Posts by tag: McGill University

An Interview with Stéfan Sinclair

In mid-January of this year, I paid a visit to Stéfan Sinclair, who is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities in McGill’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Since he received his Ph.D. in French literature, Professor Sinclair has worked on numerous projects designing digital humanities text visualization tools, often in collaboration with other scholars. He was most generous and open in responding to my questions as we sat in his windowed office overlooking the intersection of rue Sherbrooke and rue University.

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Heidegger on philosophy

For the philosophy of technology seminar I’m taking, I summarised and presented a ‘lecture course’ of German philosopher Martin Heidegger,’The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics’ (published originally in 1935; from Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by G. Fried and R. Polt; New Haven: Yale, 2000; 1-54.)

Heidegger is known for the difficulty of his style. But I found much lucidity in ‘The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics.’ Without going into the rant-like and Spenglerian aspects of this piece of writing (diagnosing the spiritual decline of the West, Heidegger rails against, I quote, the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, the hatred and mistrust of everything creative and free, and the preeminence of the mediocre);–and also without actually summarising what the essay is about (Heidegger begins the essay by saying that the fundamental question of metaphysics is

Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? 

;–and he then proceeds to modulate the question in such a way that it begets a teeming horde of other questions), I want to represent what I left out of my presentation in the interest of time because it doesn’t concern technology at all, but philosophy itself.

According to H., philosophy is extremely unpopular; it is a ‘leading that has no following.’ Philosophy’s essence, which is questioning, ‘questioning-ahead,’–is never embraced by the public or the masses. In fact, when philosophy becomes popular (think of Sartre’s popularity mid-century, the popularity of ‘existentialism’ on both sides of the Atlantic), it’s no longer philosophy–it’s fashion.

One would think that philosophy ought to achieve something, perhaps make aspects of existence more intelligible, render the making of choices easier. To the contrary, Heidegger informs one that: ‘philosophy never makes things easier, but only more difficult’; ‘Nothing comes of philosophy, you can’t do anything with it.’

In these formulations, Heidegger’s view of philosophy seems opposite that of American pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey and William James. There is something positively continentally decadent about this high-headedness.

And Heidegger quotes Nietzsche, where Nietzsche writes that

Philosophy means living voluntarily amid ice and mountain ranges.

The accumulation of these deadpan, clarifying remarks about philosophy’s domain and role led me to wonder whether or not some humour or irony might be intended on Heidegger’s part. I think not. I think not.

What is the point of philosophy according to Heidegger, if ‘you can’t do anything with it’?

The point of philosophy–of questioning-ahead– is that it acts on us; on our thought; on our thinking. On our Being, if you prefer. 

The questioning is not just autotelic, an end in itself. Its purpose is, rather, to alter subjectivity, change life, change lives. Like my post on Albert Borgmann of last week, this post is jagged in comparison to some other of my postings. To make no concession, I’ll leave off with a hyperbolically-inflected ponderous snippet of Heidegger’s ‘Traditional and Technological Language,’ a quote I try to understand:

Technological language is the severest and most menacing attack on what is peculiar to language:

saying as showing and as the letting-appear of what is present and what is absent, of reality in the widest sense;

The attack of the technological language on what is peculiar to language is at the same time the threat to the human being’s ownmost essence

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