Two Deepities from Martin Heidegger

Daniel Dennett defines a deepity as “a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading it is true but trivial.”[1] I might add that deepities are most likely to arise when we already expect the profound, and when we might be embarrassed if we did not actually find it.

Dennett cites the sentence “Love is just a word” as a short, sweet, and totally preposterous example: “Love” may be just a word, and a four-letter word at that, but what the word denotes is clearly no such thing. Or if it is, the claim is entirely unsupported.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Martin Heidegger:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.[2]

On the literal reading, the statement is manifestly false. On the figurative reading – reading it to say, rather, that we all make use of technology somehow, and that we would be greatly inconvenienced without it – one is inclined to shrug. Or perhaps cheer. It is in no sense a calamity or even a profundity.

And for an encore, not one paragraph later:

We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is.

That’s one question we might ask. Which is trivial. But is it the question? And if so, what would that mean? That all other questions aren’t questions? That would be false.

I begin to wonder, after the first page of “The Question Concerning Technology,” whether I need to go on or not.


[1] Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013, p 56.

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology.”

From “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” by Leo Tolstoy

“In spite of the unceasing efforts of those who happen to be in authority to conceal this and attribute some other significance to it, authority has always meant for man the cord, the chain with which he is bound and fettered, or the knout with which he is to be flogged, or the ax with which he is to have hands, ears, nose, or head cut off, or at the very least, the threat of these terrors. So it was under Nero and Ghenghis Khan, and so it is to-day, even under the most liberal government in the Republics of the United States or of France. If men submit to authority, it is only because they are liable to these punishments in case of non-submission. All state obligations, payment of taxes, fulfillment of state duties, and submission to punishments, exile, fines, etc., to which people appear to submit voluntarily, are always based on bodily violence or the threat of it.” – Leo Tolstoy

On Second-Rate Thinkers

You’ve probably never heard of Donato Giannotti (1492-1573). The only place I recall encountering him is in J. G. A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, which I’m now rereading.

In Pocock’s phrase, Giannotti was “not a genius, as Machiavelli and Guicciardini both were.” And yet Pocock quotes him as follows:

You are to understand that in every republic there are many institutions (costituzioni) for which one can give no probable reason, let alone the true one. And this is to be found not only in those cities where the form of government has changed, but in those which have long been ruled and governed by the same laws. For although the usages have been kept up, their causes are none the less lost in antiquity.

Simply noticing these things, rather than regarding them as dross, is significant, particularly for the time. Again, as Pocock would have it: “There are political phenomena which usage may justify, but cannot explain.” It is a cautious approach to political theory, and I think a wise one. There are many things that we cannot explain even today. Our actions always outrun our ability to account for them.

If only this were what passed for first-rate thinking. But to be deemed first rate, it would seem that one must almost always sing the praises of unlimited state power. The success or failure of the particular projects that one champions along the way is all but immaterial: Write with unlimited confidence, worship something big and brutal, and your chances of making the canon improve dramatically.

We remember Plato’s eternal, crystalline totalitarianisms; we forget his fawning over the bloody tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse. Everyone reads The Prince in college at the latest — and yet what was there to commend about Cesare Borgia? Hegel believed he had solved the riddle of history itself, and yet what he views as history’s culmination in the real world seems to us not even like a plausible step along the way. (Which it might seem, if Hegel were correct both about the process of history in general and about his fitting of particulars to the pattern.)

Had these errors been made by thinkers who counseled modesty, I suspect they would have been fatal. Hegel’s great critic, Schopenhauer, was perhaps wise to avoid writing about politics entirely.