Why Heidegger is interesting

Why Heidegger is interesting

What I want to do in this presentation is to say, in a few sketches, why I think this philosopher is interesting. I’ll begin by saying where I think he was coming from and why he became a star in European philosophy in the late 1920s. I’ll go on then to his political evolution, how he became a member of the Nazi Party and what kind of Nazi he was. After that, I’ll say something more about the later notebooks, including some that he wrote during the first two years of the war. The main ideas that he defended for 30 years after the war are taking shape already in these notebooks.

Heidegger’s background was rural German Catholic. To begin with, he was a Catholic philosopher. But like a great many others, his thinking changed in the early 1920s. There are arguments over how this happened. I can only guess, and my guess is that what happened was that he read Nietzsche, and he took in Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity was dead, historically burnt out, and he was shaken to the core. But if the Christian way of thinking about the human being and the world wouldn’t do, what would do?

Heidegger came up with an answer to this in his book called Being and Time which appeared in 1927, and which made him famous. To see why it caused such a stir, I think we have to look at what the other philosophies of the time were like. The cult of science was already very strong by then. Some philosophers were reducing the human being to a function of science or a scientific problem.

In my opinion, this is what Wittgenstein’s philosophy amounted to, insofar as it was philosophy rather than mysticism. Wittgenstein wanted to remove everything that was vague and incorrect and unscientific from ordinary human speech. Then when we were all speaking clearly and

correctly like well-programmed little machines, we would come up against the really important thing –

but it couldn’t be spoken about, there was nothing at all we could say about it! Of course, you could have

this sort of philosophy without the mysticism – Bertrand Russell’s philosophy was something like that.

Marxism preferred to consider the human being as a force of production or as a member of a class pursuing its class interests. Also, Marxism was very much influenced by the theory of evolution. When this was applied to human beings it often led to the view that human beings as they currently existed were hopelessly inadequate and unsatisfactory, and it was necessary to change them completely, maybe even into a different and superior type of being. Nietzsche was a long way from Marxism, but it was he who came up with the idea of the Superman: as the ape was to man, so man would be to the superman. This idea of the superman made a big impression and came up again in different forms. We find Trotsky expressing it in the 1920s, when he said that the average man of the future would be on the level of Aristotle, Goethe and Marx. And that would only be one peak of achievement, he said, there would be higher peaks rising up beyond it.

In Russia of the 1920s there were people who were speculating very freely on getting beyond the unsatisfactory human being as we know him. Bogdanov, for example, had the idea of transforming the population by blood transfusions. (Like Francis Bacon before him, he martyred himself to science: he died of a transfusion experiment which he was carrying out on himself in 1928.) Svjatogor and Jaroslavskij wrote about abolishing death and producing human immortality. Mouravjev had the idea of a population policy which wouldn’t rely on haphazard sexual intercourse and messy childbirth: instead, populations would be scientifically produced in laboratories.

Heidegger came up with some totally different ideas which countered all of this. He gave a description of basic human experience. He said: you come into a world which you did not make and which was not made for you. And you don’t come in gently or smoothly. You’re flung into it, hurled like a projectile. But immediately you begin to discover that you can respond to your situation and keep your flight going. And just when you’re starting to get good at it, when you feel it is possible to have some element of control, you realise that you’re not going to have enough time, because this flight of yours, which had a beginning, will also have an end. You’re on the way towards death. And what you have to do, in the time that you’ve got, is to try to live the life that is proper or authentic for the special You that you are. This is very difficult, because from all sides there are pressures on you to live a standardised, average, line-of-least-resistance life. But as far as possible you must try to live your authentic life and then die your authentic death.

In effect, Heidegger was putting it up to the evolutionists and the scientists: this is what human life is about – tell me how you’re going to evolve your way out of that! Maybe his description doesn’t sound very cheerful. I should say that I’m not at all sure I can do him justice: I find most of Being and Time quite unreadable, there are just some sections that spring to life. No doubt that was also the experience of Albert Camus, who got what I think is a one-sided impression: he said that Heidegger showed the human being as humiliated and wretched.

But whether or not we are wretched, according to Heidegger we are definitely special. In the world we’re surrounded by all kinds of other Beings, or Things-that-are-in- Being: animals, plants, hills, the sky and the stars. But none of those other Beings relate to their own Being. We do. And we do it all the time, it’s inseparable from life. And that is what makes us special.

As Heidegger describes us, we are Beings that worry and Beings that care. Life is about certain people and things mattering to us, making us care about them. We live in a context, and we’re committed. Living means being involved, or engaged. And likewise knowing. There’s the well-known proverb that says, “What you don’t know won’t worry you” – Heidegger would turn that round and say, “What you don’t care about, you’ll never know”. Or in his language: “Awareness of reality is itself a way of being-in-the-World”. He even found an ancient Latin fable which makes the point for him. Care (Cura) was the first to shape a human being out of clay, before Jupiter (at Care’s request) put a soul in it. Afterwards there was a dispute about how the human being should be named and who he belonged to. The gods held court proceedings on the matter, and it was decided that Jupiter should recover the human’s soul when he died and the Earth should recover his body. But as long as he lived he would always be possessed by Care.

These ideas are all around us, they’ve gone into the atmosphere via French existentialism and any number of other routes. But there’s another aspect of Heidegger’s thinking in Being and Time that’s not so easy to tune in to, though it’s central to his philosophy and to his life. Heidegger argues that roughly for the past two and a half thousand years, there has been a tendency in western thinking to forget Being. Instead we have developed the artificial kind of thinking called Metaphysics, which was pioneered by Plato. This has now reached a crisis point. If we carry on thinking platonically, the results for mankind will be very destructive. We need to make a new start. In fact we need to reconnect with the thinking of the Greeks before Plato, and in doing so reconnect with Being.

What does he mean, “forgetting Being”? How can we forget Being? Or what does he mean by Being? People have cracked their heads on that question. Rather than go into academic arguments, I will suggest my own answer. Being is what people had a sense of in traditional country life. Platonism, by contrast, is a type of artificial, urban thinking. And if Platonism has become a serious problem and danger, that is connected with the fact that one European nation after another has found that all of a sudden most of their people live in towns and cities – a prospect that anyone down to the time of Marx and Engels would have said was impossible, the vision of a lunatic.

Anyhow… in Being and Time there’s certainly a social element. But it’s expressed in abstract language, and some of the most memorable things that are said about social relations are negative. For example, there’s das Man. Das Man could mean “one” as in “one usually prefers…”, or alternatively “decent people”, “the neighbours”, “democrats”, or (a favourite expression of my uncle in Boston) “regular guys”. But ultimately das Man is an It, not a he, she or they, and It is constantly dragging us down from our authentic life to its own average, standardised conformity.

By the late 1920s Heidegger seems to have felt disappointed that his thinking wasn’t making more impact. In the early ’30s he certainly felt that. The notebooks begin in 1931, and one of the first things he says is: “Even today I still don’t have enough enemies! Being and Time hasn’t brought me a great enemy”. Not having enemies – that was a problem he wouldn’t have forever! Anyhow, in those early notebooks he still seems to be narrowly focused on philosophy, but he keeps writing slogan-like sentences: “We must philosophise our way out of “Philosophy”!”; “Unerringly into the Unaccessible!”; “We must get ourselves back into the Great Beginning!” At this stage he sounds a bit like an agitator without a movement.

Then suddenly, I presume at the beginning of 1933, he starts writing about “the magnificent wakening popular Will” of the Germans. And he says that the most important thing is to “tie the most deeply-hidden Mission of the German People back into the Great Beginning”. Up to May 1933, when he took the position of rector of Freiburg University (which he says he was pushed into unwillingly), he writes nothing about National Socialism. Becoming rector also involved joining the Nazi Party. During the year when he was rector he does have many entries about National Socialism. But if there’s any entry which is purely uncritical or which just expounds conventional Nazi ideology, I’ve missed it.

For that peculiar year Heidegger is an enthusiastic Nazi, no doubt about that. But he’s enthusiastic only about Nazi potential. Everything he writes is about what the Nazi Party could be or should be, but obviously isn’t; or alternatively, what it may become if it isn’t careful (there’s a danger, he says, of bourgeoisification). For example, “National Socialism is a genuine power-in-becoming only if, behind all its doing and saying, it still has something to keep secret – and operates with a mighty force-in-reserve that works upon the future. But if what  currently exists is the sum of of all that is achieved and willed, then it is only a horror that will crumble away.” And again, “ (We cannot take) National Socialism as a finished eternal truth fallen from Heaven – taken like that, it would only be confusion and stupidity. So, as it has come into being, it must itself become a process of becoming and shape the future – that is, itself as an image step back before this future”.

As I understand these statements, this is how a German philosopher in full philosophical armour says: the Nazi Party as it is today is a sow’s ear, but I’m planning to make a silk purse of it. At some time in the late months of 1933 or early 1934 he writes, “Today one can speak of a “Vulgar National Socialism”; by that I mean the world and the criteria and demands and attitudes of those journalists and culture-makers who are currently installed and approved. From these sources, which naturally make a brainless appeal to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a quite definite doctrine of history and man is transmitted to the people. This doctrine could best be described as Ethical Materialism”. – What this ethical materialism amounts to, in Heidegger’s view, is empty bourgeois respectability and conformism.

Furthermore, “there is now a gloomy biologism, which produces the right “ideology” for Ethical Materialism. People are spreading the deluded notion that the spiritual-historical world (“culture”) grows plant-like out of the “People”, if one simply clears away the impediments…”

There are several similar comments in the notebooks on the biological notions which the Nazis applied to society and culture. He thought all of this was rubbish. But what would the Nazi Party be if it rejected its biologism? Surely, it would no longer be Hitler’s Party!  As further proof that Heidegger was a very odd Nazi, he doesn’t even mention the word Jews in his notebooks during this period when he was an active party member, so far as I can see. At least twice he says, “We must settle our accounts with Christianity”. But there’s no mention of settling accounts with the Jews.

His “rectoral speech”, delivered in May 1933, is often described as anti-Semitic. In fact, it never mentions Jews or Judaism. (An English translation of the full text can easily be found on the internet). There’s nothing in it which could be understood as incitement to racial hatred. Even Hitler isn’t mentioned explicitly. Granted, there’s a lot in it about the importance of the leadership principle. But it seems that the leader whom Heidegger thought it most important to follow was none other than Martin Heidegger.

The central idea in the speech is the need for the German people to set out on a great spiritual adventure. They must face the fact that the Christian-Platonic thinking of the last two and a half thousand years is now exhausted, as Nietzsche pointed out when he said that “God is dead”. The Germans will need to link up with the thinking of the older Greeks of two and a half thousand years ago, who were in touch with Being. This will demand heroic virtues, and not least from people in the German universities. – The regular Nazis in Freiburg who were listening to all of this, what can they possibly have made of it?

In April 1934 Heidegger, unable to do whatever he wanted to do, resigned his rectorship. In his notebooks he tried to see it as part of a learning process. –“A failed year – a lost year – if Failure wasn’t the highest form of human experience, etc.” Actually, it took him about four years for the lesson to sink in. During that time he doesn’t say very much about National Socialism, and he gradually begins to tackle some other issues, and especially technology: what the roots of modern technology are, and what effect it is having on life and thinking. He was still a formal member of the Nazi Party and he kept his professorship, but officially it seems he was gradually sliding into the “That fellow’s no use!” category.

Then, in 1938, he made a judgment on his Nazi adventure. He had thought of National Socialism as “the possibility of a transition to a new beginning”. But this was a mistake. Far from pointing towards a new beginning, it was an ending, the culmination of the existing modern trend. “What is beginning here is much more (and in a far deeper, more comprehensive and intensive manner than in Fascism) the completion of the Modern Age (despite the fact that this began in “Romanticism”) –with the Dehumanisation of Man in the self-assured Rationality of the Historical-Technical, i.e. the thoroughgoing “Mobilisation” of all the Capability of a focused-upon-itself Mankind.” And nonetheless, he said, I was right to make my attempt.

We might ask: what’s wrong with that? What is outrageous or unreasonable in this explanation? Why can’t we accept it now? And why should Heidegger have been expected to say something drastically different after the still-to-come World War? (As we know, he didn’t.)

There had been a basic misunderstanding between Heidegger and the Nazi movement. Heidegger was a failed Nazi, but only because the Nazis failed as Heideggerians. They were supposed to become the political wing of his philosophy. Deep down in their depths, in their unseen potential, in the hidden historic element which they didn’t rant about when they ranted (as he himself said, more or less in so many words), they were thought to be somehow capable of facilitating a major spiritual change in the Germans, a change that would go much deeper than any revolution.

Now if Heidegger believed there was actually a chance of this, surely he was justified in trying to become the intellectual guide of the Nazi movement? In fact, surely it was his duty? I think it’s a tragedy that he didn‘t succeed. It is hard to imagine what a Heideggerian state would have been like. But I think, at the very least, it would not have had a culture of biological racism, which ran totally against Heidegger’s thinking and which he despised. And without a full-blown, state-backed culture of racism, would something like the Holocaust have been possible? Apart from that, the German people were supposed to achieve an intensive renewal of the spirit. Military adventures could not have helped in this, they could only have been disruptive.

So I think the Heideggerian Nazi state would have been averse to any wars except defensive wars. It would simply have waited for Russia to become Russian again, if Russia had allowed that. (Bolshevism was seen as something totally non-Russian, a west-european metaphysical deviation.)

Bringing intelligent direction to raw barbaric energy – isn’t this a theme that goes a long way back in Europe? Hadn’t popes and bishops, poets and philosophers done this through the centuries, and been praised for it? And how obvious was it in 1933 that this couldn’t be done with Hitler and the Nazis? If we look at the contemporary press, we will see that the larger body of opinion inside and outside Germany did not regard Hitler as the kind of political monster who could never fundamentally change.

I’m not so much thinking of Hitler’s enthusiastic admirers, such as the editor of the Irish Times. On March 6, 1933 he wrote in his editorial: “In reasoned warfare against the Communists Herr Hitler will have the support of all civilised nations. At the moment he is Europe’s standard-bearer against Muscovite terrorism, and although some of his methods certainly are open to question, nobody doubts his entire sincerity.” I am thinking more of people like Daniel Binchy, who was an Irish diplomat in Germany from 1929 to 1932 and whose article “Adolf Hitler” was published in Studies in March 1933.

This article was republished two years ago in the Studies anthology. The editor, Professor Bryan Fanning, called it “astute”. This, because Binchy had actually read Mein Kampf and had familiarised himself with Nazi policy. And Binchy had an uneasy feeling about Hitler and the raw Nazi energy, no doubt about that. But when he considered the current political situation, he said that one of the possibilities was that Hitler would follow policies fundamentally different from Nazi policy, in response to pressures from his coalition partners. He didn’t think that was inconceivable. So why was it inconceivable that Hitler and the Nazis might respond to the intellectual energy of a great philosopher?

My conclusion from all this is: the explanation of his Nazi involvement which Heidegger recorded in his notebook in 1938 makes sense. It’s basically the same explanation that he gave after the war, and it’s adequate.

As I said earlier, I can’t find anything about Jews or Judaism in the notebooks written between 1931 and 1938. But there are a number of mentions of Jews and Judaism in the later notebooks, written between 1939 and 1941. Almost invariably these come up in the course of expressing oppositional attitudes towards Nazism and Nazi policies. He does see Judaism as a current of thinking with some sharply negative features. But he insists that this isn’t a biological problem, this isn’t a racial problem, it’s a metaphysical problem – like the problem of Americanism, the problem of Bolshevism, the problem of Christianity. But Judaism doesn’t have anything like the importance that these other negative forces in thinking have for Heidegger.

You’d never guess that from the anti-Heidegger press campaign that was drummed up lately, where these references to Jews and Judaism were torn out of context. (In the selection I’ve made I include all the references I can find in their context.) I would say that some of these press campaigners can’t think, some of them won’t think, and some of them want to stop anyone else thinking. Certainly, their recent activities won’t have encouraged people in Germany to read these notebooks. And they won’t have spurred anyone in Ireland, say, to look for translations. And yet these notebooks have some of the richest food for thought that a person interested in thinking is likely to find.

I’ve produced a fairly wide-ranging selection from what Heidegger wrote in the early years of the war, so I won’t say too much about that now. The most important idea is that metaphysically, there is nothing to choose between  Fascism, Communism and Liberal Democracy. All of them leave the human being in the grip of technology. All of them are systems unresponsive to the world, responsive only to complexes of artificial human aims and interests, and increasingly destructive (the ecology movement in past times took some ideas from Heidegger). And all of them degrade the mind and make it ever more difficult to find conditions for a new beginning.

In fact, if you have to compare Bolshevism and Americanism, then it’s Bolshevism that’s relatively harmless. It doesn’t get its hooks so deep into its human beings. There’s a zone of the Russian mind that it doesn’t get to and that will survive it with rich potential.

In the immediate term, what’s in store for the West, Heidegger says, is “a Prussianly-restrained unconditional hyper-Americanisation”. So: was he wrong? It seems to me that that’s what I’ve experienced in my own life in Ireland and anywhere else I’ve lived. There’s some Prussian restraint on raw Americanism, meaning for example a social welfare system, a bureacratic system of care, but basically the moving force is Americanisation. And what he says about country life, the prospects of country life, and the implications of the radio for country life – I can confirm all that from experience too.

About two years into the Second World War, Heidegger wrote that it was “a war over the Nothingness of Nothing”. And after the war, he believed that it made no basic difference that Tweedledum had been defeated by Tweedledee and Tweedledoo (who now began their own Cold War over Nothing). None of them were capable of getting western thinking out of its dead end. All of them were letting technology get out of control.

As we know, liberal democracy was an impressive winner in its Cold War. Professor Fukujama immediately announced that it was the only game in town – the only game that was ever going to be in town. (Though it seems to miss its enemies.) And technology has got so far out of control that we only have occasional sentimental controversies about it, for example regarding privacy – as if the satellites are going to let you have any such thing.

The question arises: can there possibly be any alternative? That question is being explored, for example, by the Russian writer Alexander Dugin, with his idea of the Fourth Political Theory. (The first three are Heidegger’s metaphysical triplets, Fascism, Communism and Liberal Democracy.) But here I’m more interested in the current picture of things. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of others on the issues raised in the notebooks.


(This is a version of a talk given in Belfast on May 25, 2014.)


                                                          John Minahane


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