Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Heidegger’

First Sentences of Philosophy

In Philosophy, Writing on March 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

If you were a book, your opening sentence would be my first impression of you. It is that type-set handshake, that eye contact, the initial body language of our literary relationship, from which I will decide whether we might become friends. I should warn you, I am exacting when it comes to first impressions.

I have on at least two occasions here surveyed first sentences of literature. (First Sentences, and First Sentences II.) I thought it might be of interest to run the same exercise with some classics of philosophy, to see how the thinker begins the engagement. At first glance, it appears that the philosopher is less cordial–less needy?–than the artist-novelist. That is, I guess, to be expected of a writer less interested in drainage and more interested in hydraulics. So, to make it easy, I pull some books off the shelf, from the Philosophy section:

Despite my comment above, Robert Nozick (1938-2002), provides one of the best opening sentences of any genre, From his

The Unreadable Book?

The Unreadable Book?

Philosophical Explanations:

“I too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even to bring reading to a stop.”

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Philosophy (vol 1.):

“Philosophy means to dare penetrate the inaccessible ground of human self-awareness.”

A favorite thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), from Genealogy of Morals:

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge–and with good reason.”

And, for grins, Nietzsche, again, in a sentence which shows why he was, arguably, the most literary writer of the thinkers, from Thus Spake Zarathustra:

“Three metamorphoses of the spirit do I designate to you: how the spirit becometh a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.”

Heidegger begins his magnum opus with a quote from Plato: “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression you use the expression “being”. We however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.” Then the first sentence of Being and Time:

“Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by the word ‘being’?”

From Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, the opening chapter titled, The Phenomenon, comes this twist:

“Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.”

And here, the doubt-filled precision of Wittgenstein (1889-1951), from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

“Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it–or at least similar thoughts.”

Wittgenstein, as an aside, lays claim to the most wonderful last words. From his death-bed: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Lovely.


The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley

If you’re in the mood for an eminently readable survey of the history of philosophy, I recommend Simon Critchley‘s The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009). It is entertaining, fun (last days of the big thinkers), and when you’re finished, you will have touched all the bases of philosophy.


In Creativity, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on February 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

“C’est la vie”

A few lines from the poem, Bored, by Margaret Atwood:

Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows.

Big question: What I am doing here?

I used to proudly declare that, “I’ve never been bored.” It was a statement delivered with much the same self-serving gusto one hears when over-achieving middle-class poseurs declare, “We don’t own an TV” or “I only watch PBS.” It makes my eyes roll and my gut contract. “I’ve never been bored” now has the same effect on me. Agghh, what pretentiousness! (I also used to pontificate, in a similar vein, that boredom, like guilt, was a manufactured emotion.) I now understand that boredom is the foundation of everything. It is the pearl-constructing grit in the oyster’s shell, the red phosphorous that makes the match explode. Avoiding boredom is the motivation of modern life. I say modern life because I’m not sure this–boredom–has always been the case. The word boredom didn’t even appear in the language until 1852, when it showed up six times in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House. Given that the English language has been around in a form we (might) recognize since Chaucer (c1340-1400), it strikes me as dead-on that this notion is rather recent, that boredom is a symptom of modern existence.

It’s not an original thought. Heidegger (1889-1976), as have others, spent a lot of time on the subject. “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference,” he wrote. “This boredom reveals being as a whole.” I don’t want to get up on a soap box, nor do I wish to write a thesis on the existential significance of boredom on modern life. That would be boring, would it not? And that is precisely the point.* Let’s not do something that is boring. To the opening question: What am I doing here? I now have an answer: I’m trying to out-sprint boredom.  Does my life have meaning? I submit: Only to the degree I can appreciate Heidegger’s “remarkable indifference.”

Boredom is, paradoxically, the disease and the antidote. We might be challenged by the thought that nothing remains that is new, a thought which prompts (some of) us to attempt the new. I have long held that creativity is key to the profound in existence. What I never really appreciated is that creativity is, to one degree, the response, should one be inclined to respond, to the threat of remarkable indifference. Creativity is the fear of the same styled into the unsame. What am I doing here?–both the practical and the highfalutin metaphysical answer is: wrestling against the threat of boredom–with my notion of creativity. And you?

* Perhaps you might be interested in a more modern–more creative–take on the subject: Consider David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King. (Can we long for the nostalgia of boredom?)


And of course there is a Ted Talk on the subject, as there appears to be a Ted Talk on every subject:


A long(er) version of this mini-essay appeared a few years ago over at The Nervous Breakdown. My essays at TNB can be found here. (Was boredom the motivation to lifting this essay…?)

Buzzwords of authenticity

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on March 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm

There is an article in the current Yankee magazine about the tradition of the Maine guide. At its heart, the guide program here in Maine is the practice of handing down skills and knowledge, guide to guide. It is, by definition, a tradition, like an apprenticeship. The article speaks to the context of “ritual history” verses “artifact history.” Artifact history is stuff, the offal of civilization, the things one finds in antique stores and museums. Ritual history, however, is the action of a skill handed down, including the knowledge of time and place contained in the memory of the teacher, drawing on previous teachers. There seems such natural symmetry to history practiced, if that is the right word, in this manner.

Turning still to contemporary culture, I received a catalog from a company called Ibex. They specialize in outdoor clothing. The catalog is quite nice and filled with lovely photography and interesting copy. Not all the copy is specific to selling clothes, at least not directly. There are several short essays that articulate the life-style choices of the Ibex clothes wearer. They are good little pieces, and frankly inspiring. One title, in particular, caught my eye: “Do (Authentic) Things.” The piece describes a sixth generation Vermonter, Bob Harrington, who runs a 140 acre sap farm. He collects sap with a horse-drawn tank. Drawing an overlap between their clothing and Harrington’s story, the copy reads, “We understand taking a longer road, a road tied to an artisan product and a strong connection to the natural world. We get it.” Consumerism aside, I respond to the pitch with a good deal of appreciation.

The business of authenticity has held center to my attentions for some time. It is the classic challenge: how to ensure that your experience of experience is valid. I have to reject in principle Sartre and Heidegger who held that modern civilization is already lost, that authenticity had been crushed by modern cultural norms and the attendant technologies. However, despite my rejection of that claim, it does not escape me that we first turn to outdoor guides and sap farmers when thinking of a life drawn authentic. I enjoy the comforts of modern existence. I’m not a Luddite. But there seems something fishy about much of modern existence (perhaps what Roland Barthes meant by “the plastic attempts of modernity”); so devoid it often appears of ritual history, to use our new phrase.

I wish to eat at the table of authenticity where the test of time is a basic ingredient of the recipe. That meal is most satisfying when the skills of its making are handed down from previous generations. Whose meal would you rather, Grandma’s or Ronald McDonald’s?

Does not something in our DNA long to connect with the ritualized promise of our ancestors? I fancy that if I find the right combination with which to respond to that question, a satisfaction, rich and unique, will be my reward. How best does one understand the nature of authenticity and assimilate that knowledge into a life?

My life has sprinted parallel to the advancement of silicon technology.

In Philosophy, Technology, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on May 11, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I was three years old in 1958. That was the year Jack Kilby demonstrated a continuous sine wave from his integrated circuit to the management team at Texas instrument. That was the year modern technology was born.  It was the first successful working integrated circuit. He had been wrestling with what was poetically referred to as the “tyranny of numbers.” This specific tyranny was one of size and scope. In order to get the computing machines to work as the engineers suspected they could, they required more and bigger components. The machines were taking up entire rooms, and to make the situation especially humbling, every thing had to be soldered to every other thing, by hand. Kilby solved the problem by using a single piece of semiconductor material. He was awarded U.S. Patent 3,138,743 for “Miniaturized Electronic Circuits” in 1959. In 2000 he got the Nobel prize in physics.

My life has sprinted parallel to the advancement of silicon technology. I have been alive from the birth of the chip to the iPad. Heidegger, who was 69 when Kilby overthrew tyranny, had already written (tellingly?) about the relationship between authenticity and non-technical modes of existence. Sartre had thrown in the towel, declaring western culture hopelessly inauthentic, offering little hope for recovery. He was 53.  They didn’t know technology as we know technology. Somewhere along the personal time-line, a few years after Kilby’s chip,  I discovered Henry David Thoreau and his experiment in the woods.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

I don’t wish to infer that technology makes for less authenticity. But, Thoreau, whose opinion I trust,  suggested a threat incubating in the pre-dawn of modern existence and I think I should pay heed. His existence, that existence which would drive him to the solitude of the woods, was primitive compared  to our  post-Kilby reality. But it’s only a matter of degrees, I suspect. The point being, add up enough degrees and you have an angle, angles stretch wide enough and before you know it,  you’re 180 degrees from the direction you wish to be headed.

I have no idea what to do about any of this, wondering if action is even warranted. I only worry, not having gone to Walden and not knowing if I am practicing resignation or not, that I will misstep and fumble awkwardly tripping into the/my future. Mostly, I think that is already the case.

the vision thing…

In Dogs, Life, The Examined Life on March 5, 2010 at 10:08 pm

I’ve told my kids that as you grow older you lose your peripheral vision. I’ve said this repeatedly; most often, it seems, each time I felt my own vision closing in. When I was young(er) the world was wide open and my vision reflected it. Then, as I grew up and more focused (though that is not really the correct word, but you get my drift), my vision closed in a bit, losing a few degrees at the edges, a sort of vignetting, as it were, figuratively speaking. That is, the older I grew, the fewer options were open to me. (Oh, how I long for the open fields of my youth.) (They say that the rod cells of the eye, which fail to detect colors, are the ones that give us vision on the sides, peripheral, that is. Speaking biology here. Dogs, have no cones, only rods, so the assumption is that our canine friends don’t see colors. I have a close affinity to my dog, as readers of my thoughts know. Is that why my camera is loaded with monochrome?)

As you grow older, if you are aware of the trend, you struggle against the loss of peripheral vision. Who wants to finish their days with blinders on? That is the logical sequence of things. First, wide open world, vision all the way to the sides, then less and less until, the next thing you know, you’re a horse and wearing blinders. You see only straight ahead. Head down. Somebody whipping your backside.

A person should want to avoid that. I think artists do. Great artists don’t lose vision on the sides. That is what makes them great. The rest of us need be aware and struggle against the tendency.

It is related to thinking–but then, what isn’t? And thinking is linked to language. (Heidegger: “Language is the house of Being.”) They say there is no culture until the poets show up. That is, commerce can flourish and life flow, but there is no real society, no commonly defined culture, until someone can think and speak through language in a meaningful way. It’s like turning on your computer without an operating system installed. The machine comes on but the screen is blank. Once we start believing that we know what it is we think, and the more defined we grow in this manner, the more staid and certain we become–the more vision we lose on the sides, the peripheral vision. Before you know it, we are fixed  in that which we think. But we see only in one direction, straight ahead, in the direction we have determined we must head. That’s great if you’re the captain of a ship heading to harbor, but not so great if you’re an explorer.

So, wanna be a harbor master or an explorer? That’s what I figured. Go explore.