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Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil
by Rüdiger Safranski
Translated by Ewald Osers
Harvard University Press, 474 pages, $24.50

Martin Heidegger was taken by a single issue in his philosophical thinking, the question of Being. Everything he wrote, even his commentaries on other writers, got pulled explicitly into that one overriding question. In his early work, as expressed in Being and Time , he concentrates on man as the place ( Dasein ) where the question of Being is raised, and in his later work he focuses more directly on Being itself. Heidegger had an extremely powerful grasp of this issue. His formulation of it, in his teaching and writing, made an immense impact on many of the most important twentieth-century European thinkers as well as on the general public. As one student later described a Heidegger lecture: “It was as if a gigantic lightning bolt cut through a sky clothed in darkness . . . . In almost painful brightness the things of the world lay revealed . . . . It was not a matter of a system, but of existence . . . . It had me speechless when I left the [room]. I felt as though for a moment I had gazed at the foundations of the world.”

The force with which this issue gripped him made it hard for Heidegger to distinguish it from other issues. He was formulating his approach to the question of Being at the time when he overtly abandoned his Catholic faith (in 1919, at the age of thirty), and he failed to distinguish between the religious and the philosophical issue of Being. (There is a difference between the two.) Furthermore, he elaborated his thinking at a time of great turmoil in Germany (in the 1920s and early 1930s), and failed to distinguish the political from the philosophical issue of Being. He conflated his philosophy with religion and politics and saw himself not only as a philosopher but also as a prophet and leader, precisely in his character as a philosopher-he felt it a philosopher’s duty to act as a participant in history. This mixture, although typical of modernity, is highly unstable. As is commonly known, he joined the Nazi party and served for almost a year as rector of the University of Freiburg (1933-34), expressing public support for the leadership and policies of Hitler and implementing them in the university. In contrast with most modern philosophers, whose curricula vitae are almost entirely academic, Heidegger’s life entered into the public record and therefore calls for both narrative and reflection.

Much has been written in recent years about his life and its relation to his philosophy. Rüdiger Safranski’s book, which appeared in German in 1994, draws on this work, examines the relevant correspondence and further documentation, and weaves Heidegger’s actions and thought into an excellent moral and intellectual biography. He proceeds chronologically, recounting Heidegger’s background, family, education, and relationship with the Church, including his studies as a seminarian and the very short time he spent as a Jesuit novice. He traces Heidegger’s affiliation with Edmund Husserl, his marginal involvement in World War I, the dramatic impact of his early teaching in Freiburg and Marburg, and his return to Freiburg in 1928 as Husserl’s successor. He describes his friendships, both intellectual and personal, in particular his romantic involvement with Hannah Arendt in Marburg in 1924-25 and their complicated relationship later on. Heidegger’s enthusiastic support of the Nazis is detailed, as is the distance he took from the party in the late 1930s. There follow the war years, the investigation by the denazification committees after the war, the ban on his teaching, his reinstatement (after the verdict in 1949, “Fellow traveler. No punitive measures.”), his personal and philosophical relationships in the 1960s and early 1970s, and his death in 1976.

At each of these stages Safranski presents Heidegger’s thought as it was then developed, and he also surveys other ideas and authors that made up the wider cultural context. He is a very capable commentator on Heidegger’s philosophy, giving, for example, an excellent treatment of the concept of intentionality and a fine description of the manner in which logical propositions or thoughts differ from merely psychological experiences. The one area in which Safranski’s philosophy fails him is in bottom-line metaphysics, where he exhibits a fondness for change and historicity and an obvious dislike of identity and substance.

The narrative part of the book is captivating. Safranski develops, for example, the viewpoints expressed in the correspondence among Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Arendt. The characters of the people involved in Heidegger’s life are insightfully presented, including the important role of his wife Elfride. The book is written sine ira et studio : both the good and the bad aspects of its subject are fairly described, respecting Heidegger’s notorious complexity. The book contains a wealth of information clearly presented, and it should remain for a long time the platform for further inquiry into Heidegger’s life. There are occasional lapses”such as the mixup of dates on the last page, the misnaming of Arendt’s concept of “labor” as “work,” and the confusion of compline with the Mass”but it would be pedantic to dwell on them.

Heidegger addresses the question of Being and also describes the form this question has taken in the Cartesian, technological age we have been living in, an age that regards scientific method as the highest type of truth. He strongly criticizes this technological project, and not just for the specific ways in which it damages social structures and cultural concerns. Technology for Heidegger is not one human enterprise among many, but a comprehensive understanding of ourselves and of Being. It is the form in which Being is disclosed in our time. When we live in technology, everything”the family, neighborhoods, art, religious ritual, communication, education, public life, even biological and intellectual life”becomes packaged and mobilized. The last words Heidegger wrote, in a note to a friend cited by Safranski, ask “whether and how, in the age of a uniform technological world civilization, there can still be such a thing as home.”

As much as he raised questions about modernity, however, he was captured by some of its principles. Like Francis Bacon, Hobbes, and Descartes, Heidegger denies or at least neglects the natures or forms of things. He thinks about Being, and about man in relation to Being, but he does not think about the differentiated natures that have their own ends. He does not think about the teleologies of things, the measures that are given by the way things are when they are at their best. Heidegger calls man “Dasein,” literally “Being there,” calling attention to his relations and his relatedness to things, the world, and Being. But his analysis of man-as-related reduces man to his relations, from the nominative to the dative, saying nothing of human substance or nature.

Because he neglects the form and nature of things, including human things, Heidegger does not have an ethics or a political philosophy, since these are attempts to reflect on the best human life and the best way of seeking it in community. Instead, he describes the highly formal and singular Dasein that finds itself thrown out of nowhere into the thick of things.

Since for Heidegger Being is relational, when Dasein relates to the world, there can be only two outcomes” Dasein controls its relation to or encounter with the world, or the world controls Dasein . This Dasein is called upon (by itself) to be resolute, to initiate projects and activate its purposes, to be a dative for the display of Being, but not to be measured by its own teleology and the ends prescribed by the relationships and actions it enters into. As Safranski puts it, “Everything that obliges one is transformed into something that one has chosen oneself.” In the words of that other great existentialist, the authentic Dasein can say, toward the end of life, “I did it my way.” This self-understanding is hard to distinguish from that which supports the technological world.

Heidegger has a philosophy for the self without a philosophy of the soul; he looks to the person but not the nature. But the person without a nature is unspecified. This predicament, not knowing what I am, may require courage, but the softer virtue of temperance or moderation does not have any place. In this regard, as well as in his emphasis on the singular and the exceptional, Heidegger is Machiavellian and very modern. In his thought the possible overrides the actual, and freedom establishes truth instead of being governed by it. He was also modern, at least in his earlier thought, in thinking that philosophy should become engaged as one of the players in the active life instead of pursuing truth for its own sake and simply on its own terms.

It is interesting that the first virtue that Aristotle discusses in book three of the Nicomachean Ethics is courage, the ability to face painful and frightening things. In its highest form courage enables us to risk death on behalf of our community, our city. Heidegger, in Being and Time , also speaks about facing death, but he describes a solitary and dreadful confrontation that jolts us into the question of Being; it raises the question of the whole only to show that the whole is fractured, that we are finite, throwing us back on ourselves. Where Aristotle speaks about the courage of the citizen, of man as the political animal, Heidegger speaks of the courage to accept our finitude, to take our life in hand, and to philosophize.

Despite these difficulties, Heidegger brings out important dimensions of the question of Being. He talks not only about Being, but also about the question itself and ourselves as the questioners. He shows that no matter what we are occupied with, we are always an issue for ourselves. He thus offers a positive development of the modern turn to the subject, placing the subject in a more appropriate setting than does the epistemological philosophy of Descartes. Heidegger also brings out the inevitable role of hiddenness and absence in the disclosure of Being, a theme he doubtless absorbed from Husserl. Furthermore, he decries the routinized use of language that common discourse falls into, claiming that all nonphilosophical language is fallen discourse, mere chatter. In doing so, however, he misses the distinction between thoughtless language and true opinion; once again, the intermediate stage, in this case true opinion, the proper place of political activity, is not sufficiently acknowledged. The omission overlooks the space for politics and belief, and distorts philosophy itself.

One of Heidegger’s great contributions was to read philosophical texts as a philosopher and not as an academic. As Leo Strauss said of him, “I had never seen before such seriousness, profundity, and concentration in the interpretation of philosophic texts.” He was the equal of the most important texts in Western philosophy, but always made them address the question he was raising. He stimulated a rich revival of classical scholarship in Germany and France.

Heidegger’s work, both his teaching and writing, derives its power not only from its depth of insight but also from its concreteness. That is what gives it its rhetorical force. He does not simply speak about the features of Being or the power of the spirit, but about you yourself here and now using a tool, or discovering emotional resistance to what you wish to do, or being bewildered by a predicament; Safranski quotes Sartre as saying that in this approach we can “philosophize about everything, about this cup, this spoon that I am stirring with, the chair, the waiter taking my order.” Such ordinary situations are plugged into metaphysical truth, which registers immediately and tangibly. Heidegger uses rhetorical and poetic tropes to bring this about”word-plays, reversals, condensation, etymological allusion”and hence his writings lose much of their strength in translation. No matter how good the translator, the work often becomes watery and stilted. Gestell , for example, goes limp as “frame” or “enframing.” The verbal overtones of the original language are essential if one is to capture the full force of what is being said. Heidegger’s work, more than that, say, of Kant or Husserl, needs not so much to be translated as rewritten in the target language.

Over time new perspectives on Heidegger’s thought emerge, allowing us to determine more precisely its originality, its dependence, its validity, and its weaknesses. Is Husserl, for example, a peak towering behind him or only a foothill? How can Christianity define itself against his quasi-pagan religiousness? (For Heidegger, “The Good is only the Good of the Evil,” but it is central to Christian faith that God does not need evil to be God.) Heidegger’s work will not go away; it is high-voltage thinking and it expresses things that had not been stated before. In political matters, he may have been the philosopher of the village and not the city, but his very mistakes shed light on the modern project. As the technology of the West, now reinforced by electronics, threatens to eradicate religion, custom, and locality, Heidegger’s thoughts on the issue of Being and the ways it can be forgotten deserve our reflection. This book is a helpful and informative introduction to that end.

Robert Sokolowski is Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. His books include The God of Faith and Reason and Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure. His Introduction to Phenomenology will be published by Cambridge University Press.