Musil's Ontology of the Present: Lessons on the Hermeneutics of Modernity
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Musil's Ontology of the Present:
Lessons on the Hermeneutics of Modernity

As readers of The Man Without Qualities (1930–43) are well aware, Robert Musil is undeniably preoccupied with the possibilities and limitations of specific ways of thinking, and perhaps above all, with the possibilities of thinking in ways other than those that have become institutionalized in or as modernity.1 These concerns run from his dissertation on Ernst Mach's positivism, through his essays, and into the very matter and style of The Man Without Qualities, the novel for which he is most widely known today. Such a sustained effort to grasp modernity in terms of its characteristic modes of thought corresponds to one half of a double entendre in the title of Jürgen Habermas's The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. The primary concern of that work, and the philosophical genealogy it reconstructs, is how Enlightenment reason attempts to overcome its own limitations: in other words, the so-called dialectic of Enlightenment. The philosophical discourse of modernity in this genitive sense is the discourse about philosophy that belongs to—is conducted by—modernity. At the same time, however, this discourse is a discourse about modernity, for as Habermas notes in the preface, "Since the late eighteenth century modernity has been elevated to a philosophical theme."2 In a second sense, then, the philosophical discourse of modernity is the effort to come to terms with the thinking that organizes a present no longer seeking to legitimate itself with reference to the past. These two senses eventually diverge, opening a space between attempts to rehabilitate Enlightenment reason and attempts to understand the present without it. It is in this space that Musil's [End Page 311] novel makes theoretical contributions to the effort to grasp modernity in any kind of writing about modernity.3

According to Habermas, with Nietzsche the dialectic of Enlightenment abandons the effort to fine-tune philosophy in order to understand contemporary experience, opting instead for "reason's absolute other" in a gesture Habermas characterizes as the "entry into postmodernity" (The Philosophical Discourse, 94).4 The question of whether Nietzsche is still doing "philosophy" becomes part of what is at stake, and the answer depends on how narrowly one understands the term "philosophy." Nevertheless, as inheritors of the methodological problems that arise from trying to create normativity out of oneself, Nietzsche and other "postmoderns" associated with the resulting "end-of-philosophy"—Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida—grapple with the modes of thought by which that project might be undertaken, completed, abandoned, or superseded.

Musil's own attitude toward academic philosophy can best be described as equivocal: intrigued by its precision, he is at the same time wary of systems of thought that tend to be reductive with respect to the complexities—the singularities—of human experience. "The whole task," he writes in a notebook entry, "is life without systematism but nevertheless still with order."5 And although he earned a doctorate in philosophy and on that account was offered academic posts, the fact is that he declined these in pursuit of a career as a novelist. Yet despite the reservations Musil held toward philosophy, or rather precisely because of them, it makes sense to range Musil with the end-of-philosophy efforts by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida to gaze upon the horizon of the Western episteme and contemplate the possibility of passing beyond it. For Ernst Behler, the "confrontations" of Heidegger and Derrida with Nietzsche are not just a contest in Nietzsche interpretation "but [an] ongoing attempt to press the limits of philosophy and writing."6 This is Musil's project too, particularly as those limits bear on the possibility of writing about modernity.

The Nietzsche-Heidegger-Derrida debate is centrally about hermeneutics as an end-of-philosophy strategy. So, for example, Christina Lafont characterizes the "hermeneutic turn" set off by Heidegger's Being and Time as "a radical paradigm shift" that inverts the traditional hierarchy according to which a subject's knowledge about an object is regarded as more fundamental than "mere" interpretation.7 The resulting privileging of interpretation over subject-object knowledge is what grounds, to a large degree, Heidegger...