A review of The Essence of Human Freedom and The Essence of Truth, by Martin Heidegger

It is only a small exaggeration to say that each of Martin Heidegger's works seems to be the key to his thought. On reflection, none is as comprehensive and few as complex as Being and Time (1927). But for a reader attuned to Heidegger, every book is bracing and magnetic. In this allure Heidegger's writings and lectures remind us of Plato's dialogues, each of which appears to be the clue to the others. 

One reason for this impression is that Heidegger's discussions are searching, relentless, and acute; he leads us forward with little rest to what seems both novel and inevitable. Another reason, perhaps a deeper and in any event a related one, is that Heidegger's arguments seek what he calls in The Essence of Human Freedom both the root of things and the whole of things. The works—and the academic courses from which most of his posthumous publications derive, including these two, based on lectures he delivered in the early 1930s—attempt to unearth the root challenge of philosophical thinking in the individual student and reader while also clarifying the genuine matters about which one should be reflecting. The effect (although not the content or result) is similar to what we see in the best political philosophy. Being stirred to think is as important as the question being thought about.

Heidegger not only encourages thought, he also instructs us in how to begin thinking. He does not offer a method in the sense of a methodology, a secure series of steps with no risk, but a method in the sense of a way and direction, a path or paths to what is ever wider and deeper, with one's own convictions and powers challenged if one is to stay the course. Still another feature of his way is to combine direct attention to the problems he confronts (and to the reader who faces up to these problems) with intense discussions of previous thinkers. 

As with all thinkers of rank, Heidegger strips from serious students the illusion of competence. One must face the daunting fact that it is difficult or indeed impossible to measure up. Fortunately, what is daunting can not only depress and discombobulate but also inspire and shape. Heidegger at his best calls forth what once was called courage of the intellect.

Heidegger sees his characteristic path in The Essence of Human Freedom and The Essence of Truth as grounded in and circling back to history. He does not, however, grasp history as one ensnaring net after another that traps us all in sociological or temporal relativism. History stands instead for the fact that what we uncover in our thoughts and deeds must be rooted in the free events and occasions through which they happen or occur. The ground of possibility for these actions is the complex of dispositions, entanglements, and understandings that Heidegger outlines in Being and Time. These defining elements of human being exist "historically" because we are always ahead of ourselves. We always have our own being to be ("be yourself" is not easy or simple advice), and in the light of our projections we find ourselves to have already been thrown into this world and these dispositions, thrown as just the ones we are who exist presently in the midst of the things with which we deal. Our freedom and our characteristics, our individuality, are "temporal" in their basis.

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Man's temporal or historical essence sets Heidegger's intellectual direction in two ways. One is to attend to the experience of his own activities (and to call on us to attend to ours), including especially those involved in his current search, and to dig deeper and deeper into these experiences, to see them more and more for what they are apart from everyday views and ordinary philosophic opinion. In The Essence of Truth, for example, he examines carefully what truly is happening when we see colors or hear sounds. There is nothing in what he uncovers that one cannot see for oneself. Unless one looks for oneself, however, one will not experience the acuity of Heidegger's analysis. Similarly, he argues that we cannot understand Kant's notion of the factuality of the moral ought, the moral law, pure practical reason, freedom in will-governed action, except as we attend to what occurs in our actual willing. Philosophy must be renewed again and again by and for oneself.

The second way is to see that the ground of his and our quest to grasp freedom or truth as they truly are is shared with the great thinkers of the "past." As we have said, Heidegger characteristically combines direct attention to problems and to readers as possibly facing up to these problems with intense discussions of previous thinkers. They are in fact not past in the sense of done and gone because philosophy unlike science is not the progressive accumulation of true statements. Nor are they past in the sense of over with, because our attempt to understand begins from the problems and comprehension that we have inherited. Our own effort to understand in turn illuminates these thinkers by allowing us to confront them on their own terms. The more acute our own projection, the more acute the confrontation: the more that can be learned from and about the thinkers and the issues they consider. Indeed, it may prove (Heidegger concludes it does prove) that we see more clearly than they the land on which they were traveling as they captured the things they comprehended. At the same time, we see how we ourselves begin from some version of their views, versions, as it happens, that today are far more remote from the true source of understanding than their own. 

Heidegger's students and his students' students frequently follow his footsteps in rote and unilluminating ways. They take for granted his core historical understanding. They act as if being and man's free openness to it must function as Heidegger says and have been discovered truly once and for all. They reduce previous thinkers to unthinking pawns in an inevitable march to the contemporary nihilistic oblivion of being. They act as if there is nothing to learn from them, only things to learn (or not even to learn but simply to say) about them.

Heidegger himself, however, especially up through his lectures on Nietzsche in the 1930s, follows his two directions more fruitfully and more faithfully. In the two works we are discussing, for example, he seeks genuinely to see how Plato and Aristotle understood truth and being, and how Kant understood freedom, and he presses forward more directly to a look at the phenomena themselves. Nonetheless, he presses along a path previously cleared in Being and Time and although he seeks to comprehend the thinkers he also develops what he thinks must be the limits to their views, limits he clearly already (in 1930-1932 when he gave these two courses) believes in advance that he will find. Philosophical "controversy does not mean…criticizing and contradicting. Instead, it is a bringing back of the other, and thereby also of oneself, to what is primary and originary…. Philosophical controversy is interpretation as destruction." 

The upshot of this duality—cultivation of the beautiful flower but only or primarily as it is rooted in a soil it does not understand—is that Heidegger's study of others is restricted. He does not follow with any rigor the authors' practical or rhetorical intention in dealing with their audience. He does not usually discuss whole books from beginning to end. He does not even exhaustively situate the passages that concern him within such wholes. On the other hand, he often is quite alive to education within Plato's dialogues (here, for example, the education of Theatetus), sometimes discusses complete works (Plato's Sophist, Schelling's Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom), and usually analyzes large and coherent sections of the authors he examines (here the Republic's cave allegory, the central section of Plato's Theatetus, and the third antinomy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason). Heidegger takes what he believes to be the central discussions that clarify a thinker's understanding of an important topic and addresses these arguments relentlessly. Such passages also often show especially well what he thinks the thinker takes for granted. In Heidegger these demonstrations never reduce the thinker to some supposed race, class, or gender blindside; or take him to task for having ignored an arbitrarily inflated construct. Heidegger's literary destructions should not be identified with the bogus deconstructions of academics who (un)consciously or (dis)honestly huddle behind his shield. Rather, he shows how thinkers implicitly draw upon and look past a realm that makes possible the height and power of their own endeavors. Plato's thoughts about false opinion, for example, draw from, and yet overlook and even begin to drive from sight, truth understood as beings revealed in their unhiddenness rather than truth understood as it is now, namely correct propositions that correspond to their objects. 

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Heidegger's procedure for dealing with other thinkers yields four characteristic results. Most obviously, his care in reading together with his gifts and ability to use his own understanding of phenomena result in deep insight. When he considers Kant's view of freedom in The Essence of Human Freedom, for example, he is able to differentiate and then to connect Kant's two views of freedom, the first essentially related to the problem of causality and the second essentially tied to the problem of human will and practical action. As part of his analysis he also subjects the split between positive and negative freedom to careful scrutiny. One would be hard pressed to find a better discussion of Kant (or of this hackneyed split), especially if we exclude thinkers subsequently influenced by Heidegger himself. Similarly, Heidegger's very careful exegesis of Theatetus' "definitions" of knowledge, Socrates' refutations of them, their inner link, and the very possibility of false opinion remains largely unmatched.

The second characteristic result of Heidegger's way of reading is his ability to clarify the issue at stake in the text even apart from or at least beyond his own explicitly guiding concerns. Heidegger tracks in an illuminating and clarifying way theTheatetus' discussion of the difference between the eye's sensing of, say, blue, and the soul's perceiving the whole thing, say, the beautiful blue bird that is flying above. The unity and characteristics of such wholes, their being or beauty, are beyond any sense. He shows further how the difference and connection between encountering something bodily through the senses, and seeing or making something present in advance as something, is the source of false opinion. Plato's discussion of perception and Heidegger's illumination of that discussion are worth a thousand papers by psychologists and analytic philosophers. Heidegger's great attention to what runs ahead of any instance of explicit understanding and his argument that true statements are oriented to beings as they have been revealed or brought out of hiding by our prior disclosure enable him to explain what Plato had in mind—translating but not warping the intention. Similarly, Heidegger clarifies swiftly and surely the significance of Plato's "ideas," their link to seeing, viewing, being, and light. Much current understanding of the importance of the term idea and of the association between ideas and sight originates in his teaching. A related example is his explanation in The Essence of Human Freedom of the true bearing of the Greek's use of property (ousia) for being.

The third characteristic, a less helpful one, is the way Heidegger's procedure encourages him to ignore matters that on their face are vital in the texts he examines. One would never know from The Essence of Truth's discussion of Plato's cave that the image belongs to a discussion of justice—justice in the city as well as in the soul—and that it and the sun belong to a group of images of which the divided line is the third. Both the bearing on justice of the question of knowledge, and the rich material for understanding the types and meaning of images themselves (and, therefore, of the ideas and their imitative relation to opinions), are passed over. (This lack remains in Heidegger's later publication on Plato, "Plato's Doctrine of Truth," which originates in these lectures.) Similarly, Heidegger discusses the return of the sun-viewer to the cave but bypasses the opportunity this return (and the Republic generally) affords to confront political philosophy truly as an alternative approach to some of his own major concerns. That said, his discussions of what the "good" means, of the connection and difference between philosophy and the everyday, and of the connection between Platonic eros and the search or striving for being are thought-provoking in every way and a challenge to the extraordinary view of Plato presented by Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, Seth Benardete, Eva Brann, Allan Bloom, Joseph Cropsey, Stanley Rosen, and those in their orbit. 

A fourth characteristic of Heidegger's approach to other thinkers is that although from one point of view he and they illuminate the topic at hand, he rarely if ever uses his discussions to challenge his own grounds. His discussion of eros in Plato, for example, is used to confirm not to disturb his own notions of openness, lack, and finitude. In some cases he tries to show that a thinker's basic concepts—the difference between what beings are (tables, not chairs) and the fact that they are (this table that actually exists), the importance of causality, the uncovering of beings in terms of a highest being as well as general properties—are drawn from an implicit but ill-considered grasp of being as such and our comportment to it. In other cases he shows how impoverished a thinker's concepts and implicit understanding have become. At most, these exercises help Heidegger work out the elements of his own view of being. He already has discovered the basic ground of his view, however, and this ground ultimately is held in advance to show other thinkers' shortcomings. Heidegger believes that Plato, Aristotle, and Kant miss and yet depend on the existential dimension that Heidegger brings out. Whether they can otherwise account for it is not a question he asks seriously.

We can readily acknowledge the importance for philosophy and practice of the questions that Heidegger discusses in these volumes. We cannot know what truly is just, good, or noble unless we know the essence of truth. We cannot know how or whether we can be free unless we know what freedom is. We cannot know what freedom and truth are unless we know what it is to be. Heidegger drives these questions to the place where "everything worthy to be placed in question" about them emerges, namely, everything that belongs to their "ownmost possibilit[ies]" and is "implicated in [their] so-called presuppositions." More than this, Heidegger seeks to show the special significance of the questions of freedom and truth. Freedom is, finally, the free relationship that defines man, the relationship to being as such. Only this relationship enables us to deal with things in the various ways that they are. Before I freely sit or stand I implicitly see the chair in its presence and significance as a possible implement within a world of implements. The implicit "pre-modeling" or blueprint comes first. Freely disclosing beings in the truth of their being, making them unhidden in their significance, is our first, continually enduring comportment to them.

Heidegger thinks that these relations are pre-philosophical: we are always freely related to being. They precede the division between theoretical contemplation and practical activity. We are not more "beingful" when we merely spectate or observe. Willful action for a concrete purpose also is different from the free relationship in which something first has the meaning and presence that then enable us to deal with it practically. Philosophy originates with "the self-discovery of the understanding of being." This self-discovery or self-understanding begins among the Greek thinkers. They do not eliminate the ordinary pre-philosophical notion of being. Rather, they implicitly retain it. This basic notion is that being is what is constantly present. Heidegger believes that because the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle, tacitly understand being as constant presence, they bypass the full meaning of the temporality that appears to ground presence and the present. They fail to question how it conditions our understanding of being and, consequently, how it conditions us generally. Heidegger's view of history stems from and means to work through the significance of such temporality.

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The main things to be learned from these books (usefully translated by Ted Sadler) concern what it means to confront essential questions at the level of Heidegger, Kant, Plato, and Aristotle. For the student, to be serious involves just such a confrontation. One will not find political or ethical recommendations here other than injunctions or cautions to be responsible about one's own place in the nexus of being, freedom, and truth. Both "people" and individual are rooted in the true freedom in which we can decisively hold ourselves open to what, in the fullest sense, is. 

Only a magician could divine from these works alone in the absence of Being and Time the degree of affinity between Heidegger's thought and his support for the Nazis. We nonetheless see him characteristically scolding familiar enemies. He not only separates philosophy from science or scholarship, he sometimes denigrates each of the latter. Other professors are not just more or less wrong; Max Scheler and Nicolai Hartmann, for example, "totally misunderstand the crucial problem in the formalism of Kant's ethics." Bourgeois privacy cannot be identified with true individualism; bourgeois security must be overcome if we are to appreciate or dwell within the radicalism of philosophy. Plato's good is not an ethical concept. Marxist "ideology" finds its root in Plato. Journalism is, to say the least, unreliable. 

Nearly all of these views are in some way true. Many are understandable and even salutary. They stem from Heidegger's effort to put his intelligence and ours at risk, to be truly free, to overturn false security, to take philosophy so seriously that it does not subjugate itself to the expected and the polite. There is nonetheless an illiberalism in many of these views that looks more telling or even ominous when they are bracketed by Being and Time and the speeches of 1933 and 1934 in which Heidegger supported Hitler's government. However deep Heidegger's understanding of Kantian free will, he ignores the connection Kant himself sees between ethical freedom and political justice. Although he talks cogently (though briefly) about the meaning of the noble in Aristotle, he does not engage Plato's discussion of regimes. Opportunities and examples for resuscitating philosophical effort within or alongside virtuous or liberal political frameworks are circumvented or ignored.

One trusts that the true source of understanding does not necessitate everything that Heidegger believes it, or his access to it, requires. Although we must of course remain aware of the political conclusions Heidegger drew from his insights, we should therefore read him in a spirit that seeks to be clear about these insights themselves. We must read Heidegger with a truly open mind.