Reviewed by Robert Farrow
This book, which is based on Mei’s doctoral thesis, has at its heart the perennial question of the meaning of work and its relation to human existence. This is undoubtedly an important topic with an attendant set of pressing questions. How, under the present conditions or modern capitalism, how do we understand our own contributions and responsibilities? Can there be anything more to work than the simple fulfilment of necessity, and is there anything more to work than finding ways to fulfil our material needs? Heidegger, Work and Being approaches these questions from a hermeneutic perspective.
Mei presents two main theses in this volume. First, a reinterpretation of the modern understanding of work which focuses on uncovering its intellectual and historical foundations is used to defend the idea that Marxist and Utilitarian concepts of work are inadequate. Second, Mei argues that the nature of work should be ‘ontologically broadened and enriched’ (4) in order to facilitate a transformation in how we understand it. The book concludes that work should be interpreted as a kind of metaphor that ‘resides halfway between necessity and the open horizon of givenness and thanking’ (137). Unpacking the meaning and pertinence of this metaphor and the commitments that are involved takes up most of the volume.
The Ricoeurian spirit in which Mei’s project is undertaken appears to accept, prima facie, that any methodology ‘reflects the metaphysics of the age’ and so is prey to what Heidegger termed the ‘forgetfulness of Being’ (3-4). But Mei understands modernity as an ‘intermediary lacuna’ which invites reflection on the possibilities of human being (6). Modernity so construed is ‘a hermeneutical exigency that is constantly renewing’ (ibid.) and open to fresh elucidation.
However, scholars of Marx hoping for a new hermeneutically-inspired interpretation of key passages are likely to be disappointed, since the treatment of Marx in the second chapter is perfunctory, and relies heavily on secondary commentators. While lively, Mei’s discussion is unbalanced and his interpretations do not seem to be adequately justified by reference to primary sources. Mei throws his lot in with Arendt, Ricoeur and Habermas in suggesting that Marx fails to distinguish the reflective and technical aspects of work (16-17). The corresponding contradiction between freedom and necessity, he contends, leads to an ironic reversal: Marx’s ‘ontological suspension’ renders the world a set of materials rather than an object of interpretation. In short, Mei’s Marx is a thinker of instrumental rationality who is unable to grasp his own ideological assumptions (31). Mei’s re-interpretation of work is thus intended to reintegrate the theoretical content (theoria) of work with Marx’s understanding of practical activity (praxis). Two significant omissions in Mei’s interpretation of Marx appear to stand in the way of this. First, Mei presents Marx’s conception of human subjectivity as thoroughly individualistic, rather than collective or intersubjective. Second, little is made of the importance of history and historicity for Marx’s thought, save perhaps for a quote from Dupré which is apparently used simply to support the assertion that, for Marx, ‘activity pertains to human being’ (25). Taken together, it is evident that Mei’s analysis completely neglects important Marxian categories like class and class consciousness, and in general his treatment of Marx is unconvincing.
Although he notes that Marx’s thought is rooted in philosophical anthropology, Mei does not attempt to offer any sort of alternative account of human nature. Instead, his focus turns to the metaphysics of ‘utility’ most generally construed. The account of ‘utility’ which pervades the modern age is, according to Mei, one which is reduced to ‘efficiency’ and disassociated (or divorced) from wider interpretations of the meaning of work (32). The third chapter of this volume is devoted to defending the claim that ‘there must have been a metaphysical shift in which the individual’s relation to nature was conceptually severed and then reinforced’ (33). Much of the argument recalls Heidegger’s critique of representational thought in Being and Time and the discussion of mediation through technology in The Question Concerning Technology. For Mei, utilitarianism represents the pinnacle of the modern tendency to replace metaphysical principles with a general notion of rational efficiency, a dislocation between human action and human purpose (45). Purposeful human activity, Mei suggests, must involve a reinterpretation of the concept of utility.
Given his Heideggerian sympathies, Mei’s return to Aristotle’s categories to develop such a reinterpretation should not be too surprising. But the interesting – and problematic – thesis developed by Mei is that Aristotle provides us with a conceptual understanding of the process of work in which its form (eidos) ‘is tied to and not broken from the divine’ (56). The target here, once more, is Marx and, more specifically, the way in which Marx emphasizes the importance of praxis to the detriment of theoria. What Mei takes from Aristotle is that work should be understood as poiesis, as creative acts of transformation that perpetuate the world. As such, it is the kind of contemplation of the ethical and divine which is characteristic of the life of flourishing (62).
Mei is keen to stress Aristotle’s view that theoria is the most divine activity than human beings can undertake (59) before using energeia (‘activity’ or ‘being-in-work’) to bridge the gap between praxis and poeisis. Utility then, for Mei, involves both attentiveness to appropriate use of designed objects and an understanding of how that activity relates to the overall wellbeing of the polis. Use is ‘no mere instrumental handling of things but constitutes the meditative heart by which work and the things produced by work are linked to the highest aspirations of the good life’ (69).
The author is undoubtedly correct to point out that Aristotle’s presentation of meaningful activity presents a counterpoint to the modern penchant for efficiency, but little is done in the fourth chapter to support the contention that there is some notion of techn? available to us which would be appropriate to the modernity as it was earlier laid out. Instead, the idea of work as a kind of metaphorical activity is explored in Chapter Five through a Ricoeurian lens where metaphor ‘constitutes the richest kind of meaning because it is the most ontological’ (75). Rather than being merely a way of meeting our needs, work so interpreted is a kind of discourse about the significance of human activity in general. Mei thus finds that that we need to understand work in more gestural, artistic terms, ‘because the ontological comportment that arises from reflection redeems the encounter with necessity’ (91).
This leads to another engagement with Heidegger’s reading of the Greeks in the sixth chapter. Mei here argues that techn? is not just a practical skill or ‘knack’, but a way in which the world itself is disclosed through ‘lived structures and things’ (101). What follows from this, Mei suggests, is that human activity exposes the meaning of being because ‘human use (and mis-use) is itself an attestation to the cosmic order … human beings are inextricably linked to the manner of being of the cosmos itself’ (104). The practical implications of such a re-orientation are not explored at length, and Mei does not deviate from his Heideggerian inspiration in any significant way.
Mei’s thesis is developed in the following chapter by associating meaningful activity with a thankful relation to being: ‘the appropriate nature of use comes to fruition as the thankful quality of a thing that indwells in the things itself’ (108). Mei terms this ‘the ontological nature of thanking’ (109). This is amalgamated with Ricoeur’s account of mutual recognition as a kind of ‘invisible bond’ (114) which reveals the interconnection between people, objects and the world. This leads Mei to recast the problem of finding an appropriate philosophy of work in terms of ‘recognizing mutuality itself as a decisive feature of its nature since necessity and utility preclude the acknowledgement of beings according to their own manner of disclosure’ (ibid.). In the final chapter, the author attempts to resurrect the idea of vocation in light of his re-interpretation of work, arguing that vocation is a response to being that culminates in an appropriate kind of thankfulness.
Throughout the volume, Mei shows himself to be adequate to the task he has set himself. But there are many important aspects to the philosophy of work that remain unresolved. Mei typically assumes that work is something analogous to a calling: a result of an inspiration to build, create or express. But this surely bears little resemblance to the conditions under which the vast majority of people ‘work’, or their experience of powerlessness or disenfranchisement: ‘alienation’ is emphatically not a subject you will find discussed here, and the suggestion seems to be that those who decline the invitation to engage with what Mei terms the ontological question of work merely flee into what Heidegger terms the ‘everyday’ (131). It may be to the author’s credit that he never comes close to being an apologist for modern working practices, but by concentrating almost exclusively on Heidegger’s interpretation of Aristotle and the pre-Socratics he fails to engage sufficiently with the contemporary understanding of work which provided the original inspiration for his hermeneutic project.
Despite these limitations, there remains much to commend in this book. Mei is undoubtedly right to draw attention to the impact of our working lifestyles. The research is thorough and the argument is sustained. Notwithstanding the occasional convoluted sentence (which is possibly an occupational hazard for those who emulate Heidegger’s style), Mei writes engaging prose which flows well. The novelty, ambition and scholarship of Mei’s project are commendable, and enthusiasts of Heidegger and/or Ricoeur may well find it to their taste. However, readers of a more analytic or Marxist persuasion are unlikely to find the arguments compelling.
18 June 2010