Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos


Peter Gordon’s book, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, is due out this month.  It looks promising–plus Harvard UP tells us all that it’s “riveting” in the blurb below!  Seriously, if it’s half as good as Gordon’s previous book about Heidegger and Rosenzweig it will certainly be worth reading.  The Davos enounter, I think, is often seen as a sort of turning point, break, or touchstone for 20th century philosophy.  Numerous commentators have upped the stakes, claiming that this debate marks a substantial “rupture” between enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, humanism and anti-humanism, analytic vs continental philosophy etc. etc. I think the most unlikely interpretation I’ve read about Davos just may  be Bourdieu’s attempt to grind Heidegger’s thought down to its political ontology (though it’s not really fresh in my head). 

Levinas, who was in the audience, had this to say about Davos in an interview with Francois Poire: “a young student could have had the impression that he was witness to the creation and the end of the world.”  Later that evening Levinas and some of his friends restaged the debate for a sizable audience (if I’m not mistaken both Heidegger and Cassirer were in there).  Levinas played Cassirer, but I can’t recall who played Heidegger.  I think in that same interview with Poire Levinas confesses to feeling bad about mocking Cassirer’s rather lackluster performance and siding with Heidegger.  Anway, here’s the blurb from Harvard UP:

In the spring of 1929, Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer met for a public conversation in Davos, Switzerland. They were arguably the most important thinkers in Europe, and their exchange touched upon the most urgent questions in the history of philosophy: What is human finitude? What is objectivity? What is culture? What is truth?

Over the last eighty years the Davos encounter has acquired an allegorical significance, as if it marked an ultimate and irreparable rupture in twentieth-century Continental thought. Here, in a reconstruction at once historical and philosophical, Peter Gordon reexamines the conversation, its origins and its aftermath, resuscitating an event that has become entombed in its own mythology. Through a close and painstaking analysis, Gordon dissects the exchange itself to reveal that it was at core a philosophical disagreement over what it means to be human.

But Gordon also shows how the life and work of these two philosophers remained closely intertwined. Their disagreement can be understood only if we appreciate their common point of departure as thinkers of the German interwar crisis, an era of rebellion that touched all of the major philosophical movements of the day—life-philosophy, philosophical anthropology, neo-Kantianism, phenomenology, and existentialism. As Gordon explains, the Davos debate would continue to both inspire and provoke well after the two men had gone their separate ways. It remains, even today, a touchstone of philosophical memory.

This clear, riveting book will be of great interest not only to philosophers and to historians of philosophy but also to anyone interested in the great intellectual ferment of Europe’s interwar years.

5 thoughts on “Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos

  1. Michael Friedman’s “A Parting of the Ways” is about the same conference and how it ties into Rudolph Carnap’s (he was in the audience) criticims of Heidegger. It’s a very nice read.

    • Thanks! I had known Carnap was there, but didn’t know there was anything connecting the dispute at Davos more broadly to his thought. I’ll have to get a hold of it. I know scandalously little about Carnap’s thought, actually. The only thing I recall clearly about Carnap is that he said something to the effect of metaphysicians being like musicians without musical ability.

  2. I see that Cogburn has already in effect noted the bizarre omission of Logical Positivism from the list of “major philosophical movements of the day.” I’m also a fan of Friedman’s book, and for my own part the first time I ever felt like I was starting to understand where Heidegger was coming from (and that he really was a talented philosopher, if a horribly misguided one) was when reading the postscript he later added to “What is Metaphysics?” where he tried to respond to Carnap. I think it also helped me understand Carnap better; I’d always liked Carnap, but being sympathetic to a philosopher of course doesn’t guarantee that you won’t miss things when reading them.

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