Reply to Eckels on What Distinguishes Heidegger From Sartre’s Existentialism

I write here with the single purpose of separating Heidegger from Sartre’s Existentialism, and in the contrast giving Heidegger a clearer representation. I do not write with the intent of persuading you to accept Heidegger’s thought, which is in fact contrary to Sartre. We each have our own path to follow.

This began with your question concerning a common occurrence among scholars of placing Heidegger in the chain of Existentialism. The reason for that is the general laziness among scholars along with their widespread inability to grasp Heidegger’s thought. Few academic scholars have read anything of Heidegger other than Being and Time, and even that has been poorly grasped. More importantly, that work gives no significant insight into Heidegger’s thinking. It was written at a premature time in Heidegger’s intellectual development solely for the purpose of securing for himself a teaching position. Once he received the appointment, he immediately stopped working on it, and it remained barely 1/3 completed. In later life he referred to it as the mistake of writing too soon. (A misstep he shared with many great thinkers, including Kant, Hume, and Wittgenstein.) This book, however, was what prompted Sartre to write Being and Nothingness, which he saw as an extension of Heidegger’s presentation in Being and Time. Scholars, knowing nothing of Heidegger beyond Being and Time and far too often misunderstanding even that, have often made the superficial judgment that Heidegger was therefore a significant founder of Existentialism. This is false for two reasons:

1. As I will discuss below, Sartre misunderstood Heidegger’s use of two key ideas at the heart of Being and Time; Being and authenticity. Sartre’s understanding of those terms determined his construction of Existentialism and, in so doing, drove it in a way contrary to Heidegger’s thought.

2. Sartre began and remained within the confines of phenomenology, which Heidegger rejected as he began his authentic works after his famous Turn.

Being and Time remains solidly within Husserl’s phenomenology. It is Heidegger’s use of Husserl’s academic terms and concepts that makes this work somewhat accessible to scholars, and the absence of which in Heidegger’s later writing that leaves them rudderless. As phenomenology inquires into the subjective working of sense data as phenomenological representations of an outer world, it necessarily retains the subject/object metaphysics that Heidegger rejected. It is this failure to dissolve the subject/object relationship that caused Heidegger to move in a radically different direction. Sartre, however, wrote Being and Nothingness in 1943, before Heidegger’s Turn fully came to light, and clearly saw Husserl and Heidegger as his proximate influences, although I would argue that his true influence was Kierkegaard. But that’s a discussion for another time.

As Sartre remained within the conceptual framework of phenomenology, he inquired from the perspective of man’s subjective consciousness and his relationship to Other, which is the outside world, particularly other consciousnesses. That implies what we know and what we intend are subjective constructions. In maintaining his focus purely on subjective consciousness, he turns Being as “thing-in-itself” inward. No longer denoting the external world outside our representation, it here refers to the facticity of our own being: the facts of our past that we can no longer directly experience or change. This he calls en-soi. Opposed to that is our consciousness of present and future possibility, which he calls pour-soit. In a surprising echo of Kant, it is man’s ability to transcend facticity in order to exercise free will. A negation of the material thingness of the situation and inner reality, much like Kant’s negation of the senses and therefore the objective causal world, in order to transcend to the externally uncaused freedom. Man thereby constructs his own authenticity by choosing his values and intentions and then choosing to act accordingly. As a phenomenologist, he places the grounding of authenticity in man’s consciousness. This lack of external ground, however, poses an insurmountable problem for Sartre. He later makes the ad hoc claim that goodness towards the welfare of other individuals and the community in general are the guiding ideals for authenticity in order to maintain his claim that an “authentic Nazi” is a contradiction of terms. But his guiding principles have no basis other than edict, leaving the Nazi to just as rightly claim his authenticity is guided by his own en-soi constructs which Sartre has no valid means to question.

In addition, Sartre also describes the encounter of Others as pour-autrui, which is an awareness of Other consciousness, but falls short of a being-with in consciousness. Rather a distancing wariness along with calculation always define these encounters out of the ever-present possibility of shame and conflict. An objectifying of our Being as we in turn objectify the other.

What underlies all this and will define his contrast to Heidegger is his claim that, in the absence of a god, existence precedes essence as essence is man’s own construction as he travels through life. Therefore, authenticity is staying true to one’s constructed essence. As we will see, Heidegger, also without positing a god or anything outside the physical world, will come to the opposite conclusion.

But of course, as somewhat of an adherent to Sartre’s Existentialism you already know what stands above, so let’s turn our attention to Heidegger and his thinking of the two crucial terms – Being and authenticity. As both Sartre and Heidegger held the view that reason falls short in explaining an absurd (or simply non-rational) universe, we will be able to see how their different interpretations lead to very different paths toward esthetics as crucial to understanding.

Heidegger directly ascends, not from phenomenology, but Nietzsche’s project of rethinking all values and truths from firmly within the physical world. This entailed two key features that Heidegger put at the center of his own thought: the elimination of all metaphysics and an awareness of the futility of reason to discover the profound truth of the abyss, which then turns our attention instead to esthetic knowledge. For Heidegger, poetic thought became what music was for Nietzsche. Most importantly, both Nietzsche and Heidegger saw this not as human construction, but Wille or Sein singing or speaking through man. Contra Sartre, conscious construction can only lead to inauthenticity and conceal truth. Zarathustra spontaneously sings Das Trunkene Lied as Dionysus animates him. For Heidegger, Hölderlin allows Being to animate and speak through him as it reveals itself in authentic experience.

Accordingly, Heidegger’s Being is physical reality, but one that simultaneously entails all essence. All beings, including human Dasein, are in their truest nature participating elements of this manifold of Being, from which they derive their own essence. Heidegger’s project is to eliminate metaphysical conjecture, and instead repose all fundamental questions to Being itself. It’s important to clearly understand what Heidegger rejected as metaphysics. It isn’t just the non-physical-non-sensible world of scholastic conjecture, but most importantly for today, the objectification of the world which dominates today as technology. It started with the transformation of pre-Socratic thought into Socratic metaphysics, and began its devastating error through the transformation of A is A to A=A. For the pre-Socratics, the ‘is” is no mere copula but the most active verb which preserves the unique essence of every thing present, rather than a mere object that loses it identity through representational identification with others. This metaphysical subject/object split in experience resolutely closes off self-revelation of Being and its mystery and allure, diminishing our consciousness to a flattened and attenuated regard of the world.

It’s important to note that Heidegger did not mean that science and technology were false. They effectively calculate relationships, measurements, and causality. To the extent they did this, they displayed what he called “correctness”. In fact, their great success in doing so propelled its acceptance to the point where the common understanding accepts it as the totality of world. But this metaphysical objectification could never tell us the underlying “truth” inherent in Being. It could tell us how something works, but could never tell us what something is.

Being for Heidegger is a physical primordial reality in which all essence inheres, and authenticity is thinking, building, and dwelling within this authenticity. It is not Sartre’s subjective construction, nor is it a purely external force. As Dasein, man is a special part of Sein, and Sein exists in man in a special way. Dasein is man’s existence as conscious awareness and experience of his place in the world. But not merely for the benefit of man, but as an integral part of Being with the humbling purpose of providing the ability of Being to experience itself. In man’s most authentic relation to Being, Being reveals parts of its mystery poetically as it speaks through man:

“We are too late for the gods, and to soon for Being, whose begun poem is man.”

The deepest mystery and lure of the cosmos is Being’s call to us. Its impatient urge to experience itself through us. This is what animates all true artists as well as scientists.  This is our deepest calling.

Both Sartre and Heidegger saw the primacy of esthetics over reason, but differently. For Sartre, novels were the means to activate and play on the emotions of the Other as a pragmatic spur for the Other to act authentically. For Heidegger, as shown above, it is something infinitely more profound which entails the dissolution of subject/object consciousness for something entirely holistic. It is the sympathetic vibration of man and Being which grounds man in the physical and sensible truth of existence. Necessarily, it is a wholly esthetic experience that plays on moods, but not in the humanly constructed manner of Sartre. Heidegger talks about the central role of mood in this revelatory experience, but only in the German does the meaning come through. The word for mood in German is Stimmung, which literally means voicings. In exactly the way music has voicings, our inner being is like the resonant strings of a piano or harp which have the capacity to vibrate along with the primal vibrations of Being. Poetry is a presencing of this, but it is also something we can all feel in daily life.

Heidegger uses Georg Trakl’s poem “A Winter Evening” to presence this authenticity in everyday life, where one crosses the threshold that dissolves Sartre’s pour-soi and pour-autrui into an authentic Being with in which the holy that inheres in Being is present.

A winter evening

When the snow falls ’gainst the panes,

long the evening bell is ringing,

many find a well-laid table

and their matters well arranged.

Many a man who roams about

finds the gate on murky pathways.

Golden blooms the tree of mercy

from the cool sap of the earth.

Wanderer, step in, be still;

Pain has petrified the threshold.

There are – chaste in radiance gleaming –

on the table bread and wine.

Ein Winterabend

Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fällt,

Lang die Abendglocke läutet,

Vielen ist der Tisch bereitet

Und das Haus ist wohlbestellt.

Mancher auf der Wanderschaft

Kommt ans Tor auf dunklen Pfaden.

Golden blüht der Baum der Gnaden

Aus der Erde kühlem Saft.

Wanderer tritt still herein;

Schmerz versteinerte die Schwelle.

Da erglänzt in reiner Helle

Auf dem Tische Brot und Wein.

The threshold is here the dissolution of the ordered and well laid common understanding granting entrance to the holy, which is grounded in the nurturing and nourishing earth. I think of it as the entrance to a holy family gathering where mit-bestimmung (congeniality, but far more profound and playing on the above Stimmung) is the mode of being as Being itself makes itself felt.

I included the YouTube video so one can experience the musical Stimmung of the poem directly.

In sharp contrast to Sartre, Heidegger was a man in search of the holy revealed in Being, but without a god. Everything inheres in the physicality of Being itself, and there one finds the mystery that moves our own voicings, and that is the holy. He saw us as in a dark and desolate time where we finally gave up the illusion of the gods, but are trapped in the Gestell of technology and blind to the authentic. Further, without a proper relationship to and thinking of Being, all our constructions are hollow and self-defeating. Most importantly, he saw all of our politics and attempts to define morality as hopeless and will remain so until we have a proper grounding in Being itself. As he said often, we don’t even yet know the questions to ask.

I happily admit my own path begins with Heidegger, this path leading me to the very edge of what physics can know, and delighting in poetically inquiring into that deeper mystery of what physics can never venture. There is a crisis in physics as it crashed at supercollider speed into the wall of concealment, where our best minds, trapped in temporal, spatial, and causal modes of understanding decay into nothingness. The collision emits broken particles of mathematic expressions, which if we listen closely, radiate the most profound music. Rather than metaphysically deduce from a priori ideas conveyed in precise numerical formulae, I’d rather dance with the photons on their journey along the pilot waves.

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