On Need: Mortality and Heidegger’s
“Argument” with Science

Andrew J. Mitchell


Heidegger’s text from the 1950s “The Argument against Need” reveals a new twist in his thinking of need; the focus shifts from the relation between being and Dasein, to that of being and the mortal. This move to mortality is prepared in the Black Notebooks volumes of the period (Four Notebooks, GA 99, and Vigiliae, GA 100). In this essay, I trace this shift in Heidegger’s thinking of need from his works of the 1930s to the 1950s. I then turn to the specific context of “The Argument,” i.e., the scientific faith in an independent reality, to show how Heidegger’s thought rebuffs this conception, but also how it informs the dialogic nature of an “argument” with science more broadly, one that no longer seeks its resolution in simple “agreement.”

“The Argument against Need (for the Being-In-Itself of Beings)” stems from an unpublished collection of Heidegger’s writings gathered under the title Vermächtnis der Seinsfrage, or Legacy of the Question of Being. These are predominantly very late writings of Heidegger’s, stemming from the early to mid 1970s, a number of which have been individually published.1 From all appearances, the Legacy of the Question of Being concerns Heidegger drafting a general introduction to his Gesamtausgabe (the “collected edition” of his writings, currently listed at some 102 volumes, with supplementary volumes to come). The pieces that have been published from the Legacy emphasize the “path” character of thinking and contain Heidegger’s mostly contemporary reflections upon the various stations of his thinking along that path, thus offering us a seemingly final retrospective assessment and articulation of his thinking from the 1970s. The Legacy includes texts devoted to the question of phenomenology, the idea of a turn, and the notion of need (Brauch), among presumably others.

But the “Argument” does not fit comfortably in this collection. It stems from an earlier period in Heidegger’s work. Two factors point to this: first, it is written in Heidegger’s handwriting from before his stroke in 1970, after which his handwriting took on a notably shakier appearance, and second, the manuscript is accompanied by a letter to Medard Boss from the geologist Rudolf Trümpy dated 26 March 1955, seemingly responding to Boss’s request for a list of works dealing with the age of the earth and geologic notions of time, topics of importance to the “Argument” text, which wrestles with the question of what it means to say that a being like the earth, existing “in itself,” would pre-exist humans.

What is more, a letter from Heidegger to Boss three months later, 30 June 1955, makes mention of his work on the text:

For all of last week I was buried in work. The newly taken up meditations on language and the question posed yet again concerning the “in-itself” of objectivity and science, have each in their way led me to the question of “grounding” and of “ground,” wherein even the problem of causality has its roots. (ZS 315/250)2

The “Argument” would seem to arise from around this time, summer 1955.3

But in this letter Heidegger also connects his work on the “in itself” with his recent “meditations” on language. Heidegger is at work on the book that would become On the Way to Language (1959), having composed the “Conversation on Language” (1954) a year prior, and here writes to Boss that his earlier reflections on language suffered from great omissions; “the greatest omission belongs to the fact that the possibility for an adequate discussion of East Asian languages is lacking” (ZS 316/251). For Heidegger, East Asian languages need discussing and engagement from their Western counterparts; the scientific representation of reality does as well.

This concern with language as “conversation” will show itself in the attention Heidegger pays to “argument” in the text. One of the most striking aspects of the text is not so much what Heidegger says in formulating his argument that being needs the human, but how Heidegger is at pains to reach an understanding with scientists on this point. He seeks an understanding between parties that he knows hold not just opposing views, but methodological and metaphysical presumptions that preclude any agreement in advance – at least so Heidegger explains. That said, we should also bear in mind that Heidegger famously maintained in What Is Called Thinking?, published only a year before (1954), that “science itself does not think” (GA 8: 9/8). Language is always conversation for Heidegger, even if that conversation takes the form of an “argument.”

In what follows, I trace how Heidegger’s conception of need shifts during the 1940s and 1950s from one that focuses on beings to a conception that focuses instead not just on the human, but on the mortal more specifically.4 I then examine Heidegger’s attempts at a conversation with science on just this topic of need.

1. BRAUCH (“NEED”) AND τὸ χρεών

Need appears most prominently in Heidegger’s work in the essay “Anaximander’s Claim” (written 1946, published 1950) where Brauch (need) is offered as the translation of the Ancient Greek τὸ χρεών. Heidegger’s essay seems a condensation of his lecture course of the same title, written in 1942 but not delivered. Anaximander’s fragment, recounted in Simplicius, reads in a standard translation: “the source of coming to be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens, ‘according to necessity [κατὰ τὸ χρεών]; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time.’”5

In the 1942 lecture course, Heidegger is at pains to articulate this “necessity” of existing things. Anaximander’s fragment articulates an identity between that from out of which a thing arises at its genesis and that into which it returns at its destruction. Heidegger does not focus on the “place” where this would happen (the “unlimited,” as Anaximander terms it in another fragment). Instead, Heidegger sees an identity in the two motions, generation and corruption, themselves. That is to say, the presencing entity is already no longer where it was prior to its genesis, and not yet where it will be upon destruction. The presencing of the entity is nothing other than this tense dynamic between genesis and destruction. Speaking of τὸ χρεών, Heidegger then says, “its ‘essence’ rests in the departing arising and arising departure” (GA 78: 125). He concludes that “τὸ χρεών is presencing itself [Anwesung selber], as which the presencing of what presences takes place [das Anwesen der Anwesenden {sich} ereignet]” (GA 78: 125). The necessity is thus that whatever comes to presence will presence in this way, caught between arriving and departing. He will ultimately come to understand this way of presencing as a “whiling” or “abiding,” weilen.

But Heidegger pushes his analysis a step further and this is where Brauch first enters the text and is proposed as a translation for τὸ χρεών. He observes:

When we commonly hear the word “Brauch,” “it is the custom [Brauch],” then we mean by this what is “usual.” We bring “Brauch” into the neighborhood of mores. We understand “Brauchen” in the sense of “to be in need of [nötig haben],” to require [bedürfen], while “dürfen,” “darfen” [to be allowed, permitted], for its part means: to have the use [den Gebrauch] of something, i.e., of freedom, to “enjoy” this. In this originary meaning, “enjoying” [genießen] is meant by the Latin word frui (fruitio Dei [enjoyment of God]); the same “word” is “brauchen” – brauchen: to claim something that has been awarded [zugesprochen]. (GA 78: 135)

Leaving aside for the moment those meanings of Brauch that deal with the customary and the useful, Heidegger emphasizes and elaborates the sense of “need.” Need names a relationship, the one who needs requires something, relates to something, that remains outstanding. But Heidegger sees this requirement, Bedürfnis, as simultaneously an allowing or permitting, a dürfen. It is not a “lacking” of something, but a permitting of its absence, or perhaps, independence. To be permitted something, to be allowed something, means to have that at one’s disposal, to have the use of it. One has the “enjoyment” of it, as Heidegger notes, citing the idea of the “enjoyment of God,” associated with Augustine.

This sense of enjoyment is key to understanding the “letting” character of Brauch. When Heidegger returns to this point in the 1946 essay derived from the lecture course, he makes this clear by adding a citation from Augustine’s “Of the Morals of the Catholic Church” and a reference to his Christian Doctrine. The “fundamental meaning of brauchen as frui is encountered,” Heidegger writes, “when Augustine says: ‘For what do we call enjoyment but having at hand the objects of love?’” (GA 5: 367/277, tm).6 Augustine thus speaks of enjoyment with approbation. This is not the enjoyment of “mere gobbling and slurping” (GA 5: 367/277, tm). Augustinian enjoyment is to be distinguished from such use. Enjoyment is our goal, and we are to use whatever we have available to us to reach that enjoyment.

But the highest enjoyment is found in enjoyment of the eternal and highest, the enjoyment of that which can never be taken or lost against our will, the enjoyment of God. God is not some object we might “have at hand,” however, and Augustine explains this enjoyment of God in his Christian Doctrine, as referenced here by Heidegger, first defining enjoyment – “to enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake” – before determining its sole maximal object: “the true objects of enjoyment, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are at the same time the Trinity, one Being, supreme above all, and common to all who enjoy Him.”7 The enjoyment of God, the enjoyment that Heidegger pairs with brauchen, is to take satisfaction in a thing for its own sake. As Heidegger would understand it, this is a “letting” and he defines Brauch as “the pure letting as a granting retaining, that takes nothing into possession, but rather only retains in order to allow” (GA 78: 135). In the enjoyment of God, God is not subordinated to the one enjoying, the enjoyer is more a witness of God’s greatness than any cause of it. The same God is enjoyed by all, regardless of who the enjoyer might be. Enjoyment allows the enjoyed to be itself fully. Enjoyment is thus not an acting, but a “resting with satisfaction” for the sake of what is enjoyed, i.e., to let it be what it is.

Augustine’s understanding of “enjoyment” thus allows Heidegger to move from the sense of Brauch as “usage” to an understanding of this as “having at one’s disposal” to “having the enjoyment of” the thing in question, and then finally to a construal of this enjoyment as a “letting be.” Properly understood, however, it is not we who are to enjoy, but being: “In the word τὸ χρεών being itself is illuminated” (GA 78: 136). Being enjoys itself through beings.

Letting these beings be thus means that these beings are suspended between genesis and corruption. As mentioned, Heidegger’s term for this is “abiding,” weilen; to abide is to exist “for a while” (Weile). Heidegger writes: “Presencing [An-wesen] is essentially a while [eine Weile]; i.e., it is not merely a length of time, but this while itself is each time a while, and essentially so. The letting of Brauch lets presencing essence as a while and only as such” (GA 78: 136). Understood this way, Brauch distributes to what presences the share of its while.

Ultimately, then, “need” names the way in which being lets beings be. Being releases beings, but in so doing remains attached to them. This relation of attachment to what one does not possess is labeled “need.” That being needs beings would thus mean that being releases beings into their presencing, abandons them to it, so much so that, left to their own devices, they rebel against their released interstitial condition (their existence between genesis and destruction). This takes the form of beings that “insist” on “persisting” in existence beyond their while:

in the transition from arrival to departure they pass, hesitantly, through their while. They hang on: they cling to themselves. When the things that stay awhile hang on, they stubbornly follow the inclination to persist in such hanging on, indeed to insist on it. They are concerned with permanent continuance and no longer look to the δίκη, the order of the while. (GA 5: 359/270)

For Heidegger the transitional state of beings both connects them to other beings while also provoking them to “harden” themselves against other beings, as though they could exist independently on their own, as though they could convert their “while” into something “merely persistent [Beständigen]” (GA 5: 356/268, tm). Heidegger will refer to it as “rebellious” (Aufständische). This rebellion shows itself in the self-presentation of beings as completed entities, as what we might anachronistically term “objects.” Such released beings may come to insist on their own independence, but in so doing they only attest all the more to the need of being, which maintains them in their existence.

In the years that follow, the decision between insistence and participation will be allotted to the human, or rather, and more specifically, the mortal.


The locus for Heidegger’s thinking of Brauch changes between the Anaximander readings of the 1940s and the “Argument” of presumably 1955. Already in 1952, in What Is Called Thinking?, Heidegger returned to the issue of Brauch, emphasizing the exact convolution of needing and allowing mentioned above.8 This time, needing is tied paradoxically to giving, and this giving is thought ontologically through the es gibt:

“It gives” [Es gibt] obviously names the exact opposite of “it is needed” [Es brauchet]; for that which is needed, one wants it and indeed must “have” it and precisely cannot “give” it. Meanwhile, whoever brings such a thing forward has already again forgotten what is meant by Brauchen in the elevated sense: to admit into the essence and to shelter therein [einlassen ins Wesen und darin wahren]. This is not supposed to be a giving? (GA 8: 192)9

Need is here identified at the very site of the donation of being itself, at the “es gibt,” the phrase that names being (idiomatically, “there is”) but does so in the name of a giving (literally, “it gives”). Giving and needing are the same movement.

After establishing this equivalence, Heidegger offers an example from the poetry of Hölderlin and it is here that the role of the mortal begins to take shape. He reads the closing lines from Hölderlin’s “The Ister”:

But it needs [Es brauchet] furrowing, the field and tilling, the earth,
inhospitable it would be, without the spending of time [ohne Weile];10

The field and earth (“nature”) need furrowing and tilling (the “human”). In his exegesis of these lines, Heidegger links the “it needs” here to the dwelling of mortals:

But it is the essence of the hospitable and of dwelling that water-wells and the fruits of agriculture belong to it. “It needs” says here: there exists an essential belonging together between field and furrow, between till and earth, within the essential region opened up by the inhabiting [Bewohnen] of the earth. The dwelling of the mortals has its own place. (GA 8: 194/190–91, tm)

Need thus names an “essential belonging together” of the natural (field, earth) and the technological (furrowing, tilling) as effected by the human. By such a perspective, nature, however we might construe it, does not reside somewhere outside and apart from us, lying there inertly. Instead, nature is already transformed by us, simply by our being there. Nature is transformed by us and transforms itself for us. The earth needs tilling, tilling allows the relation of the earth to the human to transform itself. The furrowing of the field likewise. Nothing is immune to or beyond the reach of human dwelling, and human dwelling transforms, even when it preserves. For Heidegger, this is what the earth “needs” if it is to be inhabited.

At this point, this need of humans might seem more of a need on the part of humans for a world conformable to their demands or for a nature rendered productive in service to their purposes. But this relation is refined in the Black Notebooks of roughly 1947–1954, entitled Four Notebooks (GA 99) and Vigiliae I–II (GA 100).11 Without delving into great detail, both of these notebooks appear to stem from a larger project of Heidegger’s, forming the “manuscript” version of Four Notebooks, something distinct from the notes toward that project, bearing the same title and published as GA 99.12 The project seems to resituate Heidegger’s understanding of the thing and fourfold within a broader context. The notes show Heidegger’s thinking on the move from the themes of the early 1940s to those of the 1950s: “FOUR NOTEBOOKS / (from out of unguarding) / through the event / to thing / in world / – world/thing –” (GA 99: 101). Now the “world/thing” is tied more closely to beyng, “The beyng [Das Seyende] as: thing” (GA 99: 42). Such a thing is understood through differentiation (Unter-Schied), something utterly distinct from mere difference (Differenz) – including ontological difference – and thought in terms of the overarching role of a “relationship” (Ver-Hältnis), which Heidegger often abbreviates “VH” and which sometimes indicates the Four Notebooks (Vier Hefte) themselves. This relationship, however, has fallen prey to forgetfulness.

Another key component of the project is need (Brauch). The very first lines of the Four Notebooks indicate this: “The saying of need [des Brauches] is thinking in another style. ‘Need’ is a name for differentiation” (GA 99: 7).13 The severance and connection of the “cut” (Schied) enables the relation of need. Ultimately, Heidegger writes that “the name ‘Brauch’ preserves for thinking that in Ereignis it thinks Enteignis” (GA 99: 9). The need expressed by Brauch, the need that is likewise a giving, is no mere appropriation, but likewise an expropriation; to think “need” is to think this tensed relation. From what we can tell without viewing the manuscript, “need” appears to be one of the constitutive relationships of the Four Notebooks: “To need without requiring [Brauchen ohne Bedürfen]; neither to necessitate nor to utilize, but rather: to call freely [frey] from out of the event back into it, surrendering the one called for the sake of the freeing of the relationship [dem Freyen des Ver-Hältnisses]” (GA 100: 132). The human is the (non) willing party called to this transformative relation which renders that human the mortal it always was.

These notebooks go the furthest in refining the understanding of need to include the human relation to being, or rather, the mortal’s relation to beyng. The human is to be understood from out of its role as needed by being, which means, from out of its relationship to being, which means in terms of a relation. But to be relationally understood, the human must be thought relationally, which means as finite, which means as mortal, for without the human’s death, there can be no relation. The human is needed by being through its death; when understood in this way, the human becomes the mortal: “the human is human as the mortal. The metamorphosis of the human being into mortality is necessary” (GA 100: 141). Through this metamorphosis, the human “becomes what it is,” as it were, or rather, as it once was: “Properly, it concerns the human first becoming (those) who they in a veiled way [verhülltermaßen] are, and indeed have long been called: βροτοί, the mortals” (GA 100: 134).

Becoming mortal here is more than an acceptance that one must die. In fact, it has little to do with the death of a living being, as Heidegger densely explains:

But let us think the essence of the human in terms of its deliverance into guardianship of the event [Vereignung in die Wahrnis des Ereignisses], in which, in terms of the occurrent pledge [aus der ereignenden Gewähr], it essentially belongs – then death receives its proper definition in terms of the event (in terms of the inception of beyng). (GA 100: 135)

The essence of the human is to be thought of as a guarding and the human as a “guardian.” The guarded here is “the event,” and through the guarding of it, the human belongs to it. Now if the human could simply “belong” to the event, then that would effectively render the event permanent, which is to say all present. But the human is not itself permanent, the human dies. The human dies because the event needs guarding. And to guard it is to not render it permanent, that is to say, to die. Understood this way, “death receives its proper definition in terms of the event” (GA 100: 135). The human understood this way is “the mortal,” the one constituted by a necessary “guardianship” (Wahrnis) of the event.

When the thing is guarded, it is allowed to appear in a way that attests to the event of being; the thing is joined in this relation to what lies beyond it. Understood relationally, the thing relates through an opened clearing, which Heidegger calls “truth” (Wahrheit). Truth is the clearing in which the guarded being appears and gestures beyond itself. As not appearing, and yet appearing, that beyond itself appears through a kind of veil: “veiling is here not withdrawal, but instead the pledge of enduring guardianship [Gewähr der währenden Wahrnis]” (GA 100: 44–45).

As such, a faith is expressed in our concourse with things, an acknowledgement of the pledge. We grant there is more beyond what is here, beyond our control, and that this limit of our control (our death) is attested here, at this thing. The pledge is that what appears is tied to a withdrawal that does not. The pledge is that this is not all “there is.”

In guarding the things that relate beyond themselves, the mortal guards the truth, which Heidegger understands as the clearing in which they appear. The mortals, the needed ones (die Gebrauchten), are needed exactly for their role as “the ecstatic carrying out of the clearing of beyng” (GA 100: 138). The event would need a clearing in which to take place. This clearing would have to be “carried out” or “executed,” it is a clearing that is “performed.” This performance of a clearing occurs ecstatically, which is to say, it takes place outside or beyond any particular being. The mortal exists as that clearing, which is to say, as the guardian of the relation that allows to appear, albeit veiledly, the event of beyng.

Precisely this veiling (Verhüllung) forms a major theme of the Vigiliae, as stated on its first page. Heidegger discusses the Christian church vigil days and feast days or holidays of his youth, emphasizing how the vigil days leading up to the holidays were largely overshadowed by them, to great and noteworthy effect:

No one paid attention to the vigils. Probably because we still scarcely estimate to what extent all true and undamageable riches of the mortals rest in the unfulfilled, in the pledge of each and every veiled gift.
Vigil – wakefulness – veiling of the pledge, which is awakened by this particularly and thus comes to waking. (GA 100: 9)

The vigil expresses a kind of “being-towards” and an acceptance of this “underway” condition as a form of “wakefulness” (attentiveness to the veiling of the pledge).

Two things must be made perfectly clear, however:

1) the mortals are not a means for the taking place of the event of being: “the needed, the mortals, can never be taken for a means” (GA 100: 21). They are not “used” entirely because it is their essence to belong to the event; the human itself is a creature of need, we might say: “Need: that the human essence is needed in being, whose essence it co-constitutes [mitausmacht]” (GA 100: 154).

2) being is not in any way “humanized” or “subjectivized” through its need of the human: “Being as such is not humanized, rather the human is referred into his essence, which itself, as something appropriated into the essence of being, belongs to the event” (GA 100: 139). Need is no “derogation of being in a dependency upon a single being,” nor a “relativizing of being upon a single being” (GA 100: 140, cf. “Argument,” 68–69). Instead, “Brauch is the connection [Be-zug], the beckoning, calling, letting-come [Kommen-lassen] of the clearing of being, and that means of beings as such in the middle of this” (GA 100: 140).

The human is not needed qua particular being, so much as to open the clearing of being, which does not open without bringing particular beings along with it, beings such as the mortal.


The necessary role of the mortal leads to Heidegger’s concern with the idea of a thing “in itself” (an sich), as we have already seen in the 1955 letter to Boss. The problem emerges with some clarity in Vigiliae II:

Spoken in the language of metaphysical representation, but for this reason necessarily insufficiently, one could say: the much touted being-in-itself [Ansichsein] as the being of beings only achieves its true in-itself [An-sich] – when it – avoiding the name and manner of “being,” – “presence” – dedicates itself [zu-eignet] to thinking as event. (GA 100: 139)

This “dedication” should be thought as a kind of sending of oneself, a delivering of oneself over to another and into the keeping or guardianship of that other. Heidegger thus claims the “in itself” is only truly such when delivered into a relation with thinking, a relation that Heidegger names “event.” And while the idea is unfortunately not pursued any further in the Vigiliae, it is featured in the “Argument against Need,” as we shall see.

This “in itself” is the point of contention between Heidegger’s thinking and “representational thinking,” i.e. the thinking of both metaphysics and the sciences. Since the sciences do not proceed from a thinking of need, Heidegger writes, “it remains a great annoyance for all representing, when it is expected to represent the ‘being’ known to it as determined by need“ (GA 100: 154). Nevertheless, representational thinking should not believe that its sense of “being” is the only one. Besides, he points out, representational thinking already thinks a connection between being and the human in its thinking of the subject-object relation. “Objectivity is not thinkable without subjectivity. Here we indeed distinctly encounter the belonging of being (objectivity) to the human being (subjectivity). The reference to need thus says nothing new” (GA 100: 154). Heidegger is quick to show he is being facetious, adding that “with the reference to the object-subject-relation nothing is said of need” (GA 100: 155).14 Heidegger does not appear to have high hopes for any conversation with the sciences on this matter: “Thus need, and before this, even being, remains inaccessible for metaphysical representing, but completely so for the representational manner of the sciences; the latter even when the sciences find themselves prepared to talk through general questions with philosophy” (GA 100: 156).

If a true conversation is to be had, then it will have to be conducted in a way dramatically different from our current approach to disagreement, which Heidegger derides as one of mutual understanding and “agreement” (Verständigung). He writes:

Through an agreement, one unites over something in common, through a setting aside of differences. In an agreement, one finds oneself at equilibrium upon a plane of reciprocal tolerance. One pays for it with a relinquishment, a feigned one, of what is one’s own and authentic. Agreement is the leveling of the decisive antagonisms to an agreed upon semblance of the non-existence of differences. Agreement thus inconspicuously assures the continuation of the confusion. Agreement shoves aside confrontation [Aus-einandersetzung] and indeed achieves everywhere the appearance of an active willing that only wants union and unity. (GA 100: 145)

Against this vision of a pacified tolerance and ignoring of differences, Heidegger proposes what he calls a “protecting” (Schonung), listing five aspects of such protecting, the second of which terms such protecting “a responding [das Ent-gegnen] that seeks dialogue [Zwiesprache], but does not cancel differences [Gegensätzliche]” (GA 100: 145). In engaging with the problem of the “in itself,” in the “argument” with science, we should not be looking for some ultimate resolution or conversion of one party to the view of another. There will be no setting aside of differences: “In the ambit of metaphysical representation, what the name ‘need’ names remains inaccessible. […] A transformation of thinking is required and of the correspondingly shaped sort of dialogue [Zwiesprache] and of ‘agreement.’ In other words, ‘agreement’ (see above) is here no longer a possible goal” (GA 100: 155).

Heidegger’s goal in the “Argument against Need” is to find a point of contact where the two sides might openly discuss matters and confront each other. He emphasizes that both sides must be able “to hear one another” (AGB: iv/AAN: 522). The point is not that someone will then “win” the conversation:

Presumably the difficulty and peculiarity of this dialogue does not consist in the fact that the one or the other side brings forward compelling proofs, whereby the dialogue would, as it were, be quashed. What is decisive lies in finding a sufficiently broad and versatile realm for the dialogue, within which, before anything else, what one’s partner brings forward can be heard. (AGB: iv/AAN: 522, tm)

Heidegger wants this flexibility of the participants, a willingness to think differently than one usually does, or to hear the other’s thought as different from one’s own: “In short: no partner in this dialogue ought in advance to tie the other down to the mode of thinking that is proper only to it” (AGB: iii/AAN: 521). Without this willingness to engage, there can be no dialogue. Each must resist retreating to its own corner and insisting on itself, and this holds not just for the sciences, but for Heidegger’s thinking as well:

when the scientific argumentation becomes set only on its mode of representation, then the dialogue is over before it began. However, the same happens when “philosophical” thinking simply turns its back on the reservations of the sciences and forgets that the sciences make use of philosophical thinking everywhere, even where they do not wish to notice this use or where they reinterpret it in their own fashion. (AGB: iv/AAN: 522)

The difficulty is for each side to hear the other, but without abandoning its own claims and methods. As we have seen, Heidegger is seeking something more than “agreement” and “understanding” between the parties.

But there are difficulties to this, especially as the relationship is not a symmetrical one. To be sure, we are hearing things from Heidegger’s side as he imagines this debate, but he does not do so without experience in such conversations.15 Science needs to be shaken to break out of its incredibly successful frame of reference: “so long as no path is forged […] that […] fundamentally unsettles the sciences, and that means unsettling the technological management that dominates them, a fruitful dialogue between thinking and the sciences is not possible” (AGB: xiii/AAN: 531, tm). Without this, science will not be able to hear Heideggerian thought. The scientific position can thus “never be refuted so long as one proceeds on its basis and speaks in its language; for, what is peculiar to it is precisely that it, as ontic argumentation, cannot at all let itself engage in a reflection that thinks in accord with the essence of being” (AGB: ii/AAN: 520). What seems to worry Heidegger particularly is the ease with which science proclaims its approach (for the “being-in-itself” of beings) to be the only viable approach there is and the standard for all others: “On the basis of this mode of representation there is nothing to object to it. The question remains as to what extent this mode of representation can and may assert itself as what sets the standard in the first place and as such” (AGB: ii/AAN: 520, tm). For Heidegger, this all amounts to an attempt to avoid thinking as such: “the unreflective claim on the part of this mode of representation to its unimpeachable correctness would be tantamount to an aversion against all readiness to think” (AGB: ii–iii/AAN: 520–21).

Having said all this, we must not imagine that Heidegger somehow disagrees with the findings of science, whatever that would mean. He agrees that beings have existed for much longer than the human has existed and that, consequently, such beings would evidently have no “need” of the human to exist. This is the “argument against need.” Nothing could be clearer from the “Argument” than Heidegger’s willingness and readiness to concede to the sciences that “on the basis of this mode of representation there is nothing to object to it,” that he “in no way denies the correctness” of the argumentation, but even avers “this argument for the unnecessariness of the human with respect to beings-in-themselves is correct” (AGB: ii/AAN: 520, iii/AAN: 521, viii/AAN: 526, tm).

While not disagreeing with the findings, Heidegger nonetheless refutes the ways in which the scientific model seeks to accommodate being within its restrictively ontic frame. Heidegger will concede that “beings” can exist independently of the human, but not being itself. He seeks to make science hear the difference between “beings-in-themselves” and “being-in-itself,” and not to understand the latter as merely a generalization based on the former.

To begin, while the earth may be older than the human, Heidegger wonders “whether something about ‘being-in-itself’ and its sense are determined or could ever be discussed by means of the evidence of a chronologically older entity” (AGB: iii/AAN: 521). Chronological precedence of beings does not equal “being-in-itself.” Heidegger returns to the point, asking again:

If the existing-in-itself of the Earth is older, that is to say, according to natural-scientific chronometry, if it lies farther back in the past, even unimaginably far back, could not being-in-itself in the end be still earlier than the oldest of the oldest beings-in-themselves? How would we come to the oldest beings-in-themselves if something like being-in-itself were not already given previously – previously, not only within the backward chronological order of the old, older, and oldest beings-in-themselves, but “previously” as before this chronological order as such? (AGB: vii/AAN: 524, tm)

Being is not an elderly being or even the oldest being.

Similarly, Heidegger takes up the idea of a causal independence of beings from the human:

That depending which treats the independence of beings-in-themselves as a non-depending, is the being-caused of beings by beings. Beings-in-themselves, nature, the Earth, are not causally conditioned by whether or not beings of the sort “human” appear. No one contests the independence of nature where depending means causal dependence on the human. But the question arises as to whether this non-depending already makes up the being-in-itself of beings-in-themselves, whether being-in-itself does not rather depend on the human essence, whether this dependence does not remain the presupposition and condition for that causal independence in which, for example, the Earth can be a being without the human. AGB: vii/AAN: 525–26, tm

Again, Heidegger intones that while beings may exist without causal connection to the human, the “being-in-itself” of these does not exist without the human (and in a non-causal manner). The independence of beings presupposes the dependence of being.

Further, our very conception of the “presence” of a being-in-itself is always thought in connection with the human, if only negatively. He makes the point regarding the Alps as a particular being, presumably existing “in-itself,” now understood as “present at hand”:

The Alps – one says – are present at hand [vorhanden], indeed before [vor] humans are on hand to examine them or act [handeln] with respect to them, whether it be through research, through climbing them, or through the removal of rock masses. The Alps are before the hand [vor-handen] – that is, lying there before all handling [Behandlung] by the human. Yet does not this determination of beings-in-themselves as present at hand characterize the said beings precisely through the relation to the handling by the human, admittedly in such a way that this relation to the human portrays itself as independent from the human? (AGB: v/AAN: 523, tm)

To be independent as existing present-at-hand means to be defined by the hand of the human, however that might be construed.

Lastly, Heidegger turns to the idea that independence would consist in “objective” existence. The objectivity of the object “remains always only that region of experience of beings-in-themselves, whereby the latter turns toward scientific representation” (AGB: viii/AAN: 527, tm). This objective character would merely be one way in which beings show themselves, but by no means would it constitute what they are in-themselves. Objectivity is always tied to subjectivity, a point Heidegger formulates here in terms of Kant (“this objectivity is grounded in the categorial modes of representation on the part of the transcendentally determined subjectivity of the subject”), leading him to speak of “the subjectivity of everything objective” (AGB: viii–ix/AAN: 527).

In all these ways, considering beings in their chronological priority, or causal connectedness, or as presence-at-hand, or as objective, nothing is yet said about being. While scientific representation fails to think what Heidegger means by being, much less “being-in-itself,” the main stumbling block appears to be its hard-headedness and the presumption that it could thereby decide about being in order to be done with it:

The argument of the sciences against the dependence of the previously intended beings-in-themselves on the human remains correct within the region of scientifically objective representation. But this region has, as such, no authority to decide about the essence and provenance of being-in-itself. Science cannot even ask in a scientifically objective way about being-in-itself as such. (AGB: ix/AAN: 527, tm)

Being exceeds objectivity, especially when the objective is understood as the isolated and its “in-itself” character as a form of encapsulation. Heidegger’s worry is that science “has arrogated to itself the right to conclude something about being-in-itself, without having examined in the slightest on what basis and with what binding authority we say such things about being-in-itself” (AGB: x/AAN: 529, tm).

At this point, things appear quite bleak for any kind of productive dialogue between Heideggerian thinking and the sciences. We must remember, however, that in this exchange we are more interested in a display of differences and a submission of these to the scrutiny of the other, than in any kind of conclusive result. Science thinks in terms of beings for Heidegger and this presumes a clearing of being in which such beings can appear. Heidegger had called this clearing “truth”; the sciences cannot think truth in such a way. Heidegger elaborates the consequences of this:

All correctness in the representation of beings is based on a truth about being. Seen in this way, the correctness of scientific cognition, insofar as it is limited to itself, is without truth [Wahrheit]. It is true-less [wahr-los] in the sense that scientific research cannot guard [wahren] being as being, even though it always and everywhere implicitly avails itself of a truth about being. (AGB: ix/AAN: 528, tm)

This leads Heidegger to the dramatic claim that the sciences would let being go unguarded: “with this comes what we can call, in the properly thought sense of the term, the unguarding [Verwahrlosung] of the sciences” (AGB: ix/AAN: 528, tm).

This “unguarding” was a key concern in Heidegger’s lecture cycle, Insight into That which Is, particularly in the lecture “The Danger,” where the surrender of beings to technological replacement and positionality (Ge-Stell) is at issue. Heidegger claims there that “in the essence of positionality, the unguarding of the thing as thing takes place” and goes on to elaborate that:

The word “unguarding” [Verwahrlosung] is here taken literally […]. Unguarding here does not mean a slipping into neglect, does not signify a decay into disorder. The word “unguarding” as now used is no term of derision; it entails no value judgment at all. The unguarding of the thing names what proceeds from the essence of positionality, signaling to us the essence of technology. (GA 79: 47/45)

That the scientific conception of beings should feed into the technological consumption of them is nothing surprising. But Heidegger builds on this for the sake of the dialogue with science.

On the very last page of the “Argument,” Heidegger returns once more to the guiding problem:

For the sciences, there appear to be beings-in-themselves without a being-in-itself. If we cross out being, then beings-in-themselves still remain for the sciences. The question may be posed once again: What then does it mean for beings to “be in themselves”? Science answers: we are not concerned with what this means; it is enough for us that “beings-in-themselves” are in themselves. (AGB: xi/AAN: 529, tm)

Science is insistent that beings are enough, that they have no need of being. But just this becomes the point of contact for the conversation with the sciences. Heidegger concludes from this: “When all being remains unconsidered, beings-in-themselves are then, in the sense of the sciences, in no way non-beings; but science will not be able to avoid the concession that beings-in-themselves are beingless [seinlos]” (AGB: xi/AAN: 529, tm, em).

Heidegger and the scientific representation of beings have found a point of contact and convergence, the idea that beings would exist without being. Heidegger agrees to this, but does so by claiming such beings would exist in a “beingless” manner.

It is worth noting here, however, that “beingless” is a technical term of Heidegger’s, dating back to his unpublished being-historical writings of the 1940s, which follow upon the Contributions to Philosophy and start to expand on its mode of thought. In the 1941 text On Inception (GA 70), where the beingless finds its fullest treatment, Heidegger writes that the beingless would be the “greatest extremity of the thought of being” (GA 70: 123/99), so we should not expect anything immediately accessible or even comprehensible.16 The idea of the “beingless” needs to be distinguished from his earlier thinking of “abandoned” beings:

In being’s abandonment [Seinsverlassenheit], beings are left to themselves and take on the appearance of not needing being [Seinsunbedürftigkeit].
In beinglessness [Seinlosigkeit] beings are neither in-being nor not in-being. (GA 70: 121/98)

The point is an opaque one, to be sure. Unlike Heidegger’s earlier conception of a “withdrawal” of being that ultimately left beings “abandoned,” here we are no longer dealing with beings as such. And in On Inception, Heidegger ties this directly to our concern with the “in itself”:

Only when beings “are” the beingless, will that definition be reached that is always and again sought when we take the being-in-itself and being-through-itself of beings to be what is most proper to beings. The beingless does not need being and “is” nevertheless not the nihilated. (GA 70: 123/99, tm)

The disputed in-itself character of beings would be for Heidegger nothing less than their very beinglessness. The issue is not an easy one to think through, especially for someone whose thinking has focused so much on a relational connection to being that withstands even abandonment and withdrawal. But Heidegger concludes his “argument” with science by bringing it to this point, one where not even he could be said to stand on stable ground. The thought of the “beingless” is one of Heidegger’s most provocative and intellectually troubling thoughts; it poses a challenge that is not easily met: “Here – in ‘beinglessness’ and in the ‘beingless’ – is a demand, within which no metaphysics finds its way,” though it is something by which “the courage of onto-historical thinking can be attuned” (GA 70: 121/98, tm).

Heidegger’s argument with the sciences comes to its close once he has found a point of contact between the two parties, one that neither can claim exclusive mastery over. It is itself the pledge of their greatest difference. Immediately after writing that science will be forced to concede that beings-in-themselves are “beingless,” Heidegger adds: “The burden of proof as to what this means falls to science. What will it reply to this imposition?” (AGB: xi/AAN: 529, tm). I hear in these closing lines a sincere hope to engage with scientific thinking around the topic of the beingless, which Heidegger himself recognizes as an imposition, not just for science but for thought as such. Nothing more is needed to prepare the ground for such a long-sought conversation to take place.


1 Serially by the Martin Heidegger Gesellschaft in their annual Jahresgaben for members of the society, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011–12, 2013–14 (the “Argument”), 2015–16. The German edition was republished with updates as “Das Argument gegen den Brauch (Für das Ansichsein des Seienden),” ed. Dietmar Koch and Michael Ruppert with emendations and notes by Tobias Keiling and Ian Alexander Moore, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 30, no. 3, online appendix (2022): i–xvi (henceforth “AGB”), and translated as “The Argument against Need (for the Being-in-Itself of Entities),” trans. Tobias Keiling and Ian Alexander Moore, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 30, no. 3 (2022): 519–34 (henceforth “AAN”).

2 The question of ground would take center stage in Heidegger’s upcoming lecture course, The Principle of Reason (first session, 11 November 1955).

3 Christopher D. Merwin and Ian Alexander Moore, in their “Heidegger’s Legacy and the Need/Use of Being,” Gatherings: The Heidegger Circle Annual 13 (2023), have shown how Heidegger continued to think through the topic with Medard Boss as late as 1963.

4 This is not to deny that need plays a role in still earlier texts, particularly the Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) from 1936–38, where for beyng “this needing constitutes its very essence” (GA 65: 251/198). Need here is inextricably tied to Heidegger’s ruminations on the gods, with Heidegger explaining that “Beyng ‘is’ the ‘between’ amidst beings and the gods, […] ‘needed’ by the gods and withdrawn from beings” (GA 65: 244/192). The gods need beyng: “Beyng is that which is needed by the gods [das von den Göttern Gebrauchte]” (GA 65: 438/346, tm). Beings, on the other hand, do not: “Beyng (as event) needs beings so that it might essentially occur. Beings do not need beyng in that way” (GA 65: 30/26). For its part, Dasein is needed for the constitution of this between, for the “grounding” of its truth: “beyng needs truth and thus appropriates Da-sein and in that way is in itself and originally the event” (GA 65: 230/262). Such a Dasein must also be prepared to go under: “At times, those who ground the abyss must be consumed in the fire of that which is well guarded, so that Da-sein might be possible for humans and constancy within beings might thus be saved, […] beings are brought into their constancy through the downgoing of those who ground the truth of beyng. Beyng itself requires this. It needs those who go down and has already appropriated them, assigned them to itself, wherever beings appear” (GA 65: 7/8). This happens “at times.” Without going into detail here, Heidegger’s thinking of truth, beings/things, gods/divinities, and downgoing/mortality all shift into a new constellation after the war. It is this post-war configuration that is my focus in what follows.

5 Kirk, Raven, Schofield, eds. The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 118.

6 Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, I.3, trans. Richard Stothert, in Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 4: St. Augustin: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1887), 42.

7 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I. 4, I. 5, trans. J.F. Shaw, in Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 2: St. Augustin’s “City of God” and “Christian Doctrine” (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company, 1887), 523, 524.

8 The exact context is Parmenides’ use of the word χρὴ (GA 8: 185–94/182–91).

9 This paragraph is omitted from the English translation.

10 Friedrich Hölderlin, “Der Ister,” in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 2.1: Gedichte nach 1800: Text, ed. Friedrich Beissner (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1951), 192.

11 Vigiliae II in particular seems connected to “The Argument against Need.” For one, the “Argument” cites Vigiliae II. See the Jahresgabe-edition, 53, where the editors who transcribed the text give “Vorläufiges II. 61” (GA 102: 171–72) for the reference, but “Vigiliae II. 61” (GA 100: 141) seems the correct reading (this has been corrected in the revised German edition by Keiling and Moore, AGB: xvi/AAN: 534). Secondly, a passage from one text appears almost verbatim in the other (presumably Vigiliae is the original); compare GA 100: 140–41 with AGB: vii/AAN: 526.

12 See the editor’s afterword to Vier Hefte (GA 99: 185). Heidegger refers to the manuscript in the Anmerkungen (Remarks) as “the much demanded second part of Being and Time” (GA 98: 61). A page of the manuscript was published in the Marbach Bericht über eine neue Sichtung des Heidegger-Nachlasses, ed. Klaus Held (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 2019), 63–69, where the discussion concerns a diagram in the manuscript that arranges key Heideggerian terms along the lines of a swastika-like drawing.

13 ein Vorname des Unter-Schieds, see also Anmerkungen III (1946–47): “The name ‘need,’ however, names only a trait in the event of differentiation. ‘Need’ is the name [der Vorname] for differentiation” (GA 98: 217).

14 Heidegger will say the same is true of Parmenides’ proclamation as well (from What Is Called Thinking?), when understood to propose a “belonging together of perception and being,” for such a claim “says nothing of need” (GA 100: 156).

15 Heidegger is broad enough to recognize that insisting science make a “leap” into his way of thinking would be equally destructive of conversation: “seen from the perspective of this mode of representation, the imposition to make the leap would accordingly remain a crude surprise attack” (AGB: ii/AAN: 520). In Vigiliae II, Heidegger says of his own manner of thinking: “The trenches surrounding my way of thinking grow ever wider and deeper. That cannot matter. Enough, if there are still a few who are able to leap across and over to here – without the leap we do not find ourselves on the path” (GA 100: 160).

16 The best commentary on the beingless is Daniela Vallega-Neu, Heidegger’s Poietic Writings: From “Contributions to Philosophy” to “The Event” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018), see esp. 113–15, 134–36. Even Vallega-Neu expresses some bewilderment at the thought: “we should wonder how Heidegger or anyone could come up with such a thought,” ultimately asking, “how can he think ‘prior to’ Da-sein? He cannot” (114).

Andrew J. Mitchell - On Need: Mortality and Heidegger’s “Argument” with Science
Original version in Gatherings 13 (2023).