Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Risks of Authenticity

“He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.”
---Martin Heidegger

Since the publication of the Black Notebooks in 2014, the question of Martin Heidegger’s
anti-Semitism, his association with National Socialism and the influence of both upon his thought
have been given renewed impetus. From unpublished papers and other sources, we have a better
understanding today of how Heidegger viewed the Nazis and what he expected of them. But the
reasons for his post-war silence, or near silence, on his involvement, have been harder to discern.
If the man himself would not speak perhaps his philosophy might be more forthcoming.

It is, of course, no secret that Heidegger’s politics were deeply conservative. In large part, this
was almost certainly inspired by his view of the essential autochthony of the German people, that
identity is something grounded in a homeland. Autochthony means literally “ people sprung from
Earth itself”, and Heidegger placed great importance on this concept as he argued that a proper
home was necessary, in which Being could fulfill its potential. With this in mind, it is much
easier to grasp what attracted Heidegger to National Socialism at its inception. And indeed,
Heidegger was there on the ground floor, becoming a party member as early as 1933, well before
the ultimate direction party policy would take could be known. But what Heidegger did know at
the time was that this was a political party and a leader which supported a strong image of the
fatherland and national unity, qualities, as I said, of no small importance in his thinking.

Perhaps of even greater importance for gaining insight into the psychology of his motivation,
however, is Heidegger’s concept of authenticity. Although authenticity is the common
translation used, and the one adopted by Sartre and others, the actual German Eigentlickheit is
more literally “ownedness”, implying that we own what we are and what we do. On the road to
becoming our authentic selves, there is always the risk along the way of surrendering to the
“dictatorship of the They”. The “They”, of course, are the majority of individuals who have
yielded their task of fulfilling their potential to live inauthentic lives. Why would one wish to
remain inauthentic and unfulfilled? For Heidegger, a principal reason is comfort, and it is here
he echoes Nietzsche and the Last Man when he writes of Dasein, or the context of the self,
becoming absorbed “into the being of ‘The Others’”. We most often surrender our own true self
to meet the expectations of others. In return, we can relax from the struggles of living
authentically and flow with the warm predictable current of the conformity of the “Them.”

The They, in setting the standards for how we live, determining for us what we wear, what we
find funny what sad, etc., proscribe the limits of our being, our possibilities. University culture
could be characterized then as much as now as largely politically liberal in outlook and
sympathy, especially after the rise of the Weimar Republic. Heidegger, it was assumed, would
follow his colleagues in dissent of Hitler’s rise. This taken for granted attitude perhaps helps
explain in part the utter shock his declared support for the new regime elicited in fellow faculty
and associates. But, in terms of Heidegger’s thought described above, many should have been
less surprised. This is not to say that Heidegger’s philosophy was somehow “Nazistic” to its
core, as some have suggested, but rather it is that that very assumption he would naturally
acquiesce to what he may have interpreted as the forced opinion of the dictatorship of the They,
perhaps helped influence his decisions. Certainly, it is in alignment with his conception of
authenticity.

Seeing possibilities and taking decisive action, are also characteristics Heidegger associates with
the authentic self. His support of the National Socialists so early in their rise is certainly a
decisive act. And his avoidance too of a clear and direct apology after the war is also consistent,
it is what the They demanded and thus, he could not give and at the same time not surrender
something of himself, however cold this might appear to others. For ultimately, for Heidegger,
there can never be an escape from the social world, a world that is forever attempting to drag us
away from ourselves. Because of this constant assault of the They we are repeatedly taking a
stand, Verstehen, on who we are against the questioning of our identity, our very being. This, of
course, does not excuse his behavior but then, what we think would have mattered little to
Heidegger, an indifference that perhaps the release of the Black Notebooks was meant to reflect.
All of us have at some time been guilty of something, or at least felt guilty. And when that guilt
is discovered or acknowledged it can be used as a weapon against us. Perhaps it was the desire
to soften the blows of that weapon against his Dasein that led to Heidegger’s deflated and
depersonalized apology. It was a means of saving face, and saving himself.

If we remember the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger makes plain that he did not accept
Humanism’s metaphysics of a shared essence. People are subjective but Being itself is objective,
above the merely human which is forever tied to history and custom. The world and its value’s
change, but Being does not. Is it possible that, in waiting so long to publish these final thoughts,
Heidegger was taking a gamble that the world to which they would be introduced would be one
more receptive to its message? If the furor after their release is any indication, it is a gamble that
he clearly miscalculated. But, in gambling, as in every other choice we make, there is always a
risk. And, whatever you may think of the man and the choice of his political allegiances, Heidegger was clearly a thinker not afraid to risk it all.

No comments: