Why the Left should reject Heidegger’s thought. (Part 1: The Question of Being) Colin Bodayle. March 2024

Heideggerian thought is everywhere. A list of thinkers influenced by Heidegger reads like a “who’s who” of famous twentieth century philosophers. Foucault said: “For me, Heidegger has always been the essential philosopher.”[1] Derrida once called Heidegger “the great unavoidable thinker of the century.”[2] Sartre conceived of Being and Nothingness while reading Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” Deleuze acknowledges the influence of Heidegger in the Preface to Difference and Repetition.[3]  Žižek wrote his first book on Heidegger.[4]

Many of Heidegger’s students became famous philosophers, including several who significantly impacted political theory: Hannah Arendt would develop the discourse of “totalitarianism” found in liberal philosophy, Leo Strauss would influence the neoconservative movement, and Herbert Marcuse would be a leading thinker for the New Left.

It seems surprising that Heidegger should exert this much influence on contemporary thought, given that he was an unapologetic Nazi who began each lecture with “Heil Hitler” during his tenure as rector of Freiburg. One wonders, especially, why he has been embraced by so many thinkers on the Left.

Heidegger scholars have long attempted to separate Heidegger’s philosophy from his Nazism. This separation became increasingly difficult, however, after the Black Notebooks were published in 2014. These personal notebooks offer further evidence of Heidegger’s open embrace of racism, antisemitism, and Nazism. They also show Heidegger developing some of his most famous philosophical concepts directly out of Nazi ideology. In 1933, Heidegger writes:

    The Führer has awakened a new actuality, giving our thinking the correct course and impetus. Otherwise, despite all the thoroughness, it would have remained lost in itself and would only with great difficulty have found its way to effectiveness.[5]

When Heidegger’s collected works were published, evidence of the extent of Heidegger’s Nazi involvement was largely erased. As Richard Wolin points out: “Following the war, Heidegger fabricated and rewrote entire passages, inserting them in earlier texts in order to promote the myth that, during the 1930’s, he had acted ‘heroically,’ as an intellectual and political dissident.”[6]

Among those “in the know,” however, it was already an open secret that many of Heidegger’s published works had been altered to hide incriminating references to Hitler, fascism, or “world-Judaism.”[7]

While most leftists have no problem rejecting Heidegger as a person, many ostensibly progressive or left-wing philosophers have nevertheless adopted Heideggerian positions. This includes thinkers who identify as communists like Sartre, Kojève, and Marcuse. There are reasons for Heidegger’s popularity. Heidegger talks about feelings of angst, the struggle to be authentic amid conformity, the weight of future possibilities, and our fears regarding our inevitable mortality.

Young people are drawn to Heidegger because they wrestle with these questions, especially given the pressures of capitalist society. As a young person, I too was drawn to Being and Time for similar reasons, leading me to spend almost a decade studying Heidegger’s thought. Although I have broken completely with Heidegger, I wouldn’t deny that Being and Time is a powerful and thought-provoking work of philosophy.

Yet there are deep-seated problems within Heidegger’s thinking, contradictions that bubble to the surface when we examine Heidegger’s positions carefully. Criticizing Heidegger is important. Seeds of Heideggerianism are scattered throughout leftist thought, and we cannot simply point to Heidegger’s Nazi roots to unplant them. We must scorch the soil of Heidegger’s thinking with the fires of critique.

Heidegger writes in idiosyncratic jargon, coining a cryptic vocabulary of neologisms based on the etymology of German words. The task of translating Heidegger is a nightmare. Often, his language puts a spell over his audience, warding Heidegger from hasty criticisms. Demystifying Heideggerese takes a great deal of effort, so I have decided to divide this task into a series of articles, touching on some of the main points of relevance in each.

My aim in this series is to clarify why Marxists should reject Heideggerian thinking. In the current article, I will be focusing on the most significant aspect of Heidegger’s thought: the question of being. In the next article, I will be exploring his analysis of Dasein in Being and Time. In the final article, I will be examining his critique of technology and modern science.

Heidegger’s Single Thought: The Ontological Difference

Heidegger once claimed that “Each thinker only thinks one single thought.”[8] The great philosophers, Heidegger claimed, take one idea and paint all of reality in its colors. If Heidegger had “one thought,” this would be the ontological difference.

The ontological difference is the distinction between beings (things that are) and being (their “to be”). According to Heidegger, philosophers have overlooked this distinction. Whenever philosophers have asked about the meaning of being, they have treated being as if it were a being. Philosophy has failed to consider “being itself,” that is, being apart from beings.

The history of Western metaphysics, according to Heidegger, consists of various attempts to explain being through the lens of beings. The Presocratic philosopher Thales, for example, claimed that being was water, interpreting the being of beings in general in terms of a specific kind of being. For Thales, solid objects are frozen liquid, air is just vaporous water, and fire is akin to steam. The being of every being, for Thales, is water. Beginning with Aristotle, Heidegger claims, metaphysics adopts a twofold strategy for explaining the being of beings. First, it uses the being of some special being to explain being in general, then it grounds the existence of all beings in terms of some highest being.

For Aristotle, for example, being is understood in terms of motion and this account is grounded in the unmoved mover. Heidegger calls these kinds of explanations “ontotheology” because they begin with an ontology of being in general and then ground this ontology in a theology of the highest being. In the Middle Ages, Heidegger claims, we enter into a new epoch of the history of being.

For the Medievals, beings in general are understood as created out of nothing, and the totality of beings are grounded in God, the highest being. Beginning with Descartes, however, philosophy moves away from God and towards the human mind. Now, beings are understood as representations grounded in the human mind or transcendental ego. This modern conception of beings, in fact, somewhat resembles what Marxists would understand by the term “idealism.” The final epoch in the history of being, according to Heidegger, is modern technology, which corresponds to Hegelian philosophy as the complete system of science and the two “inversions” of Hegelianism: Nietzscheanism and Marxism.

In modernity, everything becomes an object for technological manipulation with modern science revealing how we can dominate and control nature. The center of this final epoch of ontotheology, according to Heidegger, is the isolated, finite human will, a will that simply wants to keep on willing, subordinating everything to its desire for control and mastery, including the human species itself. Heidegger argues that philosophy and the history of metaphysics ends with the technological interpretation of the meaning of being, covering over the ontological difference and making it impossible for any new philosophical paradigm to emerge.

For both Heidegger and Bill Clinton everything depends on “what is is.” Each epoch of metaphysics, Heidegger claims, operates under a specific interpretation of the meaning of being in general. Yet each epoch also covers over the difference between being and beings. Yet what is the difference between being and beings? We might illustrate this using the example of light.

 If I turn on the lights in the room, the objects become visible through the light. The objects in the room, however, are not the light itself. The lightbulb, too, is not the light, but the source of the light. In fact, the lightbulb is also made visible by the light. The light itself, however, cannot be made visible by means of light. Instead, we notice that there is light because the objects themselves become visible. The relationship between being and beings, for Heidegger, is similar to the relationship between visible objects and light. We cannot illuminate being by treating it as a being, because being is the “to be” of beings. Being itself is not a being, which means that, strictly speaking, being “is not.” Heidegger thus calls being the presencing of presence, the manifestness of the manifest. He also describes being using contradictory, almost dialectical-sounding language, saying that being is “revealing/concealing.” Just like the light reveals itself by revealing bright objects, but light cannot directly reveal light, being reveals itself by revealing beings yet concealing itself.

The unconcealment of being makes metaphysics possible. Metaphysics and modern science, however, distort this more primordial unconcealment by representing being in various ways. Science, for example, represents beings in terms of their mathematically quantifiable and manipulatable properties.

Heidegger claims that this distorts a more primordial unconcealment of being. For Heidegger, we discover being itself in the sheer “thatness,” the fact that something is rather than is not. We discover such unconcealment, Heidegger thinks, whenever we let something be without trying to represent it. Art and poetry accomplish this feat. A painting of a river, for Heidegger, simply aims to present the being of the river, not to quantify the river or measure its force. He writes: “The more essential the work [of art] opens itself, the more luminous becomes the uniqueness of the fact that it is rather than is not.”[9]

A work of art, by putting its subject matter on display, lets it appear as itself. We are overwhelmed by its strangeness. “Only when the strangeness of beings oppresses us does it arouse and evoke wonder.”[10]

Being, for Heidegger, is the realization that “holy shit, there are things!” This pure givenness, the fact that anything exists at all, this “unconcealment” or “manifestness” is what Heidegger identifies with being as such.

The Contradictions of Heideggerian Thought

Heidegger follows Hegel in recognizing that being is not a being. Yet Hegel draws the conclusion that pure being is empty indeterminacy, a total abstraction, the negation of all determinacy and content. Being, in other words, is nothing. In fact, this is the first dialectical transformation of Hegel’s Logic, the thought of pure being turning into its opposite. Heidegger cannot accept this conclusion.

He attempts to avoid this dialectic by making the following argument: The question “What is being?” seems paradoxical, because in asking “what is being?”, we presuppose that we already understand the “is.” Yet we do understand the question, Heidegger says, we just can’t articulate the meaning of “being.” Heidegger thus concludes we implicitly understand the meaning of being, and that we always operate with an implicit understanding of the meaning of being. This understanding of being determines the basis upon which anything can appear or be understood at all.

For something to appear, Heidegger claims, it must appear as something, and this requires an understanding of what it means for something to be. From this, Heidegger concludes that we cannot speak of being apart from our understanding of being. In his later language, being is the unconcealment of beings, yet this unconcealment only takes place within the sphere of human existence.

Even Heidegger’s term for human beings, Da-sein (literally “being-there”) indicates this, since as Heidegger says, Dasein is “the site that being necessitates for its opening up,” that is, the site where being unconceals itself.[11]

Does this mean that Heidegger is not really concerned with what actually exists in the real world, but only with the appearance or phenomenon of being? Put differently, is he talking about how we understand being or reality, or about being or reality itself? This question produced a lively debate between the Heidegger scholars Thomas Sheehan and Richard Capobianco.[12]

This scholarly quarrel, however, is merely a manifestation of a deeper contradiction within Heidegger’s own thinking. Heidegger claims that if Dasein no longer exists, then we cannot speak of “being.” Heidegger writes: “Being (not beings) is dependent upon the understanding of being, that is, reality (not the real) is dependent upon care” (SZ, 212).[13]

By this, Heidegger means that “being” belongs to our implicit or explicit understanding of the being of beings. Human beings, moreover, are finite and temporal, which makes the understanding of being also finite and temporal. Heidegger struggles throughout his entire career to express this point. Consider what Heidegger is saying: “Being (not beings) is dependent upon the understanding of being.” He puts the phrase “(not beings)” in parentheses, yet this implies the statement: “beings are not dependent upon the understanding of being,” or put positively: “beings are independent of the understanding of being.”

Yet this statement cannot be correct, since it says: “beings are,” which would seem to be a statement about the being of beings. Heidegger wants to say that the things in the world are independently of the human understanding of being, but they have no being (are not) unless they appear to human beings. These two things cannot both be true. Lukács rightly calls this “epistemological hocus-pocus.”[14]

From this passage, Thomas Sheehan draws the conclusion that for Heidegger: “Before homo sapiens evolved, there was no ‘being’ on earth… because ‘being’ for Heidegger does not mean ‘in existence.’”[15]

When Sheehan says “existence,” however, he cannot mean this in any Heideggerian sense of the word, because Heidegger knows no sense of being or existence outside of Dasein’s understanding of being. Nevertheless, Heidegger himself is frequently forced to speak in this contradictory manner about being. He even starts crossing out the word “is” when talking about being.

Heidegger’s Subjective Idealism

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? For materialists, the answer is simple: Of course it does. Sound is a vibration of the air, and the tree landing makes the air vibrate regardless of whether anyone hears it. For idealist philosophers, however, the question is far more complicated. An objective idealist (say, Husserl) would claim that it does make a sound, since if a person were present, they would hear it. No one actually hears the sound, but it would be possible for a mind to hear it. Heidegger takes a far more extreme position than the objective idealists. For Heidegger, the being of the sound depends on Dasein, and we can only speak of its mind-independence if we have already presupposed human beings with an understanding of the meaning of being.

Being, for Heidegger, only appears within the horizon of human finitude and history. He thus writes:

Before Newton’s laws were discovered, they were not “true.” From this it does not follow that they were false or even that they would become false if ontically no discoveredness was possible any longer … The fact that before Newton they were neither true nor false cannot mean that the beings which they point out in a discovering way did not previously exist. These laws became true through Newton, through them beings in themselves became accessible for Dasein (SZ, 226-27).[16]

Heidegger does not deny the truth of Newton’s laws, yet he claims that we cannot speak of the truth or falsity of these laws until they were discovered by Newton. Beings must be accessible for us before we can speak of their being. Heidegger thus wraps objective truth inside subjective idealism.

Normally, we think of truth as the correspondence between a thought or statement and reality. Heidegger claims, however, that truth as “correspondence” depends on the discovery of truth. We cannot check to see whether an idea corresponds to reality unless we have already discovered reality. Yet only human beings can discover reality, and these discoveries can be lost or forgotten. Heidegger thus says: “The fact that there are ‘eternal truths’ will not be adequately proven until it is successfully demonstrated that Dasein has been and will be for all eternity” (SZ, 227).

Heidegger claims there are no eternal truths because if human beings go extinct, all knowledge is lost and so nothing is true. Being and truth die with Dasein. The laws of physics are no longer true if human beings cease to exist.

Heidegger’s history of being and critique of Western metaphysics rests on this basic contradiction within his philosophy. For Heidegger, human history is a series of epochs, each with its own interpretation of the history of being. We cannot escape the horizon of human finitude. Yet because Heidegger eschews the language of consciousness and mind for Dasein, he claims to be speaking of “mind-independent beings.” Beings, he claims, are mind-independent, but their being is Dasein dependent. No Dasein, no being.

Heidegger recognizes that knowledge production is a historical process, one that requires intellectual labor, scientific experiments, and institutions that transmit and preserve this knowledge. On this point, Heidegger is quite correct. Yet the truth or falsity of knowledge does not depend on knowledge production. Truth or falsity is independent of discovery, and beings are whether human beings exist or not. They do not require human beings to be.

Heidegger claims to be beyond the subjective and the objective, yet he merely collapses both into the subjectivity of human finitude and history. This Heideggerian framework leads to absurd claims.

Consider, for example, the French anthropologist-philosopher Bruno Latour, who claimed that Pharaoh Ramses II didn’t die of tuberculosis because the bacteria wasn’t discovered until 1882. Heidegger does not “solve” the problem of the relationship between mind and world—he collapses all objectivity into finite human subjectivity.

Marxist philosophy cannot ally itself with Heideggerian subjective idealism. The most fundamental commitment of dialectical materialism is the view that a material world exists independently of the mind prior to human consciousness. Compare Heidegger’s view of Newton’s laws to this statement from Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism:

    Yesterday we did not know that coal tar contained alizarin. Today we learned that it does. The question is, did coal tar contain alizarin yesterday? Of course it did. To doubt it would be to make a mockery of modern science… Things exist independently of our consciousness, independently of our perceptions, outside of us, for it is beyond doubt that alizarin existed in coal tar yesterday and it is equally beyond doubt that yesterday we knew nothing of the existence of this alizarin and received no sensations from it.[17]

On the question of whether there are “eternal truths,” Engels states quite clearly in Anti-Dühring that “certainly there are,” writing:

    If it gives anyone any pleasure to use mighty words for such simple things, it can be asserted that certain results obtained by these [physical] sciences are eternal truths, final and ultimate truths; for which reason these sciences are known as the exact sciences. But very far from all their results have this validity.[18]

Engels is quite careful to acknowledge that even the exact sciences are “swamped by hypotheses as if attacked by a swarm of bees,” yet such hypotheses and abstractions are necessary for scientific progress. Many scientific theories are not valid for every single thing in reality, but indeed have a limited or restricted validity.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, cannot explain quantum mechanics, yet our iPhones can still accurately pinpoint our locations by communicating with satellites, a feat that would be impossible without Einstein’s equations. The restricted validity of Einstein’s theories does not falsify the results of our GPS.

Against these common sense positions, Heidegger engages in what Lukács rightly calls a “terminological camouflaging of subjective idealism.”[19] Heidegger claims to be talking about being and ontology, yet he actually is talking about the phenomenon or meaning of being. He thus ends up in a position that is more subjectivistic than the idealisms of Husserl or Kant. Heidegger says he is not a subjectivist because he avoids using the language of “consciousness” or “mind,” yet Heidegger simply reduces all objectivity to human existence and history.

Scientific objectivity, truth, and being itself only appear within the human sphere, and if human beings cease to exist (and if there are no “Daseins” on other planets), truth no longer exists.

Heideggerian Thought Today

Recently, some contemporary decolonial theorists have unquestioningly adopted this Heideggerian philosophical framework. Like Heidegger, these thinkers reduce being to our understanding of being. Decolonial theorists like Mignolo and Maldonado-Torres, for example, talk about the “coloniality of being,” yet by “being” they do not mean the actual theft of material resources or the exploitation of labor by the colonizers, but the structure of meaning or appearances.

Of course, Marxists should not deny that certain philosophical ideas and epistemological frameworks are indeed influenced by colonialism. For example, Heidegger’s philosophy was influenced by Nazism, a racist and colonial ideology, so if the “coloniality of being” is anywhere, it is in Heidegger’s Eurocentric history of being.[20]

These decolonial theorists, however, take Heidegger’s framework of the history of being yet rewrite this history so that the meaning of being is somehow determined by colonialism. Everything that takes place after colonialism allegedly corresponds to the “coloniality of being.”

When Descartes says: “I think, therefore I am,” this is based in the “I conquer, therefore I am,” a skepticism about the humanity of indigenous peoples and a desire to assert one’s own European identity.[21]

Since these theorists do not distinguish between being and the understanding of being, they tend to see the “coloniality of being” everywhere (except perhaps in the real material relations of neocolonialism). As Maldonado-Torres writes: “as modern subjects, we breathe [sic] colonialism all the time and everyday.”[22]

For these decolonial theorists, “coloniality survives colonialism,” meaning the legacy of colonialism primarily exists in certain “colonial” modes of knowing that determine the meaning of being, not in the real continuation of colonial relations of exploitation through neo-colonialism or imperialism (nor the literal colonialism currently taking place in Palestine, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere).

The task becomes criticizing ideas for their “coloniality” and trying to produce alternative “decolonized” ways of thinking rooted in non-European epistemologies. The ontological becomes epistemological. The real struggle becomes a war of ideas.

Heidegger frames his history of being in an idealist fashion. He has no understanding of the real driving forces of history. For Heidegger, history is just different paradigms of being, new ways of understanding the meaning of being, different interpretations of the meaning of human existence and the things around us. In each historical epoch, the meaning of being is metaphysically determined, the ontological difference disappears behind an ontotheological metaphysic, and being no longer reveals beings in any other way.

If history is determined by various representations of being, then the driving forces of history are ideas and interpretations, not the real events occurring in society and nature. Against Heidegger and those who follow him on his quest for being, I would simply say that after a decade of searching for the meaning of being, I found the answer in Hegel’s Logic. “Being itself” is an abstraction, devoid of all content. The meaning of being is nothing.[23]

[1] Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture, trans. Alan Sheridan et. al (London: Routledge, 1988), 250.

[2] This comment was made by Derrida in an interview in reference to Althusser’s engagement with Heidegger. In the same interview, Derrida criticizes Marxism for failing to engage with Heidegger, stating that “some engagement with Heidegger or a problematic of the Heideggerian type should have been mandatory.” Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 154 & 173.

[3] Cf. Giles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), xiv.

[4] Gabriel Rockhill points out that Heidegger was “the principle reference for the Slovenian anti-communist opposition according to Žižek himself.” See Gabriel Rockhill, “Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Žižek,” Counterpunch, January 2, 2023. https://www.counterpunch.org/2023/01/02/capitalisms-court-jester-slavoj-zizek/

[5] Martin Heidegger, Ponderings II-VI: Black Notebooks 1931-1938, translated by Richard Rojcewicz. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 81.

[6] Richard Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022), 37.

[7] The most notorious example was Heidegger’s 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics, which featured the passage “What is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement [namely, the encounter between global technology and modern humanity], is fishing in these troubled waters of ‘values’ and ‘totalities.’” Heidegger claimed to have written this line about “global technology” in the original lecture, yet not said it during the lecture for fear of reprisal from the Gestapo. It was later shown, however, that this was fabricated by Heidegger, who went so far as to destroy this page from the original manuscript. Ironically, Heidegger said in his 1953 preface “What was spoken no longer speaks in what is printed.” No doubt. See Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 222 & xlv. See also Wolin, Heidegger in Ruins, 28-34.

[8] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volumes Three and Four, ed. by David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 4.

[9] Martin Heidegger, “Origin of the Work of Art,” Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Harper Perennial, 1973), 190.

[10] Martin Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics?”, Basic Writings, 103.

[11] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 228.

[12] Sheehan claims that Heidegger was interested only in the meaning of being, or being within a phenomenologically reduced sense. See Thomas Sheehan, “A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research,” Continental Philosophy Review, 32 (2001): 183-202. Capobianco defends the more orthodox reading of Heidegger’s project in his books Engaging Heidegger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010) and Heidegger’s Way of Being (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

[13] References to Being and Time cite the German page numbers. I have used the Joan Stambaugh translation throughout. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996).

[14] Georg Lukács, Destruction of Reason, trans. Peter Palmer (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981), 493.

[15] Thomas Sheehan, “A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research,” Continental Philosophy Review 32(2001): 191.

[16] Even in this passage, Heidegger falls into a contradictory way of speaking. Joan Stambaugh highlights this contradiction even more in her translation when she says that the beings revealed through Newton’s laws “did not previously exist,” a violation of Heidegger’s terminology, yet a symptom of his contradictory idealism. In German, Heidegger uses the phrase: sei vordem nicht gewesen, which Mcquarrie and Robinson render more accurately as “before him there were no such entities.”

[17] V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empiro-Criticism, ttps://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/two1.htm#bkV14E042

[18] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring,  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch07.htm

[19] Lukács, Destruction of Reason, 496.

[20] The connection between Nazism and colonialism was famously highlighted by Césaire, who argued that Hitler “applied to Europe colonialist procedures” previously reserved for those in the global south. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 36. The work of Domenico Losurdo has further explored the relationship between colonialism and Nazism. See Domenico Losurdo, War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2015).

[21] Maldonado-Torres claims, following Enrique Dussel, that “The Cartesian idea about the division between res cogitans and res extensa (consciousness and matter) which translates itself into a divide between the mind and the body or between the human and nature is preceded and even, one has the temptation to say, to some extent built upon an anthropological colonial difference between the ego conquistador and the ego conquistado.” Nelson Maldonado-Torres, “On the Coloniality of Being,” Cultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 245.

[22] . Ibid., 243.

[23] I would like to thank Jared C. Bly and Carlos L. Garrido for providing helpful feedback for this article.

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