The Corner

Re: Chomsky and Heidegger

Jonah, apologies in advance if this is dry, jargony, and off topic, but Stephens is way too easy on Heidegger. And too complimentary! “[I]ncomparably the most significant philosopher of the 20th century”? Ludwig Wittgenstein might have a thing or two to say about that — having revolutionized analytic philosophy not once but twice in his relatively short lifetime. Or Karl Popper. Or Bertrand Russell. Or John Rawls. And even if you insert the “Continental” qualifier between “significant” and “philosopher,” it’s still a highly problematic claim. If you ask me, Heidegger’s most lasting contribution to philosophy was to free the generations of continental types who followed him from the Cartesian tyranny of having to write things they believed to be literally true. He paved the way for “deconstruction” and “hermeneutics” to take the place of “assertion” and “argumentation” and did more than anybody else to cement the late reputation of university humanities departments as the last bastion of the bulls*****r.

I don’t profess to be an expert on Heidegger, much less his political philosophy. My knowledge is confined to having read (most of) Being and Time and smatterings of the later works during a term of study under an Oxford don who had written a couple of books on the subject, and to ingesting a dozen hours of audio lectures by Hubert Dreyfus (a Berkeley scholar considered to be the leading Anglophone authority on Heidegger, and incidentally the inspiration for Futurama’s professor Hubert Farnsworth). In that limited experience I found Heidegger to be an occasionally brilliant but consistently obscure thinker who wrote a dozen words of nonsense for every one of sense. Whether or not he was himself a full-fledged charlatan, in his quest to remake metaphysics from the ground up he employed a rhetorical trick long associated with great charlatans past and present: give old words opaque and circular new meanings and introduce a flotilla of proprietary concepts that can be called upon to fend off objections to even the most hopeless of arguments (think of how many religious cults and secular ideologies do this sort of thing).

So I’d be most interested to hear Stephens unpack his claim that Noam Chomsky’s “contributions to linguistics and cognitive psychology, considerable as they are, pale next to Heidegger’s contributions to political philosophy.” Chomsky’s work revolutionized linguistics, and was instrumental in the “Nativist” assault on the behaviorist establishment in cognitive science. (Incidentally, I always thought of Chomsky’s as a conservative critique of cognitive science: unlike the tabula rasa behaviorist theories that saw our minds as infinitely malleable, Chomsky was arguing for human cognitive faculties — and by extension a human nature — that were largely innate and fixed at birth. How this could jibe with a set of political beliefs so naive in their understanding of human nature that only a college freshman could love them, I have no idea. . . .)

Contrast this with Heidegger’s “contributions” to “political philosophy,” one major example of which is said to be his 1942 lecture series on a Hölderlin poem about the Danube River. . . .


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