Monday, October 8, 2018

Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world

University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain

In the 1957 lectures he delivered in Freiburg under the title “Basic Principles of Thinking,” Martin Heidegger speculated that “dialectics today is, perhaps … the actuality of the world [Weltwirklichkeit]” (GA 79: 88). For all its hyperbolic thrust, one should not take his statement lightly, dismissing it as a dated intellectual artefact from the Cold War era, when antithetical political camps were locked in a life-and-death struggle on a world scale. Speaking against such an easy historicizing explanation is the fact that the insight cropped up as Heidegger reflected on nothing less than the very foundational principles of thinking. Another piece of evidence corroborating its seriousness is that the notion of the world, presumably actualized by dialectics in a “today” that is more than sixty years old now, is itself a cornerstone of Heidegger’s philosophy. So, what is going on here?

Heidegger’s point is that dialectics, whether of the Hegelian variety or the Marxist iteration of dialectical materialism, has long ceased being either an abstract idea or an applied political ideology intended to explain reality in the simplest terms imaginable. Dialectics actively determines, commands, and steers the course of the world, split into camps sharing the same general goal: to master, subdue, and appropriate the earth. Fractured and conflictual, the world’s dialectical actuality is rooted in a silent consensus of overtly opposing parties, namely that the true purpose of world domination is the seizure of the earth. Far from an opportunistic aberration, this goal inheres at the heart of Western thinking. The ideal capture and appropriation of the object are the means for, and the end of, the real imposition of the thinking will upon whatever and whomever it captures. Dialectics thus accomplishes the mission of thinking with unprecedented success.

Despite simmering new tensions between Russia, on the one hand, and the European Union and the United States, on the other, the Cold War is over. Heidegger’s “today” is no longer ours… And yet, it is utterly relevant. Dialectical actuality makes sense within the broader project of constructing a world (frameworks of meaning, extending all the way down to the meaning of meaning) deployed with the view to appropriating and dominating the earth (the ultimately meaningless source of meaning, that upon which life unfolds) in the shape of territories to conquer or natural resources to extract. The triple knot of phenomenology, ecology, and politics is as tight as ever: a network of lived meanings is subject to behind-the-scenes political integration, or disintegration, such that its elemental substratum is, at the same time, controlled and threatened, secured and rendered fragile, appropriated and pushed to the brink of non-being.

With that said, I would like to update (and so, in some sense, to actualize) Heidegger’s assertion for our “today” in the following way: Heidegger’s thinking today is, perhaps, the possibility of the world. Immediately, readers will retort that I am indulging in a hyperbole more blatant still than Heidegger’s take on Hegel. How can a one-time card-carrying member of the National Socialist party not only gain admission into the philosophical canon but also become pivotal in contemporary thought, not to mention in contemporary world?

As I argue in my book on the German philosopher, with reference to the contributions of his Russian translator Vladimir Bibikhin, it is a gross mistake to consider Heidegger’s thinking a piece of intellectual private property. In its enduring relevance, generativity, and receptivity, Heidegger’s thinking is not his own; it is the thinking of the world. Its lacunae and pernicious blind spots are, of course, the thinker’s responsibility, chief among them the unquestioned persistence of anti-Semitic prejudices in reflections on the agency and figures of uprooting, displacement, and what we now call globalization. But they are just that—lacunae of the unthought in the midst of the world thinking itself on the hither side of the modern distinction between subjects and objects, theory and practice.

Even then, I raise the stakes in my claim that Heidegger’s thinking is, perhaps, the possibility of the world today. In light of his fresh phenomenological approach to the possible disentangled from its deficient position in a strictly teleological order, existence understood existentially retains inexhaustible possibilities. For the finite world as the domain of existence to be, it must still be possible up to its demise. And, indeed, the possibility of the world as world is exposed the moment it is overshadowed by a grave danger, the moment its time is almost up and it may no longer be possible—say, after a nuclear Armageddon or as a result of catastrophic global climate change. By emphasizing the priority of possibility over actuality, Heidegger enables the creation of a living archive of what has not been, nor can ever be, accomplished in keeping with the domineering mission of thinking, an archive of another world not superimposed onto the tamed earth.

The essentially belated disclosure of possibilities at the end of “today’s” day is patently Hegelian. What is not at all dialectical is the mechanism that makes it happen: instead of relying on the retrospective standpoint of a mature concept, Heidegger urges thinking to unclench its grasp, reverting from the capture to the release of the world and of the earth alike. If there is still any hope left, it has to do with the world letting itself go and freeing the earth. Only in letting go of itself does the world remain possible.

Heidegger’s thinking release will not save us. Without it, however, we are more lost, more devastated and devastating than we are with it. This is the take-home message of my book.


Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. He is author of twelve monographs, including Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics (Minnesota, 2018); Grafts: Writings on Plants, a Univocal book (Minnesota, 2016); and Energy Dreams: Of Actuality (2017).

"For many years, Michael Marder has been one of the most interesting philosophical interpreters of Heidegger. What he gives us to think here is really remarkable. The readers of his book on Heidegger will be inspired."
—Peter Trawny, editor of the collected works of Martin Heidegger

"Often indefensible, always indispensable: Heidegger, for all his errors, continues to provoke us as modernity draws nearer to a reckoning. In this thoughtful book, Michael Marder sifts through Heidegger’s texts in a search for an open yet finite dwelling, a home beyond parochialism and globalism."
—Richard Polt, Xavier University

"Deploying an exceptional familiarity with Heidegger scholarship, Michael Marder highlights how Heidegger’s thinking of the Thing offers a rich opening for ecological resistance to consumerist politics and economics."
—David Wood, author of Deep Time, Dark Times: On Being Geologically Human

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