The Hurford Center is offering several amazing classes next semester, one of which will be Professor Roy Ben-Shai’s “Between Being and the Gods: Heidegger and the Art of Thinking.” We asked him some questions about the course and would like to share them with the tri-co community!
Who was Heidegger and why is he important to the study of philosophy and thought?
Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher, born in 1889 and died in 1976. He is notorious for having been a member of the Nazi party (after the war he was suspended from teaching for a few years because of this), and for having had extramarital affairs, the most famous of which is with Hannah Arendt who was his student (she was 17 and he was 33).
Heidegger is also widely considered, along with Ludwig Wittgenstein, as the most influential, some would say “towering”, philosopher of the 20th century. He is certainly one of the most important philosophers in the continental tradition: his influence on phenomenology*, French Existentialism, deconstruction, and post-structuralism is definitive. Studying his work is therefore quintessential for anyone with interest in 20th century philosophy in Europe.
Besides this historical centrality, Heidegger is remarkable for his capacity to incite original thought. The list of his students includes some of the finest minds of the century, including Levinas, Leo Strauss, Arendt, Marcuse, Derrida, and Agamben. Most indicative is how different these philosophers are from one another and from their teacher. To put it simply: studying Heidegger makes one a better thinker, and that’s a gift.
*Professor Ben-Shai’s definition of “phenomenology”: The easiest way I can think of defining it is as a philosophical method that centers on lived-experience. To give “a phenomenological account” of something is to describe how it is or appears in experience. For example, a phenomenology of illness or disability describes these conditions from the perspective of the one who experiences or undergoes them – what it is like to be ill or disabled – rather than from a medical or sociological perspective.
Why is your course “Between Being and the Gods: Heidegger and the Art of Thinking” a useful or necessary addition to the Haverford community?
So far, I was fortunate to have truly wonderful students in very small and intimate classes. It is my impression that Haverford students – at least the ones I’ve had – are extraordinarily motivated, thoughtful, and engaged. This is the kind of environment in which we can get the most out of Heidegger, and in which his teaching has the most to offer.
What will be the structure of the class?
There will be a lot of discussion, and student presentations. Not too much reading (quantitatively speaking), since the reading is very dense and requires much thought and unpacking. The course is divided straightforwardly: we are reading seven essays, spending about two weeks with each. All essays are in a book called Basic Writings, which we will all buy. I expect the class to be small, and this is conducive both to discussion and to reflection. It’s very important for me to create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable to speak, and not to speak.
How does the course fit into the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights curriculum? (In other words, how can the study of thought help a Haverford Student comprehend or think about human rights?)
In a way, this course fits everywhere: if you are a thoughtful person, or aspire to be one, then you are interested in learning how to think. While Heidegger himself was neither a humanist nor a political thinker, he was greatly influential on thinkers who were (e.g., Arendt, Levinas, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Agamben). Specifically, his work influenced critiques of the concept of “human rights”, since he makes us question the meaning and import of the term “human”. Yet Heidegger can also criticized from a perspective committed to the advancement of human rights, which can also be a useful exercise.
What are you most excited about for the course?
I am very excited about this course (unfortunately, my last course at Haverford), mainly because Heidegger marked my own entry into philosophy. I took a seminar on Heidegger in my senior year of college (Tel-Aviv University in Israel), and following it (in fact, in the process of writing my paper for this course), I made up my mind to dedicate my life to the study and teaching of philosophy. Who knows? Maybe the same thing can happen to one or more of the students in this class as well, in which case, I’d be very happy to be part of it! (now, whether falling in love with philosophy is a good thing or not is already a different question…)
Check out www.haverford.edu/hcah/center/courses for more information on our spring courses.