Heidegger, Voegelin and the Human Predicament

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Living Under the Spell of Heidegger

Modern intellectual discourse is still under the spell of the Heideggerian project. Once it had broken away from its German moorings, Heideggerian thought proliferated and was received into non-German cultures. Their intellectual elites appropriated it according to their own reading of Heideggerian texts. While they came to divergent and often contradictory conclusions about the philosophical and political significance of his work, they still regard Heidegger’s symbolic evocation as a most fascinating intellectual response to the multifaceted crisis of modernity.

Heidegger’s international reputation is not in the least owed to his many legitimate and illegitimate children ranging from Gadamer, Arendt, Strauss, Löwith, Marcuse, and Jonas to Sartre, Levinas, and Derrida. Eric Voegelin could neither by biography nor by his own testimony be counted among the intellectual offspring of Heidegger. But their common German background and the later Voegelin’s exposition of a philosophy of human existence lent itself to a tendency to read Heidegger into Voegelin, thus eclipsing the fact that Voegelin followed a different intellectual path–philosophically and politically–in order to come to grips with the totalitarian challenges of our time. I will not raise the question of how Voegelin differs from Heidegger in terms of an overall reconstruction of their respective oeuvres nor open a new front in the Heidegger wars, but will deal instead with Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialist politics and raise the question whether his philosophy is congenial to National Socialist ideas.1

The latter question, however, is burdened with the problem that the German intellectual landscape of post-World War I was marked by an ever changing flux of ideas, doctrines, world views, sentiments, and moods. Therefore, a clear cut distinction between philosophy and Weltanschauung is difficult, even if we can distinguish between the academic language of university philosophers and the language of the proponents of the many Weltanschauungen, but in view of concepts and ideas this distinction is blurred. This explains why philosophers and other intellectuals in good standing could become intellectual National Socialists without subscribing to the Weltanschauung of the Nazi-party–at least for a time. I will explore here the political spirit as it comes to the fore in the theoretical reflections of these two thinkers in order to show how their theoretical positions were explicitly or implicitly connected with issues of immanent public relevance.

A sketch of their respective backgrounds, their intellectual biographies, and their enrivonments may prove useful. There was Martin Heidegger, the upcoming star among German philosophy professors who attracted the academic youth–the youth who became enthusiastic about his radical questioning of intellectual traditions and his search for a new beginning of philosophical thinking by turning to the “facticity of life” itself and uncover its authentic meaning in a time of nonauthenticity.2 Voegelin, twenty years younger, was an unknown Privatdozent in an insecure and ill-paid position with meager academic prospects who had set out to reconstruct the German Staatslehre in terms of a comparative hermeneutics of the sociocultural reality and its mental forms.3 Here is Heidegger, the churched Catholic who broke with the scholastic philosophy of his Church in order to be admitted into a philosophical establishment–he being convinced that a Catholic was unfit to philosophize. There, Voegelin, the unchurched Protestant who, so to speak, had placed himself between the disciplines of law and sociology and had found himself hampered in his career for lack of a law degree.

Provincial Experience vs. Cosmopolitan

But there was one crucial mark of difference. Heidegger had never left Germany. He was and remained by his own decision in the German province; he came from rural southwest Germany; his life-horizon was small town academia; it included neither urban life nor international experience. Heidegger turned his provincialism into a matter of philosophical principle: true thinking is only possible in the German or Greek language, and, for instance, when the French think, they do it in German.4 That is why only Germans can express the philosophical epiphany of the meaning of Being within the specific ontic condition of the entity that is human Dasein.

The Anglo-Saxon world was not only irrelevant in this respect, its pragmatic-technical approach to things prevented any philosophical thinking. Further, in his opinion as expressed in 1942, Bolshevism was just a variety of Americanism.5 During all his academic life, Heidegger never offered a course on French or Anglo-Saxon philosophy. Heidegger derived his identity from his being German, thus his thinking revolved around the German people, the Volk, with all the implication the term had in German intellectual and political thought.

Voegelin, who became an American citizen in the 1940s, was hardly a provincial; he grew up in the urbane city culture of Vienna where his father was an engineer, and, as a result, he had not been limited by the education typical of a Bildungsbürger. More importantly, after earning his PhD he went to Berlin, Heidelberg, and Oxford, then, as a recipient of a Rockefeller grant, on to the United States and later to Paris. This international academic socialization was a rare experience. He came to know the different cultural worlds, took part in the international intellectual discourse and build up an intellectual and scientific network that reached far beyond the Viennese academic community.

The experience of a plurality of societal forms, scientific styles, and milieus was crucial to Voegelin’s scholarly outlook and his scientific work. He had moved well beyond the German-Austrian and the central European point of reference and opened himself to the Western world of ideas and its forms of thought. That introduced him to the multiformity of historical concretions of the spirit as it appears in the personality of human beings. This critical distance from his own academic upbringing explains in part why Voegelin lost interest in Heidegger and never undertook a pilgrimage to Freiburg.

One last biographical remark to the politics of both thinkers. Whatever Heidegger saw in Hitler’s rise to power, he was convinced of the revolutionary force of the movement to return the German people to their true being and, thus, to their original and authentic destiny. Heidegger joined enthusiastically in the movement, becoming a party member, and eventually signing the infamous commitment of the professorate to Hitler. The German mandarins had believed that from Hegel’s inauguration lecture in Berlin onward the university was the central agency of national spiritual and cultural life and was destined to lead and effectuate the regeneration of the nation.

Heidegger seemed to have believed that his revolutionary and radical philosophical reconstruction of existential truth of Being incorporated the true meaning of National Socialism to be realized by the reformed university under the guidance of the philosophical leader. However, Heidegger’s time spent as a university politician remained only an episode in his life because the National Socialists and their proponents of a völkische Weltanschauung had failed in his eyes; but as recently published material demonstrates he remained committed to the greatness and truth of the National Socialist movement until its collapse with the defeat of Germany in 1945.

On the other hand, Voegelin watched the events in Germany from the outside; he even seemed to have suspended his judgment for a while before he began to understand what was happening. He even pondered the possibility of searching for a position in Germany because he assumed that his study of the race question should be of interest to the German university establishment. This was, of course, a serious misreading of the situation. His still-Weberian approach had already denounced the scientific claims made by the Nazi’s race doctrine, declaring it a political myth leading to dangerous consequences when put into political practice.

What the National Socialists thought of him became obvious in a review of the race book written by Norbert Gürke, son-in-law of the leading Nazi jurist Otto Koellreutter. Voegelin had placed himself outside of National Socialist science.6 Early in 1934, the German development lead him to sum up the features of the new order that “tended more to the destruction of a complete life-form than to the creation of a new one, and, in the event of a de facto failure, the danger of a horrible psychic breakdown”.7

In consequence a political and theoretical reorientation set in. Politically, Voegelin, the former Social Democrat, now supported the emerging authoritarian regime of the Christian Social Party, because he was persuaded that the instability of Austrian democracy would invite a German takeover, as attempted in the abortive Nazi coup of 1934. In Voegelin’s judgment the Christian Social Party alone was willing to defend Austrian independence and maintain a modicum of rule of law. Voegelin’s shift basically entailed a move toward reassessing the theoretical value of the Christian-humanist understanding of human personality as the hallmark of Western thought. More importantly, Voegelin’s understanding of the nature of social science changed dramatically.

The Case of Theodor Haecker

While we can take into account the different political options available to Heidegger and Voegelin in the mid-thirties, we need to focus on their fundamental disagreement about the meaning of human existence in society and history. We must contrast Heidegger’s destruction of the classical Christian humanist notion of human nature with Voegelin’s turn to philosophical anthropology which emphasises the ontologically grounded idea of human personality. My analysis starts from Heidegger’s pointed critique in 1935 of Haecker’s book What is Man? and compares it to Voegelin’s writings from about the same period. Then we will broaden the view and offer a few observations on both thinkers’ positions concerning the human condition at this critical juncture of German history.

In 1935, the outlawing of Jews and people of Jewish decent was in full swing; ideologically and politically suspicious individuals disappeared in concentration camps; and thousands had been murdered in the aftermath of the so-called Röhm putsch of 1934. In this situation, the Catholic Theodor Haecker reminded his Church (which had been collaborating with Hitler), the intellectual community at large, and foremost here, those claiming to be philosophers, of the “idea of a genuine humanity.” It is contemplation and not action that leads us to the insight that human beings are created in the image of God.

Without this idea of humanity, Haecker argued, we might arrive at the conclusion that “God could not become and has not become ‘man’ per se, but only a Jew; that God is ‘species-bound’ (artgebunden), that he had to become first German or Prussian or Slave in order to have validity for them.” These would be the conclusions to be drawn from “species-bound” philosophy. Such a crippled philosophy and blasphemous theology will throw us in an abyss of barbarity.8

This was an intellectual declaration of war by Haecker, and Heidegger was aware of it. In the summer semester 1935, Heidegger gave a course on “An Introduction to Metaphysics” that offered a critical review of Christian philosophy and, more specifically, of Haecker’s book. (William T. Tête has already mentioned this episode in a paper read at the San Francisco meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society in 1996.) In his lecture Heidegger argued in favour of eliminating Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular in the public realm. The whole story of this incident is told by Hugo Ott.9

Heidegger said the following: “In a book that came to me only a few days ago I read: ‘The real appearance of truth on the form of the God-man set the seal on the Greek’s philosophical insight concerning the rule of logos over all existence. This confirmation and seal establish the classicism of Greek philosophy.” And he continues:

“If a man believes the propositions of Catholic dogma, that is his individual concern; we shall not discuss here. But how can we be expected to take a man seriously who writes ‘What is man?’ on the cover although he does not ask questions because he is unable to ask questions. And when the Frankfurter Zeitung among others praise such a book, which questions merely on its cover, as ‘an extraordinary, magnificent and couragous work,’ even the blindest among us know where we stand.”

Why, asks Heidegger, does he (Heidegger) bother to mention such absurd things? Because they confuse the necessary standards and attitudes, because people no longer know, “where and by whom the real decisions must be made if the toughness and primordiality of historical knowledge should be joined together with the greatness of historical willing.”

Heidegger continues: it is the acting will, not contemplation, that sets the standards of life. What are the decisions that are at stake? It is the destiny of the “metaphysical people” to decide the fate of Europe and the world by means of the re-enactment of the greatness of the Greek beginnings. The self-assertion against Russia and America requires this decision. If Germany takes over the responsibility for Europe, it takes over the leadership at the same time.10 This was in fact the political agenda of the National Socialists. Heidegger’s political animus drove him to an activism that he practised in the lecture hall after he failed in his ambition to be the spiritual reformer of National-Socialist Germany.

An Inverted Aristotelianism

Heidegger’s denunciation of contemplative reflection on the nature of humanity is intrinsically connected with his interpretation of Aristotle that is at the root of his “radical phenomenological anthropology.” He turned the Greek-Christian understanding upside down by subordinating theoretical life to the practical life of phronesis (as Michael Gillespie in his paper on Heidegger’s Aristotelian Fascism has shown).11

Heidegger understands that, for Aristotle, sophia ranks higher than phronesis and that “consequently authentic human existence is possible only for the theoretical wise man, not for phronimos or man of affairs.” But Heidegger extracts from the text his own foregoing conclusion that “the fundamental experience of Dasein for Aristotle is not theoretical but lies in the interaction of life with the world. Only phronesis (in Heidegger’s philosophical newspeak: caringly looking around, circumspection —J.G.) is communicable within the realm of Dasein’s fundamental Being-with-others, and finally, putting phronesis before sophia results from an misunderstanding of the true meaning of Being on the part of the Greeks.11

Without further inquiry into Heidegger’s Aristotelianism the decisive point of his anthropology can be stated: The historical epiphany of Being is taking place in human interaction that is the collectivity of the people as represented by the agency of the leader. In December 1933, Heidegger reminded his follower Eric Wolf, “Der einzelne, wo er auch stehe, gilt nichts. Das Schicksal unseres Volkes in seinem Staat gilt alles.”12 This is not to say that Heidegger’s multifaceted thinking does not offer a plethora of important insights arising from his “existential analysis,” but the crux of the matter is that Germany’s most outstanding philosopher in the 20th century became a National Socialist–whatever this may mean.

Eric Voegelin’s attempts at a reorientation of the understanding of the human being and the state in a geisteswissenschaftliche Staatslehre were increasingly carried on in terms of a theory inspired by the Aristotelian vision of the bios theoretikos and the attendant anthropology of the human self opening itself toward the whole order of being. Its categorical centre is the modality of a general and historical openness of the reflecting human being. The theoretical practice of a reflecting science is by necessity different from the practice of the acting politician in that it involves the contemplative withdrawal from the power struggle. It is theoria in the Aristotelian sense, Voegelin wrote in 1936, that cultivates the theiotaton, the spiritual core of human being, the indispensable element in the formation of political community.

What could be accomplished by embracing this contemplative attitude in the situation as it existed in 1936?

“Theory can achieve an important communal purpose that is grounded in human nature. [The emotional focus on communal life and its imperatives] threatens to elevate the object of this emotion, the people or the class, immensely, divinizing it; a demonic being, the community, replaces God, and a demonic faith and a demonic ethic replaces religion–this is the very political Weltanschuung whose type we outlined earlier. By means of its fundamental openness toward the world, theory can help to prevent a demonizing closure of a communal ‘world.’ Theory directs our gaze to the multiplicity of communities that exist alongside one another and can thereby prevent us from raising the value of one’s own community to an absolute height . . . . “13

In sum: at the outset of their theoretical reflections both Heidegger and Voegelin intended to separate philosophic theory from the prevalent Weltanschauung. The encounter with National Socialism led the first to blend philosophy and politics and thereby succumb to the Weltanschauung; the second kept theory at a distance from politics, making Weltanschauung the object of his critical inquiry in order to lay open its political consequences.

From the vantage point of his contemplative theoria, Voegelin could give a critical assessment of the German situation–it went beyond the iron cage of völkische identity that held Heidegger captive. Voegelin developed a anthropologically grounded typology of political forms that relates the societal order to the idea of the person as its essential constituent and applied it in a comparative analysis of the essential difference between the Western nation state and what he called the imperial people–by which term he meant Germany by reason of its belated nation building and its attempts to preserve the imperial idea in the nation.

In the Western nation-states the philosophy of the person and the philosophy of the political human being converge, while in Germany the two diverge. In this respect the nation-states live still under the spell of the Christian tradition. Political consciousness forms the political man according to the primacy of personality and not according to the primacy of membership in a secular collective, as is the case with an imperial people. The individual ceases to be of value when faced with an impersonal collective such as the people. In Germany ideas revolving around power politics, economics and blood overwhelmed older ideas. An outgrowth of this was the ascendancy of the race idea in the context of an imperial people.

This idea of a community based upon the physical nature of man and the Weltanschauung derived from this idea builds on an reassessment of the vital sphere and the concomitant change in the existential mood:

“New insights into the relevance of the a-rational in human existence develop across the board. The disruption of the Christian cosmos is psychologically accompanied by a sharpened sensitivity to the sources of the atypical, the abnormal, the a-rational, the disorderly. In the sphere of ethics, we can clearly detect the incipient dissolution of firm norms and traditions. From the German idealism onward a series of transitions involving the dissolution of the rational and the new determination of a-rational life as the source of law hereupon from Fichte, Nietzsche, Bergson to Simmel and Weber materializes in speculations about moral phenomena being conceptualized in terms like existence, attitude, concrete situation, responsibility, immediacy, decision . . . .”14

The collective idea of the people is a secular ideology that destroys the vitality of society and did so for a time in Germany. This idea of community was grounded in an anxiety arising from the loss of a spiritual unity that binds people to each other. The German idea of a chosen people needed a counter-world of the non-elected, the damned. This was necessary in order to escape the anxiety of loneliness and safeguard the final state of universal happiness. The only redemption in National Socialism is the nation and “its bringers are an imagined particular community acting as an elite within the nation.”15 So had Voegelin already argued as early as 1933.

These comments show how strongly the positions of Heidegger and Voegelin diverge. Their contrasting agendas were complementary to each other only insofar as the major issues at stake were indeed encompassed in the question asked by Haecker, “What is man?”



1. A. Milchman, A. Rosenberg, “Martin Heidegger and the Political: New Fronts in the Heidegger Wars,” in The Review of Politics, Summer 2003, 439-449; E. Faye, Heidegger, l’introduction du nazism dans la philosophie, A. Michel: Paris 2005.

2. R. Safranski, Ein Meister aus Deutschland–Heidegger und seine Zeit, Hanser: München 1994; O. Pöggeler, Heidegger in seiner Zeit, Fink: München 1999.

3. J. Gebhardt, Zwischen Wissenschaft und Religion–Zur intellektuellen Biographie E. Voegelins in den 30er Jahren, in: Politisches Denken–Jahrbuch 1955/56, Metzler: Stuttgart 1996, 283-304; H.-J. Sigwart, Das Politische und die Wissenschaft–ntellektuell-biographische Studien zum Frühwerk Eric Voegelins, Königshausen & Neumann: Würzburg 2005.

4. Quoted from R. Mehring, Heideggers Überlieferungsgeschick, Königshauesen & Neumann: Würzburg 1992, 140.

5. H. Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe 53, 86.

6. Sigwart, op. cit., 225-228.;Gebhardt, op. cit., 297.

7. E. Voegelin, E. Baumgarten, 13. 4. 34, quoted from Gebhardt, op. cit., 298.

8. Th. Haecker, Was ist der Mensch? (1935), Kösel Verlag: München 1965, 22-24.

9. W.T. Tête, “Reading Voegelin as a Response to Heidegger,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, August 30, 1996, 3-4; H. Ott, Martin, Heidegger–Unterwegs zu seiner Biographie, Campus: Frankfurt 1988,254 – 264.

10 M. Heidegger, Einführung in die Metaphysik, Tübingen 1953–Gesamtausgabe 40, Vittorio Klostermann: Frankfurt 1983.

11 M. Gillespie, “Heidegger’s Aristotelian Fascism,” Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Meeting, August 28-31,1997, 13-16; G. Figal, Heidegger, Junius: Hamburg 1992, 61-62.

12. Quoted from Ott, op. cit., 267.

13. E. Voegelin, Published Essays 1934-1939, CW 9. Columbia: U. of Missouri Press, 2001, 89-90.

14. Ibid., 43.

15. E. Voegelin, Race and State, CW 2. Columbia: U. of Missouri Press, 1997, 180.

Jürgen Gebhardt

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Jürgen Gebhardt is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Emeritus Professor at the Insitute for Political Science at the University of Erlangen-Nürenberg. He is the author and editor of several books, including Political Cultures and the Culture of Politics: A Transatlantic Perspective (Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010).