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Vol. 6, No. 6, 2007
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in defense of


Martin Heidegger


[This essay is dedicated to Professor Ernest Joos, 1923-2011]


Man learns when he disposes everything he does so that it answers to whatever essentials are addressed to him at any given moment.
from What is Called Thinking? (1954)

The facts -- where facts never reach the truth of things -- are well known. Martin Heidegger was born in Meskirch, Germany in 1889. He publishes his magnum opus, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), in 1927. Martin HeideggerHe joins the Nationalist Socialist Party in May of 1933, the year in which he accepts the prestigious rectorship of Freiburg University. Ten months later, he resigns the rectorship, well before Hitler assumes full power. He dies in 1976.

For his brief, 10-month flirtation with Nazism, whose defining features had not yet been fully articulated, Heidegger has never been forgiven, in particular, by Jewish thinkers - meaning those that survived the death camps. [By 1945, half of the world's 12 million Jews had been exterminated]. Many have attributed Heidegger's initial attraction to the National Socialist Party platform to a combination of idealism and naïveté, and have designated pride and hubris as the culprits behind his post-war silence. And there are still others who would have Heidegger situated for all time somewhere between bad and evil. However mixed have been history's judgments and pronouncements, we can assume Heidegger, who could not have avoided self-judgment, was comfortable with what the world characterized as his 'unacceptable' silence, since he remained true to it until his death.

Hanna Arendt & Martin HeideggerNonetheless, by war's end, not only was Heidegger's reputation in tatters, his philosophy, as the extension and product of his highly flawed person, was undergoing serious devaluation, reasons enough for us to wonder why, as an act of self-preservation, Heidegger refused to directly address the issue of his involvement in the Nazi party and condemn the Nazi platform. George Steiner refers to Heidegger's "total public silence after 1945 concerning the holocaust and his own attitudes toward the policies and bestialities of the Third Reich." But what if Heidegger's silence, in answer to his deepest deliberations, is precisely that which he deemed necessary to open up the realm clear thinking requires to manifest itself?

The word silence comes from the Latin, silens, meaning to be quiet or still. Today, we use the word to mean in the absence of sound, the environment of which is favourable to introspection, interior dialogue and reading, inaudible activities that grant silence its breadth and density.

Being and Time is not an easy read, and doubtless, many of the author's accusers, in mob fashion, without having read the book, would have formed their opinions on the backs of others. How should one characterize Heidegger's silence if he had already decided not to dignify his accusers with a response? And concerning that elite cadre of 'Heideggerians,' mostly academic philosophers sufficiently learned to argue that his flawed philosophy, as an effect, was underwritten by the flawed man, the cause, he must have concluded that their agenda-driven extrapolations were unrelated to the adduced text (Being & Time), which again would preclude a rejoinder.

The key to unlocking Heidegger's position on this most troubling aspect of his life (which apparently didn't trouble him) is explicitly brought to bear in the methodology he introduces in his elaboration of Being and Time, the same that percolates through and invigorates his entire canon. To be in full possession of this method, which is Heidegger's greatest and lasting contribution to philosophy, is to hear him speak through silence.

If I were to pose a single question on Being and Time to determine whether or not the reader or student has understood the essential Heidegger, it would be this: What is the one word that is constantly referred to but never explicitly spelled out in Being and Time's 488 pages, and why is the word deliberately withheld? The reference that radiates on every page is 'man,' the meaning with which we are so familiar it need no longer be questioned. We know that man enjoys unequivocal dominion over the earth, that man speaks in many tongues, that man wages war, erects monuments, propagates his own kind; there is no mystery to who he is and how he spends his time. So by the time the child comes to utter 'man' for the very first time, the word has been stripped of its mystery and evocative power. Heidegger understood that if man is to truly encounter himself, that is set himself on the path that will disclose his self-estrangement, the word 'man' would have to be radically deconceptualized, that is severed from all its familiar contexts and meanings in order to bring about the conditions necessary for the word's rehabilitation. So in the earliest pages of Being and Time, Heidegger introduces the strangest of all words, Da-Sein, which becomes at once the focal point and obstacle for the reader who finds himself simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the word's elusiveness and recalcitrance, its unwillingness to reveal its character. But gradually, as an effect and being affected by the activity of thinking, Da-Sein gestates, it acquires attributes, and later on, the character of being involved in a world, so readers who have stayed with the word suddenly discover that it is not the word but themselves they are discovering, as if for the very first time, that this Da-Sein is themselves.

It is through this very deliberate method that the resolute reader is initiated into the mystery and miracle of his own existence. Heidegger is proposing that it is not enough to be born once, effortlessly; but we must give birth to ourselves again, and through this exercise the outline of what we understand by the word 'meaningful' begins to reveal its true character.

One can only imagine the ecstatic, wondrous, humbled state of mind of the first being who uttered: "I am." And no matter in how dim a light that initial 'I am' was spoken, it represents an explosion of light -- not unlike the birth of a galaxy -- when compared to its contemporary daily usage. When I report 'I am' hungry or 'I am' sick, the 'I am' is merely an instrument serving my biological needs, just as when I declare 'I am' going to rent a DVD or 'I am' going to Acapulco in January, the 'I am' is invoked as an auxiliary to describe my intentional life. When 'I am' is used with such facility and assertion, you can be sure that 'why am I?' when it could have been otherwise, will never be accorded the priority it deserves among 'the things' thinking can offer thought to. Heidegger's entire philosophy is an invitation to recover the sacred, evocative meaning of words that have not survived the dulling effects of daily usage which trans-mutes them into hard and fast concepts so the word itself becomes the greatest obstacle to what it represents - and thus we are introduced to Da-Sein, a being with thereness. Heidegger believed that in order to reach the being of things, the thing, or the word that stands in for the thing, has to be deconceptualized, that is shorn from its concept or definition.

Martin HeideggerIn response to his accusers, Heidegger, in the decisive context of his methodology, which is the definitive advertisement for his unmistakable manner of speaking, has not been silent. Au contraire. From his earliest writings until his death, Heidegger has spoken eloquently and unwaveringly in his condemnation of all historical, technical and theoretical forces that would impose any limits on freedom. That he refused, by way of public apology, to explicitly condemn Nazi atrocities speaks to the unaccountable massive failure of the academic community, exegetes and metaphysicians to grasp the essential Heidegger, which is his methodology. In the light of unrelenting character assassination that dogged the author of Being and Time throughout his career, it redounds to his strength of character and belief in his philosophical method that he did not once compromise his life's work for the sake of a readership that failed in its essential task: To read -- that is to hear the writer thinking his thoughts and accurately report on what has been heard. The parallels between Heidegger and Socrates and the ignorance-based persecution each had to endure in his own time speaks volumes to what it means to be ahead of one's time. Speaking empathetically of Hölderin, Heidegger proposes that the poet is one who has the courage to live in the destitution of his times. The same could surely be said of the philosopher.

George Steiner, about whom it must be said did not shy away from entering into the public domain his ambivalence toward Heidegger, and isn't one to let anyone off the hook even remotely connected to Third Reich politics, refers to the "lyrical humanity" of the later Heidegger. If not to Heidegger's post-war silence, to what then is Steiner referring?



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