In the dark, bring-out-your-dead depths of spring 2020, when New York was leading the nation in confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Simon Critchley—the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research—was thinking about the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger (1889–1976) is most philosophers’ top pick, neck-and-neck with Ludwig Wittgenstein, for Most Influential Philosopher of the 20th Century. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, Michel Foucault’s notion of the épistémè, and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction are unthinkable without
We're sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
The most likely cause of this is a content blocker on your computer or network.
If you continue to experience issues, please contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Heidegger (1889–1976) is most philosophers’ top pick, neck-and-neck with Ludwig Wittgenstein, for Most Influential Philosopher of the 20th Century. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, Michel Foucault’s notion of the épistémè, and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction are unthinkable without Being and Time, the depth charge he dropped on Western philosophy in 1927. Even if you “think against” Heidegger, you have to “think with” him, as his disciple-turned-critic Jürgen Habermas famously put it. (And there are good reasons to think against him, his embrace of National Socialism — about which more later — at the top of the list. A card-carrying member of the Nazi party, he remained impenitent to his dying breath for extolling the “inner truth and greatness” of the movement.)
Outside academe, Heidegger lives on as the quintessential German philosopher, a brooder on death, angst, and the meaning of Being; a writer of briar-patch prose thick with compound nouns for arcane concepts, such as Seinsvergessenheit (the “forgetting of Being”) and Befindlichkeit (“already-having-found-oneself-there-ness”). Wondering aloud, in a 1961 lecture, where we should go to reflect on the existential mystery of Being, Heidegger answered his own question with his usual joie de mort: graveyards.
Ruminating on Heidegger is very on-brand for Critchley, a self-described existential phenomenologist who likes to say, quoting Montaigne paraphrasing Cicero thinking of Socrates, that “to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Philosophy, as he told me, in the course of a long conversation in his office at the Onassis Foundation in Manhattan, is an Ars moriendi — an “Art of Dying” that in teaching us how to die a good death instructs us in how to live a good life. It’s only by “owning” our death, as therapy culture teaches us to say, that we transform it from a debilitating fear into a force that gives our lives meaning.
Death, angst, alienation, boredom, fear of being alone with ourselves, fear of contagious crowds: Heidegger’s got this. If he were alive and brooding, he’d be podcasting about the existential fallout of the pandemic. In Being and Time — a massive death march through what Critchley concedes is some of “the ugliest, baroque German” ever written, but a trove of “great treasures” even so — Heidegger urges us to confront the inevitability of our “finitude.” Then we can use that awareness, a state of mind he calls “being-unto-death,” to illuminate the meaning of everyday existence — to live “authentically” instead of just sleepwalking through our days as if we’ll live forever, as we usually do.
In the spring semester of 2020, while teaching a class on Being and Time, Critchley persuaded the Onassis Foundation (which promotes public and scholarly engagement with Greek culture and Hellenic civilization, and on whose board of directors he sits) to underwrite an 18-part podcast on the book. The title, Apply-degger, is apt: In a tour de force of close reading, he applies Heidegger’s ideas to our existential condition with bracing insight and exceptional clarity. (No small feat: nonfans like to joke that Heidegger defies translation, even into German.)
Having read Heidegger in the original, taught him for years, and published widely on his work, Critchley knows his subject back to front. Yet Apply-degger’s lectures never feel pretentious or pedantic. Critchley grew up in a working-class family in Hertfordshire, north of London, and was, as he told an interviewer in 2010, “a big-time punk” in the late ‘70s, with “bondage trousers, 10-hole Dr. Martens boots, and a Lewis leather jacket,” playing guitar in bands with names like the Fur Coughs. (Think about it for a minute.) He harbors an undying detestation of pedantry, which is synonymous, in his mind, with upper-class twits with Oxbridge airs. His teaching and writing are built on the unshakable conviction that “genuine philosophy can be explained simply and clearly,” an article of faith drummed into him at the University of Essex by his professor Frank Cioffi, who had zero tolerance for self-mystifying obscurantism. (When Critchley requested Cioffi’s permission to switch from a course on Foucault to one on Derrida, he signed off — under protest: “Man, that’s like going from horseshit to bullshit.”)
Critchley’s softspoken intensity and just-between-us demeanor gives the episodes a one-on-one intimacy. He’s known for his accessible yet rigorous style, on full display in his contributions to The New York Times’s philosophy column, The Stone, which he moderated from 2010 to 2021; in books like Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (2013), On Bowie (2016), philosophical musings on what David Bowie means to him), Notes on Suicide (2015), What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (2017), Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us (2019), and in academic titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (1992). That lucidity, and his patient attentiveness to his listeners — repeating key terms and propositions central to Heidegger’s project, then pausing to let them sink in — makes Apply-degger a remarkable experience: Being and Time explained, with easygoing perspicuity, by the guy on the next barstool.
He’s funny, too, in that British way. Being and Time has about as many laugh lines as a graveside eulogy by a dyspeptic Calvinist, but Critchley manages some deadpan one-liners: introducing the episode on death, he warns us, with Morrissey-esque lugubriousness, to prepare ourselves for “Full Metal Heidegger.” He’s not above Monty Pythonian silliness, either: explaining the distinction Heidegger makes between the generalized dread of existential anxiety and garden-variety fear, he notes that fear is always fear of something specific, like, say, “a big rabbit with big teeth or a big badger that appears at the door, threatening me with its badgeriness.”
“I’ve learned a lot from philosophy teachers who use comedic forms to great effect,” he told the podcaster Jesse Pearson. In Critchley’s view, philosophy and comedy are close cousins. By questioning the unquestioned and defamiliarizing the familiar, both make the assumptions that structure our experience of ourselves and the world suddenly, startlingly visible. Humor “lights up the everyday by providing an ‘oblique phenomenology of ordinary life’” is how he puts it in his study On Humour (2002). Philosophy “is like stand-up comedy,” he says, in the Pearson interview, “except you don’t have to stand up and it’s often not funny.” (Rimshot.)
But behind Apply-degger’s corner-of-the-mouth wisecracks is Critchley’s deeply felt belief in applied philosophy, a faith rooted in a breakdown he experienced at 22, in his first year at Essex. Critchley, who turned 62 this February, still recalls it vividly. During the spring semester, his gnawing fear of flunking his exams quickly snowballed into all-consuming existential dread. In the depths of his crisis, he discovered Heidegger’s 1929 lecture “What is Metaphysics?”
Melodramatic as it sounds, Heidegger saved him.
“I was suffering with this kind of overwhelming, nameless anxiety and I couldn’t identify it, and I was given, as people usually are, medication,” he recalled, in a 2016 essay for New York magazine. “That didn’t work.” What did work, paradoxically, was discovering Heidegger’s insight that anxiety (or angst), unlike fear (which is always fear of something), is a free-floating sense of unease with the world itself. “It’s a very complicated lecture,” he said when we spoke, but “it was just that line, ‘Anxiety reveals the nothing’ that made me think, ‘Yes! That!’ With a philosopher, you’re given a vocabulary for redescribing what you already feel. Heidegger made me feel that I wasn’t going mad or living in hell; here was a vocabulary that could resonate with what I was feeling.”
What he was feeling, Heidegger would say, was the human condition — the burden of Being, in all its ineffable strangeness.
Not only that, but “proximally and for the most part” (zunächst und zumeist), as Heidegger likes to say, we don’t distinguish ourselves from the world. Dasein is almost always Mitsein — “being-with” others, a raindrop lost in the ocean of everyday life, as Critchley puts it, “inextricably bound up and bound together with the complex web of social practices that make up my world.”
It’s only when we’re in the grip of certain moods that the world as an existential phenomenon is “disclosed” (revealed) to us, and we are “disclosed” to ourselves. Heidegger is a philosopher of moods; mood does the heavy lifting, in his thought, that reason does in Descartes’. Being-unto-death is one of those moods: By facing the hard truth of what Heidegger wittily calls the “possibility of impossibility” — that one day we’ll cease to be — we’re jolted into an awareness of Being. Anxiety, which the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski calls the “shadowy queen” of moods, is another.
The pandemic, which has pinned the needle of our collective anxiety into the red for the past two years, has made existential phenomenologists of us all.
When the alienation brought on by anxiety makes the world recede, we view it with alien objectivity. Usually, we’re “all in”; suddenly, we’re “all out.” Everyone and everything — especially the “complex web of social practices” that governs our lived worlds — seems disorientingly abnormal, unreal. Everyday reality is exposed as an arbitrary construct, a false front on an existential backlot with an infinity of Nothing behind it. By alienating us from the world, where we’ve always felt existentially at home, anxiety makes it unheimlich (literally, “unhomely”). Meaning drains out of everything like the tide going out, leaving us stranded, as Critchley puts it, on the beach of Being.
But there’s a fringe benefit, if you’re a Heideggerian: Anxiety estranges us from estrangement — our estrangement from our authentic selves. In our average everydayness, as Heidegger calls it, we lose ourselves in what he calls “the They,” where “everyone is the other, and no one is himself.” (“The They” — das Man — is Heidegger’s term for the collective, public self, conceived of as an undifferentiated mass of others.) In anxiety, however, what Critchley describes in a Guardian article as “the radical distinction between yourself and the world in which you find yourself” yawns wide: “As the world slips away, we obtrude. … Anxiety is the first experience of our freedom as a freedom from things and other people. It is a freedom to begin to become myself.”
This, thinks Critchley, is what makes anxiety “the philosophical mood par excellence.” If so, the pandemic, which has pinned the needle of our collective anxiety into the red for the past two years, has made existential phenomenologists of us all, or should have. Covid’s death toll (six million and counting), together with the introspective state of mind fostered by social isolation, has put some of us in a philosophical mood. Being-unto-death sneaks up on us and before we know it, we’re face-to-face with die Seinsfrage (“the question of Being,” but also, in Heidegger’s earliest usage, the question of the meaning of Being.).
In these plague days, ”we are aware of ourselves in a way that we know but most of the time we don’t think about,” Critchley told the podcaster Paul Holdengräber, “aware of ourselves as mortal creatures, fragile creatures that can be wiped out. At one level that’s bad, at another level that’s good because the alternative is living in the kind of counterfeit immortality that we think of as normal life.” That alternative — the inauthenticity of our average everydayness — is what Heidegger dubbed “the dictatorship of the They.”
A reflexively reactionary product of his rural, deeply religious milieu, Heidegger saw national socialism as a romantic antidote to the horrors of technological modernity, which in his view sought to remake the world in man’s image, using nature as raw material. He was naïve enough — some would say fatally hubristic — to believe he could play Plato to Hitler’s Dionysius of Syracuse, steering the German Volk toward an authentic community of beings in touch with Being. When he fell out of favor with party bosses for not hewing to the crude biologism of Nazi racial policy (though he was anti-Semitic enough, as his journals, the infamous Black Notebooks, make clear), he ended up Hitler’s useless idiot.
Whether his philosophy is “fascist to its innermost cells,” as Theodor Adorno maintained, or free from that taint, at least in Being and Time, as Critchley holds, is still hotly contested.
Heidegger, for Critchley’s money, is “the most important philosopher of the 20th century” and an unapologetic Nazi. We have to hold those irreconcilable opposites in our minds, he suggests. Rather than cancel Heidegger, we should salvage his deepest insights and turn them to liberatory ends. “There are ways of retrieving concepts and tools from Heidegger’s work,” says Critchley, “that can make it serve a completely opposite purpose from what he intended.”
Asked how students at the New School respond to the philosopher’s Nazi sympathies, Critchley mentions what he calls the “Bad Boy Heidegger” effect. “The more Black Notebooks appear, the more stupid things it’s discovered that he said, you’d imagine, well, the students are going to flee,” he says. “But it has exactly the contrary effect. People are drawn to something that is a little bit dangerous.”
Is that what accounts, in some students’ eyes, for Heidegger’s dark allure? Making sense of his appeal as “transgressive”—Being and Time as existentialist black metal — seems more than a little flippant.
“It’s not just that,” Critchley allows. “Being and Time has an extraordinary coherence, a kind of fugue-like quality. Heidegger could have been a sound artist, like Karlheinz Stockhausen, and ended up in a band like [the “kraut-rock” experimentalists] Can. There’s something about the musicality, the rhythmical quality of Being and Time that’s unlike any other work of philosophy that I know. And it’s delivered, as Emmanuel Levinas said, like a Sunday sermon, an exhortation; here’s someone who’s preaching at you. It’s a powerful cocktail. It feels to students as if something is at stake here — something dangerous.”
For some, the notion that Heidegger is “dangerous” in a way that gives his thought the frisson of transgression is a bit coy at a moment when cries for racial justice are being met, on the right, by a white-supremacist backlash. Unsurprisingly, Heidegger is attracting fanboys among the reactionary intelligentsia. Michael Millerman, a Canadian scholar of political philosophy whose fascination with Aleksandr Dugin nipped his academic career in the bud, remains hopeful that “the Heideggerianization of the Right” will herald “a new beginning for the West.” (Dugin is a Russian neo-fascist philosopher — and devout Heideggerian — reputed to have Vladimir Putin’s ear.) Steve Bannon, too, is an admirer: In an interview with Der Spiegel, he brandished a biography of Heidegger, quipping, “That’s my guy.”
Ray Brassier, a professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut, is suitably appalled. “The idea that we should turn to Heidegger at a time when the social and environmental ravages of capitalism have made fascism resurgent once more in Europe and America is laughable at best and sinister at worst,” he told me. “Heidegger is a profoundly reactionary thinker. The Heideggerian pathos of the care of Being, of Being as destiny, of awaiting the return of the gods, is the most rarefied manifestation of the reactionary counter-Enlightenment, formed to snuff out the emancipatory powder-trail running from Jacobinism to communism.” For Brassier, the looming threat of eco-pocalypse is an occasion for thinking about finitude at the species level. “The problem with existentialism is that it remains at the level of the unique asocial self, whereas the power of human freedom is collective.”
Not everyone agrees that Heidegger’s thought is an impediment to species solidarity in a time of climate crisis, though. Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei, a professor of German and philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University, commends Heidegger’s “later poetics of listening and care for the earth,” while so-called deep ecologists have found in Heidegger an existentialist approach to environmentalism.
Still, one of Heideggerian philosophy’s design flaws is that it calls us to an “authentic” life, “resolutely” lived, yet offers not even the rudiments of an ethics to guide us. Heideggerian resoluteness, as Graham Harman points out, “has no specific content.” Harman is a professor of philosophy at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. “Resoluteness is an authentic way of being oneself; it reveals to us whatever is possible at the current moment, and gives no specific ethical advice,” he notes, in Heidegger Explained (2007). “A Nazi storm trooper and a resistance fighter could both be perfectly ‘resolute,’ as could Christians and Muslims, or conservatives and liberals.”
Lewis R. Gordon, professor and head of the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut, cuts closer to the bone. “Martin Heidegger exemplifies values suitable for people so enwrapped in themselves that they treat their own death as the end of the world,” he told me. “We really don’t need Heidegger today. We didn’t need him then, in his rector lectures at Freiburg in 1933, with his callous investment in cruel charismatic leadership as a form of salvation. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue we never needed him. We need people who transcend self-absorption, psychotic and sociopathic indifference to the suffering of others, and delusions of importance from societal systems designed to support their limited relationship to reality. We need compassion, courage — something Heidegger lacked — and a clear understanding of institutions of power.”
As the thinker who put Black existentialism on the philosophical map, Gordon is keenly sensitive to Heidegger’s subordination of social relations to the self-centered self. His critique of narcissistic, death-haunted Dasein is informed by Black America’s historical reliance on family, community, and congregation to fuel its radical joy and struggle for justice. Patricia Huntington, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University, takes up his theme. “Existential and phenomenological philosophies from the underside articulate differential sources of angst, invisibility, and alienation,” she notes. “We should think Black existential philosophy’s call for accountability over and against Heidegger’s emphasis on authenticity.”
No one is more acutely aware of the ethical black hole in the middle of Heidegger’s philosophy, not to mention the abyss of irony between its “call to conscience” and the abject moral failings of the man, than Thomas Sheehan. A professor of religious studies at Stanford, Sheehan has spent much of his philosophical life writing, teaching, and thinking deeply about Heidegger’s project, most searchingly in Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift (2015).
“Even Heidegger understood that personal transformation was not enough,” Sheehan told me. “What about, if not personal authenticity, social authenticity? And so, in a very misguided way, he tries to step into that area in the ‘30s. Trouble is, he steps in with his right foot, in the middle of the Nazi revolution.” In his conversation with his Stanford colleague Robert Pogue Harrison on Harrison’s Entitled Opinions radio show, Sheehan calls Heidegger to account for attempting to justify his infatuation with National Socialism on philosophical grounds. “In 1936, he says, ‘My whole notion of historicity is what led me in this direction.’ [But] Herbert Marcuse read Being and Time and he said, ‘On the contrary, it leads in the direction of sociality and a community of authentic human beings.”
Citing Levinas, he argues that Heidegger is wrong in his assertion that death is “non-relational,” by which he means that we can only fully grasp the notion of mortality through our own death. “We do not experience the death of others in a genuine sense,” Heidegger writes, in Being and Time, but “are just ‘there alongside.’”
Sitting there alongside his dying mother in December of 2015, holding her hand as her life ticked away, Critchley felt what he’d already known from reading Levinas: that Heidegger had it backward. It’s only through the death of another that we fully appreciate our mortality — the event horizon of our finitude — in this life.
“I want to oppose ... the non-relational character of being-towards-death with the thought of the fundamentally relational character of finitude,” says Critchley, in Episode 11 of Apply-degger. “Death is first and foremost experienced in relation to the death or dying of the other and others; in being with the dying in a caring way and in grieving after they are dead. ... The experience of finitude opens up in relationship to the brute fact that escapes my understanding” — the ungraspable phenomenon of a loved one transformed, before our eyes, from being to thing.
The problem with authentic Dasein, says Critchley, is that it does not mourn. “The logic of authenticity makes the act of mourning secondary to my mineness, to Dasein’s mineness,” he goes on to say in Episode 11. “On my account, an authentic relation to death is not constituted through mineness but rather through otherness; death enters the world not through my own fear of death but rather through my relation to the other’s dying, perhaps even through my relation to the other’s fear, which I try to assuage as best I can.”
In his podcast, his public lectures, and his teaching, Critchley does just that. He abhors the philosophy-as-self-help trend — “I am not seeking to make philosophy simple or offer patronizing banalities about life,“ he says in Apply-degger’s first episode, adding, “These are not TED talks” — but the series sprang, nevertheless, from his hope that it could offer what some might call the consolations of philosophy.
His breakdown as a student at Essex, and his subsequent Heideggerian epiphany, taught him that “anxiety could be experienced as a kind of calm by holding yourself out, into that experience” — the experience of the Nothing, of the world rendered uncanny by angst — “and staying with it,” he told me. That negative transcendence prompted his decision to teach philosophy. As he wrote in his New York magazine essay, “I thought, in my naïveté, that I could help other people that were suffering with anxiety.”
We’re sitting in his office at the Onassis Foundation. It’s dark, and the only light in the room comes from a floor lamp. Critchley sits half-swallowed in shadow. “When I was teaching in England, at Essex, for many years I had the belief that I could look into the souls of students because they were really like me,” he says. “I’d been there, I’d been one of them, and now I was teaching. I really felt I had a sense of them. If you’re really persistent, you can set something on fire; you can light something up.
“We imagine that there are people that are secure, who know who they are and what the world is. And then there’s the rest of us — how many, who knows? — who are insecure. The idea is to take that insecurity, push it into the study of something like philosophy, and find a voice for it. What Heidegger is trying to get his audience to do is change their lives. It’s an act of conversion, where you have all the apparatus of Christianity in its most messianic version in Paul without an appeal to a transcendent deity. You get the feeling that you can convert yourself, and that’s incredibly liberating — even if you’re only being liberated to your mortality.”