Book Review: ‘Beginning with Heidegger’ by Michael Millerman

The bond between politics and philosophy can be dangerous

J.P. Williams
8 min readJan 11, 2024
Time Being Overcome by Truth, by Pietro Liberi, ca. 1665. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Non-podcaster philosophers don’t often crack mainstream discourse. Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin is a recent exception. The proponent of what he considers to be a pathbreaking conservatism, he has sparred with the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Antony blinken and nouveaux philosophe Bernard-Henri Lévy, but is he the bogeyman that many in the West claim? Dugin scholar and translator Michael Millerman’s Beginning with Heidegger (Arktos Media, 2020) examines Dugin’s thought alongside that of philosophers Leo Strauss, Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida through the lens of their debt to and departures from the thinking of Martin Heidegger, with a focus on the relationship between philosophy and politics.

But what has philosophy to do with politics? To some, a connection is obvious, although philosophers will contend which is subservient to the other, while others see any philosophy more abstract than the self-help shelves at Barnes & Noble as useless. Could it be, however, that fields of inquiry as abstruse as ontology and metaphysics have political implications? Political as in whether you support Joe Biden or Nikki Haley for president? Beginning with Heidegger doesn’t stoop to that level, but it is a work that takes the bond between philosophy and politics seriously.

Back to the Beginning with Martin Heidegger

In chapter 1, Millerman summarizes German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s thought and touches on its implications for politics. The great question for Heidegger was the question of being: What is, not this or that being, but being itself? The pre-Socratics addressed this question, but the history of philosophy — the history of being itself, Heidegger would stress — ever since has been one of forgetting being. Heidegger wanted to reopen the question and the best way to do that in his estimation was to examine the manner of being of the particular being that is capable of examining its own being: the human being, sometimes described via the German word Dasein. Repairing our relationship with being, Heidegger believed, would make us more authentic.

So where’s the politics? A lot of it revolves around the nature of truth: is it relative or absolute? Millerman writes that for Heidegger, many concepts are “historically constituted,” or relative, but that only holds within the world of beings. Being itself is beyond all beings, so the truth of being itself can serve as a kind of eternal truth holding across time, and since we once lived in closer union with it and now we don’t, we have the option of turning back our gaze nostalgically. Now you may begin to see a connection to conservatism with its equating of timeless values with traditional values to which it is incumbent to conform, in the worst cases at the point of a gun. Indeed, Heidegger had a complicated and still not fully revealed relationship with National Socialism.

That’s all Heidegger 101, but Millerman also focuses on what he calls the philosopher’s “inceptual thinking.” Heidegger contends that Plato was where everything went wrong with regard to human being’s relationship to being, resulting in a mistaken course that reached its end in Friedrich Nietzsche’s demolishment of metaphysics. Thus, if we think back to before Plato, we can start again. The “Beginning” in Beginning with Heidegger thus refers to Heidegger directing us toward a new path, the possibility of embarking upon that path, as well as perhaps Millerman’s own hope that his book will give us a nudge in that direction.

Millerman’s summary of Heidegger is one of the best I’ve read. Due to the jargon Heidegger was fashioning as he went, he’s difficult even to read, much less understand and critique, but Millerman’s explication, presented in academic detail, is more lucid than some introductory texts. To his credit, he also includes areas of Heidegger’s work customarily given short shrift, beginning with History of the Concept of Time and, after covering Heidegger’s major work Being and Time, diving deep into Contributions to Philosophy. As his inquiry progressed, Heidegger got so “primordial” in his thinking about being that he resorted to the archaic spelling beyng. It’s a key concept as close to the beginning of the story of being as Heidegger ever got.

Strauss, Rorty and Derrida Respond

Millerman’s chapters on German-born political philosopher Leo Strauss, American philospher Richard Rorty and French philosopher Jacques Derrida are less comprehensive, focusing on their readings of and reactions to Heidegger. Strauss heaped praise on Heidegger but felt he was politically immoderate. Rorty, ever the pragmatist, was willing to take Heidegger or leave him as suited his social democratic purposes. Derrida analogized Heidegger’s inceptual thought to apophatic theology, according to which it is only possible to describe God by saying what God is not. This is a bit squirrely, as is often the case with Derrida, but it’s fascinating. After all, if being itself is beyond everything else, then what can positively be said about it?

Millerman doesn’t grind any axes when it comes to these three thinkers, but he appears to have a distaste for Rorty. The author spends more time highlighting contradictions in Rorty’s work than is necessary for an analysis of the pragmatist’s relationship to Heidegger, perhaps merely to fill out the chapter. I found it to be a bit tedious, but that could be my own bias showing, since my approach to ideas tends to be pragmatic — trying out philosophies to see where they get me, often deferring final judgement on truth claims indefinitely — and because, like Rorty, I can’t help but occasionally suspect, despite my abiding interest in Heidegger, that his neologisms, while spellbinding, are meaningless.

Aleksandr Dugin and the Fourth Political Way

The chapter on Aleksandr Dugin is more in-depth. The Russian philosopher is the thinker represented in Millerman’s book who is most in need of introduction to the West and the one whose thought purports to be something unworn in politics: an alternative to liberalism, communism and fascism. It is, in the words of the title of one of Dugin’s books translated by Millerman, a “fourth political theory.” Dugin is the philosopher among the major thinkers in Beginning with Heidegger whose thought is most intimately bound with Heidegger’s, and he has, in contrast to Strauss, Rorty and Derrida, openly taken up the project of inceptual thinking begun by Heidegger, albeit with a Russian focus.

Whereas Heidegger used the term Dasein to refer to the being of all human beings, Dugin believes that each people has a unique Dasein. Crucial to understanding the Russian Dasein is the influence of the period of reform under the tsar Peter the Great (1672–1725). Before the Petrine reforms, Russian tradition had a focus comprised of, in Millerman’s summation, “Russia’s archaic, pre-modern attitudes, emotions, imagination, and points of reference, all of which fall outside the European experience.” After the reforms, the focus is European, westernized and modernized. Today, the Russian soul is figuratively an archeo-modern ellipse around those two foci. The balance in recent centuries has shifted toward modernity, Dugin wants to bring it back toward the archaic, and Russian president Vladimir Putin just might be the man to do it.

Millerman presents Dugin’s philosophy in the best light while also politely raising possible objections, but I’m inclined to be harsher. The ins and outs of Dugin’s thought are all very interesting, but the idea of a Russian Dasein collapses so completely upon even casual scrutiny that I see it as beneath serious philosophical consideration, and Dugin as unequal to the other major thinkers in Beginning with Heidegger. For starters, we can only define the essence of a people through generalizations that necessarily will not apply to all individuals within that people. Thus, all such concepts such as Russian (American, Japanese, etc.) Dasein, Russian essence, Russian tradition and even Russian people may be useful and stirring in some circumstances, but they are at best fuzzy and at worst empty. Any attempts to clarify the set of what counts as exemplifying a people’s soul are ultimately arbitrary and end up excluding elements that in reality belong prima facie.

This weakness was evident when Dugin debated Bernard-Henri Lévy at Nexus Symposium 2019. Lévy accused Dugin of attacks on human rights, association with destructive ideologues and support for murderous regimes, and insisted that Russian luminaries such as writers Alexander Herzen, Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Turgenev, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov exhibit an entirely different spirit. Dugin replied that many of those individuals were not “ideologically” Russian. Within the system of his philosophy, with its arbitrary differentiation into the archaic and modern demarcated by the Petrine reforms, they indeed may not be Russian, but why must we choose that system? From outside, Dugin’s claim is ridiculous. Pushkin, Turgenev, Sakharov . . . not Russian?

Can you spot the real Russians? Writers Leo Tolstoy, Dmitry Grigorovich, Ivan Goncharov, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Druzhinin and Alexander Ostrovsky. Photo by Sergey Lvovich Levitsky, 1856. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dugin’s philosophy is also problematic ethically. On 60 Minutes in 2017, for example, he spoke favorably of Putin’s authoritarian rule and didn’t deny advocating for Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, lamenting only that Putin had taken too long to disrupt the West. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which has killed or wounded hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians, displaced millions, and may be related to the car-bombing and death of Dugin’s own daughter, his statements are even more disquietening. Some aspects of Duginism may prove helpful in addressing current crises in liberal democracy, but when a philosophy results in the plainly detestable, we shouldn’t hesitate to declare that something stinks to high heaven and begin searching for the source.

In interviews promoting his books, Millerman has often struck me as steel-manning Dugin’s position while witholding his own judgement, but his position is clearer in Beginning with Heidegger. In the conclusion, he bluntly states that Dugin’s opposition to liberal democracy “does not recommend him,” but he believes we can gain from “bringing Dugin forward as an interlocutor.” Similarly, he cautions against abandoning Heidegger over his National Socialism, since Strauss, Rorty, Derrida and Dugin in their interrogations, criticisms and extensions of Heidegger’s thought “may all be profitably read.” Indeed, doing so often leads to conclusions far removed from Heidegger’s politics.

Martin Heidegger’s inceptual thought, whether in the hands of the left, right or whoever’s left staggering around in the middle, may be just what we need to open as-yet unseen vistas of thought. Whether it actually is depends on our response to Heidegger through Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and others, and to that end, Michael Millerman’s illuminating and penetrative Beginning with Heidegger is a good place to start.

Note: I wrote this for Medium.com. If you are reading this on another platform, it has been pirated. I quit the Medium Partner Program, so I’m not doing this for money. It is nice, however, to know someone’s reading, so please clap or comment to let me know somebody’s out there. Gladius adhuc lucet.

--

--

J.P. Williams

I usually write about the intersection of arts and ideas. Right now, mostly lighter, shorter pieces on whatever I feel like.