Simon Critchley, The Guardian, Monday 8 June 2009
The most important and influential continental philosopher of the last century was also a Nazi. How did he get there? What can we learn from him?
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was the most important and influential philosopher in the continental tradition in the 20th century. Being and Time, first published in 1927, was his magnum opus. There is no way of understanding what took place in continental philosophy after Heidegger without coming to terms with Being and Time. Furthermore, unlike many Anglo-American philosophers, Heidegger has exerted a huge influence outside philosophy, in areas as diverse as architecture, contemporary art, social and political theory, psychotherapy, psychiatry and theology.
However, because of his political commitment to National Socialism in 1933, when he assumed the position of Rector of Freiburg University in south-western Germany, Heidegger continues to arouse controversy, polemic and much heated misunderstanding.
The hugely important matter of the relation between Heidegger and politics is the topic for another series of blogs entries. Indeed, to my mind, the nature and extent of Heidegger's involvement in National Socialism only becomes philosophically pertinent once one has begun to understand and feel the persuasive power of what takes place in his written work, especially Being and Time.
The task I have set myself in this series of blogs is to provide a taste of the latter book and hopefully some motivation to read it further and study it more deeply. But once you have read Being and Time and hopefully been compelled by it, then the question that hangs over the text, like the sword of Damocles, is the following: how could arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century also have been a Nazi? What does his political commitment to National Socialism, however long or short it lasted, suggest about the nature of philosophy and its risks and dangers when stepping into the political realm?
Being and Time
Being and Time is a work of considerable length (437 pages in the German original) and legendary difficulty. The difficulty is caused by the fact that Heidegger sets himself the task of what he calls a "destruction" of the philosophical tradition. We shall see some of the implications of this in future entries, but the initial consequence is that Heidegger refuses to avail himself of the standard terminology of modern philosophy, with its talk of epistemology, subjectivity, representation, objective knowledge and the rest.
Heidegger has the audacity to go back to the drawing board and invent a new philosophical vocabulary. For example, he thinks that all conceptions of the human being as a subject, self, person, consciousness or indeed a mind-brain unity are hostages to a tradition of thinking whose presuppositions have not been thought through radically enough. Heidegger is nothing if not a radical thinker: a thinker who tries to dig down to the roots of our lived experience of the world rather than accepting the authority of tradition.
Heidegger's name for the human being is Dasein, a term which can be variously translated, but which is usually rendered as "being-there". The basic and very simple idea, as we will see in future entries, is that the human being is first and foremost not an isolated subject, cut off from a realm of objects that it wishes to know about. We are rather beings who are always already in the world, outside and alongside a world from which, for the most part, we do not distinguish ourselves.
What goes for Dasein also goes for many of Heidegger's other concepts. Sometimes this makes Being and Time a very tough read, which is not helped by the fact that Heidegger, more than any other modern philosopher, exploits the linguistic possibilities of his native language, in his case German. Although Macquarrie and Robinson, in their 1962 Blackwell English edition, produced one of the classics of modern philosophical translation, reading Being and Time can sometimes feel like wading through a conceptual mud of baroque and unfamiliar concepts.
The basic idea
That said, the basic idea of Being and Time is extremely simple: being is time. That is, what it means for a human being to be is to exist temporally in the stretch between birth and death. Being is time and time is finite, it comes to an end with our death. Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be an authentic human being, then it is essential that we constantly project our lives onto the horizon of our death, what Heidegger calls "being-towards-death".
Crudely stated, for thinkers like St Paul, St Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard, it is through the relation to God that the self finds itself. For Heidegger, the question of God's existence or non-existence has no philosophical relevance. The self can only become what it truly is through the confrontation with death, by making a meaning out of our finitude. If our being is finite, then what it means to be human consists in grasping this finitude, in "becoming who one is" in words of Nietzsche's that Heidegger liked to cite. We will show how this insight into finitude is deepened in later entries in relation to Heidegger's concepts of conscience and what he calls "ecstatic temporality".
Being and Time begins with a long, systematic introduction, followed by two divisions, each containing six chapters. I have just finished teaching the whole book in a 15-week lecture course at the New School for Social Research in New York and I estimate that I spoke for about 2 hours a week. As they say here in New York, just do the math! Therefore, in the following 7 short blog entries, I can only give a taste of the book and offer some signposts for readers who would like to explore further.