Speak to me, chair

A Conversation with Martin Heidegger
October 25, 2002

"From the perspective of the beginning of the 21st century," Raymond Tallis begins, "it is clear that the pre-eminent European philosophers in the 20th century were Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger." Tallis then does his best to discredit this verdict.

According to him, Heidegger confuses the question "What is being?" with the question "What does being mean to us, to average human beings in their everyday lives?". Since we ordinarily deal with objects of use, Tallis argues, this confusion leads Heidegger to downgrade, if not entirely eliminate, neutral matter and the entities postulated by science. This gives priority to tools, to the "handy" things that we engage with in our "everyday coping"; neutral matter and scientific entities become ontologically, not just epistemologically, secondary, the products of an eccentric staring at things instead of using them in the way they are meant to be used.

In Tallis's view, such is Heidegger's aversion to matter that he even disregards our physical bodies, though this also stems from his equivocal use of the word Dasein , which hovers uneasily between an abstract term for "being human" and a concrete term for countable, embodied human beings. For Tallis, Heidegger's account of truth as "disclosure" makes it hard to see how we can fail to be omniscient, how we can be ignorant or mistaken in everyday matters, and how science can open new vistas to us over the centuries. If Tallis's interpretation is correct, Heidegger cannot allow for a world that extends beyond the immediate scope of everyday humanity; he can barely admit that there was a world before we appeared on the scene. He cannot even acknowledge the neutral material basis of our tools and equipment. Tallis summarily condemns Heidegger's account of authenticity and release from the dominion of others: if a doctor were authentic, in Heidegger's sense, he would neglect his professional duties. Not much is left of Heidegger after all this, though Tallis agrees with him that science alone cannot explain consciousness and everyday coping.

Tallis does not mince his words: "However maliciously you may smile", "Herr Sly-Peasant Professor", "with your knowing smirk" and "Another muddle, Herr Professor". Is that any way to address one's favourite philosopher, let alone one of the two great philosophers of the 20th century? Perhaps it is intended to create the air of a conversation.

In fact, Tallis does not converse with Heidegger at all. If he were genuinely conversing with the living Heidegger, he would no doubt avoid language likely to cause a breach of relations. He would ask him to explain and clarify his views, to show either that he is not committed to the doctrines Tallis attributes to him or that they are not as objectionable as Tallis supposes. If Heidegger were to concede that the doctrines are both objectionable and his own, he would be allowed to develop or revise his views so as to avoid the objections. Tallis, in turn, might have developed, even revised, his own views in collaboration with Heidegger.

Since Heidegger died in 1976, Tallis cannot converse with him in this way. But he could have done the next best thing. He could have discussed alternative interpretations of Heidegger's texts, suggested replies, concessions, amendments that Heidegger might have made. Tallis does none of this in the main part of his book. His approach to Heidegger is that of a hostile barrister interrogating a tongue-tied defendant. We get some of the trappings of a conversation - the repetitions, the glimpses into the interlocutors' private lives, the descriptions of their physical surroundings. But there is less of genuine conversation than in many other books on Heidegger.

This is not a trivial complaint. The views that Tallis defends (such as that we have bodies) are on the whole correct. If Heidegger ignored or implicitly denied them, he is seriously at fault. But the views Tallis defends are not peculiar to Tallis nor are they especially surprising. What makes them interesting is Tallis's claim that Heidegger does not and cannot accommodate them. But to establish this claim, we need something like a conversation, first to decide whether Heidegger does or does not accommodate them, and second to decide whether or not, if he does not actually accommodate them, he could do so if his ideas were revised, but not revised beyond recognition. This is not out of the question. Maurice Merleau-Ponty is recognisably Heideggerian in his philosophical approach, yet he insists on the importance of the body - though he is not inclined to regard it as neutral matter in the way Tallis is. Might Heidegger not be nudged, in imaginary conversation, closer to Merleau-Ponty? We surely owe it to a great philosopher, to our favourite philosopher, to treat him so charitably. Even if he is not one of the pre-eminent duo of the past century.

Why does Tallis not converse with Heidegger? He reveals much of himself in the course of his unrelieved monologue. He sits alone in a suburban pub. He is bothered by the smoke of others and occasionally admires their ankles, but he does not speak to them. He speaks to Heidegger in imagination and also to a chair (a piece of equipment founded on neutral matter), quaintly addressing it as "Herr Stuhl". He imagines watching Heidegger and Hannah Arendt in the Black Forest, but he does not speak to them in context. He sits alone on a wall on a Greek island, and again in Cornwall. He soliloquises over the sunlight on his arm. Tallis shares with Heidegger a love of life. But the life he loves is not a life of conversation between equals. (If it were, his favourite philosopher might have been Plato.) The closest thing to a conversation in this book is the appendix, where, provoked by the doubts of a publisher's reader, Tallis mounts a robust last-ditch defence of his own interpretations of Heidegger. This is by far the best part of the book.

Michael Inwood is a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

A Conversation with Martin Heidegger

Author - Raymond Tallis
ISBN - 0 333 94949 8
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £47.50
Pages - 226

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