Heidegger & Ethics

Heidegger most heavily discusses “ethics” in “The Letter on Humanism,” a work responding to a series of questions posed by his French followers. One question was:

“What I have been trying to do for a long time now is to determine precisely the relation of ontology to a possible ethics.”

Here are some brief observations about his answer.

First of all, Heidegger rejects the distinction between “ethics” and “ontology.” “Ethics,” after all, comes from Plato’s academy, where philosophy was divided into “logic, physics, and ethics.” For Heidegger, the division of things into different “regions” means that “thinking” has disappeared and “science” has taken over, slicing “ethics” off as a separate region of study, something unconnected to Being. Remember, Heidegger isn’t interested in doing “ontology,” but something prior to ontology: raising the question of Being itself.

Accordingly, Heidegger goes back to thinking before this Platonic division, where philosophy wasn’t divided into independent categories. His primary source for ethics is Sophocles. He writes:

Thinkers prior to this period [Plato’s academy] knew neither “logic” nor an “ethics” nor “physics.” Yet their thinking was neither illogical nor immoral … The tragedies of Sophocles – provided such a comparison is at all permissible – preserve the ethos in their sayings more primordially than Aristotle’s lectures on “ethics.”

He discusses Antigone in detail in the lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics. He also discusses Heraclitus’ fragments in the “Letter on Humanism” in relation to “ethos” as well.

The Heraclitus fragment is three words:

“ethos anthropo daimon”

Heidegger translates these three words as:

“The (familiar) abode for humans is the open region for the presencing of the god (the unfamiliar one).”

He takes this from a story where some people went to see Heraclitus and found him huddle around the fire, shivering. The people who went to see Heraclitus were disappointed, thinking he’d be a guru who’d do something eccentric, something they could recount to their friends. Yet Heraclitus, bundled up before the fire, invites them in, saying (in Heidegger’s translation): “here too the gods come to presence (a translation of einai, which means “Being”).

For Heidegger, “ethics” is primarily connected to human “dwelling.” Dwelling, for Heidegger, is the human mode of “Being-in,” of existing within a world, of having a home. Yet this “home” houses the truth of Being. Heidegger likes a Holderlin poem that says: “poetically man dwells upon this earth.” Likewise, humans “dwell ethically.”

Heidegger’s “ethics,” accordingly, doesn’t treat classical ethical problems or even talk about “what is the right thing to do.” Rather, it thinks about the way that Being opens up a dwelling space, a city, a sphere for human action. Even huddling around the fire, “gods are here too.” As Heidegger writes:

“even here,” at the stove, in that ordinary place where everything and every circumstance, each deed and each thought is intimate and commonplace, that is, familiar, “even there” in the sphere of the familiar, it is the case that “gods come to presence.”

He thus concludes:

“If the name “ethics,” in keeping with the basic meaning of the word ethos, should now say that ethics ponders the abode of the human being, then that thinking which thinks the truth of Being as the primordial element of the human being, as one who eksists, is in itself originary ethics.

So basically, there’s a difference between the “thinking of human ethos” and the “science of ethics.” Heidegger isn’t interested in the latter, but the former.


Animals in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’

Given the recent interest in Heidegger’s account of animals, I’ve compiled all of the references to animals in Being and Time. Some of these have, to my knowledge, been hitherto overlooked.

Heidegger fully develops his account of animals in the lecture course Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, and Solitude, a text to which both Derrida and Agamben devote significant attention. Here, Heidegger claims: “the animal is poor in world.” For sake of brevity, I shall not discuss these lectures in detail, aside from occasional references. Yet many of the cryptic remarks about animals within Being and Time foreshadow the analysis in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. In turn, these lectures point towards Heidegger’s well-known comment in The Letter on Humanism:

Of all the beings that are, presumably the most difficult to think about are living creatures, because on the one hand they are in a certain way most closely akin to us, and on the other are at the same time separated from our ek-sistent essence by an abyss. -Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” Basic Writings, 230.

Conscious of this abyss and anticipating his future project, Heidegger gives only a few words on animals in his magnum opus, yet his few comments are nevertheless intriguing.

Animals Perish

Heidegger discusses animals in relation to being-towards-death, implying that animals don’t die, but rather “perish.” He writes:

Let the term dying stand for the way of being in which Dasein is towards its death. Thus we can say that Dasein never perishes. Dasein can demise as long as it dies.
-Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 247.

For Heidegger: Dasein, unlike animals, relates itself to its death. While animals “die,” they don’t live with this possibility as a “certainty” ahead of them, nor need they cover up their impending demise.

Derrida analyzes this passage in Aporias, writing:


Heidegger never stopped modulating this affirmation according to which the mortal is whoever experiences death as such, as death. Since he links this possibility of the “as such” (as well as the possibility of death as such) to the possibility of speech,
he thereby concludes that the animal, the living thing as such, is not properly a mortal: the animal does not relate to death as such. The animal can come to an end, that is, perish (verenden), it always ends up kicking the bucket [crever]. But it can never properly die. -Jacques Derrida, Aporias, 35.

Derrida points to this “as such” as “indicating something like a flash in the sky,” that is: a moment of presence. He takes this phrase from Heidegger himself, quoting On the Way to Language where Heidegger writes:

Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do this.But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought.

Here, as elsewhere, Derrida is interested in the way such moments of presence create concepts such as human beings through differences such as the human/animal difference (I have already discussed Derrida’s concept of man here).

Of course, Heidegger wasn’t the first to claim that animals differ from humans because they are not aware of their impending death, yet his point is noteworthy: especially given the conceptual importance of “death” for the analysis. In “being-towards-death,” Dasein is able to understand itself as a whole; as a project with an expiration date. On this basis, Heidegger can work out Dasein’s “ecstatic” temporality. Yet can any holistic picture of animal existence be given?

Animal Temporality

The next reference, again well-known, is in the discussion of temporality: specifically the section discussing the temporality of attunement (Befindlichkeit). Here, Heidegger writes:

Only beings that in accordance with the meaning of their being are attuned, that is, existing, have always already been and exist in a constant mode of having-been can be affected. Ontologically, affection presupposes making present in such a way that in it Dasein can be brought back to itself as having been. -Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, 346.

“Attunement” translates the German word “Befindlichkeit,” a neologism Heidegger coins from the idiomatic German expression “Wie befinden Sie sich?” a colloquial way of asking “how are you?” The phrase implies that one “finds oneself,” which is why Heidegger speaks of it as a “retrieval” at times. Attunement is an existential; it represents Dasein’s ability to be affected by moods. Here, Heidegger points to the temporality of moods, specifically that moods retrieve a feeling that “already has been,” and that sudden moods interrupt something already there.

Attunement, as part of Dasein’s ecstatic temporality, temporalizes out of the past. When asked “how are you?”, one can answer by reporting the events of the day. In this sense, moods “make present” from the past into the future.

Continuing the passage quoted above, Heidegger writes:

How the stimulation and touching of the senses in beings that are simply alive are to be ontologically defined, how and where in general the being of animals is constituted, for example, by a “time,” remains a problem for itself. – Ibid.

In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger answers  (at least to some degree) the first question about the “stimulation” and “touching” of the senses. In Being and Time, Heidegger claimed objects can never “touch” each other. However (as we shall see), he intimates that this does not apply to Dasein or to animals.

In Fundamental Concepts of Metpahysics, Heidegger argues that animal experience involves “captivation” (Benommenheit), which “signifies: essential withholding [Genommenheit] of every apprehending of something as something.” (FCM, 247). According to these lectures, animals “have worlds,” but do not experience “beings as beings.” Juxtaposed to the discussion of animals is a grueling discussion of boredom, an analysis that takes Heidegger half the book. [For a discussion of this, cf. Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, pp. 49-73.]

Boredom shows, for Heidegger, that Dasein isn’t always “captivated” by its surroundings, but grows restless. I’ve always wondered if Heidegger had cats, and whether this might have affected his analysis of boredom.

The second part of this passage reads:

“how and where in general the being of animals is constituted, for example, by a “time” … -Sein und Zeit, 346.

Notice the indefinite article before the parentheses. His parentheses, as Heidegger reminds readers of Sartre in the Letter on Humanism, are important, and the sentence indicates that the experience of time may differ among animals.

Heidegger was aware of the experiments of biologists such as Jakob von Uexküll, a Neo-Kantian biologist who attempted to sketch out, from a transcendental idealist perspective, the “categories” of animal experiences. One of the more remarkable experiments by Uexküll flashed an image at different frames per second, testing the point at which the images fused into a single gestalt. Remarkably, animals such as Beta fish (which react very quickly to things) were able to distinguish the frames per second far past the abilities of humans, while slugs (without surprise) were significantly slower. Uexküll opined that animals experience the flow of time at different rates.

I take it that Heidegger uses the indefinite article and parentheses to indicate he is aware of these experiments. However, such experiments presuppose the “vulgar concept of time.” Like Kant, Uexküll sees events moving through a series of infinitesimal “nows.” Since Heidegger sketches out, in this section, Dasein’s unique temporality, the passage suggests that animal time, similarly, in some way cannot be reduced to the dogma of metaphysics of presence. Does this imply that animals have their own kind of ecstatic relationship to time?

Animal Worlds

The previous passages are well-known and have been discussed by both Derrida and Agamben. However, there are two other mentions that have not (to my knowledge) been discussed. The first of these is a subtle indication Heidegger makes:

The supplement “which are not worldless” must not be left out, because those beings which are not worldless, for example Dasein itself, are objectively present “in” the world, too. –Sein und Zeit, 55.

Here, Dasein is listed among the beings that have a world. In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, we discover that the animal “is poor in world.” Although the passage doesn’t say much in itself, it demonstrates that, already in Being and Time, Heidegger was aware that the topic of animal being required careful consideration.

In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger will speak of the animal as existing in its “environment” or Umwelt, a word Heidegger uses for human beings in Division I, Chapter Three of Being and Time. 

Animals as Natural Resources

Not only are animals “objectively present” from a particular point of view, they are also “at hand” like tools and pieces of equipment. Specifically, animals are revealed as resources and commodities.

These hides are taken from animals in the world which were bred and raised by others. We also find animals in the world which were not bred and raised and even when they have been raised these beings produce themselves in a certain sense. Thus beings are accessible in the surrounding world which in themselves do not need to be produced and are always already at hand. -Sein und Zeit, 70.

Here, Heidegger speaks of what we might call “nature.” While Heidegger reserves “nature” in Being and Time as a term for Kant’s concept of natural science, we might recall that Being and Time has a strong Aristotelian dimension. Heidegger claims that the Greeks used the “production” of things as an ontological basis for interpreting nature; in Being and Time, Heidegger “repeats” [wiederholte] this gesture. Heidegger continues:

“Nature” is also discovered in the use of useful things, “nature” in the light of products of nature.” -Ibid.

In Aristotle, natural things “produce themselves,” a key difference between an artifact created by something else. On this basis, Aristotle distinguishes the phūsei onta (natural things) from the techne onta (artifacts).

Like Aristotle, Heidegger first describes “natural things” from the standpoint of production. However, Heidegger goes on to suggest that this isn’t the only way that nature can be described. He first entertains the scientific description of nature as something “objectively present,” writing:

We can abstract from nature’s kind of being as handiness; we can discover and define it in its pure objective presence. -Ibid.

The pure, disinterested description contrasts, however, with the romantic notion of nature, a description that foreshadows Heidegger’s later work on the concept of phūsis. 

But in this kind of [scientific] discovery of nature, nature as what “stirs and strives,” what overcomes us, entrances us as landscape, remains hidden. The botanist’s plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow, the river’s “source” ascertained by the geographer is not the “source in the ground.” -Ibid.

Yet does the Dasein-centered analysis say anything about natural things in-themselves? According to the analysis, “handiness” is the “in-itself” of beings. In a footnote, Heidegger clarifies that this is “only as a characteristic of being encountered” (Ibid, 71 n.) In other words, human beings encounter natural things as useful “in-themselves,” but then move from here into encountering them “in their own right.”

Heidegger sees natural things as “produced” by nature, but he doesn’t associate this with reproduction (as Aristotle does), but with “resource.” Instead, he interprets these beings as available material, writing:

Hammer, tongs, nails in themselves refer to – they consist of – steel, iron, metal, stone, wood … But nature must not be understood here as what is merely objectively present, nor as the power of nature. The forest is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock, the river is water power, the wind is “in the sails.” -Ibid.

Here, nature reveals itself according to what Heidegger later will call the “Gestell” or “enframing,” the modern epoch of being in which all beings are revealed as resources available for the exertion of human power.


While writing Being and Time, I doubt the cabin-dwelling Heidegger looked out his window past the water trough into the black forest and saw only timber. Here, Heidegger isn’t interpreting nature “in its own right,” but only as it is initially encountered by and already familiar to human beings. If we abrogate to Heidegger’s later view, here Being and Time demonstrates itself to be subject to historical contingency (although Heidegger indicated in lectures that Being and Time couldn’t describe the “Greek Dasein”).

Nevertheless, Heidegger claims that a gulf separates us, even from our closest animal companions (cf. discussion of domesticated animals in FCM, pg. 210). As he states in the Letter on Humanism:

… It might also seem as though the essence of divinity is closer to us than what is so alien in other living creatures, closer, namely, in an essential distance which, however distant, is nonetheless more familiar to our ek-sistent essence than is our scarcely conceivable, abysmal bodily kinship with the beast. Such reflections cast a strange light upon the current and therefore always still premature designation of man as animal rationale. – “Letter on Humanism,” Basic Writings, 230.

Neither zoon logon echon nor imagio dei, Dasein still keeps ‘those beings unlike it, but not entirely worldless’ at a safe distance from its essence, maintaining that dangerous divide Agamben calls the caesura: “a life excluded and separated from itself” [The Open, 38], those forces of difference that create “Dasein” and “man” alike.

By Colin Bodayle