Nature, Nurture, Nietzsche

Dreyfus, H (2006)  ‘Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics’ in Guignon, C B (ed)  Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, pp345 – 372

Open Access here:

So this – more than anything else I’ve read so far – really gets down to the question of the meaning of life, or meaning in life. Under the headings of Nihilism, Art, Technology and Politics, Hubert Dreyfus sets out Heidegger’s views on what this ‘meaning’ is (or might be), and how we might go about finding it.

It seems that, for Heidegger, nihilism is the worst possible outcome for human beings. The world may be getting ‘better’ through the application of technological devices, and we may all be becoming healthier and happier – as illustrated in the work of Hans Rosling – but Heidegger says this is not enough; a shared, meaningful concern (‘a new God’) is needed to save us. Save us from what exactly? Nihilism, it would seem.

This seems rather a circular argument. I’m all for health and happiness, but I’m not sure what a shared, meaningful concern would add, especially if it is something that is merely shared rather than agreed upon. I might actually be more tempted by Neitzsche’s ‘positive nihilism’ – free spirits creating their own values. The values of the Enlightenment – autonomy, maturity, equality and dignity – seem to me to be pretty worthy candidates for shared, meaningful concerns, although not particularly exciting ones; the Ancient Greek ideals of friendship, music and ‘Dyonysian frenzy’ resonate more strongly with the Hackney zeitgeist. But Heidegger’s dream is of a cultural paradigm that is beyond articulation, rational argument, choice and rejection; its resistance to critical analysis being crucial to its authority. Is it just a matter of having something that enables us to connect with each other? I don’t think Heidegger himself had a clue what this might be exactly, beyond arguing that we needed to remain open to a new rich, resistant and meaningful cultural paradigm through fostering receptivity (in ourselves and – presumably – in others) and the preservation of pre-technological practices.

I’m all for preserving marginal, inefficient practices. So is half of Hackney (the well-off half). We love our traditional three-speed bicycles, hand-reared legs of lamb, and sitting on upturned wine crates drinking £9 cocktails from upcycled jam jars. Our iPhones are our Woodstock sound engineering – the technology used in the service of locating friends and selecting a cycle cafe (yes, cycle cafes are a ‘thing’). Is this the mobilisation of pre-technological resources that Heidegger feared? A distraction from the search for true meaning; a means of filling our godless, childless lives?

I can understand Heidegger’s reservations about the development of our potential for its own sake (although from what I’ve read about him, he doesn’t exactly strike me as an underachiever). We are so embedded in a culture of enhancement, efficiency and order that to see it being questioned and challenged is initially quite disconcerting. But Heidegger isn’t saying that all this is all evil; he is simply imploring us to see that, while historical developments have brought us to where we are, we do not have to stay here. Equally, we do not have to choose between rejection of technology and domination by it. Heidegger’s fight is against what he sees as the human distress caused by the technological understanding of being, rather than any destruction caused by technology itself.

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2 Responses to Nature, Nurture, Nietzsche

  1. Dave Aldridge says:

    This response to Heidegger is both sensitive and sensible. Honest too. Not a bad achievement in a relatively compact blog post. I end up wondering exactly where you stand on Heidegger, though. There is the concern about circularity in the middle (not a big concern of Heidegger’s actually, for who the ‘hermeneutic circle’ is as unavoidable in argument as it is in understanding) and some reservations about Heidegger’s idea of a ‘cultural paradigm’ (as Dreyfus puts it). Toward the end, though, you seem to buy into the critique of the technological understanding of being. I’ll be following to see how this develops.

  2. Thanks for this one David – you’re right, I was totally sitting on the fence when I wrote this. I think it’s a little routine of mine – to try and capture the arguments as neutrally as I can, identifying some reservations and uncertainties. My most recent post on the Lewin paper briefly explores my blogging process as a ‘user interface’ that conceals a vast landscape of fragile and insecure connections and interactions 🙂

    While (and since) writing this one I spoke to some of my nearest and dearest about this idea of a cultural paradigm that is resistant to critical analysis. Without exception they expressed their acceptance that this is what humanity needs. I know this is where I stand as well; I have these whining voices in my head that demand logic and reason, but Heidegger’s argument is in fact perfectly logical…

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