Stanford scholar upends interpretation of philosopher Martin Heidegger

After a lifetime of studying the German philosopher's groundbreaking works, Stanford Religious Studies Professor Thomas Sheehan concludes that Heideggerians' obsession with Being misses the point.

Martin Heidegger

German philosopher Martin Heidegger is the focus of a new book by Stanford Professor Thomas Sheehan. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s texts on the concept of “Being” have become required reading for students of philosophy. His best-known work, Being and Time (1927), has been established in the Western canon as a key entry point to existentialism and deconstruction.

Stanford Professor Thomas Sheehan has been studying Heidegger for half a century. But Sheehan, a professor of religious studies who has published numerous books about Heidegger and other canonical thinkers, has recently thrown a hefty chunk of his own research out the window.

“I am happy to say goodbye to the first 25 of those 50 years of scholarship insofar as I’ve now worked out a much more adequate and critical reading of Heidegger,” he says.          

In Sheehan’s opinion, Heidegger’s oeuvre has been misinterpreted for years, and in his latest book, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift, Sheehan introduces a radical new framework for understanding Heidegger

According to Sheehan, standard academic readings have long claimed that Heidegger believed Being gave weight and value to our world. There’s only one problem, Sheehan says: “Nobody seems to know what Being means.”

After an exhaustive survey of Heidegger’s works, Sheehan concluded that Heidegger’s philosophy centers not on Being but rather on his early insight that our mortality is the source of all meaning. Sheehan explains, “Humans are characterized by the need to interpret everything they meet, and this need arises from our radical finitude, from what Heidegger called ‘temporality.'”

According to Sheehan, Heidegger never intended to cultivate the cultic, quasi-mystical philosophy that sprang up around him. Rather, his aim was to uncover the sources of our need to make sense of the world. In that way, Heidegger is much more subversive than we give him credit for, says Sheehan.

Sheehan argues that the “being paradigm” is a relic of a time when scholars and students had only limited access to Heidegger’s corpus. This emphasis on Being was established “when very few of Heidegger’s works were published – only about a dozen in German, some translated into English and some not. Now there are two library shelves’ worth of his published work, some 90 volumes.”

Sheehan’s choice to minimize and demystify Heidegger’s jargon by writing clearly and defining his terms is key to his commitment to making the philosophy accessible. As he says, “Heideggerians should learn how to speak English instead of Deutschlish.”          

Much as he admires Heidegger, Sheehan said he believes it is important to acknowledge his strict limitations as a philosopher. In Sheehan’s opinion, Heidegger shows us how to live authentically but then stops short. “Now what do I do?” Sheehan asks. “Do I become a Nazi – or read the pre-Socratics? He has nothing to say about where one might go next. There’s no ethics in Heidegger, and no meaningful political philosophy.”                      

Exploding the “being” paradigm

Sheehan bases his radical reading of Heidegger entirely on the original texts themselves rather than on writings by other Heideggerians. He pointedly remarks that his book includes 1,247 footnotes – many of which contain three to five references to Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe (collected works). These footnotes, he says, map his argument directly onto Heidegger’s corpus.          

“My approach is to take a fire hose and hose down the Teutonic bombast that so many Heideggerians find so fascinating but that in fact hides what he’s really driving at,” he explains. “Then you can clearly see the basic existential focus of his work rather than the obsession with being– a term that in fact no Heideggerian can define.”

Sheehan describes two previous paradigms of Heidegger scholarship. In the 1940s and 1950s, Heidegger was interpreted as an existentialist à la Sartre – in accordance with the philosophical leanings of the time. Then, in the 1960s (when Sheehan was in graduate school,) Heidegger came to be read as a philosopher of “capital-B Being.”

But he claims that the 1989 publication of Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy, which contained evidence that Being was not the real centerpiece of Heidegger’s thought, exploded the Being paradigm and debunked what scholars had claimed was Heidegger’s “turn” in the 1930s from human existence to Being. Contributions to Philosophy ushered in a third wave of Heidegger studies that finds its articulation in Sheehan’s Making Sense of Heidegger.

Sheehan recognizes the importance of the scholarship his book challenges. “I was brought up in that second paradigm,” he says. “I was one of the students of the main scholar who crafted it.”

That scholar, William J. Richardson, was Sheehan’s mentor at Fordham, and Sheehan has dedicated Making Sense of Heidegger to him – despite the fact that Richardson makes no bones about his opposition to the book’s argument. “He doesn’t agree with it, but he has always encouraged me to write the book,” Sheehan explains.          

“Of course I absorbed the second paradigm and continued to speak the master’s language, but then around 1989 I saw it just wasn’t working,” he says.

Beyond the Heideggerian cult

Sheehan has chosen a turbulent time in Heidegger studies to make his intervention. Scholars have long known that Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933 and remained an avowed fascist until the end of World War II. In recent years, however, Heidegger has come under heavy fire in the media for his anti-Semitism.          

Sheehan continues to teach and write about Heidegger even as he indicts him for both his anti-Semitism and his politics. In fact, he regards the current juncture in Heidegger scholarship as an opportunity for scholars to rethink the whole of Heidegger’s philosophy. “Finding out that he was a lifelong anti-Semite (not to mention outrageously unfaithful to his wife) has demolished that personality cult,” Sheehan says. “That’s a positive development, because now we’re down to brass tacks. We have to get back to the texts.”  

Sheehan said he hopes his work will speak to analytic as well as continental philosophers – both of whom are subjects of his criticism. “The analysts follow a somewhat scientific model of evidence and argument, which I think is admirable and utterly necessary but which sometimes appears to overlook the existential dimensions of life and philosophy.” But, as Sheehan puts it, continental philosophers, and especially the Heideggerians “with their utterly fuzzy and loopy ‘logic,’ risk pricing themselves out of being taken seriously by those who justifiably ask for reasoned arguments.”

At the end of the day, Sheehan is content to have stepped beyond the Heideggerian cult. He welcomed both the positive feedback and the strong criticism his book received at the annual Heidegger Conference this month. “In the long run I don’t expect to convince Heideggerians of the Strict Observance,” he said, “but I do relish a good argument with them.”

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