Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
Book Review: Confusing Heidegger?
Review of Paul Edwards (2004). Heidegger’s Confusions. Prometheus Books
Reviewed by Brent Vizeau
(University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada)
Heidegger’s peculiar and opaque language might give, at first glance, the impression that his philosophy is “gibberish” and nothing more. But, if we are to dismiss Heidegger at the gate for his penchant for difficult and idiosyncratic verbiage, then ought we not throw out the bulwark of so called ‘continental’ philosophy along with him? The scathing preface to Heidegger’s Confusions leads one to believe that Paul Edwards seems to think this would be a welcome improvement.
From the time we begin reading philosophy as undergraduates, we are told to read critically but charitably. From time to time, this message seems lost to those most expected to remember it, those learned thinkers, the teachers who, themselves, bestow this message upon their students. Jean Baudrillard’s work, for example, is unfortunately met with more than its share of (un)critical dismissal in lieu of the initial charity it can take to get comfortable with his style and language in order to get inside of it for an evaluation of what he has to offer. In his excellent commentary on the work of Baudrillard, Rex Butler argues at length for the importance of taking a thinker on his own terms (Butler, 1999). Reading closely and thoroughly for the unfolding logic of the text and the insights and motivations that inform the project are a minimum if a work is to be read with the charity any of us hope our own work will be offered.
In his second commentary on the work of Heidegger, Heidegger’s Confusions, Paul Edwards seems less to forget this call to charity in reading, than to disregard it altogether. With this in mind, it is perhaps tempting to dismiss Edwards in turn. But, as doing so would violate the principle of charity, it will be prudent to engage Edwards’ reading critically.
Edwards does indeed approach Heidegger with an arrogant sense of dismissal, however this is not to say that Edwards does not make interesting attacks on Heidegger’s work (mainly Being and Time (1962), but never gives himself the chance to get ‘inside’ Heidegger. His approach, littered with facetious jokes is (albeit not in the spirit of serious academic engagement), admittedly entertaining throughout, something the wealth of secondary literature on Heidegger is at times missing. Unlike many would-be critics in the vein of Edwards, at least he has offered his dismissal of Heidegger’s so called “tide of unreason” (Edwards, 2004:7) publicly, and, though lacking in breadth, with considerable details for us to investigate.
Heidegger’s Confusions is for the most part a collection of insights and arguments that Edwards has made elsewhere in articles and in his first commentary on Heidegger: Heidegger and Death (1979). In this more recent commentary Edwards focuses on two main aspects of Heidegger’s work, Being and Death, but spends a considerable (quite possibly disproportionate) amount of the discussion on the “confusions” and “nonsense” in Heidegger’s account of death, which is a repetition of the topic of his first commentary. After a short introduction, three of the four remaining chapters are about death, or Being-toward-death, and so I too will focus my discussion on this aspect of Edwards’ criticism. First, however, I should say something of his take on Heidegger’s notion of Being, discussed in the first substantive chapter “Heidegger’s Quest For Being,” as this makes clear the bias that prevents Edwards from taking Heidegger’s project seriously.
Edwards states that Heidegger’s project is based on a faulty understanding of Being, and as such “it is a pseudo-inquiry and his quest a nonstarter” (Edwards, 2004:37). The main problem for Heidegger’s account is his assumption that Being is somehow in or belongs to things as the most basic characteristic, or, in other words, existence is at least predicable of beings. In contrast, Edwards, via Russell, assumes that existence is not the most basic feature of things, since it is not a feature of them at all. Admirably, Edwards spells out his Russellian argument ably and in fair detail, with many lucid examples. To illustrate he tells us that when we say that cats exist, we do not mean to ascribe some property, existence, to a group of things, namely, cats. Rather, in these utterances we mean to say that some things, x, fit the description associated with the word ‘cat’. Existence is not a predicate; rather cat is the predicate and is predicated of some thing. That cats exist simply means that there are some things that the concept ‘cat’ applies to.
This is all spelled out quite clearly. It is delivered in a way that is sure to convince those who are less familiar with these issues, those people who might be expected to read a commentary on the work of Heidegger, for instance. But it is not at all obvious that Edwards’ argument holds. When I say that I exist, do I really mean that there is something to which the concept “I” applies? The thesis according to which being is not a real predicate is already present in Kant’s first Critique (1999). Heidegger knew this argument and spent a considerable amount of time discussing the Kantian thesis in his 1927 lecture course The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1988). Edwards would not need to look very far find out what Heidegger thinks about the argument and how he differentiates his own understanding of Being from the Kantian one. It is not as though Heidegger is simply confused on this point, and Edwards need not argue the line in Russellian terms when Heidegger himself discusses it directly in its Kantian form.
The next three chapters deal with Edwards’ favorite topic to criticize in Heidegger: death. Heidegger’s defines death as one’s utmost possibility of the impossibility of its existence. Edwards’ central criticism is first that death is not a possibility, and second that it cannot be interiorized, that is, that death remains an external fact. First, Edwards denies that death is a possibility, and argues that Heidegger merely offers confusions of language that really amount to little if any insight. Heidegger’s use of the word ‘possibility’ is “fantastically misleading” and “is carrying the misuse of language to the ultimate degree” according to Edwards (2004:87). Furthermore, Edwards ensures us that, “the total absence of experiences and behavior is most emphatically not what we mean by ‘possibility’ in any of its ordinary senses” (Ibid.). He further suggests that in Heidegger’s way of thinking, something that can be meaningfully spoken about but is not an actuality must then be a possibility.
Edwards agrees with Heidegger that Dasein cannot actualize death and remain Dasein, as death is the absence of all experience, consciousness, etc. In this way, it is not a state that can be made actual. There is, as Edwards points out, a sense in which death is actual. To say that president Kennedy is not actually dead (to use his example) is to say something that no one would accept as true. Rather, it is a fact that president Kennedy actually died. So, to say that death is a possibility because it is not an actuality in the first sense is for Edwards an incomplete disjunction.
Edwards may be right to say that death is actual if we grant him the external notion of death as an objective, biological, fact of life. The problem is that this criticism misses Heidegger’s point, and so criticizes Heidegger on grounds other than his own. Heidegger allows for the everyday understanding of death as when we say that ‘president Kennedy actually died’ and calls it ‘demise’. We will all demise, and those who have done so, did so actually. Edwards is blind to Heidegger’s interest in the internal relation of Dasein to its own finitude, or its Being-toward-death. This existential, internal sense of death, is not an actuality, but something that remains not-yet that we comport ourselves toward as the horizon of meaning. If one rejects the existential/ontological project of Heidegger to begin with, then one is bound to dismiss the importance of the internal relation to death as possibility in favor of an objective, external understanding of death and its significance. But this is simply not what Heidegger is concerned with or talking about when he discusses death in Being and Time.
Edwards’ second criticism of Heidegger’s account of death is that all of his supposedly profound insights about our Being-toward-death only amount to the fact that “human beings die and […], unlike plants and animals, they know and are, fugitively or non-fugitively, concerned about their death” (Ibid.:72). In Edwards' view, this is no significant insight, and in no way refutes the position of thinker like himself who holds that death is an external fact, and should be taken to be an actuality rather than a possibility.
This argument against Heidegger is supposed to show that Heidegger is confused about the difference between death and knowledge/concern about death. Edwards reiterates what we would all agree upon when saying that death, in our common understanding, is not a way to be, a mode of human concern, or a mode of life (Ibid.:73). Heidegger’s use of the word ‘death’ is a drastically new way of speaking and thinking about it, that, even though it forces us to speak and think about death in a radically new way, accomplishes nothing and does nothing to refute the claim that death is exterior. To refute the claim, death as total nothingness has to be shown to happen within a person’s experience. For Edwards, the only sense in which death is interior is in the sense that we have, unlike plants and animals, thoughts and concerns about it. But, Edwards assures us, death itself remains a public fact, or an external actuality.
The concern for Heidegger is not one’s own death (demise) as an external event that occurs within one’s own experience, we all, including Edwards and Heidegger, agree that it cannot be experienced, since in death we cease to experience. Rather, the question of death ought to be about how we should comport ourselves in the world in light of our finitude. For Heidegger, we should not forget, or turn away from our awareness of our finitude, as this is to turn away from the authentic understanding of our own Being. Being-toward-death for Heidegger, contrary to what Edwards thinks, is not the basic understanding and concern about the fact that we will die (someday). It concerns the possibility of living authentically that hinges on a proper understanding of one’s own possibilities for Being; the foremost possibility one need understand and acknowledge is our finitude. To say that death is internalized is not to assert the impossible claim that demise is experienced, but that we come to understand our Being in terms of our own finitude.
With little expertise at all, one can see Edwards’ train of straw men for what they are. Granting that he is an intelligent philosopher, this can only be taken, not as an indication of his inability to understand the complexity of Heidegger, but of his lack of scholarly good faith.
Heidegger has come to be known as one the major philosophers of the twentieth century. As such, there is no shortage of support for his work, but also no shortage of antagonism. At times, though, there seems to be an unbalanced choir of support for Heidegger, those referred to by Edwards as the “shepherds” (Ibid.:24). Then someone like Edwards comes along and takes up a starkly defiant attack on Heidegger. As an undoubtedly skilled ‘analytic’ philosopher, it is a shame that Edwards cannot see past his distaste for the style of ‘continental’ philosophy, for this bias prevents him from ever entering Heidegger’s project on its own terms, and thus from putting it to an honest critical analysis. However, for all of the failings in this work, Heidegger’s Confusions forces the reader to recall and analyze two central themes of Heidegger’s work that can easily be taken for granted as either gibberish by those who tend toward Edwards’ position or as gospel by the choir of supporters. There is at least minimal value in reading this text for this reason, for sure, and there is hardly a more entertaining introduction to classic misunderstandings of Heidegger’s philosophy available. Those looking for a thorough and insightful commentary on the work of Heidegger ought look elsewhere and should have no trouble finding a better work, as Heidegger commentaries abound, and really any of them will prove more helpful.
Rex Butler (1999). Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage.
Paul Edwards (1979). Heidegger on Death: A Critical Evaluation. Hegeler Institute.
Paul Edwards (2004). Heidegger’s Confusions. London: Prometheus Books.
Martin Heidegger (1962). Being and Time. New York: Harper and Row.
Martin Heidegger (1988). The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Indiana University Press.
Immanuel Kant (1999). Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge University Press.