Wednesday, April 22, 2009


"The essence of what we today call science is research. In what does the essence of research consist?" (Martin Heidegger)

I'm not sure why I suddenly decided I wanted to write about Heidegger. If nothing else, perhaps to encourage readers of this blog to read his essay called "The Age of World Picture", which can be found in the William Lovitt collection The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. The thing I want to draw attention to is his prescience about (or perhaps just sensitivity to) how science would develop in the twentieth century.

Modern science, he says, is an "ongoing activity", the activity of research. In German he calls it Betrieb, which can also mean business or enterprise or operation. In Being and Time this word is translated as "hustle". On this view, then, science is a hustle and bustle of equipment and procedures, conferences and publishers. "The scholar disappears," he tells us, and what gets written is determined by negotiations with peers and editors. Sound familiar?

The reason I suggest you read the essay is that Heidegger here, as in his major work, Being and Time, does an admirable job of building his metaphysics out of descriptions of workaday busy-ness. He argues that there is, nonetheless, a resoluteness, a determination, that gives us our ontological dignity even though we are "thrown" into it by forces we do not control. In the case of research, in fact, he argues that science is whatever is it (i.e., its being is layed out) according to a "ground plan" that arranges a domain of objects for us to study.

I'm sure I read him too simplemindedly at times, but I am convinced that we can understand this ground plan in straightforward terms. Work regularly. Write clearly. Enter into those negotiations honestly, with something on your mind and a position to defend. There is, to be sure, a kind of melancholy in Heidegger's remark about the end of scholarship. I feel that melancholy myself sometimes. But I also believe that, with a bit of effort, modern research can accomplish something that classical scholarship could not. I confess that I say that on faith. I don't know what that something might be.

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