Essay 43: Knowledge Puzzles of “Far-Fetched Questions”

Heidegger (died in 1976), the German thinker (and Hannah Arendt‘s lifelong boyfriend) is walking along somewhere in France with Jean Beaufret, the French poet-philosopher, and wants to “delimit” what topics should be admitted and discussed and manage to dismiss other kinds of topics.  Heidegger says, “we do not need to ask what the connection is between Newton’s laws and the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’ or between Carnot’s Principle and the sign on the shop across the street, ‘This Store is Now Shuttered.’”

In Gulliver’s Travels, the satirical masterpiece, we find a scene where the Academy of Projectors (mad scientists profs.) are trying to make cucumbers out of moonbeams and have other crazy projects.  The Academy is described in the Laputa/Lagado “flying islands” section of the satire.  Again, we grin when we read these lines in Jonathan Swift and marvel at his inventive genius. It’s not quite as simple to pin down exactly why Heidegger’s or Swift’s examples of “crazy questions or projects” are so comically nutty.  Clearly, there are experiences we all agree on as being indicative of insanity or are at the outer limits, perhaps, of Quixotism (Don Quixote).  If a person tells you he or she plans to go to the roof and reach up and put the moon in their pocket and then go the county Registrar of Deeds and declare it their property, we see multiple impossibilities and figure the person is joking, drunk or insane.

On the other hand, many questions or projects that would seem silly at one point seem less silly now: an example is, say, bringing “dinosaurs” back via DNA “resurrections.”

Thus the “knowledge quest” and its parameters is evolving in strange ways, on top of all the other uncertainties.

The Heidegger/Beaufret dialogue, mentioned above, occurs in the following book:

Dialogue with Heidegger: Greek Philosophy
Jean Beaufret
Series: Studies in Continental Thought
Publication date: 07/06/2006
ISBN: 978-0-253-34730-5