Thursday, March 26, 2015

Encountering Heidegger

I suspect that my decision to focus my reading on Being and Time, the translation by John Macquarie and Edward Robinson of Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit, may raise some eyebrows. It may very well be one of the ways in which I am coming to terms with my age, figuring that I may be approaching a time when I may start to have difficulty processing that kind of writing. At the same time, somewhere in the back of my head, I heard the voice of my former advisor declaring that he could not trust anyone who could only read Heidegger in English translation. At least I appreciate his reasoning. Sein und Zeit was rich with made-up words; and I suspect that one could write a fascinating thesis on the hypothesis that many, if not most, of the key ideas in the book may have emerged out of Heidegger's enjoyment in playing with words at the lexical level and then seeing what the semantic implications were. Still my advisor was taking a dig at a former colleague, who may have deserved the attack but probably should still have his name withheld.

Nevertheless, I feel I owe it to myself to see just what Heidegger was getting at (or trying to get at) in the massive (and incomplete) project. My reasons go back over a decade to when I was still part of the Silicon Valley research community and everyone was in thrall with the idea of "knowledge" (as opposed to "artificial intelligence") as an object of research, all in the interest of a domain that called itself "knowledge management." At the time I was working for a guy who felt that the future would lie in solving the problem he called "corporate memory" (also sometimes known as "institutional memory"). Put in the simplest terms, the problem was one of how the knowledge of an individual could outlive that individual (or at least that individual's tenure with the firm).

Unfortunately, I found myself following up on perspectives that made it clear that this "memory problem" was not one that could be solved by building bigger databases or better interfaces to those databases. The bottom line was that "knowledge" was not noun-based. Having knowledge did not mean having artifacts, even digital artifacts, that your rivals did not have. Rather, it was verb-based. Having knowledge was a shallow proposition. Knowledge only revealed itself through what we did.

I suppose that is why this research continued to interest me even after I broke my ties with Silicon Valley. It did not take long to surface in my thoughts about music, particularly my decision to prioritize the verb-based perspective of making music over the noun-based perspective that tries to reduce the study of music to the study of artifacts, such as score pages. Once, when I was trying to explain myself to a recent graduate from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I said that everyone in Silicon Valley lived in a world of nouns and adjectives, while musicians can only live in a world of verbs. To my surprise, his eyes did not glaze over; and they even lit up a bit.

So I suppose it was only a matter of time before I would have to confront what Heidegger had to say about such things. After all, it does not take long for him to put up the precept that talking about "being" means talking about the word itself as a progressive verb rather than part of a noun form (as in "human being"). All this emerges in relative (at least for Heidegger) clarity long before he brings time into his approach to inquiry.

Fortunately, I can be patient about it, sometimes advancing only a few paragraphs at a time but without ever feeling as if I were in a hurry. This was the way I used to deal with things when I was still trying to bring the ideas behind my doctoral thesis into focus, and I was fortunate in having advisors who did not pressure me to rush things. Corporate research is not like that, nor, for that matter, is academic research, which is more beholden to funding sources than to intellectual inquiry. All I need to do is keep my own cerebral matter in shape and hope that I can maintain these practices for a few more good years, even if it is just for the pleasure of clarifying matters to myself.

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