A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
November 10, 2011 2

Plumbing Heideggerian mysteries

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In my non-ABC life I am currently thinking about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He’s a thinker who wants to challenge the history of Western thinking in its naive belief that we can simply take hold of reality and describe it as it is. In doing so we eliminate the mystery of ‘Being’ and we live without thinking about the most fundamental levels of what it means to be a human being.

Martin Heidegger 1889-1976

The following piece of writing, which I wrote for another context, is not for everyone. But in some ways it complements Sarah Tomasetti’s piece on her experiences as an artist. It also challenges naive assumptions about the ‘objectivity’ of science which takes so much for granted. (Meanwhile, do join the discussion about the radio program; it’s all happening here.)

Now, for those who ponder the mystery of Being; an introduction to Martin Heidegger: his life, his Nazism and his obscure but profound philosophy.


My philosophical quest in search of the nature of knowledge has recently led me down a slippery trail into my own Mines of Moria, the eerie world of raw truth. It is here, in this obscurity that lies beyond words, that the ghost of Martin Heidegger looms: certainly one of the 20th century’s brilliant minds, and a philosopher with a damning relation to the Nazi party.

Heidegger’s was a name I heard whispered since my first dabblings in philosophy. I knew he was a philosopher to avoid at all cost, because he is reputed to be one of the most difficult thinkers to understand. But the inevitable happened and I was forced to cross paths and swords with this giant.

Heidegger’s writing takes on the everyday world where image and propaganda mould the minds of the masses. A world where unthinking people trail after those pipers of ‘new atheism’ who tout science as the certain and only road to truth. But deeper reflection reveals the shallowness of such promises. There are more things in heaven and earth, Professor Dawkins, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. While Heidegger’s abstract reflections prove a challenge to the new fundamentalists, they augur well for those who think there is more to human existence than a cosmic chemical soup.

Heidegger’s relationship with National Socialism in his native Germany proved a black mark on his philosophical copy book. While it enabled him to stay in academia, it lost him friends. Sir Karl Popper, the British philosopher of science and political theorist, said, “I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil.” The details remained sketchy for years and Heidegger himself played down his involvement. New evidence conclusively shows that his was not a passive role. He encouraged young students to join the Nazi Party and he worked with the Gestapo to remove Jews from academic positions. He even betrayed former friends such as Edmund Husserl, the ‘father of phenomenology’.

Heidegger apparently saw himself in the mould of Plato’s ‘Philosopher-King’, who would lead the thinking of the Third Reich and the new Germany. He had affinities with Hitler, both sharing a rural and anti-Semitic cultural background, and some suggest that Heidegger saw in Nazism the possibility of applying his individual-based philosophy at a state level. Yet Heidegger had friends who were Jews and it was his one-time Jewish lover, Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and chronicler of Nazi atrocities, who was much later responsible for his acceptance in North America. “Heidegger is a spectacular case of a bad man writing interesting things,” said prominent North American philosopher Richard Rorty. Ironically, Heidegger himself said, “he who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.”

Where other thinkers might have been shunned for their sins, Heidegger’s brilliant insights into the most primordial aspects of human experience ensured the survival of his philosophy. After an enforced five year period of academic inactivity, he returned to teaching in Germany in the early 1950s.

Heidegger’s main work, Being and Time, is considered by many to be a masterpiece of 20th century philosophy. But others question whether Herr Heidegger is the Philosopher-King wearing no clothes. British philosopher Roger Scruton says of the work, “It is formidably difficult–unless it is utter nonsense, in which case it is laughably easy.” Bertrand Russell, a no-nonsense positivist philosopher, calls Heidegger’s highly eccentric terminology “extremely obscure.” Russell says, “One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.” Another commentator describes Heidegger’s prose as “constipated, Teutonic, jargon-laden, and laughably contorted.”

Scruton and Russell surely have in mind such sentences as: “Understanding is the existential being of being-there’s own potentiality-for-being: and it is so in such a way that this being discloses in itself what its being is capable of.” And if you are looking for a short definition of ‘meaning’: “Meaning is the ‘upon-which’ of a projection in terms of which something becomes intelligible as something.”  No; clear language was not one of Heidegger’s strong suits.

For Heidegger words were part of the problem of philosophy because our familiarity with their meanings blinds us to other possibilities. His solution? To describe and re-describe experience, and when words fail (which was often), to make up new words. Making full use of his native German, where new words can be cobbled together with hyphens, Heidegger could produce sentences such as, “The for-the-sake-of-which signifies an in-order-to; this in turn, a towards-this; the latter, an in-which of letting something be involved; and that in turn, the with-which of an involvement.” Go figure!

Heidegger spent all his life around the Black Forest in southern Germany, doing much of his writing in his country hut. Born and bred Roman Catholic, he started on the path to the priesthood but a crisis of faith turned him to philosophy. His focus on the earliest Greek thinkers led him to his iconoclastic view that two thousand years’ of thinkers since Plato had been barking up the wrong philosophical tree. Philosophers had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, and most were wasting their time.

So what did two millennia of philosophical forebears get so wrong? They failed to address the problem of being.

The major mistake in the history of Western thinking, according to Heidegger, is the propensity to divide the world of our experience into subjects and objects; into observers and things observed. This dissection assumes something about the world before the cutting begins: it assumes the world can be chopped into pieces and the bits remain true to what they were before.

Not so, says Heidegger. What if the world weren’t like that? What if the world were the sort of place where everything is connected to everything else and cutting it up left you with something that was not true to the world? What if the world were like a cardigan knitted with one length of wool rather than like a patchwork of pieces stitched together? Cutting a piece out of the cardigan to examine it will only leave an unraveling mess of broken threads. Or what if the world were a jelly and cutting it up caused a meltdown?

In fact, says Heidegger, such ways of thinking fundamentally confuse our ‘way of being in the world’ and despite neat and ordered philosophical taxonomies, the result is misunderstanding of our everyday experience and not greater understanding. What’s more, not only is the world more like the knitted cardigan, but we ourselves are part of the weave. We are ‘always and already in-the-world.’ Our viewpoint can never be from the outside as observers. We are part of the cardigan that makes up the whole and to assume that we can be otherwise is to distort the world. The solution, says Heidegger, is to examine what has been left unexamined for so long: the nature of being itself revealed in our everyday experience.

Behind all philosophy, and indeed all human thinking and action, lies being. Being is the water in which we swim. Before any doing or thinking or even philosophising, lies being; the ground of all our possibilities, and notoriously misunderstood. If we want to understand normal human action and life in the real world, then we need to understand being. But beware! The road to understanding being is not to turn it into an object, an entity, that we can gaze upon and examine. Heidegger’s insight, against the whole philosophical tradition, is the simple but profound; “The being of entities is not itself an entity.”

Another face of Heidegger’s radical philosophising is his analysis of the appalling effect of imminent death on all our experience. Heidegger looked death in the face, revealing that aspect of the human condition. The sometimes invisible spectre, the elephant in the room of life, that silently dominates every future.

I lost a son recently. A vigorous, strapping lad of 23. He was red-carded by cancer through no fault of his own. So I’ve had my nose rubbed in the frailty of human existential fragility and the smell is not pleasant. Losing Ben was a shattering experience which I’ve written about elsewhere and one that drove home Heidegger’s point: our own death lies lurking around one corner or the next, a constant companion on the road; that sword of Damocles held up by a thread. While for many, the question of afterlife is moot, earthly living at least, grinds to a dead-end in apparent oblivion. Nothingness. And the human spirit cries out, ‘no!’ Heidegger embraces the ‘no’ to make the sense that can be made of it.

This is not the safe, polite, analytic philosophy confined by British sensibilities. Nor is it the American pragmatist approach, business-like to the end and a ‘too hard basket’ overflowing with all the deepest questions. This is the philosophy of hard questions and of a man who, for reasons only he understood, could admire the Fuhrer.

2 Responses to “Plumbing Heideggerian mysteries”

  1. Henk J van Leeuwen says:

    I do not believe that Heidegger’s transient involvement with National Socialism justifies a prevalent trend to paint him as a despicable person, whose philosophical writings must be approached with the utmost care, lest one is infected by the underlying, insidious virus of fascism. To be sure, because of his involvement with National Socialism in the early 1930s, resulting in his short-lived appointment as rector of the University of Freiburg in 1933, he became embroiled in Nazi controversies. It should not be forgotten that Hitler in the early 1930s was widely admired as a great national statesman, not only in Germany but also abroad. Charges that he himself was anti-Semitic, or that his works are inherently fascistic, cannot be substantiated. There is little in Heidegger’s writings that resemble the enactment of National Socialism (for instance its faith in the growth of technological might). Undeniably, he was not exempt from universal human weaknesses; for instance his lack of courage during the Nazi era, or his employment of the rise of NS in 1933 for his own purposes. Undeniably, at that time, he perceived something in that movement that would counter the malaise of the times. Like Nietzsche before him he was deeply worried that scientific-technological discourse was spreading to all realms of life. At the time he believed that National Socialism possessed the necessary authority able to reverse the increasingly instrumental and objectifying domination of the empirical sciences in the German university. He considered that these were appropriating all contemplation of the ontological and metaphysical foundations of scientific presumptions and certainties.

    Yet, I regard his involvement as transitory whereby he soon returned to his life-long project of questioning the meaning and the “truth of Being”. I suggest that Heidegger was promptly reminded that the fleeting heroes of the era are always surpassed by that which transcends us all. Much of his developing thinking following this period may be seen as grappling with the errors of his earlier dalliance. Perhaps his astonishing output in the late thirties was his attempt to rectify and prevent misinterpretation of his thought

    Heidegger seemed specific about his vision for a spiritual progress of the German Volk as historical grounding, heralding another beginning as a new epoch in Western history. It is a dream for a “people of poetry and of thought”; for a new relation to language and thought: “an increased capacity for sustained thinking, and a more penetrating sensibility, …introducing something new into language …which would be a lasting fruit of a people’s literature, especially poetry and philosophy”. I do not believe that this can be interpreted as a notion of a triumphant ascent of German civilisation, but rather as a vision of what is much needed to counter a spiritual malaise prevalent in all ‘developed’ nations.

    He returns us to what defines the human being: to be confounded by the most enduring, fundamental and enigmatic of all questions: Why does the cosmos exist and everything within it, rather than nothing? And from this inevitably flows the question: what is the human role, as conscious, thinking beings thrown into this astonishing state of affairs?

  2. cardigan says:

    Some have argued that following his resignation of the Rectorship at Freiburg University and after his philosophical “Turn” in 1935 Heidegger’s thinking heads in a very different direction to one of admiring the Fuhrer. But the one consequence of such an argument is that it leaves much important from work before 1933 under a cloud of suspicion.

    So what is the argument for reading and even developing an interest in Martin Heidegger? Well, you could hardly start to really enter a conversation on awe without him… or put another way, his way of thinking raises some awe inspiring insights concerning… everything. But most of all, he is a writer who very painstakingly records his own thinking and uses writing and teaching as ways of thinking, and as ways of getting to things not really thought or made clear before.

    Heidegger seems to be always “the teacher” in his writings, a guide who leaves his own way of proceeding visible (if not always clear or linear). He was, indeed, showing how linear ways of proceeding can often leave out so much that is worth thinking. Rushing ahead to conclusions is a disaster. Each of his courses (the majority of the published Heidegger) is a lesson in thinking, which is only ever really “thinking” in his terms if it challenges what was assumed before hand. This more or less guarantees that Heidegger is full of surprises and puzzles.

    Heidegger is not always difficult. Much of his work is free of the usual jargon, which he makes up for with his own! But with patient reading, What is Called Thinking?, for example, is a remarkable book that anyone can understand without too much need of an introduction. Ordinary words deployed in extraordinary ways.

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