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Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Philosophy arose in 6th century BCE Athens and, in Greek, means “love of wisdom.” It’s a popular misconception that wisdom means having answers. That’s false. The quality of wisdom depends upon questions. “Questions are the essence of freedom, because they can always be asked, whereas answers can only be enforced.”

There were two great philosophers in the 20th century, one Austrian—Ludwig Wittgenstein—and one German—Martin Heidegger. Their parallel but linked interpretations produced a fundamental divide between “Continental” philosophy and the “Anglo-American” school, Wittgenstein’s guiding question was “what is language?” Heidegger’s: “What is Being?”

Philosophy at Stanford in the 50s was “linquistic analysis,” as the practice deriving from Wittgenstein had come to be called. I became interested in “phenomenology”—the method originating in German thought. There were only two U.S. university departments supporting such studies; one of them was Penn State, which is where I wrote my PhD dissertation under John Anderson.

Heidegger’s question “what is Being?” revives the oldest inquiry in the history of philosophy. The first thing we discover in asking the question is that consciousness a uniquely human ability: we are capable simultaneously of doing something and of being aware we are doing it.

That is, consciousness—or mind—always has a dual quality. This experience of duality misleads us into picturing the world—like we ourselves—to have two aspects: one in the foreground, the other in the background. “Appearance” and “reality” exemplify this mistake, as do “mind” and “body,” “subject” and “object,” and many more.

The word “phenomenon” means “appearance.” So the first insight of phenomenology is that there are only appearances. The second is that things appear only to us. In other words, only humans have the power to attend to the world—or the environment—as a whole process. All modern knowledge, especially the sciences, depends upon this power.

“To exist” means to “stand out.” It follows that only humans exist: only human being—that is human consciousness—can both occupy a position and bring the world into relation to that position. This is a brief version of one of Heidegger’s early insights.

One way to grasp the significance of this insight is to realize it is the basis of our knowledge of death. Memory and imagination enable us to extend our awareness, recalling a past and projecting a future. So I am able to imagine a time at which I’ve ceased to exist, a world in I am no longer present. This is the source of our deepest hatred and fear…


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