15 February 2009

Being and Time: Hints of Zen

Much to my surprise, I'm actually enjoying reading Being and Time. It's not an easy read, but not as insanely difficult as I'd expected. Of course, my expectations came largely from the copied pages of Heidegger that we were given in the Tragedies class, which made no sense whatsoever lacking the context of the rest of the book. This is a big part of why I've been reading from the beginning, rather than just reading the numbered sections that Levenson suggests. What I find most interesting, and even somewhat bizarre, is the undercurrent of zen that seems to run through the work.

The most obvious way this shows up is in Heidegger's insistence that an object's function is more primary to its being than the mass which makes up the object. For instance, a hammer is not truly a hammer until one hammers with it. More to the point, we don't experience it as a hammer until we hammer with it. The object simply being present in awareness is termed "presence-at-hand" (zuhanden) and awareness that the object may be put to use is termed "ready-to-hand" (vorhanden).

Heidegger rejects "presence-at-hand" as having much of use to tell us about the nature of Being, particularly the nature of Being Human (Dasein). One is already at one remove from the object if it is merely "present-at-hand". Similarly, in zen thought (and other places), words put us at one remove from the object. As soon as we've named it, we've lost touch with what it really is. There's a beautiful zen koan that relates the idea. I'll summarize it as I remember it:

The head of a monastery needed to choose his replacement, so he gathered together all the monks of the monastery and placed a pitcher of water before them. "Who can tell me what this is without naming it?" he asked. The monk that most expected to be chosen hesitantly said, "It cannot be called a shoe." The head cook scoffed at this and pushed the pitcher over with his foot. The head of the monastery smiled. "Ah, that's the one."

(For a more detailed, and slightly different, version, click here)

Another point that came up in class ties Heidegger's thought to Taoism as well. The idea is that we don't always notice "readiness-to-hand" until it fails us. The lead of the pencil breaks; the hammer-head flies off; we can't find a pencil sharpener for the pencil or nails for the hammer. We're more likely notice the readiness-to-hand just as it disappears on us. That is, we realize that everything was functioning smoothly as one entity ... until something goes wrong and dissolves that unity. Then we notice the unity as an absence. What was one has become many.

As it turns out, Heidegger has an essay about a (probably fictional) dialogue he had with a Japanese sage. It was published later than Being and Time, and I'd be curious to see what it says. However, I have not yet tracked down a copy. As I have not seen it online, I can only presume that it's still under copyright (or at least that any English translations of it are).

No comments: