Bill Honsberger

Nietzsche and Heidegger shared an epistemological position. This position, subjectivity, was critical to the development of their belief systems. This paper will examine their arguments for subjectivity and then point out several problems with this position, problems I believe both understood. I will show how these problems drove them into their own “leap of faith” in order make sense of their position.

It is sometimes thought that while small people can frustrate someone for a short time, truly great people can frustrate people for generations. A backhanded compliment is perhaps the best way that I can offer respect to people whose position I rarely understand and almost never agree with, but I am intrigued by their ability to shape the world. Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger were in my mind twin souls, influenced by the western philosophical tradition and perhaps a bit of the eastern tradition as well and Heidegger was certainly moved greatly by Nietzsche. While they shared many affinities, I want to focus on the theme of subjectivity shared by both men. This subjectivity built on the earlier thought of Kierkegaard and a few others, and in reaction to Descartes, truly blossoms with Nietzsche and explodes with the work of Heidegger. Nietzsche is the grandfather of Postmodernism, Heidegger is the father, and Derrida and the rest are standing on the shoulders of these two giants. Having said that, this paper will examine the argument for subjectivity and point out several problems from within their positions, which I believe they both understood, and show how this drives them into their own “leap” of faith to make sense of their position.

Nietzsche’s epistemic position is generally called perspectivalism. Armed with his famous saying that “there is no truth – only interpretations”, he argued that contrary to the “sacred” tradition of western thought there is no “truth” out there, that all our notions of the same are merely power plays and that no one’s perspective is any closer to some supposed “objective” truth than any other. Heidegger quotes Nietzsche favorably when he says that “Therefore, what is necessary is that something must be held to be true – not that something is true.” (1) Sounding similar to Voltaire’s axiom about the existence of God, Nietzsche makes a hard distinction between the functionality of truth and the reality. Following Kant, the distinction between what is perceived and what something really is in itself is a hard distinction. All we really have is our own perceptions. Instead of objective reality, all we really have is an “army of metaphors”. Nietzsche then argues that since there is no real objective truth, all claims to the same are attempts to gain power over others. Language then becomes a weapon, used artfully by the church in particular to subjugate the “plant” man. All the values of western Christianity are making mice out of men, and for Nietzsche this “slave morality” demeans human beings and must be recognized and tossed aside. Heidegger argues that for Nietzsche truth was an estimation of value, and thus could and must be revalued, with the strong man transcending all such perspectival values. Heidegger notes that

“The representation of something as in being in the sense of the constant and the stable is a valuation. To elevate what is true of the “world” to something permanent, eternal, and immutable in itself means at the same time to transpose truth to life itself as a necessary condition of life. Yet if the world were constantly changing and perishing, if it had its essence in the most perishable of what perishes and is inconstant, truth in the sense of what is constant and stable would be a mere fixation…Truth is an illusion.” (2)

Here it is clear that Heidegger and Nietzsche are both relying on Heraclites and that the notion of fixed objective standards is rejected by both. For Heidegger in particular on this point, the world is Being and non-Being. Being in the world is always Being towards death or non-Being. There is always change for Being. Yet Nietzsche is arguing in a sense that this fiction of truth is a helpful one, at least in a limited sense. It is something that humans use in a pragmatic way to get what they want. Heidegger might add here that this is a fiction created by the One/the They, and is part of inauthentic Dasein. For him this inauthentic need for fixed permanent markers is part of the fallenness of Dasein. It is something that must be overthrown by ones resoluteness to not seek false security in so called absolutes.

Heidegger says in one of his important essays that “truth is here driven back to the subjectivity of the human subject. Even if an objectivity is also accessible to this subject, such objectivity along with subjectivity, still remains something human and at mans disposal.” (3) I am glad that he appeared to make a small concession here to objectivity but as we shall see later, he has to redefine objectivity to make it a type or subset of subjectivity. Subjectivity with attitude! He goes on in the essay to argue for a radically new understanding of the word truth. For him it means disclosedness, or Being being uncovered. It is a relation in Being, and for Being and by Being. In all of this what he is trying to say is that truth is Freedom! He notes that

“Freedom, understood as letting beings be, is the fulfillment and consummation of the essence of truth in the sense of the disclosure of beings. “Truth” is not a feature of correct propositions that are asserted of an “object” by a human “subject” and then are “valid” somewhere, in what sphere we know not; rather, truth is disclosure of beings through which an openness essentially unfolds.” (4)

This statement reflects his dissatisfaction with the western tradition, especially medieval, on the dependence on propositional statements as evidencing truth. Whether in philosophy or theology, both traditions had historically emphasized logical correctness as proofed in propositional statements. Assertions to statements that reflected reality were valued while obviously the converse was disdained. But Heidegger wants none of that. For him truth and untruth are both disclosed within Dasein. They do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in the world as the byproduct of Dasein and therefore they reflect all of Dasein’s own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore he thinks, perhaps following the German Idealist school here, that the heart of truth is Freedom, and by that he means that the world of Being creates a “space”, a location, where individual Dasein can create and become authentic. What is unfolding here? For Heidegger it is the existence of Dasein itself. There is no essential self as posited by most western philosophers, but rather Being’s own existence is its essence. He relates this to truth by saying that the essence of truth is the truth of essence. His explanation of this thought is that rather than finding truth in something outside of ourselves, we instead should search for the “real” truth which is that Being is the priority here, and correctness only exists within the space created by Being. This connection is not accidental for him. In Being and Time he emotes

“There is truth only in so far as Dasein is and so long as Dasein is. Entities are uncovered only when Dasein is; and only as long as Dasein is are they disclosed. Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever – these are true only as long as Dasein is. Before there was any Dasein there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. “(5)

Heidegger thinks that mystery pervades the Being of Being. It pervasive strains keep us in wonder at awe at the world and at the existence of the world. To attempt to make a stand here, or on this, is mistaken. All of this is changing and locks Dasein into the classic mistake of focusing on a tree and missing the forest. The essence of man then is only his fleeting and transient existence.

So for Nietzsche and Heidegger both, they are at war with the tradition of western philosophy and western Christianity, which both saw as intimately and horrifically entwined. Transvaluation for Nietzsche or Authentic life for Heidegger are both available when one departs western Christianity in particular. Perhaps it is the western traditions emphasis on the Bible as God’s very word, and the long, (and in the scholastic period – painful) development of rationalistic theology. Both were raised in Christian homes but both radically depart the faith of their families. Nietzsche’s famous dictum of the death of God finds somewhat a sympathetic reading from Heidegger’s own desire to find an authentic life that is pointedly having no reference to the Christian God. It is the point of a different paper to argue that their interest in eastern religious motifs was also influential here, but I think that it is germane. Both men share a common affiliation for a radical subjectivity and this epistemological position begs for critique.

Kierkegaard’s focus in the Fragments is the simple statement “Truth is Subjectivity”. Nietzsche picks up the theme with his perspectivalism, and certainly applying the concept in a more forceful way that I imagine the Dane would have ever imagined. Heidegger, like he seems to do with all previous notions, recasts the argument as another way of describing the existence as essence of Being. For both the latter men, propositional truth and correspondence theory are the enemy. The enemy is recognized by its ruthless quest for non-contradiction and internal coherence. Arguments which depend on a precise and rigorous usage of terms and standard definitions are anathema. The rallying cry by contrast is the strength of the strong man transvaluing all values and/or the resolute character of Dasein creating space and freedom. What is one to make of this?

From the perspective of one who is trained in the very tradition despised by both Nietzsche and Heidegger, both philosophically and theologically, I see many problems. The first seems the most obvious and yet is not considered problematic by people from within the perspectivalist traditions. Once one says something like “Truth is Subjectivity” or that truth is perspectival or that it is about disclosedness of existence than it seems that one has immediately and fatally contradicted oneself. If the statement is false, then no one needs to pay attention, but if the statement “Truth is Subjectivity” is true, then no one needs to pay attention in this case either. Subjectivity by definition is relative to the individual. It cannot be corrected by another. So if Kierkegaard is correct here, and then all he really saying is that opinion belong to a subject. And since he himself is a subject, then at the end of the day all he is doing is emoting his opinion, which has no intellectual hold over anyone else. The same is also true with Nietzsche’s perspectivalism. As soon as he says “Truth is perspectival” he traps himself. Even if true all he really is doing is sharing his opinion, which has no more weight than any other opinion. And with no justification available outside of the individual to ground the opinion, all opinions have the same value. This is perhaps seen in a most ludicrous statement by an intellectual disciple of the subjectivist tradition, John Caputo, when he states that “the truth is – that there is no truth”. (6) Far be it from me to deny that there is much in knowledge which is in fact perspectival, but the denial of anything more than perspective forces the position into the rather problematic dogma of declaring that all truth is what they say it is, that it is just opinion, and that of course their opinion is to be valued as true!

All of my critique here depends on the very tools that are attacked by this same tradition. The possible response here is that I am assuming the very notions that I am attempting to defend. A certain circularity then arises. How can one defend the truth of the law of non-contradiction without using it? The answer is of course that you cannot. The problem for the subjectivist is that one cannot deny the truth of it without using it as well. It is not uncommon to hear post-modernist say something like “well I prefer to use both/and thinking instead of either/or thinking”. This is often seen as being the epitome of open-mindedness and tolerance, as opposed to the dogmatism of the absolutist traditions. But in speaking the statement one is employing the very concepts that the speaker is decrying. I admit the circularity is a sticky problem, but I think that it is resolvable with much less damage than the subjectivist position alleges.

A second problem for the subjectivist position is the very ability of a Nietzsche or Heidegger to see the problem that both claim to see, given their presuppositions. Let us assume that Nietzsche’s perspectivalism is true. If all we have is opinion then how is Nietzsche’s position protected from his own analysis and believed to be in fact a “correct” view of the world? Imagine a river which has many large rocks along its bed. Human beings are on the rocks and as they look around they perceive that all of them are surrounded by water. Even though they are on rocks none are able to reach the surface to get a clearer picture of their predicament. The very claim of the subjectivist position is here described. No ones rock is any bigger than any other person’s rock. If this description is correct then how is Nietzsche able to claim that even though everyone else is under the water, he somehow has transcended the river and is able to see that all are under the river. Given his starting presuppositions he cannot say this. All he really can say is that according to his view, all are under the water, but he has no way of saying anything more.

Heidegger seems to dodge the problem in certain ways. His notion of disclosedness of Being is all fine and well, but it seems that the notion that both truth and falsehood are both part of Dasein is problematic. To even make that statement involves some sense of normative judgment. This entails some standard outside of oneself (dare I say, objective?) in order even to make the distinction. Heidegger could reply that the individual Dasein can make that judgment without anything outside of themselves, but if truth and falsehood are both disclosed in and by Being than how can one distinguish between the two? This type of argument seems to be problematic for the whole Heideggarian position. For Nietzsche the question of language is the Alice in Wonderland question – Who is to be master? For Heidegger language is the house in which Dasein exists. But for language to be meaningful it must have some referent. It also by definition must include the notion of non-contradiction, excluded middle and so on. Even German! Of course, Heidegger does a marvelous job of taking historic and normative terms and redefining them in such a way as to fit his philosophy. He certainly exercises freedom when it comes to his use of language. But that is not really the point here. Heidegger uses argumentation and non-contradiction in his arguments against foundationalism. So he uses key parts of foundationalism to attack the same.

Without exploring the point in depth, one could also point out the real possibility of ethical nihilism being very problematic. If there are no objective realities to discover, and no essential self which can be developed morally or otherwise, it seems Heidegger is left with morality as merely one of the byproducts of the world, which is differentiated into multiple realities and culture. Each culture is busy shaping the individual Dasein’s within its circle. And like Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, with no ones view being any more correct than any other, each culture is then correct no matter what. The issue of Heidegger’s involvement and ugly postwar silence with the Nazi party here seems to illustrate the point. As Eric Lemay points out “If humans are Dasein, meaning they have no common essence, then there is no reason to expect that a particular group of Dasein will respect the rights of another. The only sense of security a Dasein has comes from their given society…” (7) This theme is taken up by E. Hirsch, Richard Wolin and others. The nihilistic ethical mindset of so many of Heidegger’s intellectual children seems to illustrate this all too well. The irony is that the contemporary post moderns build so much of their case on care for the “other”. But subjectivism undermines real ethical concern for the other.

It removes any transcendent ethic which might ground ethical judgment that applies to all cultures at once. Hence our culture might decry the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, but that is just us expressing our opinion. It has no more weight than that, and it certainly does not justify intervention of any sort. This perhaps fueled the Levinasian reaction currently underway.

The last question I want to briefly address is the one I started with – the question of the faith of Heidegger and Nietzsche in their own respective versions of subjectivity. Considering that the pro-forma objection normally is so devastating, and given that it has had almost no effect, then one must seek out the basis of such a contradictory position. In his article entitled “Heidegger Deconstructed”, author Peter Leithart quotes a pastor who attended a Nazi summer camp in 1933. The pastor states that Heidegger argued that one must abandon the second article of the Nicene Creed when he says

”One must start by rejecting the first article, that the world was created and sustained by a God, that what exists is merely an artifact, something that has been made by a divine craftsman. This was the origin of that false devaluation of the world that contempt for the world and denial of the world – and the source of that false feeling of comfort and security, founded on subjective ideas about the world that are untrue compared with the great noble awareness of the insecurity of existence.” (8)

Heidegger argued that there is a “great noble awareness of the insecurity of existence”. To me this is a newer version of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith over the ditch. My understanding and scope of knowledge of Heidegger’s thinking is minimal at best. But there really isn’t an argument against God here, rather a mystification of nature and a seemingly irrational leap. As I mentioned before I admire both of these men in their ability to dramatically shape the culture, and I believe that they were both brilliant intellectual minds, and I know that they were quite conscious of the very contradictions that I briefly elicited earlier. In light of that, an existential leap of faith makes sense. But this is not the Kierkegaardian leap toward faith in God, rather it is a leap of faith in the Ubermensch for Nietzsche and the authentic resolute towards death Dasein for Heidegger. It seems like I have brought up too many issues to adequately discuss in such a short paper and there is just one more. Why is the thrown, fallen, errant inauthentic Dasein worthy of such trust? How did these conditions obtain? Where did Being come from? Why is that more attractive and worthy of trust that the Christian God? All of these questions seem worthy of attention and probably have been talked about in numerous books and articles that are beyond my current range of knowledge. It seems to me that a fallibalistic foundationalist position, one that is open to a degree of subjective knowledge, could grant some of Nietzsche and Heidegger’s concerns without taking the pendulum quite so far. And while I take faith seriously, it does not necessarily follow that faith must be irrational, even though that is Kierkegaard’s and so much of modern culture’s bent.


1) Nietzsche. Heidegger, Martin. Harper/Collins. San Francisco, CA. 1961. P.56.

2) Ibid. P.58.

3) Basic Writings. Heidegger, Martin. Ed. By David F. Krell. On the Essence of Truth. Harper/Collins. San Francisco, CA 1993. P. 124.

4) Ibid. P. 128.

5) Being and Time. Heidegger, Martin. Harper/Collins. San Francisco, CA.1927. P. 227/269.

6) Heidegger for Beginners. Lemay, Eric. And Pitts, Jennifer. Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc. New York, NY. 1994. P. 102.

7) Heidegger Deconstructed. Leithart, Peter. Http:// P. 2.