Martin Heidegger

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Sidney Hook

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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....

(This entire section contains 1947 words.)

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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 meaning of Being remains as obscure as ever, but many provocative and evocative things have been said about personal existence which are sure to strike a sympathetic response among those religious persons without a religion for whom philosophy is a form of psychotherapy or a quest for personal salvation rather than a discipline of rigorous thought in the search for wisdom. (p. 6)

[Instead] of giving mind and self a distinctive place in nature, Heidegger seems to dissolve the whole of nature into the saga of the self. No philosopher before him, except to some degree Kierkegaard, has made such play with the dramatic categories of "care, anxiety, conscience, and death," in explicating the human condition. He gives the impression he is rendering the authentic experience of those who spill their guts and blood in choices between live and dangerous options. Not for him is cerebration about others' experiences at third hand.

Heidegger begins bravely and interestingly in describing these phenomena but soon abandons the facts of actual experience for a mythologized reconstruction of the human psyche which applies perhaps to those who are in a perpetual state of vertigo, as if they were always walking on the rim of an abyss, but hardly to those in less extreme situations. He seems sometimes to be saying some pertinent things about anxieties, care and death but he warns us not to interpret these remarks as if this applied to empirical phenomena.

Death, for example, is not a natural event. It is not a happening like other happenings. Anxiety in the face of death is not "fear in the face of one's demise." It is anxiety "toward death as one's ownmost possibility." It is a primordial anxiety, not something that waxes and wanes with changes in nature, history or society. It is an ontological anxiety concerning the possibility that one's existence may at any moment become finally impossible.

Now even when we become aware of this possibility, there is no evidence that we normally become anxious about it, unless the possibility is concretized and seems probable. Nor does Heidegger advance any reasons why we should be anxious. After all, because we cannot imagine ourselves dead, this hardly justifies the inference that our existence is necessary. What we know about human attitudes towards death indicates that Heidegger's generalization is false. Some men, and not only figures like Socrates and Spinoza, have no anxiety in the face of death. Men have believed that there are many things which could happen to them that are far worse than death. Any sensitive person can think of a variety of circumstances that would make death a happy release, almost a privilege.

Heidegger writes even more paradoxically and misleadingly about "conscience" and "guilt." After saying truly that conscience "discourses solely and constantly in the mode of keeping silent," it turns out that it has nothing to do with any specific feeling or thought about things we should not have done or left undone. Conscience is "the call of care" and expresses our "primordial" anxiety about our guilty existence. And what makes us guilty? Not the commission of an act that is morally or legally wrong but the very fact of our very existence. We are guilty no matter what! "Dasein is essentially guilty—not just guilty on some occasions, and on other occasions not." In some obscure way, this guilt is tied up with the truism that in being ourselves we cannot help not being something or someone else. The Self is "the null basis of its own nullity." When we understand that, so to speak, we already have death in our bones, we can live authentically, with "anticipatory resolution." The result, however, is more likely to make life an authentic nightmare. (pp. 6, 42)

There is hardly a single conclusion in this huge volume for which a straightforward argument is offered, but a man's vision may be independent of argument. The difficulty is to discern Heidegger's vision as expressed in his tortured and punning exegesis of key terms in human experience.

Heidegger has not fully emancipated himself from the dominant traditions of German idealism in which the Self looms so large in the scheme of things that it blocks everything else out. Even Being (Sein) is ultimately reduced to personal existence (Dasein). "Being is something which 'there is' only insofar as truth is. And truth is only insofar and as long as personal existence (Dasein) is." This is a form of vast cosmic egoism.

Heidegger's emphasis upon care and anxiety is most plausibly interpreted as an expression of anguish by one who feels lost or thrown into the universe, as a prolonged groan in the void of the meaningless. The Self feels "abandoned," "fallen," "thrown" into the world, "not-at-home" in the world, as if it were irretrievably rent from the bliss of the Plotinian One to which it can never return. Heidegger is scornful of the residues of Christian theology in the formulation of the traditional problems of philosophy, but the residues in his thought are of pre-Christian theology.

It is safe to predict that now, more than ever, as life on earth becomes more precarious, Heidegger will become another way station in the restless pilgrimage of unhappy souls trying to find themselves. No philosophy is viable for him which seeks to inquire into the causes and conditions of the specific cares, anxieties, and threats of death in the world in the hope of diminishing their acuteness or raising them to more significant levels of experience. "The 'Guilty' which belongs to the Being of Dasein is something that can be neither augmented nor diminished."

That Heidegger is a suggestive writer is proved by the great stir he has already made. His influence in the Anglo-American world … is almost certain to grow. A great deal will be read into him. Whether anything of lasting significance will be read out of him is more doubtful. Few philosophers will find the rewards of discovery commensurate with the pains of diving into and dredging its murky depths. The contemporary thinness of technical and professional philosophy may contribute to Heidegger's vogue.

It is natural that a sustained diet of antiseptics and ordinary language analysis should make one hungry for solid food. But because there is no nourishment in blotting paper, must one eat mud? There is little wisdom in the injunction to live authentically unless we know how to live—what the content of an authentic life is. Else men may be authentically at one another's throats. One authentic Hitler or Stalin is more than enough. It is a vicious error to believe that thinking must result in a truncated existence, an unauthentic life without joy. History's grim reminder is that it is today's absurdities of unreflective feeling, of passions cloaked in unauthentic thought, which prepare the atrocities of tomorrow. (p. 42)

Sidney Hook, "The Map Was Redrawn to Make Man's Agony a Part of the Geography," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1962, pp. 6, 42.


Michael Hamburger


Frederic Will