Philosophy matters. We all “do philosophy” every time we ponder what we should do or whether a statement is true or false and how we know it. To do philosophy, one merely need devote time to thinking about those important questions and others that arise in the course of thinking about them. That makes one a philosopher. I say this consciously and not necessarily systematically, but, generally, people who style themselves philosophers go for being systematic in their thinking, for creating “philosophies” that express their ideas about life, truth, and action, and that serve as a means of legitimating their actions or those of their followers.
Many of the problems we face today are the creations of philosophers.Many of the problems we face today are the creations of philosophers. It turns out that one of the most dangerous things in the world is a philosopher with power. Thinking systematically about things and coming up with the wrong answers can lead to systematically bad ideas: communism, fascism, political Islamism, and many other ideologies have contributed greatly to human suffering, and because they are philosophies, they do so far more systematically than merely random acts of cruelty or stupidity.
All three of these philosophers wrote in German, although the last wrote many of his most important later books in English. The first two are important to me because I believe that we can discern their influence in all of the major organized intellectual and political challenges to libertarian values and principles around the world.
In modern political communitarianism, nationalism, populism, leftist politically correct assaults on freedom of speech, radical Islamism, and resurgent fascism and national socialism in Europe. I’ll talk through what may seem technical issues in philosophy, some in puzzling language, but there will be intrigue, war, and – as this is Planet Hollywood – nefarious Nazis, as well.
The first philosopher is one of the most difficult to read and understand because he wrote in a style that is, in my opinion, deliberately opaque. His name was Martin Heidegger and he is widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. He made his big splash in philosophy in 1927 with the publication of his book Being and Time, a start on a longer work that was never finished.
In his book, he seemed to be following the program of the man widely believed to be his mentor, but whom we have since learned he despised and quickly dumped as soon as he had used him to secure a strong position as his successor at the university. That man was Edmund Husserl, considered the founder of the phenomenological movement in philosophy, that is, a scientific method whereby objective study of what would otherwise be considered subjective matters, such as consciousness and such conscious acts as perceiving, judging, comparing, and so on.
The Philosophy of Heidegger
Heidegger asks about the meaning of being, which is a term that has been considered either so general or so empty as to defy description. However, seeming to start with a phenomenological method, Heidegger looks into the kind of being that asks about being, which is us, which he terms – in German – Dasein. He claims boldly that we can see the meaning of being by examining our very asking about it.
In the process, he inaugurates what comes to be known as existentialism, for he argues that, whereas we use categorials to name the ways in which we can speak of a thing, such as substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, and so on. In contrast, Dasein is structured by existentials. He denies that Dasein has an essence, or a “what,” “because its essence lies rather in the fact that in each case it has its Being to be, and has it as its own.” Dasein, he wrote, “always understands itself in terms of its existence – in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself.”
It’s by building on that primordial relationship that we might come to understand things better as rooted in something more basic.That kind of talk seemed very exciting at the time and seemed to allow us to start with human beings as we really are in the world, before we come to study ourselves using scientific methods. Thus, we live in a world in which we are related, not to scientifically described objects, but to things as they are ready to hand for us to use. When I relate to a podium, I don’t relate to it as it might be described in either Newtonian or quantum physics, but as a useful thing on which to rest my arms. It’s by building on that primordial relationship, of being at home in the world, that we might come to understand better things such as the scientific understanding, as itself rooted in something more basic.
In contrast to Immanuel Kant, who started by asserting the truth of Euclidean mathematics and Newtonian physics and then attempted to reveal what must be true metaphysically for those sciences to be correct, Heidegger proposed to start with the structures of human existence, without presuppositions about things as understood scientifically, and then build up a philosophy of human existence.
So categories structure our perceptions of things, but existentials structure our own existence. What is remarkable, however, is how so many of the alleged existentials and their substructures are drawn from the literature that grew out of World War I and the experience of combat and death, such as authenticity, resoluteness, steadfastness, and being toward death. Heidegger offered a metaphysical dressing up of the cultural themes of violence, brutality, and domination that had emerged out of the war, especially as glorified by the novelist and essayist Ernst Jünger, who had a major influence on Heidegger.
Heidegger famously publicly joined the National Socialist German Workers Party in 1933 after the takeover of power by Hitler. He organized and supervised militaristic organizations of students and faculty, insisted on public allegiance to the Leadership Principle, or the Führerprinzip, and much more. After the war, he denied that he was a Nazi, presented himself as a naïve and bewildered philosopher who grew disillusioned with the party after just one year, who retreated into a kind of private opposition, etc., etc. His ideas were not at all implicated in National Socialism and should be judged independently, and so on. It was all lies. All of it.
After the war, when his whole career was at stake, Heidegger denied that he had been a Nazi or even a sympathizer, saying that he had not read Mein Kampf, due to how repulsive he found the ideas in it, which was clearly a lie. As the Freiburg University historian Hugo Ott discovered when examining newspaper articles from the time, private diaries, party archives, personal correspondence, and much more, virtually everything Heidegger publicly said after the war was a lie. In fact, Heidegger was not merely a naïve professor who