Understanding Heidegger

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 17 September 2021

Reading the great philosophers is intimidating: Long sentences, difficult language.

Now there is hope for us mortals. Where I lack the intelligence (or patience) to comprehend the philosophers’ big ideas, artificial intelligence (AI) can help.

The Initiative uses software to improve our writing. It’s genius. You give it something you wrote, and some algorithm makes you sound smarter.

But it also works the other way around, as I learned to my delight.

Consider Heidegger. Heidegger is reputedly the world’s most difficult to understand philosopher. You will agree if you have read anything he wrote.

So I put our software to the test and gave it the following Heidegger passage:

“Today we decide about metaphysics and about even more elevated things at philosophy conferences. For everything that is to be done these days we must first have a meeting, and here is how it works: people come together, constantly come together, and they all wait for one another to turn up so that the others will tell them how it is, and if it doesn’t get said, never mind, everyone has had their say. It may very well be that all the talkers who are having their say have understood little of the matter in question, but still we believe that if we accumulate all that misunderstanding something like understanding will leap forth at the end of the day. Thus there are people today who travel from one meeting to the next and who are sustained by the confidence that something is really happening, that they’ve actually done something; whereas, at bottom, they’ve merely ducked out of work, seeking in chatter a place to build a nest for their helplessness—a helplessness, it is true, that they will never understand.”

This was the result:

“Our philosophy conferences cover exciting topics like metaphysics. In meetings, people constantly discuss how they think. Everybody has spoken. Despite all this confusion, we still believe that understanding will emerge. Meetings are thought of today as productive. But they are just skipping work.”

I’m not sure which is more surprising: That Heidegger makes sense? Or that an artificial intelligence software can sum him up?

Even better, it also works in reverse and can turn anyone into a new Heidegger:

“Additionally, you should also remember that it’s extremely important to make sure you maintain your physical and psychological wellbeing – in addition to being as kind and considerate as possible towards others as well.”

Which is just the longer AI version of:

“Stay safe and be kind.”

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