Sunday, September 25, 2011


This post is on Heidegger, therefore it is already over my head.

But I want to address the question of what it is I like about Heidegger. Not that I really know Heidegger, first of all. I've read a few things by him, and a few things about him. Often I have no idea what he's talking about, really. In some of his later stuff, I roll my eyes at the pomposity of his language and the sense of cleverness he has in his homebrewed mysticism. [does one "brew" mysticism? it seems like a little too intoxicating to be baked or stewed...] So please do keep that disclaimer in mind. I am not speaking about HEIDEGGER as such but my (embarrassingly simple) impressions of Heidegger according to our limited contact.

And second as a disclaimer, Heidegger is not my favorite. Yes, I do tend to go by the username HeidegGURL but that is only because it is such a silly name, transposing to a wholly nerdy dimension all the "SephirothGIRL777" and "MrsTimberlake0806" screen names you will find out there. And I hate having to add numbers at the end, so I do need a screen name like this that is never already taken. And SocratesGURL really doesn't work. End of story.

Those disclaimers in mind, let begin with a commercial that keeps popping up on hulu:
"Because what are you without your stuff? Or better yet, who are you?"

Very philosophically provocative for a commercial. Your first instinct might be to say, "I am a human being with intrinsic worth, whether I have stuff or not." I will tell you to get off your Cartesian soapbox. This is the first thing you have to do to understand Heidegger. The subject/object divide is one way of looking at the world, but it's not a very helpful one. In fact, it blinds us to the way things actually are. Think more carefully. I dare you to find me a human being without stuff. Better, a human being who has no interest in stuff. Such a person would not be psychologically healthy. The fact is, humans are not isolated individuals who decide to step out of their interiority to enter into the world, and who then decide to get involved with things. we always already are in the world and we always are involved with things, whether we like it or not. We are relational beings, and we're involved in very complicated webs that tie us to things. Sure, maybe Norton is pushing a little hard on the idea that electronic records of your stuff are the most important thing to you, which might be going a little far. but still, we are the kind of being who doesn't just survive like an animal, we live, and not just that, but we carve out a space for ourselves. We appropriate things to our own use. We personalize our environment. Taking a raw world and cultivating it is what we do. Heidegger talks about this in his later works (but with a lot more weird mysticism) as "dwelling," which is a very different thing than simply surviving.

This is what I think Heidegger does really well - give an everyday phenomenological account of what it is to be human. Not just in an abstract sense, "we have reason and free will" and all that. But what it looks like to be a human, which for him involves being-with-others-in-the-world. Blah blah, big German words, whatever, Heidegger. But to be a human means precisely to be in a world where we live and interact with things, and he describes this a lot in Being and Time. One of the most primary ways we interact with things is as tools. A good tool is essentially invisible to us until it stop working. This is brilliant - and there was another commercial that captured this well, but I can't find it. What we want in a pen is something we don't have to worry about - we want it to work so flawlessly we don't even have to think about it at all. We just need to write something and it's available at our desk to do precisely that. Of course, we can change the mode in which we think about tools. We can, as we're doing right now, consider the pen in itself. What is it, really? Who came up with the idea, how does it actually work? That's a different mode of being than the being of the tool. This is the mode of objective being, but notice how it doesn't come at the beginning, it only comes when we decide to think of it this way (or when it stops working, etc). This means that there are all sorts of other things that we may not be able to objectify right now just because we're never going to get to the end of what we're taking for granted. (Once again showing how Descartes is inadequate.) Also, a tool is not by itself. Tools are a part of networks of use organized according to the things we concern ourselves with. To put it in a different way, we are driven in life according to our particular concerns, and these concerns will make other things appear to us in particular ways.

He also has a good description of authenticity and inauthenticity of relating to others. We most easily slip into "the They," the anonymous sense of public opinion and culture that we live in. Heidegger calls the kind of autopilot existing this leads to "fallenness", not in the sense of sin, but in the sense of gravity. We slip into it. In order to resist it, we have to take the effort to really think authentically, according to "our ownmost possibilities" and not just be a sheep. This idea of gravity is absolutely fascinating to me. But we should save that for another post, because it moves beyond just Heidegger anyway.

Heidegger also links our concerns to a greater sense of uncanniness, that the world is not quite our home, and ultimately a fear of death. But to live authentically, you have to deliberately live towards death as the moment which is most essenitally yours and no one else's. This is kind of where Heidegger gets problematic for Christianity. In Being and Time he's not trying to make the world friendly and happy - it is kind of scary and foreign, but there's no possibility for anything better. In his later works he moves past that to a more welcoming place. Again, neither really suits Christianity.

Finally, to be even less precise, Heidegger's later works spend a lot of time talking about space. He goes into some really weird things I don't fully understand, but at at the same time, his mode of consideration really influences the way I think. My goal is no longer just reading and comprehending, but I am led to deep reflection on thinking, and how to be open to the right space for thinking. He's not the only thinker who does this. But he is certainly one of them. Sometimes metaphors can open up new possibilities for seeing things as they are, and I think this is certainly the case in Heidegger, the fruit of his constant struggle to think in an originary manner, instead of easily falling back on old patterns. I find him at times confusing, at times annoying, at times completely wrong, and not a thinker I want to specialize in uniquely, but still one who opens many new horizons of thought for me. These are the kinds of thinkers worth entering dialogue with.

In conclusion, he has an awesome theme song.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Death and Thinking, part 2

Last year I was thinking a lot about distance and thinking. It seemed so clear to me that to think about something is to remove yourself from it, abstract away the beating heart of the world to consider the colorless ghost of its idea. For this reason philosophers were in danger of removing themselves from life, and becoming cold, calculating robots. Thus graduate students should be rightly afraid, because a life of pure thought is a life tainted with death.

I still think there are dangers to thought, but I realize I've been taking the wrong angle. Instead of asking how thinking makes us distant from the world, I should have asked: what is the most human way to encounter the world?

It is certainly not to try to step out of the world and view it from a disembodied Cartesian way - even if we do view systems at times in such a theoretical way, that's not really the best expression of the "most human" approach to the world. (There is a reason we don't place mathematics under the "humanities".) Nor then again does a human encounter require us to plunge headfirst into immanence, mute our reason, and live like an animal. When we do this, we are also distant from the world, because even if our bodies are immersed in it, our minds aren't really there in their truest capacities - the only way we can even do this is to repress our deepest faculties.

So it seems that some kind of thought is necessary to live in the world in a human way. But what kind of thought? Or maybe we should be careful about the word "thought", because we don't want any Cartesian connotations sneaking in - we still haven't talked about what "thought" means.

Four small paragraphs and I'm already in over my head. I'm not really going to solve anything, just propose an idea. Perhaps the most human way to encounter things is not to know individual things or isolated systems of properties, but to recognize their real value. By recognizing an object in the way that it is good, we can't just strip it down to properties in a system. The good isn't just a concept in our minds we can consider or ignore without consequence, but a powerful, living force that draws us - it is our deepest desire. By seeing the the good in whatever we study - numbers, cave paintings, acids, the theory of theories, or even God - we don't have to be so alienated and distant from it. When we recognize the good, we are naturally drawn into love, and I believe this is the most human - and most divine - way of encountering the world.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Apothegmata Patrum

I've been reading the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. When we think of the ascetic athletes of Skete, we think of austere men hardened by fasting and vigil and battle with the demons, keenly aware of their own sins, and intolerant of nonsense in others. Yet, when we read these stories we see nothing of what we might expect from a constant self-negation born of hatred, as the secular understands self-denial to be. Instead of judgment and pride, we see an otherworldly abundance of mercy, humility, and peace. The presence of such fruits, reaching far beyond the limitations of their culture and time, are the strongest proof the Spirit in their midst. As I read these stories, I wonder, what would I have done in these situations? The Fathers' actions are a constant surprise to me, like Christ in the Gospels, by the way they transcend the norms of the social order in service of love.

Here are two of these stories, both of Abba Ammonas.

8. ...Abba Ammonas advanced to the point where his goodness was so great, he took no notice of wickedness. Thus, having become bishop, someone brought a young girl who was pregnant to him, saying, "See what this unhappy wretch has done; give her a penance." But he, having marked the young girl's womb with the sign of the cross, commanded that six pairs of fine linen sheets should be given her, saying, "It is for fear that, when she comes to give birth, she may die, she or the child, and have nothing for the burial." But her accusers resumed, :Why did you do that? Give her a punishment." But he said to them, "Look, brothers, she is near to death; what am I to do?" Then he sent her away and no old man dared accuse anyone any more.

10. Abba Ammonas came one day to eat in a place where there was a monk of evil repute. Now it happened that a woman came and entered the cell of the brother of evil reputation. The dwellers in that place, having learnt this, were troubled and gathered together to chase the brother from his cell. Knowing that Bishop Ammonas was in the place, they asked him to join them. When the brother in question learnt this, he hid the woman in a large cask. The crowd of monks came to the place. Now Abba Ammonas saw the position clearly but for the sake of God he kept the secret; he entered, seated himself on the cask and commanded the cell to be searched. Then when the monks had searched everywhere without finding the woman, Abba Ammonas said, 'What is this? May God forgive you!' After praying, he made everyone go out, then taking the brother by the hand he said, 'Brother, be on your guard.' With these words, he withdrew.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thought, Creativity, and the Good

"We are by nature creators, not just consumers. We are creators because we think. And because our thought (our rational nature) is also the basis of our personalities, one could say that we are creators because we are persons.... When we act in a manner proper to a person, we always create something: we create something either outside ourselves in the surrounding world or within ourselves--or outside and within ourselves at the same time. Creating as derived from thinking is so characteristic of a person that it is always an infallible sign of a person, a proof of a person's existence or presence. In creating, we also fill the external material world around us with our own thought and being. There is a certain similarity here between ourselves and God, for the whole of creation is an expression of God's own thought of being.

Although thought is the basis of the creativity in which we express ourselves as persons, this creativity neither ends nor culminates in thought. That which is most characteristic of a person, that in which a person (at least in the natural order) is most fully and properly realized, is morality. Morality is not the most strictly connected with thought; thought is merely a condition of morality."

-Karol Woyjtyla, "Thomistic Personalism" in Person and Community, 171-2

This made my jaw drop.

I need to read more of this guy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ochre Serenity

"Let me return to the mediocre painting that I earlier had my eye on: how can I describe it in its own phenomenality? A generic scene so ordinary, displaying a house, a servant at the window, the animals and a man outside, vegetables and fowl, etc., cannot be analyzed as such. First, because strictly speaking it is impossible to identify it with and by its characteristics as a real being (size, mounting, etc) which would suit so many other objects--it's not a question of a subsisting being. The same goes for the objects it represents intentionally, objects that can be confused with an infinite number of similar ones on similar canvases. And for that matter, its first function is not to instruct us about these objects; as a painting, it has no utility--it is not a question of a being ready-to-hand. What remains once these two identifications have been reduced? For some element does indeed remain--by which it keeps precisely the rank of a painting.

But what do I see when I see with phenomenological rigor? Not the framed canvas, nor the country objects, nor even the organization of the colors and the forms--I see, without any hesitation, the ruddy and ochre flood of the day's last light as it inundates the entire scene. This luminosity itself does not strike me as a fact of color; rather, this fact of color strikes me only in that it makes me undergo a passion: that, in Kandinsky's terms, of ochre tinged with gold--the passion undergone by the soul affected by the profound serenity of the world saved and protected by the last blood of the setting sun. To see the painting, to the point where it is not confused with any other, amounts to seeing it reduced to its effect. The effect of serenity defines the visibility of this painting--its reduced phenomenality. Its phenomenality is reduced--beyond its beingness, its subsistence, and its utility--to this effect: ochre serenity.

Painters look for this phenomenality when, the painting having been completed (or almost so), they wonder to themselves, "ce que cela donne, what [effect] it gives off." What more does a painting give besides what it shows in showing itself as object and being? Its effect. What more does the painting offer besides its real component parts? Its effect. But this effect is not produced in the mode of an object, nor is it constituted or reconstituted in the mode of beings. It gives itself. The painting (and, in and through it, every other phenomenon in different degrees) is reduced to its ultimate phenomenality insofar as it gives its effect. It appears as given in the effect that it gives.

Thus is defined the essential invisibility of the painting, which we can pass by because there is nothing objective or ontic to see in it. In the end, for every reduced being, all that remains is the effect, such that in it the visible is given, is reduced to a given. The painting is not visible; it makes visible. It makes visible in a gesture that remains by definition invisible--the effect, the upsurge, the advance of givenness. To be given requires being reduced--reconducted--to this invisible effect which alone makes visible. Nothing has an effect, except the phenomenon reduced to the given."

--Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given, 51-52

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Skeletons, I

Everything that is, from the beginning, is caught up in order. The blossom only appears through the support of the stalk and leaves - a coherent, functional system that supports - and yet somehow is unlike - the unexpected burst of beauty it produces. Words too, of writers, of poets, flower with layers of meaning unfolding to infinity, yet are supported in their weight and order by the syntax underneath. Yet the external is always the flesh, the surface we touch with our hands and eyes; the syntax is buried underneath, as the skeletons hidden beneath our flesh. A humble job, to synthesize and support with no acknowledgment or recognition. Indeed, a skeleton we touch, that acts as a surface frightens us - it is death, torture, mortality. Syntax by itself, and the rigid methodology of the philosophers, is death when touched by and for itself. Not all death is permanent, of course - sometimes to analyze a poem can later help it to come rise again to new and deeper life. Still, sometimes it merely crumbles to ashes. Many a good syntactician has lost the ability to enjoy a novel. Regardless, the philosophers and linguists touch these skeletons all day, some with the caress of love, many with the cold detachment of a surgeon about to operate on yet another object to take apart.

What does it mean, to caress death, structure, abstraction, to ignore the flesh? Cloaked with these words it sounds like a perversion of thought (must we then strip off this flesh to reveal and judge its truth on the naked ribs?). Certainly it will be morbid perversion if fills the whole of one's activity. And yet these skeletons have an important role that cannot be neglected. They make up an intrinsic part of bodies, the literal human body, the spiritual body of Christ, or the intellectual body of a text. Form and content, Balthsar says, are two poles, not two opposites - for the skeleton supports the flesh and the flesh keeps the skeleton alive. Bones are alive - it is funny to think of, for they are alive precisely when we do not think of them, when we do not see them, when they are properly hidden beneath the flesh. We osteologers, logicians and academics, do a valuable service in studying the skeletal systems, and indeed, knowing the skeleton guides one's ability to bring health to the body, one's own or those of others. Yet we must be careful not to make the living body into a corpse through careless extraction.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spirit and Life

"Human bodies are circular."

When a friend of mine made this comment, I thought at first he was making an Origenist joke - as Fr. Peter explained in a Lumen Christi lecture, that we all will inhabit perfectly spherical bodies when we die (and I still remember Thomas following that with one of his best retorts, "Some of us are already becoming that way!")

But my friend went on to explain it in a more metaphysical way - almost everything about us seems to be built on cycles. Metabolism, blood circulation, nervous system, reproductive system (especially for women!), and even the birth and death of every individual cell. It's not only at the internal level, but the external level as well - the seasons change, the sun rises and sets, animal and plant life grows and dies - birth, life, dying, death, and a new birth to begin again. We have become so used to thinking in linear, scientific terms, to Hegelian philosophies of determined development of the consciousness, to narratives that have a beginning and an end (if we even think about the final end at all). And yet, while development is real, "The Circle of LIfe" is not just a song from the Lion King, and it is not just an outdated mythology of tribal civilizations - there is very real truth to the fact that human beings are circular creatures.

This is not only built into our environment or our bodies, but our spirits themselves - we get up, we work, we sleep. We go to school, we wait for summer. We get bored of summer, and wait for school. We wear down grooves in our consciousness that diverts the flow of energy directly to certain thought patterns and actions - the very philosophy of virtue depends on our circular nature! How do we become virtuous, or gain excellence at anything? By practice, by entering the circle and repeating over and over until this circle is absorbed into the fabric of our being, whether this practice is the virtue of patience, acquiring a foreign language, or developing the musical sensitivity and muscle memory to play guitar.

There is something so beautiful about this. We are not a monad, nor is life a collection of objects that happen to lie near each other. There is always a return to the start, a going out and coming back, exitus and reditus as we artfully craft each circle around us, weaving in the motion of the external world into the free desires of our internal world like the invisible dynamism of each atom, our own personal solar system. And yet at the same time, this circular nature seems to be the source also of mankind's biggest enemy, or one of them. Boredom.

Indeed, boredom can lead us to make more of ourselves, to challenge us to press beyond the easy, cowardly limits we might set for ourselves to dare something greater, the echo of our desire for transcendence and infinity despite the limits imposed on us by our corporeality. Yet all too often boredom comes almost immediatley - we want to pursue our circles as long as they are enjoyable. Once it becomes too difficult, we want to move on to something we feel will be a greater thrill to us. This restlessness makes us dissatisfied with our circles, unhapppy with familiar grooves, itching for something new and exciting. And yet it can't be radically new and unlike the past, or we are frightened - it must be at least familiar enough that we can understand it. Thus, there is a balance between which satisfaction lies - completely new is terrifying, completely old is mind-numbingly dull. Different people find different balances in acclimation and boredom, yet this cycle of novelty and boredom is a cycle shared by all. And almost invariably, unless the focus is survival itself, boredom is a deep enemy to our futures. Its damage is seen in hobbies and friendships, careers, marriages, families, and lies deep at the heart of the consumerist culture we live in, which pursues novelty and entertainment above all else.

The fact is, cycles die. Scientifically we know that no energy is ever truly lost, but have we ever found a truly closed system on this earth? There is a slow decline of energy loss in all things that move, breathe, or participate in the remotest scrap of being. Decay, rot, the gradual slow as all things naturally move towards the stagnant equilibrium of death. And so with our human cycles. We become sick of those same faces, the same sections of the city or neighborhood. We loathe the routine of our obnoxious jobs and our irritating professors. Enough of the same, it is time for something new! Abandon this circle, start a new one, or at least try to find a way to infuse life into this old, dead circle.

Yet how to rescue or revive it? We can try to run away, start new circles, but the more circles we start, the quicker we get bored with them. We try to distract ourselves by being workaholics, or devoting our lives to cheap entertainment, but this does not help. Nor can we run for ever - we are meant to have roots, and so we will either be unhappy without nourishment, or settle them down only to find ourselves trapped in the same old circles, bound by the dependence of others, our own lack of energy, our lack of health, or fear of new things in this familiar but dreary pattern.

"Vanity of vanities, says Qoholeth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

"What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun." (Eccl 1:1-11)

And yet, the plea for newness is at the very heart of man, and it does not go unanswered - "Behold I make all things new!" Hear again, wonder anew at the marvels the Lord has done for us, for he will refresh our weary hearts! Christ promises this - "Behold I make all things new... for the former things are passing away.!" (Rev 21:5) He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death, the death of our lives and the death of the cycles which ground them, will be no more. But that is then - and this is now. There is a long gap between here and eternity, where we may shed our tired circles like dead scales to enter the eternal circle of the beatific vision, where we may gaze ever deeper and deeper on God.

Yet this precisely is the message of today: even now the kingdom of God is at hand, even now the world may be renewed and these tired old circles inrupted with the infinity of the Divine to shatter our narrow conceptions of familiarity and routine - "Send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you will renew the face of the earth." (Ps. 104:30) We are often mystified by the Holy Spirit - Fathers we know, the Son of course lived as one of us... but what is this third extra person who fits in no easy category? The Holy Spirit is precisely the one who dwells within us and loves through us, who renews us!

In light of the mysteries of the Spirit we see that life is not truly a circle, but a spiral - an ever deepening spiral upwards and inwards. We come around to the same point again and again, but if it appears the same it is only an illusion - we are never the same, we are alive and constantly growing - either acclimating ourselves flatly upon the earth or breathing the life of the Spirit who will take us deeper and deeper. The mysteries of faith we celebrate over and over, the three year liturgical cycle, the cycle of the week, the cycle of every Mass itself, birth, death, and rebirth, ending not with death or even a different birth from the same ashes, but Resurrection, the revival of the dead into a new and impossible life, followed by the commission to participate in the Spirit's mission to go and bear the news to the ends of the earth. As we live ever more in the Spirit, we come to the same truths again and again, and find in them an inexhaustible source of newness. This is because the true newness is not really cheap novelty - newness, the truth and refreshing newness we all seek is the life of the Spirit breathed into us, the breath of existence perfumed with that second breath by which we become one with divine nature, the new cycle, the exitus which proceeds from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and the reditus catching us all up together in the Spirit to return through the Son to the Father.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of your love! Send out your spirit, and renew the face of the earth! Revive our dead bones with the consuming fire of divinity, let us live this mystery that is never changing and ever new!

Holy Spirit, Lord of life
From your pure celestial height
Your pure beaming radiance give

Come, O Father of the poor
Come with treasures that endure
You, O light of all that live.

You of all consolers best
Visiting the troubled breast
Most refreshing peace bestow

You in toil are comfort sweet
Pleasant coolness in the heat
Solace in the midst of woe

Light immortal, light divine
Visit now this heart of mine
And my inmost being fill

When you take your grace away
Nothing good in us will stay
All our good is turned toward ill

Heal our wounds our strength renew
On our dryness pour your dew
Wash the stains of guilt away

Bend the stubborn heart and will
Melt the frozen, warm the chill
Guide the steps that go astray

Grant to us who evermore
You confess and you adore
In your sevenfold gift descend

Give us comfort when we die
Give us life with you on high
Give us joys that never end

Amen. Alleluia.