Review of Introducción al Existencialismo de Heidegger by Leo Strauss


  1. Nombre y apellido del alumno Bert Amsing
  2. Fecha June 8, 2016
  3. Título del texto leído Leo Strauss in Sobre Heidegger (Cinco voces judías)

            Introducción al existencialismo de Heidegger

  1. ¿De qué trata el artículo o capítulo leído?

Leo Strauss, in his chapter Introducción al existencialismo de Heidegger, provides us with an overview of Heidegger and his existentialist thought from Strauss’ particular perspective as a political philosopher who roots his thought in the classics (in contrast to Heidegger).

  1. ¿Cuál es la idea central del autor?

The central idea of the author is that Heidegger has instituted a revolution in contemporary thought and that he is the greatest German philosopher of our time.  Although much of Strauss own philosophy has been developed in contrast to Heidegger, he believes that no philosophy can gain a hearing today without dealing with the subjective/relativistic existentialist philosophy of Heidegger.
On a personal level, as a Jew who had to flee Nazi Germany to America, he has every reason to suspect the political leanings of a well-known Nazi sympathizer, especially since Strauss himself is concerned with political philosophy.
Still, he believes that “el existencialismo debe su imponente relevancia a un solo hombre: Heidegger (p. 41).”
And even further, that “Heidegger por sí mismo puso en marcha una transformación tan radical del pensamiento filosófico que está revolucionando todo el pensamiento…(p. 41, 42).”
But that doesn’t mean that he agrees with Heidegger, just that, “he aquí la gran desgracia: el único gran pensador de nuestro tiempo es Heidegger (p.44).”
Strauss is well-known for believing that Heidegger’s thought must be “understood and confronted” before any well-thought out political philosophy can be developed.
And this is what, in fact,  Strauss has dedicated his life to doing.  In that sense, even as an adversary, he provides a brilliant counterpoint and context for understanding the existentialism of Heidegger.

  1. ¿De qué nos quiere convencer?

Strauss hardly needs to convince anyone that Heidegger is a philosopher of the first level but he does spend some time discussing the difference between “el pensador” and “el estudioso” (of which he includes himself).  Heidegger is obviously a “pensador” and therefore needs to be taken seriously.  It is almost as if Strauss, with his self-avowed criticisms of Heidegger, needs to convince us that his introduction to Heidegger is warranted even from an opponent since no one can argue that Heidegger has deeply affected the philosophy of our age.  He even questions whether anyone other than another great “pensador” can really provide a worthwhile analysis of another great “pensador.”  He also suggests that time and history will give us a better perspective of how and why Heidegger’s existentialist philosophy came about and affected such a revolution in our time of history.
He compares Heidegger with Max Weber, Werner Jaeger, Cassirer and, even, Edmund Husserl and suggests that Heidegger and his impact on society is to be compared with that of Hegel.  So great is the revolution in thinking that “no hay ya sistemas filosóficos.  Todos los sistemas filosóficos racionales y liberales han perdido su significado y su poder (p. 43).”  Of course, this analysis leaves aside “neotomismo” since it isn’t rational and “marxismo” since it isn’t liberal.  But the point is well-taken.  Heidegger’s subjective/relativistic existentialism has taken the world by storm and is therefore worthy of study, even if you ultimately disagree with him.

  1. ¿Cuáles son los puntos fuertes y los puntos débiles del texto?

Strauss begins his analysis of Heidegger by stating his effect on modern society as a revolution in how we think.  His opening sentence tells us that “el existencialismo ha recordado a muchos que el pensamiento es incompleto y defectuoso si el ser que piensa, el individuo que piensa, se olvida a sí mismo en pos de aquello que es (p. 41).”  On a basic level, existentialism devalued reason and praised decision-making and the resolute man in the face of death.  This inevitably leads us to an experience of anxiety (Angst) in a world without meaning or foundation which yet demands of us to make decisions, and wrestle meaning out of mere existence.
Still, there is within man a sort of irrational “faith in progress” (however unjustified in the end) that keeps us moving forward.  That faith in progress used to be based on the promise of science to “revelarnos el verdadero carácter del universo y la verdad acerca del hombre (p. 47)” but that has failed.  In its place is the power of science and technology to change the world for good (advances in curing diseases, communication etc) or evil (nuclear war, environmental disasters etc).    Strauss reminds us that “todo conocen la afirmación de que los juicios de valor no le están permitidos al científico en general y al científico social en particular (p. 47).”
But that now creates a major problem.  Strauss agrees when he states that “ciertamente, esto significa que la ciencia, al tiempo que ha acrecentado el poder del hombre en una medida inimaginable para la humanidad pasada, es absolutamente incapaz de decir al hombre cómo usar ese poder (p. 47).”  If you try to say that science and reason are the highest value or the best version of man´s efforts to understand and dominate his world, then you are making a value judgment which science itself must reject.  All opinions are valid.  Every point of view has value and this is now the basis of a pluralistic society founded on rational liberalism.  Tolerance now becomes the highest value and we are now able to move forward again.  Scientific progress without value judgments must be married to moral progress based on the egalitarianism of meaninglessness, hence our experience of “angst.”  It is now more accurate to talk not about “progress” (which is, in itself, a value statement at least in comparison with the past) but rather “change.”
But this is also problematic.  Why should one choose “change” for change’s sake?  We, inevitably, make a value judgment about that change and that is not justified rationally.  To choose for science and reason or to choose for myth and belief.  Both are irrational.  Both are equally un founded and therefore equally valid.  And there is no point in going back to “necesidades evidentes (p. 48)” since they are “hipótesis fundamentales que nunca serán más que hipótesis (p. 48).”  This choice without foundation opens up “un abismo (p.49).”  The freedom of choice without reason is the abyss of existentialism.  This freedom of choice, according to Strauss, “es la única cosa no hipotética; todo el resto reposa sobre esa libertad fundamental (p. 49).”  But Strauss (nor Heidegger) gives no argumentation for this new self-evident truth called human freedom.  The freedom of the will has been an article of debate since classical times and now has become the foundation (without reason) for existentialism.  If we also fall into some form of determinism (Freud, Skinner etc), what is left to Dasein (ser-en-el-mundo) in its interaction with the world?  Existentialism must defend this foundation or find its castle overrun with ultimate despair.
But that doesn’t mean that science (or positivism) would give up without a fight but it is a losing battle.  Where is the rational philosophy that can give us the truth about our world and our existence?  That can provide a rationale for behavior (ethics) and guide us into a good, meaningful life with identity, purpose and significance?  Leaving aside neo-Thomism (and other Christian belief systems based on the Reformation), or Marxism (vulgar or sophisticated which both undermine the value of the individual in favor of the State), there is nothing out there to work with.
Strauss, himself, went back to the ancient philosophers and affirmed the irresolvable (but necessary) tension between Athens and Jerusalem, and even studied the development of this tension within Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity.  He rejected Heidegger’s existentialism and relativism and re-affirmed (with the ancients) the necessity of both freedom and virtue (which are neither mutually exclusive nor inclusive).  Christianity (especially Evangelical Christianity) based on the revelation of God in the Bible (Jerusalem) tells us that faith (belief in something that is actually, objectively true) in God through Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit is what makes “freedom without chaos” possible in a world that is in rebellion against their Creator.  But now we are on the side of irrationality.
Even Strauss still uses the categories of rational and irrational in his discussion of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem without exploring whether or not that fundamental dichotomy is really legitimate.  In general, he would say that both are irrational, which allows him to consider the sociological impact of a religious world view on the needs of society to work together in a dangerous and difficult world.  He would even accept that the populous needed to actually believe that their religious worldview was true (in the pre-scientific sense).  This is the “noble lie.”  This would appear to be a vindication of Nietzsche’s view that the only way out of the dilemma is to choose “life giving delusion” instead of “deadly truth.” In other words, we must “fabricate a myth” in order to survive our own self-destruction by our own “freedom at any cost” philosophy.
Of course, Heidegger believed that nihilism was itself a myth based on a faulty idea of “being” that he traced all the way back to Plato with his distinction between essence and existence.  But how would he know? Existentialsim is “el abandono de la idea de verdad en el sentido en que la filosofía racional siempre la ha comprendido (p. 50).”  If that is true, then Heidegger’s belief that nihilism was itself a myth has no more validity than any other opinion.  You can choose for yourself what you want to believe (even if you have no rational reason for your choice).  This is “al abismo de la libertad (p. 50).”
There seems to be general agreement on the problem but not on the solution.  In that sense, once again, Existentialism has won the day with their description of the human condition (angst) and the problem of values (freedom to choose).
Some people try to suggest that society is the bases of our shared values.  Immanuel Kant built his entire philosophy on the concept of the ethical community of non-biased people (an elite?) who would choose for the general populous what was good and what was bad for society.  But still, the question remains, on what basis will they make their choices?  Pragmatism?  Utilitarianism? or will their political agenda (whether good or bad) guide their thoughts and actions.  Does this not lead either to the tyranny of the majority or fascism or something worse?  Who guides them?  Is there no absolute standard that will guide human behavior individually and corporately?  No, society (or even a social contract) cannot be the foundation of the ethics/morality of the people.
In fact, even from an existential point of view it doesn’t work.  Strauss points out the “al hecho de que cada uno debe hacer su propia elección, significa huir del propio sí mismo (p. 51).”  In other words, if the essence of authentic being is choice, then we cannot allow anyone or any other authority to choose for us without losing the essence of who we are as “ser-en-el mundo.”
Still, the problem of ethics remains.  As Socrates asked so many years ago, “What is good for both the city and man?”  Of course, no one seems to want to hear God’s interpretation of our situation because they reject it out of hand as having no basis in rational thought.  God talks about sin (rebellion against Him) and the effects of sin on our ability to use rational thought to understand the true nature of the world and our place in it.  Without God as the ultimate ground of our being and a relationship with him as the fulfillment of our sense of awe and dependency, there is only relativism.  Strauss comments that “el existencialismo admite la verdad del relativismo pero comprende que el relativismo, lejos de ser una solución o quizás un alivio, es funesto (p. 51).”  In other words, relativism in rational thought and value judgments brings “angst.”  He even says that “el existencialismo es la reacción de personas a su propio relativismo (p. 51).”
Of course, he, himself, goes in another direction precisely for that reason but his analysis of existentialism is to the point.  He says it in another way later on.  “El existencialismo comienza, entonces, con la toma de conciencia de que en el fundamento de todo conocimiento objetivo y racional descubrimos un abismo.  Toda verdad, todo significado es visto en última instancia como fundado en la libertad del hombre y en ninguna otra cosa (p. 51).”  And this leads to nihilism which is the “ausencia de significado, la nada (p. 51).”
But that isn’t the end of the story.  Apparently, we don’t like “meaninglessness” and something within man rebels at the thought that that is all there is.  We are not “disinterested” observers of our own existence.  We must live it out one way or the other and since we are free to choose, that freedom becomes our salvation (at least in part, within history in our finite experience).  Strauss says, “el hombre da libremente origen al significado; le da origen al horizonte, a la presuposición absoluta, al ideal, al proyecto dentro del cual la comprensión y la vida son posibles.  El hombre es el hombre en virtud de un proyecto que forma un horizonte, de un proyecto no fundado, de un proyecto yecto (p. 51).”  Mankind is “lost” to the extent that he accepts the world as it is and can only be “saved” if he makes his life mean something at least to himself.
Strauss would like to postulate that since mankind is a social being, there might be some utilitarian or pragmatic existential ethic that focuses on how we can be authentic with one another, but Heidegger did not believe that any “ethic” or objective value judgment could be made.  Here Strauss reveals his own bias toward political philosophy and his return to the classics to find a solution to the “freedom without chaos” dilemma.  But Heidegger rejects all concern about objective certainty.  In fact, as Strauss points out, “la preocupación por la certeza objetiva restringe necesariamente el horizonte (p. 52).”  And that isn’t good.  In fact, by building an inauthentic, unfounded, pre-scientific concept of objective certainty, you would indeed hide the “abyss” but you would also no longer be human.  “Vivir peligrosamente significa pensar arriesgando (p. 52).”
Of course, that statement (like all of the others) is a value statement based on the self-evident truth of human freedom that has no rational foundation and therefore no reason to be accepted.  But, then again, if there is no God, we could not even have a rational discussion about there not being a God.  After all, existentialism agrees with the Kantian concept of the “unknowability” of things in and of themselves.  Strauss points out that “en el existencialismo no se da ley objetiva ni existe un más allá (p. 52).”  But they fail to apply that to their own certainty that “angst” is the fundamental human condition for the Dasein and that “freedom” is the self-evident foundation of our being in the world that allows us (and obliges us) to choose for ourselves what our meaning is.  They also fail to recognize that all thought, all discussion, would cease since there is no grounds for accepting or rejecting existentialism.  It is merely a statement of an interpretation of the world that you are free to choose or not, to agree with or not, to act on or not, as you will.  Existentialism becomes a mere tautology, nothing else.
To some degree, even Heidegger recognizes the need to go deeper and give an “analítica existenciaria (p. 53)” that might better answer the question, “What is human existence?”  Heidegger needs to find some foundation for his certainty that human freedom is a fundamental self-evident truth of existence.  He must have “un ideal específico de existencia (p. 53).”  There is no neutrality here.  A decision must be made (without a rational basis) for his decision.  Heidegger finds his foundation in the concept of the “ser finitio” over and against the classical conception of the “ser siempre.”  He joins the concepts of existence and essence (separated in classical philosophy) to talk about essence as existence; “es decir, ser en el modo en que el hombre es: el ser en el sentido más elevado está constituido por la mortalidad (p. 53).”  After all, if essence is limited to our temporal existence, in this body, at this time and place, then time becomes our master and mortality our inheritance.  Any other conception of essence outside of our present existence is metaphysics (and speculation) and deserves no part in the discussion.
On the one hand, this means that “el hombre es un ser finito e incapaz de conocimiento absoluto; su propio conocimiento de su finitud es finito (p. 53).”  On the other hand, that is exactly what is needed to confront our mortality with a decision to authentic being.  Only in the face of our mortality can we become authentic through decision rather than through other external influences (e.g. mass consumerism).  In any event, rational philosophy was based upon the objective/subjective (or truth/opinion) distinction but existential philosophy is based on subjective relativism which has been revealed as “profundo, asertórico – con la advertencia de que no es apodíctico (p. 53).”
Strauss points out that this is, indeed, a coherent exposition of the human condition starting not from essence but from existence but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some problems with the overall approach.  We have already mentioned some of them earlier in this summary but here Strauss mentions them again.  First, Heidegger cannot completely separate his analysis of the human condition from his Judeo-Christian roots.  There are too many points of connection.  Secondly, his ideal of human existence founded on the freedom to decide for ourselves what is meaningful is arbitrary.  Third, his concept of the highest knowledge being “el conocimiento finito de la finitud,” begs the question of how one can understand “finitud” without some concept of “infinitud.”
Somehow we cannot escape Metaphysics no matter how hard we try.  For Heidegger there is no return to the metaphysical.  He suggests that we need to re-state or re-interpret metaphysical questions from a purely secular point of view.  But the secularization of philosophy is within the context of modern subjectivity.  On the one hand, existentialism claims to be the ultimate expression of philosophy, the final intuition about the nature of existence, of man firmly established within the context of his own historical situation.  But on the other hand, they leave no room for future truth or insight or development of philosophy while at the same time denying that history is now at an end, and no more thinking needs to be done since the final word has been given.
Strauss gives us a taste of that historical context when he claims that “el existencialismo pertenece a la decadencia de Europa (p. 55).”  He goes on to give us a taste of his political philosophical abilities by analyzing Marx and Nietzsche and “el hombre de la sociedad mundial (p. 56).”  How are individual freedoms (the goal of liberalism) maintained in a pluralistic society?  How do we accomplish freedom without chaos?  Here is where the discussion gets interesting.  On the one hand, we have the two world wars where global domination with a unified Europe at its head was the goal of Germany.  On the other hand, we have others who fought tooth and nail to stop that very thing and did so “fundamentalmente, porque hay algo en el hombre que no puede ser satisfecho por la sociedad mundial:  el deseo de lo que es genuino, noble, grande (p. 58).”
According to Strauss, these ideals up to now have not been able to help mankind manage his own incredible power through technology and science but in fact they have weakened him.  The argumentation here is weak and Strauss passes over neo-Thomism and other forms of reformed Christianity even though he gives a thorough analysis of Marxism.  He describes the problem this way, “una sociedad mundial puede ser humana sólo si hay una cultura mundial, una cultura que realmente una a todos los hombres (p. 58).”  The problem is that you would need “un base religiosa (p. 58)” to make that happen and mankind is not able, according to Strauss, to build a worldwide religion.
The problem is real especially for those who lived through the two world wars of the past century.  Mankind is threatened by extinction by our own technology which is the fruit of our rationalism, which has its roots in Greek philosophy.  Greek philosophy tried to understand the totality of the world and our experience in it but it failed.  There are clearly aspects to our existence that lie outside of our rationality.  To call this our “irrational” side is still to miss the point that rationality is, in itself, a value statement about truth versus opinion.  But, as Strauss points out, to “trascender los límites del racionalismo requiere descubrir los límites del racionalismo (p. 59).”  In fact, he goes on to say that “el racionalismo mismo se funda en presupuestos no racionales, no evidentes; pese a su poder aparentemente ilimitado, el racionalismo es vacio; se funda él mismo en algo que no puede dominar (p. 60).”  Strauss then tries to find a solution in Oriental philosophy, in “el ser elusivo o ser un misterio (p. 60).”  He looks to China for a solution but laments that China is also succumbing to the allure of Western technology and rational liberalism.
Heidegger understood the problem of a world society but had no final solution.  Perhaps in some combination of the Western with the Eastern philosophies but, in general, there are problems that cannot be overcome primarily because the Eastern conception of life does not wish to dominate nature but to remove themselves from it and therefore a point of contact in common is difficult to find.
On the other hand, the Judeo-Christian religion is rooted in Eastern tradition and therefore holds some hope.  Strauss says, “el pensamiento bíblico es una forma de pensamiento oriental (p. 60)” but is also deeply embedded in Western civilization and thought.  But there is a problem according to Strauss.  If you take the Biblical worldview as an absolute, it will become an obstacle to other Eastern ways of thinking that may also be useful.  On the one hand, the Bible “es el Oriente dentro de nosotros, los occidentales (p. 60)” but on the other hand, he means “no la Biblia en cuanto Biblia sino la Biblia en cuanto Oriente puede ayudarnos a superar el racionalismo griego (p. 60).”  It is the specific concept of “being” that matters from the Bible, nothing more.
Of course, much of this discussion is no longer about Heidegger but about Strauss and his political philosophy.  He has much to say in other places about the unresolved tensions between Athens and Jerusalem which would be useful to bring into this discussion but his overall point of separating the fundamental concept of “being” in the Biblical revelation from the rest of the Biblical content is dubious at best.  It begs the question whether the absolute, objective truth of the Bible and its worldview is not the historical context for the Biblical concept of “being.”  If it is so (and the Bible claims that it is so), then no such surgery as Strauss proposes would ever be successful.
But he seems to be on the right track when he states that “el fundamento de los fundamentos que se halla indicado en la palabra “ser” será el fundamento no sólo de la religión sino también de todo Dios posible.  A partir de aquí se puede comenzar a comprender la posibilidad de una religión mundial (p. 60).”  Still, there are problems.  Strauss still seems to give priority to rationalism as the filter through which the “problematic” concept of being in the East would be filtered.
This is not faith seeking understanding but reason interpreting faith.  It doesn’t work.  The dilemma is real because governments and politicians cannot force faith on people, it cannot make faith happen, it cannot legislate faith.  Worse still, if faith has a specific content or worldview and other competing worldviews exist, how does one “encourage” a conversion to another faith without losing the value of their culture and ethnic history.
Of course, like always, the answers usually lie in the presuppositions with which we came to the discussion in the first place.  Perhaps if we started with faith and used reason within the boundaries of that faith by re-interpreting rationality more modestly within the bounds of religion, we could get on the right track.  But then we might discover that God exists, that he has his own agenda, that a world society is a Babel that he is bound and determined to destroy (or allow it to destroy itself), that this world is both the context for redemption and therefore valuable and worth saving from a temporal point of view but is also under the curse of God and will be destroyed and renewed at the same time from an eternal point of view, that human arrogance and sin (which is rebellion against God) is the heart of the problem of “freedom without chaos” and that the solution of God is “relational based” not “knowledge based.”
If the divine interpretation of man’s existence is heeded, then we would acknowledge that we are our own worst enemies and that faith in God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit is the only solution individually and corporately but that this world is at war and that ultimate peace is not possible until all things are brought to an end.  In other words, God has a different analysis of the human condition, a different solution and a different agenda.
The real question is whether or not the “Caesars” of the modern political elite will see Christianity as a threat to their dream of worldwide domination for the good of all based on one rational religion that is tolerant of all beliefs or whether they will accept that only Christianity, as a light in the darkness, as a city on a hill, can keep society from falling into chaos long enough to get the message out to the entire world that there is another way, that there is a salvation that goes beyond this world, that human freedom to choose our own destiny, our own morality, our own meaning is, indeed, the abyss and we must step away from it or be thrown into it to suffer the everlasting “angst” of those who want a life without God, without identity, without purpose, without significance beyond what they themselves can fashion.
As Strauss points out at the end of his chapter, everything ends up back at metaphysics.  Strauss says, “parece que no se puede evitar preguntar a qué se ha debido el surgimiento del hombre y del Sein, qué lo extrajo de la nada, dado que ex nihilo nihil fit (de la nada nada llega a ser) (p. 63).”  This is a big problem for Heidegger as well but he still claims that “no hay lugar para Dios creador (p.63).”  He is willing to say “ex nihilo omne ens qua ens (de la nada todo ente llega a su ser) (p. 63)” but without any biblical content to back it up.  This appears to be nothing more than a predisposition against the supernatural but it is consistent with his ultimately “rational” basis for existentialism.  But what is his alternative?  What is this source of all being in the world?  Strauss tells us that “Esse, como Heidegger lo concibió….es una síntesis de las ideas platónicas y del Dios bíblico: es impersonal como las ideas platónicas y elusivo como el Dios bíblico (p. 63).”
So where does that leave us?  There is no rationale, no argumentation, just a statement of value (or non-value) covered in the cloak of factibility.  The interesting thing is that metaphysics apparently is indispensable no matter how you look at it and the ultimate questions of life can only be understood in the context of that kind of discussion.  No matter that Heidegger redefines metaphysics in secular terms.  It isn’t that much different from the conclusions of natural theology.  It isn’t really the God of the Bible but it does recognize that some sort of Being exists, necessarily, to make everything work.  Otherwise, we are left without even the ability to discuss the issue.  At the end of the day, God will have the final word.

  1. ¿Qué aspectos no entendí?

Strauss pointed out a couple of times that Heidegger had problems with his own conception of existentialism.  He mentions at one point “la crítica heideggeriana al existencialismo…(p. 55).”  It would be helpful to have a clearer idea of Heidegger’s own criticisms of existentialism in general.

  1. ¿Cómo se puede aplicar el contenido a la tarea filosófico-teológico?

When faced with the task of trying to understand the relationship between philosophy and theology, Heidegger is certainly interesting.  As was pointed out in the summary, Heidegger himself could not entirely escape his own Judeo-Christian worldview since much of what he sees as the ultimate human condition is very much in line with the Biblical interpretation of the problem.  The difference is that he idolizes mankind’s ability to make free choices to determine his own destiny and meaning whereas the bible deplores this estrangement of mankind from his Creator God who wishes to save him from himself.
It also needs to be said that if Strauss is correct and all philosophical discussion ultimately leads back to metaphysics (however you interpret it), then there is an inevitable link between philosophy and theology that cannot be ignored.
Bert Amsing
Master’s Program – FIET