Heidegger, Humanism, and the Destruction of History

By Soffer, Gail | The Review of Metaphysics, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Heidegger, Humanism, and the Destruction of History


Soffer, Gail, The Review of Metaphysics


Heidegger's blistering critique of modernity is among his most influential philosophical legacies. However, his account of modernity's ills--its reification, calculative reason, loss of the transcendent, tyranny of public opinion--is hardly unique. Elements of this critique can be found in numerous other thinkers, including Nietzsche, Max Weber, and the Frankfurt School, not to mention Spengler and Junger. What is peculiar to Heidegger and really questionable in his critique is his diagnosis of the cause of modernity's ills: not capitalism and its greed; not Protestant religious beliefs; not even runaway technology or the Gestalt of the worker; but rather the humanism of the Western philosophical tradition. For Heidegger, humanism lies at the root of the reification, technologization, and secularization characteristic of the modern world.

Heidegger's attacks against humanism have come under renewed scrutiny, especially in France, as the latest wave of polemics over his political engagement has metamorphosed into a debate over the nature of humanism itself. Yet these recent discussions give rise to a number of perplexities. Firstly, for all their differences, it is remarkable how Heidegger's critics and defenders alike distort his position. On the one side, his French defenders hold that humanism is the attribution of a fixed essence to man, according to which definition "even Nazism is a humanism." The fact that the early Heidegger was still enmeshed in the snares of humanism (insofar as he provided a universalist characterization of Dasein) is then invoked to explain his political views in the thirties.(1)

On the other side, certain critics have argued that Heidegger completely misrepresents the nature of humanism, and have offered a diametrically opposed definition. According to them, "reflection on the true nature of humanism" reveals that humanism is precisely the view that man has no essence, but rather decides what he will be through his choices and actions. In short, they affirm that humanism is an existentialism, inverting the Sartrean dictum. This humanism, they claim, can provide the foundation for human rights, democracy, the ideal of Bildung and the humanities, and so forth, but never anything as nationalistic or essentialist as Nazism or Heidegger's analytic of Dasein.(2)

Yet as commonplace as its association with Heidegger has become, the equation of humanism with essentialism is not to be found in Heidegger's central statement on the subject, the "Letter on Humanism." Indeed, nowhere does Heidegger reject the view that man has an essence. To the contrary, his criticism of humanism is always that it has incorrectly or "metaphysically" determined the essence of man; that it conceives of man as animal rationale, and hence on the basis of a preconceived notion of `nature' or `animality' or `objects'. His claim is that such preconceptions close off the question of the relation between human existence and Being, thereby blinding us to the true human essence.(3) Heidegger himself is clearly concerned to provide a glimpse of this true essence, and it is for this reason that he faults humanism for not determining the essence of man "high enough." Thus the entire debate surrounding the early Heidegger's alleged humanism or anti-humanism presupposes an equation of humanism with essentialism which is not Heideggerian, but Sartrean or Marxian-Althusserian.(4)

A second set of perplexities arises from the peculiar historical sense informing the current discussions. The vast majority of interpreters wholly neglect any consideration of the historical origins of humanism. They are content simply to define humanism as an abstract philosophical position, such as subjectivism, anthropocentrism, voluntarism, and the like.(5) From this we can infer one of two implicit positions. Either these interpreters think that Heidegger's assessment of humanism is historically adequate; or they believe the question of historical adequacy to be insignificant. …

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