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University of Edinburgh
This paper examines three approaches to the concept of death: an existential approach by Heidegger, a pragmatic evaluation by Nagel, and an experiential account by Philip Gould (who was not a professional philosopher but who wrote a detailed description of the time before his death). I compare and contrast these different approaches and use Gould’s account as a ‘real-life check’ on the two philosophical analyses.
Heidegger’s evaluation of death comes from his main work, Being and Time (Division II, Chapter 1, §46-53).
People in general—Heidegger calls them ‘The They’—do not want to talk about death. It is the last obscenity. Death ‘cannot be outstripped’ and is beyond the scope of experience or phenomenological investigation. What can be experienced is being-alongside-death (i.e. other people’s death) and the ‘respectful solicitude’ of the dying, which is the mode of behaviour called for on such occasions. More usefully, we can experience our own being-towards-death. This is not just in the last years of life: from our birth, our being is directed towards death; but the process of it is not, for example, like the ripening of fruit. A person may die with unfulfilled potential of all sorts, in both their own view and in the view of others. When Heidegger seeks to investigate death, he concludes that only investigations of our being-towards-death is possible.
At this point in Being and Time, Heidegger is starting to examine how one grasps one’s human nature as a whole. He wants to know if death can in some way permit us to view our existence in its totality. Studies of one person dying by another living person are of limited use here. We are addressing the subjective experience, so we must look at our own being-towards-death. We can see death as certain at some time, and always possible at any time. We live in the face of the end; death is part of our being. Rather than treating it as an event to be ignored, Heidegger says that a more thoughtful, honest and logical approach (he calls it ‘authentic’) would be for a human being to use death as a means of concentrating on his own existence. Death puts our existence into perspective.
We need to look at Heidegger’s argument in more detail:
He looks at our finitude, or the way in which we see ourselves as having boundaries to our experiences. Death, like birth, sets a boundary on our lives, and this setting is a major factor by which death affects our attitude to life. We know that the holiday will come to an end but we do not know when; only that it can happen at any time. We therefore feel finite, limited in what we can do or will get done before we die. Whatever we think will happen to us in the future, death is the only thing that is certain. In Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, when Ivan realises he is mortally ill, he becomes obsessed with the way he has lived his life, and what he can do to make amends for what he sees as his mistakes. Ivan leaves this reckoning until the very end of his lifetime. But Heidegger asks for a much earlier ‘anticipation of death,’ a realistic inclusion of the death-factor in our projects and the way we evaluate them. We must be aware of the boundaries of our existence. Then, at the hypothetical point of death, we will have known of death’s possibility all our lives. It will have affected our projects and what we have done throughout our lives. Indeed, all of the time, in the present, we are aware of death’s possibility. We can try to forget it; we succeed most of the time; but overall, Heidegger sees death as an ‘integrating factor’ in what he terms an ‘authentic existence.’
Heidegger is not gloomy about death: it is only in relation to being-towards-death that one becomes passionately aware of one’s freedom.
Thomas Nagel’s analysis forms Chapter 1 of his book Mortal Questions.
Nagel takes a view of death somewhat different to that of Heidegger. He is concerned with axiology, that is, the evaluation of death. Essentially, he is asking whether or not death is a ‘bad thing.’ He believes that the valuation of death as bad comes about only because of that which death deprives us. More life, says Nagel, like most goods, is better than less. But it is the loss of life rather than the state of being dead that is objectionable. Being dead is no worse than suspended animation, or that period of time before we were born. So why do we regard the state of death as objectionable? We cannot mind what is going on in the situation; we can suffer no misfortunes when dead; and there is a symmetry between posthumous and pre-natal non-existence.
Time is a factor in all questions regarding death. Here Nagel and Heidegger are on common ground: good or ill fortune is associated with our history and possibilities rather than the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the moment. According to Nagel, if we lose our minds (but do not die) we lose our sense of history and possibility; we enter a state of reverse childhood. Is such a state to be pitied? It may not be. It is may be loved ones and carers who are the main sufferers. Hopes and possibilities are as important as pain and suffering. We do not wish to lose the former time-acquired attributes any more than we want to suffer in the moment. But if we are in a state in which we can appreciate neither, then it is of no consequence. An embryo, an unborn child, a dead person: all are in such a state.
We nonetheless cling to life and the prospect of advantages and enjoyment to come. These anticipations carry a heavy weight in our evaluations. We may endure great suffering but not want to end our lives because of these possibilities. It takes great age—when hopes and possibilities may be almost non-existent—or great suffering to make us wish for death, or in extremes to commit suicide. In that sense death is a ‘bad thing,’ even though, as argued above, so far as our awareness is concerned its status is identical with the period before we were born.
Towards the end of this chapter Nagel makes the following (somewhat cryptic) observation: ‘[…] death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of infinitely extensible goods. Normality has nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer […] If there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.’
An Interim Assessment of Heidegger and Nagel’s Approaches
Heidegger and Nagel seem both to agree that the problem of philosophical investigation into death stems from death’s having no empirical reports. It is simply the end of life: we shall know nothing of death, especially when we are dead.
What we do know of death is that it is inevitable. We approach death via life. Sometimes, such as in the event of terminal illness, we have an idea of when it is likely to come; at others, such as in sudden accidents, we do not. Normally, given good health and no fatal accidents, we might now expect to live for eighty to 100 years in the West. We can only contemplate death from the standpoint of being alive, approaching its possibility, and what we can glean from observing the lives and deaths of others.
Both Heidegger and Nagel assume the finality of death—with no afterlife—and that the only possibility for investigation is to approach death from the standpoint of life. Heidegger sees death as the culmination of the process by which we live our lives, particularly our attitude to our own finitude. His chief concern is death in relation to time on the adoption of what he calls an authentic view of life, particularly how we go about our various projects in the light of death’s aforementioned inevitability.
Nagel’s approach is axiological. Does death have a value? It is ‘evil,’ according to him: it ends our aspirations. Unlike Heidegger, he seems to see death as only a ‘bad thing,’ not as an ultimate destination by which we steer a course through life.
So Heidegger wants us to live and approach death authentically; Nagel sees it that as ending our aspirations. They both agree on the importance of time; but their accounts of how we view the approach of death through time are at variance. Heidegger sees death as a marker in our approach to our own finitude and how we live our life in light of that; Nagel refers rather to our valuation of our hopes and potential, and what we lose when we die.
The Experiential Approach: Philip Gould
Philip Gould, a.k.a Lord Gould of Brookwood, was not a philosopher. His career was spent as a political analyst, and he was instrumental in the conduct of focus-group research for the Labour party, which contributed substantially to Tony Blair’s landslide win in the UK 1997 General Election.
In January 2008 a diagnosis revealed that Gould was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. By 2011 it was clear that surgery and other treatments had failed, and that Gould was, as he said, entering the ‘death zone.’ He was quoted thus:
‘This time it was clear…I was in a different place, a death zone, where there was such an intensity, such a power. And apparently this is normal. And so, even though obviously I’d…rather not be in this position, it is the most extraordinary time of my life, certainly the most important time of my life’ (Independent, 19 Sept 2011).
He proceeded to turn this late period of being-towards-death into a project by writing about his situation. His memoirs were published in 2012 in a book entitled When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone.
One of the things that happened to him in the earlier stages of his cancer was his beginning to take more interest in religion and philosophy. In 2010, after initial treatment, it was found that his cancer had returned. He recalls a conversation with Tony Blair in which the former Prime Minister inspired him with the words, ‘You have to use this recurrence to find out your real purpose in life.’ Gould took his advice: in those early stages of his cancer he quite naturally wanted to cling to life; but eventually it was clear that his sickness was terminal and at that point he observed that ‘in truth, having an idea of the likely timescale of your life is a privilege not available to many.’ He also reported feeling confused, however; the need for a purpose, the feeling of a new reality together with a loss of influence on events, but still the determination to continue treatment with no thoughts of suicide. This mood develops. Later, he observes that death is regarded as ‘decline, of growing irrelevance, ending of growth, cessation of contribution. But for the dying it is a time of assessment, a pre-death moment of judgement.’ He speaks to David Sturgeon, a consultant psychiatrist, who told him that for a good death there is a need for acceptance of death and to see the dying process as the most important time of one’s life. Gould speaks of ‘reckoning’: he talks at length and in detail to his wife, children and sister. He makes sure of his family’s security after his death. He speculates on the different attitudes available to someone faced with imminent death. Both acceptance or denial are natural reactions. Gould opts for acceptance. As time goes on and the point of death nears he says he has found a courage that he did not know he had. He comments that the possibility of human error causing his death (bad decisions about his surgery, for example) have to be lived with in the run-up to death. Eventually he enters a period of ecstasy, and intense enjoyment of life, the arts, and what he comes across in everyday life. He has closer relations with his loved ones, and an intensity of feeling that he did not have in his earlier life. He observes that life is about change, becoming a different person. Life is your actions, what you do, and that is all it consists of. Towards the end, he also speaks of losing a sense of a linear time.
At the end of the book, after his death, comments were added by his daughters and his wife. His daughter Georgia in particular comments on his singular drive and purpose, and his desire to give meaning to the experience of dying.
Philip Gould’s candid observations and reportage give us an experiential check on the speculations of Heidegger and Nagel: in many ways his is a richer account of the relevance of death to life.
Nonetheless, we need to be aware of category confusion. Gould is reporting on the last stages of his life, and how in his particular case he reacted to it. Heidegger and Nagel are writing of the ordinary everyday view of death. Our attitude to death at the age of, say, fifty—when we feel unlikely to die before we are eighty—may not seem to have much in common with Gould’s sense of imminent demise. But it could be that Gould feels more intensely the kind of emotions associated with such an event and engages in a logic we cannot grasp when we are far from death.
This is not to say that Gould’s experiences are necessarily typical of every human being; they are subjective reportage, though honest and candid. As he himself says, he eventually accepted death. Others may not. Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, mentioned above, tells of a man who takes an attitude to death very different from Gould’s. He bewails his shortcomings, he panics, screaming and crying for several days in the face of death until that very last minute. Death for Ivan Ilych is nonetheless a reckoning, as it was for Philip Gould, but their reactions to that reckoning are dissimilar.
With those two caveats, what useful conclusions can be drawn from this collection of speculation and evidence?
Heidegger’s advice to live authentically—that is, thoughtfully and with the finitude of life—is surely a good place to start. Here, death at the very least gives life the concept timescale. Attitudes to death will vary the closer we are to it, but our attitude to life would be much different if we lived much longer or much shorter. If for example our expected lifespan were fifty years, we would arrange our activities, hopes and aspirations, and our life in general would be arranged differently compared to a situation in which our expected span was 150 years.
Nagel may be correct in his view that death is objectionable because it takes away our hopes and aspirations. On the one hand, as Jacoby Carter points out, these aspirations and hopes have no present ontological value. That is, they are not real in the present. We only imagine that we have the advantages to come: they have not yet happened. Notwithstanding, we place a great deal of weight on these hopes. We are unwilling to give them up, even in the face of great adversity. But in some lives there may come a time—particularly in old age, or in cases of terminal illness (with an individual less driven than Philip Gould)—where a quick and painless ending of life seems a better option.
It could be argued that Gould is an exemplar for Heidegger. This is an idea that is not capable of too much extension, but there is some evidence from his account that Gould has led an authentic life in Heidegger’s meaning of the term. The philosopher’s concept of life and death being one process by which death focuses us on the authenticity of life and the way it is lived is the point of most importance in all this. Gould illustrates this magnificently. Consider some of his observations as a guide to authentic living in the Heideggerian sense, even when we are far from death: we need to think of our finitude; we have projects and plan with this in mind; we need to find a purpose in life; we need to realise that as death (or advancing age) approaches, our relevance, our need to grow, and our contributions need not necessarily diminish; to realise, as Gould says, ‘dying is a time of assessment, pre-death a moment of judgment,’ and that death must be accepted, and not regarded as an obscenity not to be talked about.
As regards Nagel, because his approach is so much confined to evaluating death, the only common ground he seems to have with Heidegger is the notion that time is important in how we value life. Time, he argues, allows us to build up aspirations, which we are unwilling to give up, and which make us want to cling to life. But it could be argued that Gould also reached a conclusion which supports Nagel’s thesis: Gould, because of the person he had become, was keen to cling on to life, had hopes and aspirations, and was motivated to the very end. Heidegger and Nagel, while not mutually supporting, offer views that are not contradictory and which together can extend our philosophical view of death.
While death ends our aspirations, the run up to death—even from far out—is an important time for assessment. Death has an influence on the way we live our life far beyond being the mere ending of it.
- Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), published by Blackwell, 1962.
- The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louse and Aylmer Maude), http://www.tc.umn.edu/~awalzer/3302/readings/tolstoy_death.pdf.
- Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel, published by Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould, published by Abacus, 2012.
- The comment by Jacoby Carter is from his paper On the Value of Death https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/tag/nagel/.
University of Toronto
In this paper I would like to answer four questions:
- How (and more importantly where) does politics arise in Being and Time?
- How can we trace the roots of Heidegger’s Nazism, from the author of Being and Time to his ‘Nazi’ works of the 1930s?
- How does the concept of the Event, considered to be the central concept of Heidegger’s later philosophy, relate to questions (1) and (2)?
- To what extent is Heidegger’s philosophy tied to 1930s Fascism?
How is Heidegger a Political Thinker?
One of the things about Heidegger’s thought that has been the source of extensive critical comment is its (supposed) lack of an ethical/political core. Many of his ‘Children’  have made just such a claim, ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre , who claimed to provide an existential basis for political engagement; Emmanuel Levinas , who argued that Heidegger could not (in any real sense) have had an ethics, as an ethical orientation was necessarily prior to Heideggerian phenomenology into the ‘political’; and even Michel Foucault , whose implicit Heideggerianism led to A reimagining of Heideggerian Being-in-the-world in terms of phenomenology of power and discourse. All of these thinkers considered themselves (explicitly and implicitly) to be providing an ethics Heidegger himself failed to propound.
Notably, for many in this camp, the philosophical source of Heidegger’s Nazism is not his explicitly avowed commitments to Hitler and Mussolini , nor the connections he draws between their Fascist movements and his own philosophical opposition to Western metaphysics, but the lack of explicit political philosophy (in the fullest sense of the term). This gap was filled by Nazism, something Heidegger got ‘carried away with’ because of his own social and historical context, and which can be distinguished from his fundamental ontology .
While I disagree with the view adumbrated above, any reasonable reader of Heidegger must acknowledge that, at the very least, it is not prima facie clear that there is a necessary connection between (i) the desire to renew the question of the meaning of Being through existential phenomenology and (ii) a concrete programme for political action (never mind Fascism). Those of us raised in the analytic tradition tend to see metaphysics and politics as two distinct enterprises , where the latter is concerned with what ought to be the case and the former with what is the case.
Now, it is obviously true that a complete description of the world must do justice to both the political and the ethical, but it certainly does not seem that the normative is a distinct realm from the natural such that they cannot be accounted for in the same way. Any project which attempts to unite them has to do some argumentative heavy-lifting in order to demonstrate how one might flow from the other (or at least that they have a common root).
In order to demonstrate the heavy-lifting Heidegger undertakes in Being and Time (his first major work ), we must begin from the author’s own starting-point and reconstruct a politics from there. He opens the work with the claim that, ‘Our aim, in this treatise, is to work out the question of the meaning of Being and to do so concretely’ (§1). The starting-point that we are looking for is thus this very question.
Why is Heidegger interested in this? He thinks the tradition of Western metaphysics suffers from Seinsvergessenheit, the forgetting of Being. This is not to say it has not claimed to undertake an ontology, for most metaphysicians before Heidegger would have claimed to be doing just that: even since Plato, the West has desired to seek the Being of Beings: it has investigated ordinary objects in attempt to discover what grounds them. Thus, one goes from the least fundamental (the ordinary objects we encounter in our everyday lives) to the most fundamental (Epicurean atoms, Cartesian substance, Plato’s forms, and so on). Heidegger sees this enterprise as fundamentally flawed, and the way to understand this claim is to read it as a criticism of an assumption at the level of metaontology, in that the problem is not the failure to possess an understanding of the meaning of Being , but that the employed understanding of Being is not fit for purpose.
This ‘restrictive understanding’ is, at bottom, the claim that to be is to be an object, or, to use Heidegger’s terminology, an entity which is present-at-hand. Secondly, this restrictive understanding of Being leads to an inability to understand the distinctive structure of human subjectivity, except as a kind of object. So human beings are thus understood as zoon politikon in Aristotle’s politics, or res cogitans, a Cartesian thinking thing.
The restrictive conception of mind leads to what Heidegger terms ‘homelessness’ in the modern age. Activities that are distinctively human—e.g. aesthetics, ethics, human sciences—have only questionable validity relative to the sciences which investigate the world of entities, i.e. the natural sciences. Furthermore, the disembodied view of human subjectivity presented above leads to ‘homelessness’ in a deeper, metaphysical sense: one where the mind can only really be said to be part of the world if (i) it exists in a realm which is ontologically distinct (as per Cartesian dualism) or (ii) the world is the mere projection of the mind (as per Berkeleyian idealism). Due to these failures of traditional metaphysical thinking, Heidegger wants to reframe the question such that the metaphysical split between subject and object, or between mind and world, can be healed. We have to reformulate the question of the meaning of Being so that the problems of its metaphysical conception do not arise again. Heidegger thinks that this method of existential phenomenology will allow us to tackle the question of Being in a better way.
In order to ask the question of Being’s meaning correctly, we must inspect our experience without the fetters placed on us by Western metaphysics. This inspection is thus a phenomenological one in that it aims to gain a systematic (logos) understanding of the way the world is disclosed to us (the way that it appears, i.e. phenomenally) (§35). Phenomenology presupposes some notion of subjectivity as a being to whom Being is disclosed. Heidegger calls this being Dasein. Dasein, or being-there, must be the cornerstone for any investigation into the meaning of Being, as it is the only being for whom the question of the Being of beings is at issue. Indeed, as Heidegger will later demonstrate, Dasein’s understanding of the nature of Being is constitutive of being-there. It is thus a being which is intimately connecting to Being, in a way that a rock, for example, is not. Hence, ‘The investigation into the question of Being must be understood as an existential analytic of Dasein’ (§41).
Heidegger wants to stress in his re-investigation of the meaning of Being that Dasein’s Being has three characteristics, necessarily: being-in-the-world, being-in and being-with. Its necessary being-in-the-world reflects Heidegger’s claim that the primary relation between human beings and the world is not a cognitive one. Unlike the Western tradition—which sees the world as primarily composed of entities which are present-at-hand and whose nature is to be accessed by detached reflection—Heidegger thinks the world we are embedded in is a ‘totality of significances and references,’ the nature of which is structured by our interests and projects. We are already in the world, where the world is a context for practical action (or, as he puts it, a ‘site for the projection of possibilities’ (§149)). Heidegger calls the Being of Beings in this world of practical action ‘ready-to-hand’ Being. Secondly, he thinks Being is necessarily disclosed to Dasein in a context of mood (Bestimmung) (§134). Moods are not simply inward subjective drives, but act as ‘turning forks,’ illuminating the world as a context for practical action. In other words, the ready-to-hand world is ‘lit up’ by moods, which ensure that certain parts of the world are more salient than others. Heidegger also says the Being of Dasein is care, where care is a kind of primordial orientation to the world as world, a primitive desire to make sense of it, in the broadest sense of the term (§131).
Thirdly, Dasein’s Being is also Being-with (§114-5): its actions necessarily take place with respect to a social understanding of Being’s meaning. Here ‘the they,’ Heidegger’s term for a community, provide a certain basic understanding of what it is to be a human being, and an accompanying prescribed set of skills and practices which help orient members of that community. This is made explicit in phenomenological interrogation, where the conventions and rules we follow to survive are revealed as ‘just what one does.’ It is important to note that at this point Heidegger does not normatively judge as to the authenticity or inauthenticity of what he calls ‘Mitsein’; rather he claims that a socially mediated understanding of Being’s meaning is a necessary prerequisite of Dasein being what it is.
The above is a basic account of Division I of Being and Time, which articulates the Being of Dasein in spatial terms. The author sees the disclosure of the meaning of Being as necessarily temporal, however, and must thus give an account of this in Division II (§233-4). This lack of emphasis in temporality in Division I seems also to coincide with the lack of any normative framework, at least so far; this is not merely a coincidence, since many aspects of ‘the political’ are necessarily temporally structured, ranging from concerns about the durability of a political order to the possibility of a revolution. Division II does a lot more to sketch out Heidegger’s account of temporality. The first thing to note is that the distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand is prerequisite for understanding Heidegger’s revised account of time. The way we traditionally think about time is as a linear, measurable, discrete set of temporal points; Heidegger wants to get us to think of time in phenomenological terms, however—in terms of our more immediate experience of time. This reconception can be understood with reference to three key Heideggerian concepts: thrownness, authenticity, and temporality.
I will begin with thrownness because it is most easily rendered intelligible given the extent of the discussion of Division I above. Thrownness, for Heidegger, is part of Dasein’s facticity: he speaks of ‘factically thrown Dasein’ (§135). Facticity and thrownness are both initially connected to Heidegger’s discussion of Das Man (or ‘the they’), where he claims that Dasein’s facticity is constituted by its absorption into certain conventions and traditions (which he describedsas ‘fallenness’ (§176)). Thrownness, meanwhile, has a more existential interpretation, where one recognizes one’s Being-in-the-world as radically contingent.
I am thrown into a world in which I am forced into my facticity, which is best understood not simply as the brute fact of my social embeddedness, but in terms of the ‘limits’ placed on me by my biology. However, one’s thrownness into one’s own facticity is not simply a natural condition which one has to resign oneself to: Heidegger speaks of ‘thrown projection’ (§145), where one’s capacity for free action, to break from the conventions and idle talk of Das Man is emphasized. His talk of Dasein’s ‘potentiality’ reflects this (almost Sartrean, but crucially not quite) emphasis on Dasein’s ontological freedom.
This freedom talk, and the talk about the need to break from Das Man suggests we have already made the break from fundamental ontology to normative valuation (insofar as the two are even separate). In order to flesh this out it is necessary to discuss Heidegger’s central normative concept, authenticity. He thinks that it has to do with ‘being able to understand one’s own and uttermost potentiality-for-Being’ (§..) What one is being authentic to, when one is being authentic in the Heideggerian sense, is Dasein’s ability to project itself beyond itself (be-ahead-of-itself in the world), to undertake projects which create new possibilities.
Authenticity is intimately connected to Heidegger’s notion of Being-toward-Death, too. As Heidegger puts it, ‘Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be actualized, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could be […] Being-toward-Death, as anticipation of possibility, is what first makes this possibility possible, and sets the basis for this possibility’ (§250-251). The way one reaches this state of existential Being-toward-Death is for Dasein to anticipatorily and resolutely confront the possibility of its non-Being, thus reaffirming its freedom ‘a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the they, and which is factical, certain of itself and anxious’ (§266).
Authentic existence is this existence in the full recognition of the possibility of non-existence, and is thus existence that is anxious. This anxiety is not negative, however. It is an anxiety which reveals a human being in full possession of his own finitude, and a recognition of his own freedom given this full possession. Another dimension of authenticity is a recognition of the nullity at the heart of thrown projection. As a human being undertaking projects, all of which are different from one other, one has to commit to certain projects and possibilities, and to let some others fall away into nothingness. The nothingness that is truly threatening is the nothingness which results from the inability to realize the myriad possibilities which are thrown away in the course of authentic action. In recognition of this fact, authentic Dasein must own its choices, and to own up completely to the fact that it has picked a certain path and certain other paths have fallen away. This is still a very formal account of authenticity, however, and one that will hopefully be clarified through the discussion of temporality below.
Inauthentic Dasein is the antithesis of the virtues relevant to authentic Dasein which Heidegger lays out. It flees from death, shocked by the freedom of Dasein to project its own possibilities into the future; it retreats into the ‘idle talk’ (§ 167-168) of the ‘they,’ which prevents it from thinking about this freedom (§167-8). It also abrogates any responsibility for its choices by claiming to be following the instructions laid down to it by some social authority.
I will end with temporality because it is most easily connected to where we left off in Division I. Heidegger begins his discussion of the existential-temporal analytic of Dasein with the following quotation:
Temporality has manifested itself as the basis of the meaning of Being as care. So that which our preparatory existential analytic of Dasein contributed before temporality was laid bare, now has been taken back into temporality as the Primordial structure of Dasein’s totality of Being (§436).
In other words, time, which was overlooked above, is now revealed to be a fundamental structure underlying the ‘meaningful, ready-to-hand’ world discussed above. How so? Recall the discussion of Dasein’s Being as care. This primordial orientation, a desire to make sense of the world and be connected to it in some way, is necessarily temporally structured. We care about the world because we want to make sense of it before we die . Time acts as a ‘horizon’ for the meaningful disclosure of Being; as Heidegger puts it, ‘The existential and temporal condition of the possibility of the world lies in the fact that temporality, as an ecstatic unity, has something like a horizon’ (§365).
Authenticity is also understood, for Heidegger, in terms of temporality—for it is done so in terms of Dasein’s ability to project itself into the future through the pursuit of projects. Time is understood, for authentic Dasein, not in terms of a linear sequence, but in those of a unity between past, present and future drawn together by Dasein’s projection of possibilities. It follows that inauthentic Being has a repetitive and ‘monotonous’ character, characterized not by its own projects, but through the blind repetition of social conventions. Its temporality is the linear time of the present-at-hand, where the even and homogenous character of temporality signifies the repetition and dull homogeneity at the core of inauthentic Dasein.
So far, what we have is the beginnings of a political philosophy. It does not yet have the reactionary character some would attribute to Heidegger. Indeed, its emphasis on freedom, the contingency of human existence, the ability of Being to reinvent itself through its projects, and the need to reject the stifling impacts of conformity bear a lot of resemblance to certain modern conceptions of the self. It can very easily be read as a critique of modernity from a modern standpoint.
It might be argued that Heidegger’s critique of ‘the they,’ and ‘publicness,’ with the ‘idle talk’ that characterizes it, is a critique of the polis or the ‘public sphere’ in liberal-democratic societies. This certainly appears to be the case, as he would disapprove of the ‘rational animal’ conception of human beings which underlies a lot of these concepts. It is not clear at this point that this should be read as a critique of deliberation as such or of liberalism as such, however. Heidegger’s problem with ‘the they’ is not uniquely a problem with ‘the political sphere,’ but one with any social structure that prevents the potentiality-for-Being essential to Dasein through the imposition of strict rules.
It might also be argued that Heidegger is opposing a certain kind of liberal universalism, with all his talk of ‘horizons’ and the importance of retreating from universal abstractions—such as those implicit in the Cartesian conception of the world—to particular meaningful activities. A retreat from liberal universalism can in turn be read as a carte blanche for any kind of oppression of people who are outside your immediate sphere of practical, meaningful action. Any appeal to ‘human rights’ can be criticized as merely present-at-hand (insofar as the concept of ‘the rational human subject’ which underpin human rights was founded in a metaphysics of entities which Heidegger calls ‘present-at-hand’), while the oppressive activities of one’s own community can allow Being to meaningfully disclose itself.
This charge is, again, unfair. While it is true that Heidegger opposes a certain kind of universality, it also seems like his theoretical framework might be used to criticize any appeal to the primacy of a ‘community to whom Being is meaningfully disclosed.’ Indeed, all we have now is an account of the possibility of Dasein’s living authentically; we do not even have an account of how a community might live authentically. Heidegger’s critique of ‘the they’ can be extended to any community, be it the public sphere of liberal democracy or the ecstatic crowds cheering Hitler on in the mid-1930s. And indeed his own critique of universality is only skin-deep. Heidegger frequently claims that he is revealing universal ontological structures for Dasein as such in Being and Time. This claim seems to suggest that anyone can be authentic, at least in principle.
The Root of Heidegger’s Nazism
It might seem from the above that I wish to remove any connection between Heidegger’s early philosophy and his later affiliation with Nazism. This is not the case; I merely wish to pinpoint the most direct source of Heidegger’s Nazi politics in Being and Time, that being his discussion of historicality  in the last sections of the book. For Heidegger Dasein is not embedded in history understood as an abstract progression of events detached from individual experience—as in the Hegelian account—but in time, by virtue of projecting possibilities into the future, and so on. Dasein’s ‘historicality’ has to be understood in terms of its facticity; it is a condition that Dasein is thrown into and has not chosen, but it is something with which it must deal. Historicality becomes important as the answer to this Heideggerian question, ‘Whence, in general, does Dasein draw the possibilities upon which it factically projects itself?’ (§383).
This question is possibly the most vital for any account of Heidegger’s political philosophy in Being and Time, for—on the account sketched out in the previous section—the projection of possibilities was articulated as though it were a spasm of pure creativity, a heroic wrenching away from ‘the they’ and into an unknown future.
It is this creative character which was implied in authenticity, and which allowed us to head off some early critiques of his early philosophy. If Heidegger makes a move to circumscribe the space of possibilities for what counts as authentic thrown projection, he will be less equipped to respond to those critiques laid out previously. Heidegger does just this: as he puts it, ‘The resoluteness with which Dasein comes back to itself, discloses current factical possibilities of authentic existing, and discloses them as that heritage which that resoluteness as thrown, takes over” (§383).
The concept of heritage completely changes the map. If heritage is to be understood as what allows for the possibility of authentic Being, we now conceive of authenticity not as a form of projection of possibilities upon nothing, but a form of projection where Dasein ‘historicizes,’ i.e. takes on certain aspects of traditions that it has received, and reconfigures them in order to found a new mode of Being. Heidegger calls this process ‘repetition’ and a ‘handing over,’ which constitutes the ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ of a Dasein (§ 386/387).
The historicality of Dasein is constituted by this process of repetitive reappropriation, which is thrown projection into the future conditioned by the appropriation of a particular historical tradition. Heidegger also suggests that this process of appropriation involves ‘choosing a hero’ (B&T §385), which also allows one to see the communal dimension of authenticity in a way that was less clear previously, as a community can be authentic insofar as it participates in this process of historical reappropriation. History as such cannot be the province of an individual person in the way that Heidegger’s abstract Time  can, as historical inheritance (or tradition) is more intersubjective than the previous, more individualistic conception of facticity previously mentioned. Not only is authenticity not more circumscribed relative to what it was previously: we now have a possible formulation of a certain kind of fascist politics in the language of Heideggerian authenticity. It is now all too easy to see how all the talk of ‘horizons’ can act as a justification for a heroic embrace of a politics which claims to embrace the ‘destiny’ of a particular people. It is also easy to see how such an analysis of historicality can lead a German to embrace a movement which selectively appropriates certain elements of German history—the German ‘traditional inheritance’—and claims to find a ‘unique destiny’ for its people .
Heidegger’s philosophical oeuvre is generally divided into two parts: the Early Heidegger, whose views are roughly demarcated in Being and Time, and the Late Heidegger, who believes the work failed to overcome Western metaphysics in the way he intended. For the latter, the account of Dasein’s Being only begins to overcome Western metaphysics; it still contains its vestiges , as it essentially results in a kind of Kantian Idealism (insofar as it aims to investigate the necessary conditions of possibility for how the world shows itself to us). Though Heidegger does not want to renounce his early work completely, he does want to claim that it displayed an anthropocentricism which conceded too much to traditional metaphysical thinking .
Heidegger’s later project is to eliminate this source of anthropocentrism, i.e. the implicit claim that Being is dependent on Dasein. Thus, he casts around for structures which transcend the anthropocentric focus on Dasein prevalent in Being and Time, such as the History of Being, God, Nature and the Event. The structure I will focus on here is Heidegger’s latter concept and its implications for his Nazism. The Event, first introduced in Heidegger’s work ‘Contributions to Philosophy’ , denotes a ‘radical rupture,’ which completely transforms the way Being is disclosed to Dasein. As such, it is best understood in the context of his history of Being. Heidegger’s later work chronicles the ways Being has been disclosed to Dasein in human history; the transition between modes of Being is an evental transition. There is no dialectical process where there is a predictable movement from one mode of Being to another; the Event is a rupture, which generates the precondition for the disclosure of the new mode of Being such that it establishes its own chronology .
There is no way to predict or anticipate it, for it is radically ungrounded. All we can do is attune ourselves, like a member of the faithful, to a new disclosure of Being to Dasein, in order to be ‘steadfast’ in our ‘preparedness for the disclosure of the truth of Being’ . The Event is significant to an analysis of Heidegger’s Nazism because his claim that the mode of Being which we (quite catastrophically) find ourselves in is called ‘modern technicity.’ This  is Heidegger’s term for the mode of Being which sees all beings as ‘standing reserve’ for the improvement of efficiency. Technicity is Heidegger’s pin-up for all that is negative (from his perspective) about modernity, from the machine-like logic of technology to the destruction of meaningful human community or the nihilism resulting from modern thinking. Though he did not have the concept of technicity, he had a critique of modernity as nihilistic: his engagement with Nazism was not solely due to his understanding of the uniqueness of the German people, as suggested above, but also the fact that the Nazis aimed to combat this nihilism at the very heart of modernity.
Insofar as Heidegger wants to transition from the mode of Being in late modernity (or modern technicity for Late Heidegger) to an era revealing the truth of it, his theory of the Event is the closest we might get to a philosophical account of how such a transition might occur. Though we have good retrospective evidence that Heidegger considered Nazism to be an Event, this Event might also provide a good blueprint for a Heideggerian politics as such.
How can the Event be read politically? The obvious analogy is that of political revolution; and indeed the most radical possible revolution, a revolution in the mode of Being. The Event can thus be read as a complete transformation of the rules of the game. It should not, however, be read as a change simply for the sake of change. Heidegger speaks of the ‘voice of Being,’ or the ‘call of Being,’ which suggests some people, or some groups of people, might be more receptive to Being than others (the talk of ‘destiny’ seems to confirm this, inasmuch as destiny is almost by definition an attribute of a particular person or community). The talk of ‘rules’ above can be taken quite literally, where those considered to be more receptive to Being can quite literally be the source of the law . This ‘politics of the Event’ seems to be the point at which Heidegger’s liberal critics are the most persuasive . The charge that there is no space for any kind of conception of universal humanity in Heidegger has some purchase in Being and Time—as I have attempted to outline—but this concept comes to the fore in his theory of the Event. Even if one does not accept Heidegger’s assertion that the German people are ideally placed to answer the call of Being, one cannot simply reject the problematic split between ‘people exalted by destiny’ and ‘people unable to appreciate the true nature of the Event.’ Not only is this conceptual distinction by definition a block to any possible universalistic politics—as its dual structure has the potential to etherize —it leaves open the possibility of excluding a particular out-group. This structure also bears a striking (and unsettling) resemblance to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s theory of the state in the Concept of the Political , which draws a strict distinction between friend and alien, where the vitality of a particular political community is guaranteed by virtue of continual reference to the ‘alien’ who is ‘existentially’ other to those within the community. In Heideggerian terms, the Event leading to the formation of a ‘horizon’ will also generate an ontological distinction between those who demonstrate ‘fidelity’ to the Event and those who do not. Neither of these elaborations of the Heideggerian Event do much to quieten his critics; indeed, the comparison made above ought to make the cries louder!
I have traced Heidegger’s political thinking from Being and Time to his later work (such as The Question concerning Technology and The Event). In doing so I have drawn systematic connections between Heidegger’s political concepts and his theory of time. I have also attempted to discern a philosophical basis for his engagement with Nazism, and attempted to evaluate his political theories. Though I have found this philosophical basis—contrary to the assertions of many Heideggerians—I have aimed to remain faithful to the deep philosophical questions with which Heidegger found himself wrestling.
- Wolin, Richard. Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse. Princeton University Press, 2015.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and nothingness. Open Road Media, 2012.
- Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority. Vol. 1. Springer Science & Business Media, 1979.
- Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
- Nichols, Robert. The world of freedom: Heidegger, Foucault, and the politics of historical ontology. Stanford University Press, 2014.
- Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. “Schelling’s treatise on the essence of human freedom.” (1989).
- Arendt, Hannah. The life of the mind. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981.
- Pigden, Charles. “Is–Ought Gap.” The International Encyclopedia of Ethics(2013).
- Heidegger, Martin. “Being and time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.” (1962).
- Indeed, Heidegger argues in the first section of Being and Time that Dasein necessarily possesses an understanding of the meaning of Being.
- My understanding of this point can reasonably be credited to the following article by Thomas Sheehan. Sheehan, Thomas. “A paradigm shift in Heidegger research.” Continental philosophy review 34, no. 2 (2001): 183-202.
- Karl Lowith confirms my point when he claims, ‘Heidegger agreed with me without reservation, and added that his concept of “historicity” was the basis of his political “engagement.”‘ (Lowith, Karl. ‘My last meeting with Heidegger in Rome, 1936.’ Wolin, Heidegger Controversy 142 (1986).)
- Indeed, Heidegger repeatedly insists that the Death which ends the ‘lived time’ which he chronicles is Dasein’s ‘ownmost,’ that is to say, Dasein necessarily experiences its death in a singular, individual fashion.
- Thomas Sheehan correctly points out that that Heidegger believed that the Germans had a special access to the Thought of Being, as their language has an ‘inner special kinship’ with Greek people. (Sheehan, Thomas. “Heidegger and the Nazis.” The New York Review of Books 35, no. 10 (1988): 38-47.)
- Heidegger himself claimed that Kant was the source of his fundamental ontology in Being and Time, and he referred to his fundamental ontology as ‘veritas transcendentalis’ (B&T p.38), a reference to Kant’s “transcendental philosophy” in the Critique of Pure Reason.
- Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on humanism.” Basic writings 204 (1977): 39.
- Heidegger, Martin. Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event). Indiana University Press, 2012.
- The Birth of Christ is a good example. Time is literally reorganized around that Event
- Heidegger, Martin. The event. Indiana University Press, 2013., sec. 20
- Heidegger, Martin. “The question concerning technology.” Technology and values: Essential readings (1954): 99-113.
- ‘Let not propositions and “ideas” be the rules of your being (Sein). The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!’ (Rectoral Address Nov 1933, Heidegger, R. Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy (MIT Press, 1993), chapter 2.)
- I refer here primarily to Wolin (1992) and Farias (1991).
- Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the political: Expanded edition. University of Chicago Press, 2008.