Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Heidegger's Tragedy

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Heidegger's Tragedy

Article excerpt


IF MARTIN HEIDEGGER is an unimportant philosopher, then the fact that he was a Nazi is no special catastrophe. Germany was full of second-rate thinkers who were convinced Nazis. Unfortunately, we also know of a number of Nazis who were far better than second-rate. One was Werner von Braun, who played an important role in the U.S. space program after the Second World War. Some serious musical composers, as well, were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers.

From one point of view, anyone's becoming a Nazi is a disaster, but a talented scientist or artist's becoming a Nazi is a greater one. So it is understandable that Emmanuel Faye works as hard as he does in this new book to diminish Heidegger. If Heidegger were a philosophical charlatan, we could all breathe easier.

The problem is that it is not easy to cut Heidegger down to size. Why else would someone like Emmanuel Lévinas, the French philosopher and deeply committed Jew, have devoted his whole philosophical life to refuting Heidegger? For Heidegger, first philosophy is ontology; for Lévinas, it is ethics. But the very fact that Lévinas stands in constant dialogue with Heidegger indicates that he did not think of Heidegger as a lightweight. "For me," Lévinas wrote, "Heidegger is the greatest philosopher of the century, perhaps one of the very great philosophers of the millennium; but I am very pained by diat because I can never forget what he was in 1933." It is worth noting that Faye mentions Lévinas only once in his book, very much in passing.

Another example is Gilbert RyIe, the distinguished Oxford analytic philosopher, who reviewed Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1928 and whom Faye does not mention at all. "I have nothing but admiration for his special undertaking," RyIe wrote of Heidegger, "and for such of his achievements in it as I can follow, namely the phenomenological analysis of the root workings of the human soul." RyIe concluded that Heidegger "shows himself to be a thinker of real importance by the immense subtlety and searchingness of his examination of consciousness, by the boldness and originality of his methods and conclusions, and by the unflagging energy with which he tries to think behind the stock categories of orthodox philosophy and psychology."

A philosopher taken so seriously by both a leading Jewish phenomenologist and a leading analytic philosopher cannot be ignored. So what is philosophically important about Heidegger? His most important work, Being and Time, was published in 1927. In it, Heidegger chooses the German word Dasein to refer to the human mode of being. The word means a number of things, one of which is "existence." Thus, one could say in German that my Dasein is endangered, which would mean "I am in danger of being destroyed."

It was Seren Kierkegaard who distinguished between objective and existential questions. Under some exceptional circumstances- if, say, I am an astronaut irrrming low on fuel as I return to earth- the question of the distance between the earth and the moon could be an existential question. Under most circumstances, however, is a purely objective question, without existential import.

Learning from Kierkegaard, Heidegger always keeps the existential element apparent. Thus, for example, one section of Being and Time is titled "Care as the Being of Dasein." By this, Heidegger means that caring is not an accidental attribute of existence but constitutive of its being. To be human is to participate in care, to be concerned, to be worried about the future and its possibilities. Heidegger transforms a matter of objective fact into an existential diagnosis of human being. Another example: Heidegger on death. On one level we all know that we will die. But Heidegger turns this into "being toward death." Death is not something that waits for us at the end of the day, but it is the mode of our being, namely, being-toward-death. …

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