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Liberalism as the Ideology of Consummate Meaninglessness, Part 2

[1]

Immanuel Kant, 1724–1804

1,305 words

Part 1 here [2], Part 3 here [3]

Immanuel Kant, the first to philosophize the “question of freedom,” approaches the world like Descartes. He begins with Cartesianism’s dehistoricized, peopleless subject, which is seen as an “ends in itself,” something that is to be “freed” for the sake of its “self-assured self-legislation.”

This prompts Kant to treat freedom as a problem of eliminating whatever obstructs the subject’s ends.

He thus defines freedom as a form of autonomy or independence that liberates the subject from the objective realm situating and restraining it–a “freedom from.” He also defines it more positively as a form of self-determination, which allows the subject to realize itself in its own terms–a “freedom for.”[17]

Either negative or positive, freedom for Kant is the autonomy of a reasoning, self-legislating subject, liberated from “every casual nexus.”[18]

Because this subject has the “power to act according to concepts”–concepts (ideas) being the Cartesian representations man makes of his objective world–freedom for Kant is rooted in reason and linked to will, exercised in accordance with its knowing representations.

This makes Kantian freedom the willing of a pure “ought” unconditioned by contingency, a willing that lets the subject’s alleged essence determine itself, irrespective of the heritage, horizon, or possibilities situating it.

What counts for Kant is not the specific ends the subject chooses for itself (which implies something about the world and the significance of human life), but its capacity to choose for itself.

By making the subject independent of both nature and history, Kantian subjectivism helped legitimatize the egoistic individualism–the “freedom of choice” made by an “I think” indifferent to race, nation, and one’s own progeny–that Revilo Oliver claimed was “the real fulcrum of power in our society.”[19]

For no one in the rationalist grips of this subjectivist metaphysics “stands with anyone else and no community stands with any other in the rooted unity of essential action.”[20]

Kantian freedom as such is entirely individualistic, identified with “self-determination in the sense that what is free itself gives the law of its own being in terms of itself.”[21]

Reason, Heidegger saw here, imbues the individual with the capacity to act regardless of everything else since everything else is divested of Being and submitted to a subjectivism fixed on its on own ontologically-diminished ends, goals, and purposes.

This gets us to liberalism’s inherent meaninglessness, for in dismissing Being for a world of flattened, subjectivized representations that are to be measured, planned, and calculated, the presencing, unfolding, and projected essence informing man’s Being is also dismissed.

Despite the ostensively rigorous forms of liberalism’s modern representations, these are oblivious to Being’s “arising and abiding” truth–and to the fact that man is not an atomized, de-historicized, utterly subjectivized object.

Truth in the Kantian sense simply reduces “the essentiality of essence (that is, beingness) to an object of calculation.”[22] The absence of meaning implicit in this quantifying subjectivism becomes, in turn, “the ‘meaning’ of beings as a whole,” for the unquestionability of Being decides what beings are to be.

Henceforth, humanity must not only “‘make do’ without a ‘truth’, but the essence of truth itself is dispatched to oblivion.”[23] The incertitude that comes when the truth of Being is confused with an “accurate” picturing of entities in one of their momentarily verifiable appearances inevitably deprives beings of the truth (the meaning) that Being alone possesses.

Life as a consequence is handed over to a subjectivist disposability or machination that replaces the truth of Being with its own goals and use-values. “All that is left,” Heidegger writes, “is the solitary superficies of a ‘life’ that empowers itself to itself for its own sake.”[24]

Aimlessness, it follows, is the aim and meaninglessness the meaning.

The Kantian conception of freedom undergirding the liberal project owes, Heidegger argues, more to the particular social-historical influences of the 18th-century Enlightenment than to Kant’s elaborate metaphysics–for the Enlightenment’s rationalist exaltations held that human freedom was possible only by elevating reason (reason being the essence of subjectivity) to the pinnacle of human affairs.[25]

In his counter-argument, Heidegger contends that the subject’s will wills nothing other than its own existence and that freedom lies not in transcendence from causality, but in Being itself, as man endeavors to be who he is.

***

Rather than Descartes’ world of representing subjects, Heidegger posits a life-world, whose pre-existing structure of cultural and historical references transcends the subject’s monadic parameters, encompassing those temporal states that inform all the different facets of human existence–as man appropriates his past, projects himself toward future goals, and comports himself toward other beings in the present.

Whenever Heideggerian man becomes who he is, past, present, and future become equally immediate to him. This makes his world more than the quantifying spacial expanse of Cartesian rationalism. It becomes one in which time lets things appear in their proper place and then takes them back, as projection, care, and decision affect man’s relationship to himself and to Being–which here is seen not as a substance but as the possibility native to all destining.[26]

In deconstructing the contrived atemporal world of liberalism’s self-contained subjectivities and objectivities, Heidegger shifts philosophy from knowledge to Being, from epistemology to ontology.

His world, as such, is not a realm of unrelated, decontextualized objects, which a detached, conscious subject attempts to know through its rationalist representations, but a meaningful totality in which the “subject” is situated as both a constitutive and constituting part.[27]

Being’s contingent, evolving truths, he sees, are not universal, immutable certainties that can be plotted on a grid and referenced mathematically–but occurrences whose unfolding presence is both intermittently concealed and unconcealed in time.

This makes Heidegger’s human being a Being-there, a Dasein, a “field of concern” opened to the world not just in terms of the meanings already laid out in advance by the pre-existing heritage of Being, but in terms of the specific time and place situating it.

Against modernity’s subjectivist epistemology, which orients to the subject’s various decontextualized “now” moments, Heidegger claims there’s no subject outside of history, no subject whose identity is independent of its experiences and relations with others, no subject unaffected by the world whose givenness encompasses whatever is opened to it.

Only in disregarding the specifically finite character of man’s world and flattening out its dense historicity is it possible, he argues, for liberal thought to see man in terms of its rationalist caricature.

“The essence of truth,” Heidegger writes, “is not a mere concept, carried about in the head. . . [It] is alive. . . It is what is sought after, what is fought for, what is suffered for. The essence of truth is a happening.”[28]

Its arising, abiding essence lies as such in advance of particular things and at their foundation. It is something which lets “the true be the true that it is.”[29]

Whenever Being’s self-emerging, self-showing, and self-asserting essence is lost, truth becomes mere representation, a generalization of a crystallized presence devoid of possibility–and thus of Being. Thought and knowledge are therefore gained by Heidegger not in abstraction from Being or through a logical ordering of its alleged attributes–but in the depths of its unconcealing truths, reached whenever existence engages the possibilities distinct to what “belongs” to it.[30]

Notes

17. Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Human Freedom: An Introduction to Philosophy, tran. T. Sadler (London: Continuum, 2005), 15.

18. Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 84.

19. Revilo P. Oliver, American Decline: The Education of a Conservative (London: Londinium Press, 1983), 82.

20. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, tran. W. McNeill and N. Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 163.

21. Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 84.

22. Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 191.

23. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche: III. The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics, tran. J. Stambaugh et al. (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), 177.

24. Heidegger, Nietzsche: III, 176.

25. Heidegger, Essence of Human Freedom, 197.

26. Heidegger, Parmenides, 141.

27. Heidegger, Question Concerning Technology, 21.

28. Heidegger, Basic Questions of Philosophy, 41, 54.

29. Heidegger, Parmenides, 56.

30. Heidegger, Question Concerning Technology, xiv.