This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."
Roger Donway, like Bryan did earlier, tries to read Heidegger’s argument charitably. Roger sees Heidegger’s argument as an attempt to demonstrate that metaphysics is a legitimate and important field of knowledge, and finds several implications of the argument which he believes Objectivists should welcome.
In understanding Heidegger’s defense of metaphysics, and whether it has any value from an Objectivist perspective, a crucial question is: is Heidegger’s concept of “metaphysics” the same concept that Objectivists designate by that word? If not, is there at least significant overlap in the meaning of the two concepts? Roger Donway does not address this question directly, but his entire discussion assumes an affirmative answer. I would argue, on the contrary, that the answer is no; there is no significant overlap at all between Heidegger’s and Rand’s concepts of metaphysics; Rand and Heidegger completely differ, not only in the content of their metaphysics, but in their conceptions of the subject matter of metaphysics, and of its function as an area of knowledge.
For Rand, metaphysics studies those principles that are true for all existents. Metaphysics’s function is to provide the pre-conditions of knowledge; the framework that must be established--at least implicitly--to make any knowledge of specific entities possible.
For Rand, metaphysics studies those principles that are true for all existents.
The Objectivist concept of metaphysics thus designates a crucially important, but very delimited, area of knowledge. It consists of the axioms; the principle of the primacy of existence; some basic ideas about the nature of time and space; and that’s about it. Metaphysics can’t provide any profound or interesting knowledge; it can only explicitly identify what is so trite and obvious that every person, if he has gained enough knowledge to survive in the world at all, must already understand at least implicitly. Roger Donway correctly notes (B.3.) that metaphysics is a field that Objectivists haven’t written much about; but I don’t agree that metaphysics deserves to be mapped out better; Objectivists haven’t written much about it simply because there is very little to say about it.
Heidegger’s metaphysics, in contrast, consists of superior knowledge, knowledge that goes beyond knowledge of any specific existents. The value of metaphysics is not in providing any sort of pre-conditions for specific knowledge; it provides us with “experience of the truth of Being,” “enquiry over and above what-is,” without which “there is no self-hood and no freedom”; “no scientific discipline can hope to equal the seriousness of metaphysics.” While Heidegger’s descriptions of metaphysics and its value have no clear meaning, the one thing that is clear about it is the implication that metaphysical knowledge is very profound, hard to attain, and gives our life and our thinking some superior state which can’t be attained by mere knowledge about specific existents. It is hard for me to think of any characterization of a field of knowledge that can be further away from metaphysics as understood by Objectivism.
(On a historical note, I believe the Objectivist concept of metaphysics is closer to the traditional concept. I believe the term “metaphysics” originated in the middle ages, because when a copy of Aristotle’s previously-lost writings had been discovered, the casket containing the book on metaphysics happened to be located after-“meta”--the casket containing the book on physics; the word was not intended to imply that metaphysical knowledge is in some way superior to or “goes beyond” knowledge of physics. There are people in this CyberSeminar who know much more about the history of philosophy than I do, so someone please correct me if I’m wrong on this.)
So, given how totally different Heidegger’s concept of metaphysics is from the Objectivist concept, the next question is: does Heidegger’s concept of metaphysics designate a valid area of knowledge, which is of some value? I think the answer is clearly no. William Thomas, in his commentary on Bryan’s essay , already noted that Heidegger blatantly commits the fallacy identified by Rand as reification of the zero. If we remove the parts of Heidegger’s metaphysics that depend on this fallacy, is there any of it left? As far as I can see, no.
In Rand’s discussion of the reification of the zero, she gives the following quote from Heidegger as identifying the motive behind the fallacy: “Genuine utterances about the nothing must always remain unusual. It cannot be made common. It dissolves when it is placed in the cheap acid of mere logical acumen.” I assume this quote is from another piece by Heidegger, since I did not find it in “What Is Metaphysics?”; but it’s easy to find quotes in “What Is Metaphysics?” that express the same motive. “If this breaks the sovereignty of reason in the field of enquiry into Nothing and Being, then the fate of the rule of ‘logic’ in philosophy is also decided. The very idea of ‘logic’ disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning” (para. 64). Heidegger uses his concept of metaphysics to dismiss logic, asserting a superior, profound, hard-to-attain mode of knowledge accessible only through emotion.
Roger attempts to read Heidegger’s view of the role of emotion charitably, suggesting that maybe in Heidegger’s view “emotions--such as boredom and dread--are not cognitive but paths to cognition,” similarly to the Objectivist view of the role of emotions as signals of automatized identifications and evaluations, pointing us to facts that we may have overlooked and need to attend to (B.1.). Roger Donway’s attempt at charity, however, just doesn’t work.
The possibility of using emotions to guide one’s thinking depends on the fact that the emotion’s object can be understood logically; further, that the emotion is itself the result of logical thinking previously performed and automatized. That is precisely what Heidegger denies; Heidegger regards the emotions of boredom and dread as putting us in touch with *what cannot be understood logically*. The value Objectivists recognize for emotions in guiding one’s thinking--by logically examining the identifications and evaluations that led to the emotion, and deciding whether they were valid--is thus precisely what Heidegger’s view *cannot* allow.
Does Heidegger’s metaphysics have any implications that can provide a positive influence in guiding people in their life? Roger believes that it does, and makes a connection to David Kelley’s view of the entrepreneurial approach to life (B.5.). On this point, I frankly think Roger’s efforts at charity have led him to a fanciful reading, with no connection at all to Heidegger’s actual words. This is an example of Roger’s earlier point (A.7.), that Heidegger’s writing is so obscure that “we get as many valid readings of Heidegger as there are intelligent readers.” Still, there are certain limits to what can be made semi-plausibly consistent with Heidegger’s statements, and I believe Roger has gone beyond that limit.
Heidegger’s notion of “nihilation”--“total relegation to the vanishing what-is-in-totality”--is, like all his notions, difficult to understand or to make sense of. But if there is one thing that is clear about it, it is that it involves detachment from any specific existents; it is not consistent with attending in one’s thinking to the identity of any specific entities, actions, or relationships. So when Roger tells the story of a married man foreseeing his future marriage to another woman (Roger’s point 26), and remarks that “That is nihilation in spades,” his remark makes no sense at all. Assuming that the man and woman in this story acted with some rationality, and didn’t just divorce their current spouses and get married on a whim, then for the man to realize the future possibility of their marriage, he had to realize the unhappy state of his own current marriage; attend to the attraction he was feeling towards the woman he just met; consider his requirements in his romantic life--in sum, he had to think very carefully and pay close attention to many specific entities and relationships in his life. What can possibly be further away from “total relegation to the vanishing what-is-in-totality”?
More generally, the entrepreneurial life, as David Kelley describes it, is a life of very careful attention and effort to observe all the specific events and relationships that affect one’s life; rigorous logical thinking to determine one’s hierarchy of values, not allowing any values to be accepted passively from authority or by social osmosis; and consideration of all the events and relationships one observes to determine their potential effect on one’s future and their relation to one’s values. Heidegger’s “nihilation” is as inconsistent with such thinking as one can get.
In conclusion, we should be careful not to let a writer’s use of some words we like (such as “metaphysics” or “freedom”) make us assume that he must be saying something interesting. When interpreting a writer like Heidegger, it is most important, when he uses a word like “metaphysics,” to carefully consider whether what he means by such a word has anything in common with what we would mean by it. In Heidegger’s case, the answer is that there is nothing in common; and consequently, there is no basis for finding any positive value in Heidegger’s lecture, or any implications that Objectivists have reason to like.
Roger Donway wrote:
My thanks to Eyal Mozes for raising a question concerning the meaning of metaphysics that I had not considered.
First, however, I want to take up a preliminary question. If I read Heidegger too charitably, or appeared even to read him sympathetically, part of the reason may be that I had to spend so much time immersing myself in his thought just to understand him, and then had to spend so much more time elaborating on his thought just to expound it. Under such circumstances, there will always be a danger of clientele-ism. I know from experience that it is an extremely common affliction in the field of foreign policy. No doubt, it is equally common in philosophy. And I may have succumbed to it.
Now to metaphysics. As Eyal Mozes observes, the etymology of the word tells us nothing about its subject matter. Ta meta ta physika simply means “the (works) that come after the Physics.” As Sir David Ross puts it: the name “meant merely the treatises which were placed after the physical works in Andronicus’ edition.” Heidegger undoubtedly knew that. But he delighted in using pseudo-etymologies in explaining his meaning, and this is surely what he is doing both at the beginning of his essay and in §§71-72.
What, then, does he mean by calling metaphysics “an enquiry over and above what-is” (§72)? Eyal writes: “Heidegger’s metaphysics...consists of superior knowledge, knowledge that goes beyond knowledge of any specific existents.” I would say: In a sense, yes; in a sense, no. As I said in my point 5, I see him as assuming that “Metaphysics inquires into the nature of beings just in so far as they are beings.” And I read Heidegger in this way principally because it seems to fit with the polemical nature of his lecture. For the positivists, physics treats entities just in so far as they are composed of matter and energy. Chemistry treats entities just in so far as they are composed of atoms. Biology treats entities just in so far as they are alive. Psychology treats entities just in so far as they are conscious. And so on. In Heidegger’s terms, these sciences examine the “what-is,” the “this-such.” But there is no field of “positive” knowledge that treats entities just in so far as they are entities. That is what I thought Heidegger was getting at by trying to redeem metaphysics, and that is why he calls it “an enquiry over and above what-is.” Is this “superior knowledge, knowledge that goes beyond knowledge of any specific existents?” One could say that, on my interpretation, without committing Heidegger to mysticism.
Does this differ from the Objectivist concept of metaphysics? For Objectivism, Eyal Mozes says, “metaphysics studies those principles that are true of all existents.” To me that comes fairly close to the Heideggerean conception.
Michal Fram-Cohen wrote:
I would like to comment very briefly on Roger Donway’s response to Eyal Mozes. I am confining my comment to Heidegger’s discussion of metaphysics in the essay “What Is Metaphysics?” while I am aware that Roger Donway was drawing on other writings by Heidegger as well in his review essay .
My first point is that Heidegger is not concerned with the historical facts of the etymology of the term “metaphysics.” Roger writes that Heidegger knew the source of the term (i.e., “the volume coming after Physics”) but “delighted in using pseudo-etymologies.” This playful attitude, however, does not fit in a serious academic treatise. If Heidegger wanted to provide a new definition for metaphysics, which would mean “a discipline that studies what is above the realm of physics,” he should have found another term, rather than invent an etymological meaning. Rand was in a similar situation when she wanted to use the term “Rationalism” for her new philosophy, but realized that it had already been used by the Rationalists with the wrong rationalistic meaning. Consequently, she used the term “Objectivism” instead.
My second point is that, the way I read Heidegger in “What Is Metaphysics?” he did not intend his metaphysics to have any connection to the physical world. Roger quotes Heidegger as saying that his metaphysics “inquires into the nature of beings just in so far as they are beings,” which Roger reads as the abstraction of entities in the physical world. I could not find where Heidegger was relating “beings” to actual entities. Instead, he was calling upon man to disconnect himself from the realm of actual entities (the world of “what is”) in order to be able to conceive of the realm of “beings.” I read “beings just in so far as they are beings” to mean: beings unto themselves, as an end in itself. Heidegger stresses in “What Is Metaphysics?” that metaphysics is concerned with “what is ‘other’ than what-is.” Meaning: “beings” are whatever is other than entities, not abstraction of entities. For this reason, I do not think that Heidegger’s metaphysics bears a similarity to the Objectivist metaphysics. His is the metaphysics of another dimension, to be characterized as ‘other than’ the physical world, and roaming with “beings.”