Mahon O’Brien: Heidegger, History and the Holocaust

Heidegger, History and the Holocaust Book Cover Heidegger, History and the Holocaust
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
Mahon O'Brien
Bloomsbury
2017
Paperback £17.99
192

Reviewed by: Gregory Jackson (The National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential figures in 20th century philosophy but also both a member of the National Socialist party and a committed antisemite. That such a controversy would generate a substantial amount of scholarship is not surprising, and yet Mahon O’Brien’s Heidegger, History and the Holocaust attempts to break the trends of the usual works that deal with this highly contentious issue. In O’Brien’s view, the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s philosophy is an emotionally charged debate that fails to truly get to grips with the content of Heidegger’s philosophy. This philosophy is one that he justifiably finds ‘profound’ (4), and yet he has no delusions regarding whether Heidegger was a Nazi or antisemitic. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of taking sides in the debate which in the process eclipses the critical engagement necessary to understand the nature of Heidegger’s commitments to National Socialism and his antisemitism, and the implication of this for his thinking. It is precisely this trap that Heidegger, History and the Holocaust sets out to avoid. In the discussion that follows, however, there are other traps that O’Brien leaves himself vulnerable to.

In the first chapter, ‘Re-assessing the “Affair”’, O’Brien reviews some of the scholarship surrounding Heidegger’s political affiliations in order to explore how the controversy has unfolded. He argues that those who want to dismiss Heidegger’s philosophy on account of his political affiliations (the assumption being that it is intrinsically fascist) betray a kind of ‘victor’s morality’ (12), where the everyday, banal evils and the more overt evils of both the allies and our contemporary world are ignored. O’Brien’s reminder to step back from our own historical world and draw attention to the evils we regularly participate in is not meant to condone the horrific and abysmal acts of the Holocaust. That is, the repugnancy of Nazism is beyond dispute, but O’Brien is pointing out that the people who fought against them were not ‘faultless paragons of virtue’ either (13). This position does risk diminishing the specific horror of the Holocaust, but it is utilized by O’Brien to take on scholars such as Zimmerman who argue that the Holocaust was a singular event belonging to the Germans. On the contrary, O’Brien claims that the Holocaust is a horrific but complex story that extends beyond the borders of Germany. Framing the debate in this way, he is given cause to defend one of the only statements by Heidegger on the Holocaust:

Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving or countries. The same as the production of hydrogen bombs. (as quoted on p. 24)

Dubbed the ‘agriculture remark’, this statement has generated much controversy due to its suggestion that the horrors of the Holocaust are no different than the horrors of the mechanized food industry. This passage, written in context of Heidegger’s confrontation with the essence of technology, is the basis of O’Brien’s second chapter, ‘The Essence of Technology and the Holocaust’. On the surface, it appears as a highly insensitive claim that suggests a lack of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust. On the contrary, however, O’Brien believes that Heidegger’s work on technology should be ‘interpreted as a robust confrontation with the Holocaust’ (23). His strategy here hinges on drawing attention to Heidegger’s use of the word ‘essence’. For the claim that agriculture, the hydrogen bomb, and the Holocaust are the same ‘in essence’ is very different than saying they are identical, morally or otherwise. For Heidegger, the essence of something is ‘what holds sway within it such that it appears as what it is’ (39). This essence, for Heidegger is Gestell, or ‘enframing’, the technological deployment of the meaning of being into which we in the contemporary world are ‘thrown’. That is, Heidegger is trying to tell us something about the way in which things appear for us in our given historical epoch. Thrown into a world of Gestell, humanity succumbs to seeing things as ‘standing reserves’, that is, things (and people) are ‘revealed’ in relation to how efficient and optimized they are for our use. Hence, the specific way in which phenomena in our contemporary world is generally understood—or ‘revealed’ in Heidegger’s language—lends itself to the production of the atom bomb, the mechanized food industry, and, at its worst, atrocities such as the Holocaust.

O’Brien does not only draw from Heidegger, however, but also explores some of the memoirs of Nazi officials. In doing so, we witness the way in which the Jewish people were interpreted by the Nazis as pests to be exterminated. As O’Brien points out, the phrase the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ is particularly telling. This chilling phrasing expresses how ‘the inmates at the camp were revealed […] as practical, logistical problems that could be approached as one would approach an infestation of rodents or vermin within a factory’ (33) [1]. The Heideggerian warning is that in the age of the technological dispensation of being this way of seeing lends itself to the horrors that occurred in Auschwitz. It is O’Brien’s contention that by viewing the Holocaust as a singular event specific to the German people we miss this sinister occurrence of truth that Heidegger diagnoses as part and parcel of our historical world. He thus presents the case that far from being dismissive of the horrific treatment of the marginalized in Nazi Germany, Heidegger offers us an analysis that may not only aid us in preventing the reoccurrence of something so morally repugnant, but also give us the tools to properly resist alternate expressions of its essence in our own time.

For my own part, nonetheless, although O’Brien’s efforts to show the relevance of Heidegger’s diagnoses is thought provoking, the existential gap between a philosophical analysis of essence and the lived suffering of those who were subject to the atrocities of the Nazi regime seems problematic. As I discuss in a footnote above, even the language of ‘reveal’ [zeigen] could serve to further de-humanize the marginalized and eclipse the responsibility of those involved in the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi regime. This, of course, raises the issue of Heidegger’s silence, his refusal to offer a public apology for his support of the regime. O’Brien’s solution to this is to draw our attention to the ‘lose-lose’ (19) situation Heidegger was in. A public apology would be an admission of guilt, which in turn would eclipse the far greater danger Heidegger wanted to warn us of. Perhaps this is a moment where our commitments to an idea can cause one to lose sight of the concrete and particular suffering in the lived experience of an individual. O’Brien’s later discussion of Heidegger’s rather unfavourable character might testify to this lack of empathy (117-124).

Chapter three moves to examine the charge against Heidegger of being a dangerous ideologue, given that critical scholarship often dismisses him on the assumption that he is just another member of the German Conservative Revolutionary Movement. Here O’Brien concedes that Heidegger does borrow some of the ‘motifs’ and ‘symbolism’ (71) of his contemporaries, such as Spengler and Jünger, but he makes a convincing case that philosophically Heidegger is far removed from the reductive and simplistic, and often dangerously racist, views of these intellectual counterparts. Here, we are reminded that identity of terms is not the same as identity in concepts, that is, that just because both Jünger and Heidegger are concerned with the role of technology in our age this does not mean that philosophically their reasons and solutions to this concern are the same. At times, however, I am left wanting for greater critical engagement with why Heidegger chose to express his philosophy through the language of the ideologues of his time, and the significance of this for a thinking which differs philosophically.[2] O’Brien spends the first part of the chapter exploring the criticisms of the likes of Adorno, Bordieu and Zimmerman, showing in what way their issues with Heidegger’s conservatism fail to miss the content and significance of his philosophy. Having done so, O’Brien is free to move on to address some of the problems he sees in Heidegger’s conservatism, for he is aware that there are ‘genuine flaws’ in this ‘onslaught against modernity’ (48).

There is a great surprise lurking in this next part of the chapter. With its strong criticism of ‘will’, it is easy to assume that Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit is born out of his attempts to come to terms with what went wrong during the National Socialist regime in Germany. This concept is also born out of Heidegger attempts to confront the technological view of the meaning of being, and so offers us a potential way out of the force of its Gestell. O’Brien points out, however, that even as late as the 1950s this concept is entrenched in Heidegger’s idea of the ‘authentic rootedness of the people’ (72). Although the case might not be so evident by 1950, in the 30s it is clear that this idea of rootedness had ethnic ramifications, and given that the Black Notebooks show that Heidegger saw the Jewish people as the acme of a calculative thinking and this as a loss of the rootedness in the earth, the seemingly progressive notion of Gelassenheit becomes shrouded in doubt.

In the next chapter, ‘The Authentic Dasein of a People’, O’Brien returns to the roots of Heidegger’s notion of rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) through his analysis of the authentic community in Being and Time. Described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ (77), the author argues that the undeniably racist implications of Heidegger’s understanding of an authentic community rely on a number of arbitrary moves in his thinking. That is, O’Brien makes the case that Heidegger’s shameful prejudices are at odds with his own philosophy. Drawing our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of authentic community in Being and Time, O’Brien argues that in the notions of ‘leaping-in’ and ‘leaping-ahead’ (79) there is the potential for the development in Heidegger’s thought toward the recognition of the universal condition of finitude that is taken up in the particular historical situation one is thrown into. The inauthentic ‘leaping-in’ that Heidegger understands as the customary way we interact with others denies them the recognition of their finitude, whereas ‘leaping-ahead’ allows both individuals to be who they are (as finite beings toward death) in relation to the project at hand. Of course, my use of the word ‘individual’ here is problematic for this discussion rests on Heidegger’s conception of the human being as Dasein, a being which is primarily related to its self, world and others. As far as Heidegger is concerned Dasein is not an individual at all precisely because it is not indivisible from the historical situation it is thrown into and the others it shares this with, until, of course, it faces its finitude in the experience of anxiety-toward-its-own-death. Nonetheless, O’Brien exploits a strange ambiguity in Heidegger’s description of the social constitution of Dasein, where Heidegger rather bizarrely tries to argue that despite this primary social constitution Dasein is also ‘in the first instance’ unrelated to others (80). O’Brien contends that it is this ambiguity in Being and Time that allows Heidegger’s thought go awry in the 1930s. This is because in Being and Time Heidegger ends up, in some fashion at least, privileging the individual that he at the same time shows to be phenomenologically inappropriate. When his understanding of Dasein in the 30s becomes the Dasein of the nation, this privileging of the individual gets taken up as a privileging of a particular nation. Conveniently, this nation is the German one. Heidegger now thinks that Europe lies between the ‘pincers’ of Russia and America, and it is up to the Germans to save it, through a ‘repeat’ and ‘retrieve’ [Wiederholen] of the ‘historical-spiritual Dasein’, a task for the preserve of the Germans as the most metaphysical of people (85-87). Heidegger’s racism is thus not biological but spiritual, and one that O’Brien contends denies the implications in Heidegger’s thought of the shared history I have with others in my ‘cultural and intellectual milieu’ (88), a notion that an appropriate understanding of ‘leaping-ahead’ would have made apparent. Why are the Jewish people of the German nation denied their part in the historical-spiritual destiny of the German people?

O’Brien’s last chapter turns to Heidegger’s racism, and although the author’s use of the poetry of Kavanagh and Heaney gives rise to some of my favourite moments in this short work, it also seems to be the book’s most problematic chapter. It deals with a number of key seminars and works from the 1930s such as Nature, History, State and the Origin of the Work of Art. Major problems lurk in Nature, History, State, where Heidegger begins to conceive of historical Dasein as a Volk, thought of in terms of ‘mastery, rank, leadership and following’, where a Volk proper is only so in relation to the state (102/103). The ambiguity that O’Brien notices in Heidegger’s thought makes a return, however, for Heidegger also points out that wherever humans go we root ourselves in the soil. As such, the spiritual-ethnic chauvinism of Heidegger seems to briefly lift itself. Heidegger has always favoured the provincial, and through drawing on the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh O’Brien offers a compelling case for why this provincialism is not necessarily problematic. He sees in Heaney, for example, an expression of the worlding of the world through a relationship with the earth that Heidegger explores in On the Origin of the Work of Art. These poets explore this tension between the universal and the particular, but give us the means of realizing that through our particular, historical and concrete struggles we are connected to all human beings as others who are thrown into the world and projected toward their end. This is of course the same latent possibility that O’Brien sees in Heidegger’s thought, but because of Heidegger’s insistence of the primacy of the particular over the universal O’Brien believes Heidegger’s thought went astray. People may indeed root themselves wherever they go, but in Heidegger’s account it is those rooted in German soil that are superior. The universal dimension that O’Brien finds in Heaney and Kavanagh is denied in Heidegger’s account of the artwork also, as the artwork is a purely regionally specific occurrence. Given that the work of art allows meaning and truth to emerge for Heidegger, O’Brien asks what the implications are ‘for a people [in this instance, the Jewish people] who are [according to Heidegger] worldless and without history?’ (112) O’Brien does not answer this question, but the implications are obvious and distressing.

Nonetheless, I am left wondering why the implications of this are not discussed in greater detail. Furthermore, there are some troubling moments where it is suggested that Heidegger’s friendship with other Jewish people at least somewhat obscures his commitments to his antisemitism (121, 132)[3]. Of course, dealing with antisemitism, particularly in such an important thinker, is a sensitive and difficult topic. O’Brien’s work is an important contribution to the growing debate around Heidegger’s political and ideological sympathies. However, perhaps O’Brien’s commitments to the resources in Heidegger’s thought that for O’Brien deny racism cause him to underplay at times the devastating role that Heidegger’s racism wreaks on this thinking. For, although Heidegger’s philosophy might on the one hand suggest that we should never deny someone their essence as a thrown projector, this is nonetheless precisely what he ends up denying the Jewish people. We may dismiss this as a personal prejudice that can be separated from his thinking, but this becomes increasingly difficult when, for example, passages of the Black Notebooks claim that ‘World Jewery’ is ‘grounded’ in the very calculative thinking and ensuing worldlessness that Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit attempts to resist.[4] Furthermore, given that O’Brien does a good job of unearthing Heidegger’s specific form of antisemitism, I am left unconvinced that this ‘spiritual’ racism is indicative of the ‘garden variety’ racism (132) that O’Brien charges him with at the end of this work precisely because such a version of racism would seem to be more deeply rooted than the version of biological racism that was more prevalent at the time.[5] That is, Heidegger does not dismiss the Jewish biology as defective as many who bought into the Nazi ideology of the time believed, but instead denies the Jewish person their Dasein. This problematizes one of the central tenets of O’Brien’s case—that Dasein is a universal condition of being human. For this is precisely what Heidegger denies in various works of the 1930’s, such as the Contributions to Philosophy. Here, Dasein is understood as a condition that we must ‘leap’ into, and we now know from the Black Notebooks that this is a possibility that for Heidegger is unavailable to the Jewish people. The troubling implications of this is not brought to the level of critical scrutiny that O’Brien shows himself capable of at other moments in this work. The sentiment that we are left with, however, is that through a proper and critical engagement with his thinking we are not de facto led to a racist ideology, although there is no doubt that Heidegger himself insists that his philosophy and politics are intertwined at some fundamental level. Thus, O’Brien’s study successfully makes the case that Heidegger’s attempt to reconcile the two is problematic.

We must not forget, however, that despite the problems in doing so Heidegger did try to reconcile the two. We can, if we wish, dismiss this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy, but it is nonetheless a part of its legacy. I welcome O’Brien’s attempt toward a reconstruction of Heidegger’s philosophy. His project, one of critically engaging Heideggerian discourse through delicacy, warranted suspicion, but a certain amount of good will, is bound to bear fruit for Heideggerian scholarship. But I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that despite setting out to do otherwise there is an attempt in this work to find a sanitized Heidegger, as if his revolting prejudices can be weeded out of his philosophy. There is only one Heidegger, and his philosophy will (and should) continue to inspire, provoke, and propel thinking. But the man himself was an ethnic chauvinist and an antisemite, and his attempts to reconcile his philosophy with his prejudices have stained the possibilities of his thought.


[1]His emphasis. It is important to note that ‘revealed’ is not meant to invoke some sort of ‘true’ (in the usual sense of the term) reality coming to appearance, but simply the way in which the appearance is at a given time. In this view, the appearance gets its stability from a given historical movement of ‘truth’ (in Heidegger’s sense of the term), but this truth is not guaranteed or grounded by any transcendent source, such as a God, for example. As such, to say the Jewish people were ‘revealed’ as ‘pests to be exterminated’ is not meant to suggest that this revealing shows anything intrinsic (or truthful, in the usual sense of the term) about Jewishness. Instead, it is meant to suggest something highly problematic about the way in which the world reveals itself to us in our contemporary historical world, where things ‘show up’ as ‘standing reserves’ to be made efficient and optimized. Although phenomenologically justifiable, that the language used to express this (i.e. how the world ‘reveals’ itself) could be utilized to avoid responsibility is not brought under critical scrutiny in this work. That is, Heidegger, or O’Brien’s defence of his position here, has the potential to be used to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime by arguing that it was simply the way the world was revealed to them at the time and, as such, one bears little responsibility for the horrors committed. Although this is certainly not what O’Brien intends it is a problematic worth drawing attention to.

[2]O’Brien’s discussion in a later chapter of Heidegger’s appropriation of the term Volk touches on this problem somewhat (98-105).

[3]In the first of these instances, O’Brien is quoting Hugo Ott. The second is his own, but afterwards he concedes ‘And yet […] he once insisted that there was indeed a dangerous international alliance of Jews, a belief which he expresses again in his notebooks from the 1930s.’ Although both these instances are not central to his argument, it is a dangerous and distasteful defence to bring into play.

[4]Cf., for example, GA 95: 97 (Überlegungen VIII, 5), trans. by Richard Polt in ‘References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938-1948’, available at https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [last accessed 05/04/2017 at 15:39].

[5]One assumes that what O’Brien means by this is that Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his ‘garden-variety’ racism with his philosophy, one that could not so easily accept the prevalent ‘blood and soil’ ideology at the time, causes him to develop the ‘spiritual racism’ in his thinking that O’Brien does a decent job of unearthing. The problem is that this spiritual racism seems to me to be a far more profound and dangerous form of antisemitism than the more prevalent form of its time, and it is precisely the intellectuals of the era that gave credence to the horrific and base forms of prejudice (leading to the Holocaust) that were occurring, whether their versions of antisemitism or otherwise were aptly understood by the populace. As such, to dismiss Heidegger’s antisemitism as simply a ‘garden-variety’ gone astray comes too close to a Heideggerian apologetics for my taste. If we then accept that the version of antisemitism that Heidegger seems to have developed is deeply troubling, and perhaps more so than other variations of antisemitism, then an earlier defence O’Brien offers, that Heidegger criticized the philosophy of the German Conservative Revolutionary movement for its misappropriation of Nietzsche (66), becomes deeply troubling, for it is precisely this disagreement with their lack of philosophical insight and depth that leads him to develop a more profound form of antisemitism, one that he at least believed to be concurrent with his philosophical thought.

Martin Heidegger: Ponderings II-VI. Black Notebooks 1931–19388

Ponderings II–VI. Black Notebooks 1931–1938 Book Cover Ponderings II–VI. Black Notebooks 1931–1938
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz
Indiana University Press
2016
Hardcover $60.00
400

Reviewed by: Gregory Jackson (The National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

Presented with the first instalment of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks I find myself wondering less about the specific entries throughout the book but, first, how to read them. How do we read these Überlegungen, translated here somewhat obscurely as Ponderings, numbers II through VI of Heidegger’s black clothed notebooks from 1931-38. Given that they are aptly considered an ‘idea diary’ (p. 384) by editor Peter Trawney, surely they are not quite of the same status as Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, a collection of private notes that are taken to radically break with his earlier work. Although this instalment encompass the years in which Heidegger’s thought goes about a Kehre, or ‘turn’, the exact nature and significance of this is still widely contested by scholarship. Are they, then, akin to Nietzsche’s The Will to Power? A collection of his notes meant for a specific work that never got written, his attempts to re-evaluate all values. The entire Black Notebooks series, we are told in the translators introduction, will comprise a total of nine volumes (p. vii), which will bring us right up to 1970, and assumingly up until Heidegger’s death in ‘76. After scholarship has had time to engage with and unpack this first instalment of the Black Notebooks, might they be taken as his preparation for such works as 1938’s Contributions to Philosophy? And the Contributions likewise as The Will to Power Nietzsche hoped to write before his unfortunate breakdown in 1889. In the end though, it seems that the attempt to compare the very different notebooks of the great minds of Western philosophy is already a bad start. On the opening pages it is written ‘[t]he entries in the black notebooks: are at their core attempts as simple designations—not statements or even sketches for a planned system.’[1] So much for a strategy of reading! Perhaps the Black Notebooks need to be read on their own terms. Those of you familiar with the controversy surrounding these notebooks, however, will know that it is not that simple.

Within these ‘simple designations’ Heidegger deals with a diverse range of issues, but the most notable of which has already garnered much attention since before the publication of this work as volume 94 of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe. For it seems that the entirety of the Black Notebooks series have already been framed for us when some extremely problematic passages from later volumes got leaked just before the publication of this volume. It is true that these passages need serious attention. That Heidegger defended some form of anti-Semitism is certainly evident and his specific kind of anti-Semitism needs engaging with, interpretation and damning. Due to this evidence, it is understandable that these 10 or so pages have become in its reception the dissonant heart of the entire collection of the Black Notebooks. Let me clarify; we should never ignore these passages and they need to be taken absolutely seriously. Should they frame, however, the entirety of a collection of notes that go from philosophical to personal[2] and sometimes even silly and self-aggrendizing.[3] Not to mention that Heidegger is not just an anti-Semite but, in this volume at least, anti everything; as the Christians, the Bolsheviks, Europe, the National Socialist movement, philosophy itself and even his own work all come under attack at different points in this text.[4]

It seems that perhaps we are already too late for the Black Notebooks have been framed and nailed on the wall. See the only quotation at the back of the book by the New York Review of Books which speaks to this; ‘they will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy’. Heidegger already cast this dark shadow by being an active member of one of the most atrocious regimes of the 20th century, and although it is evident that he both philosophically and politically withdrew from the National Socialist Party he once saw much promise in, anyone engaging with Heidegger today would be foolish to not always consider and be wary of his political history. One contribution of this book to Heideggerean scholarship, political philosophy and beyond is to serve as a testament and reminder of to what extent thought can go awry for a brilliant thinker who should have had foresight beyond what his political affiliations suggested and what the Black Notebooks series are set to prove beyond doubt. All the more pressingly relevant with the contemporary upsurge of far right nationalist groups throughout Europe and beyond, whilst the universities are increasingly squeezed of resources that promote thinking and creativity and instead forced to accumulate profit at the hands of a neoliberal agenda that demands “qualified” experts over people who can really think. That Heidegger both saw this process occurring long before it had taken hold in its contemporary form, and yet saw hope in the Reichsuniversität (p. 86), suggests the impetus for reflection and dialogue on this crucial issue all the more.

However, this book review shies away from the anti-Semitism throughout these volumes. Partly because apart from some criticisms of the Judeo-Christian worldview (p. 345) Heidegger is silent on ‘international Jewry’ (GA FSE96: 133) in this first instalment (which is not to say he is short of praise for the ‘Führer’ (p. 81)), but also because other reviews have focussed on this matter and there are many books and collections to come that will deal with Heidegger’s anti-Semiticism with far more grace than is available to me here.[5] Instead, I would like to focus on some other themes that are developed throughout Ponderings II-VI, as another contribution of this book is the glimpse it gives into a different side of Heidegger. Thoughts that are less edited, often more convoluted and dense, but sometimes strangely lucid and direct (see p. 177 where Heidegger attempts to describe the sort of relationship mankind could have with the gods). At a time that Babiche has called the search for the new Heidegger, the Black Notebooks could prove invaluable in the next stage of Heideggerean scholarship. Regardless, we should always proceed with caution.

Sheehanites, for example, will jump for joy with such passages as 189 in the first book ‘Intimations x Ponderings (II) and Directives’ (a book that begins October 1931)

‘Whither the human being throws himself adrift, there he unfolds the pre-sentiment of his directionality, and “there” the “there” arises, the originary open spaciousness and thence also space. Through this space is thrown the swing of time­­—the world forms itself “in” space-time {?}.—herein the partitioning [Zerklüftung] essentially occurs.’ (p. 59)

And later, in 1934/5 (book IV), Heidegger tells us that ‘the essence of truth unfolds only as Da-sein’ (p. 196). Indeed we are even told that ‘the essential occurrence of being [is] as the ineluctability [Unumgänglichkeit] of Da-sein’ (p. 183), keeping in mind however his hesitance in claiming what exactly Dasein is (ibid). As such, he affirms in the same period that the ‘basic position’ of his philosophy is one ‘aiming at a “Philosophy of Da-sein”’. Note, however, his quotation marks and emphasis, which serves to highlight his clarification that he is not an existentialist, as Da-sein ‘is determined only on the basis of the question of the truth of being.’ (p. 206) So those on the other side of this ongoing debate who want to see Being (capital B) remain the focus of Heideggerean scholarships, ready your references to passage 229 of book IV, where Heidegger says ‘the mystery is the source of that truth which guarantees us the great breadth of the affiliation to beyng and makes the inexhaustible into a gift.’ (p. 202)[6] We will (re)-discover, of course, that any attempt to get to the core of Heidegger’s thinking always sends us astray. Those caught up in the feud between Sheehan and Capobianco might take clarity from passage 150 of book II, where Heidegger seems to address precisely this tension between mankind and being; ‘no matter whether being was referred back to humans (sheer subjectivizing of the understanding of being) or whether humans as beings among others were placed under being. In either case, the possible existential essence of mankind—empowering swing into the happening of being—does not get liberated’ (p. 43). Perhaps we should all heed Babiche’s call to stop looking for the new Heidegger and to start thinking.[7]

Relevant to this ongoing discussion is the equation of ‘Da-sein’ with ‘human’, which the notebooks show to be thoroughly incorrect. Take a passage very early on, the 7th entry of book II, the first book that we have (the first one, ‘Intimations x Ponderings (I)’ has ‘uncertain’ whereabouts (p. 385)), ‘mankind believes it must do something with itself­—and does not understand that Da-sein has already done something with it (beginning of philosophy)—from which mankind fled long ago’ (p. 7). We already knew from such texts as the Contributions that for Heidegger Da-sein became a way of being that he hoped mankind could ‘leap’ into (he affirms this throughout this book also, e.g. p. 183), and it is precisely this hope for liberation that caught my eye. A clear trope running throughout these notes is Heidegger’s wishes for such liberation in the form of revolution. In fact, and indeed echoing the troubling political landscape at the time, Heidegger calls many times for such a revolution [Umwälzung]. A revolution that would come through a meditation on truth, and indeed only by first preparing such a meditation (p. 218). A revolution, therefore, that we might call ontological in nature. Take passage 172 of book IV, ‘[t]he revolution to Da-Sein as effectuation [Erwirkung] of the truth of being—my one and only volition’ (p. 190). The access to the question of the truth of beyng—‘to the abyss­’—however, is ‘not open’ (p. 212). We get insight, then, into the apocalyptic mood of such texts as the Contributions, as everything has become ‘common’ and ‘small’, indeed ‘ordinary’ (p. 199), Nietzsche’s ‘“last human being” is raging through Europe’ (p. 175), and this desperate state of affairs can only be saved at the hands of the transitional ones, the Zarathustrian down goers (p. 220), and the space for their ‘creative decisions’ must be prepared for (to which a chorus of Heideggereans respond; let it be me, master). We already know from Heidegger’s lecture courses that this necessitates a grasping of truth beyond its common propositional form; as he says early on in these “ponderings”; ‘[t]he Essence of truth must first be transformed and must be transposed into a new sharpness and hardness so that beings may find admittance. To admit beings—let them through “through” Da-Sein. Ambiguity of the “through”’ (p. 9).

Indeed we might find this ‘ambiguity’ as a running theme throughout Heidegger’s entire oeuvre, whether it be Being and Time’s existential analytic of Dasein or the later works Lichtung, etc., Heidegger was constantly attempting to thoughtfully speak about the place where being happens. Such is why we find throughout Ponderings II-VI Heidegger’s criticisms of his earlier attempts at this, even if some of these criticisms are in the form of criticising how the book had been received and interpreted. By 1932, Heidegger describes his earlier work as ‘alien’ to him (p. 15), but later complains about the impatience for the publications of the never released second volume of Being and Time: ‘I [Heidegger] am waiting for this waiting to cease and for people to finally confront the first volume’ (p. 135). In the end, it is a book he has to write ‘again and again’ for there is no ‘other tasks in philosophy besides the question posed there—even if at first only partially worked out’ (p. 17). Perhaps Heidegger’s statement in the authors preface to the 7th edition of Being and Time—that the first volume would have to be written anew if the second was ever to be written—was already underway, time and time again; way’s, not works. As he concludes this author’s preface, ‘the road it has taken remains even today a necessary one, if our Dasein is to be stirred by the question of Being’. What we witness throughout this first instalment of Heidegger’s notes is his constant dedication to awaken humanity to the disaster he felt awaited us by providing the philosophical leeway to aid ‘those to come’ to manoeuvre us out of disasters reach. Although it is difficult to deny the self-importance this suggests, and indeed there are no shortage of passages that reveal Heidegger’s arrogance, moments of self-doubt and (semi)-humbleness occasionally surface. Take, for example, where Heidegger questions the basis of his own project ‘[w]hat beyng “means” no one knows. Can we at all know it? And if yes, should we know it? And if yes to that, how must it become knowable?’ (p. 160) Such humbleness, however, is short lived for assumingly Heidegger had already answered yes to the first two of these three questions, and spent his philosophical career trying to deal with third. Instead, what we generally find is an arrogance cloaked in the image of a humble thinker. Take this passage, which both affirms his finitude and yet hints at his own greatness at the same time: ‘[t]he strength of a work is measured by the extent to which it refutes its creator—i.e., grounds something altogether different than that on which its creator himself stood and had to stand.’ (p.318) Such is why Heidegger felt Being and Time never brought him his ‘Great enemy’ [he capitalises the G] (p. 8), for its only effect is to have increased ‘prattle about “being”’ (p. 9). In the end it is Heidegger himself, in his own view at least, who takes Being and Time on as the ‘sharpest opponent’ (p. 52), for although a failed work its intentions can still be effectuated (p. 28).[9] One is left wondering what he may have thought of thinkers like Derrida and Levinas, who in many respects thought from out of the grounds of Heidegger’s thinking and creatively developed its insights toward different ends and other possibilities.

Part of Heidegger’s ‘way’, however, was the movement a-way from the kind of thinking that encompasses Being and Time and into the poetic disposition of his later works. One notable passage is when he claims that the grounding of Da-sein through thinking and poetry ‘overcomes the question of possibility’, for possibility as a question, or so he claims, ‘is the last implementation of mathematical thinking […] which in turn is the result of the collapse of ἀλήθεια’ (pg. 164). Given the important place the notion of possibility holds in works such as Being and Time this again raises the question of what sort of development occurs in Heidegger’s thinking after and throughout the 1930’s, and what it implies for the thinking of the Being and Time era and beyond. His 1935 lecture The Origin of the Work of Art, for example, will surely need fresh interpretation when Heidegger thinks of Dasein ‘as the contention of the strife between world and earth’ (p. 242). For me, one of the more exciting moments in the book is the first major reflection Heidegger has on art that look like the result of an insightful burst of creative inspiration. These passages come from 1931/2 and yet they offer us a glimpse into themes that come to dominate Heidegger’s work thereafter. He imagines the possibility of a philosophy that addresses Dasein through the ‘poetry of being’, realizing that because beings ‘[burst] forth of being in the packings of its poetry’, poets must poetize being also. Heidegger then climaxes with an obscure claim that this will lead to that which ‘cor-responds to the poetized’, which will thus manifest itself ‘for the first time’. He finishes this line of thought off with a cryptic symbol that we are told is that which we go ‘into’ in the asking of the question of being, and is born of silence.[10] ‘First thoroughly fathom the silence’, he tells himself, ‘in order to learn what may be said and must be said’ (pp. 12/13).[11] These musings of the passage from what Heidegger dubbed ‘the first’ to the ‘other beginning’, and the importance of poetry and the arts therein, occupied Heidegger’s thoughts throughout the rest of his life. It is informative, but also interesting and at times inspiring, to be privy to early stages of these definitive strands in Heidegger’s later thinking, cryptic symbols and all.

Finally, a word on translation. Rojcewics is already known as the co-translator of the (generally considered) superior version of Contributions to Philosophy, alongside Daniela Vallega-Neu. Asides from the fact that as Heidegger himself knew every translation is an interpretation, the difficulty that any translator of a work by Heidegger faces must be immense. Regardless, Rojcewics continues with the excellent work we have seen previous. I welcome the continued rendering of Sein/Seyn as being/beyng respectively. Speaking from my own ‘encounter’ with Heidegger at least, the traditional use of capital B ‘Being’ impinged on my ability to fruitfully interpret Heidegger’s project for too long a time, and overtones of a substantial Being over and against beings still creeps itself into my own interpretative work of Heidegger’s texts. As Richard Polt has already pointed out, Ponderings as a translation for Überlegungen gives the book a pretentious overtone that the German lacks (in title, at least). Although Ponderings perhaps gives a general lackluster feel that is relevant to the books ‘idea diary’ constitution, I think ‘Considerations’ may have been a more fortunate rendering here. I also commend Thomas Sheehan calling out the ‘scandal’ of Heideggerean scholarship that generally leaves Dasein untranslated, and Rojcewics continues that trend here.[12] However, this scandal remains unanswered for good reason, and although Sheehan offers scholarship a timely challenge (one which I’m not convinced his preferred ‘openedness’ answers), I don’t hold Rojcewics accountable for failing to take up that challenge. Occasionally, I find myself checking in dictionaries both the English words and the German counterparts to make sure I’m making sense of a passage to my best abilities, and generally discovering the translation makes sense. In some instances, there is even improvement to previous translations. For example, in a quotation I provided above Zerklüftung has been translated as ‘partitioning’, which I prefer to the Contributions ‘fissures’. Words like Erwirkung, rendered here as the awkward ‘effectuation’, could have been translated to the far more readable ‘bringing about’ but might then gain a connotation different than what is likely to have been Heidegger’s intent in the original (see especially p. 190). Although I would have liked to have seen more instances of the german word inserted alongside the english (all german insertions in this review are my own), over all I have not yet found a translation choice of Rojcewics’ preposterous and even when I did disagree I could see the sense of the difficult decisions he must have had to make time and time again.


[1]Which the ‘Editors Afterward’ claims comes from around 1970 (p. 383). Emphasis in original. For the purposes of this book review, all emphasis in quotations are from the original text, and as I complain about later, all german insertions are my own.

[2]For example, Heidegger reflecting on his mother (p. 232).

[3]I am thinking here specifically of p. 200 where Heidegger wonders about the significance of having two g’s in his name, and concludes that it must be because he recognises what constantly matters through benevolance [Güte] and patience [Geduld]. Which reminds me of another entry: ‘Pride­— […] it is the certainty of no longer confusing oneself with something else’ (p. 195).

[4]Examples include, but in no way exhaust, p. 15, 57, 136, 137, 144, 162, 172, 239, 343. Notably, pp. 145/146, the closing statement of ‘Ponderings III’, where through a criticism of his own The Self-Assertion of the German University Heidegger offers even harsher criticisms of both natural and human sciences, medicine, theology and the universities. The problem, it seems from this passage at least, was not that he was entirely wrong in his criticism, but that he didn’t take his concerns seriously enough.

[5]See the review of the same book by Richard Polt: http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/67567-ponderings-ii-vi-black-notebooks-1931-1938/ [last accessed 11/08/16]. See also his translations of all anti-Semitic passages throughout the available Black Notebooks, of which only the first volume (GA94) has been translated: https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [last accessed 11/08/16].

[6]And of course the numerous other passages in both this book and other works by Heidegger that suggest the cor-relation between Da-Sein and Sein eg. p. 52, 85, 245, 205. I draw you’re attention, however, to p. 253 where Heidegger says ‘the essence of beyng needs humans. In questioning this relation, the essential occurrence of beyng is determined for the first time as the event and the human being is determined as Da-sein […] the relation [between beyng and Dasein] is the essential occurrence of beyng itself as event’. It seems to me that there is lucrative potential for interpretation in this passage for both sides of the debate

[7]See her article ‘The ‘New’ Heidegger’ in Articles and Chapters in Academic Book Collections, Paper 65, available at http://fordham.bepress.com/phil_babich/65/ [last accessed 11/08/16].

[8]Although this passage does not explicitly state what he means by what Being and Time ‘intended’, I take it to mean that at this stage Heidegger understood its intentions as the ‘revolution’ discussed above. In Being and Time this was about raising the question of the meaning of being (for the first time since Parmenides, according to Heidegger on p. 8).

[9]An editors insertion informs us that this symbol is ‘unfamiliar’, but given that it is used by Heidegger at other points throughout the work it will be interesting to see if any sense is made of it in the ensuing scholarship

[10]This specific stream of thought seem to be picked up again at number 56/57, and his thoughts on art, Hölderlin, poetry, etc., continue throughout the book.

[11]Cf. Thomas Sheehan’s hilarious and insightful, A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research, p. 193. Available at http://religiousstudies.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/13-2001-A-PARADIGM-SHIFT-IN-HEIDEGGER-RESEARCH.pdf [last accessed 11/08/16]