Interview with Richard Capobianco

© Richard Capobianco and Figure/Ground
Dr. Capobianco  was interviewed by Matthew Rumbold. May 20th, 2013.

Professor Richard Capobianco is Professor of Philosophy at Stonehill College, where he was also the founder and director of the College’s Honors Program.  His is a leading authority on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.  He has published widely, including his most recent and highly regarded book, Engaging Heidegger.  During his career of over twenty-five years, he has won accolades for both his scholarly work and teaching.  He received the Hegarty Award for Teaching Excellence from Stonehill in 2000. Notably, in 2012, Professor Capobianco was named as one of the USA’s top 300 professors by the Princeton Review.

How did you decide to become a University Professor?

Growing up on Long Island in New York, I attended public schools, which I am glad about to this day, and I was always intrigued by my teachers.  There was something wonderful, even exhilarating, about the classroom and the books and globes and maps and the questions and answers and so forth.  So, I can recall from the earliest years wanting to be in a classroom with others and wanting to be a “teacher.”  It was not until I was in college that I had the sense that it was college-level teaching that was right for me, and it was only then that I made a conscious decision to pursue an academic life.  It was also in college that I discovered that the kinds of questions that I most wanted to ask and try to answer were “philosophical.”  Although I started (and finished) a B.A. degree in Economics, I was increasingly drawn to philosophy.  I ended up double-majoring, but I knew that I had to pursue philosophy further, and I never looked back.  Overall, I have deeply enjoyed an academic life; the opportunity that it has afforded me to think and write is rare and special, but I might say that it has been teaching and working with young men and women over all these years that has brought me the greatest satisfaction and joy.

Who has been the biggest influence or mentor in your work or career?

Several people along the way have served as inspirations.  David Cernic, who was a philosophy professor at my undergraduate institution, showed to me most vividly what great college teaching looked like.  As I said, the fire to become a teacher was already lit within me, but he got it burning brightly.  William J. Richardson and Hans-Georg Gadamer were also engaging teachers, and I had the immense good fortune of attending their Heidegger discussions while I was a graduate student at Boston College.  Bill Richardson was my dissertation director, and I still visit him regularly.  I am also delighted that in recent years he and I have given presentations on Heidegger together, and that’s a special development in our relationship that I could not have envisioned when I first stepped into his classroom.

How has a life of research into Heidegger influenced your pedagogical practice or shaped your teaching methods? Is there anything that may approximate to a uniquely “Heideggerian” educational philosophy?

Each person must find his or her own teaching style and be true to it.  Heidegger was certainly unique in how he approached a lecture course or seminar, and by all accounts, he was a powerfully engaging teacher; but I can’t say that his example has had a particular influence on my own way of teaching.  I don’t think that learning teaching “methods” or “strategies” is the way to go; one must be wholly true to oneself and be in the flow of teaching and engage others within that flow.  It is an art, but, as with so much else today, we want to turn teaching into a “science” with “rules and methods” to follow.

Heidegger has written profoundly about the complexity of modernity, especially in The Question Concerning Technology. Given some of his almost prophetic observations, what does a study of Heidegger have to tell us about the challenges of the information age and technology of the 21st century?

Indeed, on this matter, we could have a very long conversation.  First, I would want to carefully distinguish theoretical science from technology and technological developments.  But with respect to the latter, there is so much to observe, and many thoughtful people have already begun to describe the many changes that have come about in our interactions with others and with the world as a result of the settling in of the “information and technological” age.  Our lives are rapidly accelerating; the living present is losing ground to the mediated present; the demand to be “connected” is relentless; distractions abound; isolated words and images bombard us; language is impoverished; the noise of information is everywhere; and we could go on.  There is no question that profound changes are underway and ongoing in how we live, and in this sense, Heidegger was indeed “prophetic” because he could see quite clearly many of the implications for our existence of this technological “enframing” (das Gestell).  So, yes, there are some mighty challenges for us, and we must try to find a way to live well in the present age.

Yet I am not pessimistic at all.  I think that it is possible to embrace the present age—and all the positive and useful things that have come along with it—without losing ourselves to it.  The key is to keep in view and to keep open the space for what Heidegger called a “meditative thinking.”  The book that I am currently working on, tentatively titled Heidegger’s Way of Being, seeks to highlight the importance of our nurturing a contemplative and mindful comportment to the temporal unfolding of all beings and things (Being), and I see this as absolutely central to Heidegger’s whole lifetime of thinking, but especially in his thinking in the later years.  He speaks so compellingly and eloquently on this matter—but so do American authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir—and I wish to highlight that as well.  In practice, this means that we can all learn to live well with our technology in an age of technicity, if—and this is the fundamental challenge—we can also keep ourselves open to a released way of thinking and dwelling, a dwelling in nearness to the simple and quiet but also profound and astonishing arriving and lingering and departing of all beings and things, Heidegger’s “Being” or what I prefer to call the Being-way.  Each of us has to find his or her own way along this way, but I was recently struck by one unique response.  For many years now, I have been drawn to the beautiful simplicity of the art of Wolfgang Laib, who has worked mostly with natural materials such as beeswax, pollen, rice, milk, and marble.  Recently, he exhibited a large pollen installation in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The work of art itself—as with his other creations—draws viewers into a quiet and meditative space that is refreshing, uplifting, and healing.  Laib himself speaks about the many days and weeks that he spends harvesting the pollen for such an installation.  His time of rich solitude in the open meadows is itself a good example of what our response to the present age of business and busy-ness might be; as he observes: “To collect pollen for one day or one month or one week, it’s the opposite of what our culture expects from somebody to accomplish in a day or a week or a month.”  His is one particular existential response to the “enframing,” and a beautiful one at that; but the question will inevitably find each and every one of us: What shall my freeing response be?

Given the current global economic crisis which arguably is a moral crisis as well, what is the status of disciplines today, both the wider Humanities and especially Philosophy? What role do you see academia playing in an active critique of our contemporary crises?

The study of the humanities was in trouble before the financial and economic collapse of a few years ago.  Still, in the wake of the deep economic recession, there has been a marked drop-off in enrollments in philosophy courses and in humanities courses in general.  Students and their families are deeply stressed and anxious about the economy and about prospects for jobs, and this is certainly understandable.  Since they do not immediately see the benefits of study in the humanities, these courses are the first to lose their appeal.  It does appear bleak for the humanities at the moment, but I have been around long enough to know that things can and do change rather quickly.  What is also interesting—and troubling in its own right—is how colleges and universities are responding to the current situation.  More and more pressure is being brought to bear on the liberal arts disciplines to emphasize the marketable “skills” that come with a liberal arts education.  Only the most “practical” and “business-friendly” benefits are promoted.

Meanwhile, there are other forces at work in our culture that we have only begun to wrestle with.  For one, there’s the urgent call to increase “online” learning; indeed, I seem to recall that a college president recently wrote an article discussing his positive experience teaching a MOOC (“massive open online course”) with 30,000 students enrolled!  I personally can’t imagine how this is a positive development for teaching or learning, but I am no great innovator, so I will leave it to others to explain.  None of us know how all these developments will play out in future years, but there’s one thing that I’m pretty sure about: there is a dimension of being human that is simply not satisfied with an immersion in the practical and that finds freedom and great joy in the pure consideration of a painting, a poem, a mathematical proof, an astronomical speculation, a philosophical idea.  Ultimately, it’s who we are that will save the humanities and the liberal arts—no matter what cultural form and framework such questioning and discussion will take in the years to come.  Looking at it this way, I am willing to keep an open mind regarding online teaching and learning, and all the other structural innovations that will certainly come our way.

Of all the philosophers of the 20th century perhaps none are as complex, controversial and, divisive as Martin Heidegger. An albeit simplified survey of Heidegger’s reputation reveals polar views. On the one hand, he has been attacked as a Nazi sympathizer and an obfuscator. On the other hand, he has been lauded as one of the greatest philosophers of the century, commended for his profound exploration of the question of ‘being’; avoiding reductive conceptions of the human and acknowledging our mystery, whilst also, successfully reconnecting philosophy with the whole of its long history. All this is a long and roundabout way of asking you, not to defend Heidegger from accusations against his affiliations with the Nazi regime, but, perhaps, for a person with little knowledge or only a jaundiced view of Heidegger, explain what there is of lasting value and significance in his work. Could you explain how Heidegger may be read more sympathetically and suggest if there is a way to recuperate his thinking politically?

Your question is thoughtful and fair, but I don’t have a comprehensive answer.  Heidegger’s thinking is not appealing or compelling to everyone, but one could say that about the work of every author or artist who has ever lived.  If one were principally interested in social, economic, or political theory, then Heidegger is not a thinker that one would find very engaging, I would think; and that’s fine.  What does puzzle me, though, is that sometimes we hear the criticism that Heidegger should have addressed social, ethical, economic, and political matters in his philosophical thinking.  But this “should” needs to be questioned.  Every philosopher, every author, every artist is unconditionally free to address whatever he or she sees fit; there is no “should.”  I certainly realize that this is complicated in Heidegger’s case because of his early entanglement with National Socialism, but the matter is certainly not properly addressed by insisting that a philosopher “must” necessarily address this or that.  The fact is that Heidegger was fundamentally moved to think and write about Being and about the distinctive “relation” between Being and the human being (Dasein).  For those who resonate with this Sache, his thinking is compelling and remains compelling despite his serious personal failures of judgment, which cannot be denied.  Heidegger’s is an original, powerful, and oftentimes beautiful philosophical voice that speaks—and will continue to speak—to many, but certainly not to all.

Heidegger has a complicated relationship with phenomenology, and especially with the work of his mentor and master Edmund Husserl. What is the nature of this intellectual relationship? How does he seek both to continue and yet also to go beyond this phenomenological project? Is he successful?

There is a great deal to say, but here I’d offer a broad observation.  Unlike some other commentators on these thinkers, I see the fundamental issue of Heidegger’s disagreement with his teacher’s phenomenological approach to center on the matter of “the things themselves.”  Some Husserlians would argue that one of Husserl’s most important philosophical breakthroughs was to break out of the encapsulated and isolated Cartesian ego-cogito to arrive again at “the things themselves,” and there is a basis in Husserl’s work to maintain this position.  Yet from another perspective, Husserl’s breakthrough was not fundamental enough, and this seems to have been Heidegger’s intuition from the earliest years when he first took up his teacher’s phenomenological framework as his own.  In other words, already in Heidegger’s early work, let us say from 1919 to 1927, we find him both at home and profoundly not at home within Husserl’s approach; one senses a discomfort from the very start.

What I have discussed in my more recent studies is how in the early work, and even in his 1919 lecture courses, there are hints of how Heidegger was more interested in how things present themselves to us rather than in how we present things, which was Husserl’s principal concern.  To make a long story short, to Heidegger, and this became clearer to him over time, what remained of preeminent importance to Husserl was a consideration of the noetic or apophantic pole of the presentation of things—and what remained unarticulated and unaccounted for, and certainly unappreciated as such, was the manifestation of Being itself—hence Heidegger’s overriding concern to raise anew the Seinsfrage in order to overcome this Seinsvergessenheit (forgottenness of Being).  Thus, for Heidegger, Husserl was ultimately unable to break free and clear of the ego-subjectism of the Cartesian tradition of thinking, and his particular version of “phenomenology” as “transcendental idealism” remained very much trapped within it.  Put another way, Husserl’s call “to return to the things themselves” was a promise unfulfilled or at least only partially fulfilled.  The matter of Being had to be taken up again in earnest, and we know how Heidegger proceeded—over the remaining forty years or so of his lifetime of thinking—to elucidate Being as emergent manifestation (as physis as aletheia as the primordial Logos as Ereignis as Lichtung) in relation to Dasein and Dasein’s cor-responding making-manifest in language.  And for Heidegger, we are always to be mindful that in this “relation,” the structural priority belongs to Being qua manifestation; that is, Being qua manifestation is structurally prior to and the condition of Dasein’s meaning-making.

Recently you have written a book Engaging Heidegger in which you contest several contemporary readings of Heidegger’s work, especially the contentious meaning of his pivotal notion of ‘being’. How do you conceive Heidegger’s conception of ‘being’ as opposed to other accounts?

This question brings me to some central matters that I have discussed in Engaging Heidegger and that I take up with even greater concentration in my current book in preparation.  There are a number of issues that need to be clarified, but to be brief:

(1) Heidegger never surrendered the word Being to name what he understood to be the fundamental matter for thought, and I discuss this at length in Chs. 1 and 2 of Engaging Heidegger.  Yet we must be careful to note that when he is speaking about Being in an originary and fundamental way he strictly uses the names Being itself (Sein selbst), Being as such (Sein als solches), Being as Being (Sein als Sein), and for a time, especially in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Beyng (Seyn).  These are privileged names in Heidegger’s universe of terms, and they mark the same Ur-phenomenon as the Greek words physis, aletheia, the primordial Logos, hen, along with his own terms Ereignis, Lichtung, and Es gibt.  So, while it is certainly true to say that Heidegger moved beyond “being” insofar as “being” is understood as “beingness” (the timeless “form” or “essence” that was the core concern of the pre-modern metaphysical tradition of thinking), the textual evidence is perfectly clear that Heidegger never moved beyond the thinking of Being itself (Being as such, Being as Being, Beyng).  The orthographical convention in the English-language scholarship is to spell his distinctive understanding of Being with a capital “B” in order to set it apart from the long-standing conception of “being” in the metaphysical tradition, and I follow that convention; but it is only a scholarly convention and has no additional significance, certainly no traditional religious significance.

(2)  But what, then, is this Ur-phenomenon that is marked by the name Being and all the other privileged names that Heidegger put into play over the course of his long lifetime of thought?  With these names, Heidegger was always pointing to the temporal-spatial appearing and unfolding of all beings, the temporal-spatial way wherein and whereby all beings, including ourselves, issue forth, linger, and pass away.  We have a special “relation” to this Being-way because we are the beings “who have the word” and with the word are able to bring into full view both what emerges (beings) and the comparatively “hidden” emerging-process itself (Being itself).  Heidegger never tired of naming—and naming again—this Being-way and our relation to it, and his richly poetic language is a gift to us, I think.  He was guided by his own muse, to be sure, and his body of work may not be philosophical in any usual sense of the word; but it is a thinking that has its own peculiar rigor, power, and beauty.

(3)  My own teaching and research, then, is about seeking to convey Heidegger’s fundamental understanding of Being with as much clarity as possible, to bring it alive and allow it to resonate further, and to try to relate it to comparable views of other authors and poets and thinkers, especially in the American tradition. Heidegger often turned to the German poet Hölderlin to help elucidate what he was saying, and I find that the great American poet Walt Whitman is exceptionally helpful in elucidating Heidegger.

You also ask about my disagreement with certain contemporary readings of Heidegger.  I am concerned about readings that have tended to turn Heidegger into a pragmatist of a kind (“skillful coping”), or back into Husserl, a transcendental thinker principally concerned with the constitution of “meaning.”  Such readings draw out and develop particular aspects of Heidegger’s thinking, and they have interesting insights to offer.  Nonetheless, in the end, I think that they miss the core concern of his thinking, and that is what I have been trying to bring back into view and keep in view.

Heidegger’s thought has been very influential for various movements in continental philosophy from structuralism, deconstruction to existentialism and so on. I would like to focus on recent “appropriations” by and intersections with theological thinking which seem to find Heidegger’s later writings on language especially fruitful. What problems and/or value does a sensitive and critical reading of Heidegger’s later work have to offer in this respect?

As I have said earlier, Heidegger’s “Being” points to the temporal-spatial manifesting of all beings and things; the temporal-spatial “flow” from out of which all beings and things emerge.  So, there is no connection at all between what Heidegger names Being and the traditional onto-theological “supreme being(s)” of any religious tradition.  He was most clear about this, but over the years, all sorts of religious appropriations of his thinking have tended to cloud the matter.  It is true that Heidegger also did speak about the “divinities,” but he always maintained that “they,” too, emerge from out of the emerging-unfolding that is Being as physis as aletheia.  He also addresses Being as physis as the “holy,” but this reflects his profound appreciation for Being as Nature as the awesome and ceaseless “rolling” of all beings and things into and out of presence.  And one more clarification.  In the recent so-called “theological turn” in French phenomenology, there is often talk that Heidegger moved beyond “being,” but as I noted earlier, there is a confusion here.  Heidegger sought to get past the thinking of “being” qua the “beingness” of the onto-theological tradition, but his thinking remained centrally concerned with Being as Ereignis as Es gibt as the temporal giving, granting, letting of all beings.  As he observed late in life, “The deepest meaning of Being is letting.”

Heidegger was obviously steeped in and a master of Western Philosophy, but what can be made of his engagement with Eastern philosophy and religion? His notion of ‘Being’, his emphasis on our finitude and a conception of the flux of Daisen amidst an eternal manifestation of Being seems broadly comparable to the Tao. What are the possible connections in this regard?

Your observation that there are fruitful connections to be made between Heidegger’s thinking and Eastern thinking is quite right, and there has been a good deal written suggesting connections to both the Chinese and Japanese traditions of thinking and practice.  Heidegger himself thought very highly of his Japanese students and interlocutors, and he often noted in his later years that it was a Japanese hearer of his 1929 lecture “What is Metaphysics?” who best understood what he was trying to get at in saying that thinking Being is thinking “the Nothing” (that is, the No-thing, the manifesting process itself that is not a being or thing but rather that which allows all beings to come to presence).  I have outlined some considerations in my Ch. 6 of Engaging Heidegger, and there is a little talk that the Japanese scholar Koichi Tsujimura gave at Heidegger’s 80th birthday celebration that I’m fond of and that your readers may find of interest.

How would you describe Heidegger’s philosophy of language? Amidst an Orwellian world of fragmented, violent and often degraded uses and abuses of language in various discourses from the corporate, technical and utilitarian to the spin associated with partisan political rhetoric, what path does Heidegger offer us for language and thinking?

This is a very big question requiring a big answer because the matter of “language” is such an important theme in Heidegger’s thinking.  But for now, I would make one brief observation: For Heidegger, in “language” the human being makes manifest what shows itself from itself.  In other words, language makes manifests what is; therefore, he is highly critical of all philosophical perspectives that would, in the first place, understand language as empty signs or signifiers that can be analyzed and manipulated at will.

Heidegger is notoriously complex and difficult to read? Where should one start? Could you offer any guidance to key texts?

For an understanding of Heidegger’s thinking on Being, one cannot do better than to start with the text Introduction to Metaphysics, which dates back to his lecture course given in 1935.  The book is readily available, and it is arguably the clearest and most compelling statement on the matter of Being that he ever composed.  Furthermore, in my view, this text is his true masterwork of the 1930s, and not the highly dense and obscure Beiträge [Contributions to Philosophy (From Ereignis)], which has received so much attention in the scholarship in recent years.  For those especially interested in how he worked out the Being-question with respect to Plato and Aristotle, there are his two brilliant statements, written at about the same time (1939-40): “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” and “On the Essence and Concept of Physis in Aristotle’s Physics B 1.”  I would also recommend two texts from the 1950s that are relatively readable and accessible: What is Called Thinking? and The Principle of Reason (as the German titles have been translated into English).  Reading Heidegger is admittedly difficult, but well worth the effort.  I have been teaching Heidegger for over twenty-five years, and I remain so impressed at how students relish the challenge of an encounter with his thinking—and how they always find something of importance for themselves in that encounter.

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

Suggested citation:

Rumbold, M. (2013). “Interview with Richard Capobianco,” Figure/Ground. May 20th.
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