02 June 2017

Russell & Heidegger

 Bertrand Russell is universally admired as a philosopher who also had political guts and commitment, such as when he engaged in the Ban the Bomb movement in 1950s' Britain, protesting against the H-bomb in demonstrations, &c. to prevent nuclear annihilation of humankind on Earth. By contrast, Martin Heidegger never took part in an anti-bomb demo, nor perhaps in any street protest, nor even had the imminent threat of nuclear war at the top of his list of dangers confronting humankind. More on this below.

Russell commented on Heidegger, echoing the sentiments of many a twentieth-century logical positivist or analytic philosopher:
"Martin Heidegger's philosophy is extremely obscure and highly eccentric in its terminology. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot. An interesting point in his speculations is the insistence that nothingness is something positive. As with much else in Existentialism, this is a psychological observation made to pass for logic." Bertrand Russell Wisdom of the West
1989, p. 303.

 According to Russell, Heidegger's philosophy does not come up to scratch when measured against the yardstick of logic. This may even be correct, because Heidegger's thinking puts even logic into question, not by spinning off into so-called irrationality but by returning to, revising and resetting the roots of Western thinking.

With his co-author Whitehead, Russell is famous for his ground-breaking work on the logical foundations of mathematics, Principia Mathematica, which furthered the work of the deeply anti-Semitic, arch-conservative German logician, Gottlob Frege and is still hailed as one of the founding texts of analytic philosophy. Is Principia Mathematica any easier to learn to read and understand than, say, Heidegger's Being and Time? Is the former work's language obscure? As both a mathematician and philosopher, I can vouch for both works placing strenuous demands on the reader, but neither is incomprehensible. Both can be appropriated by close study and both make sense. Each requires a different kind of thinking, the one logical-mathematical, the other phenomenological-hermeneutic.

It is well-known that around 1930 the logical positivist, Carnap, pronounced Heidegger's thinking on nothingness to consist of meaningless statements, much the same as Russell's verdict. The criterion for possessing meaning in logical positivism is that the statement must be scientifically verifiable; otherwise the statement must be rejected as utterly nonsensical. Analytic philosophy's criterion for meaningful statements is hardly less rigorous. Both kinds of philosophy have placed unconditional bets on science, with its experimental scientific method, being unquestionably the arbiter of the truth of the world. Heidegger's thinking, being more radical by questioning even the modern scientific mode of access to the world as one-eyed, must fail the criterion of truth posited by Carnap or Russell. Scientificity and logicality, however, are both posited dogmatically, as if they were the final word of a modern philosophy that had finally become truly rational.

In 1955, at a time when the Ban the Bomb movement was still active, Martin Heidegger gave a talk in his hometown of Meßkirch in which he said, among other things, that 

"Denn gerade wenn die Wasserstoffbomben nicht explodieren und das Leben des Menschen auf der Erde erhalten bleibt, zieht mit dem Atomzeitalter eine unheimliche Veränderung der Welt herauf." (M. Heidegger Gelassenheit Neske, Pfullingen 1959/1985 p.20)
"For, precisely if the hydrogen bombs do not explode and human life on Earth is preserved, with the atomic age an eery change in the world is approaching."

This eeriness concerns humankind's "not being prepared for this change in the world" (ibid.). Why? Because "modern man is fleeing from thinking" (p.12), and "thoughtlessness is an eery guest who today comes and goes everywhere" (p. 11).

These seem to be highly quotable dicta that can be dropped casually like bombs in any dinner-party conversation. But do they mean anything?, we hear the analytic logician, Russell, ask. Not if you ensconce yourself behind the defences of logic and refuse to interrogate logic itself as a phenomenon in the world — and not just in words and statements. Which is one of questions — the question concerning the _logos_ and _legein_ — Heidegger's thinking raises, without going off the rails into merely gestural irrationality. Viewed from this angle, it is the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who is "fleeing from thinking".

For Heidegger, if the nuclear bombs don't fall, we humans are confronted with an immeasurably greater, eery danger, namely, the destruction of human being itself by the modern scientific way of thinking. The eeriness consists in the danger's not being seen due to ubiquitous thoughtlessness and the self-satisfied refusal — including especially by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and his multitudinous successors throughout the world — to painstakingly learn to think, of course, while at the same time steadfastly asserting the superiority of their own blinkered thinking.

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