Robert S. Gall
Philosophy and Religion
Parkville, MO 64154
One way in which I think we can get "beyond postmodernism" is to "go back" to Heidegger, who was not a "postmodernist" (at least in any sense that we are criticizing). Heidegger (fore)saw the fragmentation of our age but was always insistent about thinking differences in their belonging together, working out a phenomenology that speaks from intricacy (e.g., how the thing shows itself as a Geviert, a "Fourfold") and from ourselves without subjectivity/objectivity (e.g., the being of Dasein is not a simple thing but gegliedert, "articulated," i.e., structured organically, the way a musical chord or composition is), from a space that dissolves the hard and fast distinction between theory and practice (see, e.g., his notion of "dwelling" in essays such as "Building Thinking Dwelling" and "... Poetically Man Dwells...").
One way to elaborate on this is to focus on an important but seldom developed theme in Heidegger. Nietzsche said that he suspected we still believe in God because we still believe in grammar. Some recent work on Heidegger has led me to the thought that we find ourselves in our postmodern predicament because we still believe in the figures of speech we use for thinking. Heirs to Plato's formulation of thinking as contemplating ideas, our metaphors for thinking are almost entirely visual. Hence we easily fall into thinking of ourselves as a spectator, a simple thing ("mind," "soul," "consciousness," "subject," "ego," a thing that has "experiences") detached from others and the world around us. This is true even when we try to think of ourselves as embodied ("I am embodied" implies some "thing" -- the "I," ego, consciousness, subject -- that is encased in a physical thing, the body) and our world holistically. In this scheme truth is thought of statically, as some fixed thing out there that we -- separately, as a logical thing, or together, as two logical things (i.e., dia-logically) -- try to match with our "world views" or "expressions." The result is the postmodern dilemma: we see ourselves as things encased in ourselves and/or our tradition, the way we might see ourselves as standing in one room or another in a house or the way we see ourselves playing chess or checkers. I can contemplate the early American decor of the parlor from the dining room done in Louis XVI through a door, but (supposedly) I cannot get the "feel" of the room unless I am in it. Likewise, I can watch someone play checkers while I am playing chess, but I am not part of the game unless I stop playing chess and take up checkers. Hence at best we can switch from one tradition to another, from one language to another the way we can be in one room or another, or playing one game or another, but there is no middle ground; each has its own incommensurable "logic" or "rationale."
In light of the above, I would suggest that one way to move beyond postmodernism is to move from visual to auditory -- even musical -- motifs in thinking about ourselves, our language, our traditions, and our world. This of course is true of Heidegger; his thinking is permeated with auditory and verbal figures of speech. Even his use of visual and spatial figures of speech are guided by auditory and verbal motifs. Much of a paper I have been writing elaborates on this point specifically as a way of reading Heidegger. Here I want to try to elaborate on this change of tune in a more general, nonspecialist way.
Auditory/verbal/musical figures of speech should lead us to think of philosophical problems and solutions in terms of a process of harmonizing rather than matching, opposing, balancing and/or synthesizing standpoints. Two things need to be noted here. First, process involves participation, just as -- either as a musician or as a listener -- we participate in -- or, better, belong to -- the music. Even as a listener, we talk about how a musical piece or performance moves us, which is only possible if we are involved. Another way to put this is to say that our thinking is going to be an enactment of what it is about. The truth emerges in such thinking; it is not already and always there for us to find, just as music is not already and always there without someone singing or playing an instrument. Secondly, harmony here is meant not in the sense of reducing everything to "one sound" but in joining together different themes into a whole (where "whole" is meant in the sense of a complete presentation, not necessarily an inclusion of everything). Think of a fugue, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "a polyphonic composition in which themes or a theme stated successively by a number of voices in imitation are developed contrapuntally," i.e., "combined in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality" (my emphases). Like making music or musical composition, the thinking that Heidegger evokes is orderly but flexible, open yet directed, attempting to acknowledge all the diverse and complex ways of the world in their belonging together.
Apply this to philosophical problems. For example, think of a thing not as a simple, constantly present substance but as a kind of rhythmic knot, an integration and interweaving of different themes (think of Heidegger's Geviert of earth, sky, divinities, mortals) and times (past, present, future). Hence the best sort of "presentation" of a thing is a "composition" -- Heidegger's dichten, poorly rendered as "poetizing" by many translators, for it has the sense of composing (in a poetic, artistic, musical sense) and "thickening" or "rendering dense." That is to say, the best ways in which we show things are ways that acknowledge and/or show their complexity, how they show themselves as unique arrangements of different and differing elements or themes. And since we are involved with (but do not wholly make) things, the unique arrangements and harmonies that they are metamorphose, taking on different (but not discontinuous) forms, indicating different trajectories of meaning in different contexts and situations.
Likewise, think of a human being not as a simple, constantly present thing that speculates about and envisions the world but as a being-in-the-world (and hear that word "being" verbally) that comes to know through acting in and through things (including other human beings). We are a unique sort of "arrangement" and integration -- of past, present, and future, of word, thought, and deed, always already connected to "others" in numerous ways. But if we come to know through acting in and through things, we only can know the world and ourselves through various kinds of training and discipline, just as a musician knows music through training and practice integrated with intellectual insight. Even the most "contemplative" manner of participating in music -- as a listener -- is not passive, but involves discipline and training and will involve different kinds of appropriate emotional, intellectual and physical responses, depending upon the music. So too our intellectual disciplines require training, practice and discipline of various -- not just intellectual -- sorts. Eastern meditative traditions know this insofar as they explicitly train the "body" and the "mind"; you cannot meditate or concentrate on Brahman if you get cramps in your legs sitting for long periods of time. We also once knew it in the West insofar as our primary form of higher education was the liberal arts education which exposed one to a wide range of intellectual disciplines along with athletic and other pursuits to cultivate the well-rounded individual. We still implicitly recognize it to the extent that we still have the notion of academic disciplines.
We -- as "individuals" and as "communities" -- always already are such harmonies. That is, there already is some kind of rough arrangement and integration of our words, thoughts, and deeds, just as all of us can already sing or make music. But we continually need to fine tune that arrangement and "perfect" it, just as even the most accomplished musician continually works at what he or she does through study, practice and performance. That fine tuning includes finding out how one best fits into the world as well as how to best integrate one's "own" abilities, just as a musician will probably have to decide whether he/she will concentrate on classical music, or jazz, or pop, or whether he/she will concentrate on being a violinist in a symphony or in chamber ensembles.
Note that with auditory/verbal/musical figures of speech and analogies we are more likely to acknowledge diverse ways and practices -- ways and practices that need not (indeed, do not) reduce to one way or one practice. And with that diversity comes the possibility of a kind of incommensurability, since the drift of our language, thinking and practices may lead us to different places not easily or immediately comparable. Indeed, we may not be able to bridge the gaps, which the Greeks and Shakespeare show us in tragedy. Yet those ways and practices are also the connection we have with one another, such that there are often ways to reach an accord that acknowledges difference (e.g., the outcome of Aeschylus' Eumenides) once we acknowledge our thinking as a kind of composing.
Does that mean that there are no standards, that we cannot talk of right or wrong? Of course not. We still can and do talk about good and bad, right and wrong, better or worse, even across "traditional" boundaries, though these evaluative terms will be deployed differently than in traditional philosophy. Understanding what is or is not appropriate requires a discipline and training arising from -- but not bound by -- tradition and context, just as a musician may build on his/her classical training to play jazz. What we think of as fixed "rules" and "standards" that "clash" in the abstract are often flexible and fluid if and when we show an attentiveness and responsiveness to the specific contexts and contents of our situation, such that we reach appropriate accord.
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]