Heidegger: Nothingness and Authentic Existence

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was a German philosopher who is usually counted among the Existentialists, even though he rejected the label. Having been brought up as a Catholic, and having attended seminary in preparation for the priesthood, he turned away from religion to develop his own radical conception of human existence. Fairly early in his career as professor of philosophy he published the book that established his international fame, Being and Time (1927). In this work he tried to answer an old philosophical question: “What is Being?” Or: “What exactly does it mean to be?” In the process of coming to grips with this seemingly arcane inquiry he developed an analysis of human existence that presented life and the world in a new and somewhat unsettling light. His discussion of death and the inexorable finitude of human life, for example, inspired a whole generation of philosophers, theologians, and psychoanalysts to develop innovative approaches to problems that had never been satisfactorily solved within the frameworks of traditional thought. In spite of his often difficult analyses and idiosyncratic use of language, Heidegger gained a sizable following and a position of considerable respect among academics and the general intelligentsia.

His success and influence notwithstanding, however, Heidegger also had and has his serious critics and detractors. Many philosophers (Analytic philosophers in particular) criticize his theory of Being as preposterous nonsense, and his idiosyncratic use of language as obfuscating and conceptually muddled. The most widely discussed scandal in Heidegger’s career, however, is the fact that in 1933 he welcomed Hitler’s ascendance to power, and that—as head of the University of Freiburg--he became instrumental in transforming German university life along the lines of Nazi directives. Heidegger never apologized for his membership in the Nazi party, and he generally tried to pass over the whole matter in silence. In the eyes of many this discredits him as a respectable thinker. Others, however, maintain that his philosophy has nothing to do with his political failings. Philosophers who abhor Nazism still maintain that Heidegger was one of the most significant thinkers of the 20th century, and that we would understand much less about ourselves and the world if we were deprived of Heidegger’s philosophical work. The dispute has never been resolved; it has become a permanent a fixture of Heidegger’s controversial legacy.

In 1929 Heidegger delivered one of his most noteworthy lectures: “What is Metaphysics?” In this lecture he expanded certain notes from Being and Time by offering a detailed philosophical analysis of the mood or feeling of angst. (In philosophical literature the word “angst” is usually translated as “anxiety” or “dread” --or else left in the original German as a technical term of Heidegger’s thought.) Among all the moods and feelings that people experience, angst is of particular philosophical significance, according to Heidegger, because it is a state of mind that reveals most clearly the fundamental nature of human existence. It is, in Heidegger’s thinking, not by means of conceptual analysis, but through the emotional experience of angst that we can learn what we basically are as human beings.

Heidegger starts his explication by distinguishing angst from the related experience of fear. Fear is always fear of something--of something more or less specific that exists in the world. A person fears an armed attacker, a disease, poverty, or some other identifiable entity or event that poses a danger to him or her. A fearful person is always worried—looking around for something that may do him or her harm. Angst, by contrast, is not fear of anything specific, but a state of dread in which that which is feared cannot be pinpointed or described in any way. Angst is an all-pervasive feeling or mood that has no object. A person seized by this sort of dread cannot point to anything that would explain the feeling. If asked what he or she is afraid of, a person in angst may correctly say: "nothing"--and yet feel dread. What is happening in such a case, according to Heidegger, is indeed an encounter with "nothing," or "nothingness." "Angst reveals nothingness,” as he states in his lecture. (1)

Heidegger’s talk about “nothingness” is not easy to grasp, and it has caused an extensive discussion among philosophers. What he means by “nothing” or “nothingness” is not the void brought about by imagining that everything that exists is gone, for example. It also is not the result of the logical act of universal negation. To understand what Heidegger means by “nothingness” it is necessary to pay close attention to the details that emerge when he describes the experience of angst.

What happens in the experience of angst is described as a “drawing away” or “slipping away” of the world--the world as a whole. In the unspecified dread experienced in angst the world in its entirety turns into something remote and strange. Even very familiar things, things that make up the ordinary environment of everyday life, turn, as it were, into alien and uncanny objects. The cares and feelings that usually connect a person to his or her everyday environment wither away. In Heidegger’s words:

All things, and we with them, sink into indifference. But not in the sense that everything simply disappears. Rather, in the very drawing away from us as such, things turn toward us. This drawing away of everything in its totality, which in angst is happening all around us, haunts us. There is nothing to hold on to. The only thing that remains and comes over us--in this drawing away of everything--is this "nothingness."(2)

That things do not “simply disappear” in the experience of angst is important. Things actually “turn toward us”—as things that are alien and uncanny. In the experience of angst things have, in fact, a peculiarly ominous presence. In Being and Time Heidegger compares the experience of angst with the dread that we may feel in the dark: Without light we see nothing, yet the feeling of dread arises precisely because things are present—somewhere out there, vaguely threatening, but without revealing any danger in particular. (3) It is in this way that the totality of what exists remains present in the state of angst, even though we have the feeling that everything is "drawing away." What Heidegger refers to as “nothingness,” in other words, appears in the presence of things—in the presence of the world that has become thoroughly alien and “indifferent.” This shows that the “nothingness” Heidegger talks about in “What is Metaphysics?” is not anything like a physical void, but a void—as one might say—of sense, of significance, or of meaning.

Repeatedly Heidegger connects angst with feeling uncanny. The German word for "uncanny" is "unheimlich," the literal meaning of which is "not-at-home." Heidegger deliberately trades on this literal meaning: he wants to stress that in angst we feel profoundly dislodged from our ordinary positions, connections, and orientations in life. In ordinary everyday life we feel at home: We have our more or less regular tasks, familiar routines, and customary expectations. People have their known occupations and places, and things their more or less traditional appearances and functions. Even if occasional changes take place with respect to this or that detail, the over-all nexus of activities, functions, and goals remains a more or less ordered environment, a familiar context. Ordinarily we are at home in an organized world. It is the feeling of being at home in such a familiar world that is suspended in the experience of angst: Ordinary objects look strange, everyday activities pointless, and common sense objectives outlandish. Encountering “nothingness” means to feel uncanny and dislodged in a perfectly familiar world.

There are several reasons why Heidegger finds the experience of angst important. One of them is the fact that it brings us closer to an understanding of Being--of what it means to be: "Only in the bright night of the nothingness of angst does the original openness of that which exist come into view as such," according to “What is Metaphysics?” For in the state of angst nothing particular matters anymore; everything in the world is equally indifferent to a person who is caught by this kind of dread. The world in its entirety is there, however, and as a strange and enigmatic presence it impresses itself on the person in angst. The familiar and customary ways of understanding and relating to the world are all suspended; what usually seems natural and self-evident is no longer so. Thus the only thing left is the pure “being-there” of everything, the baffling fact of the world’s indifferent existence. This existence becomes the ultimate enigma for the person in angst; it prompts the wondering question: "Why is there anything at all--and not rather nothing?" (4)

While this question is a gateway to Heidegger’s inquiry into the nature of Being, it is also a way of approaching and coming to terms with the quality of one’s own existence. The encounter with nothingness, according to Heidegger, puts me into a position where I can choose an authentic existence, or where otherwise I can allow myself to fall back into a sort of life where most things are decided by others, or by circumstances of a more or less impersonal nature. Angst, in other words, reveals to me my fundamental freedom.

As ordinary individuals we are part of the world, and thus part of what "draws away" in the experience of angst. When seized by angst we become strangers to ourselves: our ordinary identities recede, and the everyday lives we live become as uncanny as the world around us. Suspended in angst I am not this or that person anymore, but an undefined being whose only characteristic is being-there. This pure being-there, according to Heidegger, is our most basic existence. In facing the nothingness revealed by angst all the activities I engage in and all the things I represent in everyday life fall away as so many roles and masks. In this "standing out into nothingness," as Heidegger puts it, I have a chance to make a new start, and to choose my life with a conscious resolve that had not been available to me in the routines of my ordinary everyday life.

is thus not necessarily a negative experience; it can be understood and seized as a precondition for waking up, for a personal liberation. In ordinary everyday life we tend to be locked into routine, and being preoccupied by practical tasks and busy with their execution we rarely question the sense of the whole system of cares, goals, and activities. To a much larger extent than we usually realize, the cares, goals, and activities that define our lives are determined by others instead of ourselves. I do what “one” is supposed to do; I have the goals in life that people generally have. I follow the herd, as some philosophers put it. It is, of course, not always wrong to do what others do. But it is one thing to do so because others do it, or to do it for specific and sound reasons. Angst relieves us, as it were, from our herd instinct and enables us to make our own personal decisions. Angst can be the means to become our own selves. By prompting us to become genuine individuals, it can make our lives authentic.

To experience things as unfamiliar and strange is a specifically human capability. Animals are in no position to develop this sort of distance between themselves and the world in which they live. The capacity to wonder and inquire, grounded in that distance, is a manifestation of a fundamental freedom, the freedom to conceive and re-conceive the world in many ways, and to change one's relation to it accordingly. Instead of being locked into a particular cultural tradition, for example, with its fixed and established ways of looking at and relating to things, human beings are endowed with the capacity to take a step back from everything and to look at the world at any time as if it were entirely new, i. e., strange. This capacity constitutes a unique way of being in the world, and it is the basis for the possibility of taking a hold of one's life in a way no other kind of being has.

Heidegger describes another way in which a person can encounter nothingness, and thereby take hold of his or her existence authentically: by facing death--the inexorable finitude of one’s being. Again, this is not accomplished by simply thinking about the matter, not even by very serious thinking. According to Heidegger it is only the feeling of angst that genuinely reveals nothingness—in this case the possible not-being of everything that I personally am. Onlythe feeling of angst reveals death as my death, the death that only I will die. And in doing so angst individualizes my existence, for the life that I live authentically is the life that is defined by my personal death.

In an abstract way all people know, of course, that they are mortal, and that they can die at any moment. In ordinary life this knowledge tends to become diluted or diminished; most people suppress the awareness of their own possible death by keeping themselves occupied by all sorts of other things—comparatively trivial things for the most part. Only in exceptional circumstances will we realize the full reality of our inexorable demise--and the nothingness that threatens to engulf our personal being. Once this happens, however, once we become truly aware of the finality of our being in the way Ivan Ilych did in Tolstoy's classical story, for example, we will relate to our lives in an entirely different way. The full awareness of my death brings my existence into a clear focus that is absent from the average sort of life that is frittered away on unimportant details and cluttered with superficial distractions. A conscious "being-toward-death" will encourage me to stop running with the herd, escape the anonymous dictates of what "one" is supposed to do, cease moving through life like a somnambulist--and actively take hold of my life with conscious resolve and deliberate determination. Facing my death in earnest provides me with the possibility to make my life truly my own, and thus authentic.


( From: Jorn K. Bramann: Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies )

"The Eclipse"