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no one can jump over his own shadow

Richard Polt and Gregory Fried in conversation with Thomas Sheehan.

Richard Polt and Gregory Fried have collaborated on translations of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics and Nature, History, State. They co-edited A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics and are the editors of the series New Heidegger Research, published by Rowman & Littlefield International.  The interview conducted below is with Professor Thomas Sheehan, the author of the first title published in the series, Making Sense of Heidegger.  



Richard Polt & Gregory Fried: In your view, what have been the predominant paradigms in Heidegger research so far?

Thomas Sheehan: I understand a “paradigm of Heidegger research” as (1) a scholarly explanation of the whole of Heidegger’s oeuvre, at least as it is known at the time, and (2) one that is accepted by a significant number of Heidegger scholars—in short, a holistic interpretation that garners a significant scholarly following. On this reading, therefore, insofar as they meet the second criterion but not the first, the works of Hubert Dreyfus, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty do not constitute “paradigms” of Heidegger scholarship.

From the mid-1940s through the 1950s, few of Heidegger’s works were available in the Anglophone world, either in German or in translation, and he was understood largely as an existentialist who had exerted notable influence on Jean-Paul Sartre. Within this existentialist paradigm one of the better analyses in English was Thomas Langan’s The Meaning of Heidegger: A Critical Study of an Existentialist Philosophy (1959).

The years 1962-64 marked a critical turning point in Heidegger scholarship. His signature work Sein und Zeit (1927) was finally translated into English (Being and Time, 1962). The following year William J. Richardson published his majestic Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (1963), which covered Heidegger’s publications through 1958 and established what I call the “classical paradigm” that has dominated the scholarship for over fifty years.

Richardson’s reading was confirmed that same year by Otto Pöggeler’s Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking (1963; ET 1987), and in the following year by Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann’s Die Selbstinterpretation Martin Heideggers (“Martin Heidegger’s Self-Interpretation,” 1964).

These three texts interpreted Heidegger not as an existentialist focused on human being alone (Dasein) but rather as a phenomenological ontologist focused ultimately on the “meaning of being.”

RP & GF: Briefly, how does your own paradigm differ from the “classical paradigm”?

TS: Making Sense of Heidegger builds on and yet moves beyond the classical paradigm, in part because the book takes into account all of Heidegger’s published work up through the first half of 2014.

First, the book argues that Heidegger was a phenomenologist from beginning to end and that phenomenology is not about the “being” of things (i.e., the fact that they exist “out there” in the world and have a traditional “essence”). Rather, phenomenology is about the meaningful presence (Anwesen) of things within contexts of human concerns and interests.

Secondly, the book argues that the final focus of Heidegger’s work was not the meaningful presence (aka “being”) of things. Rather—and thirdly—his final focus was on the structure of human being that requires us to deal with things only discursively and thus only in terms of such meaningful presence. He called this structure “thrown-openness” or, in his later work, “appropriation.”

Finally, the book argues that (1) the classical paradigm got it wrong on both “appropriation” and the so-called “turn in Heidegger’s thinking”; (2) Heidegger’s so-called “history of being” is utterly inadequate to explain the condition of the modern world; and (3) that Heidegger’s reflections on technology are among the least convincing texts in his oeuvre.

The book also and importantly retranslates key terms in Heidegger’s lexicon, for example: “ex-sistence” for Da-sein and “appropriation” for Ereignis. In the latter case, “ap-propri-ation” refers to the fact that ex-sistence is a priori “thrown” into its proper condition of being, the openness that makes meaning possible and necessary.

RP & GF: Why wouldn’t a focus on the structure of human being amount to an anthropocentrism that Heidegger rejected?

TS: If the “anthropos” part of anthropo-centrism refers to ex-sistence as the essence of human being, Heidegger is anthropocentric.

Pace Heideggerian fundamentalists, Heidegger never got beyond the essence of human being as ex-sistence.  Our ex-sistence consists in our being made to “stand out ahead” of ourselves as a groundless “openness” or “clearing.” Within this openness we can synthesize this object here with that meaning there and thus understand the thing’s current “being,” i.e., what it currently is for us or better, how it is meaningfully present to us. Thus our essence as ex-sistence is what allows for all forms of “being”; and this is the answer to Heidegger’s basic question: “Whence the ‘being’ of things?”

However, if the “anthropos” refers to human beings—either singularly or as a whole—in disregard of their essence qua ex-sistence, then that is the kind of anthropocentrism that Heidegger rejected.

To take a specific case of anthropocentrism: Marx asserts that the root of man is man (“Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”). Would Heidegger agree with that? Yes and no. In general terms, yes: the essence of any particular person is his or her human essence. Specifically, no: Heidegger and Marx disagree on what the essence of a human being is.

RP & GF: What do you make of this well-known statement from the 1946 “Letter on ‘Humanism’”? “The human being is … ‘thrown’ by being itself into the truth of being, so that ex-sisting in this fashion he might guard the truth of being …. The human being is the shepherd of being” (Pathmarks, p. 252).

TS: Heidegger’s post-war language is an idiosyncratic and often obscure restatement of what he had already established in Being and Time (1927) and in texts up to the end of 1930. The sentences you cite require some translation into less obfuscating English. From a close reading of Heidegger’s own texts, Making Sense of Heidegger establishes the following:

The phrases “being itself” and “the truth of being” both refer to the thrown-open clearing that ex-sistence itself is. The phrase “thrown by being itself into the truth of being” is a redundant way of saying: human being—by its very essence, and not by some act of will—is always already open as the clearing, which in turn is the openedness (dis-closedness; Greek: a-letheia) that allows us to take this-as-that and thus to understand the current “being” of something for us.

As regards the phrase the “shepherd of being”: Metaphorically, our essence “cares for” (cf. Sorge) or “takes care of” any and all forms of “is.”

RP & GF: What about Heidegger’s statement against Sartre’s existentialist humanism: “Précisément nous sommes sur un plan où il y a principalement l’Être [We are precisely in a situation where principally there is being]” (Pathmakes, p. 254).

TS: Heidegger was a bad reader of Sartre (and remember, it was Jean Beaufret who interpreted Sartre for him) when he claimed that the difference between them was that for Sartre “We are in a situation where there are only human beings,” whereas for Heidegger “We are in a situation where there is principally being.”

First of all, Sartre’s words are taken out of context. In that paragraph Sartre is discussing the source of meaning and values after the “death of God,” Heidegger would agree with Sartre that phenomenologically one cannot responsibly appeal to God’s divine ideas as the source of truth or to God’s divine will as the source of value. Rather, in such matters both Heidegger and Sartre are emphatically “in a situation where there are only human beings.”

Second, the contrast (if it is that) between Sartre and Heidegger is not between “man” and “being.” What Heidegger means by “being” in the passage above is not the being of things but “being itself.” However, that phrase is only a heuristic term, one that stands in for the thrown-open clearing. But the thrown-open clearing is the essence of human being.

To say, as Heidegger does, that “we are in a situation where there is principally being” is to say that we cannot—at least phenomenologically—get “deeper” or “higher” than ex-sistence. It is precisely the thrown-open clearing that makes possible (or “gives,” in Heidegger’s language) all forms of the being of things.

Thus he says: “Ex-sistence is the individualized ‘X’ that gives being, that makes being possible. It is the ‘X-that-gives’ [das ‘es gibt’]” (GA 73, 1: 642.28–29).  Heidegger even says that the openness which is ex-sistence “belongs to being itself, ‘is’ being itself, and for that reason is called Da-sein” (GA 6, 2: 323.14-15). In short, ex-sistence in its fullness is the one and only topic of Heidegger’s thought.

So, Heidegger should have actually read Sartre instead of getting him secondhand from Beaufret.

RP & GF: What about the famous “turn” in Heidegger’s thinking in the 1930s?

TS: The book argues that there was no such “turn” in the 1930s. The technical term “turn” (Kehre) has at least four distinct meanings in Heidegger’s philosophy, and this fact has thrown off the scholarship for the last seventy-five years.

Usually—and incorrectly—the “turn” is taken to mean that in the 1930s Heidegger changed the orientation of his work from a focus on ex-sistence (Dasein) to a concentration on “being” (Sein). However, Heidegger himself insisted that the primary and proper sense of the Kehre is not some such change in orientation but rather what he called the “oscillating” sameness of ex-sistence and the clearing-for-meaning. In other words, the Kehre in its proper sense is the very “thing itself,” the core topic, of Heidegger’s philosophy and not a change in the direction of his thinking.

Nonetheless—and this is typical of many of his terms, including the word “being”—it must be said that he himself did not always make this clear in his writings. Could Heidegger have been less obscure and more straightforward, both in his philosophy in general and in his terminology? Answer: Is the Pope a Catholic?



RP & GF: What is Heidegger’s so-called “history of being” (Seinsgeschichte)?

TS: Heidegger’s “history of being” is in fact five distinct things. First of all it is a straightforward historical account of what “being” (Sein) has meant and how it has functioned in a dozen philosophers from the pre-Socratics through Nietzsche.

Second, it argues that these philosophers either did not question (in the case of the pre-Socratics) or overlooked and forgot (from Plato to Husserl) the appropriation of ex-sistence that makes all forms of “being” possible. As such, the “history of being” is also a “history of forgetting,” but it is the philosophical forgetting not of “being” but of the appropriation of ex-sistence, its a priori status as the openness that makes possible all forms of meaning, aka “being.”

Third, the “history of being” is an argument that appropriation “gives” or “sends” the various historical configurations of the clearing-for-meaning “to” the philosophers who comprise Heidegger’s history, even as those philosophers overlook the source of such “sendings.”

Fourthly, Heidegger’s history of (a) the overlooking of appropriation, coupled with (b) the “sending” of configurations of the clearing-for-meaning becomes a narrative of the devolution of Western culture, a downfall that is due precisely to the overlooking of appropriation.

This alleged concatenation of ever-increasing stages of obliviousness—what Heidegger discusses as “metaphysics”—culminates, in his story, in the contemporary global modus vivendi that is characterized by widespread techno-think and techno-do, such that any inkling of appropriation is obliterated, with disastrous consequences.

Fifth and finally, Heidegger claims one can get free of this “history of being”—this “metaphysics” and its current depredations—by personally (a) recovering an awareness of one’s status as the appropriated clearing and (b) living one’s life in terms of that finite and mortal clearing, which in fact is one’s “nature” or “essence.”

RP & GF: Where do you think Heidegger went wrong in his “history of being”?

TS: It is in the fourth sense of the “history of being” that Heidegger overreached and went far beyond his competence. I argue that;

the first sense of the “history of being” is a notable contribution to philosophy;
the second sense can indeed be argued coherently and even convincingly;
the third sense is the later Heidegger’s rearticulation in “historical” terms of what his early work had already established in existential terms;
the fourth sense is a philosophically ungrounded and ungroundable claim—i.e., here is where Heidegger went wrong; and
the fifth sense is only a later—and not entirely clear—restatement of what Being and Time has already established under the rubric of “resolve” and “authenticity.”

RP & GF: If he did go wrong, as you suggest, why did he?

TS: From very early on, Heidegger held a mostly negative view of modernity—economic, social, and political—and of its philosophical “turn to the subject” from Descartes to his own day.

The roots of that view may lie in the conservative Catholicism of his youth; in his idealization of rural life in late nineteenth-century Germany; in his discomfort at the flourishing of German science and technology after 1860; in his resistance to the rationalization of the lifeworld; and in his shock at the horrors of the Great War and his country’s abject defeat.

Heidegger once said that “no one can jump over his own shadow” (GA 41: 153.24 =150.28–29) and he liked to cite Hölderlin’s verse, “As you began, so will you remain,” (GA 12: 88. 25 = 7.24–25, citing “Der Rhein,” line 48.).  These texts may offer clues to Heidegger’s own approach to modernity. We may wonder whether his own shadow—his limited personal and cultural experience, his pinched worldview, his deep anti-modern conservatism—restricted his ability to understand and properly engage past history and present events.

Heidegger viewed all of Western history sub specie metaphysicae. He claimed that “metaphysics is the essential ground of Western history” (GA 76: 56.18), and his later work, with its top-down “philosophical” worldview, is bereft of any sophisticated or even competent awareness of the concrete economic, social, and political grounds of the twentieth-century world.

RP & GF: The three volumes of “Black Notebooks” published last spring (and there are more to come) leave no reasonable doubt that Heidegger had anti-Semitic attitudes. And his public statements, even into the 1940s, indicated that he supported, with whatever qualifications, the Nazi regime and its war efforts. How do you see this affecting his philosophy?

TS: Heidegger’s attempt to launder his cultural pessimism and revanchist nationalism through his “metaphysical history” of the downfall of the West is a complete failure and should be recognized as such. This includes, most saliently and infamously, his undeniable anti-Semitism and Nazism.

In my opinion, the attempts of Heideggerians to “explain” his anti-Semitism via exculpatory qualifications (e.g., “he wasn’t a biological anti-Semite like the Nazis”) are abject strategies of avoidance, a desperate refusal to accept the obvious. The question, rather, is whether his deep cultural anti-Semitism, along with his craven allegiance to Hitler, hemorrhage into the core of his philosophy.

Some, like the indefatigable but philosophically challenged Emmanuel Faye, insist that Heidegger was a Nazi even before he was born and that from beginning to end his philosophy was nothing but an effort—in Faye’s words—“to introduce Nazism into philosophy.”

I argue—admittedly against mainstream scholarship—that the essential core of Heidegger’s philosophy was in place by the end of 1930 and that it is in no way tainted by his later Nazism or his abiding anti-Semitism. However, when it comes to his work from the 1930s into the 1950s, one must carefully and critically pick and choose between what is infected and what is not.

As far as I can see (and barring further revelations) his public work after 1960 is free of Nazism and anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, it still continues his uninformed and narrow-minded anti-modernism.

RP & GF:  Those same “Black Notebooks” also show that he developed an increasingly vehement critique of Nazi metaphysics as a form of modern subjectivism and will to power. Do you think this critique is useful, or is it compromised by what you think is his misreading of modernity more generally?

TS: Yes, those volumes do express Heidegger’s critique of “Nazi metaphysics”—but that’s the problem: Heidegger approached Nazism in the same way that he approached everything else—the World War and the Holocaust included—namely as a metaphysical problem.

What planet was Heidegger living on between 1933 and 1945? Yes, he was a philosopher, but that in no way exempted him from investigating the specific economic, social, and political roots of modernity.

Instead, what we get from him is a top-down “philosophical” narrative about the West’s abiding ignorance of Ereignis, with its disastrous consequences, along with a Solzhenitsyn-like jeremiad against modernity and its intrusions on rural life. And all of this is topped off with the lovely thought that “only a god can save us.” Surely we can do better than that.



Thomas Sheehan is Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, he specializes in contemporary European philosophy and its relation to religious questions, with particular interests in Heidegger and Roman Catholicism. As well as the recently published Making Sense of Heidegger, his books include: Martin Heidegger, Logic: The Question of Truth (trans., 2007); Becoming Heidegger (2007);Edmund Husserl: Psychological and Transcendental Phenomenology and the Encounter with Heidegger (1997); Karl Rahner: The Philosophical Foundations (1987); The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (1986); and Heidegger, the Man and the Thinker(1981).



Richard Polt is professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. He is the author of Heidegger: An Introduction and The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s “Contributions to Philosophy.”

Gregory Fried is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Suffolk University in Boston. Together with Richard Polt, he is the series editor of New Heidegger Research, with Rowman and Littlefield international. He is the author of Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics and has written numerous articles on Heidegger.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 8th, 2014.