Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
This is the conclusion of a lecture delivered at the London Forum on Saturday, May 27th. Read part one here.
Heidegger’s magnum opus is Being and Time, which was published in 1927. Being and Time is an implicitly political work, rife with the language of the Conservative Revolutionary movement, including its valorization of the Front experience of the First World War as a model for a new ethic of hardness, seriousness, and solidarity, as well as its condemnation of the hedonism, selfishness, and shallow social conformism of Weimar.
But the politics of Being and Time go much deeper, for it attacks the very root of cosmopolitan-individualist-technological man, namely the idea of objective knowledge emancipated from the realm of collective opinion.
This is not the occasion to delve into technical philosophical arguments. But Heidegger’s conclusion is that all cognitive activities—even those of philosophy and science—are made possible by language and other social practices that are learned ultimately by participation in a community that is particular, not universal—changing, not eternal—provincial, not cosmopolitan. In other words, at the root of every cognitive act is ethnic identity. In Heidegger’s words, “I believe that there is no essential work of the spirit that does not have its root in originary autochthony” (GA 16: 551). Thus, contrary to Plato and other Greek philosophers, deracination is not the path to wisdom but the path to the folly of nihilism which is playing itself out today on the global stage.
One expression of the cosmopolitan ambition of classical philosophy is to leave human languages behind and find a universal, objective form of communication. Heidegger’s thought is so fundamentally opposed to cosmopolitanism, that he declared that the two truly philosophical languages were ancient Greek and German. Heidegger believed that thought is a gift of language and culture. One needs a certain cultural and linguistic heritage to spy the fundamental truths necessary to launch a new philosophical age. The Greek language and culture gave us the beginning of Western philosophy. German language and culture gave us a new beginning, and, starting in 1932, Heidegger believed that National Socialism might carry out the new beginning of thought on the cultural and political plane, bringing an end to the modern world.
But if even philosophy is a product of language and culture, does that mean that Greek philosophy is only true for Greeks, and German philosophy is only true for Germans? No, Heidegger is not that kind of relativist. Seeing new truths requires a certain viewpoint, but once discovered such truths are true for everyone. Only the Greeks could have launched the first inception of Western thought, but it spread to all of Europe and then encompassed the globe. Likewise, even though only the Germans could have created the new inception, it is true for all of us and has the potential to transform all life on earth.
Greek philosophy was a product of the Greek language and culture. But it overlooked its own contingent and particular origins. The Greek objective conception of knowledge presented an image of man uprooted from language, customs, and place, a citizen of the world. The consummation of the first inception is modern technological civilization, in which man thinks of himself as entirely rootless and thinks of the world as merely a stockpile of resources to be manipulated and ultimately consumed. By contrast, the German new beginning will lead Western man back to rootedness, an acceptance of finitude and uncertainty, and a sense that we are part of the natural world, charged with being its guardians, not its exploiters and consumers.
How then did the Germans give rise to a new beginning for philosophy? For Heidegger, a new inception changes the meaning of everything. It is a pervasive change in the Zeitgeist, which cannot be ascribed to particular thinkers. Instead, individual thinkers are merely responding to and articulating a change that transcends any individual mind.
At the core of the new inception is a sense of what the German Idealists called the finitude and historical conditionedness of consciousness. Kant argued that our knowledge of reality is limited to what can be given to our finite cognitive faculties. Hegel and Heidegger argued that the finite conditions of consciousness include linguistic and cultural practices that vary from time to time and place to place. Unlike the first inception, in which consciousness tries to make itself absolute by emancipating itself from history, culture, language, and “prejudice” in order to comprehend its own origins, the new inception argues that this is impossible. Consciousness cannot comprehend its own origins. The Kantian categories are just there. The contingencies of language and culture are just there.
Greek philosophy thinks of knowledge as an objective, “God’s-eye” view of the world and thus sees rootedness and participation in particular languages and cultures as an impediment to knowing the world. German philosophy rejects the idea that human knowledge should be measured by an inhuman standard of objectivity and thus sees rootedness and participation in particular languages and cultures as a necessary condition for the kind of knowledge that is possible for humans to achieve: a finite, human’s-eye view of the world.
Not all languages, cultures, and individual perspectives are equal. Some conceal more than they reveal. But to win the kind of truth that is available to man, we have to replace bad perspectives with better ones, crude languages with subtler ones, primitive cultures with advanced ones—not try to chuck language, culture, and perspective altogether for a chimerical conception of objectivity. Finite, perspectival human knowledge may be rife with uncertainty and constantly subject to revision and growth, but for all its imperfections, it is the only kind of knowledge we have ever had, and it has been good enough to create both the wonders and the horrors of the modern world.
Heidegger’s opposition to cosmopolitanism in Being and Time is so adamant and systematic that he does not even talk about human beings, which is a universal notion. Nor does he talk about man as the “rational animal,” which is just a composite of two universal notions. Instead, Heidegger speaks of “Dasein,” which is a German word for existence, but it is usually left untranslated in Heidegger’s texts because he uses it as a technical term. Pick up any Heidegger book, and turn to a random page. Chances are, you will see Dasein with a capital “D.” (Years ago, a friend of mine told me about her first encounter with Heidegger. She concluded that since Heidegger constantly referred to this fellow named Dasein, she would have to read his books before she could understand Heidegger.)
Heidegger hears “Dasein” as a composite of “da” (there) and “Sein” (being). So Dasein means “being there.” For Heidegger, we are not rootless citizens of the world. We are Dasein, a being who is essentially rooted in a particular language, culture, and place. Contra Plato, Heidegger does not think of the “da”—our language, culture, and place—as first and foremost a prison that prevents us from knowing the real world. Instead, he sees the “da” as what enables us to access the world in the first place. Dasein is always sometime and someplace, but his world opens out in all directions and into the past and the future. Dasein is inherently parochial, not cosmopolitan. Dasein is no abstract or atomized individual but a concrete individual rooted in a shared language and culture. Note well that this is true even of self-declared cosmopolitans, individualists, and technological supermen. They too have roots, but they are just in denial about them. Cosmopolitan, individualist, technological man is also fake, phony, inauthentic man.
Authenticity means being honest with yourself about your identity and living accordingly. For Heidegger, we cannot construct our identities. We cannot invent, much less reinvent, ourselves. We cannot choose who we are. Instead, our identities are handed to us by our language, culture, and lineage. For Heidegger, freedom comes in only in what we do with the identity that is given us. Our most fundamental choice is whether we own up to our identity or deny it. Authenticity is owning up to who we are. Inauthenticity is refusing to own up to our identity and instead living according to fantasies about who we are, fantasies projected by ourselves or others.
Whether we choose authenticity or inauthenticity, we remain the same people, but in radically different states. The authentic person lives according to his nature, which the Greeks defined as well-being (eudaimonia). The inauthentic person lives contrary to his nature and thus lacks well-being.
For Heidegger, being a German ethnic nationalist, rather than a cosmopolitan liberal or Communist, was simply a matter of authenticity, of owning up to his ethnic identity—his particular linguistic and cultural “da”—and living accordingly. And when the world opposes you living according to your nature, well-being requires self-assertion. If others push you around, you have to push back. You have to take your own side in a fight.
The linguistic and cultural aspects of our identities are learned from infancy on. They are our “second nature.” But what of our genetic lineage, our “first nature”? What role does biological race play in Heidegger’s thought? Heidegger did not deny that biological race was real, but he was uncomfortable with the importance ascribed to it by the National Socialists. For Heidegger, being white was a necessary but not sufficient condition for German identity (Black Notebooks III, section 195). All Germans are white, but not all whites are German.
Being a German, Heidegger’s primary concern was German ethnic nationalism, and he believed that an over-emphasis on biological race undermined German ethnic identity. For Heidegger, emphasizing the white race posed the same danger as emphasizing the human race. Both are universals that undermine specific cultural identities. “There’s only one race, the human race,” is a slogan trotted out to undermine the identities of all races and nations, to break down the barriers that maintain diversity and promote pan-mixia, with the end result of global homogeneity.
But the idea that “There’s only one race that matters, the white race,” promotes the same breakdown of barriers between white ethnic groups, the same mixing and erasure of identity. And when the Second World War began, and different peoples fell under German control, the logic of biological racism led them quite naturally to the idea of assimilating biologically similar Europeans into the German Reich, which would inevitably erode the cultural integrity of conqueror and conquered alike.
So for Heidegger, biological race is important. To say that whiteness is a necessary condition of any European identity is to give race a far greater importance than accepted by the civic nationalists and multiculturalists of today. But by the same token, biological race is not the whole of any European identity, and mistaking a part for the whole is profoundly subversive of ethnic identity.
Thus, while it was true to say that Heidegger was a white man, it was truer still to say that he was a German, even more true to say that he was a Black Forest Swabian of peasant stock, but truest of all to say that he was a Heidegger, born of the union of Friedrich Heidegger and Johanna Kempf. But it was only the very specific mixture of their genes that gave us the brain of Martin Heidegger—as opposed to those of his brother or his sister. And once that piece of hardware was programmed with the software of Martin Heidegger’s particular language, culture, and experiences, new philosophical prospects opened up that we will be exploring for centuries to come.
We have seen how Heidegger’s conception of who we are undermines both cosmopolitanism and individualism. But how does he undermine man the conqueror of nature? Heidegger teaches us that we are finite. He forces us to confront the fact that we are not self-defining, self-creating beings. We are defined by forces outside our ken or control. He shows us that the very idea that underlies the modern conquest of nature—namely that we can know everything and control everything—is not something we can either understand or control. It is, instead, a mania that enthralls us. It is a mysterious something that came up behind us, reft us up by the nape of our necks, and is speeding us forward toward the planetary boneyard. There’s a real sense in which we do not have technology, technology has us.
But once we realize that we can’t understand why we think we can understand everything, and we can’t control the idea that we think we can control everything—i.e., that the conquest of nature is a collective mania that arises from inscrutable sources—the spell is broken. Once our hubris is humbled before the mystery of our origins—our Faustian strivings are contained within classical limits—we will once again see the earth as our home. And although we will strive to make the earth a safe and comfortable dwelling place, we will no longer think of ourselves as cosmopolitan nomads, slashing and burning—or swindling and looting—then moving on to greener pastures. We can even have our computers and smart phones and machines that go “ping.” But they will no longer have us.
So I bring you good news. Martin Heidegger, one of the most formidable thinkers of our time, was an ethnonationalist who offers enormous metapolitical resources to the fight of all peoples against globalization. With Heidegger’s help, we rootless phony cosmopolitans can rediscover who we really are and dwell authentically on Earth once more.