Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism and Some Lessons for Social Sciences

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger’s Critique of Humanism and Some Lessons for Social Sciences

Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. He is well known for his contributions to existentialism and phenomenology. Heidegger engaged in critical analysis of the concept of Humanism and threw brilliant insights on how we could transcend it. The article that follows explores Heidegger’s ideas and what implications these can hold for the Social Sciences in contemporary times.

Saumya Malviya is teaching  at Department of Sociology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.


How does one begin to write on humanism? Perhaps we all know it rather too well for me to initiate this, seemingly futile, enquiry. Quite simply put, in a layman language, it generally means according same amount of respect to all human beings apropos the universal humanity of which we all partake of, equally and indiscriminately. Being human is held by humanism (of all varieties) as a supreme value, which is as easily accessible as it is fundamental and thereby does not require any explanation and justification whatsoever. It is self evident. Quite understandably then Humanism with a big H appears as an obvious panacea for evils that confront us today. Not for nothing the proliferation of isms that vie for the superior place by virtue of their being more humanist than others. Constantly we hear about wrongs wrought on humanity by wars, racial and ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and other such iniquitous deeds and the rhetoric of human rights privileges itself on the mandate it has for addressing the diabolical captivity humanity finds itself in. Such is the influence of this rhetoric that for nonEuropeans in particular life itself sometimes appears like a question of rights and reclamations devoid of other determinations, depths and flourishes. Putting things in a broader perspective Cartesian cogito is the point of departure as well as of arrival for all and motley humanisms that we know of till date. Human subjectivity is made into a shrine whose violation, as per the humanist credo would amount to nothing more than a sin. We in sociology are well aware of the subjective or rather the humanist turn in the discipline when we study phenomenological sociology and ethnomedology. In fact even Bourdieu’s outcry against structure and agency in order to gain new grounds for sociologising can very well be assimilated into that tradition. It is not for nothing that the above mentioned paradigms are taught against the backdrop of anti-humanist tendencies of positivism and neo-positivism. Sartre’s declaration that ‘existentialism is humanism’ is another such statement of unity between a major philosophical movement of the 20th century and humanism. At the risk of simplification it can be stated that the conception of human as animal rationale is the locus that maps the topology of humanism in almost all its avatars. For all and sundry then humanism is ‘the’ answer for the contemporary predicament and certainly the most popular Facebook choice as far as the political views option in the personal profile is concerned!
All seems in place both, oppressions and protests, war and peace, then why do I intend to inquire into this placid state of affairs? Perhaps in there we realise that ‘all is not well’ with our unequivocal adherence to the humanist dictum and all the aforementioned devilries are here to stay. What is even more startling and disconcerting is that wars are fought today in the name of humanism and countries are invaded and destroyed on its pretext. The manner in which competing ideologies claim to be more humanist than others shows us that this term has perhaps become an empty or floating signifier. Moreover humanism neither enables us to address our ‘thrown-ness’ in the contemporary world nor does it help us to articulate our ‘situation’. The question arises, why is it so? Is it because that humanism fails to estimate the true dignity of being human? Or does the fact that it tries to estimate it and ties it to naught by subjectivising it is the major problem? I find the thought of Heidegger and Nietzsche extremely useful and indispensable for negotiating this vexatious impasse. I might be sounding pedantic but let me begin by a brief foray into Heidegger’s insights into the structure of humanism. It will become clear as I proceed that I commence with Heidegger rather than Nietzsche not for observing alphabetical niceties but for much more important reasons. The narrative that follows is divided into three parts. In the first part Heidegger’s effort to broach the category of ‘nothing’ and to situate its relationship with metaphysical thinking is discussed which I think is extremely important to understand his critique of humanism. In this part only, his critique of humanism is presented and its relationship with the metaphysical issue of ‘nothing’ is clarified. In the second part with the help of Nietzsche I read this ‘nothing’ as ‘nihilism’ and thus make an attempt to make this category available for the students of social sciences for their investigations. In the third part I offer a suggestion, to be read in the light of the issues raised in the previous two sections, to reorient sociology as philosophical anthropology and also make some brief comments to clarify what the project of philosophical anthropology means and entails. ‘Nothing’ and two senses of metaphysics Heidegger is famously known to have rejected humanism. His single most important complaint against it is that it remains metaphysical. This contention of his needs some spelling out as Heidegger’s use of the term metaphysics is characteristically diacritical and is worth enquiring into. There are two apparent ways in which he refers to the same. One is where he wishes to rescue metaphysics by asking the fundamental question of metaphysics, ‘why is there Being, and not, far rather nothing?’ which has been consigned into oblivion by European philosophising and the other in almost a pejorative and negative sense in his classic Letter on Humanism (Heidegger 2012: 147-181). I would begin by explicating the first sense of his use of the term.   Metaphysics, Heidegger defines is ‘enquiry beyond or over beings which aims to recover them as such and as a whole for our grasp’. Heidegger arrives at this definition much later in his concise and densely argued essay ‘What is Metaphysics’ and ends the essay by offering some sharp and acute critical comments on it (ibid: 45-57). To begin his inquiry into metaphysics he instead starts with a ‘metaphysical’ question ‘How is it with the nothing?’ and in the process of elaborating and answering it lets metaphysics to introduce itself (ibid: 47).
Heidegger sets up the question in a titillating manner. He points towards the twofold character of a metaphysical inquiry. That firstly no matter what the nature or sort of inquiry it is, it always addresses the whole and secondly it encompasses the existence (Dasein) of the inquirer as well. Insofar as our existence today is determined by science Heidegger asks what is the subject matter that science studies. A scientific man, Heidegger says, would answer that science examines beings, ‘beyond’, ‘besides’, and ‘further’ to that ‘nothing’. Science thereby closes itself upon the nothing, ironically by recourse to which it tries to express its proper essence. Science gives up the nothing as nullity and calls absurd the thought of inquiring into it. In the elaboration of the question ‘How is it with the nothing’, Heidegger reasons that despite all the ambiguity and obscurity surrounding the interrogation into the nothing, the question still remains posed. There are four crucial issues that emerge in Heidegger’s discussion on the plausibility and the necessity of this question.  Firstly, Heidegger asserts that ‘nothing’ is more original than the possibility of negation and the intellect of which it is an act. Secondly Heidegger insists that ‘nothing’ must be encountered as a fundamental presupposition and demand of any kind of questioning and must not be bypassed. Thirdly, and this point is made by setting aside the question of the relation between negation and ‘nothing’, broaching the whole of beings in themselves is next to impervious, rather beings as a whole can only be revealed to us in the mood of profound boredom. Such finding oneself in the midst of the beings as a whole, Heidegger calls as ‘being attuned’ and profound boredom which unleashes this disclosedness is the founding mode of attunement. This revealing Heidegger specifies is also the substrative showing of our Dasein. But as these moods unravel the whole of beings for us they also hide the ‘nothing’ that we are pursuing. Fourthly and lastly nothing is revealed in the fundamental mood of anxiety. Characteristic of anxiety is the indeterminateness of that in face of which and for which we become anxious. In this fundamental mood of anxiety beings as a whole slip away from us. And we who are in being, in the midst of beings as a whole, also slip away from ourselves such that there is nothing to hold onto. But even in such an experience, as Heidegger notes, ‘pure Dasein is all that is still there’ (ibid: 51).

The point to be noted is that the nothing is revealed not merely as the negation of the totality of beings but in its own right. In fact ‘Being’ and the meaning of ‘Being’, disclose themselves in a genuine way only in the acute severity of the nothing.    Hence Heidegger defines Dasein as: ‘being held out into the nothing’ (ibid: 53). Thus holding itself out into the nothing Dasein is beyond beings as a whole. So in the ground of its essence Dasein is transcending which is so precisely for it holds itself out into the nothing for otherwise ‘it could never be related to beings nor even to itself’. The question ‘How is it with the nothing’ is answered by Heidegger as ‘without the original revelation of nothing, no selfhood and no freedom’ (ibid: 53). More importantly in this posing, elaborating, and subsequent answering of the question regarding the ‘nothing’, Heidegger observes that, we have transposed ourselves directly into metaphysics (recall the definition of metaphysics given earlier). This would indicate the primacy of the ‘nothing’ to any metaphysical inquiry. However Heidegger’s point is that in the history of metaphysics ‘nothing’ has so far been understood only as the counter concept of being. The inevitable consequence of this has been that metaphysics so far has been concerned with beings but not as Heidegger would say ‘Being’ of beings or simply with what is. In so far as questions of metaphysics are the most important concerns of philosophy, Heidegger characterises the history of western philosophy as the forgetfulness of ‘Being’ which ‘is essentially finite and reveals itself only in the transcendence of Dasein which is held out into the nothing’ (ibid: 56). Heidegger seeks to reinaugurate a different kind of metaphysics, or more appropriately to close the older kind once and for all considering that it has exhausted its project, at the same time propounding a new Europeanism by animating the basic question of metaphysics which the nothing itself necessitates and which has been evaded by metaphysics so far: ‘Why is there Being, and not, far rather Nothing?’. These brief comments transmit us directly to the second sense in which the term metaphysics is used whereby is insinuated by it a certain sense of tradition, convention and history. Metaphysics, Heidegger observes, eventuates with Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s theory of ideas has been the essential footing of European metaphysics and philosophising since his times. Heidegger refers to it as the ‘technical interpretation of thinking’ through which is secured the sacred provenance of philosophy as against the platitudinous every day (ibid: 148). This metaphysics fails to inquire into the nature of Being because it banishes the question of ‘nothing’ from its purview. In the process it becomes representational or ideational. Thus failing to think the nothing it fails to think the Being and reduces it into models and categories. At this point Heidegger’s critique of humanism can be very simply stated: humanism for him replaces the humanity of the human with the idea of the humanity of the human. ‘Representational thinking of metaphysics’ entails a severe authority of ideas in place of concrete thought or a ‘thinking that responds and recalls’. These ideas are a diremption from the nature of being to the thought of being. Heidegger is careful enough to point out that representations of man as animal rationale are not necessarily wrong but are conditioned by metaphysics. Faculty of reason and thought is merely appended to the otherwise animal existence of human beings. Thus first and foremost humanism is reproached for it is unable to think the true dignity of being human. It is pertinent to see that man does not merely ‘exists’ but as Heidegger suggests ‘Ek-sists’. This means that of all beings humans stands in the truth of being. This uniqueness of man’s being is expressed in Heidegger’s recourse to the term Dasein (there-being). Dasein is a being that questions and in doing so is open to Being as such that is to what is. Dasein is the candid amplitude where beings reveal themselves in variegated ways, disclosing their ‚truth‛ (alethia) and withdrawing again into the nameless. Humanism, engrossed and entrapped in the fold of metaphysics remains unmindful of the primordial prescensing of the world and of the primal freshness of man’s being as well. Representational thinking, as the one which underwrites humanism, remains steeped in metaphysics, so that though it comes to pass by the lighting of ‘Being’ it solely recognizes it as musings on part of a subject. Such metaphysics is also unable to think the thing-being of a thing as it fails to appraise the exceptionality of human ek-sis -tence. Condoning the question of Being human ism fails to see that man dwells in the nearness of what is where this nearness can only be sighted by thinking (thinking that is enabled by Being itself and not muddle-headed philosophising) which is felicitous to Being. Thus in this section we have seen how Heidegger’s insistence on questioning the ‘nothing’ is so important both for understanding his critique of humanism as well as for creating any possibility of overcoming it. But now the question arises, how is it that students of social sciences can understand and receive this category of ‘nothing’ in their discourse. What sense to make of the ‘nothing’? As we’ll see in the next section Heidegger himself provides a clue. Nothing as Nihilism An obvious query presents itself at this stage. Isn’t in his scathing criticism of humanism Heidegger is casting suspicion over the entire edifice of values whose parturition throes Europe has motherly endured and has come to be what it is? Heidegger is seen here to be toeing Nietzsche’s line while suggesting that not the destruction of these much cherished values but rather their installation in the first place is the source of Nihilism. Nihilism is sharply posed for Nietzsche in the devaluation of ‘noble morality’ typified by a distinct sense of power by ‘ressentiment morality’ and the doctrine of love and truth patronised by it and ultimately an irrevocable decline of the latter emblematised by the death of Christianity and of the god concocted by it. The awareness that it was in fact the ‚will to power‛ that was masquerading as the ‚will to morality‛ has made the oppressor and the oppressed man akin to each other, revealing the inanity of the fiction by which the people sustained themselves thereby rendering all existence null and devoid of any meaning whatsoever. Hence Nietzsche’s outcry: ‘This is the most extreme form of Nihilism: nothingness (the ‚senseless‛) eternally! Heidegger, as discussed earlier, attempts to clear a way out of this impasse by thinking over the relation of ‘Being’ to ‘nothing’. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the European predicament impels Heidegger to raise in an exemplary manner the as yet unthought-of question of ‘Being’ itself, leading him to characterise his thought as a ‘fundamental ontology’. As the thinking that inquires into the truth of ‘Being’. Heidegger’s critique of humanism is thus part of his larger commitment to address the European predicament of which Nietzsche’s philosophy is the most direct and articulate expression. Perhaps there’s a point or two to be gleaned here for students of sociology and anthropology. One clearly recognises the impact that Husserl’s phenomenology had on the development of sociology and anthropology. However one persistent source of annoyance for these disciplines with the former is the idea of a transcendental ego.

Transcendental ego we know is the conscious residuum of the phenomenological reduction where in is laid to rest the question of reality or nonreality of the world in approbation of interpreting experience in terms of its necessary categories and essences. An obvious question presents itself that whether such transcendental reduction is possible after all? Isn’t the allurement of the Cartesian cogito keeps lurking behind such claims, ultimately falling to which reduces Husserl’s endeavour to a hair-splitting hustle? Heidegger brandishes a swing out here. We have already seen that Dasein, in the ground of its essence is transcending by holding itself out into the nothing. So rather than being weary of stumbling upon some transcendental ego in their phenomenological reflections students of sociology can inquire into the nature of ‘being’ held out into the nothing. And what is ‘nothing’ if not nihilism, both generated by and responsible for the contemporary predicament of meaninglessness that we find ourselves in? Thus what is this original revelation of ‘nothing’ that Heidegger is talking about, if not the anxiety that we encounter in the face of nihilism? Hence can we not take it to be the same as the phenomenon of nihilism as highlighted by Nietzsche and analysed further by Heidegger? If yes, then it also gives rise to the question that, how far and to what an extent we as nonEuropeans are implicated in and are party to the history and destiny of European nihilism? And then, what is the true nature of Indian nihilism or Indian Nothingness? Is it similar or different to the European nihilism? Etc, etc. I suggest that the constitution of the project of philosophical anthropology lies in unpacking the notion of the nothing and only through such a project social sciences such as sociology/anthropology can vouchsafe a secure provenance for themselves today if they are not to fall prey to the lure of humanist tendencies. To specify here philosophical anthropology means nothing more or less than clarifying the promises and practices of particular civilisations as they talk to and about each other. Thus reorienting sociology as philosophical anthropology that enquires into the nature and structure of nihilism(s) can we broach and understand the nature of our contemporary locations (s).

Philosophical Anthropology Heidegger like many of his contemporaries wrote as a self-conscious European. When he discusses being, it is palpably the contemporary European being that he is referring to. And such a being, it is crucial to note, is rooted in a rich tradition of philosophising on being that is singularly distinctive of Europe. Heidegger is concerned with the primordial presencing of the nature of European being, phenomenologically appropriating which and in the light of which his project of hermeneutically clarifying Europe can become meaningful. As mentioned earlier Heidegger’s thinking on being is occasioned by Nietzsche’s delineation of
the catastrophic eternal nothingness that scourges Europe. In so far as issues central to metaphysical thinking lead us to the sources of such nothingness Heidegger aims at the destruction of metaphysics but at the same time seeks to recover the ground of revelation of the nature of being that induced the fundamental question of metaphysics in the Greek vision of philosophy. Heidegger in doing so draws his inspiration from Husserl’s phenomenology that above all is concerned with unravelling the grounds in thinking from which sciences have sprung forth and to address the crisis that they find themselves in. Heidegger for whom the crises is not limited to the sciences but plagues the life world itself shows us that only through the realisation of the gravity and spread of such a crises and the commitment to address it that issues of metaphysics and thinking become transcendental issues and only thus the phenomenological reduction, that is laying aside the issues of the reality or nonreality of the world, is possible. In Heidegger’s notion of the Da-Sein we see that man is necessarily conceived as a self-consciously historical being. Also we see that philosophy for Heidegger means the history of European philosophy. So what is posited as well as what crystallises in his discussion of ‘Being’ is Europe itself in so far as he is not only talking about the European being but also the European nothing that is brought short by nihilism that Nietzsche exemplarily delineates. Thus the category of transcendence in Husserl of which social sciences are otherwise sceptical of is made intelligible only by considering Heidegger’s thought as a philosophical anthropology that inquires into the issues of nothingness and nihilism that plague the European civilisation.
We see that how fundamental the issues of nothing and nihilism are for Heidegger, as only with an engagement with these he finally comes to address the elusive notion of ‘Being’ itself. As a student of Indian sociology one obviously feels inclined to the raise the question of Indian nihilism here. In so far as we partake of European history and destiny Indian nihilism is both same and different from European nihilism on which as we have seen Heidegger builds his philosophy of being. This is so because of the Europeanisation of the globe the world is now cast in the image of Europe. As Dr. Rabindra ray aptly puts it ‘The phenomenon of the Europeanisation of the globe is itself nothing more, nor less than, the globalisation of the predicament and issues of the Nothing and nothingness of contemporary European nihilism’ (Ray, 2010:220). Cast in the framework of humanism the rhetoric of rights and reclamations is unmindful of the europeanness that we ourselves are party to. Considering Heidegger’s thought as a philosophical anthropology suggests that antihumanist positivism as well as humanisms of all varieties and intermediate positions between two poles of humanist sciences and outright antiscientism are themselves occasioned by a distinctively European nihilism. It is thus only through a project of philosophical anthropology can the contours of our own most Indian nihilism and the nothingness that it betokens be defined and understood. As students of social anthropology we have seen the impact of humanist tendencies on the discipline where in anthropologists have gone out finding wise men amongst the savages to obtain corroborative testimonies to the universal humanist positions or anthropological stories congenial to their own thoughts. It’s precisely here that philosophical anthropology provides its most crucial methodological insight that the original awareness of difference must be the fundamental principle through which the issues of ‘existence’ and ‘to be’ must be addressed. But why a philosophical anthropology? Going back to Descartes can be instructive in this regard. With the formula ‘I think therefore I am’, Descartes made being coterminous with thinking. In the subsequent development of European philosophy, as we know, Descartes came to be regarded as the founder of modern rationalism. What his above formula does is that it identifies ‘thinking’ with a particular ‘mode’ of thinking which we know of as reason. This abrogates all other meanings which thinking in Descartes and otherwise may have. Heidegger interprets Descartes formula as cogito (ergo) sum where the primordial relationship between being and thought, thought which is free of all determinations of being so and so, is reinstated as thinking, first and foremost as the awareness of being. Heidegger remarks that this slogan needs to be ‘turned around’ as Sum ergo cogito in the sense that Sum- my being in the world-is prior to cogito- my ability to have thoughts about things with in the world. To put it simply Descartes formula can be reformulated as ‘I am’ is the premise of ‘I think’. This is where, in the freedom of thinking from all imperatives of reason, a philosophical anthropology acquires meaning and takes shape. Thus we have seen how Heidegger’s critique of humanism can lead us to open the category of ‘nothing’ in novel and creative ways and can supply as with a method through which social sciences can respond to the contemporary issues by taking newer and unexplored directions.


Heidegger, M. 2012. Basic writings. Ed. J. Glenn Gray. London. Routledge.

Husserl, E. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Trans. David Carr. Illinois. Northwestern University Press.

Nietzsche, F. 2006. The Nietzsche Reader. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. Oxford. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Ray, R. 2010. In The European Shadow: Further Essays in a Philosophical Anthropology. Delhi. Yash Publications.


This article is published in The New Leam, MAY 2017 Issue( Vol .3  No.24 ) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at  thenewleam@gmail.com

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