Babette Babich: Heidegger’s Nietzsche: Virgules, Conjunctions, Being Broken

By Babette Babich

Being and Time, whatever one thinks about it, is clearly written, especially if one bothers to read it in German but also, provided that is to say that one reads the book slowly, in English translation. And the same is true of Heidegger’s Nietzsche, which is arguably even clearer, representing the subject matter of a series of Vorlesungen, written lecture courses of the kind that we English speaking scholars, especially at an American university, may well find hard to grasp. The courses were not seminars and Heidegger does not use the Socratic Method.  Indeed the reason we have these lectures is because Heidegger wrote them down in advance and read them out loud, word for word. Foreign as this may be to us, it is none the less highly didactic or pedagogical in conception and articulation.

This has not meant that scholars have understood what Heidegger was saying and most have assumed that the problem lay with Heidegger, so that, as numerous scholars repeat Bernd Magnus’ hearsay report quoting Heidegger himself on Kant, “it may not be good Kant, but it is awfully good Heidegger,” one can be inclined to want to say the same with respect to whomever one reads in connection with Heidegger, as if the same Heidegger who introduced hermeneutic phenomenology into philosophy were unable to read other thinkers.

Heidegger cites and glosses Nietzsche as a philosopher of history and life in Being and Time (1927), therewith adding to the earlier efforts of Hans Vaihinger (1911), Georg Simmel (1911), and Charles Andler (1920) to read Nietzsche as someone who, to take in Heidegger’s word from his 1936 lecture course, “knew what philosophy is.”[i] Along with Abel Rey on the eternal return (1927) and the readings that appeared in the thirties — Baeumler (1931) and Löwith (1935) and Jaspers (1936) — must be added Heidegger’s courses on Nietzsche (1936-1940) and Heidegger subtends even the French readings of Nietzsche that the late David Blair Allison (1943-2016), gathered together in his groundbreaking collection: The New Nietzsche.[ii]

Given the complete dominion of analytic readings of both Heidegger and Nietzsche and not less over everything else in philosophy, many philosophers simply dismiss both thinkers.  In university level philosophy in the US and the UK, we no longer concern ourselves with traditional approaches to philosophy, ancient, scholastic or modern, but have moved on to M&E (which to my enduring disappointment does not involve M&Ms) and the trolley problem, just for starters, so much so that as Daniel Dennett recently observed — without crediting Mary Midgley’s similar observation in 2013 offered in another context but to the same end[iii] and stopping short of Stephen Hawking’s fatal diagnosis — “[a] great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world.”[iv]  If today’s analytic scholars utter slivers of narrow cleverness about concerns that matter less and less about less and less, the problem isn’t limited to Anglophone philosophy to the extent that analytic philosophy dominates everywhere: in Germany today one would as little find a professorial chair occupied by a Nietzschean as by a Heideggerian.

Beyond academic politics — which always matters, given the dangers of equivocation — the conjunction includes a conundrum. Heidegger, who offered a Seminar in 1937 entitled Nietzsche, über Sein und Schein, would later reflect on the challenge that it is to take oneself to “know” Nietzsche, only to say at the end of his life, Nietzsche hat mich kaputt gemacht.

My teacher along with Hans-Georg Gadamer at Boston College, Bill Richardson, knew Heidegger cold. He followed Heidegger’s courses as a student in Freiburg and even got Heidegger to write a preface to his book, Through Phenomenology to Thought on the distinction Richardson introduced between Heidegger I and Heidegger II.[v] But knowing Heidegger backwards and forwards — there is no more sensitive reading to this day — Richardson could not abide the notion that Nietzsche might have undone Heidegger, no matter Heidegger’s own report, no more than Father Richardson could ever abide Nietzsche.

What on earth does it mean to say, he would ask, that Nietzsche ruined Heidegger?

At the very least it means, and we really should begin to think about this, that an engagement with “the substance of his thinking,”[vi] will have to be a demanding one. Nietzsche is always other than we take him to be, as Nietzsche warns us: do not mistake me.

If Nietzsche is constantly misconstrued, as he is, he was nonetheless a consummate author and no philosopher writes better than he does, as Nietzsche is fond of saying in the catalogue he wrote of his own books at the end of his life: Ecce homo.

Nietzsche cannot keep his readers from misreading him because there is no way to write such that one can prevent one’s readers from misreading as they please and just because all reading is self-pleasing: “Ultimately,” Nietzsche writes, “nobody can get more out of things, including books, than he already knows.” (EH, Why I write such good books).

As Adorno rightly groused with respect to music, and his point holds between philosophy and Facebook, we only ‘like’ what is familiar to us, liking is a matter of recognition. As Nietzsche pointed out, we take what is familiar to us to be knowledge.  Nietzsche’s epistemology, Nietzsche’s philosophy of science was all about trying to take us beyond such familiarly free associations, like Heidegger, in order to raise, as Nietzsche said he was the first to raise, the question of science “as a question.”



[i] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volume 1. The Will to Power as Art, D. F. Krell, trans. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979 [1961]), p. 4.

[ii] David B. Allison, ed., The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Nietzsche Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1977).

[iii] Mary Midgley, “The Golden Age of Female Philosophy,” The Guardian, 28 November 2013. The topic was quite different, if the assessment of the practice and the narrowness of analytic metaphysics not at all dissimilar as she wrote in response to Jonathan Wolff’s puzzlement expressed in his article published two days earlier concerning the current apparent lack of women philosophers in our times.

[iv] Daniel Dennett, speaking at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 14-18, 2016, was reported as saying that “[p]hilosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.”

[v] Heidegger, “Preface” to William J. Richardson, Through Phenomenology to Thought (The Hague, Nijhoff, 1963), dated: Anfang April, 1962.  Pp. viii-xxiii.

[vi] Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volume 1, p. xxxix.

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