Martin Heidegger Talks About Language, Being, Marx & Religion in Vintage 1960s Interviews

Ger­man philoso­pher Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, whom read­ers of post-struc­tural­ist the­o­ry have to thank for pop­u­lar­iz­ing the ubiq­ui­tous phrase “always already,” was a very labored writer who coined much of his own ter­mi­nol­o­gy and gave many a trans­la­tor migraines. His prose betrays an obses­sion with the pow­er of lan­guage that many of his stu­dents and suc­ces­sors, such as Jacques Der­ri­da and Michel Fou­cault, inher­it­ed in the con­struc­tion of their own elab­o­rate the­o­ries. While Heidegger’s first book Being and Time (1927) had enor­mous influ­ence on Exis­ten­tial­ist and Phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal thought, he also wrote exten­sive­ly on tech­nol­o­gy, the­ol­o­gy, and art and poet­ics, engag­ing with the ideas of Edmund Husserl, Kierkegaard, Niet­zsche, and the roman­tic Ger­man poet Friedrich Hӧlder­lin.

In the short film above, see the man him­self in excerpts from a lec­ture and three dif­fer­ent inter­views. The footage comes from a 1975 doc­u­men­tary called Heidegger’s Speech­es. Hei­deg­ger first dis­cuss­es some the­o­ry of lan­guage, quot­ing Goethe, then, in an inter­view, talks about how he came to the cen­tral pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of his philo­soph­i­cal career: the “ques­tion of being,” or Dasein. The third inter­view con­cerns Heidegger’s thoughts on Karl Marx. He quotes Marx’s rad­i­cal dic­tum, “philoso­phers have only inter­pret­ed the world; the point is to change it,” and offers a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive based in hermeneu­tics. In the fourth and final inter­view seg­ment, Hei­deg­ger prof­fers some thoughts on reli­gion and com­mu­nism.

For a much fuller pic­ture of Heidegger’s life and work, watch the BBC doc­u­men­tary above, from their Exis­ten­tial­ist series “Human All Too Human” that begins with Niet­zsche and ends with Sartre. And this page also has video of a num­ber of philoso­phers dis­cussing Heidegger’s work, which left such a last­ing impres­sion on the char­ac­ter of late mod­ern and post­mod­ern thought that it’s hard to find a con­tem­po­rary philoso­pher who doesn’t owe some sort of debt to him.

It may be impos­si­ble to over­state Heidegger’s impor­tance to twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Euro­pean phi­los­o­phy in gen­er­al, and upon sev­er­al promi­nent Jew­ish thinkers in par­tic­u­lar like his for­mer stu­dent and lover Han­nah Arendt and ethi­cist Emmanuel Lev­inas. But it also must be said that Heidegger’s lega­cy is taint­ed with con­tro­ver­sy. While it’s typ­i­cal­ly good form to sep­a­rate a thinker’s work from his or her per­son­al laps­es, Heidegger’s laps­es of judg­ment, if that’s what they were, are not so easy to ignore. As the doc­u­men­tary above informs us, Hei­deg­ger was a Nazi. A review­er of a recent biog­ra­phy col­or­ful­ly sums up the case this way:

Let’s be clear about this: Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, a thinker many regard as the most impor­tant philoso­pher of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, was indeed a bona-fide, arm-aloft, palm-out­stretched Nazi. Zeal­ous­ly renew­ing his par­ty mem­ber­ship every year between 1933 and 1945, his com­mit­ment to the Nation­al Social­ist cause was unstint­ing. Nowhere was this more in evi­dence than in his pub­lic role as rec­tor of Freiburg Uni­ver­si­ty, where he praised ‘the inner truth and great­ness’ of Nazism in his 1933 rec­toral address, and lat­er penned a paean to mur­dered Nazi thug Leo Schlageter. Hei­deg­ger was no token fas­cist; he was jack-boot­ed and ready. Wear­ing a swasti­ka on his lapel at all times he, along­side his proud, vir­u­lent­ly anti-Semit­ic wife, also prac­tised pri­vate dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews, from fel­low exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher Karl Jaspers to his one-time men­tor Edmund Husserl. Not that he was with­out friends. In fact his friend­ship with Eugene Fis­ch­er, direc­tor of Berlin Insti­tute for Racial Hygiene, last­ed years.

Heidegger’s Nazi sym­pa­thies are hard­ly evi­dent in his philo­soph­i­cal work, yet it is still dif­fi­cult for many read­ers to rec­on­cile these facts about his life. Some refer to a 1966 Der Spiegel inter­view in which the philoso­pher explained away his Nazism as exi­gent cir­cum­stances. Sort of what we call today a non-apol­o­gy apol­o­gy. Oth­ers, like one­time admir­er Lev­inas, don’t find the task so easy. In a com­men­tary on for­give­ness, Lev­inas once wrote, “One can for­give many Ger­mans, but there are some Ger­mans it is dif­fi­cult to for­give. It is dif­fi­cult to for­give Hei­deg­ger.”

You can find more resources on Hei­deg­ger in our archive of free online phi­los­o­phy cours­es.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Friedrich Niet­zsche & Exis­ten­tial­ism Explained to Five-Year-Olds (in Com­i­cal Video by Red­dit)

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Han­nah Arendt’s Orig­i­nal Arti­cles on “the Banal­i­ty of Evil” in the New York­er Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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