Category Archives: Heidegger

idle chatter

In a local reading group this semester, we’ve been going through some of the key sections of Being and Time. Last weekend one of the sections we looked at was §35 on Gerede or “idle talk,” and I realized the extent to which I think that this section, as short as it is, is really one of the most crucial sections in Division One. At least, that is, insofar as the explication of Dasein in its average everydayness is supposed to be the starting point of the phenomenological project of Being and Time.

The reason for §35’s importance lies mainly in the way that it attempts to give an existential explanation of ordinary communication. Since the explosion of electronic media technologies (particularly, I would argue, first television and then the web), the kind of communication that Heidegger describes as idle talk has been given concrete form in increasingly ubiquitous structures. Not coincidentally, the couple of times I’ve taught Heidegger, I’ve found that this is perhaps the part that my students have had the easiest time understanding (is there a better example of “passing the word along” than the “Retweet” button?).

On the other hand, isn’t it the case that pointing to Twitter or Facebook or cable news (or respected newspapers, for that matter) as prime examples of forums for idle talk is also an example of idle talk? That is, Twitter is so trivial, cable news so superficial, that it practically announces its own inauthenticity. The interpretation of such media as only perpetuating idle talk is perhaps always already given along with the media themselves.

The question that arises for me, then, is this: can a deeper and more thorough critique of the ideology and structures of such media get past the level of idle talk, or does the anticipation by these media of kinds of critique that can be leveled against them preempt the efficacy of such critique? Is something other than critique required?

(He asks, on a blog…)

Related(?): thinking about this put me in mind of Paul Lansky’s More than Idle Chatter, which I haven’t heard in probably a decade. For your listening pleasure:


more indications: religious & theological

As I’ve been continuing to look over Heidegger’s use of formal indication with regard to religion and theology, I’ve come across something that seems significant. In his 1920-21 course on “Phenomenology of Religion”, where he gives perhaps the fullest and most direct account of his idea of what a formal indication is and how it works, he explicitly states that the object of his inquiry is factical religious life, which when properly understood discloses “originary” religious (Christian) experience. Putting aside several other problematic issues surrounding Heidegger’s conception of what is “originary” here, one aspect of it is that it makes no reference to and is as yet unguided by theological reflection – for theology springs up only in the wake of this originary experience in order to make sense of and properly articulate it. Thus, in the context of the early Heidegger’s phenomenology of religion, formal indication serves to give philosophy access to the region of being marked out by factical Christian life, the content of which remains inaccessible to philosophy. This content can only be indicated at the ontological level – i.e., formally in the specifically phenomenological sense that Heidegger intends.

However, seven or so years later in his lecture titled “Phenomenology and Theology,” Heidegger essentially claims that philosophy has the same relationship to theology. That is, philosophy does not, cannot, relate directly to the object of theology (in this case, Christian faith); it can only serve as a “corrective” to theological practice. Since theology, according to Heidegger, is an ontic science like so many others, it is part of the role of philosophy properly to delimit the field and articulate the ontological structures according to which theology most accurately relates to and explicates its own object, which remains the sole ground and motive force behind the operation of theology. Now, in what way does philosophy perform its corrective role? Heidegger is explicit in saying that the relationship of philosophy to theology is a formally indicative one.

So, philosophy has basically the same relationship to the content of theology that it does to the content of factical religious life. In each case it’s a specific sort of second-order operation. However, Heidegger’s definition of theology (both in the earlier course and in the 1927 lecture, though his perspectives differ somewhat) makes of it already a second-order reflection on the factical details of religious experience. These are already what is supposedly formally indicated by Heidegger’s phenomenology of religion, though. So, it seems to me what this reveals is that, from the perspective of philosophy according to Heidegger, religion as such and theology as such are on an equal level. That is, in this case at least, with respect to fundamental ontology, there’s no qualitative difference between an ontic science taken as an object of inquiry and the beings (or ways of being) that that science busies itself considering.

Although I’d be happy to be proven wrong here, my first impression is that this isn’t a conclusion Heidegger would be happy with. Putting that aside, though, what it points me toward is the way in which Heidegger’s treatments of religious life and theology end up undermining each other, because in each case one of his concerns is to preserve the independence of the ontic phenomena under consideration from philosophical (pre- or over-) determination. Yet, one consequence of this equalization of religious life and theology with respect to philosophy is that is makes the slide into abstract generalizations of both religion and theology too easy. Any time that Heidegger moves from a religious or theological concept to an ontological one that supposedly formally indicates the former, he creates an opportunity (which he also sometimes makes use of himself) to interpret the latter as a fundamental concept that grounds or explains not just the initial existentiell notion but a whole range of phenomena, and not just regionally but generally.

deeper into indications

As I’ve been thinking more about Heidegger’s formal indications, specifically with respect to religion, a question has occurred to me as to exactly what could emerge as a formal indication within the scope of a “phenomenology of religious life” and what could not. It seems, based on what Heidegger himself comes up with, that despite his stated goal of explicating a “fundamental religious experience” that would shed light on “originary religious phenomena” in general, a concept like “religion” does not appear on his radar as something that would work as a formal indication. Only religious concepts – ones that arise out of factical religious life, e.g., sin, grace, damnation, salvation, etc. – become formal indications when transposed into the domain of philosophy proper.

However, I would argue that “religion” or the “religious” does more work philosophically when taken as a formal indication itself – not only because this saves it from being taken to refer to some definable thing the essence of which is the same is the same in each case but also, and more to the point here, because it can cover a much broader field than the formal indications more narrowly determined by (in this case) Christian experience. Now ultimately I would also argue that at the narrower, more “regional” level, Derridean quasi-transcendentals are the more appropriate tool in that they better reflect their historically, materially situated and conditioned structure. But insofar as one wants to retain a generic concept like “religion” (and I think there are several reasons to want this, despite there also being reasons not to), understanding it as a formal indication has benefits not the least of which is that this emphasizes its lack of its own proper content. The content that it indicates would need in each case to be supplied by inquiry into concrete details – guided by provisional quasi-transcendentals that could (and should) be indefinitely multiplied. Coming up with (and just as important, letting go of) quasi-transcendentals would be especially necessary as the scope of what what we think about under the umbrella of the “religious” is broadened (as it should be) to include not only beliefs, creeds, practices, individuals, societies, and gods but also places, buildings, so-called fetish objects, books, and clothing – each on their own terms.

formal indications

A little over a week ago I attended the annual North Texas Heidegger Symposium, which was great. I had planned to touch briefly on Heidegger in my dissertation, but I hadn’t yet began that particular section. After thinking and talking about his work for a couple of days straight (after not really having done so for a couple of years), I decided to go straight to work on him – which is what I’ve been up to for the past week or so.

The highlight of the symposium for me was the keynote delivered by Theodore Kisiel, detailing the evolution of the concept of formal indication. This was fortuitous for me, since this is exactly what I had already planned to write about – (1) because Heidegger explicates it (relatively) directly during specifically his course on the phenomenology of religion, and (2) because of the status of the Heideggerian formal indication as a sort of precursor to the Derridean quasi-transcendental. So I was already thinking about formal indication as a key element in approaching “religion” by way of quasi-transcendentals. What Kisiel’s paper did was (among other things) to demonstrate – or maybe just to recall – how formal indication never really disappears in post-Being and Time Heidegger, even though he uses the terminology much less often. So, one can understand later terms such as saying, way, or Ereignis (perhaps especially the latter, consider the resonance between eigen and zeigen that Heidegger wants to highlight) as formal indications as well as those concepts he explicitly labels as formal indications in his earlier lectures.

This brought into focus for me again the importance of this idea, as well as the importance of explaining its shortcomings (at least as Heidegger uses it). This explanation is now taking up a slightly more substantial place in my work, and it’s definitely still in progress. But, the basic argument is that the formal indication, despite Heidegger’s protestations to the contrary, still remains too anchored in pre-conceptions at the general or universal level not to avoid determining its content at least in part without reference to the concrete (factical) phenomena. With regard to religion specifically, I still (this was my original argument) think one can see a shift from the course on phenomenology of religion to the 1927 Tübingen lecture “Phenomenology and Theology” – in the former, the focus is squarely on the factical details of religious life (albeit with a clear tendency, in retrospect, toward thinking “religion” essentially or universally); in the latter, though, what is important philosophically is (almost) exclusively the “pre-religious” background. While for Heidegger this is simply a matter of philosophy’s primary concern with the ontological rather than the ontical, the fact that the formal indication (even qua formal) arises out of inquiry into regional, ontic content leaves its formality under-determined. This is not to be lamented, though, but rather acknowledged in a more sincere way than I think Heidegger does. And this is more or less what the quasi-transcendental approach is able to do.