Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger

Edited by Nancy J. Holland and Patricia Huntington

In this collection of articles feminist thinkers engage Heidegger's contributions to ontology by asking questions about the role of feminine concerns in his works. In this review I identify the major themes in the collection and comment on a few of the articles.

For most of the history of feminist studies, the canonical view of Heidegger was that he did not have anything to contribute to the issues that feminists were grappling with. From the other, Heideggerean if you will, side of the fence, the view was that ontology is gender neutral and has nothing to say about the feminine condition. For Heidegger ontology occurs before it is necessary to classify humans as distinct sexes--by their essential qualities. In the 1990s Feminist thinkers began to think through both what ontology had to offer feminist studies, and where a feminist critique may clarify Heidegger's work.

The editors lead the way with two introductions. In the first Patricia Huntington recaps the history of the intersection of Heidegger and feminist studies. Luce Irigaray is identified as a key figure in introducing Heidegger to American feminism. In the second introduction Nancy Holland summarizes the themes of the essays in the book. If this collection has an inclination, it is towards the post-structuralist strain in the humanities. Many of the writers assume their audience is familiar with deconstruction. This study is not about women and Heidegger, but instead, the "Feminist" in the title is not used broadly, but refers to a particular grouping of academic thinkers. The fact that the two male contributors to this collection are Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo (author of Deconstruction in a Nutshell) hints at the flavor of the essays.

The first essay in this collection is the first of Derrida's Geschlecht articles on Heidegger. The article in this volume, subtitled Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference, now makes three Geschlecht articles generally available to the English reader. The previous two articles published are Heidegger's Hand and Heidegger's Ear: Philopolemology . In the article in this book, Derrida comments on Heidegger's silence on sexuality, and then looks for sexual difference in Being and Time (GA 2) and in Heidegger's 1928 course on the Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (GA 26). Derrida teases sexual difference out of Being and Time by following Heidegger's assertion that Dasein was not only not the same as "Man", but beyond that, an entirely neutral term with no essential qualities. Isn't neutral, by definition, a position between two opposites? Then what two positions is Dasein neutral between? If Dasein is beyond Man, on the one hand, then the opposite position to Man must be Woman. If we have this trinity of Dasein, Man and Woman, where is ontology? Does it occur with all three, or is it limited to Dasein?

The second essay Tina Chanter's The Problematic Normative Assumptions of Heidegger's Ontology describes how Heidegger's Dasein remains prone to the same transcendental problems that Heidegger critiqued in Descartes and Kant. This is done with a close reading of Being and Time and by comparing the disconnect between Dasein and the World to the Marxist description of alienation of the worker. Finally the author explains Heidegger's description of the many intersections of Care and temporality, and also points out the problem of the hidden Others. Those Others who care for and take care of the subject engaged in ontological thinking.

In Conflictual Culture and Authenticity, sub-titled Deepening Heidegger’s Account of the Social , Dorothy Leland expands on Charles Guignon's critique of psychotherapists’ interpretations of Heidegger in Authenticity, Moral Values, and Psychotherapy , finding some useful ideas in the "Berkeley" school of Heidegger studies that formed around the work of Hubert Dreyfus. Instead of the trinity mentioned earlier of Dasein, Man, and Woman, perhaps we have a fourth element: the Other; the world; Them. Or instead, by subsuming Woman as part of Them, might it be a different trinity, of Dasein, Man and Them? And lose the opening for questioning sexual difference in relation to Man and Dasein.

John D. Caputo finds women absent from Heidegger's reading of Augustine's Confessions, and from all of Heidegger. Then he recaps his argument from Demythologizing Heidegger that Heidegger "essentializes" pain in such a manner as to forget the tears of human suffering.

Carol Bigwood finds the female in Heidegger and the origins of philosophy. At the beginning of What Is A Thing? (GA 41). There Heidegger quotes from Plato's Theaetetus (174):

"The story is that Thales, while occupied in studying the heavens above
and looking up, fell into a well. A good-looking and whimsical maid from
Thrace laughed at him and told him that while he might passionately want
to know all things in the universe, the things in front of his very nose
and feet were unseen by him." Plato added to this story the remark: 
"This jest also fits all those who become involved in philosophy."
Therefore the question "What is a thing?" must always be rated 
as one which causes housemaids to laugh. And genuine housemaids must have 
something to laugh about.

Ms. Bigwood asks, Is Heidegger at the bottom of the well with Thales or laughing with the maid? Her delightful article then turns to Sappho and the resonance of her poetry with Heidegger: in their regard for the air that makes speech, in the connection between grace and poetry, in forgetting, reaching and remembering.

In Heidegger and Ecofeminism Trish Glazebrook surveys the intersection of ecology, feminism, deep ecology and Heidegger. She re-visits Heidegger’s assertion of Dasein’s neutrality (GA 26) when Heidegger explains why he uses the term Dasein.

The term "man" was not used for that being which is the theme of the analysis.
Instead, the neutral term Dasein was chosen. By this we designate the 
being for which its own proper mode of being in a definite sense is not indifferent.
Dasein is not indifferent to the issues of sexual difference, but neither does Dasein determine gender. Dasein is an it, not a he or a she.

Luce Irigaray's contribution to this volume is an essay on Heidegger that served as the introduction to the Italian edition of her book The Forgetting of Air . Whereas Heidegger claimed that the question that had remained hidden or forgotten from western philosophy was the question on being. Irigaray instead claims a different question has remained hidden, the question of sexual difference. Like Heidegger, Irigaray looks for this difference in a reading of Greek texts. Like Derrida, Irigaray also looks for what remains hidden in Heidegger's work.

Irigaray’s Speculum book describes Plato's Allegory of the Cave, in parallel with Heidegger's Ontology, as andro-centric transcendentalism that creates binary opposites: Sun's illumination-is-truth versus false shadows on the cave walls; truth is the unconcealed (a-letheia) versus inauthentic coping. It is always a transcendental "man" and the binary opposite, and there is no woman. Woman has been obliterated from ontology.

These transcendental views can be labeled ocularcentric, for privileging the viewer. They can also be called logocentric, depending on the word of God, or some other transcendental signifier such the Mind or Platonic ideals that provides a basis to distinguish between entities and humans that think about the entities. Many attempts to describe women in the Western canon do so in comparison to man (e.g. Freud), and in a privative and negative fashion--e.g. woman is a man without a penis. This approach can be described as phallocentric.

Is Heidegger ocularcentric, logocentric, or phallocentric? Many have argued that Heidegger failed to get beyond the transcendental idealism that he criticized Kant for not escaping--that Heidegger's Dasein is just another transcendental signified. Some of the writers in this collection describe women as another of the groups (African-Americans, post-colonials, native peoples, people with Aids) oppressed by the metaphysics of European males. Because Heidegger's ontology is just another transcendental signified, it oppresses non-white-males like as do the metaphysics of the canonical western philosophers.

Is Dasein before sexual difference? Heidegger was not ignorant of the issues of sexual difference, and he was convinced they did not play a part in Dasein ontology. After the war, the Swiss psychiatrist Medard Boss, who had psychoanalyzed Freud in the 1920s, asked Heidegger to read Freud. Although Heidegger was sympathetic to trying to help the patient through analysis, he disagreed with Freud theories. Heidegger felt that they were science and not ontology, and as science they cannot ascertain the ontological characteristics of humans. On top of that, Freud's theories failed on scientific grounds because they did not meet science's criteria for provability.

Why didn't psychiatrists get it? To a philosopher like Heidegger it was because they hadn't been asking the right questions.

Medard Boss: Why has it been so impossible for all psychologists, including
Freud, to determine the essence of masculinity and femininity?
Martin Heidegger: This is due to man's innate blindness for the unfolding essence.
(ZS P. 212)

Perhaps, instead of man blinded by phallus, oculus, and logos, and instead of a neutral Dasein, it is women who will ask the questions that overcome that blindness. One looks forward to further feminine questioning of Heidegger's works.

Started 2001/12/26
Last updated 2023/9/2