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Martin Heidegger, "What Is Metaphysics?"

Martin Heidegger, "What Is Metaphysics?"

10 Mins
February 21, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " The Continental Origins of Postmodernism ."

Essays and Comments on Heidegger's "What Is Metaphysics?"

1. Bryan Register, "Getting a Grip on Nothing"

2. Roger Donway, "Heidegger's Attempt to Redeem Metaphysics"

Summary of the Discussion

Do Heidegger's Arguments Matter? by David L. Potts

When I was a (much!) younger philosophy student, I used to argue vehemently with people who accepted the then very fashionable doctrine of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism seemed to me then, and still does, to be an absurdly, obviously (even contemptibly) false doctrine. One argument, which I thought quite devastating to cultural relativism (and, again, still do), is from self-referential inconsistency. That is, since cultural relativism holds that there is no objective truth, but only truth relative to a given culture, it is therefore impossible, within cultural relativism, to assert the (objective) truth of cultural relativism.

I found, however, that when I deployed self-referential inconsistency against cultural relativists, it never fazed them. Not that they denied the point, as you would expect of ordinary ideologues. They would usually in fact accept it when pushed far enough. They just didn’t care.

When I pointed out their inconsistency, cultural relativists just didn't care.

I was complaining about this sad state of affairs one day to a fellow student. And he said a thing, which I’ve never forgotten: “They don't care about arguments like that [self-referential inconsistency] because they evaluate a philosophy not by its arguments but by its prospects for yielding a satisfying solution to the whole range of philosophical problems.” For example, in the case of cultural relativism, cultural relativism abolishes the problems of trying to find objective criteria of knowledge, but at the same time doesn’t promote a free-for-all, since cultural strictures on knowledge claims still apply, and, best of all, seems to provide an iron-clad defense of social tolerance by undercutting people’s claims to final truth.

I want to suggest that Heidegger and his supporters likewise practice this “style” of philosophy. Observe the way Heidegger proceeds in “What Is Metaphysics?” He says science wants to study beings--and nothing else (Basic Writings 97). In so doing he is claiming that the concept of everything somehow requires that of nothing. But he doesn’t press the point (which is good for him since it is false). He goes on to acknowledge that logic itself rules out the nothing, since thinking can only be of something (99). But then he asserts without argument that perhaps negation (the logical operation) depends upon some other, prior nothing (99). Then, after more burbling about the absurdity of trying to say something about nothing from the standpoint of logic, intellect, and science, he launches his analysis of anxiety (101) and just asserts that in anxiety we experience a nothing more primordial than mere logical negation, and he’s off to the races with oracular pronouncements about “Dasein,” nihilation, selfhood, freedom, Pure Being, and going “beyond metaphysics.”

In short, there is no serious argument in the essay whatever. It is a tissue of obscure assertions one is supposed to fit together into a satisfying total picture. Now, I am not exactly saying that if the arguments don’t matter to Heidegger they shouldn’t matter to us either; but I am saying that, if one tries to engage these people, one should not delude oneself that arguments are primary.

General Comment on Heidegger Discussion, by Stephen Hicks

Martin Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?” is a difficult text for anyone. I was therefore impressed with the CyberSeminar’s participants’ level of analysis: those writing the lead essays focused on the essential issues, and those offering comments maintained that focus while developing and debating interpretations and implications. And I was slightly surprised and impressed with everyone’s ability to maintain civility while dealing with a frustrating text and with the unpleasantness of disagreeing with others. That’s not a small thing: my experience leads me to expect Objectivists to be focused and sharp in their analyses, but not to expect such consistent civility.

The twenty-six posts that I have read cover a comprehensive range of issues: defining Postmodernism, determining what Heidegger says, comparing Heidegger and Postmodernism, comparing Heidegger and Objectivism , and discussing what Objectivism itself says about several fundamental issues.

Submission in “What is Metaphysics?” by Michelle Fram Cohen

I would like to point out an interesting process which I observed in “What is Metaphysics.” This process involves three instances of the discussion of man’s relationship to whatever is outside of him, that is, everything else. The central issue is whether man is to submit to or to control everything else.

The first instance is the discussion of science in the beginning of the article (243). Heidegger describes man’s scientific activity as being of “a certain limited submission to what-is” and as having a “submissive attitude.” In this context, *submission* is a submission to the laws of the natural world, very much in the spirit of Francis Bacon’s statement: “Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Heidegger admits that based on this submission, science can acquire “a leadership of its own, albeit limited, in the whole field of human existence.”

It is a submission to a commandment for total self-annihilation.

The second instance is the discussion of modern science, as opposed to the science discussed before (258). In modern science, “what is” is determined by man’s will. Instead of submission to the subject matter which science refers to, the subject matter makes its appearance as a result of man’s will. Thus man gains “the sovereign power to effect a general objectivisation.” Once liberated from any need for submission to anything, all that man’s will needs is the will to will to secure its sovereignty.

The third and final instance is the discussion of man’s capacity for “essential thinking” as opposed to thinking on “what is” (262). Here man’s will apparently loses its sovereignty. Man is to surrender his “historical being” to the great “Being” in defiance of the welfare of “what is.” In a language reminiscent of Ellsworth Toohey’s advice to Catherine Halsey in The Fountainhead , only through a complete sacrifice of his self can man come to contact with the essential truth of Being.

The process brings man back to submission, but not the submission of obeying the laws of Nature. It is a submission to a commandment for total self-annihilation.

Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?” by Stephen Hicks

My comments are supplementary to the pillar essays from Bryan Register and Roger Donway , and to the posts from David Potts , Jamie Mellway , Michael Young , and Eyal Mozes that offered commentary and further interpretation. I summarize briefly the main themes from Heidegger’s “What Is Metaphysics?” and list his similarities and differences with postmodernism.

As interpretive supplements I have included a few quotations from Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (transl. Ralph Manheim, Yale 1959, originally delivered as a lecture in 1935), and I mention his 1946 “Letter on Humanism,” written in response to Sartre’s humanistic version of existentialism. Other page numbers are to the version of “What Is Metaphysics?” that I am working from, the one in Walter Kaufmann’s revised and expanded edition of Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.

Thematic Structure of “What Is Metaphysics?”
Heidegger’s essay moves from:

(1) a characterization of metaphysics that is Aristotelian ontologically but Platonic/mystic epistemologically, to

(2) a consideration of the linguistic problems of discussing Being and Nothing, which leads to

(3) his rejecting or setting aside reason and logic as a means of doing metaphysics, to

4) the use of emotions such as boredom and dread to access Being and Nothing, to

5) a discussion of the human being/Da-sein that is involved in this metaphysical enterprise, to

6) an account of Being and Nothing that rejects the scientific account and reconciles itself with the Judeo-Christian/Hegelian account, and, finally,

(7) a discussion of Being/Nothing’s ethical demands upon us for sacrifice.

Heidegger scholarship contains controversy on all these points, exacerbated no doubt by the obscurity of the text. I don’t want to pronounce on the excellent interpretative debates that have emerged in the CyberSeminar discussions but rather to point out a few additional passages that bear on a final interpretation.

(1) Characterizing Metaphysics. Roger Donway and Eyal Mozes discussed extensively the extent to which Heidegger’s characterization of metaphysics is Aristotelian, Objectivist, or neither.

To that discussion let me add the following. (a) In doing metaphysics Heidegger says we are seeking the essence or ground of what-is. The essence/ground will be common to everything, and so true of all things; in that sense, Heidegger is Aristotelian. (b) However, the essence/ground is not for Heidegger given in ordinary experience: one must lose or distance oneself from ordinary experience to experience it. Since one can’t straightforwardly empirically or rationally come to experience or grasp abstractly the essence/ground, Heidegger is non-Aristotelian. (c) But it’s not quite Platonic either, for in coming to experience the essence/ground one is not leaving one metaphysical dimension and entering another; rather it seems to be a continuum of definiteness that one traverses in relating to what-is either more or less particularly or generally. (d) Finally, there is a mystic/agnostic streak in Heidegger, for in various places he indicates that the ultimate essence/ground is a mystery that will always be beyond the grasp of finite beings. In our text, an indication of this occurs about three pages before the end of the “Postscript,” when Heidegger says, in rejecting calculative thought’s relevance to metaphysics, that “Calculative thought places itself under compulsion to master everything in the logical terms of its procedure. It has no notion that in calculation everything calculable is already a whole whose unity naturally belongs to the incalculable which, with its mystery, ever eludes the clutches of calculation” (262). He seems to be saying not only that calculative thought cannot grasp the whole/unity, but that the unity of the whole is itself ultimately a mystery.

Let me consider together (2) Linguistic problems of Being and Nothing, (3) Rejecting/setting aside logic and reason, and (6) Heidegger’s account of Being and Nothing. Given the impossibility of capturing the Nothing in terms acceptable to logic, Bryan Register raises the question of the extent to which Heidegger is rejecting logic or merely traditional and inadequate logics.

Early in “The Development of the Question” section, Heidegger indicates that his target is not simply traditional logic, but rather reason as a whole, of which logic is a part. He notes that his project fails if one assumes “that in this enquiry ‘logic’ is the highest court of appeal, that reason is the means and thinking the way to an original comprehension of Nothing and its possible revelation” (245)/ So we have “logic,” reason, and thinking as the obstacles to his project. Later, in the section entitled “The Answer to the Question,” Heidegger, having indicated his account of Nothing, says: “If this breaks the sovereignty of reason in the field of enquiry into Nothing and Being, then the fate of the rule of ‘logic’ is also decided. The very idea of ‘logic’ disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning” (253). “Logic” is rejected since reason itself is rejected. This suggests a more radical rejection of logic.

Just how radical a rejection is indicated about halfway through the “Postscript,” where Heidegger tells us why he puts “logic” in scare quotes: “In order to indicate that ‘logic’ is only one exposition of the nature of thinking, and one which, as its name shows, is based on the experience of Being as attained in Greek thought” (261). Thus, it is the entire tradition of philosophy as initiated by the Greeks that Heidegger is targeting and calling into question.

(Let me add two quotations about logic from Introduction to Metaphysics that speak to this issue: “Authentic speaking about nothing always remains extraordinary. It cannot be vulgarized. It dissolves if it is placed in the cheap acid of merely logical intelligence” (26) and “Logic is an invention of schoolteachers, not of philosophers” (121).)

The reason for this radical rejection of logic and reason is that Heidegger’s account of Being and Nothing comes out of the Judeo-Christian and Hegelian traditions. Our first whiff of serious Hegelianism, in “The Answer to the Question” section, occurs when Heidegger identifies Nothing with the essence of Being: “Nothing not merely provides the conceptual opposite of what-is but is also an original part of essence. It is in the Being of what-is that the nihilation of Nothing occurs” (251). Then, having developed this theme, Heidegger quotes approvingly Hegel’s identification of Being and Nothing. “‘Pure Being and pure Nothing are thus one and the same.’ This proposition of Hegel’s (‘The Science of Logic,’ I, WW III, p. 74) is correct” (255). All of this discussion takes place in the context of affirming the Judeo-Christian account of creation, in which God created the world out of nothing (254-255); as Heidegger puts it, “every being, so far as it is a being, is made out of nothing.”

Heidegger thus frames the debate the way Objectivists would: the choice is between a rational/logical/Aristotelian metaphysic and a non-rational/non-logical/Christian/Hegelian one.

Hicks on Heidegger, Part Deux, by Stephen Hicks

(The following remarks, like those in my earlier post, are brief and intended as complementary to those interpretations of Heidegger in the pillar essays and commentaries.)

(5) Heidegger on Da-sein. Having rejected reason and logic, Heidegger feels furcht. Or rather, since the state of furcht is fear directed toward particulars and the state he describes is one of dread/anxiety about everything in general and nothing in particular, he experiences angst.

This angst is the metaphysically revelatory state for Heidegger. It is to the extent that one is in this state of dread/anxiety that Da-sein reaches its metaphysical ground. Here, Heidegger seems to emphasize two features of pure Da-sein: its indefiniteness (in contrast to its definiteness when focused on day-to-day ordinary things) and its activity (in contrast to its being a subject or a thing).

Angst is the metaphysically revelatory state for Heidegger.

Heidegger explains his choice of “Da-sein” by defining it as follows: “Da-sein means being projected into Nothing” (251). It is the being projecting that is Da-sein--not that, if anything, which is projected or does the projecting. This emphasis on activity fits with Heidegger’s desire to avoid subject/object characterizations. It also fits with Heidegger’s being a type of Existentialist, for he emphasizes that what we are is defined by activity, rather than by being a substance with a set nature, and that the core activity is projection into Nothing, rather than into a world of solid identity that is what it is. (Here a comparison to Sartre may be helpful: for Sartre, our existence precedes essence, and we define ourselves by the core commitments we make.)

The theme of indefiniteness appears on page 249. There Heidegger seems to indicate that one loses identity to the extent that one projects into Nothing. (This contrasts with some other Existentialists who hold that we acquire identity to the extent we make commitments.) “In dread we are ‘in suspense’ (wir schweben). Or, to put it more precisely, dread holds us in suspense because it makes what-is-in-totality slip away from us. Hence we too, as existents in the midst of what-is, slip away from ourselves along with it. For this reason it is not ‘you’ or ‘I’ that has the uncanny feeling, but ‘one.’ In the trepidation of this suspense where there is nothing to hold on to, pure Da-sein is all that remains.” The “one” that remains for Heidegger is not a particularized “you” or “I,” but a state of being overwhelmed by Nothing: “The only thing that remains and overwhelms us whilst what-is slips away, is this ‘nothing’” (249).

(When I read this, I thought of Rand’s description of John Galt as a man that reality fit like a glove. For Heidegger, by contrast, all of reality slips away from one, one loses one’s “I” identity, and to that extent one is Da-sein.)

This is for Heidegger more than a metaphysical or phenomenological characterization: it has ethical import. In the main body of the essay, Heidegger occasionally uses evaluative terms such as “courageous” (253) to describe those who seek/accept the dread/anxiety and speaks of the “crucial importance” of “letting oneself go into Nothing” (257). In the “Postscript” he speaks more explicitly of the ethics.

(7) Being/Nothing’s ethical demands upon us for sacrifice. In their posts, Bryan Register and Roger Donway present a more humanistic version of Heideggerian ethics, emphasizing the themes of freedom, choice, self-creation, and self-determination. These themes dominate Sartrean versions of Existentialism, and there is much debate about the extent to which they are Heideggerian or not.

Man and everything that “is” are to be sacrificed to that which is higher: the truth of Being.

As supplement, I will mention Heidegger’s 1946 essay, “Letter on Humanism,” written in response to his former student Sartre’s 1945 lecture on humanism. In Sartre’s lecture, man was still the center of all meaning and valuation--“man is the future of man,” according to Sartre. This drew Heidegger’s wrath. For Heidegger, putting man at the center has been the great crime of western philosophy since Plato, for on Heidegger’s account all the evils of the modern world--science, technology, capitalism, communism--stem from “anthropologizing” Being. For Heidegger, that whole man-centered tradition needed “Destruktion.” Being is not for man; rather man is for Being.

This I think fits with the role Heidegger gives to sacrifice in the last few pages of the “Postscript” to “What Is Metaphysics?” Two particularly striking quotations follow.

“The need is: to preserve the truth of Being no matter what may happen to man and everything that ‘is.’ Freed from all constraint, because born of the abyss of freedom, this sacrifice is the expense of our human being for the preservation of the truth of Being in respect of what-is” (262).

And: “Sacrifice is rooted in the nature of the event through which Being claims man for the truth of Being. Therefore it is that sacrifice brooks no calculation, for calculation always miscalculates sacrifice in terms of the expedient and the inexpedient, no matter whether the aims are set high or low. Such calculation distorts the nature of sacrifice. The search for a purpose dulls the clarity of the awe, the spirit of sacrifice ready prepared for dread, which takes upon itself kinship with the imperishable” (263).

Man and everything that “is,” i.e., the day-to-day, non-metaphysical realm, are to be sacrificed to that which is higher: the truth of Being. We are not to ask why sacrifice is needed, for that would be to seek calculable purposes. We do know from earlier in the essay, however, that the truth of Being is that Being is Nothing. So if we are still allowed to be logical at this point, we seem to have in Heidegger a call for unquestioning sacrifice of everything human for Nothing. As Michelle Fram-Cohen suggested, this is a call for self-annihilation.

Heidegger and Postmodernism. Heidegger’s similarities to postmodernism are many, and I found Roger Donway’s list to be very helpful. I would like to highlight three similarities.

(a) Heidegger’s use of linguistic sleight of hand for its own sake and for discrediting reason is a precursor to the techniques of deconstruction.

(b) Heidegger’s identification of his enemy as the whole western philosophical tradition is a precursor to the postmodernists’ attempting to set aside all previous philosophies, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Cartesian, Lockean, or Kantian.

(c) Heidegger’s making emotions, and especially negative emotions, be especially revelatory and central is a precursor to many postmodernists’ dark psychological worlds and their focus on the disturbed, marginalized, and bizarre.

I don’t think of Heidegger as a postmodernist but rather as a last step to postmodernism. Two differences strike me as significant.

(d) Heidegger is doing metaphysics, and speaks of there being a truth out there about the world that we must seek or let find us, while postmodernists are anti-realists, holding that it is meaningless to speak of truths out there or of a language that could capture them.

(e) Heidegger speaks of the mysteriousness of deep truth about Being, while for most postmodernists everything is either surface and superficial or able to be exposed by deconstruction.

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