Continental Divide - Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Anglais) Broché – 17 février 2012
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"Continental Divide provides the definitive narrative and analysis of the Davos incident, its background, its context and its aftermath. Gordon neither abstracts the philosophical debate from its contemporary setting, nor reduces it to its extraphilosophical ramifications. He has a masterly understanding of the philosophy, but insists that abstract ideas, too, very often wear layers of historical clothing...He sees that the hermeneutic disagreement was genuine and that real philosophical issues were at stake in the collision of Cassirer's celebration of rational spontaneity with Heidegger's concept of thrownness--the collision, that is, of idealism with existentialism. Gordon refuses to boil those ideas off in either uncritical historicism or easy political editorializing. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and his narrative never ascends to such a lofty historical perspecti ve that the philosophical air becomes too thin to breathe. --Taylor Carman, Times Literary Supplement, 11 November 2011
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Many on the next generation of European philosophers were interested spectators at the debate. (Others falsely claimed or misremembered that they were present. Gordon unfortunately does not attempt a complete list. A few who claimed to be or were present, such as Sohn-Rethel are not noted by Gordon.) Even those who were not personally present, such as Leo Strauss, referred to the debate as exemplifying the collapse of liberalism.
Gordon mentions some extraordinary events at Davos surrounding the debate. One is a mock debate by the students. Levinas, then an uncritical partisan of Heidegger (doubts rose after the latter's allegiance to Nazism), played the part of Cassirer, because of his bushy hairdo (whitened with flour for the occasion). The most amazing thing about this incident was that Cassirer and Heidegger themselves were in the audience of the student satire of the debate. One wonders what they thought of it.
Gordon not only traces the historical and political reverberations of the debate . He also makes astute philosophical remarks about the actual positions of the debaters. One point he develops in detail is the issue of transition between mythic conceptions of space and the mathematical, physical conception of space. Cassirer developed this issue in detail in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Volume 2: Mythical Thought (Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Mythical Thought), but Gordon, rightly, claims accounting for this transition was problematical for Heidegger.
Overall, this is an exemplary work both in history and in philosophy.
At the time of their Davos meeting, Cassirer and Heidegger were renowned. The older philosopher, Cassirer, was an urbane German-Jewish philosopher and a neo-Kantian who had written extensively on the history of philosophy, including a three-volume statement of his own philosophical approach, "The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms". Heidegger was born in rural Germany to a family of modest means and saw himself as an outsider. Before the Davos debate, Heidegger and published only one book, but it was extraordinary and made him famous. The book,"Being and Time" (1927) has become a classic of philosophical literature. In their Davos debate, Cassirer and Heidegger explored the issues that divided them and also tried to see the extent to which they shared common ground.
As did contemporaries to the debate, Gordon compares the discussion to the conversations between Naptha and Settembrini for the heart of Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann's novel, "The Magic Mountain". Mann's philosophical novel also was set in Davos. Gordon sees the debate as revolving broadly around a question posed by Kant: "what is man?". Gordon finds the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger turned on what he termed two competing "images of humanity" each of which derived in part from Kant. Cassirer's position derived from what Gordon terms "spontaneity" the ability of the human mind to shape reality and to create meaning in science, culture, ethics and other forms of endeavor. Heidegger's thought turned on what the philosoper termed "thrownness" or receptivity. It described man as a finite recipient of the world and of conditions which human beings do not control Human being in the world is historical with no philosophical "grounding". Heidegger's thought began with religious questions although it abandoned religion. Cassirer's began with science and proceeded outward, particularly to ethics. Gordon's book explores and develops these complex, difficult themes in the Davos debate and in what proceeded and followed the debate.
The heart of the book is in the third and fourth chapters. In the former chapter, Gordon discusses the individual lectures that Cassirer and Heidegger presented at Davos. Somewhat paradoxically, Cassirer lectured on "philosophical anthropology", a subject with some ties to Heidegger, while Heidegger lectured on Kant, Cassier's specialty, and offered a tortured reading of Kant's thought (which Heidegger himself ultimately abandoned.) In the pivotal fourth chapter, Gordon gives the text of the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger together with Gordon's own extended commentary and analysis of virtually every passage.
Gordon's book shows great erudition about German philosophy in the years before WW II. He sets the stage for the discussion by giving the broad philosophical background that produced it. He discusses the thought of Cassirer and Heidegger in the years that led up to the debate, and their writings in the years which followed. He discusses the impact on the debate on other philosophers including Leo Strauss, Jurgen Habermas, and Emannuel Levinas.
The debate took place in 1929, on the cusp of Nazism. In 1933, Heidegger infamously declared his allegiance to Nazism and became the rector at Freiburg. Cassirer was forced to leave Germany and ultimately settled in the United States, Inevitably, the debate at Davos became politicized in philosophical memory. A major aim of Gordon's study is to depoliticize the debate and to try to understand the disagreements between Cassirer and Heidegger in philosophical terms. Gordon argues that philosophical disagreements have meaning in their own right and are not mere metaphors or fronts for politics. This is an important conclusion, philosophically and historically.
Gordon's primary aim is for an exposition of the philosophical positions at stake, coupled with analysis to help clarify the positions, including their broad divergencies and their limited commonalities. Gordon states that he began the study with a qualified partial admiration for Heidegger but became increasingly sympathetic towards Cassirer as the study proceeded. Gordon declines to decide which protagonist was more nearly correct in his position or who "won" the debate at Davos. The issues and positions of both philosophers continue to be discussed. In his conclusion, Gordon writes: "one is tempted to ask whether a true resolution of this conflict is at all likely or even possible. For in fact these two philosophical principles, throwness and spontaneity, mark the opposing facets of a conceptual divide, the very persistence of which might be understood as the historical predicament of philosophy itself. .... To force its resolution, or to foreclose prematurely upon its continued debate, would be to deny what may very well be an essential tension of the human condition."
Gordon has written a difficult, thoughtful work of philosophy in its own right. The book will be of most benefit to readers steeped in philosophy and with an interest in philosophical questions, particularly as derived from Kant.
This book has many, many virtues:
(1) It is a clear exposition of the elements of the Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger. From this, you can get a real sense of what it is like for two masters of philosophy to expound and argue. Philosophy students would learn a lot about how to argue.
(2) The event throws a powerful light on the tensions in Weimar Culture, and the text covers them in exemplary fashion.
(3) The erudition of both philosophers shines through: the whole debate centers around the interpretation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which both men have at their fingertips.
(4) Gordon makes very clear what is at stake between the two interpretations and the world views of Cassirer and Heidegger. He is very, very judicious between the two. It is not a hatchet job on either man: rather the reader comes away deeply impressed by both figures and their committments.
(5) Gordon is an excellent writer. I am in awe of his capacity to navigate through both the narrative and the philosophical arguments.
Gordon isn't as bad as, say, William D. Blattner's two books. Those books, especially the B&T guide, remain the worst secondary literature on Heidegger I've ever read. Farias's great historiographical book was even-handed but collapsed when trying to convey MH's thinking after 1930. Gordon is able to both moderate that peculiar, liberal humanitarian moralizing while conveying B&T in the now superficial, traditional terminology that secondary-literature has adopted in its attempt to explain it. I can't believe people still call Heidegger an existentialist.
I could see someone that hasn't read any of Heidegger's books after the 1930's enjoying this book, or someone who has just studied or taken a course on Being and Time. Its for that level of understanding, the very beginning. I came to this book as a veteran and I admit it was boring for me. I bought it because I had read Geoff Waite's awesome essay on Heidegger, Cassirer and 'Esotericism' and wanted to know the details of Davos. There really wasn't much to learn outside of an appreciation of Leo Strauss's comments regarding the emptiness and lostness of Cassirer and all of academic philosophy in the face of Heidegger. Gordon provides the context for this despite himself.
The aim of the book is to concoct a basis for possible defense of Cassirer, because Heidegger was a Nazi and Liberalism can no longer be openly defended on rational grounds. The lengths to which Gordon's emotionalism went to achieve such a possibility, like bunkering himself in Cassirer's language in total disregard of Heidegger's responses and contorting traditional philosophical terminology beyond its its context in order to repeatedly create straw-man arguments was tiresome. Basically he assumes the role of the professional administrator and implements affirmative-action. Heidegger remains very important and Cassirer has rightfully been forgotten, so we have to assign more esteem to Cassirer, which is an esoteric way of sticking up for Liberalism, in spite of the facts.
The only secondary-literature on Heidegger worth reading are Geoff Waite's two essays (Jstor) and Reiner Schurmann's books. Waite is just a fun and witty Marxist who knows the score and somehow still believes in Communism, but Schurmann is genuinely insidious. Schurmann is a highly sophisticated liberal reading of Heidegger that tries to convert the reader while simultaneously presenting Heidegger's teachings as is. To do this he cherry-picks at will whatever jargon is useful from the postmodernist dust-bin. His comments on 'conservative' readers of Heidegger (where are they?) are deliberately obfuscatory and overlap with his own caricature of the man.
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