Philosopher Michael Zimmerman: On Werner Erhard and Heidegger

“I took the est training in December of 1980. It was an amazing experience. I had a powerful breakthrough and insight. I got it, as they say in the jargon. And what I got was that I was an openness, a clearing. This is so powerful in part because I was a student of Heidegger, in the sense that I read his books and had written a book about him and so on. I saw that this was so consistent with Heidegger’s idea of what it means to be human, that I was totally amazed. In addition to that I find this transformational workshop that is able to generate a first person experience of my being this nothingness, this openness. It was astounding to me.

In January or February of 1982 I was introduced to Werner Erhard by Hubert Dreyfus, at the University of California. Werner was taking part in a seminar he had founded with this Chilean philosopher, Umberto Maturana, and I was invited to participate in it. It was a marvelous experience. There I discovered Werner’s ability to ask incisive questions, to really get at the heart of the matter and to understand everything. This man, I realized was very, very smart. He had no particular formal training in anything, but he understood things as well as anyone I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around a lot of smart people in academia. This is an extraordinary intellect I saw at work. I was there having a wonderful time, because I was really inspired by the est training which I had taken a year earlier, which I thought was a very powerful experience, kind of like an American Zen training, and I wanted to meet the man who had been involved in inventing this. So it was quite an exciting time to meet with Werner and to discover some of his own philosophical underpinnings. During that time, in the spring of 1982, Werner invited me and Burt Dreyfus, two philosophy professors, to help him reinvent the training, informing it with principles drawn from Heidegger and other thinkers to make it more rigorous and effective in bringing people into another way of thinking about what it is to be human.

Werner Erhard, like a number of other important thinkers, and I think Werner Erhard is a very powerful thinker, an authentic American genius, if you will, has drawn on a vast array of traditions and thinkers to put together his approach to transformation. This is not unusual among famous European and American intellectuals. Heidegger, for example, Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, someone I teach a lot, was influenced by Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Niche and a host of other thinkers. And when I teach Heidegger, I go through in the first section of the class, I explain some of these influences and I add, it was Heidegger who put a new spin on all of this. That’s why Heidegger is Heidegger. What is important to see here is that Werner Erhard put a spin on all of this that was original, that was impactful, that transformed peoples experience of their lives in many ways. So Werner, I think, needs to be conceived in that way. He’s a kind of artist, a thinker, an inventor, who has big debts to others, who borrowed from others, but then put the whole thing together in a way no one else had ever done. An in addition to this ability to bring together many different patterns of thinking, and types of activities and learning processes, Werner has a kind of incredible sharp mind, which enables him to discern patterns, and opportunities that are not seen by others. That’s Werner’s ability.” – Michael Zimmerman

Michael E. Zimmerman is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at Colorado University, Boulder.