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(Version of a talk given in Belfast on May 25, 2014)


What I want to do in this presentation is to say, in a few sketches, why I think this philosopher is interesting. I’ll begin by saying where I think he was coming from and why he became a star in European philosophy in the late 1920s. I’ll go on then to his political evolution, how he became a member of the Nazi Party and what kind of Nazi he was. After that, I’ll say something more about the later notebooks, including some that he wrote during the first two years of the war. The main ideas that he defended for 30 years after the war are taking shape already in these notebooks.

Heidegger’s background was rural German Catholic. To begin with, he was a Catholic philosopher. But like a great many others, his thinking changed in the early 1920s. There are arguments over how this happened. I can only guess, and my guess is that what happened was that he read Nietzsche, and he took in Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity was dead, historically burnt out, and he was shaken to the core. But if the Christian way of thinking about the human being and the world wouldn’t do, what would do?

Heidegger came up with an answer to this in his book called Being and Time which appeared in 1927, and which made him famous. To see why it caused such a stir, I think we have to look at what the other philosophies of the time were like. The cult of science was already very strong by then. Some philosophers were reducing the human being to a function of science or a scientific problem.

In my opinion, this is what Wittgenstein’s philosophy amounted to, insofar as it was philosophy rather than mysticism. Wittgenstein wanted to remove everything that was vague and incorrect and unscientific from ordinary human speech. Then when we were all speaking clearly and correctly like well-programmed little machines, we would come up against the really important thing - but it couldn’t be spoken about, there was nothing at all we could say about it! Of course, you could have this sort of philosophy without the mysticism - Bertrand Russell’s philosophy was something like that.

Marxism preferred to consider the human being as a force of production or as a member of a class pursuing its class interests. Also, Marxism was very much influenced by the theory of evolution. When this was applied to human beings it often led to the view that human beings as they currently existed were hopelessly inadequate and unsatisfactory, and it was necessary to change them completely, maybe even into a different and superior type of being. Nietzsche was a long way from Marxism, but it was he who came up with the idea of the Superman: as the ape was to man, so man would be to the superman. This idea of the superman made a big impression and came up again in different forms. We find Trotsky expressing it in the 1920s, when he said that the average man of the future would be on the level of Aristotle, Goethe and Marx. And that would only be one peak of achievement, he said, there would be higher peaks rising up beyond it.

In Russia of the 1920s there were people who were speculating very freely on getting beyond the unsatisfactory human being as we know him. Bogdanov, for example, had the idea of transforming the population by blood transfusions. (Like Francis Bacon before him, he martyred himself to science: he died of a transfusion experiment which he was carrying out on himself in 1928.) Svjatogor and Jaroslavskij wrote about abolishing death and producing human immortality. Mouravjev had the idea of a population policy which wouldn’t rely on haphazard sexual intercourse and messy childbirth: instead, populations would be scientifically produced in laboratories.

Heidegger came up with some totally different ideas which countered all of this. He gave a description of basic human experience. He said: you come into a world which you did not make and which was not made for you. And you don’t come in gently or smoothly. You’re flung into it, hurled like a projectile. But immediately you begin to discover that you can respond to your situation and keep your flight going. And just when you’re starting to get good at it, when you feel it is possible to have some element of control, you realise that you’re not going to have enough time, because this flight of yours, which had a beginning, will also have an end. You’re on the way towards death. And what you have to do, in the time that you’ve got, is to try to live the life that is proper or authentic for the special You that you are. This is very difficult, because from all sides there are pressures on you to live a standardised, average, line-of-least-resistance life. But as far as possible you must try to live your authentic life and then die your authentic death.

In effect, Heidegger was putting it up to the evolutionists and the scientists: this is what human life is about - tell me how you’re going to evolve your way out of that! Maybe his description doesn’t sound very cheerful. I should say that I’m not at all sure I can do him justice: I find most of Being and Time quite unreadable, there are just some sections that spring to life. No doubt that was also the experience of Albert Camus, who got what I think is a one-sided impression: he said that Heidegger showed the human being as humiliated and wretched.

But whether or not we are wretched, according to Heidegger we are definitely special. In the world we’re surrounded by all kinds of other Beings, or Things-that-are-in- Being: animals, plants, hills, the sky and the stars. But none of those other Beings relate to their own Being. We do. And we do it all the time, it’s inseparable from life. And that is what makes us special.

As Heidegger describes us, we are Beings that worry and Beings that care. Life is about certain people and things mattering to us, making us care about them. We live in a context, and we’re committed. Living means being involved, or engaged. And likewise knowing. There’s the well- known proverb that says, “What you don’t know won’t worry you” - Heidegger would turn that round and say, “What you don’t care about, you’ll never know”. Or in his language: “Awareness of reality is itself a way of being-in-the-World”. He even found an ancient Latin fable which makes the point for him. Care (Cura) was the first to shape a human being out of clay, before Jupiter (at Care’s request) put a soul in it. Afterwards there was a dispute about how the human being should be named and who he belonged to. The gods held court proceedings on the matter, and it was decided that Jupiter should recover the human’s soul when he died and the Earth should recover his body. But as long as he lived he would always be possessed by Care.

These ideas are all around us, they’ve gone into the atmosphere via French existentialism and any number of other routes. But there’s another aspect of Heidegger’s thinking in Being and Time that’s not so easy to tune in to, though it’s central to his philosophy and to his life. Heidegger argues that roughly for the past two and a half thousand years, there has been a tendency in western thinking to forget Being. Instead we have developed the artificial kind of thinking called Metaphysics, which was pioneered by Plato. This has now reached a crisis point. If we carry on thinking platonically, the results for mankind will be very destructive. We need to make a new start. In fact we need to reconnect with the thinking of the Greeks before Plato, and in doing so reconnect with Being.

What does he mean, “forgetting Being”? How can we forget Being? Or what does he mean by Being? People have cracked their heads on that question. Rather than go into academic arguments, I will suggest my own answer. Being is what people had a sense of in traditional country life. Platonism, by contrast, is a type of artificial, urban thinking. And if Platonism has become a serious problem and danger, that is connected with the fact that one European nation after another has found that all of a sudden most of their people live in towns and cities - a prospect that anyone down to the time of Marx and Engels would have said was impossible, the vision of a lunatic.

Anyhow... in Being and Time there’s certainly a social element. But it’s expressed in abstract language, and some of the most memorable things that are said about social relations are negative. For example, there’s das Man. Das Man could mean “one” as in “one usually prefers...”, or alternatively “decent people”, “the neighbours”, “democrats”, or (a favourite expression of my uncle in Boston) “regular guys”. But ultimately das Man is an It, not a he, she or they, and It is constantly dragging us down from our authentic life to its own average, standardised conformity.

By the late 1920s Heidegger seems to have felt disappointed that his thinking wasn’t making more impact. In the early ’30s he certainly felt that. The notebooks begin in 1931, and one of the first things he says is: “Even today I still don’t have enough enemies! Being and Time hasn’t brought me a great enemy”. Not having enemies - that was a problem he wouldn’t have forever! Anyhow, in those early notebooks he still seems to be narrowly focused on philosophy, but he keeps writing sloganlike sentences: “We must philosophise our way out of “Philosophy”!”; “Unerringly into the Unaccessible!”; “We must get ourselves back into the Great Beginning!” At this stage he sounds a bit like an agitator without a movement.