I’ve recently been reexamining my perspective on Heidegger. I haven’t really changed it much, and I’m not interested enough to be a full-fledged Heidegger scholar, but I have been reexamining my perspective.
Certain early impressions regarding this guy remain in place. Among them, one of the reasons he made a particularly good Nazi had to do with his German ethnocentrism and his thing about the German language in particular. He believed that the German language and culture were far superior to anything else that was going at the time and anything that had ever been, and on that basis he decided to attempt to reinvent philosophy on a purely German basis. If his ideas couldn’t be translated into other languages, so much the better for proving the superiority of his own language. As a byproduct of this exercise though he got so busy playing with his language that he frequently forgot what the hell he was talking about.
Yet in spite of this fundamental flaw in his perspective, Heidegger remains one of the top 10 most important, original and influential philosophers of the 20th century, regardless of whose list you are going by. His work clearly influenced all continental philosophy for the second half of the century, and arguably the French post-modern movement could not have come into being without him. So for better or for worse he is a force to be reckoned with. And beyond all that, if I were to try to analyze exactly what the core question of my own philosophical pursuits is these days it would have to be something like, how much am I as a person an autonomous individual capable of truly independent thought and action, and to what extent am I just an element within the society and ecosystem within which I find myself? Together with that comes the consideration of what I am ultimately free to do and what is essentially worth doing with my freedoms, such as they are. Call it irony or coincidence, or indirect cause and effect beyond what I am capable of analyzing, but those are precisely the questions that seem to have occupied Heidegger’s mind. So the question is, does Heidegger have anything useful to say about this relevant to life as I know it? That’s what I’ve been trying to reconsider lately.
Heidegger’s main work –– the only one that anyone really talks about –– is called Being and Time, and his main point there seems to be that time sets the conditions for all forms of being. I say “seems to be” because, as I said, he got so busy playing with his German etymologies that even professionals specialized in interpreting Heidegger aren’t really sure what he’s on about sometimes. So rather than continuously repeating that point let me just say to anyone who would wish to critique my understanding of Heidegger as missing his point, “Duuuh!” All of this is merely my layman’s understanding of what Heidegger’s point might have been, on the optimistic assumption that his words actually related to anything beyond themselves. That disclaimer in place, as always, alternative perspectives are more than welcome in reply here.
So anyway, Heidegger’s basic epiphany was saying that what makes life really real is knowing that we’re all going to die. This is self-evident on one level, and deeply problematic on another. Of course human life is of limited duration for everyone, but is that really what it is really all about? Isn’t that sort of like saying that the true beauty of the Mona Lisa lies in the fact that it is framed? I don’t know; perhaps for Heidegger the best he could say about his life was that at least it wouldn’t go on for ever.
So anyway, time frames our lives –– our fundamental sense of being –– giving it profound limitations; setting the boundaries within which the game is played. And within those boundaries we do our best to… score… in some way or another. But what counts as scoring, and why should we really care about it?
In fact Heidegger wasn’t interested in such sports analogies. What he cared about was authenticity –– figuring out some way of being “the real me” without going all existentialist about it. (Heidegger had a real problem with being compared to any Frenchmen.) And what makes a person authentic? Angst –– being a bit uneasy about everything –– having a creeping sense that you don’t really fit in, and eventually this is going to lead to your death.
Angst, as Heidegger describes it, is a bit of a “fish out of water” experience, but that’s the beauty of it as far as he’s concerned, because only when it is out of the water can the fish get the whole concept that there is such a thing as water. That sense of not taking our social and material environments for granted –– not assuming that the way things work in our familiar surroundings is the only way things possibly could work; nor that all of the ways in which we have been tossed about and conditioned to “fit in” within our environments are really a necessary part of who each of us is –– only happens when we become alienated from such conditions. This is what makes a person a genuine, authentic human being, at least as Heidegger saw it.
Then from there –– from that exalted position where you can’t really breath but at least you feel above everyone else –– you can sort of look down on the rest of the world and decide if there’s anyone or anything you feel like caring about. This act of choosing to care –– from a position of defiant self-sufficiency arising from angst-ridden state of alienation –– is the sweetest thing life has to offer as far as Heidegger was concerned.
But of course this only works when you feel as though it’s entirely up to you who you care about and who you don’t. If you can’t choose to be kind to some and be a total bastard to others it isn’t really “caring” as Heidegger saw it; it’s “inauthenticity”. To really care in a valuable way, according to Heidegger’s way of thinking, first you have to get deep into the angst thing: you have to get all messed up about the fact that your life is pretty tightly limited by death and all, which could happen at any time, when you least expect it. Then you have to let that angst keep you from fitting in “like a normal person” in your circumstances. And only after than, when you’ve pretty much given up on everything else, can you find your own way of connecting to people entirely according to your own autonomous tastes in the matter.
To be perfectly honest about it, I really don’t see that as a recipe for happiness and success in life. I don’t see angst as a purpose unto itself as something that I’d want to pass on to my sons and students as a way of enriching their lives, nor is it something that I want to have in ever increasing doses of in order to “keep my edge” as some idiots seem prone to think. And still, ironically perhaps, I continue to experience far more than my fair share of angst and alienation in life; Heidegger would be truly envious of me in those regards.
Yes, I do see this angst –– this sense of my life being disturbingly limited and “different” from those around me –– as having enabled me to think about certain things in deeper ways than some people with fewer such challenges in their lives are able to. But is it worth it? Let’s just say that given a choice in the matter I’d prefer to have a lot less of it.
My preferred basis for establishing purpose and meaning in life is to be aware of angst and what it can teach you, but as a lifestyle choice to stay out of it as much as possible. Rather than thriving on isolation and alienation, I recommend thriving on a sense of harmony with the people and the world around me. I would hope that we can each take part in building something resembling “God’s kingdom” –– a system of empathy and mutual support that extends beyond cultural prejudices and boundaries of tribal identity, even if it does end up becoming more structurally enforced and less subject to our autonomous impulses than what Heidegger might have had in mind.
Rather than waking up every morning wondering how much closer I’ll come to death that day, I want to wake up each morning wondering what sort of lasting positive impact I might be able to have on things that day, which might continue long after I am gone. As I see it my personal authenticity does not depend on who or what I can isolate myself from, but on who and what I can form meaningful connections with. And while nothing relating to human understanding is perfect and eternal, the more refined and firmly established I can make things, the better I suspect it will be for all concerned.
And yes, this also comes down to the perennial $10,000 question: Did Heidegger’s philosophy make his enthusiasm for the Nazi party inevitable, or was he just an otherwise wise and profound thinker that happened to be incredibly stupid and/or immoral in that one particular area? My personal take on the matter: angst can cause people to do some pretty crazy and unbalanced stuff. If he was feeling isolated, morbid and out of sync with everything around him on purpose it would seem extremely likely, if not inevitable, that he would gravitate towards the type of organization that gives its insiders an intense sense of belonging while at the same time offering a sense of freedom to radically hate “the others”. So yes, given the opportunity, of course Heidegger became a Nazi.
But the irony remains: I am in a fairly deep state of situational angst these days. As I approach the end of my sabbatical year’s adventures –– in which I have broken free from social expectations and environmental pressures and moved half way around the world in search of new connections and possibilities –– I have precious little idea what is coming next. As fascinating as this adventure has been, it has not led to any lasting new arrangements for me, and thus I am now in a position where I have no idea what sort of home or job I will have three months from now! The things we do in search of authenticity…
So while a life of Heideggerian angst is really the last thing I’m looking for these days, at the moment it seems to be the core essence of life as I know it. Funny how these things work! Under the circumstances there’s really only one thing I can say for sure: I’m not going to let it make a Nazi out of me.