Frye and Heidegger: A Response to Nicholas Graham

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger

In response to Nicholas Graham’s posts here and here

Aligning Frye’ conception of culture with such anti-humanistic, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic thinkers as Strauss, Voeglin, Lonergan, and Heidegger, is highly questionable and requires further elaboration to be credible. Frye’s conception of the function of literature and criticism in society is antithetical to the conservative and reactionary views of any of these thinkers, all of whom argued for a transcendental norm against which any merely human creative or imaginative power is to be invidiously measured. They are all anxious defenders of an authoritarian and anti-democratic myth of concern against the myth of freedom–proponents of the great butter-slide theory of Western culture, in which it all runs downhill after Plato or Aquinas.

Frye believed strongly that the function of literature lay in its social vision, the idea of a free society, even if that idea “can never be formulated, much less established as a society.” Frye adopted and gave added strength throughout his writings to Arnold’s

axiom that ‘culture seeks to do away with classes.’ The ethical purpose of a liberal educaton is to liberate, which con only mean to make one capable of conceiving of society as free, classless, and urbane . . . No discussion of beauty can confine itself to the formal relations of the isolated work of art; it must consider, too, the pariticpation of the work of art in the vision of the goal of social effort, the idea of complete and classless civilization (348).

It is true that Frye makes use of a number of concepts or formulations of Heidegger’s (poetry as dwelling, language uses man), but the use is selective and limited and the idea in question invariably undergoes a transmutation that emancipates the idea from Heidegger’s philosophy and makes it Frye’s. He does the same with some of Derrida’s terms, and with countless other thinkers and writers with whom he otherwise shares very little. In his social and political views, the one thinker he does share a good deal with is the great John Stuart Mill. For Frye, literature and imaginative culture as a whole accomplish what Mill envisioned as necessary in the progress to a fully mature society: they liberalize, democratize, individualize. This is about as far away from Heidegger as one can get. For Heidegger, human beings are simply the historical medium of consciousness through which Being reveals or conceals itself. It was Heidgger’s contempt for modernity and for democratic and liberal views that led him to the delusion–if it were not simple opportunism–that the Nazis were Germany’s, and das Sein‘s, salvation from the horrors of liberal democracy. For a good discussion of Heidegger’s relationship to the Nazis, see the Wikipedia article “Heidegger and Nazism.”

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4 thoughts on “Frye and Heidegger: A Response to Nicholas Graham

  1. Michael Happy

    You make some very interesting points here, Joe. It has always struck me as strange, for example, that Heidegger — a reactionary conservative at best and an enthusiastically opportunistic Nazi party functionary during his brief tenure as the fuhrerprinzip Rector of the University of Freiburg — should effectively be the direct forebear of two highly influential postwar French schools: existentialism (via Sartre) and poststructuralism (via Derrida). Given that literature is now read symptomatically for any taint of hegemonic ideology, why, in the academic mainstream at least, is Heidegger given a pass?

    You’re also right to point out that Frye takes from Heidegger what he needs, shapes it to his own purposes, and discards the rest. He did this with any number of thinkers. As he once said of Vico: “By the time I was finished, there was very little Vico left.”

    That said, Nick Graham does emphasize in his post on Myth and Metaphor that Heidegger, Gadamer and Derrida do not rise to the higher level of social vision that Frye does because they cannot “operate, as Frye can, within the language of myth of metaphor.”

  2. nicholas william graham

    Date: Wed, 17 Feb 2010 12:57:41 -0500 [12:57:41 PM EST]
    From: Eileen de Neeve
    Subject: Re: Lonergan: anti-humanistic, anti-liberal, anti-democatic
    Headers: Show All Headers

    Hi Nicholas, Anyone who thinks Lonergan is anti-humanistic, anti-liberal, anti-democratic
    is confusing his thought with traditional views concerning the Catholic Church and can’t
    have read very much Lonergan. Cheers, Eileen deN.
    —– Original Message —– From:
    To: “Chip Hughes” ; “Tom McPartland” ;
    “Fritz Wagner”
    Sent: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 12:08 PM
    Subject: Lonergan: anti-humanistic, anti-liberal, anti-democatic

    1. Joseph Adamson Post author

      I would love, Nicholas, to hear more about Lonergan. You seem to suggest that he shares a great deal with Frye. I have been unable to discover where exactly these convergences lie. Perhaps you could elaborate more fully.


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