Are we thinking yet?

Matthew Kruger-Ross
Doctoral candidate
Curriculum Theory & Implementation: Philosophy of Education 

In 1951, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger took the podium after almost a decade away from teaching. Heidegger had been banned from teaching based on the judgment of a De-Nazifiation committee hearing at the end of World War II. In reality Heidegger’s suspension from teaching was more symbolic than anything else as time and continued scholarship has shown that Heidegger posed no real threat to his students and colleagues. What I find most interesting is that the first course he taught after a decade away from the university was a seminar on thinking. As a philosopher and teacher, Heidegger had taught for three decades on Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, ontology, logic, and hermeneutics, among other philosophical topics. And while thinking had been there all along, his re-entry into academia was with an entire course on the topic of thinking.

In his first lecture of this course that would eventually be published as “What is called thinking?” (1968), Heidegger spoke one of the most unsettling phrases of his career: “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking” (p. 6). Heidegger was a remarkable pedagogue whose lectures and courses were attended and have been studied by all of the great philosophers and theorists of the past 60 years. And he knew how to use language and the power of his words to challenge and unsettle his students, to shake their assumptions and push them to think - and to think for themselves. So when he states in the first few hours of this course that “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking” - he is deliberately prodding his listeners to sit up straight and pay attention. What does he mean “we are still not thinking”? Just who is this guy and what is he on about? Over the course of the next few weeks and months, Heidegger attempts to ground his claim in an analysis of thinking and being that baffles to this day. 

Students and other thinkers came from across Europe to attend his lectures and seminars to experience and participate in Heidegger’s teaching. Hannah Arendt, another famous and successful student of Heidegger, notes:

People followed the rumour about Heidegger in order to learn thinking. What was experienced was that thinking as a pure activity … can become a passion which not so much rules and oppresses all other capacities and gifts, as it orders them and prevails throughout them. We are so accustomed to the old opposition of reason versus passion, spirit versus life, that the idea of a passionate thinking, in which thinking and aliveness become one, takes us somewhat aback. (Arendt, 1978, p. 297)

And this summary from Walter Biemel: 

Those who [knew] Martin Heidegger only through his published writings [could] hardly form an idea of the unique style of his teaching. Even with beginners, he was able in no time to coax them into thinking, not just learning various views or reproducing what they had read, but entering into the movement of thinking. (1976, p. 7)

“Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” Considering this statement over sixty years later, I find Heidegger’s claim to be applicable to the many challenges and everyday predicaments we face in 2015. But there is no step-by-step guide to thinking, no “Thinking 101” that could ever be presented as a course syllabus and taught to undergraduates or secondary students. Thinking requires a leap. 

Heidegger in another context remarks that "questioning is the piety of thinking" (1977, p. 35) and he uses the word “piety” to purposefully gesture to the religious or spiritual. Asking questions, exploring through questions and questioning - these are ways into thinking. Questions present openings for thinking. They suggest ways of answering rather than answers, and multiple possibilities rather than the univocal response. In this talk and our time together now we will think - think together and think of questions rather than answers. 

The question I want to open up is: “Are we thinking yet?”  

This is a question of a different kind than the question posed as the theme of Heidegger’s 1951 lecture course “What is called thinking?”. What do WE mean by thinking then? Along the way to answering his own question into thinking Heidegger swiftly lists and rules out a number of possible and common sense understandings of thinking. Thinking is not summarizing or knowing, nor is it philosophy or philosophizing. Having an interest in something isn’t automatically a thinking. Academic study is not necessarily thinking either. Heidegger states, with a nod to philosophy with tongue held firmly in cheek:

But even if we have devoted many years to the intensive study of the treatises and writings of the great thinkers, that fact is still no guarantee that we ourselves are thinking, or even are ready to learn thinking. On the contrary—preoccupation with philosophy more than anything else may give use the stubborn illusion that we are thinking just because we are incessantly ‘philosophizing’. (1968, p. 5)

We cannot simply accept the normal, everyday understanding of ‘thinking’. Instead, we must get underway and begin thinking.

We shall never learn what ‘is called’ swimming, for example, ... by reading a treatise on swimming. Only the leap into the river tells us what is called swimming. The question ‘What is called thinking?’ can never be answered by proposing a definition of the concept thinking, and then diligently explain what is contained in that definition. In what follows, we shall not think about what thinking is. We remain outside that mere reflection which makes thinking its object. (1968, p. 21)

This quote provides a key insight into Heidegger’s philosophy and the nature by which we must approach the opening made available by our own question. We cannot stand outside of that which we want to understand - we must actively participate in such a way that in the living of the activity we engage in an in-the-moment experience of the activity. Therefore, Heidegger as he inquires into “what is called thinking” challenges his students to, simply put, start thinking - to ‘catch’ themselves already thinking. This tension, the tension between talking ‘about’ thinking and actually thinking, is in fact where we are being led when we ask into the nature of thinking.

Let’s regroup. We are, here and now, asking the question: “Are we thinking yet?” and we are doing so by following in the footsteps of Heidegger’s students from the early 1950s. Heidegger is attempting to answer the question “What is called thinking” and in doing so argues that we can only ask the question by participating in the activity that the question is asking about: by beginning to think. (This is what Heidegger is on about when he references the swimming analogy.) Here and now we are following this same advice as we try to wrap our minds around our own questioning into whether or not we are thinking.

Let’s shift our attention away from ‘thinking’ for a moment. Who is this indefinite ‘we’ within our question? Are WE thinking yet? The subject of our question can be heard in two ways: ‘we’ could be the all-encompassing we, the we of humanity, of the Western world, of university attendees, of citizens of North America, and so on; but it could also be taken much more personally, much more to heart, if heard in the tone of ‘we’ as those engaged in this reading together right now. The former ‘we’ calls us to think of our current dispositions and ways of being in the world and the latter to what we are doing at this very moment together. Are we thinking yet? 

An example here may be helpful and again we return to Heidegger’s lecture course “What is called thinking?”. After negating all of the traditional understandings of thinking, Heidegger takes up the relationship between science and thinking. You should know that Heidegger often gets labeled as anti-science or anti-technology and that I think this labeling is false and misleading. I will also be honest and admit that Heidegger doesn’t help the matter when he states more than once in this lecture course that science in and of itself does not think (see, e.g., Heidegger, 1968, pp 7-8). Talk about a radical statement! Between the two disturbing propositions shared thus far, one, that we are “still not yet thinking” and, two, that “science doesn’t think,” I think the latter might be the most radical of all. We, here and now, do not have time to unpack fully Heidegger’s challenging statement - but we can sit with it and approach it in a questioning manner. Heidegger doesn’t say that “science doesn’t think” just for the fun of it, just to be provocative. He is calling his students to think it through for themselves. What might this mean? 

Claiming that science does not think was radical in 1951 but it is downright heretical in 2015. When Heidegger references ‘science’ he is talking about a particular way of approaching knowing and knowledge, a way that he sees epitomized in modern science and, ultimately, in the university. In order to make his point, Heidegger sets up a distinction between ‘thinking’ and ‘calculative thinking’. I would be careful to not turn this into a dualism - an either/or or better/worse. Heidegger is extremely critical of calculative thinking - thinking that is focused only on efficiency, counting things, numbers, means and ends - or the theoretical-rational stance of modern science. It isn’t that he disagrees or thinks we must do away with this kind of thinking but that we must not forget that calculative thinking is but ONE kind of thinking, not THINKING as a whole. The entire lecture course What is called thinking could be considered a manifesto to remind us of what we have forgotten about thinking.

Heidegger writes: 

The essence of the spheres I have named is the concern of thinking. As the sciences qua sciences have no access to this concern, it must be said that they are not thinking. Once this is put in words, it tends to sound at first as though thinking fancied itself superior to the sciences. … The sciences are fully entitled to their name, which means fields of knowledge, because they have infinitely more knowledge than thinking does. And yet there is another side in every science which that science as such can never reach: the essential nature and origin of its sphere, the essence and essential origin of the manner of knowing which it cultivates. (1968, p. 33)

Why can we not simply label Heidegger as anti-science and a technological luddite and be done with the matter? Because to do so is to fall into the same trap that Heidegger is here trying to point out to us. If we were to label and dismiss these ideas we will have switched back into thinking about thinking rather than actually engaging in the practice of thinking. We would be stepping back outside the questioning to a settled answer. Forgetting that thinking is more than dollars and cents, more than efficiency and logical reasoning, would be the gravest of errors humankind could make. Instead, we might approach this statement with our own questions such as: In what ways does science think? How should science be in relation to humans? To the natural world? What kinds of thinking might support and hold these questions in tension?

We began by considering Heidegger in the early 1950s as he re-entered the university classroom but I would like to close by going back even further in time, to Heidegger’s official statement made to the De-Nazification committee in July 1945. Heidegger has never been considered a philosopher of education, and this is part of why I am attempting in my own work to bring his ideas and thinking into greater dialogue within the field of educational philosophy. Heidegger never wrote or spoke specifically about education as a whole or his own pedagogy for that matter - except for the prepared statement that he gave for the committee hearing. Interestingly, Heidegger does respond to the charges raised against him and his teaching, but, expectedly, he responds in his own way as “a testament.” As testimony, he returns to and repeats many common themes from his writings and lecture courses. But the most interesting portions for our purposes here and now are his reflections on teaching, thinking, and the university. 

For example, Heidegger acknowledges the technologization of the university when he writes: 

What becomes clear is that the university as pedagogical community is constructed to be hierarchical and authoritarian: the student is subjected to the discipline of the teacher. Implicit in all of this, of course, is that the representation of the teacher is borrowed from techne and its relations of production. It is precisely this reduction of education to the instrumental, by analogy with techne, that is the source of everything awry with the university today. (2002, p. 35)

This focus on the practical with its lack of genuine thinking rings eerily true today. Heidegger continues to diagnose the current state of pedagogy as regulated by the logic of contract and exchange. I quote here at length due not only to Heidegger’s specificity in his referencing to teaching and learning, but also as a testament to the current climate of university education and the status of thinking:

By making theory into its principle, the university inevitably conditions the quality of the pedagogic relation. The result is an encounter between teacher and student, mediated by the theoretical abstraction, which regards the terms of this relation as a matter of minds meeting together in an act of speculation. Instead of starting with a conception of the teacher/student relation at once inflected by both head and hand, the university conceives the pedagogic process in conformity with the model of abstract exchange derived from theory, according to which the fundamental relation is that of mind to the world, regarded as a relation of subject to object by way of representation. The exchange abstraction is thus imparted to the learning experience from without to give it the form and substance of a quid pro quo, a relation in which the teacher offers something of value in return for something else of value from the student, the result being that pedagogy now becomes regulated by the logic of contract. Teacher and students always stand to each other, first and foremost, as parties to a contract. The contractualizing of pedagogy has, in fact, achieved such an axiomatic status within the university tradition that discussion of educational reform, even supposed radical ones, simply take it for granted, ignoring ways of conceiving pedagogy innocent of contract as counter-intuitive. Indeed, one must go back to the figure of Socrates in order to find an example of teaching and learning at odds with the law of exchange. (2002, p. 39)

One of culprits of this reduction in an understanding of teaching and learning is the central role that theory and the sciences place in the life of the university. Higher education becomes mechanized and more a game of numbers than of educating and thinking:

Instruction is thus modeled on exchange: to teach, the teacher disregards the differences and distinctions within the concrete student manifold and addresses himself to the faceless, abstract student that is his counterpart. Likewise, to learn, the student abandons the idiosyncratic expressions of his life for a generic way of thinking that raises him to the level of the teacher. (2002, pp. 40-41).

So I ask us to think again: Are we thinking yet?

For those looking for easy answers and top-ten lists of action items, I must apologize for this is not one of those writings. My goal in this sharing is an attempt to shake things up a bit, to gesture to our assumptions and hopefully sponsor further thinking. I am more interested in opening up spaces of conversation and for questioning, rather than quick and reductive answers. In closing I want to offer a final quote from “What is called thinking.”

After an in-depth analysis of an approach to thinking by introducing some of Nietzsche’s ideas Heidegger notes that: “We forget too easily that a thinker is more essentially effective where he is opposed than where he finds agreement” (1968, pp. 39-40). Which sponsors more thinking? Agreement or disagreement? What might be beyond agreement? Are we thinking yet?


Arendt, H. (1978). Martin Heidegger at 80. In M. Murray ed. Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,

Biemel, W. (1976). Martin Heidegger: An illustrated study. J. L. Mehta, trans. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Heidegger, M. (1968). What is called thinking. (F. D. Wieck & J. G. Gray, Trans.). New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers. (Original work published 1954)

Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology. (W. Lovitt, trans.) New York: Garland Publishing.

Heidegger, M. (2002). “Heidegger on the Art of Teaching” (Ed. & Trans., V. Allen and A. D. Axiotis). In Heidegger, Education, and Modernity (M. A. Peters, ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 27-45.


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