Skip to main content

The Thinker and his Isolation



In a letter to Hannah Arendt on January 10, 1926 Martin Heidegger describes the dilemma between the creative and the active life, a tension which the philosopher, who was by that time at the threshold of greatness, was becoming familiar with. Heidegger, Arendt's professor at the University of Marburg in the winter semseter of 1923-24, and seventeen years her senior, had taken a liking for what would be one of his most famous students or "acolytes," in an affair as intellectually gratifying as it was morally questionable (the professor had been married for six years to Elfride Petri). In the said letter, the professor apologizes to his student for his sudden coldness and indifference to her as of late. It was only a year ago when the teacher and student began to rendezvous, repeatedly professing through correspondence their devotion to one another. And so, after explaining that his work was to blame for his recent aloofness, Martin goes on to say that

this "withdrawal" from everything human and breaking off all connections is, with regard to creative work, the most magnificent human experience I know--with regard to concrete situations, it is the most repugnant thing one can encounter. One's heart is ripped from one's body.

And the hardest thing is--such isolation cannot be defended by appeal to what it achieves, because there are no measures for that and because one cannot just make allowance for abandoning human relationships. But all of that has to be borne--and while talking about it as little as possible, even with those one is closest to.

Heidegger's eloquent excuse was not without substance or truth. While he did not identify what he was  working on at that time, and along with performing the academic duties expected from him, which he says often strains him unnecessarily, and keeps him from his love for research, it is safe to assume that it was the preparation of the draft of Being and Time, to be published a year later, that had caused his "withdrawal from everything human and breaking off all connections." With neither subtlety nor tact, Martin told Hannah that "I had to forget you and will forget you whenever I withdraw into the final stages of my work." And he goes on to qualify (or quantify) his blunt statement to the as yet untrained scholar by saying that such work "is not a matter of hours or days, but a process that develops over weeks and months and then subsides."

It just so happened, therefore, that that was the time when Heidegger was at the height of the process, or at the peak of the wave, or, as he often loved to say, standing in the eye of "the storm of thought"; and so some concessions had to be made, or some things, even people, left behind--however "repugnant" that may seem, and however difficult that was to understand.  Those final moments of creation, charged with an electricity only the thinker or the artist can feel, are for ever without appeal: No one, no love, and no faith will truly be able to see what the eyes of the thinker and artist behold. Only they experience the storm, and everyone else must be saved from it.

And it's not simply because the external world, or other people, may only be a distraction to the intense work that is thinking. It matters not whether the thinker inhabits a city without silence or sky, or if he or she is secluded in a faraway monastery, or sequestered in a hidden mountain lodge (like Heidegger's log cabin in Todtnauberg near the Black Forest). If we, to paraphrase Sartre, are forever condemned to suffer the presence of other people, the dilemma of the thinker is how to maintain a distance from the world without, in order to dwell and create in the world within. That distance is never only of the spatial kind. To think requires as much silence as space, as much freedom of thought as freedom from the world, and as much activity as idleness. A few of the greatest ancient thinkers show us that we can both think with or without the world: Socrates philosophized in the agora with the locals, Plato had his Academy, and Aristotle his peripatetic students tailing him as he lectured. But there is also the obscure Heraclitus, who had a lone stove for company in his cave; Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a wooden barrel like a dog; and then Epicurus, who sought solace in the simple pleasures of life in his famous gardens.

Heidegger's Hut in Todtnauberg 

But if we are to gather anything about the way he worked from his many letters to his wife, Arendt, and Jaspers, to name a few, Heidegger was of the solitary kind of philosopher, preferring to keep to himself not only to focus on his work, but also to "spare" those around him from his possible indifference and rejection:

And with the burden of this necessary isolation, I always hope for complete isolation from the outside--for a merely apparent return to other people--and for the strength to keep an ultimate and constant distance. For only then can all sacrifice be spared them, along with the necessary rejection.

Heidegger, however, realizes that such a "complete isolation," or maintaining what he called an "ultimate and constant distance," from the external world is not possible, or at least, if we may add, a futile effort. The world, and along with it those who are with us or close to us, will always be there: I am always among others, I am a being-with (another)--what Heidegger himself would characterize in Being and Time as one of the constitutional structures of the being of Dasein, or the human being. Since the being of man is a being-in-the-world, we are "thrown" into, and then ultimately "entangled" with, a world with other innerworldly beings, particularly other Dasein, with whom we make relations--with or without choosing to. Such an entanglement, the negative (or positive?) implication of our being-with, initially and for the most part accounts for the at times sad reality that we cannot be completely, truly alone--something that, at least for some, is a precondition to being a philosopher, an artist, a creator. It is now how one is able to balance the two poles of that desire for solitude and the necessity for co-existence, or how one is able to shuttle when needed between the solace of the self and the warmth of company, that confronts the artist who wishes to create. Referring to the longing to withdraw from others that he earlier said he feels, Heidegger thus admits that

this tormented desire is not just unattainable, it is even forgotten--so much so that the most vital human relationships become a spring again and provide the forces that drive one into isolation once more. So everything turns back into ruthlessness and violence, most of all toward those who are dearest and closest--such a life then becomes wholly a matter of exigencies that have no justification. Coming to terms with this in a positive way--not taking a position exclusively as a kind of escape--is what it means to be a philosopher.

To be a philosopher, in the original and Greek sense of the word, is to become a lover of wisdom, or a friend of knowledge. Such a vocation or calling, however romantic or idealistic that may sound, is never pure or beautiful. Having to intermittently exclude one's self from others will not only be misunderstood, but can also appear ruthless and violent. But the philosopher sees no other way. Thinking is a solitary activity. It is an individual undertaking that no one else can assume for you; it is a journey you alone can take because you can only speak of what your eyes alone have seen. To simply relay or report what others have said or thought, without you being there or experiencing it for yourself, may really not be what task of thinking requires. To further use the metaphor of a journey, there will always be an essential difference between someone who took the journey itself, than someone who just echoes or repeats the tales of what others had seen. Referring others to the pictures some one else took of a distant country, for example, will never equal that proud moment when you share with them your own photographs of those places, the ones you yourself took--with your own camera, by your own steady hand, framed in your own composition--or the photos that actually show you, in the flesh, in those places. There will always be a difference, again, between being a witness and being a gossip or a rumor monger, those who just pass on what they have heard without verifying what they are relaying through evidence, or people who recklessly invent and exaggerate what they say. The metaphor of the journey itself does not need to be exaggerated any more. But one last point: the philosopher's journey is one that he has to take alone--like any one who wishes to reflect or speak about love, he himself must have been a lover at least once to qualify.

Now, we come to the obvious point, something Heidegger himself had been alluding to all along. There also comes a time when the thinker must leave his isolation to go back to the world. In order to speak or think about anything, he must have first gone out to the world and experienced it. Even if such experiences must be gone through alone, the events or places where such experiences unfold before a thinker occur in any place outside himself and his isolation. Thinking needs an object other than itself; as seeing needs something to see, witnessing needs something to witness, as loving needs someone other than itself to love. The accusations leveled against most philosophers have some truth in them: they are said to be "navel gazers," solely reflecting about themselves, in a milder form of self-idolatry; that they create or criticize the world while sitting comfortably in their armchairs, secluded from a world they pretend to understand without experiencing it; or that they, as Thales was ridiculed by the Thracian girl, look at the stars without seeing the very ground before their feet. Against these witty but real remarks, the honest philosopher knows that thinking is born and determined by experience, and these experiences can only be earned outside in the lived world. The Latin experientia, from which the word "experience" obviously comes, means "knowledge gained from repeated trials," or "knowledge earned by experiment." The prefix "ex-" indicates that it is "out of" or "from" our "tests" and "experiments" (peritus) that we gain any possible knowledge. Such experimentation and empirical observation is markedly the spirit and standard of the sciences and how we come about to learning and understanding the natural or external world.

Nonetheless, even the most profound things that what we learn about ourselves or about the human being in general--our habits or traits, our character or personality, our hopes and our destiny--are ex-tracted or ab-stracted from our experiences in the world. We discover what and who we are upon seeing ourselves fare the "tests" of reality, or how we react or feel about the manifold experiences the world always manages to offer. When we reflect about our selves, that is, when we make our selves the object of our thinking, what we do is to lean (flectere) back (re-) to clear a space between our "thinking self" and "acting self" (if one is allowed to separate the two), in order to see how we acted in a given, real situation. This reflection, however, is usually done after going through the tests to which we submitted our selves. It is a rather difficult reality, one that most of us realize only very late and with much pain, that we frequently gain real insight about our selves after going through experiences or tests. Or to put it plainly, we usually only learn from our mistakes or failures, and almost never from our successes and victories. But even if wisdom all-too-often comes late, it will always be "better late than never" to gain an understanding of the meaning of our existence and, what it in turn requires, of our experiences of the world. Paradoxically, we come to know ourselves not by "going inside" our selves, but by "going out" and testing ourselves against the world. It is no coincidence that those who have seen the world more, particularly those who are older, have a better understanding of who they are, and are generally considered wiser.

To grow in wisdom trough the years, finally or again, does not only require experience of the world alone, however. The thinker must always go back to his isolation, to shield himself anew from the world and from others. For thinking needs time, and such time cannot start and expire if we are out there in the world; the time that thinking needs is not spatial time, but one which is a function of my distance to my experience, the perspectives I assume, and the the clarity of my mind--and I can only begin to gain distance and clarity in isolation. Like a bear which hibernates through the freezing winters, the thinker has to go back to his solitude. He goes back with a piece of the world in his guts; and that should be able to last him through the sunless days and those lowest hours of the night--moments that he for some reason already longed for when he was away from his darkness.

Knowing that she was already having difficulties with him and that she wanted to leave him soon, thus threatening to end their love affair, Martin by this time already anticipates what her departure would mean for him--for him who risked the security and clarity of his isolation for a chance love. At the end of the letter he says:

And so they will come again, the lonely, cold days--when existence, made ill by the problems, is spurred by an insatiable enthusiasm and necessity. And at times, when you protect your faith, you will hear the greeting and plea of solitude in your heart, and rejoice and have faith.

Martin Heidegger


  1. Anonymous8/29/2010

    this has been very insightful on philosophy and what Being essentially is. I wonder, how do you choose which topic to write next? I admire how you write! Keep writing!

  2. At random, for the most part. I usually write about something I came across with, whether it may be from a book I read, a line or quotation, a question a student asked, a film, a song, etc. A good friend of mine, a poet, said that you must be like a sponge if you want to write, ready to absorb anything it comes into contact with, like a novelist who takes note of the littlest details. And it is when these things "trigger" me to recall something similar I have experienced or already thought, that I then begin to write--in order to understand it better. (Some think that those who write know what they write about before writing, as if there's a plan; it's the other way around for me. I only begin to learn when I start writing. Hence all these "posts" or pathmarks.)

    Thank you for your kind words. I gather that we, perhaps, may have the same questions.

  3. This post has been here for a while now but only now had I somehow chanced upon it. It answered a question that has been in my mind as of late: Why do philosophers remain at a distance from the people around them? I noticed that they are somewhat detached and even when one wishes to talk to them, it becomes difficult for that person because of that certain invisible "boundary" that exists. Even the people outside the philosopher feels that they too must remain at a distance from him even without his telling.

    There is the pleasure of being in solitude with one's own thoughts but there are times when one wishes to share those thoughts to another. Though they may not understand it fully (perhaps due to the lack of the experience of the receiver or for whatever other reason,) there is comfort in having a listening ear. Perhaps that's why we then go to writing where we can share these thoughts (though not always) and put them in places where they can be found by others. :)

  4. I like how Nietzsche described a few philosophers he admired (and there are only a handful), such as Heraclitus: he called them solar systems unto themselves. They are suns, and not planets that orbit around other sources of light. To some extent, that is what philosophy is--that necessity to think for one's self, to stand alone, and to distance yourself from popular opinion. But this describes only the intellectual loneliness of a philosopher, and is a bit romantic, too.

    I believe what you observed lies more on their "personalities." I understand what you mean by that invisible boundary. What I noticed, on my part, is that their gazes are powerful, piercing, so much that I find it hard to talk to some of them eye to eye.

    However, I think that even the best of them do not distance or detach themselves from others intentionally or due to hubris. Of course there must be exceptions; yet I imagine them very accommodating when it comes to speaking with others. As in love, all it takes some times, I presume, is an opening for dialogue. And that is where what you are saying about sharing one's thoughts also comes in. I imagine the philosopher, like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, will reach a time when he is so full of his wisdom and thoughts that he has to be with the people. Not to teach them, however, or to make them wise or even comfort themselves. But to talk, converse, to also test what they thought with what others may think. Maybe like House (sorry for the reference) who, even if he is the brightest diagnostician, will always need a team "to bounce ideas with." We see that also in Socrates and Plato's dialogues.

    Lastly--yes. The very act of writing itself is an admission that the philosopher is never alone. In extreme cases, as in Heraclitus (who buried the book he just finished), and Descartes (who doubted if others existed), they still wrote for another. Even writing for one's self (the journal, the note, etc.) is a confession that one is never alone. I just doubt that we should only write for others. I tell my writing students that we should first of all learn how to write for ourselves.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Fields of Amorsolo

The first National Artist in Philippine history, referred to warmly as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art,” Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972) still stands today as a looming figure in Philippine art responsible for being one of the artists who helped define what we up to now visually imagine as essentially Filipino. The images of rural life, of golden fields below clear blue, blue skies; the smiles of farmers which diminish their weariness as they plant, harvest, and winnow rice;most especially the iconic figure of the Filipina maiden working in the fields—the beloved dalagang bukid--; these, I believe, even after generations of Filipino painters since Amorsolo, have remained in our hearts and memory. Amorsolo did what great masters do for their country: bestow upon it its own icons, represent its native beauty, that is, to give its people and lands an identity and a face. There are, however, as many intentions for art as there are works of art. And these intentions will always remain in…

Without Why (The Rose) II

Lifetime is a child at play; moving pieces in a game.
Kingship belongs to the child.

Heraclitus, Fragment 52

The child at play never asks itself why it plays. The child just plays; and if it could, it will play as long as possible, it will play throughout its life. See its delight and witness its smile.

If it would never go hungry or if the sun would never set it too will never leave its playmates and playthings. Time flies at play because it stops or suspends time. Time -- as we grownups only know too well -- is the culprit for order, schedules and priorities; yet for the child, there is no time, there is only bottomless play. It is we who impose that this or that should be done at this or that time. We stop the absurd and supposedly endless play ("He does nothing but play") because we insist that discipline, order and priorities be instilled in the child at an early age ("He needs to learn other things beside playing"). So that the child will become like us one da…

A Love Sooner than Later

BROWN PENNY William Butler YeatsI whispered, 'I am too young,' And then, 'I am old enough'; Wherefore I threw a penny To find out if I might love. 'Go and love, go and love, young man, If the lady be young and fair.' Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, I am looped in the loops of her hair. O love is the crooked thing, There is nobody wise enough To find out all that is in it, For he would be thinking of love Till the stars had run away And the shadows eaten the moon. Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, One cannot begin it too soon.

One cannot begin to love too soon--conversely, one should not love too late or in life's demise. That waiting for the "right time," or the "right person" to love, what are these but the cries or sighs of an unready, even tired, heart? One becomes ready only when one begins to understand love slowly (or again), and one understands love progressively when one, simply, performs the act of love. Love, like mos…