Book Plug: Heidegger’s Confessions by Ryan Coyne

Countering a Significant Omission: Heidegger’s ConfessionsHeidegger's Confessions

Reviewed by Dr. Gary R. Brown, University of Dallas

It is well-known that the compelling breadth and depth of Heidegger’s thought is due in large measure to how much of the Western philosophical tradition it encompasses. He has ferreted out, rethought, and retrieved significant themes from everybody’s favorite thinkers. We can find echoes in Heidegger’s work of Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Eckhart, Aquinas, Dilthey, Jaspers, Lask, Scheler, St. Paul, Luther—a list that can be further extended even without including poets and dramatists. But, according to Ryan Coyne, there is another, perhaps equally significant, thinker whose longtime influence on Heidegger has been sorely overlooked, and that is St. Augustine.

The first reaction by many Heidegger scholars to such a claim is surprised denial. It is widely assumed that after The Phenomenology of Religious life, Heidegger moved progressively further away from Augustine as he set about de-theologizing philosophy. Heidegger’s supposed incompatibility with Augustine might seem even more pronounced after Phillip Cary’s Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Cary shifts the blame for modern subjectivity from Descartes’ shoulders to Augustine’s—its true originator. If we can claim anything with certainty about Heidegger’s work, it is that he has labored mightily against Descartes’ subjective metaphysics. So why would Augustine’s abiding influence on Heidegger be something to consider as possible?

Coyne argues that Heidegger’s reading of Augustine’s Confessions for his 1921 seminar allowed him to see Augustine as a predecessor in his battle against Cartesian metaphysics. Having Augustine as an ally in his exploration of the concrete facticity of life had greater influence on Heidegger’s future work, according to Coyne, than his study of the Pauline epistles during the same period. Heidegger’s ongoing de-theologizing of theological concepts hid Augustine’s influence on Being and Time, but after the Kehre Heidegger returned to his early reworking of Augustine’s thought in order to find ways to move forward. Coyne finds echoes in the Contributions to Philosophy (1936-1938) of Augustine in Heidegger’s rethinking of Dasein in terms of displacement and “restraint.” He points to Heidegger’s reference to Augustine in the 1946 study, “Anaximander’s Saying” while trying to interpret the early understanding of being. Coyne also presents textual evidence for a “muted resurgence of resignified Augustinian terms” in Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s completion of Descartes’ metaphysical project (1944-1946). This twenty-five year span of Augustine’s influence, which surfaced during significant periods of crisis in Heidegger’s work, brings clarity to the tension in Heidegger between the secular and the religious contributions to the meaning of being. Coyne’s presentation is a pleasure to read due to the clarity of his argument, his impressive knowledge of the stages of Heidegger’s development, and the rich selection of supportive textual details.