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.