Sunday, September 25, 2022
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 28, 2015

What Is It

Best known for his work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger has been hailed by many as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. He has also been criticized for being both nearly unreadable and a Nazi. Yet there is no disputing his seminal place in the history of Western thought. So what did Heidegger mean when he wrote about world, being, and time? What significance does he still hold as a thinker today, especially as a philosopher of modern technology? Should we even read the works of a Nazi? John and Ken are present and ready with Thomas Sheehan from Stanford University, author of Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift.

Listening Notes

John opens explaining that although he used to hate Heidegger just like most analytic philosophers, he’s come to quite like him as a thinker. But Ken thinks that his terminology is confused; like Dasein, what is that? John explains that Heidegger’s Dasein is contrasted with the Cartesian ego. For Heidegger the world doesn’t present itself to the world through ideas and representation; rather, the human is immersed in the world through experience. Ken thinks Heidegger then sounds like quite a naturalist. John agrees in the sense that all that we do as humans is grounded in nature and the world around us. Ken then reminds John that Heidegger was a Nazi! John feels a little uncomfortable but good ideas are good ideas.

John and Ken are joined by guest Thomas Sheehan, a professor of philosophy and religious studies from Stanford University and the author of Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift. Just to get it out of the way, John asks Sheehan if he could discuss Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, especially since Sheehan was one of the first to bring this to the attention of the intellectual community. Sheehan is in favor of throwing out the window Dasein as a topic. Sheehan says Dasein really means to be thrown ahead for the purpose of meaning. In anything we are doing, we are looking ahead to a goal, and so use things as means to reach our purposes and goals. Being in the world means being in the world of meaning which gives its significance to things that we come into contact with.

Ken asks to clarify the difference between the Cartesian in the world and the Heideggerian in the world. Sheehan explains that for the Heideggerian the world is a problem only when we fail and make a mistake, but the world is not presented to us by default as a problem as the Cartesian asserts. When the Heideggerians learn of their meaning making ability and their inability to not make meaning, then they experience dread. Ken then asks what Heidegger’s relationship is to existentialism. Sheehan agrees with an existentialist reading since Heidegger always asked how to make sense of death.

A caller asks what Heidegger’s relationship was to Husserl. Sheehan explains that Heidegger learned phenomenology and lived experience and logic of lived experience from Husserl. The notion that the mind is not locked in your head but all over the world is taken from Husserl. Ken returns to the topic of Descartes. He asks if there really is a big divorce between Descartes and the phenomenologists. Sheehan pushes back and says that it is two ways of doing philosophy. Heidegger’s concept of human beings is someone making meaningful order out of chaos. Everything is meaningful, but not everything is true. Heidegger is after why we make meaning and why we have to. Ken asks if Heidegger believes there is a world out there, and Sheehan argues that Heidegger really does believe in truth as correspondence to reality, but what is important in Heidegger is that the individual constitutes that reality.

John comments that Heidegger seems to propose that his philosophy helps humans live more authentically. Sheehan says that the question is whether this really cashes out. Although Heidegger does invite you to feel awe and dread over your groundlessness, he had absolutely no ethics and couldn’t have an ethics. Ken wonders if that is the problem with existentialists in general. Ken then asks: for Heidegger, what does it really mean to live authentically? Sheehan says it is being towards death, living with one’s death always on one’s mind. Returning to Heidegger’s Nazism, Sheehan says that Heidegger was simply a man of his times. But Ken wonders if Heidegger’s philosophy could be used to support Nazism. Sheehan admits that it’s possible, because of his concept of historicity, which is what allows people to pick something from history and endorse and own it into the future. Sheehan concludes that authenticity and living it is not enough, and that is the lesson to be taken from Heidegger and the existentialists. We see here the limits of Heidegger’s philosophy.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:40): According to Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, Heidegger was very charismatic and an intellectual star in Germany, which is what drew Hannah Arendt to be his mistress, even though he was married. When Hitler came to power he became the president of Freiburg University, but once Hitler fell, Heidegger fell from grace. Although Arendt was Jewish, she defended Heidegger by saying he was simply politically wise. In his Black Notebooks, he used his philosophy to make anti-Semitic remarks. So, although his thoughts can be used in anti-Semitic ways, this doesn’t necessarily imply that his thought is inherently anti-Semitic.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:30): When it comes to Heidegger, even though he was a Nazi he didn’t suffer a bad fate at all. He had it pretty good compared to other philosophers such as Nietzsche, Spinoza, St. Augustine, Marquis de Sade, Ayn Rand. Socrates, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, and Kant!


Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, February 2, 2022 -- 8:56 AM

It has been a dozen or more

It has been a dozen or more years since I read Being and Time. There are books I have read more than once. Heidegger's will not be one of them. The ether is thin. He was either a brilliant thinker or one of the most flagrant charlatans of our time. Yours truly can truly not decide. His Nazism does not bother me---many great thinkers have made questionable choices when it came to other aspects of ideology. But I could find no clarity in his presentation. Some may say, well, there are the problems that attach to translation. Friends and associates have said the same of Frege's work on math-based logic. In any case, I leave MH to those who 'get it'. I can't. Exotic smoke & mirrors is still smoke & mirrors.

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Daniel's picture


Tuesday, August 9, 2022 -- 7:11 PM

See the Beitraege (Vom

With regards to Heidegger's involvement with the Nazis, it should be noted that no influence by him on the regime has been discovered and his efforts to associate himself with fascism as a movement in the years 1933-34 had no success in helping to determine it. Its main motive ground apparently amounted to a need for human beings to meet the historical challenge presented by technology (cf. "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten," Der Spiegel, 31 May 1976, pp. 193-219); but no ostensive relation can be drawn between his philosophy and his politics, even if many can be suggested by speculation. A much clearer relation between the same can be found however in Heisenberg's work, who not only worked closely with Nazi leadership but played a considerable role in the war effort, enthusiastically advocating for the construction of nuclear weapons, even if the project in Germany never got off the ground. It's an interesting question for the history of ideas about why Heisenberg seems to get a pass for his involvement and Heidegger typically doesn't. Is it because of the nature of the concepts involved, i.e. that one kind can be clearly delineated from political matters and the other can't?

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Daniel's picture


Saturday, September 24, 2022 -- 4:53 PM

The answer is "no" in my view

The answer is "no" in my view of the subject, but not because the two classes of concepts can't be separated from politics the way they're separated from one another, but because they must be. Even a political theorist can behave without contradiction differently in her/his political life than might be expected from a given theory. One's practice can differ from one's theory without it being on that account a bad theory. But on what is this distinction between theory and practice based? Is it a practical or theoretical one? It's just this type of question, I assert, which is dealt with by the early Heidegger. If the world can be divided into two kinds of things, determined as things which just sit there and things which one can do something with, then there must be a third kind of entity: that in which the distinction is grounded, what Heidegger calls "being there", or "Dasein". This consists in a network of practical involvement already set up by a given structure of social relations, so that the theoretical is based on the practical, which in turn has its ground in Dasein. All epistemic authority therefore derives from social authority, as determined by preexisting interrelations of practices and their response-expectations. In order then to secure an epistemic claim no reference to a thinking subject is required, only the social structure found together with any discovery of theoretical individuality. So what really exists under such an arrangement? Might someone who has some acquaintance with the early work assist?

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Daniel's picture


Tuesday, September 27, 2022 -- 3:05 PM

The reason for this question

The reason for this question is that although Heidegger's thought changes on this matter as too anthropological, it provides in my view the foundations of understanding his later work, which is in addition much more lay-reader accessible. For one thing, he comes to want to separate the "da" from the "sein" as more fundamental, since Being (the "is" in the "what is") has up to that point only been conceivable in thought as a kind of being (a "what" which is). To get around that he suggests that any being one can think must appear in a space cleared of any beings. A lit candle, for example, only illuminates something insofar as it stands in an open space. "Da" therefore = "Clearing" as the possibility of phenomena, light in the candle example. A question therefore arises: Because the Being of Being is thought only as a being being Being, Being being a being remains within the realm of beings being. The history of beings being Being, or conversely, of Being being a being, is the history of Being's beings, when one asks the question of "what is?" rather than "what is doing the is-ing?" What apart from beings, then, can be Being being Being unconstrained by beings of Being being a being being Being?

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