The end of time: The Heidegger-Cassirer debate and the passage from trade to war

First published in August 2022.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant is often referred to as the god of modern philosophy. A recent work of intellectual history by Professor Michael Rosen, entitled The Shadow of God: Kant, Hegel, and the passage from heaven to history, considers the end of Christendom and the replacement of its accompanying hegemony of faith with the Enlightenment philosophy of reason. Ironically, the Lutheran doctrine of ‘sola fides’, or faith alone, was meant to subvert the Catholic monastic academia that insisted on philosophical interpretation of scripture, beginning with Augustine’s Platonic theology and culminating with Aquinas’s fusion of Platonism and Aristotelianism in a comprehensive constitution of divinity. The Enlightenment thus stands in the ‘shadow of God’, since it does not so much overthrow medieval ‘Scholastic’ theology as it supplants it by an equally scholastic set of doctrines, sometimes referred to as ‘secularised Protestantism’. Over time, the Enlightenment repeats its roots in the Protestant Reformation and its wars of religion through philosophical debates between post-Catholic and post-Protestant thinkers. The founder of the Enlightenment in this sense, Immanuel Kant, incorporated Platonic philosophy and Pietist praxis to lead a ‘life of the mind’, and to encourage others to do the same. While Kant was impressed by the French Revolution and its liberal values, he abhorred violence, and so it fell to his successor Hegel to come to the defence of Napoleon upon France’s conquest of Prussia in 1806, two years after Kant’s life came to its close.

Even in dark times … (The Evenstar, from The Lord Of the Rings).

Hegel overthrew Kant’s ‘transcendental idealism’, itself a modification of Irish philosopher George Berkeley’s ‘subjective idealism’, through what is now known as ‘absolute idealism’. For Berkeley, reality is comprised of ideas, and their cognising subjects, united by the mind of God. For Hegel, the Idea and the Divine collapse into one another, akin to the neo-Platonic elision of the concepts of God and Good. Sometimes referred to as the Aristotle of modernity, it may make more sense to see Hegel as akin to Plato in his emphasis on ideas — but the collapse of nature into form and vice versa is, certainly, an Aristotelian move. It is more Platonic of Kant to distinguish ‘real’ noumena from ‘apparent’ phenomena, a distinction Hegel and his successors endeavour to collapse. Hegel’s rebellion against Kant was briefly subverted by Marx’s materialism, which robbed barbaric nature of all divine attributes, completing Rosen’s retrospective passage from ‘heaven’ to ‘history’.

In this sense, Marx’s move echoes the Stoic completion of Aristotle’s deification of nature, where nature and God become one and the same, as exemplified in the neo-Stoic philosophy of Spinoza, a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes, whose rebellion against Aristotle has its own Aristotelian foundation in the fragile distinction between ‘form’ and ‘matter’. For Plato, what is real and what is ideal are entirely separate — for what is ‘real’ is merely a shadow of the ‘ideal’, which is truly speaking real. Plato is like a psychoanalyst who reminds us of our imaginary environment in which we live, urging us to look to what is truly real, not to our fantasy of reality. From Aristotle onwards, this psychoanalysis is reversed — ‘psychoanalyse a l’envers’ as Jacques Lacan put it. We are like prisoners in Plato’s cave who have used Plato’s philosophy to refer to the shadows as the Sun, and the Sun as mere Shadow. It is fashionable today to refer to the ‘reality of fantasy’, while this merely masks the fantasy of reality. Instead of escaping our collective delusions, philosophy has become itself a weapon of delusion and doubt. We are far from the shallows now; we are deep in shadow. In the shadow of God, there is only the Beast.

The Heidegger-Cassirer debate of 1929 reflects this predicament, but involves some confusion as to what it entails. Heidegger is known as the philosopher who completed the revolution against Kant, finally showing our consciousness to be all that there is, without any noumenal reality beyond. Heidegger’s supposed polemic stands in the shadow of Husserl’s purported philosophy, which echoes Descartes’ inference: Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am. Descartes’ more basic insight, contained in the Meditations rather than the Discourse on Method, is ‘I think, I exist’. But Heidegger, sometimes referred to as the founder of existentialist thought and the last great phenomenologist, is not concerned with the existence of particular individuals. Rather, he is concerned with humanity as a condition of being. There is something almost pre-Hegelian about this idea, since Hegel emphasised the passage from being to becoming. For Heidegger, there is simply existence as a condition of being, the foremost of which is the being for whom being is itself a question. Such a being, Dasein, is uniquely capable of Socratic questioning, but where such questioning leads nowhere but to despair at the nothingness at the heart of existence.

There is something deeply pessimistic, and therefore deeply Platonic, about this insight: we cannot find, in the phenomena of our existence, any rationality that unites our disparate imagination. Everything is separated, and all ideas are disconnected, united only by the feeling of unity. Any idea of unity cannot emanate from this physical world — but Heidegger does not take the further step that such an idea may be true, but of the conceptual world, not of our realm. Heidegger remains trapped between Kant and Hegel, in a post-Platonic despair that cannot lead anywhere good. Nonetheless, Heidegger perhaps sees what is true about our world more clearly than any philosopher of the modern age, for he sees the despair that they deny, in their unphilosophical musings. Heidegger himself stands in the shadow of true philosophy, unable to distinguish emotional behaviours from the rational concepts they are irrationally subsumed under. Heidegger has the keys to truth in a post-truth world; but he is unable to use these keys to unlock the door to the house of goodness, and, therefore, of freedom. Indeed, he has no desire to, as Heideggerian philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, with Augustinian despair.

Cassirer anticipates Arendt’s moral critique of Heidegger’s intellect by anticipating her intellectual debt to Kant and Aristotle. Cassirer deduces from Kantianism an optimism about the moral capacities of the subject. For Cassirer, Kant’s ‘unity of apperception’ is correct; the subject can apprehend unity and need not fall prey to the despair of disparate nothingness. He does not see through the subject as Heidegger does. He remains in Husserl’s prison of the Cartesian-Kantian subject. But he also remains, as Arendt does, in the Aristotelian-Hobbesian trap of naturalism. The post-Stoic fetish for the natural world is indeed echoed in Heidegger’s later ‘turn’ towards a critique of technological society, anticipating Kanye West’s elegant homage to pre-romantic nature in the ‘Runaway’ extended video that accompanied My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which concludes with the Heideggerian idea of being ‘Lost In the World’. Indeed, for Heidegger, being is loss. Heidegger sees how pride and hubris emerge, like a phoenix from the ashes, from this despair, while almost acknowledging that the nihilistic despair is true, and the prideful hope that follows is false. Heidegger himself makes this leap from despair to hope, placing his bets on a saviour figure to restore western civilisation, in particular his home country of Germany. But Heidegger is deeply reckless and infinitely callous in his political decisions. It remains a puzzle why someone so intelligent would endorse something so immoral. If only he, a god of philosophy, had appreciated, as Socrates and Plato did, the just aim of godliness: goodness.

Husserl here stands as Socrates did, a philosopher condemned for waking us up from our dogmatic slumber, and a victim of antisemitism. Heidegger stands as Plato did, a philosopher who decides to collaborate with the shadow of shadows which he mistakes for the sun of suns, a new beginning which was nothing more than a miserable ending. And Arendt stands as Aristotle did, a philosopher who inaugurated a new age of banal unthinking, which now dominates the universities. Other figures include Jean-Paul Sartre, who took Heidegger’s philosophy and made it appealing to a French audience, with the help of Christian existentialism that Heidegger would abhor as unintelligent moralism. Indeed, Heidegger is correct to abhor such moves towards a fragile restoration of godliness and goodness in a world ruled by absurdity and the pursuit of power after power (in Hobbes’s famous phrase in Leviathan). But Heidegger was wrong to decide to act on this abhorrence by racing towards its opposite: amoral powerism, or brute survivalism. Today, we see a similar alienation of the two poles of ‘is’ and ‘ought’; and yet, a collapse of the two is equally illegitimate. We must find a balance, without fully embracing synthesis, while prioritising what is right over what is not. To return spirituality to an un-spiritual world, we must concede something to the beast below. What we can never concede to the body is the soul, for this is something that not only the body cannot consume in good health, but that will also do no good for our souls.

Another text, Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians, considers the Heidegger-Cassirer debate in the context of the 1920s, which began with inflationary chaos and concluded with the Great Depression and its immense and tragic ramifications for human civilisation. The 1920s were bridged by the fragile trading order that passed us from the aftermath of one world war to the prelude to another. They involved false hope and false attempts to confront despair. What they lacked was a bridge between these poles, partly because, as Heidegger noted, such a bridge is literally impossible. For Cassirer, the unity of the subject makes such a bridge theoretically possible, but practically undesirable. For Heidegger, such a bridge is neither desirable nor possible. But Heidegger’s philosophy, which insists on the impossibility of balance in a divided world, renders such a bridge definitively desirable and necessary for a return to stabilising peace in a time of conflict. Cassirer’s liberal subjectivism implies an accommodation to a trading order in which all subjects are formally at peace with each other, but implicitly at war with each other in commercial transactions among independent individuals. Heidegger’s illiberal objectivism, or post-Platonic phenomenalism, notes how such implicit division of peacetime will lead to the explicit division of warfare. Heidegger offers the following moral justification for this political implication:

This “nothingness” is no cause for pessimism or sadness. It only helps to realise that there can be real productivity only where there is resistance, and that it is up to philosophy to turn man around, from the passive (faulen) preoccupation with the products of the spirit back to the hard severity of his destiny.

— Heidegger, from the Heidegger-Cassirer debate.

As trade erodes the unity of the political order which underpins it, it produces a sadness which corrodes the hearts of men. This sadness is produced by the very nothingness, or absence, that Heidegger speaks of. But this absence is only revealed as such when it gives way not simply to sadness but to violent attempts to restore unity in warfare. It is no secret to political scientists now that ‘war makes states and states make war’, in the words of Charles Tilly. The mutually assured destruction of nuclear weapons prevents outright great power war today, but the Cold War showed how proxy wars can remind us of the ‘hard severity’ of ‘destiny’. Trade ‘peacefully’ breaks states down into discrete classes that only reunify through the war that makes orderly political states out of the chaotic state of nature in the first place. But we are now stuck between trade and war, unable to complete the passage from one to the other as occurred in the 1910s or 1930s. We are unlikely to remain here for long, as proxy wars reveal the future of civilisation and barbarism as much as they reflect the past. We are at a philosophical crossroads, revealing the sociological crossroads at hand. But perhaps there is no choice involved, for ‘destiny’ has already waved its fateful hands. We may not even have the resources to delay decision, but only to contemplate the fate that may await us, and to prepare accordingly. Although it is said by the King of Rohan in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord Of the Rings: ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’ It is also said by the future King of Gondor, Aragorn of Arathorn, descent of Isildur (who failed to destroy the Ring of Power in his own moment of Heideggerian hubris): ‘Ride out with me’. And as prophesied by the wizard Gandalf, or Mithrandir as the elves call him, on the first light on the fifth day, after the first assault of the shadow and its beastly legions:

Let there be light.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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