On Heideggerian Obfuscation

Category: Guides > Antifascism

1 Introduction

The German philosopher Heidegger was, as is well known, a Nazi and an Antisemite. There is nevertheless a strong sense in the academy that his importance as a thinker is too great to banish him from his central place in philosophical curricula and reading lists. While I am no specialist and cannot seriously engage with the range of secondary literature, I will use this page to lay out my reasons for thinking otherwise. Not that I would want to ban him – but I think his profundity is vastly exaggerated by those who like him, often because they read him as he wishes to be read, rather than analyzing how he writes from a critical external point of view. To put it bluntly, he wrote like a Nazi. That this is an incomplete view of the man may be taken for granted in all I say, but incomplete does not mean untrue.

2 The Mystification of Existence as ‘Being-There’ (Dasein)

The central rhetorical ploy of Heideggerian obfuscation is pseudo-etymology – the derivation of words not from their real material origins but from imagined racial origins within a single language and from the soil which (according to his fantasy) gave rise to that language. This is not how Heideggerians are in the habit of understanding Heidegger’s etymologizing, so let me explain why I characterize it in this way.

The single word that is often used to encapsulate Heidegger’s philosophy is Dasein, which Heideggerians translate “etymologically” as ‘Being-There’. In a purely formal sense, that etymology is correct: Dasein is composed from da, ‘there’, and Sein, ‘being’. (And pronounced DAH-zyne, with Da like in ‘Daria’ and Sein like in ‘Seinfeld’, except with a Z sound.)

However, this formal etymology dates back to the Middle Ages, and the word had not been used as a conscious combination of its two compounds since then, but to mean something like ‘presence’. Based on this meaning, Early Modern writers adopted Dasein as the German translation of Latin existentia when they vernacularized philosophy. Some other languages instead borrowed the Latin term, like English did with ‘existence’. In fact, German did so as well, leading to two parallel terms, Dasein and Existenz, both serving the same conceptual function. Both were semantically grounded in the same Latinate philosophical tradition, which continued to be the basis of Western European vernacular philosophy.

In other words, for pre-Heideggerian German philosophy, the formal etymology of Dasein as Da-Sein, ‘Being-There’, is purely incidental. What matters is the semantic etymology, whereby Dasein (like Existenz) derives from Latin existentia. This, in turn, seems to have been coined by the 4th century CE Platonist-turned-Christian-theologian C. Marius Victorinus to translate ancient Greek ὕπαρξις (hýparxis). Of course, this does not make early 20th-century Dasein the same as ancient Neoplatonic hýparxis. Rather, it is a long historical process of accretion and redefining of meanings and connotations – stretching from ancient Greek texts through Latinate theology into secular philosophy done in vernacular languages – that leads to the peculiar range of meaning the word had at the time.

For the German Nationalist Heidegger, however, this would not do. In the Nationalist conception, translations and borrowings from languages other than the National language remain inauthentic to the Nation (in German, Volk), and authentic culture must be created internally to the Nation. In consequence, Heidegger rejected the real semantic origin of words like Dasein and took to philosophizing about existence as if the idea had simply grown out of the German soil.

The result of this xenophobic approach to philosophy is a German philosophical terminology that, at its most extreme, reminds one of “Anglish”, the attempt of English chauvinists to purify their vocabulary of words not derived from Old English, like in this wiki article about the USA: “The Oned Riches of America or America is a bound groundlawful folkwealth made up of fifty riches and a bound shire.” This is of course not more authentic, but deeply inauthentic, because it invents purely Germanic* terms for things that only exist in a world whose history knows no pure nations.

(*Germanic refers to the shared linguistic ancestry of Old English and Old High German; hence Anglish and Heidegger’s German both “revert” to Germanic. Of course proto-Germanic itself was never pure but contained many borrowed words from other languages, as did its ancestor language, and so on, and so on.)

3 Translating Heideggerian German

Heidegger’s German, at its most excessive, is beholden to the same infantile linguistic purism as Anglish, but you would never know it from English translations. Since his translators are for the most part not reactionary Nationalists, they would never think to use something like Anglish, but feel free to draw on the whole range of English vocabulary to translate Heideggerian terms, or to create new coinages, even where he is being puristic. This makes Heideggerian English a wonderfully capacious jargon, whereas Heideggerian German can be oppressively confined, progressively rejecting as it does all that is not German or Germanized.

All jargon is indeed not alike. For the English-language theorist inspired by Heidegger, neologisms and opaque jargon are playful, no doubt partly initiatic and mystical, but also expansive, inviting, connective. For Heidegger, on the other hand, pure mystification is the point, not simply because he was an obscurantist, but also because he sought to establish a mystic depth to the German language that has never, does not, and never will exist. Languages do not grow out of the soil as he imagined, they do not develop in autonomous, laconic maturation, but in constant intercourse with others. German like all languages is inherently and constitutively plural. It is inherently part Latin, part French, part English and so on.

[Examples of translation; preserving the unsavory völkisch savor in translation.]

4 What does Heidegger think of Existence (Dasein)?


5 Heidegger and the Greek language