Erwin Rommel and an example of Heideggerian Authenticity

Delivered to the Raleigh Tavern Philosophical Society


Michael D. Capistran




The World


I have just added something to the history of our organization.  I have just made a gouge, a dent, in the rostrum.  A small dent.  What is a dent?  From a thoroughly objective standpoint dents do not exist.  A dent is an imperfection.  The rostrum is missing something - a small piece.  Something can only be missing a piece or a part if there is some sort of expectation it have the piece or part to begin with.  That is, it can only be missing a piece, have a dent, from a human or sentient perspective - from the perspective of an entity for whom imperfection may be an issue - entities such as yourselves and myself.  The rostrum, from the point of view of the rostrum, to speak metaphorically, is never imperfect.  This, for Heidegger, is the meaning of meaning or the meaning of existence.


The rostrum doesn't care where it came from or where it is going to.  The rostrum only has a history as a piece of equipment - not as an object separate and apart from us.  But equipment only has an existence for that type of being for whom existence is an issue - for human beings, or, as Heidegger refers to such entities, Dasein.


Again, the rostrum, from its perspective, can never be missing parts.  Even if some mischievous person were to dismantle all of its boards, it would still be missing no parts.  It would simply be.  The appreciation of being missing parts is a teleological perspective only possible on the part of an entity for whom existence, and physiological integrity, are issues.


Except as perceived by sentient, or semi-sentient, entities, boards and rocks cannot have dents.  They cannot be missing parts.  They cannot have histories.  The history or past of an object is something that, in a certain important sense, belongs to us - not to it.  And its future also belongs to us, not to it.


For Heidegger, our ontology - our perspective, if you will - is derivative from a background of shared practices and therefore varies within the context of different cultures.  We may approach Heidegger's view from the perspective of cultural relativity - though Heidegger is not a cultural relativist.  Different people in different cultures have different beliefs, different language practices, and different social contexts.  Existence, and therefore the meaning of existence, differs as the background of shared practices differs.  For this reason, the very meaning of "the most general of concepts," being or existence, is culturally dependent.  What it is to Be, to be a person, object, or communal entity such as a society, religion, corporation - or to be a rostrum - is bound up in the rather relative character of the particularities and peculiarities of one's own society or culture.  The terms "Existence" and "Being," like all terms, are terms relative to cultures. 


Our natural understanding of existence within the context of our own culture, Heidegger terms preontological.  When, from the widest perspective of the nature of existence itself we come to focus on our social, tacit, pretheoretical acceptances, we are then doing ontology.  We are being ontological when we are trying to uncover our own preontological commitments.  Reflecting on ourselves and our existence as human beings is not very easy to do.  We cannot simply view ourselves from outside our own set of social practices and precommitments because we are always within them.  Learning another culture can help, but our thought, activities, and inclinations always occur within some cultural, some human, context of preconditions and precommitments.  This is true even concerning our thought and activities associated with existence itself.  Heiddeger's term for context or conditioning is translated as "historicality."  The primary problem is that historicality would seem to destroy any universalist claims to validity - except perhaps the universal claim that there are no universalist claims.


What is termed by Heideggerians as hermeneutic ontology is an attempt (seemingly impossible) to discover the nature of existence within a context of existence that is already given and continually operative in the background of the enquiry.  It is sort of like trying to defragment your hard-drive while you have an anti-virus program running.  Because there is no standpoint from which we may understand our own preconceptions, our assessments are always "unfinished" and subject to "error."


Our very notion of existence and what it is to be is also, therefore, dependent upon the specific cultural and individual perspective which is our own past and, just as importantly, upon our own desires and our own projects and preparations for the future.  Therefore, Heidegger is suggesting, the meaning of being is time.  Temporality only exists for entities for whom its past, its approaching death and the closing off of its possibilities, and its future, are issues.  Death is not an issue for the podium.  The podium's destruction is an issue only for us.  Clocks and watches only tell time for entities for whom temporality is an issue.  What for us is a water clock, for example, is just meaningless water flowing across meaningless stone.  Not even that - because "water," "stone," "rock", and "dent" are terms that only have meaning for sentient existence, not in and of or for themselves.  Time only has meaning - and meaning is time - for the kinds of things for whom their existence, their death, put concisely, is an issue.  Rostrums don't fear death.  They have no awareness of mortality.  In addition, we may never be truly objective in any assessment or appreciation of items such as the podium.  Insofar as it is even possible of being an objective object, the podium would not be anything like a lectern any more because it would be divested of all the associations by means of which we understand it.  It would be thoroughly divested of meaning.  But even that would be impossible because by divesting it of meaning we would be adding to its historicality - now as an object divested of meaning.  Objectivity or objectivization is thoroughly vitiated.


Heidegger has this similarity with Kant - he asks what the primary (in his terms, primordial) conditions are for empirical observation or rational thinking - for empiricism, rationalism, materialism, or idealism.  He comes to the conclusion that human existence, Dasein, comes before any of these theoretical constructs and that these constructs are derivative from and parasitic on our natural and primary existence.  Dasein is in a world already and can be rationalized neither as a biological entity nor a disembodied mind, consciousness, or essence.





Part of Heidegger's contention is that the entire Western epistemological tradition is wrong.  We think of things as objects distinct from subjects.  Heidegger's teacher Husserl as the culmination of a tradition involving Aristotle and Descartes was of the opinion that we mentally synthesize and understand objects before we use them.  Heidegger is of the opinion that we use and manipulate them prior to having a theory or theoretical understanding of them. 


Heidegger draws a distinction between theoretical (present-at-hand) knowledge and hands-on or practical (ready-to-hand) understanding.  We know things normally by being involved with them, not by examining their properties.  Things, however, break down.  The whole substance ontology and spectator attitude associated with traditional Western philosophy arise from a breakdown in average everydayness.  Only when something goes wrong, when it breaks down, does it become apparent to us as a "thing."  Breakdowns make it possible to recognize things as objects.  They become things-in-themselves capable of being investigated from a theoretical or "objective" perspective.  When the hammer breaks, it becomes for me a “thing.”  When things are thus explicitly noticed, it becomes possible to view them as somewhat meaningless and value-free precisely because their usefulness has broken down.  Such context-less objects, however, are parasitic upon a more primordial view of the world - the (present-at-hand) view within the context of learned, communal practices and practical application.


That is, we understand by jumping in with both feet.  The computer gamer throws the instructions away and starts playing.  Theoretical knowledge might help but only gives us a positive understanding.  Performing gives us primordial understanding.


For example, there are two ways to play poker: one can compute the odds consciously or one can have such familiarity with the game one needn’t compute odds.  Either method will work effectively, but the former method is the more parochial of the two when one knows the game well, and it is also more mentally limiting and time-consuming.  Also, people usually learn to play poker by playing poker, not by studying statistical probabilities.  For Dasein, practice is prior to theory.


Part of Heidegger's point is that the way we deal with things is not as objective, disinterested objects, but as equipment useful within an entire context of background practices.  The character examining the bathroom stall door in the movie Castaway, for example, is not just staring.  He is viewing the door within the context of its usefulness, not as a bundle of abstract properties.  What good, what use, is this?  Will it do what I need it to do?  This applies particularly to the type of thinking that goes on during scientific discovery.  We normally think of "disinterestedness" as the disregarding or "bracketing" of our past preconceptions.  Heidegger has a different story.  The process of confronting our preconceptions is not an act of disinterestedness, but one of reexamining and redirecting our interestedness.


We can stare at things and sometimes do.  But this doesn't often help us in any particular way and is sometimes pathological.  Such items are not accessible, claims Heidegger.  Accessibility is due to interest and interest, not disinterest, is the source of meaning.



Background Practices and The Herd


I shall translate Heidegger's term Das Mann as “The Herd.”  This captures the mediocratizing or leveling influence of Heidegger's term, but fails, somewhat, to capture its crucial socializing influence. 


Creativity does not come from nothing.  It comes from a background matrix of learned relations and social practices.  To be creative we must first be conversant, if not expert, in a specific field.  For example, to be creative in a language we must first be conversant in that language.


In addition, meaning doesn’t derive from an individual consciousness, but from the common environmental whole of a shared lived world.  Being as a human being already means being together with other human beings.  This means, among other things, residing within the embrace of a specific human and cultural context.


What Heidegger refers to as The Herd has a socializing influence that brings us up to a certain level of average or mediocre ability or appreciation.  It will not provide, or instill, us with individuality, individualism, or the ability to excel.  It will provide us with the necessary social and human norms by means of which we may and do socially interact, but provides nothing with respect to, and actually dissuades, creativity.  It provides conditioning or constructive conformity, but also leads to the evils of conformism.  It is our source of meaning, significance, and intelligibility.  Thus, all creativity for Heidegger eminates from a matrix of mediocrity.  As I mentioned, one must have familiarity with a language before one can create in a language.  The socializing influence of The Herd also leads us into indifference, conformism, and the dullness of everyday life.  We find ourselves in a world already with certain possibilities open and certain possibilities already closed off for us.  Heidegger refers to this as Befindlichkeit. 





Husserl coined the term “phenomenology” to refer to a discipline of returning “to the things themselves.”  “We are the true positivists,” he said, meaning, “We are the true empiricists.”  Heidegger, Husserls’ favored student, shares with Husserl this desire to get free from past assumptions and prejudices - particularly philosophical ones - and return to the things themselves.  Hence, Heidegger’s approach is referred to as phenomenology, that is, being honest with the direct phenomena of experience.  But the direct phenomena, Heidegger has told us, is not the so-called objective "things" of traditional epistemology.


Heidegger advises us, together with the other phenomenologists, to re-open and re-aquaint ourselves with the things as they are, not as they are thought or imagined to be.  What we are to see anew, however, is our own lived experiences, and Heidegger is speaking of these experiences in a new way.  Whether he is right or wrong, Heidegger is telling us that what we are taught - whatever we are taught - is wrong, and that we need to discover, not by listening to others but for ourselves, how it is wrong.  He is trying to cut us off from escape routes into comforting metaphysical constructs.  As a metaphysician, the only real theory he is offering, at least superficially and prima facia, is the very reasonable position that we need to constantly re-examine our theories and opinions - particularly our metaphysical ones.  He is advising a continuing ontological re-birth as compurgators and is advising us against, as it were, an ossuary of the mind and hence an ossuary of the world.  This, I take it, is not, in general, bad advice.[1]


That is, what Heidegger wants to do is to revitalize life.  His philosophy is an advisement against pre-judgments and prejudice.  Any discipline involves a regional ontology.  To do physics, for example, one must have some familiarity with physics.  But anytime we accept one ontology or context we are closing off others.  Thus, Dasein is in untruth, Heidegger tells us.  Consider for example the duck-rabbit image.  When we see it as a duck, we can't see it as a rabbit, and vice-versa.  The best we can do is try to see it as just lines, but even this is very difficult.  In addition, our regional ontologies, our cultural presuppositions, may have already determined whether we see it as a duck or as a rabbit.  However, Heidegger offers us the option to lead our own lives and not defer to anyone else's judgment.


In order to see through our societal preconceptions, particularly the one that there is an absolute truth, we must not become more detached, but more involved.  This is the primary meaning of his turning the subject-object distinction on its head.  Staring at objects as so much brick-a-brack will not lead us to deal with them in an authentic fashion.


IQ, for example, is an attempt to measure an individual's ability to think "outside the box."  Such people who are capable of dealing with their own, or societal, preconceptions and misconceptions are very valuable.  But the ability to perform creative thinking requires more than just smarts; it requires a certain amount of bravery also.


In addition, just as the breakdown of a piece of equipment reveals the nature of both equipmentality and of the contextual whole, so it is possible for the whole world to break down.  In such situation, we realize the meaningless of the entire kit-and-kaboodle – everything having to do with life.  We recognize there is no fundamental meaning to our existence.  All cultural contexts are entirely arbitrary and meaningless fabrications.  This, says Heiddeger, results in the recognition that we are going to die and that all of our silly, little projects are entirely and remorselessly without meaning.  It makes no difference to anything that I die, that you die, or that the entire human race expires.  Everything in the world is as thoroughly divested of meaning as the traditional “objective” object.  The result of this realization, states Heidegger, is Anxiety.  Anxiety is the overall breakdown that reveals us as we are – nothing; not even compost.


For Heidegger, fear is one way of avoiding anxiety.  We may rush to the amusements and rationalizations, the addictions, offered by The Herd.  But when we are afraid of death, afraid to die, we are already dead.  One way of being dead, for example, is to live in fear of upsetting others.  Living in The Herd is living behind a false disguise, mask, or persona.


However, we are able to break the mask at moments of anxiety.  We must live, that is face, not deny, our anxiety, our realization that all is meaningless.  When we are not afraid to die (when we are not afraid to confront the anxiety of our own death) fear (and desire) fall away.  It is at this point we become authentic.  If one accepts anxiety, one becomes fearless.  That is, accepting the groundlessness of the world relieves us of the fear of that groundlessness.  We no longer accept the mindless explanations and trivial nonsense of The Herd – except where we chose to.  We are free to accept or change what we will. 


The difference between the inauthentic and the authentic is the difference between being dead and alive.  We are the walking-dead - allowing our culture to appropriate our lives and decisions for the sake of food, shelter, meaningless luxuries, and mindless entertainment.  We capitulate to an external structuring of our lives for the dubious desire of a fat pocketbook.  For some people even the fat pocketbook doesn't materialize.  We are addicted to death, the willful death of ourselves, and are living in denial of our addiction.  We follow our mindless compulsions precisely because we are living in fear.


In addition, we are addicted, as I mentioned, to rationalizations and fabrications, the amusements and opinions provided to us by The Herd.  A culture always takes its notion or interpretation of human life as definitive of human nature.  Authenticity means exposing disguises, particularly intentionally repressed disguises.  Dasein is in untruth not only because our choices close off other possibilities, but because we consistently repress our natural understanding that there is no position from which we can ever achieve true stability in our knowledge, conclusions, or our lives.  Epistemological issues shift rapaciously like the struggle of survival in nature or the ever-shifting fortunes of wartime.


This is why Heidegger's language is so strange.  He feels the old vocabulary associated with metaphysical issues is so encrusted with worn out and misleading associations that we need an entirely new vocabulary to open us up again some very old truths.  We need a new bottle, so to speak, to help us appreciate old wine.  He is attempting, some would say successfully, to create an entirely different context so that we may perceive, or begin to perceive, our own background of inter-social meanings.  You are perhaps better able to understand me than understand Heidegger because I am throwing around, mindlessly, such terms as "truth," "knowledge," and "misperception" where, because all terms are context-dependent it is very unclear what such terms might mean.  "Unclear" is another such term, dependent on a complicated background of social practices and inter-contextual relationships.  What is clear in one context or culture can be unclear in another.


Heidegger is reminding us that all of our conceptualizations and beliefs, down to being itself, are subject to readjustment and re-vision.  Our very existence – being - must be continually re-examined.






I shall use the German general, Erwin Rommel, as an example to help understand Heidegger’s notion of authenticity.  I'd like first to focus on one of many testaments to Rommel's valor and creativity.  The following quote has to do with Rommel's service in the Wuertemberg Mountain Battalion in World War I.  According to Lieutenant Theodor Werner:


Anybody who once came under the spell of his personality turned into a real soldier.  However tough the strain he seemed inexhaustible.  He seemed to know just what the enemy were like and how they would probably react.  His plans were often startling, instinctive, obscure.  He had an exceptional imagination, and it enabled him to hit on the most unexpected solutions to tough situations.  When there was danger, he was always out in front, calling on us to follow.  He seemed to know no fear whatever.  His men idolized him and had boundless faith in him.[2]


Rommel's desire was to be at the crucial spot at the crucial moment.  He was ever in front - at the tip of the spear.  He had an instinct for surprise, an eye for terrain and opportunity, flexibility and vision - all of which require and presuppose a masterful, transparent, grasp of pragmatic spatiality.  One doesn't learn to lead men, primarily, by reading books - although reading Rommel's books might help.  One must have the kind of feeling for the battlefield that a carpenter has for carpenter tools.  Just as a blind person's cane becomes transparent and the blind person feels not the cane but the curb, so Rommel had the ability to transparently pull multiple units together and do what the British could not - amass his armor in a schwerpunct rather than commit it piecemeal.  Getting everything to unload at one place at one time may be done in the armchair like the poker player consciously computing odds or like the poker player with immediate intuition.  The former will be unable to respond to immediate events as they unfold on the battlefield nearly as well as the latter.  Montgomery, arguably, is an example of the former; Rommel is an example of the latter.  They are both good commanders, but in different ways.


Rommel had, with other great battlefield commanders, the ability to grasp with immediacy the entire picture of ground and situation together with the ability to apply acute observation with uncanny intuition.  He also had a considerable psychological appreciation of his own troops and of the enemy.  Such ability to master the battlefield is not primarily dependent upon a theoretical or "objective" understanding of the world.  Rommel went straight for practical dealings rather than theoretical understanding.  He went straight for the "things themselves."  Theory came later.  He was always seeking the primary, context-dependent, understanding of the situation.  He reflected upon his activities, but his reflection came only as an after-action assessment.  Entirely immersed in the project of winning a battle, one can hardly imagine Rommel worrying about whether another knows that he knows, that another knows that… - unless such a question were to suddenly become important.


Again, the Heideggerian notion of understanding is not knowing that but knowing how.  Ordinary human beings can understand that soldiers are led; only true commanders know how to lead troops.  In The Basic Problems of Phenomenology Heidegger puts it thus:


In German we say that someone can vorstehen (understand) something [literally, stand in front of or ahead of it, that is, stand at its head, administer, manage, preside over it].  This is equivalent to saying that he versteht sich darauf [understands in the sense of being skilled or expert at it, has the know-how of it].  The meaning of the term “understanding” … is intended to go back to this usage in ordinary language.[3]


Rommel certainly led in this sense of standing in front.  Concerning this, he once explained his leading the 7th panzer Division magisterially through France in the following way:


A tight combat control west of the Meuse, and flexibility to meet the changing situation, were only made possible by the fact that the divisional commander with his signal troop kept on the move and was able to give his orders direct to the regiment commanders in the forward line.  Wireless alone - due to the necessity for encoding - would have taken far too long, first to get the situation reports back to Division and for Division to issue orders....[4]


One wonders where Rommel would be seen on a modern battlefield, but it would not be surprising to see him leading from the front even today despite improvements in communication.


Rommel didn’t believe war was a good thing.  Between wars he spoke of the First one as a stupid and brutal business which no sane man would wish to see repeated.[5]  Nevertheless, he reveled in it when it was necessary.  Battle seems to have been sport for Rommel.  He was completely immersed in it and seems to have taken to it as a kind of entertainment.  If one plays a lot of basketball - and loves it - one might obtain the same kind of ability and virtuosity.  Rommel’s ability to second-guess the enemy was legendary.  The most common description of Rommel after the war was that he had Fingerspitzengefühl.  This is a kind of sixth sense similar to what is called in certain scientific disciplines physical intuition.  One cannot obtain fingerspitzengefühl from rationalizing the battle from the rear.  One has to have a mind open not only to new possibilities, but possibilities entirely out of the picture.  One must be open to the entire situation.  The poker player computing odds, for example, has entirely cut off external possibilities – of any sort – intruding into the assessment.


Thus, authenticity requires having an open mind.  Again, this is in keeping with Heidegger’s position to get away from the theoretical.  It is easy for us to get so caught up in our entrenched opinions and ideas – really the entrenched opinions and ideas of The Herd - that we forget to take a look around ourselves and update what we believe.  Such entrenched ideas I refer to as cynosures.  The inability on the part of the French and British to appreciate the obvious change in battlefield tactics suggested by British tacticians before the beginning of World War II is an example.  To re-examine our opinions we require open minds.  An open mind is something difficult to come by.  Rommel's success came because he had not only intelligence but the ability and will to think for himself.  In addition, as pointed out, it takes bravery to return to things themselves.  The mortality among Israeli tank commanders in the various Arab-Israeli wars has been quite high for exactly this reason.  They refuse to button-up.


In comparison to the writings of Caesar, Napoleon, or Montgomery, Rommel's accounts are remarkably objective.  He is not right in every case and he is not free from personal valorization, but he is always searching for the true lesson from his experiences.  The only aspect that might be considered inappropriate is his penchant to preach.  He is always drawing lessons to be learned and attempting to make these explicit to the reader.  He wants not only to uncover the lesson for himself, but to enforce that perceived lesson on the reader.  With Rommel the inevitable distortions and errors are not purposeful. He keeps his eye on the truth to be learned.  His accounts are both clear and retain a high degree of accuracy.  They are particularly impressive considering the difficulty of being a witness under circumstances most dire.


Chivalry is also a quality that needs to be mentioned with respect to Rommel.  It is a quality not lost on an opponent.  As an example of the chivalry that might occur on the battlefield in the North African Campaign, the Australian Sergeant Bill Tuitt made frequent journeys into no man’s land outside Tobruk under a flag of truce to recover dead and wounded.  Once, the Germans shouted out to him as his troupe was approaching a minefield.  He reports:


We could see the bodies of thirteen of our chaps lying there.  A couple of Jerries came out with a mine-detector and guided a lietenant and a doctor out to us¼ They brought out four wounded and let the truck come up to take them away.  Then they carried out the bodies of fifteen dead and helped us with those still on the minefield.  When the last of our dead had been brought to us, the lietenant… lowered his flag and I lowered mine.  I saluted him and he saluted back, but he gave me the salute of the Reichwehr [sic], not of the Nazis. 


The tenor of the North African war was set by Rommel.  Granted that the Germans had a higher respect for the British than they did for some of their other enemies, it was Rommel who set the tone by demanding his own troops adhere as nearly as possible to Geneva accords.  This is not to say that atrocities did not occur, but they were far fewer and less severe than in other theaters.  The uncommon adherence to chivalry on the battlefield led to a high degree of respect on the part of the British.  Winston Churchill, for example, announced in the House of Commons;  "We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general."[6]


How does one capture the “hearts and minds” of one’s soldiers or personnel?  Not so much by caring for them explicitly – although that is important – nor by caring for that which they care for.  It is rather by bringing to presence that which they care for.  One captures respect by bringing to presence that for which others did not even know they cared.  The true leader is the one who instills meaning, who gives life to those who are already the living dead.  The reason Rommel’s men followed him willingly, even unto death, was that he was effectual in bringing into presence their own existence.  The point is not that Rommel cared for his men.  He did.  The point is that he cared for what his men cared for without their even being familiar they cared for it.  Somewhere along the line, Rommel’s Krishna spoke to his Arjuna; told him this was all meaningless, but to proceed anyway.  From a Heideggerian perspective, somewhere along the way Rommel faced his own anxiety in the face of death and embraced his fate anyway.  As Shakespeare has Caesar state:


The valiant never taste of death but once.[7]


Rommel was not always authentic, however.  After his initial victories in North Africa, he ordered Tobruk attacked prematurely.  Later, when he was almost set up for his thoroughly planned, meticulously thought out set-piece assault of Tobruk, he refused to admit the beginning of Operation Crusader, choosing, wishfully, to believe it to be a reconnaissance in force.  That is, he reacted with inflexibility in a thoroughly non-Rommelian fashion.


Compare Rommel for example with another type of personality.  There is much to be said for a coward who forces himself to be brave.  But such a person is not authentic in a Heideggerian sense.  When running with bulls in Spain, for example, one might do it as a type of play-acting or as a journalist pretending to place oneself in danger.  The same may be said of guided African safaris.  Such safaris occur in Africa well enough and would expose the person to some modicum of danger, but would nevertheless best be described as "staged."  The detached spectator of life and danger might very well be a good person in many respects, but would not be involved feet-first in life.  The true, living, Karamazov is not Ivon, but Dmitri.


Political Considerations


What is the relation of Heidegger’s philosophy to National Socialism?  The people who pose this question today - Deconstructionists and Post-Modernists primarily - would feel much more at home if Heidegger had been an adherent of the radical left rather than the radical right.  But this should make no difference.


Heidegger was the first to see the problem of the difficulty of objectivity he and the first to elucidate it – though he does not seem to have appreciated all of its consequences.  This is currently recognized at the central philosophical problem.  It is widely appreciated, on both sides of the English Channel, that truth, perception, and knowledge occur within context.  Kuhn, for example cites a study in which subjects consistently identified the colors of playing cards incorrectly because the deck used in the study was of cards with different colors than usual.[8]


As another example, what Hitler was doing seemed eminently reasonable to the German people right up to the time he entered the Soviet Union – and reasonable to many beyond that – even though he was very clear beforehand in what he intended to do.  Truth and seeming truth always appears within a cultural context.  Germany goose-stepped to war tossing its friends blithely to the winds because it all seemed eminently reasonable within the background cultural complex of the German nation and people – all very understandable and yet nevertheless reprehensible in the end.  The point to be made here is that it is extraordinarily difficult – many would say impossible – to stand outside one’s own cultural milieu and gain a glimpse of sanity or reality.  Many will say reality itself is culturally dependent.  And yet, arguably, sometime we do gain a glimpse of sanity.  Heidegger was himself a Nazi, but at a time when most other Germans continued to follow, if not immediately participate in National Socialism, he was speaking out, though obliquely, in public lectures he gave against Nietzsche.


For Rommel’s part, Rommel was never a Nazi; he was never an anti-Nazi.  He was favored by Hitler and returned that trust and respect as long as Germany seemed to be winning.  On Rommel's behalf, he doesn't seem to have been witness to Hitler's tantrums, loss of reality, and megalomania until somewhat late in the war.






Heidegger is a good philosopher to understand in a media-dominated, conformist society and it seems a part of what Heidegger was responding to was an early increase in such pressures in certain dimensions of modern society.


Although it was difficult to recognize what Germany was doing was wrong from within its own culture, nevertheless it was possible to so recognize.  When we are saying it is impossible for us think outside our own culture we are saying Germany's actions during the Second World War were not wrong - except when Germany began to lose the war.  I suggest we rethink this formulation.  What do we mean when we say both Heidegger and Rommel came to the realization that what was going on in their culture was wrong?  What do we mean when we say what the Germans did was wrong?  We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot both say there are no standards outside local cultural ones and also say what Germany did was wrong, universally wrong, and the Germans should have known better. 


Though there are many sentences or concepts that are not readily translatable from one language to another, there are still many that are.  And this is because all human beings share a fundamental ground or background of understanding.  Consider the statement, "We spoke beneath four eyes."  This was originally spoken in German, but we are able to understand this statement because we are the kinds of creatures who have eyes and know how many each of us has.  This is a statement translatable into any language - though it might sound strange initially.  Though languages may, and do, differ, this should not be taken to mean there are no similarities between languages.  Again, though there are cultural differences, this should not be taken to mean there are no similarities between cultures.


Cultures are different, yes.  But think also of this.  Borrowing is an activity that occurs not uncommonly throughout the world.  When George borrows something from you and does not pay you back within a reasonable time, though what constitutes a reasonable time, what constitutes actually borrowing ("May I borrow a piece of paper" in which it is never expected the paper be returned), what constitutes reasonable retribution, and other details may vary from culture to culture, George is nevertheless living in untruth.  George has lied.  As far as I am familiar, claims that there are cultures in which nothing is possessed are highly overrated and self-serving claims.


I therefore suggest - and I am not alone - that although there are cultural differences, there is nevertheless some universal basis by means of which we may reach understandings and agreements.


It is unfortunate, in a sense, that Rommel was on a side of war with such militaristic traditions, racist dogma, unbridled nationalism, and, in the end, uncontrollable sadism.  On the other hand, it brings us to a realization that good generalship can occur anyplace.  It also gives us reason to reflect what we mean by culpability of actions and what we mean by good generalship.  I suggest Rommel has been accepted as a good general by peoples in many cultures, even those of his enemies, because his actions transcend many cultures.  That is, Rommel was a good general from a universal, not just a local or cultural perspective.  He exhibited traits of good generalship in any culture.  What he did was not always right.  Leading from the front cuts off the possibility of (more) safely conducting a battle from a more removed position.  It is, as we say, a trade-off.  As Heidegger might say, Dasein is in untruth.  One cannot lead from the front and lead from the rear.  One must decide.  Many, including Rommel, feel Rommel chose correctly.


We are all human beings.  We are all Dasein.  We are all the kinds of things for whom our existence is an issue.  We are all involved with the common foundation for human life, a physiological as well as a social background, and we all share the physiological aspect that is a universal background for our social practices and lived experiences.


Heidegger may or may not have gotten the "existential" categories of our lives transcendentally or universally correct - in the sense that Newton may or may not have gotten the law of gravity correct - but there can be little doubt that we as human beings have a repertoire of background activity or a horizon that, say, computers and machines as yet do not.  And it is this basis upon which we may, as human beings, understand each other.  That there are differences does not demonstrate that there are no similarities.  We must make our decisions with respect to other cultures - and with respect to each other - respecting the differences, but this does not mean we are therefore entitled to make no distinctions.  This is why Erwin Rommel is worthy of respect.  We recognize that he made his decisions within the context of his own culture - but did so with integrity.  Integrity is something we cannot free ourselves from.  It may vary as a Wittgenstenian family resemblance from culture to culture, but remains ever recognizably the same.


Heidegger's own language is expressly individualistic, eccentric, and authentic.  It cannot be translated at all, we are told.  Nevertheless, somehow, it gets translated.  It gets translated because the background practices we have as human beings that are the "foundation" of our mutual understandings are similar if not identical.  When I read commentators saying such things as Heidegger believed it impossible to think outside our own cultural perspective, I wonder: What is Heidegger doing attempting transcendental (universal) phenomenology, then?


Also, for those who are unhappy I have selected a German general as an example of Heidegger's position, I would like to ask the question: are there universal standards by means of which we may judge someone like Rommel? That is, how can I be considered making a bad choice if there are no such standards?

[1] Cf. Dilthey's "liquifying" what has become rigid.

[2] David Irving, The Trail of the Fox (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1977), pp.14-15.

[3] Cited in and translated by: Hubert L. Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I,  (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991) p.

[4] Erwin Rommel, The Rommel Papers, ed. B.H. Liddell Hart (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1953), p. 13; quoted in: Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. Tirumphant Fox: Erwin Rommel and the Rise of the Afrika Korps, (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1984) p. 52.

[5] Desmond Young, Rommel: The Desert Fox  (New York: Quill William Morrow, 1950; 1978) p.32.

[6] John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Battle of Alamein: Turning Point, World War II, (New York: Viking, 2002) p. 53. 

[7] Cited in: David Fraser, Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, (New York: Fraser Publications Ltd., 1993) p. 556.

[8] Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.