Heidegger: A (Very) Critical Introduction. By S. J. McGrath


Pp.xii, 131 . Grand Rapids, Michigan : William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company , 2008 , $16.00 .

In what hopefully signals a salutary new trend in Heidegger scholarship, Professor McGrath conducts a series of incisive forays into Heidegger's philosophy. Though appreciating the depth and originality of Heidegger's thought, McGrath is no Heideggerian. His book strikes the proper balance between charitable interpretation and critical evaluation. Imagine an unabashedly Christian Voltaire presenting a brilliant aperçu of his opponent's views before pitilessly dissecting them and you'll get the feel of it. If, as I will suggest, McGrath has not quite located Heidegger's Achilles' heel, this drawback hardly mitigates the power of his work to elucidate and to provoke.

A brisk opening chapter reviews the biographical and political context of Heidegger's thinking. The book then turns to the early phenomenology and the fundamental ontology of Dasein it reputedly uncovers. McGrath is largely sympathetic to the phenomenology, which he takes to upend traditional notions of a human being as a soul, substance, or subject in favor of a thoroughly temporal Dasein that finds itself thrown into projects taken over from the past and that is individualized by the ultimate facticity of its own death. However, McGrath observes, in its account of authenticity Heidegger's phenomenological ontology blurs the distinction between the ontological/existential, which concerns the formal structures of human being, and the ontic/existentiall, which pertains to particular human beings and the specific ways they choose to be-in-the-world. McGrath objects that Heidegger offers no justification for his own ontic/existentiall, elitist ideal of ‘resolute anticipation.’ Other possible ideals, such as Christian humanism, are prejudicially dismissed.

Something has gone wrong here. What Dasein allegedly sees in its ‘moment of vision’ (der Augenblick) is that there is no‘ideal’ or ‘transcendental ethics’ whatsoever – humanist or anti-humanist – that ultimately justifies Dasein in pursuing certain projects rather than others. There is only the thoroughly temporal, baseless being of Dasein caught between a ‘throw’ it can't release and a death it can't escape. Dasein is then free to choose any available projects; it remains authentic by resolving to live in the realization that no real basis exists for choosing as it does. Authentic Dasein could choose to sup with the masses or to practice selfless love, provided that it remains under no illusion that these projects are justified by fixed facts about ‘the self’ or what is morally correct. More disturbingly, an authentic community could opt for National Socialism as a collective project or a ‘situation’ free of both capitalist and communist metaphysics (‘individual liberties,’‘forces of production’) – so long as its members don't pretend that their Nazism is underwritten by some metaphysics of the Volk. (Rector Heidegger's own remarks about ‘the Germans' Western historical essence’ apparently ‘fall prey’ to such metaphysical backsliding.)

On McGrath's reading, Heidegger disarms theology through a shrewd inversion of Luther's theologia crucis. For Luther, the radical inaccessibility of faith to reason renders philosophy impotent to grasp God; for Heidegger, the radical repudiation of faith renders phenomenology the final authority on human existence. Pace McGrath (and Derrida), the fact that the jargon of authenticity is shot through with theological terminology (‘fallenness,’‘being-guilty,’ etc.) doesn't mean that Heidegger smuggles in religious assumptions, any more than a pacifist's rhetoric of ‘defending’ her integrity by ‘resisting’ and ‘struggling against’ her temptation to wage war means that she tacitly assumes militarism. Nevertheless, McGrath raises an important issue: Doesn't Heidegger beg the question at the outset of his inquiry by repudiating without justification belief in a Creator?

I believe Heidegger takes his phenomenological analysis of Dasein to justify this repudiation. If Dasein is thoroughly temporal, then Dasein possess no ‘present-at-hand’ nature. Even if a Creator exists, no fixed essence in Dasein is fully realized by entering into a proper relationship with Him. Consequently, the existence or non-existence of a Creator is no more relevant to ‘thrown being-in-the-world’ than is the Big Bang. McGrath sacrifices too many hostages to fortune by basically conceding Heidegger's phenomenology of Dasein. A more principled skepticism might challenge Heidegger's claim that Dasein lacks a fixed essence. After all, Dasein is intrinsically capable of understanding possible projects and choosing among them. Dasein thus possesses schematic rational and volitional capacities which it does not choose. It is then an open question whether these capacities are ultimately fulfilled through union with a divine being who created them – a question that Heidegger the phenomenologist simply ignores.

My reservations about McGrath's critique in no way diminish my admiration for his book. His is the sort of fresh approach the study of Heidegger has needed for a long time. Well done.