The Later Heidegger

Lee Braver

Heidegger changed his mind; that's why we speak of a “later” Heidegger. The simple division between an early and a later phase—the arrangement that initially structured Heidegger studies—is now generally seen as too stark. For one thing, over his 80 years of thinking Heidegger changed his mind a lot, not just once. Almost every decade of his career a new topic surfaces as the central idea which gets retrospectively read back into not just his own previous work but into the history of Western civilization. However, the “turning” that took place around 1930 is sharper and deeper than the later transitions.

Nor need we exaggerate this change into a complete break that repudiates his early work. Of course there are continuities. Later and early Heidegger are both recognizably, indeed unmistakably, Heidegger. But these continuities are incomplete. Being and Time contains an important discussion of truth, for example, which already makes the crucial move of defining it as unconcealment. But these 20-odd pages are a far cry from the extensive, complex, historically-informed discussions of the topic in the 1930's, and throughout the rest of his career.

Of course, the primary continuity—the primary fact about Heidegger's thought in general—is the question of being. He never strays far from this home key, even when he modulates it into other keys or even crosses it out in favor other terms. But that's one of the strange things about Being and Time—there's far more time in it than being. He tells us from the outset that he wants to reawaken the question of being rather than provide an answer, to revive a long-dormant puzzlement rather than settle it, and in this aim he has surely succeeded. The part that was to have dealt directly with being—Division III of Part One—was never published, making it impossible to construct a substantive continuity between his early and late work on his views about being.

While the continuities are vague and sketchy, we find ideas in the later work that are either absent from or even directly conflict with the early. I want to lay out here, as clearly and directly as I can—as becomes a good companion—the main topics of Heidegger's later work and, more briefly, how they differ from his earlier views.

I. Style

Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader about the later works is how hard they are. This may be the second and third thing too and, all too often, the last thing as well. “Hard” doesn't do them justice—more than impenetrable, they seem to actively resist comprehension, like a hermeneutically repulsive magnetic field. Being and Time is difficult—you have to master a whole vocabulary in order to read it—but it is recognizably philosophical in form and content. With the proper background, the book becomes a bit of an Easter egg hunt for ideas plucked from predecessors: one spies a bit of Kierkegaard here mixed in with a splash of Hegel there, with a sprinkle of Aristotle over the lot—and that's just one chapter!

When one reads the later work, on the other hand, it's hard to know where to begin—or to middle or end. Here too, mastering the vocabulary helps immensely although his favorite words keep evolving. Perhaps the single best advice is to reading Heidegger is to take him at his word, that being is the skeleton key to all philosophy, especially his. Unlike Being and Time , which the reader can get quite a bit out of without paying much attention to being, it's hard to advance a single step in the later volumes without a solid grasp of it. With a grasp—well, it's still tough going, but progress can be had, so let's turn to being.

II. Being

Being and Time teaches us the ontological distinction between beings and being, which is more straightforward than it sounds. Beings are just what you think they are—the various entities that populate our lives—and being means the kind of entities that they are. It's quite close to the traditional notion of essence, though more dynamic: things actively are or, in a sense, behave in certain ways that determine what is appropriate to do with them. People, for example, have a very different way of being than chairs, which is why we talk to and ask permission of the former but sit on the latter (Kant made this distinction between persons and objects central to his ethics). Perhaps the main point of the book as we have it is that we inappropriately tend to interpret both of these kinds of beings in the manner of a third type—bare inert objects.

Now Heidegger maintains this framework in his later work, although he adds more modes of being: artworks and technology, for example, and what he calls “things,” which are very different from objects. But he also adds to the ontological difference a third layer that barely appears in Being and Time, which he sometimes calls being itself or the truth of being. This means the manifestation of beings to us, the fact that we can become aware at all. This “clearing” was the defining feature of Dasein in the early work, but there he explains our awareness by appealing to our nature, the way philosophers like Kant and Husserl do. It is because we are the kinds of creatures that we are and because we do the kinds of things that we do that beings show up for us at all, and in the specific ways that they do. The later work turns this formulation around: it is because beings show up for us and in the specific ways that they do that we are the kinds of creatures that we are and do the kinds of things that we do. Being is something that happens to us rather than something we do, even autonomically. This, along with the dynamic connotation, is why he comes to use the term Ereignis: being manifesting itself is an event in which we are caught up rather than an act we perform.

This changes everything. Being and Time works out “fundamental ontology,” which founds the study of being on a grasp of ourselves since being, in a Kantian way, is a projection of our nature. It is our use of tools that structures them as ready-to-hand; they change over to presence-at-hand when we stop to study them. The later work reverses “fundamental ontology” into an ontological foundation: everything must be understood in light of the fact and way that being appears to us. The later work as a whole can be described as working out the consequences of this one insight, which is why he says that, “the primal mystery for all thinking is concealed in” Parmenides' phrase, “for there is Being” (BW, 238). Heidegger patiently, doggedly, takes up one topic after another and works out new understandings of them in light of this idea. Let's examine a few of the most important.

III. The Will, Nietzsche, and Technology

There are debates about how to read Heidegger's early view of authenticity and the will, as there are debates about most of his positions, but I read him as basically an existentialist voluntarist. This means that, largely inspired by Kierkegaard, he believed that we passively drift through our lives, acquiescing unquestioningly in our society's values until something shakes us from this complacency. This interruption can be a mid-life crisis, a bout of depression, or just the vivid dawning of one's mortality, but afterwards one can explicitly decide upon how to live one's life rather than just doing “what one does.”

This ethics obviously places great emphasis on the making of explicit decisions. While Heidegger rejects the possibility of a transcendent perspective which could validate particular ways of living as objectively or absolutely right, he does praise “choosing to choose” (GA 2, 270/BT, 314) as the right way to approach the problem. Much of his later work, however, dismantles this emphasis, even its coherence, as he comes to see it as a symptom of our age which he associates with Nietzsche and technology.

Heidegger studies many thinkers extensively, but Nietzsche ranks as one of the most important. Heidegger spent four years teaching him and left 1200 pages of surprisingly readable lecture notes. He argues that after the Pre-Socratics, for whom he has a great affinity, Plato instituted a fundamental distinction between appearing and being, between how we experience reality and what it is really like. This distinction instigates metaphysics as the search for true reality beyond mere appearance, and while this project has gone through many forms, it has always remained true to this basic approach. What counts as appearance and what real and how we distinguish the two has fluctuated considerably, but the formal distinction and the goal have stayed the same throughout.

Nietzsche represents the other bookend to the history of metaphysics, bringing it to a close by ringing the final variation on Plato's appearance-being duality. His is the final variation because it directly reverses Plato, making the empirical, changing world the one that is really real and the intellectual, eternally stable Ideas mere whiffs of smoke, dreamed up to render the mob more governable. This reversal draws metaphysics to a close, allowing us to pursue fundamentally different forms of thought while keeping Nietzsche himself stuck within it, insofar as just reversing appearance and reality still retains the distinction.

Nietzsche believes that traditional values have been supported by superstition, religion, and metaphysics (among which he sees little difference) and, with their demise, the old values are fading as well. We can no longer believe in objective values; we project them onto the world much the way Kant has us injecting categories like time or causality into experience. Nietzsche thinks we always have been the creators of meaning but now that we realize it, we can take control of this process and deliberately forge more life-affirming values.

This is to treat values as a kind of technology, broadly understood. Heidegger's analysis of technology is more concerned with an attitude or mentality than the proliferation of gadgets. These are just a symptom of a deeper underlying mindset that treats all inconveniences or obstacles as things to be taken care of. If something keeps us from getting what we want, then we should roll up our sleeves and come up with a way to remove it. Fixing problems often involves making devices, which is why electronic tools share the name, but the essence of technology goes much deeper and pervades virtually all aspects of our lives. Descartes, for example, was an arch-technologist even though he lived before modern devices. He saw that Medieval ways of thinking were not getting the job, were not getting us good medicine or machinery, so he set about constructing a new way of thinking. He correctly intuited that before we could start making new inventions we needed new rules for the direction of the mind, a new instruction manual for the brain. Nietzsche similarly urges us to erect axiological structures that will enhance our well-being. Ultimately, these ideas all circle around autonomy, the attempt to decide our own fate, which is the organizing ideal of the Enlightenment. In epistemology, we do not rely on authorities but find out the truth for ourselves; in ethics, we do not accept any tablet of values handed down but give ones to ourselves; in gadgetry, we do not rest with the limitations evolution has saddled us with, but create our own tools and habitat.

Heidegger sees a paradox at the heart of this quest for autonomy that has structured much of the intellectual history of the last 400 years. Absolute control over the world and ourselves is incoherent. Thought for Heidegger is essentially a response to what solicits it.1 We think about what attracts our attention, what “calls out” for thought—a different translation of the title usually rendered as What Is Called Thinking. We dream of self-creation. Descartes complained bitterly of the way he had unquestioningly accepted beliefs as a child. He never really thought about them so, in a way, he didn't believe them; he just ran across them in his head as he rummaged around. But he must empty his head of these merely found elements in order to reconstitute his belief system under his control, with his express consent, and those beliefs will truly be his. The self that is made of them will truly be him. Nietzsche seeks an amor fati that will reconcile himself to the fact that he didn't will his own past.

But what beliefs does Descartes accept into that epistemologically sterile operating room? Those that he finds so persuasive that he simply cannot doubt. Clear and distinct perceptions are those whose siren song he cannot resist, those he cannot help but believe (the attempt to prove them via divine veracity, of course, argues in a circle by employing ideas legitimated through clear and distinct perception). Heidegger does not criticize Descartes for this, but for thinking that he could do anything else. No matter what kind of test Descartes uses on his beliefs, it ultimately comes down to his passively finding which beliefs pass it. Moreover, the choice of the test itself cannot be tested on pain of circularity or infinite regress, so that selection is made on the basis of which one appears best to him. Nietzsche wants to decide which values are best without relying on those he has been socialized into accepting, but he needs some basis on which to judge, a basis which itself cannot have been chosen. Choices can only occur on the basis of something which has not been chosen. “Every decision, however, bases itself on something not mastered … else it would never be a decision” (BW, 180). This does not make them not our choices, however, because there's no other way to act. A being with no previous preferences whatsoever would be impotent, not free, unable to select from among a options that made no appeal to him.

Although this analysis applies to all actions, it has particularly devastating consequences when applied to the technological attitude. We moderns organize the world around us so that it serves our needs and desires with maximum efficiency, making everything serve us from the sun and wind to the ways we think and value. We seek more and more control, but we did not in fact decide to see the world as to-be-controlled; rather, problems simply appear to us as to-be-solved-by-our-efforts, the way chocolate ice cream shows up as should-be-eaten. “Technological activity … always merely responds to the challenge of enframing, but it never comprises enframing itself or brings it about” (BW, 326). Thus if we fully understand our drive to control, we realize that we are not in control of it. This is how Heidegger reads Hölderlin's lines: “precisely the essence of technology must harbor in itself the growth of the saving power. But in that case, might not an adequate look into what enframing is, as a destining of revealing, bring the upsurgence of the saving power into appearance?” (BW, 334). Properly understanding the nature of the essence of technology limits this essence by showing us that we neither created nor control it.

IV. Nihilism and Gelassenheit

In fact, it's worse than simply a paradox; feeding the will this way prevents a good life. Nietzsche thinks that we face nihilism or the loss of all values because the death of God—their former support—pulls them down with Him. Nietzsche's solution is to invent new values to pump meaning back into our rapidly deflating lives. Heidegger argues that this “solution” actually poses a greater danger. Besides being conceptually impossible, as described above, the attempt to throw off the ballast of tradition leaves the individual naked and alone. The kinds of standards or principles we come up with on our own are paltry things, lacking the authority to command assent and the gravitas to order a life. “No one dies for mere values” (OBT, 77). Instead, “according to our human experience and history, everything essential and great has arisen solely out of the fact that humans had a home and were rooted in a tradition” (HR, 325). Nietzsche argues that because we live in an unprecedentedly godless time, we lack values and so must create them for ourselves. Heidegger believes that we live in a time of nihilism or cosmic homelessness precisely because we are trying to create values for ourselves. Refusing “external” authority robs us of the sense of worthiness, “the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being” (BW, 167), that orient the kind of world that makes a home for a people.

The question as to what we ought to do about this situation is tricky, in that trying to do anything perpetuates the technological attitude by implying us that it is up to us to take control of our fate. Instead, “everything depends on our inhering in this clearing that is propriated by Being itself—never made or conjured by ourselves. We must overcome the compulsion to lay our hands on everything” (NIII, 181). As opposed to his early notion of resoluteness, we do not choose our lives, even after soul-shattering moments; we are thrown into them, given the particular tastes and traditions that guide all decisions. We do not so much make decisions, as much as we are made by them, as we respond to the call of the world.

The right attitude is not to resent this as a foreign imposition upon our natural integrity, for there is nothing to be imposed upon prior to this formation. Rather, we should be immensely grateful for the fact that we can be aware of anything at all. As far as we know, we are the lone flickering of consciousness in all of existence. In this vast universe, all takes place in darkness, unknown and unexperienced, except in this clearing where things are lit up. Here there is a spark, the halo of a small, fragile light in which reality comes to know itself through us.

This is the tremendous adventure of consciousness. We, perhaps alone in all of existence, have been given the ability to see and know and think and feel. What Hegel called a highway of despair Heidegger considers the blessing of destiny. We are absurdly, ridiculously fortunate, and yet what do we do with this ur-gift that enables all presence? We who can know, ignore %99 of the world; we can become aware but we let all fade into inconspicuous background, drifting through “the oblivious passing of our lives” (BP, 297) on auto-pilot. We can express this awareness in words, but rely on easy clichés.

A grateful life would be one lived in appreciation of this cosmic gift, this extraordinary chance that has somehow been granted to us. Heidegger encourages the attitude of Gelassenheit, a releasement or letting-be that dwells with and on our experience, a patient attending to the way things show themselves to us the way one cares for and nurtures a plant. A paradigm of this attitude would be, I think, Zen satori, but also what happens when one is struck by a work of art. All sense of control over the situation ebbs away, leaving one “captivated,” part of an experience that is not the grasping of an idea. The artwork unfolds as the eye or ear attends to it, showing more depth and detail, ultimately making one alive to the simple fact of seeing and hearing. Artworks “make unconcealment as such happen in regard to beings as a whole …. That is how self-concealing Being is cleared” (BW, 181).

This happens in thinking when we think about the fact that experience is given to us. We did not create it, we do not control it, and we should be tremendously grateful for the gift. Thanking, Heidegger writes in a rare wordplay that comes through in English, is thinking. We should truly use this capacity to think, and we should think about the fact that we can think. Whereas the poet is the one who truly hears words instead of passing them back and forth like coins with their faces worn off by over-use, “it is necessary for thinking to become explicitly aware of the matter here called clearing” (BW, 442). This is, for Heidegger, the logical culmination of phenomenology, phenomenology squared if you will, as the study of awareness becomes the awareness of awareness itself. The phenomenological attitude is not limited to a specialized activity one does in one's study but should infuse one's entire life with a higher attentiveness, a more sensitive attunedness to the luminosity of the world.

1 For more on this topic, see my “Never Mind: Thinking of Subjectivity in the Dreyfus-McDowell Debate,” in ed. Julian Schear, Mind, Reason and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate (New York: Routledge, 2013) , and chapter four of Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).

Lee Braver - The Later Heidegger
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