An Anti-human Humanism: Heidegger's rejection of Essence-based Ontology

An Anti-human Humanism? Heidegger's rejection of Essence-based Ontology

In his Letter on Humanism, Heidegger asks: “Should we still keep the name “humanism” for a “humanism” that contradicts all previous humanism” (263)? This question is characteristic of Heidegger’s understanding of humanism by virtue of its radical departure from all pre-existing definitions of humanism—including Sartre’s. For Heidegger, traditional humanism is an attempt to liberate humans to allow them to become the best possible version of the beings they are. From Ancient Rome to Modern France, the basic tenet of humanism has remained the same. Specifically, every interpretation of humanism thus far has been metaphysical in the sense that it builds off an entity-oriented understanding of being and treats all beings, including human beings, as having some defining attribute or essence. Consequently, its philosophizing is confined by the realm of metaphysics. Heidegger rejects that humanism as he conceives it should be metaphysical at all: his project is humanistic only insofar as it still reserves a special place for human beings. In his view, humanism should reject all previous presuppositions and ask, instead, what it means to be.

To understand Heidegger’s humanism, we must first understand the humanism he criticizes. At the beginning of the letter, Heidegger provides a genealogical account of the word humanism that stretches back to Roman antiquity (244). The claim humanism makes of humans, he thought, was the way through which “man (homo) become human (humanus)” (244). “We encounter the first humanism in Rome,” wrote Heidegger, as humanitas (244). Humanitas was something to be “striven for” in the Republic (244). It could be earned through “training in good conduct”—it frees you from the “inhumane”—the barbaric, or homo barbarus—and one can come to embody it, making one the most outstanding version of oneself (244). This is the essence of humanism.

From the ancient Romans to the medieval Christians and then to the pre-modern Germans and WW2 French freedom fighters, humanism is the striving of man to become human away from “inhuman”. While the Romans strove for self-realization through training, the Christians sought to find “human salvation” through redemption, where one’s image becomes realized and perfected through God. All share a “concern that the human being become free for his humanity and find his worth in it” (245). For Marx and Goethe alike, humanism was “grounded in a metaphysics or is itself made to be the ground of one”—all took for granted a deeply flawed, essence-based ontology (245). But, more fundamentally, what does it mean to even be human in humanism? In what “does the humanity of the human being consist”? Heidegger answers that it “lies in [man’s] essence,” but he finds this notion deeply problematic (244). He thinks humanism is so deeply flawed that it cannot even ask the right question about “the relation of being to the essence of the human being” as it is unable to recognize nor understand it (245). An inquiry into being must not first introduce its inquiry as a metaphysical one. Yet, to get to the heart of Heidegger’s critique of humanism, we must first turn to Sartre.

Sartre’s existentialism is a humanism that is similarly situated within this metaphysical tradition. Traditionally, we conceived God as a superior artisan, one who “produces man” by “following a definition and a technique” (Sartre 35). Early, theistic humanism for man, wrote Sartre, “is the realization of a certain concept in the divine intelligence” (35). What differentiates Sartre from Greco-Roman and Christian conceptions of humanism, however, is his rejection of a static human essence. There is no unchanging humanitas that we strive for, or an omnipotent, atemporal God to worship. Now, “God does not exist”—and man is to replace him (35). There “is no human nature since there is no God to conceive it”—as a result, man is only “what he makes of himself” (36). Existence, then, is truly free. In the making of every single choice, man 3 “invents” his essence and “invents” his “values” as “life has no meaning a priori” (60). By always having the freedom to will, man becomes “the person he chooses to be” but also chooses “all mankind as well as himself” (38). In this way, mankind fixes the dynamic essence of man through the summation of the infinite choices of each individual person. It is this terrible burden that condemns man to be free. There are no excuses for him. Existentialism is a humanism because it too places human beings at the center of the world. Yet, the humanity of the human being still lies in his essence—it is just one that he creates himself. Like other humanisms, one can still strive for self-realization through the exercise of the supreme metaphysical generativity of one’s will. Whatever choice one makes, then, becomes truth.

Heidegger thinks the whole tradition of humanism from the Romans to Sartre is completely mistaken; in fact, he doesn’t even think we should retain the use of the word. All conceptions of humanism thus far lie within a realm of metaphysics that attributes some essence to human beings. Again, even Sartre doesn’t escape this, because his existentialism relies on a metaphysical ability of humans to invent their essence by making choices. Rejecting Sartre, Heidegger points out that he “is taking existentia [existence] and essentia [essence] according to their metaphysical meaning” (250). And, although it is true that from Plato onwards metaphysicians have believed that essence precedes existence, Sartre merely reverses the statement—however, the “reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it he stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of being” (250). Heidegger believes that Sartre’s account still clings to a single metaphysical fact about human beings: that we are subjects who are free to make choices. Instead, for Heidegger, the appropriate question concerning the truth of being, forgotten since Plato, can come to light only if the whole tradition is discarded. 4 So what is Heidegger’s humanism? What is the appropriate question to ask? In contrast to Sartre’s claim that existence comes before and defines essence, Heidegger claims that the existence and essence of dasein (being-there, or the mode of being particular to humans) are defined in terms of each other. He rejects the metaphysical essence-existence dialectic in its entirety because dasein is not created through the metaphysical generative power of our decision-making. Rather, according to Heidegger, dasein itself “occurs essentially as ‘thrown’ and “unfolds essentially in the throw of being” (250). We are not radically free to choose the meaning of our situation—we are thrown into a situation whose meaning is partly grounded. For Heidegger, being simply cannot be understood irrespective of beings. Metaphysicians may analyze what it is to be a human being but fail to step back and think about what it is to be in the first place. In this way, the truth of being is forever inaccessible from the vantage point of traditional philosophy.

The right question to ask, then, must be what it is to be anything at all. Thought must focus on what comes before the metaphysical inquiry—it must investigate the very “truth of being itself” (246). Heidegger believes that the truth of being is found in the clearing. Specifically, humans must “[stand] in the clearing of being”—it is unique to their “ek-sistence” (247). This ek-sistence is not Sartre’s existentia—it is not “actuality in contrast to the meaning of essentia” (248). These metaphysical determinations of being are not even relevant: unconcealment through the clearing must happen before an account of things can even be given. In other words, for things to become intelligible, they must unhide themselves first. We are the site where that unhiding takes place, and we are the ground upon which things can become unhidden. The illumination in the clearing 5 is ontologically prior to entities—the prior domain has to be cleared so that things may appear to man.

It is crucial to understand that humans do not have control over unconcealment and “do not decide whether and how beings appear” or how they “come forward into the clearing of being” and “depart” (252). To be, then, is to stand in a caring and concerned mood in relation to being. Only then do humans stop overlooking the true being of beings and become “claimed by being” (247). Humanism, with its metaphysical orientation, misses the moment of unconcealment, i.e. the clearing, and can thus never achieve its true aim of grasping true human essence. From the Chrsitians to Sartre, all humanism thinks of being in the same way it thinks of beings—entities like chairs or fruits. It only thinks that Being is some special, higher kind of beings. Being is not established by a series of rationally determined life choices—rather, we are claimed by being; being manifests itself to us. Humans are always “being-in-the-world,” and this worldliness demands a mode of “thinking that abandons subjectivity” (249). There simply is no place for Sartrean subjectivity in Heidegger’s philosophy.

So how can Heidegger even call his philosophy a humanism? Well, Heidegger’s humanism is a humanism insofar as it still reserves a special place for human beings. In a way, it is being-centric in that it identifies humans as the shepherds of being. Beds are not the shepherds of being. Cats, bagels, and chestnut trees are not attuned to the manifestation of being as we are. They are never “placed freely into the clearing of being” (248). Other things cannot stand out, or, ek-sist as we can, so the prior illumination simply cannot occur for them. In other words, human beings are the only ones for whom clearing can take place. Without us, being has no conduit to the world. Human beings do not cause the clearing, but it is enacted through them. To be human, 6 then, is not to be the one with a human body coupled with a soul and mind, nor to be just “animal rationale” (260); rather, “the human being is, and is human, insofar as he is the ‘ek-sisting’ one. He stands out into the openness of being” (266). To be human is to be the one “thrown” into the clearing (249). In this way, then, “The human being is the shepherd of being” (252). A true humanism is found only in man’s “dwelling in the nearness of being,” in his guardianship—that is, “care for being” (261). This is what Heidegger means by humanism, and it is unlike any conception before it.

Ultimately, the letter on humanism is a letter about what it is to be, and Heidegger believes that man is not completely free to choose the meaning of his situation. Humans are all thrown into a situation whose meaning is already partly established. They are not the “lord of beings”; only the “shepherd of being” (260). To be a shepherd entails that one is open to be “claimed by being,” not to generate it (239). In the end, it matters little if the name humanism should be used to describe Heidegger’s philosophy. He understood man’s tendency to “cling always and only to beings” and he pulled man away (252). It is enough to point out that his humanism rejects all previous metaphysical interpretations and demands man to step back and stand openly before what is present in the world. In doing so, he is a humanist and his philosophy is humanism.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin, and William McNeill. Pathmarks. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Wade Baskin. Essays in Existentialism. Citadel Press, 1993.

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