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Contemporary Philosophy

Heidegger's Critique of Cartesianism

Abraham Mansbach
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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ABSTRACT: Heidegger is one of the few Western thinkers to have succeeded in going beyond the Western philosophic tradition. Because his radical criticism is believed to have fractured the foundations of modern philosophy, his thinking is usually at the center of the controversy between the defenders of the tradition and those who wish to break with it and start afresh. In the heat of this debate, the question of Heidegger's place in relation to that tradition in general and to Cartesianism in particular has been neglected. I wish to address the question by focusing on the major aspects of Heidegger's critique of Cartesian philosophy and the modern tradition. I will first show that the strength of his criticism lies in its all-encompassing penetration of the foundations of modern philosophy, running through both the ontological and epistemological channels. Ontologically, Heidegger presents a critique of subjectivism; epistemologically, he discredits the correspondence conception of truth and its underlying visual metaphor. I will then look at his view of history and the meaning of his concept of "overcoming" in order to show that his aim is not to destroy the tradition, but to provide a wider basis for it by rescuing forgotten elements imbedded in the tradition itself. Finally, I will show that in this process of "overcoming," Heidegger did not really depart from the tradition, but absorbed some of its basic tenets, as his concept of death echoes major elements of Cartesian doubt.

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1. The Critique of Subjectivism

One of the major features of Heidegger's thinking is his criticism of Cartesian subjectivity. According to Heidegger, in regarding the ego cogito as the guarantor of its own continuing existence and as the basis of all things, Descartes reduces all entities to ideas or representations whose validity is determined by the rules imposed on them by the subject ego.

An examination of Heidegger's main writings reveals that for him these shortcomings of the subjectivistic view were not limited to Descartes. As Heidegger sees it, the subjectivistic view was adopted by the most prominent figures in modern philosophy and, in fact, formed the axis of the modern philosophic tradition.

Heidegger commentators recognize the centrality of the issue of subjectivity in his thinking. But the problem for Heidegger is not only the anthropocentric view itself. The main problem is that Descartes' position, which posits the human being as the ontological center, leads all modern philosophy into subjectivism. Heidegger sees modern philosophy as an attempt to establish the existence of the subject without discussing the more fundamental question of what makes such a subject possible. Here 'subject' not only denotes the human being, but is considered in the broad sense of subjectum and hypokeimenon. Thus sujectivism not only leaves the nature of man unquestioned, but blocks all further ontological inquiry and brings philosophy to a dead end.

Heidegger's efforts to free philosophy from its subjectivism can be seen by carefully following his phenomenological analysis in Being and Time and the less systematic writings of his later period. This reveals that he avoids positing any being whatsoever as a fixed, Archimedean point for ontology, any point that is both the basis of itself and the basis of everything else.

Let us take a brief look at his paradigmatic writings. As is well known, in his seminal Being and Time Heidegger raises the question of the meaning of Being and claims that the possibility of raising this question presupposes the existence of an entity that raises it. Heidegger names that entity "Dasein". The term "Dasein" refers to the human structure to which the inquiry on Being is essential. Dasein is the place of ontological clarification, the place where Being is revealed.

In positing Dasein as the starting point, Heidegger shows that it is possible to build the philosophical edifice on a foundation other that the Cartesian subject. This is a stronger foundation, for it contains no presuppositions at all about man and reality other than the possibility of ontology itself: the possibility of raising the question of Being.

But Dasein is not the only foundation in Heidegger's philosophy. In his lecture "The Origin of the Work of Art" (1936), Heidegger invites us to "go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is." (1) He calls on us to "ask the question of truth with a view to the work [of art]." (2) Human existence is no longer the center of the analysis, and no longer serves as the conduit of meaning. The focus is shifted to art and its product, the work of art.

In de-centering the human subject and replacing it with the work of art, Heidegger does not, however, posit the aesthetic object as a unique privileged entity; as a subjectum. In his essay "The Thing" (1950), Heidegger examines things as they reveal themselves and provides a scheme, the 'fourfold' (Geviert), to account for the way things constitute themselves through themselves, with no need for either man or the work of art to make meaning possible.

The 'fourfold' is a conceptual scheme containing four elements: earth, sky, mortals and gods. The gathering together of these four elements makes up the ontological meaning of each thing. The earth and sky, which represent nature, supply the matter for each thing. The mortals and gods, which represent history, provide the meaningful context in which each thing becomes part of a web of relations.

The fourfold represents a departure from the model in which a single entity radiates meaning to its surroundings and thereby forms the center of meaning all by itself. It places Heidegger beyond subjectivism.

2. The criticism of truth

The other way that Heidegger shakes the foundations of modern philosophy is by attacking traditional epistemology: directly by tearing down the view of truth as correspondence, and indirectly by dismantling the visual metaphor of truth.

To start with the issue of truth: The traditional view of truth is based on the view of human beings as essentially cognitive creatures, who represent the world of objects through ideas and concepts expressed in assertions. In this world view, truth denotes the correspondence between those mental or linguistic representations, on the one hand, and objects, facts or events in the world, on the other.

Heidegger argues against it is that it is impossible to validate such a correspondence and, moreover, that no one would even try. Instead, he maintains, for there to be a correspondence between ideas or statements and objects, the objects must first become manifest. The truth is their manifestation: their disclosure or uncovering, aletheia rather than correspondence.

Heidegger anchors his view of truth as aletheia in ancient philosophy. He attributes the concept to the pre-Socratic philosophers, mainly Heraclitus, Parmenides and Anaximander, who, he maintains, considered the essence of truth to lie in the disclosure of entities.

Along with replacing the concept of truth as correspondence with the concept of truth as aletheia, Heidegger creates a hierarchy of truth in which assertion - which traditionally had been identified with truth - is relegated to the lowest rung, preceded by Being on the first rung and by man on the second. In Heidegger's view. for beings to be manifested, the existence of a common background against which the manifestation occurs is required. The common background in which all beings appear is Being. In the hierarchy of the various meanings of truth, the privileged, primary level is reserved for Being.

The second level of the hierarchy is occupied by man, who has the ability to discover Being, since he is capable of perceiving Its manifestations in the world. Assertion occupies the lowest level because the fact that assertions have meaning and can be true or false is based on human existence, whose ontological structure is the foundation of predicative speech.

The reason traditional philosophers were unable to see that the disclosure of beings is the basis of truth lies, according to Heidegger, in the Platonic origin of traditional philosophy. Heidegger argues that Plato's allegory of the cave in the Republic is where the understanding of truth as aletheia gave way to the misunderstanding of truth as correspondence.

I will not elaborate on the way Heidegger's disects the allegory of the cave, but just point that his aim in demolishing the traditional visual metaphor for truth is to undermine modern Cartesian thinking.

3. Overcoming Cartesianism

We have seen that Heidegger's criticism goes to the heart of Cartesianism and of the modern age, undermining their ontological basis, concept of truth, and central metaphor. But we should not regard this criticism as aimed at destroying the tradition. Rather its intent is to broaden its base.

As is well known, Heidegger described his relation to the tradition by the strong terms Destruktion, Abbau, Verbindung and Uberwindung. (3) These are not the same of Hegel's Aufhebung. For Heidegger, overcoming is not a forward movement where the irrelevant is left behind and it does not contain the notion of progress. Heidegger's aim is not to destroy the tradition but to broaden it and to reinterpret its major tenets in light of what, in his view, has been left out as the tradition was formed.

Heidegger's attitude to the tradition is intimately related to his view of history. Following Hegel's insights and the Nietzschean concept of 'monumental history', Heidegger regards History as the manifestation of Being through human acts. He sees the works of poets and thinkers, great works of art, literature, and philosophy, including Cartesianism, as links in the chain of History.

It follows that Heidegger's aim in criticizing the tradition is not so much to show that Descartes and Cartesianism were wrong in making man the subject and sole center of meaning, but rather to restore to the tradition important elements which he believes it had forgotten. The Cartesian subject cannot be destroyed because it is a historical product and a revelation of Being.

It is with this in mind that we must consider his treatment of the subject and of truth.

In de-centering the subject Heidegger is not trying to destroy the idea of a foundation, as might be assumed from some postmodern developments. He does not propose a homogeneous mass without differentiation or a Dionysian flow of reality. For he does not eliminate the difference between beings themselves or between beings and Being, but rather brings it to the forefront of the ontological debate.

While Heidegger abandons the modern concept of the subject, he does not abandon the idea that every entity is a center of meaning. Since every entity creates a web of meaning around itself, it gives meaning to its world, in Heidegger's view. In a statement reminiscent of Aristotele's discussion of primary substance in Categories, Heidegger tell us: "stones, plants, and animals are subjects - something lying-before itself - no less that man is." (4)

As for truth, Heidegger does not actually deny the correspondence between language and the world, judgments and facts; he does not deny scientific knowledge. He simply questions its justification. He wonders: Since the two constituents of this relation are in correspondence but not identical, there must be something by virtue of which they correspond, something that makes the correspondence possible. He thus asks: How is correspondence possible? This question indicates that far than denying correspondence, he is trying to get at the bottom of what makes correspondence possible.

Heidegger's aim was to rescue those aspects of the tradition which most modern philosophers ignored or forgot. As Heidegger sees it, the modern tradition was constructed by 'forgetting' important aspects of the philosophical corpus. This forgetting may be understood as a necessary step in shaping the tradition. That is, forgetting is an integral part of the process of canonization. But Heidegger reminds us that part of the tradition forgot even the forgetting itself.

Heidegger seeks to broaden the basis of the tradition by rescuing its forgotten Greek roots. For him, Greek philosophy is more than a source to discover where the tradition departed from what he believed was the correct path. As he sees it:

Ancient ontology...is fundamentally not unimportant and can never be overcome [überwinden], because it represents the first necessary step that any philosophy in essence has to take, so that this step must always be repeated by every actual philosophy. (5)

Yet in emphasizing the need for historical inclusiveness, Heidegger exposes his own philosophical opus to the question of whether it itself is adequately inclusive.

Heidegger was bound by the Enlightenment view that Western philosophy and culture originated with the Greeks. Along with the Enlightenment thinkers, Heidegger overlooked the pre-Hellenic origins of Western thinking which had been acknowledged prior to the modern era. Along with them, he forgot that ancient Greek civilization was a mosaic of cultures from the Far East, Africa, and Asia, which made their mark through invasions and migrations. He forgot that ancient Greek philosophy was a product of those cultures as they intermingled with one another and with indigenous Greek thought.

His ignoring the pre-Hellenic origins of Western philosophy places him squarely within the tradition that he wanted to overcome. It places him within the Enlightment perception that the starting point of Western philosophy was in the transition from mythos to logos that occurred with Greek philosophy.

It is in this sense that Heidegger adheres to the modern model, in which reference to the earlier cultures was eradicated, apparently because they were considered mythic or pre-rational (irrational).

To be sure, Heidegger also delved into the pre-Socratic and mythical thinking of Heraclitus and Parmenides, and there are mythical and even mystical motifs in his own philosophical discourse. This does not mean, however, that he adopted an irrationalist stand, but rather that he was trying to enlarge the concept of rationalism, which had been contracting in modern times, and to bridge domains that had become incommensurable.

Heidegger's criticism of the cognitive nature of the Cartesian subject is not made from an irrationalist perspective. In positing Dasein as his starting point for analysis, Heidegger does not deny the preeminence of cognition. An essential feature of Dasein is its questioning, and this is the basis of knowledge. Dasein is the only being that asks "why are there beings rather than not." This reveals that it has an understanding of Being.

According to Heidegger, the problem with Descartes' view and the whole of the tradition is that they turn knowledge into method. Knowledge as method conveys the real nature of neither the human being nor of philosophy. Heidegger distinguishes between knowledge derived from what he calls "calculative thinking" and that which stems from what he calls "meditative thinking". It is meditative thinking that is appropriate to philosophy. As he puts it, "man is a thinking, that is, a meditating being." (6)

While Heidegger acknowledges that thinking is basic in man, he believes that there is something more basic than the Cartesian "cogito": "Metaphysics thinks of man as animal, as a living being. Even when ratio pervades animalitas, man's being, remains defined by life and life experience." (PLT 179). In other words, he regards the Cartesian view of man as incomplete.

Yet, in his very attempt to change the Cartesian concept of man, Heidegger has absorbed important elements of Descartes' thinking. This can be seen by looking at the role of finitude in Heidegger's view of man in relation to the Cartesian doubt.

4. On Doubt and Death

From Being and Time up through his later writings, Heidegger regards mortality as man's defining characteristic. In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that the core of the authentic behavior which reveals Being and individuates human existence lies in an authentic being-towards-death. Dasein is not the ground of its existence, but the ground of the "not". For Dasein individuates itself by choosing among its possibilities. Yet with every choice, it annuls all other possibilities, since it can select only one. Its power and capacity to be is mainly a power not to be. It is the ground of a nullity (Nichtigkeit). The not is a possibility rooted in Dasein's existential constitution which, far from being a negation of things, makes them possible: it allows them to show themselves as they are in themselves.

In his later writings (for example, in "The Thing"), Heidegger uses the term 'mortals' to refer to man. The concept of "mortals" suggests that the meaning of things and the semantic field created around them is preserved only so long as the human being participates in the play of revelation as a mortal, finite being. It is death that allows man to give meaning to his existence and to his world. Human existence is not the ground (grund) of Being, but the abyss (abgrund) which creates meaning, which lets meaning arise through his existence. It follows that while human existence is not the ground of itself for Heidegger, like Dasein earlier, it is the ground of the not.

The role of death in Heidegger's thinking is analogous to that of doubt in Descartes'. The Cartesian doubt is generally regarded, rightly, as a mechanism for the production of first principles. It is a means of pushing knowledge to its limits so as to discover what cannot be doubted. Those ideas which can survive even the strongest doubt can thus be considered unshakable foundations for philosophy. Doubt is thus part of the cognitive act, it is "essentially connected with the indubitable," (7) that is with certainty.

But the basis of doubt for Descartes is man's finitude. In his third meditation, Descartes argues that if man had been able to produce the idea of an infinitely perfect being - that is, God - he would be perfect and all knowing himself and not suffer from doubt. But clearly, being finite, man cannot grasp God's infinite substance. The doubt that ultimately leads to certainty thus rests on human mortality, much as does Heidegger's meaning.

In criticizing Descartes' view of man, Heiddeger does not question the cogito as such. As we saw above, Heidegger regards man as having an understanding of Being. His argument is that taking the ego cogito as a starting point leaves the sum indeterminate. In a lecture in 1925, Heidegger says:

This certainty, that "I myself am in that I will die," is the basic certainty of Dasein itself. It is a genuine statement of Dasein, while cogito sum is only the semblance of such a statement. If such pointed formulations mean anything at all, then the appropriate statement pertaining to Dasein in its being would have to be sum moribundus ["I am in dying"], moribundus not as someone gravely ill or wounded, but insofar as I am, I am moribundus. The MORIBUNDUS first gives the SUM its sense. (8)

With this turn of the Cartesian formula, Heidegger is not trying to exorcise traditional philosophy from the Cartesian phantom. Rather, he is trying to conquer Cartesianism by completing the Cartesian inquiry on man. To be, to exist, is to be finite, that the possibility of death, which is ultimately realized, accompanies all of our acts, including the act of thinking. The meaning of sum, for Heidegger, is finitude.

(1) Heidegger M., Poetry, Language and Thought, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, p. 18.

(2) Poetry, Language and Thought, p. 41.

(3) Destruktion is the term used in Heidegger's Being and Time (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980); Abbau can be find Heidegger's Basic Problems of Phenomenology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982); Verbindung is discussed mainly in "The Principle of Identity," in Identity and Difference (New York: Harper and Row, 1969, pp. 23-41); for Uberwindung see Heidegger's Nietzsche.

(4) Nietzsche, vol. 4 p. 97. See Aristotle's words: "that which is called a substance most strictly, primarily, and most of all, is that which is neither said of a subject nor in a subject, e.g., the individual man or the individual horse." (Aristotle's Categories, 2a 11-13).

(5) Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology p.111.

(6) Heidegger M., Discourse on Thinking New York: Harper and Row, 1966, p. 7.

(7) Nietzsche, vol. 4, p. 106.

(8) Heidegger, M. History of the Concept of Time, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 316-317.

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