Taylor Carman: Heidegger’s Two Nietzsches

By Taylor Carman

In the second volume of her Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt suggests that Heidegger’s “turn” (Kehre) from the analytic of Dasein in Being and Time (1927) to the later writings of the 1940s and ’50s occurred “as a concrete autobiographical event precisely between volume I and volume II” of his Nietzsche, a collection of texts published in 1961, but mostly consisting of lectures delivered between 1936 and 1940. Arendt writes, “to put it bluntly, the first volume explicates Nietzsche by going along with him, while the second is written in a subdued but unmistakable polemical tone” (LM II, 173).

As it happens, “precisely between” the two volumes coincides with the outbreak of war in the autumn of 1939, and although Germany’s invasion of Poland was surely not the single decisive factor, it is clear that Heidegger’s view of Nietzsche dimmed in interesting ways at around the same time that his attitude toward official National Socialism was also beginning to sour. Clear evidence of his growing disenchantment with the regime can be found in the recently published (and even more recently translated) Ponderings II–VI: Black Notebooks 1931–1938 (GA 94), and The History of Beyng of 1938–40 (GA 69). In the latter, for example, he condemns the metaphysics of power (Macht) and “machination” (Machenschaft) as a metaphysics of devastation (Verwüstung), which he describes as “the undercutting (Unterhöhlung) of every possibility of any decision and of all domains of decision” (GA 69, 48).

A third unmistakable transformation in Heidegger’s thinking accompanying those changes in his reading of Nietzsche and in his attitude toward Nazism can be found in his reassessment of the nature and history of metaphysics. As late as 1935, in lectures published in 1953 under the title Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger drew no categorical distinction between the writings of the Presocratics, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, and finally his own effort to rekindle and pursue the question of being. For Heidegger in 1935, “Metaphysics is the name of the definitive center and core of all philosophy” (EM 13 / IM 19). On that definition, of course, to say, as Heidegger does in the Nietzsche lectures of 1936 and ’37, that Nietzsche was the last great “metaphysical” thinker, was in no way an even obliquely critical remark; it was, on the contrary, the highest compliment Heidegger could pay him.

In the late 1930s, however, Heidegger began using the words “metaphysics” and “metaphysical” very differently, no longer referring to the entire history of philosophy from the Presocratics to himself, but to the dominant tradition internal to that history, beginning with Plato and ending with Nietzsche. Metaphysics, he would now say, does not just happen to fall short of an adequate questioning of being, but systematically suppresses the question, concealing it and rendering it unaskable, indeed virtually incomprehensible. Metaphysics, for the later Heidegger, is no longer the abiding space within which being has been thought, is being thought, and is yet to be thought even more deeply and explicitly than ever before. It was instead a momentous forgetting of being (Seinsvergessenheit) – a philosophical dead end, the desert (Wüste) of modernity from which being withdraws and no longer lends itself to reflection.

For our purposes in this seminar, I want to call attention to two texts in the Nietzsche volumes that exemplify this shift in Heidegger’s thinking. Both advance interpretations of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, but they do so in strikingly different ways. In the lectures of the summer semester of 1937, Heidegger observes that in the section of Part III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled “The Convalescent” (Der Genesende), Zarathustra – contradicting the dwarf – insists that the present “moment” (Augenblick) is a “collision” (Zusammenstoß) of past and future. The notion of the present as a collision stands in dramatic contrast to the customary image of eternal recurrence, attributed to Zarathustra’s animals and the dwarf, as an unbroken circle in which past and future are at once continuous and identical. On Heidegger’s reading of Zarathustra’s own articulation of the idea, the eternity of eternal recurrence lies not in the infinity of that smooth extension both forward and backward in the cycle of time, but, as Heidegger quotes Nietzsche saying in an unpublished note from 1887, in the momentary, “seductive flash of gold on the belly of the serpent vita” (Will to Power, §577; N i 280 / ii 59). The present moment is the moment of decision, of choice, of action. In short, Heidegger’s 1937 lecture brings Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence into close proximity with his own account of the moment of decision in authentic resoluteness in Being and Time.

The second text, entitled “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same and the Will to Power,” is a lecture Heidegger wrote in 1939, but did not deliver. It appears, as Arendt would remind us, at the very beginning of Volume ii (of the German edition). By now, Nietzsche’s thinking is, for Heidegger, the culmination of “metaphysics” not because Nietzsche thought being more deeply and decisively than metaphysical thinkers before him had, but because he was just as trapped in the systematic forgetting of being as they were. Nietzsche understands entities as a whole as characterized by an “unleashing” of power into its essence. However, Heidegger writes, “What this unleashing of power to its essence is, Nietzsche is unable to think. Nor can any metaphysics think it, inasmuch as metaphysics cannot put the matter into question.” For, “like all metaphysicians prior to him Nietzsche was unable to find his way back to the fundamental traits of the guiding metaphysical projection” (N ii 4 / iii 164). Far from anticipating the “moment of vision” (Augenblick) in the account of authentic resoluteness in Being and Time, Heidegger now says, Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence “thinks the constant permanentizing of the becoming of whatever becomes into the only kind of presence there is – the self-recapitulation of the identical” (N ii 5 / iii 165). Consequently, “Nietzsche’s doctrine does not overcome metaphysics: it is the uttermost unseeing (erblindete) adoption of the very guiding projection of metaphysics” (N ii 6 / iii 166). Moreover, Nietzsche’s “inverted Platonism becomes blindly inflexible and superficial” (N ii 15 / iii 176). And so on.

For further reading, I would recommend two other texts that treat the eternal recurrence in much the same was as the (undelivered) 1939 lecture:

(1) §4 of the 1940 text “Nietzsche’s Metaphysics” (N ii 254–62 / iii 209–15); and

(2) the 1953 essay, “Who Is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?” (in Vorträge und Aufsätze, but included in the English edition of Nietzsche (ii 211–33).

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