- Martin Heidegger: Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie by Hugo Ott
Campus Verlag, 355 pp, DM 48.00, December 1988, ISBN 3 593 34035 6
Of the numerous biographical publications on the most problematic of 20th-century philosophers, Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: Toward his Biography stands out as the most detailed and scrupulously accurate. But caveat lector: there is a great deal here that we would not think of as conduct becoming a philosopher or the academic profession in general. It cannot have been an easy book to write, and it is not an easy book to read.
Hugo Ott is a social historian of 19th-century Germany; born in 1931, he teaches at the University of Freiburg, Heidegger’s own university. A conservative German professor of considerable standing, he has spent some twenty years collecting material and publishing articles on Heidegger’s life, and making himself unpopular with some of his colleagues in the process. Heidegger was born in 1889 in Messkirch, a small town in the Black Forest with a strong minority of Old Catholics, the son of a cooper and salaried verger; he died at the age of 87, having lived in four successive German states – the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, Hitler’s Third Reich and, after an interregnum of three blank years, the Federal Republic. Ott is particularly strong on Swabian local and ecclesiastical history, and provides a vivid account of the youth and schooling of a poor Roman Catholic scholarship boy; it becomes clear that, but for an asthmatic heart condition, Heidegger would have taken Holy Orders. Heidegger at all times emphasised his spiritual kinship with fellow Swabians like Hegel, Hölderlin and Johann Peter Hebel (a writer of enchanting Alemannic folk-tales). He saw himself as a contributor to this tribal lineage, and associated his writings with it; his biographer reports on this powerful rural mystique, and is (as far as I know) the first author to do so fairly and soberly.
A professional historian of institutions, Ott works from an abundant array of sources. These include the very full archives of the town and university of Freiburg and several other Southern German cities, as well as the diaries, letters and private papers of most of Heidegger’s clerical patrons, and of his friends and colleagues. He has assembled evidence of Heidegger’s career from the local and national German press from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second; he has used all that survives (and a great deal does survive) of the correspondence of the various National Socialist ministries and party officials with and about Heidegger throughout the Third Reich; he has had access to the Allied archives relating to the French occupation of Swabia; and of course Ott has used, for what they are worth, the few statements that Heidegger himself made after 1945 about his own past. Not available to him were the archives at Marbach, on which an interdict sine die was placed by the philosopher’s family. There are more than twenty huge iron lockers of them, but it does not seem likely that the eventual disclosure of their contents will greatly affect our picture of the man and our reading of his work.
Professor Ott treats his subject with dignity and decorum, offers always the least damaging interpretation of Heidegger’s conduct, speaks of his own reluctance to give credence to the devastating evidence he has assembled, and occasionally falls into the slightly pompous conservative vocabulary of ‘sacrifice’, military heroism, and the like. He does this when writing, not about Heidegger (whose war experience turns out to have been markedly less heroic than he made out), but in praise of some of the colleagues (among them Jews) whom Heidegger calumniated. Thus the reader is left with the unfortunate impression that the dismissal of these men from their university posts after 1933 was particularly ignoble, and the fate of those who were not able to leave Germany particularly unjust: as though the humiliating treatment of Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl at the end of his life were particularly heinous because Husserl, though born in Moravia, was a patriotic German, and it was known that one of his sons was killed and the other gravely wounded in the First World War. Such lapses on Ott’s part are rare, and they point to the difficulty of re-creating a world whose scale of values was very different from ours.
This is in no sense an intimate biography: Hannah Arendt’s name appears only briefly, the behaviour of Heidegger’s wife (who is still alive) is not dwelt on, and Ott has steered clear of what he calls ‘depth psychology’. However, his approach entails a limitation of a different kind. Since he is neither a philosopher nor a historian of philosophy, he offers no comprehensive appraisal of Heidegger’s many writings: Heidegger’s claim to be ‘the philosopher of Being’ is neither confirmed nor challenged in philosophical terms. He has little to say about the content of Being and Time, concentrates mainly on Heidegger’s writings after its publication in 1927, and mentions but does not enlarge on the lectures and essays of the last period, many of which are based on Heidegger’s readings of the poetry of Hölderlin, Rilke and Georg Trakl. All the same, he does quote abundantly from Heidegger’s philosophical writings, and his comments on these quotations are closely related to the biography. The strength of the book lies in the presentation of a life against the background of all those clerical, academic and political institutions which Heidegger succeeded in dominating or failed to put to his use.
The first and most important of these institutions is the Church. Heidegger’s Catholic background remained a determining force in his thinking even after he explicitly and vindictively repudiated it; indeed, of most of his writing it may be said that it is part of a theology without a God. This background accounts for Heidegger’s truly immense learning, but it also remains what Heidegger in a private letter called ‘a thorn in the flesh’ – the challenge against which he was determined to assert himself and his philosophical vision after he left the Church in 1919. Four years later, his Marburg colleague and Germany’s foremost Protestant theologian, Rudolf Bultmann, considered Heidegger to be one of the best Luther scholars in the country.
Vol. 11 No. 10 · 18 May 1989
Half-way through his review article ‘Heil Heidegger’ (LRB, 20 April), J.P. Stern asks: ‘Do we need Heidegger’s biography in order to understand his philosophy?’ His caveat lector at the beginning of the piece, however, seems already to have prejudiced this question. As this is a prejudice which threatens to distort Stern’s presentation of Heidegger’s philosophy, it deserves comment.
Does Heidegger really return repeatedly, as Stern asserts, to the question: ‘Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by “being”?’ This would seem to be precisely the kind of semantic consideration which Heidegger attacks in his – admittedly highly subjective – readings in the Scholastics. On the contrary, it seems clear that the question which Heidegger constantly returned to was: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The distinction between the two questions is important, for the first, directed as it is towards an understanding of existence, and therefore towards Heidegger’s phenomenological reductions of the Twenties, is, in fact, solely the preparatory work – the ‘clearing of the ground’, to employ a Heideggerian metaphor – which must precede any attempt to answer the second.
It is Heidegger’s answer to this second question which is of crucial significance for any discussion of his philosophy. In asking the ‘Why’ question, Heidegger seeks to understand the meaning of existence on the basis of the ontological difference between ‘being’ – overwhelmingly human being, Dasein – and ‘Being’, Sein, Sein transcends Dasein, but occasionally ‘irrupts’ into human existence in what Heidegger refers to as an ‘event’, Ereignis. When this takes place, the ontological difference between Sein and Dasein is understood as a relationship – rather than an arbitrary distinction – in which the meaning of human existence is revealed. What is at the heart of Heidegger’s thought, therefore, is an event-theory of revelation in which the meaning of human existence comes to light out of darkness, and which is conceptualised in terms of this distinction between ‘Being’ and ‘being’. In this sense, Heidegger’s phenomenological reductions, in which he analyses the conditions of human existence, are, in fact, tangential to the philosopher’s primary task, which is to think the ontological difference as event of revelation. Here, all of his previous work can be summarised in Heidegger’s use of the expression Gelassenheit, which can be translated as ‘openness to revelation’, understood in terms of Heidegger’s event-theory. It is this Gelassenheit which Heidegger attempts to practise in his interpretations of such writers as Trakl, Rilke and Holderlin. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a form of Californian laissez faire. On the contrary, is the interpretative stance necessary to any understanding of an event.
This approach to the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, however, engendered two great errors on Heidegger’s part. First, he identified the rise to power of National Socialism as an event: in other words, as an irruption or revelation into human existence of something of transcendental significance and meaning. Hence the high hopes with which he invested 1933 and Hitler’s election to office. Irrespective of Heidegger’s own pettiness and political aspirations, the very heart of his thought seems to be corrupt if he can regard National Socialism as a revelation of the meaning of human existence, unless one is pessimistically to find the meaning of human existence in murder and destruction. And such was never Heidegger’s intent. Here, therefore, is something which strikes at the very life of his credibility as an interpreter.
Heidegger’s second error was one of attitude. He acknowledged more or less throughout his life that the expressions he used to conceptualise his event-theory were ‘only words’: i.e. that his method was simply an analogy, a way of understanding the meaning of existence. In this sense, Sein, like Dasein, is simply one term which could be replaced by another if it better conveyed the philosopher’s intention. Sein is nothing like the Hegelian Geist, or even the Christian God. Heidegger never claims that there is something ‘out there’; he is not an idealist. He is an interpreter: but he forgets that there can be other interpretations, other interpreters. From this arrogance – the forgetfulness of his own standards of Gelassenheit as a hermeneutic stance – arose his dismissive attitude towards his colleagues. This was not always the case: in 1928 he spoke movingly of the late Max Scheler’s contribution to the task of ontological reflection. But it seems to be true that later in his life he became more and more dictatorial, at precisely the time when he should have been more open. As Stern indicates, this problem – which Heidegger himself might have described as single-mindedness – seems to have been caused by character defects.
Whatever the outcome of such psychological conjecture, however, one thing seems clear: that it was Heidegger’s identification of the rise to power of National Socialism as an event of revelation which destroyed his own credibility. Compared to this, the questions which Stern raises seem less important. If we are now to think through Heidegger’s event-theory – and it is by no means certain that we must – it is not Heidegger’s personality which we must disown, but rather certain of his interpretations. It would, after all, be curiously anti-phenomenological to base our estimation of Heidegger’s major contribution to 20th-century philosophy upon psychological considerations.
Keble College, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 12 · 22 June 1989
I agree with Mr Gareth Jones (Letters, 18 May) that it would be wrong ‘to base our estimation of Heidegger’s major contribution to 20th-century philosophy upon psychological considerations.’ I believe I have done nothing of the kind. My aim was to sum up a biography of the philosopher by a social historian in order to show, with the biographer’s help, 1. that aspects of Heidegger’s ontology were announced by him on occasions of major political importance, i.e. in the months of Hitler’s assumption of power; 2. that these views were compatible with, and offered an intellectual contribution to, National Socialist ideology, with Heidegger appealing to the Party’s practices for confirmation; 3. that he thus did more than anybody else to strengthen his fellow intellectuals’ belief in the philosophical justification of Hitler’s regime. I did not, in the course of my argument, eschew ‘psychological considerations’, but kept them to a minimum. The point Mr Jones fails to understand is that part of Heidegger’s philosophy became a part of National Socialism.
Unlike Mr Jones, I tried to be accurate in my translations from Heidegger, quoting his ontological question in the form in which it occurs on the first page of his most important work, Time and Being: ‘Do we in our time have an answer to the question of what we really mean by “being”?’ The last word in that quotation is seiend, which is the same word Heidegger uses 26 years later when he asks, not as Mr Jones claims, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, but ‘Why is there being at all and not, on the contrary, Nothing?’ I did not turn the first question into a ‘semantic consideration’ (as Mr Jones claims), any more than he does when he says (somewhat shyly) that Heidegger was concerned with ‘a way of understanding the meaning of existence’. Heidegger is of course more ambitious than that. Mr Jones cannot believe that Heidegger is so ‘pessimistic’ as to ’find the meaning of human existence in murder and destruction … such was never his intent.’ Certainly it was never his sole ‘intent’. What I claimed, and stick to, is that Heidegger saw history, or at least recent history, as a meaningless but necessary rigmarole of truth and error (his concept of Irre includes ‘murder and destruction’): ‘necessary’ because subject to nothing but the demands of technological reason. Everything that is happening in our world (Heidegger writes in a volume of lectures of 1945), whether ‘auspicious’ or ‘annihilating’, ‘constructive’ or ‘destructive … is happening in the service of securing the emptiness of Seinsver lassenheit’ – i.e. history in our time consists in making sure that the emptiness of a world forsaken by Being is not disturbed.
My article didn’t seem the appropriate occasion to discuss Heidegger’s interpretations of German poetry, and I am surprised to find Mr Jones mentioning it. All Heidegger’s interpretations are based on his conviction that German (like Greek) is a uniquely poetic and philosophical language, and with his weird use of German he consistently exploits the supposed uniqueness. Astonishingly, Mr Jones denies all this: ‘his method was simply an analogy … Sein, like Dasein, is simply one term which could be replaced by another if it better conveyed the philosopher’s intention.’ Heidegger wrote forty pages on the three roots of the verb ‘to be’, numerous disquisitions on German prepositions and prefixes and what they really mean, etymological puns galore, poetic vignettes on ‘Language as the House of Being’. Given that language figures in none of these verbal acrobatics as ‘simply an analogy’, I am left wondering how accurate Mr Jones’s readings of Heidegger can possibly be.
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
I would like to respond to the charges contained in Professor J.P. Stern’s recent letter (Letters, 22 June). First, on the matter of translating, my reference to the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ was not intended to be a rendition of anything written by Martin Heidegger. On the contrary, it was a clear pointer to Leibniz’s own original question, which Heidegger always accepted as the beginning of metaphysics, and therefore as the beginning of his own attempt to overcome metaphysics. Heidegger’s own question, however, in Einfüring in die Metaphysik – written in 1935, and not 1953, as Stern incorrectly implies – asks: Warun ist uberhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts? This may all seem pedantic, but there is an important point lurking here. By juxtaposing ‘being’ and ‘Nothing’ Professor Stern is inconsistent, conflating two separate ways of asking this fundamental metaphysical question. I chose to use Leibniz’s form, juxtaposing ‘something’ with ‘nothing’. If I were translating Heidegger’s opening line from 1935, I would have, ‘Why are there beings rather than non-Being?’, which is consistent. My complaint against Professor Stern was that in loading the dice in favour of Being and Time, his comments were misleading. In the light of his remarks about Heidegger’s writings post-1927, I believe that complaint is still valid.
Second, I stand by my ‘shy’ assertion that Heidegger was concerned with one way of understanding the meaning of existence. And why not? In his important text, Was heisst Denken? (1954), Heidegger writes, for all to see: ‘For everything that ontological reflection has genuinely thought retains – and, indeed, by reason of its very nature, must retain – a plurality of meanings …’ (p. 68, my italics, my translation). This seems clear-cut. Of course, I realise as well as the next individual that Heidegger’s quest was ambitious; it would be idiotic to deny this. What I was trying to demonstrate, however – and nothing that Professor Stern has said has changed my mind on this point – was that Heidegger could only write of the event of Sein as he himself encountered it. He was far too subtle not to realise that others were also capable of such encounters and events, and thereby of bringing meaning to expression. I am thinking here, for example, of his remark upon the death of Max Scheler: ‘Max Scheler is dead. We bow before his fate. Once again a path of philosophy falls back into darkness’ (Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, my italics). I did not feel that Stern’s article reflected this subtlety.
Third, I cannot understand why Professor Stern is astonished by my assertion that Heidegger’s use of terms like Sein and Dasein is an analogy for the event of the ontological difference itself. Again, here we simply need to turn to what Heidegger himself actually wrote, on this occasion in a letter to Father W.J. Richardson in the early Sixties: ‘Meanwhile, every formulation is open to misunderstanding. In proportion to the intrinsically manifold matter of Being and Time, all words which give it utterance (like “reversal”, “forgottenness” and “mittence”) are ambiguous’ (my italics). Of course I was not denying Heidegger’s etymological work. What I was trying to express, however, by placing that etymology in perspective, was Heidegger’s conviction that the Word cannot be reduced to the words: i.e. that the event of the ontological difference can never be simply and objectively described. This mystery – Heidegger’s own term – is patently obvious from the ‘verbal acrobatics’ of his later work.
As for Professor Stern’s other complaints – what was and was not appropriate, what was and was not understood, what was and was not a semantic consideration – I can only say that he and I have differing opinions. Funnily enough, I do understand that part of Heidegger’s philosophy became part of National Socialism. I just happen to have a different understanding of how that event came to take place.
Keble College, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 16 · 31 August 1989
G.O. Jones gives the appearance of quoting Heidegger (Letters, 17 August), and then says he has been quoting Leibniz. He finds that what Heidegger says on the subject of ‘ontological reflection … genuinely thought … seems clear-cut’, whereas to me all that Heidegger says about what is or is not ‘genuine’ is phoney. Mr Jones calls the main critical point of my piece – which was to show the direct, non-contingent connection of Heidegger’s philosophy with National Socialism – my ‘prejudice’, and talks about ‘the legacy’ of Heidegger without engaging with the fact that it includes assent to some of the worst things that have happened in our age. He suggests that Heidegger regarded his vatic utterances as replaceable by other discursive formulations, whereas I tried to show that these utterances were part and parcel of Heidegger’s claim to speak with the authority of the Führer. And after all this he concludes that we have ‘differing opinions’. Perhaps so. But when he writes, ‘Funnily enough, I do understand that part of Heidegger’s philosophy became part of National Socialism,’ what divides us is more than a difference of opinion: he displays a sense of humour I lack, and his little joke makes me wonder what it is he claims to understand. However, Mr Jones may console himself: when he says, ‘Heidegger could only write of the event of Sein as he himself encountered it,’ it is I who am at a loss to know what he is talking about. To quote from one of Immanuel Kant’s last essays, I find ‘the solemn tone recently sounded in philosophy’ hard to take from Heidegger, let alone from Mr Jones.
Vol. 11 No. 18 · 28 September 1989
I was pleased, at last, to get into your long-running debate about Heidegger (Letters, 31 August). J.P. Stern writes a nasty letter, and I squirmed all the way through. We academics have to put up with this sort of thing, of course. However, the tone of his last words (‘let alone from Mr Jones’) forces me to remind you that my own letter to you (Letters, 27 July) had actually been about Mrs Thatcher’s universities.
Two correspondents of the same surname have been active on our Letters page. There came a point when we failed to keep up with these Joneses.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 12 No. 5 · 8 March 1990
Your readers may like to know that the biography of Heidegger discussed in Richard Rorty’s Diary (LRB, 8 February) and reviewed by J.P. Stern (LRB, 20 April 1989) is being translated into English by Allan Blunden and will be published in 1991 by Collins in this country and Basic Books in the United States.
Collins, London W1