Paul Collins, Catholic writer


Martin Heidegger - Thinking you under the table

An unpublished essay



There is no doubt that Martin Heidegger's thought is difficult. As English comedian Eric Idle says in the Philosophers' Drinking Song Heidegger 'could think you under the table'. For two main reasons: first, he is really pushing the boundaries of thought, challenging us to move far beyond conventional ways of thinking. Second, we have to face the problem of language. He was very interested in etymology, the study of the history and origins of words and he often gives meanings to words that are no longer common, or that strain a word to the edge of its meaning. And that’s when he is writing in German! However, the struggle is worth it on both fronts: his thought is extraordinarily suggestive, it opens up new ways of thinking and it is well worth the effort to try to understand what he is saying.

I say this fully conscious that Heidegger (1889-1976) was sympathetic to the Nazis, and was a member of the party until 1945. While that creates problems for some, I don’t think that that it vitiates his thought and his penetrating insights into our current environmental crisis. The cosmopolitan English Jew, George Steiner, says that Heidegger was like many Germans of his time ‘caught up in the electric trance of the National Socialist promise.’ This was re-enforced by the treatment of Germany after World War I and the social and economic disaster of the Great Depression. We need to remember that Heidegger's commitment was to early Nazism when, as Steiner says, it was ‘masking its essential barbarism.’ He was uncomfortable with it as early as 1933, but with typical academic vanity Heidegger believed ‘he could influence Nazi ideology … He was fatuously mistaken.’

The essence of Heidegger's environmental thought is rooted in his profound ambiguity about technology. For him the ecological crisis was the direct result of our technological culture which, in turn, we have inherited from our philosophical tradition. He defined technology in the broadest sense: for him it meant human interference by mechanistic force in the natural dynamics of the world to manipulate and use nature for some perceived ‘good’ for humankind. Technology is used in everything from stem cell research to the use of chainsaws and bulldozers, to damming rivers for irrigation and hydro-electricity, to the massive dislocations of the landscape caused by extractive industries. We seem unable to leave anything alone, including the intimate structure of our own bodies. We are dominated by a kind of an opportunistic, ‘can-do’ mentality; if something can be done, it should be done. It needs no further ethical justification.

The deep root of this is our manipulative attitude toward nature. Heidegger says that the technological mindset - like the econometric and therapeutic mindsets - is so built into the structure of our thinking and attitudes, has so possessed our intellectual horizons and penetrated into the very way we perceive reality that we are almost completely unable to think outside this context. Our unquestioned, instinctual reaction to reality and to nature is that it must be managed, improved upon, or used. A kind of measuring, calculating, management-style logic is applied to everything.

There are many examples of the technological mindset: driving through forests you often see signs telling you that the local forest department is ‘managing the forests sustainably’. What they mean is that they are logging it, but not cutting down all the tress. They justify this by saying that logging 'improves the forest and renews it', and that it needs human management. They are so besotted with their own ‘management skills’ that they have no sense that the forest has managed itself quite successfully for millennia without any help whatsoever from homo sapiens!

In February 2007 the then Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, talked about water shortages resulting from the drought and pointed out that Melbourne’s dam levels were dangerously low, and then literally in the very next breath said that the city needed a million more people by 2025! Politicians like Bracks - who is far from alone in this kind of disjunctive logic – don’t seem to understand that there is a connection between a city’s size and the amount of water it uses and that water used for human purposes is actually taken from the environment. Even people who admit that we are facing environmental catastrophe often think that a there is technological fix, even when it is abundantly clear that technology caused the problem in the first place.

Heidegger would argue that politicians talk this kind of gobbledygook because they are trapped in a philosophical and technological view of the world which makes it impossible for them to view the world differently. He identifies the word ‘philosophy’ with the Western philosophical tradition that has dominated Western thought for the last 2,500 years. This emerges from two closely related sources: the metaphysical, intellectualizing, idealizing stream, the tradition that finds its origins in Socrates, is developed by Plato, is carried into the late-Roman world by Plotinus and which came to dominate Western thinking through Christianity. The other more analytical, empirical stream originates in Aristotle and flows into Western thought in the Middle Ages.

These two traditions come together in Rene Descartes and the beginnings of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. According to Heidegger modern technology is the fruit of this. George Steiner says that ‘Heidegger will seek to prove that it is the continued authority of the metaphysical-scientific way of looking at the world, a way almost definitional of the West, that has brought on, has, in fact, made unavoidable the alienated, un-housed, recurrently barbaric estate of modern technological and mass consumption man.’ As a result we live in a kind of technological trance.

Heidegger says that technology so dominates the horizon of our being and so impregnates our attitudes that we cannot avoid being unconsciously profoundly immersed in it and dominated by it. It creates a cultural and intellectual Ge-stell ('en-framing') that determines the way we think. And how we think is more important than what we think. As Marshall McLuhan said ‘The medium is the message.’

Heidegger preferred to call himself a ‘thinker’ rather than a philosopher. He believed that the abstract, intellectualist tendency of the whole of Western philosophy cuts us off from actually ‘be-ing in the world’, from existence, from the fact that we ‘are’ rather than ‘are not’. Here he is emphasizing the participle ‘be-ing’ rather than the noun ‘being’. For him ‘is-ness’, actual existence, occurred long before ‘what-ness’, definition. Being-in-the-world long preceded ‘quiddity’ or ‘what-ness’. By ‘what-ness’ Heidegger means the abstract definition of the nature of a thing.

Essentially, what Heidegger wants to do is to transcend philosophy by thinking completely outside the dominating Western dualist-intellectualist paradigm, to get back to the early, pre-Socratic Greeks, like Heraclitus (early fifth century BC), to a tradition of thinking which he felt had not lost an organic connection with being and existence in the natural world. As Steiner says he wants to take his readers into ‘an alternative order or space of meaning and of being’, and to experience and feel the strangeness of ‘thinking outside the conventions of common logic and unexamined grammar’. He wants to shock us out of our predetermined and unconscious ways of thinking so that our imaginations are opened to new ways of perceiving reality.

Heidegger argues that as a result of the Western philosophical tradition we have become totally concerned about things and that our aim is to master our environment. This focus means that we have lost any sense of the miracle of the fact of existence itself, rather than non-existence. He argues that the whole problem of Western philosophy is that it has been primarily concerned with ‘the thing that is’ rather than ‘the fact of existence’, the fact that something is rather than is not. To express this he uses the German word Dasein - from da (there) sein (being). A ‘there-being’ is an existence-thrown-into-the-world, not an intellectual abstraction. For Heidegger the miracle is ‘isness’, actually being, in contrast to the possibility of ‘non-isness’, of not existing.

From this he concludes that something has value simply because it is, because it exists. Its value is not derived from the fact that we have named and classified it. Thus its value is not utilitarian, its usefulness for humankind. It has primary value because it exists. What has happened in the Western philosophical tradition is that we have retreated to a second, definitional level of abstraction with the result that we lost the ability to marvel at the fact that something is, and we now tend to see things as useful to us rather than perceiving their intrinsic value. He argues that we have reached the tag-end of this process in modern technology.

Heidegger argues that technology is simply the expression of the unconscious and unstated dominance of an exploitative, calculating, mechanized, efficiency-oriented mentality applied to everything, but particularly to the natural world. This attitude is so built into the mythic structure of our modern consciousness that we instinctively and without question assume that technology is a panacea for all our problems both with the world and with ourselves. We implicitly and unconsciously define ourselves over and against the natural world which, Heidegger says, we have reduced to a Bestand, a ‘standing reserve’ of resources and energy to be exploited for our own needs without regard for the broader ecological context. In the essay The Question Concerning Technology in an extraordinarily prophetic way Heidegger pointed out that nowadays we even view ourselves as a kind of ‘standing reserve’ which can be exploited. We have now extended our manipulation of the natural world to the exploitative use of ourselves as we manipulate our own DNA.

So what solution does Heidegger offer? Firstly we have to realize that the issues surrounding technology and our divorce from the natural world are not ethical problems. In the final analysis we can’t deal with the destructive results of technology by acting ethically, let alone by the economics of carbon trading! This is not an issue which can be ‘managed’ by goodness; in fact management is part of the problem. The problem is essentially metaphysical; it is about a new paradigm, a whole new way of thinking and viewing reality.

A decade before he died, Heidegger gave an interview to the tabloid magazine Der Spiegel (The Mirror).The interview was published in June 1976 after his death. Part of the article was devoted to his defense of his associations with the Nazis, which Steiner describes as ‘masterly in its feline urbanity and evasions.’ The other half of the interview was devoted to the question of technology. In the course of this discussion Heidegger said that ‘Philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation in the present condition of the world. This in not only true of philosophy, but of all merely human thought and endeavor. Only a god can save us (my emphasis). The sole possibility that is left for us is to prepare for a sort of readiness, through thinking and poetizing, for the appearance of the god in the time of foundering, for in the face of a god who is absent we founder.’

So what is Heidegger saying?

He is saying we are in a time of Untergang which means ‘foundering’, or ‘ruin’. The word is significant. When a ship founders, it sinks, it’s finished. We live, he says, in ‘the time of foundering’, the period when disaster and ruin is imminent. Significantly Untergang was also the title of the 2005 German movie about the last fortnight of Hitler’s life in April 1945 in the bunker under the Berlin Reich chancellery as the Russians fought their way into the city. Just as no one could save Hitler, so ‘all merely human thought and endeavour’, in other words philosophy and ethics will not help us because they are completely wedded to old intellectualist, exploitative paradigm. Political systems, including democracy, have also failed us.

‘Only a god can save us.’ Was this an old man returning to the Catholicism of his youth? This is most unlikely. While he was not an atheist in the proper sense, he considered that the Judeo-Christian God was ‘dead’ in terms of any influence in the contemporary world. So who or what, then, is this ‘god’ that is meant to save us?

Firstly, I think he is trying to convey to us that the reversal called for in our times is so profound that we will not be able to do it unaided. He told Der Speigel ‘I know of no paths to the immediate transformation of the present situation of the world, assuming that such a thing is humanly possible at all.’ That is, no matter what we do technology will dominate nature. It is its very essence to do so. We cannot do anything about it. What we are dealing with here is something like what the Marxists call ‘the impersonal force of history’. In other words this is something beyond our personal or communal will to change. Heidegger is trying to remind us that our freedom is very limited, that we need to learn a greater humility. We are actually extraordinarily vulnerable and profoundly dependent on nature for our survival.

Secondly, Heidegger says we need an acute awareness of the way technology creates a very specific Gestell or thought-frame, or way of viewing the world. If we know this then we can begin to perceive our predicament. We also need an attitude of Bereitshaft, meaning ‘readiness’ or ‘being on stand-by’. There is a kind of apocalyptic note in this kind of readiness, but perhaps it is precisely this which is lacking in our contemporary culture. We might act more quickly to deal with global warming if we had more sense that that the world as we know it was on the edge of destruction.

Thirdly, we can prepare ourselves for the coming of this god by what Heidegger calls ‘thinking’ and ‘poetising’. These words suggest that we ought to begin to conceive of reality in a different way, that we should try to imagine new and different possibilities. By thinking we will come to understand our metaphysical predicament and by poetizing we will develop our imaginations so that we will be able to perceive the actual presence of God, the saving being. Here I think it is reasonable to indicate some form of identification between Heidegger's ‘god’ and the Christian notion of God with a capital ‘G’ - although he might well have questioned this.

The simple fact is that the mature Heidegger moved very much in the direction of mysticism. In fact there is much in his thought that is close to the medieval German Dominican mystic, Master Eckhart (c.1260-1327) whom he often quotes. What is clear is that for Heidegger Be-ing is an image of God, not the conventional God, but more like the hidden the God of the mystics, the Existent, the Presence that stands in stark contrast to emptiness. The passage conveys a sense that the absent God will come, that the passionate force of Be-ing will conquer the non-existence of technology and environmental destruction.

Heidegger is arguing that if we understand the power that technology has over us, we will not just try to wish it away. We will come to understand that the task that faces us is not just ethical but metaphysical, involving the evolution of a new Gestell through the prism of which we will begin to encounter nature and reality from a different non-technological perspective.

In developing this new theological perspective, the ability to poetise will be just as important as the ability to think. Poetising is what the poet does. In his Letter on Humanism (1946) Heidegger says that we are ‘not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being’ and par excellence, the poet shepherds the presence of Be-ing. Essentially the poet names things and by that very process makes them present, real and lasting. The poet gives the divine Be-ing itself, a Heimkehr, a ‘homecoming’. As George Steiner says real, genuine, authentic poetry is extremely rare. It lights up and illumines insights ‘into the meaning of life which are, literally and demonstrably, inexhaustible.’ Like Steiner I find this truer of music, especially a composer like Beethoven.

Finally, Heidegger forces us to confront the question that if, as the great religions have consistently argued that the cosmos is somehow the product of God’s creative action, will God stand by and allow the natural world to be progressively destroyed? Or will God intervene and in what way? Is there a limit to Technology’s manipulation and destruction of the world - and have we reached that limit? If not now, when will we reach it? What is the nature of God’s relationship to a world which has produced such rich diversity, when one species - humankind - seems set on destroying so many other species, as well as the very basis of life on earth itself?

All of this adds up to a fundamental question of absolute and central importance not just for the future of the human species, but for the future of the earth itself. I think that Heidegger has correctly posed the question. I am not certain that he has answered it, but at least his thought is profoundly suggestive and takes us far beyond the politically correct clichés that so dominate contemporary public discourse in Australia - and elsewhere.

Care to comment? .