The Destructive Impact of Cultural Heideggerianism

The Irish critic Vivian Mercier famously called Waiting for Godot a play in which nothing happens twice. The same might be said of Martin Heidegger’s career in philosophy. In this case, to be sure, “Nothing” is a loaded word, but more on that later. Heidegger was the only philosopher of the first rank to support Hitler, a position he never retracted.

Was Heidegger a great philosopher? Samuel Johnson’s quip comes to mind: “The part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” From St. Augustine (as the great Thomist Etienne Gilson observed), Heidegger took the idea that time is not a succession of moments but a superposition of memory and anticipation. From Kierkegaard he borrowed the concept of dread, acknowledged in a single begrudging footnote. From his teacher Edmund Husserl he grasped the concept of “adopted intentionality”; our knowledge of objects is conditioned by their purpose. And now we learn from Peter Hanly how deeply Heidegger drew from the poisoned well of German Romanticism.

Eric Voegelin, Ralph McInerny, and other critics abhorred Heidegger as a Gnostic, a purveyor (in Voegelin’s words) of “a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite.” This interpretation gains credence, albeit unintentionally, from Peter Hanly’s study of Heidegger and the Romantic visionary Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801). Gnosticism re-entered Western thought through the circle of Romantics at Jena in the late 1790s, including Ludwig Tieck and the brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel. Despite his early death, Novalis remained enormously influential. 

A Failed Experiment in Ontology

When Heidegger published Being and Time, philosophy was in crisis. The neo-Kantian project that dominated late-nineteenth-century German philosophy was in shambles. Ludwig v. Wittgenstein and the positivists of the Vienna Circle portrayed metaphysics as literal nonsense. Heidegger promised a path out of the cul-de-sac of the old metaphysics. His student and mistress Hannah Arendt wrote that Heidegger sought “to make Man the ‘Master of Being,’” and to “put man in exactly the same place that God had occupied in traditional ontology.” His evolving understanding of Being turned the concept into a secular substitute for God.

So enticing was the promise of a secular philosophy that could incorporate the sensibility of religion without any of its responsibilities that a large part of the philosophy profession clung to him, even after the self-confessed failure of his project—and despite his scandalous Nazi politics. The publication of his “Black Book” diaries starting in 2014 removed any doubt that Heidegger backed Hitler out of conviction. Heidegger might have been an unworthy vessel with putrid contents, but he dared to put man in the place of God, and promised to unveil a Gnosis that would make man godlike. 

Heidegger became a prophet to left-wing acolytes such as Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler. So-called cultural Marxism might better be blamed on Heidegger, Marcuse’s dissertation adviser. His influence on the secular right, e.g., Arendt and Leo Strauss, hasn’t faded.

Heidegger in his hubris believed he could solve philosophical puzzles that had perplexed metaphysicians for millennia. Being and Time could be read as his failed attempt at an ontological magnum opus. The concept of “Being” has entailed a paradox since Parmenides, who asserted that change and differentiation were impossible because they imply the juxtaposition of non-Being, something which we can neither think nor utter. Being in classical ontology is composed of Essence and Existence. The fact that we know what a phoenix is, Aquinas said, tells us nothing about whether a phoenix exists in the real world. The trouble is that when we ask what Existence is, we appear to be speaking about an Essence. This leads into an infinite regress.

Meanwhile, as Aristotle told us, “Being is said in many ways.” I can say that “the cat is black” or that “the cat exists,” and in each case the “is” seems to mean something rather different. These applications of the concept of “Being” are different but nonetheless analogous, as Aquinas observed, but the analogy of Being is only a place-marker for a solution. The analytic philosophers dismissed this problem by dismissing these metaphysical questions as literally meaningless. Their logic-oriented approach soon proved to have its own limitations. Kurt Gödel proved in 1931 that mathematical systems cannot prove their own premises. In short, these paradoxes have persisted in philosophy from Parmenides through Gödel, and philosophical investigation has only succeeded in sharpening them. 

The signature idea of Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) was that man’s Being-There, or Dasein, arose from mortality, in what he called Being-unto-Death. Because “Being” cannot be defined directly, Heidegger defines it by what is not Being, or rather our own ceasing to be. From the standpoint of religious philosophy that was hardly new (Franz Rosenzweig began his 1921 masterwork The Star of Redemption with the assertion that “from death—from the fear of death—comes all of our knowledge of the All”). Heidegger’s innovation was to secularize mortality, with a new terminology that replaced sin and redemption with “care” (Sorge) and “resoluteness” (Entschlossenheit).

In Being and Time (1927) Heidegger attempted his own solution, resituating the concept of Being (“Being-there,” or Dasein) as a field in “ecstatic” time, that is, a conjoining of past and future into a moment born of resoluteness (Entschlossenheit). But Heidegger never published the promised conclusion of Being and Time, and in 1949 he announced that he had given up the effort to ground Being in ecstatic Dasein.

Heidegger first sought to ground Being in Dasein, that is, in Being-unto-Death that makes man “free for death.” But in his 1929 essay “The Essence of Cause,” he asserted instead that Being is to be found only through “transcendence.” He wrote, “The discussions of ‘Sein und Zeit’ that have been published until now set themselves no other task but to reveal concretely a sketch of transcendence.” Being is not something that man possesses, Heidegger wrote in the later essay The Essence of Truth. Rather, that “revelatory Da-sein possesses man.” “Transcendence” to Heidegger was ineffable, to be sought in poetry rather than metaphysics. 

Finding Gnosis Through Poetry 

After abandoning the conclusion of Being and Time, Heidegger tried to recast the problem of Non-Being (in the 1929 lecture “What is Metaphysics?”) as a kind of Nihilism. “Profound boredom, like a silent fog insinuating itself in the depths of existence, pulls things, others and oneself into it with remarkable indifference. Such boredom reveals being as a whole,” Heidegger offered. As he explained in a 1947 essay, Heidegger “reversed” the program of his 1927 book by turning to “the fundamental experience of the oblivion of Being.” Here he channels not Novalis but rather Goethe’s Mephistopheles in the first Study scene of “Faust” (“I am the Spirit that always negates, for everything that comes to be goes rightly to its ruin. And so it were better that nothing came to be. Everything you call destruction, sin, in short, evil, is my actual element.”). We heard all of this before from Goethe’s devil, and again from Nietzsche, just as we learned of Dread (Angst) from Kierkegaard long before Heidegger adopted the notion.

Hanly begins with Heidegger’s 1936 notes-to-self entitled “Contributions” (Beiträge zur Philosophie). “The instability, or inadequacy of expression that attends the writing and the deciphering of these texts can be understood as an indication of a particular attention that is being paid, not just to the coordinates of the configuration, but to the space opened up between them,” Hanly writes. The between-ness Heidegger seeks, in Hanly’s account, is not a Hegelian dialectic between well-defined hypotheses, for that “would merely reassert the claims of a moribund metaphysics. This thought of the between, then, is consistently withdrawn from subordination to the polarities that it would separate.”

Rather than transform the old metaphysics with recourse to Augustine’s theory of time, Heidegger sought a peek at Being through the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, declaring that poetry could reveal what was veiled to philosophy. The term gnosis does not appear in Hanly’s book, which is a pity; Heidegger’s attempt to perceive through immediate intuition what was hidden to philosophical analysis fits Voegelin’s definition of gnosis precisely.

The “between” in the title of Prof. Hanly’s book refers to a “between-ness” that somehow evades the antinomies of classical metaphysics and the paradoxes of modern logic. Hanly writes:

Heidegger when he claims, toward the close of the Freiburg Lectures, that “we remain settled upon this earth in relationality”. This “relationality” clearly says something other than “being in relation with.” To be “in relation with” implies polarities, an otherness, the distinct otherness of that with which we are “in relation.” To be “settled in relationality” implies by contrast a state of betweenness, the discomfort of operating continuously from within a field of relation.

This sounds obscure, but Hanly’s intent (like Heidegger’s) is straightforward: He is searching for a path in between the antinomies that inevitably appear in any philosophical framework that draws a bright line between truth and falsity, or between Being and Non-Being. Ingeniously, Hanly interprets Heidegger’s later fragments with the aid of Novalis, who died at 29, leaving behind two unfinished novels, some philosophical “fragments,” a few poems, and a deep impression on later Romantic standard-bearers such as Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck. Novalis adopted the notion of an ecstatic state from the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. His teacher Fichte had posited an “intellectual intuition” independent of experience; Novalis identified Fichte’s somewhat nebulous concept with Plotinus’ “inner light,” a state of enlightenment (in his willful misreading of Plotinus) evoked by sensual stimulus rather than reason. 

Hanly picks up the story in medias res, with the Heidegger of the mid-1930s, after his so-called “turn” away from his Being in Time project. A perhaps stronger case for Heidegger’s dependence on Novalis can be made in my view ab ovo. Ten years earlier, Heidegger had revived Novalis’ concept of “ecstasy” (Ekstase) that figures so pivotally in Being and Time. If that is so, we may add Novalis to the long list of the philosophers’ predecessors whom Heidegger appropriated with little or no acknowledgment, ranging from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard.

If our Dasein (Being-there) is merely Being-towards-Death, as the Heidegger of Being and Time argues, our only “authentic” response is to embrace death. Heidegger wants the resoluteness (Entschlossenheit) to accept death. Authenticity means simply to be “free for death.” He wrote in Being and Time that resoluteness “takes over the heritage…that has come down to us.” 

This means that in anticipating death it understands itself unambiguously in terms of its ownmost distinctive possibility the more unequivocally does it choose and find the possibility of its existence… This is how we designate Dasein’s primordial historizing, which lies in authentic resoluteness and in which Dasein hands itself down to itself, free for death, in a possibility which it has inherited and yet has chosen.

That is a commonplace of the old paganism, not an ontological innovation, and it explains why Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the Nazi functionary at the University of Freiburg were the same person. “Authentic Being-towards-death—that is to say, the finitude of temporality—is the hidden basis of Dasein’s historicality,” Heidegger wrote. For millennia, the peoples of the world have fought and died for their “heritage” in the “historizing” circumstances in which they found themselves, and eventually become extinct. This “resoluteness” comes to us in a “moment of vision,” or Ekstase

We perceive this grim connection between our dull inevitability of the past and our ineluctable demise in a “moment of vision,” of Ekstase, or standing outside ourselves. Heidegger avers, “Only an entity which, in its Being, is essentially futural so that it is free for its death and can be in the moment of vision for ‘its time.’ Only authentic temporality which is at the same time finite, makes possible something like fate—that is to say, authentic historicality.” Heidegger found this “freedom for death” in Nazism.

Compare this to Novalis (in “Hymns to Night”): “What pleasure, what enjoyment does your life offer that outweigh the delights of death? Doesn’t everything that inspires us wear the color of night?…I feel the rejuvenating flow of death/My blood is transformed into balsam and ether/I live by day full of faith and courage/And die at night in a holy glow.”

Heidegger’s account of time is a paraphrase of Novalis, who wrote (for example): “…In decisive moments the process comes to a head in a comprehensive look backwards and forward, which brings together all times. Through dreams, feasts, delirium, pleasure, love and poetic inspiration, every consciousness breaks its boundaries and is lifted up over continuous time.” Heidegger channels Novalis when he writes in Being and Time: “Temporality is the primordial ‘outside-of-itself’ in-and-for-itself. We therefore call the character of the future, the character of having been, and the Present, the ‘ectases’ of temporality.” 

Novalis denounced Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship as “unpoetic,” and undertook his own novel (unfinished) Heinrich von Ofterdingen, with its quest for the blue flower, as a riposte. I suspect that Goethe devised Faust’s wager with Mephistopheles (in which Faust’s soul is lost if he attempts to hold onto the passing moment) as a response to Novalis. Novalis’ Ekstase, Goethe argued in so many words, is a satanic trick. Heidegger surely proved him prescient. 

The substitution of feeling for thought is what Heidegger took from Novalis, Hanly reports. In Das Ereignis, what Heidegger calls Stimmung (disposition or mood) precedes thought. “Stimmung is an attunement to the voice of the unmooring of these polarities, an intimation of the fundamental instability of the between,” Hanly tells us. To get to “a beyond of metaphysics,” we cannot “return to the sensible.” The “twisting free” of metaphysics involves “a reconfiguration of the between-space of these two, such that the intelligibility of the concept no longer mediates the sensible.” It is mood (Stimmung) “which renders unneeded the sensible [and] leaves behind its vicissitudes.”

Hanly adds: “It is, too, in a sense very close to Heidegger’s that Novalis understands Gefühl [Feeling] as the domain of the in-between, the between-space that binds the movements of real and ideal, intertwining and conjoining them—a mode of thought that entirely presages Heidegger’s foregrounding of Stimmung.”

According to Hanly, Heidegger’s rebooted Being-there, namely Da-sein, “will occur as a ‘splitting apart’ and will belong intimately to the fissuring that, time and time again, is mobilized to articulate Heidegger’s sense of event. Pulled apart across this fissuring, Da-sein is the restless and fragile occasion, the Zwischenfalls [sic], the incidence of the between into which the human must be dis-lodged.” 

Often Hanly is hard to follow, in part because he doesn’t know German. The text is full of elementary errors. Evidently, he meant “der Zwischenfall,” the “case in between” (“Zwischenfalls” occurs in German only as the male genitive singular, and here the accusative clearly is meant). 

Elsewhere he mistranslates the plain meaning of texts. He renders a line from the poet Georg Trakl nonsensically, “And gently stirs an ancient stone, ” rather than “An old stone gently moves you” (“leise rührt dich ein alte [sic] Stein,” where “alte” appears instead of the correct “alter.” Heidegger’s often fey word games are hard enough to translate even when one knows the language. Here, pace Gertrude Stein, there’s no “there” in Hanly’s “being-there.” Joseph S. O’Leary, Thomas Sheehan, and others have dealt with the same material with greater clarity. 

The Instability of Imagination

Assigning philosophical pride of place to the irrational surely is the single most reckless act undertaken by intellectuals in modern history. Novalis and his comrades among the Jena Romantics revolted against Kant’s attempt to set limits to the pretensions of pure reason. Fichte was the first to challenge Kant’s insistence that the operations of reason must be grounded in experience, positing instead a faculty of “imagination” that gives rise to “intellectual intuition” freed from the limits of the senses. Hanly emphasizes Fichte’s use of the term schweben: “Lodged indecisively, uncomfortably, somewhere between passivity and activity, schweben—a hovering, wavering, or oscillating—comes to be the unstable point around which transformations and reconfigurations of the imagination occur at the close of the eighteenth century.”

But Fichte did go far enough for his student Novalis, who declared, “Fichte doesn’t understand the hypostasis, and for this reason he lacks the other half of the creative mind. Without Ekstase—gripping, all-displacing consciousness—you can’t get anywhere with all of philosophy.”

Kant had left Reason in a precarious balance, too weak to penetrate into the true nature of things or to overcome the antinomies of metaphysics, but powerful enough to sustain the autonomy of the individual. That left philosophy with two main alternatives. One was to elevate reason, as did Hegel, in a dialectic that took the antinomies as markers for the generation of new hypotheses. The other was to eschew reason along with the Romantics. The fact that Heidegger reenacted the Romantic rebellion against reason tells us something about the limited choices available to philosophy. As Arendt observed, it is an easy lope from Romantic irrationalism to Heidegger’s ascent to rector at the University of Freiburg. Just what sort of Nazi Heidegger was will be debated for some time. Victor Farías argues persuasively that the decline of his political standing after 1934 was due to Heidegger’s affinity to the Ernst Röhm wing of the NSDAP, which Hitler crushed in the Night of the Long Knives.

Novalis was the first of the Romantics to embrace the irrational, with baleful consequences. National Socialism had its roots in Romantic irrationality, according to Hannah Arendt. She wrote in a 1944 critique of Heidegger, “The ruthless individualism of Romanticism never meant anything more serious than that ‘everybody is free to create for himself his own ideology.’ What was new in Mussolini’s experiment was the ‘attempt to carry it out with all possible energy.’…Romanticism provided the most excellent pretext in its unlimited idolization of the ‘personality’ of the individual, whose very arbitrariness became the very proof of genius.” In fact, the Nazis embraced Mueller’s 1807 tract The Idea of the State, with its emphasis on authenticity (Eigenheit) that anticipates Heidegger’s concept of the authentic (eigentlich) through “integration of the individual into the organism of the whole.” 

Arendt observed in a 1946 essay, “Heidegger’s whole mode of behavior has exact parallels in German Romanticism, so that one can scarcely believe the coincidence is accidental. Heidegger is, in fact, the last (we hope) romantic—as it were, a tremendously gifted Friedrich Schlegel or Adam Mueller, whose complete irresponsibility was attributed partly to the delusion of genius, partly to desperation.” Arendt saw the origins of Nazism in the Romantics, and saw Heidegger’s affinity with Nazism in his Romantic roots. 

Secular philosophers cannot easily dispense with Heidegger because they want the same thing that he wanted, namely “to make Man the ‘Master of Being,’” as Arendt noted. That is also what Arendt wanted, and she helped de-Nazify Heidegger in full knowledge of what he was. Arguably, Heidegger’s influence now is greater than ever; through his doctoral student Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre, Heidegger is the inspiration for today’s endemic belief that identity is a matter of self-invention. Heidegger is the grandfather of identity politics, of radical subjectivism, and rampant irrationality. As in Unreason now runs amok. This is Heidegger’s inheritance.

Heidegger also retains a high standing among secular conservative intellectuals. “I am afraid that we shall have to make a very great effort to find a solid basis for rational liberalism. Only a great thinker could help us in our intellectual plight. But here is the trouble: the only great thinker in our time is Heidegger,” said Leo Strauss. But Heidegger wasn’t a great thinker. He just played one in the Theater of the Absurd of twentieth-century philosophy.