Heidegger and postmodernism [EP]

[This excerpt is from Chapter 3 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]

heidegger-100pxHeidegger’s synthesis of the Continental tradition

Martin Heidegger took Hegelian philosophy and gave it a personal, phenomenological twist.

Heidegger is notorious for the obscurity of his prose and for his actions and inactions on behalf of the National Socialists during the 1930s, and he is unquestionably the leading twentieth-century philosopher for the postmodernists. Derrida and Foucault identify themselves as followers of Heidegger.[1] Rorty cites Heidegger as one of the three major influences on his thinking, the other two being Dewey and Wittgenstein.[2]

Heidegger absorbed and modified the tradition of German philosophy. Like Kant, Heidegger believed reason to be a superficial phenomenon, and he adopted the Kantian view of words and concepts as obstacles to our coming to know reality, or Being. However, like Hegel, Heidegger believed that we can get closer to Being than Kant allowed, though not by adopting Hegel’s abstracted third-person pretense of Reason. Setting aside both reason and Reason, Heidegger agreed with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer that by exploring his feelings—especially his dark and anguished feelings of dread and guilt—he could approach Being. And like all good German philosophers, Heidegger agreed that when we get to the core of Being we will find conflict and contradiction at the heart of things.

So what is new? Heidegger’s distinctiveness was his use of phenomenology to get us there.

Phenomenology becomes philosophically important once we accept the Kantian conclusion that we cannot start as realists and scientists do by assuming that we are aware of an external, independent reality that is made up of objects that we are trying to understand. But, from the phenomenological standpoint, we must also realize that Kant took only a timid half-step. While Kant was willing to give up the noumenal object, he held onto the belief in an underlying, noumenal self with a specific nature available to us for our investigation. But a noumenal self underlying the flow of phenomena is just as problematic a notion as the notion of noumenal objects underlying the flow. Recognizing this, Heidegger therefore wanted to start, following Nietzsche’s occasional but undeveloped suggestions, without making the assumption of the existence of either an object or a subject.

So we start phenomenologically—that is, by simply and clearly describing the phenomena of experience and change.

On Heidegger’s account, what one finds when starting so is a sense of projection into a field of experience and change. Do not think objects, Heidegger counseled, think fields. Do not think subject, think experience. We start small and local, with Da-sein’s being projected into reality.

“Da-sein” is Heidegger’s substitute concept for “self,” “subject,” or “human being,” all of which he thought carried undesirable baggage from earlier philosophy. Heidegger explained his choice of “Da-sein” by defining it as follows: “Da-sein means being projected into Nothing.”[3] Ignoring the “Nothing” for now, it is the being projected that is Da-sein—not that, if anything, which is projected or does the projecting. The emphasis is on activity, thus avoiding assumptions that there are two things, a subject and an object, that enter into a relationship. There is simply action, the action of being out there, being thrust into.

The being projected reveals and clothes successively over time various semi-stable fields or “beings”—what we would call “objects” if we had not already shed our naïve realism.

Yet the long process of describing the phenomena of beings, Heidegger found, led him inexorably to a question—the question that has haunted all of philosophy: What is the Being of the various beings? The beings differ and change, come and go, yet for all their changeability and difference they still manifest a oneness, a commonality: They all are. What is that Being underlying or behind or common to all beings? What makes the beings Be? Or, raising the stakes to the Heideggerian Question of all questions: Why is there even Being at all? Why is there not rather Nothing?[4]

This is no ordinary question. With a question like this, Heidegger pointed out, reason quickly finds itself in trouble—the same kind of trouble that Kant had pointed out with his antinomies: reason always reaches contradictions whenever it attempts to explore deep metaphysical issues. A question such as “Why is there Being and not rather Nothing?” is therefore repugnant to reason. For Heidegger, this meant that if we are to explore the question, then reason—the “most stiff-necked adversary of thought”[5]—was an obstacle that had to be discarded.

Setting aside reason and logic

The Question is repugnant to reason, as Heidegger wrote in An Introduction to Metaphysics, because we reach logical absurdity whichever way we go in attempting to answer it.[6] If we say, on the one hand, that there is no answer to the question of why there is Being—if Being just is for no reason—then that makes Being absurd: something that cannot be explained is an absurdity to reason. But if, on the other hand, we say that Being is for a reason, then what could that reason be? We would have to say that that reason, whatever it is, is outside of Being. But outside of Being is nothing—which means that we would have to try to explain Being from nothingness, which is also absurd. So either way we go in trying to answer the Question, we are deeply into absurdity.

Logic wants at this point to forbid the Question. Logic wants to say that the absurdity shows that the question is ill-formed and so should be set aside: Logic wants instead to make the existence of reality its axiom, and to proceed from there with discovering the identities of the various existents.[7]

On the other hand, switching back to a Heideggerian perspective, the questions spawned by the Question strike very deep feelings in Da-sein. What about the Nothingness that Being would have come from? Could Being not have been? Could Being return once again to the Nothing? Such questions are compellingly awesome, and yet at the same time they fill Da-sein with a sense of disease and anxiety. So here Da-sein has a conflict: Logic and reason say that the question is contradictory and so should be set aside, but Da-sein’s feelings urge Da-sein to explore the question in a non-verbal, emotional way. So which does Da-sein choose: contradiction and feeling—or logic and reason?

Fortunately, as we have learned from Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, this contradiction and conflict is yet another sign that logic and reason are impotent. As we all know by now, we should expect to find conflict and contradiction at the heart of things—contradiction is the sign that we are on to something important.[8] So mere logic, Heidegger concluded—an “invention of schoolteachers, not of philosophers”[9]—cannot and should not get in the way of probing the ultimate mystery that is Being. We must reject entirely the assumption “that in this enquiry ‘logic’ is the highest court of appeal, that reason is the means and thinking the way to an original comprehension of Nothing and its possible revelation.” Again:

“If this [contradiction] breaks the sovereignty of reason in the field of enquiry into Nothing and Being, then the fate of the rule of ‘logic’ is also decided. The very idea of ‘logic’ disintegrates in the vortex of a more original questioning.”[10]

And again, in case we have missed the point: “Authentic speaking about nothing always remains extraordinary. It cannot be vulgarized. It dissolves if it is placed in the cheap acid of merely logical intelligence.”[11] Deep feeling about Nothing trumps logic any day.

Emotions as revelatory

Having subjected reason and logic to Destruktion and then set them aside as merely one superficial way of thinking—one that the Greeks had established fatefully for all subsequent Western thought[12]—we need another route to Being and Nothing. We can try to explore language without the presuppositions of reason and logic, but even the elements of language, words, have evolved over time and become so twisted and crusted over with layers of meaning that they almost entirely hide Being from us. Their original force and contact with reality has been lost. We can therefore try to strip away from our language the encrusted layers to reveal the ur-words that had original and genuine connective force to Being, but that will require special efforts.

For Heidegger, the special effort that is required is emotional, an exploratory letting oneself go into the revelatory emotions of boredom, fear, guilt, and dread.

Boredom is a good mood to start with. When we are bored—really, really, really bored—we are no longer engaged with the ordinary, trivial, day-to-day things that occupy most of our time. When we are bored, “drifting hither and thither in the abysses of existence like a mute fog,”[13] all beings become a matter of indifference, undifferentiated from one another. Everything merges or dissolves into an un-distinguished unity.

Progress has thus been made: “This boredom reveals what-is in totality.”[14] Real boredom takes one away from one’s normal focus on particular beings and one’s cares for them and diffuses one’s awareness into a sense of Being-as-a-whole’s being revealed to one.

But this revelation also brings with it anxiety and dread. For part of the process of the dissolution of particular beings into a state of undifferentiation is the dissolution of one’s own sense of being a unique, individual being. One has the feeling of beings being dissolved into an undifferentiated Being—but at the same time one has the feeling of one’s self-identity as also slipping into a state of being nothing-in-particular—that is, of becoming nothing. This is distressing.

In dread we are ‘in suspense’ (wir schweben). Or, to put it more precisely, dread holds us in suspense because it makes what-is-in-totality slip away from us. Hence we too, as existents in the midst of what-is, slip away from ourselves along with it. For this reason it is not ‘you’ or ‘I’ that has the uncanny feeling, but ‘one.’[15]

This sense of dread that comes with a sense of the dissolution of all beings along with oneself was for Heidegger a metaphysically potent state, for in effect one gets a foretaste of one’s own death, a sense of one’s being annihilated, a sense of going into nothingness—and thus a sense of getting to the metaphysical center of Being.

One must absolutely not, therefore, give into one’s overpowering sense of distress and run away from dread and back to the safety of one’s petty, day-to-day life. One must embrace one’s dread and surrender to it, for “the dread felt by the courageous”[16] is the emotional state that prepares one for the ultimate revelation. That ultimate revelation is of the truth of Judeo-Christian and Hegelian metaphysics.

In dread we come to feel that Being and Nothing are identical. This is what all philosophy based on the Greek model had missed, and what all philosophies not based on the Greek model had been struggling toward.

“Nothing,” wrote Heidegger, “not merely provides the conceptual opposite of what-is but is also an original part of essence.”[17] Heidegger credited Hegel with having reclaimed this lost insight for the Western tradition: “‘Pure Being and pure Nothing are thus one and the same.’ This proposition of Hegel’s (‘The Science of Logic,’ I, WW III, p. 74) is correct.” Hegel of course got it from trying to resuscitate the Judeo-Christian account of creation, in which God created the world out of nothing. As Heidegger put it in re-affirming that Judeo-Christian claim, “every being, so far as it is a being, is made out of nothing.”[18]

So after abandoning reason and logic, after experiencing real boredom and terrifying dread, we unveil the final mystery of mysteries: Nothing. In the end, all is nothing and nothing is all. With Heidegger, we reach metaphysical nihilism.

Heidegger and postmodernism

Heidegger’s philosophy is the integration of the two main lines of German philosophy, the speculative metaphysical and the irrationalist epistemological. After Kant, the Continental tradition quickly and gleefully abandoned reason, putting wild speculation, clashing wills, and troubled emotion at the forefront. In Heidegger’s synthesis of the Continental tradition, we can see clearly many of the ingredients of postmodernism. Heidegger offered to his followers the following conclusions, all of which are accepted by the mainstream of postmodernism with slight modifications:

1. Conflict and contradiction are the deepest truths of reality;

2. Reason is subjective and impotent to reach truths about reality;

3. Reason’s elements—words and concepts—are obstacles that must be un-crusted, subjected to Destruktion, or otherwise unmasked;

4. Logical contradiction is neither a sign of failure nor of anything particularly significant at all;

5. Feelings, especially morbid feelings of anxiety and dread, are a deeper guide than reason;

6. The entire Western tradition of philosophy—whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Lockean, or Cartesian—based as it is on the law of non-contradiction and the subject/object distinction, is the enemy to be overcome.

This is not yet to introduce Heidegger’s strong social and political collectivism, which is also part of his inheritance from the main lines of German philosophy. Nor is it to make explicit, as Heidegger did, his strong anti-science and anti-technology views.[19] Nor is it yet to discuss his anti-humanism,[20] with his regular calls for us to be obedient to Being, to feel guilty before Being, to pay homage to Being, and even to “sacrifice man for the truth of Being”[21]—which, if we are still allowed to be logical, means sacrificing ourselves to Nothing. (Those elements in Heidegger’s philosophy will arise in Chapter Four, in the context of discussing the political background to postmodernism.)

What the postmodernists will do in the next generation is abandon the remnants of metaphysics in Heidegger’s philosophy, along with his occasional streaks of mysticism. Heidegger was still doing metaphysics, and he spoke of there being a truth out there about the world that we must seek or let find us. The postmodernists, by contrast, are anti-realists, holding that it is meaningless to speak of truths out there or of a language that could capture them. As anti-realists, accordingly, they will reject the formulation of (1) above as a metaphysical assertion, and instead reformulate its assertion of the reign of conflict and contradiction as descriptive merely of the flow of empirical phenomena; and while they will accept (3) above, they will accept it while abandoning Heidegger’s faint hope that ultimate ur-concepts connecting us to reality may be revealed at the end of the unmasking.

The postmodernists will effect a compromise between Heidegger and Nietzsche. Common to Heidegger and Nietzsche epistemologically is a contemptuous rejection of reason. Metaphysically, though, the postmodernists will drop the remnants of Heidegger’s metaphysical quest for Being, and put Nietzschean power struggles at the core of our being. And especially in the cases of Foucault and Derrida, most major postmodernists will abandon Nietzsche’s sense of the exalted potential of man and embrace Heidegger’s anti-humanism.


[1] Foucault 1989, 326.

[2] Rorty 1979, 368.

[3] Heidegger 1929/1975, 251.

[4] Heidegger 1953, 1.

[5] Heidegger 1949, 112.

[6] Heidegger 1953, 23, 25.

[7] E.g., Rand 1957, 1015-ff.

[8] See, for example, Heidegger 1929/1975, 245-246.

[9] Heidegger 1953, 121.

[10] Heidegger 1929/1975, 245, 253.

[11] Heidegger 1953, 26.

[12] Heidegger 1929/1975, 261.

[13] Heidegger 1929/1975, 247.

[14] Heidegger 1929/1975, 247.

[15] Heidegger 1929/1975, 249.

[16] Heidegger 1929/1975, 253.

[17] Heidegger 1929/1975, 251.

[18] Heidegger 1929/1975, 254-255.

[19] Heidegger 1949.

[20] Heidegger 1947.

[21] Heidegger 1929/1975, 263.

Bibliography [pdf] [html]

[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]

9 thoughts on “Heidegger and postmodernism [EP]

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  • September 1, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    For the love of God, keep writing. I am learning a ton from your website. It takes a deep probing of philosophy to reconstruct the demented program of today’s hard left, and many of us lack the philosophical training and background to know which threads to pull on. Keep up the yeoman’s work. Best, Kyle

  • November 21, 2011 at 7:52 am

    No, you are mistaken. Heidegger was never a nazi in any meaningful sense of the word and secondly, postmodernists never understood Heidegger. Neither Sartre, Derrida, Ricoueur, Focault understood Heidegger.

    There is nothing in Heidegger to even suggest a nazi way of thinking. And, that the nazis did not understand neither Heidegger nor Nietzsche, neither Heidegger nor Nietzsche can be blamed for.

  • January 24, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Your site is an excellent find. I’m in the process of revising a paper that I wrote in 2010 about the evolution of political thought in the US. I wanted to connect the changes in philosophical thinking with political policies. I’m trying to strengthen the connections in some areas while using only on-line references. Hopefully you will allow me to include some things found here with links to the source.

    When I have finished these revisions I expect to tackle your book on postmodernism.

  • February 3, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    I decided it made more sense to read Explaining Postmodernism before revising my paper. It was the right call — an excellent and illuminating book. I never got much out of philosophy written after the Enlightenment. I always found myself wanting to debate the premises and there was no one to debate with. I was aware of the Democratic Party becoming much more aggressive of late and correlated it with the demise of the Soviet Union, figuring that without the Cold War they had less reason to conceal their attachment to socialism and disdain for the US, the Constitution, etc. I was blissfully unaware of Postmodernist thinking.
    Thanks for a great and thought provoking read.

  • February 4, 2015 at 12:45 am

    Very glad to know it was useful to you, Robin. Thanks for letting me know.

  • February 1, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    As an engineer and medical doctor naturally I have always accepted the premises of the Enlightenment. As a corollary, my education was sorely lacking in the humanities and so I have had to become an autodidact, otherwise known as an ‘amateur’, in history and philosophy, both of which I love.

    Your e-book “Explaining Post-Modernism” was a true act of generosity to a person like myself. Thank you.
    It was a very readable synthesis of the Development of the Counter-Enlightenment, predominantly a German (but also French through Rousseau, e..g. the term ‘Continental Philosophical Tradition’) cultural response to both the Enlightenment and reaction to Napoleon’s conquest.
    Anti-Reason, Anti-Empiricism, and Science, Pro Faith-Irrational Belief, Pro-Passion, Anti-Individual, Pro-State. Following Marx increasingly and irrevocably Left.

    ‘No Reason’ has ultimately lead to Nihilism, and Leftism to using Rhetoric as a politicized weapon…it all seems comically self-negating as in, “There is no Truth, uh, except for the One I Vigorously Agitate For”. It reminds me of Whitehead’s statement that scientists “animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.”
    ref. p.21 ‘The Restitution of Man, C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism, Aeschliman, M., 1983 Wm B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.

    My only question is that although the Enlightenment was predominately an Anglo inspired Revolution through Bacon, Locke and Newton, did not Thomas Hobbes in some ways have a philosophy that could at least be seen like the Counter Enlightenment Germans as Anti-Individual, Pro-State (‘Leviathan’) and Pro-‘Struggle’ (“a war of all against all”) and to have pre-dated and so in some way pre-figured Kant (although I believe Hobbes is considered a materalist philosopher, unlike Kant)? You didn’t mention Hobbes in your otherwise encyclopedic tour of modern philosophy and so I wondered about his relevance if any in the development of the Counter-Enlightenment?

    Thanks again for a great read, and so a great new understanding of the Left; and why frankly one can anticipate continued intolerance, deception through deconstruction of language/rhetoric and sadly, violence to continue…there’s No Reasoning with them.

    Steve Goodman

  • February 2, 2017 at 7:41 am

    Thanks for your extended comment, Steve, and the positive evaluation. I agree that earlier thinkers, Hobbes included, are relevant. My decision was to start the book with the Enlightenment, since that is what the pomo are reacting against. That meant focusing the pomo story on the Counter-Enlightenment as it begins historically and philosophically with Rousseau and Kant. Earlier contributors are therefore left implicit in the background.

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