Frank Schalow: Heidegger’s Ecological Turn

Heidegger’s Ecological Turn: Community and Practice for Future Generations Book Cover Heidegger’s Ecological Turn: Community and Practice for Future Generations
Routledge Studies in Twentieth-Century Philosophy
Frank Schalow
Hardback GBP £120.00

Reviewed by: Davide Pilotto (Sorbonne Université – Università del Salento)

The aim of Frank Schalow’s book is to offer a valid alternative to all those political readings of Martin Heidegger that, from Farías (1989) to Faye (2009), from Trawny-Mitchell (2017) to Di Cesare (2018), focus their analysis on the relationship of the author of Sein und Zeit to Nazism or, more recently, on the disruptive impact of the Black Notebooks on Heidegger’s Denkweg. “Yes, Heidegger was a Nazi, not a very important Nazi, just an ordinary one, a provincial petit-bourgeois Nazi”, wrote Alain Badiou, adding however that, “Yes, Heidegger is unquestionably one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century” (Badiou-Cassin, 2014: 14). Schalow’s work thus seems to adhere to such a thesis, explicitly aiming to open up a new path of thought that attempts to draw on Heideggerian conceptual tools without necessarily running into the outcomes mentioned above. The author’s aim, made clear since the preface, is in fact to “elicit new pathways of thinking that begin to reappear from the shadows of the most poignant criticisms,” using Heideggerian writings “as harboring untapped possibilities for future interpretation” (Schalow, 2022: IX).

Schalow is aware of how his work – and perhaps this is one of its merits – goes against the current with respect to his contemporaries. In a framework in which “most of the scholarly terrain is overgrown with numerous books, which proceed from the same premise of condemnation and foreclose other attempts to re-open what remains ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 10), he tries in full awareness to open the way to a different operation. Going against the tide of the “vitriolic climate” (Schalow, 2022: 1) in which current Heideggerian studies move, the question, a direct consequence of Badiou’s remark just mentioned, is therefore the following: “How do we stand towards Heidegger’s thinking?” (Schalow, 2022: 1). Can Heideggerian thought still have something to give us? The answer, for the author, is positive: “We cannot preclude the possibility of appropriating Heidegger’s texts in a positive way, in order to elicit insights that withdraw within the subterranean recesses of what is ‘unsaid’ and ‘unthought’” (Schalow, 2022: 6-7).

A necessary consequence of this perspective is the awareness that Schalow’s work proposes itself as an original interpretation of Heideggerian work, explicitly taking on what is “an unconventional way to ‘read’ Heidegger” (Schalow 2022: 7). Drawing on multiple places in his Denkweg, in a theoretical operation that denotes an excellent command of the author, his complexity and his traditional periodizations, Schalow establishes, over the course of five chapters, a reinterpretation of how Heideggerian work can provide the conceptual tools for the development of a new, non-anthropocentric ethics that, by leveraging the notions of dwelling and stewardship, gives rise to a new conception of the political that can cope with the current environmental crisis. Defining the question of the political as “the open-ended question of the origin of law, to its enactment as a measure rooted in the ethos (of dwelling) and the re-inscribing of a language to address the elements of the polis according to formally indicative concepts which underscore our capacity to be free (e.g., by ‘letting-be’), albeit as finite human beings” (Schalow, 2022: X), the author, analyzing Heidegger’s work, wonders whether this does not offer the theoretical tools necessary to answer the following question: “Is it possible to create a space for the polis, which through our capacity to dwell (on the earth) engenders openness outside the dominant paradigm of technocratic rule?” (Schalow, 2022: 2). Beginning with some insights we find in Heidegger’s Letter on “Humanism”, we read that “thinking builds upon the house of Being, the house in which the jointure of Being, in its destinal unfolding, enjoins the essence of the human being to dwell in the truth of Being”, and that, for this reason, “this dwelling is the essence of ‘being-in-the-world’” (Heidegger, 1998: 272). Schalow intends to follow up on Heideggerian statements such as the thesis that “nómos is not only law but more originally the assignment contained in the dispensation of Being”, and consequently “only the assignment is capable of dispatching man into Being”, in the conviction that “more essential than instituting rules is that human beings find the way to their abode in the truth of Being” (Heidegger, 1998: 274). If Heidegger writes that “one day we will, by thinking the essence of Being in a way appropriate to its matter, more readily be able to think what ‘house’ and ‘dwelling’ are” (Heidegger, 1998; 272), Schalow intends to pursue this suggestion. On this bases, he illustrates how “the development of a community must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: XI), giving rise to a socio-biotic community such as to respond positively to the challenge to which we are called by today’s environmental crisis. The intent, very concrete, is to outline the tracks of “a new nexus of political engagement”, to allow that “the fissure of Heidegger’s thinking (of being) opens the ‘other’ side of praxis” (Schalow, 2022: XIII). The purpose of Schalow’s work thus goes in a pragmatic direction, towards the delineation of a praxis that results in the necessary redefinition of our relationship with the world – in other words, “are we to continue using and exploiting the earth only as a resource, or are we to safeguard the earth as a place of dwelling?” (Schalow, 2022: 5).

It is clearly a matter, as already remarked, of taking Heidegger beyond his limits. It is evident, first of all, as Schalow himself acknowledges, that “his [Heidegger’s] understanding of the political remains limited” (Schalow, 2022: XII), just as it is trivially obvious that “Heidegger did not address specifically ‘climate change’, the ‘greenhouse effect’, ‘global warming’, and the ruptures in the ecosystem from which the virus (or other pathogens) of pandemics may arise” (Schalow, 2022: XII). The intent, however, is precisely to focus on das Ungedachte, on the unthought of Heideggerian thought, thus amplifying some elements that, starting from the aforementioned passages of the Letter on “Humanism”, allow Schalow to argue that, “put simply, in the overturning and subversion of anthropocentricism, we see the beginnings of what we today would call an ‘ecological turn’” (Schalow, 2022: XII).

The first chapter (Seeking New Guidelines for Interpretation, pp. 12-39) serves as a necessary methodological premise to justify the reappropriation of Martin Heidegger’s thought for the purposes previously indicated. Deepening the dialogue with Kant around which the 1928 course entitled Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is centered, Schalow, moving from the metontology that here arises, outlines a “new topography” from which to question the political without slipping into that “‘monological reductionism’ that falsely equates his philosophy with Nazi ideology” (Schalow, 2022: 13-14). Heidegger, through “his ‘destruction’ of Kant” (Schalow, 2022: 21), arrives at “unraveling the presuppositions on which the metaphysical tradition rests”, presuppositions that, “beginning with the static conception of being as permanent presence, lay the sediments of tradition, which erects rigid metaphysical dichotomies”, thus laying the foundations for “the attempt to undo each of these metaphysical dualisms” (Schalow, 2022: 18). The Kantian dichotomy between freedom and nature, in particular, is subverted by Heidegger through our connection to the earth, with the author of Sein und Zeit explicitly writing that “the problem of freedom arises from and as the problem of world” (Heidegger, 2002: 145), allowing Schalow to express the crux of the matter by arguing that “Heidegger relocates the origin of freedom in Dasein’s way of belonging to and reciprocal responsiveness to being” (Schalow, 2022: 24). What emerges is our role, an affinity with the ecological framework in the guise of “earthbound creatures”, as Schalow points out, referring to Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 1992: 27). Cartesian dualism is overturned through the reference to our belonging to the earth, in turn made possible by the changed conceptual framework within which, instead of the dichotomy between subject and object, Heidegger replaces the notion of Dasein with its in-der-Welt-sein. Human freedom comes then to make its own deeper roots, anchoring itself directly in Being and in its relationship with Being and giving rise to the centrality of the notion of ‘responsiveness’, which Schalow defines as “the fostering of a reciprocal relationship with what is radically other, as conferred by being, rather than as a power discharged by an exclusively human capability such as the will” (Schalow, 2022: 29), from which it follows that “this act of reciprocating, then, defines the first and foremost overture or primarily gesture of freedom” (Schalow, 2022: 30). It is evident where Heidegger, in Schalow’s reading, is going to aim when it comes to the ethical and practical side: “Human freedom now no longer means freedom as a property of man, but man as a possibility of freedom” (Heidegger, 2002: 94).

The second chapter (A New Leaping-Off Place for Ethical Inquiry, pp. 40-66) develops the peculiar proprietorial relation to Being that emerges from the belonging of Dasein to Being mentioned above. In the light of that overcoming of anthropocentrism inherent in the Kehre, which, as mentioned, Schalow interprets as “the vestiges of an ecological turn (if only in retrospect he may be considered a proto-ecologist)” (Schalow, 2022: 41), the author of the text wonders what role is now concretely due to the ‘subject’ of his discourse, answering with reference to the notions of stewardship or guardianship as diriment models to outline the practical guidelines of living. As we have seen, for Heidegger, in spite of Kantian ethics and its opposition between freedom and nature, it happens that “the presencing of nature reserves to animals their own potential for flourishing”, and that “it is the source of that flourishing, or what is ownmost or endemic to it, which turns the pendulum of his ethical inquiry in an ecological direction, namely, the allocation of a habitat (requisite for the livelihood of any animal)”. Switching to a Heideggerian lexicon, this means that, “ontologically speaking, the earth provides the grounding for any such habitats, and, indeed, in connection with our capacity for dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 44). It is as a consequence of such dwelling that a more original ethics, which Schalow calls the “ethos of situated dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 43) can finally develop and which the author addresses in relation to the possibility of a socio-biotic community and with reference to future generations. The mirroring of ethics and politics is the consequence of all this. In this sense, “the political must be addressed anew through the development of that site – in connection with the unconcealment of being – through which Dasein’s capacity to dwell first becomes apparent, namely, the ethos” (Schalow, 2022: 51). In this sense, “to do so is to allow the possibility of the ethos of dwelling to inform the political, rather than vice versa” (Schalow, 2022: 51). Through his analysis of the notion of measure and of the difference of readings of history between Heidegger and Marx, Schalow answers the question related to “how to rediscover the origin of praxis outside the self-contained sphere of human identity, […] that is, a form of pure (self-)presence” (Schalow, 2022: 59) through the proprietorial relation between being and man, with stewardship assuming the role of “the highest level of formality that is emblematic of specific instances for exercising care over beings, i.e., in our comportments in being-in-the-world” (Schalow, 2022: 60). The thesis proposed is therefore that of dwelling as a fundamental notion to justify our role on earth and consequently the political implication that derives from it. For Schalow, in short, “dwelling has the key perquisite for the enactment of any governance of the polis” (Schalow, 2022: 64), consistent with the Heideggerian statement that “mortals dwell in that they save the earth” (Heidegger, 1971a: 148). The determination of the new role of the politician can only pass through this constitutive bond of ours with the earth.

The third chapter (The Global Stage of Politics and the Return to the Earth, pp. 67-84) considers “the assimilation of the political to the ends of techno-capitalism”, which “unleashes the forces of machination on a global state, assimilating all human activities to the cycle of production and consumption” (Schalow, 2022: 67), showing how an appeal to Heidegger allows one to disengage from such a reading of the political. Through a comparison with the Heideggerian overcoming of the Marxist vision of history, Schalow comes to argue that “the phenomenological maxim ‘back to the things itself’ reverberates anew as a call to a ‘return to the earth’”, thus outlining “an eco-phenomenology, or alternatively, a phenomenology that speaks of a ‘return to the earth’”, which stands as “a form of attunement, an environmental ‘listening’ to nature and its diverse habitats” (Schalow, 2022: 68).

The fourth chapter (Temporality, Freedom, and Place, pp. 85-132) focuses on two crucial themes. On the one hand, the “deconstruction of modern politics as legitimizing the anthropocentric ends of domination, exploitation”, and, on the other, “the emergence of a trans-human perspective of freedom as a countermeasure to the assimilation of the political to the gestalt of machination” (Schalow, 2022: 86), both of which are necessary in view of the ecological turn mentioned above. As a consequence of Dasein’s peculiar relationship with freedom, already outlined in the first chapter, there is a shift of the axis of the political in a non-anthropocentric direction, in which governance must be built on the observation of our constitutive being-with-others. Schalow therefore identifies “three corollaries that comprise the ‘pillars of the polis,’ namely, the elements for its construction on a trans-human axis of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 87): the reciprocity of freedom (pp. 100-109), the people of future generations (pp. 109-118) and the epochal character of a measure (pp. 118-129). It is clear, however, that if “the polis brings to fruition, as a distinctive historical act, the challenge posed to man to fulfill the mandate of belonging to being and thereby build a political realm that is anchored in humanity’s capacity to dwell” (Schalow, 2022: 92), the reconfiguration of the political can only start from an analysis of this notion, central to delineating the dwelling and consequently a trans-human community. The thesis advanced is that leaving the technocratic rules prevailing today, the authentic notion of polis finds a new reconfiguration: “Being is not to be determined via the authoritarian rule of the polis”, but, on the contrary, it now means that “to re-establish the polis is to seek its origin in compliance with a new ‘measure’, which can counterbalance human and animal interests, the claim of future generations and the task of safeguarding the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 129). In this way, therefore, the polis manages to be anchored to human dwelling.

The fifth chapter (The Turn Toward Stewardship. Is a Socio-Biotic Community Possible?, pp. 133-184) extends what emerged in the previous chapter to a collective dimension, namely the possibility of belonging to a socio-biotic community, since “the stewardship by which we inhabit the earth calls into question the priorities of any (world-) citizenship, such that the development of a community (das Gemeinwesen) through the grounding of a site must be forged at the juncture between the human and the non-human” (Schalow, 2022: 134). With reference also to topical elements, such as the Covid-19 pandemic (p. 137) or the racial divisions in the U.S. (p. 147-150), Schalow focuses on that “further social-political dimension as the flipside to the responsiveness, the responsibility, by which mortals become answerable to or heed the voice of being” (Schalow, 2022: 137), a necessary consequence of that “counter resonance of the earth, nature, and animal life” (Schalow, 2022: 138) that has emerged since the first chapter. Schalow argues that “environmental practice is intrinsic to dwelling […] not as a value, but rather as an extension of freedom as ‘letting-be’” (Schalow, 2022: 150). What emerges is the thesis that “the task assigned to us through our dwelling” is to be “tenants of the earth” (Schalow, 2022: 161). Rewriting Protagoras’ famous statement for which “man is the measure of all things” (Plato, 1973: 17), the author argues that, “when divested of his anthropocentric focus, and thereby embracing his/her transience, ‘man’ become the ‘measure’ again”. It is enough not to lose sight of the fact that “Dasein is simultaneously ‘measured-by’ the proprietorship of ‘belonging to’ and thereby can ‘set the measure’ for any compliance and possible governance” (Schalow, 2022: 162) in that “poetic dwelling” that echoes Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin (Heidegger, 1971b: 209-227). The notion of measure, recurring in several places in Schalow’s text and fundamental “to offset or counter the one-sidedness of human interests” (Schalow, 2022: 169), is essential to the conclusion reached by the author: “The socio-biotic community provides a setting in which human beings can ‘think globally, act locally’ (through their enactment of building, dwelling, thinking)”, with the proprietorship of dwelling that “restores limits, by granting space non-human dimensions of the earth to thrive and flourish” (Schalow, 2022: 166).

The call for a trans-human egalitarianism that flows from Heidegger’s overcoming of anthropocentrism is also the crux of the work’s conclusion, with Schalow arguing how, in light of the creation of that socio-biotic community that flows from our dwelling on earth, “a new kind of equality becomes possible as mortals protect the habitats of the diverse creatures that ‘co-habit’ the earth with us” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Once again, it is the notions of stewardship and dwelling that redefine our peculiar role on this planet: “The ‘to be’ of mortals as ‘tenants of the earth’ deepens the meaning of the ‘who’ of human beings as ‘world-citizens’” (Schalow, 2022: 178). The way of belonging to the earth that is proper to Dasein leads the author to think of a “new ‘egalitarianism’” with the role of “formal indicator of how we can characterize practices that prioritize environmental concerns over against the anthropocentric focus of modernity” (Schalow, 2022: 178). Thus, only in this way “a concern for the welfare of the earth and nature, humans and animals, can spark a conversation about the future of our historical sojourn and the fate of those generations still to come” (Schalow, 2022: 179). Through the five chapters of which the text is composed, we understand how the theses stated in the preface and introduction – above all, “the political must be housed in the eco-logical, that is, in the ‘eco’ or residence of dwelling” (Schalow, 2022: 3) – are confirmed through a careful reading of Heidegger’s work.

The overall result of Frank Schalow’s work can only be valued in a positive way. In an age in which Martin Heidegger’s thought seems to be more and more the exclusive prerogative of a type of literature aimed at illustrating his complicity with Nazism, this book certainly stands out for the original and proactive use that can still be made today of the complex Denkweg of the author of Sein und Zeit. Obviously, some questions remain open. In the first place, one could raise doubts about the legitimacy of basing, from a theoretical and methodological point of view, the guidelines of such a project on ontological justifications advanced by someone who, like Heidegger, is moved by theoretical interests apparently unrelated to similar intentions – in short, one might ask, “why refer to Heidegger?”. Similarly, as far as the moral side is concerned, we could question the opportunity, repeatedly highlighted by today’s detractors of his work, to make a figure such as Martin Heidegger, whose compromise with the Nazi regime went far beyond the convenience of the facade and career of many of his contemporaries, the ‘tutelary deity’ of an ethical project. On the other hand, however, Schalow makes no secret of his aim to propose an interpretation that from the beginning is subordinate to practical purposes; a rereading that intends to “reap tangible results” and “not to become merely an “academic’ exercise” (Schalow, 2022: 8). From this point of view, Heidegger’s Ecological Turn can be seen as a perfectly successful attempt.


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