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Rethinking the Political: Some Heideggerian Contributions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Recent literature on Heidegger concentrates heavily on his (temporary) involvement in or collusion with Nazi ideology and policies. Without belittling the gravity of the issue, this article shifts the focus somewhat by invoking a distinction which recently has emerged (or reemerged) in political thought: namely, the distinction between “politics” and “the political” or between politics viewed as partisan ideology or policy making, on the one hand, and politics seen as regime or paradigmatic framework, on the other. The main thesis of the article is that Heidegger's promising contributions to political theory are located on the level of ontology or paradigmatic framework rather than that of ideological partisanship. While not neglecting the dismal intrusions of the latter plane, the article probes Heideggerian cues for a “rethinking of the political” by placing the accent on four topical areas: first, the status of the subject or individual as political agent; second, the character of the political community, that is, of the polity or (in modern terms) the “state”; thirdly, the issue of cultural and political development or modernization; and finally, the problem of an emerging cosmopolis or world order beyond the confines of Western culture. In discussing these topics, an effort is made to disentangle Heidegger from possible misinterpretations and to indicate how, in each area, his thought pointed in the direction of an “overcoming” of Western political metaphysics.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1990

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1. The juxtaposition of paradigmatic and extraparadigmatic ages approximates Charles Péguy's distinction between historical “periods” and “epochs”—about which Merleau-Ponty writes: “When one is living in what Péguy called an historical period, in which political man is content to administer a regime or an established law, one can hope for a history without violence. When one has the misfortune or the luck to live in an epoch, or one of those moments where the traditional ground of a nation or society crumbles and where, for better or worse, man himself must reconstruct human relations, then the liberty of each man is a mortal threat to the others and violence reappears” (Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Humanism and Terror, trans. O'Neill, John [Boston: Beacon Press, 1969], p. xvii).Google Scholar

2. Vollradi, Ernst, “The ‘Rational’ and the ‘Political’: An Essay in the Semantics of Politics,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 13 (1987): 19;Google Scholar see also his Grundlegung einer philosophischen Theorie des Politischen (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1987), pp. 2956.Google Scholar For a German precedent for the distinction compare Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political (1932), trans. Schwab, George (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976)Google Scholar; for French precedents Ricoeur, Paul, “The Political Paradox” in his History and Truth, trans. Kelbley, Charles A. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), pp. 247–70,Google Scholar and Balibar, Etienne, Ferry, Luc, Lacoue-Labarthe, Ph., Lyotard, J.-F., and Nancy, Jean-Luc, Rejouer le Politique (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1981);Google Scholar and for American precedents Wolin, Sheldon S., Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966), p. 43,Google Scholar and Pitkin, Hanna F., Wittgenstein and Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 215.Google Scholar

3. There is some reason to believe that Heidegger mistook Nazism for an ontological or paradigmatic innovation, while its chosen label itself (National Socialism) revealed its indebtedness to traditional partisan ideologies: namely, to “nationalism” or chauvinism and to “socialism” construed here as populism (a populism demagogically manipulated by a “leader”). For detailed studies of Heidegger's political debacle see Farias, Victor, Heidegger and Nazism, trans. Burrell, Paul and Ricci, Gabriel R. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989),Google Scholar and Ott, Hugo, Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographic (Frankfurt-Main: Campus, 1988).Google Scholar

4. In large measure, the individualist outlook of modern rationalism was shared by modern empiricism with its focus on the individual organism as receptacle of sensations and stimuli. To the extent that it departed from the contractual model, empiricism placed the accent on individual socialization or habituation (or else on the deliberate engineering of social environments).

5. See Heidegger, Martin, Sein und Zeit, 11th ed. (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1967), pp. 115–16Google Scholar (par. 25); Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Lawrence, Frederick (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), pp. 138–89, 148–52.Google Scholar For a fuller discussion of the section and of Habermas's critique see my The Discourse of Modernity: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger (and Habermas)Praxis International 8 (1989): 377406;Google Scholar also my Margins of Political Discourse (Albany, NY: Suny Press, 1989), pp. 5758, 60.Google Scholar For a detailed vindication of me nonsubjectivist character of Being and Time see Friedrich-Wilhelm Von Herrmann, , Subjekt und Dasein: Interpretationen zu “Sein und Zeit,” 2nd ed. (Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1985).Google Scholar

6. Heidegger, , Sein und Zeit, pp. 2, 7Google Scholar (par. 1), 46 (par. 10), 95–96 (par. 21), 318–320 (par. 64). For a fuller treatment of the divergence between Dasein and subjectivity in Being and Time see my Egology and Being and Time” in Twilight of Subjectivity: Contributions to a Post-Individualist Theory of Politics (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), pp. 5664.Google Scholar

7. Heidegger, , Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis) (Gesamtausgabe, vol. 65; Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1989), pp. 295–96 (par. 173).Google Scholar

8. Beiträge, pp. 295Google Scholar (par. 172), 322 (par. 198). The notion of the contest between “earth and world” contains an implicit reference to the argument in Heidegger's lectures on “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935–36); see Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. Krell, David F. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 149–87.Google Scholar

9. Heidegger, , Zollikoner Seminare, ed. Boss, Medard (Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1987), pp. 156, 189–91.Google Scholar

10. Zollikoner Seminare, pp. 129, 142–43.Google Scholar

11. Heidegger, , Gelassenheit, 6th ed. (Pfullingen: Neske, 1979), pp. 33, 5758;Google Scholar trans, by Anderson, John M. and Freund, E. Hans as Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 61, 7980.Google Scholar For an ontological reconsideration of action theory see also my “Praxis and Experience” in Polis and Praxis: Exercises in Contemporary Political Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), pp. 4776.Google Scholar

12. Habermas, , Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pp. 136–39, 148–52Google Scholar (translation slightly altered for purposes of clarity). The reference is to Heidegger, , Nietzsche (Neske: Pfullingen, 1961), I: 578–80.Google Scholar

13. Heidegger, , Sein und Zeit, pp. 115–16Google Scholar (par. 25), 118, 124–25 (par. 26), 263 (par. 53). As Heidegger adds (p. 264): “As non-relational possibility, death individualizes; but, in light of its unsurpassable character (for each existence), it does so only in order to render Dasein as co-being sensitive for the others’ potentiality for being.” For a fuller discussion of co-being in Being and Time see my “Heidegger and Co-Being” in Twilight of Subjectivity, pp. 64–61.Google Scholar

14. Heidegger, , Beiträge, pp. 96 (par. 45), 320–21 (par 197), 395 (par. 248).Google Scholar

15. Heidegger, , Zollikoner Seminare, pp. 144–45, 151, 183. Regarding the linkage of co-being and language Heidegger comments (p. 183): “Language here is conceived not as a capacity of communication but as the originary disclosure of being, heeded by humans in different ways. … Insofar as we are dialogue (Gespräch, in Hölderlin's sense), human being implies co-being.”Google Scholar

16. Heidegger, , Uber den Humanismus (Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1949), p. 28;Google Scholar“Letter on Humanism” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, p. 221; Beiträge, p. 321 (par. 197).Google Scholar

17. Heidegger, , Sein und Zeit, pp. 122Google Scholar (par. 26), 298 (par. 60); Beiträge, pp. 320–21 (par. 197).Google Scholar

18. Heidegger, , Hölderlins Hymne “Der Ister,” ed. Biemel, Walter (Gesamtausgabe, vol. 53; Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1984), pp. 100101.Google Scholar Regarding the tradition of the modern state compare my “Rethinking the Hegelian State” in Margins of Political Discourse, pp. 137–57.Google Scholar

19. Habermas, , Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pp. 101102, 104, 136.Google Scholar Compare also his comment (pp. 133–34): “From this vantage Heidegger can so fundamentally de-struct modern reason that he no longer distinguishes between the universalistic contents of humanism, enlightenment, and even positivism, on the one side, and the particularistic, self-assertive conceptions of racism and nationalism, or of retrogressive typological doctrines à la Spengler and Jünger, on the other.” For Habermas's theory of individual and social development see his Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. McCarthy, Thomas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979).Google Scholar

20. Heidegger, , “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, pp. 287–88, 294–98Google Scholar (translation slightly altered for purposes of clarity). Compare in this context Vietta, Silvio, Heideggers Kritik am Nationalsozialismus undan der Technik (Heidelberg: Niemeyer, 1989);CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Zimmerman, Michael E., Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).Google Scholar

21. “The Question Concerning Technology,” pp. 299–300, 306–307.

22. “The Question Concerning Technology,” pp. 307–308, 310, 313–14.

23. Heidegger, , “Die Kehre,” in Die Technik und die Kehre, 2nd ed. (Pfullingen: Neske, 1962), pp. 3740.Google Scholar

24. Heidegger, , Gelassenheit, pp. 1619, 2224;Google ScholarDiscourse on Thinking, pp. 4951, 5355.Google Scholar

25. Habermas, , “Urbanisierung der Heideggerschen Provinz,” in Habermas and Gadamer, Das Erbe Hegels (Frankfurt-Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), pp. 1314;Google ScholarGadamer, Hans-Georg, Heideggers Wege (Tubingen: Mohr, 1983), p. 17. As Gadamer added: “Whether in America or the Far East, whether in India, Africa or Latin America—everywhere does one find the reflective impulses issuing from Heidegger. The global destiny of expanding technology and industry has been captured in his work; at the same time, the diversity and multivariety of the global heritage—crucial for the world dialogue of the future—have gained through him new reliance.”Google Scholar

26. Heidegger, , Über den Humanismus, pp. 2526, 47;Google Scholar“Letter on Humanism” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, pp. 218, 242.Google Scholar

27. Heidegger, , “Der Spruch des Anaximander,” in Holzwege, 4th ed. (Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1963), pp. 300, 343;Google Scholar“The Anaximander Fragment,” in Early Greek Thinking, trans. Krell, David F. and Capuzzi, Frank A. (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 17, 57.Google Scholar

28. Heidegger, , “Zur Seinsfrage” (1955), in Wegmarken (Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1967), p. 252;Google ScholarThe Question of Being, trans. Kluback, William and Wilde, Jean T. (New Haven, CT: College and University Press, 1958), p. 107;Google Scholar“Aus einem Gesprach von der Sprache,” in Unterwegs zur Sprache, 3rd ed. (Pfullingen: Neske, 1965), pp. 94, 103;Google Scholar“A Dialogue on Language,” in On the Way to Language, trans. Hertz, Peter D. and Stambaugh, Joan (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 8, 15;Google ScholarNur noch ein Gott Kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (31 05 1976): 214, 217;Google ScholarOnly a God Can Save Us Now,” trans. Schendler, David in Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 6 (1977): 24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Compare also Heidegger, , “Holderlins Erde und Himmel” (1959), in Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung (Gesamtausgabe, vol. 4; Frankfurt-Main: Klostermann, 1981), pp. 176–78.Google Scholar

29. See Mehta, J. L., Martin Heidegger: The Way and the Vision (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976), pp. 462, 466;Google ScholarNishitani, Keiji, ed., Gendai Nippon no tetsugaku (Philosophy in Contemporary Japan; Kyoto: Yukonsha, 1967), pp. 24;Google ScholarNishida, Kitaro, A Study of Good, trans. Viglielmo, V. H. (Tokyo: Japanese Government Printing Bureau, 1960), p. 211.Google Scholar Compare also Nishitani, , Religion and Nothingness, trans. Van Bragt, Jan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), pp. xxv–xxviii;Google Scholar and Halbfass, Wilhelm, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (Albany, NY: Suny Press, 1988), pp. 169, 440–42.Google Scholar As Halbfass observes (pp. 440–441): “In the modern planetary situation, Eastern and Western ‘cultures’ can no longer meet one another as equal partners. They meet in a Westernized world, under conditions shaped by Western ways of thinking”—which conjures up the paradox of a simultaneous globalization and parochialization. Echoing Heidegger, Halbfass opts for a nonparochial path: “We have to transcend ‘what is European’ (das Europäischè); we have to reach ‘beyond Occident and Orient.'” Compare also the thoughtful comments of Leo Strauss: “The West has first to recover within itself that which would make possible a meeting of West and East: its own deepest roots, which antedate its rationalism, which in a way antedate the separation of West and East.” See his “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism,” in Pangle, Thomas, ed., The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 43.Google Scholar

30. Heidegger, “Die Kehre,” p. 41; Halbfass, , India and Europe, p. 170.Google Scholar

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