Turns and Retractions

I’m re-reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s amazing how rigorous and incisive Heidegger’s thinking and writing are in this book. His goal is to explain the difference between Being (or the process of existing) and beings (or the things that exist in the world). It’s ironic how much writing he has to do in order to explain this very simple idea well, but simply looking at the table of contents shows how thoroughly and systematically he works through this project.

What surprises me about Heidegger’s career, is that he takes a “turn” after spending years elaborating the themes of Being and Time. In essence, he renounces his systematic elaboration and exploration of Being and Time for a more experimental and empirical style of writing and analysis. The corresponding book about ontology that he publishes after his turn is called Time and Being, and it is about 20% as long as Being and Time. What made Heidegger take this turn?

Another famous German philosopher took a similar turn late in his career. Ludwig Wittgenstein worked out an axiomatic system defining language, only to scrap it later on for a looser, less-rigorous, more adaptive model of language. Like Heidegger, Wittgenstein’s style of writing and analysis changed drastically when he began his new project.

Are these only two thinkers’ idiosyncratic careers in philosophy, or is there something to note in their rejection of a certain type of systematic thinking? If they are simply idiosyncrasies, how have their works — both young and old — garnered such attention from popular and academic readers? If there is a deeper issue in their respective ideological turns, what can we learn from their career paths?

One maxim I heard in high school was an analogy to erosion applied to human life: “Aging knocks off your sharp corners.” I understand this to say that our attitudes break down to become more general and adaptable as we age. I wonder, is this what happened to Heidegger and Wittgenstein? If so, is there a way for us to determine which version of these thinkers is more useful, powerful, effective, or somehow “better”? Are the latter Heidegger and Wittgenstein wiser and better-shaped than their younger selves? Are the younger selves sharper and more incisive? Is there a way that we can tell?


One thought on “Turns and Retractions

  1. SkepticMeditations

    I’ve not made time (or being:) to read Heidegger’s or Wittgenstein’s books, save for some selected quotations. Whenever I’ve cracked open the pages of one of their books I feel attention-ally or intellectually intimidated by their dense philosophies.

    You asked “Is there something to note in their rejection of a certain type of systematic thinking?” I wonder what you mean by the “systematic thinking” in the context of your question. Perhaps you might take a particular point in future posts and unpack for us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on these writers, thinkers, and topics.


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