Heidegger in 2016

September 26, 2016

Today (Monday, September 26) is Martin Heidegger’s birthday. He would have been 127. But why bring this up at all? Why stop and share my reflection on this seemingly inconsequential day? For some it would be the need to commemorate the birth of the most influential thinker in modern times. For other it would be for the quick jab, a headline meant to reference but ultimately render Heidegger as just another existential philosopher.

For me, however, it is to acknowledge that for anyone truly engaged with Heidegger’s thinking it is impossible to “lose” him or his questioning. Let me provide additional context.

Beginning in the mid-1930s Heidegger began a decades long engagement with the thought and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s influence on Heidegger’s thinking showed up in his continual interpretations of Nietzsche’s writings in his teaching. In the early 1950s Heidegger taught a course entitled “What is called thinking” that featured a substantive section interpreting Nietzsche’s ideas in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”

In this course Heidegger references a passage from a letter Nietzsche wrote to a friend near the end of his life. Nietzsche wrote:

“To my friend Georg! After you had discovered me, it was no trick to find me: the difficulty now is to lose me … The Crucified.”

Now, many scholars and interpreters think this quote represents the ramblings of a mad man. It is true that Nietzsche had mental challenges in the last months and years of his life. However Heidegger takes a phrase from this quote and lifts it to the status of a philosophical distinction.

The original quote, for reference, reads: “To my friend Georg! After you had discovered me, it was no trick to find me: the difficulty now is to lose me … The Crucified.”

Heidegger’s analysis runs as follows: “And this, to lose, is harder than to find; because ‘to lose’ in such a case does not just mean to drop something, leave it behind, abandon it.”

What does it mean, that to lose is harder than to find?

For me, this idea of the difficulty of losing hits at my core--losing in this context occurs for me as a type of forgetting. But think of how counter-intuitive it is to think about “trying to forget” an idea. We spend much of our lives looking or seeking or finding things or even ourselves. But “try” to lose something and we bump up against a logical conundrum.

Why this meandering path of thinking? My encounter with Heidegger’s thinking has shaped who I am and how I approach teaching, scholarship, and even my life. Heidegger is known to be a complicated, obtuse, and contentious philosopher. I spend more of my time than I like defending and answering for who Heidegger was as a person than actually engaging with his thinking.

Once you start to walk the pathways of thought with Heidegger, there is no turning back. You cannot “go home” again. You cannot “lose” him. Even if you hate him or disagree with him or think his thinking is irrefutably contaminated with Nazism, you still have an opinion, you just can’t lose him. I can’t lose him.

As we move forward in this class together, I’d like you to consider, to “try on,” this conception of ideas that are difficult to “lose.” “And this, to lose, is harder than to find” turns our experience and our common sense on its head, forcing us to think through our lives and even how we think from a different standpoint. That is the gift of Heidegger’s thinking for me, reminding me think and to ask questions.

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