David Bentley Hart on Heidegger: Modernity-as-Nihilism

(Some scraps while I read and write away at several other, more substantial, pieces.)

Earlier I posted an excerpt from the later Heidegger; I have also posted thoughts from David Bentley Hart (on Marilynne Robinson, of Gilead fame). Wishing to combine the two, we might discover that Hart published an article on Heidegger in February of 2011 (ignore the venue of that link, if it bothers you: the article is worth reading). This is the last time I’ll be posting about Hart for the foreseeable future, though there is much about Heidegger I shall eventually get to here (barring death).

A very small excerpt of one quarter of one of the eight or so pages of the article:

“[Heidegger’s late philosophy] remains an often brilliant exploration of the ways in which Western humanity has succeeded in creating a world in which all values have become subordinate to the demands of the human will, and in which knowledge and human creativity have become almost entirely confused, conceptually and practically, with the exercise of instrumental reason’s mastery over all of reality.

Modernity, for Heidegger, is simply the time of realized nihilism, the age in which the will to power has become the ground of all our values; as a consequence it is all but impossible for humanity to dwell in the world as anything other than its master. As a cultural reality it is the perilous situation of a people that has thoroughly –one might even say systematically– forgotten the mystery of being, or forgotten (as Heidegger would have it) the mystery of the difference between beings and being as such. Nihilism is a way of seeing the world that acknowledges no truth other than what the human intellect can impose on things, according to an excruciatingly limited calculus of utility, or of the barest mechanical laws of cause and effect. It is a “rationality” of the narrowest kind, so obsessed with what things are and how they might be used that it is no longer seized by wonder when it stands in the light of the dazzling truth that things are. It is a rationality that no longer knows how to hesitate before this great mystery, or even to see that it is there, and thus is a rationality that cannot truly think.

[…] Whatever [Modernity’s] material causes (about which Heidegger really had nothing to say), the founding ideology of the modern vision of reality was, he believed, easily defined: the triumph of subjectivity in philosophy and of mechanism in science; egoism and technology.”

Heidegger, of course, thinks that there is something that comes after the Modern world. Regardless of whether one agrees with Heidegger’s portrait here or not (or Hart’s presentation of Heidegger), there is at least some partial truth to this.

It is partial. Dawkins will encourage wonder at the world, though his exhortations to it might not reach escape velocity from the kind of limiting framework outlined above; I remember reading Mary Midgley on the relationship between poetry and science, and profiting greatly. The Heidegger here ought to remind one of Nietzsche (one of my constant companions; Heidegger is often accused of misunderstanding Nietzsche), though he sees Nietzsche as still caught within the problem. It might be argued that Heidegger hovered between some vague paganism and a degraded Augustinianism (I’m not sure how well this would hold up, but while it is impossible to fully understand Heidegger without understanding Brentano and Husserl, it is also impossible to fully appreciate him without grasping the Catholic tradition broadly, in which Heidegger was formed — so my claim is not some empty self-serving and self-satisfying opining).

One thought on “David Bentley Hart on Heidegger: Modernity-as-Nihilism

  1. Hi, I Wonder whether you’ve considered Slavoj Zizek’s account of Modernity. It’s opposed to David Bently Hart’s account in that he thinks that, far from being nihilistic, the modern era is as superstitious and as saturated with meaning and ideology as ever; however, in the modern era these beliefs function in a way such that no on need formally hold those beliefs. So there’s the example of a successful Capitalist executive: he is not at all a self-interested egotist, who nihilistically puts his will above all else, not he’s disciplined and must sacrifice everything, often his family and friends and any social life to serve the greater purpose, the maximization of profits (although he might put it another way, like success or winning or making it or whatever), or he uses the example of fair trade or other organic eco-friendly consumer products, very few people actually believe that they are making a dent by buying fair trade over something else, but even though no one formally believes it, the belief functions through the ideology of individual responsibility and the consumer logic. Anyway, I think it’s an interesting debate on what exactly the modern ideology is.
    I personally don’t actually think nihilism is possible, as soon as one destroys God, one immediately creates idols, whether or not they acknowledge the Power of those idols.

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