Topic for #80: Heidegger on our Existential Situation

Listen right now to Seth giving a 10-min summary of Heidegger's essay via a new "Precognition" mini-sode.

Back in episode 32 (over two years ago!) we covered the project of Martin Heidegger's most famous work, Being and Time, composed early in his career. (Incidentally, I see a new and exciting looking translation of this on Amazon that you may want to pick up.) We'll next be covering a later work, his essay "Letter on Humanism" from 1949, which is his clearest statement of his concerns after his famous "turn" where his focus changed in ways that scholars are not entirely in agreement about, but which surely involved an increased interest in the role of language--in particular poetry--in relating us to Being. He seems to think that poets can express some truths that the rest of our discourse is too tainted by post-Platonic Western metaphysics to be able to handle.

This essay was written right after he was banned from teaching by the post-war German government for his membership in the Nazi party, and is a (very indirect) defense of his philosophical focus in light of cultural demands that philosophy motivate the kind of practical, ethical approach that would have, if followed, prevented the Holocaust. It's a response in part to the 1945 lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism," which we'll be covering in a future PEL episode. The second half of Being and Time was highly influential in the development of existentialism by Sartre and others: Heidegger talks about "The They" (das Man) that sounds like Kierkegaard's "The crowd," and Heidegger's notion of "Fallenness," where we get self-alienated (alienated from Being) by being swept up in worldly concerns sure sounds a lot like Sartre's notion of bad faith. Plus Heidegger has the whole Being-Unto-Death thing (Anxiety). So it's easy to read Heidegger as an existentialist, as promoting a notion of authenticity that could then ground an ethics and qualify as a type of "humanism."

In the "Letter on Humanism," Heidegger denies that he's a humanist or an existentialist while insisting that his philosophy does concern making one more humane. First off, he thinks that all "isms" indicate that real thinking has come to an end, and he'd like us to return to the Greeks, whom he claims did not even call philosophy "philosophy." They just did it. THe connections in both style and content to Heraclitus throughout this essay are striking.

Heidegger thinks that all humanisms, even Christian humanism, start with a metaphysical picture whereby we're considered rational animals. While he doesn't think this is exactly false, it's "conditioned by metaphysics." It assumes we know what an animal (and life) ultimately is, which requires for Heidegger that we we really understand Being, which is the great mystery: it's what's closest and yet farthest away, because we inevitably start talking about individual beings whenever we think about what there is instead of focusing as Heidegger wants us to on the meaning of the word "is," i.e. on Being itself, which he thinks is prior (though in what sense "prior" is an interesting question) to all particular beings. Learning how to even ask the question "what is Being?" was his main concern in Being and Time, and it remains so here.

Though he denies that he's doing covert theology or a secularized version of some theological practice, a lot of his language sure does sound like Buber's, when Buber talks about encountering "the eternal Thou" through individual experiences of individual objects. Now, Buber's paradigm case of encountering Being through experience is really connecting with an individual, and he famously criticized Heidegger for the latter's more solipsistic take on this phenomenon. For Heidegger, it's language itself that is the "house of Being," that enables the poet or philosopher, through careful uses of it (and real thinking, which amounts to the same thing), to be a "guardian" of this house. So it's not connecting with another person that connects us with Being itself, but using language to make clear our position as "ek-static," i.e. standing out from Being so as to be able to reflect on our relation to Being (which is really, because WE are underlyingly Being, Being relating to itself). So Heidegger has a vision of self that yet another variation of the one we discussed at length in our Hegel episodes: we are distinguished from animals through the power of reflection, granted by language, which enables us to take the rest of the world (including ourselves) as an object in a way that no other creature can. So just as for Hegel and Buber and Kierkegaard, it's this dynamic that makes us fully human, and it's possible (and definitely is the case for the mass of unreflective dolts) to get this wrong, to in fact not be fully human.

So Heidegger says he isn't a humanist because our condition as "ek-static," as the being for whom Being is a concern (that's how he described us, calling us "Dasein"--"Being-There"--in Being and Time), as not at all comparable to animals, even if we tack the term "rational" on there too. The fact that biology can analyze some part of us as animals doesn't mean that it has a grasp of our essence, and as soon as we take the step of considering ourselves scientifically in that way as opposed to how we actually feel to ourselves, then we find that the materialist, naturalist picture doesn't account for all the phenomena and so tack on another metaphysical entity, the soul, to handle the rest and run into all the notorious mind-body problems that still plague philosophy.

So "humanism," which Heidegger identifies as a Roman invention that oversimplified Greek philosophy, actually doesn't grant humanity enough dignity for Heidegger's taste. Humanism locates the source of value in us, whereas Heidegger thinks that consideration of Being is prior, again, to any such particular thoughts about our practical characteristics (e.g. virtues or animalistic qualities). In particular, it is prior (in much the way Pirsig described "Quality") to the subject-object distinction which, Heidegger thinks, actually dehumanizes us by making the internal, subjective, spiritual side of us so pale and circumscribed compared to the public, objective, material part of experience. To be on the right track, on Heidegger's view is to avoid not only the pitfalls of Fallenness into concern with public things (e.g. ambition, technological gadgets, concern with the crowd's opinion re. your Nazi past) but also to realize "the impotence of the private." So this seems to be what most clearly distinguishes him from a religious advocate of the sort that would tell you to eschew worldly ties and concentrate on your inner, spiritual development. This, to Heidegger, is a deluded joke, as "the private" for such a person is just a negation of the public, which in material fact (Heidegger admires Marx here) it is just a reaction to, a pathetic attempt to circumscribe the power of the public that our metaphysics has let loose.

Heidegger elaborates his vision via grumpy-old-man complaints against technology and crass uses of language as symptoms of an overall state of cultural disarray that being in touch with Being would presumably give us the proper perspective to address, all the while still not spelling out any clear ethical implications from his system. As he says, Being is prior to the distinction between theory and practice, and "thinking" in the sense of making Being manifest is itself action: it's accomplishing something, even if it doesn't then lead to a set of ethical rules or validate our cultural practices or solve practical (i.e. technical) problems about how to organize societies or master nature.

Get the book (which includes several other useful essays as well as some of Being and Time) or read the essay online.

Join Not School to hear the full-length discussion between Seth and some smart PEL listeners (among them a classicist and some Deleuze/Derrida fans) right now about this.


  1. says

    I don’t really know anything about Heidegger but I have that book already so I should read the essay and listen, on the other hand your precis felt so rich and comprehensive (as is often the case), that having read it I feel like I don’t need to do so now.

  2. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says


    I concur, Mark has summarized Heidegger excellently, and Seth has done the same on a textual level, so this should be a high level podcast. Perhaps within the context of a well understood text, questions beyond the text can be raised such as:

    1) Are there no implications for the understanding of Being such that implications of humanisim or any -ism therefore does not apply?

    Mark concluded this blog with:
    “Being is prior to the distinction between theory and practice, and “thinking” in the sense of making Being manifest is itself action: it’s accomplishing something, even if it doesn’t then lead to a set of ethical rules or validate our cultural practices or solve practical (i.e. technical) problems about how to organize societies or master nature.”

    And Mark started this blog with:
    Heidegger’s “interest in the role of language–in particular poetry–in relating us to Being. He seems to think that poets can express some truths that the rest of our discourse is too tainted by post-Platonic Western metaphysics to be able to handle.”

    How is it that “truths” do not implicate not only “being” but a way of being?

    2) If “Being is prior to the distinction between theory and practice” then how does theory and practice ever get traction?

    3) Isn’t there something critically missing if theory and practice drop out of Heidegger’s philosophy?

    4) etc.

  3. Glen says

    We are the caretakers of being, the guardians of language, which is the home of being

    Thinking let’s itself be claimed by being so that it can say the truth of being.

    Thinking has to “listen” to being properly.

    The right words have to be found, but current language is tainted by implicit metaphysical presuppositions, most obvious in its grammar.

    A language that can speak the truth of being has to be a language liberated from these chains, from the iron chains of the subject v. object dichotomy, the action v. passive verb distinction, etc. Logic, as it is normally understood, has to be shelved.

    Is this irrationalism? Yes and no.

    Yes, if you assume that logic is fundamental, which Heidegger would say is an unquestioned assumption at the heart of western philosophy and metaphysics, a massive mistake that went unanalyzed and even noticed for two thousand years.

    No, if you are willing to entertain the idea that Heidegger is putting forth, then thinking and language may need to be freed from the technical interpretation they have been given in western philosophy.

    There is a bias that construes thinking as a means to action, to serve interests. But there is no distinction because thinking itself is an action, an end in itself. Thinking being perhaps have no effects beyond itself.

    Language has to be liberated from the dictatorship of the public realm, where everything is objectified, turned into universally recognizable/accessible things/objects.

    Language is too subservient to the public, and serves only to communicate these publicly recognizable “objects,” the “intelligible” “objects” of of the discourse we call “science” for instance.

    But some things are inaccessible to this public, metaphysical language, namely the truth of being.

    In order to get to being, we have to abandon this language and opt for language that is purged of the constraints mentioned earlier.

    When you ask yourself, “what sort of language does Heidegger seem to be advocating when he talks about abandoning strict grammar, metaphysical assumptions, etc.?” what does that sound like?


    and, like poetry, it inevitably verges on babble, but at the same time practically bursting with meaning. This tension is in part why those who like to give everything a very top-down, technical interpretation/”explanation” are uncomfortable with thinkers like Heidegger or poetry in general for that matter, i.e. they do not like vagueness, preferring the hard edges of science (of the scientistic worldview which has all sorts of negative spinoff effects), which of course is precisely what Heidegger is railing against.

    In some ways you can see why Heidegger was obscure; it is not as if he was unaware or deliberate in this respect; the subject matter is obscure and there is no way to avoid falsifying the truth of being at least a little, but the worst way is to engage in western technistic metaphysics that carves things up into vast, fixed, categories rather than acknowledge Heraclitus’ dictum that all is flux.

    This post may make it sound like I know what I am talking about. I don’t really, I just dug up some old notes I have from reading the Letter on Humanism a long time ago and pretty much typed it in.

    Mark mentioned “post-platonic” philosophy as where everything pretty much goes off the rails for Heidegger. I always thought that since Heidegger is returning more to Heraclitus and presocratics, it is Socrates who is to blame for shifting the emphasis of philosophical inquiry, and therefore it is post-presocratic philosophy that is the problem (is there a better name for that?). It was the presocratics who were still in touch with being, according to Heidegger.

    • Glen says

      And now that I have listened to the Heraclitus podcast I know that the “all is flux” thing is just propaganda about Heraclitus created by Aristotle.


  4. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Nice, Glen.

    I’m not questioning the degree to which Heidegger successfully challenged the excessively rationalistic bent of philosophy since Socrates, but whether he went far enough to give teeth to being as being more definable than mere poetry.

    I do not disagree with the need for an aesthetic spirit to help guide the way, but the vagueness of the meaning of Being calls out for clarity, not of a scientific reductionism nor a platonic rationalism, but for better describing how being calls to us, directs us and gives us direction in the face of everyday living. I don’t think obscurity is necessarily a virtue nor a necessity. Does obscurity hide a missing element in Heidegger’s formulation?

      • dmf says

        one might believe, as I do, that talk about withdrawal and Being is part of a theo-logical/meta-physical world-view/grammar better left behind, but in Heidegger this is in addition to scientific endeavors, he doesn’t reject Technology he just doesn’t see it as the ultimate ground of being in the world. That said even without the spooky presence of Logos/Language there are many aspects of our lives that aren’t reducible to calculative-reasoning and much of Heidegger’s B&T phenomenology still has uses for the contemporary pragmatist even if Heidegger would reject these being instruments for “mere” anthropology.

        • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says


          Excellent article with the following points:

          “It is always possible to read Heidegger’s words metaphysically, i.e. to read his words in terms of subject and object, to place what is written before one’s sight and represent it as the object of a thinking subject . . . but, on the other hand, there are no written or spoken words which in themselves are non-metaphysical. Heidegger thinks the “essence” [Wesen] of language not in departure from words as signs, but as an articulating and disclosing occurrence. ”

          I don’t think metaphysics per se is the problem with Heidegger, but the way in which it is employed.

          Heidegger’s approach results in the following false opposites:

          “In resisting representational thinking, in gathering totally towards the silent source of beyng (sic), primordial thinking may exclude or remain blind for instance to everyday political and ethical issues. This danger is, as I think, present in Heidegger’s thought. On the other hand, representational thinking as it is practiced in sciences, politics and ethics might exclude and remain blind to original and creative ways of being which nourish our being from its very source.” When having to choose between A or B, I prefer C.

          I once had a professor who said that if you do not take some position, you are liable to take any position–which appears to be what happened in Heidegger’s personal life.


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