Where the authenticity happens

Since my earlier post on architectural phenomenology, in which I tried to tease out some problems that seem to me to go the core of the phenomenological sub-culture, and to the core of Heidegger’s writing in particular, I’ve noted some more points. In an attempt to keep things manageable, I’ve decided to put these in a fresh post rather than try to fold them into a reworked original.

(1) Where does the authenticity happen?

There’s clearly a way of paying your dues in architecture by means of phenomenology. More or less, if you subscribe by producing something written, you get to belong. I think, though, that a question to ask is: looking beyond the moderate stack of books and articles, does phenomenology show up in buildings? Can you tell, by visiting a building, whether or not its designer was informed by this philosophical variant? This is related to my point about Heidegger’s Schwarzwald farmhouse, although with one difference. With the farmhouse, the idea (from Heidegger and others) is that its “peasant” builders had a pre-theoretical authenticity (although how would we know?). With ‘phenomenological architecture’, by contrast, it’s assumed that the author would have an informed, theoretical understanding of authenticity, typically Heideggerian, since after all they say that they do. But it’s a minor difference. The phenomenological architect—you’d hope—also has the authenticity itself—the thing—or tries for it, and their choices and their judgements would seemingly follow from that. But, unless they do say something about it, how can we tell?

The point generalises and becomes, to state it in rough language, the question: where does the authenticity happen?

Heidegger commentary—just as is true of Heidegger’s own writing—likes to deprecate examples said to be of ‘the modern world’: But what the commentary shows, if you squint at it, is that the examples of modernity change with the publication date. In 1993 Dreyfus writes:

“We admire the way computers are getting faster and faster and at the same time cheaper and cheaper, without knowing how we will use the incredibly flexible computing power they give us.” (Dreyfus, ‘Nihilism, Art, Technology, and Politics’ (1993))

But almost a decade later, the internet has emerged in earnest and Dreyfus can now write:

“The Internet has no goal, no one regulates it, and it does not satisfy pre-existing desires but rather creates ever new ones. Human beings truly become resources (Bestand) when they are caught up in this flexible, ever expanding net.” (Dreyfus, ‘Reply to Haar’ in ‘Heidegger, Authenticity & Modernity: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ (2000))

And Heidegger’s power station almost looks to be up for parole:

“Electricity [can be seen as] goal-directed … electricity is not an ideal example, since the electricity ends up turning a motor or lighting a room or heating a house. Heidegger would have been delighted, I’m sure, to replace his account of the power station on the Rhine with an account of the self-regulating expansion of the Internet.” (ibid.)

Doubt about whether or not an example illustrates authenticity (or inauthenticity) permeates commentary. For Dreyfus, Japanese culture actually shows authenticity because the new exists alongside the old (“the television set and the household gods share the same shelf” (Dreyfus (1993)). The 1969 Woodstock festival—something you might initially take as a paradigmatic instance of the levelled down culture of ‘the They’—was instead an instance of “people [living] for a few days in an understanding of being … pagan practices … enjoyment of nature, dancing and Dionysian ecstasy … technology was not smashed or denigrated; rather, all the power of electronic communications was put at the service of the music.” (ibid.)

Possibly this doubt has its origin in Heidegger’s essay ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’. Here, Heidegger says of the truck driver that he “is at home on the highway”; that is, he dwells there: the point being, it seems, that the ability to dwell (that is, to live authentically) is essential to people. They take it with them everywhere they go. Hence any arrangement of the world in which we can be—unless, I suppose, exceptionally privative—allows dwelling. With this commitment in place, Heidegger can only use suggestion to deprecate buildings he dislikes:

“… residential buildings [which] do indeed provide shelter; today’s houses may even be well planned, easy to keep, attractively cheap, open to air, light, and sun, but do the houses in themselves hold any guarantee that dwelling occurs in them?” (Heidegger, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’ (1951))

And so it continues. Where does the authenticity happen, really? It’s hard to see how any prescriptions for the built environment can come from this. For Karsten Harries the authenticity looks unlikely to be happening in tract suburban housing. But we already dislike the tract housing (for all sorts of sound reasons). For Dalibor Vesely, the authenticity may be happening in a Parry-designed office building at Stockley Park. Should we admire it any more for that? Should we emulate it?

There are more (existentialist, phenomenological) authenticities than Heidegger’s. But all of them, I’d suggest, are intrinsically private. We don’t have knowledge of people’s mental states (we can guess at them). Of designers, we don’t know what their built output signifies about their interior lives. Was a building done while its author was aiming at an authenticity? Maybe: we might have their word for it, anyway. 

(2) The experience of science

Heidegger doesn’t treat science well, by which I mean that he makes some unsympathetic assumptions about the interior lives of people who do science. This attitude is seen in his later writing (i.e. ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1954)) but looks to be carried over almost wholesale from the earlier writing. One passage in ‘Being and Time’ that stands out to me as especially poignant is one that closely follows the introduction of the idea of ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit):

“If [the being of ‘Nature’] as ready-to-hand is disregarded, this ‘Nature’ itself can be discovered and defined simply in its pure presence-at-hand. But when this happens, the Nature which ‘stirs and strives’, which assails us and enthralls us as landscape, remains hidden. The botanist’s plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow; the ‘source’ which the geographer establishes for a river is not the ‘springhead in the dale’.” (SZ ¶15)

This may be just me, but I do not think that this treats the ‘botanist’ or the ‘geographer’ as they ought to be treated, even as archetypes. It isn’t obvious to me that people don’t habitually relate whatever specific, theoretical knowledge they may have to a more widely shared cultural background—’folk knowledge’, the “springhead in the dale”—still less that they are somehow incapable of it. But more than that: when I listen to what the best communicators in science actually say, I have no sense that they experience the world as some abstract, colourless, lifeless thing. The converse: you sense that for people immersed in their sciences, their respect for and appreciation of nature is only deepened by their work. Not only Heideggerians may experience the numinous (if some want to call it that).

(3) The ‘calculative order’

My third point is to do with the notion of ‘calculative order’ that is found both in Heidegger’s writing and in commentary. Here, my hunch is that writers are simply working with a defective sense of optimisation as an engineering or decision-making practice, and they might be better just to drop it; optimisation has no bearing on their arguments. For instance, Charles Guignon writes:

“What is most striking about this calculative-instrumentalist approach, of course, is its inability to reflect on the question of which ends are truly worth pursuing.” (Guignon, ‘Authenticity, Moral Values, and Psychotherapy’ (1993))

This statement seems to be just wrong about “the calculative-instrumentalist approach”. (Here, Guignon’s “truly” seems to function as a get-out-of-jail card, and I think we can ignore it.) There is not a “formalizable procedure” for determining ends (ibid.). Engineers and others do indeed carry out optimisations: having set out on a path, it’s possible to do some calculations that will help evolve a designed thing so as to be closer to the design objectives. The use of optimisation doesn’t in any way prejudge what those design objectives are. Indeed, for any multi-objective optimisation exercise, there is a ‘Pareto frontier‘ of options, all of which are in a limited sense equally good. An engineer will simply ask; ‘of the design objectives in front of us, which one matters to you most’? This is precisely a prompt for reflection on the pursuit of ends, which might be wide-ranging, and might have as its basis any one of a number of ethical systems. Perhaps other objectives might be introduced. Perhaps, for a thoroughgoing Heideggerian, only a very few objectives are thinkable in the first place; the ones that arise from a life authentically lived.

There is, then, no such thing as ‘a calculative order’, or “the maximum yield at the minimum expense” (Heidegger, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1954)). There are only objectives regarded or objectives disregarded. These latter might include so-called ‘negative externalities’: things that affect stakeholders who have been ignored. For example, a negative externality might be poor air quality, or destruction of primary forest; to those affected, obviously, these are ‘expenses’. How well a society does in making sure that consultations and reflections on investment decisions are wide-ranging is, for many, a measure of its standing; some societies do better than others. There is, though, no point at which a society changes over into a ‘calculative order’. All the Heideggerians can mean here—if their disapproval still needs a target—is ‘societies that do (relatively) poorly at consulting and / or reflection’. Nor is it really an option for them to say that the practice of optimisation obscures or deflects us from right and proper goals; or even that it is nihilistic: a practice that renders values as mere choices (see Dreyfus, ‘Nihilism, Art, Technology, and Politics’ (1993)). Instead, optimisation—once understood—sharpens the sense that ends are for us to decide on, by our lights.

One last note on the ‘calculative order’: since the publication of the ‘Black Notebooks’, the phrase can be read as an anti-semitic trope in the Heideggerian context as elsewhere. For instance, Heidegger writes in one of his notebooks (as quoted by Wolin):

“Contemporary Jewry’s … increase in power finds its basis in the fact that Western metaphysics—above all, in its modern incarnation—offers fertile ground for the dissemination of an empty rationality and calculability, which in this way gains a foothold in ‘spirit’, without ever being able to grasp from within the hidden realms of decision.”

I’ll say a bit more on Heidegger’s anti-semitism below.

(4) How much of a Nazi was Heidegger?

It’s been clear for ages that anything to do with Heidegger needs a health warning attached to it, as with a packet of cigarettes. Possibly the first thing I learned about him was that he was a member of the Nazi party. But in writing this post I went back to ‘Being and Time’, in particular the section Emmanuel Faye draws attention to: ¶74, in the Second Division, where Heidegger talks of the “co-historizing” of a “community [and a] people” (the sense of Dasein develops in these passages to take on a collective aspect). The writing is exceptionally opaque—you’d always prefer just to skip over it—but when you do look, the resonances are awful. He talks first—or so it appears—of responsibility as the choice of the authentic individual:

“Once one has grasped the finitude of one’s existence, it snatches one back from the endless multiplicity of possibilities which offer themselves as closest to one—those of comfortableness, shirking, and taking things lightly—and brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate. This is how we designate Dasein’s primordial historizing [our placing of ourselves in time], which lies in authentic resoluteness and in which Dasein hands itself down to itself, free for death, in a possibility which it has inherited and yet has chosen.”

And then of a “moment of vision” in which Dasein, now with a collective aspect—added with the sixth paragraph of the section—may “choose its hero” (his emphasis):

“… only an entity [i.e. the nation] which, as futural, is equiprimordially in the process of having-been, can, by handing down to itself the possibility it has inherited, take over its own thrownness and be in the moment of vision, for ‘its time’. Only authentic temporality which is at the same time finite, makes possible something like fate … The authentic repetition of a possibility of existence that has been—the possibility that Dasein [the nation] may choose its hero—is grounded existentially in anticipatory resoluteness; for it is in resoluteness that one first chooses the choice which makes one free for the struggle of loyally following in the footsteps of that which can be repeated.”

Heidegger places this second passage in italics, as he very rarely does. I hesitate to précis what he says, and perhaps no clear interpretation is possible.1 One interpretation is in terms of religion. Still, the darkness is unmistakable. Ian Kershaw’s 1987 book ‘The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich’ opens (citing Sontheimer): “‘Heroic’ leadership was a significant element in the ideas of the nationalist and völkisch Right long before Hitler’s spectacular rise to prominence. It can justifiably be regarded as ‘one of the central ideas of the anti-democratic movement in the Weimar Republic’ and ‘one of its indispensable articles of faith’.” He then quotes the head of the Pan-German League, Heinrich Class, writing in a popular pseudonymous piece of 1912 titled ‘If I were the Kaiser’:

“The need still lives on today in thirst of our people to follow a strong, able leader; all who have remained unreduced by the teachings of un-german democracy yearns for it, not because they are inclined to servility or are of weak character, but because they know that greatness can only be brought about through the concentration of individual forces, which again can only be achieved by the subordination to a leader …”

Kershaw goes on to cite a 1920 text (i.e. pre-Hitler) (my emphasis):

“The Leader does not conform to the masses, but acts in accordance with his mission. He does not flatter the masses; hard, straightforward, and ruthless, he takes the lead in good days and in bad. The Leader is radical; he is entirely that which he does, and he does entirely what he has to do. The Leader is responsible; that is, he carries out the will of God, which he embodies in himself. God grant us leaders and help us to true following.” (from Sontheimer, ‘Antidemokratischen Denken in der Weimarer Republik’ (1962))2

The belief in vesting power in a political leader who willingly accepts all responsibility—the Führerprinzip—is then seen in ‘Mein Kampf’ (1925):

“Juxtaposed to [parliamentary democracy] is the truly Germanic democracy characterised by the free election of a leader and his obligation fully to assume all responsibility for his actions and his omissions. In it there is no majority vote on individual questions, but only the decision of an individual who must answer with his fortune and his life for his choice.”

This is the context for ‘Being and Time’ (1927) and these propagandistic and anti-democratic themes—to choose with resolve; to face death; to retrieve a past3; to be authentic and true; to be responsible, to repudiate “the masses” and to place trust elsewhere4—carry through into the normative content of the book, where they take on philosophical structure and order. This was surely visible at the time of publication; perhaps more so than today. In an essay of 1956, Leo Strauss, who studied for a time under Heidegger, writes:

“Everyone who had read [‘Being and Time’] and did not overlook the wood for the trees could see the kinship in temper and direction between Heidegger’s thought and the Nazis. What was the practical, that is to say serious meaning of the contempt for reasonableness and the praise of resoluteness which permeated the work except to encourage that extremist movement?” (Strauss, ‘An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism’ (1956))

What about anti-semitism? It is not explicit in work published by Heidegger in his lifetime. Instead, it is embedded and implicit in that work, and we see explicit confirmation of it in writings released by Heidegger’s family following his death (and not all of this material has been released). For instance, in ‘Being and Time’, ‘being’ is given meaning by our ‘equipment’—the ‘ready-to-hand’ things we make use of to live our lives—and Heidegger says that there is not “an equipment” but “a totality of equipment” (SZ ¶15). He does not have to make this leap, but he does. If Heidegger had stopped with ‘an equipment’—that is, with a relativist understanding of it—we might think of him as a pioneer content externalist and nothing more. But he does not stop. He says that our equipment is connected; it is a single network of ready-to-hand equipment. This network he first temporalises, then historicises; it becomes a culture of ready-to-hand equipment; a heritage of established usages and possibilities. In coming to understand our situation with respect to this heritage and our own temporal finitude, and in choosing from the possibilities that still lie within this heritage, all the while facing death—squarely facing it, since it is the source of our resolve—we acquire authenticity. Implicitly, not everyone can do this. Culturally disconnected people cannot do this. In particular, for Heidegger, Jewish people—or, to use another anti-semitic trope, rootless people—cannot do this. For Heidegger, the being of Jewish people is a lesser kind of being. Where is the confirmation of this? In the immediate post-war period Heidegger writes of the holocaust (I take the quotation from Faye (2009)):

“Hundreds of thousands die en masse. Do they die? They perish. They are put down. Do they die? They become supply pieces for stock in the fabrication of corpses. Do they die? They are liquidated unnoticed in death camps. And also, without such—millions in China sunken in poverty perish from hunger. But to die means to carry out death in its essence. … Only those who can die are mortals in the apposite sense of the word.” (Heidegger, Bremer und Freiburger Vorträge (1949), GA 79, 56)

This text is from the last lecture of an intended four lecture series—’The Bremen Lectures’—of which in the event Heidegger delivered only the first three (the text of the fourth lecture was released in 1994, after his death). There are time intervals to consider here, but it’s not reasonable to argue that Heidegger’s anti-semitism existed only in publication years to which we can tie the explicitly anti-semitic material.

How much of a Nazi was Heidegger? Apparently very much. It is not enough to argue that Nazism, as it developed after the 1920s, was something that Heidegger eventually retreated from, perhaps in disappointment. Strauss (cited above) tries to argue this. You would in any case have to ask: in light of the above, did this disappointment extend to include the fact of the death camps, and if so, what did it consist in? Everyone who supports a political movement hopes for something from that movement and can be disappointed. I think you have to conclude that Heidegger’s membership of the Nazi party—which he never resigned; it expired when the party did—was one of conviction, not expedience. Emmanuel Faye says that we should (literally) move Heidegger’s work from the philosophy section to the shelves labelled ‘Nazi Studies’: that is, he did not produce philosophy but instead gave intellectual cover to fascism. We are where we are, but I think that if we can, at a minimum, talk about the built environment without referencing Heidegger—or even the ideas that flow from him—then that would be the better thing to do.


  1. Sheehan mounts a defence of these passages—against interpretations in the direction I’m suggesting here—in part by counting occurrences of the word Gemeinschaft (‘community’) and finding it only once. This isn’t especially persuasive. The location of the phrase “the historizing of the community, of a people” is something that should prompt reflection: it occurs in the sixth paragraph of ¶74, immediately before the “moment of vision” paragraph that I quote from; a passage that might be taken to be the culmination of ‘Being and Time’. Commentators might also want to think about the content of ¶77, which follows close afterwards. Here Heidegger quotes Count Yorck: “It seems to me that the ground-swells evoked by the principle of eccentricity [the Copernican revolution], which led to a new era more than four hundred years ago, have become exceedingly broad and flat; that our knowledge has progressed to the point of cancelling itself out; that man has withdrawn so far from himself that he no longer seems himself at all”: it is hard to read this as other than a reflection on the condition of a collective, in terms of a broad sweep of history.
  2. Compare for instance with SZ ¶26: “Dasein finds ‘itself’ proximally in what it does, uses, expects, avoids …”.
  3. Some discussion has focussed on the correct translation of Heidegger’s use of wiederholen. Conventionally, wiederholen translates into English as ‘to repeat’, as in ‘to repeat an exam’. Macquarrie & Robinson footnote wiederholen in SZ ¶74 and suggest ‘retrieve’ as a better fit for the text, even though in practice they use ‘repeat’ and its grammatical derivatives. Certainly Heidegger doesn’t intend a repetition of the past. He writes: “Repetition [i.e. retrieval] does not abandon itself to that which is past, nor does it aim at progress … it is indifferent to both these alternatives” (SZ ¶74). However, consider the statement: ‘many Germans in the Weimar period hoped to retrieve the situation that had developed from 1914-18’. I don’t see how it helps to steer wiederholen to a sense more like ‘to fetch’, as Sheehan suggests. It depends on what is being fetched. You don’t repeat an exam in order to fetch the same results; you repeat it because you want to fetch the possibilities that the exam once brought you.
  4. Heidegger’s stance towards “the masses” is said to owe something to Kierkegaard. Heidegger abstracts “the masses”, or public life, to an attitude in us that has its roots in a public environment. His view is depressing, almost unreadably severe, and above all political. In SZ ¶27 he writes: “By publicness everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone … because the ‘they’ presents every judgement and decision as its own, it deprives the particular Dasein of its answerability … it was always the ‘they’ who did it …”. Further, although Heidegger’s use of “hero” is, on the face of it, metaphorical (it is said to have a connection to Goethe), by connecting the term with ‘the They’, Heidegger makes it political: “Everydayness is determinative for Dasein even when it has not chosen the ‘they’ for its ‘hero'” (SZ ¶71). ‘Here is publicness’, says Heidegger, ‘and even though publicness is ordinary for us, we should strive to choose differently’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s