I moved to Canada during the Vietnam war and almost by accident found myself an undergrad at Saint Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. I’m anything but Catholic, but Saint Mike’s, as everyone called it, turned out to be a pleasant place. It had a certain international sheen, being the home of the grandly named Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, and it had its stars, too, the Institute’s founder Étienne Gilson and Marshall McLuhan chief among them. On a slightly less exalted rung was Father Arthur Gibson, a theologian and expert on the films of Ingmar Bergman. It was rumored that he and Bergman were friends, and he gave regular presentations of the master’s films with discussion afterwards.

My one encounter with Father Gibson came after a showing of Winter Light. It was, he told us, the story of a Lutheran pastor tormented by the silence of God. (The Silence of God happened to be the title of his book on Bergman.) But I saw something else in the film: a man so frightened that he had been abandoned by God, so obsessed with the divine silence, that he failed every person who cared for him or needed him. The most sympathetic character was the woman who loved the pastor but whom he rejected with uncalled-for cruelty, and when the lights came up and questions were solicited I said something to that effect.

Father Gibson was never nonplussed. “Have you seen Persona?” he asked. I owned that I had not. “If you had,” he told me, “you would have seen that I was right.”

To this day I have not seen Persona. I think Gibson put me off it. I don’t think watching that film would have changed my mind about Winter Light, but I can’t say. What I can say is that Bergman’s film refused to separate the pastor’s relations with the divine from his relations with other people, and that rings true. The two realms cannot be teased apart. The pastor’s Lutheran piety had done just that, though, and that was the root of his problem. I did not mind that he felt estranged and lost. I was an adolescent at the time and I knew those feelings well. What bothered me was that he thought that his was a private crisis. His obsession with the state of his own soul looked to me like narcissism and his failures were not spiritual but pathological. Why did he think that he was alone in the world?

Believers are not the only ones who fall into that trap. The existentialists were as focused on individual estrangement as Bergman’s pastor; it is not surprising that Bergman used to be thought of as the Existentialist filmmaker par excellence. We are each of us alone in the world. What we are is entirely up to us, and every individual confronts life in splendid and terrifying isolation, like a résistant facing the Gestapo. It would be inauthentic to rely on anyone else, and we cannot expect anyone to speak to us out of the abyss, yet the religious angst remained; we are not merely free, Sartre said, we are condemned to be free.

Sartre liked to present his thoughts as a clean break from the past. He may have believed this himself; he was apparently stunned that phenomenology made it possible to philosophize about the glass on his café table. But he owed much to Heidegger, as did many of his contemporaries, and Heidegger’s own thought can best be seen in the context of classical German philosophy—the idealist tradition which he rejected, along with its humanism and its embrace of Enlightenment values.

In their different ways Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel had been focused on the relationship between an indefinable absolute and the multiform world of humanity, and what was most novel and important about their thought was that they saw these two as ultimately one. Their absolute is not to be confused with a personal divinity (Schelling’s is something of an exception), but their insistence on the unity of unity and multiplicity is a kind of resolution of the pastor’s problem. The absolute does not speak, but it is not distant either. It is manifest in thought and in flesh, in blood, wood, ice, cod, bell, and stone, and humanity itself raises it to consciousness and gives it voice. We are never apart from it, although we are usually unaware of that blessedness; Hegel told his students, “The consummation of the infinite End consists merely in removing the illusion which makes it seem yet unaccomplished.”[i]

How this fits together for Hegel is well known, at least in its broad outlines. The absolute makes itself into what it is through human history and human interactions. It is the world, but it is the story of the world, as told to itself. “Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is it what it is in very truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual, subject, or self-becoming, self-development.”[ii]

Fichte’s integration of the human and the divine, and the relative and the absolute, is less familiar. He stopped publishing formal philosophical works before he could set out his entire system, and most English-language Fichte scholarship has seen his early work as paradigmatic, focusing on the acts by which self-consciousness bootstraps itself into being, the I positing itself and positing the Not-I. Fichte never saw these acts as taking place in a vacuum, though—“nobody thinks himself”—and “the synthesis of the spiritual world” was to be the capstone of the Wissenschaftslehre.

Religious themes predominate in Fichte’s unpublished university lectures and the popular texts of his later years. It is as far as one can imagine from the Lutheranism he was raised in, which was strongly influenced by Augustine. Fichte’s absolute is eternally one, and that pretty much exhausts what one can say about it. But that is only what it is in itself; it also manifests itself, both in and as the world, as “agility through and through, pure transparency, light.” Its interweaving motion produces “the world of the senses … or nature, [which] is indeed nothing but appearance, [but which is] precisely the appearance of the immanent light,” the absolute as it must show itself if it is to be perceived.

Set aside the theological grounding, and what one sees is a single process akin to Hegel’s Bacchanalian whirl, one life which makes and is made by all lives. That singular activity diversifies itself in two dimensions: into the multiplicity of beings and, through self-positing, into subject and object, being and thought, “each individuum … a particular perspective of this system.” We objectify our situatedness, taking its perspective to define an essential self, and we seem to confront an objectified social world. But through that world flows the same life that courses through our own veins. It is woven from intentions and actions that only appear to originate with separate and discrete beings. Self and world are identical at their root, and to change one is to change the other.[iii]

Fichte saw this as evidence of the divine: “the union and direct reciprocal action of many separate and independent wills” is “a mystery which already lies clearly before every eye … without attracting the notice of anyone,” and it “can be explained only through the One in whom they are united while separate from each other.”[iv] All of his egalitarianism flows from this. Nobody occupies a privileged position. The heart of morality is to embrace the entirety of the process and surrender any claim to special treatment, any individuality, and the aim of politics is to ensure that every person has the sustenance, education, and leisure to join in “the process of communal perfection, that is, perfecting ourselves by freely making use of the effect which others have on us and by perfecting others by acting in turn upon them as upon free beings.”[v]

I suspect that both Hegel and Fichte would have sided with me and not with Father Gibson. God had not turned away from Bergman’s pastor; the pastor himself had silenced God when he turned away from common life. For Fichte, especially, the human vocation demands nothing more and nothing less of us than to engage fully and openly with all others. To do so is true blessedness and the true life in love, where “Being and Existence, God and Man, are one; wholly transfused and lost in each other.”[vi]

Language like this is hardly fashionable today, but there is much that is worthwhile in idealism even when the divine is left out. It is difficult to argue that non-metaphysical readings of Hegel are historically justified, but substituting “the community of rational agents” for Hegel’s absolute had led to some valuable and coherent arguments. There are grounds for naturalizing Fichte’s metaphysics, too. The idea that there is a single process which gives rise to all things and beings is a perfectly defensible point of departure, even though it leaves our everyday sense of self on uneasy terrain, and the logic of that totality would indeed tend towards egalitarianism. It has some experimental support as well; contemporary biology and neuroscience, for example, have dispelled some of the mystery that Fichte had seen in the reciprocal connections among beings.

Less than a decade after Hegel’s death, in fact, Feuerbach was already naturalizing his teacher’s absolute. He argued that the attributes we had ascribed to a deity were in reality the attributes of the human community. Marx took up this notion, fused it with his own reading of both Hegel and Fichte, and forged a theory of revolution in which social and individual transformation were inseparable. This, and not Feuerbach’s writings, is arguably the real end of German classical philosophy.

It is not that the systems themselves failed, although they did. What vanished was the underlying confidence in an essential unity, the identity between individual aspiration and the inherent logic of the whole. Schopenhauer’s Will is a source of misery; better to be dead. Kierkegaard mocked Hegel’s system building and left himself isolated, outside of every imaginable community and rooted only in God. Marx, too, felt the loss, especially after the disappointments of 1848 and 1849, but turning his early theories into a science of society left a hole where the person used to stand. Decades later the Frankfurt School tried to fill that void with Freudianism, with no lasting success.

And this brings us, at last, to Heidegger. His debt to Fichte is self-evident, especially in his concern with the underlying movement of Being and that movement’s betrayal when fossilized into a thought-world of subject and object. Yet the differences are far more important; his is the post-idealist, fundamentally reactionary world where the unity of unity and multiplicity is sundered.[vii] “Dasein’s being is care,” and our lives are a form of Being-with that goes beyond the soul-destroying realm of das Man, but even that aspect of our lives is sundered from Being itself. Care “comprises in itself facticity (thrownness), existence (projection), and falling;” we are merely a potentiality-for Being, and can save ourselves only by “Being-free for death.” “Once one has grasped the finitude of one’s existence, it snatches one back from the endless multiplicity of possibilities which offer themselves as closest to one—those of comfortableness, shirking, and taking things lightly—and brings Dasein into the simplicity of its fate.”[viii]

Falling in love feels something like this, and the emotional kernel of Being and Time might have had something to do with Heidegger’s passion for the young Hannah Arendt. But as a philosophical demand it is very much of its time. It is the impetus that swept so many into the armies of the First World War. In an impressive essay on “the vertiginous urge to commit history” Eelco Runia cites Rupert Brooke, who would die a few months into the war without ever seeing battle:

“Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,

And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping.”[ix]

One thinks, too, of Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, singing Schubert as he marches to the front.

The slaughter of 1914 through 1918 did nothing to dim this siren appeal. It runs through the legal theory of Carl Schmitt, and it echoes in the “call to resolute living” in the closing song of Hans Pfitzner’s cantata Von Deutscher Seele, premiered in 1922, five years before Heidegger’s book: listen to nobody else, the words go, for God has rolled out the waves on which you travel and placed the stars to protect you. It is intrinsic to the appeal of fascism, which Mussolini claimed swept away the corruption and shabbiness of parliamentary democracy, and it led Heidegger to Hitler; he joined the Nazi party in 1933 and it seems that his major problem with Nazism was that it did not go far enough. As Karl Löwith pointed out in 1946, Heidegger’s ideas came straight out of the tradition of the German extreme right, and his Nazism, like Schmitt’s, was not an unfortunate error but an integral part of his philosophy.

Heidegger’s success was due, at least in part, to a gift for expressing commonplaces in particularly pointed and exalted language. This created a problem after the war, of course. What gave Heidegger cover was his “turn” to a more passive philosophy. Humanity has turned away from Being, and it was up to Being to unveil itself and transform our lives. Since it had chosen to remain concealed, all we could do was wait, hope, and condemn technology. As he said in a famous and deeply dishonest 1966 interview, “Only a god can save us.”

This is well-turned soil, and I am not interested in or capable of adding to Richard Wolin’s Heidegger in Ruins or the other well-merited critiques of Heidegger. I bring him up only to frame the pastor’s problem, which arises once we reject the identity of self and world that was central to the idealist project. If what is demanded of us has nothing to do with the lives of others, if our deepest and most authentic concerns are directed towards something to which or to whom the social realm is alien—either an invisible deity or an equally invisible self—then our real lives are not livable in our world and that world and all its people can go to ruin. Passivity, condescension, and destructive fury are all pathologies of isolation, the keener because that isolation is self-made.

Bergman’s pastor and the ex-seminarian Heidegger are extreme cases, both of them Christian souls marooned on a godless planet, lost and alone. But for us, too, the social world seems fundamentally alien—a situation we tolerate by emptying it of content—and we are all familiar with the world of das Man and all too often lured towards self-pity or alienated withdrawal. We may not agree that hell is other people, but there is no doubt that life is often unsatisfactory, the demands of everyday business burdensome, the choices on offer in political life criminally narrow, and the blandishments of contemporary culture empty, smug, or dispiriting. The idealists, who worked out their thoughts in a revolutionary age, faced similar problems, but they were not discouraged. They insisted that it is our world nonetheless. We make it together, we can and must change it, but we do not need to be rescued from it, and its gods are never silent. As a recent book says of Hegel,

“The absolute is out there in the open, it requires no arcane language, no secret talent or expertise; we encounter it in the most ordinary utterances of daily life. We give voice to it every time we speak. Philosophy brings us to see what is invisible in plain sight: it teaches us to stumble. We need to learn how to take up what is right there before our eyes.”[x]


[i]                 G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, being Part One of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, tr. Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 274.

[ii]                G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Preface, § 20.

[iii]               All quotes in these three paragraphs are from a letter of Fichte to Schelling, May 31, 1801, in Jochen Schulte-Sasse, ed., Theory as Practice; A Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings (Minneapolis: Minnesota University press, 1997), pp. 83-84.

[iv]               J. G. Fichte, The Vocation of Man, tr. W. Smith, rev. R. Chisolm (Indianapolis: The Liberal Arts Press, 1956), p. 135, 137.

[v]                J. G. Fichte, Lectures on the Vocation of the Scholar (1794), in EPW, p. 160.

[vi]               J. G. Fichte, The Way to the Blessed Life, tr. W. Smith, in The Popular Works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (London: Chapman, 1849), Vol. 2, p. 471.

[vii]              In Heidegger’s Children (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 8) Richard Wolin cites Fichte’s description of the present as “the age of absolute sinfulness” to draw a parallel between him and Heidegger, but in its context this phrase (actually “completed sinfulness”) simply characterizes the most negative moment in the dialectical realization of reason in human life. See J. G. Fichte, The Characteristics of the Present Age, tr. W. Smith, in The Popular Works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, supra, Vol. 2, p. 9.

[viii]             Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, tr. Macquarrie & Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), § II.2, p. 329; § II.5, p. 435.

[ix]               In Eelco Runia, “Into Cleanness Leaping: The Vertiginous Urge to Commit History,” History and Theory 49 (February 2010), 1-20, at 18.

[x]                Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, The Dash—The Other Side of Absolute Knowing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), p. 58.