That the Frenchman should have thus discovered, and embraced, a German philosophy of Untergang in the midst of World War II was an irony that Sartre himself wryly noted. As he pointed out, Being and Time was, on one level, a kind of daunting philosophical codicil to Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Still, in Satire’s view, Being and Time expressed “a free surpassing toward philosophy of this pathetic profile of history. . . . So I can rediscover Heidegger’s assumption of his destiny as a German, in that wretched Germany of the postwar years, in order to help me assume my destiny as a Frenchman in the France of ‘40.”Continued.
If nothing else, Sartre’s enthusiasm helped change the course of Heidegger’s career: after Germany’s defeat, just as he was being stripped of his chair in philosophy, and exiled to his home in the Black Forest, he became, thanks to the global uproar over Sartre and existentialism, a prophet with honor, and not just in France. But the story is stranger still. For Heidegger, far from being pleased with the claims made on his behalf, took pains to disavow them. After reading the text of Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism,” he was moved to explain that he himself was neither a humanist nor, for that matter, an “existentialist” In response to a series of questions posed by his most prominent French disciple—the École Normale’s own Jean Beaufret—Heidegger composed an open “Letter on Humanism,” first published in 1947. Like some demigod glowering atop a philosophical Mt. Olympus, the disgraced German sage hurled thunderbolts. Sartre, he declared with a withering scorn hard for the uninitiated to savor fully, “stays with metaphysics in oblivion of the truth of Being.”
With one fell stroke, Heidegger made his own work a central influence on Foucault’s generation of French philosophers—the very generation anxious to escape from Sartre’s shadow.
In strictly philosophical terms, Heidegger was obviously right to disavow Sartre’s lecture. His own thinking, he insisted, had never been designed “for the sake of man so that civilization and culture through man’s doings might be vindicated.” For him, as for Nietzsche and Spengler, modern history was nothing less than a calamity—not the happy emergence of the harmonious human freedom anticipated by Kant, Hegel, and Marx. In these circumstances, to reproduce without modification or serious criticism the formulas of modern humanism, as Sartre seemed to, amounted to an evasion: it was as if the French philosopher had flinched when faced with the full implications of the essence of being human. This essence Heidegger throughout his life described not in terms of “consciousness,” but of “transcendence”: “Being is the transcendens pure and simple.”