Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Three: The Emergence of ModernityCollin Cleary
For Heidegger, the history of Western metaphysics is characterized by understanding Being narrowly in terms of what satisfies human needs and desires – especially the desire for knowledge, prediction, and control. This “subjective turn” is usually associated with the modern period, but Heidegger locates its inception much earlier, with Plato and some of the Pre-Socratics. (These points are discussed at length in Part One of this series.) In the last installment, I began to discuss how a uniquely modern version of metaphysics arose from the Middle Ages, when Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy was fused with Christianity.
Central to modernity’s concept of “the subject” is the idea of “representation”: the subject “represents” (internally) a world of “objects” that stands opposed. This concept of representation is modeled initially on Saint Augustine’s understanding of the relation of the divine mind to the world. According to Augustine, God’s mind contains the Platonic forms. He beholds these forms as a systematic totality: a complete and all-encompassing schematized model or representation of existence, on which he bases creation. As we shall see, the perfection of human representation, according to early modern thought, is when the “external world” has been entirely re-presented by man in a synoptic, “God’s eye” vision of the whole.
The central features of the early modern understanding of “subjectivity” can be summarized as follows.
First, the modern subject can be said to be “autonomous,” in more than one way. The subject is understood as ontologically distinct from the rest of the world; in other words, it is understood to be different in kind from everything else that exists, and not subject to the same conditions as “material objects.” One might argue that this position is to be found in Plato and Aristotle, who make the soul (or, in Aristotle’s case, part of the soul) incorporeal. The modern soul, however, is an ego: a unique self that contains purely personal features (e.g., a collection of stored “experiences”). This ego stands in opposition to the world – in, as we shall see, all the different senses of “opposition.”
The subject (or ego) is, furthermore, understood to exist “inside.” As I discussed at length in the previous essay, modern subjectivity is understood to abide “in here,” standing opposed to an “external world” that is “out there.” The interiority of the subject is conceived on the model of a container that houses all that is “personal,” all that “belongs” to the ego (thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes, fears, sins, etc.). This dichotomy between an “in here” and an “out there” is arguably the central feature of modern thought, and is not be found earlier. It is now so engrained in us that we take it for “common sense.”
The “autonomy” of the modern subject also consists in the fact that it sets itself up as the detached judge of what is. The subject not only re-presents, in its interiority, what is “out there,” it is also judge of the real and the true. Its criterion of truth, furthermore, is certainty. An idea or presentation is certain, and therefore true, if the subject cannot not believe in it. Thus, subjective belief (of a particular kind) becomes the mark of truth and reality. The truth and reality of the world that is “out there” becomes an issue for the subject just because it understands itself as removed from the world and located “in here.” Thus is generated the much-discussed “problem of the external world.” The world becomes “problematic” because it stands opposed as an other, as an object to the subject. Whether it is “really there,” or really is as it appears to be, becomes an issue.
However, an additional problem presents itself: assuming that there really is a world “out there,” what should the subject do with it? The world stands opposed to the subject not as a passive object, but as that which actively resists our intentions (I turn the screwdriver, but the screw will not budge; I have to move the party indoors when it rains; I expect that the pandas will mate, but they refuse, etc.). The subject’s re-presentation of the world, furthermore, is also not entirely passive, but is instead an active grasping of the object according to the subject’s ideas or theories. The world “out there” that stands opposed thus comes to be seen as waiting upon the subject to transform it according to the subject’s ideas (or ideals) – indeed, it positively demands this (or so we moderns imagine) and exists for no other reason than to be transformed. (The biblical basis for this latter idea will be discussed below.)
The foregoing sketch gives us all the principal features of modern “subjectivity,” which remain constant (though they undergo development) throughout modernity – meaning that they shape modern philosophy, modern science, and ordinary thinking (where, as I alluded to earlier, they form the framework of what is taken in our time as “common sense”). Despite talk about “postmodernity,” this conception of subjectivity is still very much with us – in fact, certain features described above have only intensified and become more virulent. Moreover, all of the features of modern subjectivity just described are developments of the Christian “worldview,” as I shall discuss in the next section.
Before we turn to that subject, however, some rather basic and mundane historical considerations must be mentioned. Historians of philosophy usually recognize “Renaissance philosophy” as the period that follows the Middle Ages. I may refer to “the Renaissance,” but I perceive a strong continuity between the mindset of the Renaissance and modern thought – so much so that I would locate the Renaissance within “Early Modernity.” Conventionally, “modern philosophy” is thought to begin with Machiavelli (1469–1527), or Bacon (1561–1626), or Descartes (1596–1650). However, it is important to bear in mind what has been discussed in previous essays: for Heidegger, philosophy does not create the spirit of the times; rather, it expresses that spirit. Thus, it is useless to argue whether it is Machiavelli or Bacon or Descartes who inaugurates modernity: all of them give voice to quintessential aspects of modern thought. (Some readers will perceive that I have already alluded several times in the foregoing to Descartes – or, at least, to ideas that achieve paradigmatic expression in Descartes.)
Finally, I should note that historians of philosophy often use the term “modern philosophy” to apply to everything from Machiavelli or Descartes to Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). After Kant, historians usually refer to “nineteenth-century philosophy” as the next epoch in the history of philosophy. But this is an arbitrary distinction. I will use “modern philosophy” to cover everything from the Renaissance to Nietzsche (1844–1900), and “modernity” to refer to everything from the Renaissance to the present day. (Arguably, philosophy after Nietzsche does enter into a “postmodern” period, which, of course, includes Heidegger.) Terms such as “Age of Reason” and “Age of Enlightenment” can be useful, but they simply name phases in modernity – phases whose often superficial differences mask a strong, underlying continuity.
2. From Christian Self to Modern Self
Whence comes this detached, autonomous modern subject described above? The answer is that Christianity, quite inadvertently, gives birth to it. Christianity teaches its adherents that salvation is possible under certain conditions and that, if those conditions are not satisfied, eternal damnation becomes another possibility. The result of this is that the religion causes its adherents to become hyper-focused upon the security of their personal, individual souls. And this then gives rise to the strong desire to be assured of salvation (since eternal damnation is such a terrible prospect). In short, the individual comes to desire certainty regarding himself, and his relation to the divinity – a certainty which Christian teaching on its own cannot provide.
Heidegger writes in The End of Philosophy,
By himself, man can never become, and be, absolutely certain of this salvation. On the other hand, through faith and similarly through lack of faith, man is essentially established in the attainment of salvation’s certainty, or forced to the renunciation of this salvation and its certainty. Thus, a necessity rules, hidden in its origin, that man make sure of his salvation in some fashion in the Christian or in another sense (salvation: soteria: redemption: release).
Christianity produces a kind of “inward turning,” whereby the individual becomes focused upon the following: (1) a “content” that is purely personal and unique to him: the quality of his thoughts and his feelings, and his collection of memories concerning his own acts (Has he achieved “faith”? Has he sinned “in the heart”? Has he committed “deadly” sins? Has he repented of past sins? Etc.); (2) his personal security (i.e., the salvation of his soul; with everything riding upon the “content” just described); and (3) what he can and cannot know, with the desire for salvation pushing him towards the ideal of attaining an absolute knowledge (i.e., certainty of personal survival and security in the afterlife).
Thus, as Heidegger points out, the modern preoccupation with certainty and personal security do not arise in rebellion against “the doctrine of faith.” Rather, they are its natural outgrowth. For this reason, Heidegger claims that Christian faith “remains authoritative throughout manifold transformations for the organization and cultivation of what is real” in the entire history of modernity. Thus, however far modernity appears to have strayed from the Christian faith, even when it jeers at that faith and reviles it – even when it submerges a crucifix in urine – it is still governed by attitudes and priorities shaped by Christian belief.
Heidegger claims that when truth becomes a matter of “humanity making sure of itself” the modern period truly begins. This “making sure” takes the form, as I have already said, of a desire for certainty. But it also takes the form of an all-consuming preoccupation with security. This begins as a desire for eternal security in the afterlife, and then is transferred to a desire for abiding security in this world. Heidegger writes that, “this essence of truth [as humanity making sure of itself] delivers man and his effecting power over to the inevitable and never ceasing worry of increasing the possibilities of safety and making sure of them again in the face of newly enkindled dangers.” Thus is born, in short, the modern focus upon the ceaseless quest to eliminate all that threatens the safety, security, and ease of the individual.
In time, the drive for certainty undermines the authority of the Church. The believer endeavors to be faithful, nourished by the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But that hope is not enough, precisely because it is not certain: hope is mere hope, and no guarantee. The believer desires to truly know, and to be certain in this knowledge. For this, however, he requires some foundation, some basis for knowing – a foundation which is not provided by the Church, which offers only the insistent repetition of its dogmas. Thus, as Heidegger puts it, “The sole criterion of church doctrine for the whole ordering and forming of truth and knowledge breaks down and yields to the growing predominance of seeking founding itself.”
In other words, the search for a foundation for knowledge becomes disengaged not just from church doctrine, but even from the original project of attaining certain knowledge of salvation. The seeking of a foundation becomes, in short, an end in itself. Heidegger continues: “The criteria get turned around. The truth of faith and faithful knowledge are now measured in terms of the self-certainty of pure thinking with regard to its correctness.” Instead of forming an adjunct to faith, this new standpoint that demands a foundation for knowledge (one that could provide certainty and determine the “correctness” of belief) becomes autonomous, and soon sits in judgment of faith itself, as well as everything else.
But what of Being? Heidegger’s history of metaphysics recounts how the Western understanding of Being has changed over time. When we move from the Christian subject of the Middle Ages to the modern subject, how does our understanding of Being change? In the last installment of this series, I discussed the following lines from Heidegger’s essay “The Age of the World Picture”:
For the Middle Ages . . . the being is the ens creatum, that which is created by the personal creator-God, who is considered to be the highest cause. Here, to be a being means: to belong to a particular rank in the order of created things, and, as thus created, to correspond to the cause of creation (analogia entis) . . . But never does the being’s being consist in its being brought before man as the objective.
For medieval Christianity, to be is to be a thing created by God, owing its Being to God. Further, all created things have a place in the “great chain of being,” with the divinity at the apex. The last line of the quotation gives us a clue as to how the modern perspective is different: for modern thought, the Being of a being will consist in “its being brought before man as the objective.” Being becomes “the objective” and the objective only presents itself to a subject (an “object” only exists for a “subject”; they are correlative terms). We will have to explore this concept of “objectivity,” and the related concept of “representation” in some detail in the next essay, for this is key to understanding the modern mindset.
For now, however, simply consider that although in the Middle Ages Being never consists in being brought before man, Being does consist in being brought before another subject, namely God. All things are created by God from the ideas in the divine mind, and willed into existence by him. To be is be the object of God’s mind and God’s handiwork. (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” Genesis 1:31.) Only God sees the totality of creation, gazing upon the order he has vested in it, and the reason for all things. However, as noted earlier (and discussed extensively in the last essay), the relation of divine subjectivity to creation actually serves as the model for modern subjectivity’s relation to the “objective.” For the modern perspective, to be is to be an object for a subject (man) that can, in fact, attain something that approaches the absolute knowledge of the divinity: a knowledge of the order of things, and the reasons why they are the way that they are.
In order for this to be possible, however, the idea that there are inherent limits on human knowledge, and that it is a sin to transgress them, must be challenged – for what we are really describing amounts to man’s attainment of a divine perspective. We have already seen the groundwork laid for this challenge, with the development of an autonomous and “rational” perspective that seeks an absolute foundation independent of faith. The modern ideal of knowledge is an impiety that is nonetheless shaped by Christian presuppositions. (Though part of Descartes’s project in The Meditations on First Philosophy is to argue that it is actually the Church that behaves impiously, when it tries to contain science within the limits of dogma.) Furthermore, in order for man to be confident in this impiety, confident in his ability to storm the heavens, he must be convinced that he is in possession of a tool that promises the attainment of this hitherto-undreamed-of knowledge. That tool, Heidegger tells us, is mathematics.
3. The Birth of Modern Science
Heidegger writes in Introduction to Metaphysics,
Because beings have been created by God – that is, have been thought out rationally in advance – then as soon as the relation of creature to creator is dissolved, while at the same time human reason attains predominance, and even posits itself as absolute, the Being of beings must become thinkable in the pure thinking of mathematics. Being as calculable in this way, Being as set into calculation, makes beings into something that can be ruled in modern, mathematically structured technology, which is essentially something different from every previously known use of tools.
In his marginalia, Leibniz once wrote, Cum Deus calculat fit mundus: “When God reckons, a world comes to be.” Creation, Leibniz is telling us, was (and is) effected mathematically. The difference between our thought and God’s is that the divine thought is productive: it brings things into being immediately, and without labor. Nonetheless, God’s thought is mathematical. This means that while our own mathematical thought cannot bring a world into being, it can be used to understand the world God has created in the same language according to which he created it. Some decades prior to Leibniz’s marginal note, Galileo famously wrote that “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” One can find many similar quotations from early modern figures.
In “The Age of the World Picture,” Heidegger tells us that if we wish to understand the essence of modern science, “we must first free ourselves of the habit of comparing modern with older science – from the perspective of progress – merely in terms of degree.” Conventional histories of science offer a narrative that begins with some of the Greeks (principally Aristotle) and purports to exhibit “progress” over time, as new discoveries are made and new “methodologies” are arrived at. For Heidegger, however, the “methodology” of modern science makes it qualitatively different from what gets called, tendentiously, “ancient science.” In fact, these are so different that it is misleading to speak of ancient and modern “science” at all, as if there were some obvious continuity between them. In fact, they are discontinuous, because they are fundamentally different enterprises. (Some of my readers will be familiar with one instance of this error: when alchemy is treated as an older form of “chemistry”; in fact alchemy and chemistry are different enterprises, with entirely different presuppositions and aims.)
It is actually somewhat surprising that modern histories of science assert any continuity at all between modern science and ancient thought. As Heidegger points out, not only is the standpoint of modern science new, it “explicitly sets itself up as the new.” “Modern” comes from Latin modernus, from modo, meaning “recently,” “presently,” or “just now.” The modern age, in short, is “what’s new.” The German word for “the modern” or “modernity” is die Neuzeit, literally “the new time” or “new age.” In the new time, time itself is new: it moves in a straight line, not in a circle (as it did for the ancients), stretched between darkness and the light of “progress.” All of my readers will be familiar with this aspect of modernity: the dogged insistence that all is now “new” or must become new; that the “new” is better than what came before, etc. The modern period’s self-understanding is that it is the age that is discontinuous with the past. This is indeed something fundamentally “new” in history.
Aside from its self-conception, what is genuinely new in the “new time” is, as Heidegger puts it, “that mode of human being which occupies the realm of human capacity as the domain of measuring and execution for the purpose of the mastery of beings as a whole.” In other words, mathematics is the means (so it is supposed) for both absolute knowledge of creation, and absolute mastery of it. And why should man not aspire to such mastery? After all, did not God himself say that man should “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26)?
However, it is easy to misunderstand what Heidegger means by “mathematics.” In fact, he is not referring to calculation and to the use of number, not fundamentally.
“Mathematics” comes from the Greek τα μαθήματα (ta mathēmata), which Heidegger explains as follows: “Τα μαθήματα means . . . that which, in his observation of beings and interaction with things, man knows in advance.” Fundamentally, mathematics is an approach to knowledge of the world that is based in certain presuppositions taken as true in advance of any experience of the world. To borrow the language of Kant, ta mathēmata traffics in the realm of the a priori, that which is known independently of, and prior to experience. Formal mathematics provides us with a paradigm of this knowledge in its axioms and postulates, all of which have the status simply of “presuppositions” brought to our thinking, rather than conclusions derived from experience.
To take a simple example, one of Euclid’s postulates is “Any straight line segment can be extended indefinitely in a straight line.” This is obviously not a statement about the real world, or about anything that has been done in the world, or could be done. No one has ever “extended” a straight line indefinitely, nor will they. Instead, Euclid is speaking about what can be imagined. Nevertheless, this truth “known in advance” yields practical knowledge of the world when the geometrical system derived from it (and other postulates) is used to “measure” (or “measure out”) physical space. It is useful here to consider the literal meaning of the term “axiom”: from Greek axioma (ἀξῐ́ωμᾰ), “what is fitting,” “what is requisite” (think: prerequisite), “what must be known beforehand.”
Geometry is concerned with the “pure intuition of space” (to again borrow Kantian language): how space can, in essence, be divided into shapes or figures that are one, two, or three-dimensional, how these figures can be derived from one another, and how figures are related in terms of size, distance, and relative position. The geometrical approach of conceiving a science as a system derived from self-evident axioms was never applied by the ancients to the “natural sciences.” However, this is precisely the approach that makes modern science “new.” Heidegger writes,
When . . . physics assumes an explicitly “mathematical” form, what this means is the following: that through and for it, in an emphatic way, something is specified in advance as that which is already known. This specification concerns nothing less than what, for the sought-after knowledge of nature, is henceforth to count as “nature”: the closed system of spatio-temporally related units of mass.
Physics is the most fundamental of modern sciences because all the sciences are understood to study bodies, and physics studies the properties of bodies and their relations as such – i.e. the properties and relations of “spatio-temporally related units of mass.” Further, modern physics is capable of an exactness not achievable by the other sciences. However, this exactness is a function of the basic presuppositions – the “axioms,” if you will – that physics “specifies in advance.” These presuppositions determine, in fact, what counts as “nature.” Heidegger gives several examples of these presuppositions and comments on them as follows:
Pertaining to this ground-plan [of modern physics], in accordance with its prior specification, are to be found, among others, the following definitions. Motion is change of place. No motion or direction of motion takes precedence over any other. Every point is equal to every other. No point in time has precedence over any other. Every force is defined as – is, that is, nothing but – its consequences as motion within the unity of time; and that means, again, change of place. Every natural event must be viewed in such a way that it fits into this ground-plan of nature. Only within the perspective of this ground-plan does a natural event becomes visible as such. The ground-plan of nature is secured in place in that physical research, in each step of investigation, is obligated to it in advance.
As Alan Watts might put it, physics achieves its exactitude by factoring out all that is “wiggly” or “squishy” about the world. The exactness of modern physics is possible precisely because it understands the physical world in terms that are simple, narrow, and artificial. When “nature” is reduced essentially to the interactions of qualitatively identical “units of mass” (the physical equivalent of the “geometrical point”), exchanging positions that are qualitatively identical, via motions that are qualitatively identical, through points of time that are qualitatively identical, the exact measurement of “nature” indeed becomes possible. Note how this would be grist for Guénon’s mill: the qualitative as such drops out and the quantitative alone “reigns.” This quantitative physics will eventually yield a quantitative politics: “society” will be reduced essentially to the interactions of qualitatively identical “individuals,” exchanging opinions that are qualitatively identical (i.e., “relative”), pursuing preferences or “values” that are qualitatively identical (again, “relative”), asserting “rights” that are qualitatively identical.
But, one might object, doesn’t modern science achieve an unprecedented exactitude, precisely by focusing upon the quantitative at the expense of the qualitative? Heidegger answers as follows: “Mathematical research into nature is not . . . exact because it calculates precisely; rather it must calculate precisely because the way it is bound to its domain of objects has the character of exactness.” In short, the exactness of modern science is possible only because it chooses to see the world in an exact way: in a way that is governed by certain presuppositions that make exactitude possible, and by factoring out whatever does not lend itself to exactitude. An even simpler way to put Heidegger’s point would be just to say that physics deals with the world only insofar as the world presents aspects that are measurable.
But what of the aspects that are not measurable? Here, physicists may frankly admit that their science simply cannot deal with those aspects. The drift of modern thinking, however, has been to actively denigrate whatever cannot be measured, and to denigrate whatever studies the hard-to-measure. Thus, since the objects of biology and psychology can only be very imperfectly measured, at least compared to physics, these sciences are regarded as “soft” (or “softer”). Worse still is the fate of disciplines such as philosophy and literature, which are declared “subjective” because they do not deal with measurement at all.
The irony here is that the “objective” approach of modern physics, which insists that measurement is the key to objectivity, is actually deeply subjective. The reader may have already drawn this conclusion from the foregoing. After all, what have we said except that physics achieves its exactitude by means of projecting a certain understanding of “nature” onto nature, one that (conveniently) makes exactitude possible? Physics, in short, can measure exactly only because it has chosen to see only some aspects of what is, and not others.
The extreme form of this modern scientific outlook is reached when it comes to be assumed that, for all intents and purposes, the unmeasurable simply does not exist. (A good example of this tendency would be certain forms of “radical behaviorism,” which deny the existence of impossible-to-measure internal mental states.) Here we can see a very clear modern manifestation of what Heideggerean philosophy calls “the metaphysics of presence” (a concept discussed extensively in an earlier essay of this series). The “metaphysics of presence” involves accommodating Being to the human desire for knowledge and control. “What is” is defined in such a way that it is present to human consciousness and available for manipulation. This process begins very early on, in Plato, who defines what is as “form”; i.e., the “look” of a thing that is eternally available to the gaze of the human intellect. Modern physics carries on this tradition, in a way that now becomes much more explicit: to be is to be measurable by human beings; whatever isn’t measurable isn’t important, and may not even exist.
However, science has at the ready a very powerful response to this Heideggerean critique. The physicist will say that there is ample evidence that Being really is the measurable, and that evidence consists in the extraordinary success of modern science. When the world is approached in terms of the presuppositions of modern physics, a great wealth of facts is revealed to us and we are able to accomplish new things: we can accurately predict phenomena, identify causal connections that remain constant over time, and manipulate the environment to produce results that affect our lives (for better or worse). At least, this is what the physicist will assert. And this really is a powerful response, because modern science does indeed seem to work.
But Heidegger would never deny this. While we can easily see that there is something fundamentally “subjective” about how science achieves its results by projecting its presuppositions upon nature, Heidegger never actually dismisses science as “subjective.” He never declares, for example, that the truth of science is merely “relative” or that its results are somehow false or invalid. No, Heidegger believes that modern science does deliver truths and does deliver results. However, it delivers truths only within, we might say, a “certain bandwidth” – one that is set by its presuppositions. Further, modern science produces certain results, and not others. The results it does produce are judged desirable, and to be the only results that matter, according to a whole other set of presuppositions, those that define the modern conception of the good and of “value.”
To see Heidegger’s point more clearly, we might consider a couple of simple analogies. In an earlier installment, when trying to explain Heidegger’s phenomenological orientation, I gave the example of an encounter with an Amazon box on my doorstep. At first, and from a distance, the object presents itself to me as an Orvis box; i.e., I take it as a box from Orvis. On closer inspection, I see that it is an Amazon box. But suppose I never notice this, or suppose I continue to doggedly insist on taking the object as an Orvis box. Up to a point it will allow me to do this: I could use the box to return items to Orvis (even though this might raise some eyebrows at Orvis HQ), or I could use the box to store Orvis items. The reason this is possible is that the Amazon box does have the capacity to be (mis-)taken as an Orvis box.
But suppose I were to argue that because I was able to use the Amazon box as an Orvis box and thereby produce some desirable results, my presupposition is true after all: taking this box as an Orvis box is correct, and moreover tells me everything I need to know about it. A reasonable person would respond as follows: “I won’t deny that your presuppositions produced results – you really did get those items shipped back to Orvis using the box. But there was more to this thing than its capacity to be taken by you as an Orvis box. In fact, it was not an Orvis box at all. It was an Amazon box.”
Or consider a second analogy. Suppose I need to pound a nail into the wall, but don’t have a hammer. Instead, I use a platform shoe. When I use the shoe in this fashion, I am taking it as a hammer. And, indeed, by taking it this way I am able to accomplish my task: I successfully use the shoe to knock the nail into the wall, and it is actually quite effective for this purpose. This is possible because the shoe really does have the capacity to present itself as a hammer – i.e., to be used as one. But suppose I then declared that the shoe really is a hammer, on the basis of the fact that taking it is a hammer (i.e., bringing that presupposition to the object) allowed me to produce “real world results.” Again, a reasonable person would say, “I won’t deny that the shoe has some hammerlike qualities, and I won’t deny that you produced some results by taking it as a hammer. But its hammerlike qualities are not all there is to the shoe. Indeed, it’s a shoe and not a hammer at all.”
So it is with modern science. Its procedure is to understand bodies entirely in terms of a narrow set of properties – properties they do indeed seem to present to us – and then, once desired results are produced, to declare that all there is to bodies is that narrow set of properties, all else being discountable as unimportant, epiphenomenal, or not even “truly real.” This is how science becomes ideology: when the presuppositions of physics, originally adopted for methodological reasons, are taken as ontological, as defining what is, science becomes “scientism.”
But modern scientism rests on a non sequitur: from the fact that certain expected or desired results are produced by acting on our presuppositions about nature, it does not follow that nature is exhausted by those presuppositions. The modern scientific approach thus amounts to a kind of procrustean bed: nature is pared down or stretched to fit the assumptions of the scientist. And Francis Bacon himself turns the crank. Famously, Bacon said, “My only earthly wish is . . . to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds. . . . [Nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.”
Appendix. Outline of the Series:
The plan for this series, which will consist of five essays total (some divided into several installments), follows below. Each essay builds on the last, but each is also relatively self-contained.
Part One: Why Heidegger and Traditionalism are not compatible; major errors in Traditionalism from a Heideggerian perspective.
Part Two (multiple installments): Heidegger’s history of metaphysics from Platonism to Nietzsche. This account will deepen our understanding of why Heidegger would regard Traditionalism as a fundamentally modern movement, as well as deepen our understanding of modernity. Among other things, I will discuss Evola’s problematic indebtedness to German Idealism, especially J.G. Fichte, whose philosophy (I argue) is like a vial of fast-acting, concentrated modern poison.
Part Three: From Nietzsche to the present age of post-War modernity, which Heidegger characterizes as das Gestell (“enframing”). Part Four will deal in detail with this fundamental Heideggerian concept, which is central to his critique of technology.
Part Four: How Heidegger proposes that we respond to technological modernity. His project of a “recovery” of a pre-metaphysical standpoint; his “preparation” for the next “dispensation of Beyng.” His phenomenology of authentic human “dwelling” (“the fourfold”), and Gelassenheit.
Part Five: A call for a new philosophical approach, building upon Heidegger and the Traditionalists, while moving beyond them. Three primary components: (1) The recovery of “poetic wisdom” (to borrow a term from G.B. Vico): Heidegger’s project of the recovery of the pre-metaphysical standpoint now applied to myth and folklore, and expanded to include non-Greek sources (e.g., the pre-Christian traditions of Northern Europe); (2) Expanding Heidegger’s project of the “destruction” of the Western tradition to include the Gnostic and Hermetic traditions, Western esotericism, and Western mysticism; (3) Finally, social and cultural criticism from a standpoint informed by the critique of metaphysics, critique of modernity, and recovery of “poetic wisdom.”
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 Martin Heidegger, The End of Philosophy, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 21.
 See End of Philosophy, 24
 End of Philosophy, 22.
 Martin Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 31. Emphasis added.
 Schelling’s Treatise, 31.
 Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 68.
 Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 207. We will enter into a discussion of what Heidegger means by “technology” in a later essay.
 Quoted in Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 101.
 Off the Beaten Track, 58.
 Off the Beaten Track, 69.
 Off the Beaten Track, 69.
 Off the Beaten Track, 59.
 Off the Beaten Track, 60.
 Off the Beaten Track, 60.
 Off the Beaten Track, 60.
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The Honorable Cause: A Review
Remembering Edward Gibbon
Aristophanes’ Clouds, Part I
Built on Slavery: The Philosophy of Epictetus
In Defense of Nature: An Introduction to the Philosophy of F. W. J. Schelling, Part II
In Defense of Nature: An Introduction to the Philosophy of F. W. J. Schelling, Part I
I would have to say without a margin of a doubt that this set of highly thought provoking articles has got to be the most important ever published on Counter-Currents.
I’m not however, entirely comfortable with two closely linked ideas that seem to be tacitly expressed in them. One is that the entire cultural history of the past 2500 years was predicated on a lie (that is to say, some variant of metaphysical positivism or its negation) and needs to be rejected in its foundation. The second is that the history of ideas is ultimately shaped in terms of purely human interests and sentiments, as in that somebody, at some point, arbitrarily came up with one such idea or another, which caught on like a meme to encompass the entirety of a given sphere of culture. Alternatively, that such cultural paradigms proceed entirely out of historical power relationships.
Furthermore it is fallacious to attribute this, as is fashionable among many on the right, solely on the emergence of Christianity as the predominant spiritual discipline on the European continent – the intellectual framework for a metaphysical and essentially Catholic (understood in the core sense of this term) world view was already highly prominent in the late Hellenic era and early Antiquity throughout the Latin dominated Mediterranean.
My contention is that Christianity, at least as far of its philosophical and metaphysical postulates are concerned, represents a continuation of sorts with the prevailing cultural paradigms of the age, just as in turn Plato and Aristotle have distilled the mystical doctrines of the Near East into intellectualized forms, as opposed to having originated any novel systems of thought. This can be evidenced by the remarkable fact that in non-European societies, largely similar paradigms had developed at roughly the same period, such as pre-Imperial Confucianism or the Advaita Vedanta.
The author is mistaken however, in attributing a union between Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine – this is expressly rejected by traditional Christianity, in particular its Eastern Orthodox branch. The Church Fathers frequently turned to Hellenic philosophy to reach out to the largely dismissive and incredulous intellectual class, but the core of their faith was based on revelation and was hence beyond rational account.
I view the historical narrative through a historiosophic lens, as opposed to purely nominal and power oriented relationship. There exist cosmological forces fully and thoroughly outside the purview of our own limited “scientific” rationalistic discipline, unseen and hidden within history that drive the fates of nations and the transpiration of history itself. Such forces, we can call them, God, or “nature” or providence, can’t be rationally conceived let alone described – one can either deign to choose to accept or reject acknowledging them. This implies that metaphysics, understood as a philosophical system of positive thought, has only a tendentious relation to Christianity – and even then only in light of Revelation as transcribed in the Gospels.
Thus the fact that the historical consciousness of European peoples shifted from a “circular” to “linear” pattern was not a mere “historical error” or some sort of whimsical folly committed by Western civilization – it was a fundamental ontological change prompted by powers altogether outside of human categories of will and reason. Thus in my view, history can neither “err” nor be in need to be fixed like some damsel in a perpetual state of distress.
That said though I do not necessarily think that the narrative outlined here necessarily applies to every aspect of European historical and cultural development over the last 2500 years. If anything, the medieval Catholic tradition embodied by Europe’s civilized past, which Heidegger had also extolled in no small terms, can serve as much a perfect representative of the preconditioned historical vision alluded to here, just as much as the pre-Christian, Pagan world can be unconsciously distorted by its projections onto anachronistic cultural epochs.
So what I’m trying to say is that it is a mistake to think that we have a choice between “two” pasts – the Christian and the Pagan, the Nordic and the Latin, the Hellenic or the Hebrew. When we try to put emphasis one of them, we can’t help but draw forth from the other, for they are in fact inseparable, as alluded in symbolic terms by the double face of Janus serving as the logo of this website.
Absolutely loving this series, Colin. I wait impatiently for each installment. Thank you for your efforts!
Re “When the presuppositions of physics . . . are taken as ontological, as defining what is, science becomes ‘scientism.’ ” :
On a related note, I’m rather taken with the philosophical position dubbed (by its enemies) ‘Mysterianism’. Mysterians hold that, as humans are products of Natural Selection – just like dogs and cats – so we should no more expect to be able to fathom ALL the mysteries of existence, any more than we expect a cat to do complicated long-division sums (with apologies to Macavity).
J. B. S. Haldane expressed a similar view : “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Thomas Huxley may have been the first Mysterian : “How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.”
Having read very little by Heidegger (and only two books about him), as well as being aware that Heidegger wrote detailed studies of many Western philosophers, it is with hesitation that I will offer this remark/question:
The claim is that Heidegger was correct to attack the entire Western intellectual tradition — “Western metaphysical tradition” — for bringing about “all the modern ills decried by the Traditionalists”.
Solution is to recover “the pre-metaphysical standpoint” including the Presocratic, pre-Christian traditions of Northern Europe, and non-Western traditions.
Let’s concede that Europeans, “instead of actually addressing the most fundamental of all questions — what is Being?, “exalted” “the knower or ‘subject’ that asserts itself” — something “that has Being” but that “leaves out the question of Being itself”.
But how are we supposed to know anything except through a thinking subject that stands above tradition and tries to attain a view from nowhere, rather than remain trapped inside a Being that does not think through itself? Even if we agree that the thinking subject can never know with certainty what is Being, and that the ultimate ground is beyond reason, not God, there is nothing out there that can think through itself except consciousness, and consciousness can only do this by relying upon itself rather than upon unquestioned externalities given to it.
The “view from nowhere” does not preclude a critique of the so-called Western metaphysical tradition. A Heidegger was possible only in-through the Western tradition.
I am relying mainly on “Platonism” (Part I). It is said here that “the idea that man has no fixed identity but rather creates his own…is unique to the European tradition. We see the consequences of this belief today, in the wreckage all around us.”
But we also see that almost everything that is great was produced by the subject that creates its own identity. A tradition is stagnant without free subjectivity, and once that subject becomes the source of its own claims, there is no returning back to a “pre-metaphysical standpoint”. The Western standpoint is not metaphysical if the subject knows itself to be this standpoint, rather than assume there is some cosmic order, the way Plato did, which dictates the truth.
We don’t have to agree with Hegel that “the purpose of all true science is just this, that Spirit shall recognize itself in everything in heaven and on earth.” We have realized that we can’t fully recognize the human spirit in what’s out there, but the subject that seeks knowledge through itself is the only subject we find in history to be the generator of almost all the ideas.
In one of your previous essay you stated that the realism is the right wing postition on the question of universals. Do you still hold that opinion or was it changed durring your realisation of problems that you describe in this series?
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