Elizabeth Cykowski: Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss

Hikmet Unlu

Heidegger's Metaphysical Abyss: Between the Human and the Animal Book Cover Heidegger's Metaphysical Abyss: Between the Human and the Animal
Oxford Philosophical Monographs
Elizabeth Cykowski
Oxford University Press
Hardback £55.00

Reviewed by: Hikmet Unlu (Middle East Technical University)

In Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss, Beth Cykowski provides a novel discussion of Heidegger’s views on animality. In his 1929–30 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (hereafter FCM), Heidegger presents three controversial theses: the stone is worldless, the animal is world-poor, and the human is world-forming. In her charitable interpretation of Heidegger, Cykowski pays special attention to the second thesis, according to which the animal is limited in its capacity to access the world. In so doing, she tries to defend Heidegger against what she calls the hierarchizing charge, which is advanced by several philosophers who have criticized Heidegger for attempting to secure human uniqueness by reinstating traditional hierarchies concerning the order of nature. One virtue of Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context and thereby tries to lay bare Heidegger’s broader philosophical agenda. Despite its several merits, however, the book is at best a partial success (i) because Cykowski’s attempt to dissociate Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis is not sufficiently backed up by textual evidence and (ii) because the book fails to clarify the traditional conception of the order of nature against the background of which Heidegger’s views on animality need to be understood and evaluated.

At the beginning of her monograph, Cykowski summarizes the different ways in which FCM has been interpreted and criticized by subsequent philosophers. She notes that some scholars have maintained that Heidegger’s reflections on animality are incompatible with the findings of evolutionary biology, others that despite his protestations to the contrary Heidegger ends up “succumbing to the traditional hierarchy of the scala naturae” (23; all references are to Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss unless otherwise indicated). Cykowski explains moreover that insofar as this latter charge is concerned, some commentators like David Krell have argued FCM to be an aberration in the (otherwise unproblematic) Gesamtausgabe (18), whereas for others like Derrida the evaluative prejudices contained in the lecture course are consistent with Heidegger’s reflections on animality over the course of his career (19). Cykowski points out that yet another charge levelled at Heidegger concerns his tendency in these lectures to treat all animals under one heading; she paraphrases the interpretation endorsed by Alasdair MacIntyre, according to whom Heidegger presents “a grossly oversimplified depiction of animal life” (24), disregarding “the many and complex differences between species” (35), which in turn amounts to overlooking the ways in which different species of animals can be said to have different kinds of world-relation.

One virtue of the opening chapter is that it familiarizes the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality. There is hardly any serious engagement with the argumentation of Heidegger’s critics, however, in the absence of which their conclusions seem too uncharitable to Heidegger. Moreover, the introduction as well as the first chapter of the book would have been the perfect place for Cykowski, who frequently refers to the “traditional hierarchies” concerning the order of nature, to offer a discussion of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, yet the author remains silent on these questions throughout her study.

In Chapter 2, which arguably contains the strongest sections of the book, Cykowski provides a discussion of Heidegger’s analysis of the concept of metaphysics. In one of his papers Walter Brogan has criticized those commentators who would consider “Aristotle as the metaphysician par excellence and…those who would understand Heidegger’s own work as an overcoming of the oblivion of being that begins with Aristotle’s distortion of Greek thinking” (Brogan 1984, 250). Cykowski’s Heidegger adopts neither an anti-metaphysical nor an anti-Aristotelian perspective. “Ancient philosophy thus meets its ‘acme’ with Aristotle,” Cykowski writes, rephrasing Heidegger, but “it has since been in a state of decline” (55), in the sense that the insights gained from metaphysics have long been obscured and trivialized (43), in which case, she argues, it is no wonder that the 1929–30 lecture course contains an attempt to uncover the profundity of the original conception of Aristotelian metaphysics.

In this part of her work, Cykowski stresses two important points about metaphysics. First, she correctly describes the Heideggerian view according to which the question of what metaphysics is sits within the question of what the human being is (45). Second, she spends a great deal of time discussing Heidegger’s remark that the human speaks about nature from within nature. As she puts it:

The human embodies a peculiar ambivalence to the extent that it is both part of physis and capable of ‘speaking out’ about physis in the logos.…Its own form of life is such that it ‘exists among’ natural beings, and it is also the being that, via its participation in the logos, is the medium through which physis is given expression. (47–48)

More or less the same idea can be found in a later passage, where Cykowski writes that “as a result of its endowment of logos, the human ‘speaks out’ about the totality of beings while belonging to this very totality” (97). In these and similar passages, Cykowski provides an interesting analysis of the strange predicament that the human being finds itself in, yet when she contrasts this “Greek” conception of the human’s position in nature to the life/spirit divide that allegedly characterize the contemporary epoch, which exemplify “the more superficial conceptions of the human” (54), it is not immediately clear how the two conceptions are supposed to be alternatives of each other, unless we are forced to make the further assumption that life and spirit—unlike physis and logos—are two alien realms that can never share anything in common. However, we are not forced to make this further assumption (nor is it clear that Heidegger makes it); it would be highly implausible to ascribe to all philosophers after antiquity a position according to which life and spirit are irreconcilably distinct concepts.

The next chapter picks up from the previous one, and Cykowski once again begins by rephrasing Heidegger’s remarks concerning the nature of metaphysics. This sets the stage for Cykowski to discuss Heidegger’s interpretation of the Kulturphilosophie of his time and, more specifically, of the views held by thinkers whom Heidegger considers to be the four spokespeople of the then contemporary epoch: Oswald Spengler, Ludwig Klages, Max Scheler, and Leopold Ziegler. In the lecture course, Heidegger briefly summarizes their “worldviews” so as to show that they all turn on the relation between the fundamental concepts of life and spirit. Cykowski correctly points out that “this foray into Kulturphilosophie is included because the four thinkers represent the received view concerning key characteristics of contemporary thinking, and not because they are philosophically enlightening on their own” (65) but adds in the same breath that “this examination is critical for piecing together the overarching metaphysical context of FCM” (65), which gives the impression that Heidegger’s treatment of the Kulturphilosophie of his time can serve as a model that encapsulates the essential orientation of FCM as a whole—that, in other words, the entire lecture course can be seen as an extended attempt to lay bare the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science.

In Chapter 4, Cykowski examines Heidegger’s discussion of the three forms of boredom. Lest it remains unclear how this excursus, how this journey through boredom pertains to the general progression of the lecture course, Heidegger maintains that profound boredom, which is one of the three forms of boredom discussed in FCM, is the fundamental attunement, the basic mood of the contemporary epoch. In Heidegger’s view, it is precisely this boredom, this indifference to beings as a whole that compels us to pursue the kind of insipid cultural diagnoses provided by Spengler and others. According to Cykowski, Heidegger’s message here is that for a philosophical restoration we must first begin to understand the fundamental attunement of our contemporary context of philosophizing. In her view, this understanding is meant to be part of Heidegger’s “philosophical restoration project, part of his attempt to bring about a philosophical confrontation with ourselves, a genuine ‘living philosophising’” (74).

The next chapter is the longest of the book, which should not come as a surprise given that Cykowski here tackles Heidegger’s reflections on the essence of animality. Cykowski understands the structure of the Heideggerian text to be one that proceeds from a discussion of the insipid worldviews held by Spengler, Klages, Scheler, and Ziegler to a discussion of the fundamental attunement of the contemporary epoch (profound boredom), which then would help explain their insufficient understanding of the fundamental concepts of life and spirit as well as the relation between them. Cykowski points out that “Heidegger’s critique of Kulturphilosophie…was an examination of the ‘outer expression’ of the contemporary situation…[and] is then replaced by an exposition of the internal character of the fundamental attunement that determines it” (96). If this is right, however, one may also expect what follows in the lecture course to be an attempt by Heidegger to steer us in the right direction this time and engage in a genuine living philosophizing—and what raises such expectations all the more is that Heidegger’s unmistakable praise of Uexküll, the famous biologist whom Heidegger next focuses on, starkly contrasts with his strong dismissal of the philosophers of culture—but this is not Cykowski’s interpretation. While she does not turn a blind eye to the passages where Heidegger speaks well of Uexküll, she maintains nevertheless that Uexküll, while in some respects wiser than his contemporaries, is nevertheless unaware of the metaphysical prejudices of his biology, in which case the principal objective of Heidegger’s discussion of Uexküll is to uncover the hidden assumptions behind contemporary science. As Cykowski puts it, “Having looked at the ‘worldview’ side of this dichotomy in his analysis of Kulturphilosophie in Part One, Heidegger now wishes to explore aspects of the ‘science’ side in Part Two” (99). In a later passage she adds even more clearly that “Heidegger is treating Uexküll in the same manner as he treats the four philosophers of culture he discusses in Part One” (121).

It is important to come to grips with what Cykowski believes to be the internal progression of Heidegger’s lecture course because the main message of Chapter 5 can only be understood from within this wider context. Simply put, for many of the key passages of FCM, which happen to be the very passages for which Heidegger has been criticized in the literature, Cykowski will claim that these do not reflect Heidegger’s own position, that in these passages Heidegger is in fact only describing the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary science. “If we pick up The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (FCM) and turn straight to Heidegger’s analysis of biology,” she writes, Heidegger will seem “uncharacteristically…to frame his discussion within a hierarchical understanding of life…[and to endorse] an evaluative ontology of life” (99). What she means to say here is that it would be wrong to ascribe to Heidegger this evaluative hierarchy; it would be more correct to understand Heidegger as trying to bring out into the open the metaphysical prejudices upheld by the scientists of his time.

In a nutshell, the main motivation behind Cykowski’s argumentation is to foist what she understands to be the difficulties associated with the thesis concerning the word-poverty of the animal to contemporary biology. Cykowski asserts in no uncertain terms that the thesis at issue here “is not Heidegger’s own distinct formulation” (123) but rather an attempt by Heidegger to lay bare the metaphysical presuppositions of biologists like Uexküll. Her view is that in such passages Heidegger is not clarifying his own position but rather rephrasing others, but arguably she makes this point without sufficiently showing the relative merits of this alternative reading, which dissociates Heidegger from the world-poverty thesis. While Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does contain many refences to FCM, there are hardly any references in this section of the book to back up Cykowski’s specific interpretation, in the absence of which she seems to rely too much on Heidegger’s treatment of Kulturphilosophie, which she believes serves as a model for the entire lecture course.

In FCM, Heidegger talks about the possibility of establishing a “communal cooperation” (Heidegger 1995, 190) and a “mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191) between science and philosophy. He writes, for example, that we can “discover a proper stance with respect to the connection between living philosophy and living science only if we can sow among us the seeds of an appropriate mutual understanding” (Heidegger 1995, 191). It is therefore natural to assume, especially considering Heidegger’s praise of Uexküll, that in the former’s discussion of the latter an attempt is being made to sow the seeds of a collaboration between science and philosophy, but according to Cykowski, Uexküll is not the profound biologist whose works can be utilized to render possible this communal cooperation and mutual understanding between science and philosophy. Rather, Uexküll is at best a successful biologist who “unwittingly renders explicit some of the defining themes of the contemporary zeitgeist” (120). If this is right, Uexküll must be credited not with important insights that enable a collaboration between science and philosophy but with an “incidental articulation of this zeitgeist” (120). In other words, Uexküll unwittingly and incidentally happens to be “one of the clearest articulators of the implicit metaphysical commitments of contemporary biology” (127).

Cykowski wants to stress time and again that the thesis that the animal is world-poor is not Heidegger’s own thesis, that it does not reflect Heidegger’s own position on the issue. As she puts it, “Heidegger’s thesis that the animal is ‘poor in world’ is an attempt to express, as specifically and baldly as possible, precisely what is metaphysically implicit in this Uexküllian account” (115). In a later passage she adds: “Heidegger bases his claim that the animal is ‘poor in world’ on what he considers to be metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s depiction of the organism as confined to a surrounding environment” (122). In a word, this controversial thesis must be ascribed not to Heidegger but to Uexküll. More precisely, the thesis in question explicates what is metaphysically implicit in Uexküll’s biology. Hence, if there is something wrong with the thesis, we cannot blame Heidegger because, in Cykowski’s view, Heidegger was not speaking in his own voice.

In Chapter 6, Cykowski focuses on the spirit side of the life/spirit divide. This section of her study also features what appears to be Cykowski’s sole criticism of the 1929–30 lecture course, which she calls “Heidegger’s problematic neglect of anthropology in FCM” (141). She complains that whereas Heidegger “dedicates four chapters to life and biology, he is finished with anthropology after one or two sentences” (138). More precisely, Heidegger’s mistake is to turn a blind eye to “the connection between contemporary anthropological and ancient philosophical thought” (151). Cykowski argues that Heidegger’s quick dismissal of the philosophical-anthropological tradition is unwarranted because a closer analysis of the works of Scheler et al. could have paved the way toward a fruitful dialogue between philosophical anthropology and Heidegger’s own attempts to retrieve the insights gained in antiquity but has long since been trivialized. As she puts it,

had Heidegger looked with a more charitable, thorough, and imaginative eye at Scheler and the philosophical-anthropological tradition, he would have found that it is not only mindful and critical of the metaphysical prejudices that have been inherited throughout history, but that it reads, at certain points, like a direct rearticulation of the Greek conception of the human as a being that “speaks out” about physis from within physis, which he takes to be so illuminating. (151)

Let us keep in mind that, according to Cykowski, Heidegger “does not see any profound affiliation between biology and his own philosophical project” (150). It would have been natural, in fact, for the Heidegger that Cykowski has in mind to dedicate more pages to a discussion of Scheler than a discussion of Uexküll—the latter of whom only “unwittingly” and “incidentally” explicates the metaphysical prejudices of his time—so it is not difficult to understand Cykowski’s objection. It may be argued, however, that there is a simple reason for why Heidegger spends much more time on biology than on anthropology. Namely, the reason could be that the concept of world-poverty is, indeed, a Heideggerian concept and that, in his discussion of Uexküll, Heidegger is actually trying to sow the seeds for a “communal cooperation” and a “mutual understanding” between science and philosophy. After all, Heidegger states in no uncertain terms that Uexküll’s investigations have not been sufficiently appreciated for their true worth, that they “have not yet acquired the fundamental significance they could have if a more radical interpretation of the organism were developed on their basis” (Heidegger 1995, 263). In the same vein, Heidegger adds a few lines later that “the engagement with concrete investigations like this is one of the most fruitful things that philosophy can learn from contemporary biology” (Heidegger 1995, 263). Arguably, these insights to be gained from biology exemplify the communal cooperation between philosophy and science, in which case they cannot be confined to expressions of the metaphysical prejudices operative in contemporary thought.

In the final chapter of her book, Cykowski once again contrasts the original Greek conception of speaking about nature from within nature to what she calls “the delusions of modern metaphysics” (166), which is marked by “the derived, simplistic life-spirit categories” (162) as well as a “false dichotomy” (165) between these two concepts. This echoes her earlier discussion of “the divisions and categorisations that comprise the history of metaphysics” (151), which in turn is associated throughout her study with “the tradition.” What Cykowski has in mind with the tradition seems to be an undefined and ambiguous range of post-Greek thinkers, so it only seems natural to raise the following questions: Does this post-Greek tradition include Aristotle’s medieval commentators whom the Cartesians were reacting against? Does it include Hegel, whose philosophy of mind appropriates the Aristotelian model? Does it include Husserl and the entire phenomenological tradition? Cykowski does not provide an answer but suggests instead that somewhere along the way (and apparently without any exceptions) the profound philosophy of the Greeks has become trivialized. Cykowski’s unstated assumption is that—at least insofar as the human-animal relation is concerned—all the Greek philosophers had more or less the same view, but this is highly misleading. Nor is there a convergence between the views held by all philosophers after antiquity. At the risk of oversimplification, I should say that in discussions of life, soul, mind, and the like there are, in the main, two traditions: the Aristotelian tradition and the Cartesian tradition. Cykowski does not try to disentangle the one from the other, but the lack of such an attempt obscures her interpretation of Heidegger.

What further complicates things, however, is that Cykowski understands the tradition to be the source of hierarchies, and one would assume that in saying this she has in mind post-Greek philosophy in general, especially because she also writes that “the originary Greek conception…does not flatly, unambiguously promote the ontological superiority of the human” (168). But this is confusing, to say the least, for there is an even more unambiguous hierarchy—that is, an unmistakable ordering of the grades of soul—in Aristotelian philosophy. If so, however, how would a return to Aristotle help with the abolishment of hierarchies? The question is not addressed because, unfortunately, no sections of her monograph are devoted to the Greek conception of the soul, which is regrettable both because it would have helped clarify the background context in the light of which Heidegger’s discussion of animality can be better understood and because in a number of his lectures the early Heidegger himself devotes many passages to the analysis of the psyche.

To provide some of the missing context, Aristotle’s conception of the soul is one that incorporates a multi-layered structure. As Charles Kahn puts it,

Aristotle is not a dualist but a quaternist: he takes for granted four fundamental categories, not two. The conceptual scheme for Aristotle’s philosophy of mind is best represented by a pyramid with four distinct levels. The lowest level is that of body…[while] the three upper levels are marked off by different forms of psyche or soul: nutritive, sensory, and rational. (Kahn 2004, 194)

To state these levels more precisely, corporeality (i.e., the merely material/inorganic level of nature) contains in itself a suitability for life to emerge, life provides the foundations for the emergence of sentience/perception, and sentient life serves as the enabling condition for thinking to arise. In the words of Frederick Weiss, “Each grade of life has for its condition the grade below it, and in turn is a further development of that grade” (Weiss 1969, 14). In Hegel’s philosophy, Weiss adds, this would mean that “each grade of soul is aufgehoben in the grade above it” (Weiss 1969, 15). What is important to realize here is that the Aristotelian understanding of the actualization of that which exists potentially is such that the aforementioned levels are not “opposed” to one another in any straightforward way; what is at issue here, rather, is an appropriation (i.e., “further development”) of a suitable structure. Similarly, the sublation (Aufhebung) that Hegel speaks of can be understood in this context as an emergence of a grade of life from a lower stage (or “moment”) wherein the latter is preserved in the former.

This way of thinking is strictly antithetical to the Cartesian conception of the two substances (res extensa and res cogitans), which are two alien entities that somehow confront each other and that otherwise share nothing in common with one another. On this model, entities no longer fall under four categories (bodies, living things, animals, humans) but under two: extended substances (bodies, living things, animals) and thinking substances (humans). Hence, the Cartesian tradition perfectly exemplifies what some believe to be an unwarranted conception of “human uniqueness” that Cykowski often talks about, so she is quite correct, after all, in maintaining that a return to the Aristotelian model would provide a remedy in this context, but not by way of shattering hierarchies or abolishing essences, as her study sometimes seems to suggest.

There is an important extent to which Heidegger believes much of modern philosophy to be on the wrong track, and there is some extent to which the early Heidegger believes Aristotle and the phenomenological tradition to provide a remedy (on the condition, of course, that they are correctly interpreted). In my view, this is the background against which we must try to make sense of Heidegger’s attempts to uncover the hidden metaphysical assumptions lying behind much of contemporary philosophy and science. The biggest drawback of Cykowski’s work is the absence of an attempt to articulate this historical background, which she sidesteps to jump directly to a defense of Heidegger who she claims to have been unjustly subjected to a hierarchizing charge by several commentators. However, a sufficient evaluation of this charge would itself demand a more thorough discussion of the question of what, exactly, these hierarchies are and who, exactly, ends up endorsing them, but the demand is not met in the confines of her study.

In the last few pages of her book, Cykowski calls Heidegger “an authority on the concealed danger of metaphysical prejudices” (180) and notes that one of the primary objectives of the lecture course is “to get us to appraise metaphysical principles that are buried in the recesses of contemporary thinking” (188). She concludes that FCM “aims, not at the institution of hierarchical principles, but at the indication of ones to which we are already held fast” (188). In her view, while it is true that Heidegger ascribes to human beings the unique capacity to speak out about physis from within physis, this does not entail that Heidegger is attempting to pursue “the idea of human uniqueness and superiority simply for its own sake” (171). According to Cykowski, FCM still presents us with “a hierarchical picture of things, but it is not one that simplistically celebrates human existence” (186). If we pay attention to the broader context of FCM, she argues, we will come to realize that the contrary is true, that “Heidegger is describing human Dasein as a being that must learn to cope with the fact that its life is not an animal life” (172). If so, the hierarchizing charge levelled at Heidegger is mistaken; it misses the nuances of Heidegger’s reflections on animality.

Despite the complexity of FCM, Cykowski’s discussion of the 1929–30 lectures features a clear prose that remains consistent throughout the work. In general, Heidegger’s Metaphysical Abyss does a good job familiarizing the reader with the scholarship on Heidegger’s reflections on animality and the ways in which he has been criticized by subsequent philosophers. One of the most important virtues of Cykowski’s monograph is that it tries to offer a comprehensive overview of FCM without divorcing the sections on animals from their wider context. Unfortunately, however, Cykowski does not provide us with sufficient textual evidence to support her specific interpretation of this context, in the absence of which she seems to have overstated the extent to which the entire lecture course can be seen as an attempt to uncover the fundamental concepts and the hidden assumptions operative in contemporary philosophy and science. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, Cykowski’s construal of the history of philosophy in terms of the difference between Greek and post-Greek thinkers is somewhat too simplistic; her study would have benefited from a deeper engagement with the history of philosophy, which arguably comprises several different traditions concerning the conceptualization of the order of nature and our place in it.


Brogan, W. A. 1984. “Heidegger’s Interpretation of Aristotle: The Finitude of Being.” Research in Phenomenology 14: 249–58.

Heidegger, M. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by W. McNeill and N. Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kahn, C. H. 2004. “Aristotle versus Descartes on the Concept of the Mental.” In Metaphysics, Soul, and Ethics in Ancient Thought: Themes from the Work of Richard Sorabji. Edited by R. Salles. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weiss, F. G. 1969. Hegel’s Critique of Aristotle’s Philosophy of Mind. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

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