For Heidegger ‘the meaning of being’ is disclosed by ‘pre-theoretical’ interpretation in a holistic union of mind or ‘subject’ and ‘object’, individual with collective and ‘reason’ with ‘passion’.1 That the salient ideas of mind, object and virtue can incidentally also intimate ‘theories’ is consistent with this provided that these theories are regarded as merely provisional, in light of his pre-theoretical approach. The idea that authenticity is virtue for example may be expressed either non-propositionally as a practice or, wrongly in his view, as a true-or-false theory. Holism gives a frame of reference linking these disparate ideas but I argue that it is in each case self-defeating and a ‘practical contradiction’.

I consider first what it means to be a mind or ‘subject’, and how we relate to being; I write ‘being’ not ‘Being’ (and ‘nonbeing’ not ‘Nothing’). He mostly shuns terms such as ‘mind’, ‘subject’ and ‘object’ but they flag his attempt to rethink these notions. ‘Objects’ are not only material things, though a hammer is his best-known example. (BT 25–6) They matter less to him but his discussion invites attention, and I consider more fully their ‘truth’ or what it means for an object to be; I speak of ‘objects’ or ‘things’, not ‘beings’ or ‘entities’. I look at authenticity, technology and poetry last. I find more support in Kierkegaard for his account of truth than of virtue. I aim at a synoptic view of material familiar to many readers, without trying to integrate every detail. I do not offer close textual analysis or technicality but try to make him accessible, referring to some sources from the analytic tradition, and avoiding his phraseology.


  1. Top of page
  2. I
  3. II
  4. III

Heidegger does not attempt an account of the mind which would include its activities in inference, induction and intuition for instance, or ask whether it is an artefact they produce. He speaks instead of Dasein, literally ‘there-being’, as embedded ‘being-in-the-world’: we relate to objects necessarily, not by casual association like a jug to its shelf. He does not mean analytic or causal necessity: somewhat as marriage is more than meeting, so mind as interpreting and objects as intelligible cannot be separated, but form a holistic ‘hermeneutic circle’. He therefore rules out positions such as idealism and materialism which depend on their separation. Unlike objects we ask the meaning of their being and ours, and in so doing disclose being, prior to such separation,2 unstained by the human categories of subject and object, inner and outer, cause and effect and so on which we so readily and assiduously apply. His ‘first philosophy’ starts at a point well before the place where Socrates began.

That we ask the meaning of being is crucial both to being and our being, and in enquiring about being I am disclosed to myself. To be a subject is also to be there to oneself: I know what it is like to be a human being not, say, a halibut. He does not mean experiencing oneself inwardly but being intelligible to oneself as self-interpreting. Thus a purely materialist account of the mind in terms of behaviour and a purely mentalist account like Descartes' are both mistaken.3 The mind is not a given, Cartesian ‘rational object’ (ens rationis); in this sense I am nothing or ‘no thing’. I am radically contingent and ‘on the way’: always self-interpreting, never a final self-interpretation. (§§47–53) Heidegger assumed initially that we control interpretation and can therefore ‘seize’ meaning, but later that the mind in interpretation lets objects appear and so be, like a forest clearing where light enters and objects appear. He is not a rationalist or Husserlian for whom the mind is a template for the world: as a ‘clearing’ the mind has no a priori topography to which objects could correspond. What counts as an object is decided a posteriori by our happening to be attuned to what matters to us, finding serviceable material, and adapting it to our needs.

He also explains what it is for a human being to live, or be, by death. This looks like an oxymoron but he argues that I cannot form a concept of death as an event I take part in which would round off a narrative of my life and give me direction. For Brentano the mind is directed intentionally at objects since we must believe (think, desire and so on) something or other.4 For Heidegger, though I may form intentions, I am not orientated intentionally in any particular direction as, say, a hammer ‘points’ at nails. Second, as mortal I can care about my projects, giving everything its meaning and the world its unity; conversely as so caring I can be concerned about my mortality. Third, I am ‘thrown’ into a social situation and cannot avoid understanding myself as ‘one’ (das Man). Unlike an object, whose being is a necessity for it, mine is a possibility or issue; but I tend to lapse into such ‘fallenness’ and inauthentically disown myself as possibility. Death also is a possibility but not just one among others since it can cancel them at any time: I live ‘towards’ death, not as giving me direction, but on the contrary as preventing me from settling this issue and securing a place in the world. The thought of death thus precipitates a crisis of anxiety as to who I truly am; yet this anxiety lets me acknowledge my guilt, and conscience calls me away from inauthenticity. For Heidegger this guilt is ‘spiritual’, not moral, despite his terminology. Such anxiety however is not simply an agitated state but an aspect of agency: I resolve the crisis by accepting my emptiness instead of fleeing, and am no longer ‘scattered’ among current concerns. (343ff.)

As authentic I select my possibilities from the public domain I share, so also showing what I already am as ‘thrown’. I am no morbid recluse as Waterhouse supposes but inescapably social.5 Unfettered self-invention cannot generate such socially (not morally) objective values. He acknowledges in general terms Kierkegaard's lead: I am not simply guided in advance by rules or predicted consequences but responsible for adopting rules my selection implies and for the consequences, in an anxious tussle of self-interpretation and luck (not his term).6 Yet for Kierkegaard I jump without seeing where I will land, while for Heidegger I do not deliberately choose practices so much as open myself to them in ‘resoluteness’ (Entschlossenheit) and let things be, even though ‘the idea that all willing should be grounded in letting-be offends the understanding7. (§§54–62)

This transformation to resolute integration resembles religious redemption, though weakly since my guilt is merely acknowledged, not expiated. Authenticity is ‘freedom’ or spiritual virtue as an unfolding of ‘there-being’ in which I make being my own, as the difference it makes that there should be anything at all rather than nothing. This is reminiscent of Aristotle's doctrine of ‘contemplation’ in Nicomachean Ethics except for instance that for Heidegger being is the meaningfulness of things as a whole, given an appropriate mood, just as the world is transformed for requited love. Non-being or ‘the nothing’ is not literally nothing, but global meaninglessness, as the world may be stale if you are bored.8 This might seem to attribute to things qualities which properly apply to the mind, but Heidegger avoids such ‘psychologism’: cast into a world, we cannot know it as a whole but only from within practices, yet we may feel it to be joyful or dull for instance and so transcend it. (WM 108) Such a mood is also a ‘mode of access’ letting us understand things in the culturally fundamental terms of religious tradition, say, or mathematics.9 One might protest that being may be said to waver between having and lacking meaning but not to be meaning. And if it matters that there should be something rather than nothing, this matters whether we are attuned to it or not. Indeed his claim that we are ‘held out into the nothing’ (105) might seem to combine being nonsensically with nonbeing: yet it suggests a skiff on still water for instance, a microcosm ‘hovering’ in an encircling ‘nothing’ which imparts and withdraws meaning. (106)

My unstable appropriation of being, oscillating between authenticity and inauthenticity, discloses a shimmering between being and nonbeing, or meaning and meaninglessness. And my sense of myself as possibility, as contingent and empty even if integrated and resolute, lies on a knife-edge of doubt and dread, disclosing being as tipping towards nonbeing. Being and my being are related reciprocally, but being is tied differently to objects: interpreting them, I disclose their being, as they do not disclose mine. They also waver between being and nonbeing, somewhat as for Heraclitus being is in flux; in this further respect Heidegger is pre-Socratic. He considers in detail what it is to be ‘thrown’, anxious and so on but I turn now to the theory between the lines, as it were, of what it is for an object to be.


  1. Top of page
  2. I
  3. II
  4. III

Heidegger does not ask whether objects are only ideas ‘in the mind’ but what their being means. He is concerned not only with our making sense of things but with the sense they make. In asking why there should be anything at all we recognise their being instead of forgetting it through ‘will to mastery’ or inauthentic banality. He suggests that we interpret available material as objects serving projects which matter or make a difference to us, that is, roughly, what Hume called ‘passions’. (BT 98) I apply this doctrine of interpretation to metaphysics (for want of a better term) not ‘texts’.10 To adapt his example, we may interpret a stone as a makeshift hammer if we already understand the practice of hammering. This might suggest that objects are tools11 but he infers instead that an object is primarily a ‘sign’, not as an icon or symbol like a wedding ring but as ‘intentional’ or directed, as a weather vane points in the direction of the wind. (§17) Thus the meaning of an object is ‘projective’ (literally, ‘throwing ahead’), ‘biased towards the future’ and, somewhat as the future is unknown, not initially pinned down as ‘present’ or simply given. Projection gives an object its internal structure, so to speak, but he is more interested in its pointing away from itself within its practical context, like a team player. The meaning of anything is not an aura surrounding a core of truth, or grasped by looking at it in isolation and frozen in time, but somewhat as we understand what it means for a butterfly to be, not as pinned to a card, but in flight.

He speaks of the meaning of ‘being’ rather than of ‘life’ but runs these together. Just as a tree stump may count as a seat, interpretation discloses a design or ‘truth’ we intend but do not simply invent. He does not defend ‘intelligent design’ we do not intend and may doubt when witnessing pain, or ask whether beauty is beyond chance yet inexplicable, or whether an indifferent universe liberates science and practice. Such design gives wonderfully intricate meaning but removes mystery, the more so the better it is set out, for instance mathematically. Nature is not simply a book: being and interpretation are related inexplicably, so preserving the ineffable meaning or ‘wonder’ not only of the starry heavens, love at first sight, or a greyhound running, but specifically ‘that beings are’.12

Caputo blurs the above distinction between being and existing in commenting that like the scholastics, Heidegger ties the actuality of objects to the activity of subjects.13 Interpretation discloses truth just as poetry need not simply express a poet's experience and values. We ordinarily treat objects as occurrent or ‘present’ (vorhanden, ‘present at hand’), viewing them as onlookers and testing our beliefs against them for accuracy. Thus if we encounter something puzzling we gaze at it, list properties such as its shape and size, and theorise about what it might be. We are then inclined to infer naïvely that to be is to be present, as though objects could have a meaning or ‘essence’ independently of us. Our interest in them cannot be explained by such realism but by our first engaging with them as handy for projects (zuhanden, ‘ready to hand’). He does not mean that we act first and think later, but that beliefs are intelligible only in terms of our motivation to act: it makes no sense to suppose that we pick out what we call ‘a tree’ for instance before engaging with it as handy for shelter, fruit or whatever. Similarly we understand what it is for a hammer to be if we know what it is for through pre-theoretical familiarity with the practice of hammering. Objects neither lurk with intent, as it were, nor are just as we mean them to be. A hammer does not simply fulfil the joiner's intentions: a stone might do the same in some circumstances, but unlike a stone it is constituted in interpretation by its intention or direction. (§15)

What Heidegger calls a ‘theoretical attitude’ is a tendency, not to theorise (though it makes theory possible), but to disengage from practical concerns and decontextualise objects as simply present. (413) The hammer a joiner swings is not yet present to his detached gaze: he looks beyond or ‘through’ it to the nail. It is transparent in use, not as literally invisible but as overlooked, somewhat as the eye in seeing does not see itself. Its being is disclosed as ‘zero’ or nothing to stare at, not even a gap (IM 27) or, to adapt a catchphrase, as ‘unbearably light’14. It ‘appears’ or emerges as a present object if it breaks for instance and he steps back to see it, as needing repair. Heidegger's point is not that being is elusive or, absurdly, that things have being only when they go wrong, but that the present, broken hammer discloses by default the projective meaning of the intact hammer. As broken its intentionality is disrupted, as merely present its direction is unclear, but using it is an ‘overcoming of nothingness’ which lets it appear. (28) Thus the sense in which being is prior to both ‘subject’ and ‘object’ is given by the reciprocal relation of interpretation and truth. We interpret as a hammer whatever meets the need, so that its ‘truth’ as an object is already connected with its interpretation before these can be distinguished. While our intentions are the reason why there is anything at all, this link is ex hypothesi inexplicable.

This account sets out not only what it is for an object to be, but also what it is to be an object, and an object of a certain sort. Objects are not simply read off like numbers or read in like castles in clouds; a stone acts as a makeshift hammer, not by a fiction, but as adapted to our requirements. What anything is, and in a way that it is, are both contingent on our interpreting possibilities, and there is no step back to an unintended foundational truth which could remove their contingency. Given such contingency we cannot say simply that anything is, ‘period’: factual statements may have a categorical ‘surface grammar’ but are primarily hypothetical. And while it is not down to us that a tree stump is a possible seat, this seat is not there unless we so interpret the stump; the same sentence may then both determine what counts as a fact and express a judgement which corresponds with it. Without us there is nothing, though not literally: Heidegger does not suppose absurdly that we latecomers create the universe, but withholds ontological commitment beyond the phenomena. Our existence may be insignificant but our knowledge is not, and things can be picked out only in interpretation. (BT 250) ‘Projective saying… brings the unsayable as such into a world.’15 The claim that without us nothing could be said is not here a truism but affirms ontological reticence.

His writing is allusive, intense, often luminous; he resists systematization also in holding that philosophy is a quest with no final destination. He might seem then not to be technically a philosopher: Cooper for instance asks whether he is a ‘poet’ or ‘thinker of our times’.16 Indeed as interpretative his account of objects might seem anthropocentric, and perhaps therefore anecdotal and temperamental. His standpoint however is transcendental subjectivity, and thus philosophical. By contrast partisan, nationalist leanings compromise the purity of his practical philosophy.

Heidegger's hammer image does not make him a pragmatist for whom truth is ‘what works’ but suits his hands-on, ab initio approach to being. Hammering opens up a context in which nails and other gear ‘appear’. This does not mean that the being of anything is somehow deferred to other things but that an object is not simply discrete: it alludes to other things, though not only as its cause. He does not open a space for intentions or what Sellars calls ‘the logical space of reasons’ in the natural world so much as interweave intentions and nature.17 Thus he chides philosophers who neglect their proper task of enquiring into the meaning of being and treat philosophy as ancillary to the sciences, so that saying what something is involves saying only what it could do and what could be done to it, under laws of nature. (IM 13–17) One way in which this causal principle applies is reductive: the smallest components in physics, chemistry and biology behave predictably, as the double helix for example displays replication. This offers a weak analogy with his intentional view that objects are intelligible in practices. Another way exhibits, in this example, the metabolic processes letting genes collaborate to build and run an organism which maintains its integrity as a resilient pattern in a variable environment.18 This also offers only an analogy, albeit stronger, with his similarly homeostatic view that an object is emergent and dynamic, formed and reformed by interpretation of available material in the organisation of a practice. His term ‘phenomenon’ fits such fluidity. A biological system may be built on more or less random, undirected responses to current needs but, as itself exhibiting direction, reflects interpretative skills which let us state these facts while reserving judgement as to their ontological status. His account of the differentiation of objects thus provides a structural model, here applied to speciation.

‘Care’ (Sorge) is not a virtue like charity or a passion like writing but a concern for projects which gives reason to act, and lets me make a project of myself in which everything has its meaning and therefore its being. It is for my sake that anything matters or makes a difference, while my concern gives the world unity, sense and structure. Care also unites emotion and understanding before these are distinguished (BT 237–8): I cannot appropriately ask for a reason to care but simply care, just as if I am honest for a reason I am not honest. Indeed emotions are aspects of agency reflecting commitments, not for instance mere penumbra of cognition having bodily causes. For example I am not simply made anxious by something but mean to be anxious about it. (232) Being is transcendent since we regard what we thus care about as mattering for itself, not merely because we happen to take it seriously. Care is not always obviously affective but may be, in Hume's terms, ‘calm’ rather than ‘violent’. It makes little sense to say that we ‘feel strongly’ that ‘a=a’ for instance, but such a statement or principle matters since without it there could not be a meaningful world. One difficulty is that their so mattering cannot tell us whether such principles are logically necessary, or if so why.

The world is not a job lot but a system of signs in a ‘hierarchy’ of projects, unified by care and forming our emergent environment. A joiner's project of hammering up bookshelves for instance implies coherence within his practice and with his client's practice of reading, and thus a social context (Mitsein) and unified world. Perhaps objects are linked before they are differentiated, as relations are sometimes said to precede their terms, but Heidegger is interested in the coherence of projects within a framework of concerns or ‘care’. (120–2) Practice is not superior to theory, but ‘theoretical’ beliefs (concerning objects as present) and scientific theories both emerge from within practices. This does not imply ‘the primacy of practical reason’ (238) but that without this framework grounded belief could not be distinguished from illusion.

This intentional manifold is also temporal. (433) A linear, unidirectional concept of time indicated by metaphors such as ‘time's arrow’ fails to account for time we have, make, spend, waste and so on. (429) For linear time the past is over and done with, but so understood from within it is a set of possibilities which already matter so far as we are attuned to our world. This situated mood (Befindlichkeit) is fundamental to being human and opens us to the world. (§29) Similarly the future does not simply come about next week or next year as for linear time but defines projects before us now; and we do not choose it freely without interpreting them by drawing on the past we still are. Further, a hammer can be present in person as the joiner goes about his business, so letting the hammer be, in the present tense. Thus the present discloses the past and future: the hammer is handy now for the task before him which matters already. Heidegger aims to show that ‘care’ has a temporal meaning: one is ahead of oneself as already amidst concerns. His account also shows less directly however that this temporal manifold is integral to projective meaning: without it we could not speak of objects. Such holistic time is not ‘merely subjective’ compared to supposedly ‘objective’ linear time but more fundamental since it is linearity that serves special purposes, for instance defining material objects by the causal sequence, social institutions by calendars and time-keeping by clocks. (382)

Hammering is not a kind of conceptual thinking but implies concepts. His doctrine suggests that a concept is not a mental image, a capacity to discriminate pre-existing objects, or a mythical entity, but a disposition to use signs. Thus a hammer is first handy in practice, then present, and finally named as ‘a hammer’: not simply as ‘Fido’ names Fido but as signifying what it is for in the social organisation of technology. Linguistic signs express projective meaning and include not only words but also formal signals such as semaphore, and informal signs as cloud means rain to farmers and pilots. A hammer is a junction of signs in a referential totality as directed to a bookcase being built, a roof demolished, stone crushed and so on. Successive reinterpretations generate criteria for applying concepts coherently over time despite changes in use and knowledge; to treat words as uninterpreted is ‘inauthentic’. Heidegger describes scientific discourse as ‘abstracted’ from practical thinking, which suggests that we step outside the frame of concepts such as ‘hammering’ to explore general concepts they presuppose such as ‘object’, ‘space’ and ‘time’.19 He also describes an ontology as an ‘interpretation’ (Interpretierung) which rivals may supersede, so that we also stand outside the box of these general concepts; for instance he defends the univocity of ‘being’ against Aristotle (for whom properties and relations exist in a sense merely analogous to that of things). (22)20

We may be said to interpret but scarcely to choose what counts as water for instance; just as anyone may hammer, interpretation is more collective than individual. Truth is not simply ‘objective’ or interpretation purely ‘subjective’ (418) but a positive feedback loop or virtuous ‘hermeneutic circle’ connects them. Our dynamic interrelation with being excludes a foundational ontology of inert presence, but he came to regard this relation also as foundational in a ‘turn’ (Kehre) or shift of focus from transcendental subjectivity to the disclosure of being. The truth so disclosed is not an immutable foundation but a continuing quest; perspectives since Plato change and mix like dress styles (though truth unlike dress has no price).21 Our relation with being is still reciprocal but no longer symmetrical. Heidegger's claim is not that what there is transcends possible experience, or that complete knowledge recedes as we approach it, or that we might pursue this goal if we could form a conception of it. Rather the truth of being is in flux as relative to both philosophical and practical interpretations, and non-propositional as transcending all true particular interpretative statements. No such statement could say finally why there should be anything at all rather than nothing.

For Kierkegaard, reducing ‘the truth of things’ to such a statement or formula gives an illusion of control, so that we live a lie; it also gives an anthropomorphic and hence idolatrous notion of truth. Truth is not an idol or object we cognise and pick out propositionally, as we can say with a kind of certainty of a table before us, ‘This is a table’. Ultimately truth is theistic, a matter for faith, which is uncertain and anxious, not as a weak sort of knowledge, but as non-propositional ‘purity of will’. We trust God as ‘unknown’ except as we love others unilaterally, as distinct from simply doing what we or they want. Theism aside, Heidegger similarly is ontologically reticent. Kierkegaard concludes that we cannot know safely in advance how we ought to live; no true particular description of perfect virtue, for instance of Jesus as exemplar, could apply alike to all or be taught, but we require individual decision and commitment. In this so-called ‘negative theology’ truth is ultimate, not ‘equiprimordial’ with meaning as for Heidegger; yet as Kierkegaard might have put it, Heidegger saves truth by the ‘negative’ assumption that no particular statement captures it finally. In Wittgenstein's terms, similarly falling in behind Kierkegaard, truth is ‘shown’ not ‘said’.

Kierkegaard rejects Faustian ambition in principle; Heidegger does so in effect, curbing controlling will in favour of openness, receptivity and gratitude. One might wonder then whether ‘being’ is a secular ‘God’22 since neither concept is particular, both are disclosive and horizonal, and gratitude that things exist, one's interests aside, compares to love of God. If truth for Heidegger were ultimately theistic he would possibly look for divinity in inexplicable meaning before explanatory argument. This is not obscurantist: felt pain for instance contrasts similarly with, say, a neurological account of pain. Yet the claim that ‘God said, Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3) concerns being but not projection, and suggests that being is post-linguistic, not pre-linguistic as for Heidegger. And he offers no equivalents to the ‘love of one's neighbour’ (agapē) and sin in the breach which are central to belief in God.23

Being is not a predicate, and like the history of a people it is neither a universal like a belief nor a particular like a specific event or object. Instead it is the phenomenal unfolding or self-disclosure of any object. For Phenomenalists an object is a ‘construction’ out of phenomena understood as incorrigible, uninterpreted ‘sense data’;24 for a Phenomenologist such as Heidegger a phenomenon is an object, already interpreted, and never incorrigibly. Chisholm protests that while we may say that a man looks hungry for instance, a Phenomenologist infers that his appearance is hungry, which makes no sense.25 This assumes however that his appearance is a sensible property; instead it is an object, understood as an event of appearing, somewhat like the disclosure of a character on stage. We can say intelligibly, even if not literally, that this character is hungry; hence Heidegger escapes this objection.

It follows that to ask what something is or whether it exists apart from its appearing is meaningless. There is no ‘view from nowhere’ by which to distinguish what is real and apparent but only empirical tests; for example going to look will show whether a perception of water in the desert is a mirage. It would therefore be absurd, not simply false, to deny that what is phenomenal or seems to be the case is what there is; truth is in this sense the default position. Heidegger is not an idealist for whom to be is to be perceived; rather he defends something like Thomas Reid's ‘common sense’ view that scepticism about the ‘external’ world is not a problem.26 The existence of the world is incontrovertible, not because it can be proved, but because we cannot stand outside it to prove or disprove it. Thus we speak intelligibly of the being of objects within the horizon of their phenomenal meaning, just as the peasant shoes in Van Gogh's otherwise blank canvas take their meaning from the implied, unstated environment of the wearer's life. (OWA 162–6)

The term ‘disclosure’ could imply a process of ‘becoming’, as a bud changes over time to a blossom, but Heidegger has in mind an event, as a flower blooms. ‘Truth’ is the dynamic self-disclosure (aletheia) of phenomena brought to light or ‘unhidden’ (phainesthai), linking what shows or evidences itself to the Greek word for truth, aletheia. (TB 79) ‘Disclosure’ does not demonstrate the truth of judgements but ‘unconceals’ the truth of entities for an ‘unconcealing’ agent in the uncontrolling mode of ‘releasement’ (Gelassenheit).27 Thus he braids disclosure (aletheuein) with the self-making, self-presenting (alethes) intelligibility of entities; interpretation correlates with truth and phenomenology becomes ‘aletheiology’.28 For pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus and Parmenides, thinking and being belong together in the ‘giving of the given’, the unfathomable event of illumination or intelligibility which he calls ‘Ereignis’. This does not mean that our intentions are unconscious, as for Derrida an author may have intentions of which she is unaware, or as for Foucault ‘discourse’ is covertly political,29 but that in this event what is available emerges inexplicably as an object whose otherness is recognised.

Heidegger also uses the term ‘phenomenon’ for what mostly does not show itself, as the ‘hidden ground’ for what does. (BT 59) That is, phenomena or objects presuppose possibilities which are ‘ready’ but thereby hidden as much as disclosed.30‘The wood is a forest of timber …’ (100) One difficulty is that this seems to imply a contradiction: we can, and at the same time cannot, issue true statements about this ‘forest of timber’. His point however is that what the wood means and the truth of it both go beyond its ‘presence’, affirming not only a difference (Unterschied) between being and beings but a transfer of being to beings. Phenomena manifest being, not as their underlying cause, but as the ‘giving’ or ‘sending’ of possibilities. Disclosure of objects and our enlightenment then come from being rather than the mind as controlling, and man is the ‘shepherd’ of being.31 This is only analogous to divine grace; when replacing the term ‘being’ with ‘godhead’ (deferring to Meister Eckhart) or with ‘It’ or Tao (‘The Way’) Heidegger implies that theistic and metaphysical doctrines all point to a unifying ‘source’. Like a stream bed seen through clear water, disclosure is an epiphany of the transcendent being immanent in objects, not hovering over them, detached and remote. (62)

If no interpretation or truth-claim is final the notion of ‘the’ truth might seem empty, except perhaps as heuristic. Yet we speak truly of genes though they mutate, and of ‘the same knife’ though the blade and handle have both been replaced. Perspectives may change but we engage with truth, and are entitled to speak of ‘the’ truth because it mutates, not despite its mutating. Heidegger proposes interpretative ‘epochs’ which may be compared but not ranked either by a supposed ahistorical standard of truth, or without a criterion (which would imply a contradiction). Thinking is not only calculating towards a ‘bottom line’: the truth is both relatively stable and ‘open’, and we deepen our understanding in critical open-mindedness.

Tugendhat protests that Heidegger's notion of truth as disclosure is empty since he does not explain how it could contrast with any notion of falsehood.32 This raises manichean questions not peculiar to Heidegger, such as whether an ontological notion of truth is more intelligible than one of falsehood. In his view however one interpretation does not falsify another so much as close it off, as we cannot plough a field we build on. (330–1) We can say truly or falsely what is the case once either alternative emerges: the case concerning what is ‘present’ derives from the ‘truth’ as an event of appearing. One difficulty is that this distinction between truth as the case and as an event is obscure. An event is also the case; hence truth in the sense of ‘the case’ does not derive from truth as ‘an event’, and an object cannot have meaning primarily as a projective event. This is not to dismiss the possible appeal of his pre-theoretical approach, or his challenge to an understanding of mind and objects as simply present. Yet their holistic relation, in a ‘circle’ of interpretation and truth, now reduces to its terms, so blocking this approach. His notions of mind as projecting and objects as projective are also undermined. And he designed his holism to give sense of a sort not defined by analysis and debate; but with no test of a right balance between it and them, it is beyond rational appraisal. His holism is then both self-defeating, its supposed sense-making authorising unreason, and a ‘practical contradiction’, at once estimable and discreditable.


  1. Top of page
  2. I
  3. II
  4. III

Heidegger also applies his pre-theoretical approach to virtue, though it differs in kind from mind and objects. You disclose being if you chop wood and dig the garden, not as a pantheist or romantic, but as rustic and practical rather than ‘effeminate’ or office-bound. Hitler used pastoral ideals cynically as tools of power; Heidegger ingenuously, though a touch risibly, dressed the part. He is a steward of spirit more than the environment and his ‘peasant’ symbolizes a ‘simple’ holistic unity of ‘object’ and ‘subject’, individual and collective, ‘reason’ and ‘passion’. Philosophy is at one with life and felt on the pulses. This possibly admirable notion of what it is to be ‘in the truth’ is reminiscent of J. S. Mill's On Liberty: without passion, ideas may be ‘dead dogma’ and without ‘reason’, passion may be unruly. Heidegger however follows Kierkegaard (as Dreyfus and Rubin, ibid., confirm) except that for Kierkegaard, to be ‘in the truth’33 is above all to ‘love’ as yourself your ‘neighbour’ who is other than yourself.34 For Heidegger you are self-forgetting in directing your interest outward at being, drawing your self-conception from the public domain and forming authentic, solicitous relationships, yet reclusive in treating others only as components of holistic community without agapeistic regard for their irreducible particularity as individuals.

Heidegger's combining ‘reason’ and ‘passion’ ruled out testing whether in practice any particular combination is desirable or right. Authenticity is beyond such critical appraisal. Nothing then prevented his stepping from individual grounding in being to tribal blut und boden and feuer, and he forsook reasoning and morality for aggressive Nazi propaganda.35 This is not a case of implementing a good idea badly, or of the best driving out the good: authenticity is self-defeating, its holism a supposed good legitimising an evil. To live, move and have our being in truth is here a ‘practical contradiction’, attractive and repellent together.

To the authentic, questions about being are paramount and pristine. Inauthenticity is by contrast banal: infatuated with novelty and ‘gadgetry’ you ‘pass the word along’ with no direct relation to your subject-matter, smearing the transparent window of language with cliché and jargon. Heidegger fails to distinguish such ‘chatter’, which may be blamed or excused, from current staple of communication. In asking the meaning of being however you are differentiated as a subject, and authentic commitment to the truth of things extends to the truth of yourself, so that you are spiritually alive. One worry is that in avoiding only inaccuracy you may trivialise other sorts of wickedness. And as Arendt pointed out, banality is a moral matter, not merely spiritual: Eichmann was not a monster despite his bureaucratic mentality but because it blinded him to his atrocities.36

Van Gogh might be said to illustrate authenticity in painting, favouring not only truth and reality but also practice and the personal over symbolism, theory and abstraction. Heidegger also politicised authenticity, however, perhaps seeing in it an ecstatically satisfying excuse for Hitler's conquests, and misdirected it to the fulfilment of a mystic national ‘destiny’ rather than rational objectives. Like Hegel and others he believed that Germans are second only to the ancient Greeks in articulating unmediated reality through philosophy and poetry; their tie with being is their special destiny on behalf of mankind.37 (IM 38) Under Hitler such narcissism became idolatry.38 Heidegger practised a somewhat leading ‘etymology’, believing like German philologists that Germany could be defined by its early medieval and Greek antecedents. One difficulty is that the cities of early medieval Germany were run by ethnic minorities such as the Huns, who spoke a Turkic language and compared themselves with Roman, not Gothic, aristocrats.39 Authenticity also promotes an unassailable sense of oneself without accountability, and with only limited dissent from the collective. He does not sacrifice equality to liberty: a political elite in a superior community rolls social transformation over individual conscience. In any case he overrates authenticity: German soldiers died not because they were authentic but for their friends and Fuehrer.

Heidegger is at once intellectually perceptive and morally blinkered. He showed little sorrow for the defilement, torment and murder visited by the regime on millions, or guilt at their being denied legal protection. His verdict that there were ‘errors’ by way of ‘teething troubles’, and faith in Hitler rather than the rule of law, are not fully explained by his nationalism or character, though he was ambitious for office and treacherous with it, and tried to ingratiate himself with the hierarchy.

What it is for a hammer to be is determined by the joiner's art (techne); informal coping skills let a tree stump count as a seat. In pre-industrial technology their being is intelligible as manipulable and thus teleologically, as money is a means to ends determined independently. Modern technology in contrast ignores the ends of production for the order and control which accompany arts, and supplies only projective meaning, so that you are merely part of a larger uncaring ‘machine’ or technical system. Aircraft and passengers for example are parts of the system of air travel, not objects and subjects in their own right.40 What you are however is irreducibly your responsibility; to see yourself only as a component of a heartless industrial (or cybernetic or biological) system distorts and sidelines your spirituality, and you are a stranger to yourself.41 Yet Heidegger inconsistently then absorbs the particular ‘subject’ in the social system, unlike Kierkegaard; the ‘people’ or Volk is a social category like ‘class’ in Marxism. Solidarity (Mitsein) is holistic, an expression of community (and by extension the state), not reciprocal recognition by individuals of their equal humanity, and he spurns universal rights and democratic institutions.

His politics reflect unease with mechanisation (there is bathos in calling it ‘ontological’) but not with resulting labour conditions. Even if rustic integrity contrasts too easily with urban sophistication, he misidentifies the cost. For him peasant toil and traditional crafts connect the piety of work to national identity, rooting human meaning in a common language and history. We are ‘thrown’ into a tradition and nostalgia conserves the best in us, so that authentic spirituality is insular, backward-looking and authoritarian. Nostalgia deceived him: Nazi authoritarianism and racism combined to replace pastoral ends with industrial means of slaughter, in battle and ‘camps’. His worry is not that technology is at odds with moral conscience, however, but that it operates without regard to our motivation or will and so excludes political action, which could restore ‘peasant’ meaning to life. Yet he finally conceded that folk values are not easily recovered while lucrative economic thinking is dominant, and that technological progress has benefits and cannot be undone. He no longer sought political meaning, or spoke of ‘Germans’ and ‘authenticity’, but alleged that ‘only a god [that is, a shift in cultural meaning] can save us’.42 (BDT 336)

No ‘end’ could possess inherent value for Heidegger so long as he endorsed Hitler's megalomania. He argues however that if we value only effectiveness we overlook ends, except as we treat means as ends. Modern technology aims at rational organisation and control rather than production of objects as meaningful ends. This term ‘meaning’ translates the Greek logos (IM 186); a more usual translation, ‘reason’, refers to the explanation of anything as a cause or instrumental means, and he insists that things are also intelligible on their own account.43 A hoe for instance is intelligible as an instrument, yet with no obvious substitute in a peasant economy it does not yield easily to a ‘will to mastery’, and so is also intelligible in itself as a point of reference or end in a stable modus vivendi. By contrast modern technical systems are self-referential, sweeping away old certainties and redefining us in their own shifting terms; we encounter ourselves only as anxious about what we are. (QT 303–11) This anxiety however lets us reflect that we have a hand in ‘making’ (poiesis), which Heidegger links ‘etymologically’ to poetry. (302) All art is poetry since the arts, including the fine arts, ‘make’ the truth of being, or more exactly disclose it as ‘self-making’, just as the truth a poet discloses cannot be picked out before she expresses it but is not simply an invention she controls. (OWA 184–187) Her ‘saying’ brings it into being but does not show her intentions so much as show itself, so that we listen while it ‘speaks’ to us through her. Poetry so understood does not merely clear the way for philosophy but is philosophy: our thinking is not merely technical but appropriate to being.

One difficulty is that similar claims are sometimes made for fiction, which gets called ‘lies’. And morally right actions for instance are not reducible to effective means; to this extent ‘poetic thinking’ seems otiose. Heidegger's idiom is poetic, however, not only to contest technical thinking, or because wonder that things are may be lyrical, or because the music of poetry has meaning that cannot be put into words. Rather, the meaning of being is not ‘said’ propositionally but ‘shown’ pre-theoretically, first in practices, but also in the hints and inklings of poetic images and diction. Wordsworth poeticized being in propositions concerning a ‘spirit that rolls through all things’ (though unlike Heidegger he heard the ‘still, sad music’ of oppressed humanity).44 For Heidegger in contrast the ‘disclosure’, ‘sending’ and ‘withdrawal’ of being for example are ‘shown’, even if in metaphors based on talk of physical movements.

That objects in the fine arts do not ‘point’ anywhere is obscured by projective thinking. We begin to retrieve being from oblivion by recalling our hand in practices, so granting technical systems less autonomy, and recalling our understanding of fine art, granting them less scope. (QT 310ff.) For Being and Time a mason discloses a stone's nature but in doing so ‘uses it up’; now a sculptor brings out its distinctive qualities and preserves its integrity. This ‘new life’ is more receptive than controlling: the aesthetic is not simply the beautiful but ‘letting entities be’, or ‘in the eyes of the beholder’ so much as opening to the beholder. A temple for instance encapsulates the Greeks' view of themselves and their world, letting ‘rock, storm, sea and eagle’ be what they are. (168–170) Just as Christian reformers went back to New Testament origins, philosophy for Heidegger was purest at its beginnings, and a return to the pre-Socratics could possibly recover their original insight into being.

For Hölderlin also we relate to being in that ‘poetically/Man dwells on this earth’.45 Heidegger does not mean only the Gemütlichkeit of farm kitchens: we are no longer anxious, or ‘always on the way’ like pilgrims, but ‘dwell … at peace’, serenely rooted in being.46 Its flux and our instability recede; he no longer sees philosophy as a quest. To ‘dwell’ in a world is to appropriate it gratefully, not simply to describe and control it. We relate to things holistically and marvel at their intelligible existence, but now a bridge for instance gathers around a river's banks an enduring community with a sense of place, unifying a world whose landmarks let us find our orientation. (BDT 331–6) Unconditional regard for individuals may well be more ‘open’ than a holistic sense of community to the being of human beings, but does not seem to be a precondition of openness to the being of objects. Such situated meaning is not simply metric: in creating space, arranging and the like the bridge makes distances disappear, somewhat as a hammer in use is not initially present over against the joiner. Indeed a sense of dwelling depends on art but lacks the will to mastery which accompanies arts; it is not reducible to, say, the commercial function of buildings but ‘hale’ or wholesome, whole and hallowed.

  1. 1 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time [Sein und Zeit: BT] translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1962)

  2. 2 David Farrell Krell, ed., Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings (London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978): ‘On the Essence of Truth’, p.129

  3. 3 Frederick A. Olafson, Heidegger and the Philosophy of Mind (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987) discusses various theories ruled out by Heidegger's position.

  4. 4 Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973)

  5. 5 Roger Waterhouse, A Heidegger Critique (Humanities Press, 1981) Ch.12

  6. 6 See my ‘Kierkegaard, Freedom and Self-interpretation’, Chapter 3 in Kierkegaard and Freedom, ed. James Giles (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000) pp.43–57.

  7. 7 M. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics [IM] translated by Ralph Manheim (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1959) p.21

  8. 8 Krell, ed., op. cit., ‘What is Metaphysics?’ (WM) p.101

  9. 9 Krell, ed., op. cit., ‘Modern Science, Metaphysics, and Mathematics’ (from What is a Thing?) p.268

  10. 10 See e.g. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975)

  11. 11 Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Open Court Publishing, 2002)

  12. 12 See my ‘Nietzsche, Heidegger and Meaning’ in The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Issue 26, 2003, pp.25–54.

  13. 13 John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982) pp. 72–6.

  14. 14 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984

  15. 15 Krell, ed., op. cit., ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (OWA) p.185

  16. 16 David E. Cooper, Heidegger (London: Claridge, 1996) p.6

  17. 17 Wilfrid Sellars, ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind’ in John McDowell, ed., Mind and World, (Harvard University Press, 1994 and 2000).

  18. 18 See Nigel Goldenfield and Carl Woese, ‘Biology's Next Revolution’, Nature, January 25, 2007.

  19. 19 See R. J. Dostal, ‘Time and Phenomenology in Husserl and Heidegger’ in C. B. Guignon, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993) p.154.

  20. 20 See Heidegger, ‘My Way to Phenomenology’ in On Time and Being (TB) translated by Joan Stambaugh, (University of Chicago Press, 1972) p.4. Also his Preface to W. J. Richardson, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003) p.x.

  21. 21 See also my ‘Nietzsche, Interpretation and Truth’ in Nietzsche and Antiquity, ed. Paul Bishop (New York: Boydell and Brewer, 2004) pp.343–360.

  22. 22 See e.g. Michael Zimmerman, The Eclipse of the Self (Ohio University Press, 1981); Hubert L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991) Appendix, pp.283–340.

  23. 23 See my ‘Nietzsche and Kierkegaard: Integrity and Impartiality’ in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 2006, pp.148–163.

  24. 24 See e.g. Bertrand Russell's Logic and Knowledge, ed. R. C. Marsh (London, 1956).

  25. 25 Roderick M. Chisholm, Realism and the Background of Phenomenology (Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing Company, 1960), p.30

  26. 26 Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Essay 6, Chapter 5: ‘I hold, as a first principle, the existence of everything of which I am conscious’.

  27. 27 See J. Taminiaux, ‘Philosophy of Existence in Heidegger’ in Routledge History of Philosophy, ed. R. Kearney, Vol.8, Continental Philosophy in the 20th Century (London: Routledge, 1994) pp.40–2.

  28. 28 Thomas Sheehan, ‘Reading a Life’, in C. B. Guignon, ed., op. cit., pp.81–2

  29. 29 See e.g. John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, tr. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1977)

  30. 30 See Thomas Sheehan's Introduction to his Heidegger: the Man and the Thinker (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, Inc., 1981) viii; John Richardson, Existential Epistemology (Oxford University Press, 1991) Chapter III.

  31. 31 Krell, ed., op. cit., ‘A Letter on Humanism’ (LH), p.221

  32. 32 Ernst Tugendhat, ‘Heidegger's Idea of Truth’ in Critical Heidegger, ed. Christopher Macann (London: Routledge, 1996) pp.227–240

  33. 33 Such expressions derive from e.g. 1 John 3:18–19: ‘Let us not love in word … but in deed … And hereby we know that we are of the truth’. (AV)

  34. 34 See e.g. W. Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New American Library, Inc., 1975) p.99.

  35. 35 William Lyons dramatizes this in his unpublished play, The Fir Tree and the Ivy.

  36. 36 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), conclusion

  37. 37 See e.g. Hugo Ott, Heidegger: a Political Life, tr. A. Blunden (New York: BasicBooks, 1993); Thomas Sheehan, ‘Heidegger and the Nazis’ in The New York Review of Books, June 16 1988: 38–47 and ‘A Normal Nazi’, ibid., January 14 1993: 30–5.

  38. 38 Article 19 of Alfred Rosenberg's programme for a National Church declared that Mein Kampf is ‘to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book’ (my emphasis). Quoted in William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (London: Secker and Warburg, 1960) p. 240.

  39. 39 Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, 2002)

  40. 40 Krell, ed., op. cit., ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (QT), pp. 298–9

  41. 41 See e.g. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1977).

  42. 42 ‘The Spiegel Interview’ in Thomas Sheehan, ed., Heidegger: the Man and the Thinker, p.57

  43. 43 Heidegger, The Principle of Reason, tr. Reginald Lilly (Indiana University Press, 1991) e.g. p.18.

  44. 44 William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798

  45. 45 Friedrich Hölderlin, Hymns and Fragments, tr. Richard Sieburth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) p.249

  46. 46 Krell, ed., op. cit., ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ [BDT], p.327