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The Fight for the Soul of Philosophy

by Anja Steinbauer

“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”

This quotation voices a frustration that many great thinkers have expressed in their own ways, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche and beyond. What makes this one special is that it comes from the most controversial of all philosophers, Martin Heidegger. That he was thinking is beyond doubt: he was one of the greatest philosophers the Western tradition has seen, more about that later. He was however, also one of the most flawed. Some of his central life decisions show him to be an opportunist without loyalty to his friends, his students and even his mentor, the great Husserl, not to speak of his wife. His private notebooks contain a few unambiguously anti-Semitic passages. He was a Nazi sympathiser from 1933 onwards, believing himself to be the defender of academic thought and the university in a new era. He remained unrepentant throughout his life. My old philosophy professor and longtime Philosophy Now contributor Peter Rickman used to sarcastically remark that it seemed Heidegger couldn’t see that it had been his fault, rather, it looked like he expected Hitler to rise from the grave and to apologise to him for not having met his expectations. So, Heidegger, were you yourself taking a holiday from thinking here?

I’ve known many philosophers and most are lovely people. But not all. Being a professional philosopher correlates with cleverness, rather than niceness, and a glance at the history of ideas reveals geniuses who were also difficult and sometimes untrustworthy. Yet there is a difference between simply not being a nice person, which can happen to anyone, and making a terrible judgement as a consequence of deep deliberation and with all the tools of top quality thinking at your fingertips. The former is a shame, but the latter is a monumental crisis. In the good company of Plato, Kant, Bertrand Russell and many others, I deeply believe in the potential of good quality thinking to improve the quality of public discourse and public life. This is why Heidegger as a person has been such a frustrating enigma to me. What is the point of philosophy if it can’t even save a philosopher of Heidegger’s calibre, who, to add insult to injury, had thoroughly studied Plato and Aristotle, from making such terrible life choices and judgements? I asked some Heidegger scholars about this; you can read their replies in ‘The Trouble with Martin’.

This isn’t the only way in which Heidegger makes us reconsider the meaning and limits of philosophy. Heidegger believed the question “What is?” to be central to philosophy itself. What distinguishes humans from other animals is that they have language and this means that they have a special way of relating to Being, in other words, the potential for philosophical activity. Heidegger asks the question of the meaning and definition of philosophy again and again throughout his life and in different contexts. One such context is the history of philosophy. How can we do justice to the undeniably historical character of philosophy without becoming mere administrators of the past? Heidegger emphasises that philosophy is more than its tradition, and this leads him to the question of ‘Being’, an issue which, as Plato says, inflames a “battle, like that of the gods and giants.” He has a vision of the unique way human beings exist in and relate to the world, and how this affects who we are and how we interact with everything. This is utterly fundamental to all philosophical enquiry. His ideas here have deeply influenced virtually every thinker who came after him in the Continental tradition. You see why he matters so much? Andrew Royle explains these core ideas of Heidegger in our lead article.

What was Heidegger like? Accounts of the handsome young philosopher with the charming and fascinating personality stand in stark contrast to the wooden photos that we have of him. He was an accomplished, almost professional skier. He felt most comfortable in nature and spent much of his time up in the mountains, in a sparsely furnished hut. Water had to be drawn from a nearby well. Heidegger cherished the solitude. Only his love of philosophy and his need to pursue it in an academic context chased this natural recluse away from his Black Forest isolation into the busy life of the university. Here, he was a star; his Being and Time, though understood by only a few, became a bestseller. Matthew Barnard’s article discusses this celebrity philosopher’s perspective on celebrity. Still, he was always keen to avoid the big city, declining an offer of a professorship in Berlin, spending all his professional life in the smaller, less frantic, cities of Freiburg and Marburg. He was a popular but difficult lecturer, his measured way of talking revealing the carefully prowling thinker: intense, focused, relentlessly digging deeper and deeper into a problem, never giving up, never distracted.

Heidegger didn’t believe mass media to be an appropriate means for philosophical discourse. He preferred one-to-one dialogue. Books too fulfilled this condition, since the reader can engage with them on their own terms, whereas TV or radio are not conducive to understanding. This ties in with a more general scepticism of technology (please read Bob James’ article). Heidegger didn’t dislike technology but worried about its unreflected, uncritical acceptance. He was adamant that we must make an effort to fully understand this life-changing aspect of our human existence.

I leave him here for you to judge, the man who is so impossible to understand, the philosopher who helps us understand so much.

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