Works of the Spirit and the Hardness of Fate
Meaning in Our Time of Crisis
This seminar is concerned with the possibility of consequential meaning-making in a time of crisis. The crisis is complex and multidimensional. It is felt most acutely as disorienting personal alienation. It is encompassed by a brutalizing political reality and a dehumanizing economic order. It thunders forebodings of apocalyptic warfare and destruction of global proportions. It is shot through with collective psychological dread.
Does this sound familiar? I am referring to the European crisis of the years between World War I and World War II. Yet, clearly, it applies to our current historical moment. Then, as now, the question of meaning hung heavy in the air. Exacerbated by the “death of God,” or collective meaning writ large, the moment appears to foreclose on any possibility of but the most naîve and insipid “meaning.”
This issue is at the the heart of a famous debate in Davos, Switzerland in 1929 between the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger. The debate revolves around the matter of human freedom in the construction of personal and social meaning. The two thinkers agree that human beings possess a capacity for freedom, and that this capacity is, furthermore, of extraordinary significance in defining what we, as our particular species, are and might become. Their divergent views of the nature, function, and consequences of freedom, however, appear to be irreconcilable.
In short, Cassirer agues for “works of the spirit”—constructions of creative, transcendent, spontaneous imagination. Our personal and collective imaginations can be employed to untether ourselves from debilitating fears of finitude and other ostensibly life-denying limits, and promote instead ideal scenarios of truth, beauty, value, justice, and goodness.
Cassirer’s approach, countered Heidegger, exemplifies the greatest error of philosophy while simultaneously denying philosophy its greatest merit. Heidegger thus argued for the “the hardness of fate.” Philosophy’s task—or, really, the task of thinking—is precisely not to provide us with ennobling manifestos for human self-improvement. It is, rather, to render transparent our undeniable situation in the world—its finitude, anxiety, nothingness, death. Only then, with eyes wide open, can we begin constructing “meaning” of any consequence.
In this seminar we will read intellectual historian Peter Gordon’s award-winning account of the Davos disputation, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, and discuss together how it might throw light on paths forward through our own meaning-diminished moment.
Readings: Peter Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Photocopied pages provided on request.