Gerry's Home Page Interpretation in Design Hermeneutic Software Design Marx & Heidegger

Part I, Chapter I

Part I: Interpreting Marx and Heidegger in Our World

The author thinking about Marx and Heidegger during a visit to East Berlin in 1972.

Chapter I. The Alternative of Marx and Heidegger

The reasons for my decision to write on Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger together are numerous. Throughout my study of philosophy, the two major tendencies in continental thought, Marxism and existentialism, have been rivals for my interest. Marx and Heidegger are clearly the founders of the two schools and to my mind they remain the most profound representatives. It was thus natural that I should take the opportunity of researching a dissertation to come to grips with the philosophical alternative they present.

My personal inclination is not, however, merely subjective; it is an expression of the objective conditions in society and in the philosophical tradition. There are, that is, good reasons for someone critical of today’s society to be repelled by the inherent conservatism of Anglo-American philosophy and to be attracted to Marx and Heidegger. Both Marx and Heidegger, for all their criticisms of Hegel, retain the central insight of dialectics: that the facts are not simply given, but are mediated in ways which can only be comprehended with the help of theory. A philosophy which does not take this seriously is ill-equipped to deal with deceptive reality.

To turn to Marx or Heidegger as to a dogma is, however, to destroy them. Not only does the originality of their thought demand an intellectual struggle that critically overcomes the habits of common sense, but the weaknesses which have become apparent in their systems necessitate creative development of these systems. Internal requirements of the two philosophies, as well as their deficiencies, call for a confrontation between them which could serve to clarify and strengthen each of the alternatives, if not to synthesize them. The present introductory chapter and the subsequent review of previous debates between the two positions outline these needs, anticipating the material which follows in the actual interpretations.

A basis for comparison of the two approaches exists in terms of the common search for essences hidden in appearances. The differences between the essential concepts they form and emphasize suggest, then, that Heidegger can be understood as a rethinking of Marx, who too narrowly based his analysis on the economic realm. On the other hand, the lack of historical content in Heidegger’s concepts needs to be remedied through a study of Marx’s method of historically-specific concept formation. Although a review of previous attempts at interpreting Marx and Heidegger from each other’s perspective reveals that there has been little success to date in this enterprise, previous misunderstandings can generally be attributed to national and international politics, and it can be hoped that a more fruitful dialogue is now possible.

Chapter I concludes with a summary of the themes and considerations which are raised in Part I and which determine the outlines of the subsequent interpretations of Marx and Heidegger. Chapters II and III expand upon the comparison of Marx and Heidegger by reviewing Heidegger’s critique of Marx and Adorno’s Marxist critique of Heidegger. These chapters thereby uncover internal arguments why Heidegger should have paid more attention to Marx and why Marxists must come to terms with Heidegger’s thought.

Interpretation for Transformation

There is today a need for interpretation of the world. Marx and Heidegger share with Freud the belief that it is possible with the help of a theory to understand someone’s ideas, behavior and self better than he understands them himself. The motivations consciously debated by the agent may well be screens against true perception or at best interpretations of his situation which are not necessarily privileged over the analysis of his situation by other people. The idealistic presupposition of the transparency of the cogito to the ego has been rejected by these post-Hegelian outlooks. The subject, who has been raised in a family, mediated by social conditions, and “thrown” into the world, must interpret his own consciousness, activity, and Being just as an observer must, namely from a perspective which may well be more limited by ignorance of various factors and by being more caught up in self-concealing conditions than an observer with a developed theory – even though the subject has been exposed to more of the empirical facts. This is not a merely scholastic question of epistemology. The self-perception of the subject situated naturally (i.e., without the objectifying alienation of theoretical analysis) in his family, society and world is in fact subject to systematic distortions of which he remains unaware. The normal psychic dynamic of family life is predicated upon its sublimation into the unconscious; the invisible hand of bourgeois exchange society could not be effective without commodity fetishism; and the reliability of the world presupposes that we are “fallen” in it and do not recognize its “worldhood” or “worlding,” its Being.

Both Marx and Heidegger situate Hegel’s dialectic of essence and appearance in the contemporary world. Marx argues that capitalist society is pervaded by a “fetishism of commodities,” that is, that the essential social relationships which structure society and the lives of its members appear, if at all, in the illusory form of characteristics of physical objects, of the commodities produced. Any evaluation of capitalist society in terms of its appearances alone, without the assistance of a theory which interprets and demystifies the appearances will necessarily be apologetic – at most liberally reformist – covertly and dogmatically endorsing the mystifying ideology of capitalism. A theoretical interpretation of the essences as illusion, on the other hand, allows for a critical grasp of their contradictory nature and reveals potentials for qualitative transformation.

Similarly, Heidegger argues that Western thought is guilty of a progressive “forgetfulness of Being” such that the ontological categories through which we understand reality distort our relationships to ourselves and other beings. What is needed is a meta-ontology, a theory which deals with the deceptive character of contemporary appearances. Thus, common to Marx and Heidegger, but not to the competing philosophic approaches of the twentieth century, is the belief that appearances by themselves are illusory, the insight that this illusory character is historically situated, and the conviction that philosophy’s task is to break through such illusion. This shared conviction provides a basis for the following interpretations of Marx and Heidegger and for their comparison. The central methodological problem for both thinkers is accordingly the question of how to derive the appropriate theoretical essence from the given appearances, from the ideologies and the phenomena. The different approaches to a shared project determine contrasts between Marx and Heidegger which are clear in their respective conceptual frameworks, or rather, in the way in which they try to avoid imposing conceptualizations external to their subject matter.

Marx and Heidegger each formulate an essential concept. Marx raises the question, What is truth? by arguing that capitalist appearances are illusory, fetishized, false. This alone might qualify him for consideration as a philosopher in the broad sense of a thinker who stops at no academic borders. Frequently, however, he is relegated to the ranks of out-moded economists. Worse yet, perhaps, his thought is accepted as interdisciplinary, and segmented according to the academic division of labor against which it stands as a forceful counterexample. A preferable way of understanding the complexity of Marx’s thought is suggested by Jürgen Habermas’ analysis of emancipatory science as a dialectical unity of interpretive and, explanatory interests.[1]

Speculative philosophy (of the Hegelian tradition) is concerned to interpret reality, to provide categories for subsuming reality such that the system of categories provides a sense or meaning in terms of which reality can be understood, comprehended, interpreted. Such philosophy is retrospective, not predictive; it does not make calculations, but interprets the significance of their results. Non-dialectical philosophy and science are explanatory in the sense that they construct their concepts operationally, formulate laws to predict in quantitative terms, clarify logical difficulties and anomalies. They are thus useful for manipulating events within the given norms, but inadequate by themselves for criticizing these norms. Because Marx wants both to comprehend reality critically and to explain its functioning and its development with an eye to transforming it, his theory must be both interpretive and explanatory.

To understand Marx is to comprehend the unity of these two aspects of his work. Nevertheless, one can roughly say that Marx’s theory of value (in Capital, Volume I) is primarily interpretive (of the essence), while his price theory (Capital, Volume III) is primarily explanatory (of the appearance). We shall be concerned with Marx’s interpretive framework, rather than with his explanatory science. The criticisms which the technical details of the latter have received by even Marx’s most sympathetic readers is not the least reason for reconsidering Marx’s interpretive theory in relation to present society and in comparison to competing philosophies. The mediation of Marx’s value theory with his price theory – which gives the unity of interests to his critical theory of society – takes place in terms of the consideration of more and more economic influences. The starting point for the entire system is the commodity, cornerstone of capitalist production. The theory of capitalist society, including the analysis of fetishism, which is the basis of the critical thrust of Marx’s system, can be presented by unpacking this abstract concept. For Marx’s concept of the commodity summarizes the results of years of social research and theoretical critique which he dedicated to developing his early, anticipatory social criticisms.

Despite the fact that many social critics today feel that Marx’s systematic focus was too narrowly economic, surprisingly few alternatives to Marx’s approach have been developed. Either Marx’s theory is patched up or research into delimited realms of appearance is carried out with little theoretical guidance. Martin Heidegger’s thought suggests itself as a broader alternative to Marxism. His philosophical theory is not only prima facie comparable to Marx’s, but in many respects methodologically quite similar. Furthermore, there are historical reasons for viewing this alternative as a rethinking of Marxism. Heidegger’s mature thought can well be understood as the attempt to interpret reality, including its illusory character, more radically than Marx by reflecting upon the ontological categories at work in capitalist production and more generally in our modern age. In his theory, the concept of technological Being plays roughly the same role as that of the commodity in Marx’s. Two crucial questions in evaluating Heidegger’s alternative to Marx are: Has Heidegger really thought about Marx adequately, that is, has he understood the significance of Marx’s accomplishments? Secondly, has Heidegger really been more radical than Marx or has he in fact fallen behind Marx’s standpoint philosophically as well as in terms of content? These questions are to be understood quite apart from the undisputed fact that Heidegger’s theory is not as fully developed in concrete details as Marx’s, that Heidegger has, by his own admission, just managed to clear the ground somewhat.

The concepts of a critical theory of society are perforce radically historical. They display a temporal structure all their own. If the given appearances are illusory, then the concepts which name them effectively must be able to move dialectically between essence and appearance. In temporal terms, the concept must show that appearances lack necessity, that the past was essentially different. As critical, the concept also proclaims the possibility of a better future; it anticipates a qualitative transformation.

Marx’s key concept, that of the commodity, is not limited to the era which it characterizes. Nor is it simply universal. Rather, it can retrospectively shed light on its less developed forms under feudalism and also suggest the form it might take in a subsequent harmonious industrial society. Briefly, that is, the relation between the two primary moments of the commodity, use value and exchange value, mirrors the historically changing tensions within society as a whole, their relation of opposition within the capitalist form of production had not yet developed before capitalism and would have to be overcome in the future in order to transcend fetishism, alienation, exploitation, and impoverishment. Within Heidegger’s system, much the same can be said about the technological character of Being. In his terms, it is the “Janus head” facing both danger and salvation, one foot in the present epoch and another in a possible subsequent one. Retrospectively, it also makes sense of the development which led up to it.

For a theory to move between essence and appearance, to interpret the development up to the present and to uncover potentials for the future in the present, its key concepts must be neither operationally defined in terms of the given nor ahistorically general. This accounts for the extensive concern with history evident in the work of both Marx and Heidegger. That Heidegger’s concepts often seem to lack the historical content characteristic of Marx’s suggests that a comparison of the two philosophies may help remove Heidegger’s greatest weakness.

Interpreting Marx and Heidegger Together

The problematics of Marx and Heidegger are comparable in fundamental ways. Central to both are the twin paradoxes: guided by theory, the analyses must nevertheless be immanent to their object; consciously situated in the world they interpret, their task is to transform it through critique. The unity of critical theory and situated immanence common to Marx and Heidegger defines the tangential point of ideology critique and destructive hermeneutics, social theory and social praxis, interpretation and transformation of the world.

Marx and Heidegger follow a theoretical approach by focusing on an essential category. This essence, which is elaborated into a conceptual framework, is not simply a concept from which one could logically or dialectically deduce a system, nor does it represent some one being which grounds all other beings as God did in medieval theologies. The theoretical approach is a consequence of the claim that the true structure of reality has been obscured. That this claim does not itself lead to mysticism is due to its being situated in the character of capitalist commodity relations or technological Being. Marx and Heidegger see the root of obfuscation in historical developments and strive for the removal of the prevalent deception rather than for submission to it or exploitation of it for purposes of domination. Recognizing the historical objectivity of false appearances, they view their own theoretical insights as moments in the historical transformation required to remove the deceptive character of reality’s contemporary self-interpretation. This sense of historical objectivity distinguishes Marx and Heidegger from vulgar utopianism which dreams up ideal societies without concern for making the transition from today’s problems. Yet the two thinkers are critical in the sense of orienting their thought toward a qualitatively different future. As situated, their theoretical and critical approach is immanent. Their orientation toward the future is based on their position in the present, which they understand as having developed out of the past. The character of the systems of Marx and Heidegger, including their methodologies, is explicitly immanent to their historical situation. The theories are articulations of their own circumstances, rather than attempts to impose an abstract, unrelated, ahistorical conceptual framework upon the given. The given is criticized in accordance with its own claims.

However, despite these at least formal similarities, Marx and Heidegger have generally been considered to be at logger-heads. Followers of Marx and Heidegger have maintained primarily polemical relations with each others and previous attempts to think about Marx and Heidegger together have been problematic at best. Since the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Marxists have dealt with Heidegger in basically two ways. Some, like the early Marcuse or the late Sartre, sought in Heidegger’s approach a new ontological foundation or philosophy of man to supplement the analyses of a Marx who supposedly had little time for epistemological questions. Others, like Lukacs, lumped Heidegger’s writings in with bistro existentialism and rejected the whole as bourgeois ideology. Generally, the polemicists have been quick to attack surface features without understanding their role in a system which admittedly was until recently only available in the form of obscure hints. Heidegger’s apologists, at the other extreme, try to remove all danger of criticism by insisting that he must be interpreted – an endless and thankless task – before he can be judged.

Commentators who have focused on Heidegger’s later works have frequently expressed the feeling that Heidegger’s thought, for all its depth and breadth, is in the end somehow empty. However, when not hurtled as a weapon of polemic, this objection generally appears camouflaged in the guise of a personal aside tacked onto the end of an objectively argued, uncritical exposition with no attempt to explain the emptiness in terms of what was analyzed. How does this emptiness arise from Heidegger’s approach? Where can the problem be pinpointed in his system? What are the ideological implications? What remains of value? The answers to these questions must be sought in the innermost recesses of Heidegger’s system. Such a search differs as much from the last minute posing of general “critical” doubts at the end of an uncritical analysis as from an emotional response to surface features. The massive secondary literature on Heidegger seems to lack such a critical search of his system, judging its claim to relevance on the basis of its underlying outlines.

The two knowledgeable attempts to deal with Heidegger as a social thinker fail not only in their over-zealous defense and acceptance of Heidegger’s pronouncements, but, more seriously, in seeking something that is not there, Heidegger’s “political philosophy” in the Aristotelian sense. Otto Pöggeler’s Philosophie und Politik bei Heidegger [2] – apparently an attempt to deal with the basic critical problem avoided in his larger commentary on Der Denkweg Martin Heideggers – collects many of the central issues and provides a counter-balance to the polemics, without, unfortunately, finding time to go beyond making plausible his defenses of Heidegger. He emphasizes the problem of developing a “political philosophy” on a Heideggerian foundation, without trying to understand how Heidegger’s approach already represents an alternative to Marxism.

Alexander Schwan, in his Politische Philosophie im Denken Heideggers,[3] tries to adapt Heidegger’s analysis of the ontological structure of the work of art simplistically to an analysis of the Hitler state, rather than seeing the art analysis as itself already a social analysis. The arbitrary nature of Schwan’s approach becomes striking when he repeats the adaptation with a very different later Heideggerian model with almost identical results. An alternative approach to an analysis of the relation of politics to Heidegger’s thought suggests itself in the material on the 1930’s which Schwan has himself assembled: to trace the effects of the political climate upon Heidegger’s writings or to oppose an analysis of the political phenomena to Heidegger’s conception of history – lines of politically critical analysis which are, unfortunately, absent from the political philosophizings of Pöggeler and Schwan.

While few have succeeded in relating Heidegger to Marx, there is an increasing tendency to focus on his similarities to Hegel. Heidegger himself has become more concerned with Hegel in his later writings and seminars, although even Being and Time discussed Hegel’s conception of time at some length. Heidegger, however, intends to go beyond the tradition which stretched from Plato to Hegel. Hence Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Marx, the great Hegel critics, are important to him. The concern with Kierkegaard, who allegedly remained on an ontic level, diminished after Being and Time, while Nietzsche assumed a central importance in Heidegger’s work. After his fascination with Nietzsche waned, Heidegger seems increasingly to have recognized the importance of Marx’s post-Hegelianism, without, however, dealing in any depth with Marx. Rather, Heidegger’ s references to Marx suggest that a discussion between them is one of the great unfinished tasks of Heidegger’s project. An analysis of these references indicates, further, that a necessary first step is to correct the misunderstandings which they express.

The work of Theodor W. Adorno contains a serious and extended critique of Heidegger’s system. However, Adorno avoids a treatment of Heidegger’s philosophy in isolation. For him, as a Marxist, it is important to deal with Heidegger the way Marx dealt with Hegel: as an expression of the latest stage in the history of philosophy and society. Heidegger’s popularity is to be understood in social terms and its ideological consequences are to be combated. Consequently, Adorno’s analysis is difficult to judge on a purely philosophical level. Further, while it makes several fundamental points, its form of presentation suffers from abstractness: distance from the material. Not only is the Marxist alternative to Heidegger kept on an implicit level; the interpretation of Heidegger’s system remains itself between the lines. Only when supplemented by a thorough interpretation of Marx and Heidegger can Adorno’s claims be evaluated, demonstrated, criticized or expanded upon. Particularly bothersome in Adorno’s discussions is the way in which he ranges across Heidegger’s writings without admitting that they have developed under the recognition of many of the same immanent criticisms which Adorno articulates. Thus, it is useful to focus on one stage of Heidegger’s path of thought – his final system – in order to determine just which of Adorno’s accusations hold in the end.

The Hermeneutic Context

Heidegger’s attitude toward Marx suggests that he has rather uncritically accepted certain prevailing reductionist interpretations of Marx’s writings and has thereby reinforced their popularity (cf. Chapter II below). Soviet orthodoxy has not only reified Marx’s critical, dialectical thought into a metaphysics, but has used it as a justification for totalitarianism. In rejecting Soviet Diamat, Heidegger (at least until after the war) thinks he is dispensing with Marx, thereby accepting orthodoxy’s false claim to authenticity while ignoring what truth may yet be contained in its system. Here, as elsewhere, Heidegger’s jargon of origin-al thinking comes into conflict with his insight into the need for “destructive’ thought, which starts out from available philosophies to uncover what truth is buried within them. Thus, Heidegger makes a blanket rejection of the economism of Marx as seen through the eyes of the old left (Marxist-Leninists and Social Democrats alike) without considering Marx’s arguments for the primacy of commodity production in interpreting our world and, thereby, without being able to up-date the theory to more contemporary needs. Because he does not see the mediation of Marx’s economic studies with his philosophy (i.e., his explanatory with his interpretive theory), Heidegger is forced to an extreme humanist interpretation when he wants to salvage something of Marx’s thought. By focusing his attention exclusively on Marx’s early work as divorced from Capital, Heidegger inevitably arrives at the kind of humanist or even existentialist picture of Marx which is so popular in liberal theological circles and which allows him to reject Marx as metaphysically humanist.

In opposition to Heidegger’s emphases, the following interpretation of Marx (in Part II) attempts to make sense of his thought as a whole precisely by steering clear of possible metaphysical, economist and humanist distortions in order to arrive at a position which can speak to Heidegger with strength, relevance and independence. Within the context of a presentation of the core of Marx’s system, focus will be on Marx’s principle of the primacy of commodity production, the unity of his social theory and capitalist social practice, and his analysis of fetishism. It is hoped that the discussion of these focal points will contribute to thought on these important matters. Although the view of Marx presented is conceived as a synthesis of contemporary independent Marxist exegesis, the attempt to structure an interpretation of Marx in terms of the confrontation with Heidegger is, it seems to me, unique and fruitful.

The interpretation of Heidegger (in Part III) follows similar guidelines. The manifold debates over existentialism and Marxism are indicative of the tact that Marxists almost always consider Heidegger an existentialist That is, Heidegger’s doctrine of man in his Daseinsanalytik is interpreted moralistically, or at least is taken as an end in itself, as a subjectivistic, individualistic philosophy, rather than as a first step in the anti-subjectivistic questioning of Being. This understanding of Heidegger has not led to significant results because, I suspect, the “existentialism” in Being and Time is a popular, superficial level of meaning which merely obscures Heidegger’s own thought as developed in his later writings. Adorno’s critique is, I think, convincing in arguing that the appealing elements of Heidegger’s magnum opus are jargonistic and wholly inconsonant with Marxist concerns. The following interpretation thus turns to the late Heidegger, where the accent is no longer on the individual, avoiding, however, the theological interpretation to which Heidegger’s ambiguity carefully leaves itself open.

Seen in relation to Marxism, Heidegger’s final system seems to call for the comparison with Marx’s and it is, indeed, surprising that so little has been done along these lines. The important influences of Heidegger on Marxism tend to be highly indirect: e.g., through the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer and within the context of French structuralism. By contrast, the interpretation presented here aims at confronting Heidegger’s mature thought head-on with a viable reading of Marx. The central themes will accordingly be: Heidegger’s claim for a priority of Being, his doctrine of the forgetfulness of Being and the structure and methodology of his critical meta-ontology – especially the relation of its concepts to history. The basic analysis of Heidegger’s system attempts to capture what seems to be obviously at work in Heidegger’s writings since the mid-thirties in line with reflections which Heidegger himself makes in his latest work. The danger is, of course, that any such over-all sketch is reductive of Heidegger’s thought, whose importance lies more in its concrete suggestions and specific points then in its general outlines – witness the above reference to hermeneutics and structuralism. If, however, this interpretation lacks the profundity which alone can benefit from Heidegger, at least it consciously avoids the shortcomings of previous interpretive attempts and clears the way for further work by establishing a context within which the confrontation between Marx and Heidegger can meaningfully be developed. Although placed within a critical argument, the interpretation of Heidegger, like that of Marx, aims at sympathetic understanding and constructive development.

The problem with previous interpretations of Marx (including Heidegger’s) and of Heidegger (including those by Marxists) can be summed up in one objection: they impose a preconception upon their object. This is precisely what phenomenology, with its slogan: “Zur Sache selbst,” rebelled against. Heidegger has adopted this ethos in demanding that Being-itself be thought about “appropriately.” Appropriate thought appropriates its object in an appropriate way, in a manner derived from the thing itself. Marxism, too, in line with its rejection of ideology, is opposed to criticism from an external standpoint; Marx’s “immanent critiques” of Hegel, political economy and bourgeois ideology in general set out from the presuppositions of the questionable theory itself in order to show its contradictions and inadequacies.

To understand Marx and Heidegger appropriately, to uncover what is unique and original to each, means to follow their own hermeneutic principles. In comparing the two systems, neither can be subordinated to the other or to some supposedly objective third standpoint of commonsensical analysis. The principle guiding the present work has been to allow the two systems to unfold themselves autonomously, understanding the tangential points as organic parts of their respective contexts. This has been sought through keeping the two presentations distinct rather than comparing them point by point. The systems are developed through close textual analysis of key works, which, however, are selected with an eye to the comparison. Further, the confrontation is not externally imposed; it arises immanently out of the present crisis of Marxist theory and the contradictions of Heidegger’s thought as well as out of the internal demands of the two systems. Once the Marx interpretation has been spelled out, the points of comparison can be developed in terms of the material as it occurs in the course of the Heidegger presentation, thereby strengthening the focus of the Heidegger interpretation without distorting it.

Just as, for Marx, immanent critique need not become apologetic if it retains its critical thrust, so, for Heidegger, what is decisive is not to avoid the hermeneutic circle but to come into it in the right way: “Our first, last and constant task is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves.” [4]

As this quotation from Heidegger notes, it is not merely one’s project and an anticipation of the results which form preconditions of understanding, but one’s preconceptions as well. If one is to avoid external critique which is inappropriate, distorts and misses the point, then account must be taken of the source of preconceptions, the Wirkungsgeschichte of the work under consideration.[5] Only through the history of its effects, its tradition of having been variously construed, does a work cross the gap between the author and the reader. The history of ideas is thus the medium which permits understanding, the reconciliation of the dead spirit in language with that spirit which forces it to life on the basis of its afterlife.

But intellectual history takes place in the context of socio-political developments. Heideggerian hermeneutics may be correct when it argues that society can only be known through linguistic texts: “Language is the house of Being” and conversely “Being, which can be understood, is language.”[6] Thus, it is true that Marx focuses on Hegel’s texts, the tomes of bourgeois political economy and British governmental reports. More generally, “society” is to be located only in its citizens, that is, in their (fundamentally linguistic) objectifications in self-reflection, speech, documents, works and institutions. Marxism none-the-less has the last word when it points out that the subjects have already been thoroughly mediated, so that the social superstructure created by their activity is, through them, already (pre-linguistically) shaped by the character of the social totality. Karl-Otto Apel is thus right to point to the basis in the “community of interpreters” for the ontological categories, whose history Heidegger leaves to a linguistic world-spirit whose theological overtones have merely been modernized and whose substance has accordingly been diminished.[7] However, in abstracting from the historically-specific to formulate the ideal of a speech community, Apel is himself in danger of abstracting from the social context of the communicating subjects: their relations within a specific, concrete, historical form of’ production.

A merger is necessary between the hermeneutic insight into the context-dependence of all understanding and the ideology-critical emphasis on societal mediations. From his early analysis or Being-in-the-world as the essential structure of human existence, Heidegger has stressed the importance of the world around a being to the character of the being itself: a tool has meaning within a technical context, a jug within the relationships of the physical world, a bridge within lived space and a word within the communicative situation. The grand question of Being is ultimately an investigation of the contextuality of beings. But Heidegger fails to recognize the power of social formations to define the context of beings; here Marxism furnishes the antidote. With Marx, social theory supplies the comprehension of the context. A Marxist appropriation of Heidegger’s critique of non-contextual, “metaphysical” positivism would simultaneously clarify Marxism’s own approach and demystify Heidegger’s content-poor ontological musings. For Marx and his creative followers have articulated numerous ways in which the power of the context to structure the beings it contains is itself created by those beings. Such analyses are, however, readily subject to misunderstandings unless they are formulated within a theory which explicitly rejects mechanistic, positivistic, idealistic and subjectivistic philosophical stances. To bring out those fundamental theoretical features of Marx’s thought which are especially important today requires a peculiarly twentieth century formulation which would make explicit how social facts are comprehended within a social theory and how the categories and orientation of that theory are related to its social context.

Because the essence of man inheres in the nexus of social relations from the viewpoint of social theory, human activity constitutes social praxis, the process of the production and reproduction of the form and substance of society. The task of socially-conscious theory is accordingly to interpret social phenomena, as human artifacts and, as such, as the expression of social relations among people. The reconstruction of the preconditions of the given social reality should ideally demonstrate the mediations which constitute its history. This demonstration is neither a recounting of empirical history, a logical argument unrelated to the specifics of the case, nor a causal account of events and effects. Rather, it points to ways in which the phenomena have been conditioned, have been characterized by social conditions such that in the end the social origins have become obscured. Political events, for instance, function as both symptoms and screens for social transformations.

Outside the political arena of the past century, divorced from the Russian and Chinese revolutions, the failure of revolution in the West, the rise of fascism, the development of advanced industrial economies and culture, Marx cannot today be understood. For it is in terms of such events and what underlies them that the Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, existentialist and humanist interpretations arose.

A contemporary understanding of Marx must take into account these events, the social relations behind them and the resultant interpretations if it is to comprehend its own procedure, possibilities and necessity. The situation with respect to understanding Heidegger is, if slightly less complex, not as different as might be assumed. What is particularly clear in Capital holds for Heidegger’s writings and his references to Marx as well: namely, the philosophical argument is inextricable from timely observations and social considerations. This relates as much to the perspective of the reader as to that of the authors.

It is precisely our temporal distance from the concerns of the past decades which makes the following interpretations possible. Until recently, the hermeneutic goal of understanding the author better than he understood himself has been hindered by politics. In their concern to battle socialism and Stalinism, the Heideggerians ignored or distorted the thought of the man the Soviets claimed as a founding father. Similarly, Marxists felt compelled to attack and ridicule the thought of a philosopher who had consorted with fascism, and here the “existentialist” themes seemed most vulnerable. This is not to imply that the problems underlying the old politics and polemics have vanished nor that exegesis must or can completely disavow politics. But philosophy today is in a period of retrenchment, where hasty formulations prove ineffectual; serious interpretation of Marx and Heidegger is presently underway throughout the world. This has opened the possibility of a successful confrontation of their respective systems, already implicit in the convergence of approaches and concerns in the respective philosophical camps. The political changes are, of course, related to social conditions which are more difficult to evaluate. Suffice it to say that developments in the consciousness of youth throughout the world in the past decade suggest progress in the conditions of the possibility of a new epoch in both Marx’s and Heidegger’s terms. If this is so, then the Marxian and Heideggerian systems have gained in relevance, and that means in accessibility and comparability.

The point of new interpretations of Marx and Heidegger is not to rewrite Capital and Being and Time as though sub specie eternitatis; rather, each age – every decade, class and country – requires its own understanding, incorporating both changes in the social fabric and consequent modifications in revolutionary perspectives. That the American New Left considered Capital irrelevant is understandable; whatever unfortunate consequences it may have had, this attitude allowed for a freshness, creativity and experimentation which may not only have been its greatest virtue, but its only objective potential. The 1970’s, however, call for a synthesis of the best in the old and new leftovers. The following is not the required reformulation of Marx and Heidegger, but understands itself as a faltering step in the task of clarification, analysis and interpretation which recognizes itself to be politically, historically and philosophically situated. This means that perspectives which may well be appropriate in Eastern Europe, Italy or China are here rejected. Not unrelated to the concern with the situation of advanced industrial society, the insights of Theodor W. Adorno have guided the whole of the dissertation. Acknowledgment is made therefore by quoting Walter Benjamin, Adorno’s guru, whose ephemeral and contradictory character may provide an appropriate symbol for the iconoclastic attitude of the so-called Frankfurt School.

In line with their tentative character, the following presentations can be taken as theses on reading Marx and Heidegger today, working hypotheses for future inquiry. Accordingly, the thought of Marx and Heidegger, which is conceived of as systematic, as well as the debates between them are presented in terms of their development. Rather than starting with texts which represent mature statements of the systems, the analyses unfold in chronological order, even if the continuity and teleology of thought is often stressed over the deviations. Not the least motivation for this procedure is the suspicion that the System has become an anachronism. Where systematic presentations tend to petrify into monuments, an approach which follows the research which spirals in on a system makes more sense pedagogically and critically, for it stresses the arguments and aporia. Nevertheless, the mature works of Marx and Heidegger assume a priority in the interpretation of their early works, which are grasped as the seeds of the later thought and thus as inadequate articulations of that which they intend.

[1] Jürgen Habermas, “Knowledge and human interests: A general perspective,” Knowledge and Human Interests, translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston: Beacon, 1971). Cf. Jürgen Habermas, “Erkenntnis und Interesse,” Technik und Wissenshaft als Ideologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1968).

[2] Otto Pöggeler, Philosophie und Politik bei Heidegger (Freiburg: Alber, 1972).

[3] Alexander Schwan, Politische Philosophie im Denken Heideggers (Köln: Westdeutscher, 1965).

[4] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 195. Cf. Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1967), S. 153.

[5] This notion of the importance of the historical effects of a text on the subsequent comprehension of that text is developed in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (1960; 2nd ed. Tubingen: Mohr, 1965).

[6] These central motifs of Heidegger’s thought are elaborated in Gadamer’s discussion, especially in the Preface to the second edition of Wahrheit und Methode.

[7] Cf. Karl-Otto Apel, Transformation der Philosophie, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), especially the extensive Introduction to the first volume. This introduction represents the latest stage in the debate between hermeneutics and ideology critique, demonstrating Apel’s role as innovative interpreter of both Heidegger and Marxism. The dispute, the most extended and explicit confrontation of the thought of Marx and Heidegger to date, began with Habermas’ critique of Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode in the former’s “Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften” (Philosophische Rundschau, Beiheft 5, February 1967). Subsequent contributions to the debate have been collected in Continuum (vol. 8, nos. 1&2, 1970) and Hermeneutik und Ideologiekritik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971).


Go to top of this page

Return to Gerry Stahl's Home Page

Send email to

This page last modified on January 05, 2004