Being and Time New York: Harper & Row, 1962

Martin Heidegger (tr John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson)

I did that thing again, where my mood disorder kicks in and I read an interminably long and difficult work of philosophy. In my defence, if I’d read Being and Time when I was an undergraduate, it would have made me three times as unbearable as reading Foucault and Derrida did. And I’ve always know that I would eventually read it at some stage because it’s so influential on Continental philosophy, and also because my partner’s mother is really into it and has been asking for my opinions on him, so I borrowed her copy.

It’s a lot better than that Žižek book I read the last time that I was depressed, although the important bits could probably be summarised in a hundred-page pamphlet by a less irritating writer, or turned into an expensive retreat for aspiring executives and thought leaders. (The question of Heidegger’s Nazism is really important and understandably gets lots of attention, but I think it would also be worth teasing out his role as a forerunner of the human potential movement: groups like est and the Landmark Forum seem like a heavily commercialised spin-off of his peculiarly self-important and humourless analysis of subjectivity.)

Even more usefully, the important bits can be summarised as a series of loose analogies with the popular sandbox computer game Minecraft:

  • You are thrown into a world which you have not chosen.

  • Fundamental ontological divide between Dasein (the player) and the ready-to-hand of the rest of the world (trees, rocks, mobs, etc).

  • A boyish enthusiasm for tools and handicraft as a fundamental aspect of the human condition.

  • Like playing Minecraft, reading Heidegger is a matter of slogging through long and boring stretches where nothing much happens, and many players never make it through the first night, but you do find nuggets of rewarding material.

  • Eschewal of the traditional straightforward narrative of philosophical works or games in favour of an open-ended and exploratory model.

  • Emphasis on the everyday as a ground of value; abstractions such as time are built on phenomena such as the cycle of day and night.

  • The analysis of the “they-consciousness”, the “idle talk” of social life into which we are fallen, constantly verges on a sort of solipsism wherein people who aren’t philosophers, don’t know Ancient Greek or live in a cabin in the woods are reduced to mobs of unthinking non-player-characters. (Actually heaps of other philosophers are also like this.)

  • The ultimate horizon of Being is the inevitability of death: this implies that the original survival mode with no respawning is the only authentic mode.

  • Both Being and Time and Minecraft can both be seen as strange, late products of Germanic romanticism (the elevation of the introspective subject, cabins in the woods, an evolution from earlier games like Dwarf Fortress which ultimately have their roots in the Nibelungleid).

  • The creators of both Being and Time and Minecraft had extremely bad politics.

About the relationship between Heidegger’s politics and his philosophy: if reading Heidegger really was a significant way in which people became fascists, the world would have a lot fewer fascists in it. But this is too glib: playing Minecraft won’t turn you into a Gamergater, but there are pages in Being and Time which cannot be read in innocence of what came afterwards. And some, like the passage in II.5 on the historizing of Dasein as a community or a nation, are sickening: “Only in communicating and struggling does the power of destiny become free.”

There's no easy way around it, like saying that Heidegger was a great philosopher but naïve at politics. I think that the unpleasant truth is that being a great philosopher doesn’t protect you from collaborating with, or being, evil. For more opinions on every side, this discussion on Metafilter from a few years ago is worth reading.