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Martin Heidegger LETTER ON HUMANISM (1946)

anecdotal philosophy 1: 'Poetry in the soil or the music of industry?'

There is a well-worn caricature of Heidegger’s philosophy. It is deliberately obfuscating, riddled with Black Forest mysticism, peppered with reflections on the classical etymological roots of current terms. That Heidegger remains a crypto-fascist thinker who gives himself away in his praise of farming, in his search for an authentic homeland which may lie beyond Germany’s linguistic borders, is today's received wisdom. He is a philosopher who leverages folk wisdom against philosophy, and draws out the philosophical import of common speech, via Latin and Greek, as if all that mattered were to bring truth into that storehouse of Being that is language, by mining the ‘unthought’. But, as my exasperated philosophy teacher once asked, ‘how do you know when you are thinking the unthought?’ While both the style and matter of Heidegger’s ‘Letter on Humanism’ confirms these aspersions, there is an undeniable philosophical originality and depth at work in these pages which is simply breathtaking. For a thorough detailed reading of the ‘Letter on Humanism’ in the context of humanist existentialism more broadly, I recommend Daniel Chernilo’s ‘Debating Humanity' (2017), an open access publication on Cambridge University Press. Chernilo builds on Karl Löwith’s prescient analysis, and makes a strong case for the continuities between Heidegger’s late philosophical position and a fundamentally authoritarian political outlook, very much in accord with his early support for the Nazis. Chernilo’s argument turns on the fact that in the ‘Letter on Humanism', Heidegger implicitly places the blame for the catastrophe of the Second World War on a rationalist utilitarian mindset, as expressed through crude thoughtless notions of value, which humanist metaphysics allegedly maintains. In contrast, the type of ‘higher’ humanism Heidegger espouses in the ‘Letter…’ is supposedly above biological reductionism and base anthropological generalisations about what all human-beings share, and, in its rejection of instrumental reason, is constitutively ‘irrational’. For Chernilo, this leaves the door open for that great thinker of Being, also known as the philosopher-king, who is rare, wise and aims to keep a paternal eye over the peasantry. We might add, following Pierre Bourdieu (1989), that while Heidegger’s ‘Letter…’ betrays its authoritarianism in the very form of its purpose—an attempt to secure how people must read ‘Being and Time’, there are repeated powerful invocations of an ‘authentic’ organic wisdom which appears in an anti-intellectual guise, and, with its semblance of humility towards those that really work and think, along with its credence for those who hold onto conservative religious beliefs, might also be said to be populist in tone. Despite all this, and however brutally insensitive they may appear after the event of the holocaust, it is difficult to deny the sincerity of Heidegger’s beliefs. How can someone possessed by such philosophical acumen be a proponent of such cruel indifference? In my view, the ‘Letter on Humanism’ raises two further problems for those who are sympathetic to the thought of Marx, and these are matters of fundamental concern. The first is the question of what constitutes emancipated non-alienated labour, and the second is how can progress towards a more emancipated state be measured? Heidegger’s ‘Letter on Humanism’ often surprises readers in its explicit endorsement of Marx's philosophical insights, and this is aside from the obvious and likely deliberate irony that Heidegger is using Marx to repell Sartre’s attempt to draw his thought leftwards in his lecture, ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ (1946). For Heidegger, ‘the Marxist view of history is superior to that of other historical accounts’, (259), and because Sartre fails to recognise ‘the essential importance of the historical in being, neither phenomenology nor existentialism enters that dimension within which a productive dialogue with Marxism first becomes possible.’ (259) Why does an apparently conservative thinker place such a high value on Marx’s view of history? It is difficult to pin down, but the answer lies in Marx’s inversion of the dialectic in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ (1807), where ‘the self-establishing process of unconditional production, which is the objectification of the actual through the human being [is] experienced as subjectivity.’ (259). In Heidegger’s view, rather than proposing a metaphysical ideal production experiencing itself through human consciousness, Marx has the benefit of making conscious reflection a product of the actual labour process, which is in turn in an ‘always already’ antagonistic relationship to alienating technology, something which Heidegger will develop further in his notion of enframement in his ‘Question Concerning Technology’. (1954) A harder question to answer is where exactly Marx and Heidegger can be said to part ways? The conventional response would be to claim that while Marx hypostasizes labour-power into a metaphysical entity privileging rational purposive physical action, Heidegger would have us pondering the vagaries of Being somewhere out in the fields. Indeed, perhaps Heidegger’s best rejoinder to ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ is his critique of Sartre’s de facto consequentialism: ‘Thinking does not become action only because some effect issues from it or because it is applied. Thinking acts insofar as it thinks.’ (239) Yet, what kind of ‘thinking’ is it that Heidegger proposes? It is a thinking which is first of all stripped from utilitarian concerns. It is not confined to obvious biological limits or physiological determinations. Nor should it be in the service of reinforcing some metaphysical ideal. Even placing God as humanity’s ‘highest value’ belies a crude ‘degradation of God’s essence’ (265). Whatever thinking is, it is a kind of unconditioned act which affirms humanity’s most important role: to be the shepherd of Being. Who or what precisely does humanity ‘shepherd’? The shepherd brings to light all that exists through historical reflection as expressed through our language. Who else contemplates the sky? No-one else can do it. The fact that these expressions involve the materiality of actual language in the form of tools and texts will be developed by Bernard Stiegler in his series ‘Technics and Time’ (1994). Privilege technics over the human that brought them into Being and you have the philosophy of Nick Land. Arguably, what is less considered in contemporary ‘fully-automated’ post work leftist positions today, is Marx’s conception of the possibility of non-alienated labour upon which the whole critique of capitalism hinges. Capital is not just unjust because of its exploitation of worker’s labour-power through the profits made by the owners of the means of production, as unfortunate as this may be. Such a critique would remain largely moral. While it is correct that workers are literally alienated from the products of their labour insofar as they do not own them, for Marx, the more fundamental problem with capitalist societies is the process of real subsumption which renders all work alienating. Through increasing social inequality and making all work practices more concerned with maximising profits, human species-being is said to be alienated. Even those rare few who believe they have fulfilling jobs, insofar as they subjectively experience contentment, are by virtue of the fact that their labour is more or less unwittingly contributing to the total alienation of the species, still alienated. If such a process could ever be reversed, what would non-alienated labour look like? For Marx, no doubt fearing a misinterpretation and reification of a limited set of activities, there are precious few indications. What we can say is that really free labour, aside from being freed from the wage relation, would not be simply relaxed, limited, and confined to a four-day week; rather, free non alienated labour might best be figured in the work of a composer of music: something serious, engaging, thoughtful, that works as an end-in-itself, and utilises all that is best in human-beings: 'Really free labor, the composing [of music] for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.' (Marx, 1861) The idea that a day will come where we’re all serious composers is perhaps no more ludicrous than the idea that we’ll all settle around the Black Forest and live as subsistence farmers thoughtfully warming ourselves by the stove come eventide. But just as Heidegger proposes that in each historical epoch certain aspects of Being come to light at the same time as others are obscured, so Marx never sees a complete end to our alienation through work which is constitutive of human species-being and against which humanity is in permanent dialectical revolt. Both Marx and Heidegger reject utopian projects, and, arguably neither communism nor fascism were long imagined as achievable end-states. Whether it’s the farmer who furrows poetry into the soil or the worker who makes industrial music, what we’re left with are figures of qualified hope, and, for now, the best approximations we have for the unthinkable.


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