Martin Heidegger Sidney Hook - Essay

Sidney Hook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The influence, direct and indirect, of ["Being and Time" ("Sein und Zeit")], not only in philosophy but literature and psychology, has reached a point where its admirers characterize it as a work that has changed the intellectual map of the modern world. To this some of Heidegger's detractors agree, but add that he has changed the map of the world by overturning a bottle of ink on it. Numerous interpreters have tried to make sense of the blots produced, projecting naturally their own needs and interests into the reading of it.

The claims and counterclaims are both exaggerated. Heidegger has exercised a profound influence on European (and Japanese!) philosophers, on the existentialist school of psychoanalysis, and on theologians who have used his critique of reason to reinforce their leap of faith over the abyss of dread to which his thought leads. His influence on the literature and drama of the absurd has been mediated through Sartre. It would be far truer to say that Heidegger has given technical and elaborate expression to the sense of dislocation, strangeness, loneliness, and the cult of the arbitrary already manifest in modern literature than to assert he has inspired them.

Nor has Heidegger blotted out the map of the world. He has redrawn it to make the agony of man a part of its geography. Herein lies the clue to his influence. For Heidegger a voyage of discovery on the seas of being becomes an exploration of the labyrinths of the self. It charts the cares and anxieties, the hidden dimensions of conscience, the fearful prescience of death which are covered up by the trivialities and tyrannies of everyday living. He believes that our rational thought and our sensible habits have narcotized our primordial awareness that we are alone in the void.

His work appears to be a declaration of nihilist independence which invites us to awake from our uneasy, terror-filled sleep and go in quest of an authentic self. We must shed the responsibilities imposed upon us from without by the conventional, the popular, the traditional decencies and pieties. Living is a matter of choice, decision and action. We cannot deduce them from all the scientific facts in the world or give valid moral reasons for them.

If we are sufficiently resolute, understand that God is dead and that we are engulfed by Nothingness into which we must disappear, that there is no rock we can build on except the possibilities of what we may become—then and only then do our decisions acquire the hallmark of authenticity. We realize our freedom and our destiny.

This is by far not all there is to Heidegger, who has much to say about technical matters related to the above. But it explains the fascination his ideas have for intellectuals who have lived and still live in an age of crisis in which death, betrayal and panic are familiar phenomena. The very complexity and terminological refinements with which the philosophical position is presented adds a resonance of profundity to the echoes of doctrine that reach the wider world….

To the uninitiated most of ["Being and Time"] will appear to be gibberish with very occasional lapses into lucidity. The sentences sound as if written by a philosophical Joyce or Gertrude Stein in their most outré moods about the "thingness of things" the "notness of not" and the "temporality of the temporal." Analytic philosophers have made and will make easy game of it. Put on a semantic griddle, the text melts away into a thick blinding smoke.

It is yet both unfair and futile to convict [Heidegger] of nonsense. There is interesting nonsense, vicious nonsense and just simple nonsense. Simple nonsense Heidegger is certainly not. In the interest of understanding, we must put the niceties of syntax aside, and ask: What is Heidegger trying to say? Why do so many who have wrestled with him feel it a rewarding experience, and testify that they have been touched and left permanently marked by a powerful spirit?

Heidegger's thought marks a break with the dominant traditions of Western philosophy—with its emphasis upon knowledge as vision, reason and scientific objectivity. He purports to describe things as we encounter and deal with them in our experience. He writes as if he were trying to understand the world kinesthetically, despite the distorting medium of words, to grasp its intractabilities and compulsions, its just-so-ness which no purely intellectual beholding or seeing can reveal.

The meaning of Being (Sein) on which everything is supposed to hang, is approached through the meaning of one's own personal existence (Dasein), and a bitter, anguished existence it is. At the close of a long inquiry,...

(The entire section is 1947 words.)