Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education

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Heidegger is now widely recognized as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, yet much of his later philosophy remains shrouded in confusion and controversy. Restoring Heidegger's understanding of metaphysics as 'ontotheology' to its rightful place at the center of his later thought, this book explains the depth and significance of his controversial critique of technology, his appalling misadventure with Nazism, his prescient critique of the university, and his important suggestions for the future of higher education. It will be required reading for those seeking to understand the relationship between Heidegger's philosophy and National Socialism as well as the continuing relevance of his work.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"By far the deepest and the most illuminating account of the relation between Heidegger's philosophy and his politics yet offered. Thomson shows convincingly how Heidegger's political engagement followed from his understanding of the role of philosophy in the university and how what was most original and important in his later thinking emerged as a result of this tragic involvement."
-Hubert Dreyfus, University of California, Berkeley

"Heidegger on Ontotheology is a must-read for anyone who is seriously interested in Heidegger or the development of German philosophy during the 20th century. It is a trail-blazing study, bringing to the interpretation of Heidegger's later philosophy the clarity and rigor that have until now been restricted to works on Heidegger's early period. The central thesis of the book is that Heidegger's metaphilosophy, his critique of technology, and the catastrophe of his involvement in Nazism are all interconnected. Thomson is the first author to establish a thoughtful, credible, and direct connection between Heidegger's philosophy of the 1920s and his involvement in Nazism. Thomson answers a challenge posed to readers of Heidegger: to acknowledge this connection, while at the same time salvaging what remains important and even urgent in Heidegger's critiques of the culture of technology and modern university education."
-Bill Blattner, Georgetown University

"This is compelling material that reads in part like a detective story and in part like a confessional biography; it is rare stuff, indeed, in philosophy and yet tragically and inescapably a crucial part of history of late-modern Western philosophy (as it is to date the most tragic and ultimately nihilistic espisode in European culture). ...In short, this book is to be highly recommended. It is refreshingly free of jargon; it shines brightly in its intelligence and lays out the issues expertly. It deserves the widest readership and critical discussion, andit is to be hoped that this review might so inspire education scholars."
-Michael Peters, Columbia University Teachers College Record

"This impressive study argues that Heidegger's deconstruction of metaphysics as ontotheology, when suitably understood , provides the key to his misunderstood critique of technology and to the underappreciated potential of his thought to contribute to efforts to respond to 'our own growing crisis in higher education.' The author is well versed in Heidegger's thought and the extensive secondary literature on it and he puts this expertise to superb use in a text that is lucidly written with intelligence, verve, and conviction."
-Daniel Dahlstrom, Notre Dame Philosophical Review

"This book is substantial achievement, exhibiting both scholarly erudition and philosophical sensitivity at virtually every turn. ...Thomson's work stands as a significant accomplishment. He has succeeded in creating a lively and engrossing portrait of Heidegger's thought. This book indeed sets a hight standard by which future studies of Heidegger will have to be judged."
-Benjamin Crowe, Philosophy in Review

"The book is generally well written and...intelligible almost throughout...The treatments of Kant and Nietzche are instructive and add to the read usefulness of the book. For those interested in its primary aim, and we ought to be, it is a work of real value."
-Department of Classics, Dalhousie University and King's College, Canada, Ancient Philosophy

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521616591
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/11/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 860,097
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
0521851157 - Heidegger on Ontotheology - Technology and the Politics of Education - by Iain D. Thomson


Heidegger on Ontotheology

Martin Heidegger is now widely recognized as one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Until the late 1960s, this impact derived mainly from his early magnum opus, Being and Time (published in 1927). Many of the twentieth century's most significant continental thinkers - including Hannah Arendt, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Emmanuel Levinas, Herbert Marcuse, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Paul Tillich - acknowledge profound conceptual debts to the insights elaborated in this text. Being and Time was never finished, however, and Heidegger continued to develop, refine, and in some places revolutionize his own thinking for another fifty years. This "later" Heidegger's prolific body of work decisively influenced the next generation of continental philosophers, helping to shape the concepts and concerns of major contemporary figures such as Jean Baudrillard, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Hubert Dreyfus, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor, to name but a few. Despite this unparalleled impact, however, important aspects of Heidegger's later philosophy remain obscured by confusion and controversy.

Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education seeks to clarify five interrelated aspects of Heidegger's later thought, namely, his neglected understanding of metaphysics as ontotheology, his controversial critique of technology, his appalling misadventure with Nazism, his prescient critique of the university, and, finally, his important philosophical suggestions for the future of higher education. My title is "fortuitously ambiguous," as Heidegger would say - that is, "ambiguous in a positive sense" (KPM 157/GA3 231) - for, in Heidegger on Ontotheology, I first explain Heidegger's philosophical understanding of ontotheology, then develop an interpretation of his later thought on the basis of this understanding of ontotheology. The subtitle, Technology and the Politics of Education, expresses my sense that the other important aspects of Heidegger's later thinking just mentioned are interrelated in a way we can appreciate only once we understand his views on ontotheology.

I thus begin, in Chapter 1, by arguing that Heidegger's unjustifiably neglected understanding of metaphysics as ontotheology in fact forms the crucial philosophical background for much of his later thought. Until now, Heidegger's complex understanding of ontotheology has been either ignored or misunderstood. When his view of "ontotheology" is mentioned at all, it is usually taken to be a dismissive way of characterizing any theology that treats God as the outermost anchor in the causal chain of creation. Yet, this reduction of the divine to "the God of the philosophers" is only one of the profound consequences of the ontotheological structure Heidegger discovers at the core of the entire tradition of Western metaphysics. To clarify this more complex and nuanced understanding of ontotheology, I show how Heidegger's historical deconstruction of the metaphysical tradition leads him to the view that all our great metaphysical systems make foundational claims best understood as ontotheological. His guiding idea is that the metaphysical tradition establishes both the fundamental and the ultimate conceptual parameters of intelligibility by ontologically grounding and theologically legitimating our changing historical sense of what is. Heidegger's notorious antipathy to metaphysics thus obscures the fact that, on his view, it is metaphysics which unifies and secures our successive historical "epochs." A series of metaphysical ontotheologies anchor our successive constellations of historical intelligibility, temporarily securing the intelligible order by grasping it from both ends of the conceptual scale simultaneously (as it were), both ontologically (from the inside out) and theologically (from the outside in). By first elucidating and then problematizing Heidegger's thesis that all the great systems of Western metaphysics share this ontotheological structure, I reconstruct the most important components of the original and persuasive history of metaphysics he provides in support of this thesis. It is precisely this historical narrative, I show, that generates the critical force of the later Heidegger's main philosophical project, namely, the attempt to find a philosophical path leading beyond our nihilistic, Nietzschean age. (Because it provides crucial philosophical background for the rest of the book, Chapter 1, of necessity, engages closely with Heidegger's technical vocabulary, and readers who find the going too slow might do well to skip ahead to Chapter 2 or 3, circling back once the stakes become clear.)

Chapter 1 thus presents Heidegger's rather dystopian critique of our own historical age, and Chapter 2 begins to respond to some of the controversy this critique has understandably provoked. Specifically, Chapter 2 seeks to demonstrate that three of the major criticisms advanced against Heidegger can be persuasively countered once we comprehend the way in which his famous critique of our "technological" understanding of being follows from his understanding of metaphysics as ontotheology. To make this case, I focus systematically on the three longstanding criticisms appropriated, refined, and leveled against Heidegger's view by the leading critical theorist of technology, Andrew Feenberg. I first make clear that Feenberg's formidable criticisms are addressed not to technological essentialism as such, but, rather, to three particular kinds of technological essentialism, namely, ahistoricism, substantivism (or fatalism), and one-dimensionalism (that is, the charge that Heidegger's understanding of technology is "totalizing" or indiscriminate). After explicating these three forms of technological essentialism and explaining why exactly Feenberg finds them objectionable, I ask whether any of them should in fact be ascribed to Heidegger. By showing how Heidegger's critique of technology follows from his understanding of ontotheology, and then drawing out the implications of the heretofore unnoticed connection, I am able to respond to each of Feenberg's criticisms in turn, establishing three important conclusions: first, that Heidegger's rather limited technological essentialism is not at all ahistoricist, but the opposite, an historical conception of the essence of technology; second, that although Heidegger does indeed advocate a substantivist technological essentialism, he also suggests a plausible, indirect response to Feenberg's voluntaristic, Marcusean objection; and, third, that Heidegger's one-dimensional technological essentialism is of a nonobjectionable variety, because it does not force him to reject technological devices in toto. These conclusions help vindicate Heidegger's groundbreaking ontological approach to the philosophy of technology. In so doing, moreover, they reinforce my overarching thesis that Heidegger's understanding of ontotheology needs to be recognized as the crucial philosophical background of his later thought. For, I show, deprived of this philosophical background, later views such as Heidegger's critique of technology can easily appear arbitrary and indefensible, but when this background is restored, the full depth and significance of those views begins to emerge with new clarity.

After proposing an interpretation that restores Heidegger's understanding of ontotheology to its rightful place at the center of his later philosophy (in Chapter 1), and then, on the basis of this interpretation, vindicating his later work against some longstanding objections (in Chapter 2), I turn in Chapter 3 to confront what is surely the greatest obstacle to any sympathetic reconstruction and defense of Heidegger's work, namely, his brief but appalling alliance with National Socialism. Why did one of the twentieth century's greatest thinkers join forces with its most contemptible political movement? This profoundly troubling combination has spawned a secondary literature of singular immensity. Cutting through this controversy, Chapter 3 advances a new understanding of the philosophical basis of Heidegger's infamous politics by focusing on the development of his philosophical views on university education. Elucidating these views and situating them within their broader historical and philosophical context, I show them to be largely responsible for his decision to become the first Nazi Rector of Freiburg University in 1933. I then ask: Did Heidegger learn from this horrific political misadventure and so transform the underlying philosophical views that helped motivate it? Pursuing this important question, I show that Heidegger did indeed learn several crucial philosophical lessons here, but I also argue, against the interpretations of Otto Pöggeler and Derrida, that the later Heidegger continued to develop and refine the basic philosophical research program that originally motivated his failed attempt at political activism, rather than simply abandoning this philosophical program after 1933. Instead of using this conclusion as an excuse to dismiss Heidegger's later views on education, however, I suggest that his prescient critique of the university has only become more relevant since he elaborated it, and that, with the important philosophical corrections suggested for this philosophical research program by his so-called turn, the later Heidegger's mature vision for a reontologization of education merits the careful attention of those of us now seeking to understand the roots and implications of our own growing crisis in higher education. In order to justify these admittedly provocative claims, I turn in the concluding Chapter 4 to critically appropriate, develop, and defend several aspects of the later Heidegger's radical philosophical vision for a university of the future.

Chapter 4 begins by showing that Heidegger presciently diagnosed our current crisis in higher education. Important contemporary theorists such as Bill Readings extend and update Heidegger's critique, documenting the increasing instrumentalization, professionalization, vocationalization, corporatization, and technologization of the modern university, the dissolution of its guiding and unifying ideals, and, consequently, the growing hyperspecialization and ruinous fragmentation of its departments. Unlike Heidegger, however, these critics do not recognize such disturbing trends as interlocking symptoms of an underlying ontotheology, and, as a result, they are unable to provide a positive vision for the future of higher education. In contrast, by understanding our educational crisis in terms of its deep ontohistorical roots, Heidegger is able to develop an alternative, ontological conception of education, one devised to help bring about a renaissance in higher education. To make this case, I show how Heidegger, through a creative reading of Plato's famous allegory of the cave, excavates and appropriates the original Western educational ideal of Platonic paideia, thereby outlining the pedagogy of an ontological education capable of directly challenging the nihilistic but increasingly widespread conception of education that follows from our technological understanding of being and its underlying Nietzschean ontotheology. Reconstructing Heidegger's mature notion of ontological education, I suggest that his view can best be understood as a species of philosophical perfectionism, one which seeks to reessentialize the currently empty ideal of educational "excellence" in order to both reconnect teaching to research and restore a meaningful sense of communal solidarity to the academic community. In developing such a view, however, I argue that we need to recognize, criticize, and steer well clear of the authoritarian and totalitarian excesses that distorted and misdirected Heidegger's own attempt to intervene politically in 1933 on the basis of his still insufficiently clarified philosophical views on university education. Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education thus concludes by suggesting that, once those aspects of Heidegger's earlier view that encouraged his disastrous politics have been isolated, criticized, and rejected, the later Heidegger's mature understanding of ontological education represents an important contribution to current philosophical efforts to both diagnosis and respond to our own growing crisis in higher education.



Understanding Heidegger's Deconstruction of Metaphysics


On hearing the expression "ontotheology," many philosophers start looking for the door. Those who do not may know that it was under the title of this "distasteful neologism," for which we have Kant to thank, that the later Heidegger elaborated his seemingly ruthless critique of Western metaphysics.1 The forcefulness of Heidegger's "deconstruction" ( Destruktion ) of the metaphysical tradition helped turn a generation of post-Heideggerian thinkers into antimetaphysicians, but Heidegger's deconstruction is actually premised on his attribution to metaphysics of an unparalleled pride of place in the historical construction and maintenance of intelligibility.2 Heidegger's deconstruction presupposes that metaphysics is not simply the esoteric concern of philosophers isolated in their ivory towers but that, on the contrary: "Metaphysics grounds an age" (QCT 115/ GA5 75). To put the matter too quickly, but by way of anti- cipation, Heidegger's claim is that by giving shape to our historical understanding of "what is," metaphysics determines the most basic presuppositions of what anything is, including ourselves.3 "Western humanity, in all its comportment toward entities, and even toward itself, is in every respect sustained and guided by metaphysics" (N4 205/ NII 343).4

By codifying and disseminating an understanding of what entities are, metaphysics provides each historical "epoch" of intelligibility with its ontological bedrock. And by furnishing an account of the ultimate source from which entities issue, metaphysics supplies intelligibility with a kind of foundational justification that (for reasons we will examine shortly) Heidegger characterizes as "theological." To assert that "metaphysics grounds history," then, is to claim that metaphysics establishes both the most basic conceptual parameters and the ultimate standards of legitimacy for history's successive epochs of unified intelligibility. These epochal "constellations of intelligibility" are thus neither contingent nor free-floating but, rather, are grounded in and reflect a series of historical transformations in our metaphysical understanding of what entities are.5 Straightforwardly enough, Heidegger calls such an understanding of what it means for something to be an understanding of being, and his famous history of being is simply a shorthand for designating the historical series of these epoch-grounding understandings of being.

In what follows, I shall give a more carefully nuanced exposition of Heidegger's account of the way in which the metaphysical tradition establishes the foundations for every epoch of intelligibility by ontologically grounding and theologically legitimating our changing historical sense of what is. First, however, in order to help motivate a journey through such hermeneutically uncharted terrain, let me briefly address one of the potentially most troubling presuppositions of the foregoing, namely, Heidegger's claim that our ontological bedrock is temporally variable. Explaining that I am using "bedrock" in the Wittgensteinian sense, as that inevitable point at which the explanatory spade turns, may not sufficiently alleviate the worry.6 For, if our foundationalist intuitions are rigid enough, we are likely to feel a certain vertigo before the claim that ontology, our bedrock understanding of what is, changes with time. Nevertheless, the idea that even humanity's most fundamental sense of reality changes, and so needs to be understood in terms of its history, is indeed the later Heidegger's doctrine of ontological historicity, a controversial doctrine the truth of which Heidegger himself had yet to recognize in his early magnum opus, 1927's Being and Time. By 1941, however, Heidegger had come to consider Being and Time's famous first call for a deconstruction of the ontological tradition precritical, precisely because of the philosophically "naive" assumption that this deconstruction would allow him to recover a transhistorically binding "fundamental ontology," that is, a substantive understanding of "the meaning of being in general" fundamental enough to have been operant within every different historical epoch of intelligibility (GA15 395; EP 15/ NII 415), as we will see in Chapter 3.7 Heidegger's recognition that there is no such substantive, transhistorically binding fundamental ontology encouraged him to radically historicize ontology, the move which, most scholars would agree, constitutes the sine qua non of his "later" thought.

However controversial this central doctrine of the later Heidegger may be, it now forms a taken-for-granted point of philosophical departure for virtually every major practitioner of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and deconstruction. Why is it, then, that in the growing philosophical literature contesting or critically appropriating these otherwise diverse schools of thought, we nowhere find a careful reconstruction of the idiosyncratic understanding of metaphysics on which Heideggerian historicity is based?8 Even thinkers such as Derrida, Baudrillard, and Irigaray, who often speak not just of metaphysics but of philosophy tout court as "ontotheology," never adequately unpack the meaning of the term. This chapter (and, more broadly, this book) can be understood in part as a response to this rather glaring exegetical lacuna. But beyond clarifying an unspoken presupposition of much recent continental philosophy, and so laying some necessary groundwork for those who would understand that work on its own terms (whether to criticize it, build on it, or both), there is for me an even more important motivation for reconstructing Heidegger's deconstruction of the history of Western metaphysics, and that is this: Heidegger's conception of the foundational role played historically by the metaphysical tradition provides much of the philosophical background for his mature critical philosophy, a background without which his later views can easily appear arbitrary and indefensible. I thus take it that Heidegger's understanding of metaphysics as ontotheology is sufficiently important and complex to merit careful elaboration in its own right, and this will be my primary goal here in Chapter 1 .

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Ontotheology? understanding Heidegger's deconstruction of metaphysics; 2. Understanding ontotheology as the basis for Heidegger's critique of technology; 3. Heidegger and the politics of the university; 4. Heidegger's mature vision of ontological education or: how we become what we are.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2005

    A great book!!!

    Heidegger on Ontotheology : Technology and the Politics of Education is quite simply one of the best philosophy books I have read in a long time. Believe it or not, it's a real page-turner -- I started reading it right when it came and couldn't put it down (and so, 24 hours later, I am writing my first review here). This revolutionary new reading of Heidegger's work is written in a clear and engaging style, showing that a philosopher can be innovative, profound and suggestive without writing in a way that is mysterious or obscure. By allowing me to understand, for the first time, the relationship between Heidegger's philosophy and his decision to join the Nazi party in 1933, Thomson's book shows that one can appreciate and advance Heidegger's insights without turning a blind eye to his undeniable political problems. I learned a great deal from this accessible and important book, and feel sure that anyone interested in Heidegger will love it!

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