Was Heidegger Really an Existentialist?
Heidegger’s concern with “authenticity” might have been more about getting to “Being-to-Being” than about self-empowerment.
Heidegger didn’t like Sartre: the father of Being and Time basically saw Being and Nothingness as trash. When I first learned this, I was surprised: I thought Sartre sounded similar to Heidegger (on first glance). But then it became clear that Heidegger wanted to remove “the subject” from the focus of our consideration regarding “the question of being,” and here Sartre came along and put “the subject” right back into the middle of the conversation. That upset Heidegger, but why? With all the talk on authenticity and existential concerns found in Heidegger, why was this such a big deal?
There’s not a lot about relationships in Heidegger, and he seems to have opposed being associated with either Metaphysics or Existentialism, even though his work seems to be part of both schools of thought. Christopher Mastropietro and Guy Sengstock recently discussed Martin Buber and the importance of “I/Thou” in our personal development, and this led to wondering about why relationships seem to be missing in Heidegger while they’re critically central in Buber. And from lived experience, relationships are obviously critical to our personal development and the creation of our “authentic selves,” so why did Heidegger deemphasize them?
Now, I’m not saying Heidegger had nothing to say about relationships, and “being-with-others” (Mitsein) is an important category in his thinking. But Heidegger discussed topics like the “idle chat” we find ourselves suffering, the expectations and social pressures we find ourselves “caught in,” and stuff like that — relationships and “others” were mostly discussed as things we are “trapped” in. That might be a little extreme, and I’m not claiming my reading of Heidegger is right (I can easily be swayed), but Heidegger strikes me as discussing others more as “problems” than “opportunities.” For Buber and Sartre, “others” played a necessary, unavoidable, and continuous role in our “authentic development” (perhaps by “pinning us down” and making us feel terrible as we confront ourselves), but Heidegger either didn’t believe this or didn’t want to focus on it. Yes, he believed we were “always already” in society and relationships, but what he thought we needed to do about this was different from what we see in traditional existentialists (perhaps we could say that “others” for Heidegger were “accidental” to our development, while for Sartre and Buber others were “essential”). What gives?
I don’t know German, so everything I say about Heidegger could easily be wrong, but it seems to me that Heidegger’s concerns with “authenticity” were very different from most existentialists (and perhaps it’s even erroneous to think of Heidegger as an existentialist, though I’m not sure if I’m ready to go that far). Yes, Heidegger wanted to get to “the authentic self,” per se, but he wanted to do that not to “empower” the individual or something of that nature, but so that everything was “cleared aside” and all that remained, in clear focus, was “the subject” (Daesin, the being for whom Being/being was a question). Why? Well, it’s because Heidegger wanted to “hone in on” the general source of the confusion of Being with being(s) in order to see how we could help create the conditions in which “Being could disclose Itself” (I’m going to use the general uppercase-Being language here to get the point across — forgive me if that’s technically erroneous). With “the subject” all that’s remaining (in “a clearing”), if Heidegger could overcome “the problem of Daesin,” Heidegger could get to “the Being of being” (and then “Being-to-Being”), which was his main target all along. Does he succeed? I’ll leave that to better readers than me…
For Heidegger, the “authentic individual” was the individual who was “alone in a clearing” — Heidegger cared about “authenticity” not so much because he wanted people to feel “real” or “empowered” (though that was all well and good) but because he wanted to move more and more “beings” aside so that he could get to Being. It’s as if he was gradually weeding out a garden (of Western Philosophy) that required “weeding out” tall weeds before he could reach the shorter weeds to weed them out too. If Heidegger cared about “authentic individuals” as much as most existentialists, relationships would have been critical, but since Heidegger cared about ontological questions through individuals, relationships were perhaps not a critical concern (comparatively speaking). In fact, they could be a distraction.
Perhaps a reason Heidegger seemed hesitant to extensively discuss relations was because that might risk inviting back in more “weedy brush” that Heidegger wanted to “clear aside.” Yes, again, he acknowledged that we were “always already” in relations and that relations were part of our constitution, but relations were more so something to “clear aside” (as best as possible) versus consider as paramount to our development. If Heidegger was more concerned with authenticity in the existentialist sense versus for the purpose of narrowing in on Daesin (“the source of the confusion of being(s) with Being”), then relations might be more important, but instead once he figured out how to “narrow in on the subject,” he had discussed relations all he must for his purposes. No, all this doesn’t necessarily mean Heidegger himself thought relations didn’t matter, but it is to say that for his project, he exhausted the topic of relations as much as needed.
For Heidegger, when individuals were “authentic,” everything that didn’t (ontologically) matter was “cleared aside,” and so “authenticity” was more about (prioritizing) “alignment with Being” than it was about “being a full self,” per se. Now, it may just so happen to be the case that we are our “full self” when we are more “aligned with Being” than not, but once Heidegger felt he figured out how to make the individual as “aligned as need be” to proceed to “the question of Being,” then there was no need to explore relationships any further (I/Thou encounters, being “pinned down” (Sartre), and the like are “moved beyond”). For Heidegger, existentialism was a “means to an end” for “ontological clarity” — both Existentialism and Metaphysics were things to be entered into so that we “get through” them — Existentialism was a tool, and once he achieved what he needed the tool for, he moved “forward.” In this way, Heidegger perhaps saw Sartre and Buber as risking regression, as “giving up the progress” that had been made.
It’s more speculative, but I wonder too if Heidegger didn’t view relations as “ontologically significant” because he didn’t believe relations generated an “emergent phenomenon” that was distinct from the people involved in the relationship? Today, there’s a lot of talk about “emergence,” but Heidegger may not have had that category; for him, then, a relationship was not where a “third thing” appeared, a “third thing” that needed to be examined on its own. Martin Buber, on the other hand, seems to have believed that “a special third thing” emerged in relationships that couldn’t be located in individuals, and thus relationships themselves needed to be examined (as basically “things in themselves”). I think Sartre had a similar view: we cannot be fully understood unless we understand ourselves under “the gaze” of the other. Yes, Sartre acknowledged that “death” was critical, but Sartre also thought “the experience of nothingness embodied in the other” was ontologically significant. As death organized our “horizons” for Heidegger (and as “potential” was more important than “actuality”), so Sartre viewed “nothingness” as uniquely organizing, and “the other” as important to discuss versus some “isolated self” (for “the self” was mostly in the business of self-deception, etc.). But “nothingness” and “the other,” as Sartre described them, or Buber’s I/thou, didn’t seem to contribute to “ontological clarity” in Heidegger’s mind, so Heidegger seems to have wanted to deemphasize them. That, or he saw no reason to focus on them in light of his goals and project. It was perhaps to risk regression for no reason, of letting the weeds grow back…
Again, it’s speculative, but perhaps disregarding relations contributed to Heidegger’s inability to finish Being and Time? If Buber, Sartre, and even Deleuze are correct that relations are ontologically significant (not just things that need to be “cleared aside” so that we can focus on “a subject” we can then seek to “clear aside” too), then perhaps it’s not surprising that a disregard of relations contributed to a failure to fully approach “Being-to-Being.” I’m not sure, and it’s a thought that would be interesting to pursue, but that will have to wait for another time.