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Who Was Martin Heidegger? (And Should Progressives Care?)

“This is especially true in large urban areas. Forces beyond our control compel us to focus on the now “yolo?” and live fragmented lives of needs and satisfaction. In these contexts, we focus on being like animals rather than selves, and become increasingly homogenous and indistinguishable.”

Heidegger is a strange thinker for many progressives. On the one hand, he remains a central figure for many of the continental theorists who dominated the latter half of the 20th century. This includes a veritable “who’s who” of progressive thinkers including Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, and Marcuse to name just a few. Clearly there must be something there that is worth delving into. On the other hand, Heidegger’s vile affiliation with the Nazi party taints his philosophy with the most repugnant smear conceivable. This is especially true as more and more evidence of his anti-semitism comes to light.

This makes the task of re-evaluating Heidegger’s worth for progressive thinkers all the more important. In this brief essay, I will summarize some of the major themes and ideas in Heidegger’s philosophy. It is worth noting that I will mainly be proceeding backward through his work, moving from his later works and tracing various throughlines back to his original contributions in Being and Time and other pieces. This is because I want to show how his work, when oriented around the idea of authenticity, can be cast in a more favorable light for progressives. This suggests there is still considerable value in Heidegger’s thought if one carefully culls it of its wicked associations.

This is where I will offer a necessary caveat. Heidegger was a virulent Nazi and anti-Semite. This is in many respects unforgivable. I will not be discussing this serious difficulty here because I think it demands a very extensive treatment. In this essay, I operate with the presupposition that bad people can still write interesting books, which we can learn from. If nothing else, it can be worthwhile to look at why intelligent people take false steps down a dark path, to glean what insights we can about why they may have been attracted to such insidious movements.

Heidegger’s Thinking About What is Being?

Heidegger’s philosophy pivots around the great ontological question he states most clearly in Introduction to Metaphysics: “Why is there something instead of nothing at all.” Or, related, “What does it mean to be?” He claims that this is simultaneously the greatest philosophical question—and the one which has been the most ignored. Consistent with his forebears, the Heideggerian project can simultaneously be seen as an attempt to reclaim the ontological question’s priority, both generally and within philosophy.

Most of us, he claims, believe we have some sense of what it means “to be.” But we do not. Instead, we let the sheer radicalness of the question blind us to the fact that it remains the greatest mystery of all. Metaphysics, the study of Being, has ignored this question. It has instead reduced existence to a predicate of a given object. In What is Called Thinking? Heidegger argues this gesture goes back to Plato who swerved past Parmenides’ profound reflections on Being to argue for a world of independent mathematical forms. This, he claims, was the beginning of the metaphysics of “beings in Being” and lies at the root of all Western thought. It is the presumption that Being must be understood by what it apparently consists of rather than in an of itself. This is as true, of holistic philosophies like Spinoza’s and Hegel’s since the two claim that Being is something other than being aka Becoming as it is for a scientist who regards the world as broken into constituent parts, though Heidegger frowns much more upon the latter.

For this reason, Heidegger maintains in the “Word of Nietzsche” and the “Question Concerning Technology” that the central unthought concept of Western philosophy is “the nothing.” The nothing is both unthought and all-pervasive in nihilistic Western thought. Since the metaphysics of “beings in Being” has triumphed across the globe through the all-pervasive power of the natural sciences, human beings now see the world as a “standing reserve” of parts to be manipulated for ends, rather than something which should inspire awe and wonder. The idea of the standing reserve is made possible because of the nothing. The “nothing” is what enables us, paradoxically, to think “things.” It is what must ultimately lie at the base of reality and the world is to be divided into parts. It is what enables us to see say, the river, as something separate from the plain and compels us to dam it up in order to produce energy for human use. This environmental strain in Heidegger’s philosophy has been unsurprisingly picked up by many.

Language too plays its part in this process, though it alone offers the sole exit out according to Heidegger. Since Western philosophy has failed to address the question of Being, Heidegger sets himself the enormous task of rethinking it. This requires a much closer consideration of why language has failed to point us in the right direction. In the collection Poetry, Language, and Thought, Heidegger claims we are mistaken to feel language points to anything at all. Language is not a collection of signs that refer to individual parts of the world. This itself is merely a reflection of metaphysical thinking gone astray.

“Language is the “house of Being” for those who are it shepherds, namely us.”

Language is the “house of Being” for those who are it shepherds, namely us. Every great poet has intuited that language speaks us rather than the other way around. Heidegger’s post-political solution to the problem of philosophy is that we should embrace poetry, for instance, that of Holderlin, instead. Poetry can give us a more primordial sense of the wonder towards the majesty of Being—better than science or Western philosophy to this point—and seems to be how he ultimately decided to cash out the idea of authenticity.

Authenticity and Freedom: Heidegger and Progressive Thought

The idea of authenticity is one he frames in tense juxtaposition to Immanuel Kant. In his lecture on “The Essence of Truth” and more importantly, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Heidegger confronts Kant as the philosopher of freedom par excellence. Heidegger argues that Kant developed a monumental understanding of freedom as the capacity of all human beings to “will their own causality.” Unfortunately, he was never able to successfully tie this together philosophically. The problem, Heidegger claims, is his account of the mind. To Kant, the cognitive structure of the brain imposed order of the phenomena we see in the world and enabled us to perceive law like behaviors. We can, Kant claimed, do the same to our “selves” and give it definition and purpose. The problem, of course, is that he wanted this to assume some kind of reasonable and law-like form and is ambiguous on the content these laws should assume since pure reason cannot know things in themselves except practically. In the first edition to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant toyed around with the idea of the “transcendental imagination” serving this function. But he then shielded away from it. The reason Heidegger claims, is it led him to think about our historical being-in-the-world with all the contingency and atheism that seemed to imply. This is what necessitated the counterproposal in Being and Time.

Being and Time can be characterized as a work of what is sometimes called existential phenomenology. What this means is Heidegger is keen to look not just at the “self” or consciousness as an abstract entity but how we perceive and interact with the world leading up to an inquiry into the meaning of Being itself. Heidegger unfortunately never got around to answering this question decisively in this book, or any other both for professional and philosophical reasons. Heidegger reacts against the entire philosophical tradition by claiming that previous philosophers have considered thinking to be the primary human quality.

His label for the Human being is Dasein; not that being which thinks, but that being for whom Being (its own existence) is a problem. Heidegger claims that we are not first and foremost thinking beings. What drives us, at base, is care. He calls this the “structural primordiality” of Dasein. When we are born the first thing we do is inhale and exhale, often screaming. This is profound evidence of what Heidegger is talking about; for the infant as for the adult at base, our primary concern isn’t for the content of this or that thought, but rather for the meaning of our lives and gradually everything. This is because we are at base temporal beings; we live within time.

Conclusion: Heidegger and Progressive Thinking

“We are, if you like, a type of stretching. We live ecstatically because our care for ourselves is never localized in the present. We inherit our past which we embody in the present and project into the future as plans, expectations, and above all, hopes.”

Here, one can certainly criticize Heidegger from a progressive perspective. Unlike latter-day leftist thinkers such as Foucault, Lefebvre, and even Marx, Heidegger devotes comparatively little time to looking at space and its political contexts. Had he done so, he might have moved his thought in a more progressive dimension as the full consequences of urbanization, ghettoization, and their connections to market forces became more apparent. But there is a reason for Heidegger’s emphasis on time which is worth reconsidering. Heidegger emphasizes time because, in many respects, he sees human beings as first and foremost characterized by their relationship to time. Heidegger clarifies this in On Time and Being. We are, if you like, a type of stretching. We live ecstatically because our care for ourselves is never localized in the present. We inherit our past which we embody in the present and project into the future as plans, expectations, and above all, hopes.

Think of a person playing a game. They don’t just consider the present, but rather what they have done before and consider their moves in expectation of what is to come so they can win or at least make a good showing. Authentic persons have a firm grasp on this because they recognize the finality of human time; they are confronted by anxiety over their inevitable death. Death is the great driver but also the great hope for Heidegger. It is what gives life its form and texture, and so can compel us to try and make some narrative sense of our life. Great and authentic persons seem almost to will their own destiny by assuming a task-whether to think through one great idea, or construct a great work of art, or ominously, to rejuvenate a society.

This might seem like a somewhat elitist claim, and indeed it has those dimensions. But it is important to consider what can be claimed from Heidegger for the purposes of progressive thought. Most of us, he claims, are distracted from this and fall into the idea of oneness. This is especially true in large urban areas. Forces beyond our control compel us to focus on the now “yolo?” and live fragmented lives of needs and satisfaction. In these contexts, we focus on being like animals rather than selves, and become increasingly homogenous and indistinguishable.

Heidegger sees this as characteristic of liberal thought where happiness rather than authenticity is taken as the primary aim; the self becomes reduced to expression through highly transient activities such as paying attention to fashion, or gender roles, or becoming wealthy. All of these distract from an awareness of our finitude and lead us to make little of the lives we are given. More importantly, they also shield us from recognizing the wondrous fact that something is here rather than nothing at all, and probing into this tremendous mystery.

These claims echo those made by more overtly progressive thinkers, most notably Marx with respect to the capitalist sphere, but gives them a more specific and ontologically robust grounding. Left-wing thinkers can benefit from reading Heidegger by continuing to evaluate what uses his account of authenticity can be put into advocating for emancipatory projects. Such projects would open spaces for individuals to lead truly authentic lives, not those predetermined by forced beyond our control but upheld by dominant ideologies.

Matt McManus completed his PhD in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. He is in the process of formalizing a deal for a second book, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism. Matt can be reached at