Heidegger: "whoever engages in philosophy must know a few things"

Heidegger links philosophy and history: "philosophy either projects far beyond its own time or else binds its time back to this time's earlier and inceptive past."

Heidegger: "whoever engages in philosophy must know a few things"

Over the summer, I planned on doing a close read of Introduction to Metaphysics. That got interrupted by job applications, starting a new job, and ironically enough, writing on Heidegger's reading of Antigone. Now I'd like to resume my reading. There's a lot to be gained through creating a dialogue.

Ben Collins argues cable news is defined by the tropes of professional wrestling. Specifically, the news creates simplistic good guy/bad guy narratives which everyone knows to be absurd. The trouble is twofold. Not only is reality made invisible, as the world rarely fits into a good guy/bad guy narrative you can cheer or boo, but if you think of the news as a game which you want a character to win, you've completely misunderstood what it means to be informed. Unfortunately, a number of people believe the news is a game, including rich and powerful people who find themselves blameless in a world of faces and heels. You should read Collins' take, "The cable news kayfabe is dead," but there's a passage I'd like to use as a starting point for another reflection:

It’s time to get real with people. They don’t want to hear the debate between two rival sects of increasingly unaccountable rich people, especially when neither of them is living a life that has anything to do with their daily lived experiences.

They want to know what’s actually happening, even if it’s a little complicated, even if there are no good guys.

One reason why I'm successful at what I do is that I read serious journalism. People want to know both that fuels are being produced with a 100% cancer risk and how the EPA assesses that risk. In my experience, Collins is right. People "want to know what's actually happening, even if it's a little complicated."

In fact, my own experience goes further. I know a number of people hungry to study philosophy. They want to know what ideas are out there; they clearly feel they've been given limited frameworks for seeing the world. Earlier today I read Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics and I saw some passages about what philosophy was which could go any number of directions. I thought it was important to share those passages and talk about what's at stake.

What caught my eye was this statement: "whoever engages in philosophy must know a few things" (IM 9). Without going into what exactly Heidegger thinks those things are, we know that this is worth thinking about for our own sake. We've encountered people who use philosophy wrongly, trying to create and win petty battles by pretending they do not need to know anything. There's always the guy on a forum trying to say math is fake because 0 is an impossible concept. There are also those who say that they don't read because that's the only way they'll be original and people who believe that if they think really hard, they'll learn what they need to know. These opinions, which we can label as "crank," do have a more interesting source. They depend on the explicit identification of philosophy with the power of thinking. The most famous philosopher didn't shy away from that. It's not always easy to declare what kind of knowledge "knowledge of ignorance" entails.

So what do we need to know to do philosophy? What essential knowledge is missing if we can't do philosophy? In what I read, Heidegger links philosophy and history: "philosophy either projects far beyond its own time or else binds its time back to this time's earlier and inceptive past." You might call this speculation, not knowledge. If philosophy is thinking the future or wondering how the past was "inceptive," it may use knowledge but isn't fundamentally knowledge itself. But Heidegger is actually drawing from the idea of knowledge itself. Knowledge, like philosophy, is untimely. It doesn't need time to validate it; time only reveals the truth to us. So Heidegger has a point in asserting that "Philosophizing... remains a kind of knowing that not only does not allow itself to be made timely but, on the contrary, imposes its measure on the times" (IM 9).

You're not sold and neither am I. I don't know that philosophers are continually thinking about history, or that they are great men who change the course of history themselves. Philosophy "projects far beyond its own time" as a consequence of asking good questions, no? I think this. I think that is a moderate and reasonable position. However, Heidegger is interested in philosophy as transformative. He directly takes on the notion that philosophy is useless:

...what is useless can nevertheless be a power – a power in the rightful sense. That which has no direct resonance in everydayness can stand in innermost harmony with the authentic happening in the history of a people. It can even be its own prelude. What is untimely will have its own times. This holds for philosophy. (IM 9-10)

I might want to dismiss this as fascist propaganda. But I can't do that because I can envision a serious thinker wanting to leave a legacy of thought which stands "in innermost harmony with the authentic happening in the history of a people." Heidegger's big talk doesn't take away from the central idea. Good thinking harmonizes with authenticity. It helps people know themselves and be the best versions of themselves. Those of us who want more peace and fewer power games have to consider philosophy as untimely in Heidegger's sense.

I can say this, though. What specific knowledge is philosophy? Again, this is a topic which Heidegger will discourse at length about, but I know we can offer an answer we need. My suggestion: you really need to learn how to be curious. This sounds strange, as we tend to think that some people will never be curious. For my part, I remember a gentleman who would ask a question, then as the question was being answered, ask another one. (It didn't help that women thought this was cute.) So learning to be curious is a very real skill in my mind. Heidegger has a larger vision for the sort of knowledge comprising philosophy. Can we not only ask a question, but step into questioning itself? Can we live like "why is there anything at all?" is the most pressing concern, illuminating and maybe sometimes darkening parts of our life? The challenge for me is to properly understand how my smaller conception of philosophy stands in the shadow of Heidegger's thinking.


Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Translation Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale, 2000. 9-10.