© Karsten Harries and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Harries was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on April 27th, 2011
Professor Karsten Harries is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is a noted scholar of Heidegger, early modern philosophy, and the philosophy of art and architecture. A member of Yale’s faculty since 1961 Professor Harries is the author of The Meaning of Modern Art, The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism, The Broken Frame, The Ethical Function of Architecture, Infinity and Perspective, Art Matters: a Critical Commentary on Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, Die bayerische Rokokokirche: Das Irrrationale und das Sakrale, Between Nihilism and Faith: A Commentary on Either/Or, the forthcoming Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt and of more than 200 articles and reviews.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Let me say: it seemed natural. I had been interested in philosophical questions long before I went to college. But this was only one interest among others. Art and history were other, even earlier interests that have remained with me. As an undergraduate I was at first considering a history or a mathematics major. I was drawn to philosophy because it seemed to allow me more freedom. But in my senior year at Yale I became a Scholar of the House, which freed me from all course requirements, but required an essay comparable to a dissertation. I gave it the title “Change and Permanence. A Study of Structure, Symbol, and Idea in Eight Major Prose Works by Hermann Hesse.” Given the way my interests had evolved philosophy seemed an obvious choice for graduate study and the decision to continue at Yale was easy. And so was the decision to accept a teaching position there three years later. That was in 1961. Two years later I was at the University of Texas in Austin. Two years after that back at Yale. I have been teaching ever since and have no plans to retire in the immediate future. I have never felt teaching to be a burden. Quite the opposite: when I teach burdens vanish.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I do not feel that there has been a profound change. What made a great teacher then still makes a great teacher today: a passionate interest in what one is teaching and genuine care for one’s students. I do not feel that it has become more difficult to keep my students’ attention.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
Don’t aspire to be a university professor! What matters is passionate interest in the subject and an interest in human beings. If these are lacking teaching becomes a job that has both certain advantages and disadvantages. I have never looked at teaching that way. I have never had to. To be sure, at that time jobs were plentiful. I never even considered the possibility of not finding a suitable teaching position. I never had a job interview at a professional meeting. My teaching and writing were sufficient. And I see no tension between these two. Thus, when I was chairman and after that for a great many years director of graduate studies, I never took advantage of the course reduction that came with these jobs. After five decades of teaching, I still look forward to every class.
The following question was drafted by Professor Dermot Moran: “Why do you devote so much time to supervising your PhD students?”
I enjoy the dialogue that is essential to effective advising. Inevitably I learn things I did not know before. I try to give students the space they need to develop their own ideas. Sometimes, to be sure, a student has difficulty coming up with such ideas. Then advising can become tedious. And I try to make sure that every student working with me gets a prompt response to whatever they have written. Usually that takes the form of written comments, followed by a lengthy conversation, perhaps over lunch.Do I give those working with me more time than my colleagues? I can’t answer that question. But if I take into account the large number of dissertations I have directed — according to the philosophy family tree that someone has put on the internet, more than any other philosopher now alive, and if everyone now working with me finishes, more than any philosopher ever — it is safe to say that I have spent more time directing dissertations than most of my colleagues. Why? It helps to keep me spiritually young. I am convinced that our lives are truly meaningful only when illuminated by a commitment that extends to a time when we will be no longer. Directing dissertations rewards one with such illumination.
Among your areas of speciality are the Philosophy of Art, Phenomenology, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. What would you say is the common thread connecting these interests? What attracted you to the work of Heidegger in particular?
With Hegel I place art in one circle with philosophy and religion as a way of attempting to articulate what matters most in our lives. But unlike Hegel I do not think that reason can establish an edifice that provides us with adequate spiritual shelter. The faith in reason with which the Enlightenment hoped to replace faith in God today also belongs to a past that lies behind us. This is not to deny that the objectifying reason that presides over our science and technology is coming ever closer to fulfilling the Cartesian promise of rendering us the masters and possessors of nature. To be taken seriously today a philosophy has to do justice to the legitimacy of the modern age, to cite the title of a book by Hans Blumenberg. But it also has to be able to exhibit its limits. This is where phenomenology can offer assistance. And this is what has attracted me to thinkers such as Heidegger and Nietzsche, to whom I should add Cusanus, Schopenhauer, and especially Kant. Art has been important to me as another and more effective way of opening windows in the edifice objectifying reason has built us. Much of my writing has thus insisted on the ethical function of art, and especially architecture.
During one of his lectures in 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, but especially Heidegger, given his well-known antagonism with Hubert Dreyfus. Do you think Heidegger’s work continues to be stigmatized because of his ties to Nazism? How did his reception in North America evolve since you first became interested in him?
Is Heidegger’s work being stigmatized and ignored because of his ties to Nazism? I doubt it. Here, too, the old saying seems to hold: all publicity is good publicity. Those who suggest that Heidegger should not be read because of his involvement with the Nazis are raising rather than diminishing interest in his work. And for good reason: we are not done with National Socialism. I suspect it lies less firmly behind us than Stalinism and its appeal remains less well understood. As Nietzsche knew, we are living in the ruin of the old value system that with the death of God lost founder and foundation. The Enlightenment was confident in the ability of reason to raise a structure that would provide both physical and spiritual shelter. It turned out to be a Tower of Babel. National Socialism addressed the resultant value vacuum by raising a golden calf. In this connection I like to invoke the category of Kitsch, which not only helps to illuminate much that today goes on in the art world, but also much that goes on in politics, religion, and ethics.
To turn to your second question: How did Heidegger’s reception in North America evolve since I first became interested in him? I first became interested in Heidegger in 1956 or so. The first things I read by him were the essays in Holzwege — Sein und Zeit came a bit later. Very little had been translated, if I remember correctly: just the four essays in the little volume by Brock and the Introduction to Metaphysics. Heidegger was a bit like an unknown dark continent. Sartre fed our interest in him. As a student in graduate school, I turned to Heidegger in good part because some of my teachers were very interested in texts that had then not yet been translated. Being German I could mediate. As more was translated and his works became better known interest grew steadily. That also has meant increasing hostility to Heidegger, especially on the part of philosophers in the analytic tradition. When serious, it has little to do with Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism. There is indeed much that is questionable in Heidegger’s work, which I, however, would want to understand as fragwürdig, as worthy of being questioned. I do find his popularity just in this country a bit puzzling and certain aspects of it troubling. Has Heidegger not warned us again and again to beware of translation: they have a tendency to lead to rootless jargon-ridden thinking. I mentioned the category of Kitsch. Any reader or interpreter of Heidegger should be mindful of that category.
As you know, part of the North American reading of Heidegger centers around the notions of skilful coping (Dreyfus, 1991) or mindless everyday coping (Stewart, 1996). Do you think these terms really capture the pre-reflective state of playful absorptive engagement with the world driven by operative intentionality? I personally find the expression “coping” problematic, to the extent that “one copes with a problem,” or when something breaks down. We then stand back to question the device or object of concern, and through a reflective stance we may find ourselves contemplating it from a detached, logical perspective, as a substance with properties or a present-at-hand entity. Similarly, the word “mindless” seems a little pejorative: it suggests that when we are fully absorbed and fully immersed in whatever it is we are doing, the activity in question isn’t so much a “labour of love,” as I think Heidegger meant it, but a monotonous and repetitive task carried out by alienated individuals who do not proceed from their unique existential center as once-occurrent beings, but as one does – with the sort of levelling-down, careless anonymity that removes them from the picture. Do you agree with these observations?
Your question demands a much fuller discussion than I can engage in here. The categories of the ready–to-hand and the present-at-hand should not be considered exhaustive, as Heidegger reminds us already in Being and Time and makes explicit in “The Origin of the Work of Art”. And we must consider carefully the way Heidegger himself problematizes the supposed priority of the “ready-to-hand.” Problematic, too, is the relationship of authenticity to the everyday. Just as Kierkegaard’s Abraham has to return from Mount Moriah and take his place at the dinner table, so Heidegger’s authentic person has to take his place with others, in a world inescapably subject to the rule of the “they.” In this connection careful consideration of the young Heidegger’s reading of St. Paul and Luther proves illuminating. How Heidegger would analyze performing a piece of music with some friends, totally losing oneself to the work being performed in the process, is a challenging question. Would he have to call it ”inauthentic” as the phrase “losing oneself” suggests? If so, we have to beware of investing authenticity with too much normative weight.
Toward the end of his life, Marshall McLuhan declared: “Phenomenology [is] that which I have been presenting for many years in non-technical terms.” Do you think phenomenology is still relevant in this age of information and digital interactive media?
I would say that just because this is the age of information and digital interactive media, it is especially relevant. This relates to my answer to a previous question, which insisted that we need to open windows in the edifice objectifying reason has built us. In the language of “The Origin of the Work of Art”: we need to keep ourselves open to the earth and that is to say to what objectifying reason will never master. Without such openness there cannot be an experience of persons as persons. And without such experience all ethics idles.
What are you currently working on?
My most recent book is a reworking of notes for ten seminars I gave at the Leuphana Universität in Lüneburg. It should appear early this fall. And since these were in German, so is the book — I am attaching the projected cover. In it I present what I hope is a fairly accessible sketch of my philosophical position. Quite a number of articles are currently in the works, many of them having to do to do with architecture, some with Heidegger. I am also considering turning seminar notes on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Cusanus’ On Learned Ignorance, and Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation into books, as well as a well worked out lecture course with the title Art, Love, and Beauty. But there may not be enough time for all of that.
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