Martin Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (pt. 3)

There is perhaps no better (concise) summary of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger than his famous letter written in response to a French student’s inquiry: “How can we recover a sense of the word ‘Humanism’?” The content of Heidegger’s answer is nothing less than a powerful–yet cryptic–exposition of the main themes of his classic work, Being and Time. This post is the final entry of a three-part series that offers an overview of the text’s engagement with humanism.

In our second entry in this three-part series on the “Letter on Humanism,” we explored Heidegger’s unique interpretation of the classical and medieval concept of “substance” and its relevance for the tradition of humanism. This leads us into our third and final entry, which follows as an exposition of Heidegger’s equally unique and puzzling description of the human as “the shepherd of being”:

[T]he human being is in thrownness. This means that the human being, as the ek-sisting counterthrow of being, is more than animal rationale precisely to the extent that he is less bound up with the human being conceived from subjectivity. The human beings is not the lord of beings. The human being is the shepherd of being.

If the reader is courageous enough to tread through the cryptic phrases, she might recognize some continuity with Heidegger’s previous work. When he says that a human being is “the ek-sisting counterthrow of being,” he means something like the unique reciprocity that is maintained between Being qua being and Dasein, respectively. Dasein bears its name only because it is the site through which Being reveals itself; however, Being also “needs” Daseinin a sense, because it is its only conceivable revelatory outlet. Together, then, Dasein and Being are constitutive of each other by way of this reciprocal process. Heidegger coins the phrase “ek-sisting” because it emphasizes Dasein‘s thrownness out of a stable presence and into the mysterious process of reciprocity (the Greek ἐκ means something like “out”).

This picture leads us to Heidegger’s vision of the humanistic tradition. According to him, the animal rationale of Aristotle and Aquinas (among many others) is founded upon a notion of subjectivity. Taking its cue from what is a commonsense understanding–indeed, the language we speak must assume it–the humanistic tradition understands the world to be composed fundamentally of subjects and objects. A subject is that which “sees” and understands the world of objects around itself. It is privileged amongst existing things in this way, as a seer of objects. On this view, human beings are subjects. The “things” with which they interact in the world are objects.

But what is the upshot of this diagnosis? The answer–as is often the case with Heidegger–lies with the ontological difference between Being qua being and particular beings. On the classic humanistic view, human beings are different from objects because human beings are subjects. However, if the categories are expanded to include the ontological difference, it is Heidegger’s contention that both subjects and objects are still particular beings–as opposed to Being qua being. By leaving the question of Being qua being unanswered, the conception of the animal rationale is inadequately describe the unique relationship that the human being maintains with Being. Both subjects and objects are particular beings, so the tradition of subjectivity fails even to raise the question.

By naming the human being “the shepherd of being,” Heidegger intends to lead his readers toward a fuller and more robust description of the unique relationship that human beings have with Being. Evoking the serene imagery of the agrarianism of both pagan and Christian antiquity, Heidegger’s shepherd is not a mere “lord” or despot of his sheep. This would be the mistake of subjectivity, which arbitrarily assumes a privileged position for the subject over against other particular beings–perhaps in an attempt to conceal the fact that the subject is itself just another particular being. Instead, Heidegger’s shepherd is humble and dignified in his task, safeguarding the question of Being and the ontological difference. His is a poetic character–one that escapes the systematic nature of the metaphysical tradition. Although there is no doubt that he occupies a unique position in regards to her flock, the shepherd is unthinkable without his sheep. Indeed, he maintains a sort of dependency upon the sheep in that he cannot be a shepherd without them. This careful reciprocity is, as it were, the lifeblood from which each draw a certain sustenance.

Ultimately, there is good reason to believe that Heidegger’s relationship to humanism is a paradoxical one. On one hand, he is not very interested in maintaining the tradition of humanism, which has relied too much on the concept of the animal rationale. On the other, however, he is a sort of “hyper-humanist” (as Jens Zimmermann remarks in his book, Humanism and Religion) in that he wishes to amplify the unique responsibility of the human being in the world.

Whether or not Heidegger is a Christian humanist is an interesting question that is certainly up for debate, but there is little doubt of the fact that any contemporary humanism ought to consider him in light of the theological and philosophical influences that made his work possible.







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