Why We Should Read Heidegger

Why We Should Read Heidegger

Matt McManus
Matt McManus
9 min read

This the final instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers.

I must make a confession here: Martin Heidegger was one of the first philosophers I really and truly loved. When I was around 19 years old, one of the summer jobs I worked was as a traffic counter. We were responsible for counting the number of cars that went through street lights, which needless to say was a profoundly boring task. I often passed the time by reading, and began delving into philosophy for the first time—there is something about sitting by the side of the road for 11 hours that enables speculation. Heidegger’s dense and strange books were often infuriatingly opaque, but once I began to understand them I was thrilled. Here was someone who thought and wrote in a way that no one else seemed to, and who was emphatically unafraid of tackling the biggest and most novel philosophical questions. As a critical young man, I was also enraptured with his damning critique of modernity and especially technology. I was so absorbed by it that I identified as a Heideggerian well into my early PhD, writing an undergraduate thesis on “authenticity” and my L.L.M thesis on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Anglo-American legal theory.

Unfortunately, this admiration was always tempered by a significant counterweight; the awkward matter of Heidegger’s politics. My father was a human rights lawyer who made his living prosecuting ex-pat Nazis hiding in Canada, and I was brought up in a household in which the evils of the Hitler regime were transparently visible. When I was 12 years old, I started to volunteer for a number of human rights groups, and learned more about the horrors of Nazism from survivors and commentators. This shocked my young conscience. How could my philosophical hero, a man who embodied all the intellectual virtues I admired—critical mindedness, creativity, an emphasis on authenticity—relate himself to Nazism? This question only became more challenging as the depth of his association with Nazism and anti-Semitism became clearer to me.

Heidegger and Politics

In this series so far I have written pieces analyzing the work of Rousseau, Marx, and Nietzsche. Each remains a controversial thinker, and with good reason. But, unlike these earlier figures, Heidegger is not simply peripherally or problematically associated with a damning political movement. Rousseau wrote many worrying things about the authority to be ceded to the “General Will,” but never lived to see the Jacobins unleash the terror in its name. Karl Marx was a revolutionary who was certainly unafraid of violence, but would most likely have been horrified by the totalitarian movements erected in his name. Nietzsche was, of course, no liberal or egalitarian, but he also was an unrelenting foe of German nationalism who would have found the Nazi appropriation of his writings comical were the consequences not so devastating.

But Heidegger not only joined the Nazi party, he remained a member until it ceased to exist at the end of the Second World War. He attended conferences for Nazi intellectuals, at which he delivered speeches. Heidegger infamously reported faculty members to the gestapo if he regarded them as insufficiently loyal to the new regime. And, even after the war, when the full horrors of the Nazis’ crimes became apparent, he had little to say in repentance or critique. Heidegger’s most public attempt to explain his support for Nazism—a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel magazine—was detailed but notably free of self-examination. This raises a serious problem, as Richard Rorty pointed out in his essay on Heidegger in Philosophy and Social Hope. How could one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century ally himself with its most sinister and monstrous political movement?

To understand this development, it helps to understand Heidegger’s critique of modernity and modern life. This Heidegger presented for the first time in Being and Time and subsequently developed in Introduction to Metaphysics and his later work on technology and the history of Western thought. For Heidegger, modern thought is in some respects a regression from the truly epochal thinking of earlier ages. Where the Greeks, especially the pre-Socratics were willing to tackle the biggest questions of human life, most modern people were largely unconcerned with such seemingly abstract and uncommercial questions. Figures like Parmenides pondered questions such as “What is Being?” and associated the answer with a whole range of issues pertaining to the meaning of existence and, by extension, human life.

By contrast, later thinkers like Descartes asked a narrower set of questions. Rather than concerning themselves with Being itself, they asked instead “How can I think what is true?” This may seem like an innocuous shift, but it heralded a movement towards what would later be called technical reason. As modernity continued on its course, questions about existence and its meaning were increasingly dismissed in favor of “technical questions” such as “How can I understand the empirical world accurately, so it can be manipulated in my interests?” Modern people were unconcerned with “Why there is something instead of nothing at all,” which for Heidegger was the key question of metaphysics, and indeed for the human life of Dasein—that being for whom Being is a question. Instead, they wanted to generate ever more powerful systems of knowledge, such as the technical sciences, so the world could be more easily broken down and instrumentalized. The “enframing” of the world which results from technical reason blocks us from developing our more authentic selves. As he put it in “The Question Concerning Technology“:

Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding-sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence. The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger. The transformed meaning of the word “Enframing” will perhaps become somewhat more familiar to us now if we think Enframing in the sense of destining and danger. The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

The ascendancy of technical reason and instrumentalization, Heidegger thought, generated highly inauthentic individuals who were unable to live meaningful lives. This is because the primary purpose of existence was regarded as the pursuit of a kind of materialist satisfaction. This was true across political forms, which is partly why Heidegger claimed that the hyper-partisan distinction between Left and Right is actually trivial. Both liberal capitalism and its great rival communism are equally devoted to the modernist pursuit of materialist satisfaction. The only difference between them is over the most efficient means to pursue that goal. They are “metaphysically the same” in their efforts to “enframe” the world using technical reason, and result in the same belief about the point of existence.

By contrast, Heidegger stressed that materialist satisfaction can never provide a truly meaningful existence. On the contrary, it can only produce tremendous anxiety as we recognize that the limitations of our lives and the inevitability of death will one day bring the party to an end. At that point, our pursuit of material satisfaction and wealth will turn out to have been meaningless. Heidegger argues that many of us realize this, and feel contempt for the vulgarity and emptiness of our societies. Nevertheless, rather than acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, we retreat into the inauthentic world of “das man” or the “they.” We try to ignore the inevitability of our annihilation by conforming to the expectations of consumer society, disregarding the deeper questions that drive us, and believing that, as long as we go about our business, death—and the confrontation with our own inauthenticity—can be postponed indefinitely.

For Heidegger, this frightened retreat into the world of the “they” was symptomatic of the impact of technical reason and instrumentalization across the world. Being and Time was a call for authenticity in an age apparently dedicated to running from it. Authenticity would mean facing up to the reality of our own future annihilation, and to try and live beyond the “they” by committing ourselves to a truly great project which will provide our lives with a worthy end. This project will of course be doomed to ultimate failure, because the finiteness of time available to us will ensure it is never fully completed. But the meaning of our lives comes from choosing as worthy a project as possible and pursuing it with as much dedication as one can muster.

This is an immensely inspiring critique, and I can only gesture at its power in this short article. Many commentators, myself included, tend to interpret Being and Time as a call for a unique form of individualism. This isn’t what one might call liberal individualism, which Heidegger associated with technical reason and the world of the “they.” Liberal individualism meant little more than mindless conformity, as each indistinguishable figure went about pursuing their menial pleasures in cooperation and competition with one another. It is also philosophically implausible for Heidegger. The atomistic conceit of figures like Jefferson or Mill, that we are “born free” and use technical reason to analyze the world from scratch, was a vulgarization of true philosophy. Heidegger repeatedly stressed that we are always “thrown” into a world of social meanings that fundamentally shape our outlook on the world. The authentic individuality Heidegger favored comes from making use of these meanings to shape something fundamentally new, but which grows organically out of what came before. But this of course means that a decadent and damaged society will not provide its members with the tools necessary to live authentic existences. It must therefore be condemned and refashioned as necessary.

This hostility to liberalism and communism explains a great deal of the attraction Heidegger felt towards Nazism. Its reverence for the traditional practices and beliefs of the German volk and its call for the liberal individual to surrender himself to a greater collective cause must have appealed to him a great deal, both in its conservative and radical dimensions. There also seems to be a sense in which the earlier anti-liberal individualism of Being and Time gives way to a more social vision. The most obvious example of this was the way his concept of Dasein—which he had earlier used to refer to a singular “being” who questioned the nature of “Being”—is given a twist in the Rectoral address. Now it referred to the nation and its destiny.

Heidegger’s writings during that period seem to reflect this new emphasis, reaching a pitch in his criticisms of liberalism and communism, and his suggestion that Nazi Germany had a unique destiny in rescuing the Western world. Some of this may also be attributable to personal arrogance on Heidegger’s part, and his belief that a totalitarian political movement could carry out the kind of sweeping philosophical reforms he wished to see take place on a grand scale. Heidegger later admitted that he was naïve when it came to politics, though I think his lover Hannah Arendt expressed it better. He was a great fool to think that Nazism, a hyper-modern totalitarian movement bent on world conquest and the submission of all individual wills to Adolph Hitler, was an ideological instrument useful to the project of creating a more authentic world. It is likely that his own life-long attraction to German traditionalism and national identity blinded him to the extremism of its policies. Ironically, in his efforts to escape from the world of the “they,” he submitted his immense philosophical intelligence to the most inauthentic movement imaginable.

Conclusion: What Can We Learn from Heidegger

Heidegger was one of the greatest philosophers in the twentieth century, despite his contemptible politics. There remains much we can learn from him, if we take care to isolate the gems of insight from the dangerous currents underneath. This is often a challenge whenever one is dealing with a critique of modernity that is powerful enough to be convincing. One must always take care not to trade the imperfect for the tyrannical.

Heidegger’s analysis of authenticity remains more pressing than ever in our postmodern culture. Many people believe that our purpose in life remains a form of self-satisfaction. Today, however, this includes an emphasis on the expression of a given identity, various forms of left-wing agitation, and the emergence of postmodern conservatism. At his best, Heidegger would warn us that this emphasis on identity can lead us to live inauthentic existences. The efforts of postmodern conservatives to provide stability for their sense of identity by excluding those who are different reflects this tendency; a temptation Heidegger himself fell into against the better inclinations of his philosophy. We long for a sense of stability in our identities, but this longing is antithetical to the quest for true authenticity. What we must recognize is that identity is always unstable because it is framed by the tasks we set for ourselves. Our identity is always unstable because an authentic person is always seeking to become something greater than they were before. The choice available is to accept this instability or retreat into the world of the “they.”

Heidegger focused our attention on mysterious questions that are too frequently ignored. In particular, the questions of ontology: What does it mean to be? What does it mean to say this or that particular thing exists? Why is there something instead of nothing at all? And so on. He was wrong to criticize scientific technical reason for its indifference to these questions. Indeed, many seminal figures, from Einstein to Lee Smolin, were preoccupied by these ontological issues. But we are no doubt still prone to ignoring them in favor of questions that permit clearer answers. Indeed, our economically minded society often dismisses apparently unanswerable ontological questions with the claim that they’re a waste of time that could be spent more wisely on more efficient tasks.

But Heidegger also pointed out that asking ontological questions can and does play a fundamental role in our personal lives, and that dismissing them may prevent us from reflecting on what is truly important. Each of us is indeed “thrown” into the world for a short period of time. No one truly knows from whence we came, and each of us fears the annihilation to which we must inevitably return. Pondering these issues, as well as the more general question of where anything came from and what it is moving towards, can help us bring deeper focus to life.

recentThe Totalitarian Philosophers

Matt McManus

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey.