Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Nietzsche's Ontogeny of Thought and Heidegger's Dasein

This intervention was written as a reply to the thoughtful and incisive comment (as always) to our last post by Dan. Rather than a direct reply to the various perspicacious points he raises, I thought better to write a piece of greater depth that I hope other friends may find useful, if not interesting. Clearly, these matters seem to be of greater relevance in the light of recent geopolitical events that are buffeting and cosseting what Neruda styled as our "residencia en la Tierra".  This post will be followed by one on "Heidegger and History" that will seek to elucidate further some of the matters raised and covered here. Cheers to all!


Vivo ergo cogito! I live, therefore I think. The Nietzschean riposte to the Cartesian cogito aims at reaffirming the primacy of experience (even of perception) over reflection and deduction. It’s not that the cogito is a false syllogism; it is also that all syllogisms are false, unless they are tautologies, in which case they are devoid of any real content and meaning. Initially, in Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche had developed this philosophy in a positivist scientific perspective. As early as The Gay Science, however, but more explicitly in Beyond Good and Evil, he had extended his critique of logical deductivism to all scientific or “natural laws”. By attacking the legality of science, Nietzsche was thereby reasserting the primacy of experience and perception over any “scientific theory” that could reconcile or con-nect (link indissolubly together, from Latin nexus) objects and ideas.

Central to his attack on “theory” was Nietzsche’s demolition of the metaphysical Subject, of Ego-ity (Ich-heit), because the Ego itself, the I, is a phantomatic notion, as Hume’s skepticism had warned. Yet Nietzsche lacked the language to affirm these propositions, because even the concept of “vivo” (I live) contains the first pronoun – “I”. The ontology of thought points also to this – the misconceptions in which our language is mired as a result of our “physio-logical” development. Heidegger may be right: “Language is the house of being” (in Letter on Humanism): but it is a house with frail imperfect foundations. Language is the most evident proof of the interpenetration of perception and meaning, of experience and thought, of instinct and reflection. The intuition of this interpenetration, of the con-naturation (to borrow a word from the Italian language) of instincts, perception, experience and thought, constitutes the essence of Nietzsche’s naturalism – “the true phenomenology”, as he called it.

Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (being there) falls far short of capturing the Nietzschean ontogeny of thought. Despite his ambitious pretensions of originality – and even conceding that he was certainly the greatest philosopher of the last century – Heidegger’s philosophy remains a series of footnotes to Nietzsche (just as, for Whitehead, Western philosophy was “footnotes to Plato”). Little wonder that Heidegger’s voluminous, imponent study on Nietzsche remains a work of perhaps even greater significance than Being and Time – the fruit of an obsession that nearly drove him to madness!

The dif-ference between Heidegger’s Dasein and Nietzsche’s ontogeny of thought is all here: although both notions are “ontogenetic” in nature, Heidegger’s Dasein is purely transcendental, whereas Nietzsche’s ontogeny is far more physiological, biological even. Husserl was right to criticize (vehemently if not bitterly) Heidegger’s divagation from phenomenology as “philosophical anthropology”; yet even what is anthropological and sociological in Heidegger (see above all, not just Sartre’s first section of Being and Nothingness, but also Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality) remains steeped in the “metaphysics” that he wished to overcome - whereas Nietzsche’s ontogeny is inextricably tied to immanence, from instincts to exploitation, to domination, to ideology, politics and art. (Small wonder, then, that Sigmund Freud purchased a copy of Nietzsche’s collected works very early in his psychoanalytic career!)

Heidegger’s claims concerning the “historiality” of Dasein are not just excessive: they are unjustified, if not incorrect. Dasein is pure transcendence where Nietzsche’s ontogeny is an attempt, however inchoate and incomplete, at immanence – an attempt at rooting the primacy of experience over reflection in the bio-physio-logical evolution of human beings. (I will post again soon my essay on this thesis, “Heidegger and History”.) Of course, Nietzsche never even suspected that phylogeny could replace ontogeny: he always saw “human beings” as “individuals”, as separate beings, not as “being human”, as aspects of a single “being” (cf. Leibnitz, “a being is a being”). His notion of life as exploitation – of all life as exploitation – is too abstract to withstand critique: Hegel saw right, life is objectification, not necessarily exploitation – but he, too, as Marx asseverated, confused objectification (an ineluctable aspect of existence) with alienation (a historically specific aspect of social reality). The weakness in this confused notion, Nietzsche inherited from Schopenhauer’s vision of the body as “the objectification of the Will [to Life]”. Even so, Nietzsche’s vision of life as exploitation and his injunction “to love fate” (amor fati) provides us with a priceless caveat against all world visions (Welt-anschauungen) and religions and teleological ideologies that would lull us into an catastrophically false sense of security over the fatidic “triumph of Good over Evil” in human history!


For both Nietzsche and Heidegger, “history” is a fictitious notion in that history is inevitably the sum of all interpretations of past events – where ‘events’ are themselves a process of selection and interpretation (cf. Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations). Time, and by extension history, is not a “thing” – a separate reality with a past, a present and a future. The only “time” possible is the here and now, the nunc stans – everything happens at once, and it happens now! (Colloquially, one might quip that “back to the future” or “time travel” is an absurdity for both philosophers.) For Nietzsche, all being is “being-as-becoming”, just as for Heidegger Being must above all not be “presence”, sub-stance, re-ality (thing-iness), per-manence (what persists, what remains unchanged). Time is not measurable; it is not “space”; time is a “place” (Ort). It is the reification of time, and therefore of human ec-sistence – of Dasein – that leads to ‘inauthenticity’ for Heidegger. Authenticity is the seizing of consciousness by Dasein that existence is mere possibility, contingency – ultimately, Dasein is “being toward death”.

It is this contingency, this dispensability of Dasein – its in-essentiality, or rather, the awareness of its inessentiality, of death - that seals its “thrown-ness” (Geworfenheit) in the world of beings (Seiende). In its “thrown-ness”, Dasein is not at home in the world of “things”. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Dasein is at bottom a solipsistic notion – one that is irreconcilable with “the life-world” (which confirms Husserl’s own reservations on the Heideggerian project – “is this philosophy or anthropology?” he queried in his margin notes to Heidegger’s Kantbuch)! (Perhaps the most profound and incisive critic of Heidegger in this regard was his erstwhile pupil, Karl Lowith – cf. his essays in Heidegger.) That is why Heidegger’s cognate notions of Zu- and Vor-handenheit are probably among the least convincing of his entire philosophy. A coherent account of these “aptitudes” or “orientations” of Dasein would require an immanentist foundation that Heidegger’s philosophy thoroughly lacks.



By contrast, Nietzsche’s “instincts of freedom” (later “will to power”), however incoherently outlined by the philosopher of Rocken, require as a conceptual premise the positing of the immanence of perception, of the materiality of being human. The transcendental nature of Dasein, its ineluctable a-historicity, its complete lack of immanence, belie Heidegger’s strenuous attempts – most ill-advised in his Nazi period – to give his existentialism a historical and socio-political flavor (cf. above all, Introduction to Metaphysics, a most despicable apology for the Nazi regime).

Because of its transcendental character, because of its thoroughgoing a-historicity – regardless of his thorough misconstrual of historicity -, Heidegger’s philosophy can be said to be “innocuous” from a sociological viewpoint – certainly with regard to the dramatic experience of the Nazi Lager. (But I still esteem Karl Lowith’s profound and deeply humane truncation of Heidegger’s political aberrations as arising from deficiencies in his phenomenological project – see his Heidegger.) Woefully, instead, it is Nietzsche’s doctrine of Un-ver-antwortlich-keit (literally, “unaccountability” or “innocence” in the sense of “blamelessness”) that is certainly very relevant to the Nazi death-camps! Contrary to what foolish epigones from Foucault to Deleuze (the summit of foolishness) to Agamben and other neo-Nietzscheans have propounded as zoe (naked life) as against bios (politicized existence), the Nazis never ever (!) saw their Jewish victims as “stateless” or as “lacking citizenship”! As Hannah Arendt saw – with the astounding perspicacity that characterized her political philosophy -, the Nazi German dictatorship fundamentally obliterated the very notion of “citizenship” by substituting it with race or “Volk” – which is a fluid concept incapable of de-finition (Latin, finis, boundary, border, end) - legal, historical, or even biological - that made possible the utterly arbitrary unbounded removal of all legal attributes from German Jews, first, and then just about all “enemies of the Reich”. (The mandatory reference is, of course, to Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.) For the Nazis, the inmates of concentration camps were as “blameless” as they saw themselves to be! In executing the orders of the Fuhrer, they were simply carrying out “the laws of Nature”, - a brutish misappropriation of Nietzsche’s “instincts of freedom” - just as contemporaneously the Bolshevik executioners were carrying out “the laws of History” in the Soviet Union – in the name of Karl Marx!


(We shall return soon to the importance of superseding the ontogenetic approach adopted by the near entirety of Western philosophy with the novel phylogenetic one enucleated explicitly first by Karl Marx and then reprised by many later thinkers.)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this helpful reply. I will try to acquire the Karl Lowith work that you mention and will look forward to your piece on the phylogenetic approach.

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