Interview with Iain Thomson

© Iain Thomson and Figure/Ground
Dr. Thomson was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. October 11th, 2010.

Iain Thomson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico, where he regularly teaches “Introduction to Philosophy,” “Existentialism,” “Modern Political Philosophy,” and various courses on contemporary continental philosophy, focusing on figures such as Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida, or on issues like the philosophical significance of death, technology, and nihilism. He specializes in 19th and 20th Century Continental philosophy, especially Heidegger, and his most recent book is Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (Cambridge UP, 2005)

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

No, but it was something like a lucid choice, which later became an authentic choice…  I was extremely lucky to have some truly amazing teachers as an undergrad at Berkeley, including Bert Dreyfus, Michael Rogin, and Bernard Williams.  I learned early on the important lesson that one should choose courses by the professor rather than the topic!  These teachers — and their excellent graduate student teaching assistants, some of whom are now well-known professors in their own right — recognized something in me, in my writing, and inspired and encouraged me to follow in their footsteps.

I was similarly lucky in graduate school.  I had a wonderful mix of established senior professors — like Robert Pippin, Henry Allison, Fred Olafson, Jerry Doppelt, Ed Lee, Andy Feenberg, and Jacques Derrida as the icing on the cake — and brilliant young professors just beginning their teaching careers, including Taylor Carman, Wayne Martin, and Kevin Hill.  These teachers reinforced my sense of the importance of what I was trying to do, and that helped carry me through a long and difficult time on the job market.  Those difficulties, in turn, helped reinforce my profound sense of gratitude at having found my vocation.

You talk about the importance of “mentorship,” that is, of someone recognizing something in you, believing in you, and then pointing you in the right direction. You also mention the significance of “choosing courses by the professor rather than the topic.” Do you think there is a tendency in philosophy and the humanities generally to study authors rather than topic areas – something which might make students more versatile?

Interesting.  We can use “mentorship” to name a crucial aspect of true teaching, namely, the teacher’s helping the student to identify and develop his or her distinctive talents and capacities, ideally so as to help students respond to their sense of the most pressing issues of their time and generation.  That might sound like a task burdened with duties, but in fact it’s amazing how little it can take.  Just “as an inconspicuous tap of the sculptor’s chisel imparts a different form to the figure” (as Heidegger puts it), so a few simple but true words that recognize and respond to something inchoate but meaningful in a student’s work can have a profound impact, encouraging students to continue to develop the skills and abilities that make them distinctive, since it is such development that leads to a fulfilling life, as Plato and Aristotle already taught.

This is not some wholly altruistic or other-directed action, either.  In the perfectionist philosophy of education I’ve been articulating, I call such crucial moments “pedagogical truth events,” after Heidegger’s Ereignis, the “event of enowning,” because teachers come into their own as teachers by helping students recognize and cultivate their distinctive skills and abilities in a meaningful way, and in so doing teachers and students help being itself to come into its own as well.  That such crucial pedagogical “events” are what really matters, rather than the mere transmission of information, helps explain why teachers are more important than topics.  Different teachers have different styles and interests, and different styles and interests disclose some students’ distinctive skills and capacities better than others, so students have to find the teachers whose teaching styles and interests speak to them, calling them to put their most into a class, rather than just trying to get a good grade.

I don’t know about the other humanities, but in mainstream philosophy in the USA topics are usually much more important than authors.  If you look at a typical course catalogue you will see that courses on topics far outnumber those on particular authors.  In my department, for example, I might be the only professor who teaches “Introduction to Philosophy” by proceeding historically through a selection of the great names, thereby telling a grand story about how philosophy began, how it has developed over the last 2600 years, and where it is headed today.  Most philosophers proceed topically, addressing the central “problems” of philosophy (free will, knowledge, etc.) more or less independently of their history and the larger texts from which particular contributions to those problems are selected.

In my view, however, there are many advantages to teaching the same great texts repeatedly, not the least of which is that the dedicated re-reading of these texts allows one to discover something new in them every time.  That experience of learning to see something there that one did not previously see is absolutely central to the pedagogical philosophy I mentioned earlier.  Indeed, in my Heidegger-inspired view, all genuine meaning derives from and requires this skill of learning to discern and disclose the inchoate possibilities of things.

Your approach to “Introduction to Philosophy” seems very interesting, though I wonder if, instead of starting from the very beginning and proceeding chronologically, it wouldn’t perhaps be more relevant for students in this “age of interruption” to actually set out backwards in their journey. I personally found this approach useful: as an undergraduate student in communication, I began reading the post-modernists with great interest – Baudrillard, Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard, Latour and Foucault; however, by the time I became a graduate student, I soon discovered that I couldn’t really understand the late Baudrillard without understanding McLuhan; that I couldn’t make full sense of Derrida without mastering Heidegger, and so on. Still, going backwards allowed me to approach the postmodernists from an unprejudiced standpoint, even as I recognize that it is equally important to understand where their thinking originated. Now, you speak of the “greats,” and that seems like an excellent place to start; but how do we conceptualize this term, “the greats”? To me it is those authors/books that seem less derivative and more groundbreaking or “destructive,” to use Heideggerian jargon; books that, as you say, seem to be inexhaustible in their possibilities; books that seem to be “alive” precisely because they are “multi-stabile.” Being and Time is one such book, in my opinion, as is McLuhan’s Understanding Media. I’m wondering what other great authors or books you would single out – if indeed you agreed with my criteria.

Well, I’m not sure I fully understand your question (since I don’t read much McLuhan and don’t know what “the age of interruption” signifies), but when I teach “Intro” I begin at the very beginning of Western philosophy, with the Presocratics, and show how some of the fundamental decisions made by Thales and Anaximander subsequently shape the entire history of Western philosophy all the way up through Nietzsche.  I then try to show how the later Heidegger seeks to go beyond that tradition by discovering some of its untried possibilities.  This means that I do teach the class as a series of responses in an ongoing conversation, a conversation in which earlier philosophers provide the background necessary for understanding the later ones and, ultimately, our own historical situation.

You have to understand, though, that this is a lower-division course, with as many as 300 students in it (many of whom are taking it as a required course).  So part of what I am doing is giving a few of them some of the background and motivation that they will need to take other philosophy classes.  But I want even those who will never take another philosophy class to get something important out of it, so I deliberately practice what Nietzsche called “the art of slow reading,” with the guiding idea that the skills I model for them for uncovering and clearly understanding the meanings of a text — skills which I explicitly thematize and then ask them to practice for themselves in their papers and exams — also apply to the “texts” they will continually find themselves negotiating in their own struggles to live meaningful lives.

For me, what makes the great texts “great” is not that they continually offer the same “eternal truths” for each generation to discover but, rather, that they remain deep enough — meaning-full enough — to continue to generate new readings, even revolutionary re-readings which radically reorient the sense of the work that previously guided us.  What I hope to get even Intro students to see is that “reality” itself is perhaps the greatest of these great texts.  This is something I explain in much greater detail in a book coming out in a few months, calledHeidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.

So you seem to be suggesting that great texts, like language, are very much alive in that they allow for a plurality of interpretations. Accordingly, how did the reception of Being and Time, Heidegger, and Continental Philosophy generally evolve in North America since you were an undergraduate student at Berkeley, and how did your own “relationship” with Heidegger and his work change over time?

I’ve been studying Heidegger for more than half my life now, so I probably should have a ready answer.  When I think about the details, I see advances being made and then old problems reasserting themselves once more, so that any “progress” is only very slowly being made.  This leads me to suspect that the historical transformations you’re asking about are moving too slowly, or my individual life is moving too quickly, for me to be able to make any meaningful overarching pronouncements about how the reception of Being and Time, Heidegger, and continental philosophy have changed in the last twenty years.  Not enough, I would certainly say.

Meanwhile, my own relationship to Heidegger gets deeper and more complicated every day…  I can tell you that as an undergraduate I was blithely unaware of the very category of “continental philosophy.”  There was just the philosophy that left me cold and the philosophy that really spoke to me, including Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and even Derrida, who I loved in part because he was infuriatingly difficult; I was like the camel Nietzsche describes at the beginning of Zarathustra:  I wanted to test my strength with some philosophical heavy-lifting and see how far out into the desert I could walk…  And I’ve now spent ten good years in the high desert of New Mexico!  Ha.

I chalk a lot of that up to my teachers.  Alan Code, for instance, really brought Aristotle back to life, and I developed an abiding interest in Ancient philosophy while studying with him.  With Dreyfus, Heidegger and Foucault were there with us in the room, active participants in our ongoing attempts to understand our contemporary world.  It wasn’t until years later that I realized that “continental” could be a political bludgeon used by the narrow-minded to dismiss as “obscurantist nonsense” the works I loved, which they did not want to put in the work required to understand, and so, rather than admit their ignorance, tried to dismiss.  It was unpleasant but educational to experience that, and it hit home because this took place while I was on the job market.

When I realized the label was being used to exclude me, I instinctively identified with it more for a time, at least until some of my fellow “continentals” starting telling me I wasn’t “continental” enough…  That was even more painful, and it took me even longer to realize that there were the same kind of ideologues on the other side, proud “continentals” who thought one had to write like some mystical vessel of divine inspiration in order to belong to their club.  I should say that Derrida himself was extremely supportive and encouraging, unlike some of his would-be imitators, who are mostly very pale imitations indeed.

The bottom-line is that the “continental” label is political, and gets used by the narrow-minded on both sides in order to exclude people who don’t sufficiently resemble them.  They use it to rationalize largely predetermined decisions about what they’ll read, who they’ll hire, and so on.  From a philosophical perspective, that’s just pathetic.  I much prefer to read whatever speaks to me, from wherever it comes, and I read widely and continually, from the extremes of both traditions to everywhere in-between.  So I’ve learned to embrace being what we in New Mexico call a “coyote,” that is, a smuggler, trickster, and border-crosser.  I like that, because I’ve found that it’s in the borderlands between the established territories that the real action takes place, and perhaps also where a more liveable future, one beyond such ridiculous divisions, gets built.  And I can’t help but notice that these borderlands are gradually becoming more populous…  I’ll leave it on that positive note.

Well, here I really have to bring up McLuhan once again, who, more than 40 years ago noted, in reference to the university environment, that “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” I believe that such a statement can be viewed as an endorsement of multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary studies. As a graduate student, I quickly realized that the more one studied one subject, the more that subject related to another subject, which is just another way of saying that the general-specific divide constitutes a false dichotomy: a good thesis or dissertation, for example, is by definition both broad in scope and specific in focus. But still, as you point out, there seems to be an enduring tendency to “divide and conquer.” For example, during one of his lectures on the Philosophy of Society at UC Berkeley, John Searle declared: “in the subculture that I belong to, you don’t want to be caught dead with any of the ‘Hs’” – in clear reference to Hegel, Husserl, and especially Heidegger, given his well-known antagonism with Hubert Dreyfus. Here it seems to me that there is a fine line between being a specialist and being an elitist. It is not my intention to criticize Searle, but here’s a case of a man who writes books about intentionality, yet claims that he didn’t learn anything at all from Husserl… What is, in your view, the nature of specialization in this age of information?

Despite the lip-service university administrators often pay to buzzwords like “interdisciplinarity,” in fact public universities continue to grow increasingly fragmented, with precious little meaningful communication across disciplines.  McLuhan seems to be echoing Marx’s famous line in the Communist Manifesto(“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”), and he was right if he was predicting that the corporatization of the university would dissolve the “sovereign” autonomy of departments and faculty.  Unlike Marx, however, I see nothing to celebrate here.  A white-collar class of overpaid administrative bean-counters are taking control of universities and trying “to run the university like a business,” which increasingly means yoking everything to the empty optimization imperative:  “Get the most for the least!”  As a result, universities are coming to treat teachers like clerks at a 7-11, students like “customers,” who as we know “are always right,” while they increase class sizes and teaching loads in the name of efficiency, hire low-paid adjuncts rather than tenure-track professors, seek to eliminate “inefficiencies” like electives, etc.  In a growing number of cases, universities are even beginning to do away entirely with “unnecessary” departments like philosophy, which can in fact gum up this mindless push toward endless optimization.

I discuss the roots and branches of this worrisome phenomenon in detail inHeidegger on Ontotheology:  Technology and the Politics of Education.  There I argue that this endless push toward optimization follows from the nihilistic ontotheology underlying our age, and so needs to be addressed at that fundamental level.  I suggest that a big part of the problem is that philosophers have not clearly understood and communicated the intrinsic worth of education, and so have allowed instrumental justifications to rush into the breach.  The result is a growing crisis in which one of the great institutions of the Western world, public education, is being slowly destroyed.

As far as I have seen, interdisciplinary efforts seem to succeed only insofar as they justify themselves by their “results,” turning a profit or securing external funding, and when that funding dries up they seem quickly to die off themselves.  This is not to say that there are not or cannot be meaningful interdisciplinary efforts.  On the contrary, I think that such efforts can help us to discover and disseminate ways of understanding reality other than as composed of intrinsically-meaningless resources awaiting endless optimization.  In order to do that, however, these efforts will have to have a much deeper philosophical understanding of our current crisis and its underlying causes.  Only then will we be able to get beyond this late-modern “age of information,” in which all reality is being reduced to information endlessly circulating on the internet, and into a genuinely meaningful relation to ourselves, one another, and our worlds.

Connecting this point to the topic of a good dissertation, I would just say that the increasingly common idea that the speed with which one completes one’s PhD is a sign of one’s intelligence is a mistake, a confusion of efficiency with intelligence, and so evidence of the further encroachment of the empty optimization imperative.  At least in philosophy, doing genuinely original work requires an incredible immersion in the history of the discipline and its great works and leading contemporary interpreters and practitioners, rather than just the mastery of a normal scientific research paradigm, and that is not something one can get quickly.  Wittgenstein was onto something important when he suggested humorously that philosophers should greet one another not with “Hi” or “How’s it going?” but, instead, with “Take your time!”

Your quotation from Searle brings us back to the vexing problem that analytic/continental hostilities continue to persist among ideologues in both camps.  Searle is something of an analytic evangelist, but at least here he seems to be explicitly acknowledging his own prejudices, which are of course prejudices he learned from his own post-war, anglophile educational formation, in which one would just scoff at, ostracize, and ignore anyone who had the temerity to bring up Heidegger.  I don’t know the context of this quotation, but I would guess that someone had just asked him, for the umpteenth time, how his own view related to Husserl’s, and that Searle’s response was his unsatisfying way of trying to excuse his inability to answer the question.  In fact, Searle’s views are very close to Husserl’s, which is why the question comes up at almost every talk Searle gives.  It’s amusing to think that perhaps the endless repetition of the question, to which he has only a bad answer, is Searle’s karmic punishment for obstinately persisting in his wilful ignorance on this score.

Frankly, as unfortunate as this is, it seems slightly preferable to me than the case of a “continental” graduate student I heard about recently.  One of my own graduate students had presented a paper on Heidegger at a conference, and a young woman who was also participating at the conference told him she enjoyed his paper and asked him who he had studied Heidegger with.  When he named me, she said something like, “Oh, yes; I was reading something of his on Heidegger and education.  I thought it was quite good, but then I got to a page where he mentioned Kripke, and I just threw the book across the room!”  Never mind that I was explaining how one cannot understand what Heidegger means by “essence” if one assumes that an essence must be an historically-invariant property, as philosophers from Plato to Kripke have thought…

I think that same kind of knee-jerk, allergic reaction was typical of the generation with whom Searle studied, but that decades spent in productive argument with Dreyfus has at least gotten Searle to the point where he recognizes his own prejudices.  If it’s up to each new generation to be at least a little less prejudiced than the preceding generation, then Searle has done better than this young woman and her teachers.  But none of them have done very well.  We can do much better.

I think the following question ties in well with your remark about Searle’s anglophile educational background and biases, as well as with the overall reception of Heidegger in North America. It is also a recurrent question in the Figure/Ground series, certainly because it is an important one, but also because it does not seem to have a definite answer. Do you think Heidegger’s work continues to be stigmatized and ignored because of his ties to Nazism? I personally don’t believe in the “Death of the Author,” but deem it important to separate a man from his work in some instances, if it means saving the work from the man. As academics, how should we deal with the fact that one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, whose masterpiece is a labour of love that has inspired so many people, was also a Nazi collaborator?

I wrote a book about the philosophical significance of Heidegger’s commitment to Nazism after struggling with the problem for many years, and I still struggle with it as I read, teach, and write about his work, which I am doing almost every day.  I think it’s an unresolved trauma for philosophy that the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century joined its most horrible political movement.  And while it’s natural to want to cordon off the problem and separate his philosophy and politics, that actually doesn’t work.  As I show in the Heidegger on Ontotheology:  Technology and the Politics of Education, Heidegger himself understood his politics in terms of his philosophy.  But that’s really only the beginning, rather than the end, of the discussion.  As I show in the book, Heidegger’s decision to become the first Nazi rector of Freiburg University, as well the actual changes he sought to institute there, followed directly from his understanding of the relation of philosophy to the other sciences.  Yet, some of the most interesting and important aspects of his late thinking emerged from that terrible episode.

So, yes, lots of people stigmatize and ignore Heidegger for this reason.  A senior in his nineties who likes to audit my classes once said it best:  “I don’t read Nazis, I shoot ‘em!”  The times seem to change only slowly, in fits and starts, leaping forward and sliding backward.  I am always amazed that the absurdly bad books that simply attack Heidegger in polemical, uninformed, and confused ways seem to outsell the good books that engage critically, carefully, and productively with his thought.  There are readers out there who won’t read any of Heidegger’s own books, yet who are eager to read books telling them they are right not to read Heidegger!  Why do these people need their prejudices reinforced in this way?  Perhaps this whole repressive phenomenon is an indirect testament to the irrepressible attractions of Heidegger’s thought?  As Freud said, you don’t need a prohibition where there isn’t a desire.

Among the young graduate students I encounter, there are some politically-righteous hipsters who won’t read Heidegger, or who read him very badly, because they can’t imagine that someone who was so stupid politically could really be such a great philosophical genius.  These students have yet to learn the lesson Derrida learned from Nietzsche:  Righteousness isn’t.

The result of these and other repressions is that Heidegger’s influence gets partly driven underground.  Continentally-inclined readers get exposed to his ideas indirectly — through Derrida, Foucault, Agamben, Badiou, etc. — while more analytically-inclined readers absorb some of them through numerous developments in embodied cognition, cognitive and computer science, philosophy of technology, ecology, and so on, perhaps without even realizing it.  So, to borrow a paranoid metaphor, Heidegger’s ideas are finding paths into the bloodstream of philosophy, despite all the efforts to keep them out.

Still, I think many of Heidegger’s most radical ideas have yet to be understood, let alone absorbed.  Indeed, the appropriation of Heidegger’s ideas by the mainstream lags decades behind the cutting-edge of their hermeneutic articulation.  So it’s a very exciting time to be working on his thought directly, not quite knowing what the broader repercussions of the ideas you are uncovering in his texts today will be in the future, yet feeling fairly confident that they will have an impact.

Luckily, you seem to have found a home at the University of New Mexico. You also belong to a subculture of scholars who, like you, take Heidegger very seriously. Recently, you were featured (along with Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor, Albert Borgmann, Mark Wrathall, John Haugeland, and Sean Kelly) in Being in the World – a film by Tao Ruspoli about philosophy and the reception of Heidegger in North America. How was your experience working with Tao Ruspoli, and do you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with some of these Heideggerian scholars more often than with others?

Lucky indeed.  Working with Tao Ruspoli was a lot of fun.  He came to a conference I was at in serene Asilomar, California.  We got a cup of coffee and walked along the beach boardwalk talking about philosophy, art, and life, until he and his crew found a perfect spot to record some of our conversation on a secluded bluff overlooking the Pacific.  I saw the penultimate version of the film a few months ago with a bunch of the other participants in it at the Saving the Sacred conference at UC Riverside, and really enjoyed it.  I find it a bit anxiety-provoking to see myself on film, but I thought the movie was wonderful and felt proud to be part of it.  Since I saw it, Tao has continued working on it, adding interviews with Charles Taylor and Albert Borgmann for instance, and I’m dying the see the final version.  Friends and students who have seen it tell me it’s fantastic.  I hope the film makes the big splash it deserves.  It’s already won the Best Documentary award at two film festivals, so there’s reason to think it will eventually get widely released.  If your university is one of the few that still has funds, Tao is willing to come screen the film and help lead a discussion if you contact him!

Tao himself is an amazing guy; he’s an Italian prince married to an up-and-coming movie star, yet he’s very down-to-earth and a real artist at heart.  Tao approaches film-making in that poetic, Heideggerian way I discuss in the film, in which we try to tune into and bring out what’s there inchoately — the forms slumbering in the materials with which we work — thereby working responsively and creatively to bring something genuinely meaningful into the world.  From what I’ve seen, Tao has succeeded beautifully in doing that with this film, and I think seeing the film will encourage viewers to try to do the same thing in their own lives too.  I think all of us in the film agree that that’s the key to a meaningful life, as I suggested earlier when we were discussing teaching.  That’s also the guiding idea of my new book, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.  So, hey, what more could I possibly ask for?

I would like to hear more about your new book; specifically, about the connection between Heidegger and Postmodernity, which seems obvious enough when one considers that Jacques Derrida – one of the founders of post-structuralism – borrowed a lot from Heidegger. Still, didn’t post-structuralism, at least in North America, emerge from having missed (in part because of the anglophile prejudices we spoke of earlier) the “existential turn” of Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty? Indeed, a lot of structuralists, post-structuralists and constructivists trained as phenomenologists, though to many of them, phenomenology was a first-person-perspective-type method – a conception which may have originated with Schutz’ interpretation of Husserl. What’s your take on all of this?

That’s another interesting and complex set of issues.  My only sense of Schutz is as a scholar who brings phenomenology back into dialogue with sociology, something Scheler had done even more ambitiously decades earlier.  If we distinguish the phenomenologist’s reliance on the touchstone of first-personal experience from the practice of introspective psychology in its scientific guise — in which each person’s experience is ultimately only an “N of 1,” that is, a statistically-insignificant sample size — then we can say that first-person phenomenology begins with Hegel, for whom phenomenology is “the science of the experience of consciousness,” the original subtitle of his Phenomenology of Spirit.  Here Hegel is implicitly drawing on and elaborating some of his own experiences, albeit in a highly abstract and formal way, as he tries to bring out their universal significance for all of us:  “Spirit” is “the I that is a we and the we that is an I.”

The first three generations of the phenomenological movement remain first-personal in this sense — this is obvious in Husserl and Scheler, Sartre and Levinas — and it’s true of Heidegger too, who never stopped doing hermeneutic phenomenology, although this dimension of his work gets submerged into the background somewhat in Being and Time.  In the phenomenological method Heidegger practices, he begins with ordinary “ontic” experiences like anxiety, demise, and temporality, elaborates their formal features, and then seeks to reach through them so as to uncover and articulate the “ontological” structures that underlie and condition them.  This mean that the common idea that the ontic and ontological are heterogeneous domains is a disastrous misunderstanding.  It is only because these domains overlap and interpenetrate that one can build phenomenological bridges leading back and forth between them.  The false idea that they’re heterogeneous comes from an older generation’s attempt to insulate Heidegger’s philosophy from his politics, but such a move inadvertently obviates the phenomenological method Heidegger uses to build bridges from the ontic to the ontological and back again, in a return meant to transform that original experience.

I’ve written about these phenomenological bridges in several places.  For example, I examine the phenomenological bridge Heidegger builds to get from demise to death and back again in a chapter forthcoming in The Cambridge Companion to Being and Time.  And I explain the phenomenological bridge Heidegger builds from particular works of art like Van Gogh’s painting of A Pair of Shoes (1886) to the ontological truth of art in general in Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.

Building on the understanding of Western metaphysics as ontotheology I developed in Heidegger on Ontotheology, I try to show in Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity how Heidegger’s view of art emerges from his critique of the metaphysics of modernity implicit in modern aesthetics, and how Heidegger’s radically new conception of art is supposed to help us transcend the nihilistic “world picture” of modern metaphysics.  Put simply, whereas the moderns understood the being of what-is in terms of objects for subjects to master and control, we late moderns objectify the subject too, increasingly transforming even human beings into just another intrinsically-meaningless resource, more Bestandmerely standing by to be optimized and enhanced as efficiently and flexibly as possible.

But for Heidegger the only way out is through (“Where the greatest danger is, the saving power also grows”).  Heidegger thinks we can transcend modern aesthetics from within, learning from art to understand and encounter things neither as modern objects to be controlled nor as late-modern resources to be optimized, but instead in a genuine postmodern way, as simultaneously informing and exceeding our capacity to do justice to conceptually, an understanding which calls for us to approach things in the creatively-receptive poetic way we’ve been discussing.  I think a number of us are doing phenomenology in this way, drawing on our own experiences and seeking to articulate and examine the structures underlying them, drawing out their implications in clear and careful terms, without allowing the scientific injunction to be rigorous to become a scientism that eclipses the first-personal significance of the tradition’s hard-won phenomenological ideas and insights.

This brings us to postmodernism and poststructuralism, terms about which there is still a lot of confusion.  For Heidegger, who is really the father of postmodernism, the philosophical core of the postmodern movement is the aforementioned attempt to help lead humanity beyond the nihilistic metaphysical presuppositions underlying the modern and late-modern ages.  Derrida refused to label his own work “postmodern,” in part because he rejected Heidegger’s understanding of the history of intelligibility as developed into relatively coherent and unified “epochs” or constellations of intelligibility, each of which shares an ontotheological structure.  So we could say that Heidegger is a postmodernist but not a poststructuralist, whereas Derrida, insofar as he rejects this view, is a poststructuralist but not a postmodernist.  But Derrida, like most interpreters even today, did not fully understand what exactly Heidegger meant by ontotheology.  If he had, he might not have objected so much to being labelled “postmodern.”

Ironically, a lot of the thinkers Heidegger deeply influenced — such as Derrida, Rorty, and Vattimo — have either failed to understand or else rejected the core of postmodernism as a philosophical attempt to transcend the problems of modernity.  As a result, the term has degenerated into an empty shorthand used mostly in ignorance so as to dismiss allegedly “relativistic” philosophers.  But as I show in the Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, that common understanding of postmodernity as relativism is based on a misunderstanding, a massive oversimplification of Lyotard’s project in The Postmodern Condition.  Lyotard was investigating the Heideggerian question of what justifies knowledge and the modern educational institutions that embody its pursuit.  He argues that the two modern “metanarratives” that originally guided the modern university — which held that knowledge would allow us to understand the unity of all things and that it would progressively liberate humanity — have been rendered incredible my the actual course of history over the last two-hundred years.  This view gets carelessly generalized into the thesis that all metanarratives have become incredible, a position which is then easily dismissed not only as relativistic but as self-undermining, since the thesis that all metanarratives are incredible is itself a metanarrative, and so an incredible one…

But Heidegger himself is certainly not a relativist in this sense.  He articulates a metanarrative about the history of being, a metanarrative which motivates his critique of the metaphysics of modernity and his attempt to find a genuinely postmodern understanding of being and so inaugurate an “other beginning” to history.  This genuinely post-modern attempt to get beyond modernity forms the very heart of heart of Heidegger’s later work, and I try to clearly articulate and defend its central motivations in Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.  My attempt to rehabilitate the original Heideggerian inspiration behind postmodernism means, of course, that I will have to deal with the fact that — owing to the events I’ve just outlined — most people who haven’t studied the movement carefully will simply hear “relativism” when I say “postmodernism,” and these people may prematurely reject my application of the label to Heidegger, since he was not a relativist.  Yet the point I’m trying to make is that postmodernism really begins with Heidegger, and that it has a core meaning that is not only defensible but important and inspiring.  So I’m hoping to return some of the debate to Heidegger’s attempt to articulate a genuinely meaningful understanding of being and so inaugurate a postmodern age.

Thus I begin the book by summarizing Heidegger’s views on ontotheology, explaining how our late-modern ontotheology underlies our technological understanding of being.  Then I develop his critique of modern aesthetics, showing how that critique motivates the turn to art which is meant to help lead us beyond the modern age.  Along the way, I develop a new, phenomenological reading of Heidegger’s minor masterpiece, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” and I show how understanding his phenomenological method allows us to finally resolve his famous argument with Meyer Schapiro about Van Gogh.  I then examine several “postmodern” works of art, including a song by U2 — “Even Better than the Real Thing” — and “the great work of postmodern literature,” the comic book mini-series, Watchmen.  This allows me to bring Heidegger’s original postmodern impulse into a critical dialogue with some of the movement’s more recent expressions.  I then try to show how Heidegger’s famously esotericContributions to Philosophy (on Enowning) seeks to carry out this postmodern task, and conclude by examining the continuing danger and promise of Heidegger’s work today, developing his view that “enframing is the photographic negative of enowning.”

The book brings together and develops a lot of the work I’ve been doing since my first book and, thanks to its continual engagement with art and popular culture, I think it’ll be accessible to a wider audience.  Still, the book does ask readers to think their way past some widespread and entrenched prejudices, so it’ll be interesting to see how well it’s received.

I’m curious as to how you conducted your phenomenology of U2 and Watchmen, and how your approach it may have differed from a classic semiological analysis focusing on representations, signifiers and double signifieds, pre-text, sub-text, post-text, etc.

Well, if you’re curious then you should definitely read those chapters and let me know what you think.  Earlier versions of them are available on my webpage, and I’ll probably leave them up until the book comes out in April with the more developed, definitive versions.  My work can usually be characterized as phenomenological hermeneutics, but my sense is that those two chapters are more hermeneutic than phenomenological, centering on the interpretation of a song and a comic book, respectively.  But both incorporate crucial phenomenological insights, interpretive descriptions of the experience of listening to U2’s music and of reading Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen, and both seek to explicate hermeneutically the philosophical implications implicit in those phenomenological experiences.

In the case of Watchmen, my analysis enters into the closest proximity to classical semiotics, which I once studied with some enthusiasm.  There I show that certain works need to be re-read in order to be read, describing the experience of retroactive defamiliarization such rereading involves, and compare that experience to the uncanny in Heidegger and Freud.  Drawing on Nietzsche and Baudrillard, I also develop what I call hypertrophic deconstruction, in which something can be deconstructed by being developed beyond its limits, and I show how Watchmen deconstructs the hero in this way — an aspect of my reading which has already had an impact, from what I can tell.

I think these and other ideas could be understood as contributions to semiotics, but they break with most of the formal procedural safeguards that classical semiotics sought to institute in its would-be scientific forms.  That’s because I reject such attempts to turn philosophy into science as a misunderstanding of the real heart of philosophy.  Such scientistic attempts to routinize our philosophical methods threaten to eclipse the aforementioned creativity, responsiveness, and responsibility of poetic thinking.  In my view, these spontaneous and unpredictable moments cannot be eliminated from — and indeed form the heart of — any effort to think in a genuinely meaningful postmodern way.  Bernard Williams similarly challenges the encroachment of the scientistic impulse into philosophy in his last manifesto, the brilliant essay called “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline.”

What are you currently working on?

The two big projects are books.  For the last few years I’ve been under contract to write a philosophical biography of Heidegger for the Cambridge UP series of biographies, and I’ve been working for an even longer time on a book on Heidegger’s understanding of existential death and its impact on subsequent thinkers such as Sartre, Levinas, Derrida, Agamben, Haugeland, and Lear, who all take Heidegger’s views on death in very creative and interesting directions.  I’ve published a few pieces of that over the last decade, including most recently an essay called “Rethinking Levinas on Heidegger on Death” in the Harvard Review of Philosophy, a provocative piece in which I argue that Levinas, unlike most contemporary readers, actually understood what Heidegger meant by existential or ontological death, which Heidegger distinguishes from our conception of ordinary demise.  The standard readings of Levinas’s critique of Heidegger miss that distinction, and so largely miss the boat, in my view.  I’ll try to put that one up on my webpage soon (at, as I’d love to get some good feedback on it, since I still have plenty of time to revise it for the book.

I’ve also got an essay critically interpreting Charles Taylor’s work from a post-Nietzschean and Heideggerian perspective forthcoming in Inquiry.  Mark Wrathall is editing a special volume of that journal, which will also have essays by Taylor, Albert Borgmann, Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, who were among the philosophers who participated in that Saving the Sacred conference at UC Riverside I mentioned earlier.  I recently participated in another interesting conference that celebrated the opening of the Richard Rorty archive at UC Irvine, with Wrathall, Mary Rorty, Ian Bogost, Michael Bérubé, and others, and I’m not yet sure what I’ll do with the essay I wrote for that, which still needs work.  It’s called “Rorty, Heidegger, and the Danger and Promise of the Digital Archive,” and there’s a draft available on-line if you google that title.  I’ve also got a chapter summarizing my views on ontotheology forthcoming in a book edited by Daniel Dahlstrom,Interpreting Heidegger, which looks like a great collection.  Of course, right now I’m most excited about my new book, Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity, which is currently scheduled to appear in April 2011.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Iain Thompson
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2010). “Interview with Iain Thompson,” Figure/Ground. October 11th.
< >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email