Issue #11 February 2018

Nietzsche’s Rift: Heidegger’s Pathway to Thinking

Brent Laycock, “Yamnuska Apparition”

“The World, men find, is not just out of joint but tumbling away into the nothingness of absurdity. Nietzsche, who from his supreme peak saw far ahead of it all … had for it the simple, because thoughtful, words ‘The wasteland grows’”

“Woe to him who hides wastelands within”

“This openness to Being , which thinking can prepare, is of itself helpless to save man. A real openness to Being is a necessary though not sufficient condition for saving him. And yet, precisely when thinking plies its proper trade, which is to rip away the fog that conceals Being as such, it must take care not to cover up the rift.”

Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking

In “Introduction to Metaphysics” Heidegger says that the fundamental question of metaphysics is “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing.” This is the question that drives “Being and Time”, and the route Heidegger takes towards an answer involves a phenomenology of the Will, “Questioning is willing-to-know. Whoever wills, whoever lays his whole Dasein into a will, is resolute … To will is to be resolute.” Heidegger’s early work follows Nietzsche’s investigation of the Will, and builds upon it. For Nietzsche, “the world is the will-to-power — and nothing besides!” Dasein stands in the resoluteness of his Will to question, holding himself out into the nothing that is beside willing, and the will-to-power. By the time we arrive at “What is Called Thinking” Heidegger has abandoned the perspective of Dasein and the arena of the Will as the proper location from which to question Being. In order to Think, our resoluteness instead must consist of a “will-not-to-will”. This is the core of Heidegger’s famous Turn, and we can locate one aspect of the Turn in Heidegger’s reaction to Nietzsche’s pathway towards freedom from the spirit of revenge. In fact, we can trace this aspect of the Turn to a precise moment in Heidegger’s teaching career: In the very middle of a series of lectures that became his four volume work titled “Nietzsche” Heidegger turns from Nietzsche’s biggest advocate to his most aggressive opponent. Nietzsche, the man who dedicated his life to fighting nihilism, becomes, for Heidegger, the biggest nihilist of them all, because he thinks of the Will not only psychologically but also metaphysically. Heidegger turns against Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the will-to-power, and, against his own phenomenology of the Will.

With a turn of the head we can bring into focus things that were barely visible in the periphery of our vision, when we turn all the way around we see the whole world that was behind us. At the same time, however, we turn away from what we were looking at, it instead enters a blind spot. Every change of focus is at the same time a becoming blind, the closer in that one focuses the more of the world that becomes out of focus. If the change in Heidegger’s philosophy between his early and late periods can be described as a Turn, might not this Turn away from Willing and towards Thinking also possess an element of turning blind?

· · ·

In “Being and Time” Heidegger’s phenomenological investigation of the Will follows Nietzsche in elevating the Will into a faculty of experience. Without the Will, human experience would lack the stamp of temporality that engrosses every single instance of experience. The Will projects human beings forward into a future and presents the sense that there is a future at all. To the Will, as opposed to rational thought, the future appears wholly undetermined and therefore creates an imperative for the individual to choose among the many possible futures. Human beings are possessed of the ability to decide the future.

The Will also projects one into the realization of one’s own eventual mortality. This realization is the source of anxiety for human beings which puts Dasein into the region from which to question Being; it holds Dasein out into the nothing. For the younger Heidegger, it is this realization of one’s eventual passing away, one’s being-unto-death, that opens the pathway to true metaphysical thinking. For Nietzsche, it is the constant passing away of every present moment that leads to humanity’s ultimate metaphysical problem; the spirit of revenge.

The Will meets its absolute limitation when it confronts what has come to pass. The Will only ever projects us forward into a realm of possibility, while the past stands as an unchanging monolith of determinism. The danger every willing individual faces is the impotence of the Will when confronted with the past. When the Will enters this domain the individual enters a state of ressentiment, and the supreme danger of this state is that the Will would rather Will its own annihilation than to suffer from the stamp of “it was”. This revulsion against time is the spirit of revenge.

Nietzsche’s solution to the spirit of revenge is the idea of Eternal Recurrence, which for Heidegger forms the pinnacle not only of Nietzsche’s thought but of the whole of Western metaphysics thus far. Nietzsche presents this thought in dramatic fashion in “The Gay Science”:

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it but every pain and every joy and every sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you … even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, with you in it, you speck of dust!’”

Nietzsche then asks if you would “gnash your teeth and curse the demon” or declare to him “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine”. Which is a way of saying, can you affirm all of existence exactly as it is, or do you give in to the spirit of revenge, and curse all of existence on account of your suffering. Nietzsche’s hope is for affirmation, in which case every decision that one makes would be marked with the stamp of the eternal, “Do you want this again and innumerable times?”

Eternal Recurrence has two aspects, a metaphysical aspect and a psychological aspect. The metaphysical aspect is the thesis that everything will return infinitely, the psychological aspect involves your comportment towards this idea and includes the ethical requirement to Will such that every decision can return infinitely without inducing a great nausea. One must become very well disposed towards oneself to be capable of such eternal willing.

Being able to affirm eternal recurrence frees human beings from the spirit of revenge by taking the past which is no more, is out of reach of the Will, and is determined, back into the realm of the Will, the future. Standing in the circular flux of becoming, in the ebb and flow of eternal time infinitely repeating itself, one can Will forwards in time and affirm the past. No longer the dreaded “it was”, though unchangeable as ever, it is now available for the willing individual to declare “Thus it will be, and thus I will it.”

Zhao Wu Ji, “Light Blue Sky”

As Heidegger ascends the peak towards the pinnacle of Nietzsche’s thought he notices something very strange indeed about the eternal wheel of becoming, in an extraordinary way, from a certain perspective, the wheel of becoming is the same as the attitude of philosophers towards Being throughout the history of Western metaphysics. When we focus our rationality upon the circle of eternal recurrence it takes on all the characteristics traditionally given to Being. Heidegger points to a fragment from Nietzsche’s journal which says “That everything recurs is the extreme approximation of a world of Becoming to a world of Being — the high point of meditation.” Rationality turns all it encounters into eternal unchanging essences, ideal forms, instantiated in a particular object. Reason gets ahold of the never ending wheel of Becoming granting it objective status as an unchanging ring. It is in this unchanging eternal objectivity that the history of Western metaphysics has conceived of Being. Reaching the pinnacle of Nietzsche’s thought, Heidegger passes through the rift of eternal recurrence into Nietzsche’s abyss. In reaching this peak one is then able to pass to the other side of the mountain and view the high point of meditation from the other side: from outside of the domain of the Will. What Being looks like from this far side of the mountain is the positive goal of “What is Called Thinking.”

The negative goal of “What is Called Thinking” consists in showing that the metaphysics of eternal willing is coextensive with the history of Western metaphysics and the rational objectivity of an eternal unchanging Being.

To accomplish this goal, Heidegger embarks on a reading of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” in which Nietzsche opposes the last man to the übermensch, which can be translated into English as overman or superman. Zarathustra leaves his cave in the mountains after ten years of solitude, to go down to humanity. He emerges from a forest into a town where a large crowd has gathered to watch a tightrope walker perform his acrobatic display, and decides to preach to this crowd. Zarathustra tells the crowd that humanity is a bridge, and a rope, stretched between ape and superman, below lies a yawning abyss. The overman is a goal, and the meaning of the earth, man must exceed himself. Heidegger sees this as a metaphor for humanity’s physical-metaphysical nature, the fact that humanity is constantly exceeding our physical nature with our capacity for rationality and reason. Heidegger also interprets the overman as a prediction: “The superman is the man who first leads man over into it’s truth” to be capable of “wielding to high purpose the powers that will befall man.” If the last man is the conventional human who is no longer able to look beyond himself, to rise above himself, “the superman is the one who is ready to assume dominion over the entire earth.” Heidegger believes the overman to be the kind of human being who wields the idea of eternal recurrence over all of reality, placing all that is, was, or will be under the dominion of both rationality and will-to-power.

Paul Klee, “Red Balloon”, (1922).

It is from out of the spirit of revenge that the last man sets his own rationality against himself, becoming just one more object of use. The overman passes over the last man and leads humanity into its own essential nature. The superman moves humanity to a space of freedom from revenge. “For that man be delivered from revenge: that is the bridge to the highest hope for me, and a rainbow after long storms.”

The revenge against time is revulsion against the passing away, the coming to pass, the temporal as the transitory. “Time as a passing away, a flowing away into succession, the emergence and fading of every ‘now’ that rolls past, out of the ‘not yet now’ into the ‘no longer now’ all this marks the idea of time that is current throughout the metaphysics of the West.” Eternal recurrence escapes all “it was” through an extraordinary independence from time. Eternity is not the same as infinity. What is infinite stretches indefinitely through time, it is not limited by any amount of time. Whereas, eternity is an escape from time altogether, where eternity reigns time does not even pass. For Nietzsche, this independence from time opens the horizon of a future in all its authenticity, as undetermined possibility, for Heidegger it turns all becoming into eternal Being, independent of the flow of time, and is therefore consistent with the history of western metaphysics since Plato.

The history of Western metaphysics has conceived of Being in reference to time: “time is something that in some way is, something that is in being.” Where “‘in being’ means: being present.” Only what exists now “is of the present time at the given moment … the future and the past are … entirely without being.” The presence of Being has been determined from out of its passing away, but “if it is to be thought in the highest instance, must be thought as pure presence, that is as the presence that persists.” Which is why Being has been given the stamp of eternity, “What must pass away cannot be the ground of the eternal.” This line of thought led Plato to think of a duality between beings and Being, between temporality and eternity, between objects and the ideas which rule over them.

According to Heidegger, Nietzsche’s attempt to smash the idol of this duality shows that the objectification of Being by rational thought was done at the behest of a will-to-power that could not stand the passing of time, and willed the annihilation of the world — at least sundered it in two, into the appearance and the reality. For, if “the world is the will-to-power and nothing besides” then rationality too is the will-to-power. What eternal recurrence does, for Heidegger, is to place all of eternity under the domain of the will-to-power, and, the objectifying lens of rational thought, deposing and decomposing all that is, was or ever will be, into potential objects of use. This is the total dominion over the earth that awaits Nietzsche’s overman, and which crushes the last man.

However, Heidegger’s reading of eternal recurrence emphasizes the metaphysics of the thought over its psychological importance. To do this he privileges unpublished fragments from Nietzsche’s journals over the work he chose to publish in his lifetime. In every instance where Nietzsche wrote about eternal recurrence in his published works it is the psychological aspect of this thought that comes to the forefront. When a demon sneaks into your house in the middle the night what matters is whether you gnash your teeth or declare the demon a god, and if this thought overtakes you it places eternal importance on your future decisions. Zarathustra had to endure this thought twice, and one thing that caused him to shy away from it the first time was the realization that everything returns, even the last men. Zarathustra had to accept that the superman was no end goal, but he too would be swept away by the ravages of time, forever passing away and forever returning. Only with this realization was Zarathustra able to overcome his final temptation, his pity for the last men. Not once does anyone solve eternal recurrence by stepping out of the ebb and flow of time using the withdrawal of rational thought. No, Nietzsche demands that we remain where we are, in the passing away, facing an authentic future which is not yet, and which places an imperative upon the individual for action and for striving.

It was against the dominion of rational thought that Nietzsche proposed his entire project, to use philosophy to instill passion for life in humanity, and to offer a cure for nihilism. Eternal Recurrence was posited as a counter ideal against the objectifying gaze of rationality, Becoming was posited against an eternal unchanging Being; to say they are the same completely ignores the intent with which Nietzsche introduced this idea. By looking at the first text in which Nietzsche approaches the idea of Eternal Recurrence we can see not only the intention behind Nietzsche’s repeated confrontations with this idea, but we can also observe the faculties of Willing, and of Thinking, in embryonic states; as a set of historical senses.

Nietzsche first addresses the idea of Eternal Recurrence in “On the Uses and Abuses of History For Life.” “Observe the herd which is grazing beside you. It does not know what yesterday or today is. It springs around, eats, rests, digests, jumps up again, and so from morning to night and from day to day, with it’s likes and dislikes closely tied to the peg of the moment.” Nietzsche describes a range of emotions that accompany this observation: One is to “remember a lost paradise”, the innocence of child and beast; two is superiority, man is the rational animal separate from and elevated above all other animals by our capacity for thinking; three is jealousy and envy for the ease which with the beast moves from moment to moment. “The beast lives unhistorically, for it gets up in the present like a number without any odd fraction left over … hides nothing and appears in each moment exactly and entirely what it is.” Humans, on the other hand, with our capacity for memory, are doomed to drag our past behind us “as a ghost [which] disturbs the tranquility of each later moment.”

As children, we have all emerged from the same unhistorical state that engulfs the grazing cattle. A child “plays in blissful blindness between the fences of the past and the future.” This state of being cannot last, for every individual must develop a historical sense. One “learns to understand the expression ‘It was’ that password with which struggle, suffering, and weariness come over human beings, so as to remind him what his existence basically is — a never completed past tense.”

An excessive historical sense diminishes vitality, and inhibits “that force of growing in different ways out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of oneself.” At this juncture in Nietzsche’s career the solution to an excessive historical sense is for a person to remember the beast and the child within: to remember how to forget all “It was”, and to momentarily become unhistorical once again. “The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of a moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is.”

For Nietzsche, we cannot permanently leave behind the historical sense. The development of this sense is part of the development of a person, but it can only be brought forth on the foundation of the unhistorical, and can only be made to serve life by remaining grounded in the unhistorical. For those able to maintain this balance “a glance into the past pushes them into the future, fires up their spirit to take up life for a longer time yet, kindles the hope that justice may still come and that happiness may sit behind the mountain towards which they are walking.”

When an excess of the historical sense leads to becoming unchained from the unhistorical the result is the superhistorical: in which “the past and the present are one and the same, that is in all their multiplicity typically identical, and, as unchanging types everywhere present, they are a motionless picture of immutable values and eternally similar meanings.” The superhistorical sense turns not only the remembered occurrences of the past into concrete, reified objects, but also turns the future into an objective and necessary process, an inevitable progression towards a final state of Being. To combat this excess of the historical sense, Nietzsche introduces three different kinds of history, each of which are necessary for living when limited to their proper domains.

“History belongs, above all, to the active and powerful man … who needs the exemplary men, teachers, and comforters and cannot find them among his contemporary companions [he] uses history as a way of fighting resignation”. Monumental history views all the great moments in history as a continuous range of mountains, a singular chain. The fact that such greatness has occurred in the past leads the active and striving person to believe that such greatness is possible to achieve yet again.

However, it is the tendency of monumental history to “deceive through its analogies”; to understand every occurrence as similar to, as imitation or repetition of something else that came before. This can result in a selective reading of history: “large parts are forgotten, despised, and flow forth like an uninterrupted grey flood, and only a few embellished facts raise themselves above, like islands.” Monumental history also can give in to an excess in which the greatness of the past is used to deny any possible future greatness, and in so doing it no longer propels the individual forward — Greatness already happened, and that is all the greatness that we will ever need. “Let the dead bury the living”.

From Circle Circle (

It is against this excess that Nietzsche first discusses what will eventually become one of the most well known aspects of his thought, eternal recurrence. “Only if the Earth were always to begin its theatrical performance once again after the fifth act, if it were certain that the same knot of motives, the same deus ex machina, the same catastrophe returned in the same determined interval, could the powerful man desire monumental history in complete iconic truth.” Eternal recurrence is introduced as way of ensuring that a monumental view of history, which gathers the past into instances of greatness in order to propel the Willing individual forward, does not turn the past into mythic fiction and does not turn the future into an inevitable progression towards some final state.

Absent a notion of eternal recurrence, monumental history needs two other views of the past in order to avoid these traps: a critical view of history, and an antiquarian view of history.

Antiquarian history looks backwards with love and faith to preserve and honor what has come before. Thus, the historian “gives thanks for his existence”; for history is his own history, especially when it deals with the local history of a people or city. “The history of his city becomes for him the history of his own self.” Antiquarian history serves life by establishing a sense of rootedness to a home region and a set of traditions. It “keeps individuals … screwed tightly to these companions and surroundings, to this arduous daily routine, to these bare mountain ridges”, and, one might add, to a fertile river valley. By infusing the rugged individual with the sense of being “someone who has grown out of a past, as an heir, flower and fruit, and thus to have one’s existence excused, indeed justified.”

Antiquarian history attempts to preserve and conserve the conditions that made possible the situation of the present day, “the conditions under which [the historian] came into existence for those who are to come after him”. In this attempt to preserve and conserve thankfully what has come to pass, the antiquarian sense “always has a highly restricted vision. It does not perceive most things at all, and the few things it does perceive it looks at far too closely and in isolation.”

The danger of antiquarian history lies in too much reverence for what has come before, with too narrow a view to it; which creates an ideal model for living and anything past, present, or future which does not fit the model it rejects. Additionally, “antiquarian history knows only how to preserve life, not to generate it. Therefore, it always undervalues what is coming into being … Thus antiquarian history hinders the powerful willing of new things; it cripples the active man, who always … will and must set aside reverence”. Antiquarian history opposes progress, or change of any kind, unless it views that change as a return to older times.

Critical history operates by “dragging the past before the court of justice, investigating it meticulously, and finally condemning it.” This kind of judgment and condemnation is always dangerous, it digs at one’s own roots, and rootedness, but it cannot completely break the chain that links oneself to the past, and so it creates a conflict between the old and the new. In fact, it reads the new values into its interpretation and judgment of history. “it is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past a posteriori, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one in which we are descended.” The danger of critical history is the illusion that by condemning the past we have become free of it altogether.

Nietzsche introduces 4 different points of view on history, which all emerge from a primeval unhistorical view, and from each point of view the world appears differently. From the superhistorical view the world appears objectified and determined, an eternal unchanging Being, this view of history arises from the human faculty of reason and rationality. From the monumental view of history the world appears as a great coming to be of what is not yet, or as Becoming, this view of history arises from the human faculty of the Will. From the antiquarian view of history the world appears as the pure presence of Being, a gathering of what was, and a reason to be thankful, it is from this point of view on history that Heidegger develops the human faculty of Thinking, which the tradition of Western Philosophy has thus far failed to recognize as separate from the faculty of reason.

To develop the faculties of the Will and of Thinking Nietzsche and Heidegger both make use of a critical view of history, subjecting the past to harsh judgements, smashing idols, revealing new truths concerning how the modern world came to be. Heidegger, however, remains curiously uncritical of Nietzsche’s premise that the world is nothing but the will-to-power, and that therefore rationality is the will-to-power in action. Heidegger establishes a realm apart from the Will, a way of the world’s appearing that is not presented by the Will’s projections into a future. So, why should he still cling to the thesis that all is the will-to-power when he clearly makes the case that it is not?

Furthermore, how do we escape from our own mental faculties when they are responsible for every instance of experience? How does Thinking reassure us against the realization of our own eventual mortality so much that we no longer need to Will at all, except to will-not-to-will? Heidegger never addresses these questions, he never even conceives that one might pass back and forth through the rift in thought, Thinking one moment, Willing the next, using reason in another, and finally engaging in Judgment, before forgetting it all and laying oneself down on the crest of the moment. Nietzsche clearly imagined this shift in perspective as a necessary component of being the kind of living being who remembers the past, and realizes that there is a future. Even in Nietzsche’s later writings where he makes the claim that the will-to-power is the singular faculty responsible for experience there are multiple possible points of view from which the world appears differently, specifically rationality and the Will; that he never imagined the faculty of Thinking in no way collapses these distinctions, as Heidegger claims. Does it not cover up the rift in thought to demand that we never Will again, except to will-not-to-will? Furthermore, is this not exactly what Nietzsche described as the excess of antiquarian history, that the historian becomes so fixated upon thankfully preserving what has come to pass that he then devalues what is coming to be and actively inhibits the powerful willing of new things?

In “The Life of the Mind” Hannah Arendt talks about Heidegger’s changing attitude towards Nietzsche and towards the Will. “In Heidegger’s understanding, the will to rule and dominate is a kind of original sin, of which he found himself guilty when he tried to come to terms with his brief past in the Nazi movement.” He begins to think of Willing only as commanding, and “the concept of the Will indeed loses the biological characteristics that play such an important role in Nietzsche’s understanding of the Will as a mere symptom of the life instinct.” As such, Heidegger’s repudiation of the Will is “a denunciation of the instinct for self-preservation.”

For Arendt, the history of Western Philosophy has conceived of an opposition between Thinking and Willing since the days of Parmenides and Heraclitus, and the opposition of Nietzsche and Heidegger’s work falls directly in line with this history, each representing in modern times one of these ancient thinkers’ points of view. Although partially realized by a young Nietzsche who described these faculties as historical points of view, Arendt was the first philosopher to see that this opposition is the result of different mental faculties with different points of view upon the world. The opposition between Thinking and Willing itself arises from the nature of humanity’s mental processes, all of which together constitute the life of the mind. However, Willing is not just a mental activity, but a driving force behind all activity, from political activity to the formation of the self — the creation of character as Nietzsche would say. As triumphant as Heidegger’s exposition of the faculty of Thinking is, his repudiation of the Will would leave one less than fully human. Arendt sums up Heidegger’s will-not-to-will with a few poetic lines from Goethe:

“The Eternal works and stirs in all;

For all must into Nothing fall,

if it will persist in Being.”

Or, as Nietzsche saw from his high peak at the end of the 18th century, the Will would rather Will nothing than to not Will at all. Heidegger’s will-not-to-will, which he posited as a necessary component of Thinking, is a will-to-nothingness. As such, Heidegger’s late philosophy is every bit as nihilistic from Nietzsche’s point of view as Nietzsche’s is from Heidegger’s. In reality, neither point of view is nihilism.

Finally, while Heidegger was right that the superman is a metaphor for man’s physical-metaphysical nature, he was certainly wrong that it was a prediction for the future of humanity in which Willing and representational ideas become absolutely merged in total dominion over all of reality. In Nietzsche’s autobiography “Ecce Homo” Nietzsche dissects in his own written voice what he put into the mouth of a literary character, Zarathustra, who “experiences himself as the supreme type of all beings.” The overman is Zarathustra’s metaphor for what he encounters in himself that is great.

“The soul that has the longest ladder and reaches down deepest — the most comprehensive soul, which can run and stray and roam farthest within itself; the most necessary soul that plunges joyously into chance; the soul that, having being, dives into becoming; the soul that has, but wants to want and will; the soul that flees itself and catches up with itself in the widest circles; the wisest soul that folly exhorts most sweetly; the soul that loves itself most, in which all things have their sweep and countersweep and ebb and flood — ”

If you listens closely to this soul of the superman, of the overman, it contains an echo of Emerson’s Over-Soul “within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.”

But” Nietzsche says, “that is the concept of Dionysus himself. — ”

Justin Richards is nobody interesting, just a grad school dropout doing concrete work — and the occasional garden — but who cannot stop incessantly thinking nevertheless. He likes skateboards. Find more of his writing on Quora.

Works Cited

Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking, translated by J. Glenn Gray

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Jospefine Nauckhoff

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, translated by Walter Kaufmann

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Abuses of History For Life, translator unknown, Kessinger Publications.

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, The Over-Soul


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