WILLIAM BARRETT (Interview with BRYAN MAGEE)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2965

[BRYAN MAGEE]: Professor Barrett, if you can imagine that I am somebody who knows absolutely nothing at all about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and you are going to set about giving me some basic idea, how would you begin?

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PROFESSOR WILLIAM BARRETT: … I would start with the fundamental concept of 'being in the world'. You and I are together in the same world. You are not a mind attached to a body, and I am not a mind attached to a body; primarily, we are two human beings within the same world. The way in which average, ordinary (or extraordinary) human beings are concretely in the world—that is where we start from and that is where we begin to philosophise about it….

How does Heidegger then proceed?

Once you are planted in the world, the task of philosophy becomes primarily one of description. The philosopher aims to describe the various modes in which we exist within this world. In this respect, Heidegger's approach is a little different from some of the anti-Cartesian rebels in British philosophy—say, Broad or Wittgenstein—who start with very definite problems of knowledge and perception: 'How do we know the external world?' and so on. When you propose an epistemological question—a question of knowledge, perception, and so on—you are already in the world to propose it. Your ticket of admission to the ordinary world is not contingent upon your solving that puzzle.

Knowledge is simply one mode of our being in the world, and there are various modes in which we are in the world. Some of them are much more urgent and less theoretical than knowledge: we are anxiety-ridden sometimes; we are worried; we are concerned.

Does the name, 'existentialism,' imply that the existentialist philosophers see existence as a problem?

It is a problem, since we have to cope with it, but it is the given, in any case; it is not inferred. The problem is then to characterise it descriptively. It is important to emphasise, apropos of Heidegger, that his aim is descriptive; he is not a speculative metaphysician. He is not erecting any abstract speculative theory about what ultimate reality is. If his ideas stand or fall, they stand or fall in terms of whether they are adequate description. (p. 201)

You say that what Heidegger is trying to do is to give a description of being, of existence, of what there is. But a layman might ask: 'What is the point of this? We have this existence; we are living it. What is the point of describing that with which we are already utterly familiar? What can a description of this give us that we have not already got?'

It is the familiar that usually eludes us in life. What is before our nose is what we see last. It is true that the features of human existence which he describes are, in many ways, commonplace, but you have not seen them quite in this way before, and I think it is the case that people do not see what is before them; they look past it, or look through it. Adequate description of experience would enlighten our eyes to what there is, which is not easy to see in all cases.

Does this mean that there is, throughout Heidegger, an emphasis on the everyday, on the ordinary, on the familiar?

Yes, but there is also an emphasis on the extraordinary, the unusual. If I compare Heidegger, in this respect, with another philosopher of the 'everyday'—let us say, the later Wittgenstein—the comparison is rather interesting. Wittgenstein envisages the task of philosophy to be the unravelling of the snarls of our ordinary language, so that we can continue functioning on the same plane: some level plane of efficient communication within the world. We almost envisage, with Wittgenstein, the possibility that, if we unravelled all the snarls in language, philosophy would disappear; all the problems which sent us into philosophy would disappear. But in Heidegger's case, we move along that plane of ordinary reality, and then, suddenly … extraordinary gaps, abrupt kinds of experiences.

I think we are getting Heidegger in our sights, but people will be beginning to ask themselves: 'Yes, but what does he actually say? What are his doctrines?'

Well, one is the notion of what he calls the 'thrownness' of human existence. The word in German looks very imposing, Geworfenheit, but it is a rather simple notion: we are thrown into the world and this is a case of where what is most ordinary and banal is nevertheless a quite extraordinary fact about our individual human destiny.

We simply find ourselves here without, as it were, a by-your-leave, or anyone having asked us?

We did not pick our parents. We are born of those parents, we are born at this particular time, we are born with whatever genetic structure is given to us, and this is the load we take upon us in order to fashion a life. In this sense, we are thrown or projected into a world, and human life starts as a cast of the dice. Its contingency is rooted in the inescapable facts of our individual birth and parentage, our individual time in history.

And what does Heidegger have to say about that?

We begin our existence as a task, as something we take upon ourselves. Existence is not a neutral fact, it is ongoing—it has to be. We are thus always involved in the task of creating ourselves—always from this contingent factual basis.

And moving into an open future all the time.

Right. The future is the predominant tense in Heidegger. We construct the notion of clock time, we make watches and other chronometers, because we are planning to use our time, we are projecting ourselves into the future. For Heidegger, the present has meaning only insofar as it opens toward a possible future.

You were saying, just now, that Heidegger, in his attempts to give an illuminating description of our everyday experience of life, is aware of the sudden holes in it as well. Were you thinking of death?

Death, anxiety, conscience. It is rather interesting that the description of death he gives rather turns over our usual notions, which try very much to escape from the fact of death. We usually think of death as a fact in the world: we read about people dying, we read obituaries, and so on; it happens to other people. It will happen to me, but not yet; it is something out there in the world, as yet external to me. The peculiar thing is that my death will never be a fact in the world for me, I will never read my obituary. This is, I think, a very significant fact. (p. 202)

I must say, this is something that I find deeply congenial. Although I was trained in philosophy in an entirely different tradition from this, everything you are saying makes very great sense to me. I have very strongly this feeling—and I suppose large numbers of people must have it—that our everyday life is banal and over-familiar and yet, at the same time, mysterious and extraordinary. I have that double feeling about life, and I certainly have, very strongly, the feeling that, in the face of death, one wants to seek some meaning in one's existence. Having reached this point, does Heidegger call in aid a traditional religious explanation of existence?

No. He has no answer. All he is pointing out is the structure of human existence, or the framework within which one has to pose these questions. He is showing that this is a dimension of human existence which has to be faced. What answer you give to the question, 'What meaning does my life have?', will depend upon the particular individual. Heidegger has no ethics.

One feature of human life which he does draw a great deal of attention to is the finitude of it. We have scarcely got used to finding ourselves here than it all stops again, and the fact that it all stops again is, for most human beings, very alarming. How does he recommend that we proceed from there?

No recipes. He points out that, whatever decision you take to give your life meaning or to encounter death, it is the human condition that must be faced in one form or another. Socrates remarked that all philosophy is a meditation on death, which we might interpret liberally in this fashion, that man would not philosophise if he did not have to face the fact of death. If we were all Adam, living eternally in the Garden of Eden, we would just saunter along and ruminate about this or that, but not about any serious philosophical issue.

One thing that Heidegger and the existentialists face, and which I think previous philosophers did not face, is the fact that our knowledge of death induces anxiety.

Yes. And I think this is fundamentally a sound and healthy assessment of the fact of anxiety. Anxiety has led a chequered career in modern culture. It became fashionable a few decades ago—remember when Auden wrote his book, The Age of Anxiety? People went around cultivating their anxieties, which is rather silly…. The other modern attitude, which is partly the result of our being a technical society, is that we imagine there should be some means by which we can simply press a button and get rid of our anxieties, that they are not something which has to be faced and lived through. I think either extreme is rather unfortunate. Anxiety is simply part of the condition of being human. Heidegger says: 'There are all sorts of anxiety, and in some forms, it has the peacefulness of a creative yearning.' If we were not anxious, we would never create anything.

But man's attempt to run away from his own anxiety, to evade the reality of his own mortality, leads, doesn't it, to the next existentialist theme: namely, alienation—that we avert our eyes from the stark reality of our own existence and, in a sense, cease to participate in it? 'Alienation' is another term which has become much misused by fashionable writers.

Yes, but it does happen to be one of the deepest themes of modern culture. It preoccupied Hegel, Marx, and I think it has been a main item in the literature of the 20th century. The word, 'alienation', is tossed around, and the mere fact that we make it into an empty banality promotes our alienation—it is one of the forces.

One way of escaping anxiety is not to take it seriously, to make it frivolous and trendy.

Yes. Alienation occurs, for Heidegger, at several levels. One is the level at which we may lose ourselves in the impersonal social self—a man buries himself in his persona, his social role. As a matter of fact, Sartre took that from him and developed it in a very melodramatic fashion. (pp. 202-03)

Like so many other philosophers, Heidegger, having worked out a big philosophy when young, then moved on from his early concerns. 'Being and Time' is presented as being the first volume of what is to be a two-volume work, but the second volume never came out, so all we ever had was this first half of a book. Why did he not finish that initial programme, and why did he then go on to do unexpected and unforeseen things?

This is a subject of discussion and speculation. It turns out, from information I have had just a month or so ago in the United States, that Heidegger has left the manuscript of this second part.

So it does exist and it will be published?

It will be published as a kind of Nachlass—something he has left behind—but I do not think it was publishable. I think I know what he was going to say in that, and he said it in his book on Kant. But then there occurs this thing which Heideggerian scholars call die Kehre—'the turn'. He felt that, in Being and Time, he had riveted his attention too exclusively on man; that this philosophy was a powerful form of humanism, but there was no systematic grasp of what the human being is rooted in.

The material world, you mean?

Yes, the cosmos. Heidegger would say he is a follower of Parmenides, the Greek sage who had this electrifying idea of 'the all is one'—for the first time in human history, the notion of the totality of being as one thing, to which we have to relate ourselves in our thinking. Heidegger feels that what has happened with modern culture is that we have lost those cosmic roots, that we have been detached from the sense of our connection with the whole….

What are the main themes, then, of the later Heidegger?

The later Heidegger is not systematic—or not even systematic in the way in which he attempts to be in Being and Time. The later Heidegger is very centrally concerned with the problems of poetry and art, and the problem of technology. Heidegger felt that one of the tasks of philosophers in this period is to try to think through what technology involves. He felt that modern thinking is too superficial, too inauthentic, with regard to the subject of technology. On the one hand, you find people with a very flippant attitude—they are against the machines, or they are for technology. 'It makes no sense,' he said, 'for man, at this particular juncture of history, to be for or against technology.' We are obviously committed to technology; if you removed it, the whole thing would collapse. That is part of our gamble. On the other hand, there is the point which the atomic bomb has brought forth for human consciousness generally: that technology has drastic possibilities. Hitherto, people have protested against it as a local nuisance or causing unemployment, sabotage, and so on, but the notion that mankind could 'self-destruct' suddenly showed us the fearful possibilities within the technical complex. Heidegger was concerned with thinking through where, in the historical destiny of man, the roots of his technical being lie, and where it might possibly be carrying him.

But how does his concern with poetry relate to his concern for technology, unless he sees these as two sides of the same coin?

They are. They are opposite. There is a certain disposition on the part of some philosophers, when they are examining language, to treat it as an instrument which can be manipulated and controlled. This represents an extension of technical thinking even to the domain of language. Now, the thing about a poem, in Heidegger's view, is that it eludes the demands of our will. The poet cannot will to write a poem, it comes. And we, as his readers, cannot will our response; we have to submit to it and be passive to it. Heidegger connects the technological assent of this civilisation with its Faustian will, which becomes eventually an achieved will, the will to power.

This goes right back to man's determination to master nature, which is the basis of our whole modern culture, and which he is in rebellion against.

Exactly. I think the key quotation here would be from Francis Bacon, who is a prophet of the new science—I always think of Bacon as being a publicity man for the new science. He says: 'We must put nature to the rack to compel it to answer our questions,' which is a very dramatic way of endorsing the experimental method. But even if we put poor, tortured nature to the rack, we have to listen to our responses. We have to give ourselves and be receptive. There is a point at which our twisting has to submit to whatever is there to be absorbed….

I have found in Heidegger, about whom I knew very little before, all kinds of illuminating insights. I cannot help wondering why it is that other philosophers—for instance, A. J. Ayer, Karl Popper and Rudolph Carnap—pour scorn on Heidegger and the kind of philosophy that he is attempting. They dismiss it as nonsense, rubbish—'It's all a lot of rhetoric, it's all a lot of words.' It seems to me that you have only to read the stuff for five minutes to see that it is not just a lot of words. Why has it been so derisively dismissed by so many able people?

Heidegger's vocabulary is, initially, rather jarring, but I think, if you read him in German, he writes a fairly straightforward German and, certainly, if you compare his prose with, let's say, that of Hegel, it seems to me that Heidegger is lucidity itself. But what we do find in philosophy is that there is a prejudice for certain chosen vocabularies. (p. 203)

Heidegger's view of freedom is a very quiet one, and subtle, and soft. Our fundamental freedom is the freedom—if we can manage it—to become open, to let truth happen. Most of us are shut off from truth, in one way or another, in our dealings with other people; we have resistances which cannot be breached. But sometimes there is a fissure in this wall that shuts us off, and we are able to let be. We no longer seek to compel. The whole of the later Heidegger is really a prolonged attack on the will to power, as characterising Western civilisation. (p. 204)

William Barrett, in an extract from an interview with Bryan Magee (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of William Barrett), in The Listener, Vol. 99, No. 2547, February 16, 1978, pp. 201-04.

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