Later Heidegger – Introduction by Sean Dorrance Kelly

Lecture series available here.

I’ve just started listening to a series of lectures by Sean Dorrance Kelly as part of a philosophy course being offered by Harvard University. At the moment I am letting the ideas being presented wash over me. Even at this early stage, I am finding that some of the concepts ring true in the context of how design’s social impact is considered – and more specifically, I am finding that it is giving me a framework through which I can begin to understand my personal experience of this.

Below I’ve summarised the lecture, but before I get there, I wanted to draw a connection between some of the points being presented. It is the latter part of this first lecture that I particularly connected to. Kelley starts the lecture with presenting Heidegger’s articulation of various understandings of beings across time, including that of the current technological age. He follows this with Heidegger’s criticisms of Descartes and Kant’s notions of being and after characterising the technological age of being, offers strategies for ways in which we can get beyond this understanding. Heidegger’s interest in ways in which we can shift away from the current understanding of being is what interested me the most. There are three points of connection to my current thinking:

  1. Kelly talks about the fact that there is never a unified notion of being within a culture. There are central and marginal understandings – and both play a critical role in helping us to understand what has come before and what may come after. Kelly explains that we often ignore the marginal, not being able to explain it – until its effects begin to accumulate. In the lecture he describes it as a ‘revolution’, at which point the marginal becomes the centre of a new understanding. I really connected with this idea. I felt that while I was going through experiences such as establishing ilk media and the Trash Bags project, my understanding of the social impact of design was within the current central notion. The experience of Design4Change was my moment of revolution. Things that I’d experienced, but had never made sense were pushed to the margin until this point. The evaluation process for the project focused my attention on the anomalies that have now become the centre of this study. I am now trying to make sense of this new way of thinking.
  2. Kelly’s description of the central and the marginal can also be applied to the subject at hand, that is the social impact of design. At the moment the central understanding, I believe, is focused on outlining a number of categories of action through which designers can improve their social impact. In finding a way to shift away from this – perhaps we need to look at the marginal. I’m not entirely sure about what that may be – but it is an interesting way to look at a problem in the context of this PhD
  3. The third element that I thought was interesting is Heidegger’s The Thing. He explains that part of the problem we face today is that our culture does not have a work of art – to guide our sense of identity and actions. He then goes on to say that we do however have ‘things’ such as community events where people have specific roles to play and that these can help us see the value to life. Drawing a parallel, the profession may be seen as a ‘thing’. Here we have distinct roles to play and it is the frameworks set by the profession that help us comprehend what is of value. This makes me think about the responsibility of a profession that sets values within the community? And can we put interventions in place to shift a community’s values?


Lecture Summary

The introductory lecture examines the meaning of being in a secular age from a Heideggerian perspective. Kelley explains secular age to be one where belief in God no longer defines us as human beings. He contrasts this with the example of Homeric Greeks, where the belief in Gods underpinned the understanding of being and gave meaning to life. Without a relevant notion of being for our time, we are left in a nihilistic world. Kelly believes that an examination of Heidegger is critical for understanding who we are and that it can provide us with a strategy for moving away from this existence towards living a meaningful life.

The lecture outlines the work of later Heidegger, ‘later’ being after his writing of Being in Time,  into three phases. Heidegger was interested in:

  1. Articulating the various understandings of being at key moments through the history of time.
  2. Providing a criticism of these background understandings of being
  3. Providing a strategy for overcoming our current background understanding of being

Articulating the various understandings of being

  • Medieval time – Human beings were understood as entities created by God and in the image of God.
  • Descartes – Human beings were understood as subjects. This is very different to an entity that is created by God and in the image of God. Here, Descartes believed that the inner states of human beings were very clear to them and they were Indubitable and Incorrigible. Kelly provides the example here of someone being in pain. If you feel pain, then you are in pain.
  • Kant provided an articulation of Descartes’ concept and described human beings as a mature autonomous agent. This background understanding of being enabled human beings to be in control of themselves. To create laws to live by and to judge ourselves against these laws.The next epic according to Heidegger is our current time – the technological age. Kelley explains Heidegger’s view that we are “essentially beings that optimise and order resources”.  Although this characteristic is essentially hidden from us in the context of our everyday existence, our culture is committed to it. We are committed to the notion that everything is a flexible and interchangeable resource that needs to be optimised and ordered. The fact that nothing is more preferable than the next leads to the nihilism that we are experiencing.

Criticising the background understandings of being

  • Descartes view of the being as a subject – Heidegger says that there are moments where we are not indubitably and incorrigibly aware of our inner states. He uses the example of hammering, where our awareness is focused on the external.
  • Kant’s autonomous agent – Heidegger believes that there are moments where we act without being in control of ourselves. Kelly uses the example of Wesley Audrey, the ‘subway hero’ who jumped onto the train tracks to protect a person who had fallen there as a result of a fit, from an oncoming train. When later interviewed, Audrey claimed that he just did what anyone would have done and that it wasn’t a conscious act. This explanation is common amongst individuals who do heroic acts. Here, Kant’s notion of a conscious decision about the act does not happen.

Kelly goes on to explain that some of these ‘unexplainable’ acts are easily understood in the context of a different epic. During the time of the Homeric Greeks, Audrey’s response would have been central to their understanding of being – that the relevant God called the action out of him. Hearing the story, we feel a sense of familiarity and can comprehend how this story is in conflict with Kant’s understanding of being. But we have marginalised these understandings and try to provide explanations within the context of the modern technological age.

Getting beyond the modern technological age of being

Heidegger believes that there are some strategies that can support a transition out of the modern technological age of being. Modern technological age of being does not have a work of art – a central aspect of the culture that organises all the practices that the people are engaged in. Kelly explains that in a later lecture he will cover Heidegger’s The Thing, where Heidegger outlines a local rather than a universal thing that is available to us – something that organises a local community such as a celebratory meal, where everyone has distinctly different roles. If organised properly, Heidegger believes that we can derive value from these kind of events. The value may not extend past the event. But in that moment in time, you have a sense of what is valuable.

We no longer have the ability to understand ourselves in terms of our ability to respond to something outside of ourselves. Here, Heidegger believes that poets have a special role to play. He believes that it will be the poets that will respond to the marginal to reveal the path forward.

Kelly then explains that historically there is no unified understanding of being. There is a central understanding and there are marginal understandings. It is very important to have both these understandings as the marginal allow us to understand what came before or what might come after. At any moment, it is hard for us to understand the marginal, they make no sense and we often ignore them. But once the marginal repeats itself enough times, it will draw attention to itself, becoming the centre of a new understanding. According to Heidegger, we need to pay attention to the marginal, if we are to get out of the modern technological age.

Heidegger believes that we need a new beginning. He is not sure when or when this may occur but believes that if it does, it will include the belief in a certain type of god. He further states that within this new beginning our focus won’t be questions about what beings are. Instead we will focus on what being is – being as not an entity.

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