The Letter on Humanism, written in 1947 in
response to questions circulating about the relationship of Heidegger’s
philosophy of Being to humanism, Christianity, Marxism, and the new
“philosophy of existence” expounded by Sartre, Jaspers, and others, has been
called Heidegger’s “greatest effort.”
It was written at a time of great personal struggle for Heidegger: he had
just been indefinitely banned from teaching following the Nazi war-crimes
hearings, and he had undergone a kind of emotional breakdown as a result.
Nevertheless, the Letter on Humanism virtually catalogues the most
important strands of Heidegger’s entire later philosophy – the meaning of
the history of Being, the way Heidegger sees to the re-awakening of that
history, its relation to the philosophical tradition, the meaning of action, the
role of technology, art, and language in the historical destiny of Being, and
above all the need of a new thinking to prepare that destiny.
The essay contains some of Heidegger’s most memorable language.
In it, we can see especially clearly the role of reflection about
language in preparing a new consideration of Being that will make the leap
outside the tradition of metaphysics, which has hitherto determined all of our
language. The quest for a new
language will be so important to Heidegger that he will even spell important
words, like Being, in antiquated and strange ways, to show that he uses them
outside the closure of metaphysics.
“Thinking accomplishes the relation of Being to the
essence of man. It does not make or
cause the relation. Thinking brings
this relation to Being solely as something handed over to it from Being.
Such offering consists in the fact that in thinking Being comes to
language. Language is the house of
Being. In its home man dwells.
Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this
home. Their guardianship
accomplishes the manifestation of Being insofar as they bring the manifestation
to language and maintain it in language through their speech.
Thinking does not become action only because some effect issues from it
or because it is applied. Thinking
acts insofar as it thinks.” (p.
“Language is the house of Being.”
What does this mean? It
means that language is more than a tool, ready-at-hand for our use.
It means that we live in our language; we live the lives determined by it
and we think insofar as we bring Being to language.
“Thinking is the thinking of Being.” (p. 220). In the
“Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger will attempt to bring Being to language in
new and unanticipated ways.
Because he thinks of thinking as the bringing to
language of Being, Heidegger thinks of thinking as more fully action
than acting that is not determined by thought.
Traditionally, we put action above thought, thinking that thought never
accomplishes anything. But
Heidegger asks us to consider that thinking may be the most important action of
all. For it changes our
relationship to Being. And because
thinking brings Being to language, our thinking is not separate from the
language we use. Heidegger, in
fact, now believes that his own earlier thinking about Being – the thinking of
Being and Time – failed because it, too, remained stuck in the language
of metaphysics. From this time
forward, Heidegger will oppose the widespread “devastation” that he sees in
the use of language around him. And
he will begin to forge a new kind of language along the path of a thinking that
attempts the leap outside the tradition of metaphysics.
In this case, this will lead Heidegger to critique the centuries-old
distinction between subject and object at the heart of the philosophy of
Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, and preserved linguistically in the grammatical subject/object
distinction. Reconsidering the
difference between subject and object will lead him to reconsider the idea that
man himself is a subject among objects, yielding an entirely new kind of
thinking about humanism and the nature of the human.
Officially, the essay responds to some questions
asked of Heidegger by a student, Jean Beaufret, following the influential
article and lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre, himself a student of Heidegger’s work before the war, had
worked in the French underground during the German occupation, and gained fame
immediately after the war with his advocacy of the new philosophy of
existentialism. In the chaotic
intellectual atmosphere of post-war Europe, everyone seemed to be looking for a
new philosophy to make sense of the downfall of European civilization, and many
found the answer in Sartre’s existentialism.
In his essay – which students of Heidegger are
well-advised to read – Sartre had defined existentialism as the doctrine that
“existence precedes essence.” Though
it develops from antecedents in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger himself,
this doctrine was meant to revolutionize philosophical thought.
For traditional philosophy, Sartre thought, conceives of essence – what
something is – as prior to existence – that it is.
For instance, in traditional philosophy we think of the essence of an
animal, its plan or idea, as prior to the fact that it exists.
Perhaps we think of the idea of the elephant, for instance, as an idea in
the mind of God, prepared before the existence of any particular elephant
itself. In the case of human beings
in particular, we have thought of the essence of man – human nature – before
the existence of man himself. Sartre
urges a revolution in this view; we should think of man first of all as an
existing being. This means that man
has no “human nature,” either biologically given or determined by God. Rather, it is up to us to determine our nature, and we are
completely free in this creative determination. Man, accordingly, is an ongoing “project,” we are both a
never-completed work and one that is pro-jected – thrown forward – in time.
Yet in the challenge to determine, and create, what we are, we can do so
either authentically – with integrity and honesty – or inauthentically.
We act inauthentically when we forget our own difficult freedom, and rest
with pre-established patterns for life or pre-given answers to the question of
what we should be, whether we draw these answers from science, religion, or
psychology. We act authentically,
by contrast, only when we experience our process of self-creation from the
perspective of our fundamental freedom.
In the remainder of his essay, Sartre defends the
claim that existentialism, so defined, can legitimately be considered a humanism
– that it exalts the dignity of man and that it does not simply abandon us to
a chaotic world of total freedom. For, Sartre says, though existentialism gives us no
ready-made “values” or “principles” with which to begin, it articulates
the true meaning of the idea of freedom, so important to the Western ethical
tradition. In this, it shows us the
true legitimacy of the philosophical concept of man as a free agent, an actor in
the world with free will, whose actions need not be determined by any
pre-existing set of assumptions or values.
Accordingly, existentialism, Sartre thinks, holds up and defends the
traditional concept of man, the concept responsible for the Renaissance and the
Enlightenment, as well as for the continuing freedom of man from the domination
of a Christian or theo-centric worldview.
Though he shares much with Sartre, Heidegger’s aim
in the Letter on Humanism is to distinguish himself from – rather than
endorse – Sartre’s existentialism and his associated concept of humanism.
For Heidegger thinks that this concept of humanism is still within the
tradition of metaphysics. Of
Sartre’s reversal of the traditional priority of essence over existence,
“…Sartre expresses the basic tent of existentialism
in this way: Existence precedes essence. In
this statement he is taking existentia and essentia according to their
metaphysical meaning, which from Plato’s time on has said that essentia
precedes existentia. Sartre
reverses this statement. But the
reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement.
With it he stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.”
By contrast, Heidegger thinks his philosophy of Being
can discover a still older and more original meaning for man.
To this end, Heidegger rejects everything that Sartre calls
“humanism” – but only in the service of the higher dignity of man.
“… The highest determinations of the sense of man in humanism
still do not realize the proper dignity of man ..” (p.
233). This “proper dignity”
can only be discovered if man is thought of – as Sartre does not think of him
– in his fundamental relationship to Being and its meaning and truth.
What is the meaning of Heidegger’s rejection of “humanism,”
and what is at stake in this rejection? To
understand this, we need to think more about humanism and its meaning in the
history of Western thought. In
defending the traditional concept of “humanism,” Sartre says that he defends
the basic conception of man that is already defined by Descartes.
As is well known, Descartes made the “cogito, ergo sum”
– the idea that “I think, therefore I am” – the center of his
philosophy. Descartes thought he
could doubt everything but this simple proposition, which alone could be the
source of certain knowledge. Accordingly,
he sought to build up all other knowledge from the undoubtable certainty that
because I think, I am as an existing being.
Accordingly, Descartes makes the idea of “cogito, ergo sum” the
center of his idea of the human being as well.
Man, for Descartes, is primarily a thing that thinks.
But what are we, if we are essentially things that think?
Descartes distinguishes the nonphysical mind – which is defined by its
ability to think – from the physical body, which does not think.
For Descartes, we are really nonphysical minds, or souls, living in
physical bodies. (The
twentieth-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle would later describe this doctrine as
the doctrine of the “ghost in the machine.”)
As nonphysical souls, we have free will in the sense that we can, by
thinking and willing, cause actions and behaviors to happen that are not
themselves caused by physical matter. Thus,
at the time of Descartes, man is already defined as a nonphysical, thinking
soul, capable of freely willing and imposing his will upon matter.
In the philosophical tradition, one usual name for
this being – the nonphysical, acting, willing self – is the “subject.”
From Descartes to Kant to Hegel, Western philosophy has developed the
description of the relationship of the thinking subject to the world.
From subjects we distinguish objects, things that the thinking subject
can understand and upon which the thinking subject can act.
But this way of conceiving of man is in fact, Heidegger thinks, much
older. We can see this by
reflecting on grammar itself, on the way in which the grammar of our language
reflects metaphysics. In elementary
school, you probably learned to
distinguish, within a sentence, between the subject and the object. “The man reads the book”: when we distinguish between
subject and object, we distinguish between man and the thing upon which he acts.
The subject is the thing which can formulate thoughts and plans, and in
so doing act upon objects, make them conform to his will.
In this way, we think of thought as prior to action, an we think of our
thought as preparatory for acting upon beings, manipulating them, and effecting
our plans. This relationship between subject and object – whereby
thinking subjects plan, imagine, and freely choose their increasing domination
over the manipulation and control of objects – is itself a deep part of the
tradition of metaphysics, and its historical forgottenness of beings.
In this relationship, subjects increasingly concern themselves with the
manipulation and domination of beings, understood as objects.
At last, there are no more objects to manipulate, so we set in order and
manipulate other people as well, coming to treat people – subjects – as
objects. In this, the fundamental relationship between subject and
object – and between beings and Dasein – is forgotten.
We talked last time about how Heidegger wants to
rethink the very concept of the human being that Sartre finds, and celebrates,
in Descartes’ writings. For
Descartes, the human being is a subject among objects, a nonphysical soul or
mind within a physical body. Objects
are then things set over against us, the recipients of our calculation and
control (This shows up even more
clearly in German; the usual translation of “object” is Gegenstand,
that which stands over against); and the freedom of the human being is then the
freedom to act upon and manipulate objects.
The distinction between subject and object already contains the roots of
the technological outlook that Heidegger criticizes in “The Question
Concerning Technology.” It arises
from the same forgottenness of being – and in particular, from the same
failure to investigate and understand our own being.
This forgottenness is, in turn, inseparable from the tradition of
metaphysics, and the language that it determines.
Our fundamental concept of man, determined by the
fundamental forgetting of being, determines our usual way of thinking of the
relationship of man to beings. This
way of thinking takes over our language itself: “Much bemoaned of late, and
much too lately, the downfall of language is, however, not the grounds for, but
already a consequence of, the state of affairs in which language under the
dominance of the modern metaphysics of subjectivity almost irremediably falls
out of its element. Language still
denies us its essence: that it is the house of the truth of Being.
Instead, language surrenders itself to our mere willing and trafficking
as an instrument of domination over beings.
Beings themselves appear as actualities in the interaction of cause and
effect. We encounter beings as
actualities in a calculative businesslike way, but also scientifically and by
way of philosophy, with explanations and proofs.”
(p. 222). Here,
Heidegger includes even science and philosophy within the kinds of
“trafficking … over beings” that technology exhibits.
In what specific way is humanism linked to
metaphysics, not only in its Cartesian version, but in an older sense as well?
To show this, Heidegger goes back to some of the earliest determinations
of the meaning of the word “human.” Man
was first called “humanitas,” Heidegger explains, by the Romans.
For the Romans, “humans” were distinguished from “barbarians,”
those who were not Romans and did not share the virtue [virtus], education [paideia]
and scholarship [eruditio] of the Romans and the Greeks. This definition survives in the way we, today, refer to the
field of studies that are concerned with human beings: the humanities.
Before that, man had been defined by Aristotle and the Greeks as animale
rationale – the rational animal.
In this description of man that privileges rationality, we can already
see the roots of Descartes’ definition of man as the thinking thing.
Since then, man has been understood as the anima (soul) who is capable of
rational thought. This is the
underlying definition of man that the Western tradition has constantly
presupposed. Subsequent versions of
humanism – Marxism, which objects to the unchecked spread of capitalism on the
ground that it fails to provide for the human needs of its human workers – and
even Christianity, which assumes that man is essentially defined by his
nonphysical soul – assume this basic definition of man.
As long as we stick with this definition of man, we
will always fall back into metaphysics and the forgottenness of being.
In fact, we will fall back to this forgottenness whenever we think of man
as one kind of being among other kinds of beings at all, as long as we do not
think of the special and different relationship man has with Being itself.
“Metaphysics does indeed represent beings in their
Being, and so it thinks the Being of beings.
But it does not think the difference of both. Metaphysics does not ask about the truth of Being itself.
Nor does it therefore ask in what way the essence of man belongs to the
truth of Being. Metaphysics has not
only failed up to now to ask this question, the question is inaccessible to
metaphysics as such. Being is still waiting for the time when it will become
thought-provoking to man … Above and beyond everything else, however, it
finally remains to ask whether the essence of man primordially and most
decisively lies in the dimension of animalitas at all.
Are we really on the right track toward the essence of man as long as we
set him off as one living creature among others in contrast to plants, beasts,
and God?” (pp. 226-227).
Heidegger finds that metaphysics always defines man
as the rational animal; in this way “Metaphysics thinks of man on the basis of
animalitas and does not think in the direction of his humanitas.”
The proper dignity of man will be found, instead, only in a new kind of
thinking about man that begins with the idea that we are Da-sein.
As Dasein, it is our special relationship to Being (Sein) that most
essentially defines what we are. For
Heidegger, we are not subjects among objects; we are not existentia before
essentia, or vice-versa. Instead
we are essentially the kind of being that Being itself has a claim upon, the
kind of Being that has a special kind of role to play in the unfolding and
protecting of Being.
Unsurprisingly, Heidegger’s key to a thinking of
man that befits his dignity lies with the possibility of rethinking – or
thinking for the first time – the relationship of man and Being. What is this relationship?
Unlike Sartre, Heidegger does not take existence as the first fact of
man’s being. The idea of
existence, Heidegger thinks, is still part of the metaphysical tradition from
which he is trying to break. Rather
than invert the traditional priority between essence and existence, Heidegger
wants to transcend this distinction by thinking back to its original ground.
To do this, he invents a new term for what man does: he ek-sists.
“Ek-sistence … does not coincide with existentia
in either form or content. In terms
of content ek-sistence means standing out into the truth of Being … As
ek-sisting, man sustains Da-sein in that he takes the Da, the clearing of Being,
into “care.” But Da-sein itself
occurs essentially as “thrown.” It
unfolds essentially in the throw of Being as the fateful sending.” (pp.
230-31). For Heidegger, Ek-sistence means that we are given over to
Being, that we stand “out into” its truth; that we are both inside and
outside Being; that we are essentially fated and delivered over to Being.
In this relationship, our proper role is not to be the creator and
manipulator of beings, but instead to let Being itself – be.
It is in this sense that Heidegger says that “man is the shepherd of
Being.” (p. 234).
In our Da-sein, and as da-sein, our role is to allow the “here,” the
“da” of our da-Sein, to be a place where Being itself can come to be more
fully, to show itself, to become more completely present for us.
Heidegger calls this place “the clearing.” In this clearing alone, Being can show itself.
“Man is rather ‘thrown’ from Being itself into the
truth of Being, so that ek-sisting in this fashion he might guard the truth of
Being, in order that beings might appear in the light of Being as the beings
they are. Man does not decide
whether and how beings appear, whether and how God and the gods or history and
nature come forward into the clearing of Being, come to presence and depart.
The advent of beings lies in the destiny of Being.
But for man it is ever a question of finding what is fitting in his
essence that corresponds to such destiny; for in accord with this destiny man as
ek-sisting has to guard the truth of Being.
Man is the shepherd of Being.” (p.
Developing the idea of “thrownness” already
present in Being and Time, Heidegger resists the metaphysical definition
of humanity because it fails to respect the thought that our essence, what we
are most of all, relates us to something that is not ourselves – namely, to
Being. We experience this
relationship when we experience the claim of Being upon us – in oblivion, when
we allow modern technology to set upon us in its challenging way, and in
clarity, when we allow beings to unveil themselves to us in the light of truth.
As Being unveils, or refuses to unveil, itself in history, we experience
its advent as a destiny. (Recall
the etymological connection between history – das Geschichte – and
“destining” or sending – “schichte”.)
Though we cannot choose whether Being appears or withdraws, Heidegger
suggests, we can and must decide whether we will find ourselves in the right
sort of relationship to Being, whether we will let it reveal itself or, in our
continuing pursuit of beings, further forget and ignore it.
Heidegger’s thinking about the destining of Being,
and our relationship to its unfolding, depends on the new conception of truth
that he has begun to develop since the analysis of Being and Time.
Normally, caught within the metaphysical tradition, we think of truth as
correctness or adequacy. To say
that a sentence is true is to say that it represents something correctly, that
it corresponds to its object. The
possibility of speaking the truth is dependent on the possibility of a subject
to accurately represent how things are with objects.
We picture truth as happening “in our heads,” as being a matter of
whether we experience the world truthfully or falsely.
All of this is, Heidegger thinks, fully determined by the metaphysics of
subjectivity. Instead of thinking
of truth as correct representation, Heidegger will replace the representational
idea of truth with an older idea, the Greek notion of truth as aletheia.
Aletheia can perhaps best be translated as “unveiling” or “unveiledness”;
it expresses the idea of truth as something’s coming to light, appearing as it
is. (Etymologically, aletheia means the undoing of lethe;
lethe was the mythological river of sleep or oblivion, across which the dead
must pass before entering Hades). Heidegger’s
new conception of truth as aletheia intends to replace the representationalist,
objectifying notion of truth as correctness with a picture on which the
relationship of man to Being is revealed, rather than obscured.
When truth “happens,” as aletheia, beings show up, not as
objects of representation, but as the beings they are.
More importantly, perhaps, Being itself shows up, reveals itself,
“happens” or propriates (Ereignet) in the space proper to it, the
space of the clearing which is the place of Being itself.
At the beginning of the week, we discussed
Heidegger’s critique of the existentialism of Sartre, and of the
“humanism” that Sartre draws from Descartes, as being within the
metaphysical tradition with which Heidegger seeks to break.
We’ve begun to work our way into Heidegger’s new way of thinking
about man and Being, through the new language that he invents to talk about the
mutual relationship of the two. Today
we will work more with this new language, attempting to understand what
Heidegger is now saying about Being and its meaning and truth as it emerges for
“Yet Being – what is Being? It is It itself. The
thinking that is to come must learn to experience that and to say it.
“Being” – that is not God and not cosmic ground.
Being is farther than all beings and is yet nearer to man than every
being, be it a rock, a beast, a work of art, a machine, be it angel or God.
Being is the nearest. Yet
the near remains farthest from man. Man
at first clings always and only to beings.
But when thinking represents being as beings it no doubt relates itself
to Being. In truth, however, it
always thinks only of beings as such; precisely not, and never, Being as such
… This means that the truth of Being as the clearing itself remains concealed
for metaphysics. However, this
concealment is not a defect of metaphysics but a treasure withheld from it yet
held before it, the treasure of its own proper wealth.
But the clearing itself is Being.”
With the new thought in place of Being as the
clearing where the propriative event (Ereignis) of beings happens,
it becomes possible to understand the history of metaphysics as the history of
partial and failed attempts to grasp this thought.
In Plato, Being is identified as eidos or idea; what truly is, what
really exists, more so than the particulars that participate in them, are the
ideas with their own special kind of eternal being.
But Heidegger reminds us that eidos originally means “the look,” the
outward appearance of the thing. Plato
transposed the “outward appearance” of a thing – the way it shows up in
the light of truth – to an imagined realm of purity and eternity, making ideas
the perfect or divine examplars of the categories of things.
This location of Being as the realm of eternal ideas also set the stage
for the Christian metaphysics of man and the world as created representatives,
the same metaphysics which Sartre criticizes as the precedence of essence over
Descartes and Cartesian metaphysics then takes the
revolutionary step of making the idea, rather than a “divine exemplar” or a
pattern in God’s mind (as it had been for some of his predecessors), something
that can occur in the mind of a human being, and is the basis for our
understanding and knowledge of the worlds.
After Descartes, ideas become the stuff of a subject’s thinking and
perception; and the truth of a thought is the adequacy or correspondence of an
idea to its object. The thinking,
willing subject – rather than Being’s place of the clearing – now becomes
the central location of the happening of truth.
This conception of the subject, and the conception of freedom that goes
along with it, then becomes developed and eventually absolutized in Kant, Hegel,
Marx and Nietzsche, culminating in Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will to
power. For Heidegger, Nietzsche’s
idea of the totality of the will to power brings to completion the metaphysical
journey of the truth of Being from the time of the original loss of the explicit
question of Being in Plato. Nietzsche’s
“revaluation of all values” sets the priority of the divine over the
earthly, the eternal over the temporal, on its head; but much like Sartre’s
existentialism, still remains within the closed system of metaphysics that it
To begin to move outside this system, we need to
begin to think, Heidegger suggests, of the “simple relationships” among
Being, man, and language. In these
relationships, thought authentically, man “stands out” into the truth of
Being. In ek-sisting, man is
“ecstatic;” he stands outside himself, stretching himself along toward the
future and essentially relating to his own past. “Because man as the one who ek-sists comes to stand in
this relation that Being destines for itself, in that he ecstatically sustains
it, that is, in care takes it upon himself, he at first fails to recognize the
nearest and attaches himself to the next nearest. He even thinks that this is the nearest.
But nearer than the nearest and at the same time for ordinary thinking
farther than the farthest is nearness itself: the truth of Being.”
Heidegger develops this thought by considering the
simplicity of the “it is”; he seeks to return our thinking to the simplicity
of the original thought of Parmenides, who said, at the beginning of thought, “esti
gar einai;” which means, “for there is Being.” We have seen that “the primal mystery of all thinking is
concealed in this phrase.” (p.
238). We have not thought
whether and how Being is, indeed, since the time of the first thought of Being
that Parmenides expresses. Our
ability to think it today will depend on our being able to think of Da-sein as
the special being who dwells between Being and beings, in the space or place of
the Da, the place of the clearing where the light of Being shines and unveils
beings into their truth. How,
though, do we experience this place of our dwelling?
“What throws in projection is not man but Being itself, which sends
man into the ek-sistence of Da-sein that is his essence.
This destiny propriates as the clearing of Being – which it is.
The clearing grants nearness to Being.
In this nearness, in the clearing of the Da, man dwells as the ek-sisting
one without yet being able properly to experience and take over this
dwelling.” (p. 241).
As Da-sein, we dwell in the space between beings and
Being, the space of the clearing. But within the tradition of metaphysics, we dwell here
without properly or completely experiencing such dwelling, without knowing that
we dwell here. Heidegger calls this
dwelling in forgetfulness “homelessness.”
He says that such homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.
In homelessness, not only ourselves, but our essence, is lost to us.
(Heidegger refers, as well, to the older sense of “homelessness” or
alienation described by Marx, in which the worker is said to be alienated from
the means of production and from bourgeois society.
He suggests that Marx’s idea simply reflects a broader phenomenon, one
that occurs already in Hegel: that beings are thought of as a totality of
material for labor, and hence that our distinctive relation to their being, as aletheia
or unveiling, is lost). To
understand the roots of this homelessness, we need to understand metaphysics,
which itself is, Heidegger says, “a distinctive and up to now the only
perceptible phase of the history of Being.”
On the basis of his understanding of human being as
Da-sein, Heidegger now rejects the philosophy and worldview of nationalism;
every nationalism, he says, is simply an expansion and elevation of the modern
metaphysics of subjectivity. For
the nation is precisely a collective of subjects, with the essential goals and
interests of the subject. Next
week, we’ll be in a position to contrast this claim with some of the claims
Heidegger makes for the notion of a people or Volk at an earlier time,
when he thought of nationalism as a potential expression of the historicity of
Being and appears to, for a brief time, have thought of the Nazi party as
potentially achieving a turning point in this history.
“But the essence of man consists in his being more
than merely human, if this is represented as “being a rational creature.”
“More” must not be understood here additively, as if the traditional
definition of man were indeed to remain basic … The ‘more’ means: more
originally and therefore more essentially in terms of his essence.
But here something enigmatic manifests itself: man is in thrownness. This means that man, as the ek-sisting counter-throw of
Being, more than animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less
bound up with man conceived from subjectivity.
Man is not the lord of beings. Man
is the shepherd of Being. Man loses
nothing in this ‘less’; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of
Being. He gains the essential
poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being itself
into the preservation of Being’s truth.”
At the end of the “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger
draws out the consequences of his new way of thinking of man as Da-sein for the
question of values and ethics. We’ll
see that Heidegger apparently rejects any ethics of values; for he wants to
return us to an older sense of “ethics” that is not characterized by the
metaphysical determination of man as the thinking, acting, valuing being.
We will be considering whether Heidegger succeeds in developing anything
that can rightly be called an “ethics,” or whether he is simply, in his
brief remarks, avoiding this task. But
we’ll also begin to see how Heidegger’s defense of a new conception of man
fits within the beginning of his new thinking as well, a thinking which
inherently contains a new way of understanding what thinking itself is.
We have seen that in the "Letter on
Humanism," Heidegger distances himself from both existentialism, as it has
recently been defined, and all the versions of humanism, as they have been
defined so far. Yet he emphasizes
that in recoiling from humanism, he does not endorse "inhumanism" or
inhumanity. He sees the basic
character of his time as one of "wandering" and
"homelessness" - yet he searches ceaselessly for the thinking of Being
that will show man the way to language, the house of Being.
This new thinking of Being, outside the tradition of metaphysics, causes
Heidegger to reject much of what has traditionally been thought under the
headings "ethics," "values," and "logic."
Yet he claims that he is not in favor of unethical thinking or behavior,
or in favor of irrationalism. To
understand this, we need to understand the basis for Heidegger's position in his
new way of thinking of Being.
Let's begin with "logic:"
" 'Logic' understands thinking to be the representation of beings in
their Being, which representation proposes to itself in the generality of the
concept. But how is it with
meditation on Being itself, that is, with the thinking that thinks the truth of
Being? This thinking alone reaches the primordial essence of logos, which was
already obfuscated and lost in Plato and Aristotle, the founder of 'logic.'
To think against 'logic' does not mean to break a lance for the illogical
but simply to trace in thought the logos and its essence, which appeared in the
dawn of thinking, that is, to exert ourselves for the first time in preparing
for such reflection. Of what value
are even far-reaching systems of logic to us if, without really knowing what
they are doing, they recoil before the task of simply inquiring into the essence
of logos? If we wished to bandy
about objections, which is of course fruitless, we could say with more right:
irrationalism, as a denial of ratio, rules unnoticed and uncontested in the
defense of 'logic,' which believes it can eschew meditation on logos and on the
essence of ratio, which has its ground in logos." (p. 251). Heidegger wants to reject logic, thought of as the
determination of the rules for correct or proper thought, because logic, so
conceived, fails to consider and reflect on the original, broader meanings of
its own subject, logos. We have
seen that logos originally had a broader meaning; its meaning was, in fact, so
broad that we need a number of different English terms to cover it. Logos means "the word"; it also means a
"gathering" in which something appears.
If Heidegger rejects "logic" as the determination of rules for
correctness in thought, he does so to allow us to recover the possibility of
reflecting on the original meaning of the logos itself.
This critique of logic helps to show what Heidegger
is critiquing when he seemingly rejects all traditional ethical thought as well.
Does Heidegger have an ethical view?
Perhaps more importantly, do his views on Being, technology, and politics
stand up to ethical scrutiny?
Here, in the space of a few brief pages, Heidegger seems
to reject every traditional concept that characterizes ethical thinking and
behavior. What is going on here? Heidegger
in fact is rejecting every traditional concept of ethics, for he is rejecting
ethics as it has been traditionally, that is metaphysically, understood.
He aims to replace ethics, like "humanism," with his own
thinking of Being. The question of
whether Heidegger's replacement of ethics can itself be considered ethical -
especially in view of the thinker's own life, his engagements with the Nazis and
his subsequent lack of apology for this behavior - is a difficult and engaging
one, calling upon all of our abilities of philosophical understanding and
Perhaps the first thing to understand is exactly what
Heidegger finds objectionable about the traditional - the metaphysical -
conception of ethics. Recall, from
last time, that Heidegger wants to reject, and learn to think beyond, the whole
traditional concept of mankind and human behavior that the metaphysical
tradition expresses. According to
this traditional view, man is the rational animal: the kind of animal that also
has the ability to reason and to will, to determine rationally the best course
of action by thinking and to impose this course upon the world. Accordingly,
rational ethics has developed as the study of what general principles, or rules,
one should follow in order to act correctly or justly or to do the good.
(Even today, if you take a course from this department on ethics, much of
the material will focus on the question of what principles justify rational
action, what the status of these principles are, etc.).
But Heidegger thinks that the pursuit of rules for
rational action cannot be the authentic essence of ethical thought.
One reason for this, expressed also by Sartre and other existentialists,
is that an action derived from fixed, rational rules of good behavior cannot be
genuinely ethical. Such an action,
insofar as I need simply consult fixed rules to choose it, is not genuinely
free; in simply following a fixed rule, I do not experience the difficult burden
of thought and choice that is needed to make a genuinely free, and accordingly
genuinely ethical, decision. Perhaps for this reason, Heidegger had already said
in Being and Time that every authentic
decision must be made in view of the particular situation and context
surrounding it: general rules cannot guide our appropriate action in all cases.
Additionally, in the "Letter on Humanism," Heidegger suggests
that the rule-based approach to ethics is simply a symptom of the technological
attitude that he is so concerned to reject: "The greatest care must be
fostered upon the ethical bond at a time when technological man, delivered over
to mass society, can be kept reliably on call only by gathering and ordering all
his plans and activities in a way that corresponds to technology."
(p. 255). For Heidegger,
the rule-based approach to ethics is just another of the many ways in which we
seek to define and pre-delimit the world in a fixed, absolute way, without
looking at the particularities of individual situations and their kinds of
But Heidegger is obviously against more than just
rules as a basis for behavior; he clearly rejects the idea of a basis of ethics
in "values" as well. Today,
when we constantly here about "values" (family values, core values,
basic values, etc.) in the ethical discourse of the nation, this rejection will
seem particularly mysterious. What
could be wrong with values?
Heidegger says: "...It is important finally
to realize that precisely through the characterization of something as 'a value'
what is so valued is robbed of its worth. That is to say, by the assessment of something as a value
what is valued is admitted only as an object for man's estimation. But what a
thing is in its Being is not exhausted by its being an object, particularly when
objectivity takes the form of value. Every
valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivisizing.
It does not let beings: be. Rather,
valuing lets beings: be valid - solely as the objects of its doing."
To see this, it is helpful to consider the underlying
meaning of the word "value." This
word, importantly, is cognate to "evaluate;" to evaluate is to
determine the value of something. But
how do we evaluate? To evaluate is
to measure, weigh, or compare against a standard.
In so measuring a object, situation, or person, we stand before it and
act upon it; we reduce it to a single aspect - its value.
Heidegger complains that in doing this, we do not allow this object,
situation, or person to be. Rather, in focusing on its value - what it is or
what it means to us - we forget to think about its being.
In this way, beings (including people!) become, once more, mere objects
of our calculating, evaluating decisions.
Moreover, Heidegger thinks that the activity of
evaluating is itself incapable of serving as a basis for ethics, for there is no
hope of establishing universal ethical standards of value against which things,
situations, and persons could be measured. Nietzsche - an important precursor of Heidegger - thought
that the death of God meant the illegitimacy of what was previously the highest
value. As a result, Nietzsche
thought that for a period of several centuries, all values would be in constant
flux and turmoil. For Heidegger,
though, the rejection of all "values" does not mean simply the
inversion of existing values. It
means that God should no longer be thought of inside a system of values at all,
either as the being with the highest value or as any other particular being.
For Heidegger, in fact, thinking about Being is the necessary preparation
for any possible thinking about God.
The transcendence possible for Da-sein is not
transcendence toward any particular being, or toward any level or kind of
reality outside of our own. Here
Heidegger refers to Being and Time's
discussion of being-in-the-world as a basic structure or mode of Da-sein.
The "world" of being-in-the-world, he explains, is not thought
in opposition to "spirit" or to "extraworldly" existence.
"For us 'world' does not at all signify beings or any realm of
beings but the openness of Being. Man
is, and is man, insofar as he is the ek-sisting one.
He stands out into the openness of Being."
(p. 252). For Heidegger,
the transcendence that we can achieve consists precisely in acknowledging and
recognizing what we are. This kind
of transcendence is itself the only possible basis for any further determination
of our relationship to God.
"Only from the truth of Being can the essence of
the holy be thought. Only from the
essence of the holy is the essence of divinity to be thought.
Only in the light of the essence of divinity can it
be thought or said what the word "God" is to signify."
253). Prior to any decision about
our relationship to God, prior to any decision about whether He will depart or
return, we must learn to think of ourselves in the special light of our special
relationship with Being. This
special kind of thinking is not, Heidegger says, a surmounting of metaphysics in
the sense of climbing higher than it or surpassing it, but rather a
"climbing back down" into the "nearness of the nearest."
“Thinking is on the descent to the poverty of its
provisional essence. Thinking
gathers language into simple saying. In
this way language is the language of Being, as clouds are the clouds of the
We saw last time that Heidegger rejects all
traditional ethical thought because he sees it as dominated by the tradition of
metaphysics, and in particular the metaphysics of subjectivity.
In the tradition of metaphysics, rational ethics becomes the systematic
attempt to derive and understand rules or maxims for decision which will ensure
that the rational, thinking subject does the good.
On the basis of his new conception of man as Da-sein, Heidegger wants to
cut clear through this tradition, to return to a much older way of understanding
“ethos.” He quotes the phrase
spoken by Heraclitus: “ethos anthropoi daimon” and translates it as follows:
“Man dwells, insofar as he is man, in the nearness of God.”
This should remind us, Heidegger thinks, of the humbleness of Being, of
its simplicity and everydayness. For
Heidegger, then, “ethics” means simply dwelling in closeness to Being,
recognizing our special privilege as Dasein by recognizing the place – the
place of the clearing – in which we live.
As an “ethics,” this might well be considered
unsatisfying in a number of ways. It
doesn’t obviously give us any guidance as to how to make difficult decisions.
Indeed, to say that ethics means dwelling in the nearness of Being
doesn’t even give us any obvious help in knowing where to look for the good.
Heidegger would have thought that Plato’s idea of the Good is just
another being, thought with the prejudice in favor of the timeless and
unchanging that characterizes metaphysics.
Heidegger often says that even if there are such eternal, timeless ideals
or values, our access to them depends on our kind of being, as the temporal and
historical beings that we are. The
story about Heraclitus is meant to show that as this kind of being, our
“ethics” consists in the simple everydayness of the thought of Being, in our
being related, through this thought, to Being itself. For Heidegger, then, ethics is not the thinking of a subject
about how to act. Indeed, because
of this, Heidegger does not tell us much about how to act.
Though he again and again tells us to resist metaphysics, technology, and
calculational thinking, he very seldom tells us what to do about these things in
any concrete terms.
But at the same time, the story about Heraclitus
shows us something about the relationship between thought and action as well.
Traditionally, we think of action as a two-stage affair: first we
formulate plans in thought, and then we carry them out in the world.
First there is theory, then practice; we even think of theory and
practice as opposed, and worry about solutions that are fine “in theory” but
impossible “in practice.” We
might easily think, therefore, that Heidegger’s thought about Being is simply
theory: in what way, we might be tempted to ask, does it yield concrete results,
measures that we can take or changes we can make to help our society and the
world? Instead of either admitting
to or disputing the objection directly, Heidegger seeks to undercut it by
exploring its ground. For he asks
us to remember that theory – theoria – is itself simply seeing (compare:
theater (where something is seen), thesis (something shown)).
(p. 262). Since the Greeks,
theory has meant the seeing of things. But
in what light are things seen? The
light of Being. So if we undertake
Heidegger’s thinking of Being, we think in a way that is more basic than
theory and more basic than the distinction between theory and practice.
What the fundamental thinker does is already an action, because it takes
up a relationship to Being. What
does thinking do in this action? “[It]
merely brings the unspoken word of Being to language.” (p. 262).
From this point on, Heidegger will be obsessed with the way in which a
new thinking can leave its marks in our language, sowing the seeds of a change
that will bring back the possibility – unglimpsed since the time of the
Pre-Socratics and forgotten in the long heritage of metaphysics – of a
language that will, once more, speak the word of Being.
“The thinking that is to come is no longer
philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics – a name
identical to philosophy. However,
the thinking that is to come can no longer, as Hegel demanded, set aside the
name ‘love of wisdom’ and become wisdom itself in the form of absolute
knowledge. Thinking is on the
descent to the poverty of its provisional essence.
Thinking gathers language into simple saying.
In this way language is the language of Being, as clouds are the clouds
of the sky. With its saying,
thinking lays inconspicuous furrows in language.
They are still more inconspicuous than the furrows that the farmer, slow
of step, draws through the field.” (p.