Notes from The uses of the past from Heidegger to Rorty: doing philosophy historically

The uses of the past from Heidegger to Rorty : doing philosophy historically
Robert Piercey
Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, c2009.
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Introduction - The uses of the past
1. Doing philosophy historically
2. The role of narrative
3. Defending the historical thesis
4. The critical approach: MacIntyre
5. The diagnostic approach: Heidegger
6. The synthetic approach: Ricoeur

In this text, Piercey argues for a definition of “doing philosophy historically” rather than “doing philosophy” or “doing the history of philosophy.” He offers three case studies which represent the three approaches to doing philosophy historically: MacIntyre with a critical approach, Heidegger with a diagnostic, and Ricoeur with a synthetic. All chapters are informative but I pulled the following passages from the Heidegger chapter as particularly salient for my work:

p. 149
Typically we think metaphysically without being fully aware that we are doing so. Metaphysics is less a matter of explicit theorizing than of the unarticulated assumptions we make about reality. These assumptions manifest themselves in our actions as well as our thoughts. The metaphysical picture is “a stance in the being as a whole” (Nietzsche, 184, Piercey’s emphasis), one that can be discerned in the ways we lead our lives and organize our societies.

But why study metaphysics? Heidegger’s answer is that the dominance of this picture helps explain our failure to pose the question of Being. “The whole of Western thinking from the Greeks through Nietzsche,” Heidegger argues, “is metaphysical thinking” (Nietzsche, 3, 7). Metaphysical thinking is concerned with beings. It asks whether real beings are supersensible ideals, or defects of divine creation, or something else. But to ask about the nature of beings as such is precisely not to ask the more fundamental question of what it means to be at all. When we think metaphysically, we flatter ourselves that we have posed the most important question philosophy can ask: what are the general features of reality as a whole? … The problem is not just that metaphysical thinkers fail to ask the essential questions about the meaning of Being. Rather, their thinking covers up this question, making it seem unimportant and sanctioning its neglect.

p. 161

But what can Heidegger teach us about the enterprise of doing philosophy historically? To start, he teaches an important lesson about its motivation and its value. Human beings are forgetful creatures, and we are particularly forgetful about the most basic assumptions that govern our thinking. Heidegger, of course, is concerned with the forgetfulness of Being: our tendency to forget the assumptions we have made about the relation between Being and time, coupled with our habit of forgetting that the Seinsfrage is a legitimate question at all. But this is not the only type of forgetfulness that taints our thinking ... we also tend to forget the assumptions at work “in our manner of doing natural science, in our technology, in some at least of the dominant ways in which we construe political life..., and in other spheres too numerous to mention (Taylor, 20).” There is no reason to think that human beings will ever be less forgetful about the views of reality that structure their existence. It is crucial that they have a systematic way of addressing this forgetfulness. Given our need for philosophical pictures - what Gary Gutting calls our “ineradicable urge to act out of a comprehensive understanding of our situation” (Gutting, 191) - we must be prepared to diagnose them. We must be willing and able to uncover those aspects of pictures that we have overlooked. Heidegger offers a powerful example of how to do so. He has much to teach us about the art of diagnosis, even if we do not accept his specific claims about the history of philosophy. We might not agree that Platonism obscures the nature of truth, or that metaphysical thinking is essentially onto-theological. But most of us would agree that philosophy is a reflective discipline that involves self criticism and self-justification. Philosophers must be able to explain, to themselves and others, what they are doing, and why, and why it is important. They must be aware of their own assumptions and of the effects those assumptions have on their work. In short, they must be capable of diagnosing their own thought. Heidegger offers valuable instruction in how such diagnosis proceeds.

Taylor, Charles. “Philosophy and its History.” In Philosophy in History, 17-30.

Gutting, Gary. Pragmatic Liberalism and the Critique of Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


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