Chapter 33. Street Photography

Recently at the IOE Colloquium (June 2013), a friend of mine Tony See was also, so it happens at that time, a Visiting Academic at the IOE.  So I invited him to gave a keynote paper on Heidegger’s ideas and letting be in education.  I worked on a response to that so that we could try to get our “conversation” (between a Heideggerian and a Thomist, yours truly) published in some avenue.  While working on that piece I thought of several ideas that are pertinent for “photography” in the way I understand it, viz. photography understood as a kind of unconcealing “theoria” in the Heideggerian sense, of acquaintance, which includes not merely the picture taking but the reflective writing about photography taken as a whole.  I’ve therefore weaved in some of these thoughts into select extracts from a draft version of my response to Tony’s paper below:

Letting Be

Heidegger’s ideas are hard to access, and so one finds on many an occasion that it is useful to have a guide. Tony See’s paper “Heidegger and Education: Between Man and Animal”  has helped me to grasp aspects of Heidegger’s thinking for art, design and education.  What stands out in his discussion is Heidegger’s distinction between the human, which he labels “dasein”, and the mere animal.  The human dasein, who is a “being-there (in-the-world)”, or immersed in the world and engaging the world, is able to “unconceal” the world.  If I understand that correctly, it means that the human being, who is fully involved in the world, is able to make sense of the world in new ways, and to construct new understandings of the world that he experiences.  This contrasts firstly with the mere animal, which can do no more than to make sense of the world through the veil of its instincts, and hence the world is given as such through its instincts; its understanding of what constitutes the world in which it exists and experiences is hence “circumscribed”. The human dasein, on the other hand, is able to ongoingly reveal new meanings of his existence, and of the things around him that he experiences.

But in various ways, the human may fail to be dasein, and descends to the state where he or she is merely an animal.  Such as: when he or she is dogmatic about a worldview, and closed therefore to other new ways of grasping phenomenon.  Ideological commitments are examples of these.  Similarly, the person who thinks merely in an instrumental manner towards given goals is guilty of falling short of being dasein, who instead reveals creatively new goals and new interpretations of what one should aim for. Given Heidegger’s emphasis on human dasein’s unconcealment of new worlds, one therefore draws the implication that educating the human person is educating the artist, who shapes new meanings, rather than the designer, who for Heidegger is merely a technician thinking instrumentally about the best means to a pre-determined end.  Education therefore has to allow for quite an amount of “letting be”, i.e., an amount of intellectual space in which the student can work out for himself or herself new, original interpretations of phenomenon, and new goals that are unique to himself or herself; there should not be any stifling indoctrination that seeks merely to hand on pre-thought-out dogma.

From what I understand of Heidegger, one makes new meanings of the world when one is engaged in one’s ordinary life, thinking and reflecting on one’s very physical experience of the world.  Thus, I am guessing that such “letting be” is not just leaving someone to his or her own devises; a positive prescription for the student to experience the world, through doing things with tools, needs to complement the apparently negative pedagogy of letting be.  There is in Heidegger a strong empirical orientation, compared with the more platonic contemplation of forms in one’s scholastic ivory tower.  The student should not be bookish; the student needs to be encouraged to go out on the streets, to see and feel and touch the world of which he is a part, and this could mean playing a music instrument, working with a tool, or cooking.  For Heidegger what appears merely craft-work or skills-based training is precisely that techne which can allow the human dasein to uncover new meanings of one’s activities, and of what one is in relation to those new meanings and their goals.   Thus, Heidegger says,

“Dasein exists: It is in a world within which it encounters beings and to which the existing Dasein comports itself.  However, these innerworldly beings towards which Dasein comports itself are revealed in, through, and for this comportment.  But at the same time the comporting Dasein is also revealed to itself; the one who exists, Dasein, is manifest to itself, without being the object of a penetrating self-observation.  However, the comportment toward innerworldly beings is not first and foremost a knowing comportment, even in the sense of a scientific examination of beings.  The predominant comportment whereby we generally discover innerworldly beings is application, employment of things for use, dealing with tools of transportation, tools for sewing, tools for writing, tools for working—tools in the broadest sense.  We get to know tools primarily by dealing with them.  It is not as if we have a prior knowledge of these things, in order then to use them.  Rather it is the other way around: Employment as such is the manner in which we get to know these things primarily and appropriately, i.e., a primary and proper way of uncovering innerworldly beings…Similarly we do not discover the daily circumstances and accidents of happenings within our world of action by merely gaping at the world; rather it is by seizing and examining opportunities that we primarily learn of inconveniences, obstacles, dispositions, and feelings.  The daily dealings with innerworldly beings is the primary—and for many the only—manner of discovering the world.”[1]

That said, the key thing I grasp here, is that one should not merely play, work or cook…etc in the same way that tradition, if you must, has dictated.  Rather, the teacher and student alike must find new ways to play, to work and to cook, and to discover new meanings of those and other activities.  And this means, as See explains nicely, that there must be letting be, i.e., that one must resist the desire or pressure to reproduce past, transmitted ideas, which “ring in”, as an ideology would do, one’s potential to find new interpretations of one’s existence and activities. Instead one ought to allow for the creative space that emerges, without interference and thus freely, one’s own insights that constitute new ways of being and acting.


Despite the fact that Heidegger’s thinking is rich and often repays reflection and theorizing, it seems to me that there is always an anti-intellectualism lurking behind his writings.  The suspicion should not, of course, be based on any ad hominem but tempting insinuation that he did extensive work during his post-doctoral habilitation on the Franciscan bl. John Duns Scotus, and had therefore been infected by the anti-intellectualism associated with Franciscan ways of looking at life and spirituality.[2]  It is of course true that the Order of Friar Minors (Franciscans) had always been thought of as being less intellectual, compared to say, the rival Dominicans, or the Order of Preachers, and the founder St Francis of Assisi was even said to have refused to allow his followers to study, except under the auspices of St Anthony of Padua, and for the purposes of training for priestly ministry.[3]  Rather, my own evidence for Heidegger’s anti-intellectualism has more to do with his reworking of traditional concepts, retrieved from early Greek thinkers.  For instance, theory (thea-horao) for Heidegger is not bookish contemplation, but engagement with tools that reveal new senses of the world and of oneself.  Indeed it is precisely through what he refers to as “techne” that the goddess looks upon us and reveals to us new insights (horao) whilst we look at the goddess (thea); this compares quite differently from the later Greek tradition and medieval scholasticism that understands “techne” or mere skills to be something inferior to theoretical contemplation.[4]  Indeed, from Aristotle through to Thomas Aquinas his great commentator, technical skills (techne), being merely instrumental capacities, hardly reveal as much as do speculative theory. Theoretical speculation on the other hand culminates in metaphysical speculation that explores conceptually and rigorously of God and his relationship with creation, and such knowing was considered the most significant and delightful.  Yet such speculative fruits Heidegger denounces as “onto-theology”, that is,  a kind of pseudo-thought that bridles thinking and which that is dogmatically passed on from one generation to another.  Instead, real thinking is open, and achieved amongst other things, but turning our thoughts on practice.  The practical and skills-based have a kind of liberating priority in Heidegger, whereas the conceptual or theoretical is always in danger of locking thinking in, and locking in new ways of interpreting our existence and activities.  Theoreticians who are keen to assimilate traditions of thought suffer therefore from a kind of self-imposed lock-in syndrome, which Heidegger opposes.  Worst still therefore, those who are as keen to hand on such transmission, locking others in along the way.

If my sense that Heidegger’s prescriptions are somewhat anti-intellectual is sound then this leads me to what I feel hesitant about Heidegger’s notion of “letting be”.[5] Much of his insights therein I find very agreeable. My only worry is with Heidegger’s desire to ward off ideological influence that might potentially stifle any creative new interpretations of one’s existence and activities – whether or not in emphasizing the importance of such “letting be”, he might have gone too far, or at least there is the danger that he could be read as going so far as to reject any kind of assimilation of traditional forms of thought in favor of intellectual innovation. As See puts it, for Heidegger, “Teaching then, is not indoctrination, not the introduction of some content to some unsuspecting students. … Teaching is having teachers that know how to let students learn the meaning of learning itself”[6]  My concern is with the Heideggerian idea that education should not be teaching others what to think, but rather be focused on teaching others how to think and learn – whether or not that should be a qualified prescription.  After-all, there are traditions of pre-worked-out thinking that may repay the student to hard-working-ly work through, and not all instances of such rigorous assimilation are uncritical.  Much of such rigorous assimilation is bookish and theoretical, and certainly would not have much to do with any skills-based practice (except perhaps the skills associated with library searches).  Case in point, is Aquinas’ metaphysical thinking, which Heidegger has characterised as onto-theology, that is, indoctrinating conceptual mis-representations of God.

Now of course, there have been zealots who in the name of St Thomas Aquinas promoted his ideas like gospel truth.  For instance, in commentarial footnotes by the Jesuit Henri de Lubac on letters to him by the eminent historian Etienne Gilson one finds expressions of his unhappiness with the French Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s seemingly dogmatic promotion of Thomism, in a manner that is closed off from any potential deviation from the thought of Aquinas.[7]  This if true, would be of concern, since such determined fidelity to Aquinas in the case of Garrigou-Lagrange seems to border on the absence of criticality, and Heidegger’s attack on dogmatism and his notion of letting be should be very pertinent here.  Yet just because Aquinas’ thought can be or have been promoted dogmatically or ideologically does not at all mean that it needs to be, and just because thinking can be made dogmatic does not mean that it needs to be; indeed my own sense is that thinking through Aquinas offers much that can broaden our notions of who we are and what we are doing as human beings.

In other words, education may involve letting be, but in the sense that, whilst it welcomes originality, it needs to also welcome the thoughtful assimilation of past ideas.  There is no contradiction one with the other; indeed often times the reading of past ideas quite often leads to new insights for the current, as Heidegger’s reworking of ancient Greek thought evidences.  Indeed, it appears that Heidegger may well have endorsed such critical assimilation of the past, and refers to it as “retrieval”. One of his students, the Jesuit Karl Rahner, in his study of Aquinas does precisely that: a critical assimilation of Aquinas’ ideas that do not merely parrot what he said.  And Rahner’s own Heideggerian reading of Aquinas’ epistemology titled Spirit in the World, points subtly, even if not explicitly, to Heidegger’s lectures and methods for his inspiration to “retrieve” Aquinas.  Thomas Sheehan describes this “retrieve” nicely:

“The introductory pages of Geist in Welt (Spirit in the World) in which Rahner lays out some of the elements of his method are as interesting for what they leave out as for what they include…[Rahner] advocates and defends the method of “retrieve” (Wiederholung) which he took over from Heidegger…Although Rahner does not apply the word Wiederholung to his method, there can be no doubt that “retrieve” was what he had in mind.  Heidegger’s Kant und das Prolem der Metaphysik (1929), the spirit and content which shine through the whole of Geist in Welt, offers a definition of retrieve as a method for reading the history of philosophy…[It means to] actively take up what has been handed down.  For Heidegger that requires, both in the personal tradition as well as in the tradition common to one’s culture,  a “shake-down” or “deconstruction” of hand-me-down interpretations of that tradition, and concomitantly a “pulling out” or retrieving of the presently relevant (perhaps even the abiding) meaning of the tradition from beneath the stale incrustations that have made it a matter of course…Implicit in the method of retrieve, moreover, is the presupposition that we have no Archimedean standpoint outside our historicity whence we might discern once and for all, for example, “what Aquinas meant.”  Rather, our inescapable historicity imposes the task of constantly re-reading the tradition in terms of contemporary questions.”[8]

So education must let be and resist ideological transmission, yet that does not mean it is closed to past thinking.  Letting be should also welcome retrievals of thought thought-out previously by others.

Retrievals: Street Photography

So the gist in this above discussion – and here the Heideggerian and the Thomist are agreed – is that philosophers, when they are in the business of the unconcealment of worlds (through the unconcealment of their own being or the being of their experiences…) should not be dogmatic in-doctrinaires, ivory tower types who simply pass on unthinking traditional ideas, but should be street philosophers, those who engage the current world, and as I’ve argued, even if they draw on the past (which is a good thing), do so in such a way that they retrieve these ideas, that is, make them current for today.

What about photography then? Well, I have argued in many place that photography significally translated, or at least focally understood, is not just the mindless taking of pictures, but a kind of project which includes the reflective consideration of its uses and meanings, and includes the writing, in a self-reflexive manner, about the photographic act. It is also, hence, amonsgt other things, a kind of theoria, a waiting unconcealment of photography’s affordances to show itself. In that sense photography is one kind of philosophy: it is a philosophy of the camera, of images, and of the act of focusing, of selection of images, of framing (ah! yes as I’ve recently discovered, selecting which images to print out and to put into a frame, to invest in a frame for them, is itself a very evaluative, and “showing” act indeed!: for the persistent question is asked – which of these matters?!), etc. etc.  And such photography-philosophy, if we are take from the pedagogical advice developed in the above discussion, also needs to retrieve (Wiederholung), and to ongoingly do that.

In many ways we have done so, because the several chapters of the Manual draw on Aquinas’ ideas, but in a way which makes them current to engage contemporary thinking, and even contemporary tools and technology (specifically photographic technology). So for instance, in Chapter 26, Metaphysical Poets, I’ve argued that photographers who shape signs but do so through writing about their signs in ways that employ Aquinas’ metaphysics complement and augment the efficacy of their Design of signs. In several other chapters also the Manual discusses Aquinas’ metaphysics and so retrieves their relevance for thinking through the affordances of photographic theory (theoria). Indeed this very business of blogging about photography through the lenses of thomism is an instantiation of the retrieval of Aquinas’ ideas insofar as they relate to the continual use of current info-comm visual-media technology and computers!

Doubtless, Heideggerians would say that their Master’s point, if they were to insert a response at this stage, is not only that there must be retrievals, but also that there must be street photography in the sense of the doing, going out in the world, to engage it, using tools, letting the tools and the phenomena give of themselves…rather than arm chair theoretical work, safe, indifferent, apart, abstract and unfamiliar with the world.  The “street-ness” one might say, is the going out on the street, and not just making the past relevant to the the streets.  The streets, the point seeks to make, also has something important to give.  It’s not a matter of colonizing the world cleverly: the world – the modern world if you must – has also good to give, even if we must resist the “modernism” in it. Indeed, it is our staring point for we are “thrown in”, and we must draw on its resources and work our way out of it, meaning out of the filth in it, by clinging on to the good in it. That too is agreed. Photography, such as rangefinder photography, by its very nature is not about sitting in a pit somewhere like a voyeur and snapping images with telephoto lenses, but going out their in the thick of the action to engage the scene, and hence beside using the camera-tool, taking in the lights, the sounds, the tastes etc…and photographic reflection cannot abstain from thinking about the images of the world which we capture, and the events of this our world, which we encounter.

So we’ve done well, but in humility must do more and do better.  In other words, we must ongoingly and diligently practice street photography, understood in two senses at least: firstly, in the way that Heideggerians wishes to play up – photography as a kind of tool experimentation and technical (hands-on, techne which reveals) acquaintance, compared with armchair theorizing, and secondly, and what as I agree with Heidegger, my thomistic ideals incline me to emphasize so to balance any possible Heideggerian anti-intellectualim: street photography understood as photographic theoria that demonstrates retrievals of relevant thomistic insights for engaging the current intellectual cultures.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, p. 15

[2] An account of his postdoctoral habilitation is discussed in John D Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay on Overcoming Metaphysics, NY: Fordham University Press, 1982, pp.  36-43

[3] There are many corroborating accounts of this in the biographies of St Francis.

[4] Richard Rojcewicz, The Gods and Technology: A Reading of Heidegger, New York: SUNY, 2006

[5] Tony See, forthcoming

[6] See Tony See, ibid.

[7] Etienne Gilson, Letters of Etienne Gilson to Henri de Lubac (with commentary by Henri de Lubac), Mary Emily Hamilton (trans.), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988,  pp. 104-109

[8] Thomas Sheehan, Metaphysics and Bivalence: On Karl Rahner’s Geist in Welt, The Modern Schoolman, LXIII, (November, 1985), 21-43, at 27-28