Heidegger’s Jargon

by Ralph Dumain

Bourdieu, Adorno, Lukacs

It is interesting to compare Pierre Bourdieu’s The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger to Theodor Adorno's The Jargon of Authenticity. I must say I found Bourdieu a much more enjoyable read, but this is hardly an objective evaluation or serious criticism. They are quite different works, but they both involve Heidegger's use of language.

Bourdieu’s book was quite fascinating, in that he focused on Heidegger’s terminology from the perspective of its covert dual functioning, within the demarcated field of “philosophy” and in the common ideological parlance of the day. Heidegger sought to insulate his work from mere empirical criticism or reference, always removing it to a plane of esoterism removed from profane everyday understanding. Yet his success with the German intelligentsia was bolstered by the resonances of his terminology with the reactionary ideological usages of his words in common parlance. Heidegger’s coded language, despite hieratic pretensions, is what makes his ontology political through and through, regardless of his actual affiliation with the Nazi party.

Bourdieu calls into question Heidegger’s whole method, especially its way of insulating itself from any criticism or even rational evaluation, but also its pretension to greater insight (why should Heidegger's conceptions of seemingly ordinary concepts be any more profound than their ordinary senses?).

Bourdieu's approach is based on his sociological concept of the “field”. Adorno does not work on the same basis, though he invokes the concept of division of labor to explain the philosophical specialist's proclivities. Adorno finds similar self-protective measures in Heidegger's work as Bourdieu does. Adorno is concerned about the debasement of language—jargon—its emptiness of real content, now filled by catch phrases of indefinite meaning which serve a duplicitous ideological function, in the manner of advertising slogans. Though Heidegger wanted to insulate his nostalgic retreat to Being (sentimentalizing pre-industrial rural life in the process) the vulgar everyday world of the “They”, his vacuous ideas are of the very essence of capitalist exchange value. There is a fundamental paradox in trying to maintain the ethos of the mythic in a demythologized world. Heidegger attempts to insulate himself in advance by proving that his would-be interpreters must of necessity misunderstand him, but Adorno finds him out.

The most difficult aspect of reading Adorno’s book is his references to German discourse of the time (presumably the early ’60s). He refers to the abuse of language in everyday political and social discourse and the resonance of same in Heidegger’s work, but without acquaintance of the former I get only a nebulous picture of what Adorno's allusions mean. Furthermore, I do not know the dominant intellectual or specifically philosophical trends of the time, though it appears as if German existentialism is still dominant or at least prevalent.

Adorno dissects Heidegger’s rural phoniness and use of keywords and concepts such as commitment, curiosity, idle chatter, dignity, and death.� Adorno intensively analyzes the relation between wholeness and death (involving also the “they” and exchange), finding therein the sour fascist violence at the root of Heidegger's entire philosophy. Adorno's quotations from Heidegger reveal the fraudulent, empty claims of Heidegger’s jargon. The only philosopher who comes off looking worse is Jaspers.

A comparison between Adorno and Georg Lukacs is also in order. Lukacs’ The Destruction of Reason has a main theme the bogus notion of intellectual intuition, which gets its big boost historically from Schelling. My guess then is that Lukacs’ critique would go right to the main ontological and epistemological issues of subjective idealism. While the argumentative basis between Lukacs and Adorno in aesthetics is well documented (I believe the most relevant documents are collected in Aesthetics and Politics), I am only aware of a couple of sentences Adorno wrote on Lukacs’ The Destruction of Reason. Adorno asserts that this book only amounts to evidence of the destruction of Lukacs’ own reason. Also, that Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. were in their own way protesting against reification. I find this extremely lame, pathetic really. Did Adorno write anything else on Lukacs’ book? And, as I’ve asked several times, is there any secondary literature that seriously compares the critiques of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Husserl, etc., on the part of Lukacs and Adorno, respectively?

(Written 21 April 2003)

Adorno on Heidegger, Authenticity & Authority

I think I know what Adorno is getting with respect to “absolute authority”, but the point should be clarified. It’s important and therefore we should guard against misinterpretation. I take Adorno to contrast the new subjectivism with the old absolute idealism. The metaphysical assertions of yore are overthrown—i.e. the authority of the absolute—but what replaces them? A philosophy claiming to represent real being and experience over abstraction, but with indefinite reference and content. Adorno then wants to show how the Heideggerian template does not promote authentic experience at all, but rather an ideology of power against which there is no appeal because there is no determinate intellectual content to support or oppose. Hence there is no ideal order to confirm or oppose, but a mere subjective stance, which absolutizes authority as a power principle while destroying it as an intellectual principle. And this is just what Nazism did. The paradox is that Nazism was so opportunistic that, apart from its racial theory, it never established or accepted any official philosophy! Neither Heidegger nor his rivals succeeded in getting the Nazis to endorse their philosophies. If Adorno means anything like what I think he does, I would say his observation is very profound.

As for Adorno’s objection to the authentic self, let's hope this was not motivated by the same animus that set him against Fromm. Either way, Adorno is certainly correct to point out how the jargon of authenticity serves as an ideological mask, first of all for Heidegger himself, whose authenticity ended up as the führerprinzip. Heidegger was a scumbag through and through, and the fact that people like Marcuse or Sartre could be taken in to the extent that they were screams volumes about the bankruptcy of bourgeois European civilization and its intellectuals.

(Written 10 May 2003)

Lukacs & Stalinism

The influence of Stalinism on Lukacs needs to be looked at closely. Three areas to investigate: (1) Lukacs’ repudiation of his early work; (2) his style and polemics in his later period, taking into account that he was risking his life even to write the material he did in spite of his concessions to Stalinist rhetoric; (3) his conservative literary tastes and opposition to literary modernism. I would say that (3) is what matters most, i.e. that is intellectually compromising. However, a few qualifications: Lukacs preferred 19th century literature to the modern stuff even without Stalinism. Lukacs also raises a legitimate issue via the opposition of abstract vs. concrete potentiality.

As for the living human body, this is what fascist intellectuals love to remind us of as they grovel before naked power. Here’s what Lukacs has to say about this:

The abandonment of the old downright idealism had been anticipated even in the middle of the last century by petty-bourgeois asceticism. Ever since Nietzsche, the body (Leib) has played a leading role in bourgeois philosophy. The new philosophy needs formulae which recognize the primary reality of the body and the joys and dangers of bodily existence, without, however, making any concessions to materialism. For at the same time materialism was becoming the world view of the revolutionary proletariat. That made a position such as Gassendi and Hobbes look impossible for bourgeois thinkers. Although the method of idealism had been discredited by the realities of the time, its conclusions were held indispensable. This explains the need for the “third way” in the bourgeois world of the imperialist period.

See Lukacs’ essay “Existentialism”, published, incidentally, in Sellars, Farber, & McGill’s pioneering Philosophy for the Future (1949), which sank like a stone in the McCarthy era. See also my Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide.

(Written 10 May 2003)

Sellars, Farber

Coincidentally, I’ve come across critiques of Heidegger with special reference to his jargon in my recent reading on American philosophy, of such authors as Roy Wood Sellars and Marvin Farber. Farber was very critical of Husserl’s subjective idealism but took his usable techniques seriously. Farber, however, had nothing but contempt for Heidegger. One of Farber’s essays starts out thus:

To many readers of philosophical literature, Martin Heidegger appears to have made great contributions to philosophy. But to those who have taken the trouble to read his writings with logical standards in mind, he has very little to offer, and he rates primarily as a pretentious verbal philosopher. He has taken care to create severe linguistic barriers between himself and his readers, which serve to make plausible the claim to untold profundity and novelty. It will be instructive and quite disillusioning to some to examine a piece of Heidegger's more audacious writing carefully. Nothing could be better for this purpose than his essay on “The Essence of Truth.”

The reader has the right to expect something definite from any discussion of the concept of truth. He is not likely to be deceived, or impressed, by anything else. Once he has departed from the murky intricacies of the language dealing with "being" and "existence," Heidegger becomes quite a different kind of figure. The change is, roughly, from tragedy (a linguistic tragedy, at least) to comedy or the commonplace. . . .

SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. "Heidegger on the Essence of Truth", in: Radical Currents in Contemporary Philosophy, ed. David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, John Somerville (St. Louis, MO: Warren H. Green, Inc., 1971), pp. 79-89. Reprinted from Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. XVIII, #4, June, 1958, pp. 523-532.

This essay looks very similar to a chapter in Farber’s Naturalism and Subjectivism, published in the subsequent year. I’ve been corresponding with people who knew Farber. While admiring of Husserl with strong qualifications, Farber may never have considered himself a phenomenologist. He is described as a methodological pluralist who was open to everybody and not just closed groups. Hence people like Carnap published freely in Farber’s journal. However, Heidegger got his goat, and Farber went on the warpath.

Again, let me remind you of Pierre Bourdieu’s The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, which also delves into Heidegger’s insulation of his philosophy from profane interpretation. All of these approaches are different, but they all zero in on Heidegger's duplicity. And don’t forget Stephen Eric Bronner’s essay “Ontology and Its Discontents: Unorthodox Remarks on the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger” in Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (Oxford, UK; Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1994; pp. 102-127).

Jeffrey Herf in a footnote brings Lukacs and Adorno together briefly, mentioning their common contempt for Heidegger whilst Adorno trashed Lukacs’ The Destruction of Reason.

The moral of the story, to head off those who take Heidegger's garbage seriously, is what a sewer idealist philosophy is, intellectually as well as morally. We need to remember that Adorno and Horkheimer were materialists, though strange materialists. However, there were other anti-positivist materialists (e.g. a whole lineage in the USA) who developed independently of Marxism though were ultimately sympathetic, like Sellars and Farber. They criticized both positivism and reactionary lebensphilosophie. While they did not cover the same territory as the Frankfurters, they approached the issues from their interest in the philosophy of science. Depending again on the terrain, they would have been less sophisticated in some areas, but much more so in philosophy of science, and not rigid like the Stalinists.

It’s really important to understand this to overcome the provincialism of specialization which allows people to cover up the ideological determinants that govern their invisible colleges, or should I say circle jerks. Heidegger was a very small, small thinker, and it is only the bourgeois mentality that elevates his pseudo-profundities to serious consideration. Too bad critical theory in certain hands has just become another traditional theory and not critical at all.

(Written 10 May 2003)

Compiled & edited 19 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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& Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Nizan,
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Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

2003 Reading Review

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