Waiting for Politics to Begin Again (4)

4. The Politics of Open Doors

At one point* in his interrupted 1944-1945 lecture course introducing his students to philosophy through reflecting along with them on the difference and relationship between Denken and Dichten, thinking and poetizing, Heidegger briefly discusses the old line that the Germans are “the people [or “nation”: Volk in German] of thinkers and poets.” That line was often used by non-Germans in a dismissive and derogatory way, at least before Bismarck--that master at the politics of friends and enemies—was able through three carefully devised wars to unite the multiplicity of independent German states into a single nation-state under Prussian dominance in 1871. As used by non-Germans till then, it typically expressed the conscious or unconscious desire that Germany might remain exactly that, a people of poets and thinkers, rather than becoming a nation-state in competition with other nation-states.

However, Heidegger invites his students to hear the line very differently, “altogether aside from what those of foreign nations [die Fremden] might mean by it.” As Heidegger invites his students to hear it, the line that Germany is a nation of poets and thinkers carries the very different meaning of a call or challenge to the German people truly to recognize and embrace who they already essentially are according to that very line, even if such embracing recognition is far from the intention of those who usually utter the line. Heard as Heidegger would have it heard, the line challenges the Germans as a people to receive, take up, and actively become the very “nation”—from Latin natus, past participle of nasci, “to be born”—they are literally given to be, according to that same line, regardless of what the intentions of those who use it for their own, different purposes might be.

As he would have it heard, the line calls Heidegger and all his fellow Germans themselves into question, as it were, by addressing to them, as he puts it, “the question of whether we [Germans] are great and noble enough to let ourselves be brought forth in our essence.” The question the line puts to the Germans, calling them to question themselves that way, is whether they will prove able truly to root themselves in thinking and poetizing in order thereby to grow into the very nation they were born to be.

 “What might and one day will be,” if the Germans prove up to that challenge to become who they were born to be, he then adds, “is that our [that is, the Germans’] thinking and poetizing might come to disturb foreign nations [die Fremden], not in their business enterprises, but in their [own] essences, making that worthy of question [for them], and bringing them to the edge of reflection [on answering their own callings as nations].”

Becoming such a gift to other nations is cultivating a very different sort of politics from the sort that Bismarck, for one, cultivated so skillfully. What I have translated twice above as “foreign nations” in Heidegger text for his 1944-45 lecture-course is, as I’ve indicated above in brackets, the German term die Fremden, which means “strangers” or “foreigners.” The English word stranger derives from strange, of course, which in turn derives from Latin extraneous, “from without”—from extra, “outside of.” In turn, the English word foreign derives eventually from the Latin foris, which when used as a noun means “door,” and when used as an adverb means “outside” or, literally, “out of doors.”

Individuals or nations who are sure of who they are, rooted deeply in their own native identities, are secure in their own boundaries. That security does not close them off from others. Rather, it first makes possible a true and genuine interchange with others, who are respected in their very difference, for who they are. There is nothing defensive or reactive about the posture of such deeply rooted persons or communities. Instead, they are free to maintain openness and responsiveness toward both neighbors and strangers, able to celebrate differences and give freely of themselves without fear of loss. Theirs is a politics of openness toward what is literally foreign to them—coming to them from beyond their own doors.

In contrast, individuals and nations who are uncertain about their identities and unsure of just who they are because they have failed to root themselves deeply enough in their own native soil, experience whatever is strange and foreign as a threat to be defended against, an always potential, if not yet actual, enemy or foe. They feel compelled to protect themselves against such perceived threat, for fear of being robbed of whatever they have been given, even and especially if they have never heeded the call truly to receive that gift and make it their own. Precisely because they have a hard time telling just where they leave off and others begin—that is, because they have no clear sense of their own boundaries—they always react defensively whenever they encounter anything strange or foreign, whatever lies outside their never secure enough borders. 

We might verbally formulate the sort of politics suggested by Heiddegger’s remark about how, in becoming who they called to be, the German nation could and would also become a gift to other nations, as a confident politics of natives and strangers or natives and foreigners, rather than of friends and enemies or friends and foes—that polemical politics that Carl Schmitt makes central to the very concept of the politics of sovereignty, as discussed in my preceding post. The former sort of politics, the politics of natives and strangers, would be one that built doors to let what is inside open itself to what lies without. The latter sort of politics, the politics of friends and foes, would be one that built walls, to enclose those inside and protect them against outsiders.

*     *     *

To be continued.


* Namely, Gesamtausgabe vol. 50, pages 102-103.