Martin Heidegger: Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation

Interpretation of Nietzsche's Second Untimely Meditation Book Cover Interpretation of Nietzsche's Second Untimely Meditation
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair
Indiana University Press
Cloth $55.00

Reviewed by:  Michael J. Sigrist (George Washington University, Department of Philosophy)

Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation (INM) is a translation by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair of a seminar conducted by Martin Heidegger in Freiburg over the Winter Semester 1938-39. Originally published as GA 46, the text consists of a collection of lecture notes and diagrams that loosely correspond to the topical sections of Nietzsche’s essay. Throughout the course Heidegger deepens his critique of Nietzsche, revisits the question of animal life, offers a lengthy reflection on the connection between truth and justice, and extends his reflections on the unity of temporality, historicality, and Being.

The title describes the contents perfectly: these lectures record Heidegger’s thoughts on Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life.” Readers should be familiar with the latter work to get the most out of Heidegger’s text. Needless to say, readers will also want to know a fair bit of Heidegger, starting with Being and Time (BT), but The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (FCM), and Contributions to Philosophy: From Enowning are also advised. While Nietzsche scholars may find some items of interest, and should take Heidegger’s overall critique seriously (more below), this text will be primarily of use for scholars and students of Heidegger.

These lectures appear at the tail end of Heidegger’s decade-long rumination on Nietzsche’s philosophy, a period also marked by Heidegger’s so-called Turn (Kehre). In Being and Time it’s clear that Dasein oscillates between authenticity and inauthenticity, but through the Turn Heidegger began to view these transitions historically through the destiny (Geschick) of Beyng (written so in order to accentuate the verbal, eventful meaning of the term). That history is punctuated by certain epochal figures, of which Nietzsche is the last, marking the transition from the ‘first’ to the ‘other’ beginning. The sort of considerations that guide Heidegger’s thinking through the turn are not the focus of this text but they are evident as background assumptions that shape certain lines of questioning. As Haase and Sinclair note in an insightful article that can be read as a companion piece to the book[i], Heidegger alters his approving evaluation of Nietzsche in Being and Time[ii] to a more confrontational mode in these lectures.

It’s refreshing, given the expansive nature of some of Heidegger’s other writing from the period, to find a text so focused on a single topic. While often repetitive and enigmatic, the text is content to take its cues from Nietzsche’s essay and simply to reflect on what is offered. Rather than itemize these all and run down a list, I’m going to review some of the most important themes so that readers get a sense for what the text at its best can offer.

Nietzsche begins his second Untimely Meditation (UM) famously envying the cattle in pasture for their incessant forgetfulness. These meager creatures with their uninspiring lives achieve an effortless happiness, while we, even in our most joyful moments, suffer the awareness that all moments necessarily pass. The cause of this melancholic existence is our inability to forget, which is why we are historical and animals unhistorical. This distinction marks Heidegger’s first major point of contention. It is incorrect to call animals unhistorical, he says. Just as only beings who exist essentially with others can be alone, and only beings who are essentially determined by speech can be silent, so Heidegger claims that only essentially historical beings can exist unhistorically: “only that which is historical can be unhistorical”.[iii] Rather than unhistorical, Nietzsche’s cattle lack history altogether, Heidegger says.[iv] This is not just a pedantic point, for important consequences follow.

Nietzsche’s analysis implies that humans and animals occupy distant points along a continuum, from total forgetting to total remembering (later in his essay Nietzsche worries about an oversaturation of historical knowledge). For Nietzsche, the key is not to settle at some sensible mid-point, but to acquire a horizon that let’s one retain just the proper amount of historical consciousness necessary for life.[v] Heidegger complains that this encourages us to think that the problem is one of how much or what sort of things to forget, whereas there is a kind of forgetfulness that characterizes Dasein’s inauthentic, unhistorical way of being that has nothing to do with the amount or kind of memories Dasein retains. In fact, Heidegger says, being unhistorical is itself a way of being historical, in parallel with (or as another way of framing) the relation between authentic and inauthentic existence. After the Turn, machination and reification take over the role played by inauthenticity, where rather than structural features of Dasein these are increasingly understood as being-historical tendencies in the destiny of Western metaphysics. These lectures explain that we ought to understand Dasein’s unhistorical being not as some nearer approximation to animal life but as contemporary Dasein’s inauthentic way of being historical.

This is important because contemporary Dasein is unhistorical despite a flood of historical information and historical awareness. The massive increase in historical knowledge—Heidegger and Nietzsche agree—is not the result of exogenous improvements in the technology for discovering and disseminating historical facts (quite the reverse actually) but due to contemporary Dasein’s dominant self-interpretation as historical. Contemporary Dasein has so much historical information because it seeks it out and interprets itself accordingly. The rise of historicism in the German academy only reflected the rise in historical consciousness through which Western Dasein increasingly came to understand itself over the course of the 19th century. Many of Heidegger’s and Nietzsche’s contemporaries believed that this increase in historical awareness and information resulted in a manner of conduct and self-evaluation showing unique historical sophistication, as if modern Dasein were more in touch with its history than its ancestors. Heidegger and Nietzsche both dispute this idea. For Heidegger, it is clear that our scientific mode of framing and retaining historical knowledge– not the amount or kind–paradoxically blinds us to our historical existence. We know ever more about the past but by this very mode of knowing turn away from it.

In Being and Time Heidegger believed that this mutual distrust of historical science indicated a deeper philosophical agreement with Nietzsche. He claims that Nietzsche’s distinction between three modes of history—monumental, antiquarian, and critical[vi]–shows that Nietzsche had achieved—though left unsaid—an insight into the original unity of authentic temporality. Nietzsche claimed that the historicism of his day overlooked the fact that history is in service to life, and Heidegger seemed to detect an affinity between this claim and his own warnings against scientism as the de-worlded representation of beings in the mode of the present-to-hand.

A decade later, these lectures show that Heidegger has substantially revised his understanding of Nietzsche’s project. Rather than revealing the ground of authentic historicality, Nietzsche now represents the final forgetting of Being. Specifically, Heidegger believes that, behind an ostensible critique of science and objective historiology, Nietzsche surreptiously announces the culmination of the scientific, technological enframing of Being.

The first sign of this re-evaluation is obvious in early sections of the text. Nietzsche argued that the proper approach to history should strive for the right balance of memory and forgetting. Specifically, historical memory ought to be measured by the life-affirming values it enhances in the present–via inspiration, reverence, and liberation, corresponding to the three modes of history. Heidegger reflects on different kinds of memory and forgetting–anticipating such distinctions as semantic, episodic, and observer memory–but the general conclusion is that Nietzsche only understands memory as ‘making present’ and thereby conceals its essence. Heidegger points as evidence to Nietzsche’s conflation of Historie with Geschichte. Historie for Heidegger is more than just the academic writing of history, and might better be described as telling history, something constitutive of any human community. In Being and Time he argues that it is important that such telling arise as an authentic expression of Dasein’s gechichtliches way of being grounded in ecstatic temporality. In these sections of INM Heidegger’s comments seem trade on a distinction familiar from Husserl. Husserl distinguished Gegenwärtigung from Vergegenwärtigung, the latter often translated by the somewhat clumsy ‘presentifying.’ Memory–or ‘recollection’–is a paradigmatic ‘presentifying’ act for Husserl, an act which presents its object as absent in its absence. Husserl was clear that presentifying acts presuppose and take as their content prior, original intuitive presentations, so recollective acts are founded on and take as their content direct, intuitive retentions. Heidegger, both here and in Being and Time, argues that a similar relation obtains between the telling of Historie and Dasein’s original, geschichtliches way of being. Heidegger does not mean of course that Historie is answerable to Geschichte in the way that propositions are answerable to facts. “Mere making present and remembering are fundamentally different,” he explains, later clarifying that to ‘make present’ is to ‘take up into the present,’ whereas ‘to remember’ is “placing oneself into that which has been and as belonging to it”.[vii] So unlike Husserl, who grounded recollective memory on intuitive perceptions, Heidegger’s Historie is grounded in Dasein’s ontological involvement with or (as he frequently puts it in this text) ‘belonging to’ the past. Nietzsche, by effectively writing Geschichte out of Historie, erases Dasein’s ontological foundation in the past. Whatever meaning the past has for Nietzsche is written back into it from the present, and whatever has no present use ought to be ‘forgotten.’[viii] There are parallels here (not coincidentally, given that these texts are composed in the same period) to the way that enframing in the mode of Gestell projects the being of beings as standing reserve for the will, so ‘making present’ in Nietzsche’s sense displays a similar enframing projection of the past.

There are more entries on life in this text than on any other topic. In Being and Time Heidegger implicitly associates Nietzsche’s thinking about history with Wilhelm Dilthey’s philosophy of life and defense of the originality of Geistwissenschaften, but especially following the rigorous analysis of life in FCM, Heidegger no longer thinks that life is an appropriate concept for understanding Dasein’s way of being and has concluded that Nietzsche’s thinking about life stands directly opposed to Dasein’s fundamental historicity. Many of the statements about life in this text repeat the analysis from a decade earlier. Animals are ‘captivated’ by their milieu (Umfeld) whereas Dasein understands its ‘environment’ (Umwelt). Animality, says Heidegger, is not grounded in any intrinsic property of organisms but by the ‘absorbtion’ and mutual determination of organism and environment. Although this should not be understood causally, animals are merely responsive to their environment whereas Dasein is in some sense free. Animals do not transcend their milieu and so are “bound to the moment”.[ix] By elevating life to the name of being as a whole, Nietzsche projects all of being through this totalizing presentism.

Heidegger’s claims about animality remain controversial and the focus of ongoing research.[x] Scholars will not find anything in this set of lectures to contradict or add nuance to claims about the ‘world-poor’ existence of animals. However, readers will acquire better insight into the kinds of considerations that motivated Heidegger to undertake those analyses in the first place and the context they occupy for him. Recent interest in Heidegger’s remarks about animality has been driven by growing contemporary attention to animal rights and a broader critique of anthropocentrism, but as this text makes clear, those are not part of the frame that Heidegger brings to these issues. Instead, this text shows that foremost in his mind is combatting–what Heidegger believed to be–the confusions and regressions of Lebensphilosophie, historicism, scientism, rationalism, and the technological projection of being. He is especially concerned to awaken an attunement to the existential potential of historically transcendent Dasein. Richard Polt, in a recent lecture at Emory University organized around the Black Notebooks, states that during this period Heidegger began to interpret the barbarism around him as a regression to a form of animality that formed the counterpart to the calculative rationality of enframing.[xi] This sentiment is consistent with what one finds in INM.

This text also covers ground familiar from Heidegger’s more famous writings on technology and earlier set of lectures on Nietzsche. Looking beneath the surface of Nietzsche’s frequent critique of consciousness, moral motivations, and objective truth, Heidegger claims to find an even purer expression of modern rationalism. As Heidegger would explain in the Question Concerning Technology (QCT), what defines technological rationalism is not consciousness per se but the projection of being as standing reserve for the encompassing presentism of the subjectum. Nietzsche’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ might undermine the epistemic self-certainty of consciousness but only to the effect of extinguishing any remaining resistance from beings themselves to ‘life’ and thus the erasure of being into nothing. Being itself is nothing but the projection of life. Thus “despite the enmity with Descartes,” Heidegger writes, Nietzsche “only replaces the cogito by a vivo and thereby raises the subjectum to the highest level of preeminence”.[xii] This story, as I’ve mentioned, will be familiar to readers of Heidegger’s other writings on Nietzsche and technology, but this text adds a specifically historical inflection to that critique.

That inflection sets the context for one of the more noteworthy sections of the text where we find Heidegger offering a sustained reflection on justice. The original connection–between life, truth, history, and justice–is not Heidegger’s but Nietzsche’s. In UM, Nietzsche describes, in his usual complex way, the drive for an austere objectivity in history as a kind of justice. Unlike other areas of science, we cannot remain indifferent to the results of history. (Feigned indifference, modeled on scientific dispassion or aesthetic indifference, always dissembles ulterior, self-aggrandizing motives, Nietzsche believes). I have no particular stake in the specific atomic weight of some element, but to discover that the revered founder of my country was a kleptocratic murderer, or that your friends have never really respected you, can be profoundly affecting. It requires a rare and special sort of fortitude, Nietzsche imagines, to look directly at historical truth nonetheless, calling that a kind of justice. Normally, Nietzsche assumes, we use the past for precedents and excuses, for scapegoats and reassurance, a tendency at both the individual and collective level. Those few who are not seduced by such drives possess what Nietzsche calls a “dreadful virtue” that confers the right to be a “regulating and punishing judge”.[xiii] But even this drive for justice must be wed to an artistic drive to create lest it undermine the very life it expresses. As Heidegger explains, Nietzsche’s notion of justice is not about what is or has been but about possibility, the ability to posit new goals and ideals.[xiv] Without such goals, this dreadful justice only destroys. Nietzsche points to the withering effects historical criticism had had on the spiritual power of religious figures like Jesus, and today we might point to contemporary histories that turn an unflinching eye toward the details of the oppressive and unjust legacies of our own past. When in service to a life-affirming ideal, the dreadful virtue of historical honesty can be creative, but most of us never achieve or even aspire to such historical virtue. Instead, we are motivated by “boredom, envy, vanity, the desire for amusement,” etc.[xv] Nietzsche mocks the careful historians of his day (and he could easily be talking about our own) for judging the deeds and opinions of the past by standards of the present and calling that ‘objectivity,’ work he derides as the attempt “to adapt the past to contemporary triviality”.[xvi]

In Being and Time Heidegger saw in this accusation of banal anachronism a connection to his own critique of publicness, but in these lectures he finds something else. The drive towards justice–even the austere, virtuous kind that Nietzsche admires (and would practice with his method of genealogy–belongs rather to life than truth. Nietzsche will persist using the word ‘truth’, but Heidegger argues that his failure to see past metaphysics nullifies his right to that term. Nietzsche’s claims to truth are a ruse: “The will to truth belongs to “life” and in this belonging it is precisely the will to untruth, to appearance.[xvii] Truth is really untruth, which is to say, no truth at all, only life.

For all of his criticisms of how philosophers talk about truth, the need for truth remains one of Heidegger’s deepest and most persistent commitments. It is a commitment Nietzsche cannot share because, Heidegger claims, Nietzsche continues to think of truth through the metaphysical opposition of being and becoming.

 “What Nietzsche here grasps as “will to truth”—always from the perspective of the human being—is it not simply the will to the “true,” that is, to what is “fixed,” and therefore precisely not will to truth as an essential will to the question-worthiness of the essence of the true?”[xviii]

For all of his ability to see through the pretensions and self-deceptions of philosophy, Nietzsche still cannot see how that which changes—that which has a history—can be true, and so he rejects truth—and with it, being—for the sake of something he calls life. (Heidegger includes several interesting asides cataloguing the inconsistent ambiguities in Nietzsche’s use of that term in connect with similar ambiguities in his uses of ‘justice’ and ‘truth.’)

Heidegger scholars will find this text frequently fascinating if also enigmatic and frustrating. As this review illustrates, it stays for the most part on the level of critique. But a positive understanding of being-historical is intimated between the lines of this critique, and begins with the aforementioned notion of historical truth. Understood within the framework of traditional epistemology the very idea is barely intelligible. How could truth change? Historical relativism or some sort of temporally-indexed contextualism are insufficient. Either way, truth itself is not ‘historical’ but relativized into fixed frame or constantly shifting perspective. This suggests that we should look elsewhere than traditional epistemology to get a sense of what truth as historical might mean. The first step is to recognize that truth is a guiding, constitutive feature of Dasein’s existence—lived out more than known, enacted rather than objectively grasped. As Haase and Sinclair note, this is a sense of being-historical already laid out in 1919/20 in Phenomenology of Religious Life. As I write, my country—the United States—confronts a deep crisis about the kind of country it has been, is, and will be. And familiar arguments over our history have once again become public (Are we an immigrant nation or an ethnic one? A liberal and progressive nation or reactionary and conservative?) It is a mistake to assume that the past is fixed, or that history unfolds a fixed essence. But it is equally wrong to assume that there is no ‘truth’ to the matter or that historical truth is confined to the present. The past not is a set of facts, but one ground for the possibility of meaning, a possibility that also includes the present and the future. The meaning, for instance, of the Constitutional Convention is not found only in the facts of what occurred in Philadelphia in 1787, but in the meaning that those facts continue to have today for those of us responsible to them, and that meaning in turn is not just found in the present facts of today but in who we become in the future. We right now are aware of all this right now and thus our present is this responsibility towards our future by way of our past. The truth is not something we create, nor something we find, but something for which we are responsible. It is—and this is my final observation—this notion of responsibility that Heidegger implies is missing from Nietzsche’s philosophy. For Nietzsche the past and the future are consumed by a drive for power into a totalizing present: “‘life’ is posited in advance as life-intensification, as the consuming desire for victory, spoils, and power, which in and of itself means: always more power”.[xix] Is this a hint at Heidegger’s so-called subtle ‘resistance’ to National Socialism in his Nietzsche lectures? If so, it is an important datum for intellectual historians trying to gauge Heidegger’s precise sympathies, but all the same, must strike us now as pathetic and insufficient.

[i] Haase, Ullrich and Sinclair, Mark. “History and the Meaning of Life: On Heidegger’s Interpretations of Nietzsche’s 2nd Untimely Meditation.” Heidegger in the Twenty-First Century. Springer: 2015.

[ii] See especially BT, Division II, Ch. 5.

[iii] INM, 24.

[iv] “The animal is not unhistorical, but much rather without history [historielos] – and these are not the same.” (INM, 24). See also: “The human being is in its very essence characterized and distinguished by the historical. At the same time, the unhistorical has a primacy within human life.” (INM, 18)

[v] “A living thing can be healthy, strong, and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon.” (UM, 63). Heidegger questions why Nietzsche seems to equate the ‘horizon limitation’ with ‘being able to forget.’ (INM, 115)

[vi] See UM.

[vii] INM, 33. And elsewhere: “representing–bringing before oneself–derives from a mere making present (free and unrestrained) which is not carried and goverened by remembering (the being concerned by what has been, being affected by it)” (INM, 92).

[viii] “…for Nietzsche, ‘history’–when he does not simply equate it with historiology–is what first of all comes into being by means of objectification on the part of historiology” (INM, 78).

[ix] INM, 16.

[x] See Calarco, Matthew. Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York: Columbia UP, 2008; Derrida, Jacques, Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Geoffrey Bennington. The Beast & the Sovereign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Padui, Raoni. “From the Facticity of Dasein to the Facticity of Nature: Naturalism, Animality, and Metontology.” Gatherings. The Heidegger Circle Annual, 3 (2013): 50–75; Tanzer, Mark. “Heidegger on Animality and Anthropocentrism.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 47.1 (2015): 18-32;

[xi] “Inception, Downfall, and the Broken World: Heidegger Above the Sea of Fog.” In Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks”: Responding to Anti-Semitism, ed. Andrew J. Mitchell and Peter Trawny. New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming 2017.

[xii] INM, 114.

[xiii] UM, 88.

[xiv] See INM, 144-5.

[xv] UM, 88.

[xvi] UM, 90.

[xvii] INM, 118.

[xviii] INM, 119.

[xix] INM, 178.

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