Martin Heidegger: Routledge Critical Thinkers (2nd ed.), Timothy Clark. 197 pages. Routledge, London and New York. Reviewed by Jonathan Reynolds
As postmodernism has faded for professional intellectuals in the West and also, still, because of his engagement with Nazism (unsettled whether flirtation or serious or profound), Heidegger is the one major modern philosopher who remains arguably outside of the pantheon. Often he is called the greatest philosopher of the last century; a few dismiss him entirely as a flagrant dissimulator of bombastic nonsense and/or find him a fatally compromised or truly reactionary extoller of German blood and soil.
“He was (with the possible exception of Wittgenstein) the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. He was (with the possible exception of Hegel) the greatest charlatan ever to claim the title of ‘philosopher’, a master of hollow verbiage masquerading as profundity. He was an irredeemable German redneck, and, for a time, a gullible and self-important Nazi” (Inwood 2002: 1).
Enthusiasts include many who read into him their own half-baked notions, among them postmodern opinion-makers who suggest a relativist epistemology and attitude on truth and reality that, if I read him right, Heidegger would completely and emphatically reject. What keeps him in this seesaw free-for-all is that he appears to fill an expected place in Continental philosophy, as the unfolding of the internal logic of this fundamentally romantic impulse in Western thought requires.
Even as both Sartre and Heidegger were agreed that ‘existence precedes essence’ – an absolutely necessary insight for existential perspectives if not for ‘reality’ – his thought is positioned to come after Sartre despite Sartre post-dating him chronologically (more on Heidegger in relation to Sartre below). Heidegger’s philosophy bridges to post-existentialist/postmodern thought fundamentally by removing the anchor on the individual human organism or the self to reality (or ‘being’) by his focus on ‘deep history’, Dasein (‘being-there’), and the ‘world’. ‘Turns in time’ are, for him, crucial goals for poetic language, and the ‘poetry of poetry’ is an integral part of a return to ‘authenticity’, as he puts it, in life and experience and away from the modern technological society in which science has sought inexorably to appropriate and master ‘nature’. Here is where we see how he can be considered profoundly reactionary and how, if we believe him, he was tempted only briefly to follow Hitler and National Socialism because both seemed, for some reason, to promise or forebode a turn to a more direct and immediate relationship between man and ‘being’, in the sense of the reality already given to consciousness – the ‘being-there’. He does not appear ever to have been explicitly anti-Semitic and, in his lectures before (but not after) joining the Nazi Party, he spoke out against racism. However, at the least, the utterly deplorable treatment by him of his Jewish mentor and teacher, Husserl will raise doubt for as long as there is discussion about him and his work, as the author reviewed here, Timothy Clark, suggests.
Given the doubt, thirty-five years now after his death enough time has passed and enough has been written about him – a many-thousand volume literature exists on its own – that it is possible to evaluate Heidegger from a distance and to better take his measure. Even without this possibility, legitimate concerns must be addressed about the danger of any totalistic advocacy such as Heidegger’s. Certainly we can say that Heidegger’s influence has been great at least through the rise and demise of the postmodern movement, even if what he actually said so often seems to be paraphrased or idiosyncratically interpreted.
Heidegger in Today’s Context
In its ongoing project to understand and explain the fundamental problems of humans and the universe, philosophy seeks to round out what remains mysterious in the pre-given trajectory of insight or logic from at least the Greeks; in asserting this, I affirm the notion of the episteme and certainly of the unerring tropes of European thought since Descartes. Like quanta, History occurs en bloc or in discrete epochs as part of phenomenological and existential reality. What many believe was the legitimate next step in the Continental philosophical project after the nineteenth-century triad of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, followed by an early twentieth-century triad – principally Husserl but also Dilthey and William James – Heidegger’s propositions are interesting because he creates a new object for serious or formal human attention, being. Importantly, he examined being in the same ‘radically empirical’ fashion that Husserl examined phenomena. Why we would want to look at this new object – the being of being – is not exceptionally clear in a real or practical sense, except, 1) as Heidegger becomes an advocate rather than a neutral outsider considering matters ‘metaphysically’ and which he declares to have been the fundamental error by omission since the pre-Socratics or the beginning of Western philosophy and which, as the Western tradition of rationalism and science, has distorted and damaged consciousness and ‘nature’, and 2) as Heidegger urges this return or ‘movement’ by humans changing the way they connect to the world to a way resembling what the sensitive person obtains from experiencing a great work of art or poetic language.
This illuminating new volume on Heidegger has the very real virtue of being concise and contemporary without making too great reaches for ‘relevance’. Thus he usually credibly puts Heidegger through his paces in the utterly changed world of today as compared even with the world as it was when Heidegger died three-and-a-half decades ago. It compares well to those that I have read of the several thousand other books claiming to explain Heidegger, and, specifically, adds to a little cottage industry of reliably fine scholars in the UK writing on him; at least one earlier work (Mulhall 2005, e.g., p.2) included a needed better emphasis lacking in Clark’s exegesis on the significance and fuller philosophical implications of ‘tone’ and what ‘tone’ led to or was part of what might be called heightened, or radical, or fuller experiencing of life. This emphasis is what I consider, indeed, generally to be ignored in the literature on Heidegger; when I discuss Heidegger’s ‘Nirvana’, I review how Clark considers this and how there may be still more to add to the discussion.
Essentially, Clark’s book attempts to summarize interpretations situating Heidegger in a post-postmodern radical critique, post-postmodern in the sense that formulations leading to epistemological relativism cannot continue to have currency (if they ever did) and that – precisely as existential thought made clear – the conventional division between subject and object has been closed, definitively. There is reality, as in ‘the reality’, and integrally a part of this reality is that indubitably we exist and we are alone as we confront finitude, and as long as humans are around this will always be the case. Clark’s (admittedly necessarily) creative or idiosyncratic reconstruction (cf. 2011: 7) does fulfil his claim that he discusses Heidegger’s long excursus into poetry or poetic language – the later focus of much or most of his work after Being and Time – where some other interpretive guides have not explicitly done so in any close manner nor at length; four of the seven chapters in Clark’s book deal explicitly with this matter, which makes unfortunate his otherwise very useful exposition because unarticulated are, I think, certain crucial emphases.
In general, stylistically, Clark succeeds where other interpreters of Heidegger have failed in making Heidegger accessible; he writes well, despite a few confusing sentence constructions:
“These contrast with the tortured but more scrupulously defensible recognition of other Heidegger texts (e.g., ‘On the Question of Being’…) that one cannot so directly exit the language and thinking of the tradition, that its hold on us is too total to admit yet of more than a patient tracing of its all-pervading closure” (Clark 2011: 133).
I think follow him here but admit to some difficulty. Mostly Clark persuasively describes what one can and should understand about Heidegger – the legitimate post-Husserl phenomenology of his program and his assertions about man-in-the-world, the Dasein, and ‘deep history’. In the chapters not about poetry and poetic language – ‘The Limits of the Theoretical’, ‘Deep History (Geschichte)’, and ‘Nazism, Poetry, and the Political’ – his readings are basically clear, suggestive, and productive. For lack of space, I will limit myself to no more than a few lines on each of these chapters before addressing Clark on Heidegger and art and poetry.
In the ‘Limits of the Theoretical’, Clark defines and distinguishes the ‘theoretical’ in Heidegger’s thought as not having to do with this term in the sense of something merely abstract, or heuristic, without ramifications from or for the context of the specifics that provided the data in order to construct a theory. As Clark makes clear, Heidegger meant the limiting or negative impact of what he saw as the entire Western effort since the pre-Socratic philosophers to construct a parallel – or simulacrum, in the negative sense of this term – of ‘nature’, this effort a violent one because it seeks to appropriate, master and control nature and being, of which, otherwise, purposely excluded by science but which man both as consciousness and organism is a part. The effect is to harmfully distance man from a much closer connection to nature and the universe. In the chapter on ‘Deep History (Geschichte)’, Clark guides the reader through what is fundamental to Heidegger’s understanding of poetry and poetic language. Geschichte – ‘history’, in German – refers in Heidegger to “the little noticed changes” – descriptions of which perhaps most essentially are found predominantly in great art – “behind our backs, but affecting everything” (2011: 30-31). Clark ties ‘deep history’, in this sense, to pervasive tendencies going back to Plato and continuing through modern, technological, rational, applied knowledge and which Heidegger decried. In ‘Nazism, Poetry, and the Political’, Clark reviews the facts, and the suppositions from the facts, about Heidegger’s active pre-war Nazism and how this related or relates to how we can or should read him. He limits to 1933-1934 Heidegger’s “political engagement [with the Nazi Party as] a matter of genuine conviction and even excitement”, which leaves unanswered two questions. The first question asks, does ‘genuine conviction’ mean or imply that Heidegger truly understood what Hitler stood for, including what was available from 1925 on in Mein Kampf, calling for war for the sake of Lebensraum and for the extermination of the Jews of Europe? The second asks, How much of the “genuine conviction and even excitement” remained to whatever degree as a fundamental current in him through the war and into his post-war life and his ‘silence’ about the war and Nazism?
An additional, and final, section in the book, ‘After Heidegger’, looks at some of the major descendants and offshoots of Heidegger’s thought, while continuing to assert that “[h]is work engages us at the most fundamental level imaginable about the nature of a human existence and what we have to understand as knowledge” (2011: 143) – this despite the obvious absurdity of the bulk of humanity becoming carpenters, peasants, or poets; these would be what Clark refers to as ‘right-Heideggerians’. ‘Left-Heideggerians’, on the other hand, now focus on Heidegger as providing “…a fundamental social critique deeply critical of given thinking and institutions” (2011:144). Clark also briefly reviews the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur and, then discusses Blanchot and Derrida, respectively for their literary critical reading of ‘texts’ and for a return to Heidegger’s fundamental urgings that human beings critique and deconstruct Western rational assumptions and institutions.
Heidegger and Sartre
Some omissions flaw this otherwise quite useful and worthy book and require comment. Sartre, who studied under both Husserl and Heidegger in 1933-1934, early on was a candid admirer. Astonishingly, Clark makes not one mention of Sartre anywhere in the book – an omission which one must think, perhaps, to be due to the decoupling of the two since the 1970s and of Heidegger in preference to Sartre. The fact remains that, despite the, in my view, unfruitful punctuation in European and American philosophy now known as ‘post-existentialism’, Sartre and Heidegger are tied together by their focus on finitude and meaning as theme and phenomenology as method, and, in order to understand the context of Heidegger’s thinking, it remains difficult if not impossible in any thorough manner to discuss one without discussing the other.
How the two philosophers situated themselves is possibly explicable to small degree by conventional biography. A crude biographical interpretation might consider the two thinkers in the conventional historical context: Heidegger’s thought, spawned in Germany’s post World War I collapse, looked for a renewal of life on a deeper basis, presumably, to replace a catastrophe that had just already happened to his country; Sartre’s, given impetus in World War II’s German-occupied France, needed, on the basis of the individual consciousness, to make the decision to struggle and live against the reality of the horror of Nazism and to construct a philosophy in a world of unimaginably grotesque brutality and the overwhelming ugliness or what man can do to man.
True to their roots in Continental thought, for both Heidegger and Sartre the concern is the human universe rather than the universe which is what makes them both part of the romantic or Continental philosophical tradition. As Clark makes clear, despite the preoccupying objections to Heidegger, within or part of Heidegger’s formal philosophical concerns are some reflections that do seem still perhaps even vitally to resonate for many important thinkers for whom, abstractly, epistemology becomes ontology (which Hans Georg Gadamer argued and which Paul Ricoeur took further), philosophy becomes advocacy through the inevitable turn to ‘the act’ or ‘action’. With these tropes of (supposedly) neutral ideas leading directly to ethics (for both Heidegger and Sartre it is ‘authenticity’), both ask: what do we do with ourselves in the world as it is given ineluctably to us and as we are inextricably part of the world? As long as the human individual or collectivity remains relevant, as long as The Human continues to have integrity of and for itself as human and not as cyborg or manipulated cipher producing capital in a digital age – the individual person increasingly divided up into digitized Consumer and Consumed for the sake of Capital – as Sartre wrote toward the end of Being and Nothingness, we still confront the ‘mystery of action’, in the sense of an existential ethics. To whatever degree Facebook has played a role in the Arab Spring, the irony is that perhaps nearly equivalent in space on the front pages of world news an initial stock offering recently puts the company’s value at more than fifty billion dollars. The moral of the story is that content – even possibly revolutionary action – is quantified (as are studies for AI, another enterprise associated with Heidegger), by money or capital value. I don’t think Heidegger would have approved.
In sections of Being and Nothingness – the title a conscious takeoff of Being and Time – Sartre responds directly to Heidegger’s work. One difference between Sartre and Heidegger is the former’s perspective of the individual consciousness or the ‘for-itself’ confronting nothingness in ‘good’ or ‘bad faith’ (1966: 53 passim), while Heidegger’s is on a general turn away from the control by Western rational, e.g., scientific knowledge, of nature and the world to a phenomenal immediacy of life for the German language and people. Sartre focuses on the individual, both pre-reflective and reflective, Heidegger on the advocated return – or access for the first time in human existence – by humanity to ‘tones’ and inspired wellsprings that, for example, great poetry partakes of or summons or invokes. Sartre’s advocacy was that human consciousness, housed in individuals, should put itself ‘in good faith‘ at that nexus of decisions in front of nothingness, Heidegger’s, ‘authentically’ in front of the world that is not just anywhere but is ‘there’. Accordingly, neither philosopher begins from neutral ground. This insight is derived from Husserl’s project to ‘bracket’ the presuppositions of the ‘natural world’, and Husserl’s brilliant recognition that consciousness is always intentional. Heidegger’s achievement has been to suggest that certain of what is already written on that supposedly blank slate is what heightened poetic language translates or re-records. The blank slate is the primordial intermediary between existence and essence; that things written are not creations but discoveries in time is what matters.
One possible ‘error’ by Heidegger was pointed out by Sartre. The construction – the production, or creation and appropriation (as opposed to the scaffolding, as it were, of applied Western scientific rationality) – of the other is always necessary so that the absolute status of each can be transcended, the always-becoming of the ‘for-itself’, the already finished or dead status of the ‘become’, or the ‘being’-status of the other. The fact that Heidegger is greatly unhappy with the technological and scientific modern world might automatically or reflexively require a dialectical process, but he does not specify this in Being and Time. Sartre’s comment or correction:
“The characteristic of Heidegger’s philosophy is to describe Dasein by using positive terms which hide the implicit negations. Dasein is ‘outside’ itself, in the world’; it is a ‘being of distances’; it is care; it is ‘its own possibilities,’ etc. All this amounts to saying that Dasein ‘is not’ in itself, that it ‘is not’ in immediate proximity to itself, and that it ‘surpasses’ the world inasmuch as it posits the world as not being in itself and as not being the world. In this sense Hegel is right rather than Heidegger when he states that Mind is the Negative” (1966: 22 passim).
Accordingly, Heidegger seems to deny the necessary mechanics of the existential: the dialectic that always goes on with the for-itself creating and objectifying the other (cf. Sartre 1966: 302-307) while never allowing itself to be more or less fully objectified. Paraphrasing Heidegger, as Clark puts it, the final ‘explosion’ by virtue of Western rationality of The Human or of humanity’s relation with reality will come direly unless we follow Heidegger’s program of a non-technological, or necessarily formally rational, pre-reflective engagement with being, an engagement unifying self and other Sartre refers to as “the for-itself [in] perpetual flight in the face of being” (Sartre 1966: 149) – that is, not in a stasis of flight, but, rather, in a jockeying, as it were, back and forth, in order to transcend négatités, specific moments or instances for transcendence, or the cycling between these for the sake of possibility/ies or freedom/s. In effect, rejecting the ekstasis or ‘standing-out’ of the individual/self, Clark describes Heidegger’s idealized life as possessed of “the kind of knowledge of things shown by traditional craftsmen, such as in a carpenter’s deep, non-theoretical understanding of wood, or in the life of peasants or finally, to a degree, in art and poetry” (Clark 2011: 12). It is unclear in all of the approving works on Heidegger that I have read whether Heidegger in point of fact is urging Germans, or all of us, to become carpenters, peasants, and/or poets in our ‘turning away from’ the ‘globalized, technological civilization that Heidegger saw as a threat to the very essence of humanity’ (op. cit.: 32) Perhaps the world would become, on balance, a better place with middlingly small but sufficient prosperity via small craftwork, with generalized appreciation of art and poetry – the master carpenter (or master plumber or worker in a nuclear power plant??) a fine sensibility responding to the Aeolian harp. However, the dialectic, again, seems to be missing, the historical fact of conflict, from the individual to the collective level, ubiquitous if not absolutely existentially inevitable. If the Marxist dictum, to each according to his need, from each according to his ability, might be applied to Heidegger’s ideal, humanity could arrive at a (lower ‘c’) ‘communist’ or egalitarian society. But ‘communism’ would not exclude ‘techno-science’ (see Note 27).
Despite these distinctions, seemingly by consensus Sartre has been bypassed by Heidegger. Roughly since the 1970s the currents in Continental philosophy have flowed much more from Heidegger than from Sartre. Is this fair or correct, that is, true to the continuing impulse in this centrally important philosophical tradition? Why does consensus have it that Heidegger has carried the day? In a formal sense, it may be that because it could be argued that we have no epistemological or ontological grounds ultimately on which to base decisions about dualities or partialities as opposed to holisms, Sartre operates on artificial assumptions. What is the self? Does it exist? Specifically, does Sartre continue from Husserl to assume a transcendental ego? The answer also may be that Sartre belongs to modernism and modernism’s death has not (yet) meant humanity’s or the world’s death. Linked with this, it may be that Sartre’s philosophy simply has been too difficult to incorporate in the Western individual’s privileged and cushioned life while Heidegger’s lends itself more to (impractical) non-individual themes and issues more easily theorized about from the armchair. And what is significantly lacking in Sartre is Heidegger’s identification – for the first time in Western philosophy – of the phenomenological, that is, experienced, brilliant and shining distillation-exhilaration of poetry – perhaps the flip side of Sartre’s ‘nausea’ of “the facticity and contingency of existence” (1966:774 [from the glossary by Hazel Barnes]), and which accompanies, as well, the realization of what Sartre calls “the ontological proof”, itself derived originally from the Cartesian cogito. It may finally well be the case, also, that philosophers today contemplating planetary ecological crisis are preparing their own new dissertations from Sartre’s as well as Heidegger’s vantage; Clark, as mentioned, explicitly makes the case for Heidegger’s contributions to environmental and globalist thinking, and he devotes some pages to the fascinating and very suggestive link between Heidegger’s writings and research into artificial intelligence.
Heidegger and Walter Benjamin
In addition to Sartre as one of the more famous and astute of Heidegger’s critics, a poignant voice – otherwise a footnote, and, if Hitler’s Third Reich had lasted longer than the few years that it did, perhaps likely never mentioned nor ever rescued from the void – was Walter Benjamin, the great literary theorist associated with the Frankfurt School of critical sociology and posthumously considered one of the most important social and literary theorists of the last century. The marvellously subtle medium of Benjamin’s mind was housed in the person of a nervous, exalted, exhausted Jew who killed himself, mistakenly believing he had been found out by the Gestapo just as he was successfully escaping from Germany. That Benjamin’s comments on Heidegger were brief and humorous might explain why Clark makes no mention of him. But because of Benjamin’s large and growing influence now, it seems appropriate at least to mention him in any work on Heidegger. In his journals, Benjamin describes how he plotted jokingly with Bertolt Brecht about how they would “finish off” Heidegger. Although the context was light or frivolous, Benjamin’s criticism that Heidegger systematized history (or the un-systemizable) bears thinking about as another problem or error by Heidegger.
Heidegger’s Nirvana: Does It Make Sense?
What about Heidegger’s Nirvana and his urging for getting there? Clark refers to it variously as “[seeking], in the German language and people, the possibility of a new non-reductive relation to being, one which would both repeat and revise the Greek inauguration of Western life” (Clark 2011: 133). This Nirvana is constrained by critiquing ‘Western life’ and advocating its replacement for the sake of Germans and, only by implication, humanity, in general. Heidegger’s hortations also are constrained in that both what he critiques and what he advocates have specific points in time when they were or are or could be real and when, therefore, they were or are not. It seems by this, again, that Heidegger does not understand the notion of the dialectic, which, because the dialectic refers to a dynamic and continuing process, incorporates change. However, in part because of his philosophical identification of, for want of better terminology, a heightened reality, or ontology, of being available via, using his example, great art, I put myself in the camp of Heideggerians, although, like many of those who value him, I also am uneasy (profoundly so) by his advocating, during part of his life, the heightened being of great art exclusively of and for Germans and Nazism. Sartre, on the other hand, did not intend his philosophy to be solely applied to and for the betterment of French people only, certainly was on the left, politically, and, indeed, became a (disputatious) Marxist. I can, like others, with some difficulty rationalize Heidegger’s priority of Germans and Germany in his philosophy, give him the benefit of the doubt regarding his Nazi affiliation – accepting that this was quite brief – and, ultimately, universalize his work so that it has value for all of us. I can imagine an African and an Asian finding value in Heidegger, though, for some reason, I cannot an indigenous person of the Americas, for example, the Maya, my own research focus.
I propose there are two general motivations toward an ideal discoverable within Heidegger’s thought. The first is a ‘return’ to a different and somehow more fundamental way for humans to live than the excluding, measuring, and controlling rationalism of Western scientifically applied thought. The second is more specific: a ‘movement’ into ‘the power of poetry’, ‘poetry’ having a specific sense attached to it. For lack of space, I focus on the specific sense of the second ideal which he urges humanity – presumably not only Germans! – to pursue.
The second of these motivations is where Heidegger confirms for me, at any rate, the legitimacy of some of his fundamental insights. These have to do with what can only be described as the ‘magical’ emergence out of or apart from the context of the hyletic or the conventionally considered reality, of absolutely unpredicted and unpredictable creations of art and poetry that simultaneously and, seemingly quixotically, are also and at the same time, discoveries. I speak here of how one reacts to a great work of art or writing – or, in principle, to a great idea or concept encountered in science: the always pre-written supposedly blank slate.
Clark quotes Heidegger: “It may be that one day we shall have to move out of our everydayness and move into the power of poetry, that we shall never again return into everydayness as we left it” (Gesumtausgabe 39: 22, cited by Clark [2011: 103]). This falls under the category of what Heidegger called the ‘pre-reflective’, what Sartre also called the non-thetic, what Husserl called the ‘lifeworld’, and what one finds somewhat helplessly but arrestingly called ‘lived experience’ in other phenomenological and existential texts (cf Sartre 1966: 397). It has also to do with the sheer or absolute specificity of the world, existence, and being (to crudely associate three words with quite precise definitions; see footnotes). Great art works so well because it takes advantage of heightened moments in the intensity of lived experience. As Flaubert and Rimbaud respectively described in wonderful aphorisms and poems, during the realization of the poem or the artwork, crystallizations or distillations of much larger and sharper experiencing occurs – magically, world-openings, as it were. Reality is a matter of degree. Heidegger relates this ‘power of poetry’, first, to the unassailable insight of the absolutely specific or particular, without which there is no phenomenology, no existentialism, and no great art, and, second, as I have mentioned, to the absolutely unpredictable creations that are also discoveries, seemingly out of time, or from profoundly contextualized ‘lived experience’, and manifested by precisely those elements in great writing and art that – and here I paraphrase both Heidegger and Clark – take transformative possession of and overwhelm us, heightening or carrying us out of ordinary or quotidian existence to a more intense and complete or holistic sense of or connection to existence. Rimbaud – like a primordial rock star influential to youths in the provinces around much of the world in each generation since his death – certainly was one for whom the cognizance of the ‘turn of history’, which Heidegger so cherished in Hölderlin’s poetry, was evident. In a few select and ever-quoted phrases from his famous letters about the task of the poet, he asked, “If wood wakes up a violin, is it to blame?” “If brass wakes up a trumpet, is it to blame?” Together with his equally famous dictum, consciously employing what one might call ‘deranged’ grammar, Je est un autre (“I is someone else”), the juxtaposition of first person pronoun with third person verb conjugation effectively declares that the entire supposedly subjective world is objective and absolutely specific, but, also, universal!. The distinction between abstract media, ‘wood’ or ‘brass’, and the specific forms we encounter of these media, ‘violin’ or ‘trumpet’, make clear how the specific or particular is the single most completely resonant or felt fact of life and the universe to the point of extraordinary emergence out of time and larger than any so-called real world thing-of-fact. Clark mentions Shelley (2011: 154) – in the same context in which, unfortunately, he also seems to miss the point, that he mentions Baudelaire’s poem, ‘Correspondences’. Shelley famously declared, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” – as idealist a statement as can be, but not a Platonic idealism, rather, a phenomenological and specifically, one might say, a Heideggerian one.
From here on the verdict will depend on the endurance of the abstract constructions Heidegger’s work produced and attempted unavoidably to systematize – the bones of the skeleton of the meaning we continue to find in his work and historical place. Likely it will not depend on the ‘new language’ he said he needed to invent because of the novelty and the somehow Ur-fundamental nature of his philosophical program, famously declaring, for example, in Being and Time, that his task is to examine the nature of being – the ‘being of being’. Fall of those concerned about profound and unprecedented humanly caused planetary climate change, Clark declares, in addition, that “Heidegger is a major thinker of [the negative aspects] of globalisation” (Clark 2011: 2): [“p]ervading all of Heidegger’s work is an intense sense of crisis, or living at a grimly decisive time for the future of humanity” (Clark 2011: 3). But because he excluded the dialectic, and, impractically, did not consider the dialectic of history (as in Marx), neither can it rely on the urgency he declared was his principal motivation – to decry ‘techno-science’ and the ‘nihilism’ of the modern human project to appropriate, master and control ‘nature’ and ‘life’.
Most of the accusations of obfuscation with nothing behind the language and nothing of real content in his philosophy relate to the somehow much more immediate experiencing of life that he advocated so urgently. If his work is found of major value despite the errors and omissions I have noted, is his work ultimately is not found to contain large and encompassing ideas that resolve outstanding philosophical questions, he will suffer the fate of many others before him who became artifacts of particular times, places, and paradigms. Instead of overcoming the age, the age will have overcome him. Clark, himself, believes that understanding and deployment of Heidegger’s philosophy is still “working itself out” (2011: 3). In response to Clark, in a more trivial way, I will refer him back to his own admonitions that Heidegger and his philosophy purposely resist paraphrase or reduction. How do you interpret a thinker without rewriting him to some extent perhaps at least in the sense of putting in what ‘ought to be there’? In partial answer one could counter that since Heidegger was, first and foremost, a phenomenologist, he studied his own subjective impressions, as it were, and then tried to generalize from them to categorical modalities, stimmung, ‘care’, etc., just as Sartre did with ‘anguish’, ‘shame’, ‘love’, and ‘nausea’ (or, more fundamentally, ‘having’, ‘doing/making’ and ‘being’). Ultimately, from what I have suggested, because of the dialectical nature of human experience avoidance even at the level of paraphrase or linguistic reduction is not possible unless the human individual organism disappears as such.
As suggested, ironically, it appears at least to this reviewer that, without more or less worldwide social revolution, international capitalism, working hand-in-hand with powerful states, seems well on the way to accomplishing not only the inhospitability of the planet as we comfortably survive in it but precisely the disappearance of humans with individual or existential consciousness. Heidegger the reactionary quite simply was wrong to urge a return to a somehow simpler but more direct relation to the universe. If trends and processes continue, the only individuals left standing will be the plutocrats – the international finance-capital class – and with techno-science, mostly financed by private capital and/or by neo-Liberal capitalist nation-states or superpowers, continuing to discover and identify the constituents of the human organism, including genetic sequences that are patented for profit. (One envisions warehouse factories where humans are hanging, immobilized, as DNA extraction milks them dry.) Accordingly, the individual human organism may be disappearing as such, depending, again, on whether or not one is situated within the superrich class and/or those individuals who benefit greatly from historical legacy like the Bush family, privileged to pass on their genes intact.
Ironically, indeed it may be that Heidegger’s project as a philosopher has ended up contributing to the radical techno-scientific distancing of humans and consciousness from the authenticity he advocated, this because so few people actually understand how information age technology works and, yet, increasingly use and rely on it. In this epoch of cell phone texting, already dating Heidegger is his stand against techno-science and the nihilism of the violence of Western Enlightenment rationality, the “absolutism of modernity’s drive to know” (2011: 4) rather than ‘to be’. Heidegger laments the death of God proclaimed by Nietzsche and wishes, in the ensuing emptiness, for a return to what could be construed as a more primitive existence by means of “what other modes of being and thinking, if any, might be conceived beyond [the Western tradition] … closed off and repressed by [it]” (ibid.). Ironically, our language seems dictated ever increasingly by information technology and the instrumentalism of computing. More and more, our grammar and spelling suffer from too quick email composition. Heidegger’s post-Being and Time investigations of Hölderlin and of poetic language now seem almost embarrassingly antiquated – eclipsed – beached high and dry on the arid shores within the ocean of Capital of Crusoe-like islands of as yet unsold and unquantifiable meaning that turn out, sooner or later, to be a mirage anyway (virtual reality, predigested content for sale). He seems at risk almost of Luddite oddness. Today, mostly we love the Simulacrum and the Machine. Heidegger missed how the human individual and collectively continues from the existential dialectic and lived experience is always, or at least up till now, in a race with those powers that label him ‘consumer’ to remain unassimilable.
That a reactionary – maudlin-sentimental? – Heidegger urgently proposed return to a more direct connection to meaning, or to a somehow newfound immediacy of life, has raised the risk of applying to him the axiom that the louder and more fevered the urging – and for a tenuously obtainable or practicably clear goal – the less serious we can take him and the less well he will fare over the long term; certainly he has not been the only critic of modernism (or neo-Liberal capitalism) and its effects. It is still uneasily possible to see Heidegger the Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg, the dispatcher of his mentor and philosophical father, Husserl, looming out of the defacing darkness of his ideological proposals, looking at us menacingly. The maudlin, itself, is violent. On this score, Heidegger’s peculiar connection to German Jewishness beyond his Nazi badges is fascinating. The Jews in Heidegger’s life – two of them, at least, from whom he personally benefited enormously – were Husserl and Hannah Arendt, his pre-war lover and confidante. Another, ironically, was the poet, Paul Celan, who wrote about the Holocaust. Still another – unknown to Heidegger but important in twentieth-century critical thought – was Benjamin. It is not too far-fetched to understand that Heidegger’s various connections, potentially ruthless and maudlin, to his Jews partake somehow of the existential dynamic of self and other that has characterized the duality first recognized in the West by the pre-Socratics. This is the Western romantic impulse as manifested not only in European philosophy but in literature and the other arts. It is also the other, and very bloody, side in world history of the psychologically profoundly deep impulse in human consciousness to objectify or ‘kill’ the other – to construct out of another self or person, or tribe, ethnicity, or gender, the object which one ‘kills’, psychically (think of American commercials for beer and how if you buy and drink a certain brand, a beautiful woman appears for your use), and/or physically, and on which the individual or collective consciousness nourishes itself – for the sake of existential transcendence, the continuation of the for-itself to flee from being even as it feeds on it. One almost cannot help but wonder what went through Heidegger’s mind when he dedicated Being and Time to Husserl, when Arendt was receiving his embraces, when he was praising Celan to Celan’s face.
- Harman, Graham (2007) Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing. Peru, IL
- Inwood, Michael (2002) Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press
- Mulhall, Stephen (2005) Heidegger and Being and Time. 2nd ed. Routledge, Abingdon, UK
- Sartre, Jean-Paul (1984) War Diaries. Verso, London
- White, Carol J. (2005) Time and Death. Heidegger’s Analysis of Finitude. Ashgate, Aldershot, UK/Burlington, Vermont