This book first appeared in 1978 in a series edited by Frank Kermode. It was later reissued by the University of Chicago Press with the prefatory essay “Heidegger: In 1991,” a reprint of an essay published by Steiner in 1989 (“Heidegger, Again”). The book is an introduction to Heidegger’s thought which is constrained by the fact that the some 60 volumes of Heidegger’s oeuvre had not yet appeared in print. Nevertheless, Steiner explores a multiplicity of texts that appeared before and after SEIN UND ZEIT, though the latter deserves and receives the bulk of his commentary.
Steiner begins by posing the fundamental question: is Heidegger one of the west’s great philosophers, fit to be placed among such names as Plato and Kant or is he an obscurantist dealing in smoke and mirrors? (Steiner notes, e.g., that Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy does not even mention him.) Steiner finally argues that he is one of the west’s great philosophers, if only because of his influence on the existentialists, the French Nietzscheans, modern literary criticism, modern psychoanalysis, and so on. Steiner acknowledges the obscurantist side of Heidegger and the fact that he may be ultimately forced to deal in tautologies. At the same time he recognizes the boldness of Heidegger’s labors and the depth of his thought.
He does not avoid the question of Heidegger’s carrying water for the National Socialists and is even more troubled by his post-1945 silence concerning the holocaust. He judges Heidegger to be a great philosopher but a small man, preeminently in his apparent cowardice with regard to the holocaust and the Nazis but also in his exhibition of what Steiner calls his academic ‘cunning’.
Steiner is probably the individual best positioned to write this book. While he is not an ontologist per se he is enough of a polymath to deal with the linguistic, rhetorical, philosophical and historical problems posed by Heidegger’s thought and experience. The book is not just as lucid as the subject allows. It goes beyond that standard and presents Heidegger’s thought in a way that interested layreaders (as opposed to professional philosophers) can follow with relative ease. The fact that he begins with Heidegger’s terminology and explores it at length helps a great deal. The fact that he can operate fluently in German, French and English along with the fact that he knows the pre-Socratics and the contemporary expressionist poets who profoundly influenced Heidegger facilitates and enriches his analysis.
Steiner is incapable of writing a dull book and he is capable of writing books—across a spectrum of subject matter—that leave his readers with that sense of awe that Heidegger felt we should have with regard to Being itself. He is, quite simply, an international treasure. Senior colleagues of mine who encountered him, decades ago, at the University of Chicago, knew, at the outset, that he was a person apart. This is the sort of book which tests Steiner’s depth and range and he is fully equal to the task.