Notes on Heidegger et al.


After reading Heidegger and commentaries on him, I can see the extent to which he influenced a whole variety of thinkers: not only the existentialists, phenomenologists, and poststructuralists but even theologians like Paul Tillich and eccentrics like Martin Buber. All the talk about “being” and “presence” and “anxiety,” and much more, largely comes from Heidegger (and, through him, from Husserl and a few other phenomenologists). On the other hand, that doesn’t mean he was wholly original. Far from it. He belonged to a large group of thinkers who were reacting against the Cartesian tradition, including Marx, William James, John Dewey—Heidegger took a lot from pragmatism—Nietzsche, even Hegel in some ways, Wittgenstein, and thinkers in other disciplines, e.g., psychoanalysis and anthropology. The humanities were inexorably heading away from Cartesianism, away from dualism and the self’s “absolute freedom” (the chasm between mind and matter), emphasizing humans’ social and natural embeddedness. At the same time, unsurprisingly, the individualistic perspective showed up in new ways, “spiritual” and “existential” ways, as social atomization intensified in the twentieth century. (And in analytic philosophy, Cartesian-Lockean ideas inspired Bertrand Russell, the logical empiricists, etc.) What resulted was a schizophrenic intellectual culture.


There is validity in all these approaches, from Descartes to his later antipodes. Cartesianism has a lot of truth; so does the nearly opposite tradition of the twentieth-century Continentals. It’s all a matter of emphasis. You can emphasize our embeddedness (Heidegger) or you can emphasize our freedom (Descartes and Sartre[1]). You can emphasize the division between the mind and the body or you can emphasize their connection. Human experience is full of ambiguity.


For instance, even Merleau-Ponty, who strongly opposed Cartesianism, observes that “How significance and intentionality could come to dwell in molecular edifices or masses of cells is something which can never be made comprehensible, and here Cartesianism is right.” So he does accept a sort of mind-body dualism after all.


In fact, there is surely no division in the world “as it is in itself” between mind and matter; there is only a division, necessarily, for us, for consciousness. The dualism is epistemological, not ontological. It’s a reflection of our lack of understanding, the insufficiency of our cognitive capacities—for the mental is simply the activity, considered from the “holistic” viewpoint, of a certain kind of matter.




Marx contra Heidegger.— There are a number of ironic similarities between Heidegger’s thought and Marx’s. For instance, the partial rejection of the entire philosophical tradition. The criticism of theoria, the “artificial” and derivative theoretical stance, in favor of praxis, or being-in-the-world. Man is essentially involved; his habits of thought and so on grow out of his situation. The rejection of “metaphysics” (though for different reasons). The emphasis on alienation and inauthenticity, concepts that are related. The holistic approach to their subject-matter. The historicism and quasi-social constructivism. The existentialist view of human nature: man’s essence is his existence, he is his acts. The rejection of the language of consciousness in favor of that of “[social] being.” The distinction between appearance and that which lies underneath, is “hidden” or “covered up.” (Marx called it essence, a word Heidegger rejected.) The use of phenomenological analysis to uncover this hidden truth—a use that is, admittedly, only partial in Marx’s case. (Das Kapital has more than a few “phenomenological” chapters, but its basic method is that of abstraction from appearance.) The conviction that Descartes was wrong: consciousness is not self-transparent but rather has its meaning and ground hidden from it.[2] But the differences between the two thinkers are just as striking, and are mostly to Marx’s credit. Ultimately, Marx not only had a far greater understanding of himself—his project[3]—and society, but was more theoretically revolutionary. More innovative certainly, infinitely more lucid in his thought and writing, more insightful, realistic, more ambitious and original. (Marx was influenced by Hegel and Heidegger by Husserl, but one gets the impression that Marx set out on his own to a greater extent than Heidegger did.[4])


Marx’s superiority over Heidegger is revealed in the fact that the latter couldn’t escape the paradigm of idealism. He insisted on man’s being-in-the-world, on social practice, on our embeddedness in history and so forth, but he still failed to understand that material, historical conditions determine worldviews and social behavior. He reduced everything to metaphysics and idealism. For example, in his early work he thought that the reason why we moderns are so enamored of technology, science, and instrumental reason is that we can’t endure the experience of anxiety, of understanding our own nothingness! Sheer psychologism, flagrantly ahistorical. Later he got even worse: he thought that the pathologies of modernity result from the self-concealment of being! Ever since Plato, “being as such had increasingly withdrawn itself from human view.” (What does that even mean?) The reason he initially loved the Nazis is that he thought they would bring humanity closer to being and nothingness, to authenticity. (And anxiety? They accomplished that, at least.)


“The issue,” Heidegger writes, “is the saving of man’s essential nature. Therefore, the issue is keeping meditative thinking alive.” –Ha! There, he said it. Man’s essence is meditative thinking. How surprising that a philosopher considers philosophy to be man’s essence. Marx had advanced beyond this position.




Existentialism’s “embeddedness.”— In their fetish of radical (“terrible”) freedom and the essential meaninglessness of life, some of the French existentialists strayed pretty far from Heidegger. It’s practically the opposite of his emphasis on our embeddedness. But that’s the difference between old Germany and France: cultural embeddedness, national and racial pride, rootedness, fascism, as opposed to France’s atomism, individualism, liberalism, its revolt against the past (from the French Revolution onwards). Philosophy sublimates social conditions, as Marx understood.




[1] Sartre’s system, however, is confused. It contains logical tensions or contradictions, such as the tension between a public and a private approach to the self.


[2] Needless to say, Marx and Heidegger interpreted all these doctrines in very different ways.


[3] The very questions that Heidegger spent his life trying unsuccessfully to answer, namely “What is the meaning of being?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, etc., are well-nigh meaningless.


[4] Indeed, Heidegger claimed that Being and Time adhered to the “principle of phenomenology”—i.e., Husserl’s method—more faithfully than Husserl himself did. And Heidegger’s account of time borrows a lot from Husserl’s. In any case, Husserl himself attempted a “phenomenological ontology,” a clarification of the being of entities in general, before Heidegger did.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright