From Existentialism to Humanism and back

Heidegger was interested in meeting Sartre. Naturally he hoped that this might also help his position with regard to his case, which was then being investigated by the denazification committee. Towarnicki thus had Heideggec's and Sartre's agreement to meet in Baden-Baden; he even tried to persuade Camus to join the project, but Camus declined because of Heidegger's rectorship. In the end, the meeting did not come about. At first there were no travel passes, and then there was no room on the train. At least that is what Towarnicki reported when, in 1993, he published the French translation of a letter from Heidegger to Sartre, written on October 28, 1945, after the missed opportunity.

Ein Meister aus Deutschland: Heidegger und seine Zeit, Rüdiger Safranski, 1994.

Heidegger's letter to Sartre.



Sartre first realised what a celebrity he had become on 28 October 1945, when he gave a public talk for the Club Maintenant (the ‘Now Club’) at the Salle des Centraux in Paris. Both he and the organisers had underestimated the size of the crowd that would show up for a talk by Sartre. The box office was mobbed; many people went in free because they could not get near to the ticket desk. In the jostling, chairs were damaged, and a few audience members passed out in the unseasonable heat. As a photo-caption writer for Time magazine put it, ‘Philosopher Sartre. Women swooned.’
The talk was a big success. Sartre, who was only about five foot high, must have been barely visible above the crowd, but he delivered a rousing exposition of his ideas, and later turned it into a book, L’Existentialisme est un humanisme.

At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell, 2016.

Sartre's public talk appears in the Michel Gondry 2013 film Mood Indigo, based on Boris Vian's 1947 parody of Left-bank Existentialism L'écume des jours.


In presenting the existential thesis in a simplified form for the public at large, Sartre occupied, more than ever, the center stage. But with respect to the content, he moved away from the high-level philosophical reflection that had allowed him to enter into dialogue with Heidegger. Sartre is cited henceforth only as the representative of “atheistic existentialism,” a circumstantial expression that is based on no textual reference but that nonetheless would be repeated for years, a veritable platitude in presentations on existentialism. Paradoxically, even with this intellectual distinction, which was barely perceived at the time, Sartre presented existentialism (in a critical confrontation with Marxism and Christian spiritualism) as an ideological camp to which Heidegger’s thought belonged. One does not find a word of reservation or criticism toward Heidegger in L’Existentialisme est un humanisme.

Heidegger en France, Dominique Janicaud, 2001.


Sartre presented Heidegger's philosophy as coterminous with his brand of existentialism. He claimed that it was a prime example of "atheistic existentialism" and defined the essential component of Heidegger's thought in the formula "existence precedes essence." Sartre cites Heidegger frequently throughout the lecture and takes little time to distinguish between his ideas and Heidegger's or to establish any differences between the two. Sartre presents Heidegger's Dasein as réalité-humaine and thus reiterates his incorporation of Dasein into the cogito. Sartre's reduction of Heidegger's philosophy into the phrase "existence precedes essence" is an inversion of Descartes's formula. In place of "I think, therefore I am," Sartre postulates "I am, therefore I think". This inversion conserves the Cartesian cogito and places it at the center of Heidegger's philosophy, reformulated by Sartre in the image of the French philosophical tradition. This is the domestication of Heidegger's philosophy in France.

Generation Existential, Ethan Kleinberg, 2005.


A young French soldier named Frédéric de Towarnicki, who was involved in a cultural service as part of the Occupation Forces near Freiburg, visited Heidegger and gave him two issues of Confluences. Beaufret then by chance met Towarnicki, who told him about Heidegger. Impressed by this coincidence, Beaufret decided to write to the German thinker in November 1945, and Heidegger answered him on November 23, 1945. Let us pay attention to the context of this first letter. First, there is the mediation of the writing and the reading. Heidegger told Beaufret he had only read issues 2 and 5 of Confluences. Issue number 2 dealt with Kierkegaard and the idea of existence in Heidegger.The article ended by evoking the future examination of the “ethical and political consequences” of “Heideggerian existentialism,” which will be, almost a year later, Beaufret’s second question in the “Letter on Humanism.” Issue number 5 addressed the influence of Husserl’s eidetic method on Sartre’s work. Heidegger continued by writing:“As early as the first article (in issue number 2) I saw the high concept that you have of the essence of philosophy” (Q III 129). Beaufret had understood, at that very time, that the main point was to raise anew the question posed by Plato and Aristotle, namely the question of Being on the basis of existence, such as it may be for each of us a proper existence.

The Thoughtful Dialogue Between Martin Heidegger and Jean Beaufret, Pierre Jacerme, 2005.


Heidegger's letter to Beaufret.


It seems that Towarnicki was indeed the first to have dared to brave the many obstacles in order to venture to 47 Rötebuckveg, in Zähringen at the edge of Freiburg. In the course of a first unsuccessful visit (which took place around the end of the summer of 1945), he encountered only Heidegger’s wife. He returned during the fall with Alain Resnais and this time actually met with Heidegger. His very lively account of this meeting is worth reading; it is incontestably in good faith, and seems as faithful as possible; but one cannot find any philosophical revelation, nor any truly precise information about Heidegger’s past. This ac-count offers the sketch of what was to become the typical scenario of the visits of the French to Freiburg—the visitors, who were visibly intimidated, would do their best to introduce themselves, inquire about the thinking of the Master and the state of his work, or even dare a few bolder questions regarding politics, while their host showed great courtesy mixed with an amused (or perhaps bemused) curiosity concerning his Parisian celebrity, and asked questions about the better known philosophers.
During his very first visit to Heidegger’s residence, Frédéric de Towarnicki gave Mrs. Heidegger two issues of the journal Confluences with a series of recent articles by Jean Beaufret, “À propos de l’existentialisme.” A minor occurrence with great effects: this minor event occasioned one of the most profound and well-known philosophical friendships in history!
At the time, Towarnicki himself did not realize the consequences of this gesture. But he appreciated the quality of Beaufret’s work and hoped that Heidegger would recognize the effort being made to grapple with his thought in its specificity without reducing it to the Sartrean horizon.
This showed great instinct, considering that there was only one text involved. It must be emphasized that personal relations between Heidegger and Beaufret came after the philosophical readings and not the reverse. It has been suggested (and without doubt believed in good faith) that Heidegger wrote his famous “Letter on Humanism,” addressed to Jean Beaufret, in an attempt to establish support in France, throwing it out like a rescue buoy, when he was so terribly isolated in Germany. This last point is perhaps not completely erroneous, but prior to this, Heidegger’s attention had been awakened by the reading of Beaufret’s text—this act of recognition from such an exceptional reader as Heidegger had a unique value that transcended psychological or anecdotal considerations. Given the enthusiasm of some French intellectuals who had come to Freiburg, Heidegger was not lacking external “support” (was not Sartre potentially the most impressive among them?). What was lacking, much more radically in 1945, was an authentic philosophical account of the path of his thinking following the publication of Being and Time, which was already fifteen years old. Knowing now the ever so decisive volumes of the Gesamtausgabe, which punctuated his itinerary from 1936—in particular, the Nietzsche lectures and the Beiträge—one can better measure his extraordinary intellectual isolation, which was further reinforced by circumstances. Having published practically nothing for fifteen years, although intensely pursuing his “turn” all the while, he had no real interlocutors. Perhaps only a few former students or colleagues, such as Walter Biemel and Eugen Fink, were able to sense the depth of this profound intellectual solitude.

Heidegger en France, Dominique Janicaud, 2001.


While Towarnicki was in Paris, Heidegger read Being and Nothingness. He was impressed with Sartre's use of phenomenological description, and in reading Sartre's philosophical opus Heidegger came to understand the association between his philosophical work and French existentialism. To Heidegger, Sartre's emphasis on the human actor and the conservation of the Cartesian ego cogito was a misreading of his work. As a result, he was impatient to meet Sartre and discuss the discrepancies between their philosophical programs. When Towarnicki returned from Paris, Heidegger set out to instruct him about the fundamental differences between his philosophical project and Sartre's existentialism. Heidegger explained to Towarnicki that, unlike Sartre in Being and Nothingness, he in Being and Time had been interested solely in the question of being. "And that question was not an anthropological interrogation of human experience or the foundations for an ethics, but the question into the truth of Being in itself."

Heidegger and Towarnicki on Freiburg campus, 1945, picture by Alan Resnais.


During this visit, Heidegger also tried to explain what he saw as the problems with the French presentation of Dasein:
Heidegger smiled with a perplexed air, then he started to laugh: "You philosophize on the ground like the Greeks." No. Dasein is not the cogito, the world is not inside of consciousness. Dasein does not mean "There I am"; it is more like "there." Heidegger pointed to a grove of magnolias at the edge of the park. He explained to me that Dasein is (Being) in the world.
Heidegger's presentation of his philosophy was nothing like the first reading of his work in France; Heidegger's concerns were seperate from those of Sartre's existentialism. Towarnicki returned to Paris ready to spread this information.

Generation Existential, Ethan Kleinberg, 2005.


Even if Beaufret was superficial or somewhat hasty on certain points, his brilliant intuitions and desire to do justice to Heidegger’s originality caused the Master to take careful note of his work. One must begin there to understand the thirty-year philosophical friendship between Martin Heidegger and Jean Beaufret. Their first meeting took place in September of 1946 at the Todtnauberg hut, which Beaufret approached with supplies and baskets given to him by Heidegger’s daughter-in-law in Freiburg. The expedition, which was captured in a picturesque account, was carried out to this point in a military vehicle thanks to Joseph Katz, who at the time had the rank of commander. Katz continued on to Salzburg; Beaufret settled at the inn at Todtnauberg, where he spent two days. “It was over the course of these two days that I asked Heidegger to explain to me who he was.” We do not know the answer to the first question posed: “Who is Husserl for you?” Heidegger did, however, dictate a response to the second question, “And you, who are you?” In a few pages, Heidegger announced both the “Letter on Humanism” and the elucidation of the “truth of being”: an explanation of his thought that he would continue to provide to Jean Beaufret, who would be his friend from then on.
It was November 1946. Jean Beaufret spontaneously drafted questions to the attention of the master, on the table of a café, intending to entrust a friend heading to Freiburg with them. He had already ex-changed a letter once with Heidegger, which gave him hope for a reply, but he was still far from expecting him to take the trouble to reflect upon his questions thoroughly and to compose a powerful and well-wrought text that was destined to become famous. His wish was above all to give the dialogue he was weaving with the Master a philosophical content.
In his first question, Beaufret quoted a sentence by Paul Valéry about the “proponents of action,” clearly with Sartre’s theory of engagement in mind. This enables us to understand why the “Letter on Humanism” begins so abruptly: “We are still far from pondering the essence of action decisively enough.” The second question, which would give this text its title, appeared very early in the “Letter on Humanism”: “How can we restore meaning to the word ‘humanism’?” While categorically objecting to the project denoted by this question (since it employs a word ending in -ism, a source of contention and of what he dramatically called a “misfortune”), it is to this question that Heidegger responded at length, but not without resituating it in terms of his own perspective, that is, his understanding of the forgetting of being. It is only in the last few pages of his long response that Heidegger addressed the third, and quite benign, question: “How can we preserve the element of adventure that all research contains without simply turning philosophy into an adventuress?”
[Beaufret] was looking for an overly delicate balance—impossible to maintain for long—not only between existentialism and Marxism but also between phenomenology and Platonism. Heidegger’s answer disrupted this very personal, Parisian, circumstantial, and dated circle of four, although crafted by a talented and overly “conciliatory” professor. Seen from Freiburg, these nuances seemed irrelevant. What mattered for Heidegger was the opportunity (which he seized in a remarkable manner) to reply to Sartre and to differentiate himself from him. More than Jean Beaufret’s questions, it was the text itself (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme) that was at issue.
This long reply to Jean Beaufret still needed to be understood. The addressee immediately set himself to this task, showing the way to all those who—along with great professors who had already become readers of Heidegger: Jean Wahl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Hyppolite, and soon Henri Birault—understood the unique and difficult task demanded of them by Heidegger’s thought.
With respect to the very question of humanism, there was truly an abyss, which was difficult to measure in the years 1946–47 and following, between Sartre’s position—shared by many at that time, including Merleau-Ponty—and Heidegger’s unusual way of questioning. Were they even speaking about the same “thing”?

Heidegger en France, Dominique Janicaud, 2001.

For the influence of the above on Foucault see this excerpt from James Miller's Passion of Michel Foucault.

Created 2020/6/20
Last updated 2020/6/27