Skip to content Skip to footer

Harry Potter & Martin Heidegger: Humility and the Authentic, Ethical Life

A review of Ontological Humility: Lord Voldemort and the Philosophers.

What does Martin Heidegger have to do with Harry Potter? Is there an intelligible thread that ties together the last century of European philosophy? Is there a philosophical explanation for recent social/political phenomena like the revival of religiosity, environmentalism, identity politics, anti-globalization, and political Islam? Nancy J. Holland’s Ontological Humility: Lord Voldemort and the Philosophers answers these questions in a way that makes philosophy publicly relevant again. And despite the scope of its task, the book remains captivating and accessible. What follows is an eagle’s eye view of Western philosophy since 1600 in the form of a book review.

From Descartes to Derrida, Holland guides us through Rationalism, Empiricism, Existentialism, Phenomenology, to Post-Structuralism, then on a bonus excursion through contemporary feminist and critical-race theories. The tour is a “Philosophy 101 that Matters,” because the questions it covers concern our everyday experience of nature, language, knowledge, and others. What can we know about the world and how certain can we be of that knowledge? What does this imply for how we interact with nature and others? “Ontological humility” according to Holland is an attitude towards the unknown/unknowable combined with an awareness of the contingency of one’s position/condition in the world. These two prongs of humility are at the heart of the Harry Potter saga and Martin Heidegger’s thought. If anything describes Harry’s world it is a) “not having been told all that he needs to know” and b) his humility towards the magic he’s been unexpectedly given.

“There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known.” Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art

The immense popularity of J.K. Rowlings’ books is evidence that today ontological humility is deemed a noble approach to life, says Holland. In contrast to Harry and his friends, Lord Voldemort, his “Death Eaters,” and the Malfoy’s all desire absolute certainty and control. Moreover, they are brazenly arrogant with respect to their magical powers and being “full-bloods.” Holland observes that it was likewise such a desire for certainty coupled with an arrogance towards nature and life that Martin Heidegger found repugnant in his own era, and this insightful diagnosis of the technological age is the source of his enduring influence on philosophy and philosophers today.

Rationalism, Empiricism & Kant

Holland begins at a major source of the technological age’s attitude towards life, the man some regard as the founder of modern mathematical sciences, Rene Descartes. Ironically, in his “doubt,” she sees no humility at all. “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think therefore I am”–perhaps the most overused and least understood philosophical quote in Western philosophy–ends Descartes systematic “doubt of everything.” He then, just as quickly, employs the “idea of God” to lay the foundation of his own absolute certainty about “an infinitude of things.” Holland correctly points out that it is Descartes who gives philosophy a bad name–and, one may add, loses the philosophy major an unknown number of students every semester. It would be too easy (and unfair) to label him the Voldemort of philosophy, and Holland instead points out that overconfidence is comprehensible in someone who had just founded Cartesian (or Analytic) Geometry, one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematical sciences. An invention that today we use countless times a day, each time we look at a graphic on a computer, calculator or smart phone.

Voldemort or not, after dealing with Descartes, Holland quickly dispenses with all of Rationalism (the idea that the mind contains absolute truths prior to and independent of experience) and Rationalists, including Spinoza, a man known for his personal humility and to whom many attribute a brand of philosophical humility. More on this later. She justifies the move on the difference between mere brief doubt, as in Descartes, and genuine humility about knowledge, and furthermore that all Rationalists share a belief in access to certain knowledge about the nature of God or reality–something quite contrary to humility.

A counterpoint to Rationalism is, of course, Empiricism, usually associated with the British Isles. In David Hume’s “mitigated” skepticism, she sees genuine doubt about our knowledge of the external world, i.e., epistemic humility. Hume famously argued that we can never experience causation, because all that sense experience can give us is an association of two phenomena that we only later interpret as causation. He retreated, equally notably, from making moral judgments, because he saw an abyss between fact and value.

In this second retreat, Holland sees not more humility but an escape to the comfort of a world confined to individual reason (logic) and passion (emotion), with no space for shared ethics or morals. So did Immanuel Kant, and later so would Simone de Beauvoir. Kant notoriously declared that Hume awakened him from his “dogmatic slumber” and drove him to think more deeply for a foundation of our knowledge of mathematics, geometry, and ethics.

Kant’s solution was so original and so compelling that it left most subsequent European philosophy in its shadow–perhaps until Heidegger. Kant’s idea also created the rift between what we today call “Analytic” philosophy (associated with the English-speaking world) and “Continental” philosophy (everywhere else). This is a distinction that experts and non-experts alike often have difficulty articulating, but Holland does so succinctly. Analytic philosophers take Kant to be foolish (if not mad) when he declared that mathematics and geometry make “a priori synthetic” propositions. A priori here means logically prior to (particular) experience, and synthetic means having to do with how parts relate to a whole, in contrast with “analytic,” meaning implied in the definition of a single thing.

Human experience is necessarily conditioned by, mediated through, our ability (and need) to make sense of the world in terms of time, space, and causality–that is, mathematics, geometry, and science. It is not that the world-in-itself must conform to our notions, but the world we are able to have knowledge about must. Although seemingly limiting the scope of human understanding, Kant proceeds further along these lines to lay the foundation of universal ethical claims. In his famous formulation, the Categorical Imperative, he says that a moral claim can be thought of as absolutely true only if a rational being would will that it be universally followed. Of course this ignores the fact that people differ widely on such “universal” imperatives, and that in a patriarchal (or any hierarchical) society only certain people are deemed “rational” or worthy of such a willing. Here lies the beginning of a feminist critique of Kant, and nearby is the place where Heidegger, as read by Holland, steps outside the shadow of Kant and takes European philosophy with him.

Phenomenology, Existentialism & Post-Modernism

These chapters are the high point of the book, not surprisingly given that Holland has edited volumes called Feminist Interpretations of Heidegger and Feminist Interpretations of Derrida, respectively. They are nothing less than gems of clarity and insight. One leaves with living, breathing impressions of each philosopher, a key-chain talking miniature Heidegger in one pocket, a flash-drive hologramic word game playing Derrida in the other, as it were. This is a tremendous feat, because both are considered enigmatic, if not slippery, figures.

Heidegger steps outside the shadow of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Modern Philosophy into a different dimension altogether. Outside the realm of perception and cognition, he sees both object and perceiver as part of a whole, a “relational context.” Dasein, the conscious being, is thrown into the world, a world that was already there, and that provides the “equipmental totality” that makes life possible. World is not something perceived, framed in a window, as Descartes and much of Western philosophy since the Greeks would have, rather it pierces perceiver and perceived alike, not just in body, or even mind and body, but in the very language used to name it.

The fatal error Heidegger saw in most philosophy since Plato is its attempt to squeeze things and beings through a flat window of perception or project their shadows onto a screen of representational thinking–this error he called “not letting beings be.” This tendency to put beings in human terms, especially in terms of human use, reached its ultimate limits in his era–our era–as suggested by the very title of his work, “The Age of the World Picture.” Man’s desire to apprehend, control, put to use, on the rise since Descartes, not only alienates man from nature and others, but from himself and from an authentic life. In the “Cartesian Self” he saw not just a fantasy–that wishes away the background context that makes life possible–but a dreadfully poor one. The Cartesian Self for Heidegger is as great a threat as the nuclear age. The modern view of the world as thing to be conquered, used, employed ignores the “gift” that is the ultimate ground of Being.

In this poetry, Holland and others see much feminism. Because Heidegger does not stop at a skepticism about the limits of knowledge, but moves on to an awe and trembling before Being, Holland considers him the spokesperson of ontological humility.

“Only if we are truly humble is the scent awakened for what is great, and only if this occurs do we become capable of wonder.” Heidegger, Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Accordingly, as a bridge from Heidegger to Derrida, and a pathway to later feminist thought, Holland places de Beauvoir’s Existentialism, juxtaposed against the more arrogant pessimism of her masculine counterparts and interlocutors, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. While for Sartre, “Hell is other people,” and for Camus, the only escape from existential angst is “defiance” in the act of creative work; for de Beauvoir man can find meaning “…only in the existence of other men,” and in ambiguity. Freedom exists in ambiguity and openness to the future, not despite them.

Ambiguity for de Beauvoir, rather than a cause for angst, is an enabling condition. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she describes living in community, in a tone echoed later by Hannah Arendt: “An ethics of ambiguity…will refuse to deny a priori that separate existents can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all.”

The third note in this philosophical major chord arrived in Derrida’s voice, its interval dubbed “différance” at once musical, mathematical and linguistic. If de Beauvoir’s thought is Heidegger’s projected onto the axis of ethics, Derrida’s is Heidegger embedded in a multi-dimensional manifold of language, especially the written word, sprouted out of the structural linguistics of de Saussure (“in language there are only differences”) and Husserl’s phenomenology. Derrida’s “différance,” a deliberate misspelling to fuse the french difference and deferral, can be provisionally translate as interval.

It ostensibly extended “language as differences” into the dimensions of time and tone (acoustic), but it performed a gradually increasing function for Derrida, like a measure employed in increasingly complex mathematical spaces, often with paradoxical results. A sign (word) cannot call forth all that it signifies (means) but must refer to an infinite chain of other signs that it is not but that are related and help give it shape. The spacing (as in tones) is necessary not only to “hear” or “see” but to create meaning at all, and this occurs in terms of binary oppositions, like directions on an axis, and likewise requires a (+) and a (-) direction, a valuation beyond a plain meaning: e.g., mind/body subject/object man/animal male/female civil/savage etc…

Derrida then employs the binary oppositions inherent in most use of language as a method of textual analysis, later termed “Deconstruction.” It is based on the fact that the poles of these dualisms need each other to exist, that nearly every text contains “fault lines” where these oppositions meet, that no text can have a pure or intrinsic meaning. Every text is a construction, every construction in need of structure, and every linguistic meaning based on difference and interval. This is true not only of what is traditionally considered text, but of any cultural, social or political artifact.

An example (of my own not Holland’s) serves to illustrate. The passage of a law implies that some would-be norm is being broken. The fact that it was being broken regularly enough to require legislation implies that some in the community oppose it and break, that is, that it is not quite universal. Now the more legislation on an issue, or the more heavily it penalizes a violation, the more it reveals opposition to it and the less likely it is to be followed without force. Whereas the norms that are most universally followed hardly appear “on the books” because they require little enforcement. The unwritten laws are more law-like, then, than laws written and promulgated. A similar procedure can be used to “deconstruct” all law to “that which is en-forced by force” or at least to reveal the paradox at the heart of law.

Proceeding along similar lines, Derrida showed in his later writings a series of ethical-political-philosophical impossibles that Holland mentions. Such impossibilities include democracy built upon “fraternity,” friendship without enemies, hospitality without exclusion. What matters for Holland is the scope and the degree of ambiguity and humility to which Derrida takes so many philosophical, ethical, and political notions. Again Derrida’s immense popularity reflects the extent to which this ambiguity is a sign of our time or at least a crucial counterpoint to the Cartesian and Kantian traditions.

And Where is Harry Potter?

What characterizes Harry’s world is being given neither answer nor method, but having to simply take the gifts and help as they come. There are many mysteries and ambiguities, often regarding good and evil, and few answers. In fact, the characters that think they know all that is worth knowing or attempt to exercise total control are Voldemort and his followers, the “Death Eaters.” Moreover, the bureaucratic, Kafkesque nature of the Ministry of Magic can be associated with modernity. Its unreflective attempts to follow tradition, maintain control, and keep up appearances, often unwittingly does the work of Voldemort and the Death Eaters.

In one of the most interesting links between Harry Potter and the philosophers, Holland points out that much of de Beauvoir’s typology of “escapes” from existential angst (at ambiguity and uncertainty) appear in the characters of Rowlings’ books. The “serious” type who (usually beginning in adolescence) perfectly conform to society’s perceived standards appear as Harry’s muggle family, the Dursleys, and more so in Percy Weasley’s self-important bureaucratic work at the Ministry of Magic. These “annoying” characters cannot make their own choices or simply be themselves, and for philosophy they embody an escape from personal responsibility. One can add that Hannah Arendt’s classification of Adolf Eichmann is not far from this “serious” type. Secondly, de Beauvoir’s “demonaical” type, the inversion of the “serious,” appears in Sirius Black and Peeves (the poltergeist) whose attempted “revolt” agains the serious world is nothing but an indirect affirmation of its values. Sirius’s juvenile prank against Snape nearly turns catastrophic, and Peeves disrupts only for the sake of disruption.

As mentioned above, de Beauvoir’s suggestion for finding freedom or leading an authentic life requires embracing the ambiguity of one’s condition and the uncertainty of the future. This is what Harry Potter does. He neither rebels nor entirely conforms, neither despairs in indecision nor takes on a haughty arrogance.

What does this have to do with feminism and critical race theory? For Holland it is epistemology, theory of knowledge, in the form of “epistemologies of ignorance” that link Heidegger, Derrida, feminism, anti-racism and all forms of non-domination.

Knowledge, Ignorance and Non-domination

“That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend.” Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Epistemological choices about who to trust, what to believe and why something is true are not benign academic issue.” Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought

A philosophical dilemma for feminism (and other forms of anti-domination) has long been how to critique the privileged perspective of male-centered society without creating a new privileged perspective or “essentializing” what it is to be female (or black or gay or latino, etc…). Nancy Holland uses recent feminist and critical race thought to illustrate how overcoming this dilemma means taking the problem of knowledge head on. Furthermore, this happens to dovetail with the prerequisites of her ontological humility, accepting that some things one cannot know and that the things one does know are contingent on context and background conditions.

The solution Holland offers centers around Nancy Tuana’s “ways of not knowing” and Charles Mills’s “structural group-based miscognition” because they exemplify the focus in recent feminist theory on “epistemologies of ignorance.” This is, of course, the context out of which Holland’s book emerged and where it reaches its full significance.

Tuana enumerates several types of “not knowing” best thought of as four categories in the context of Holland’s book: 1) awareness of the limit of one’s knowledge 2) willful ignorance 3) exclusion ignorance 4) loving ignorance. Because (1) means the everyday type of not knowing, only 2-4 are significant here. “Willful ignorance” for Tuana means “actively ignoring the oppression of others,” which Mills relates to recent findings in cognitive science on the role of attitude/conception even at the level of perception. This he calls “structural group-based miscognition,” manifested in “white ignorance,” unawareness by an observer of his own position, or that he has a perspective at all. “White ignorance” can also be called “white normativity” and is related at the level of cognition to “male normativity,” assuming that one’s position as male is “neutral.”

What I label “exclusion ignorance” Tuana relates to the construction of “epistemologically disadvantaged identities.” This occurs when the criteria for credibility, or who counts as knowing, at once privileges and excludes. Certain groups or people are deemed uneducated, biased, emotional, backward, or the like. Holland points to Freud’s discounting of the views of his female patients and Voldemort’s refusal to listen to “inferior creatures,” such as house elves, as illustrations.

Lastly, Tuana’s “loving ignorance” means the realization that “there will always be experiences that cannot [be shared].” For Holland this is at the heart of the second prong of ontological humility, awareness of the contingency of one’s condition. This also corresponds with Heidegger’s view of truth as the Greek “aletheia,” “un-concealing,” always limited by the fact that the un-concealing of one thing necessarily implies the concealing of another, that there are always “unthought” background conditions that we cannot be entirely aware of.

Book Critique

Histories of philosophy tend to come in two flavors: watered-down, dead lists of ideas or overly long anthologies. Ontological humility avoids both extremes. It achieves the impossible, a history of 400 years of philosophy that is accessible to a wide audience, engaging to most readers, and authentic, all in under 150 pages. Its authenticity alone merits a read. Holland employs a perspective as a guide to understanding the most important turning points in Western thought. My criticisms are perhaps only a wish for an unabridged sequel.

Because the book is about continental philosophy, one would have hoped for a more poetic style; but that could have detracted from its accessibility. On the other hand, there are two missing elements that one is less willing to forgive. In the Prologue, Holland mentions that she was not the first to use the term “ontological humility,” but then rather abruptly treats (in three short paragraphs) what others have previously called “ontological humility.” She names Gabriel Marcel as the first to coin the term in 1934.

Holland summarily dismisses that his concept can have an affinity to hers because Marcel referred to Spinoza’s view of freedom. She neglects to share her reasons or connect the dots for the reader. Another 20th century philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy attributes a similar attitude to Spinoza, but calls it “ontological generosity.” Holland again fails to explicitly show how her concept is different from Nancy’s, and never explains how Spinoza’s thought was “too arrogant” to be an expression of ontological humility. From the point of view of history of philosophy this is indeed a “big deal” because the other philosopher, besides Heidegger, notoriously obsessed with Being was none other than Baruch Spinoza. Both a general and a philosophically sophisticated reader will surely wonder how Spinoza’s Being and Heidegger’s Dasein are distinct, and why the second expresses the theme of the Holland’s book while the first does not. This is true even if one agrees with her about Spinoza. This disappoint is only greater given how beautifully Holland makes philosophers like Derrida and Heidegger accessible without watering them down.

In summary, this book can be used as an excellent introductory philosophy textbook, or a quick history of philosophy between 1600-2013, but it also shares a timely wisdom, that can be traced back to the Ancient World. It might be fitting to end with a quote from Aristotle that opens Ontological Humility
“[It] would be strange to think the art of politics the best knowledge, since man is not the best thing in the world.”

Another Thread, Another Perspective

Where does this leave Holland’s book itself? Since well before Heidegger’s Being & Time, at least with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, we can witness the gradual decline of the Cartesian Subject and can see the acceleration of this decline through Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Post-modernism, and now also J.K.Rowling’s imagination and Nancy Holland’s philosophy. What they all have in common, aside from “ontological humility,” is their view of the Cartesian Subject not just as an erroneous fantasy but as a fantasy not worth entertaining.

The Cartesian Subject living in a world safely behind a pane of glass, probes reality only with laboratory gloves. She/he cannot touch or be touched, surprise or be surprised, by the mysterious or unexpected, as an “experimental observer.” The events she observes pass by at a predetermined number of frames per second, 24 or 48 as the case may be, in a “World Picture.” The moving pictures do not hit her in the face, nor are they felt by her body. The motion is orthogonal, as it were, to the plane of her sight, isolated behind the laboratory’s thick glass.

Heidegger, de Beauvoir, Derrida, Rowling and Holland together suggest that stepping into the laboratory, or merely rolling down the window, to the unpredictable, undetermined, half-ordered chaos, brings life closer to life and makes it worth living. Furthermore, this long line of thought suggests that this is the attitude by which we can meet others as others and simultaneously as equals. But what do I know?

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.

The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.

Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.