David Cooper has written a first-rate introduction to the life and thought of Martin Heidegger. Despite the brevity of his work, Cooper has packed into it a biographical sketch of Heidegger, a discussion of Being and Time (1927) and of Heidegger’s other interwar and postwar writings, an appraisal of interpretive literature dealing with his subject’s involvement with the Nazis, and a concluding bibliographical essay. One marvels at the lean graceful prose and the breadth of learning revealed in this text. Heideggerian terminology—e.g., Sein, Dasein, Sein in der Welt, Sorge, and Zuhandensein—is clarified and illustrated, and Cooper shows the architectonics of Heidegger’s anthology by helping the reader to understand its conceptual points of reference. He also underscores the degree to which Heidegger associated the understanding of existence and existents with the situation of being rooted. For Heidegger philosophical understanding did not proceed from being a disinterested spectator, gazing at life from outside. It came with the precondition of being beheimatet, situated within a specific cultural and communal horizon.
Cooper notes the centrality of Edmund Husseri’s phenomenology in leading Heidegger toward this view. Heidegger’s mentor at Freiburg, Husserl had stressed the need to reconstruct the science of knowledge around structured meditation on the essential aspects of knowing. Through his epistemic method Husserl hoped to separate the accidental and fleeting from the permanent parts of perception, and this would occur through a complicated process of bracketing (epoché). For Husserl and for Heidegger cognition involved intentionality, a deliberate privileging of particular sensory data by the percipient: a sound epistemology, for Husserl would, moreover, aim at understanding the internal structure of will and mind operating behind each perception.
Heidegger accepted the notion of intentionality, but believed that Husserl was engaging in “erroneous subjectivizing” by looking to his own consciousness for philosophic answers. Instead, Heidegger thought, he should have focused on the integral relation between the subject and the subject’s condition of being. Heidegger transferred the concept of intentionality to an ontological context and proceeded to look at the unfolding of life as “being in the world.” What had to be bracketed were not the abstract extrapolations of our thinking but what Heidegger saw as the conditions for our acting in the world: understanding, fallenness into being, and situatedness (Befindlichkeit). These, for Heidegger, are the “existentiala” that define our interpersonal engagements; and, rather than approaching life as detached rational beings, we necessarily pursue existence (Heidegger insists in Being and Time) as bearers of “care” (Sorge). Once hurled into the world we can make sense of it only while being rooted in human relations and living with collective commitments.
Cooper observes that Heidegger’s reconstruction of phenomenology into an existential ontology both prefigured and strengthened his turning toward the radical right. A critic of rationalism and individualism, Heidegger gravitated toward movements stressing both cultural rootedness and an aversion to modernity. His German Catholic and at least derivatively peasant background nurtured this anti-modernism, although Cooper properly warns against the facile connection made by one Heidegger debunker, Victor Farias, between the philosopher’s Swabian Catholic upbringing and his later support for Hitler.
On the whole, Cooper deals fairly with Heidegger’s early enthusiasm for Hitler. Cooper cites philosophical and moral positions that might have made Heidegger receptive to the new German regime, such as his known hatred for modern technology combined with the naive belief that Nazism was about a return to premodern peasant life. But Cooper also underlines two points that, in my opinion, need to be stressed in discussions of this kind: that neither Heidegger’s traditionalism nor his ontological restatement of phenomenology has a necessary connection to Nazism, and that most of his hobnobbing with the Nazis resulted from professional ambitions.
Heidegger later inveighed against nuclear warfare and ecological contamination, but this should not be seen as a mere extension of his existential thought proceeding from the 20’s. Throughout his life Heidegger had a marvelous facility to adapt what Jürgen Habermas calls “the vocabulary of authenticity” to political opportunities. After the collapse of Nazism he sought rehabilitation through a kind of alliance with the anti-American European left. By the 50’s, Les Temps Modernes and other European leftist magazines were publishing Heidegger on the dangers of nuclear war and American cultural and economic imperialism. Needless to say, the left’s love affair with Heidegger was doomed despite the best efforts to keep it alive by Jean-Paul Sartre and, more recently, Richard Rorty. Though Heidegger turned furiously against American commerce and nuclear arsenals, his philosophy was, as Cooper describes it, a profoundly anti-modernist one.
This leads to a final point that Cooper does not address. Given the material he does cover in his short study, it might be asking too much that he deal with this too. But in a series devoted to conservative thinkers (as this one, “Thinkers of Our Time,” is), it would be reasonable to ask: What influence does or should Heidegger have on the current intellectual right? Undoubtedly he has had a certain impact, if we limit our observations to the European postmodern right. Among those who, like the French and Italian New Right, challenge the concept of human rights and emphasize cultural particularities, Heidegger’s critique of modernity and existential defense of rootedness have a place of honor. But on this side of the Atlantic, Heideggerian thinking has even less currency on the right than on the left Both neoconservatives and the Christian—particularly the Catholic—right hate Heidegger, one group condemning him as a German rightist who attacked the Enlightenment and the other decrying him as an “atheist” and historicist. And the American right, from neoconservative Allan Bloom to Catholic traditionalists Thomas Molnar and Gerhart Niemeyer, view Heidegger as a particularly influential and sinister figure, one whose legion of disciples must be daily combated.
In my view, Heidegger does have value as a social critic and philosopher, but it is necessary to contextualize his thought while attempting to apply it. One simply cannot accept the grandiose claims that Heidegger makes for himself, or his extravagant demand that we treat the Socratic turn in Western thought as a costly derailment. Heidegger’s value should be seen in his critical relation to the Enlightenment and rationalism and in his elaboration of the intuitions of earlier philosophers, particularly Schelling, Nietzsche, and Husserl. His own insistence on the situatedness of thinking must be applied to him as well. Heidegger was not a pre-Socratic Greek returned as a Swabian peasant, but a post-romantic romantic, resurrecting and refining 19th- and early 20th-century European thought.
Postmodern traditionalists who invoke Heidegger against technicism and managerial ideologies should be honest about their own project. They have not really set out to extirpate the Enlightenment root and branch or to return philosophy to 13th-century Paris or to fifth-century B.C. Athens. They have incorporated Heidegger’s thought selectively in constructing a particular critique. And there is good reason that this incorporation be selective. One should not have to swallow all of Heidegger’s ideas, expressed over a 40-year period, to recognize the merits of some of them. I myself find much to learn from Heidegger’s interwar philosophizing but less from his postwar work, much of which seems full of posturing and deliberate obscurity. Rather than slavish devotees, the corpus of his work should elicit qualified admiration, and while we can profit from his criticism of rationalists, this should not obscure the fact that we and Heidegger have been influenced by the Age of Reason and by older traditions of reasoned discourse. We do not have to reject all of the thinking of Hume, Kant, and Hobbes, or Plato and Aristotle, to appreciate Heidegger’s critical stance toward liberalism and “erroneous subjectivizing.” Cooper believes that Heidegger demands from us this either/or choice, which is one that Victor Farias, Allan Bloom, and other anti-Heideggerians also wish to have us make. Nonetheless, it is not one that is necessary in order to extract what is useful and perceptive in Heidegger.
[Heidegger, by David E. Cooper (London: Claridge Press) 94 pp.]