The story of a Chinese migrant worker who translated a book about 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger from English into Mandarin went viral last month. Could ordinary people studying philosophy save the world?
Chen Zi was born in 1990 in Jiangxi, in southeast China. In 2008, having failed his exams, he dropped out of university, where he’d been studying mathematics, and roamed the country for over 10 years, working mainly in factories to make a living.
Despite often having to do exhausting 12-hour shifts of repetitive and debilitating labor, Chen, whose real passion had always been philosophy, managed to learn English and began reading Heidegger. This year, while working in a factory in Xiamen, over the course of four months, he finished a translation into Chinese of a book by an American philosophy professor, Richard Polt, titled ‘Heidegger: An Introduction.’ Having also completed some other translations, he asked online if anyone could help him publish them, having been told his chances of finding a publisher were very slim. When his post was discovered by the media, he became a hot topic on the internet.
Is there something liberating in this dedication to Heidegger or is it a false way out? It is easy to imagine the orthodox Marxist answer: assembly line workers do not need Heidegger as an antidote; what they need is to change their miserable working conditions.
Heidegger appears to have been a really bad choice for Chen, and for obvious reasons. After the posthumous publication of his private jottings in his ‘Black Notebooks’ in 2017, attempts abounded to exclude him from the list of philosophers to be taken seriously, on account of his anti-Semitism and Nazi links.
However, for this very reason, one should insist that Heidegger remains pertinent: even when he is at his worst, unexpected links open themselves up. In the mid-1930s, he said: “There are human beings and human groups (Negroes like, for example, Kaffirs) who have no history ... however, animal and plant life has a thousand-year-long and eventful history ... within the human region, history can be missing, as with Negroes.” (“Kaffir” was, at the time of apartheid, an ethnic slur used to refer to black Africans in South Africa.) The quoted lines are strange, even by Heidegger’s standards: so, animals and plants do have history, but “Negroes” do not? “Animal and plant life has a thousand-year-long and eventful history” – but, for sure, not in Heidegger’s strict sense of the epochal disclosures of being. Besides, where then do countries such as China or India stand, given they are also not historical in Heidegger’s specific sense?
Is this it, then? Should the case of Grant Farred, a noted contemporary black philosopher, born in South Africa, who teaches at Cornell University, in Ithaka, New York, be dismissed as a simple case of misunderstanding?
Farred’s short book ‘Martin Heidegger Saved My Life’ was written in reaction to a racist encounter. In the fall of 2013, while he was raking leaves outside his home, a white woman stopped by and asked him, “Would you like another job?”, obviously mistaking him for a paid gardener of the family she assumed lived in the house. Farred sarcastically responded: “Only if you can match my Cornell faculty salary.” In order to understand what happened, Farred turned to Heidegger: “Heidegger saved me because he gave me the language to write about race in such a way as I’d never written it before. Heidegger enabled me to write in this way because he has made me think about how to think.”
What he found so useful in Heidegger was the notion of language as a “house of being” – not the abstract-universal language of science and state administration, but language rooted in a particular way of life, language as the medium of an always-unique life experience that discloses reality to us in a historically specific way. It is easy to imagine how such a stance enables a subject to resist being swallowed into a global universe of technological domination. However, is this the way to fight what is often called the “Americanization” of our lives? To answer this question, we have to think – and, as Farred repeatedly points out, this is what he learned from Heidegger – not just to think but to think about thinking.
To make it clear, I am not a Heideggerian. But what I do know is that we live in a unique moment that gives rise to the urgency to think. It is not a peaceful time that provides the opportunity to comfortably withdraw into reflection on the world, but a time when our survival as humans is under threat from different directions: the prospect of total digital control that plans to invade our mind itself (“wired brain”), uncontrollable viral infections, the effects of global warming. We are all affected by these threats – and so-called ‘ordinary people’ even more than others.
So we should celebrate miracles such as the one involving Chen Zi. They demonstrate that philosophy is much more than an academic discipline – it is something that can, all of a sudden, interrupt the course of our daily life and make us perplexed.
French philosopher Alain Badiou opens his book ‘The True Life’ with the provocative claim that, from Socrates onward, the function of philosophy is to “corrupt the youth,” to alienate them from the predominant ideologico-political order. Such “corruption” is needed today, especially in the liberal, permissive West, where most people are not even aware of the way the establishment controls them precisely when they appear to be free. After all, the most dangerous unfreedom is the unfreedom that we experience as freedom.
Is a “free” populist who works on destroying the thick social network of customs really free? Mao Zedong famously said in the 1950s: “Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Today, we should say: Let a hundred Chen Zis study philosophy – for only in this way will we find a way out of our sad predicament.