Freud and Heidegger on the ‘Origins’ of Sexuality

Gavin Rae


While Freud and Heidegger were antipathetic towards one another’s ideas, a number of commentators have argued that the Freud–Heidegger relation is actually quite complementary. This paper contributes to this position by engaging with the relationship through the mediation of their respective views on the ‘origins’ of sexuality; a topic that is implicit to Freudian psychoanalytic theory and which is often taken to be absent from Heidegger’s, with the consequence that it has been ignored when bringing them into conversation. Having shown that in the 1928 lecture course The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, Heidegger does in fact address the question of sexuality in relation to the neutrality of Dasein outlined in the previous year’s Being and Time, I (1) bring Freud and Heidegger into conversation on the question of the ‘origins’ of sexuality to suggest that there is a strong affinity between the two on this issue, insofar as both (2) argue against any form of sexual essentialism by depending upon a processual (rather than substantial) ontology and affirming an originary sexual indeterminateness, which in the case of Freud takes the form of an initial bisexuality and in the case of Heidegger an ontological sexual neutrality, before (3) concluding that, while Freud’s initial bisexuality forecloses sexuality within a binary framework, Heidegger’s notion of an ontological sexual neutrality does not, and so goes furthest in laying the ground for a rethinking of sexuality in non-essentialist, non-binary terms.

This paper brings together Freudian psychoanalytic theory and Heideggerian phenomenology through the mediation of the question of the ‘origins’ of sexuality. The aim is to engage with what each has to say on this issue, as a precursor to determining the continuing contemporary relevance of their respective analyses. There are however a number of issues that need to be clarified before proceeding with such an endeavor, including whether it is, in fact, possible to bring them together fruitfully on any topic given their low opinion of one another. Richard Askay notes, for example, that ‘Freud had at least some acquaintance with Heidegger’s philosophy via his friendship with Binswinger’ (2001: 308) but was fervently dismissive of it, while Heidegger’s reaction to Freud was even stronger, provoking ‘the greatest ontological dispepsia in Heidegger’ (2001: 309). That both thinkers were so adverse to the other might be thought to render fruitless any further engagement.

However, despite their negative appraisals, there do seem to be good reasons to bring Freud and Heidegger into conversation. After all, while there are significant conceptual and methodological differences between them that prevent a straightforward engagement, there are a number of points of overlap, most notably regarding the relationship between psychoanalysis and Daseinanalysis (Boss 1963). Indeed, Heidegger himself discussed this relationship in the Zollikon Seminars (2001) to outline how his fundamental ontology can be applied by psychiatrists and psychologists. In so doing, he focuses on meta-psychological issues and emphasizes his distinctiveness to Freudian psychoanalysis from the premises of his own philosophy, with the consequence that his conclusions are necessarily one-sided. While it is tempting to re-address this imbalance by bringing them together from a Freudian perspective (Askay 1999), this paper engages with their relationship through a different theme and approach; namely, their respective analyzes regarding the ‘origins’ of sexuality.

Specifically, I (1) bring Freud and Heidegger into conversation on the question of the ‘origins’ of sexuality to suggest that there is a strong affinity between the two on this issue, insofar as (2) both argue against the long-standing notion that sexuality is defined by an ahistoric (biological) determinism to instead depend upon a processual ontology that affirms an ‘originary’ sexual indeterminateness that in the case of Freud takes the form of an initial bisexuality and in the case of Heidegger an ontological sexual neutrality, before (3) concluding that, while Freud’s notion of an initial bisexuality forecloses sexuality within a male/female binary framework (albeit one that does not completely escape its initial bisexuality), Heidegger’s notion of an ontological sexual indeterminacy does not and so goes furthest in permitting a rethinking of sexuality in non-essentialist, non-binary ways.

Rather than outline this by tracing each thinker’s substantive account of sexuality across their oeuvres—a task that in Freud’s case would simply not be possible within the confines of a single article and, in the case of Heidegger, would not be possible given that his comments are, for reasons to be outlined, primarily orientated to the ontological conditions that generate sexuality and only implicitly point to a substantive account of sexuality per se—I adopt a purposefully focused hermeneutical strategy that limits the analysis to specific texts of Freud and Heidegger. Prior to engaging with these, the first section situates the argument within the literature and clarifies a number of methodological issues. The second section outlines Freud’s analysis of sexuality in Three Essays on Sexuality (2000)—the text that contains his most developed thinking on the topic—paying particular attention to the question of the ‘origins’ and expressions of sexuality contained therein. The third section moves to Heidegger, focusing on the twin texts, Being and Time (1962), from 1927, and The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (1984), from 1928—and the only text where Heidegger explicitly relates his ontological analysis to the question of sexuality—to outline the parameters of his ontological analysis of Dasein and its implications for the question of sexuality. Finally, the conclusion brings together both perspectives to clarify not only what is at stake but also its continuing relevance.

Freud, Heidegger, and Sexuality: The Debate

Bringing Freud and Heidegger together on the question of (the ‘origins’ of) sexuality is not a strategy that has garnered much support in the literature, no doubt due to the fact that the question of sexuality generally plays asymmetric roles within their respective thinking. On the one hand, the link between sexuality and Freudian psychoanalysis is an established one, both within and outside the academia. As Gayle Rubin puts it:

Psychoanalysis contains a unique set of concepts for understanding men, women, and sexuality. It is a theory of sexuality in human society. Most importantly, psychoanalysis provides a description of the mechanisms by which the sexes are divided and deformed, of how bisexual, androgynous infants are transformed into boys and girls. (1975: 43)

On the other hand, Heidegger’s thinking on sexuality and the role(s) it play(s) within his fundamental ontology is contentious. While, in the 1983 essay ‘Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference’ (2008), Jacques Derrida belatedly recognized that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology is intimately tied to the question(ing) of sexual difference, there is a long history that seems to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre’s earlier assessment, from 1943, that ‘Heidegger … does not make the slightest allusion to [sexuality] in his existential analysis with the result that his “Dasein” appears to us as asexual’ (2003: 405). Such a view calls into question the possibility of engaging with Heidegger’s views on sexuality and, indeed, using them to engage with Freudian psychoanalysis. This is perhaps why those commentators who have engaged with the Freud–Heidegger relation have avoided conducting it through the mediation of sexuality, instead focusing on a range of other topics. Askay and Farquhar (2006), for example, first examine the Freud–Heidegger relation through the mediation of science and modernity, before going on to focus on it through their remarks on the body (Askay and Farquhar 2013). Boothby (2001) brings them together through their conceptions of anxiety and the disjunction at the heart of the human condition, Craig (2008) focuses on their relations to depth psychology, Farrell- Krell (1992) and Wood (2002) engage with their analyzes of the uncanny, Jackson (2007) compares them through the notion of cultural crisis, Richardson (2003) does so via their respective relationships to Lacan’s structural linguistics, and Ştefan (2016) focuses on their conceptions of authenticity.

While these commentators ignore the question of (the ‘origins’ of) sexuality when discussing the Freud–Heidegger relation, my guiding contention is that Freud and Heidegger can, in fact, be fruitfully brought together through this issue. This, however, first requires that it be shown, pace Sartre, that Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein is actually linked to the question of sexuality and, indeed, clarify how it is. Beyond Derrida’s previously mentioned article, the most sustained engagements with this issue have come, perhaps not surprisingly, from within feminist theory and sexuality studies. However, while recognizing that Heidegger does indeed briefly mention sexuality in the 1928 lecture course The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (1984: 136–141), the verdict regarding that analysis is contentious.

Huntington (2001) provides a detailed overview of these debates, but, put schematically, they center around two positions. On the one hand, there are those who reject the notion that Heidegger has anything appropriate or useful to say on the topic of sexuality either because his analysis is held to depend upon a number of implicit, unexplained patriarchal privilegings that bring him to implicitly analyze issues from a supposedly masculine perspective (Chanter 2001) or because his fundamental ontology does not and cannot say anything about actual, physical bodies (Bartky 1970). Such a view calls into question the need for this article.

On the other hand, a number of scholars have concluded that Heidegger’s thinking can, when combined with the insights of other feminist writers, be reconstructed to offer helpful insights on sexuality (Graybeal 1990; Huntington 1998; Glazebrook 2001). While this provides justification for the comparative analysis undertaken in this paper, this position suffers from a number of problems. First, while it tends to combine aspects of Heidegger’s thinking with psychoanalytic theory, this engagement takes place through later post-Lacan (feminist) psychoanalytic theorists and does not directly engage Heidegger with Freud. Second, these positions aim to use Heidegger’s thought for another pre-determined end and so examine how Heidegger can be reconfigured (or combined with another perspective) to contribute to our understanding of (a prior notion of) sexuality. This not only instrumentalizes Heidegger’s thinking, thereby ignoring his critique of instrumental rationality (Rae 2012), but also fails to concentrate on what Heidegger actually says about (the originary indeterminateness of) sexuality. This is because, finally, there is a tendency to focus on, what Heidegger calls, the ‘ontic’ level of analysis, meaning everyday, concrete, actual determinations. Claiming that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology has nothing to offer on this level re-enforces the notion that we need to combine his thinking with more empirical, ontically focused studies. The problem with such an approach, however, is that it radically distorts Heidegger’s thinking and/or judges it against a purpose and question that it was never intended to fulfil. As Jesus Escudero explains:

One must not forget that the original purpose of Heidegger’s analytic is none other than to articulate the foreunderstanding that Dasein has of Being and not to develop a philosophical or ethical anthropology. For this reason, Heidegger does not use the word “man” or “person” but the neutral German term “Dasein”. (2015: 20)

Rather than aim to offer an ontic analysis of sexuality, Heidegger’s fundamental ontology is primarily orientated to the conditions, manifested from a questioning of the meaning of Being, that generate ontic understandings of the phenomenon. Instead of simply providing a definitive positive account of sexuality, his account argues that such an account depends upon how Being is understood. As such, to ensure that sexuality is revealed as it presents itself in each manifestation, rather than as how we would like to see it or have been predisposed to viewing it, Heidegger maintains that we must first focus on the ontological lens through which we examine the issue to ensure that we understand how to properly approach the issue.

As a consequence, Heidegger’s engagement with ‘sexuality’ must be understood in a specific way and as responding to a particular question: he does not aim to offer a substantive theory of sexuality per se—that is one that aims to identify specific determinate ontic forms of sexualitiy—but insists on the prior need to re-orientate the terms of the debate to first focus on a questioning of the ontological conditions that make possible the ontic sexual determinations that would be part of a theory of sexuality. Those seeking an immediate, concrete ontic description or substantive theory of sexuality will likely be frustrated by the resultant analysis, but a Heideggerian response would counter that without such a prior engagement the danger is that any ontic analysis would simply repeat the fundamental failures of Western metaphysics by attributing a fixed essence or definitive, universal, and restrictive meaning to the term. Before undertaking an ontic analysis into sexuality, we first have to understand how to think about ‘it,’ which, in turn, requires an engagement with what ‘sexuality’ is, which, in turn, depends on how we understand the meaning of Being. Thus, Heidegger’s discussion of sexuality is brought back to and depends upon his questioning of the meaning of Being. Only this will reveal what sexuality is and so prevent us from foreclosing sexual determinations within unjustified a priori or reductive terms. As a consequence, instead of requesting that Heidegger simply offer a predetermined substantive conception of sexuality by swapping one foreclosed ontic analysis of sexuality for another, and, indeed, judging his analysis in accordance with that end, his thinking must be examined on its own ontologically-orientated terms.

Therefore, to be clear, the question motivating Heidegger’s analysis is not primarily an ontic one; he does not aim to provide a positive, substantive theory of sexuality. Nevertheless, I will argue that, by showing that (ontic) sexuality expresses and continues to be subtended by an ontological process of open-ended becoming, Heidegger does implicitly point to a conception of (ontic) sexuality that is grounded in a process of ontological becoming rather than fixed biological or determinate structures. As such, his ontology of open-ended becoming indicates that ontic forms of sexuality do not necessarily have to conform to a male/female division, while each expression of sexuality is absolutely particular, open-ended, and constantly changing. In-line with Heidegger’s phenomenological approach in the late 1920s, each form of sexuality must then be studied on its own terms as it appears.

In contrast, Freud’s analysis focuses on (in Heideggerian terminology) ontic forms and developmental processes of sexuality, but has little explicit to say on the (ontological) conditions or processes that generate and sustain them. I will argue, however, that Freud’s insistence that sexuality develops from an originary bisexuality into a unitary form of sexual expression in puberty depends upon and points to an implicit commitment to a processual ontology that, like Heidegger, rejects the notion that sexuality is grounded in a fixed, substance. Although Heidegger and Freud approach the question of sexuality from distinct conceptual schemas and orientations, my aim is to show that their analyses are united by a common rejection of the long-standing claim that sexuality is grounded in and necessarily constrained by a fixed and (biologically) determined, heterosexual (male/female) opposition/determination, and that their respective rejections depend upon and affirm a processual (rather than substantial) ontology

This, however, appears to cause a problem for the focus of this paper, insofar as their respective dependence on a processual ontology that, by definition, lacks fixed foundation, seems to undermine the possibility of bringing them together through the mediation of their respective views on the ‘origins’ of sexuality given that the latter appears to demand precisely such a foundation. This is compounded by the status that the question of origins has in their respective frameworks. Heidegger, for example, engages extensively with this issue: in the late 1930s, he returns to this issue to try to account for the event that brings forth Being,1 while in the pre-kehre works discussed here, he undertakes a critical discussion of the notion of ‘origin’ because he associates it with the idea of a fixed determinate ground that he ties to the metaphysics of presence to be overcome. Despite the differences between them, the basic point uniting these periods is Heidegger’s continuing rejection of ontologies of presence that tie Being to a fixed substantial ground. As such, it is, strictly speaking, not possible to talk of an origin for sexuality in Heidegger’s thinking, if by this is meant the notion of a fixed determining ground for ontic forms of sexuality. This issue is compounded in Freud’s thinking by the fact that he does not explicitly use the language of ‘origins’ nor does he pitch his analysis in terms of a fixed origin for sexuality. Instead he focuses on the developmental processes that bring individuals from childhood forms of sexuality to adult forms. If both Freud and Heidegger reject the notion that there is, strictly speaking, a single, fixed origin to sexuality, does this not call into question the validity of using this issue to bring them together?

Resolving this requires that we return to my claim that both Freud and Heidegger insist that, rather than being static and determined, sexuality is processual. In other words, rather than being fixed and determined, sexuality is constantly changing because it is orientated from and subtended by processes of continuous becoming. Although this is explicit in Heidegger but only implicit in Freud, by making the latter’s commitment explicit, I will argue that, for both Freud and Heidegger, sexuality originates from and depends upon changing processes. Sexuality has then, for both, (an) ‘origin(s)’ in terms of the conditions that define the (ontological) processes that generate sexual expression, but those conditions are fluctuating rather than static or substantial. To capture this, I place ‘origin’ in scare quotes to highlight that, for each, the ‘origin’ being discussed is not that of a fixed, single, determinate ground (= origin), but something akin to the changing (ontological) conditions that generate and continue to subtend the processes of (ontic forms of) sexuality. The reader must bear this in mind. Reading Freud and Heidegger in this way brings to light latent aspects of their respective analyses that are often over-looked, and permits me to fruitfully place them in dialogue to show that they share a common critique of the long-standing notion that sexuality is grounded in a fixed substance or is biological determined, to instead maintain that sexuality depends upon and is subtended by changing processes. They do however ultimately disagree on whether those originary processes are foreclosed within a binary heteronormative male/ female structure (Freud) or are inherently indeterminate (Heidegger) and so can be expressed in multiple, non-binary forms.

Freud on Sexuality

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, first published in 1905, has become one of the fundamental texts for understanding Freudian psychoanalytical theory. Indeed, Arnold Davidson claims that its importance extends beyond the internal dynamics of psychoanalytical theory, insofar as it marks a fundamental break with the conceptual apparatus that previously underpinned Western thinking about sexuality (2001: 92). This is not to say that it is a complete, polished text. It went through various re-writes over a 20 year period as Freud re-wrote, removed, and/or added material as his thinking developed. Nevertheless, Freud produces a highly nuanced, if at times problematic, critique of the idea that an individual’s sexuality is defined and/or determined by an essential ahistoric sexed ‘core’. Instead, Freud insists on an originary bisexuality that is gradually developed into and expressed through a heteronormative— male or female—sexual division at the point of puberty. Crucially, the originary bisexuality remains implicit to the actual sex developed to (1) undermine any straightforward binary heteronormative division, and (2) offer the possibility of reconstructing an individual’s sexuality.

To develop this, Freud starts by noting that sexuality is generally understood to (1) ‘be absent in childhood’ (2000: 1), (2) ‘set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity’ (2000: 1), (3) ‘[be] revealed in the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon the other’ (2000: 1), while (4) ‘its aim is presumed to be sexual union, or at all events actions leading in that direction’ (2000: 1). His hypothesis is, however, that ‘these views give a very false picture of the true situation’ (2000: 1).

To start to defend this, Freud introduces a distinction between the ‘sexual object’ (2000: 1–2), describing ‘the person from whom sexual attraction proceeds’ (2000: 1), and the ‘sexual aim’ (2000: 2), which describes ‘the act towards which the instinct tends’ (2000: 2). Far from a straightforward, linear relationship between the two or a unitary meaning to each, ‘numerous deviations occur in respect of both of these’ (2000: 2). This contradicts the then commonly held view, one that continues to adhere to a certain contemporary conservative religious discourse, that sexuality is divided between a male and female, who should come together to produce a harmonious whole aimed at procreation. Freud notes, however, that this is not always the case: ‘there are men whose sexual object is a man and not a woman, and women whose sexual object is a woman and not a man’ (2000: 2). On the basis of the ‘commonly-held’ view, such occurrences are an abomination and so are marked as “inversions” (2000: 2) of ‘natural’ sexual feelings. However, not only does such an explanation fail to explain how such inversions are possible, but its judgement is premised on the notion of a singular, ‘natural’ or essential form of sexual expression; a position rejected by Freud.

If natural/essentialist understandings of sexuality fail to understand and account for how sexual inversions can take place, Freud engages with whether they can be adequately thought from constructivist premises. The problem, however, is that ‘many people are subjected to the same sexual influences … without becoming inverted or without remaining so permanently’ (2000: 6). In other words, appealing to a constructivist argument does not explain why some become inverts whereas others do not when both are subjected to similar experiences.

Although they approach the issue from different directions, both essentialist and constructivist accounts of sexuality share a common problem: they are grounded in a singular foundation and, indeed, are premised on a natural, essential binary heteronormative opposition so that individuals are either innately destined or constructed to be either a male or female. Freud rejects both aspects of this logical structure by pointing to the existence of hermaphrodites ‘in which the sexual characteristics are obscured, and in which it is consequently difficult to determine the sex [because] [t]he genitals of the individuals concerned combine male and female characteristics’ (2000: 7). While it might be objected that these are relatively rare cases, Freud responds that their importance lies

in the unexpected fact that they facilitate our understanding of normal development. For it appears that a certain degree of anatomical hermaphroditism occurs normally. In every normal male or female individual, traces are found of the apparatus of the opposite sex. These either persist without function as rudimentary organs or become modified and take on other functions. (2000: 7)

From this, he makes the claim that the separation of the sexes into a binary opposition is premised on ‘an originally bisexual physical disposition [that] has, in the course of evolution, become modified into a unisexual one, leaving behind only a few traces of the sex that has become atrophied’ (2000: 7).

While it might be tempting to hold that this physical bisexuality is mirrored by a psychical one, Freud maintains that, for this to hold, each inversion of the sexual object would have to entail both a mental and physical inversion: a male desiring a male sexual object would also have to be accompanied by an inversion in his masculine character so that the inverted male would automatically take on feminine characteristics; whereas, an inverted female with a female sexual object would have to automatically take on masculine characteristics. Freud dismisses this, claiming that ‘it is only in inverted women that character-inversion of this kind can be looked for with any regularity. In men the most complete mental masculinity can be combined with inversion’ (2000: 8).

Two related aspects stand out from this: First, Freud is implicitly prefiguring Gayle Rubin’s (1984: 308) distinction between ‘sex,’ defining an individual’s biological make-up, and ‘gender,’ describing something like the (socially) constructed norms that define sexual roles, characteristics, and mannerisms, to explain that biological sex is not determinant for gender: a biological woman can take on the gendered masculine role and vice versa. Evidence for this conclusion emanates from Freud’s claim that while the sexual instinct—defined provisionally as ‘the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation, as contrasted with a “stimulus,” which is set up by single excitations coming from without’ (2000: 34)—and sexual object are normally tightly tied so that, for example, the masculine sexual instinct has as its object the feminine, such a correspondence is not only artificial, entailing a needless restriction of the sexual instinct, but also in danger of reducing ‘the object [to] part and parcel of the instinct’ (2000: 14). Instead, Freud maintains that ‘It seems probable that the sexual instinct is in the first instance independent of its object; nor is its origin likely to be due to its object’s attractions’ (2000: 14). As a consequence, he concludes that ‘We are thus warned to loosen the bond that exists in our thoughts between instinct and object’ (2000: 14) and recognize that ‘Under a great number of conditions and in surprisingly numerous individuals, the nature and importance of the sexual object recedes into the background’ (2000: 15). In other words, an individual’s sexual instinct is not necessarily tied to a single, universal object.

Second, the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ do not describe physical characteristics, but functions. Freud clarifies this in the third essay, when he first notes that the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ‘are among the most confused that occur in science’ (2000: 85, fn1), before distinguishing between biological, sociological, and logical senses of the term, claiming that the latter is structured around an active aspect representing masculinity and a passive aspect tied to femininity, and concluding that this active/passive division ‘is the essential one and the most serviceable in psycho-analysis’ (2000: 85). On the one hand, by continuing to think of relationships in terms of an active/passive dichotomy tied to masculinity and femininity respectively, Freud carries on a long tradition that insists that masculine-activity is opposed to feminine-passivity which is used to establish and justify a patriarchal division. On the other hand, however, Freud holds that masculine-activity and feminine-passivity are positions, rather than actors, which, in turn, undermines any straightforward sexual essentialism or division: as a position, a biological women can play the active masculine role in the relation, and vice versa. Indeed, Freud goes further by claiming that regardless of whether there is an explicit identification with the supposed alternative sex/gender role, the individual is always bound up with and tied to it. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ masculinity or femininity. Rather, ‘Every individual on the contrary displays a mixture of the character-traits belonging to his own and to the opposite sex; and he shows a combination of activity and passivity whether or not these last character-traits tally with his biological ones’ (2000: 86).

Given then that the original physical inversion is not automatically accompanied by a psychical one, Freud maintains that we need a far more nuanced and sophisticated account of the process(es) through which the originary physical bisexuality becomes manifested psychically. It is here that psychoanalysis and, in particular, Freud’s theory of the libido, steps in to analyze the psychical processes that emanate from and accompany the individual’s physical sexual development. Whereas this leads Freud to a detailed discussion of a variety of sexual behaviors, the key point for the current discussion is the claim that there is a non-causal relation between the somatic and psychic aspects of the individual, meaning that any questioning of individual sexuality must occur along these two distinct but related lines.

Whereas Heidegger does not explicitly engage with the question of how the originary ontological indeterminacy becomes ontically manifested—indeed, strictly speaking, he cannot do so, otherwise he would risk foreclosing future ontic sexual determinations within a prior universal schema and so contradict the constant becoming that he maintains defines Being—Freud does by (1) inquiring into the role that sexuality plays in the life of children, the aim of which is to show that sexuality is a condition of human being generally and so integral to individual life; it is not something that is initially missing before becoming manifest at a particular point of development, and (2) discussing the developmental process through which an individual’s sexuality crystallizes.

To do so, Freud once more contrasts his analysis to the commonly-held view that childhood is asexual and ‘the sexual instinct … only awakens in the period of life described as puberty’ (2000: 39). Not only does this fail to explain the onto-genesis of individual sexuality—that is, the way in which the initial bisexuality is manifested in a physically unisexual manner—but it is also unable to adequately explain the psychic life of children. As a consequence, Freud insists that sexuality is an ontological condition of human being, although it only becomes explicitly manifested ‘to observation round about the third or fourth year of life’ (2000: 43). This is not, however, to say that this development proceeds in a linear or homogeneous manner.

Instead, children undergo a profound process of discipline and sublimation wherein the sexual instinct is either repressed or transferred to other outlets. Rather than being tied to procreation, this process is orientated towards ‘self-preservation’ (2000: 48), autonomy, and ‘auto-eroticism’ (2000: 47). While the latter only becomes apparent with puberty, Freud develops the relationship between self-preservation, autonomy, and auto-eroticism via the famous analysis of thumb-sucking, which is taken to mimic the pleasure that the child gains from the breast. Whereas the breast is frequently absent and so beyond the child’s control, the child substitutes its own body part for the breast, thereby separating its ‘sexual satisfaction … from the need for taking nourishment’ (2000: 48), while also, in so doing, allowing the child to obtain autonomy from the external world it does not yet control. The key point is that the example of thumb-sucking is taken to reveal ‘the three essential characteristics of an infantile sexual manifestation. At its origin it attaches itself to one of the vital somatic functions; it has as yet no sexual object, and is thus autoerotic’ (2000: 48).

The key issue is that childhood sexuality is not object-orientated; it is auto-erotic tied to ‘the excitations of the sensory surfaces—the skin and the sense organs—and, most directly of all, by the operation of stimuli on certain areas known as erotogenetic zones’ (2000: 70). This excitation is not initially tied to one body part; ‘any part of the skin and any sense-organ—probably, indeed, any organ—can function as an erotogenic zone, though there are some particularly marked erotogenic zones’ (2000: 98). Furthermore, ‘sexual excitation is not the primary motivation for the child’s action, but ‘arises as a by-product … of a large number of processes that occur in the organism, as soon as they reach a certain degree of intensity’ (2000: 99). As a consequence, the notion of sexuality at play in Freud’s analysis of childhood sexuality is expansive, tied to any form of pleasure, with this usually initially being found through unintended sensory stimuli.

This pre-genital stage of childhood sexual development gradually morphs into a genital stage at puberty, wherein sexuality is tied to ‘the primacy of a single erotogenic zone, [and] form[s] a firm organization directed towards a sexual aim attached to some extraneous sexual object’ (2000: 63). The movement from childhood autoeroticism to adult genital sexuality is a transitional process, based on a continuum and constituted by the child’s movement through two stages: First, the oral stage, manifested through, for example, thumb-sucking, where the child obtains pleasure from its own body without this being primarily orientated to a single body part or the satisfaction of its sexual instinct. Second, the later anal stage in which the child comes to associate pleasure with its control over its bowel movements. Here, the child starts to identify pleasure with a particular body part, an alteration that will be taken further in puberty when pleasure is tied explicitly to the genitals. ‘These phases of sexual organization are normally passed through smoothly, without giving more than a hint of their existence’ (2000: 64) and are normally ‘completed’ ‘between the ages of two and five’ (2000: 66), when it is brought ‘to a halt or to a retreat by the latency period’ (2000: 66) characterized by ‘the infantile nature of sexual aims’ (2000: 66).

This initial phase is supplemented by a ‘second wave [that] sets in with puberty and determines the final outcome of sexual life’ (2000: 66). Specifically, ‘With the arrival of puberty, changes set in which are destined to give infantile sexual life its final, normal shape’ (2000: 73). Although the sexual instinct was up to this moment auto-erotic, it now settles on an object, with the disparate and dispersed manifestation of the sexual instinct found in the pre-puberty stage focusing on and ‘becom[ing] subordinated to the primacy of the genital zone’ (2000: 73). In turn, this becomes orientated to a singular aim: in the case of males, ‘the discharge of the sexual products’ (2000: 73), while in women a more complicated ‘kind of involution’ (2000: 73) takes place that Freud has great difficulty identifying or describing. He is clear however that the divergence between men and women is, at this stage, significant.

From an initial bisexuality, individuals come, through a developmental process, to distinguish themselves into one of two sexes. This is not, however, to say that the process is linear so that the initial bisexuality turns into a simple singular sex. Freud makes this clear when he mentions the possibility of, what will come to be known as, transgender/sexual reassignment: ‘It has become experimentally possible … to transform a male into a female, and conversely a female into a male’ (2000: 81). When he offers some biological speculations as to why this is so, they return us to his postulation of an original bisexuality, which appears to continue to subtend the individual ‘actual’ sexual development ready to disrupt any sexual identity and permit a reconfiguration of it (both in terms of sex and gender). The originary bisexuality is then fundamental to Freud’s insistence that sexuality is not premised on an ahistoric innate essentialism, nor is it ever fully determined. While it is expressed via a seeming heteronormative division, this division is plastic, fluid, and marked by the initial bisexuality; at no point does it coalesce into simply unity with a singular structure, aim, or object.

There is obviously far more to Freud’s discussion of sexuality, both in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and other works, but this brief engagement shows that he appeals to an originary bisexuality to undermine any sexual innate essentialism, holds sexuality to be a condition of human being—it does not simply appear at a particular point of development—and works to outline the developmental stages through which children pass as they move towards a genitally-orientated (adult) sexual life. Importantly, sexuality, for Freud, is underpinned by and, indeed, defined as a process of continuous becoming, so that at no point in the process does it manifest itself as a straightforward unity or finished product: the originary bisexuality does not simply become constricted to a uni-sexuality at puberty; ‘it’ continues to subtend the sexuality that crystallizes at puberty, thereby both complicating an individual’s sexuality and offering the possibility of changing it.

As we will see in the next section, while Heidegger’s analysis is orientated to a different question and, indeed, engages with it through a very different lens, he agrees not only with Freud’s rejection of an innate sexual essentialism, but also that ‘sexuality’ is defined by continuous becoming. Their fundamental point of difference relates to the ‘ground’ of sexuality: Freud’s claim for an original bisexuality, is, for Heidegger, too restrictive, insofar as it traps the process of becoming sexualized within a narrow heteronormative range of expressions that fails to do full justice to the open-ended possibility inherent in the ontological indeterminateness of human being. It is to this that we now turn.

Heidegger, Fundamental Ontology, and the Sexuality of Dasein

Heidegger’s early incomplete work Being and Time, published in 1927, aims to ‘raise anew the question of the meaning of being’ (1962: 1); a question that concerns ‘Everything we talk about, everything we have in view, everything towards which we comport ourselves in any way, is Being; what we are is Being, and so is how we are’ (1962: 26). This questioning occupied the ancient Greeks, but has been largely ignored or forgotten as a particular understanding—based on the notion of a fixed substance, or presence—has been settled on and come to dominate Western thought. In contrast, Heidegger tentatively affirms ‘time as the possible horizon for any understanding whatsoever of Being’ (1962: 1), with the consequence that Being and its manifestations will be thought, not in terms of a fixed substance or presenting ground, but as pure, open-ended becoming.

From here, Heidegger inquires into the ‘nature’ of Being, dismissing long-held prejudices that insist that the question of Being is the most universal question— after all, everything is a manifestation of Being—and therefore the most vacuous. Because it relates to everything that exists, it is the most important concept, although ‘if it is said that “Being” is the most universal concept, this cannot mean that it is the one which is clearest or that it needs no further discussion. It is rather the darkest of all’ (1962: 23). Indeed, Heidegger notes that, although it is universal and transcends entities, Being does not exist in a separate, transcendent realm. Rejecting a two-world metaphysical understanding that posits a true, essential, but hidden, world against an inessential world of appearance, he explains that ‘Being … is no class or genus of entities; yet it pertains to every entity. Its “universality” is to be sought higher up. Being and the structure of Being lie beyond every entity and every possible character which an entity may possess. Being is transcendens pure and simple’ (1962: 62). That Being is different to entities and always transcends them but is never transcendent to them, leads to the famous notion of the ontological difference.

The first thing to note is that, while different, ‘Being is always the Being of an entity’ (1962: 29) but yet ‘cannot … be conceived as an entity’ (1962: 23). As a consequence, Being is non-conceptual, but that from which and upon which entities depend for their existence. For this reason, ‘we cannot apply to Being the concept of “definition” as presented in traditional logic, which itself has its foundations in ancient ontology and which, within certain limits, provides a quite justifiable way of defining “entities”’ (1962: 23). Such a definition depends upon a particular conception of Being, wherein ‘it’ is understood to present itself as what it is, take on objective, conceptual form to do so, and, crucially, not change: the entity is what is presented and nothing else. The question that Heidegger’s re-raising addresses is whether such an assumed conception of Being is accurate or whether, as he postulates, Being (and its manifestations) must be understood in terms of time. It is for this reason that ‘Ontological inquiry is … more primordial, as over against the ontical inquiry of the positive sciences. But it remains naïve and opaque if in its researches into the Being of entities it fails to discuss the meaning of Being in general’ (1962: 31). There is therefore a distinction between an ontological level of analysis concerned with Being and an ontic one that limits the discussion to entities. For Heidegger, because Being permits entities to exist, the ontological level is far more important than the ontic one. Crucially, he notes that an ontological analysis can take two forms: a ‘naïve’ (1962: 31) approach that focuses on an entity to reveal its particular Being; and ‘fundamental ontology’ (1962: 34) which draws general conclusions regarding Being from the ontological analysis of an entity.

However, if Being is different to entities and so non-conceptual, how are we to understand (= conceptualize) it? Heidegger’s response is twofold: First, he asks for a fundamental alteration in how we think, away from a focus on conceptuality towards a more ineffable, flowing, and changing mode of thinking (Rae 2013). Put simply, Being must ‘be asked about, exhibited in a way of its own essentially different from the way in which entities are discovered’ (1962: 26). Second, and while this changes after his Kehre in the early 1930s where an unmediated study of Being is affirmed, Heidegger, in Being and Time, returns to the ontological difference to suggest that if Being is always the Being of an entity, perhaps inquiring into an entity can reveal Being. In particular, he insists that one entity, Dasein, can fulfil this role because ‘it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very Being, that Being is an issue for it’ (1962: 32). Put simply, it is the only entity for whom ‘asking this question is [the] entity’s mode of Being’ (1962: 27). Importantly, the analysis of Dasein is used, not as an end in-itself, but as a means to raise the question of the meaning of Being.

‘Dasein’ is a neologism of ‘Da,’ meaning ‘there,’ and ‘Sein,’ meaning ‘is,’ and so literally gives us ‘there-is’. There are at least two issues that need to be unpacked for this nomenclature to make sense. First, ‘Dasein’ is employed because it reveals the particular understanding of the ontological difference that Heidegger has in mind. Dasein, as an entity, has a Being of its own but it, crucially, also signifies the way in which entities relate to Being: against the temporal flux of Being, Dasein stands out so that ‘there-is’ something in spatio-temporal form. Second, Dasein cannot initially be understood to be marked by ontic configurations so as to ensure that, rather than starting from a predetermined understanding that is imposed onto it, Dasein—and by extension Being—is allowed to reveal ‘itself’ as ‘it’ actually is and not as how we want it to be.

However, it should be noted that indeterminate/neutral ‘Dasein’ is not a synonym for the disembodied, abstract, unencumbered self that has marked Western modern philosophy. As we will see, this is one of the criticisms frequently levelled against it from a certain strand of feminist theory as a way of suggesting that Heidegger’s analysis both ignores and is unable to conceptualize concrete, embodied, and differentiated entities. In contrast, Heidegger maintains that Dasein is inherently embodied and embedded within a world. Dasein is not defined by an ‘inner’ innate core, but by its ‘“existence”’ (1962: 32) which, very generally, describes both the world it inhabits and how it comports itself. These are not two distinct aspects, but intertwine to create Dasein: as a manifestation of Being, Dasein is not a substance, thing, or object (1962: 73); it is inherently historical and changing. Furthermore, as a situated, worldly entity, there is entwinement between the Being of Dasein, Dasein’s understanding and comportment, and the world: ‘In Dasein itself, and therefore in its own understanding of Being, the way the world is understood is … reflected back ontologically upon the way in which Dasein itself gets interpreted’ (1962: 3637). Contrary then to the mind/body dualism that has long conditioned Western philosophy, Dasein is not separated from its world or body; it is factical, with its facticity (including its actions and understanding) entailing and being defined by an intimate and co-constitutive understanding of the world. As Heidegger warns, ‘Being-in is not a “property” which Dasein sometimes has and sometimes does not have, and without which it could be just as well as it could with it. It is not the case that man “is” and then has, by way of an extra, a relationship-of-Being towards the “world”’ (1962: 84). Dasein is not a disembodied entity that may choose how to interact with its world; ‘it’ is a worldly embodied entity that cannot be separated or distinguished from its facticity from and through which it acts.

For the pre-Kehre Heidegger then any inquiry must concern itself with a questioning of the meaning of Being—not entities—through a prior analysis of one entity: Dasein. This analytic of Dasein is not the end of the process, but the first stage to understanding the meaning of Being. For this reason, he criticizes disciplines such as anthropology, biology, and psychology, for not only undertaking purely ontic analyses, but also conceptualizing human being as an enclosed monadic entity to be studied in isolation from its worldliness (1962: 71–75). From this, we can conclude that, for Heidegger, Freud’s approach is too limited and ontic, insofar as—although it starts from an originary bisexuality—it focuses on providing an ontic analysis of human consciousness that not only locks the inquiry within a predetermined ontological schema, but is unable to appreciate that it has done so. To truly understand human being, the inquiry must start from and be orientated around the ontological question of the meaning of Being. It is this insight that underpins the notion of Daseinanalysis in the Zollikon Seminars (2001). It also has implications for his questioning of (the ’origins’ of) sexuality.

As such, Sartre’s claim that ‘Heidegger … does not make the slightest allusion to [sexuality] in his existential analysis with the result that his “Dasein” appears to us as asexual’ (2003: 405) is, strictly speaking, accurate insofar as the analysis of Dasein in Being and Time goes, but it fails to recognize that (1) this must be so to permit Dasein to reveal itself without being constrained by prior imposed ontic determinations, (2) the analysis of Dasein in Being and Time is part of a wider strategy that uses this analysis to question the meaning of Being, and (3) Heidegger does, in fact, discuss the relationship between Dasein and sexuality in his 1928 lecture course, published as The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, although his comments must be understood in a specific way.

In particular, Heidegger first notes that, in Being and Time, ‘The term “man” was not used for that being which is the theme of the analysis. Instead the neutral term Dasein was chosen’ (1984: 136), before going on to explanation that this was because ‘the interpretation of this being must be carried out prior to every factual concretion’ (1984: 136). While this does indeed appear to remove sexual considerations from the analysis, Heidegger clarifies that ‘here sexlessness is not the indifference of an empty void, the weak negativity of an indifferent ontic nothing. In its neutrality Dasein is not the indifferent nobody and everybody, but the primordial positivity and potency of the essence’ (1984: 137). The neutrality of Dasein does not, somewhat paradoxically, neuter it, rendering it an abstract, empty void, but rather describes ‘the potency of the origin’ (1984: 137); the ever-changing, nondeterminate ‘power’ that ‘bears in itself the intrinsic possibility of every concrete factual humanity’ (1984: 137). In other words, Heidegger claims that, instead of simply jumping in to analyze ‘sexuality’ per se, it is necessary to identify and understand the ontological processes through which (ontic forms of) sexuality arise.

From this general position, Heidegger ties the discussion to sexuality and, in particular the issue of how sexual determinations arise, noting that this originary neutrality means that ‘Dasein harbors the intrinsic possibility for being factically dispersed into bodiliness and thus into sexuality’ (1984: 137). Factical being is not annihilated by neuturality, but is, in fact, only possible because it is ‘grounded’ in neutrality. Re-iterating that this neutrality is not an empty void, but a potency, Heidegger explains that ‘The metaphysical neutrality of the human being, inmost isolated as Dasein, is not an empty abstraction from the ontic, a neither-nor; it is rather the authentic concreteness of the origin, the not-yet of factical dispersion [Zerstreutheit]’ (1984: 137). As such, and starting from a non-determined metaphysical neutrality, ‘Dasein is, among other things, in each case dispersed in a body and concomitantly, among other things, in each case disunited [Zwiespältig] in a particular sexuality’ (1984: 137). From an initial, non-determined ‘ground,’ Dasein is disseminated into factical being; a process that requires that its initial indeterminateness be broken up and multiplied to take on ontic form. For this reason, this breaking-up is not a negative, but the ‘positive’ process whereby an initial indeterminate neutrality is distinguished into different parts to permit ontic individuated existence.

This does not simply entail a ‘split[ting] into many individuals’ (1984: 138); each individuated entity is itself defined by ‘the intrinsic possibility of multiplication which … is present in every Dasein and for which embodiment presents an organizing factor’ (1984: 138). It is not the case then that having been divided into different ontic beings, each entity created is singular and determined. Neutrality continues to subtend it, providing the possibility that the ontic determination will take on new different forms. As such, ontic sexuality is created from a well-spring of indeterminate ontological neutrality and is expressed through processes of differentiation that, rather than coalescing into a determinate being, creates a multiplicity that is not and cannot be defined in terms of a defined totality, fixed unity, or a whole with multiple parts. It is rather demarcated by the open-ness that expresses the possibility inherent in its neutral ‘ground’. As a consequence, the original neutrality does not disappear in the process of ontic expression but continues to subtend it, thereby ensuring that ontic sexuality is never determined or fixed and is and can be re-activated in a different manner.

A number of commentators have however questioned the turn to an originary neutrality when thinking about sexuality, arguing that it either masks a particular cultural or patriarchal value-system (Chanter 2001) or contradicts the worldly embodiment of Heideggerian Dasein. Trish Glazebrook for example maintains that ‘To think transcendentally … in a gender-neutral way, would be precisely to transcend the world, to be worldless’ (2001: 233). With this, she argues that Heidegger’s affirmation of the neutrality of Dasein not only contradicts his own insistence regarding the embodied and embeddedness of Dasein, but also threatens to reinscribe the Western autonomous, unencumbered subject; a conclusion that ties her position to Chanter’s.

There are however at least three issues with this line of interpretation: First, while Heidegger agrees that the notion of a neutral Dasein implies a ‘peculiar isolation’ (1984: 137), he rejects the suggestion that this implies ‘the egocentric individual, the ontic isolated individual’ (1984: 137). Rather than describing an ontic form of neutral isolation or egocentric foundation akin to that offered and defended by modern Cartesian philosophy, it must be thought as the initial ‘metaphysical isolation of the human being’ (1984: 137). Heidegger will come to criticize the notion of ‘metaphysics,’2 but here it is used to indicate a ‘place’ between an ontological and ontic analysis, insofar as it is posited to explain the being of Dasein ‘prior’ to its manifestation in ontic facticity. In other words, when Heidegger talks of ‘neutrality,’ he means it in a very specific, technical sense that is used to explain the process through which ontic determinations arise; it is not valued in-itself.

Second, Glazebrook’s criticism appears to confuse ‘transcendent,’ meaning to escape the world, with ‘transcendental,’ describing the conditions that make possible an entity. Whereas Glazebrook correctly holds that to posit Dasein as neutral is to posit an existence that transcends its ontically gendered expression, she reads this moment of ‘transcendence’ as entailing a ‘transcendent world’ and so re-introduces a two-world metaphysics into Heidegger’s schema that his notion of worldliness explicitly rejects. Heidegger’s fundamental ontology engages with the meaning of Being that makes possible (knowledge of) the being of entities. Being transcends entities but is never transcendent to them; it is the transcendental condition for entities. As he explains, ‘Every disclosure of Being as the transcendens is transcendental knowledge’ (1962: 62). As a consequence, neutral Dasein is not transcendent to ontic being, in the same way that Being is not transcendent to ontic entities; it is bound to, but differentiated from, ontic being as the fundamental premise that permits an ontic analysis to take place. Because ‘the “there” exists before we interpret ourselves in terms of gender, practices, biological characteristics, religious preferences, and ethnic features’ (Escudero 2015: 21), re-raising the question of the meaning of Being requires that ontic determinations are initially removed to permit the entity to reveal itself—and by extension Being—as it is rather than how we wish to see it (1962: 58).

Third, while this reveals the methodological importance of Dasein’s originary ontological neutrality—it permits an inquiry into Dasein and by extension Being distinct from preconceptions and in a manner that permits both to reveal themselves as they are—the notion of neutrality also has significant philosophical importance to Heidegger, insofar as it ties into his affirmation of open-ended possibility (1962: 63). As pure flux, Being (and all its manifestations, Dasein included) is/are nothing other than pure becoming. If its ontological flux were shaped from ontic considerations, such as pre-existing sexual determinations, the becoming of Dasein would be constrained within the parameters of those ontic forms, thereby undermining the pure open-ended possibility that defines Being. Dasein’s ontological neutrality is therefore necessary to secure the ontological difference and the possibility that lies at the heart of Heidegger’s conflation of Being and time. It is from this ontological neutrality that ontic sexuality springs and must be thought, albeit in a way that is not pre-determined or constrained.

While Freud identifies an originary bisexuality but spends more time discussing and analyzing the processes through which factic individuals develop sexually, Heidegger focuses on the ontological processes that give rise to ontic sexual determinations and says little, if anything, on the latter. Although those searching for an explicit discussion of ontic forms of sexual expression are likely to be frustrated by such an approach, it is consistent with Heidegger’s insistence that ontological analyzes take precedence over ontic ones, which, in any case, can only be truly answered by the former. As a consequence, Heidegger joins Freud in rejecting the notion of a fixed determining ground to sexuality, but claims, contra Freud, that this is due, not to the continuing influence of an originary bisexuality—which Heidegger maintains needlessly forecloses the ontic expression of the originary ontological indeterminacy within a binary structure—but to the originary ontological indeterminate neutrality that results from Being’s open-ended becoming and which means that ontic sexual expression is never foreclosed within predetermined or fixed boundaries.

One consequence of this is that Heidegger cannot go on to recommend which forms of ontic sexuality should be adopted, or even how ontic sexuality develops; doing so would foreclose ontic expression within predetermined universal ahistoric forms and processes that would contradict the fundamental lesson of his ontological analysis: Being is a process of continuous open-ended becoming that is specific to each entity. However, this does not mean that Heidegger’s ontological analysis simply abandons the ontic level of sexuality; it implicitly points to the need to engage with the question of (ontic forms of) sexuality in a particular manner, one that remembers that each ontic form of sexuality (1) is always particular, based on the distinctive ways in which each entity arises from its unique ontological becoming, (2) is never foreclosed within predefined structures such as the male/female binary opposition, and (3) continues to change as a consequence of the ontological becoming subtending it. Any study of ontic sexuality must then be inherently individual; it is not possible to give a definition of ‘sexuality’ per se or, indeed, say how ‘sexuality’ develops, a position that re-enforces Heidegger’s lack of explicit discussion of ontic forms of sexuality. Instead, and although Heidegger identifies an originary ontological indeterminateness and points out that this manifests itself ontically through an immanent process of auto-expression, he insists that ontic analyzes of sexuality must be specific to each concrete Dasein and thought in relation to the open-ended becoming that each Dasein is.3 While those demanding a substantive account of sexuality will most likely question this approach, Heidegger is, I think, making the fundamental and somewhat radical point—one in keeping with his phenomenological orientation in the late 1920s—that sexuality cannot and must not be subsumed under universal, abstract categories; ‘it’ is an inherently individual phenomenon that must be studied in each of its concrete particular manifestations as it reveals itself in all its complexity.


I have brought Freudian psychoanalysis and Heideggerian fundamental ontology together through their respective questioning of the ‘origins’ of sexuality to show that although there certainly are significant differences between them, due mainly to the different theoretical frameworks they employ, not only does Heidegger discuss the ‘origins’ of sexuality in an innovative and highly original manner, but he also shares with Freud the desire to undercut any notion of an innate sexual essence or determinateness. In this respect, both are orientated to the task of freeing sexuality from a priori determinations and, indeed, a posteriori ones. For both Freud and Heidegger, the process of sexual development is an open-ended one that never comes to be structured around a straightforward binary opposition: in the case of Freud because the initial bisexuality continues to subtend the apparent heteronormative division to complicate sexual determinations, while, for Heidegger, the possibility inherent in the temporality of Being means that ontic sexual determinations are always particular and subject to change, both intentional and otherwise.

However, although both agree on the fluid, changing, and on-going ‘expression’ of sexuality, the fundamental difference between them relates to the ‘initial’ or ‘original’ (ontological) font generating an individual’s sexuality. Freud constructs it from an original bisexuality, with the process of construction being on-going, non-linear, and not necessarily defined by a single aim or object. In contrast, Heidegger grounds ontic sexuality in an originary indeterminacy rather than an originary bisexuality. Whereas Freud continues to insist that sexuality is structured around a nominal masculine/feminine division that is, nonetheless, never ‘pure’ because any actual form continues to exhibit both active (masculine) and passive (feminine) moments, Heidegger holds that this schema is too determinate because it forecloses Being’s possible ontic expressions within a dual (ontic) model. So, rather than starting with an originary bisexuality that develops factically through a heterogeneous process that coalesces around a sexual identity that is, actually, far more complicated than it appears to be (Freud), Heidegger starts with ‘pure’ indeterminate possibility that throws itself into a non-determined facticity that continues to become, with the process of becoming being particular to each facticity. This not only undercuts all forms of sexual essentialism, universalism, and determinism, but also opens up the possibilities for sexual expression to a greater degree than Freud’s schema. Indeed, by rejecting all attempts to foreclose ontic forms of sexuality within predetermined schemas, universal forms, or developmental processes, Heidegger clears a path to rethink ontic forms of sexuality, and indeed the developmental processes that bring them forth, in all their specificity. Read in this way, Heidegger’s thinking on the ‘origins’ of sexuality not only shares Freud’s rejection of ahistoric sexual essentialism, but continues to be a rich resource for rethinking sexuality in terms of radical openness, multi-dimensionality, and constant becoming; ontologically, physically, psychically, and socially speaking.


1 See, for example, Heidegger’s (1989) discussion of ‘enowning’ (Ereignis).

2 For example, in the Letter on Humanism, from 1947, Heidegger criticizes ‘metaphysics’ because it denotes a mode of thinking that (1) is based on and enclosed within a prior assumed conception of Being (1977: 226), (2) takes certain truths to be self-evident (1977: 225), and (3) is trapped within a logic of binary oppositions (1977: 232). For an extended discussion of this text and issue, see Rae (2014).

3 It is for this reason that Ben Vedder’s (1998) attempt to develop an ontic account of sexuality from Heidegger’s comments on ‘desire’ in his early seminars on Aristotle (2009: 61, 72) and the Ancient Greeks (2008: 228) flounders. As Vedder (1998: 9) admits, strictly speaking Heidegger does not talk of ‘desire’ in either his early or later works, with the consequence that Vedder uses similes (striving, willing, insufficiency, giving, thanking, and so on) to develop a Heideggerian account of ‘desire’. Putting to one side the validity of those conflations, Vedder therefore only provides an account of desire in Heidegger by collapsing the particularity of distinct concepts and experiences under the universal term ‘desire’ and then, presumably, also conflating this with sexuality. This, however, ignores the fundamental lesson of Heidegger’s analysis: each ontic expression (of sexuality) is unique, particular, and ever-changing based on the configuration of Being’s becoming subtending it; it cannot be subsumed under a universal a priori definition or preconception. It is for this reason that Kevin Aho’s (2005) claim that a substantive account of sexuality can be gleaned from Heidegger’s return to the question of the (ontic) body in his later Zollikon Seminars (2001) is also problematic. Not only does Aho fail to explain the connection between the body and sexuality—a topic that Heidegger does not explicitly broach in the Zollikon Seminars—but it also risks treating the body and, by extension, sexuality as universal categories rather than as a distinctly singular phenomenon. In order to let each ‘thing’ reveal itself as it is in its concrete, particular, determinations, Heidegger cannot and does not provide a determinate account of the body or sexuality per se, instead focusing on the ontological understanding that we, the phenomenologist, must ‘adopt’ to allow each phenomena to reveal itself in its concrete form, rather than as how we wish to see it or have been taught to do so.


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Gavin Rae - Freud and Heidegger on the ‘Origins’ of Sexuality
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