functionality, the farm is more than just a means for making a living off the land.
According to Heidegger, we fail to see this because we are mesmerised by the image of technology, the picture of the world and nature as something over which we seek mastery, through the application of knowledge and technique.
Although Arendt the young student was deeply affected by her teacher, the later development of Heidegger's philosophy shows clear evidence of a two-way influence. His later works show a stronger emphasis on the arts, and in particular poetry. In the play, the beauty of the tree, Hannah observes, 'inspires us to create'.
So we see that the young Hannah has something to say too, and Martin listens. And their relationship stood the test of time. To coin a cliche, for a man in touch with his feminine side, a heavyweight female intellectual has a powerful erotic attraction.
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2004
See The Hat at the Edinburgh Fringe
The centrally located Bedlam Theatre in Edinburgh has offered The Hat a prime slot starting 6 pm. It previews 5-7th August, and runs daily for two weeks, except for Sundays.
The Bedlam Theatre seats 90. Ticket prices for block bookings of 20+ are offered at £2.50.
Enquires: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Bedlam Theatre 11b, Bristo Place Edinburgh. EH1 1EZ +44 (0)131 225 9873