November 26, 2008

Philip K. Dick and Heidegger

Filed under: philip k. dick, philosophy — Tags: — ubikcan @ 1:52 pm

Updated. — Update IIUpdate III.

I’ve long been curious what Dick would have made of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, had he read him. Many of their themes are the same; the nature of being, the difference between appearance and reality, metaphysics, ontology and so on.

For those unfamiliar with Heidegger, a Wikipedia entry about him is available.

For all of Dick’s readings and his familiarity with Wagner, or occasional mentions of Hegel (and his ability to speak German) one would have thought he would mention people like Nietzsche more often, or have something to say about Heidegger (who he could have read in the original). Of course Dick was an auto-didact and college drop-out, but he did read widely if not deeply. In the last years of his life, when he was writing Valis, Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth and especially the Transmigration of Timothy Archer, he apparently read a lot of theology, was interested in gnosticism, Bible studies, and ancient texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi). So this is disappointing.

Yet there are parallels we can seek out. One of their other shared grounds was an emphasis on care (caritas or agape). This is well known concern in PKD, and basically can be read as: “the human is that which is capable of care and empathy, not matter its outward appearance.” For PKD then, reality was not outward appearance necessarily (I think he vacillated a bit on that point) but inner truth, which was care. Not essence, but existence. Here PKD drew especially on Paul’s notion of empathy and charity (think of the empathy boxes in Do Androids Dream… for example, and how the androids couldn’t pass the Voight-Kampff test, which tested for empathy towards other creatures).

Heidegger also points to care as that which is characteristic of being human (he used a German word for this, Dasein). As you may know, Heidegger’s topic in Being and Time is the question of being, which he claims has long since been forgotten in philosophy–the ancient Greeks had it but we’ve since lost sight of this question. Heidegger claims that being in the world is care (L. cura), that is, not some detached “philosophical” looking at the world–we are entrenched in it already. We are attuned to the world into which we are thrown (our past so to speak) and we’re always busy projecting into future possibilities. These parts in particular sounds very Dickian if you remember his long concern with understanding his own past after 1974 and the so-called exegesis.

This idea, of the fact that we’re deeply being in the world as care, comes up in the book in which Dick’s theology/philosophy is most at the surface (explicitly and repeatedly so) the Transmigration of Timothy Archer. This is an autobiographical account of his friendship with the Episcopalian Bishop of California, James Pike. Dick and Pike were friends and according to Sutin’s biography, PKD learned a lot of theology from the Bishop (who was tried for heresy shortly before his death in 1969).

Philip K. Dick and Bishop James Pike on Dick’s wedding day to Nancy Hackett, July 1966

In Transmigration, Timothy Archer says to Angel Archer:

“…care…the salient term here; it’s the key to Paul’s thinking. Agape in the Greek. Translated into Latin, it’s caritas, from which we get the word ‘caring,’ to be concerned about someone. As you’re concerned about me now, myself and your friend Kirsten [Pike’s sometime lover, Maren Hackett, Nancy’s stepmother]. You care about us.”

“That’s right,” I said. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Then for you, caring is important.”

“Yes,” I said. “Obviously.

“You can call it agape or you can call it caritas or love or caring about another person, but whatever you call it–let me read from Paul.” Bishop Archer again opened his big Bible…

“‘In short there are three things that last: faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.’ I would point out to you that that sums up the kerygma of our Lord.”

(pp. 49-50, kerygma means preaching or proclamation).

On the previous page Archer explains that Paul’s insight is that faith, not adherence to the Law, the stipulated code-ethics, provides the possibility of salvation.

Later on Dick does mention Heidegger in passing (I think the only time I’ve noticed Heidegger in Dick’s work, though there could be others). At this point in the novel Archer’s son has committed suicide (as he did in reality in 1966) and they have just returned from the funeral service. They are talking about knowing God.

Earnestly, Tim said to me, “It is really a matter of great importance to know God, to discern the Absolute Essence, which is the way Heidegger puts it. Sein is his term: Being.” (p. 74).

This little gloss is interesting but not that insightful. I don’t know where Dick got this from regarding Heidegger (perhaps one of his encyclopedias he used; the “Bibliography” at the end of the book includes such things as liner notes, Plato, the Schiller entry in the Britannica, etc. but no Heidegger). Here PKD makes a mistake confusing Being with the idea of Supreme Being. For Heidegger, Being is not a being at all. The question of the meaning of Being in fact is what Heidegger’s work is about, and his name for those beings which ask this question, or are concerned (care) about it is Dasein (being-there). Also, “Absolute Essence” is PKD’s gloss on Sein and not one Heidegger would endorse.

So in summary then we have “care” in both Philip K. Dick and Martin Heidegger, perhaps one of the most influential philosophers on the twentieth century. But it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing (Heidegger: cura, PKD: caritas).

PS: Weird parallel that somebody could write a thesis on:

For Heidegger the question of being has been forgotten since Greek times. Being is essentially care; care then, essentially occluded since Greek times. PKD: reality has been occluded (Black Iron Prison) since Greek/Roman times, PKD experienced reality breakthrough in 1974. Both: we need to recover care.

Howzat? I can has Phd?


In Pursuit of Valis, Selections from the Exegesis (ed. by Lawrence Sutin) contains a number of passing references to Heidegger, but they aren’t very illuminating except in the sense that they incorporate Heidegger into PKD’s own preferred thinking. For example, PKD calls Dasein “based on Gnosticism” (p. 108). Sutin’s footnote is even worse, saying that Heidegger was interested in “varying states of ontological reality” which makes no sense and that Dasein means here-being. For Heidegger, Dasein is that being for whom being is a question.

If PKD discusses Ereignis, a quite enigmatic term of Heidegger’s, translated into English as the event of appropriation (or appropriative event, or more absurdly Enowning, as in en-own), I am not aware of it except for Tessa Dick’s statement below. And in fact, since Contributions to Philosophy: From Enowning was only published in German in 1989 (in English in 2000) and was fairly inaccessible before those dates I am not sure how Dick could have known about it. But I’m happy to be proved wrong, as always!

Update II.

I should add that “Eriegnis” appears in Heidegger’s late essay “Time and Being” (1962, published in German in 1969, in English 1972) which would have been available to PKD prior to his death in 1982. As I said above however there is as yet no evidence that I know of that PKD engaged with this term.

Update III.

It occurs to me after having written the above that the richest comparison might be between Dick’s Exegesis (written in semi-secret or anyway not for publication) in which he freely speculated about the nature of the universe, and Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis) or Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) written in private during 1936-38 and not published until recently (and still not published entirely). Here is what one of the leading Heidegger scholars, Richard Polt, has to say about the Beiträge:

They are forbiddingly strange. They are an arrangement of 281 notes and fragmentary sketches. The language is hypnotically repetitive and dense, consisting of formula after formula in which Heidegger tries to say everything unsayable at once. The style borrows from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Hölderlin’s hymns, without attaining the grace of either writer

The books’ tone is tense, almost desperate. Even though its fundamental mood is said to be “restraint”, it is full of sweeping judgments and impassioned denunciations, driven by an effort to set in motion a revolution comparable only to the beginnings of Greek philosophy–to sow the seeds of a question that might determine the style of thinking for centuries. The Contributions are arrogant and obsessive, stubborn and self-important, because they are the results of the author’s decision to let himself give vent to intimations that were long held back in hesitation. (Polt, The Emergency of Being, 2006, pp. 2-3).

Now does that sound like the Exegesis or what? Especially the parts I’ve bolded for emphasis. I think there might very well be another dissertation on this by someone!


  1. As I commented on one of your other posts,

    Phil studied philosophy, first at UC Berkeley, and then on his own. He had an affinity for Schopenhauer, and he used to discuss Schrodinger’s cat with anybody who cared to listen and join in.

    Another one of Phil’s favorite topics was Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis, that is, that existence creates of gives birth to space and time. I guess you could say that Phil’s writing focuses on phenomenology.

    Comment by busby777 — November 28, 2008 @ 12:01 am

  2. Just a note on Heidegger’s Term ‘Dasein’
    ‘Dasein’ is the Being of humans, exclusivly. Plants and animals are ‘Living’; material things are ‘Available’.
    A translation with ‘here-being’ is not correct.
    “Das Seiende, das jeder von uns selbst ist, als Mensch, nennen wir das menschliche Dasein oder kurz Dasein. Einen Grundcharakter der Art und Weise, wie das Dasein ist, nennen wir Existenz. Dasein existiert, und nur es. Nur der Mensch hat Existenz.
    das Existierende: die Menschen; das Lebende: Pflanzen, Tiere; das Vorhandene: die materiellen Dinge; das Zuhandene: die Gebrauchsdinge im weitesten Sinne; das Bestehende: Zahl und Raum.”
    M. Heidegger: Einleitung in die Philosophie. Gesamtausgabe Band 27, Frankfurt a. Main 1996. S. 73-74

    Comment by Eule — January 6, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

  3. Da-sein does literally mean “here-being” (or “there-being”).

    Comment by bzfgt — September 23, 2014 @ 3:47 am

  4. “Heidegger also points to care as that which is characteristic of being human (he used a German word for this, Dasein)”
    What you’re looking for is “Sorge” which means care, Heidegger’s point is that we take of the world we are in, in that useful objects are my possibilities and I am toward my possibilities with a sort of world-care as well as a self-care. This point is present in Kierkegaards “Bekymring”

    But what it is far more striking I think, is that Do Androids Dream… uses the idea of Kipple which are all the things that are useless, to the chickenhead Isidur – who is descending into dementia – Kipple it something that aggregates.
    Heidegger has the idea of Vorhandenheit which are what we might properly call ‘stuff’, things that are not in the world as opportunities, but simply there in their ontic form as bodies with a certain shape, weight etc… Such would aggregate if you were becoming dumber, because you would forget how to use your appliances, these would no longer exist as extensions of your will, but merely as dead-matter..

    So Kipple is Vorhandenheit and it accrues because the world they belong to (the totality of reference for good use) is disappearing when Isidur turns more mad.

    Heidegger was basically a systematizer of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and Nietzsche had the idea of the last man, who had invented happiness; in Do Androids Dream… the people in the book are literally the last people on earth who invented happiness with their empathy boxes etc they can dial for the feelings they want and have them infused into them.

    Comment by Niklas — March 23, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

  5. With regard to knowing God, the absolute essence and what not, PKD must simply be mistaking Heidegger for Hegel

    Comment by Niklas — March 23, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

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