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Heidegger and improvised being

Friday, 29 Jan 2021

Clearing on Dr John Dunn. I do not think that Heidegger was consciously philosophising against Spinoza, but in reality he was doing so.

Spinoza espoused an ontology of a divine, eternal substance, while Heidegger explicitly sought to destroy the history of ontology, the ‘ousiology’ of the metaphysical tradition. Heidegger did not recognise Spinoza’s role in strengthening that tradition at the heart of the Counter-Renaissance and Enlightenment. However, in taking a philosophical stance against metaphysics Heidegger was de facto standing against Spinozism.

Spinoza’s watchword was that ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’, a formula later repeated by Engels and Stalin amongst others.

Heidegger rejected Spinoza’s conception of freedom as an acquiescence to God, or Nature, call the ontological entity what you will.

Heidegger, in this context, specified that it is precisely in a revolt against God, indeed, in active ‘evil’ or the self-assertion of human existence, that freedom is disclosed as the law of one’s own being. (1936 lectures on Schelling’s The Essence of Human Freedom.)

Spinoza, drawing particularly upon Lurianic Kabbalah, understood human beings tobe mere modes of existence of the one original Substance.

He regarded this divine Substance as the place of our own being, and that our acquiescence is merely a pseudo-surrender to ourselves.

In contrast, Heidegger established a difference between human existence and any originating Substance, whilst seeking freedom from any presupposed conceptions that might limit our own experience of being.

What was the Spinozan necessity to which we all must acquiesce? Spinoza sought to demonstrate logically that there is only one Substance and every being in the world is merely a mode of this infinite entity. It is through thought that we can apprehend our predicament, which is peculiar to human beings, making us, at the very least, the only mode ofSubstance that thinks.

Freedom to Spinoza then is the conscious affirmation of necessity arising from the singular nature of the Substance, God or Nature, call it what you will. For example, we must consciously submit to the laws of that which we come to understand as Nature, because we are inseparable from the one Nature.

To be free in the Spinozan context is to rid ourselves of passions, emotions and creative imagination as far as understanding the world around us is concerned, and be guided only by a logical understanding of the Substance of which we are an inseparable part.

However, Heidegger was convinced that we are not of the eternal Substance as finite beings. We know this because of the human phenomenon of mood, especially anxiety in the face of death. Anxiety discloses the truth of that which is ultimately necessity, i.e. the negativity of death and nothingness.

Heidegger’s discovery of ‘eternity’ in the negativity, exposed Spinoza’s philosophy as a consoling fiction that justifies acquiescence. In contradistinction to passivity, Heidegger argued that the human being can throw off a condition of givenness where it seizes hold of its possibilities and acts in a concrete situation. This is what Heidegger called projection and it is the very experience of what Heidegger understood as freedom. For him freedom was not an abstract philosophical concept, but rather the experience of the human being demonstrating its potential through acting in the world. To act freely in such a way is to be authentic.

Through logic Spinoza suppressed his emotional, personal being by leaping into the infinity of Substance in the hope of an impossible escape into the Unlimited. Such logic reflected the cosmic return to Oneness from a state of fragmentation that in Lurianic Kabbalah is called Tikkun. It was a further reflection of the state of exile and hoped-for return experienced by Spinoza and other Marrano Jews. Thus Spinozism operates on a number of levels, from the individual, to the onto-theological, to the socio-political. Acquiescence in the context of the latter has disturbing undertones, to which Heidegger as a political animal was sensitive.

Heidegger revolted against all levels, indicating that we must not seek freedom inthe impossible other-world of eternity, but that we must comprehend that we are by necessity free to love and hate and to choose a ‘world’.

Between birth and death a clearing emerges, in which we can decide to choose our world. It is a place in which authenticity demands that we undertakea ‘critical ontology of ourselves’ in order to escape the banal clutches of Das Man, or ‘the they’. We can inscribe this place of temporality with the temporarily improvised self-expression of our own being. This, for Heidegger, was freedom.

© John Dunn.

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