Black and white illustration of "Martin Heidegger for WP" (2006) | Herbert Wetterauer / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

“Martin Heidegger for WP” (2006) | Herbert Wetterauer / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

Simon Critchley, the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, has claimed that “once one has grasped Heidegger’s basic thought, everything changes.” In a conversation with Megan Robinson, Critchley discusses how Heidegger influenced his own life—and why he decided to devote a podcast series to the philosopher’s Being and Time.

Megan Robinson: In spring 2024, you gave a lecture course at The New School on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time that is adapted from your recent podcast series, Apply-degger. How did your podcast come about? 

Simon Critchley: In 2019, I had the idea that I would record lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time that I’d given probably about three or four times at The New School. I thought, I’m never going to write this as a book, and I don’t want to write this as a book, but I should record this.

I began to record the episodes in January 2020, over a period of several weeks in a studio downtown with my friend Zenon. Then the pandemic happened, and teaching went online. Somebody gave me a microphone and a preamp, I learned to use GarageBand, and I carried on doing the recordings in the darkest, grimmest period of the pandemic, certainly in New York, in April 2020. I sent those to the producer, he edited them, and we ended up with 18 episodes. 

I work with the Onassis Foundation, which is mainly based in Greece but also in New York, where they produce live events, and they couldn’t do that in the pandemic either. So they developed an online channel, the Onassis Channel, in 2020, and we released the podcast series there. This began on YouTube, and then Spotify, and then onto other platforms. It had a weird sort of life. The podcast was very different from the kind of audience you’d find for a book—if you’re lucky enough to find an audience for a book. 

Last October, I worked with Ben Olson to transcribe the series and produce them as text that could form the basis of a lecture series at The New School. Now I’m revising them as lectures. It’s an interesting process. We edit the texts week by week and print them out for students, who have the full text and the podcast audio, so they can follow the content in different forms. In a sense, the classroom becomes redundant, which I quite like. The texts of these lectures might be a book or might not be, I’m not sure yet. Some part of me would just like to give it away, to make it available in some free form. So I’m thinking about that. 

Being and Time is full of really interesting ideas, but it’s written in a really strange way, and the English translation is rebarbative, though accurate. The ideas are really compelling, but there’s an awful lot of ornamentation and ugly architecture that Heidegger builds around the ideas, which get in the way of comprehension. So there’s this surface difficulty of Heidegger’s Being and Time

My conceit—it’s kind of arrogant and audacious—is that I can get under the surface of the language and find the key ideas and explain them to people who don’t have time to work through the book; it’s an attempt to replace Being and Time with a series of texts, transcripts, and audio. I think that once those ideas have become clear, they can have a real effect on people who aren’t thinking of becoming academic philosophers. And that interests me a lot. 

Robinson: You previously stated, “It is my belief that once one has grasped Heidegger’s basic thought, everything changes in one’s approach to life and thought.” How did reading Being and Time change your approach to life? 

Critchley: I was having a nervous breakdown in my first year at university—I didn’t realize it at the time, but I clearly was. My main symptom was just chronic anxiety. I was at a loss. And at that point, I read Heidegger’s lecture What Is Metaphysics?,” from 1929, and there’s a line where he says, “Anxiety reveals nothing.” And I thought, “I know exactly what that means!” I didn’t really know what it meant, but I felt I knew what it meant. That gave me a sense that the world can kind of slip away, that the world withdraws, it recedes, and you’re left as this being that is consumed with an anxiety that you cannot really make sense of. Heidegger gave me words for thinking about what I was experiencing.

When I came to teach Being and Time some years later, I realized that one of Heidegger’s basic ideas was that we, as human beings, are always being in the world and being with others. We’re already in the world with others, not inside our heads. There is an ecstatic quality to being in the world. That was really powerful, when I began to realize that. But it took some years. 

Heidegger’s doing an anti-philosophy, really. He’s working closely within the philosophical tradition; but he thinks philosophers have looked at the world through theoretical spectacles and that we need to get closer to how the world actually shows up practically and how others enter into that world. The whole project aims to get people to focus on average everyday life and not get lost in theoretical visions of things.

The book is called Being and Time. The thesis is that being is time and that time is finite. 

We live in a world that’s meaningful, and it’s a world characterized by movement. The world makes sense, right? Questions of meaning are, in a sense, meaningless. The world just hangs together—not theoretically, under the observation of a scientist or something like that, but just in the way the everyday world, my environment, hangs together.

We are beings that move through time. Everything is moving all the time. How do you find concepts to describe movement without fixing that movement, without making it static? That’s the challenge Heidegger has. We’re meaningful beings, we’re beings that are in a movement of time, and then that meaning and movement comes to an end with death. Existence is asymptotic: it’s aiming at something which it ultimately cannot achieve. I don’t think that’s particularly sad, it’s just that life comes to an end, and then, at that point, there’s no meaning because you’re not there. 

For Heidegger, there’s no ground, there’s no basis, there’s just our finite life and the clearing that we make for things and other persons to show up. Any attempt to offer such a basis, whether that’s God, capital, or power, is just metaphysics. Heidegger thinks you have to try to find a way of understanding groundless human existence. On my better days, I find that strangely reassuring. But it took me a long time to be okay with that. How can you ecstatically be there with things and people, and how can you find a language that resonates with and makes sense of that? 

Robinson: If there was one key idea in Being and Time that you would like to communicate with a reader unfamiliar with Heidegger, what would it be? 

Critchley: I think it would be practice, not theory: that life is lived before it’s thought about, and can we find words to describe faithfully how life is lived practically? Heidegger gives us a whole terminology for approaching that. Heidegger’s thinking—despite the ugliness of the translations and some of Heidegger’s own formulations—can get us closer to life as it feels and as we live it. I think that’s incredibly powerful.

Practice, and not theory, is about being in the world and not thinking about it. Language is not in the head. It’s ecstatic, and it’s in the world. The world is a meaningful whole, where all sorts of items show up in the flux of time. Heidegger gives us the way we actually experience the world, the way we live in the world. He gives us a deep description of that and then offers concepts by which we can make sense of what we already know and extend it in powerful ways. He gives us a powerful transformative vocabulary to make our own.

Robinson: How do you apply “practice and not theory” as a philosopher, when your discipline is based on theory and not practice? 

Critchley: The fact that I’m in the philosophy department is kind of funny, really, because much of my inclination is deeply anti-philosophical. I think philosophy gives people the wrong theoretical frameworks for getting close to life as it is lived. In my work, I kept trying to speak about things that I think do get close to life as it is lived. I wrote a book on humor, football, music, David Bowie, and things like that.

I’m an existentialist. I’m maybe one of the last existentialists in the world. I think that existence has to be described, and we lose that when we approach it with the wrong frame. I’m always trying to use theory against theory, to get language to point back toward life in its tangled, ambiguous richness. It involves me in a series of acts of sabotage against philosophy, which is how I characterize my career. I’m as much an anti-philosopher as I’m a philosopher. I’m just using philosophy to attack philosophy. 

Robinson: Being and Time was left unfinished by Heidegger. Why was he unable to complete Being and Time, and why was this the only major book he produced? 

Critchley: He was forced to publish it in order to get a full professorship in Germany. unfinished because he didn’t really want to publish. He was in a publish-or-perish situation and wanted a professorship. It’s also important to remember that Heidegger was from a lower-middle-class background, quite a humble, provincial family. He was more or less forced to put that book out. 

I think he either couldn’t finish it, or he lost faith in it, or he lost interest in it. I think another thing could be that he just moved on. What he was doing in the 1920s in his writing was incredibly rich and wild, in terms of the sheer creativity of what he was doing. He could have spent another ten years rounding out that project, but his mind was already moving on to other things. 

There are some lectures from that era that were posthumously published, where he goes a little further than what he says in Being and Time but not very much further. He loses faith in philosophy as he understood it, which was in this tradition that he got from his teacher Husserl’s phenomenology and from his own scholarly work on Aristotle. He was doing philosophy in this transcendental tradition, trying to find the conditions of possibility for experience. 

I think that at a certain point in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he comes to a dead end, and he realizes that he can’t say what he wants to say. There’s a famous student of Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who I met when I was a graduate student. He told me that Being and Time was important, full of fantastic stuff, but a failure, and then the rest of his career he’s kind of building castles in the air. There’s nothing wrong with building castles in the air. He just kept trying to find different ways of approaching what he wanted to approach, but he knew that the matter of thinking, the matter that he wanted to describe, lay outside of philosophy as it was traditionally understood. He was dissatisfied with the attempts that he’d made to articulate Being within the language of philosophy. If he’d have had the ability in other forms, like music or poetry or whatever, maybe he would have developed that more, but he didn’t.

Whether there’s a “turn” in his career away from philosophy and into something else is debated. I don’t think there’s a turn so much as that Heidegger tries a different series of approaches to what he wants to say. If there is a turn, it’s a turn towards poetry, in particular the poetry of Hölderlin, who was the poet for Heidegger. Poetry was important to Heidegger over other art forms because it was all he knew. He didn’t have any musical sense or a sophisticated visual sense. Poetry was the one art form he felt he could lean on. He thought poetry served as a form of historical world disclosure.