Whitman College made history in the field of philosophy recently in two ways. The campus hosted the 51st annual meeting of the Heidegger Circle, with more than 50 scholars from around the world convening to discuss the renowned German thinker (1889-1976). And during the proceedings, event organizer Julia Ireland '90, associate professor of philosophy at Whitman, was elected the first woman presiding officer of the group. Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti professor in Italian literature at Stanford University, delivered the keynote address. He answered questions about his research and the conference.
Whitman Magazine: How does your work as an Italianist and literature scholar intersect with your work on Heidegger?
Robert Pogue Harrison: I am not a Heidegger scholar, yet Heidegger had a deeply formative influence on me during my undergraduate years and in graduate school. Heidegger's Being and Time opened up for me a wholly new perspective on the existential dimensions of Dante's early work, the Vita Nuova, the subject of my dissertation.
WM: Talk about your conference address, "What the Rivers Do No One Knows."
RPH: Julia Ireland encouraged me to consider giving a talk on Heidegger and rivers. I pondered the issue of rivers and human mortality within the framework of Heidegger's thinking about rivers in the poetry of the German poet Hölderlin. Rivers are life-giving, yet also, in their streaming, beckon toward death.
WM: You attended one of Ireland's classes on Heidegger's Being and Time.
RPH: When you learn what Heidegger is up to in Being and Time—the way Professor Ireland's students are learning in her seminar—you understand something about human existence at its most basic levels. It's not so much a question of, "What do I do with Heidegger?" as it is, "What does Heidegger do with me?" Heidegger throws you back upon yourself. Once that happens, he's there with you, whatever you decide to do with your life.
WM: Elsewhere at Whitman, you discussed your 1992 book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization—which examines the role of forests in the Western imagination.
RPH: I visited three different classes, and in each case, the discussions were intense, focused and at a very high intellectual level. I don't know if the students were super-prepared or if they are just really smart, but I was impressed. The discussion covered a lot of ground, from ecology to poetry to the dark recesses of the human psyche.
WM: What does it mean that a national Heidegger conference occurred at a liberal arts college like Whitman?
RPH: The humanities will take care of themselves as long as we—the humanities faculty, our students and our university administrations—continue to think. The greatest danger to the humanities—and frankly to the world at large—is thoughtlessness. The Heidegger conference certainly did its share to awaken thought.