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On Heidegger and Email

The hut near the edge of the Black Forest where Martin Heidegger developed his philosophy of Being.

I was in California last week promoting Digital Minimalism. One of the books I brought to keep me company was Sarah Bakewell’s insightful, and surprisingly entertaining, At The Existentialist Cafe.

In the third chapter, I came across a nice piece of focus porn concerning the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

During Heidegger’s first academic appointment, which was at the University of Marburg, his wife Elfride used an inheritance to buy some land near the Black Forest town of Todtnauberg. The plot overlooked “the grand horseshoe sweep of village and valley.”

As Bakewell elaborates:

“[Elfride] designed a wood-shingled hut to be built on the site, wedged into the hillside…Heidegger spent much time working there alone. The landscape criss-crossed by paths to help him think…in evenings or out of season it was silent and tranquil…when alone there, Heidegger would ski, walk, light a fire, cook simple meals, talk to the peasant neighbors, and settle for long hours at his desk, where…his writing took on the calm rhythm of a man chopping wood in a forest.”

Heidegger, of course, went on to become a controversial figure due to his later involvement with the Nazi party, but it’s hard to overstate the intellectual impact of his book Being and Time, which was written during this Marburg period, and helped shatter the rapidly ossifying structures of German phenomenology, ushering in a torrent of philosophical innovation.

In my more pessimistic moments of techno-contemplation, I worry about how many similarly deep thinkers we’ve accidentally “innovated” out of existed in recent years.

The metaphoric exemplar of Heidegger’s long days of writing in his Todtnauberg hut seems increasingly foreign in a world where academic life has been diminished toward the managerial by email, and social media increasingly tempts the rare egos large enough to produce something like Being and Time to pursue the immediate gratification of a righteous tweet over the tedious slog of writing an epochal book.

And yet, something about Heidegger’s purified intellectual life still appeals to us despite all these distractions. Electronic busyness offers fleeting satisfactions, but embedded in our cultural DNA is an appreciation of the deep ideas that last even after the servers power down.

Twitter is fun, but most of us would still rather our biggest minds quietly wander the paths surrounding their Black Forest hideaways, hunting transformation over retweets. We can hope that as long as this instinct persists, a correction to our current slide toward shallowness remains inevitable.

26 thoughts on “On Heidegger and Email”

  1. Does our instinctual idealized “focused-self” exist somewhere in between the world we inhabit, full of distractions – digital or otherwise, and the hideaways romanticized by times past?

    Or are we striving for an ideal that many of us can’t ever realistically attain?

    • I don’t mean to imply that everyone should, like Heidegger, go think deep thoughts in a hut in the woods. But I think we do have an instinctual affinity to the idea that this is what the big minds in our culture should be doing. That is, through cultural evolution, we’ve come to respect the power of intellectual craftsmanship…

  2. This is excellent and compelling, Cal. As a full professor in microbiology and infectious diseases and a faculty member now for 31 years, I an attest to being buried in email and admin crap that fills my ibox continually. The only way to deal with all of this is to set a task block for shallow work in late afternoon. Just processing the 75-100+ emails I get everyday is a lot of shallow work. Any other ideas on how to handle all of this?

    • I’m in the early stages of a new book about this general topic. Its tentative title: A WORLD WITHOUT EMAIL. I think we’ve flubbed our first attempt to figure out how to build a knowledge industry in the age of computer networks, and that exciting innovation awaits…

        • I would suggest ALWAYS having an “away” message that informs people that you answer emails on monday mornings, only. Then slot that time away.

          Unsubscribe from ALL newsletters, it doesn’t matter how important they seem to be, or how crucial. Autosort emails from certain adresses or containing certain words, and automark them as Read. That’s the way I’m doing it and I am much calmer.

      • I read William Park’s article on “How to escape the hyperactive hive mind of modern work” where he talks about your (future?) book “The world without email”. Any idea on the timing? Really looking forward to it. Being a Chemical Engineer who now works in Healthcare Marketing I really look forward to read it.

  3. Cal did you ever face bullying kind of thing in your career cause I believe this kind of thing can also affect your life and career to a larger extend

    • I haven’t faced something like this (outside of the standard hate mail which anyone receives once they’re doing any sort of non-trivial, public-facing thinking), but I could definitely understand why it would be a major obstacle…

  4. Another wonderful entry.
    Recently, I found that what brought me “meaning” in my life- what Ive
    yearned for all my life was “freedom”.
    Freedom isnt free- yet paradoxically, it has no real “cost”!
    How does freedom look to me?
    Simply put I jettisoned all websites I owned, multiple emails”accounts”,
    I thought “important”, use a flip phone, dont text and have one (work) email – with NO
    Push notify. I CHECK IT WHEN I CHOOSE, adding to the freedom. This also retrains my clients. Ive found people act accordingly to how we “train them”… Now, when I respond to my clients they get BETTER service- as Im actually listening to them!
    I now visit friends (analog- as In stop by) and when they look at me, between their phone beeping- I enjoy the visit.

  5. Cal – you said in a podcast that your next journey will bring you to emails and their significance. Please don’t forget to investigate the use of emails in government and – most especially – public safety (police, fire etc.). The use of emails in those places is very different than the private sector.

  6. I read that book a couple years ago, and it’s brilliant. Bakewell is a beautiful writer, and I think her sections on Heidegger were the most compelling.

    I’m also consistently amazed at how accurate Heidegger in his concerns of technology. I think his writing will only become more important as time goes on. He’s a great example of how despite someone’s mistakes, you can still value someone and their thoughts. The Twitterverse could learn from that.

  7. Your idea of “Deep Focus” is profoundly captured within Heidegger’s fundamental idea of “Dasein.” He is one of (or the?) originator of the idea of “Flow.” I think you will find a deep dive into his work very resonant. Reading Being and Time is its own formidable exercise in focus, but Hubert Dreyfus has written some commentary that may provide an accessible entry-way, among others.

  8. Another thought-provoking post. I am again kind of re-evaluating my own Twitter usage…though I don’t think I’m deluded enough to aspire to Heidegger! 😉 As for email, its construct isn’t very good. But it at least promotes long-form personal writing, like blog posts versus Tweets. I know a blogger who has no comment system and uses only email for reader replies, which I think reduces quantity but increases quality of writer/reader correspondence.

    Side note: it occured to me your blog has no “Like” buttons for posts. So if I like a post and want to let you know, then I simply write a comment reply saying, “I like your post!” Also, no share buttons. If I want to share your post, I copy the url link and paste it to the place I want to share. I just say that to note: we can communicate things online easily enough without modern social media constructs. Just a good reminder to myself! I’ve been contemplating the “like” system and its effects in my life.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Agreed!
      Ive practiced using restraint on the “likes and re share easy buttons” that flood our digital life.
      I spent 6 months in abstinence of just that practice.
      This caused an unexpected recovery form the disease I didnt know I had….”like and re share disorder”.
      Now, Im very content to enjoy the article myself.
      And the FEW times I do send a link, people notice it.
      hmmmm “rare and valuable” anyone?

  9. I love focus porn, and can’t get enough of the romantic routines of writers, artists or any other masters, relentlessly chipping away in their hideouts, only to emerge world-class at their craft.

    “I worry about how many similarly deep thinkers we’ve accidentally “innovated” out of existed in recent years.” (Typo – existence?)

    As a decade long reader of your blog, Cal, this above line reminded me of your 2008 post on “Would Lincoln Have Become President If He Had E-Mail?”. I went back to that post, and that led me into binge-reading your older posts. It was really amusing to watch myself getting hijacked by your blog without any attention-engineered algorithms trying to bait me.

  10. You have a typo:
    I worry about how many similarly deep thinkers we’ve accidentally “innovated” out of existed in recent years.”

    ‘existed’ to ‘existence’?

    I appreciate your posts!

  11. Emerging social media affects our way of learning and thinking. The big explosion of information has led to an increase in the reading of debris, and people’s thinking and thought precipitation will be compressed. Now I haven’t quietly read a whole book for a long time.


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