What to Make of Heidegger in 2015?

NEARLY 40 YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH, the philosopher Martin Heidegger continues to influence philosophers, political theorists, and intellectuals across a broad diversity of fields. Leo Strauss and Herbert Marcuse in the United States; major figures in European radical Marxism (such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Gianni Vattimo); Japanese thinkers as Count Kuki Shuzo and Keiji Nishitani; renowned architects, filmmaker, and novelists such as Daniel Libeskind, Terrence Malick, and Tom McCarthy have carefully studied and were deeply influenced by the German thinker’s analysis of human existence and his critique of modern hyper-technological rationalism. Few would deny that Heidegger is one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of his death. Yet he will not be commemorated in the way many of his disciples, such as Hannah Arendt, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida, have been. Evidence that Heidegger at one time was a member of the Nazi party has led to a chilling effect on the way he is being studied, and remembered: his thought is once again being set aside because of his political adventure, and apparently racist views.

Even though such contemporary philosophers as Peg Birmingham, Eduardo Mendieta, and Simon Critchley won’t forgive the German thinker for his political opinions, most of them continue to study and develop his philosophy. His contribution stands with those of classical philosophers such as Aristotle, David Hume, or Gottlob Frege.

Heidegger is not the only great philosopher to have racist and antidemocratic views: Aristotle justified slavery, Hume considered black people to be naturally inferior to whites, and Frege also sympathized with fascism and anti-Semitism. Although Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi Party has been known since the late 1980s, the recent publication of his Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks) offered more evidence of his racist (anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic) views, triggering a backlash. The president of the Martin Heidegger Association recently resigned from his post; the University of Freiburg is about to replace Husserl’s and Heidegger’s chair for a junior professorship in logics and analytic philosophy of language. This decision is currently shaking the international philosophical community: aside from the fact that logic and the philosophy of language also rely upon philosophers with anti-Semitic views (Frege), the decision would destroy one of the most important centers for the teaching and research of phenomenology and hermeneutics. This is why, according to intellectual historian Martin Woessner in Heidegger in America, “although Heidegger was a Nazi and anti-Semitic throughout his life, his widespread influence alone demands that we continue to both read and criticize the most controversial philosopher of the twentieth century.”

Heidegger analyzed and confronted ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle and also more modern thinkers such as Descartes, Leibnitz, and Kant. His studies of Hegel and Nietzsche have become indispensable texts among specialists. But Heidegger did more than teach us different ways to read these philosophers; he was also interested in their logical, aesthetic, and ontological problems and how they related to his time. This is probably why his most important book, Being and Time (1927), which he published at the age of 37, was more than an attempt to overturn 2,500 years of Western thought. It also sought to retrieve and elucidate the meaning of Being as philosophy’s essential question. According to Heidegger, elucidating this question would allow us not only to recognize how partial had been all previous responses, but also to identify the dominant and oppressive role that science and technology play in our lives.

Heidegger is also the architect of one of the more important points of inquiry into the question of Being and our technological world. In one of his most important lectures, titled What Is Called Thinking?, he distinguishes philosophy from sciences by pointing out the latter “does not think in the way thinkers think.” Scientists calculate within framed paradigms, but philosophers think both the frame and the paradigms within which sciences thrive and progress. The German thinker does not believe that physical and life sciences are useless but simply that they are framed within what he called “metaphysics.” The sciences (often also philosophy) are metaphysical every time they attempt to understand things through eternal entities (whether ideas, God, or the laws of modern physics) and (objectively) present references. For example: when we ask what something “actually is,” such as an apple or an ethical value, the answer is never “this red apple” or “that ethical value I apply” because those are simply temporary examples. The correct answer would be what we consider an apple or ethical value always to be. However, the problem with this response according to Heidegger is that it presupposes an eternal and present entity that will always tell us the truth no matter who and where we are.

Instead, as Heidegger explained (his complete works will amount to 102 volumes), truth is not what corresponds to an eternal and objective reality but rather what unfolds to us as human beings in a given space, time, and tradition. This means that our primary encounter with the world is not objective, that is, the experience of a spectator staring at a world, but rather an involved one where things are filled with human meaning. This is also why Heidegger distinguishes between authentic and inauthentic existence. But is it possible to live an authentic life in this metaphysical age, where Being has been forgotten in favor of entities? What does this world look like? As Heidegger once told Der Spiegel:

Everything functions. That is exactly what is uncanny. Everything functions and the functioning drives us further and further to more functioning, and technology tears people away and uproots them from the earth more and more. I don’t know if you are scared; I was certainly scared when I recently saw the photographs of the earth taken from the moon. We don’t need an atom bomb at all; the uprooting of human beings is already taking place. We only have purely technological conditions left.

These technological conditions are the result of overlooking Being in favor of beings, that is, the disclosure of worlds for what gets revealed within those worlds. This is why science “does not think” but rather “calculates.” Ever since modernity, when the human subject became the point of reference for everything and nature was reduced to what can be subjected to human domination, the essence of the species has been framed (Ge-Stell) by a power we do not control. This, after all, is the sensation we all have today where “the only emergency,” as Heidegger once said, “is the absence of a sense of emergency.” The fact that in 2015 we are all monitored, spied on, and soon also biogenetically engineered confirms the German philosopher’s prediction of a world “where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do.” This is why, as we can see in this video from 1969, Heidegger does not believe we need to better describe the world in order to change it; rather, we must learn to interpret it differently.

Heidegger, like many other philosophers after him, was alarmed not only by human beings living inauthentic lives in technological societies but also by the way we are becoming technological ourselves. In this condition philosophy, as an analysis of our concepts, traditions, and world, would lose its educational and critical role within society. Unfortunately, his anti-Semitism has destroyed his legacy, even more so than other anti-Semites of his time (T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence). While many are now wont to defend or discredit the German thinker’s moral and political corruption, we should remember, as Heidegger once said, that “he who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.”


Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at Pompeu Fabra University and author of The Remains of Being (2009), The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), and co-author, with Gianni Vattimo, of Hermeneutic Communism (2011).