- [light upbeat music]
SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Alexander Duff, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas. He's author of Heidegger and Politics published by Cambridge University Press, and he's written widely on Heidegger, Machiavelli, and Leo Strauss. Our conversation today explores the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, one of the most towering and controversial figures of the 20th century. We discuss Heidegger's political and metaphysical philosophy, his affiliation with the Nazis and his writings on technology. Alex Duff, welcome to The Free Mind podcast, my friend. Thanks for being here.
ALEXANDER DUFF: Thanks for having me.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, I wanted to have you on because you study a very, what I think even ordinary political philosophy scholars like me think, is a very difficult thinker, and that is Martin Heidegger, and it was once said to me by someone that I admire that Heidegger is very difficult to access, but when you do access him, his writing is guttural. Meaning that it punches you in the gut, you feel it more than you think it, but it takes a long time perhaps to get to that point. And so, since Heidegger is the most towering philosopher, certainly of the 20th century, most influential philosopher perhaps of the 20th century, I thought this a worthwhile topic to confront with somebody who is capable of doing that. Put myself and our listeners in capable hands. So can you just start off by telling us who Martin Heidegger was, and what some of the central questions of his philosophy are? What problems is he addressing, and who was this man?
ALEXANDER DUFF: Yeah, sure. I agree, first of all with the description that he's really very difficult, and that can be intimidating. It should give all of us, I think, a lot of pause. Any time we think we know our way around a mind like his, whether you love him or hate him, or find him attractive or are kind of put off, I think some caution is warranted given the grandeur of his, of his thought. And I certainly don't, I'm not done figuring it out yet. I also say that on the guttural subject, it kind of stays with you, you know. After years, and even maybe in my case, decades now, I've kind of like come around to see things that were always there, that maybe you didn't get the first time around, or you didn't really think the formula was necessary. So it just kind of like rests with you for a while.
Heidegger was born in 1889 and died in 1976. So he's a German philosopher. He's coming after a century, a century and a half, of high German classical philosophy. And he's really, I would say, the last of that great tradition, that starts out with Kant, Hegel and the like. He's born in Germany. He grows up Catholic, which is unusual for the great German philosophers, who tend to be Protestant. He lived through World War I, lived through World War II, and the division of Germany after World War II, and he thought that these would, these were the great events of his time, the Holocaust as well. And he tried to understand what has happened, I want to put this in a way that might be just really plain and simple. He tried to understand what had happened in the West, with reason and science, that has transformed and made the world so hostile to human life.
He uses a bunch of different terms for this at different moments in his thought. But the final one that makes a lot of sense, I think, is that he talks about technology as having opened the world up to us in a certain way, but also closed it off in numerous other ways. And he thinks of this as the legacy of Western reason or Western rationality dating back to, he dates it to different points, but sometimes Plato and Aristotle, sometimes the Pre-Socratics. So the way that we've used reason or used our minds in the West to, first of all, think the world, and then rebuild the world, make the world, has closed us off, closed off from us the deepest questions of the deepest problems that human beings want to be aware of, want to wrestle with, want to respond to. So that kind of alienation, it's a word that he doesn't use a lot, but it captures something. That kind of alienation that he thinks hangs over the 20th century. That was his theme, and the term that he used to capture it was "the question of being." He wanted to know what it meant "to be" in the default of really tangible and clear answers to that question, or inadequate answers to that question, that he thought surrounded us. All the great thinkers, all of the great regimes and ways of life that are available at the end of modernity, he thinks remove us from a real engagement with that question, and he's trying to revive the question in a way that makes, that ultimately makes sense.
SHILO BROOKS: Can you say a little bit more about that question, what it means to be? Because I've taught Heidegger, I taught Heidegger this past semester, and for the first class period or two, the students would look at me like I was a crazy person. They would take for granted, of course we know what it means to be. And I think Heidegger, very beautifully, says that people do take it for granted. Now let me open up for you the great complexity of the question “what it means to be.” And you know, and this is one of his masterworks Being and Time, this is what happens there, but I wonder, because I suspect our listeners will be struck by that as being an odd formulation, isn't it obvious what it means to be, isn't the computer that sits in front of me is in existence, and I can look down at my hands and I'm in existence, and these kinds of things. Can you just say a little bit more about that question?
ALEXANDER DUFF: Yeah, it's a tough one to answer without sounding like, I don't know, like a--
SHILO BROOKS: A wizard from Lord of the Rings.
ALEXANDER DUFF: A wizard, like a hippie or something. Like a better religion I'm trying to explain. So the German verb "sein," he wants somehow to capture the idea that there's a verb here. This isn't just a static, existing thing. There's a verbal form to this and he tries to . . . So that's one of the ways he tries to bring this out. Another thing that he tries to bring out is that we tend to use the form of the verb to be, "that is." You know, this is a computer or that is a wall or that is justice. And what he'll try to bring out is that that's actually just one present tense, indicative form of the verb. That being, in fact, has a more motive and emergent, this is where I sound like I'm a wizard, a more emotive and emergent quality. That "being" is a verb. And then once you kind of like, try to break out of the presupposition, that what is called the copula, the "is statement." That "that is" the primary means of way of being, or that is the primary and privileged way of being. Once you see that there are, there's a temporal character to it. And that once you see that there's a temporal character to it, then you can start to see that different things, different kinds of things, have different ways of being. And that to be human is different than to be an object in the world. And that to be a work of art is different than to, than what it means "to be" a political community or "to be" a philosopher. So once you start cracking open the homogeneous and fairly fixed present indicative “is” model of "that is," what it really needs to be, then you can start to think about the different ways that things are. And so at some moments in his work, he's just breaking it down, just trying to break down that it doesn't make sense, or it doesn't always make sense, to assume that what it means to be, and how it means to be, and the "that" something is, can all be captured in the same narrow way. So sometimes he breaks it down, but then another moment he'll be trying to conjure or to suggest, or to tease out the ways that a work of art is, or the ways that a political community is. One example that he has in the book that's called The Introduction of Metaphysics, is he talks about focusing on the "is," the copula, leads, this he thinks is the presupposition of science and modern science and modern technological science.
So he just raises this question: Does the meteorologist employing all the means of modern science and weather prediction, does the meteorologist really capture the being, the deepest meaning of, I don't know if I can use that word, of the clouds forming over the mountain range, where you are going to hike, where you're going to walk? Does the meteorologist capture that better, or does the person who has an experience of walking down the trail, through a clearing, up a hill, perhaps past (sometimes he's very local about the way that he emphasizes) past the land that you grew up on, past the community or the farms or the people that you've known, and they have known you since you were a little kid or something, let alone a community that's been there for centuries or longer? Is that a way of existing in the world that is less meaningful than what a meteorologist says about the clouds forming? And sometimes he's kind of evocative in this way that sometimes it sounds corny, sometimes it sounds good, but he's trying to capture that there is this thin reed of, you can see that there's something inadequate about a hyper-scientific and then the human reflection of that is, a hyper-bureaucratic scheme of the world. And if we can recall the richer involvements that are behind that theory-privileging, science-privileging mode, then he thinks that will be just more in tune with what it means to be, or what the being of our existence is. And there's different terms that he uses, but it's something like that.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, and this has staggering implications for the authority of modern science. And we can talk about that here in a little while, but that's one of the most interesting aspects of Heidegger to me. And it was to the students who I was teaching in Engineering at the time is that if you call into the question the meaning of being, science takes for granted a certain understanding of being upon which the authority of science, the modern scientific project as such, rests, and Heidegger insofar as he attacks that assumption about the meaning of being, he really does erode or pose a profound challenge to the authority of science and science's claim to understand the beings in the world, the beings in nature, et cetera. It's really astonishing. And maybe we can talk about that in a moment, but I want to stay on this question for a moment, the question of the meaning of being, but to go this direction with it.
Heidegger is an author who is in explicit conversation with a lot of other philosophers in the Western tradition. You hear him talk about Plato, the Pre-Socratic, Leibniz, you know, I was just reading an essay in which he talks about Galileo. You know, he's very in tune with the history of the West and he stands at its peak in some ways, or its culmination because he dies in 1976 or whatever you said it was. And so he's got the, unlike Plato, he stands at the end, not at the beginning. And so he's grappling with the entire tradition of the West. Can you talk to us a little bit about the way that this question that Heidegger is posing, the question, the meaning of being, it's not a new question. It's a question that he says people have posted before him or that has been explored in various ways. Can you talk to us about the ways in which Heidegger draws on the tradition? Who is he in dialogue with? What questions are they circling around, that he's circling around? And what is his place in that intellectual tradition of the West more broadly?
ALEXANDER DUFF: Yeah, I think one of the great, it'll spin your head around, but one of the, one of the great experiences of reading Heidegger is reading Heidegger on, reading Heidegger writing on, or sometimes these are notes from classes, thinking through these other great figures from, for lack of a better term, from the tradition. It's always putting your finger on why, what he's getting from them is sometimes tricky. He has like one kind of account of the tradition, which is that, there was a great question of being that was present to the Greeks. It's this question of, you know, what does it mean to be was present to them. They kind of wrestled out an answer, the Pre-Socratics, and then they fashioned it in a way that it's all been downhill since then. That's one kind of, that story, if you can call it, is present in Heidegger's thought. They thought it through, it's been ever more dimly understood since then. And now the question is so strange to us that only the feeling of how strange it is can remind us of the need to ask it. So this is why he emphasizes things like anxiety and boredom as experiences that announce the need to interrogate the world around us. I'll come to why he gets to these thinkers in a minute, but what he's saying is something like, this was a question that prior thinkers answered. And to the extent that we've read, we've become satisfied with the answer, we've forgotten the question. And the answer is not just theoretical, it's also refashioned or shaped the world. And to the extent that it's, especially in the modern period, remade the world, we're in danger of forgetting the question even exists. So at least one of the reasons that he's rereading these great philosophers from the tradition is because he thinks that they did have some purchase on this question. Even if the answers that they offered to it contributed to the continual erosion of a real human engagement with it. He does think that Kant is a great, great, great figure and that Leibniz or Descartes or Duns Scotus or Augustine, and of course, Plato and Aristotle.
So there's that kind of two-sidedness to his engagement with the tradition. One, it's covered everything up. And so we need to uncover, peel back, disinter the questions that were being asked by him, and the way that he does this is by examining these other great figures. One of the things he's always trying to avoid doing is saying that the thinkers themselves caused the obscurity of being. He wants to stay away from this idea that philosophers are great commanders and legislators, and that they form and shape in this almost dictatorial way, the quality of thinking of, the quality of reasoning that's possible in their wake. He thinks rather that, and this is again where he starts to sound like a bit of a wizard, being itself retreats, that it gives, it gives, it's hard to speak about it in the way that he quite means, but that it gives certain possible answers to what it means to be, and then retreats from those answers or shifts what is plausible. And he thinks that what was given to the Greeks was the idea that what it means to be is to be always, what it means to be is to be available to the mind, or what it means to be used to be thinkable. There's a different, let's say formula for something similar. What he then ends up thinking is that, or ends up saying, is that, to privilege the mind as a way of access to the meaning of being is to sort of cut off other ways of being involved in, and cut off other ways of contributing to, the manifestation of, being. Which he thinks, I wouldn't want to use the word like "active" in terms of what he thinks the human being should be with respect to, like, actively contrary to being, but somehow tending to what has been given, rather than just, he uses the language, the Greek term "theorein" means to look at, but he thinks there's something removed, where if all you're doing with the things that matters is looking at them, standing back from them to see them or to gaze upon them, rather than tending to them, sometimes he'll use the metaphor of gardening or farming. Then you've removed yourself from an involvement with being, and he thinks that that's the original caesura, if that's the right term, of the relationship between the human to what is, has removed us and removed human society and human life from being and it's led eventually to what he calls nihilism. The kind of evacuation of being, or the absence of being from our lives. Again, it's not a simple, straight descent, but there's kind of pauses on the way down.
So the question though, was what the tradition, he, in a way that becomes so, I think he kind of models this for some of his students, people like Gadamer and Arendt and Leo Strauss and Karl Löwith the idea that we can go back to thinkers in the distant past, two thousand years ago or less as though that's far away and see that we share questions with them or see that their questions are intelligible to us, and therefore that their answers or the doctrines or the teachings or the thoughts that they have in response to those questions are intelligible to us. Heidegger kind of sets a pattern, that is followed by these other figures, who teach us how to get at deep human questions, even if you're going to formulate the questions differently, or think that they matter in a different way, some are more political, some are less political, what have you. Heidegger was quite, he set the pattern for that, I think at least in the, among these later 20th century figures. So that's another way of, the idea that the tradition isn't just the tradition. The term "conversation" is maybe not quite right, but that there's, that there are things to be said and things to be heard and learned that are meaningful to us now. But Heidegger's, overdark and in some ways terrifying his work is, it also teaches I think that lesson, at least by example.
SHILO BROOKS: Would you say that he's, I mean, just to kind of orient his attitude toward this canon or this tradition and that the thinkers he's in dialogue with, would you say that he's a critical thinker? You see what I mean? Is he critical of his predecessors? Is he saying they misunderstood? They, you know, they covered over? Or is he, you know, not so much a critic, but they got at something genuine and something true and . . .
ALEXANDER DUFF: Yeah, is it possible that he does both? I mean, 'cause yes, he's critical. So there's a course that he gives on Augustine in 1920-1921, thereabouts, and he gets this most arresting reading of Augustine's account of memory in Book 10 of The Confessions. And it's a very subtle reading, it's very probing the way that Augustine, I think, invites you to probe. So he opens up these awesome parts of Augustine, and you can do this. I can say this just as well of Aristotle or some of these other figures that he reads very carefully, very slowly, sympathetically isn't quite the right word. But he enters into the question that they are entered into and shows us, invites you to do that with him. But then he concludes the course with this almost dismissive account. Oh, Augustine just slipped into the Neoplatonizing of Platoism of the trajectory of the Western understanding of metaphysics. Metaphysics, that being the shorthand for this narrowing of being in this theoretical way, and so he doesn't help us enough. We need to do it ourselves. He kind of does both. His work on Aristotle is famous for this. You know, you won't find, I want to say this precisely and advisedly, you will not find a more subtle interpreter of Aristotle in the 20th century than Heidegger. He does all these courses in the Twenties and kind of shading into the Thirties 'cause he thinks that Aristotle retrieves something that Plato obscured. At least that's the impulse he's working on at the time. So he reads the Metaphysics and the Ethics and the Rhetoric and the Physics and the whole corpus. Teasing out like a new, a rich understanding of the human being from Aristotle. And yet it's not like a duplication of Aristotle's thought, like he doesn't, you can imagine a commentary that is actually more helpful or better for letting us understand what Aristotle kind of thought, like at least working through the things that he wrote on paper. And yet Heidegger does this, it's almost violent sometimes, but it's very focused on the main issue or what he thinks is the main issue of a thinker. And so he kind of bends him out of shape a little bit, but then there's usually something there, I think anyways. You can have a deep disagreement about this, I think. Whether the bending that he does when he interrogates the thinker, so almost lying, is honest or fair to the thinker. He's not trying to represent the thinker as the thinker was himself, he's trying to get at the question that the thinker was trying to get at.
SHILO BROOKS: Right, yeah. That's my experience with Heidegger and Nietzsche, for sure.
ALEXANDER DUFF: Yes, I mean Nietzsche is the best example of this, maybe. Okay, another problem answering your question is he critical or is he, I don't think you said sympathetic, but, is he gives so many different readings of these people. You know, he goes back to them over the course of decades, and here and there he'll be more gentle, there he'll be more critical. That I think might be a lesson as well, but the truly great mind is not, never really done with him.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, it's in motion. His mind is in motion, just like yours and mine. Well, so far the way we've characterized Heidegger is as a metaphysical thinker, somebody whose primary question is the question of the meaning of being and what it means to be. But there's this other dimension of Heidegger, and you are an interesting scholar for this reason in that you are a professor of political science, and you teach Heidegger and write on Heidegger in the context of politics or political philosophy. And so what I'd like to do now is transition to this other, perhaps more neglected dimension of Heidegger, perhaps harder to gain access to given what his writings, by their titles, seem to explicitly address. And that is the political dimensions of Heidegger's writing. And I wonder if you might though, before we get into the brass tacks of Heidegger's political thought, maybe some, I know you've been doing some work on the Black Notebooks and we can tell people what those are in a moment. But you know, Heidegger was famously affiliated with National Socialism. And this is not something that scholars who study him hide from. So I wonder if you might give us an account of his, you know, just the practical reasons behind, and historical details of his affiliation with National Socialism. He's a proponent of it. He then seems to break from it. These Black Notebooks with his political views have been released in the past few years. A kind of new piece of writing from him, which is very rare and you know, a thinker of his magnitude that there's something that's been concealed for so long. So talk to us about Heidegger's activity in politics (as I understand it, he occupied a position in the university system), and then talk to us about the political philosophy of Heidegger.
ALEXANDER DUFF: It's tricky, saying that Heidegger is fascinating, is important to study, deep, meaningful, and then also wrestling with the fact of his National Socialism, when one finds that abhorrent and nauseating, is a difficult pitch to make. But I think it's absolutely crucial to never let the second part drop. There's a lot of work on Heidegger I think that tries to ignore it. There's a certain amount of work on Heidegger that minimizes it. But there's also a kind of a minor industry, the cottage industry of Heidegger scholarship that focuses on that to the exclusion of the real, the other substances of thought and the deep things that we can get from him. So to hold those two things together is I think difficult. I try to do it and not really shy away from the fact that he was a committed, and for a time, enthusiastic Nazi. But then I think it's also worth maybe just giving him the credit, that )credit might not be the right word) he really does seem disappointed with it, and even to break with and critique that political position, having been a devoted follower.
So it's not the case that the things that he's critical of in National Socialism are the things that a kind of upstanding person now would find abhorrent about it. So one doesn't want to minimize the gravity and the ugliness of the movement that he was committed to. But I do think that what he tried, what he tried to accomplish by breaking from it, it's more interesting to me now than it was maybe five or 10 years ago. I think there's something to it. OK. So Heidegger seems to have become pretty interested in the Nazis around 1930, which as you know, it's about three years before they formed the government. Heidegger grew up in rural Germany. He was married to a woman, who, I think was more enthusiastic about this kind of politics than he was, before he was. I've read things that characterize her as a vicious anti-Semite, certainly in Heidegger's, these newly released notebooks are perfectly clear that yes, he had really just ugly views about Jews. This has been reported, I should say, forever. All of his students knew this about him, Gadamer talked about this. Leo Strauss knew this., this is not a surprise, but it has kind of taken some of the Heidegger scholarship by surprise, it shouldn't have, but it has done. So, possibly led by his wife's interests, he becomes involved with the Nazis. Interested in them in the Thirties, when they assumed the government in 1933, he becomes rector of Freiburg University. And as you know, that is a, in the German academy at the time, the leadership of the university was a quasi-political, civil servant-type position. Heidegger seems to have been affiliated with the Brown Shirts or the SA faction of the Nazis. After the Night of the Long Knives, when the SS purges the SA, there was a kind of shift in the power balance of the Nazis in Germany. Heidegger's tossed out, dismissed as rector, and from around this period, we can begin to see in him, at least in the writings of the period later, but some have been written, a kind of distance on where the regime has gone.
Maybe the most notorious piece of writing on this subject is that in 1953, so after the war, after the de-nazification, all that stuff, he published a set of lectures that he'd originally given in 1935, so at the height of the Nazi period, but after he's been dismissed as rector. Where he referred, where he uses the phrase," the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism." This is the notorious and shocking phrase that he continues to use in 1953, he apparently used it in 1935, that captures something of what he thought the Nazis could have been, should have been, but weren't living up to. So none of the reasons that he ends up being critical of the Nazis, and this seems to grow during the Thirties and Forties, it's not that they were anti-Semites and he doesn't want to be an anti-Semite. It's not that they were violent and nasty, and he doesn't think that politics should be violent and nasty. It's different than that. He comes to think that the differences between National Socialism, between the politics of Russia, so Bolshevism, Communism and the politics of America and the West, so he uses the term "pragmatism" to capture it. I think he has someone like William James in mind. He doesn't say liberal Democrats, British parliamentarism, and Americanism. He thinks that these are not meaningfully different from one another. That's the position that he seems to arrive at, is that for however important we think the difference between liberal democracies, Communist tyrannies and National Socialism are, for Heidegger in practice, once he breaks with the once the regime breaks with him, he just comes to think of them all as nearly interchangeable avatars of technology. That they are all, he uses the phrase in the Introduction of Metaphysics with this set of lectures that I mentioned. He says that Russia and America are metaphysically identical. This is famous among Heidegger scholars, or famous among people interested in Heidegger. Well, what does that even mean? What does it mean to say that America and Russia are metaphysically identical? Does that mean that they're politically identical? I don't think he, I think that's not his point, exactly. He kind of thinks that doesn't matter. In the most important ways, metaphysically, that is in the way that we relate to being, the way that we are scientific technological societies, in the way that we organize our lives, that Russia and America are not meaningfully different from one another. And my surmise is that he would lump actually existing National Socialism in with Russia and America. He doesn't say that in those lectures, but the lectures do provide a kind of critique of the Nazis. It's not the one that I would like, but, so this I think is a kind of bridge to his later thought where he treats technology as the only, in a way the only regime that there is. The only way of life on earth in our time. We are all living under the auspices of what he calls technology, the scientific, this narrowed, scientific, desiccated, uprooted way of moving through the world, which is on the one hand horrific and destructive, and on the other hand, boring and stultifying. Twenty years before he says that about technology, or writes that about technology, I think he thinks it or starts to think it about the Nazis and the Americans and the Russians as well.
So I think if you, if you try to minimize his Nazism, I don't think you can make very good sense of his eventual critique of it. So I think it's important to see that he was quite sincere. He thought that the Nazis were going to wipe away modern technological forms of politics and allow us to return to a form of community life. He's more evocative and precise in his description of it, but that it will be like what Pre-Socratic Greek societies were like. In Science he mentions the German poet Hölderlin in this connection, where the kind of poetic evocations of nature and not exactly rustic, but primeval forms of community. I think he thought that that's what we needed or that's what he certainly hoped for. And he thought that the destruction wrought by the Nazis might burn away the modern world and allow for something like that.
SHILO BROOKS: Can you say a little bit more about the way, and you started to do this a little bit, because you were telling us about the identity between Russia and America metaphysically, and that led you to insert this concept of technology, that this somehow, Heidegger seems to me to be using, and you seem to be using technology in a way that I think a lot of people aren't necessarily thinking of it, although maybe some ways that they are. So you know, when I think of technology, you know, you think of smartphones and you think of electric cars and these kinds of things, but you're talking, I mean, or at least in some things that I've read of yours, you talk about, I mean, are regimes technologies too? Do you see what I mean, I mean insofar as they shape man?
ALEXANDER DUFF: I slipped into this kind of Heidegger-ese and it's probably, actually, why don't you push back against me a little bit, if I keep doing that, because it's actually, it's difficult not to just adopt his language when you're using his, trying to explain his thought, but so he doesn't just mean, you know, intercontinental flights, and the radio, and the-- Although he does think that those are, let's say the obvious starting point for what we mean by technology. "Technique" is the term. He thinks that this is just the latest way of, this is the kind of fruit of, what he calls the metaphysical tradition of the West. That this way of relating to the world, and I'll come back to that. But beginning with Plato's view that we should, what is most important about the things that are, or the ways of being, is what we can think about them, or know about them intellectually, in the mind's eye, and that implies a kind of distance from them. He thinks that the arguments that philosophers have had over 2000-plus years about that have led to an attitude toward the world that removes us from it. And that sees the world as orginally thought of what was available to the mind, and then saw it as what the mind could do at the behest of the will, on the world. That is the way that the will could apply itself to the world. Now he thinks that technology is, what he means by technology, is the way that we see ourselves in the world as stuff to be employed for purpose, a nearly limitless plastic material that doesn't have any essential character or need or purpose or design to it. That human beings, as well as fields in the ground, as well as the oxygen and the air, as well as the motion in a river, can all be transformed into something else and used for something else still.
So the, his example in this essay he has on technology is the Rhine River, which he's trying to capture the way that used to mean something to the people who lived there, and who would live their whole lives next to the Rhine, even using it sometimes for mills to take care of the field, or what have you. The extent that we can now harness the Rhine river as energy that can be stored in batteries, that is electrical energy, inclines to see the Rhine, not as this poetic, this subject of poetry that dates back to a people-forming event of people who live next to the Rhine. It's just a gigantic battery. It is energy waiting to be used. And that's not a theoretical event and it's not a practical event. It's a kind of fusion of the two that we're inclined to see it that way. That we see the world as limitlessly repurposable. His term for this is, in the English translations of his essays, it's called "standing reserve." The German for it is "Gestell," and it means it needs something like stuff that is there to be employed. And the way we frame it up, we can frame the Rhine, the singular river of life on the edge of Germany. We can frame it up as a battery power. We can frame it up as electricity to be used, to run our phones, to run our televisions, to run our radio station, what have you. There's no necessary essential connection to it being what it is. It's all useful for our purposes. And even he's implying humans can use other humans this way. There's no essentially human quality.
That's what, this is the, his account of the dark features of 20th century life, is that the destructiveness of the Second World War, the destructiveness of the Holocaust, he even thinks of the destructiveness of splitting Germany in two, he thinks they're all the same kind of thing. He thinks that agriculture, that mechanized agriculture is the same kind of thing as that, and this is, again, I think another one of the most, it should be staggering that he puts it this way. He equates the Holocaust with mechanized agriculture. There's a logic to his thinking, but it should just bring us up short on the moral, the moral catastrophe that that kind of thinking allows or permits, that he's both describing, but then also not casting. He's just trying to describe the way that the modern mind works when he focuses on technology. And the modern mind does not make serious distinctions between humans and non-humans. Or the use of non-human things and the destruction of non-human things, and therefore the destruction of human things, is all a kind of slurry waiting to be recycled.
SHILO BROOKS: So when you take what you've just said about technology together with what you said about Heidegger and his relationship with National Socialism, is it possible for you to tell us what Heidegger's primary contribution to political philosophy is? And what I have in mind here is, you know, people think of Locke, they think of Lockean liberalism, you know, people think of Rousseau, they think of the French Revolution or something of this nature. People think of Aristotle, they think of the ancient city. So there are these kind of, you know, people think of Hobbes and they think of the state of nature as a state of war. What is the, and this is again a kind of loaded question, but if you had to put it in a nice wrapper and do injustice to it and overlook its nuances, what is the contribution that Heidegger makes to the study of political philosophy or the history of political philosophy in that spirit? The spirit of the great political philosophers with whom we, you know, we associate these great political ideas.
ALEXANDER DUFF: It's a tough question to kind of really boil it down. The argument that I've tried to make, and in various places that comes closest to that, to answer that question, is that there's a kind of revolutionary, a kind of conservative revolution. There was something of the conservative revolutionary in Heidegger. That's not all there is, there's also a kind of quietist withdrawal from politics. Those two impulses vie with one another in Heidegger, but a revolutionary, maybe you'd say a revolution beyond all revolution. A return to the rootedness in the soil that humans need, or that humans originally, I'm trying not to use words like happiness or fulfillment, but kind of a communal authenticity over the horizon of a revolution. That a revolution that brings us back to the possibility of an authentic community. I think this is, again, this is all, you know, following your request that I do some proved violence to Heidegger. But this I think captures something of both his influence on identity politics, but also his, just the people who have found Heidegger meaningful in the world. To some extent, these people are on the, you call the Right. There's Iranian revolutionaries who drew a lot on Heidegger, and still do to this day in Iran, trying to relate the modern technological quasi-liberal atheist society to Islamic tradition and Islamic community. Obviously Heidegger's not doing that, but they're drawing on Heidegger to try and understand how to do that.
The connections in the West are, they're pretty visible and on the Right, what gets called the Far Right, Fascism and so forth, Alexander Dugin in Russia has a certain currency here. His Heidegger is a kind of revolutionary Heidegger, but Heidegger's also very meaningful and is taken up by the Greens in Germany. But then around the world, the idea that nature shouldn't be paved, nature shouldn't be liquidated. There's a kind of way to have an authentic human community that relates to nature, that captures our nature. And then to the extent that you want to undo the liberal focus on the individual, and root and retrieve community identities. What those identities will be is to some extent up for grabs. Heidegger was thinking about Germany, but not all of his successors, I would say, had Germany in mind. Identity politics, intersectional identity politics since then, use Heideggerian idioms for thinking through what they're getting at. So what I try to put together is to some extent, the collective authentic community and the moment of revolution. Heidegger was ambivalent about, I think, both of those, but I would drop those both out of him, or at least try to show that they're both there.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's helpful. Let me ask you this question because our time is winding down. Heidegger, as we said at the outset, is a difficult author to begin to study, especially on your own. He's got this metaphysical dimension, which the title of his works betray. He's got this political dimension, which scholars like you are doing the helpful work of unearthing for us. But if somebody was interested in reading Heidegger, maybe they have to build up to him. I don't know if they have to read other authors first in order to get to him, or if, because if they start with him, it will be very disorienting? What would you, if you could prescribe a, I mean, if you want to jump right into Heidegger, you know, what books should you read? Or/and. Let's do a two-part question. So if you're interested in Heidegger and you just heard this podcast and you want to read an essay or a book, which one should you pick up such that you won't be turned off, you know, by it? And then second, if you think, well, you know what, I really need to build up to that. And I want to get familiar with the line of questioning. Are there then a couple authors who you should read, who you'd recommend reading in an effort to build up to Heidegger? A couple of works you'd recommend. So a two-part question. What book of Heidegger do you recommend, and what books are in dialogue with him that might prepare somebody to begin to read him?
ALEXANDER DUFF: I think there's a volume of Heidegger's, mostly essays actually, called, I think it's called Basic Writings. I always knew it as kind of a red soft cover. I think David Farrell Krell is the editor. It's got the introduction to Being and Time in it, which is great, that single essay is maybe the best introduction on Heidegger's work. It's got his essay on technology,"The Question Concerning Technology," it's got the "Origin of the Work of Art," it's got what's called “The Letter On Humanism.” Any one of these is a good introductory essay for Heidegger. In terms of what to read or what to, how to introduce yourself to the dialogue with Heidegger. I'm not sure if your listeners would be interested in this, but there's a short essay by Leo Strauss that's collected in the volume called The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. I think the title is something like "Heideggerian Existentialism." That essay as it's published there is cobbled together from two other things, but that's a really good introduction to Heidegger. It's kind of high level, but it's a good overview, a very good overview. If you want to look at the work of his students, maybe starting with either Hannah Arendt or Hans-Georg Gadamer, or some of their short essays, you'd get a sense of the kind of family dialogue, familiy resemblance in their conversations, they're interesting. You can kind of hear an echo of Heidegger, and each of them has things that they've written on Heidegger that, if that's a viable starting point, then maybe making the jump to Heidegger from there would work.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, that's helpful. And if you're interested everybody, in Alex Duff's writing on Heidegger, he has a book Heidegger in Politics: The Ontology of Radical Discontent, which I encourage you to take a look at. Alex, a difficult topic, an eloquent exposition. Thank you so much for being on The Free Mind podcast.
ALEXANDER DUFF: Thanks Shilo, thanks very much, great to talk to you. [gentle music]
SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.