Heidegger, the Plagiarist? Looking for Sein und Zeit in Gorizia

Di: Ana Ilievska
21 Maggio 2020


“Wie können wir unser Leben in vollem Sinne ‚besitzen‘ (Michelstaedter),
wie können wir ‚eigentlich ganz existieren‘ (Heidegger)“?
“How can we fully ‘own’ our lives (Michelstaedter),
how can we ‘exist authentically and wholly’ (Heidegger)”?
—Vašek, Schein und Zeit

“Das Beste aus Sein und Zeit steht, wie ich meine, schon bei Michelstaedter“ (Vašek, 243), “[T]he best of Being and Time, I believe, is already in Michelstaedter.“1 This is the closing statement of Thomas Vašek’s Schein und Zeit—a comparative inquiry into the possibility of whether Martin Heidegger just might have borrowed the main thesis of his Sein und Zeit (1927) from the senior thesis (tesi di laurea) of a little-known, at the time of his suicide twenty-three-year-old Italian philosopher, Carlo Michelstaedter (1887-1910). The title of Vašek’s book takes advantage of the morphological vicinity in German between Schein (shine, illusion, appearance, semblance) and Sein (being) to challenge the originality and authenticity of Heidegger’s magnum opus. The subtitle of the book reads On the Trail of an Expropriation and just goes to reinforce the speculative, investigative nature of what is about to follow. Mr. Vašek has worked in the area of investigative journalism and his publication list boasts several rather popular philosophical monographs. His journalistic background and philosophical interests come together in Schein und Zeit to form a kind of a detective story drenched with philosophical jargon which, however, is consistently well contextualized, explained, and repeated enough so that even lay readers, with some extra patience, could find this an accessible read.

Carlo Michelstaedter from Gorizia, an Italophone Austro-Hungarian citizen of Jewish origins, finished writing his tesi di laurea (Vašek misleadingly calls it a “dissertation”) on October 16th 1910, put a gun to his head the next day, and took his own life. His La Persuasione e la Rettorica (Persuasion and Rhetoric, Yale University Press, 2004) was published posthumously in 1913, and was not translated into German until 1999. “Some years ago a typescript of an early German translation of the first part of the thesis [“La Persuasione”]… surfaced” (p. 17), Vašek informs us, but there are no clues as to its maker nor to what purpose the translation was done. Therefore, the first question that Vašek addresses in his book is: Did and how could Heidegger have known of Michelstaedter and his work? And it is clear from the first chapter that “[t]here is no historical proof that Heidegger has read Michelstaedter’s dissertation [sic] or that he even knew the name of the young author” (p. 242). Consequently, there could have only been indirect points of contact: through contemporary book reviews and lectures, academic connections, analogous readings of the same sources, or simply thanks to the “pollen of ideas” (Dário Villanueva, 1991) flying around Europe at the time.

The neoidealist Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile had published a detailed review of Michelstaedter’s thesis in 1922, followed by his student’s, Ugo Spirito, in the same year. Furthermore, Michelstaedter was studying at the University of Florence where Franz Brentano was active, one of the professors of Edmund Husserl who had even visited him in Florence. The nature of Husserl’s and Heidegger’s relationship needs not be recapitulated here. Michelstaedter was read and admired by various academics in Vienna, such as Oskar Ewald who extolled Michelstaedter in a lecture in Gorizia in 1924. Finally, an early reader of the young philosopher was the Italian proto-fascist Julius Evola who engaged with Michelstaedter’s thought in his Saggi sull’idealismo magico (1925). But while we know for sure that Heidegger had read Evola’s 1934 publication Rivolta contro il mondo moderno, there is no proof that he had known the 1925 monograph. On a more practical level, Vašek reminds us that Michelstaeder’s thesis is only 130 pages long, three times less than Heidegger’s. There are significant differences in style, too: while Heidegger’s is a “strictly systematic” work employing idiosyncratic vocabulary, Michelstaedter’s “seems somewhat disorderly, occasionally chaotic” and is written in a “literary and artistic style” (26). Finally, Vašek points out to the fundamental differences in scope between La Persuasione e la Rettorica and Sein und Zeit identified by Joachim Ranke (1957) and Giorgio Brianese (1985), who had studied the two authors side by side: for Ranke, Heidegger “is after the ‘sense of Being,’ while Michelstaedter after an ‘ethical credo’” (p. 27); and according to Brianese, Heidegger rules out suicide in his analysis of existence, Michelstaedter does not (ibid.). The connection between Michelstaedter’s and Heidegger’s thought, then, must be sought for elsewhere.

In “Zwei Wege” (two roads), the first out of five sections, Vašek begins to build his argument by analyzing their shared aversion for the primacy of theory over life in philosophy (“gegen den Primat des Theoretischen in der Philosophie” p. 30)—a primacy which, according to Michelstaedter, had originated in Plato and established itself with Aristotle and his “rhetoric.” Both Michelstaedter and Heidegger cite the same passage from Plato’s Sophist as a departure point for their analyses: Michelstaedter for his criticism of the “attempt to rationally dominate the world through language” (p.29), and Heidegger for the purpose of posing anew the (forgotten) question concerning the “Sinn von Sein” (p. 30). Michelstaedter’s solution is a return to the pre-Socratics, more specifically to Parmenides and his pre-theoretical approach that promotes the unity between thought and being, life and the world—a unity destroyed by the ascent of rhetoric. “The unity of thought and being, of life and the world, cannot be ‘known’ [erkannt], but ‘lived.’ That is Michelstaedter’s way to ‘persuasion’” (p. 30).

This practical approach resonates with Heidegger’s early Freiburg lectures in 1919 when, as Husserl’s assistant, he “suddenly came up with the claim of the revolutionary philosopher who wants to rethink everything… against the primacy of theory in philosophy” (ibid.). He develops this “radical approach that will lead to Sein und Zeit” in his Hermeneutik der Faktizität (1923) where Heidegger puts forward that, in Vašek’s paraphrasis, “the estrangement of Dasein [from itself, from life] cannot be offset through theoretical knowledge [Erkenntnis], but only through factual existence” (p. 33). Put this way, the similarity to Michelstaedter’s own approach is striking. Heidegger had famously omitted to name his early influences and exact sources for Sein und Zeit, and Vašek takes advantage of this bibliographical parsimony to tickle the reader’s curiosity and keep up the suspense as to whether the young Jewish philosopher’s ideas could have indeed been among those muted voices.

The second section, “Dasein,” delves into major concepts that La Persuasione e la Rettorica and Sein und Zeit share but use different words to denote. Vašek relies on Joachim Ranke’s 1961 comparative study to point out the analogy between Michelstaedter’s “persuasion” (persuasione) and “rhetoric” (rettorica) on one hand, and Heidegger’s “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit) and “inauthenticity” (Uneigentlichkeit) or “Man” on the other. “Persuasion” means that a person is complete and authentic, owns herself (possesso di se stesso). “Rhetoric” implies social rules, customs, and conventions based on theory and language which determine our lives and prevent us from walking the way of persuasion. To exist “inauthentically” is to be lost in things and people, in the impersonal “Man,” according to Heidegger, in the “Man sagt, man hört, man ist dafür, man besorgt” (“one says, one hears, one is for, one gets,” p.38). But Dasein also has the option to “choose” itself, to become itself, to own itself, instead of being determined by “Man.” In Vašek’s reading, both for Michelstaedter and Heidegger a person can choose between these two modes of human existence: persuasion/authenticity or rhetoric/Man.

The road to persuasion and authenticity, however, is precisely that, a road. It is a movement in time towards becoming what one already is: “Es geht darum zu werden, was man schon ist“ (p. 39) because we are not what we essentially are: “Wir müssen es erst werden” (p. 41), we have to become what we are. For we, human beings, are intrinsically incomplete and needy beings, always out to get something we do not have or to become something that we are not yet. But in our daily lives—due to habit, routine, and the comfort of “Man”—we forget this incompleteness and live behind a veil of illusion (l’illusione della persuasione). We forget that we are imperfect and finite (endlich), and that we’re never “done” (fertig) with life while we are alive (p. 43). When Dasein comes to its end, when it is “done” with life, it is no longer da, it no longer is (ibid.). However, such a claim, in light of Michelstaedter’s suicide, begs the question: does persuasion/authenticity equal death? This is where Michelstaedter’s concept of “philopsychia” (the love of life) and Heidegger’s “Sorge” (care or concern) come in, which gives Vašek the opportunity to point out that “the affinity between Heidegger and Michelstaedter does not lie in the words, but in the philosophical layout itself” (p. 58). Vašek traces this layout in the next three sections of his book, “Flucht” (flight), “Verwandlung” (transformation), and “Sein und Zeit” (being and time), that follow the same somewhat tiresome comparative back-and-forth argumentation. For the sake of conciseness, I will refrain from recapitulating all of the parallels and differences established in these sections. The analogous “philosophical layout” of Michelstaedter’s and Heidegger’s works, in Vašek’s reading, can be summarized as follows:

Human Dasein is intrinsically flawed, incomplete, but has the advantage over the animal in that it is aware of itself (Heidegger’s logos—“our possibility to understand Being as something” (“das Seiende als etwas zu verstehen” p. 72). Humans have a taste for and ascribe meaning to life, things, and people (sapore for Michelstaedter, Bedeutsamkeit in Heidegger) based on their usefulness. Thanks to this ability to give meaning to the world and make use of things and people, Dasein has a Lebensdrang, will to live (Schopenhauer), or love/care for life (philopsychia in Michelstaedter or Sorge in Heidegger). While Dasein is alive, it is dynamic, it moves ecstatically in time, back and forth like a weight (peso, Zeitlichkeit). It wants something it does not have, it wants to become what it already is. It wants to become persuaded and live fully authentically (persuasione or Eigentlichkeit), it wants to own itself, become complete, persuaded and determined (persuaso or entschlossen). But there are obstacles on the road to persuasion which make Dasein rely on common places, predetermined social rules and structures, idle chatter (luoghi comuni and rettorica in Michelstaedter, Man, Gerede, and Uneigentlichkeit in Heidegger) in order to avoid suffering, fear, and death.

This escape from itself and therefore from responsibility (Verantwortung), brings Dasein to lead an inauthentic life, to hide behind a premade and safe veil of illusion. In this way—and here we come to some of the most beautiful passages of Vašek’s book—Dasein is unjust (non persuaso, ungerecht). It is guilty, i.e., it is the “reason for a lack in the Dasein of others” (p.200). For “one who is not, cannot do; one cannot give, if one does not have; one cannot do good, if one does not know wellbeing” (“wer nicht ist, kann nicht tun; nicht geben, we nicht hat; nicht wohltun, wer das Wohl nicht kennt” p. 199). When Dasein lives unpersuaded and inauthentically, it can only provide what Heidegger calls “uneigentliche” or “einspringende Fürsorge” (inauthentic care) or Michelstaedter “Wohltun.” Inauthentic care as opposed to authentic care (vorspringende Fürsorge) for others, only supports the other in leading an illusory life. The persuaded or determined, to the contrary, brings light in the lives of others and “does not only awaken him/herself, but others, too” (p.204). Angst throws Dasein back to its naked existence and confronts it with its finiteness (Endlichkeit), its neediness (Bedürftigkeit), its dependency on the world and Geworfenheit (p.142). The persuaded “endures” (aushalten) the Angst, dwells in it, and does not “go to one’s death” (p.183). The persuaded/determined looks into the eye of the storm and learns from it, transforms him/herself (Verwandlung) and does not, like modern scientists, observe it from afar and draw objective conclusions from it (Michelstaedter’s critique of science, p. 119).

This comparison shows us, in Vašek’s reading, that Michelstaedter’s ethical claim is ontological at its core and Heidegger’s ontological approach simultaneously ethical, but neither philosopher tells us which type of existence to choose: the way of persuasion/authenticity or rhetoric/inauthenticity. Instead, both philosophers engage with a shared, central thought: how to escape the “daily, transient, scattered lives we humans lead” (“es geht darum, aus dem alltäglichen, vergänglichen, zerstreuten Leben, das wir Menschen eben nun mal leben, zu entkommen“ p. 241). But this problem is not exclusive to Michelstaedter’s and Heidegger’s philosophy: several contemporary philosophers that wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century equally saw themselves as “spiritual liberators, who wanted to show a way” (p. 241) among which were Ewald, Evola, and Martin Buber. And while Vašek does admit at the end that there is no historical proof that Heidegger had known of Michelstaedter and his work, he does insist on the “zest of speculating” that La Persuasione e la Rettorica could have been a prototype, the template for Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, indeed the “initial spark” (Initialzündung) for the Freiburg professor’s groundbreaking philosophy (p. 242).

After having worked my way through the 244 pages of Vašek’s book, which at times were quite repetitive and overwhelming, I remain unpersuaded as to the potentially heavy debt that Heidegger owes to Michelstaedter, all the similarities in philosophical layout notwithstanding. The “Enteignung” of which Vašek speaks in the book’s subtitle is too strong a term for a conceptual correspondence that, it seems to me, owes much more to the pollen of ideas floating around a modernist, shattered, disenchanted Europe than to any intentional and foul “expropriation” of a young philosopher’s intellectual property. If we were to accept Vašek’s claim as a real possibility of plagiarism here, then we would also have to accept all other claims as to the inauthenticity of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (it is a commonplace by now that he borrowed ideas and repackaged them in his own vocabulary, without naming the exact sources). This would make Sein und Zeit—the philosophical work that, as Vašek himself notes (p. 22), made possible French existentialism, Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, Foucault’s poststructuralism, Derrida’s deconstruction, and Lacan’s psychoanalysis—an empty rhetorical shell. Instead, if we put emphasis on the more likely and generous claim at the end of Vašek’s inquiry that “both books illuminate each other… in an interesting way” (p. 243), then we have a win-win situation: On one hand, Michelstaedter’s literary, artistic style and thought help us untangle Heidegger’s impenetrable vocabulary—indeed, Michelstaedter pulls aside Sein und Zeit’s rhetorical veil, disarms its “Teutonic bombast” as Thomas Sheehan aptly calls it (Sheehan 2001, in Vašek, p. 97); on the other hand, Heidegger’s systematic philosophizing and its heavy-weight presence in the philosophical canon legitimizes Michelstaedter’s work, it orders its artistic chaos, and helps us situate it within a genealogy of a radical rethinking of philosophy’s relation to being and life.

Yet what surely remains as the biggest merit of Vašek’s monograph is the fact that it instills a firm desire to (re-)read Michelstaedter and Heidegger, side by side or separately. Schein und Zeit’s interpretation even condenses the philosophies of the two into one ethical manual that begs for a pencil and many underlined passages, especially in confusing times such as the ones we live in where there seems to be ever less persuasion, authentic care for others and responsibility, and more and more divisive rhetoric that encourages a retreat into the safety of “Man.” Vašek’s is, to my knowledge, the first book-length, detailed comparative study of the two philosophers. Alone for this reason it deserves to be translated into English, for it provides an informed space for scholars to read Michelstaedter and Heidegger cheek by jowl. Without a doubt its availability in English will spur an even bigger interest in the still little-known Michelstaedter outside of Italian academia and narrow philosophical circles.

My two reservations concerning Mr. Vašek’s monograph are the following: First of all, and as already briefly mentioned, I do not find the argument that Heidegger had plagiarized Michelstaedter or hidden his tesi di laurea’s influence on Sein und Zeit convincing. What Vašek succeeds at demonstrating instead is that there were other philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century who shared Heidegger’s ideas but were not known enough (or died too young) or were just from the “wrong” background for them to receive equal appreciation (Rosenzweig, Michelstaedter, Ewald). This is something that scholarship needs to deal with, but it does not make Heidegger a plagiarist. Second of all, while the book is sufficiently well written so as to prevent conceptual entanglements, I believe that its argument could have been condensed into a much shorter monograph, perhaps even into a detailed, dense article, to avoid the many repetitions and summaries. But then it would have been a different kind of read, surely a less accessible one destined for a much smaller audience. As for the exciting promise of its title, a “whodunnit” in reverse, well, that certainly helps its circulation.



1 Thomas Vašek, Schein und Zeit: Martin Heidegger und Carlo Michelstaedter. Auf den Spuren einer Enteignung. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2019.
All translations from German and Italian into English are mine.

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