Heidegger, Technology, and Homeland (Charles Bambach)


In late October 1955 in the quiet Swabian village of Messkirch, the Freiburg philosopher Martin Heidegger delivered a memorial address to commemorate the 175th birthday of the hometown composer Conradin Kreutzer. Because Heidegger had never distinguished himself by writing about music as a philosophical theme, the topic of his memorial address must have struck the audience as strange. However, Heidegger did not speak about music on this festive occasion; he spoke, rather, about one of the most enduring themes in his philosophical corpus-the meaning of the homeland in the age of technological modernity. What preoccupied Heidegger as he began to situate his discussion of modernity within the rhetorical topos of the homeland were the sweeping effects of the technological revolution on the fate of modern Germany. Because of the political-military planning of the second World War, Heidegger claimed:

[M]any Germans have lost their homeland, have had to leave their villages and towns, have been driven from their native soil. Countless others whose homeland was saved, have yet wandered off [to the great urban centers] and have resettled in the wastelands of industrial districts. They are strangers now to their former homeland. And those who remained in the homeland? In many ways they are still more homeless than those who have been driven from their homeland. (Discourse, hereafter DT 48; Gelassenheit, hereafter G 15)

In this essay, I want to look closely at Heidegger’s discourse of the homeland because in it I find structural elements for developing a reading of Heidegger as a political thinker who, in the midst of the Adenauer era’s widespread reconstruction of German society, decided to repackage his old National Socialist politics of the earth and soil to fit the new situation. As I read it, this rhetorical topos of the homeland [Heimat] will come to function for Heidegger as a politically amorphous concept stripped of any nationalist-or National Socialist-implications. In the years after the Lehrverbot from the de-Nazification committee at Freiburg, he took up his office as a “public” philosopher warning against the planetary effects of technology. In self-conscious fashion, he took on a new dramatic persona: the rustic shepherd of being. To reinforce this new identity as an eco-poetic philosopher of woodlands, landscapes, and country fields, Heidegger published an essay, “Fieldpath” (1949), and a book, Woodpaths (1950). These publications will help to establish a public conception of Heidegger as an apolitical country philosopher concerned with protecting the rustic character of the German landscape against the threats of homelessness and atomic devastation.

But what were Heidegger’s motives for turning his attention to the themes of homelessness, technology, modernization, and the flight of the gods in the postwar era? Did this whole constellation of themes constitute a new direction in Heideggerian thinking? Was the turn to questions of technology, ecology, and homelessness a genuine turn away from Heidegger’s old discourse about the homeland from the Nazi years, or can it be more properly understood as a turn to something left behind in that discourse? In what follows, I will look at Heidegger’s discourse about the homeland, roots, landscape, and the poetry of Johann Peter Hebel as constituting a rustic form of politics whose meaning has been missed. I hope to show that the very topos of the homeland became a covert kind of political engagement for Heidegger that repositioned the old National Socialist philosophy of roots and soil in the new political context of a cold war Germany “caught in a pincers” between America and the Soviet Union (Metaphysics, hereafter IM 41; Einfuhrung, hereafter EM 29).

Heidegger’s focus in the 1950s on the homeland and its relation to the economic forces of agribusiness, the demographic shifts of a technological revolution, and the political pressures of a Cold War that flooded Central Europe with refugees all came together in his attempt to think through the philosophical meaning of what he termed “rootedness,” “autochthony,” or Bodenstandigkeit. By Bodenstandigkeit, Heidegger did not merely mean one’s geographic roots, one’s national affiliation, or one’s regional sense of belonging. He also meant it to convey a profoundly meta-physical relation to the earth as a place of dwelling, to the landscape as one’s indigenous home, and to language as the expression of one’s rootedness in both. However, Heidegger also came to grasp autochthony as the name for an understanding of history as a destiny [Geschichte als ein Geschick] to which we primordially belong and through which we are appropriated by the gift-giving power of being (what he would term Ereignis).1 Only when we are fundamentally attuned to the earth as the source and ground of the gift-giving powers of being, only when we arc rooted in it and let this rootedness take hold of us can we find our proper dwelling place within the fourfold of being. Autochthony, in this sense, connotes a steadfast, constant standing in the earth, thought of as ground, soil, or roots-thus the German term Boden-standig-keit.2 But Bodenstandigkeit for Heidegger involves not the mere preservation or conservation of what is already there, given to us as an Eigentum or “property” (Gk., ousia), which we own.3 Rather, Heidegger considers Bodenstandigkeit as a relationship to the earth that acknowledges its hidden, concealed, nocturnal, and chthonic dimensions. It functions as the source for the materials that come to shape the work of art: the stone for the temple, the wood for the sculpture, the pigments for the drawing. As Heidegger put it in his 1935 essay, “On the Origin of the Work of Art”: “That into which the work [of art] sets itself back [zuruck-stellt] and which it causes to come forth in this setting back of itself we call the earth. Earth is that which comes forth and shelters. Earth, self-dependent, is effortless and untiring. Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world” (Poetry, hereafter PLT 46; Holzwege, hereafter H 35). By thinking of human dwelling as a relationship to the earth that sets human beings (in the sense of a Stellen) in relation to that which comes forth of itself and shelters all things, Heidegger reprises an ancient argument about the relationship of physis and techne that goes back to the tragic work of Sophocles and his drama Antigone.


In his 1935 lectures collected in Introduction to Metaphysics, which were delivered at the same time as the lecture “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger put forth a reading of Antigone that made much of the fundamental connection between the earth as a sacred space that opens itself for the coming of the gods and the earth as source and ground for the rootedness of humans. Although he did not provide a close textual reading of the action in the play, his overall commitment to the sacredness of the earth as an organizing theme offers clues to a Heideggerian reading rooted in the “authentic politics” of the Volk. As the basis for such a reading, it is imperative to recall how one of the most pointed contrasts in the play is Creon’s and Antigone’s conflicting definitions-interpretations of the earth. Creon defines it as land in the sense of the space of political territory; Antigone, on the contrary, considers it as the homeland and as the place for the dwelling of the gods (chthonic) and for the burial of the dead in accordance with the divine order of things. She understands, given the recent deaths of her parents and her two brothers, that human life is a way station or middle point between the earth and the sky. Antigone’s fate is to pose the question for human beings: What is our proper and authentic relation to the earth? How are we to properly honor the earth as a place of divine sanctuary? If we follow her in understanding the earth as the originary source of all being and as the space within and against which human beings confront their own limits within the order of physis, then the question about the earth becomes a question about the possibility of historical dwelling and the destiny of a Volk. At least that is how Heidegger proceeded as he read Antigone as a poetic meditation on the problem of the polis. In Heideggerian terms, Creon grasps the polis as something crudely political, defined by authority, control, and dominion. He becomes a model for the kind of untrammeled Cartesian self-assertion and voluntarism of the modern subject armed with techne. Creon’s polis is out of touch with the powers of the earth, which, in accordance with the opening lines of the first stasimon, he thinks of as a resource, something that can be controlled, subdued, and mastered through the plow, the sail, the yoke, the web, and the other instruments of calculative techne. This attempt at “dominion over the earth,” what Heidegger termed Erdherrschaft, focuses only on the surface of the earth and not on its chthonic depths that harbor and conceal the rooted powers of the gods that allow for genuine autochthonous grounding in a community.

Deracinated and out of touch with the earth, Creon stands as an isolated figure of modern Cartesian subjectivity, lacking all ties to a community and grappling with the nihilism of his own failed projections. This vision of modernity as a thoroughly calculative disposition of a modern subject who instrumentally transforms the chthonic powers of the earth into the light-bringing clarity of technological rationality strongly influenced Heidegger’s work in the postwar epoch. From his “Letter on Humanism” of 1946 that announces that “homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world” to his Bremen lectures of 1949, “Einblick in das was ist,” that warn of “the danger” involved in “the rule of technology,” (Pathmarks, hereafter PM 258; Wegmarken, hereafter WM 170; Question, hereafter QCT 37-49; Feldweg 68-77), Heidegger offers an unrelenting critique of the meta-physics of modernity as an epoch of human domination over the earth. By virtue of our Cartesian habits of representation or Vorstellen, all entities appear to us merely as what can be represented for a subject. Within the metaphysics of technology, marked in its essence by what Heidegger terms “das Ge-Stell,” everything becomes enframed within a horizon of disclosure that transforms mere “things” into “resources” available for constant delivery and consumption. As a modern form of disclosure, technology shares the same structure as the earlier Greek mode of disclosure known as techne. Techne defines that way of disclosing things that brings them forth out of concealment into appearance or unconcealment.

By contrast, technology does not allow things to unfold in the blossoming forth of physis, but already has predetermined the form that a thing can assume by placing it [stellen] within a certain frame of designated aims and ends. As a gathering [Ge-] of such placements into a predesigned “enframing,” the Ge-Stell places all entities before the modern subject as available resources on constant, standing reserve [bestandig, Bestand] to be calculated, consumed, or merely stockpiled for instrumental purposes. This overarching metaphysical principle of the Ge-Stell is at work, Heidegger claims, in every aspect of modern existencein agriculture, industry, medicine, science, technology, business, government, universities, language, and art. Nothing can elude the all-encompassing purview of das Ge-Stell; every being that comes to presence in the epoch of modernity is placed into the frame that already has been placed over all beings. Hence, Heidegger can write in shocking terms:

Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, in essence the same thing as the manufacturing of corpses in gas chambers and extermination camps, the same thing as the blockading and starving of nations, the same thing as the manufacturing of hydrogen bombs (Bremer 27).

Far from being “silent” on the issue of Auschwitz and the Shoah, Heidegger considered its “essence” as something that is bound up with the epochal will to domination that has transformed the subjective Cartesian will to mastery into an epochal framework of systematic enframing that “dominates the whole earth” (Reden 523).

Within this epoch of planetary technological dominion, the human being has entered into a wholly new relation to the world. Given the unimaginable allotment of power concealed within the realm of being, the human being has become a new Prometheus wresting the secrets of physis from their hidden sources. Now mortals not only possess the liberating power of fire formerly relegated solely to the gods but they also have become as gods themselves, stockpiling the elemental forces of nature and transforming them into consumable resources that can be shipped and delivered to every part of the globe at a moment’s notice. In becoming the shipping clerks of being, however, human beings themselves have become resources, digitally monitored as available inventory for future retrieval. Body parts are now catalogued and turned into inventory for “prospective” donor recipients; seminal fluids are stored in biological warehouses for artificial breeding. Lung, brain, and heart functions now become regulated by the Ge-Stell of medical enframing to extend and blur the boundaries of life and death. Conception itself, the erstwhile prerogative of divine physis, has become enframed in the technological recomposition of the petrie dish.

This whole process of total control and machination (what Heidegger termed Machenschaff) signals a dramatic epochal shift. If earlier, under the dominance of the seventeenth-century Cartesian will to mastery, the earth yielded to human control, within the late modern technological Ge-Stell it will be shaped by forces other than human domination. Now the overarching global Ge-stell of modernity will appropriate the human will to its aims and stratagems. Within this epochal horizon, all entities become inventoried; technicity succeeds in formalizing the polytropic ways of being. Das Ge-Stell literally in-forms beings by making them uni-form so that there can no longer be anything “singular.” Everything now conforms with a standard of universal measurement. What appears to us within the horizons of our Cartesian vision as de-formities-namely, gas chambers, terrorism, world war-will present itself as something that, through the proper application of technological analysis, might be re-formed. During his public lectures of the 1950s, Heidegger set out to show how the essence of modernity remained unaffected by the events of the second World War and how “nothing has changed, nothing is new. On the contrary [. . .] the devastation continues” (Feldweg 241). What becomes decisive for him during this postwar era is to de-structure the pressing political issues of his day-war guilt, the Holocaust, the Blitzkrieg introduction of democratic values into German society, the proper relation of Germany to NATO and to the Soviet bloc-back into ontological questions about the essence of modern technology.

In broad outline, Heidegger’s overarching critique of modernity shares much with the critique of modernization, rationalization, and the “disenchantment of the world” levied decades earlier by Max Weber. Like Weber, Heidegger viewed the modern imperative toward rationality as a process that yields standardization, uniformity, and a rigid structure of bureaucratic efficiency that encases the human subject in an iron cage that thwarts freedom and creativity. Within such a world, the old gods have fled and in their place there reigns the mathematical science of nature and machine technology (QCT 116; H 69-70). But Heidegger, despite his frequent brooding about the conditions of modernity, did not share Weber’s pessimism, nor did he view this state of affairs as the result of a historical shift in the attitudes and values of individual human subjects. As Heidegger put it in one of his seminars: “The human being does not have technology in its grasp; it is, rather, its plaything” (Seminare 108).4 For Heidegger, the reign of the Ge-Stell expresses an ontological condition of modernity that catches the human subject in its sweep and opens it up to the “danger” of a profound oblivion about being. In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger writes: “What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence. The essence of technology as the destiny of a way of revealing is the danger [. . .]. The rule of the Ge-Stell threatens the human being with the possibility that it could be denied a more originary revealing and thus the experience of the call for a more incipient [anfanglicheren] truth” (QCT 28; Vortrage 36). The real danger of the Ge-Stell is that it only allows for one way of revealing: the revelation of an entity within a technologically constructed isomorphic frame.5 The tentacles of technological enframing place the human being in a uncanny [unheimlich] relation to being, one that does not allow beings to emerge into presence from their own sphere but instead gathers together [Ge-] and places [stellt] them within a new frame that covers over their various contexts of origin and renders them supererogatory. In the simplest terms, the Ge-Stell cuts us off from what is originary [ursprunglich] and archaic. Before we can even begin to offer an alternative way of revealing being that might challenge or help undermine the hegemony of modernity’s epochal Ge-Stell, Heidegger claims, we need to cultivate an abiding sense of belonging to the origin-in the homeland, in the ancient Greek poetic-philosophical tradition, and in what he terms “autochthony.” Only then will we be able to genuinely think.6


During the 1950s, Heidegger would continue to write and lecture about the devastating effects of technology on the history of the West even as he set about trying to offer some means of resistance to technology’s power and dominion. His message was consistent: it is foolhardy to think that we can simply reject, abolish, or “overcome” the metaphysics of the Ge-Stell as if it were something that could take the form of an opinion or proposition. Such a viewpoint would always already be caught up in the metaphysics of the subjective Vorstellen that it sought to contest (Controversy 67-70; Vortrage 72-74). Not in overcoming [Uberwindung] meta-physics but in preparing the way for a recovery [Verwindung] from it docs Heidegger find a possible strategy for getting over [verwinden] the ontological amnesia of modern technology. Within the metaphysics of standing presence [standige Anwesenheit], the human being sets out to collect beings in the form of “ob-jects” [Gegen-stande], turning them into inventory on standing reserve [Bestand] that is “constantly” [standig] available. As a way of offering resistance [Widerstand] to such a process, Heidegger will set forth a call to reclaim our rootedness in the landscape, in language, in tradition, and in the early Greek way of thinking that expressed itself in a poetic-philosophical experience of physis as that which bursts forth into unconcealment of its own power. “I am convinced,” Heidegger wrote, “that there is no essential work of the spirit that does not have its roots in an originary autochthony” [ursprunglichen Bodenstandigkeit] (Reden 551).

This faith in the power of autochthony would hardly prove to be a new theme for Heidegger. In the late 1920s and the 1930s, Heidegger drew on the language and cultural thematics of Bodenstandigkeit to help shape his political reading of National Socialism as a “third way” out of the crisis of technological modernity.7 In his “Introduction to Metaphysics” lectures, Heidegger even underscored the connection between autochthony and language and found in the originary speech of the folk dialect a way of preserving the rootedness of a people: “We know that a literary language unfolds itself out of the originary, autochthonous speech of the dialects that stand rooted in soil and history” (boden-und geschichts-standigen] (IM 71-72; EM 52). During the 1950s, Heidegger will reprise this focus on language and autochthony by turning to the folk poetry of Johann Peter Hebel as a way of preparing a Verwindung from the metaphysics of the atomic age. In a 1956 speech, “Hebel-Friend of the House,” Heidegger will celebrate Hebel as the poet of the Alemannic dialect and claim that “Dialect is the hidden and mysterious source of every mature language. Out of dialect flows to us everything concealed in the spirit of a language [. . . .] from which every thing has its origin” (“Hebel” 90; Erfahrung 134-35). But Heidegger warned that the concealed power of the old Alemannic language and its dialects was threatened by the leveling effects of modernization that turned language into an instrument for calculative thinking and machination. One example that Heidegger points to is the Sprech- maschine, an apparatus that records and reproduces speech (a tape recorder). This is, however, only a mere epiphenomenal symptom of a much deeper structural problem that threatens contemporary humanity; Heidegger calls this the Sprachmaschine, which is not a machine per se but is rather the structural principle of modern technology that lakes various forms: the calculator, the data-recorder, the translation machine, the computer, voice recognition software, and so forth. In transforming all discourse into useful “information” that can be instrumentally organized for ever greater efficiency, the Sprachmaschine brings the metaphysics of the technological Ge-Stell to completion.

As we look at the world of technological dominion, “the superficial impression is still maintained that the human being is still the master of the language machine. But the truth might well be that the Sprachmaschine puts language into its service and in this way masters the essence of the human being” (Erfahrung 149).

The language produced by the Sprachmaschine has demystified the world and placed all of nature within an iron cage of metaphysical categories-Vorstellen, Bestellen, Herstellen, and Herausstellen [representing, ordering, producing, and setting-forth]-that culminate in the abiding sway of the Ge-Stell. To provide some measure of resistance to this vision of modernity that separates language from the integrative play of earth and world, humans and the sacred, Heidegger holds forth the hope of cultivating a different way of being in the world. This he finds in the Holderlinian ideal of “poetic dwelling” that he considers in relation to J. P. Hebel’s notion of the poet as “friend of the house.” In both of these poetic possibilities of language, Heidegger recoups a form of linguistic autochthony that he grasps as intimately bound with the fecundity of his native Alemannic earth. “The poets consecrate the soil,” Heidegger claims; it is they who show us “that dwelling rests on the poetic” (Erlauterungen 148; PLT 214-15; Vortrage 188-89). “Poeticizing first lets [lasst] dwelling be dwelling. Poeticizing is what lets us dwell [Wohnenlassen] authentically. But how do we attain a dwelling place? Through building [Bauen]. Poeticizing is, as a way of letting us dwell, a form of building.” The dominance of technology can never be overcome by technology, because “the essence of technology is not something technological” (Technology 35; Vortrage 43). Any recovery [Verwindung] from the reign of the Ge-Stell must find a way of thinking and dwelling that is not caught up in the logic of rationalization that transforms language into information. It is, Heidegger claims, “an erroneous notion that the rational and the rationalization-disenchantment [Entzauberung] of the world are themselves something rational” (Denkerfahrungen 152). In an age threatened by atomic devastation, where human beings suppress their hopes for originary dwelling to secure their mere survival, Heidegger turns to Hebel’s rustic ideal of the homeland for rescue and deliverance. Against the errancy of instrumental calculation, Hebel’s poetic language sustains the hope that by recovering the roots of the Alemannic dialect Germans will be able to reclaim Holderlin’s vision of “dwelling poetically upon the earth.”

If dwelling can only authentically occur through building [Bauen], then the poet is, in the most essential sense, a builder [Bauer]. By reclaiming the originary bond between the German peasant farmer [Bauer], the folk dialect of the countryside, and the rustic power of his dwelling [Bauernhof], the poet as friend of the house that is the world [house-friend] can think through a relation to the technological world of building that is rooted in an ecological-poetic form of dwelling. In the rural dialect of Alemannic peasants, Hebel presents a language of nature understood both as physis and as Copernican science. By bringing “the naturalness of nature [. . . physis]” into harmony with “nature in its scientific calculability,” the poet as house-friend can find in “the thriving land, the stillness of the woodland hills, the autochthonous strength of one’s neighbors [. . .] the hidden powers [for] the work of thinking” (Reden 491). In his office as house-friend, the poet offers a model for how to confront the rootlessness of modernity:

We wander errantly today through a house of the world from which the house-friend is absent-one who is inclined in equal force and measure to the world as a technologically constructed edifice [technisch ausgebauten Weltgebaude] and to the world as house for a more originary form of dwelling. What the world lacks is that house-friend who would be able to reintegrate the calculability of technological nature into the open mystery of a newly experienced naturalness of nature. This house-friend, to be sure, rusticates [verbauert] the universe. But this rustication [Verbauern] is the kind of building [Bauens] that thinks beyond itself in the direction of a more originary dwelling for humankind. (Erfahrung 146)

Heidegger delivered a series of Hebel lectures between 1954 and 1960 in Zahringen, Messkirch, Goppingen, Lorrach, and other small towns in Germany and German-speaking Switzerland. Through all of these varied discourses on dialect, the homeland, poetic thinking, and the writings of J. P. Hebel, there emerged a singular thematic of rootedness and autochthony that celebrates the subterranean, chthonic power of language that Heidegger thinks has vanished from the planet. In his position as house-friend, Hebel “brings to language the house of the world for the dwelling of human beings.” Here, “‘to bring to language’ means to raise to word what was formerly unspoken, what was never before said, and through saying to let appear [erscheinen lassen] what has until now been concealed” (Erfahrung 147). This emphasis on language’s hidden power to “let appear” would be expressed by Heidegger as a form of Gelassenheit, a poetic mode of releasement toward beings that lets them emerge and come to appearance. In his 1955 memorial speech on Conradin Kreutzer, Heidegger would return to this theme of Gelassenheit, seeing it as a form of “meditative thinking” that could serve as “the ground and soil for a futural autochthony” (Reden 526). In this poetic joining/juxtaposition of meditative thinking and autochthony, of Gelassenheit and Bodenstandigkeit, Heidegger attempts to prepare a recovery [Verwindung] from the metaphysics of the technological Ge-Stell that has brought with it “devastation,” “world-darkening,” and “the flight of the gods” (Erfahrung 76; H 248-95). Spurred on by the economic, demographic, and technological forces that were tearing Germans from their homes and reconfiguring their cultural and ecological landscape, Heidegger would return again and again to themes of rootedness [Bodenstandigkeit] and Gelassenheit as a way of reflecting on the disenchantment of the world as the crisis of technological rationality.

In the “Memorial Address,” Heidegger asks, “Does not the flourishing of any genuine, native work depend upon its rootedness [Verwurzelung] in the native soil of the homeland? [. . . .] Is there still a powerfully rooted homeland in whose soil [Boden] the human stands constant [standig], that is, is rooted and autochthonic [boden-standig]?” Heidegger then goes on to provide an answer or counter-word [Antwort] to his questions:

Answer: the rootedness, the autochthony [Bodenstandigkeit] of contemporary humanity is threatened at its core. Even more: the loss of rootedness is not something caused by mere external circumstances or fortune. Nor is it due solely to the indolence and superficial lifestyle of human beings. The loss of autochthony and rootedness stems from the spirit of the age into which we all were born. [. . .] the atomic age. (Reden 521-22)

Given the homelessness, devastation, and uprooting of human beings that he sees everywhere around him in postwar Germany, Heidegger attempts to find a way of thinking the old form of autochthony as Hebel’s rustic ideal of the homeland in terms of the new conditions of technological modernization. In the “Memorial Address,” he even speaks about what he terms a “new autochthony” and urges his fellow countrymen to “give it a trial.” As he puts it:

releasement toward things and an openness to mystery [. . . .] grant to us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a wholly other way. They promise us a new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure the technological world without being imperiled by it [. . . and] provide us with a prospect of a new autochthony. This could one day even be appropriate for calling back the old, now rapidly vanishing autochthony in a changed form. (Reden 526, 528)

What was distinctive about Heidegger’s critique of modernity as an epoch of homelessness, deracination, rootlessness, and disenchantment was its basic question-frame about the essence of the human being in the age of technology. Heidegger understood homelessness in this sense not as a social, economic, or demographic problem that might be solved by a task force of therapists, managers, consultants, venture capitalists, or architectural engineers. Such an approach, he warned, was already of a piece with the Enlightenment project of therapeutic emancipation through social engineering that characterized the epoch of the GeStell. Heidegger insisted, rather, that the condition of homelessness to which we all have a relation is an ontological feature of what it means to be as a human being. The devastation caused by Allied bombers over Dresden, Freiburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki-as much as the destruction engineered at Auschwitz and Treblinka-might be terrible, even uncanny, but it was not, in its essence, any different from the devastation of physis captured by Sophocles in the first choral song of Antigone. Even the propositions of ethical thinking, Heidegger claimed, are bound at the root stem with the understanding of the world as something that needs to be engineered instrumentally according to human designs and projects. Ethics in its traditional sense is anthropocentric humanism, an instrumental project of establishing, delimiting, and applying norms to situations in ways that fall back upon the ground of “human values.” It functions as a form of enframing.

Heidegger’s work of the postwar era sets out to deconstruct the metaphysical presumptions of this kind of anthropocentric ethics back to the original Greek notion of ethos that he finds in Sophocles and Heraclitus. Like Weber, Heidegger finds that the epochal transformations of the technological era that brought with them “the disenchantment of the world” provide “the ultimate challenge to the claims of the ethical postulate.”8 But whereas Weber still saw in the cultivation of an ethical attitude a realm of freedom and decision-making that might overcome the nihilistic effects of technology, Heidegger viewed this as another expression of the rootless metaphysics of subjectivity and representation. As he wrote to Erhart Kastner, “no human calculation and action can from out of itself and through itself alone bring about a turn [Wende] in the present state of the world.”9 Not in Weber’s “ethic of responsibility” but in the Heraclitean notion of ethos as “abode, dwelling place” does Heidegger find an “originary ethics” that “is neither theoretical nor practical [but] comes to pass [ereignet sich] before this distinction” (PM 269-92; WM 85-88).10


Heidegger’s later philosophy converges in the problems of dwelling, technology, ethos, language, and the works of the poets Hebel and Holderlin. Giving up on the modern Cartesian notion of the self as the active master of its own fate, the one who by dint of its own willful determination employs technology as the means for subduing the earth, Heidegger embraces the possibility of a different, strange, and uncanny relation to being by a human being who allows for the dispossession of the self and the abandonment of control, mastery, and dominion. From such a place, a place of dwelling in which language is experienced as our true home (“the house of being”), technology is grasped not as a means to an end but as “a way of revealing” the truth of being (Technology 12; Vortrage 20). Within such a space of dwelling, language would once again bring to presence the hidden, illuminating power locked within the rhetorical encasements of ordinary speech. Like Hebel’s house-friend who, in recuperating the originary force concealed in the Alemannic dialect, was able to find a home, this dispossessed self might find in the same earth devastated by technological machination a place for “dwelling poetically upon the earth.” In this late form of thinking, Gelassenheit is understood in terms of Bodenstandigkeit to comprise an originary ethics of dwelling that would abandon all human valuations for a “releasement toward things” as an autochthonous-rooted relation to the earth. Such a relation is marked by what Heidegger hermetically termed Ereignis. In experiencing language as our true home and the earth as the place where language flourishes in and as a homeland, we release ourselves to the nearness of things gathered together in the play of being, in the original Greek sense of legein as “gathering, collecting.” In the fourfold of earth and world, mortals and gods, we find ourselves in a nonanthropocentric relation to things where we can let beings be without the need to represent, calculate, or instrumentally control them. From within this space of Gelassenheit, we understand ourselves authentically [eigentlich] as the property [Eigen-tum] of being, allowing ourselves to be appropriated [er-eignet] by being [Sein] as the site [da] for its revelation (Beitrage 263). In Beilrage zur Philosophie: Vom Ereignis, Heidegger speaks of humanity being “handed over” [ubereignet] to being in what he calls “the event of appropriation” [Ereignis] (3). In all of the neologistic etymologizing of his late work, Heidegger searches for a proper way of rethinking our relation to language such that we might rediscover there the traces of our rootedness in the soil that is the house of being. What he genuinely seeks is a way of coming to think through an “originary ethics” beyond theoretical/practical habits (in Aristotle’s definition of ethos as “habit”) to our originary dwelling place [ethos] on the earth.11

This kind of thinking, a thinking rooted in the earth [Bodenstandigkeit] and open to letting the earth be [Gelassenheit], understands that “what is proper [Eigene] to the human being lies in the fact that he does not belong to himself.”12 It also involves giving up the idea that logos is simply a possession of the human being, a calculative-instrumental form of “reason” (logic) that can be deployed as a force of techne. This technological notion of reason merely commodifies physls and turns it into consumable energy. But Heidegger enjoins us to let go of Descartes’s and Bacon’s dream of technological mastery by experiencing our original belonging to physis as the relation of a house-friend to the house of being-“house” here thought in its Greek sense as oikos. Within this ecological (oikos + logos) relationship to being, we come to dwell on the earth as our abode [ethos]. Such a relationship to the world is not “ethical” according to its traditional meaning, because “ethics” in this sense is still too determined by the anthropocentric norms of “values,” “judgments,” and “directives.” Heidegger wants, rather, to cultivate an “originary ethics” that allows the human being to become the “shepherd of being” who does not lord over other beings but who preserves them in their nearness to the truth of being (PM 260-61; WM 173). Not in the self-assertion [Selbstbehauptung] of human will, but in the comportment of “letting be” and “releasement toward beings” [Gelassenheit] does Heidegger find the proper [das Eigene] vocation of the human being.

Even if he would reject Max Weber’s idea of “vocation” as a middle-class Beruf or profession, Heidegger would nonetheless draw on the Lutheran notion of Beruf as a “religious calling” that he understood as a Ruf des Seins, or “call of being.” In heeding the language of poetic dwelling, a poetic ethos in Heidegger’s sense, we respond to the call of being; rightly considered, the authentic [eigentliche] need for dwelling is not for a house or apartment but for a dwelling that is at one with the earth. Thinking about the plight of homelessness as an ontological problem in this way compels us to integrate both ecology and technology into a way of dwelling poetically on the earth, one marked by both Gelassenheit and Bodenstandigkeit. This thinking about ontological homelessness constitutes for Heidegger “the sole summons that calls [ruft] mortals into their dwelling” (PLT 161; Vortrage 162).


Heidegger’s vision of ecological shepherding and authentic-poetic dwelling appears as if it were a kind of early manifesto of the German Green Party during the 1980s or of the Green Peace movement in our own age. In the move away from an egregious anthropocentrism, a willful technological mastery, and the spread of a uniform “world-civilization” generated by “the dominance of the natural sciences [. . . .] economics, politics, and technology,” Heidegger seems to complete his withdrawal from the toxic world of National Socialist violence and the Nietzschean “will to will” that many interpreters have detected in his work of the 1930s (Reden 711-12).13 Moreover, in his willingness to heed “the divine call” [der Ruf des Gottlichen], it appears to some that Heidegger has embraced a position of quietism, passivity, and mystical withdrawal.14 However, I think Heidegger needs to be heeded when he rejects the understanding of Gelassenheit as “a kind of passivity” and stresses that “it has nothing to do with a feeble letting things slide and drifting along” (G 33). In a letter written only a few months before his death, Heidegger maintains that “poetry and thinking [. . .] are originary deeds” that, precisely because of their rootedness in the origin, cannot be made serviceable to the widespread demand for usefulness.15 On the contrary, they constitute that kind of practice that overturns what is merely useful to retrieve the power of what is originary in our historical situation. Yet it is precisely this commitment to the historical situation that all too often has been neglected among Heidegger scholars in favor of a close textual-philological reading. My claim here is that to properly grasp Heidegger’s work we need to place his texts back into the historical contexts from which they arose. This means reading them against the reigning political and cultural issues that shaped them. Throughout his own career, Heidegger often insisted that genuine thinking could never take the form of a world view because “‘world view’ is always a form of ‘machination'” (Reden 38). Yet in reading his work of the 1950s against the backdrop of a Germany divided in two by the political machinations of Cold War diplomacy and threatened by atomic devastation, economic collapse, the repression of Soviet militarism, and the expansion of American technological dominance, we can find a Heidegger who is humanly, all too humanly, bound up in the world view of a rapidly vanishing provincial ideology of the homeland, rootedness, and autochothony. Heidegger’s Holderlinian Volksreligion of earth, Heimat, and Bodenstandigkeit from his National Socialist years were reframed and reconfigured within the new political situation of the Adenauer era to take on the ideology of a new Heimatpolitik. In 1958, Heidegger joined a movement against the atomic armament of the Bundeswehr, “against atomic death.”16 In the regional elections, he supported a provincial wine growers’ party to preserve the power of the homeland. These political commitments aside, however, he poignantly raised once again Holderlin’s question from “In Lieblicher Blaue [. . . .],” “Is there a measure on earth?” (PLT 220; Vortrage 194). Holderlin’s response to this question was immediate: “There is none.” Yet in his discourses on poetic dwelling as the “taking of measure” for human beings, Heidegger moves in the direction of taking the earth itself as the measure. Given Heidegger’s own rhapsodic reflections on the earth from the 1930s, however, we need to ask-which earth? The dark, chthonic, nocturnal earth of Volk and Bodenastandigkeit that Heidegger associated with Antigone’s sacred burial place and hearth? The National Socialist earth of blood, soil, and Lebensraum? The fertile, blossoming, green earth of Hebel and Alemannia? The self-emerging, self-concealing earth of ancient Greek physis? The commodified earth of mechanized agribusiness, international cartels, and technological enframing?

My own sense is that any pathway into Heidegger’s work needs to avoid the simplistic polarities of either/or interpretation that plague Heidegger studies. To frame the question as a choice between two radically opposed possibilities-the Nazi demon or the ecological shepherd-is to radically oversimplify and reduce Heidegger’s thought to the level of mere ideology. As I have tried to argue here, Heidegger’s postwar critique of modern technology needs to be understood within its own historical-political context. This means avoiding the all too common practice of reading it in a hermeneutic vacuum without reference to his earlier political work on Volk, Heimat, and Bodenstandigkeit from the 1930s. Baldly stated, the “new” autochthony of Gelassenheit needs to be read in conjunction with the “old” autochthony of volkisch rootedness. Such a reading finds that Heidegger’s rustic, apolitical song of the earth from the 1950s has an inner connection to Heidegger’s earlier martial hymns from the National Socialist years sung in praise of Germany’s metaphysical-eschatological supremacy. The notes from the shepherd’s flute with its pastoral roundelay need to be heard in conjunction with the marching hymn of the Horst Wessel Lied.

But how are we to reconcile these two visions of Heidegger-the eco-poetic shepherd of being who calls us to a postmetaphysical form of meditative thinking and the Nazi rector who insists that “the Fuhrer himself and he alone is the present and future German reality and its law”? (Reden 184). Can these two theatrical personae be traced back to a single author? Are the shepherd’s cloak and the party member’s insignia but different props that Heidegger employed at various stages of his public career? Or do they somehow represent variant ideals of a single vision? Does this curious and fateful joining/juxtaposition of Gelassenheit and Selbstbehauptung, of meditative calm and assertive control, reveal perhaps something of Heidegger’s own attempt to give expression to the agonal forces within being that he uncovered in Heraclitus and Nietzsche?

No matter how we read Heidegger-whether as rigorous phenomenologist, committed Nazi, Eckhartian shepherd, postmetaphysical prophet, or a curious cross-pollination of these different historical flowerings-we will need to address these questions. In his Hebel essays, in his lectures on technology, and in his “Memorial Address” from the 1950s, Heidegger demonstrated a keen awareness of the altered political conditions of postwar Germany, retreating from the aggressive martial rhetoric of his National Socialist speeches and refraining from the egregious political discourse of the Volk and its “self-assertion.” To be heard by his fellow Germans, he now understands that he must renounce the mantle of the Fuhrer/rector for the more modest role of the shepherd and the philosophical house-friend. This keen attention to the politics of Heidegger’s self-presentation and self-staging of his various roles in German history helps us to call into question Heidegger’s own authorial directions to forego context and concentrate solely on “the matter for thinking.”17 To engage his questions and to keep them alive as questions, we need to disentangle them from within the question-frame provided by Heidegger himself. To question in this way involves not simply rejecting Heidegger, but challenging his own tendentious style of self-presentation by looking at the historical context that he seeks to obscure. By reading Heidegger in context, we see how unremittingly political his work proves to be, even where he tries to bracket or elide any reference to what might be construed as “politics” by focusing on technology, poetry, or the homeland. In my reading, Heidegger is not so much “silent” on the question of German politics in the postwar era as he is wary of a too facile presentation of overt political themes. And yet what matters most to Heidegger about politics-language, roots, autochthony-is inscribed into his work in the strongest of terms. The question concerning technology remains in this sense a decidedly political question-even as the question of politics remains the most questionable of Heideggerian questions.


All translations from Heidegger’s German editions are the author’s unless otherwise indicated.

1. For a helpful reading of Ereignis, see Polt.

2. Bodenstandigkeit is a term that gained currency among the German Right in the years after the Great War to signify a deep spiritual bond between the Volksgemeinschaft and the soil, landscape, homeland, and native earth. It can be translated as “rootedness,” “autochthony,” the state of being “indigenous,” or “rooted in the soil.”

3. On the link between Eigentum and ousia, see Benselers Griechisch-Deutsches Schulworterbuch (Leipzig: Teubner, 1904), ed. Adolf Kaegi, 654.

4. Heidegger claims in the Spiegel interview that “the essence of man is framed, claimed, and challenged by a power which manifests itself in the essence of technology, a power that man himself does not control,” (Controversy 107; Reden 672).

5. On this topic, see Schurmann.

6. Heidegger will develop this theme in his lectures from Was heisst Denken? (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1954).

7. See my book, Heidegger’s Roots.

8. See Weber, “Science as a Vocation.”

9. See Petzet 59.

10. See Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” 129.

11. See McKeon 331: “[M]oral virtue comes about as a result of habit.”

12. See “Martin Heidegger-Kojima Takehiko” 20.

13. For example, see Wolin, Lacoue-Labarthe, Pritsche, and Derrida.

14. See Pieger 144.

15. See Pieger 143.

16. See Jacerme 303.

17. On Heidegger’s “self-staging,” see Mehring.


Bambach, Charles. Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Spirit. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Fritsche, Johannes. Historical Destiny and National Socialism in Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.

Heidegger, Martin. Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens. Ed. Hermann Heidegger. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1983. Vol. 13 of Gesamtausgabe.

______. Beitrage zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis): 1936-1938. Ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1989. Vol. 65 of Gesamtausgabe.

______. Bremer und Freiburger Vortrage. Ed. Petra Jaeger. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1994. Vol. 79 of Gesamtausgabe.

______. Denkerfahrungen, 1910-1976. Ed. Hermann Heidegger. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1983.

______. Discourse on Thinking. Trans. John Anderson and Hans Freund. New York: Harper, 1966.

______. Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik. Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1976.

______. Erlauterungen zu Holderlins Dichtung. 5th ed. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1981.

______. Feldweg-Gesprache: 1944-1945. Ed. Ingrid Schussler. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1995. Vol. 17 of Gesamtausgabe.

______. Gelassenheit. Pfullingen: Neske, 1988.

______. “Hebel-Friend of the House.” Trans. Bruce Foltz and Miehael Heim. Contemporary German Philosophy 3 (1983): 89-101.

______. The Heidegger Controversy. Ed. Richard Wolin. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

______. Holzwege. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1972.

______. Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

______. Poetry, Language, and Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper, 1971.

______. Pathmarks. Ed. Will McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

______. The Question Concerning Technology. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977.

______. Reden und andere Zeugnisse eines Lebenweges: 1940-1976. Ed. Hermann Heidegger. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 2000. Vol. 16 of Gesamtausgabe.

______. Vier Seminare. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1977.

______. Vortrage und Aufsatze. Pfullingen: Neske, 1954.

______. Wegmarken. Ed Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann. Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1967.

Jacerme, Pierre. “Is There an Ethics for the ‘Atomic Age’?” Heidegger and Practical Philosophy. Ed. Francois Raffoul and David Pettigrew. Albany: SUNY P, 2002. 301-16.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Art and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

“Martin Heidegger-Kojima Takehiko: Une Correspondance (1963-1965).” Philosophie 43 (1994): 3-21.

McKeon, Richard, ed. Introduction to Aristotle. New York: Random, 1947.

Mehring, Reinhard. Heideggers Uberlieferungsgeschick: eine dionysische Selbstinszenierung. Wurzburg: Konigshausen, 1992.

Petzet, Heinrich W., ed. Martin Heidegger/Erhart Kastner Briefwechsel, 1953-1974. Frankfurt: Insel, 1986.

Pieger, Bruno, ed. Martin Heidegger/Imma von Bodmershof Briefwechsel, 1959-1976. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2000.

Polt, Richard. “The Event of Enthinking the Event.” Companion to Heidegger’s “Contribution to Philosophy.” Ed. Charles E. Scott et al. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001. 81-104.

Schurmann, Reiner. Heidegger: On Being and Acting. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Weber, Max. “Politics as a Vocation.” From Max Weber. Ed. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1946. 77-128.

______. “Science as a Vocation.” From Max Weber. Ed. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1946. 129-56.

Wolin, Richard. The Politics of Being. New York: Columbia UP, 1990.

[The Germanic Review, 10-01-2003]


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