Heidegger for Fun and Profit

New York Times/January 7, 1990

By Anthony Gottlieb

Martin Heidegger's centenary year has come and gone, and just as well. It came at a bad time. In Berkeley, New Haven, Moscow, Chicago, Paris and Marburg (and other places besides), conferences and parties have been celebrating the philosopher's birth.

Two or three years ago, when these jamborees were planned, it was still possible for most people to write off Heidegger's flirtation with Nazism as merely that - a foolish minor entanglement, which Hannah Arendt, who was briefly his lover, could generousl y attribute ''partly to the delusion of genius, partly to desperation.''

Those days of innocence are gone, thanks largely to the German historian Hugo Ott, whose biography of Heidegger was published in German at the end of 1988, and Victor Farias's ''Heidegger and Nazism,'' which has just been published here. Even his supporters now have to admit that Heidegger was and remained a wholly convinced Nazi, organizing paramilitary camps for his students, spouting martial rhetoric about the ''inner truth and greatness of National Socialism,'' and denouncing colleagues - including his own teacher - as Jews. The jurors at the denazification hearings in 1945, which more or less cleared his name and made his rehabilitation possible, were hoodwinked.

That old deception has far-reaching effects today. Instead of being shunned, Heidegger went on to have an enormous influence on European thought - as much, if not more, in France as in Germany - and he has a growing camp of followers in the United States. Herbert Marcuse, Sartre, Foucault and Jacques Derrida all acknowledged him as a (if not the) main influence on their thought. The early Jacques Derrida doubted whether he could say anything not already said by Heidegger. Today, Mr. Derrida - like many other French thinkers - is performing intellectual contortions to expunge the stain of Nazism.

And Heidegger is currently one of the best-represented philosophers on American bookshop shelves. But it is not academics and their students in the mainstream ''analytic'' tradition of British and American philosophy who read him. Such philosophers tend mostly to divide into two camps: those who believe his writings are largely gibberish and those who believe they are entirely gibberish. Heidegger's American readers are cultural, literary and political theorists, all manner of social scientists, students of Continental thought and literature, and the dippers and browsers of college bookstores. The unlikeliest part of his following, however, consists of an amorphous entity calling itself the applied Heidegger movement. Last September, the first Applied Heidegger Conference, in Berkeley, Calif., attracted about 200 people working in medicine and various kinds of therapy, some 100 people from the computer industry, and another 100 who identified themselves as involved in business management. The conferees discussed the impact of Heidegger on their work - however tenuous it may have seemed, to this listener at least; there were also lectures by philosophers, theologians and one lone psychiatrist, a one-time friend of Heidegger himself.

What accounts for Heidegger's strangely diverse appeal? Allan Bloom, in perhaps the most puzzling of the obiter dicta in his book ''The Closing of the American Mind,'' says that Heidegger's teachings are ''the most powerful intellectual force in our times.'' He also describes him as ''the most interesting thinker of our century.'' Mr. Bloom does not attempt to share any of the most interesting thoughts of the century with his readers. Indeed, it would be hard to work out what Heidegger thought about anything from Mr. Bloom's pages. This is perhaps appropriate, since it is hard enough to work out what Heidegger thought from his own writings. Even his followers joke that Heidegger is untranslatable, even into German.

That may be part of the secret of his success. He is the ideal bluffer's philosopher. Armed with a volume of Heidegger you can prattle away with apparent profundity and it will be very hard for anybody to prove that you have misunderstood Heidegger or said something obviously false. Heidegger invented a new language: immensely loquacious, ponderous, repetitive, heavy and Teutonic - a sort of Bruckner without the music - which Herbert Spiegelberg, an acute historian of philosophy, described in 1965 as ' 'apt to create a twilight of uncritical semi-understanding among the gullible.''

In his novel ''Dog Years,'' Gunter Grass parodies Heideggerese in the character of a German Air Force auxiliary named Stortebeker, who ''created a philosophical schoolboy language that was soon prattled by many, with varying success.'' Every commonplace incident or object can be rechristened in Stortebeker/Heidegger's hilarious language. Underdone potatoes in the mess kitchen, for example, are ''spuds forgetful of Being.''

Stortebeker relaxes by catching rats, so they are the object of some of his best ruminations: ''The rat withdraws itself by unconcealing itself into the ratty. So the rat errates the ratty, illuminating it with errancy. For the ratty has come-to-be in the errancy where the rat errs and so fosters error.''

Heidegger really did write like that (though not about rats). A shoal of hyphens swimming in a sea of confusing neologisms are the marks of his prose. (''But as soon as the essence of being resides in whatness [idea], whatness, as the being of the essent, becomes that which is most beingful in an essent'' is a not untypical sentence.) But he had his reasons - almost understandable ones - for trying to create a new language, however comical it sounds to the uninitiated. Heidegger was attempting what he saw as nothing less than a revolution in man's understanding of what it is to be. The new order needed a new language, or so he thought. Here is a sketch of his attempted putsch.

The key idea is his rejection of the notion that man's relation to the world is one of subject to object. He rejected Descartes's model of man as a self that is conscious of the objects that make up the external world, and doubting his own ability to k now. To illustrate this, Heidegger has a telling example of a man hammering a nail. He points out that unless something goes wrong (for example, if the hammer breaks) the hammerer is not aware of his tool as an object at all. He just gets on with it. Conscious awareness of an object is just not part of the job.

Heidegger held that much, if not most, human activity is unguided by conscious awareness. It is selfless absorption in a task. Something similar is true, he thought, of ethical behavior. Instead of being a matter of deliberate, conscious choices between alternative courses of action, most ethical behavior is - and should be - largely automatic. Instead of trying to follow abstract principles, people should try to be ''authentic.'' They should have the sort of understanding of themselves and the world that lets them respond automatically (in an appropriate manner) to whatever situation presents itself.

This is the part of Heidegger's thought that most influenced Sartre and the existentialists. The void created by existentialist anxiety - the recognition that there are no abstract principles to follow - is filled by nonrational commitment. With hindsight, it can also be seen as the part of Heidegger's work that meshes with inspirational totalitarian movements such as Nazism. The rhetoric of destiny, of a driving current of history to which man must commit himself, dovetails all too easily with some of Heidegger's early thinking, particularly his main work, ''Sein und Zeit'' (''Being and Time'') which was first published in 1927.

His later work developed several new themes. For one thing, his writing became more historical. He tried to give an account of man's understanding of the nature of being in different epochs - especially in ancient Greece - leading up to the 20th-century view of life, which he found to be deeply flawed. In particular, he regarded it as overly technological, by which he meant that modern man saw everything, even himself, as a resource to be exploited to the maximum efficiency. Salvation was to be found in overcoming this technological view of life - an ever-popular theme. In Heidegger's case it resulted in a romantic idealization of German rural life. He came to enjoy simple pastimes, and sometimes seems to have thought that drinking local wine in a forest hut was the pinnacle of human achievement.

Despite their historical turn, Heidegger's works did not become any easier to understand. If anything, they became more difficult as he sank ever deeper into his own tortuous neologisms and crank etymology. As part of his intensifying reflection on language itself, he came to espouse perhaps his least original, and certainly one of his least plausible, theses. He came to think that language is what creates the world we inhabit. It is by virtue of having a certain vocabulary and way of speaking, he thought, that we are capable of drawing distinctions; and it is the distinctions we draw that make the world. But there have been many objections to this - for example, that all sorts of skills, from that of the chess master to that of a musician, involve grasping distinctions that have no expression in language.

So is any of this worth believing? Do deep philosophical truths really follow from the fact that you do not ruminate about hammers while you are hanging a picture? The question does not usually arise. Like anthropologists struggling to understand a completely alien culture, most people who have tried to understand what Heidegger is saying have found it impossible to do so without first joining him in saying it. And once you start speaking Heideggerese, it is difficult to extricate yourself from his ideas, and therefore to criticize them. Mainstream philosophers, for example, have never come up with a satisfactory account that translates Heidegger into their own language. So they have usually just picked a few baffling sentences out of his work, chortled derisively and moved on. That should change very soon, with the publication this year of Hubert Dreyfus's ''Being-in-the-World.'' The fruit of 25 years of teaching the subject at Berkeley, it is undoubtedly one of the clearest accounts of Heidegger's thought to date. Philosophers may still reject the ideas, but at least they will be able to get clearer about why.

More than anything else it is probably Mr. Dreyfus's teaching that is responsible - quite unintentionally - for the applied Heidegger movement. His pupils have fanned out into the world, taking Heidegger (or what they believe to be Heidegger) with them - and, together with their own students, they have formed the loose federation of Heideggerians. The movement is largely a matter of slogans, catchwords and half-digested theses, all of which echo Heidegger in varying degrees. The nurses and therapists are keen on what Heidegger had to say about the dehumanizing effects of technology. They find in him an intellectual foundation for the idea that it is better to listen to patients and be kind to them than it is to plug them into machines and leave them alone. Does that piece of common sense really need an intellectual foundation? It is an odd bedside manner that can be improved by reading Heidegger. Probably, few of these devotees do read him; but they certainly pepper their talk with some of his jargon.

A slightly more sophisticated application of Heidegger can be found in the extraordinary career of Fernando Flores, one of Mr. Dreyfus's ex-pupils, who is surely one of very few people to become a millionaire because of Heidegger. Mr. Flores was Chile's f inance minister in the Allende Government and was imprisoned when Allende fell. Amnesty International got him out of jail and brought him to Berkeley, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the unlikely subject of Heidegger and office work, under the s upervision of Professor Dreyfus andProf. John Searle. He subsequently started a software company, Action Technologies, that sells ''Heideggerian'' communications software, and an educational organization, Logonet, which gives seminars to managers, also, according to Mr. Flores, influenced by Heidegger, among others. In 1986, Mr. Flores published what has become a cult book, ''Understanding Computers and Cognition,'' together with Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, who was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence. The book is not too hard but rather too simple to summarize. As with the Heideggerian nurses' opposition to the abuse of technology, it is difficult to believe that anybody seriously espouses the views it attacks - although the book does offer a few sensible correctives to the oversimplifications of early artificial intelligence theorists. Through chapter after chapter, it finds dozens of different ways to restate the obvious: that computers should help people, not hinder them; that if you want a computer system to aid a human project, work out exactly what the human project is; that when you use language, you are doing something.

These crashing platitudes are disguised for what they are by Heideggerian jargon; translate them back into English and they evaporate. Logonet's training seminars in ''communication for action'' are said to ''reveal for people how their language acts participate in a network of human commitments.'' The claim to reveal the ''fundamental ontology of linguistic acts'' turns out to be simply a matter of noticing that language contains questions, commands, promises and so forth. It is depressing to think th at American managers need to be told any of this.

But the man who has made the most out of the Heidegger business - and who originally lent Mr. Flores the money to start up on his own - is Werner Erhard, the man behind the now defunct EST self-improvement cult. Mr. Erhard, a former car and encyclopedia salesman, changed his name from the more prosaic Jack Rosenberg and moved west to escape his first wife and children. In California he became a millionaire, selling people the idea that by freeing themselves from the constraints of conventional concepts they could embrace new possibilities and transform their lives. His own story is certainly one example of that.

Mr. Erhard's est encounter sessions - which, by some estimates, had as many as 500,000 takers between 1971 and 1984 - attracted plenty of criticism for their authoritarian form of indoctrination. But they also produced hundreds of obsessively eager acolytes: enough for him to set up a watered-down and more marketable organization, known as the Forum, which replaced est in 1984. The Forum offers a series of two ''transformational'' weekends for $625. The thinking behind them is often Heideggerian - or at least very similar to Heidegger's - with a few of its own twists and turns. Professor Dreyfus was hired to help give it a more Heideggerian slant (though he is certainly not responsible for its current form).

One main idea behind the Forum is a thesis that is often thought to be Heidegger's, though it in fact owes more to his pupil, Hans-Georg Gadamer. Mr. Gadamer's idea is that people derive their identities from stories they tell about themselves. The Forum's aim is to expose these stories by inducing existentialist anxiety, and then to enable people to construct more ''empowering'' stories, which ''transform'' them. Sounds easy. It certainly empowers Forum adepts to adopt a great deal of jargon and go off in search of more people to transform.

The jargon is a giveaway. Forumspeak does, in part, accurately reflect a Heideggerian metaphysic: for example, by replacing intentional verbs with the copulative verbs (''He is that the world is round,'' instead of ''He believes that the world is round '') it expresses the Heideggerian theory that what are normally regarded as beliefs are better seen as ways of being. Yet to go around parading slogans like this is to reveal that you have not really absorbed the metaphysics, but are merely wearing it as a talisman. This is philosophy by bumper sticker.

Those who take the Forum phenomenon seriously might see it as an attempt to overthrow the democracy of reason: you cannot debate the Forum, you just start talking its language or you don't. It is replete with the ironies of most minor cults: to open up the possibilities in your own life, you have to be intellectually bombarded by somebody else; to free yourself from the categories of everyday language, you have to be imprisoned in a new jargon that few other people speak.

Heidegger's critics will derive some satisfaction from the fact that he has ended up, half-understood, on the lips of followers many of whom are white-collar cranks. Theirs, certainly, are not the most interesting thoughts of the century.


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