Being Martin Heidegger

His new translator tells you what you need to know about the philosopher -- and why you need to know it.

Published November 13, 2000 9:54AM (EST)

"Why is there something instead of nothing," asked philosopher Martin Heidegger, and he asked it again and again throughout his life. But, considering his at times nearly incomprehensible response to his own question and his affiliation with the Nazis during the 1930s, there are more than a few who have since plaintively wished, "Why couldn't there be nothing instead of Heidegger?"

Still, after all the revelations of his involvement with National Socialism, all the mockery over his idiosyncratic vocabulary and all the dissension over his postmodern progeny, Heidegger persists. Indeed, Heidegger thrives. Each year sees more of his work translated into English and other languages around the globe. Each year seems to find some new group proclaiming a new way to apply Heidegger's philosophy to its practical tasks. Nurses, environmental activists and even salesmen are now being urged to "authentically" relate to their clients, their work and the world, a quintessentially Heideggerian notion. Presidential candidate Ralph Nadar quoted the philosopher at a rally the day before the election, echoing Heidegger's sentiment that the "basic fact about human beings is that we care about one another."

This year marks a major event in the Heidegger world: the publication of a new translation of his 1935 lectures, "Introduction to Metaphysics," rendered into English by Richard Polt and Gregory Fried. Their work is noteworthy because it brings Heidegger's voice alive in ways that the earlier translation by Ralph Manheim failed to do, and in places it corrects Manheim's attempts to soften Heidegger's resonance with the Nazis.

Polt and Fried are representative of a new generation of Heidegger scholars, a group that has unflinchingly looked at the evidence of Heidegger's affiliations with German fascism, fully investigated the ways in which his thought might have led to such a disastrous political regime and yet still found reasons to value the meditations of this provincial German. For them, Heidegger's work offers possibilities for constructively transforming one's life and for positively challenging the current direction of our technological world.

Polt is an associate professor of philosophy at Xavier University and widely acknowledged to have written the most incisive and accessible summation of Heidegger's thought ("Heidegger: An Introduction"), published last year. In this interview, Polt discusses Heidegger's current status as a philosopher in America and in Germany, how to consider the paradox that the man many call the greatest philosopher of the 20th century was also a Nazi and why Heidegger is worth bothering with at all.

I realize this is a bit unfair, but can you offer, to the novice reader, a summary of the essence of Heidegger's thought?

Heidegger's basic problem is the question of "Being": How is it that we're able to understand what it means for anything to be? So when a philosopher like Descartes declares, "I think, therefore I am," Heidegger wants to ask, What is this "am-ness"? Or when any of us say that something "is" -- whether it's a molecule, a man or the planet Mars -- what do we mean by "is," and how does it come to pass that "is" means anything to us at all? Heidegger's answer is that we understand Being because we live in time -- we belong to a past and we anticipate a future. So without time and history, things couldn't be present or revealed to us at all. Their Being would have no meaning.

What first drew you to Heidegger?

I didn't read Heidegger until my senior year, but when I did I thought he was very refreshing because he seemed to articulate problems that I had dimly perceived in previous philosophers that I had read, none of whom had really satisfied me. They all seemed to be missing something. And Heidegger put words on that.

What was that?

That truth can't be grasped in an abstract, universal way without taking into account that we are concrete human beings living in a particular time and place. Heidegger tried to show that our particularity is not an obstacle to truth but in fact it's what makes truth possible. There's no truth apart from that. It seems to me that he does that without just falling into relativism. So I found that very appealing.

The particular truth that many are aware of about Heidegger is that he was a Nazi and a committed Nazi. After the war he tried to cover up many of his actions that were aligned with Nazi policy, including distorting the text of the lectures you've just translated. Why should we bother with a Nazi philosopher? Why do you bother?

Somebody can be thought-provoking even if he's wrong. The fact that he definitely was wrong in politics doesn't mean that he might not also be right in certain areas. If you look for a philosopher who has very safe and reasonable politics, he's not likely to be a very interesting philosopher, unfortunately. So I think we need to keep in mind Heidegger's politics, always. But that's not to ignore him.

When you say "keep in mind" his politics, how then do you suggest we keep it in mind when we read him?

I think we need to ask regularly, Does this way of thinking either promote some sort of political tyranny or else leave the door open for it in a way that we want to avoid? I would say his thought leaves the door open for it without necessarily leading through it. Even if it did necessarily lead through it, it might be interesting to understand his philosophy and become aware of the objections to it.

There are some American philosophers and researchers out there who suggest that there's a direct line between Heidegger's philosophy and the embrace of Nazi ideology or others like it. How would you distinguish your thought about the connection between Heidegger's philosophy and Nazism from others who see a more direct link?

One can make a reasonable case that his philosophy led him straight to National Socialism. The case would be something like this: In "Being and Time," his main work, he characterizes everyday existence and everyday language and thinking as inauthentic, in other words superficial and not fundamentally disclosive about the human condition.

So it would seem to follow that he would have no reason to support democracy or free speech or any parliamentary system, because it would all just be inauthentic, idle talk. At the same time, also in "Being and Time," he suggests that a deeper and authentic truth can be found in going back to one's roots, one's heritage, and appropriating them for some future project, perhaps under the leadership of some hero. It's not much of a stretch to see how he could be very excited by this very charismatic figure Hitler, who claimed he was returning to the German roots in a historic way. As it turned out, what he really wanted was something much more revolutionary than Nazism. The Nazis were not radical enough because they weren't provoking the German people to a confrontation with Being. As the '30s wear on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with the Nazis and comes to see them as just another product of modern metaphysics. I think he genuinely supported the movement, though probably from the very beginning he was not a standard Nazi. He was a card-carrying Nazi, but not just another average party member.

Now when I say he left the door open without forcing anybody who's Heideggerian to become a fascist, what I mean is that you could accept his view that everyday existence is inauthentic and yet still reject authoritarian tyranny.

When you say he saw everyday life as not disclosive, how should we understand disclosive?

Everyday life for Heidegger is absorbed with particular things, in particular projects, without standing back, as it were, to explicitly choose those projects. He says we do not choose to choose in everyday life. Authenticity would involve choosing to choose -- in other words, being really self-aware and free in what one is pursuing. In that sense authenticity would be more disclosive and more illuminating about the human condition.

I'm told that Heidegger isn't taken seriously anymore in Germany, that his involvement with the Nazis has caused him to be no longer viewed as a legitimate part of the debate in philosophy or about Germany.

I wouldn't state it as absolutely as that. But certainly Heidegger is not the main concern of most German philosophers. In the immediate postwar time Heidegger did have a sort of comeback in the '50s, a wave of popularity. But at the same time philosophers like Habermas emerged who have a completely non-Heideggerian approach, a much more rationalist approach. Contemporary German philosophy is much like American philosophy in that there are analytic philosophers there, and there's quite a bit of interest in American pragmatism in Germany. Of course there are pockets of Heideggerians. Still, it's in France and America and a few other countries like Japan and Italy where Heidegger is really appreciated.

Do you think it is more rationalistic and pragmatic cultures like America and France, then, that in some ways are desperate for an injection of some mystical element -- which opens them up to Heidegger?

I think that's true. The Germans had their fill of mystical irrationalism. And Americans need some of it. Of course, irrationalism is a pejorative term. But I do think we need some Heidegger. That would be one way of putting it.

What element of Heidegger do you think America needs?

Science and technology have a leading role in our culture. They're often seen as the arbiters of truth. One of Heidegger's main points is that science and technology are built upon something that cannot be understood in scientific or technological terms. Poetry and art, for instance, might be ways of reaching that deeper truth, that experience of the world that is pre-scientific. Often we in America don't know what to do with poetry and art. For us they're just entertainment or relaxation. What if there were a deeper truth? Maybe there's a strain of American culture that longs for that.

Heidegger spent a lifetime trying to capture the primordial experience of life itself, life as it's experienced before rational thought orders and structures our experience, with some notion that regaining this experience would somehow inform our lives in a way that would allow us to live more fully and more truthfully. Was he successful?

It depends on what you mean by success. If success means to prove something once and for all, to give us a final interpretation of life, then the answer is no. But part of his thinking is that there is no final interpretation. Instead there is an ongoing process of reinterpretation. In my view he was successful in alerting us to certain dimensions of human existence.

There's a substantial body of work that compares Heidegger to Eastern thought and particularly to Buddhism, to the attempt to awaken oneself from the jail cell of ego and the aging, sickness and ultimate death of the body. Do you think such comparisons are valid or useful? Was Heidegger, in effect, a Western Buddha?

He was definitely interested in Buddhism and Taoism. It's also true that his thought found resonance in Japan. He gets a lot of attention in Japan. What a lot of Japanese say is that there is connection between Buddhism's notion of emptiness and some Heideggerian notions of nothingness or unconcealment. We do need to be a bit skeptical about this, though. There is one passage in the "Contributions to Philosophy," which were written by Heidegger between 1936 and 1938, in which he simply makes the remark, "Not Buddhism. The very opposite." What he means by that I don't know, except that I think he probably had in mind that Buddhism seems to try to release us altogether from existence, from the body, whereas Heidegger wants a more engaged dwelling or involvement in existence. Now it might be that that's a misinterpretation of Buddhism, and of course there are many different strands of Buddhism. But that's why I think that he might have been reluctant to say that he was a Western Buddha.

Heidegger is seen as the fount, along with Nietzsche, of much of the postmodern thought that has developed over the past three decades. Yet much of postmodern thought seems to have hit a dead end as a result of its own deconstructive strategies. The most renowned example of this is the infamous Sokal affair, in which a physicist submitted a parody concerning the supposed "hermeneutics of quantum gravity" to a leftist postmodern journal, and the editors accepted it as legitimate. Do you believe postmodernists have misused Heidegger? Or are we witnessing the logical outcome of the circularity that's inherent in Heidegger's method?

I think it is a misuse. As we were saying earlier, Heidegger points to the particularization of truth, its historicity. But I think he does not thereby become a relativist who dismisses scientific findings altogether. He is just saying that scientific statements do in fact reveal things to us, but let's not forget that they're possible only in an interpretive context. That scientific theories are open to revision, and it's possible that better interpretations may come along. Which is different from taking any scientific statement and trying to deconstruct it and reduce it to its background in intellectual history, its cultural resonances, which ultimately, I think, ends up in a sort of Nietzschean interpretation, reducing all truth to power.

But even in your description, doesn't this point up the problem with Heidegger and science? Most scientists would say DNA is not an interpretation, for example. DNA is DNA. It's a fact and it has definite predictable results in our lives.

Well, I'll try to speak for Heidegger on this question. His statements about science are sometimes sloppy and sometimes more careful. I think at his best he would say, "You're right. DNA is real. The facts we've discovered about it are real. Now, what do those facts mean in a larger sense? What are we going to do with them?" That is certainly still in question. By discovering the human genome, have we unlocked the human essence, as the Cincinnati Enquirer said in a headline a few months ago? Or have we discovered something that, although true, does not really reveal what it means to be human? By discovering the human genome, have we gained a tool that we can or should use to exploit ourselves? Or would that be a misunderstanding of ourselves as a resource or an object? These are questions of interpretation. And here is where debate and discussion and deeper interpretation are always possible. I don't think that relativizes the facts of what scientists have discovered.

One of the other areas where Heidegger's influence has been acknowledged explicitly is in the environmental movement, where some claim that Heidegger's understanding of the world and of technology informs their approach to saving the planet. What was Heidegger's notion of technology? Are these environmentalists right in their reading of him?

I don't know the details of how he has been appropriated. But I think it would be legitimate to try to use him in ecological thinking. Especially his views on technology, which are that technology is one mode in which things as a whole are revealed to us. They're revealed to us as useful and manipulable resources. And he wants to alert us to the fact that that is not the only possible interpretation of things -- that beneath that interpretation there is what he calls "earth," which is a dimension of things that can never be fully interpreted or fully used up or fully understood by the human being. It's a mysterious dimension. So the kind of ecological thinking that tries to get us to respect the mystery of wilderness is something that is very close to the spirit of Heidegger. The kind of ecological thinking that goes about trying to manage resources wisely so that we don't destroy potential cures for cancer -- that's still thinking technologically, in other words, still seeing natural resources as objects.

In the famous Der Spiegel interview, which Heidegger gave in 1966 but wasn't published until his death 10 years later, he ended by saying that given the technological developments going on in the world, "only a god can save us now," a god with a small "g." Do you think he has in mind the same kind of thing that Joe Lieberman and George Bush do when they pronounce their belief in God? How do you understand Heidegger's statement?

Heidegger did not want to go back to the Judeo-Christian God. He thought that that God had been appropriated by metaphysics, and that metaphysics and that God had died together. But there is the possibility of the coming of a new god or gods -- what he calls, in the "Contributions to Philosophy," "the passing by of the last god." It's a very mysterious notion. Quite a bit of ink has been spilled on it, but nobody really knows what it means. Heidegger was inspired largely by the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who tried to invite the gods to return to us. There are ways of interpreting this that try to bring it down to earth. Hubert Dreyfus, for example, sees it as a turning point in our culture. He says that Woodstock might have been an example of a Heideggerian god. But that sounds too human to me, all too intelligible. It's clear that he wants some kind of radical turning, some cataclysmic event that this god would have the power to bring about. More than that is hard to say.

I'll just comment as someone who was at Woodstock. I pray that Dreyfus was wrong. Some wonder, Why shouldn't Americans simply stay with Emerson and William James for their readings and contemplations and avoid all the bother with Heidegger?

First off, I think Americans should read more Emerson and James and Thoreau than they do. Most American philosophy departments are not doing American philosophy. They're doing British philosophy and the sort of German philosophy that is mathematical, such as Gottlob Frege. So maybe we should first read Emerson and then maybe turn to Heidegger. As a matter of fact, he would probably recommend that we do so because he might say, "I'm not your philosopher. I'm a German philosopher. I'm speaking to Germans primarily. If you degenerate Americans have anyone who's worth reading, you should read that person." But because of the breadth and depth of Heidegger's thought, he's not just a German philosopher. He does have things to say that are relevant to all human beings. One of the benefits that comes from studying Heidegger is a deeper sense of the sweep of Western intellectual history, the history of Western philosophy in full, which you don't always get in someone like Emerson. Maybe we should read American philosophers and then read Heidegger and then try to understand what is distinctively American in the context of Western thought in general.

In the end, if someone asked you, "Why take the trouble with Heidegger and his mess of a vocabulary and his involvement with the Nazis," what would you say? How would you advise him to look at a philosopher's philosophy in the light of that same philosopher's personal life? How would Heidegger urge us to approach that issue?

Heidegger himself says in "Being and Time" that philosophical insights are always based on or grow out of personal experiences. And I think he's right about that. Philosophers are human beings. It's always illuminating to think about the person behind the words. But it's also easy to slip into a dismissive mode and say, "This person made mistakes and so his philosophy must be a bunch of mistakes." That's the kind of ad hominem argument that isn't legitimate. Heidegger is somebody who, like all great philosophers, struggled with how to live, with the meaning of existence, and left behind a record of that struggle. And anybody who wants to struggle with similar issues can turn to some of these texts, including Heidegger's, and find food for thought there. Not the last word, but food for thought. Why do we struggle with the meaning of existence? Because existence doesn't mean as much unless you struggle with it.

By Ralph Brave

Ralph Brave is a science writer who lives in Davis, California.

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