D. Egan, The pursuit of an authentic philosophy Mabee Zachary; Archiving of XML in sdvig press database Open Commons October 24, 2019, 9:44 pm
1As neither a Wittgenstein nor a Heidegger specialist, I found David Egan’s The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy: Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Everyday to be a fascinating, creative, accessible study of perhaps the two most noteworthy figures of 20th-century philosophy. One would think that such studies would be more plentiful than they are, given (as Egan reminds us) that these two monumental figures were born into the German-speaking world in the same year (1889) and then came, as he extensively argues, to advocate not so much a positive body of philosophical work but instead a sustained effort at linguistic and conceptual “disencumbrance” (6). Though this dearth of comparative studies could be accounted for variously, an unfortunately obvious aspect of it would seem to be the ready-made tendency to cast Wittgenstein into the Anglo-American or “analytic” wing of contemporary philosophy (though his principal works were composed in his native tongue) and Heidegger into the “continental.” Wisely, I think, Egan avoids this simplistic and over-played distinction and instead showcases how both thinkers were monumentally first-rate philosophers who deeply engaged the aporetic task that is most characteristic of their discipline.
2Interestingly, Egan introduces his study by recalling Tower of Babel, recounted in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, and the “baffling” of human languages that resulted in this proud human exercise of “attempting to arrogate to themselves the powers of naming and creation that are proper to their creator” (2). He notes that Wittgenstein’s and Heidegger’s respective philosophical projects have both already been likened to the Babel episode; and he does likewise, highlighting how they both sought to undo the self-made exile into which philosophers’ “metaphysical” aspirations too often lead us. For Wittgenstein, this undoing crucially involves allowing words to “have a home” in their everyday usage rather than in the sought-after “essences” of philosophers. For Heidegger, it involves allowing Dasein (our characteristic mode of being) to be “in the truth,” as it is; not as we otherwise posture it to be (6). They both seek to move us away, then, in their respective manners, from the frictionless vacuum of philosophical essentialisms to the concepts and being of our ordinary experience and the practices within which they are intelligible.
3Chapter 1 deals with concerns of grammar and ontology, the former of which are more relevant to Wittgenstein and the latter to Heidegger. Egan commences by considering the famous Heraclitan reflection regarding whether one can step into the same river twice. Whereas this philosophical challenge is constructed so as to cast doubt on whether one in fact can step into the same river twice, Wittgenstein invites us instead to consider the “home” that talk of rivers has in our ordinary language and discourse. Within it, we quite obviously can and do speak of doing just that: having a swim in the Thames today and then, tomorrow, dipping our toes into it. The point he seeks to highlight, Egan contends, is that Heraclitan-type philosophers tend to err in thinking that they will somehow discover, through their inquiries, a deeper, metaphysical essence to what a river is; or, perhaps just that they will discover some empirical facts about rivers and how they are. Instead, for Wittgenstein, that “one can step into the same river twice” is “the expression … of a rule” and so a matter of grammar within this language-game that we play (21). The mistake that the Heraclitan philosopher makes is to aspire to a fantastical point of view—a “sideways” one, to use McDowell’s expression—according to which one can, as it were, examine one’s concepts independently of their usage or vis-à-vis the standard of concepts-as-such. For Wittgenstein, “ordinary language is all the language there is” (28).
4Heidegger, as noted, takes a more “ontological” angle on our everyday practices, seeking to highlight their “significance” in this vein, which he finds too often overlooked (29). He wants to direct his inquiry toward a “fundamental ontology” that considers being more simply than in the categorized, observational manner of the “ontic sciences” (30ff.) and that, through phenomenological methodology, uncovers the ways in which it self-discloses. Like Wittgenstein, though, for Egan, Heidegger is not concerned through his philosophy to argue for or establish some new instance, class, or category of knowledge, but instead to chip away at nefarious theoretical constructions, thereby allowing our words, concepts, and ordinary practices to be more simply what and how they are—though in Heidegger’s case, more through a process of revealing discovery.
5Chapter 2 begins with some helpful explication of key Heideggerian terminology: Dasein as (our) being that has an understanding of being, which is analyzed existentially in “fundamental ontology” (37–9). Egan then proceeds to discuss the noteworthy distinction that Heidegger draws between the present-at-hand and the ready-at-hand. The former deals with what we can reflectively consider, whereas the latter treats what is present to us and accessible in our environment for use, particularly in the form of tools or equipment. Heidegger notes that our being-in-the-world is often most transparent and perspicuous when we are engaging some object or thing with a tool, in a ready-at-hand manner. For while doing so, we are able to look through or beyond the tool being used to the object or thing engaged. The tool serves, as it were, as a more vivid point of connection with the world—a point of connection of which we are reminded perhaps most poignantly when our activity employing it is interrupted.
6Then, following Cavell—with whose interpretations of Wittgenstein Egan is often quite sympathetic—Egan draws a parallel in Wittgenstein’s thought, noting that the ordinary-language criteria of Wittgensteinian (and Austinian) philosophy in their own way orient us to the world, and not just the words we use and the language games we play. It is just, again, that Wittgenstein takes our concepts, which we deploy linguistically, not to be independently or metaphysically discoverable from a sideways perspective, but rather disclosed, in a way, in the grammatical criteria at play in the language games in which they are deployed, and the practices relevant to these games. So knowing what a chair is or means crucially involves understanding our use of chairs, the dining practices in which they are implicated at tables, for instance, and so on (60). To return to our earlier example, the fact that one can indeed enter the same river twice is a fact intimately pertinent to the people’s interaction with and use of rivers and what is and is not grammatically admissible in such contexts (61). Egan’s broader contention in this chapter is, again, that we undertake a fool’s errand, for Wittgenstein and Heidegger alike, if we seek to find our words, concepts, or being outside the realms they normally inhabit, where they ordinarily find their home.
7A critical point that is worth noting here, which is relevant in subsequent chapters, too: Egan’s engagement with secondary literature at times seems a bit sparing or perhaps selective. His bibliography is sufficiently thorough, but his deferential preference for Cavell’s Wittgenstein is at times annoyingly on display. Charles Taylor, e.g., is another commentarial voice who does garner mention but whose most obvious essay dealing with these two thinkers and their philosophical likeness does not. I wondered at several junctures if a more variegated engagement with secondary literature, particularly that dealing directly with Wittgenstein and Heidegger and their work, could have helped this project.
8Chapter 3 moves into an interesting discussion of Wittgensteinian attunement and Heideggerian being-with, particularly with regard to Das Man. Following upon his treatment of language games, Egan stresses that, for Wittgenstein, “attunement” is the kind of working agreement that we have in our shared forms of life, within which we converse, discuss, agree or disagree, and justify various claims. It gets at, for Cavell, the difficult and “terrifying” way in which, say, to allege truth or falsehood in some given case, there must more deeply be a working agreement with respect to the forms of life we share and that our discourse reflects (65). The claim here is not that there is some deeper underlying (or metaphysical) arrangement in such situations that we rightly call “attunement” but more simply just that our engagement in such shared activities and forms of life manifests attunement (69). This seems a further development of the previous chapter’s notion that criteria, grammar, and word usage do indeed, in surprising ways, connect us with the world and the forms of life that are home to our discourse.
9Egan’s discussion continues with an illuminating treatment of Heidegger’s sense of being-with and the ways in which this pertains to the normative authority of what he terms Das Man. Egan begins by noting the way in which our interaction with other persons is similar to or reflective of the dynamic that we see on display more broadly with our use of tools, equipment, and other ready-at-hand objects. That is, when we encounter and experience other persons, we typically do not do so in the abstracted present-at-hand manner, in which they become to us objects of reflection or theoretical inquiry; instead, we encounter and experience them much in the same manner as we do tools or worldly objects that we use—as readily available to us, as co-involved in our activity in the world. They are accessible to us, often, in our engagement with the world, much in the way that a pair of shoes might be (73–5).
10Egan also helpfully outlines Das Man in Heidegger, which is, as Carman notes, “the impersonal normative authority underwriting the social practices that makes things intelligible on a mundane level” (75). Comprising dimensions such as agreement in judgments and basic definitions; use of equipment; social and historical situatedness; moral and social norms; etiquette; ceremonies; shared wisdom, and so on, Das Man highlights for Heidegger the way in which Dasein is never abstractly autonomous but always, instead, embedded in a social order—even if one opts to rebel against it. One is, in a way, the milieu in which she finds herself (76). Egan stresses how Das Man can be especially vexing, among the Heideggerian lexicon, and how it, even for eminent commentators like Dreyfus, fails to stake out territory between a healthy conformity, within the world one inhabits, and an unhealthy conformism to prevailing norms.
11Chapter 4 commences Egan’s broader treatment of what he terms “authentic everydayness.” To begin, he segues from his treatment of Das Man into the notion of inauthenticity in Heidegger, which amounts to an over-reliance upon Das Man in its ever-present task of self-interpretation. Egan notes:
12Dasein is the being that relates to itself as a question. Accordingly, Dasein’s flourishing qua Dasein is a matter of fulfilling its nature as self-interpreting. Authentic Dasein explicitly owns up to this task of self-interpretation, whereas inauthentic Dasein hides from it. Inauthentic Dasein does a poor job or manifesting its distinctive Daseinhood (93).
14Inauthenticity is not a failure of self-interpretation but is rather a mode of self-interpretation that defers the interpretive work as much as possible to Das Man, and reaches for the interpretive resources that are closest at hand (94).
15Heideggerian anxiety, then, becomes a “special kind of fear” that is not so much directed at other beings that we encounter in the world, whether present- or ready-at-hand, but toward Dasein itself as being-in-the-world and so what is bound up with this. Dasein customarily seeks “absorption with innerworldly beings that anxiety disrupts” (95).
16Egan then follows this discussion of Heideggerian anxiety with a treatment of what he takes to be a similar dynamic in Wittgenstein, though which more readily appears in the secondary literature on the latter under the rubric of “skepticism.” Wittgenstein famously notes that, at some point, our explanations will run out and our justifications be exhausted, and also that any set of rules we seek to abide by or implement will ultimately be subject to a variety of irresolvable interpretations, whether they regard following signposts down a trail or algorithms for adding sequentially to a numerical series (99–101). Egan seems to see a kind of isomorphism in the two authors’ work on these sorts of “anxiety.” To be sure, Heidegger’s is more chiefly concerned with the coherence of our practices and the anxiety that arises regarding them, vis-à-vis the self-interpreting tendency of Dasein; whereas Wittgenstein’s is more regarding our search for explanations, particularly final ones, and the situation that we face when we in fact do not reach them, or come to see them as unreachable. Nonetheless, Egan thinks—and I would concur—there is a noteworthy consonance between the two accounts.
17The denouement of chapter 4 consists of a kind of reflective consideration of Wittgenstein as a philosopher, and is an attempt by Egan to resolve some of the aforementioned concerns, namely that the Heideggerian approach is more practical-existential, whereas the Wittgensteinian one is more conceptual-linguistic. Indeed, Egan notes that Wittgenstein had a lively sense that we are all rightly engaged in the sorts of philosophical questions that he treats—hence, for instance, his characteristic point of departure from humanly vexing questions rather than from the texts or arguments of the discipline’s “greats.” In this sense, Egan thinks, we can see Wittgenstein with Cavell, more in the vein of Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Emerson, or Austin, whose points of departure were the problematics disclosed by human experience more than they were the standard disciplinary texts (108). (And thus he stands in contrast, say, to Plato, Nietzsche, or Derrida, for whom philosophy involved a more cultural, institutional form of life and theorizing.)
18I did find myself, at this point in the text and certain others, wishing that perhaps Egan would have engaged these two thinkers biographically a bit more. Such a move might not be apt in many philosophical settings, but it certainly seems more so in one such as this, where the leitmotif is a recovery of the “everyday” and a more authentic approach to the philosophical project. One thinks straightaway, for instance, of Wittgenstein’s sabbatical in the Austrian hills, teaching kindergarten; or perhaps his experience in the trenches in the First World War; or even his neurotic, suicidal, late-night strolls deliberating philosophical and existential questions. Likewise, Heidegger’s disreputable wartime political affiliations and administrative decisions or his tryst with his student Hannah Arendt come to mind in a similar vein. This is not to say that I think any one or other episode of either thinker’s life should be adduced in such a setting; but more just that I found myself as a reader wishing a bit more of an effort to this effect had been made, especially amidst a chapter on anxiety as a broadly philosophical topic.
19Chapter 5 deals with an expected topic, Wittgenstein’s treatment of rule-following, and particularly Kripke’s take on it. Kripke, Egan contends, sees Wittgenstein as fundamentally presenting readers with a choice in such matters, in the face of the interpretive impasse with which they leave us: either skepticism or Platonism, the former which Kripke takes to be Wittgenstein’s preference. But Egan, once again, wants to re-situate or -contextualize our reading of Wittgenstein: here particularly as challenging our assumption as to whether or not there “is a coherent question to be asked about what justifies us in playing the language-games that we do” (115, emphasis mine). That is, the skeptic would have us doubt whether there is such an answer or justification, and the Platonist would have us look for some sort of external grounding to our language games; but Wittgenstein himself, for Egan—as we have seen already—would have us simply take them as the given, such that these sorts of meta-level questions would eventually dissolve (114). He then wonders, too, about how we might construe a Kripkean reading of Heidegger, “Kripkendegger,” as Egan terms this (117ff.).
20The next section treats Heidegger’s notion of conscience, which Egan handles deftly, particularly for an issue that seems to invoke a stereotypically cluttered family of Heideggerian terms and concepts. Fundamentally, Egan links Heideggerian “conscience” to Dasein’s being-its-own whilst being-in-the world, such that its interpretive self-understanding constitutes a correlative understanding and appreciation of the world in which it is and in which it discloses itself (118–9). The conscience which at times comes “over” us serves as a kind of check against the inauthentic tendencies against which we steadily live and operate (120). The chapter continues with a broader foray into aspects of the everyday and, particularly, with a vindication of it in the two authors—in Wittgenstein, more via allowing ordinary language to be where it is, at home in its ordinariness; and in Heidegger, to allow Dasein to be as it is or inclines to be, rather than being consumed or distorted by preoccupation with Das Man.
21Once again, with his treatment of Heideggerian conscience, Egan misses, I think, an opportunity to allow his work to veer more into the terrain of the “everyday,” both in a philosophical and a more ordinary sense. He notes throughout this section the uncharacteristic, and at times maddening, style of both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and especially the latter’s sometimes befuddling lexicon. The notion of “conscience” seems to be one that highlights this tendency; but I wonder, in looking back upon it, whether Egan could have done us the service of engaging some broader literature, historical or current, regarding conscience and how others’ approaches might dovetail or conflict with Heidegger’s. (One thinks here, for instance, of the Kantian notion of conscience, which no doubt would be apt, given the ways in which the Kantian project helped shape the phenomenological tradition.) This sort of move would have been especially fitting for a notion like conscience which is, philosophically and ordinarily, quite “everyday.”
22Chapter 6 begins with a reiteration of Egan’s aspiration to find something of a balance between the typical “therapeutic” (later) Wittgenstein, who would have us count metaphysical and skeptical considerations as “ultimately empty” and a more “existential” Wittgenstein who, in harmony with Heidegger, is subtly attempting to draw us back to our being-in-the-world and its “uncanniness” (138). Egan leads us on an interesting foray through some of the game metaphors that Wittgenstein employs to help us understand language games and how they are constitutively embedded in various forms of life. He returns here to the key notion of attunement and to the idea that, for Wittgenstein, our attunement is manifest in the forms of life that we share and in which we participate; it is not, that is, something superadded onto them or metaphysically beneath them. Fundamental to language games and the forms of life where they are at home is education or training. The initiation that they call for is not so much typically a matter of explanation, but instead one of training and so familiarization with the various words and concepts that have meaning within them. True, there are correct and incorrect moves that one can make within the game of chess; but is also is inapt to describe (or critique) the rules themselves as correct or incorrect. They are simply the rules of the game (145). For Egan’s Wittgenstein, reasons, like explanations, will eventually “give out” (146). What matters in playing games—language games or other games, considered more broadly—is not so much having the rules down (explicitly), but instead having with the other participants a sufficient degree of attunement, such that they can together play the game.
23Egan continues, noting that there are some interesting similarities between Wittgenstein’s work on rule-following and Heidegger’s on anxiety, sometimes termed the “motivation problem”—both of which can leave us wondering how to cope once our reasons or the foundations of our ordinary practices are exhausted (153). He also then engages in a fascinating aside dealing with Wittgenstein’s noteworthy pupil Rush Rhees and his concerns about the language-game approach: concerns dealing chiefly with the fact that these considerations might seem to make the ultimate goal of linguistic practice something like skill—the concern being that language use would ultimately seem to be about our practical ends and so come dangerously close to sophistry. Egan nicely, I think, deflects these concerns, following Huizinga, Gadamer, et al., by reminding us of the seriousness that games indeed demand, lest one become a spoilsport, a trifler, or a cheat (157ff). Egan closes this chapter with another nice restatement of his broader sense of the two thinkers’ respective projects, which fundamentally amounts to flagging and helping to remedy the (linguistic or ontological) blindness in which we so often, especially in philosophical circumstances, find ourselves (165–6).
24Chapter 7 is largely a reckoning with the two thinkers’ treatments of typical or traditional doctrines of assertion, but also of their related conceptions of reality and theories of truth. Egan sees in Wittgenstein and Heidegger alike a criticism of a certain sort of naïve realism, no doubt predominant in popular discourse, but also perhaps surprisingly in philosophical domains. According to this sort of sensibility, things basically are the way that we think them to be, and in accordance with the ways in which we speak of them. But, again, for Wittgenstein, this tendency manifests a foundational confusion between the grammatical and the empirical and so leads to the metaphysical tendency toward nonsensical theorizing that is too often, in his view, on display in philosophical work, let alone in popular discourse. Heidegger’s work on this front is more historical and genealogical than Wittgenstein’s; and he wants to move philosophical thinking away from the Aristotelian-Scholastic conception of truth—adaequatio intellectus et rei—toward a more primitively classical one: aletheia, or truth as a kind of discoveredness of what is disclosed (183). This jostling effort, to dislodge certain of our comfortably stable presuppositions, for Egan, significantly accounts for the two thinkers’ unique philosophical idioms and for their at times vexing word-choice and argumentative structure.
25Chapter 8 continues this analysis, in closing the book, with a return to the two thinkers’ notions of ordinary language and discourse. Whereas Wittgenstein seems more content to allow ordinary language to be “at home,” as it is and to shake us free from the “picture” that has held us captive, Heidegger see his phenomenological method as affording a kind of “uncovering” potential that allows us (in principle) to come into contact with deeper aspects of being. The corollary of this is that, for Wittgenstein, the key discoveries that we are likely to make philosophically are that we are variously engaged in speaking and trading in nonsense (195ff.). Accordingly, Wittgenstein is not involved—as, say, those advocates of the hermeneutic of “suspicion” are—in directing us toward some sort of deeper, more fundamental reality that our modes of speech and practice are obscuring; instead, he seems keen on helping us to see that our debates—say among solipsists, realists, and idealists—are just not as contentious or substantive as we tend to think them (202ff.). We are simply misled if we think that those various doctrines can be adjudicated in the ways that we normally attempt. An example of this tendency, for Egan, is Carnap, vis-à-vis the later Wittgenstein, as the former seeks to set up a methodological procedure for settling such disputes and then funnel various such doctrines through it, to find a victor (ibid.). Instead, the methodology that the later Wittgenstein prizes is that of offering aspectual descriptions and employing particularly the metaphor of pictures and how looking at them offers us different (and manifold) perspectives on various matters. Indeed, he takes language to be as a picture, whose use and exact purposes remain opaque, but which is rightly to be explored from various angles (210).
26In closing, Egan finds Wittgenstein’s later approach to be decidedly aesthetic in its character—less about asserting propositions or claims about this or that, or how things are, and rather more about suggesting angles, perspectives, or views on various issues, which could no doubt be multiplied (as in the famous case of the duck-rabbit image). Indeed, for Egan, this is what Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, along with Heidegger’s, tends to do: Not to argue for this or that point or claim, but instead—and particularly through idiosyncratic word-choice, structure, punctuation, rhetorical strategies, and the like—to peel back this problematic with which we have become accustomed; to shake our captive gaze to our inherited picture; and instead to help us appreciate the ordinary as it is, and whatever it would happen to disclose.
27One final concern I would like to register, somewhat in accord with the previous ones: This book could have profited from greater engagement with ethics and religion, two regularly philosophical topics that are decidedly commonplace—in their own ways, “everyday.” Wittgenstein famously lectured, though very sparingly, on the two in conjunction; and they do not seem to have been a focal point for Heidegger. But both areas, I think, crucially draw together “everyday” thought and action in conjunction with philosophical interest and reflection. Both areas also, I think, raise some significant concerns for the arguably more quietist tendency on display in both authors, particularly on Egan’s reading of them. For it might be fine and well to be concerned mainly with chipping away at misunderstanding and pretenses about our language and thought, whilst claiming not to be saying much in the positive sense about the world or our involvement in it. But our practical, “everyday” engagement often seems to suggest otherwise: We find ourselves needing to say various things about a whole host of matters and affairs: tax policy, what we observe in outer space, our and our loved ones’ moral choices, foods’ nutritional value, the political and military stability of various regions, how religion should interact with politics, and so on. And we often think that judgments within such debates and matters of discourse are, to varying degrees, disputable or judicable, correct or incorrect, right or wrong—and, indeed, accessible as such through clarifying philosophical reflection. I do not mean to suggest that (Egan’s) Wittgenstein or Heidegger could not somehow deal ably with our ordinary practical discourse and its significance in such “everyday” affairs; but it does strike me that attempting to deal with such points of practical connection—particularly within a book with the thrust of The Pursuit—would have been helpful and constructive, and would have expanded the scope of this work beyond its more characteristically linguistic-cum-metaphysical purview. Nonetheless, this work, as noted throughout, is instructive, edifying, and humane—an expository homage, without being unduly deferential, to these two monumental thinkers; and now a crucial addition to the joint literature regarding them.
28 Given my non-specialist’s status, I shall at times gloss over, throughout the review, some of the more intensely exegetical points that emerge.
29 Egan also recently helped edit Wittgenstein and Heidegger, ed. David Egan, Stephen Reynolds, and Aaron Wendland (New York: Routledge, 2013).
30 See Charles Taylor, “Lichtung or Lebensform: Parallels between Heidegger and Wittgenstein,” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 61–78.
31 I acknowledge here and throughout that “everyday” is being used in a somewhat more precise sense by Egan, and indeed by Wittgenstein and Heidegger. But I do not think such proposed extensions are at all specious or unreasonable.