© Taylor Carman and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Carman was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on September 30th, 2010
Taylor Carman is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York City. He teaches 19th and 20th century European philosophy and specializes in Continental philosophy, especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. He is the author of Heidegger’s Analytic (2003) and Merleau-Ponty (2008), and has coedited The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty (2005). He has also published articles on various topics in phenomenology and is currently writing a book on Heidegger. Most recently, Professor Carman was featured – along with Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor, Albert Borgmann, Mark Wrathall, John Haugeland, Iain Thomson, Sean Kelly – in Being in the World, a film by Tao Ruspoli about philosophy and the reception of Heidegger in North America.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
It was very much a conscious choice, yes, but a natural one, since my father was a professor of psychology, and I went to the lab school at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where I grew up. I knew by the time I graduated from high school that I wanted to study philosophy and teach.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
I’m not sure it has changed very much. Knowledge has changed, and information technologies have changed, but those don’t impact my work very much, frankly.
What makes a good teacher today? What advice would you give young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
The best teachers have always learned along with their students, rather than simply feeding them what they think they themselves already know and understand. My advice would be not to worry too much about pedagogical techniques, but instead try to present ideas in a way that presses the boundaries of your own knowledge and understanding, so the students can see you struggling with them. Then they can identify with you, and you’ll notice that they’re much more engaged.
You specialize in Continental philosophy, particularly Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. What attracted you to these authors, and how did their reception in North America evolve since you first took an interest in them?
What attracted to me was, in a word, their effort to describe the non-rational aspects of our existence, which underlie and pervade our perception, our knowledge, and our understanding. They’re particularly good at not projecting the rationality of philosophical inquiry itself onto the phenomena they think philosophically about. That’s a pitfall of reflection, and one worth resisting.
The interpretation of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty has changed a lot in the last 25 years. People are much less quick nowadays to lump them into this grab bag called “Continental philosophy,” which is a very inadequate category. People now recognize the important affinities between them and philosophers like Wittgenstein, and between phenomenology and cognitive and neuroscience.
Let’s get a little more technical. Undoubtedly, social constructionist thought has shaped a great deal of contemporary social theorizing in the 20th century. Most of it came from Alfred Schutz’ appropriation of the work of Edmund Husserl, which some claim is uncritical, if not misguided. What do you make of Schutz’ work? Would it be too harsh and unfair to say that the “postmodern turn” came as a result of missing the “existential turn”?
Alfred Schutz’s work has never meant very much to me, I’m afraid. And I’m not too happy talking about alleged “turns” in the recent history of philosophy. “Existentialism” and “postmodernism” are two more of those woefully inadequate labels. One temptation to think in these terms, I suspect, comes from thinking of philosophy as being like science, so that at every step we want to know if we’re making progress, going forward or backward. But philosophy doesn’t go forward (or backward), it’s just either good or bad. So, I think it depends on whom we’re talking about. There was a lot of cheap existentialism along with the great works of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, just as there has been a lot of cheap postmodernism along with the profound contributions of someone like Michel Foucault.
In a way, it’s hard to blame the Structuralists, Poststructuralists, and Cognitivists for missing the existential turn in phenomenology, isn’t it? Heidegger was a Nazi collaborator, Merleau-Ponty died early, and Sartre was a Marxist who rejected the Nobel Prize and toward the end of his life supported radical groups from the extreme left. Was the background of these thinkers too much to handle for North American philosophers?
I doubt it’s what they cared about. I think the reason some Anglo-American philosophers have had trouble with European thinkers is just plain old parochialism, not having the habits and skills and background knowledge to read difficult texts with the necessary degree of imagination and sympathy. In American philosophy departments I think you find very little interest or worry about Heidegger’s Nazism or Sartre’s radical politics. It’s their style and jargon and allusions that analytically inclined readers have trouble with.
I would like to build on the previous question by asking you question I also asked Andrew Feenberg. 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. I personally don’t believe in the “Death of the Author,” but I do think it’s important to separate a man from his work in some instances, especially if it means saving the work from the man. Do you think Heidegger’s work continues to be stigmatized and ignored because of his ties to Nazism? How should we deal, as academics, with the fact that one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century was also a Nazi collaborator?
I think we shouldn’t wring our hands and worry about it. We should try to formulate precise questions. What specifically about his enthusiasm for National Socialism? Which aspects of his philosophy? You can’t pose the question too abstractly; you have to zoom in on the details. Parts of his thought are tainted by a very aggressive form of nationalism, other parts have very little echo in anything political. But we have to take his Nazism seriously. He certainly did. Above all, if we’re going to talk about the relation between his philosophy and his politics, we first have to understand the philosophy. In the absence of that, the discussion is — as it has so often been — fruitless.
You are being featured – along with Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor, Albert Borgmann, Mark Wrathall, John Haugeland, Iain Thomson, Sean Kelly – in Being in the World, not the book by Hubert Dreyfus but a film by Tao Ruspoli about philosophy and the reception of Heidegger. How was your experience working with Tao Ruspoli, and do you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with some of these Heideggerians more often than with others?
Working with Tao was a pleasure. He interviewed me a few times and we chatted about the idea for the film. I pretty much agree with what the others say in the film. We all agree about a lot, and the film doesn’t get far enough into the fine-grained details where our differences become visible.
The movie centers around the notion of ongoing skilful coping (Dreyfus, 1991), also known as mindless everyday coping (Stewart, 1996). Now, do you think these terms really capture the pre-reflective state of playfully absorptive engagement with the world driven by operative intentionality? I personally find the expression “coping” problematic, insofar as “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 is no longer 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 this observation?
Well, no jargon is ever perfect. I think “coping” is good because it implies a kind of improvisatory flexibility, a responsiveness to what you’re working with. And “mindless” is mildly ironic; it’s not meant to imply stupidity; the whole point is that our actions can be extraordinarily intelligent, but unreflective, even unconscious. And above all, “mindless” refers to the “mind” as described by philosophers and psychologists who have conceived of the mind as containing representations, theoretical knowledge, computable information, and so on. It’s also important to remember that most of our behaviour is “average and everyday,” as Heidegger says. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad or stupid, just that it’s relatively banal and familiar. But we’re wedded to the banal and familiar by a kind of love, too. You find that out when you’re suddenly deprived of it and you miss it ways you never anticipated.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about Heidegger’s notion of truth as (what he called) “unconcealment,” in contrast to the traditional conception of correspondence, or more simply, correctness. Heidegger’s notion has systematic implications about the nature and value of truth, about the history of metaphysics from Plato to Nietzsche, and (I believe) about the nature and value of non-scientific inquiry, above all in the humanities, where what is most important is not always factual correctness, but breadth of vision, imaginative depth, and (in a word) illumination. I will someday write a book about this, but I’m only just getting started.
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