This essay is part of this blog series on existentialism presented by the world class writers at Ultius, and it will be wholly dedicated to a discussion of Martin Heidegger—a man who, depending on whom one asks, was perhaps the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century.
Existentialism: Part VII: Martin Heidegger
This essay has consisted of a discussion of the ideas and works of the existentialist Martin Heidegger. The essay will have four main parts:
- The first part will consist of an analysis of Heidegger’s key concept of Dasein
- The second part will shift to a reflection on Heidegger’s views on technology, especially as this is related to the concept of Dasein
- Third, the essay will proceed to a consideration of the view expressed by some that Heidegger is perhaps an emperor with no clothes
- Finally, the essay will discuss the problematic relationship that existed between Heidegger and the emergent Nazi ideology of his time
Concept of Dasein
To start with, then, Dasein, developed in the work Being and Time, is probably one of the most important and original concepts in all of Heidegger’s philosophy. The German word cannot easily be translated into English, but it is commonly rendered by the phrase “being-in-the-world.” Heidegger suggests that
in truth, there is no such thing as “man” per se; there is only Dasein, or man as he finds himself in the midst of his world.
Before a person reflects on the fact that he is in fact a person, he finds himself in a complex existential matrix of conditions and relations; and relative to this, the concept of “person” itself would only be a kind of abstraction from this deeper holistic situation. Heidegger thus uses the term Dasein to refer to the actual human condition in its material and metaphysical immediacy: he uses it to refer to the concrete presence of the real human being within his real existential situation.
Tearing down pre-existing notions
Among other things, Heidegger’s concept of Dasein implodes the orthodox distinction between subject and object that has characterized much of the Western philosophical tradition. Descartes, for example, pioneered the rationalistic view of the world, according to which there is a philosophical subject “in here” within the body, and there is an objective world “out there” beyond the boundaries of the body. Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, on the other hand, would suggest that such a metaphysical framework is misguided from the start, since the human condition is first and foremost a relation between the person and his world before it is anything else. From this perspective, the idea that there can be a human subject who is a metaphysical unit totally isolated from the world could itself be interpreted as a relatively impoverished state, or “mood,” of a given person’s own Dasein.
His innovation of Dasein is surely one of the reasons why Heidegger has generally been viewed as a major contributor not only to existentialism but also to the area of philosophy known as phenomenology. In general, phenomenology attempts to understand how people actually experience the world (or “phenomena”) from a non-abstracted, first-person perspective. It attempts to elucidate the basic structures that shape that experience of phenomena building upon the ideas of Descartes. In this context, Heidegger’s concept of Dasein is surely a huge improvement over the orthodox Cartesian subject, insofar no one (except, perhaps, one on the brink of madness) really experiences himself as a Cartesian subject. Typically, people experience themselves as immersed in a stream-of-consciousness experience through which they find themselves “thrown” into various, mutating situations to which they are related in an intimate way. This is exactly the kind of experience suggested by the concept of Dasein.
Heidegger on technology
Outside of Being and Time, Heidegger’s essays on technology probably contain some of his more important contributions to existentialism—especially when one considers how far ahead of their time they were, written as they were prior to the many of the technological advancements that have come to characterize the twenty-first century world. One essay, for example, Heidegger develops the concept of the “enframing” attitude to the world. This refers to the attitude through which people become entrenched in subject/object dichotomies and begin seeing the world almost exclusively in terms of pragmatic use-value as opposed to subjective experience. Here is Heidegger in his own words:
Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding-sway of truth. The destining that sends into order is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence. The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger. (Question 28)
This is surely quite cryptic and stands in need of some exegesis.
Word view of technology
Essentially, what Heidegger is saying is that the “danger” he speaks of resides not within technology per se but rather in the attitude toward the world contained within technology and implied by the proliferation of technology. Ultimately, technology is nothing other than a means through which people can objectively “work” on the world in order to achieve pragmatically desired results. Moreover, if technology proliferates and becomes an integral part of all aspects of everyday life, then this pragmatic, use-oriented attitude toward the world would become more and more prevalent and begin to affect the basic structures of consciousness itself. People would increasingly come to see the world as a whole—and life within the world—as merely something to be used, since they will have “enframed” the whole world according to the utilitarian lens instilled in them through the perpetual use of technology. This is particularly evident in the idea of the deterioration of communication due to technological advancement.
Contradictions within the concept of Dasein
This would be problematic for Heidegger due to the simple fact that according to his concept of Dasein, the human condition is characterized not by the dichotomy of subjective self and objective world but rather by the intersubjective nexus of self and world. The enframing attitude toward the world (cultivated by technology) would thus betray the spirit of Dasein and force people back into an especially virulent form of the outmoded Cartesian dichotomy. As Iyer has put it, the enframing attitude,
consists of reducing the world to an object, and then that object itself to an abstraction. This renders the world undead, saps all life from it; and when it is done to other human beings, the moral consequences can easily verge on the evil. (261)
This is contrary to the spirit of Dasein and the ethos of subjective concern and care that would be implied, according to Heidegger, by a proper apprehension of the real nature of Dasein. This is the gist of Heidegger’s prescient and metaphysically anchored critique of technology; and that critique has surely only become more and more accurate over the course of the years.
Emperor with no clothes?
The quotation from Heidegger cited above probably makes it clear that Heidegger is not exactly the easiest of writers to understand. To an extent, it is possible that the prose is more lucid in the German, and something necessarily gets lost in translation, especially when one considers all the specific philosophical jargon (such as Dasein itself) that Heidegger virtually invented from scratch. There are others, though, who have refrained from giving Heidegger the benefit of the doubt and suggested that he is perhaps an emperor with no clothes. For example, here is what James has to say about the matter:
“although there is something to be said against the belief that Hegel’s obscurity is never meaningful, there is nothing to be said against the belief that Heidegger’s obscurity is always meaningless” (676).
That is, James is suggesting—and on behalf of a great many readers—that Heidegger is simply a poor writer, and that he neither knew how nor cared to communicate his ideas to the reader in a clear, lucid, and readily comprehensible fashion.
A more charitable explanation would perhaps be that Heidegger was trying to counter the enframing attitude that he condemns in his essay on technology:
- Argument 1– Lucid prose is almost inherently utilitarian, in the sense that it is a kind of “technology” meant to achieve the “purpose” of enabling communication with the reader
- Argument 2 — Totally obscure prose would clearly be useless from any strictly functional or pragmatic standpoint—and it may thus be able to jam the enframing attitude to the world
This interpretation of Heidegger’s writing style, while quite intriguing, is surely something of a stretch. The present writer himself, for example, has neither read Being and Time in full nor intends to read it in full, due to the simple fact that Heidegger’s almost impenetrable style seems disrespectful toward the time and attention of the reader. In short, it would difficult to defend Heidegger against the charge of intellectual pretentiousness, especially when one considers the disjunction between his subject matter on the one hand and his prose style on the other.
Heidegger and Nazism
One of the more disconcerting things about the biography of Heidegger is his clearly documented support of Nazism and the military policies during WWII within his contemporary Germany (see Farias). When a philosopher of high repute makes such a grievous error of judgment, it is almost inevitable that people will begin to wonder whether this was an aberration unconnected with the philosopher’s actual thought and work, or whether it flowed in some logical way from the philosophy itself—which, of course, would force a reinterpretation of at least some aspects of that philosophy.
Unwarranted condemnation of Heidegger
A broader point could perhaps be made, though, about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of harshly condemning the poor historical judgments reached by people of the past. As Kundera has poetically written:
“Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog” (238).
At a certain point in time, it may well have seemed to Heidegger that Nazism was congruent with his own philosophy, not because of faults with his philosophy but rather because of a necessarily foggy conception of Nazism and its repressive nature. Moreover, many people today who clearly condemn Nazism might have well made the same mistake. In short, whatever problems may or may not characterize Heidegger’s philosophy, one should probably give him the benefit of the doubt with respect to historical judgment and at least not condemn his philosophy solely on the grounds of his own unfortunate association with Nazism.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2006. Print.
Farias, Victor. Heidegger and Nazism. Philadelphia: Temple U P, 1991. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 2008. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Harper Perennial, 2013. Print.
Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.
James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Kundera, Milan. Testaments Betrayed. New York: Harper, 1995. Print.