For Heidegger being is a phenomenon: we all know what it means to be or to exist, even though when we seek to articulate that knowledge we are stumped and flounder amid empty expressions. Analytical philosophy avoids having to deal with this phenomenon head-on and focuses only on aspects of being or existence that can be handled by logic. Heidegger seeks light from the most pregnant philosophical namings of being, such as Parmenides’ esti gar einai, and also from the poets – Goethe’s ‘Über allen Gipfeln/Ist Ruh.’ He reviews the history of metaphysics as a series of efforts to think and name the phenomenon of being.
It may be true that ‘in classical Greek usage “what is” typically expands into “what is something or other” (and not, for example, into “what exists”),’ so that ‘knowing the definition of some Form, for instance that… justice is a certain interrelation of three parts, would be an excellent illustration of how and why knowledge is of ‘what is.’ In normal English usage as well, if someone talks about ‘what is’ they typically mean ‘what is the case.’ But in addition to this usage, Plato does seem to thematize the idea of isness as such – not merely ‘what exists’ or even ‘existence’ but ‘being.’ He sees the lover of knowledge as striving pros to on, and soaring with undimmed erôs till he is united with what truly is, migeis tô onti ontôs, begetting thence intelligence and truth noun kai alêtheian (Rep., 490A-B). Heidegger quotes this passage (GA 34.67-8), translating the last phrase as Vernehmen, Erfassen und Unverborgenheit, ‘perceiving, grasping and unhiddenness’ – a deintellectualizing, phenomenological interpretation. He translates tô onti ontôs as dem seiendlichen Seienden, ‘the most beingly existent,’ giving their maximally ‘ontological’ sense to Plato’s diction and interpreting this sense in phenomenological terms. Analytical philosophy cannot make much of such expressions as ‘beings as such’ or ‘the most beingly being,’ ‘the being that most is,’ but Heidegger takes them to name concrete phenomenological dimensions to be apprehended by a thinking that is not merely conceptual.
Regrettably, the only work on Plato published by Heidegger was the essay Plato’s Doctrine of Truth (1942), composed – or zusammengestellt as he deprecatively puts it (GA 9.483) – in 1940. This piece threw his earlier lectures on the Sophist (1924) and the Republic and Theaetetus (1931-2) into the shade, until the publication of the latter in 1988. In these lectures Heidegger is far more warmly engaged with the Platonic texts, and brings out more sympathetically and sensitively the ontological overtones of Plato’s vocabulary. In his reading of the allegory of the cavern (Rep., 514A-517A), he gives himself time to follow the text attentively and to let it breathe, in a slow unfolding of its dynamic drama. The thesis that Plato’s philosophy is ‘nothing other than the struggle of the two concepts of truth’ (GA 34:46), as ‘unhiddenness’ (Unverborgenheit) and as ‘correctness’ (Richtigkeit) respectively, is stated early in the lectures, but in a less baldly dogmatic way than in the essay. In the lectures the clash of the two understandings of truth is traced in a more subtle and open-ended way, whereas the essay consigns Plato unambiguously to metaphysics, already characterized as onto-theo-logy, and sees him as the fons et origo of all metaphysical idealism down to the nineteenth century idealism of ‘values’ that infects even the anti-Platonic Nietzsche.
The 1931-2 Lectures
The references to ta onta and to alethês in the description of Plato’s cave dwellers (Rep., 515 B-C), as they take the shadows for truth, are perhaps over eagerly solicited by Heidegger for ontological resonance: ‘the unhidden is quite automatically taken for what is (das Seiende), ta onta’ (GA 34.29). The various aspects of the situation of the bound prisoners are ‘components that build up the essence of the alêthes, truth as unhiddenness’ (GA 34.29). But this is justifiable in light of the total allegory. The words onta and alêthes here connect with the ensuing statement that the prisoner who sees the fire and the objects it lights up is now closer to being and sees more correctly things that more truly are, nun de mallon ti enguterô tou ontos kai pros mallon onta tetrammenos orthoteron blepoi (515D); ‘jetzt aber sei er dem Seienden näher und Seienderem zugewendet, so daß er richtiger sehe’ (GA 34.31); ‘jetzt aber dem Seienden um mehreres näher sei und, also dem Seienderen zugewendet, demzufolge auch richtiger blicke?’ (GA 9.207).
Heidegger’s phenomenological solicitation of the text is apparent: ‘the bound and unbound person stumbles (stößt)on unhiddenness as such. He does not come to it. But does not Plato say that the captives are from childhood placed before the alêthes, the unhidden? Certainly; but not before the unhidden as unhidden. They do not know… that such a matter as unhiddenness happens’ (GA 34.37). The bound prisoners resemble the average philosopher, who deals with metaphysical truths but cannot discern the process of emerging into unhiddenness, which is what allows knowers to know truths. Plato’s unbound prisoner is likely to fall back and believe that the shadows are truer, alêthetestera (515D), than the objects he now sees. The passage immediately following the allegory which talks of gazing on what is and on the brightest of beings (tou ontos to phanotaton), the Good (518C-D).The education of philosophers draws their mind from that which has come to be to that which is (epi to on)(522D). This can be read as referring to ‘correctness,’ but Heidegger makes a great effort to draw out a phenomenology of ‘unhiddenness’ from it, before admitting, and eventually declaring quite dogmatically, that correctness wins out over unhiddenness in Plato.
The key word for Plato’s apprehension of the phenomenon of being is eidos or idea, and this word already at the same time harbors the loss of the phenomenon of being in metaphysics, which brings the unhiddenness of being under the yoke of the idea. In Plato the forms are identified through vigorous dialectical argumentation. Heidegger sees this in the 1924 lectures on the Sophist and when he says: ‘Only in the rigor of questioning do we come into the proximity of the unsayable’ (GA 34.97-8). Here, dialectical questioning is itself grasped in a strictly phenomenological way; not its logic but its spirit is what counts. The role of rational argument, for instance in the identification of the Good as ‘the telos of the intelligible’ (Rep., 532B), is given scant attention. Eidos as an instrument of rational penetration, defined in the inventive give and take of dialectical argument, does not interest Heidegger. ‘The ideas are what are most being (das Seiendste), since they give that being to be understood “in whose light,” as we still say today, the individual being first is a being and is that being which it is (Seiendes ist und das Seiende ist, was es ist) (GA 34.99). Eidos names the being of a being, what allows it to emerge as that which it is. The tree is a tree when we see it in light of its form; without that vision of the form we would not see the tree at all. This phenomenological approach will eventually allow Heidegger to conclusively identify eidos as belonging to a limited ‘mittence of being (Seinsgeschick)’ with a defined place in the history of being (Seinsgeschichte).
When Antisthenes objected to Plato, ‘I see the real horse but I don’t see the idea of horseness,’ Plato replied: ‘You have what is required to see the real horse, but you do not yet have the eye to see the idea of horse.’ Heidegger wants to overcome this dualism between empirical and ideal by making the idea of horse the ontological pre-understanding that allows us to see and recognize actual horses. For Heidegger, what Antisthenes lacked was not dialectical ability, the capacity for abstract thought, but phenomenological sensitivity. For Heidegger, truth is a phenomenological quantity, so that he translates ho tên alêtheian mê eidôs (Phaedrus 262c) as ‘one who has never seen matters (die Sachen) in their unhiddenness (Unverborgenheit)’ (GA 19.328). Platonic dialectic begins from phenomena and can at the end attain an enlightened vision of phenomena, but its element is conceptual clarification to be established by logical argument. Heidegger undoes all this by his constant focus on the phenomena. In the 1924 lectureshe tries to see dialectic as the art of lighting up phenomena. The Platonic dialegein, he argues, traverses the realm of logos to reach that of noein. But this detour through argument seems too expensive, and dialectic appears as a trap for those who have lost their way to the phenomena. He has some sympathy for legein as a guide to ‘attaining the structures of being of the being encountered in address and review (des im Ansprechen und Besprechen begegnenden Seienden),’ but the direct noein of Aristotle makes dialectic superfluous. Heidegger does not respond to the power of rational dialectic insofar as it is not reducible to phenomenological terms.
Rather than a clear progression from appreciating the world of the eidê to perceiving its limits, it seems that in Heidegger, at least in the lectures of 1924 and 1931-2, we find an oscillation between, on the one hand, lively participation in the movement of thought that goes from things to their eidos, in which Heidegger works with Plato as with a colleague in phenomenological ontology, and, on the other hand, a gnawing dissatisfaction with Platonic procedures that seem to bypass the thing itself; Plato is seen as caught in an intellectualist posture that keeps him from pursuing his phenomenological intuitions to the end. This oscillation generates a subtle and fruitful hermeneutics of Plato’s texts, but after the 1924 course on the Sophist Heidegger did not find the time to develop such a reading systematically.
Heidegger in the 1930s was working his way to a more integral phenomenology of the togetherness of being and thinking, which he summed up in the idea of the Ereignis. The interrogation of beings in view of their being is continued in the interrogation of being itself in view of what one can call the phenomenological conditions of its possibility. If the eidê represent the breakthrough in Plato of a vision of being in its difference from beings, the Good, the idea of ideas, points to a more radical difference, that between being and the Ereignis, as that which ‘grants’ being: ‘Es gibt sein.’Thus for a while Heidegger seems to have caught a glimmer of the Ereignis in Plato’s thought of the Good. The Good, too, represents a step beyond being, not toward a transcendent non-being, but toward the innermost essentiality of being. It is possible that the nascent thought of the Ereignis inspires Heidegger’s interest in the theme of the Good and guides his exegetical steps. These lectures are part of the incubation period of the Ereignis for Heidegger, who is perhaps tempted to see the Platonic thought of the Good as an ancient stage of the incubation of the Ereignis.
Heidegger seeks to reduce the Good to an immanent, phenomenal reality, such as the Ereignis will be. The Ereignis is the event that relates thought to beings in the harmony of an intimate encounter; it is also called Eräugnis (from Auge, eye). Heidegger does not want the epekeina tês ousias to withdraw the Good from the realm of the phenomenal, but wants the phrase rather to be a phenomenological utterance. As such it would signify that the Good is beyond beings as coming into presence because is it itself the immanent condition of their coming into presence, rather than a transcendence posited by a metaphysical deduction. In the discourse on the Good, Heidegger detects a sense of the openness of being, but one that was insufficient because too centered on the correct vision of the forms under the dominance of the highest idea.
One may find anticipations of the Ereignis in passages like the following:
That the highest idea most originarily and authentically upholds what is in any case the office (Amt)of the idea: to let the unhiddenness of the being spring up with it (mit-entspringen lassen Unverborgenheit von Seiendem), and to allow to be understood the being of the being as what is gazed on (neither without the other). The highest idea, which is scarcely yet capable of being gazed on, is that which co-possibilizes being and unhiddenness, that is, empowers being and unhiddenness as such to that which they are (das überhaupt so etwas wie Sein und Unverborgenheit mit-ermöglicht, d. h. Sein und Unverborgenheit als solche zu dem ermächtigt , was sie sind). The highest idea is thus this empowering instance, the empowerment for being, that there is being as such, and, one with it, the empowerment of unhiddenness, that it happens as such (de Ermächtigung für das Sein, daß es sich als solches gibt, und in eins damit die Ermächtigung der Unverborgenheit daß sie als solche geschieht ). (GA 34.99)
In Heidegger’s phenomenological reading, the Good is that which ‘renders fitting (tauglich)’ the relationship of beings and the mind that perceives them, a relationship of un-concealment, which is the ‘yoke’ (zugon) between the openness of beings and the understanding of being. Just as he seeks to root the notion of eidos in a primary, elementary signification of ‘aspect,’ likewise he recalls the notion of the Good to a down-to-earth sense of fittingness, as when one speaks of a good pair of skis. The Good is what makes thought and beings fit for their encounter. The ethical aspect, that would see the vision of the Good as not just an effect of paideia but of a moral conversion is not taken into account, or is supposed to be precontained in paideia as Heidegger interprets it. The wider context of the allegory of the cavern involves a thinking on justice that does not quite fit Heidegger’s ontophenomenological interest. Similarly, the claim that the Good is the source or cause of beings is dismissed as a late imposition, Platonist or Christian, and the causality of the Good is reduced to a phenomenological condition of possibility.
However, a critique of the idea of the Good is already formulated in 1931-2. The disappearance of the original experience of alêtheia is marked by the fact that ‘‘Plato already grasps alêtheia as something that belongs to the entity, – so that the entity itself is addressed as unhidden, the entity and the unhidden are taken as one (daß Seiendes und Unverborgenes in eins gesetzt werden) and the question about unhiddenness as such is not at all alive’ (GA 34.123-4). Truth no longer concerns wresting from concealment but is summed up in the idea of the being that has maximum beingness, An-wesenheit. Thus the sun that rises for Plato, the supreme being of Western metaphysics, paradoxically masks the true dawn of the West, throwing into the shade the phenomenon of truth in its dynamic emergence. The cavern allegory gives only a deficient representation of the process of wresting whereby truth manifests itself, for it is concerned only with ‘what is required for the entity as such to be unhidden’ (GA 34.125). Insofar as the Good cannot be prevented from showing this metaphysical face, Heidegger becomes critical of it as an anti-phenomenological idea.
When Heidegger, in 1931-2, detects behind the situation evoked in the allegory the authentic phenomenon of alêtheia, in remarks that seem to foreshadow the thought of the Ereignis, this is an extrapolation beyond Plato, not to save him from himself by a hermeneutical charity but to show up in the end the limits of his vision: ‘When we say that alêtheia is wrestedness-from-concealment (Entbergsamkeit), this is an explication that brings out what unhiddenness itself must be grounded in. Unhiddenness is thus a theme for Plato and yet is not… Just this, the absence (Ausbleiben) of the question about hiddenness as such, is the decisive evidence for the already arising inoperancy (bereits anhebende Unwirksamkeit) of unhiddenness in the strict sense (125). We need to win back the original experience that has already disappeared in Plato. But at this stage Plato’s text seems to be prized as leading us back to that original experience if we read it against the grain, phenomenologically, not metaphysically.
The 1940 Essay
The 1940 essay is slower than the 1931-2 lectures to welcome the promising resonances of Plato’s language, perhaps because Heidegger is aware of having lent to the Good in 1931-2 some traits belonging to the Ereignis, a notion developed in between the two texts (although the optic of 1931-2, still centered on the essence of man, is not yet open to the dimensions of the Ereignis). The pages on the Good as what appropriates thought to the truth of beings in 1940 are more than a relic of what is said on this in 1931-2, and they are quickly followed by reproaches in which Plato is put in his fateful place in the history of metaphysics. Once the thought of the Ereignis has ripened, Heidegger no longer wants to associate it closely with Plato, and he becomes more keenly conscious that the Platonic text does not live up to its phenomenological promise.
In 1940 the emphasis on the values of visibility is heavier : ‘The essence of the idea lies in shiningness and visibility (Schein- und Sichtsamkeit)’ (GA 9.225). This is not a new concern of Heidegger’s, for Platonic ‘theoretism’ was denounced in his first lectures. But it now becomes the entry point for a more negative view of Plato’s role in the history of philosophy. The critique of the predominance of the visual may derive form a narrowness imported into the text through Heidegger’s own insistence on the visual roots of the eidos-terminology and his transferal to the world of the Ideas of phenomenological associations of light and visibility which properly concern only the sensible images used in the story of the cavern.
Thus in Greek thinking (griechisch gedacht) the ‘ideas’ make something fit (tauglich) to appear, as that which it is (in dem, was es ist), and thus be present in its stability (in seinem Beständigen anwesen). The ideas are the beingness of every being (das Seiende jades Seienden). What makes every idea fit to be an idea – Platonically expressed, the idea of all ideas – consists thus in enabling the appearing, in all its visibility, of everything that is present (das Erscheinen alles Anwesenden in all seiner Sichtsamkeit zu ermöglichen). Already the essence of every idea lies in a possibilizing and making fit for appearing (Ermöglichen und Tauglichmachen zum Scheinen) that allows a view of the aspect (eine Sicht des Ausssehens). Accordingly, the idea of ideas is that which universally makes fit (das Tauglichmachende schlechthin), to agathon. This it is that brings every luminous thing to its shining, and it is accordingly itself that which most authentically appears, that which is most luminous in its shining. Hence Plato calls the agathon also tou ontos to phanotaton (518C, 9), ‘the most appearing (most luminous) of beings.’ (GA 9.228)
Now the Good is seen as an Idea that puts alêtheia under its yoke, thus launching the career of metaphysics as ‘idealism’ at the expense of the openness of being. The logical correctness envisaged by Plato is characterized non-dialectically in terms of a phenomenology of vision:
The transition from one situation to the other consists in the gaze becoming more correct. Everything hangs on the orthotês, the correctness of the gaze. Through this correctness seeing and knowing become right, so that they can go straight up to the highest idea and become firm in this ‘alignment.’ In this self-directing the perception conforms itself to that which must be brought into view. (GA 9.230)
No hermeneutical generosity comes to the aid of the allegory here. The visual metaphors are taken to show an illicit objectification of truth. To gaze on the Good is to freeze truth into mere light, missing the tension of wresting by which entities accede to presence. This arrest of the process of being is metaphysics, which imposes a form on being itself, figuring it as ens commune or summum ens. The onto-theological virtualities of Plato’s text here override the phenomenological dimensions that the earlier readings brought out.
When Heidegger invokes a phenomenological Plato against a rationalist Plato, to shake off the yoke of the idea, the strategy does not work very well, for to fully appreciate the phenomenological upshot of Plato’s writing one would have to understand better than Heidegger did the way that dialectic opens a space of thought, a space in which beings show themselves in the clarity of a new intellectual understanding. The Forms and the Good that loom in this horizon are openings on the real, of which one cannot limit and define the significance. As orientations to the ultimate, their meaning surpasses the intellectualist aspect increasingly emphasized by Heidegger. The Forms and the Good emerge in the course of a living dialectic not as a ceiling or a yoke imposed on the openness of thought but as ciphers of the obscure goal after which thought thirsts, The Good is the basic theme of the discussions in the Republic, all of which presuppose knowledge of the Good, which is gradually brought into focus. If a definition of the Good is demanded, Socrates refuses to give one. This is not in order to preserve the prestige of its ineffable transcendence, but comes from the recognition that the Good, and perhaps all the Ideas, serve to lead thought at every step but do not lend themselves to a conceptual closure that would abolish their enigmatic character.
The Good would be a stammering of the Ereignis just as the eidos offers a partial glimmer of the ontological difference. In contrast, the 1940 text reduces the Good to the level of the forms, confirming their incapacity to open up to the truth of being. Plato seems to disappear here in favor of banal interpretations and Nietzsche’s polemic.
The allegory of the cavern enacts ‘the tacit process of idea become master over alêtheia’ (GA 9.230). Truth is henceforth measured in terms of the correctness of the gaze and its correspondence with its objects. ‘In this transformation of the essence of truth there is accomplished at the same time a change in the place of truth. As unhiddenness it is still a basic trait of what is (Grundzug des Seienden selbst). As correctness of the “gaze,” however, it becomes a property of the human relationship to what is’ (GA 9.231).
But an ambiguity remains: ‘The ambiguity is shown in all its sharpness in that he deals with and talks of alêtheia and in reality means orthotês, posited as normative, and all this in the same sequence of thought (Gedankengang)’ (GA 9.231). This ambiguity is at its height when Plato talks of the Good as what yokes together knower and known. ‘First, and thereby normatively, Plato says that hê tou agathou idea is pantôn orthôn te kai kalôn aitia, “cause (that is, possibilization of the essence) of all that is correct as well as of all that is beautiful” (Rep., 517B-C). Then, however, we hear that the idea of the Good is kuria alêtheian kai noun paraschomenê (517C), “the mistress (Herrin) that grants unconcealment and also perception (das Vernehmen).” The two statements do not run parallel, so that the ortha (the correct) would correspond to alêtheia and the kala (the beautiful) to nous (perception). Rather there is a crisscross correspondence’ (9.231-2). Luminous beauty corresponds to alêtheia and correctness to perception. The two sentences speak of the preeminence of the idea of the Good as the ‘Ermöglichung der Richtigkeit des Erkennens und der Unverborgenheit des Erkannten’ (possibilization of the correctness of knowledge and of the unhiddenness of what is known) (GA 9.232). But even as the idea brings unhiddenness entirely under its yoke, something of the initial meaning of unhiddenness remains: ‘The idea is not a presenting foreground of alêtheia, but the ground that enables it. But this means that the idea still lays claim to something of the initial, but unknown essence of alêtheia’(GA 9.234). However, this residual glimmer of alêtheia no longer attracts Heidegger or offers nourishment to his thought, so that Plato ceases to be one of the authors whom he interrogates in his quest for the phenomenality of being.