Whether “transcendence” was understood properly or not—and with an esoteric writer like Heidegger it is always hard to know—this idea was implicitly the starting point for all of the dominant French philosophers of the postwar period, from Sartre and Merleau-Ponty to Foucault and Jacques Derrida. A distinctively human capacity (though most human beings, Heidegger thought, failed to grasp its significance), “transcendence” gave to every single person the power to start over, to begin anew—to take up, reshape, and transform the world. Like modern philosophers from Kant to Sartre, Heidegger sometimes called this power “freedom”; that it was a power he had learned from Nietzsche, who spoke of the same capacity as “will to power.” Call it freedom or call it transcendence, Heidegger in his letter to Beaufret reiterated his own view that this mysterious capacity was intrinsically without rule, norm, reason, or conscious purpose; indeed, like Nietzsche, he argued that all of these had no basis other than the power of transcendence. To pretend, as Sartre did in his lecture, that something approximating Kant’s moral philosophy was logically entailed by something like Heidegger’s view of “existence” was therefore to betray a profound misunderstanding of both “Being” and “transcendence.”Continued.
But this was not the end of Heidegger’s letter to Beaufret. It also marked a crucial turning point in Heidegger’s own thought—and, as a consequence of Heidegger’s renewed influence in France, a turning point in the central philosophical preoccupations of Foucault and his generation.
In the first phase of Heidegger’s work, epitomized by Being and Time, the German thinker had primarily been interested in “the being of man” (“das Sein der Menschen,” or “Dasein” for short). In the 1930s and 1940s, it had seemed feasible to a number of French readers of Being and Time, including Hyppolite and Merleau-Ponty, to amalgamate this stress on Dasein with Hegel’s teleological philosophy of history and with Karl Marx’s famous dictum, in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” that “all the mysteries which lead theory towards mysticism find their rational solution in human practice.” Heidegger himself in Being and Time had dwelled on transcendence as “the very possibility of taking action”—an emphasis that climaxed in the book’s highly abstract and deeply enigmatic summons to Dasein to rise up resolutely in “the moment of vision,” to meet its historical fate “to choose its hero.”