Here it is said that Heidegger viewed German and Greek as the only languages in which doing philosophy is possible at all.

The article references several sources [I won't list them to save space] I don't have any access to. If someone has these sources, please provide the argument from Heidegger supporting the claim.

For those who know a lot about Heidegger's thought, any educated guesses about what the argument (arguments?) might have been would be greatly appreciated.

  • 2
    Here I found a copy of the "Spiegel". and here I found a translation (I don't know about its quality). – miracle173 Sep 21 '16 at 10:01

First, I want to mention an important rule (which of course has caveats), but the accuracy with which a philosopher writes about the history of philosophy is in general inversely proportional to their own fame (and infamy).

There's several different dimensions on which we can trace Heidegger's beliefs about Greek and German being the only languages for philosophy.

It's worth mentioning that Heidegger was a Nazi and based on writings that we've found one who was pretty committed to at least some of their theses. But I don't think this means his preference for Germany and Greece arose because he was a Nazi. Instead, I think the more likely case is that he joined up with the Nazis because he already thought for his own reasons that German language / culture was superior. While joining the Nazis provided him with near instantaneous benefits (being a rector, etc), the relationship between him and a lot of what they thought seems to be a matter of debate (I'm not saying here he's not a Nazi nor that his views deserve a pass -- just that we can't attribute every nazi view to Heidegger -- even if we can say he deserves guilt and blame for being in their party and the atrocities it committed).

So then the question would be why does Heidegger believe philosophy can only be done in Greek and German? (or perhaps why do I think the causal arrow for Heidegger goes Germany is great → join Nazis and not the other way around).

Part of it is that Heidegger's view on the history of philosophy goes something like this (caveat lector - this is a gross oversimplification):

Greeks discovered Being and interacted with it sparking great philosophy, especially pre-Socratics. Romans and Christianity got confused and obsessed with "beings," losing sight of Being. Germany recovers the philosophy of Being especially when not caught up in the myths perpetrated by Christianity. The hints as to how/where Being has been hiding are hidden in plain sight in the German language.

We can see him trying to do this starting all the way back in Being and Time where he works on the etymology of certain German words to accomplish his argument (His followers think he's doing great etymology; his detractors disagree). See the SEP entry here

Where does this idea come from?

  1. Many German thinkers thought Greek and German had a special link -- "inner relationship of the German language with the language of the Greeks and with their thought”. (Quotations from Only a God can Save Us 113 [quoted from SEP linked above].)

  2. I don't think it greatly influenced Heidegger, but Hegel also thought philosophy started with the Greeks and that the Romans interrupted with codification and other things. It's quite possible this was a common thought taught in German classical education.

  3. Heidegger thought the Romance languages where under the sway of metaphysics and didn't have the ability to break free to primordial being. Ergo, he thinks they're not going to be useful for getting to Being.

all of that to say, Heidegger both before and while a Nazi thought German could unlock the grip of metaphysics and get us to the real nature of the world when it looked at Being. He also thought the Greeks had captured that at some point too -- though they eventually lost it when they started doing metaphysics.

  • What a brilliant answer! Thank you a lot for it and spending your time writing it. – Michael Smith Sep 21 '16 at 11:35
  • One little question, though: what about languages (excluding Greek and German) that are not Romance? For example, English is not a Romance language, but a West Germanic one. There are several dozens of non-Romance languages spoken in the civilized parts of the world, also. What's wrong about Japanese, for example? – Michael Smith Sep 21 '16 at 11:48
  • 1
    I'll have to scan my brain a little harder on that front, but there's some weird thing that happened where Heidegger tried to translate the Dao De Jing and also that there were Japanese disciples (one of whom was sent by Nishida if I'm remembering correctly), but I can't immediately recall a single focused quote where he said their languages were inadequate for philosophy... (See for instance nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/2070 , jstor.org/stable/1566309?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents , nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/2131 ) – virmaior Sep 21 '16 at 12:47
  • Thank you for this insight, but I mentioned Japanese as a mere example. If I were interested in a particular language, I would choose English (bias here, yeah). Do you know anything Heidegger had against English? Was he originally talking about German, or the Germanic languages? And by analogy, was he talking about Greek, or about the Indo-European languages (at least ones resembling Greek the closest as Greek is an independent branch, according to Wikipedia)? – Michael Smith Sep 22 '16 at 7:02
  • I don't remember too clearly as I haven't made it a research topic, but my sense is he viewed English as under the same problem as Romance languages . And then more generally, I at least don't think he understood etymology well enough to have an opinion on how German fits in the language tree to justify his belief it has special insight. I think (though I'm sure a deeply committed Heidegger scholar could argue otherwise) that he's impressed more because he thinks it arrives at insights he thinks are deep. = our knives are sharpest because they're best at cutting cheese – virmaior Sep 22 '16 at 11:48

Here I found a photocopy of the "Spiegel"("Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten", Der Spiegel, Nr23/1976,p3,p5,pp193-219). and here I found a translation (I don't know about its quality).

HEIDEGGER: Ich denke an die besondere innere Verwandtschaft der deutschen Sprache mit der Sprache der Griechen und deren Denken. Das besätigen mir heute immer wieder die Franzosen. Wenn sie zu denken anfangen, sprechen sie deutsch; sie versichern, sie kämen in ihrer Sprache nicht durch. [(Der Spiegel, Nr23/1976, p 217)]

Here is the translation from the link above:

HEIDEGGER: I am thinking of the special inner relationship between the German language and the language and thinking of the Greeks. This has been confirmed to me again and again today by the French. When they begin to think they speak German. They insist that they could not get through with their own language.


You can see:

  • George Steiner, Heidegger (1st ed, 1978), page 22:

“Das Wort ‘Philosophie’ spricht jetzt griechisch.” This means, literally, that the word itself, if we hear it rightly, speaks Greek.

See page 60:

But it is not with the German roots that we must start; it is with Greek etymology, for “along with German, the Greek language is (in regard to its possibilities for thought) at once the most powerful and the most spiritual of all languages.”

For Greek, the source is Heidegger's lecture Was ist das - die Philosophie (1955); see page 45.

  • Thank you for the link to the original argument (which I am not too versed enough in philosophy to grasp, sadly), but where does German come into the picture? I have upvoted the answer, but haven't marked it as accepted because the issue with German isn't clear. – Michael Smith Sep 21 '16 at 9:39

It is the 'pure-ness' of the language that makes Greek and German better for philosophy than, e.g., English.

As you read Heidegger in German or translated in a language close enough to keep all or most of the word-play intact (e.g., Dutch), you'll see the way he builds up his insights. This word comes from this and that, in this and that way it means such and such, but in this and that sentence it means something else, so how is that possible; what is the common root, what is the basic meaning that underlies both differing specific meanings; how is the derivation or development of this to be explained; etc. This technique doesn't make for his strongest arguments; but it provides him the basic elements with which he builds his thinking. If you accept his thinking in the larger picture, you can't get around his way of using etymolog; you'll have to become creative yourself in playing this game.

English is a mixed-up language. The core feeling of it is Germanic, but it has an insane amount of loan-words from Latin. If you take any German or Dutch stem-word from which a long list of derived words can be made, and you translate that into English, you'll see that only the one stem-word in English is still of Germanic origin; the rest are all very different loanwords. Result: the underlying basic meaning cannot be traced easily. Result of which is English words will function like 'stickers': this means that, because we said so, just learn it by heart. German and Dutch words mean something because the words themselves say so. Basically, as an English speaker, you'll need to speak both Latin and German to understand your own language.

Example: here is a list of Dutch words derived from from 'spreken' (to speak). All derivations still show traces of 'spreken', 'spraak', 'gesprek'. In English only 'to speak' remains; the rest are Latin words, and not even from the same Latin word:

Spreken - speak

Aanspreken - address/ appeal

Afspreken - agree/ make an appointment

Bespreken - discuss

Gesprek- talk, conversation

(...) Inspreken - record/ leave a message/ encourage

Tegenspreken - contradict

Uitspreken - pronounce

Verspreken - make slip of tongue

Vanzelfsprekend - evidently, obviously, naturally, taken for granted

Vrijspreken - absolve, acquit

As for Heidegger's aversion to Romans and Latin (which is a pretty pure language by itself), this lies somewhere else, mostly. Also, it has to do with the fact that when the Romans translated into Latin (same argument as with English) they romanized everything, also the meaning of words.

But the way in which Heidegger places the Romans in his history of being is another argument. He really reserves a special place for them, as one of the historical high-points/deep-points of nihilism, only to be surpassed by Nietzsche and the technological age (the make-ability of beings coming to the foreground of understanding the world, and a subsequent ending of philosophizing as development of new Original metaphysical basic positions). To argue with this, one must find another way of engaging with Roman culture (e.g., their art; Heidegger focuses more on their politics and their (lack of) philosophy), because, in Heidegger's own terms, you cannot get around this role they played without changing the development of his history of being both backward and forward.


To answer the second part of your question, Heidegger was a Nazi, not an organisation renowned for their rational opinion of nationality. I don't see why, just because he's a famous philosopher, we need seek any more rational explanation for why he considered certain languages to be better than others than racism.

  • 2
    Three thoughts. (1) Can you better connect his Naziism (which is a problem) to the question at hand. Right now, mentioning that as you do just seems like an instance of the genetic fallacy. (2) Obviously we need not seek any explanation of just about anything, but SE is predicated on giving people explanations they seek... (3) This seems more like a comment on the OPs question (as to its validity) than an answer. – virmaior Sep 21 '16 at 10:28
  • 1
    @viramaior Yes, my point about his Nazism is that Nazism at its heart has the concept that certain nationalities are better than others in every way. Therefore, it follows that someone who is a Nazi would select some nationalities (typical of Nazism would be their own and one other classical civilisation) and claim them to be better in every way (including their language for the study of philosophy) than any other. – Isaacson Sep 21 '16 at 10:34
  • I specifically related my answer to the second part of the question which asks for educated guesses as to what the arguments might have been. As Heidegger was not secretly a Nazi it seems a reasonable educated guess that his racism may have been the argument. I'm not sure we could characterize SE as "giving people explanations they seek". What they seek and what we can best estimate to be true might not be the same thing. – Isaacson Sep 21 '16 at 10:39
  • 2
    One of the central themes in "being and time" is how language breaks down when discussing the concept of being, and the book uses special features of the german language to make philosophical points. His Nazism isn't the only, or even major factor in his philosophical discussion of language. – Racheet Sep 21 '16 at 10:53
  • @Racheet I'm not sure that the fact a very intelligent philosopher managed to come up with some pseudo-justification for his racism necessarily means it wasn't the root motive. The OP, however asked for Heidegger's given reasons, not his actual motive so if his belief in the superiority of one race was not in the text then my answer is incorrect. It was just an educated guess, as requested. – Isaacson Sep 21 '16 at 11:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.