Karsten Harries interviewed by Richard Marshall.


Karsten Harriesis a philosopher who has spent a lifetime thinking about the purpose of philosophy, about architecture, about Heidegger, about why Heidegger thought there was something wrong with aestheticism, about Heidegger's refusal to accept the separation of art from the sacred, on why this doesn't work anymore, on Heidegger's ontological conception of the beautiful, on why Heidegger's discussion of art is completely subordinate to his question around Being, on why the battle between idealism and realism has no resolution, on Heidegger's decorated shed, on pessimism, on Holderlin, on how his approach to architecture differs from Heidegger's, on the relevance of Kant, on the ethical function of architecture, on whether buildings should be treated as texts, on the valid way of life for the modernist, on whether modern architecture has lost its way and what philosophers can offer architecture. This one runs as deep as the riverrun...

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?

Karsten Harries:Aristotle gives us an account of what lets human beings turn to philosophy that fits my own turn to philosophy: “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders); therefore, since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.” As a boy I was interested in how things worked; watermills especially fascinated me. As a young teenager I became interested in astronomy; the expanding universe raised many questions. Still in Germany, I got hold of a volume I still own that included Pascual Jordan’s “Kosmogonische Anschauungen der modernen Physik” (1949). The questions about the genesis of the universe it raised have stayed with me. Such questions led me to wonder about the legitimacy and limits of the objectifying reason that, presiding over our science and technology, is shaping our life-world ever more decisively. In college I thus drifted, after considering mathematics and history as possible majors, towards philosophy.

I ended up, however, not really majoring in any one subject; I am by nature a boundary crosser and Yale’s Scholar of the House program freed me in my senior year from the normal course requirement. In required instead a dissertation-length essay. Mine had the title Change and Permanence. A Study of Structure, Symbol, and Idea in Eight Major Prose Works by Hermann Hesse. That essay already attempted to address that nihilism which inescapably shadows the progress of reason. My dissertation, Stranger In a Strange Land. An Exploration of Nihilism(Yale 1961) confronted that shadow more directly, as does my most recent book: Wahrheit: Die Architektur der Welt(2012).

My interest in art and architecture precedes my interest in philosophy. I always loved to draw and I first fell in love with the architecture of the Bavarian rococo when I was 7. It is thus not surprising that much of my teaching and writing should have been been directed to artists and architects, beginning with The Meaning of Modern Art(1968), followed by The Bavarian Rococo Church: Between Faith and Aestheticism(1982) and The Ethical Function of Architecture(1997). As an intersection of art and technology, architecture has given me the opportunity to explore very concretely what today most interests me: the need for a post-Copernican geocentrism: Full self-affirmation requires an affirmation of the never quite resolved tension between our need for freedom, for open space, and our need for place. That space exploration and the environmental movement should have developed in the very same years is hardly an accident. By now it has become a cliché that we need to make sure that those natural resources on which we depend for our survival will continue to be available, not just to us, but to future generations — and when we think here of natural resources we should think them in the widest possible sense: even space has become an increasingly scarce resource. Why then do we continue to build and act as we do?

3:AM:Heidegger calls into question aesthetics with his ‘The Origin of the Work of Art.’ What does he mean by aesthetics?

KH:In the Epilogueto his essay Heidegger gives us his answer: “Almost from the time when specialized thinking about art and the artist began, this thought was called aesthetic. Aesthetics takes the work of art as an object, the object of aisthesis, of sensuous apprehension in the wide sense. Today we call this apprehension experience. The way in which man experiences art is supposed to give information about its nature. Experience is the source that is standard not only for art appreciation and enjoyment, but also for artistic creation. ” When Heidegger is speaking of “the time when specialized thinking about art and the artist began,” he is thinking of the 18th century. It was Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, who, first in his dissertation of 1735, not only helped to inaugurate a specifically modern approach to poetry and beyond that to art, but also gave us the word "aesthetics" to name what has developed into a main branch of philosophy.

In the course of his discussion, Baumgarten understands the successful poem, and we can extend this to include the successful work of art, as a perfect whole. Nothing here is superfluous, nothing is missing. The work of art, so understood, should convince by its inner coherence. Its point is not to mean something beyond itself. Its presence is enough. Beauty, on the aesthetic approach, has little to do with truth or the good. The beautiful work of art does not so much reveal reality as it offers a vacation from it. Emphasis on the self-sufficiency of the aesthetic object leads thus quite naturally to an emphasis on aesthetic distance, on that separation of art from reality Kant and, following him, Schopenhauer were to insist on. Such distance is implied by that disinterested pleasure in which Kant found the key to the essence of aesthetic experience. For a time the experience of art allows us to leave behind the burdens of the everyday. As the art historian Michael Fried wrote in “Art and Objecthood”: “presentness is grace.”

3:AM:And why did he want to break away from this view of art? Was it that he didn’t think art worked anymore, or that the theories explaining what art was didn’t?

KH:Like Nietzsche before him, Heidegger refused to accept the finality of the separation of art from the sacred that is demanded by the aesthetic approach. This does not claim that art does not work any more. Quite the opposite: it works very well, offering us welcome entertainment, relief from the burdens of life, perhaps even momentary Ersatz for the lost sacred. Aesthetic theorizing has recognized this. And art can still serve some already established morality, ideology, or religion. But this is not to say that art is still a privileged way of revealing to us who we are and where we should be going. The shape of the modern world denies art its former ethical function. For that it looks to reason. Like Hegel, Heidegger thus thinks art in its highest sense something past. The art that is in keeping with our modern world, according to both, is art subject to the aesthetic approach, i.e. art serving aesthetic experience in the widest, highest and lowest sense. Hegel did not mourn this development: quite the opposite: he considered it part of humanity’s coming of age and mourning the death of art in its highest sense as silly as nostalgically wanting to return to one’s childhood. But Heidegger cannot accept Hegel’s understanding of the age as the triumphant culmination of the progress of history, but sees, lurking behind that progress, the specter of nihilism. And so he dreams of an art that will let the sacred return.

3:AM:Did Heideggerhave an ontological conception of the beautiful and in this respect was he following Hegel?

KH:By an ontological conception of art I mean one that ties art to truth. In Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics such an understanding is taken for granted. Hegel knows that much art has always been no more than a trifling diversion: decoration or entertainment. But he demands more of art: the true purpose of art is to provide us with “the sensuous representations of the absolute itself.” Beauty is understood as “only a certain manner of expressing and representing the true.” So understood an ontological conception of the beautiful is not particularly Hegelian — equally well one could point to Plato, Thomas Aquinas, or Heidegger — to give just some examples.

The fundamental difference between Hegel’s and Heidegger’s understanding of the ontological approach is explained by their very different understanding of history. History, if Hegel is right, cannot be understood as a sequence of events without rhyme or reason. Despite countless setbacks, history can be understood as the progress of freedom. From the very beginning human beings have sought to appropriate the natural given by transforming it in their own image and this means first of all in the image of their own spirit. History is understood by Hegel as the progress of such appropriation, art as part of this effort to make the natural and sensible our own, to rob it of its character of being a mute, alien other, and thus to help transform it into a dwelling place fit for human beings. The goal of art is the humanization of the sensible, where humanization means spiritualization. In every work of art we can therefore distinguish a spiritual content and a material embodiment. So understood art prefigures science and technology as a first attempt to master the given. But the latter allow for an altogether more effective mastery of the material and for the transformation of nature into a fit dwelling place for human beings. For that very reason the progress of spirit must leave art behind.

If we accept any version of the presupposed understanding of history as spiritual progress, we have to accept also that art and more especially architecture have lost their ethical function, that art in its highest sense lies behind us. Heidegger does not share Hegel’s optimistic understanding of history. He lacks the faith of the Enlightenment that reason’s pursuit of truth will lead us ever closer to the highest good, where virtue goes hand in hand with happiness. As pointed out already, Heidegger instead sees the progress of reason shadowed by nihilism. He thus listened sympathetically to Nietzsche’s “We possess art lest we perish of the truth, ” where both sought to return to art something of the power of myth

3:AM:What did Heidegger think was at stake with this discussion of art? Was it more than art?

KH:Heidegger’s discussion of art is altogether subordinate to the question of being around which his thinking circles from beginning to end. It is an unsettling question which calls into question philosophy’s attempt to raise the edifice of knowledge on a firm foundation. To understand that question it is perhaps best to begin with Heidegger’s attempt to think the ontological difference, the difference between beings and being, the latter referring, in a way that recalls Berkeley’s esse est percipi, to the way beings present themselves to human beings, to the manner of their presencing. So understood, being is constitutive of and therefore transcends beings. Beings can present themselves only to beings such as we are, conscious, embodied and dwelling in language, open to a world in which beings have to take their place and present themselves if they are “to be” at all. That world could not be without human beings. That holds also, indeed especially, of the world constructed by science. The bizarre and alien world revealed to us by physics is a human construct, supported by reason and experience.

Read in this way Being and Timebelongs with the tradition of transcendental idealism. But Heidegger qualifies this when he speaks in Being and Timeof the dependence of being, but not of beings, of reality, but not of the real, on the always understanding and caring being of human beings. There is therefore a sense in which beings and the real can be said to transcend that being which is said to be relative to human being. To be sure, these beings could not “be” in the above sense without human beings. Only human consciousness provides the open space that allows things to be perceived, understood, and cared for. That space is a presupposition of the accessibility of things, of their being. But this is not to say that we in any sense create these beings. Our experience of the reality of the real is thus an experience of beings as transcending being.

The battle between idealism and realism has no resolution. It is itself an expression of what I call the antinomy of being. Two senses of being here clash: the first transcendental sense makes being dependent on human beings, while the second transcendent sense, understands being as the ground of our historical being and thus also of being understood transcendentally. But any attempt to conceptually lay hold of that ground, as materialism attempts to do, must inevitably fail in that it loses sight of the transcendence of reality and substitutes for it a humanly constructed realty. Whenever it attempts to do so, our thinking bumps against the limits of language and logic. And yet we experience this transcendent reality, which eludes the reach of our concepts, whenever we experience the reality of the real. Reason and reality are not commensurable. Art recalls us to this incommensurability.

But openness to this incommensurability is a presupposition of experiencing a person as a person. To the extent that we understand persons in the image of robots with complicated computer brains we lose sight of the uniqueness that is essential to our experience of persons as worthy of respect. In the age of the technical reproducibility of just about everything, not just works of art, but also persons, that respect for persons which is a presupposition of any ethics disappears. That is why it is important to read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” together with Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.

3:AM:What are we to make of the idea that ‘the age of the decorated shed’ is a reduction that threatens our humanity? Does Heidegger think that in modernity art has no place and no future?

KH:What I have in mind when I call our modern epoch “the age of the decorated shed” is more than the obvious fact that most of the important buildings rising today all over the world invite the label “decorated sheds,” functional buildings meant to succeed also as aesthetic objects: The modern world itself invites us to understand it in the image of a decorated shed. By “world” I understand here not the totality of facts but the spiritual situation or framework that is presupposed by the way those attuned to our global post-industrial culture think and act, relate to things and to persons. In this sense — and I am aware that my description is a caricature, but an illuminating caricature I trust — we can be said to live in the age of the decorated shed.

In choosing this expression I am thinking also of Heidegger’s characterization of our age as “The Age of the World Picture,” this, too, a illuminating caricature. In that essay Heidegger was concerned with the threat the world picture that rules the modern world poses to our humanity. The aesthetic approach may be understood as a response to this threat. Aesthetic experience promises to compensate us for the poverty of a world shaped by objectifying reason. But as I tried to show in my replies to preceding questions, that response betrays the promise of art: to understand art first of all in aesthetic terms is to deny art its ethical function. Tending to reduce all art to decoration in the broadest sense, not just of our buildings, but of our lives, the age of the decorated shed threatens our humanity. Needed is a different art. And while such art has no place in the age of the world picture, as Heidegger describes it, Heidegger knows how important it is to keep open the dimension that would allow such art to have a future.

3:AM:Doesn’t this gloomy prognosis ignore the way art movements shift and adapt? When you confront Hegel and Heidegger are you sympathetic to their perspective or is it too gloomy and unreasonably pessimistic?

KH:My father, a passionate gardener, liked to say: “Der einzige Mist, auf dem nichts wächst ist der Pessimist,” “the only dung on which nothing grows is the pessimist.” I agree with this sentiment. But I have to admit that the state of the world today, especially the way we seem unable to take effective action to ward off environmental disaster, makes it difficult to dismiss the pessimist’s dire prognoses as unreasonable. I do think that there is much to be learned from Heidegger’s understanding of technology, of this age as the age of the world picture. But what he offers us remains an illuminating caricature. Is that caricature onesided? Yes! Is it unreasonable? That charge is perhaps more easily raised against the optimist’s hope. I am unable to share Kant’s, or Hegel’s, or Habermas’ faith in the power of reason alone to lead us to the good life. The selfish person who says after me the deluge is not unreasonable. But he has a heart of stone. Needed is a change of heart. How do hearts change? I remain hopeful. As Kant knew, hope is a presupposition of responsible action.

3:AM:What’s the significance of Hölderlin for Heidegger here?

KH:In the Spiegel interview Heidegger provides us with an answer:
“It is not for me to decide how far I will get with my attempt at thinking and in which way it will be received and productively transformed in the future. In 1957 I gave a lecture entitled “The Principle of Identity” for the anniversary of the University of Freiburg. In it I last risked showing, in a few steps of thought, the extent to which a thinking experience of what is most characteristic of modern technology can go. I attempted to show that it may go so far as opening up the possibility that human beings of the technological age experience the relationship to a demand that they can not only hear but to which they also belong. My thinking has an essential connection to Hölderlin’s poetry. But I do not think Hölderlin is just any poet, whose work is a subject, among many others, for literary historians. I think Hölderlin is the poet who points toward the future, who expects the god, and who therefore cannot remain simply a subject for Hölderlin research in the literary historical imagination.“

Heidegger here insists that his thinking stands in a relationship to Hölderlin's poetry that is not to be gotten around — a remarkable statement for a philosopher to make. It reminds me of what a medieval philosopher might have said about the relationship of his thinking to the Bible. But can a philosopher today claim this sort of thing without surrendering all claims to be considered a philosopher? And how can Heidegger attribute to the hymns of the half-mad Hölderlin a significance comparable to that of Scripture? I find Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin’s hymns always suggestive, but not always convincing. The young Nietzsche hoped that a rebirth of Greek tragedy would cure the ills of an age shaped by Socratic reason. Having lost the faith in which he was raised, Heidegger hoped for something similar, although he was aware that, like the God whose death Nietzsche had proclaimed, Greek tragedy lay irrecoverably behind us. In Hölderlin he found a poet who, mourning that double loss, kept open the dimension in which something divine might once again show itself.

3:AM:Are these the philosophical issues that help us understand your approach to architecture? Is Heidegger the context for your philosophical approach here?

KH:Let me begin to answer this question by pointing to what I take to be an important difference between our approaches. Especially the later Heidegger keeps returning to the need for rootedness, for a sense of place. I recognize that need. But that need is in tension with our need for freedom, for open space. Heidegger seems to me to fail to do justice to the latter. I do not think that this tension between place and space can or should be resolved by our building; it should rather be enacted.

My disagreement with Heidegger here rests on a deeper disagreement. My own philosophical position is somewhere between Heidegger and Kant, closer to Kant. What do I mean by that? Perhaps I can clarify this by turning to a passage in Being and Timewhere Heidegger is critical of Kant.

“The idea of a ‘pure “I”’ and of a ‘consciousness in general’ are so far from including the a priori character of actual subjectivity that the ontological characters of Dasein’s facticity and its state of Being are either passed over or not seen at all. Rejection of a ‘consciousness in general’ does not signify that the a priori is negated, any more than the positing of an idealized subject guarantees that Dasein has an a priori character grounded upon fact.

Both the contention that there are ‘eternal truths’ and the jumbling together of Dasein’s phenomenally grounded ‘ideality’ with an idealized absolute subject, belong to those residues of Christian theology within philosophical problematics which have not as yet been radically extruded.” (SZ 229)

With Kant I would insist that in reflection we are able to transcend ourselves. This movement of self-transcendence has to lead us to some version of the transcendental or pure I. To it corresponds the idea of the transcendental object (not the thing in itself), of the object as known by an ideal observer, which as a regulative ideal presides over the progress of objectifying reason. Here lies the key to its legitimacy. Without it we cannot do justice to our science and technology. To speak here dismissively of a “residue of Christian theology” to be extruded is to fail to consider that that theology is itself witness to the human spirit’s power of self-transcendence and an important step in the self-elevation of the human spirit. In Infinity and Perspective I attempt to develop that point at some length. That book concludes with a call for a new geo-centrism, but in full awareness of the impossible to dismiss promise of open space.

3:AM:What approaches to architecture are you contesting with your approach – for example Pevsner’s is someone you disagree with isn’t he?

KH:Pevsner’s characterization of Lincoln Cathedral serves me as a convenient example of an understanding of architecture in keeping with the aesthetic approach. It continues to preside over much work in the philosophy of architecture, particularly in the analytic tradition. The strongest example is perhaps Roger Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Architecture. Richard Hill’s Designs and their Consequences. Architecture and Aesthetics and Edward Winters’ Aesthetics and Architecturealso deserve mention.

My insistence on the ethical function of architecture calls the presupposed aesthetic approach into question. It seems to me to obscure the real task architecture faces today, where I am thinking especially of the challenges posed by the environment and the digital revolution, which in diametrically opposed ways promise to transform our understanding of space, one forcing us to reckon with space an increasingly scarce resource, the other inviting us to play in virtual space and to carry something of the promise of such play into our everyday.

3:AM:You ask: what does it mean to say that the task of architecture is that of interpretation? And this brings with it questions such as whether architecture should be treated as texts, do buildings have a hermeneutic function, what tools of interpretation are available and so on. How do you propose we approach these cluster of issues? Heidegger and his notion of ‘dwelling’ are important for you aren’t they here?

KH:Should buildings be treated as texts? While some works of architecture invite such an approach, it loses sight of what architecture is. I do not understand “interpretation” narrowly as just the interpretation of texts, but rather think of the German Auslegung, which literally understood means to lay out things in a way that makes their significance conspicuous. Think of putting things in some shop-window or workshop in their proper places. In that sense all buildings have a hermeneutic function; they inevitably serve and interpret a way of life. I do not think there is here a need for special tools of interpretation: the more simple our language the better. And while Heidegger has helped me find my way, it is certainly not his way and does not require the support of his thought. I have learned from Heidegger’s understanding of dwelling, but do not really need it. “Dwelling” certainly should not be allowed to become an arcane technical term.

3:AM:A second area of question is what way of life is valid for our modernist period? How is this answerable?

KH:Instead of attempting a positive answer, let me begin by pointing to what we should not be doing. We should not simply take for granted that what we commonly understand by "a high standard of living" translates into "a high quality of life"? How important is a sense of community? What sort of community? Is it important to our spiritual well-being that this be an ongoing community. How important are mobility and stability? How important is it to be able to enjoy the outdoors, to see a tree sprouting its first green in spring, to actually dig in the earth, to grow one's own tomatoes? Regardless of how we answer such questions, needed is a workable index of what constitutes the "desired" or better "desirable" quality of life. Any such definition should acknowledge a commitment to future generations and such a commitment should find expression in the built environment. Any such definition should also acknowledge that to fully affirm ourselves we also need to affirm the earth to which we belong, need to keep ourselves responsible, that is to say open and able to respond to others and to the earth that is our shared home.

3:AM:Has architecture lost its way? And does this tell us something about our time? Is this failure moral? Or is it a philosophical failure?

KH:I do find much of our building irresponsible. As I suggested in my answer to the preceding question: we do not think enough of others and of nature. That shows itself in our architecture. And we do not think far enough into the future. No doubt this tells us something about our age, e.g. about the way we reckon with time, the way money has come to be more and more the measure of value. Think of the art of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst! Should we speak here of a moral failure? I would say so, quite aware that I am presupposing here a specific idea of the good life. Is it a philosophical failure? I would say: no! That would presuppose that practical reason is able to establish binding norms. But reason alone cannot bind freedom. That requires a change of heart.

3:AM:What do philosophers have to offer architecture?

KH:Certainly no clear direction. What philosophers can do is make life more difficult for architects by raising questions that open possibilities that should have been, but may not have been considered. More especially, they can call into question the aesthetic approach that despite increasing misgivings continues to shape the practice of architecture.

3:AM:How does Heidegger’s notion of dwelling connect architecture with the problem of community and the political?

KH:“Dwelling” is just a word for the way human beings exist in their world and with others. In that sense the community and politics are inseparably bound up with human dwelling. And if all “building” both presupposes and serves “dwelling,” architecture has inescapably also a communal and political significance. That is true even of some retreat someone built to leave community and politics behind.

3:AM:And finally for the readers here at 3:AM are there five books other than your own that you can recommend we read to get further into your philosophical world?

KH:My own thinking has been shaped by a continuing conversation with leading representatives of the philosophical tradition: I mention Plato (here especially Symposiumand Phaedo), Nicolaus Cusanus, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Heidegger. Hegel (Lectures on Aesthetics) and Sartre helped me to become clearer about what I found unacceptable in their thinking. The secondary literature on these thinkers has not given me all that much. Of more recent thinkers I owe most to Hans Blumenberg, to whose memory I dedicated Infinity and Perspective. To those who want to enter further into my philosophical world I recommend thus especially Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Ageand The Genesis of the Copernican World— and, perhaps most importantly, Kant’s Critique of Judgment.

Richard Marshallis still biding his time.