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What Postmodernists Don't Get

Robert C. Scharff
University of New Hampshire


In his dialogue with the Japanese scholar, Heidegger is careful not to take it for granted that they understand each other. Some have been tempted to read this as if Heidegger is assuming that our culture, society, and "Western" history determine what we are able to think and comprehend, so that we initially face a situation in which we simply cannot understand what someone who is very differently determined says to us.

Yet we know that Heidegger does not subscribe--indeed, he strongly criticizes--such determinism. How, then, are we to understand his cautiousness?

We should read Heidegger's dialogue with the Japanese, I think, as showing that there is a kind of concrete openness in terms of which it is always possible for one to be disposed, not only toward culturally different people but also toward any other individual whatever. Radical otherness is not confined to experiences with the obviously "foreign." I have come to realize that when I listen to my spouse of many years, I typically have not the faintest idea what she is thinking. Indeed, only if I begin with this assumption can I then go on to discover how true this was.

This assumed openness is not, however, exclusively about my regard for others. As I listen, I must also be disposed toward myself as being, or dwelling within the same openness. When I am disposed to listen, I no longer state, or speak out of, "my position." Nor do I try to keep myself out of the affair and merely paraphrase or say back the other's words. Rather, I draw upon my own determinate materials--my own, current, yet always only partially explicit understanding--to form a listening statement. And I let the other correct it. I know in advance that my wife will correct it. For it cannot be right--a proper duplicate of her own lived sense--when I first say it. Even if she regards it as responsive, it will not be just right. And as she corrects it, my own materials are modified and her meaning gradually develops within them. (Such relationships are always possible, and "really listening" can take many different forms. Think for example of Socrates, who spends 40 years inquiring about the good life, is always willing to let someone else be his teacher, and is so good a student that even though he fails to find his "definitions," he nevertheless becomes listener enough to grow to understand the difference between philosophy and sophistry, and he is thus able to conduct himself "justly" at his trial.)

Heidegger always criticizes the assumption that our meanings consist of fixed entities--quantities of information, as we now tend to say, which can only be affirmed or denied or "processed" by sending them from one location to another. For Heidegger, we always have an alternative. We can, as he puts it, "repeat" old meanings--in German literally, practice wiederholen--i.e., go after and come back with (something) anew, that opens up the possibility of change and development in those old meanings. Usually, to be sure, we "merely" repeat them, but this need not be so. (Indeed, if it were always so, then life would consist of nothing more than routine and cliché, and the only possible mood would be boredom.) Wherein lies the difference? What sort of practice is a repetitive-minded disposal toward openness? Postmodernism seems to miss it altogether. Indeed, Derrida says flatly that he does not find Heidegger's openness. And lots of other people think of this openness as some distant thing that one might not be able to "find."

There is involved here a question of altering a pervasive and heavily sanctioned general attitude (to use a less than satisfactory phrase for it). We have available to us a type of orientation, or living attunement that allows openness to play a role. Heidegger shows that there is a long and difficult story to tell that I cannot recount here. Openness itself, it seems, is not a human product; nor is it a distant mystery. But in a way, it is mysterious. We are used to thinking primarily about things, about the concepts and principles of things, and about all of this taken together. As Heidegger expresses it, we usually think of beings, their totality, and Being as their ground. We are not used to thinking the opened "clearing" where all of this comes to pass in the simultaneous "concealing" of itself. For my purposes, let it suffice to say that this clearing occurs in a way that prepares a site for the opened recognition that neither I nor any being that I encounter is ever an explicitly and fully formed something. So it is that matters always are, for us alone or in exchange with someone or something else; but for the most part, we are not open to this. The special and unfamiliar kind of "thinking" Heidegger calls for here requires that I explicitly understand myself and my world in this quasi-mysterious way--where I really enact my recognition that I do not and will not ever fully know myself, or other people, or what my meanings might yet develop into. This thinking looks in a direction that is the very reverse of the ordinary one--a kind of Heideggerian version of turning the soul around. Mostly, we are too heavily invested in our expertise, our training, and our common sense to let openness play any role. I say, "Certainly I understand; I am trained for this"; or "Of course I understand her; we've been married for 35 years." And when I am attuned in this usual way, there appears only what my trained eye or lazy heart can see--and my wife, who can talk back, will rightly say, "You're not listening."

Dilthey might be considered here--the Dilthey, that is, who (as Heidegger says of him in the decade before Being and Time) was above all concerned with what it means to "be historical." In good philosophizing as in good human relations, we are always being carried forward. That is to say, one is in the process of trying to give voice to what outruns what we already know. There is a need and effort to "find the words" for something one "has" but which is not "already there" like a meaning-stone at the bottom of a stream. We arrive at our current encounters as "having-been," Nietzsche says; and we discover how all our efforts to give voice to that which has as yet no voice are both made possible and left unsatisfactorily expressed by the same historicity, by the same "what you already are." (In English, we have an unkind name for people who seem unable to say or be anything as yet unvoiced. We call them has-beens.)

This duality of historicity is what is most often misunderstood. The tradition that enables us to think something that has as yet no voice is also the obstacle to giving it voice. (Heidegger opens Being and Time by telling us that in the very act of trying to raise the Being-question again, he encounters intellectual "roadblocks" that encourage him to say "Don't bother." He experiences both the urge to raise the question again and the discouragement in his own thinking.) This duality can be obscured in two opposite directions. On the one hand, it can be supposed that we are able to think only what follows from the tradition, and that what follows can thus be easily said. What cannot easily be said would then appear necessarily to have to come from Elsewhere--an unaccountable "gift" from some mysterious dispensation (as both Habermas and Derrida read Heidegger). From this angle--and it should not be missed that it is most frequently the angle from which one person considers someone else--the role of culture and language always threatens either to engulf life in a simple determinism, as in Western science, or else leave us with little to do except continually engage in a vigilant "decentering" or "deferring " of whatever is just now being said.

On the other hand, the duality of historicity can be destroyed from the opposite angle--as if one had experiences or meanings that arise wholly in and from the present, so that they are in no sense a product of one's particular history and language. (The only history I have, says Sartre in his existentialist moods, is the one I choose to have.)

To keep this duality from being collapsed or split off into determining conditions and unconditioned choice is one of my main concerns. It is the task, as I understand it, of "hermeneutical" philosophy; and its practice promises a genuinely "individuated" life.


It will be noted that what I have said so far suggests a very strong meaning to the term "individuation." Each human life offers itself, and to some extent always involves, Heidegger's kind of "repeating." In order to understand how easy it is to miss this, one should always ask, "Who am I speaking for?" If, on the one hand, the answer is that I speak for others, or for myself as if I were just one more other, then I should be mindful of the way this speaking-for always tends to be inspired by a confident willingness to regard the one spoken for as already wholly determined, fully formed, and thus already ("in principle") completely knowable in advance of the next moment. Social scientists, psychoanalysts, and unlistening spouses display this sort of confidence in the extreme.

On the other hand, it is possible to speak for oneself, and only for oneself, in a different way. When I find something to which I cannot yet give voice--a discovery I make precisely because what I now take up is given to me by and through my cultural and social inheritance. This inheritance constitutes my historicity--my "materials"--what I make expressive of and in my current encounters. These materials no more lock me into repeating the familiar than having a native language forces me to speak in clichés.

Overconfident speakers for others are likely to ask, rhetorically, "But how can you encounter the culture in ways you did not inherit?" Yet the question is not rhetorical, and its implication is wrong. I am always encountering it in ways I did not inherit, although most of the time I cover this over. Mostly, as Heidegger puts it, we do as "one does." Even the most trivial encounters manifest this fact. So, for example, every time someone asks, "How are you?" and I merely say, "Fine," instead of giving a paragraph answer, I am passing up a chance to do something more, different, maybe "timely," with what I culturally/socially inherit.

Now I think postmoderns tend to miss all this because they mostly think about the social and the cultural--and speak for others--in the third person. As a consequence, what gets said about history, culture, social practice, language, etc., becomes a kind of sociology of the future impossible. If the tradition is metaphysical, one will inevitably go on trying to make things present. If the culture is somehow pathological or systematically distorted, then every action will be sick and no one will say what they really mean. And if all language is representative, then every signifier will classify, categorize, picture, mirror, etc. In every instance, some sort of covering law is silently assumed so that in human affairs, just as in natural knowledge, individual atoms, circumstances, or persons no longer count, but only types of atoms, circumstances, or persons. Everything and everybody is "the sort of entity" it is, doing "the sort of thing" it is conditioned to do. What more can "one" say? A great deal more--if we understand how. For at any given moment, I can notice that my own "take" on what I do is never quite a perfect instancing of "what one does."

To bring home how "sociological" categories do not subsume individual thought and action, consider some common categories. If you are a woman, is every bit of what you do or think done like "a" woman would? Or perhaps there are types of women? If you are French, is each thing you say or do characteristically French? Or perhaps this varies by region? If you are a philosopher.... But soon this whole line of thinking becomes absurd. There are an endless number of such rubrics. Which one(s) are you standing under? And if I name enough of them, do "you" disappear into the multiply representative "instances" under which you have been subsumed?

What Heidegger says about "historicity" is not about one or more of these rubrics. (Nor is he wedded to this particular term, as if it had some special magical power to identify its "object.") When he says that he shares with most Westerners a fundamentally metaphysical understanding of science, technology, and civilization, he is speaking of the dominant pull of his materials, not his inevitable categorial subsumption. His point in recognizing this inheritance is not that we should face, alas, what "one" does in the Europeanized West. It is, he says, to open up the possibility that "entering into a free relationship" with this dominant way of being/doing (i.e., this metaphysical "eventuation") may uncover ways of being that cannot be satisfactorily thought in terms of this dominant way. Thus, it is a matter of seeing one's inheritance as a destining, not a fate. The "danger" of this destining is that we will continue to have only technologized science, with its representatives and opponents. Its "saving grace" would lie in the very recognition that our current "takes" on this destining are already beyond subsumption.

Of course, it is ("in principle") always possible to tell "the whole story" about my/our circumstances, the way a sociologist does (i.e., the way scientific accounts of the world always "cover" everything). But it is also possible to refuse to listen to this story with a sociologist's attitude. At any moment, any dimension of that very set of recounted circumstances can become for me the way language happens when you say something for the first time. As anyone can come to see, the way you encounter current circumstances in terms of your inheritance is not captured by any social scientific account.

To put this another way: My attitude can be noticed to differ from that of the social scientist because this attitude is, as Heidegger says, the "attunement" of my actual relatedness with something or someone in our world--an attunement which, if listened to sensitively, always tells me of the way my current experiencing does not (or at the very least does not quite) have an adequate way of being described, if I were simply to go ahead and describe matters in the way "one" usually does.

This sensitivity is the source of a genuine thinking that is not "caught" within the dilemmas that haunt postmodernist critiques of the present. What seems as if it either derives from the determining culture or Foucault's deliberate self-engineering does not need to be expressed in either way. In many admirable people, we observe that their way of living is neither a mere repetition nor something so original that it seems utterly unconnected to what has been. Consider Heidegger's opening remarks in Being and Time again, where he reports being blocked from asking the question he nevertheless feels and needs to ask. I am trying to raise the question of Being's meaning again, he says, and yet in my very effort to do so I hear the voices of inherited tradition within me saying, Don't bother. For him, this is already enough to be more than a mere instance and less than a total original. As he points out, the roadblocks tell me something about how not to pursue my question, but at the same time, in their own unclarities, they send me back to my experience with a clearer sense of precisely how unsatisfactory the whole affair has been left. (I sometimes tell students who are stuck with half-finished papers to complete their work by simply describing carefully what they find wrong with all the moves they have been trying to make in order to finish.)


What I am trying to say here demands a shift in attitude, away from the familiar and traditionally sanctioned one of knowing and striving to know, to one of never fully knowing but rather living through. Socrates prepared himself this way at the start of every dialogue. He always treated his current understanding of justice, beauty, courage, etc., as something he was living through, so that even the slightest variation or nuance in what he presently encountered was sufficient for him to "become a student again." For these encounters, even when they meant little to his interlocutors, could remind him not only that he lacked divine knowledge, but that how he had come to understand matters was once again running up against what it could not quite "cover." Heidegger, too, was already clear ten years before Being and Time that his questioning was coming out of a living dissatisfaction that his tradition seemed not to allow him to talk about. (I will thus begin philosophizing, as he said in the early 1920's, out of a "hermeneutics of facticity.")

What postmodernists seem characteristically unable to fathom is Heidegger's experience of how much of what we encounter resists the traditional way of handling things. His insistence upon this point, however, is not a mere negation or the expression of a mere lack. That Heidegger could see how so much is not working is a richer place to be than the experience that nothing is ever beyond criticism, or immune to doubt, or wholly satisfactory. Socrates was required to distinguish the love of wisdom from sophistry. Such speaking out of one's own stubbornly determinate attunement -- such a hermeneutics of facticity -- will, I think, yet prove to be quite different from any deconstruction of the metaphysical tradition or critical history of power/knowledge.

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]