Mark Sinclair has studied philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Warwick and Paris IV. He is now a Research Fellow in Philosophy at MMU, currently working on the philosophy of technology. He is the translator of Jean Beaufret's Dialogue with Heidegger and the author of Heidegger, Aristotle and the Work of Art: Poeisis in Being.
Mark Thwaite: Your latest book is called Heidegger, Aristotle and the Work of Art: Poeisis in Being. I want to start our conversation by unpicking the elements of the title. Firstly then, an inevitable question I'm afraid: Heidegger's past still haunts him and for those of us who read him, can he really be used for a progressive philosophy of any kind? Isn't he too tainted? Why should we read him?
Mark Sinclair: Heidegger the man did what he later called the ‘most stupid thing’ of his life by allying his cause as university rector to that of the nascent Nazi regime in the Germany of 1933-34. About this stupidity, and the details surrounding it, much has been written. Here I would only underline that it is necessary, as Hegel said, to understand before one can judge. We do neither history nor liberal principles a service by, for example, forgetting that Germany in 1933, when many European and North-American democrats were voicing their support for the strong-man Hitler, was not yet what it would become in 1937 or 1942.
Heidegger the thinker rearticulates the basic, guiding question of philosophy, namely the question of being, in a way that allows us to begin to understand the situation of the human being in the modern world. Heidegger’s later thinking, in particular, is nothing without its reflection on technology. It allows us to perceive in modern technology the actualisation or realisation of a certain way of understanding the world – of understanding being – that is philosophy; modern technology represents the fulfilment of philosophy as a certain form of thinking that was born in ancient Greece. Moreover, it allows us to comprehend modern technology as the final stage of the historical process of nihilism that Nietzsche, in the 19th century, had already diagnosed as constituting the essence of Occidental, and now global, history. It is for these reasons that we should read Heidegger. If we want to know where and who we are, and what genuine possibilities of political action exist in the modern world, then we must read him, and read him well.
As to the idea of a ‘progressive philosophy’, none of the above precludes a critique of contemporary capitalism, even if capitalism itself is, as Heidegger has it, a mere epiphenomenon of technology as the motive force of the age. But, concerning progress as such, we should be careful here: perhaps it is the ideology of progress that will have led us into, as Merleau-Ponty said, a technological ‘sleep or nightmare from which nothing will be able to wake us’.
MT: You concentrate on Heidegger and Aristotle's poetics, or rather "poiesis", but their politics could equally serve for a volume. Can you sketch for us the main argument of your book, what poetics ("poiesis") means for them and why that aspect of their work attracts your attention?
MS: Heidegger’s reflection on being in the 1920s occurs as an interpretation of Aristotle’s thinking. There is very little original in Heidegger that is not such a retrieval of the Greek origins of philosophy. But this retrieval is transformed radically by Heidegger’s reflection on the meaning and possibility of art in the 1930s, whence arise the focus and approach of my book. Ultimately, the book aims to show that Heidegger’s Aristotle interpretation in its movement between the 1920s and the 1930s concerns not merely what one philosopher happened to find in another, but rather the essence and the fate of metaphysics itself. At issue is how one thinker claims to be able to delimit the end of metaphysics by means of an interpretation of another whose work constitutes its veritable inception.
MT: Heidegger's interpretation of Aristotle, as you say, is key to Being and Time. Do you think, by extension, we can say that poetics is key to Heidegger's very understanding of Being itself?
MS: From the 1930s onwards the question of art is indeed integral to Heidegger’s reflection on being. From this perspective the question of art is not merely one of peripheral interest, one that could be confined to the limits of the particular field of philosophical inquiry named aesthetics. Against what might be called modern aesthetic alienation, Heidegger seeks to reintegrate truth, and thus being, with art. This is what is at stake in the idea of the ‘poetic in being’. Art can give us things, it can show us how things as such are; poetry can, for example, bring to light the essence of language, just as the visual arts can show us a physicality in things that is something other than, and prior to, the matter of the modern techno-sciences. Ontology, then, must be poetic; and all poetics must be properly ontological.
MT: Aristotle (contra Plato) saw art's mimesis as a "good" thing, producing catharsis in the viewer/audience. Heidegger saw art not only as an element of truth, but also a way of creating truth. Can we usefully bring these categories to conversations about modern art or pop culture? Doesn't pop culture simply wither as useless capitalist detritus when we present it with an idea like Truth?
MS: Perhaps most of pop culture is detritus but the possibility of apprehending, in the words of Cézanne, truth in painting or in any form of modern art, rests less on the quality of particular works than it does on being liberated from our scientistic and technologistic conceptual schemas and worldviews. But, particularly in this country, one only has to see how neuro-science and evolutionary biology have replaced philosophy within enlightened discourse to recognise that we are a long way, perhaps an epoch, from this.
MT: Heidegger's relationship with Paul Celan is, for some, a test case for Heidegger's poetics. Heidegger's blindness to what Celan was saying when he wrote Todtnauberg is important here, but so is Celan's long term engagement with Heidegger's work. How do you read this relationship Mark? Is Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's work key to helping us understand?
MS: I am not sure that Heidegger’s relationship with Celan is a test case for his poetics. It may say something about his ability to address the Nazi period, and his role in it, in any detail. It may, in other words, illuminate a certain blindness in Heidegger’s approach to that period, as Lacoue-Labarthe has shown.
MT: Heidegger is a tough read. Any introductory texts that you would recommend?
MS: For the political and philosophical background to Heidegger’s engagement with technology Michael Zimmermann’s Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity is instructive. In relation to Being and Time, for pedagogical purposes I have used Stephen Mulhall’s clear and competent Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Heidegger and Being and Time.
MT: You have also recently translated Jean Beaufret's book Dialogue with Heidegger. Tell us about Beaufret, a name I'm sure most readers won't be familiar with, and how his ideas inform your work.
MS: Beaufret is probably best known for having posed the questions to which Heidegger responded in a letter of 1946 that became famous as the ‘Letter on Humanism’. After this he became the most central figure in the post-war story of ‘Heidegger in France’, and was Heidegger’s closest philosophical friend and ally. Prior to and during the war, the only Heidegger that the French knew in any detail was the existentialist one that they found in Being and Time. Beaufret was one of the first to see beyond the limits of existentialism and to entertain the historical dimensions of Heidegger’s thinking. He taught at the Ecole Normale Supérieure from 1946 to 1962, and with many of his students he organised the translation and dissemination of Heidegger’s later work. Beaufret was particularly interested in Heidegger’s interpretation of the Greeks, and was inspired by him to write a book-length study of Parmenides in 1955.
MT: What does the Beaufret volume bring to our understanding of Heidegger?
MS: Beaufret’s engagement with Heidegger’s thinking came to fruition with the four volumes of his Dialogue avec Heidegger, the first of which I have translated. In this volume Beaufret develops Heidegger’s interpretations of the Greeks, often in relation to the perspectives offered by traditional French historians of philosophy such as Etienne Gilson. Many of the essays in the volume constitute essential reading, since Beaufret often adds flesh to the bones of Heidegger’s interpretations of Aristotle in particular. The text in one sentence: Heidegger and the Greeks as seen through the lens of Parisian Aristotelianism and French poetry. I’m hoping to translate the second volume concerning modern philosophy this summer.
MT: You teach at Manchester Metropolitan University. Does your teaching help or hinder your thinking and writing?
MS: I am employed as a Research Fellow and thus have a reduced teaching load at MMU, but I would find not teaching at all difficult and abstract. As Heidegger said, describing the personal and philosophical disaster that being barred from teaching in 1945 was for him, all genuine thought requires ‘in addition to writing and reading, the sunousia (being-together) of discussion and of the work that is teaching and being taught’.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing Mark?
MS: I spend as much time as possible in Paris, as I used to live there and my oldest brother still does. My other passions include cinema and electronic music.
MT: What are you working on now?
MS: I’m working directly on the philosophy of technology. I’m trying to relate Heidegger’s approach to other developments within what is an emergent and somewhat broad philosophical field, in which many of the debates have occurred outside the confines of traditional philosophy departments and journals, and within what is called Science and Technology Studies. At the moment, I’m busy with the accounts of technological determinism and autonomous technology that are to be found in the work of writers like Jacques Ellul. I should rephrase that: there is no writer like Jacques Ellul. His work is singularly fascinating in its insistence that we are being swept away, that we have already been swept away, by the tide of autonomous technological development.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
MS: I find it difficult to separate my philosophical interests from my tastes in literature, and thus the contemporary writer I find the most interesting is probably Michel Houellebecq. He is certainly not a great writer in purely literary terms, but to my mind no other writer gets nearer to the essential issues of the age.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
MS: Just: thank you.