by E. John Winner
In 1934, shortly after the infamous murder spree of the Blood Purge, Hitler delivered a speech before the Reichstag. Referring to an unspecified threat to himself – and thus to the government, and thus to the German nation, and thus to the German people – Hitler announced that in initiating the murders of the leadership of the Brownshirts, the leadership of the Berlin National Socialist organization, a handful of “left-wing” politicians, and a couple of minor recalcitrant old-guard military figures – he had become identical with the self-preservation of the German people, their will, and their law. According to all the opinion polling data at the time, the German people either agreed or acquiesced. This effectively ended the legitimacy of the government of Germany. If a single man’s will can be said to be the law, then there is no law; no autonomous standard of regulation by which individual behaviors may be judged. Only Hitler’s word kept a nation called “Germany” together as a political entity. The conceptualized entity, “the State,” is an invention of theory, agreed to (even if only by acquiescence) by the participants, and when it reduces to nothing but power, it is powerless as an idea. Adolf Hitler identified Germany with his own body, his own thought, and his own will, and the German people allowed him to do so. What theory of the State could correspond with this?
“The state exists,” wrote Martin Heidegger in his Introduction to Metaphysics, only a year after the historic moment when the German state had ceased to exist as anything other than a vehicle for the will of Adolf Hitler.  As Heidegger began to realize his disappointment with political events in Hitler’s Germany, did he have any idea how powerless his thinking was in relation to those events? Did he not see that events were reducing his address to them to parody? The nation within which these events occured – inhabited, Heidegger asserts, by the world’s “most spiritual people” – was everywhere falling into the barbarism that has at its command the forces of Modern technology; the same technological regimentation of Modern life for which Heidegger denounces America and the Soviet Union, but threatening the very existence of the world; not some metaphysical “world-order,” but the world of living people. But Heidegger preferred to tease the essence of Being out of a state facing an existential threat from its own leadership.
Given that the Introduction to Metaphysics is a lecture given in an academic setting, it is easy to read Heidegger’s questioning of the ontology of the state and presume that whatever he says following a question, will constitute an answer to the question. But what if Heidegger is actually asking himself questions, e.g.: “What is the state of National Socialist Germany? Can such be even referred to as a state? Where am I situated if the state is not; that is, the state no longer is what is claimed for it, the legitimate institution of government by law for the community of Germany?” How did whatever it was that Heidegger took to be the promise of National Socialism deliver Germany into nihilism? Heidegger seems to be trying desperately to raise the question of Being, only because the “essence” of National Socialism amounts to nothing.
There is not nothing in Heidegger’s infamous “Nothing.” Nor is it something. Nor is it negation. It is the absence of Being. There is, for Heidegger, certainly, a National Socialist government, but where the being of the state is sought, we find only the absence of essence, the lack of Being, that is, the Nothing – certainly nothing of the essence that was sought.
However, Heidegger seems to want to say that there is an essence of National Socialism, not found as a national state, clearly, but rather as the “spirit” of a movement in history. The Introduction to Metaphysics is an attempt to raise that issue indirectly, as a questioning of Being, in order to raise the being of National Socialism that, in the event, never emerged in history, but only as a “spirit” in this text. Heidegger tells us precisely what he identifies as this “spirit,” when he quotes from his notorious “Rektoratsrede” of 1933, to the effect that ‘spirit’ can be defined as an informed will to discover the essence of Being. It is the “will to power” as will-to-truth; a will to express truth historically. One hears echoes of Nietzsche here, obviously, yet there is more. In another well-known passage, where Heidegger writes of the dissolution of the European “spirit” as a whole, he remarks that they proved unworthy of the greatness of German Idealism.
I suspect that what Heidegger expected from National Socialism was a resurrection of the lively culture engendered by the “nation” of “Dichter und Denker” (as Germans liked to think of themselves occasionally), as it existed and promised to become when that culture was dominated by the thought of the German Idealists. But as something of a Nietzschean, Heidegger also wanted this culture to avail itself of all the resources enjoyed by any Modern culture – and to produce new cultural resources as well. This would require a new generation of poets and thinkers who would establish the grounds of knowledge in the new era they would bring forth – possibly by accepting the completion of Western metaphysics by the German Idealists themselves, while correcting the misdirection of Western metaphysics as a whole, literally from the ground up. The German philosophers would at last have an opportunity to get to the source of all philosophy, and, effectively start from scratch. Heidegger appears to have believed that it would be National Socialism that would provide this opportunity.
Unfortunately, the National Socialists chose not to do this. Instead, Heidegger was left to lecture on metaphysics, while wondering why National Socialism would not do this. Why have such a sudden diremption in history presented to a people, as a moment for rethinking the whole of their culture and its destiny, just so they could adopt the industrialism of Russia and America and the technological regimentation that came with it?
When writing of “revolution” and “our revolution,” Heidegger may be referring to the event of German Idealism. That promise had been made by writers like Kant and Hegel, and never realized: the promise Heidegger himself identified with National Socialism, but with which the Nazis themselves never identified; the promise embedded in the text of Introduction to Metaphysics, present in the occasional tone of bitter disappointment, expressions of a deep anxiety over the Nothing of the new era of National Socialism.
Concerning much of our discussion here, Hans Sluga has contributed a cogent interpretation.  Heidegger’s own understanding of his relationship with National Socialism, which he reads as a relationship to “historical Being,” was clearly very confused. It is also clear that Martin Heidegger adopted National Socialism in 1933 precisely because he had not the slightest idea what that movement was about. Heidegger was not able to conceive the real historical situation in which he found himself. The phenomenon Heidegger’s text labels “National Socialism” happens to be wholly imaginary, a fantastic fictionalization of history. And this fiction was not derived in opposition to traditional philosophy, but from it, as mythopoesis of certain tendencies in the texts of German Idealism, as implicated in the published readings of those texts available to Heidegger in the Germany of his time.
As Sluga points out, Heidegger’s argument against Modernity pivots on an insistence that the re-interpretation of “spirit,” as produced and dispersed by Modernist theorists has degraded the inherent nobility of the “spirit” by reading it as a form of intelligence, a tool, a value, an aesthetic. But the discourse of Modernity regarding “spirit” is not a re-interpretation of anything. It in fact forms the context from which the text of what Moderns know as “spirit” was produced. This notion of “spirit” is an invention of Modern discourse (especially that of German Idealism), clearly intended to replace Classical and Medieval discourse concerning “the intellective soul,” the generative locus of reason that identifies the human from other forms of animal life. Unfortunately, the German Idealists tended to get carried away by the rhetoricity of their own discourse. The term appears to have been set in motion as a trope for an ambiguous theoretical model; e.g., although Hegel’s attempted rendition in the Phenomenology is adequate, its dialectical presentation leaves considerable room for variant readings. But it soon became reified into a nebulous something-or-other that was made to appear, in deus-ex-machina fashion, whenever an a priori authority for a theoretical axiom was needed to justify a line of argument. (Here I am thankful to Jacques Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s “Rektoratsrede,”) 
As the discourse of the “Spirit” was developed precisely to these ends, the “spirit” can only label an intelligence, a tool, a value, an aesthetic – these are its historic and originary significations. Heidegger was clearly blinded by the hypostatic quality of such discourse into accepting such reification as a given: Dasein (loosely, Human Being) realizes its essence through its historical encounter with Being, which thus brings Being into disclosure historically as truth. This essence is its “spirit.” But such yet remains assertion; the ground remains ungrounded.
For Heidegger, the “spirit” of National Socialism should have been the realization of Dasein’s encounter with Being in history. But he has hitched this hope to a creaky wagon full of illusions: that the German Idealists had resurfaced an historically determined truth from the ancient Greeks, signified as “spirit,” which in fact was their own construction; that this supposed re-surfacing had in itself provided the German people an opportunity to realize ancient truths in a new form; that this opportunity effectively centralized Germany as the special locus of important historical change, ushering in a new age of thinking, of poetic encounter with Being, or cultural creativity promised but unfulfilled in Western metaphysics; that there could even be a “National Socialism” different from that of Adolf Hitler’s. Heidegger has introduced us to metaphysics, but his anxiety that all his hope might be grounded in illusion (evident in the bitterness of his social commentary, in his ironic self-reflection) has revealed the nothingness of the National Socialist state, the inherent nihilism grounding its industrially driven construction, predetermined to realize itself in death camps and world war. In 1935, it was poignant to ask “Why is there Being rather than Nothing,” because the German people were nearing the political abyss of the Nothing of historical obliteration.
Heidegger himself raises the issue, under the rubric of “appearance.” Unfortunately, his discourse on appearance is itself misguided. What Heidegger wants from appearance as a presentation of Being is two-fold. First, he needs to acknowledge that appearance can be deceptive, as everyone knows; thus it should provide a standard of judgment as to its own veracity. But Heidegger also wants appearance to be useful for engendering an encounter with Being. But how do we know when appearance is leading us toward being, and when it is misleading, as illusion? Heidegger does not provide us with guidance.
Let us think of the sun. Every day it rises and sets for us. Only a very few astronomers, physicists, philosophers – and even they only on the basis of a specialized approach which may be more or less widespread – experience this state of affairs otherwise, namely as a motion of the earth around the sun. But the appearance in which sun and earth stand, e.g. the early morning landscape, the sea in the evening, the night, is a appearing. This appearance is not nothing. Nor is it untrue. Nor is it a mere appearance of conditions in nature which are really otherwise. This appearance is historical and it is history, discovered and grounded in poetry and myth and thus an essential area of our world.
Only the tired latecomers with their supercilious wit imagine that they can dispose of the historical power of appearance by declaring it to be ‘subjective,’ hence very dubious. The Greeks experience it differently. They were perpetually compelled to wrest being from appearance and preserve it against appearance. (The essence of being is un-concealment.)
This is a decisive moment in Heidegger’s text, which we can call “the parable of the sun.” What Heidegger wants from this parable is evidence that the common perception of the sun “rising” in the East and “setting” in the West contains a truth within it, the truth of sensory knowledge, from which the ancient Greeks communally wrested the truth of their experience with Being, in a history-making, poetic manner. The conceptual and mathematical description of the earth in its double rotation – on its axis and around the sun – is simply not as close to Being as the undeniable, visually ascertainable appearance of the sun ‘moving’ toward, then behind, the horizon to the west at dusk. Heidegger is not dismissing the knowledge discoverable in mathematics and astronomy. He is simply saying that the truths of these sciences will not get us any closer to the being of the sun as we experience it, than contemplating it at dusk as an essential existence revealed to our thought.
But this line of thought is troubled by problems both internal and external. As an example, at one point Heidegger notes that it is difficult to sense the double rotation of the earth, to be there in it, which would be required such that one could look at the sun and encounter it in its essence as the star around which the earth moves. This seems, at first, difficult – but it may be possible to imagine an entire culture generated around the experience of the earth’s double rotation and perceiving the sun in this fashion. But if even a “gut feeling” of the earth’s double rotation is possible (further supported with reasoning and evidence), why would we want to affirm the old notion of the sun revolving around the earth, as anything other than myth and poetry? There is a point in the development of all learning where a knower accomplishes a knowledge that cannot be unlearned. The reason why we can never return to the Ptolemaic universe is because we have accumulated an enormous quantity of internalized discourse explaining why Ptolemy was wrong. This discourse includes mathematical proofs and astronomical models, but it also now includes poems, philosophy texts and even the testimony of contemporary farmers. It is not that the visual imprint of the sun “rising” and “setting” is wrong, and it is certainly not nonsense. It’s simply no longer necessary to see it in this way, and it is now impossible for us to agree that such an appearance is the truth of our experience of the sun.
Truth, even scientific truth, but also the truth of immediate experience, is historically determined, just as Heidegger says it is. But this only means that the wise and courageous act to perform here is not the embrace of promised radical change in the future, but the acceptance of change as it has already occurred. The sun does not “set.” It never has. Theories implicating double rotation were actually in play in ancient Greece and Egypt, but the early Christians discredited and suppressed them. The actual visual appearance of the sun is a matter of complete indifference. Our knowledge will tell us what to see and how to see it. If it is the duty of philosophers, poets, and other thinkers to provide alternative perceptions, other possible knowledges and ways of knowing – and I believe Heidegger would agree that this is right – then we must always begin with what is presently known, in our own language now, and not seek revival of older usages long debunked. The history of knowledge – our history, our knowledge – will not allow it as anything other than a nostalgic glance backward. What can be said of an appearance is precisely what can be known of it, nothing more.
Heidegger says of anxiety that it arises when matters appear to us as though wholly unknown. I agree that this anxiety allows us an opportunity to learn what we did not know before. But profound, uncontrollable, enduring and unendurable anxiety is simply panic, and no one learns in a state of panic. Confusion everywhere reduces human response outside of the thoughtful and down to the level of primate fear and aggression. Such was exactly what Adolf Hitler was counting on politically, in the historical condition of an impoverished Germany in the early ’30s.
The Ptolemaic model of the universe was part and parcel of an ideology. It was false. Our current conception of the universe is part of the ideology of Modernity. It may, in the future, prove false. But this does not mean we cannot now trust it to be true. Ideology just is the logic of the ideas one has in mind, true or false. But when an ideology moves a populace to harm others, or themselves, we should consider it with extreme caution and suspicion.
What Heidegger seems to want to say in Introduction to Metaphysics, is that National Socialists certainly manipulated false appearances in order to bring about unpleasant political change, but that we should look to those appearances to discover a truth that, if properly noticed, thought, decided and acted upon, could at last bring forth a breach in history, a poetic encounter with Being; a deeper spirituality. Not any of this is true. Mein Kampf does not need a close reading to reveal Hitler’s project for a permanent condition of pan-European war, enslavement, oppression, anti-Semitic violence, and vicious intra-governmental squabbles leading to execution (or simply murder).  If Hitler had chosen a path to power that was simply a manipulation of appearances, an obvious deception of the German people, he would never have written Mein Kampf.
What appears to have happened for Heidegger, is that the appearance he thought the National Socialists presented – a revival of German Idealism – was only what he wanted from them. Beyond the texts of Heidegger and a handful of conservative intellectuals in correspondence with him, there exists no evidence that the National Socialists had any desire to bring forth such a revival. They didn’t even think reference to that era of German thought useful for propaganda purposes. This supposed promised revival of German Idealism was an invention of Heidegger’s inner ideology. He imposed it on the culture of National Socialism in order to find a place for himself within it. Despair in the face of growing evidence that the National Socialists had no interest in this was inevitable.
For the German Idealists themselves, the world as appearance, as imposed by us on the world through our reason, could be guaranteed, not by blindly accepting knowledge just as given, not by allowing ‘gut feelings’ and intuition to guide us to dramatic encounters with being or poetic disruptions of history; but by rectifying the reasoning by which knowledge is known; through which Being is encountered; according to which we must negotiate history as it actually happens. Philosophy is about understanding, it’s not about effecting revolutionary change.
Heidegger wanted the important question to be, “Why is there Being, rather than Nothing?” But that turns out not to be the question. Despite his remarks on Sartre, the “Letter on Humanism” (1946), Heidegger’s thinking always really concerned the question: What is it to be human?  Raising such questions and thinking them through is the task of philosophy. Heidegger love wisdom. If ultimately, he could not find it, and even for a time allowed politics to mislead him away from it, it is because he forgot to seek it in the one place it ever finds its home, the mind of the rational animal.
 Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans R. Manheim. Doubleday, 1961.
 Hans Sluga, “Conflict is the Father of All Things,” in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, R. Polt and G. Fried, eds.; Yale, 2001.
 Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question; G. Bennington and R. Bowlby, trans.; U. Chicago, 1989.
 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, R. Manheim, trans.; Houghton Mifflin, 1943.
 Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, F. A. Capuzzi with J. G. Gray D, trans.; D. F. Krell, ed.; HarperCollins, 1993.