Terry Pinkard reviews Dieter Henrich

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NDPR has published a review, written by Terry Pinkard (Philosophy, Georgetown University), of Dieter Henrich’s Denken und Selbstsein – Vorlesungen über Subjektivität (Suhrkamp Verlag 2007; no English translation yet, though there is one in French). To access the review, please click here.

Here is how it begins:

Dieter Henrich is well known in Anglophone philosophy for his historical work on German idealism (especially on Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Hölderlin). Indeed, it is safe to say that his work in that area makes him one of the great contemporary historians of philosophy. Although in the German philosophical world he is equally well known for having also put forward a systematic philosophy centered on the theme of self-consciousness, in the Anglophone world his systematic work has not attracted nearly as much attention as his historical writings have. This is unfortunate.

Henrich’s thought has always had two dimensions. First, as is shown by his path-breaking work in the development of German idealism, he is plainly drawn to the way in which philosophy has to be carried out with attention to argument and scholarly rigor. In that respect, his work is easily recognized as belonging to the kind of super-professionalized “university philosophy” that for the most part dominated philosophy in the twentieth century (and which shows no sign of letting up in the twenty-first).

However, Henrich has never been content with only that conception of philosophy. Since Plato, people have looked to philosophy for more than simply rigorous argumentation about conceptual puzzles (however deep the puzzles). They have also sought some kind of reflective engagement with the puzzles of life and thought, the results of which, if not exactly providing any kind of guide to living, at least would bring in their wake a kind of satisfaction both in thinking through the larger issues of life and in, as it were, connecting with the nature of the world as a whole. From his teacher, Gadamer, Henrich picked up on an alternative twentieth century conception of philosophy, which Gadamer himself received from his own teacher, the young Heidegger. In the first part of Being and Time, Heidegger famously argued that much of the traditional understanding of the problems of metaphysics rested on a failure to understand the non-representationalist, pragmatic structure of human activity. In the second part, he showed how that “ready-to-hand” structure of knowing one’s way around the world itself broke down in the non-propositional confrontation with one’s own finitude (as an awareness of one’s own death). That breakdown of ordinary meaning, of “knowing one’s way around the world”, provokes the agent to try to understand not just “his” own particular world but “being” as a whole. However, in light of that kind of awareness of one’s finitude, agents are provoked into a dawning awareness that any such kind of knowledge of “being” as a whole is impossible in any way that would let it seamlessly replace the ordinary pragmatic structure of knowing one’s way around the world. Against the “Greek” claims of the intelligibility of the whole (made by the idealists, Hegel among others), Heidegger argued instead for the ultimate unintelligibility of the whole. Such a mode of philosophizing, so Heidegger thought, leads not so much to a new theoretical awareness of anything but rather to a new kind of self-relation (namely, an “authentic” self-relation).

Part of the impetus for Henrich’s work in the development of German idealism was to seek a way to understand the dynamic of that development so that one could preserve the “Greek” emphasis on intelligibility and rigor (with its modern focus on meaning and truth) while at the same time bringing philosophy back to what Heidegger wanted it to be — a kind of reflection on our larger place in things that, as reflection, makes a difference to our lives, and which, in Heidegger’s terms, would lead to a deeper and more authentic self-understanding…

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