Mark Sussman

Writer - Researcher - Teacher

Simon Critchley on Heidegger

Leather-panted philosopher and sometime Int’l Necronaut Simon Critchley is three parts into an eight-part blog series that attempts to explicate Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. So far, it’s as clear an description of Heidegger’s book as one could hope for, given the constraints Critchley’s set for himself. At least I think it’s clear – I’ve read the later essays collected in Poetry, Language, Thought, but never the magnum opus itself. One of the great difficulties of reading Heidegger is his notorious lexicon, the set of terms he coins and redefines in order to construct a first philosophy that does away with what he sees as the fundamental flaws of the Cartesian tradition.

Because this lexicon plays such an important role in Heidegger’s project, anyone attempting to explain Heidegger to anyone else ends up writing something that looks like an attempt to rewrite the dictionary rather than a clarifying gloss. This passage from Critchley’s latest post is representative:

The world is full of handy things that hang together as a whole and which are meaningful to me. In even more basic terms, the world is a whole load of stuff that is related together: my laptop sits on my desk, my spectacles sit on my nose, the desk sits on the floor, and I can look over to the window at the garden and hear the quiet hum of traffic and police sirens that make up life in this city. This is what Heidegger calls “environment” (Umwelt), where he is trying to describe the world that surrounds the human being and in which it is completely immersed for the most part.

So notice the paragraph begins with a seemingly obvious statement (the world is full of things) that reads a bit like a sentence from a Robbe-Grillet novel, after which we find out that said statement is actually the redefinition of a word we already know (“environment” in Critchley’s translation), but that now has a kind of philisophico-poetic glow to it. For people who try to explain Heidegger to the uninitiated (and, still being relatively uninitiated, I’ve read quite a few of them), the illumination of the lexicon is apparently a necessary first step because everyone does it (besides the hundreds of philosophers and critics who take on Heidegger, see also the “Hedeggerian Glossary” at the end of William Vollmann’s “Violet Hair” in The Rainbow Stories). The next step is to start stringing together this terminology, to explain the ways in which these newly redefined terms relate to each other.

Again, because I’ve never read Being and Time, I can’t tell you how accurate Critchley is in his descriptions of Heidegger’s redefinitions. His reconstruction of the ligature of Heidegger’s philosophy performs its work well, though, insofar as these posts have, so far, at least made me feel like I could open the book and begin reading it on solid ground. Which is not to say that I will any time soon.


  1. Nice post. I especially like the bit about it reading like a Robbe-Grillet novel. I wish you’d had a chance to sit in on that France-Germany class back in 2003. The session where we discussed Heidegger was one of my better rantish moments. Critchley does a good job of capturing the odd mix of folksy simple nouns and extreme abstraction at the conceptual level that makes Martin a tough read. But no translation can ever do justice to the German as language while also trying to convey the philosophical message. I’m usually annoyed by claims that something can’t be translated, but it applies here. Hell, it even applies to Hegel, to an extent.

  2. It’s funny to hear you mention “untranslatability” at the end, because now that I think about it, Robbe-Grillet (at least to my mind) seems like one of the most translatable writers (if there is such a thing) while you’re definitely not alone in calling Heidegger untranslatable. The fact that Critchley is writing for a general audience (see his comments section, which is full of people who are angry at words for being hard) obviously accounts for his measured, careful style in those definitional paragraphs (though his writing is almost always clean and lucid) but Heidegger’s ideas are so difficult to get at that one feels, as in R-G’s La jalousie, that the very clarity of the explicator’s writing is hiding some deeper mystery. This “obscuring clarity” (or at least the feeling that the clarity is obscuring something) also reminds me of Critchley’s Necronautical comrade, Tom McCarthy and his novel Remainder. The “remainder” in that novel, the uncontrolled elements of life that resist orchestration and command, serves as an irritant to the narrator, whose obsession with control, rehearsal, recreation, and mimesis lead him to wage war on the remainder. In some sense McCarthy’s nouveau romanesque style is a statement about the limits of style and representation, the degree to which language that communicates effectively also obscures a whole host of other things. I always wonder that people find difficult writing so frustrating and lucid writing so comforting, when the latter is so much more effectively deceitful.

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