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Home arrow Psychology arrow Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought



The path-breaking yet underappreciated German philosopher and sociologist Helmuth Plessner maintained in his essay “Utopia in the Machine,” published in 1924, that we cannot escape the machine and the artificial to return to a radical or pure condition of naturalness:

Escaping from machines and returning to the fields is not possible. They do not release us and we do not release them. With a mysterious power machines are inside us and we are inside them. We have to follow their law until they themselves show us ... the limits of the domination of nature.61

Plessner’s posing of the issue of technology, along with other Weimar-era intellectuals such as Oswald Spengler’s account connecting modern technology and Western civilization with the eye and German culture with the hand, informed how twentieth-century German thinkers from the right to the left of the political spectrum responded to the question concerning technology. Buber and Heidegger would not seek to resolve the problem of technological modernity by returning to a bare nature free of the artificial and the human; rather they turned to alternative paths such as (1) the spiritual cultivation of the person through the dynamic transformations of life and interpersonal dialogue (Buber) or (2) the poetic cultivation of the word in response to the needful, i.e., the unnecessary, as a way to release and safeguard the myriad things in a way that is unknown to instrumentalized language and calculative thought (Heidegger). Each thinker draws on and engages with “Daoist” ideas and images, insofar as they understood them, even as they interpreted them in ways that allowed each to pursue their own different philosophical projects.

As Reinhard May noted, and as seen in the account given in the present chapter, Heidegger’s reading of Zhuangzi was shaped in a number of ways by Buber’s edition of the Zhuangzi.62 Heidegger shared Buber’s non-cognitivist, theory-skeptical perspective and attention to paradoxical and poetic language. Heidegger’s interpretation of Daoism informed his thinking “to an extent” (albeit an extent that can never satisfy the Eurocentric skeptic committed to the idea of the autonomy of Western philosophy) of a poetic dwelling (wohnen) of mortals and immortals between earth and sky (the fourfold, das Geviert). Such dwelling resists yet cannot overcome technological modernity, which awaits another epoch of being. Such poetic dwelling cannot be reduced to the instrumental calculative thinking and limited purposiveness, which Heidegger associated with modern science and technology, if we mortals are indeed to respond to that which is genuinely needful in human existence and dwell poetically in the midst of things between earth and sky. Nonetheless, the historically interconnected yet existentially divergent interpretations of “Lao-Zhuang Daoism” articulated by Buber and Heidegger entail divergent possibilities for spiritually and poetically responding to modernity and its scientific and technological character.

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