Monday, May 23, 2011

Reversing the Reversal: Contemplation and Action by Ron Dart

George Grant was drawn to Martin Heidegger for the simple reason that Heidegger was, probably, one of the most severe critics of the modern way of doing philosophy and the western understanding of mind and what it means to think.  Heidegger was convinced that western philosophy had lost its way, and rationalism led to a cul-de-sac that diverted the longing pilgrim from a deeper notion of being. Heidegger’s commitment to philosophy had a great deal to do with returning to the ancient way marks and a pointing of the way to wisdom and contemplation. Grant was convinced that the clearing that Heidegger was a guide towards offered more possibilities than the sterility of modern philosophy.

Grant was not only drawn to Heidegger’s commitment to contemplation and wisdom as an antidote and corrective to rationalism and a hyper activism, but Heidegger’s turn to the ancient Greeks was a turn that Grant also made, but did so with a difference. Grant agreed with Heidegger that much modern philosophy was lost in a dark wood with few paths out, but he differed with Heidegger on what wisdom and contemplation might mean on the journey.

Heidegger, like Nietzsche, thought that philosophy began to lose its bearings with the dialectical and logical approach to knowing initiated by Socrates and systematized by Plato and Aristotle. Heidegger thought that the Pre-Socratics had a deeper understanding of waiting, heeding and hearing as a philosophic way of knowing and being. The banter and arguments of Socrates as embodied in Plato’s life and writings was something that Heidegger opposed and stood against. This is where Grant parted paths with Heidegger. Grant agreed with Heidegger that the modern notion of rationalism and philosophy had replaced the older way of doing philosophy that was more about wisdom and contemplation, but Grant was convinced that Heidegger had erred and misread Plato. Both Grant and Heidegger, in different ways, attempted to deconstruct the logo-centric nature of much modern philosophy, but Grant was convinced that Plato offered a surer path in doing so than the Pre-Socratics.

Heidegger’s two books, What is Called Thinking? and Discourse on Thinking, make it abundantly clear that Heidegger was going after modern philosophy root and branch. What, indeed, does it mean to think, and what is the relation between thought and being? Philosophy, in the older sense, is about taking a position of waiting and receptivity, listening and letting go of the agenda of the grasping and need to know ego. There is a frantic drivenness in the west that is injurious and inimical to wisdom and meaningful insight. Knowledge, facts, measurement, control and calculation have come to replace an inner openness to being that can only be known by a letting go of the need to know and dominate. 

Hannah Arendt was one of Heidegger’s most important students in the 1920s, and she became, after moving to the USA, one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. It is significant that one of Arendt’s most important books in political philosophy, The Human Condition, was published in 1958. The Human Condition is divided into six sections (The Human Condition, The Public and the Private Realm, Labor, Work, Action and The Vita Activa and the Modern Age). The final section, ‘The Vita Activa and the Modern Age’, highlights all so clearly, Arendt’s indebtedness to Heidegger and her deeper view of the meaning of political philosophy. The modern age is one that knows not how to go slow, to listen, to heed an inner depth. In fact, modernity is addicted to the drug of the ‘vita activa’ or a hyper activism. Is it even possible to be philosophical in the modern age when the very means that is needed to know is subverted and denied by rationalism and a busyness of an uncritical activism? Arendt’s small chapter in the final section of The Human Condition, ‘The Reversal of Contemplation and Action’, is a gem and must read. It has Heidegger written all over it. The hidden king and master had taught his student well. Arendt, like Heidegger, was calling for a reversal of the reversal. Contemplation had once been the queen of knowing and philosophy, but modern rationalism had come to dethrone the queen and sit on the throne of knowing. The reversal of contemplation and action had to be reversed. This was the philosophic vocation of Heidegger and Arendt. Is it even possible to be political in the ‘polis’ in a meaningful manner when drivenness banishes depth and knowledge casts wisdom to the margins of learning and education?

The Human Condition, as I mentioned above, was published in 1958. Grant had published his article, ‘Philosophy’, for the Massey Commission in 1951. Grant, like Heidegger, was more than aware that the very idea of contemplation and wisdom had been exorcised from most modern departments of philosophy. Grant lamented this worrisome fact, and in his article for the Massey Commission, he called for a return to the ancient idea of philosophy as the contemplative love of wisdom. Grant was, in short, almost a decade ahead of Arendt in calling for a return to the contemplative way of knowing and being.  The philosophic mandarin class turned on Grant with a vengeance. Grant’s nemesis, Fulton Anderson, gathered the clan round him and pronounced an anathema on Grant. Descartes, Bacon and clan were the real modern philosophers and science was the master. Who was Grant to doubt this? He had offended the clan. Sadly so, John Slater’s history of the philosophy department at University of Toronto, Minerva’s Aviary: Philosophy at Toronto: 1843-2003 (2005), does not really do justice to the Anderson-Grant clash and tension and the deeper reasons for it.

What does it mean to do philosophy or do we even do philosophy? Is philosophy more about being than doing, contemplation than reason, wisdom than information, insight than facts? Heidegger, Grant and Arendt attempted to reverse the reversal that took place in the modern ethos (and this can be dated in different ways) between contemplation and action. Heidegger, Grant and Arendt were committed as both philosophers and political philosophers to seeing and setting the soul on the right course. If this was not properly done, philosophy betrays its noble heritage and leaves the hungry bereft of bread.

The soul longs for wisdom, and when such ways of knowing and being are denied, a disoriented restlessness comes to dominate inner and outer direction.

Grant did part paths with Heidegger on a basic and essential point. Heidegger held high the notion of Being, wisdom and contemplation as the cairn and waymarks for authentic philosophy. Grant would not disagree with these ideas in principle, but when Being is not informed by Goodness and Justice, Being can become a plaything of the ego and spirit of the age. This is why Grant, unlike Heidegger, turned to Plato and Aristotle rather than the Pre-Socratics. Plato and Aristotle held Being high, but Being is only mature when wisdom and justice, goodness and truth, shape, inform and educate Being. Heidegger’s notion of Being had no real grounding and this is where Grant and Arendt took to different paths than Heidegger. When Being has no content, it can become like silly putty—malleable and meaningless, vulnerable to the silliest and basest aberrations---such was Heidegger’s fate with the Nazis. Arendt, on the other hand, after moving to the USA, was no republican, but her integration of contemplation and politics lacked a feel for the fact the USA had become and empire greater and grander than Rome. There is no serious critique by Arendt of the USA is the spirit and depth of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, like Grant, was alert to the fact that the USA had rapacious imperial tendencies. Both Grant and Chomsky emerged in the 1960s as leading prophetic critics of the New Romans. Chomsky and Russell were liberal critics of the American project, whereas Grant differed with the very premises from within which Russell and Chomsky did their peacemaking and deconstruction of the American empire. Grant was not convinced that a form of Enlightenment humanism went deep enough. This is why Grant had an affinity with Heidegger and Arendt’s synthesis, in principle, of contemplation and action. Grant differed with how Heidegger and Arendt applied the synthesis in action both in Germany and the USA.
Heidegger, like Grant and Arendt, were three of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century that attempted to reverse the modern mood and ethos of contemplation and action. The roots of the soul are contemplation from which the fruits of action emerge. Action without contemplation is like a drug that most in the west are addicted to. Few are the philosophers that realize the west needs to detoxify, but Heidegger, Grant and Arendt are three of the best who see what few do, and Grant is certainly the most important Canadian to see what needs to be seen and why. The task remains to reverse the reversal that took place between contemplation and action, the mountain and the valley.  

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