Visiting from the Black Forest of Germany where 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger once lived and wrote, Francesca Brencio will spend next week at Hillsdale delivering public lectures on the enduring importance of his thought.
Hillsdale is the first stop on her 22-day tour that also includes the University of Madison at Wisconsin, the Italian Cultural Institute in Chicago, and the University of Buffalo.
Brencio said she feels many emotions upon visiting the U.S. for the first time, including great joy and excitement to see the American natural landscape.
“I felt this as a great privilege, honor, and responsibility as a human being and someone committed to philosophy,” Brencio said.
Brencio, who has a forthcoming book called “Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks: Hermeneutical Pathways,” earned her doctorate at the University of Preugia in Italy, has research affiliations with universities in Spain and England, and has taught at Western Sydney University in Australia.
It all started when Professor of English Dutton Kearney, who had corresponded with her over her translation of his essay on German theologian Karl Barth into Italian, connected her with Professor of Sociology Peter Blum, which spurred a year-long email chain that morphed into this four-part series.
“At the core of the four lectures — and each lecture is on a specific topic — is a question: Why does Heidegger matter today?” Brencio said. “Why do we have to get in dialogue with Heidegger? Does he still have something worthwhile to tell people?”
Brencio will give an overview of Heidegger’s life and thought; topical lectures on his infamous Black Notebooks, unpublished until 2014, and containing some of the most damning evidence of his Nazy sympathies; his return to poetic language in his later thought; and his influences from psychology.
The interdisciplinary nature of the lectures brought interdepartmental academic and financial support from the departments of English, rhetoric and public address, psychology, philosophy, philosophy and religion, as well as the program of sociology and social thought, Blum said.
Senior philosophy Andrew Kern said Blum told his phenomenology class an amazing lecture series on continental philosophy such as this one doesn’t happen at Hillsdale often. Thinking of lectures about which he’s most excited, Kern said he immediately thinks about the Black Notebooks, and that he hopes she will be give listeners some insight, some details on his Nazi sympathies, and maybe a way to reconcile this with the fact he’s a philosopher worth reading.
Blum said some branches of conservative thought misunderstand Heidegger — and continental philosophy generally — and dismiss him as a postmodernist. He said he hopes the lectures will will open up discussions wherein people will realize he might be an important person to know about.
Brencio agrees. She said Heidegger has been slapped with many labels that allow people to dismiss him, rather than seeking to understand him and later judge his personal choices.
Brencio devoted the last three years to understanding Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, asking herself what kind of books they are, how to approach them, and how to put them within the frame of his other works.
“It was very important to put these notes in a relationship with all of Heidegger’s meditation,” Brencio said. “My intention has been, and still is, not to isolate these notebooks from Heidegger’s meditation in general.”
Blum poses these questions, too, since Heidegger is widely considered the most influential philosopher of the 20th century and has influenced his own thought.
“I worry about this: How do I think about the fact I’ve been influenced by Heidegger and he’s a Nazi?” he asked, adding that despite pleas from students, some Jewish, Heidegger never unambiguously condemned the National Socialist Party and often offered only lame dismissals regarding atrocities.
Brencio said her second lecture, on poetry, will discuss how Heidegger turned to poetry when he found it could illuminate philosophical pathways in ways that metaphysical language could not.
The final lecture, on psychology, will examine Heidegger’s friendship with Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss. She will also discuss one of Heidegger’s most famous concepts, Dasein — which she describes as the way through which a human being has to be, and the most authentic way to choose to be oneself — and why anxiety is its most important feature.
While Brencio has pursued research where Heidegger once taught, she doesn’t derive her inspiration to wade through old German and piece together his thought only from there. Rather, she looks out her studio windows to the gorgeous mountains and the Black Forest with its twisting pathways, a land that speaks to her about his relationship with the place where he wrote his greatest works.
Kern, who has studied 20th century epistemology, Heidegger, and phenomenology, said Brencio’s series will add a perspective missing from Hillsdale lecture topics.
“Walking around, outside after Heidegger, especially if I’m looking at the leaves and the grass and the earth, this sense comes over me,” he said, “about the weight and reality of the world and that I can reach out and touch it, and it all flows in this beautiful, natural way that I’m a part of.”