It is the lateness of our question concerning Heidegger’s ethics that makes it also a question concerning Heidegger’s seam. We see from our historical vantage that there is something that does not fit, that certain parts of the Heideggerian gestalt remain unreconciled or certain promises of earlier works remain unfulfilled in later ones. The Heidegger who was still being asked whether he was going to write an ethics is irreconcilable with the Heidegger who, ultimately, did not write one. That is to say, Heidegger’s seam is not merely between an ‘early’ and a ‘late’ conceptual framework, but between the Heidegger who still had an ethics to write and the Heidegger who wrote no ethics at all.
Our coming to the situation late is what allows us to continue asking the question, despite the clear and unambiguous ‘No’ we received as early as the ‘Humanism-Letter’. There is no urgency in asking it, as perhaps Heidegger’s young friend had, when the question was still ‘Will he or won’t he?’ and we certainly do not ask it in nail-biting suspense, as we turn the pages. We luxuriate in our asking it. This is scholarship. We ask this funny, almost absurd question and see if we cannot coax yet an ethics out of Heidegger – an anti-ethics, let us say, or a ‘meta’ one. We perform this questioning in the spirit of the same “disappointed curiosity” which befalls the crowd that comes across the impoverished Heraclitus, warming himself in front of the oven.
Arriving at something late, from the vantage of history, can often devolve into a project preoccupied only with assuaging our disappointment. There is some unaccomplished reconciliation of parts, or unfulfilled expectation, which we hope to forgive by discovering some hidden reason under the surface that forgives the apparent discord. If it is not immediately obvious what this might be, there is the sense that there is a secret being kept that need only be divulged.
Such an insistence on a secret meaning, however, is only possible because the unreconciled or unfulfilled nature of the object at hand makes itself known. Alcibiades’ speech in The Symposium provides us with a useful example: The young acolyte says of Socrates that he reminds him of the busts of ugly Sileni that he would see in the workshops of herm-sculptors which, when broken open, reveal a beautiful god hiding inside. Unspoken in this simile, but implicit, is that there is something that brings one to desire to break open the bust, and it cannot be simply that one finds the bust ugly. There are plenty of ugly things that possess no hidden meanings. There must be some discord, some unaccomplished reconciliation of parts – a seam – that betrays the possibility of its holding a secret.
It is because Heidegger has a seam, not because we find him despicable, that we ask continually after Heidegger’s ethics. The disturbance on the surface is a failure of his ontology (the thinking of being) to provide us with an ethics (a thinking of how one should be). On a less philosophical level, but no more banal, it is also a failure of our question to receive a satisfactory answer.
We would not keep asking the question if we were not somehow dissatisfied with the answer we have received and did not still hold out hope that we can conjure Heidegger’s ‘No’ into a ‘Yes’. And, of course, there is something tyrannical in this way of asking questions. This was Alcibiades’ tyranny in the Symposium, a dangerous mixture of being shameless enough to point to the seam and shallow enough to insist that it betrays something beautiful or good which forgives the unreconciled nature it announces.
In the ‘Humanism-Letter’, it is clear that Heidegger is styling himself as a martyr to public opinion in the vein of Socrates, of Heraclitus – a martyr to delinquent questioning, to the metaphysical insistence on hidden, redemptive meaning, to certain popular expectations of ‘the life of the mind’. The timing of the young friend’s question before the war may be an attempt to show that though we think we are asking the right question from our historical vantage, it was always already the wrong question in a structural sense. But not only this. The second move of Heidegger’s checkmate is showing how his young friend’s question was also already an historical one. For already “the care fostered upon the ethical bond” is understandably great, Heidegger says, at a time when technological man, delivered over to the mass society, can be kept reliably on call by gathering and ordering all his plans and activities in a way that corresponds to technology.
That is, the question of his young friend, though arising in different times from those times out of which we are asking, was already unmistakably a product of the times.
Heidegger defends himself in the ‘Humanism-Letter’ against the two-sided delinquency of the question concerning his ethics by insisting that, no matter how we approach it or from when, we are always asking for something we do not even want. Either our question is too early or it is too late: Either our structural question is not sufficiently aware of its historical content, or our historical question is not sufficiently aware of its structural content. If this is indeed the nature of our inquiring after an ethics, Heidegger insists, any ethics that would satisfy it would be a structural-historical wash, the low-hanging fruit of a second-rate ontology – an ontology preoccupied with good timing.
This concern for what is and is not a product of the times was of course Heidegger’s great theme. Timing was everything for Heidegger. The thesis of Being and Time was essentially that ‘being’ is all about timing and, therefore, any thinking about ‘being’ must be a thinking about time. But it also must be a thinking about ‘the times’, because any thinker necessarily starts out from his own times and must first understand how his experience of ‘being’ is constituted by the times in which he lives. Reflection on the times does not proceed from ontology (i.e., something like Nietzsche’s confrontation with Wagner) but rather is first ontology.
This was Heidegger’s revolutionary gesture, at least formally speaking: He took the old regime of transcendental objects and packed them full of non-transcendental, radically temporal, content. ‘Reality’ became in-the-worldness, ‘being’ became concern, the ‘thing’ became that-which-is-at-hand. Traditional philosophic questions such as ‘What can we know?’ were traded out for seemingly vulgar, everyday questions such as ‘What are we so anxious about?’ and yet programmatically carried through as though they were as legitimate as the former.
Methodologically, it was a philosophy that could only be performed ‘from the inside’, and when one compares Heidegger’s ‘from the inside’ with that of Descartes and Kant, one grasps quickly the radical, and impious, nature of what it was that Heidegger was doing: translating the solipsistic inside into an ecstatic, exoteric in time. Which is why the impact of Heidegger’s early work was that of a reverse-vanitas. That which long had been considered fleeting and every-day seemed to hold up just as well (if not better) under philosophic scrutiny than those more ‘eternal’ figures that, especially since Kant, were long presumed to be the only ones that could do so.
It was these subversive methodological elements of the ‘early’ Heidegger that would lend themselves so readily to the leftist, anti-totalitarian Existentialist movement that began to take hold in France during the Second World War. The protagonist of this movement was Sartre. The ‘Humanism-Letter’, which operates also as a light polemic against the author, would be Heidegger's first reckoning with the liberal humanism for which his work was so fruitful but yet against which he emphatically decided during the war. This decision, which found its most concrete expression in the philosopher’s joining the National Socialist Party, had baffled his students, and would remain baffling to the new guard on the Left who would continue borrowing substantially from Heidegger’s pre-war work.
In this state of affairs, due to the debt owed to him in liberal humanist circles, Heidegger was primed as any Mitläufer could have been to be forgiven by history. This forgiveness hinged on how the philosopher would answer the question that was on everyone’s tongue after the Second World War: ‘What is there to be done?’ This was a natural quandary after millions of Europe's sons and daughters had been massacred both on the battlefield and off, but even more so after millions more had been exterminated outside of all wartime contingency in a planned genocide run with a technical efficiency that had never before been put to such ends.
The “disappointed curiosity” that meets Heraclitus in the ‘Humanism-Letter’ is a thinly veiled hieroglyph of Heidegger’s own predicament. Just as Heraclitus implies to the astonished crowd that whether there is a god in his stove or not is beside the point, Heidegger, ever his own best publicist, not only points to his own seam in the ‘Humanism-Letter’ but insists that our expectations of what this seam announces are complicit in a tyrannical hermeneutic, that there is ‘nothing to see here’. It is the flinty irony of Socrates, swaddled in his wishful seducer’s bed sheets, suggesting that Alcibiades “think it over, perhaps you are wrong and there is nothing to me.”