A lively dialogue about Thomas Sheehan's forthcoming book, "Making Sense of Heidegger," took place in Stanford University on February 24, 2015. Here is the text of my critique, as distributed to the auditors.
Heidegger Without Being
My understanding of Heidegger is principally shaped by reading and rereading the texts he published in his lifetime, as well as the classic presentations of Jean Beaufret, Otto Pöggeler, and William J. Richardson. In this perspective, Heidegger, from more existential beginnings, ripens into the thinker of Being, apprehending ever more concretely the phenomenon of the un-concealedness (a-lêtheia, truth) of being, and thus healing Western tradition, which has becoming increasingly rootless through failing to abide in this reality. Thomas Sheehan has studied Heidegger’s vast Nachlass in depth,and it has radically changed his vision of Heidegger, whereas my own more desultory reading of some volumes seemed merely to confim the picture I already had. Sheehan gives a good account of the move from the Dasein-centered perspective of early Heidegger to the clearing as the center in later Heidegger, but then adds that “all this is merely a preparation… for embracing the proprium of oneself… as the mortal space for mediation and meaning” (267). I do not understand why he takes this swerve, which seems to go against the whole movement of Heidegger’s development.
Critics of Heidegger have always regarded him as a crazed Ahab fixated on the great white whale of Being, or rather the white balloon which the merest pinprick of logical analysis can burst. But revisionist Heideggerians, too, tend to whisk Being away. Heidegger himself sometimes tries to shake off the word “Being,” and sometimes it falls as a dead slogan from his lips (as in a rather deplorable television interview). But Heidegger becomes impatient with the word “Being” when it no longer serves the Sache of his lifelong phenomenological meditation. The revisionists, to the contrary, seem to want to replace the Sache itself with something quite different. The current French reception of Heidegger (Marion, Courtine, Romano, Boulnois, Falque, etc.) does this by reducing Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics to a critique of post-Scotist or post-Cartesian metaphysics, thus permitting the medieval understanding of being to remain unscathed by it. It also tends to downplay “Being,” which has supposedly been discredited by the deconstruction of the “metaphysics of presence,” a dismissive phrase applied to Heidegger by Derrida—and which seems to consign all of Derrida’s engagements with Heidegger to a secondary and tangential level of textual play. Being is subtly replaced by lighter French conceptions of givenness or event or hermeneutics that then become susceptible to doxographical interplay with the ideas of Levinas or Michel Henry, or to serving as counters in a theological phenomenology that frequently overrides the traditional constraints both of theological method and of phenomenological method. In the English-speaking world, the reception is further affected by pragmatist and other down-to-earth styles of thought that seek to put Heidegger back on his feet by emphasizing the human, moral, and social realities underlying his thought, to which he himself was insufficiently attentive, and treating “Being” as a dead survival of metaphysics and a misnomer for these living concerns. The only trouble is that these were not burning concerns for Heidegger himself, and are better handled by others.
Taking up a phrase of Hölderlin, Heidegger wants to teach us to “dwell poetically on the earth,” something he regards as intensely important in the dürftige Zeit (Hölderlin again) when modern scientific, technological, and (would he add?) capitalist civilization have depleted our relationship with being, beings and (would he add?) one another. Thomas Sheehan takes this message to focus centrally on acceptance of our own mortality and of finding thus a spiritual freedom. While those enamored of the later Heidegger tend to forget Dasein and its problems in their happy contemplation of Being—which is certainly a serious distortion—Sheehan brings us back to the early Heidegger and reminds us that the insights into human finitude so thoroughly explored there never vanish from the Heideggerian landscape. Human being-in-the-world remains Heidegger’s constant preoccupation. This is a salutary perspective, but in working it out Sheehan often seems to diminish that being-in-the-world by downplaying its “objective” pole, to the point of making it a mere human projection. For Heidegger, human being is rooted and grounded in a rapport with Being, whereas for Sheehan they seem to be left alone with themselves. Some deplore the heteronomy of a philosophy that consigns the essence of man to the truth of being, and thus bills itself as a humanism of a higher order (Letter on Humanism), but if Being steps aside so discreetly as to be no longer anything more than a dimension of human existence, a quality of the human habitat, then Heidegger becomes simply a thinker of human autonomy, and his whole rereading of Western philosophy in terms of the question after Being turns out to be colossal self-mystification; he should have read it in terms of the questions of human existence, thus humanizing the whole tradition and freeing it of its useless preoccupation with Being. Heidegger, in short, should have been a faithful disciple of Nietzsche. But in that case why not study Nietzsche instead, perhaps using Heidegger’s methods to enrich his existential message (and saving Nietzsche in the process from Heidegger’s ontological reading of him)?
How Heidegger Thinks
My friend Mark Patrick Hederman once boldly stepped up to the door of the hut in Todtnauberg and said to Frau Heidegger, “I am a great admirer of your husband and would love to meet him.” The reply he got was: “Mein Mann denkt”!
But how did Heidegger think? Let’s try to step back to the Sache itself, namely, to the actual experience which all of Heidegger’s thought attempts to explore from within, the experience of being-in-the-world (which is not mere thrownness, but an opening up of world, and of the “clearing” in which Dasein and Sein are referred to one another).
A human being wakes up in the morning, opens the window, and gazes out on the world (hopefully in a joyful Stimmung). How are we to conceive the subject-pole and the object-pole of this situation? Should we say that the subject is viewing a set of representations, intentional objects, of which it can be said esse est percipi. Heidegger devotes a lot of time to showing that such an interpretation is phenomenologically inadequate. Rather the subject is encountering beings, responding to their presence. Of the subject Heidegger says many things in the Daseinsanalytik of Sein und Zeit, but in later writings he reduces it to a few postures—of questioning, speaking, thinking, dwelling, building—all of which place it in a rapport with Being that is simpler than the elaborate transcendental scenario that Sein und Zeit built up.
How is the presence of beings to be understood? Is their being a mere dull thereness, or is there a fuller and more authentic perception of beings? To find it we need to examine not just subject and objects but the horizon within which they meet. Metaphysical horizons such as those of Kant and Husserl and the scientific and technological worldview subject things and their perceivers to a rationalistic enframement. The effort to formulate an integral phenomenology of Dasein, of beings in their being, and of the horizon of their encounter is thus involved in the task of overcoming not only prior inadequate conceptions but also those imposed in the current world-order.
So we reach to the poets as allies—surely they can restore a full vision of what it means to be a human being in the world. Rilke talks of the Open, to which animals have spontaneous access, but to which humans, with their consciousness of mortality, have a more complicated relationship, which Rilke conceived in terms of will. “The thought of the Open in the sense of an essentially more originary clearing of Being lies outside Rilke’s poetry, which remains overshadowed by a softened Nietzschean metaphysics” (Holzwege, 264). For a poetry commensurate with the Unconcealment of beings in their being we must go back to Hölderlin. The latter’s poetic world names beings as holy, whole, wholesome, and can guide a thinker who wants to apprehend phenomenologically the togetherness of Dasein and Sein in our opening up to world or world’s opening up to us—two inseparable dimensions of one and the same relation, which is more deeply thought than Rilke’s reiner Bezug because no longer affected by a metaphysics of will.
It strikes me that Heidegger is closer to Rilke than to Hölderlin—they share the same concerns with Dasein, death, things, space, and the “pure relation” is a construction not unlike “das Geviert.” (Bezug is also one of Heidegger’s own charged terms; Unterwegs zur Sprache, 122-6.) Heidegger vaguely thought of reconsidering Rilke (and Plato) in later years, perhaps regretting that he had bundled both so peremptorily into the basket of metaphysics. Hölderlin played a crucial role in expanding Heidegger’s ontological imagination and vocabulary, and though his readings perplex philologists they may stimulate them too; but the legend of the ontological destiny of the West that he brewed up out of Hölderlin remains highly problematic.
Against the conveniences of an intellectualized, functionalized, technological seeing, a conversion to poetic dwelling on the earth has become imperative. The phenomenology of perception will never get beyond psychology or Husserlian analysis of consciousness unless the perceiver roots himself in his full being as Dasein engaged with Sein, called or claimed by the full reality of world (Being) and things (beings). When perception becomes a deep-rooted Denken it morphs into a Danken, and thinking draws close to poetic naming and praising.
The horizon of this full encounter is no longer a man-centered horizon, a transcendental perspective; it is a clearing (Lichtung) in which Dasein and Sein emerge in the free space of their encounter. This space is even harder to focus phenomenologically than beings and their beingness or than the subject apprehending them. Is it just an abstract superstructure? Or is it a concrete datum, perceived in truly ereignishaft thinking of Being/beings? It also to difficult to focus Heidegger’s mapping of this space, and then to move on to an assessment of his phenomenological performance, as Thomas Sheehan attempts.
There are a number of constant traits of this basic situation in which Dasein stands before Being that need to be taken into account in any phenomenological approach to it. First every encounter with beings is marked by a Stimmung or mood, a Befindlichkeit, which may cloud over the phenomenality of beings and world or which may deepen it—such moods as joy, depression, dread, boredom. These can stumble on the Ent-zug des Seins, its capacity to withdraw, leaving beings floating meaninglessly; being can take on the dread appearance of nothingness. Some critics of Heidegger do not hesitate to call his thought bloodless and dehumanized, but there are few philosophical thinkers who have taken aboard so much of the fabric of human experience, always treating it ontologically, never as ontic stuffing. If anything essential is missing, it can in principle be supplied by further phenomenological work.
Second, beings and our apprehension of them are always temporal. The givenness of beings is always a givennesss of time as well; their presence is interwoven with the present, and arises in some connection with past and future. Time is a notoriously elusive topic of reflection, and Heidegger may well have had less success with it than with being.
Thirdly the perceiver knows that he is mortal. The encounter with beings never happens in a timeless philosophical space but always in a finite here-and-now. The more the perceiver assumes his mortality the better he can play his role; grasping the reality of his own existence, he can do justice to the reality of the encountered beings as well. Phenomenologically, being is lit up for the mortal human, and the more the human grasps his own existence the better he poses the question of being. Emphasis on this is a strong aspect of Sheehan’s book, correcting a blind spot of many Heideggerians.
Fourth, thinking of being demands that one speak of being. How one speaks determines how well one is sustaining the encounter; to speak well and worthily of beings is to build up a language that is as “the house of being,” enabling others to enter the same space, not falling back into the distorting perspectives that other uses of language presuppose and encourage. The superior density of poetic language as compared with ordinary language reflects the superior concentration of a thinking apprehension of beings and of our everyday involvement with them. The “dependence” of being on humans is most apparent in the way that being comes fully into its own, shows its full phenomenality, only when named poetically. Nonetheless the creative poetic word does not lord it over being but is at its service. It lets beings be, not in the sense of allowing them to exist, but in the sense of bringing out the full bloom of their being. All of these observations are contributions to a phenomenology of language, but language, or the essence of language, turns out to be just as elusive and enigmatic a phenomenon as time and being. Heidegger’s adroitness in pursuing his questioning after the essence of these fundamental dimensions of the human situation and of their interrelationships, without ever floundering helplessly, is the warrant that his thought has firm hold of a guiding thread.
Is Being Real?
The words “real,” “reality”, and “realness” seem somewhat inapposite to Heidegger. To translate “das Sein” as “realness” and “das Seiende” as “the real” (Sheehan, 32) is misleading even as a “formal indication.” “Is” is not synonymous with “is real.” Goethe’s lines, “Über allen Gifpeln/Ist Ruh” (probably the most famous occurrence of the word “ist” in literature) capture the kind of presence that concerns Heidegger when he speaks of being, and which is lost in mere beingness. Is that presence a higher degree of “reality”? But the reality here is lodged less in the landscape named than in the poetic word that abides, not only in the hut where Goethe scrawled it, but in a space of being that lights up whenever that word is heard of brought to mind. To say that being is the reality of beings would normally suggest just their mere beingness, and that being can be nothing more than that. To say that a poetic naming captures the reality of being shifts us to another plane, where, for Heidegger, phenomenology comes into its own.
This is partly a linguistic issue—Realität is an undeutsch word (so not to Heidegger’s taste); it suggests “things” (res) and reification—and perhaps evokes some more pallid pages in Kant. Some tut-tut over Heidegger’s cultivation of a Germanic vocabulary and his privileging of Greek and German as the languages most favorable to philosophical thinking. One sometimes comes across a pseudo-linguistic dogma that all languages are equal, and of equal difficulty (so that poor high school kids are set to learn Chinese and Japanese as if they were as easy as French and German). That a given language can have superiority for a given task—thanks to an interplay between its basic structure and texture and its historical development—is the sort of idea that positivist linguistics seems to exclude from consciousness, as is the idea that a language comes into its own in the work of its supreme and most characteristic poets—in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Racine’s Phèdre, and the Hymns of Hölderlin, of the idea that such poets can significantly shape the development of the language.
But there is another word for “reality” in German, namely Wirklichkeit. Yet Heidegger seems to shun this word too. Possibly it has acquired a scholastic feel as a translation of Aristotle’s energeia, and as one of the categories or Denkbestimmungen that are given their due place within Hegel’s Science of Logic—a work that could be taken as a catalogue of the words that Heidegger cannot use for the purpose of his new kind of thinking, or can use only in a radically altered and thoroughly phenomenological sense (as happens with Sein, Nichts, Dasein, Wesen, Existenz, and Grund). Heidegger could not lean on the word wirklich without sounding Hegelian. There is also something businesslike and technological in talking of being in terms of actuality. Being demands a quieter, more contemplative vocabulary, and this exerts a constant constraint on Heidegger’s language and style.
Heidegger’s cultivation of wonder at the fact that beings are reaches for other words, and these words will in turn be dropped as more adequate ones are found. Sein is the basic word. He goes beyond it in various ways, but not by invoking a vocabulary of the “real” or “actual.” Sein has a much more flexible gamut of variations than “being” in English— ermitting the formation of such adjectives as seiend, seiender, seiendster (being, beinger, beingest), perhaps seinhaft, seinsmässig (beingly, beingwise). The old spelling Seyn is given a role to play as well. Sein and Wesen are near synonyms, and both have a verbal force lacking to English “being” and “essence” or to French “être.” Rather than dwindling away to logical abstractions these words can espouse the presence of being in its phenomenality, its Anwesen.
In the lecture “Die Sprache,” Heidegger sees the snow in Trakl’s line, “Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fällt” as more real than snow actually beating against the window would be. Does he use the word “wirklich” here? Or “seiender”? Looking up the text, I find the following: “Das nennen ruft… Das Rufen ruft in sich und darum stets hin und her; her, ins Anwesen; hin, ins Abwesen. Schneefall und Läuten der Abendglocke sind jetzt und hier im Gedicht zu uns gesprochen. Sie wesen im Ruf an. Dennoch fallen sie keineswegs unter das jetzt und hier in diesem Saal Anwesende. Welche Anwesenheit ist die höhere, die des Vorliegenden oder die des Gerufenen?” (“Naming summons… Summoning summonsin itself and thus always hither and thither: hither, into presence; thither, into absence. Snowfall and sound of evening bells are spoken to us here and now in the poem. They come to presence in the summons. Yet they don’t at all figure among the things present in this hall here and now. Which presence is higher, that of what lies before us or that of what is summoned?”) (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 21). The word that is privileged here is Anwesen or Anwesenheit, presence. But presence is staged concretely as something achieved by the naming and calling of poetic speech. Some might think that Heidegger’s language has gone soft and lost its philosophical bite. But in reality Heidegger is doing his bit “to purify the language of the tribe” (“donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu”) by stepping back from the pallidness of conventional or metaphysical vocabulary to a more effective naming of phenomena (though “effective” is another word Heidegger would not use). The simpler and more concrete words now used constitute an ongoing critique of the flatness of common ways of speaking about language.
Sheehan gives what at first sight seems an embarrassing list of expressions for being (pp. 5-8). But these mostly make sense on their own terms, and even when usage changes, notably with Seyn, that is not so terribly dramatic. (I am not sure if Heidegger’s play with the spelling Seyn or with the St. Andrews’s cross barring out the words Sein and Seyn, somewhat in the style of an apophatic theology, ever yielded substantial phenomenological insight.) In Heidegger’s published writings one does not, as far as I can see, find a scandalous vagueness and inconsistency in his vocabulary of being; his unpublished drafts, exploratory by nature, no doubt must contain a lot of vagueness and chopping and changing. He admits that the language of being is intriniscally confusing, but he urges that we bear fully with that confusion (Verwirrung), carefully seeking to clear it up (Entwirrung) (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 110; see Sheehan, 5). He protests against those who say that the muddle is of his own making (‘that the occasioned confusion is retrospectively ascribed to my own effort of thought’); rather it resides in the inherited discourses of being and reflects a deep obscurity in the being/beings relationship itself. When in doubt, blame Being! The Japanese interlocutor approves, unsaying his initial complaint: the builders of a new way of thought ‘must from time to time return to abandoned building sites or even go back behind them,’ and receives the encomium: ‘I wonder at your insight into the nature of the paths of thinking’ (ib.).
The Meaning of Meaning
The vocabulary of “meaning,” “meaningfulness,” and “significance” is just as unreliable as that of “real,” “reality,” “actual,” “actuality,” “effective” in translating Heidegger and in speaking of the phenomena to which Heidegger points. Sinn in Heidegger has resonances that English “sense” or “meaning” lacks. It refers to the sort of meaning that emerges when one contemplates a poem or a work of art, in Besinnung, or in sinnende reflection. There is a word Sinngedicht that may suggest a pregnant meaning-laden utterance like those of Daoists. At one point Heidegger prefers the word Dao or Way for his own thinking, and seems to find its translation as Sinn too metaphysical (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 198).
He wants to bring out a quite specific kind of “meaning” in beings and things, and then in the being of those beings and things, and then his quest for the Sinn von Sein searches out the “horizon” in which the phenomenon of being emerges, which he calls the Ereignis. But it’s not a horizon, because we cannot command it as a horizon; it’s just the space of our life and thought and encounter with being. He begins by asking things to become phenomena, to show themselves from themselves. That means to show their being. So “being itself” becomes phenomenal in this way, and shows itself. But it is an elusive phenomenon, not only because of human forgetting but because kruptesthai philei, it loves to conceal itself, and its withdrawal, Ent-zug, is essential to its phenomenality; whenever Heidegger speaks of Anwesen one is sure to find him speak of Abwesen in the next breath. To give being and thinking their full sense (to apprehend them in the full-bodiedness of their interplay) he completes the idea of the Ereignis. But this cannot be a speculative explanatory construction. It has to be phenomenological in turn.
“The intelligibility of being” (Sheehan, 210) is not, to my mind, a felicitous translation of “Sinn von Sein.” (Can Sinn also mean “direction,” like French sens? To seek the meaning of being has perhaps a connotation of orienting oneself toward being.) When we say intelligibility the suggestion is that we are wrestling with something unintelligible or not yet intelligible: an unintelligible message, unintelligible behavior, unintelligible riddles of human existence, unintelligible physical phenomena in disease, or the movement of particles, or cosmic data. But being is not unintelligible in any of these ways; nor are beings, as if they needed an explanation from Being, which in turn is explained by the Ereignis. “Explanation” plays no part in Heidegger’s vocabulary or in his thinking. Being is a given, it is just there—so looking for its Sinn means bringing it into view in a more adequate way. Should we think of being as clicking into perspective, so that “all becomes clear”? To question after the meaning of being means to awaken a question where there seemed to be none—since everyone knows what “is” means, and indeed we use that word without any difficulty or obscurity in most of the sentences we speak. Analytical philosophers tend to say it is just a logical function, the copula, and that to quiz the meaning of “being” is as fruitless as to quiz the word “and” or “or.” But Heidegger, inspired by his understanding of the “categorical intuition” in Husserl’s sixth Logical Investigation, is convinced that “being” is just as much a phenomenon as “time” or “space”—other perpetually present phenomena which he is always worrying at. Sheehan seems to downplay the prevalence of this kind of phenomenological “questioning” which gives Heidegger’s utterances their basic sense and orientation, and which also enables his phenomenological illumination of philosophical texts, in close readings of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Schelling, and Nietzsche, which intend to demonstrate how a non-metaphysical or pre-metaphysical style of questioning can be more radical and integral than metaphysical questioning. (The much decried hermeneutic violence of these readings does not annul their value as ground-breaking initiatives, which can be retrieved in more careful and sedulous phenomenological readings.)
The quotation from the Sophist in Sein und Zeit cannot be turned ironically against Heidegger (as in Sheehan, 3), for it does not entail a claim on Plato’s or Heidegger’s part to know what Being is, but rather stresses the need to open out the question of Being. Heidegger knows the ordinary, everyday understandings of being, and also how philosophers have understood being, and it is in critical wrestling with these, adopting a rigorously phenomenological standpoint, that he seeks to discern the truth of being. To be sure “being” might end up being sublated into its “truth” which might no longer demand to be articulated in the language of being (Sheehan, 4), but this would still have to be an “answer” to the question posed by the discourses of being with which the quest began, rather than to some other question; otherwise Heidegger’s path of questioning would have been a wild goose chase. Sheehan sometimes seem to suggest that it was, and that the only valid theme in his thought was human finitude, all the rest being a mere mystification.
Following Husserl, Heidegger seeks foundational phenomenological insight (as the only way to resolve the crisis of the foundations of metaphysics). The phenomenon must show itself as it truly is. Not so much a passage from unintelligible to intelligible as from vague to defined, abstract to concrete, superficial to profound, verbal to real. A melody becomes “intelligible” when after repeated listenings we grasp it as a beautiful shape; such aesthetic intelligibility is the nearest analogue to an intelligibility of being. “He was after the source of intelligibility,” writes Sheehan (158), which he found in a non-theist, non-subjective, non-substantive source. But that suggests that he was not after an explanatory source in the metaphysical sense at all. And what the source grants is not a metaphysical intelligibility but a space in which the phenomena can breathe and come into their own. He wanted to discern the phenomenon of Being-thinking as the foundational milieu of our worldhood. He spends a lot of time deconstructing forms of thinking that are intrinsically doomed to fall short of this phenomenon.
Sheehan finds a performative contradiction here, in that Heidegger himself is obliged to use calculative thinking, allegedly so inadequate to being, in everything he writes. This objection does not seem to me to do justice to the conatus of Heidegger’s writing. Of course he uses calculative thinking to ensure the correct grammar of his sentences and other such prosaic matters which do not demand any other kind of thinking. Nor does he ever deny the mere correctness (Richtigkeit) of rational metaphysical accounts, whether elaborated by philosophers or embedded in conventional speech. But the brunt of his effort is to think into the wind of the Sache, hart am Wind der Sache, (GA 13:78),vigilantly resisting the lures of calculative or metaphysical thinking at every step. This could lead to a fussy linguistic scrupulosity that leaves everything unclear—as sometimes happens with Jacques Derrida—but Heidegger won through to a deceptive simplicity of diction in his later works, which come as close as could be expected to an effective naming and summoning of the Sache. The value of the vast collections of his jottings, often dispiritingly confused and mediocre, and of his unbearably turgid efforts at poetry, is perhaps a negative one, in that they show by the contrast how distinctive and precious was the final articulation. To save the oeuvre from being drowned in the Nachlass, Heideggerians themselves need to get back to the Sache, practicing phenomenological meditation, so that Heidegger’s “valid” utterances emerge clearly (in the sense that he speaks of Rilke’s “valid” poetry) over against the notes and sketches that map his route to them.
Sheehan writes that the clearing makes it possible for us to understand the meaningfulness of things (231). Heidegger does not talk of things as being meaningful, sinnvoll. His later vocabulary includes expressions like “thinging” or “worlding,” tautologies such as “Language itself is langage,” “Die Sprache selbst ist die Sprache” (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 12), chiasmuses such as “The being of language is the language of being,” “Das Wesen der Sprache: Die Sprache des Wesens” (ib., 200), and verbalization of nouns as in “Die Sprache spricht” (ib., 12), “Die Zeit zeitigt,” or “Der Raum räumt” (ib., 213). If one repeats these phrases unthinkingly they become silly jingles. Phenomenologically they stage a refusal of explanation, pointing instead to the “thusness” of the phenomena named—the Buddhist term is not inappropriate if we recall Heidegger’s comment on reading D. T. Suzuki that this was the very thing he himself was trying to say. The understanding the clearing enables is not of course scientific or speculative understanding, but nor is it only existentielles Selbstverstehen, the self-understanding of death-bound human existence. It is a thinking that connects us vitally with the truth of being. All of these tautological phrases, in addition to the “Es ist es selbst” (“It is itself”) in reference to being in the Letter on Humanism, are intended precisely to dislodge humanism in the sense of a man-centered perspective that can bring being into view only as a projection of human being, or a something humans dominate by scientific or metaphysical explanation.
“Heidegger properly understands Sein phenomenologically as the meaningfulness of things. Underlying all of his work is a phenomenological reduction of things to their significance to human beings” (Sheehan, 189). But Anwesen cannot be translated as “meaningfulness” or “significance”; if it means what it says, namely presence, it is no longer confusing or regressive to yoke it with the being-language of metaphysics. The basic strategy of Heidegger’s critical engagement with metaphysical tradition is to ask metaphysicians what they understand by the presence of beings and being. He does not quiz them about meaningfulness and significance. Being is not as stolidly and flatly present as most metaphysicians presuppose; it has an inbuilt Ent-zug; its play of absence and presence draws us into a space where being is “granted,” not by a metaphysical agent or foundation, a divine or human subject, but in the very texture of its emergence to presence. To address Kant or Hegel or Nietzsche under this rubric, sub specie praesentiae, might seem an eccentric lateral approach, but it does succeed in awakening the Seinsfrage within their texts; they are thus overcome from within, not by any external strictures on metaphysics (or at least the possibility of such overcoming is lit up, even if one disagrees with Heidegger’s angle in a given case).
When the later Heidegger discusses the being of a jug, while he links it to its human use, he also links it to the earth, the sky, and the gods. Its significance for human beings is as a manifestation of the whole play of the world. Rather than dull Vorhandenheit, which has little significance for anyone, the fuller vision of the presence of beings shows them charged with significance, not anthropological only but integral. This is not a reduction of being but rather a release of being into the full dynamism of its presence; and also a release of being from the heavy burden of the history of the vocabulary of being; the latter is put under erasure in the new understanding of being, which is why Heidegger wants a new word to name it; he keeps speaking of being to the end (in the 1973 seminar for example), but shifting the emphasis from “being” to the “Es” that grants being, the “there” of “there is being” (“Es gibt Sein,” in Zeit und Sein, 1962).
The Later Heidegger
The thrownness of human existence goes hand in hand with an opening of being in Sein und Zeit. In the Ereignis this is characterized as the mortals (the plural may be significant) ex-sisting into the space of the Fourfold. Anxiety, mortality, nothingness are central in the early Heidegger, but less so in the later. This is not because he has succumbed to escapism; rather, the agonies of mortal existence now have a new role; the new perspective heals the negativity of anxiety as Being increasingly takes the lead (the various rewritings of Was ist Metaphysik? show this perspective emerging).
The sparer style of the later texts follow the imperative of die Sparsamkeit des Sagens in the Letter on Humanism. Heidegger could be seen as turning his back on the professorial volubility of the previous thirty years and aiming instead at a style that is truly sinnvoll in a quasi-Daoist way or in a way reminiscent of Hölderlin and the Presocratics. Petzet (quoted in Sheehan, 272, n. 11) says Heidegger in old age was proudest of these concentrated works written after 1946. But “this work and its slowly attained products” is not confined to the lectures on technology which attracted much attention in the 1950s. It embraces all of Vorträge und Aufsätze, Was heisst Denken? Der Satz vom Grund, Identität und Differenz, Unterwegs zur Sprache, and Die Sache des Denkens (GA 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14). I suggest that these texts could be given the authority of a “canon within the canon,” standing apart from the constant flux and variation in the pre-1945 texts. They are a distillation, securing the few insights and questions of which he remained confident. Above all they are written in a language that has shed the remnants of metaphysical vocabulary and the heavy jargon of his own previous formulations (especially in unpublished works such as the Beiträge zur Philosophie), and thus a language that can stand in judgment over previous efforts. Heidegger cleverly arranged that his thought would be set forth lucidly and authoritatively in the essays and lectures published by Neske and Klostermann from 1953 to 1962, which fashioned the image of “the later Heidegger” and dominated the reception for decades.
Getting Around the Ereignis
Ereignis is what makes existence and being possible—but not in the sense of a causal explanation, or of any kind of rational explanation; rather, it is the space in which they come to presence and breathe. (Der Satz vom Grund playfully subverts any claim to dominance of the principle of sufficient reason at this level.) To possibilize (ermöglichen) in Heidegger has not the tight ontological and logical grounding force that it has for Leibniz. It means to allow something to emerge in its phenomenality. This sense of “letting beings be” extends to “letting being be” and to the Ereignis that lets being be. But one cannot ask further what lets the Ereignis sich ereignen. Being lets Dasein be and Dasein lets being be, and this mutually possibilizing encounter is the Ereignis. Here the translation “event” (or “e-vent” as some write) is not necessarily incorrect—we think into the event of Dasein thinking or contemplating the being of beings and Being disclosing itself to that thinking and in that thinking. The two sides of the event do not collapse into one, yet there is a nonduality between them.
It is hard to say that Heidegger disapproves of the translation of Ereignis as event, given that Ereignis is the German for “event.” How could he say, “do not translate Ereignis as Ereignis”? He does say that Ereignis is not used in the everyday sense of Vorkommnis; it has nothing to do with mere happenings. Heidegger uses the word to denote an eventuation of a high order. In the background, even if Heidegger never mentions it, is the most celebrated use of the word, Goethe’s “Das Unzulängliche,/ Hier wird’s Ereignis”—“The insufficient (earthly imperfection) here becomes event”—here emerges, shines forth, is realized, fulfilled, perfected, or fully possessed, with a nuance of transformation. Heidegger’s Ereignis could be a transformative event, when one emerges from Seinsvergessenheit into the clearing. Can English “event” be given such weight? In translations of Bultmann (“eschatological event”, “Christ event”) some such enrichment of “event” may be prepared.
Ereignis must mean more than that “human being has been brought into its own as the open space for meaningfulness” (234). It is not human being that “gives time” and “gives being.” “The term bespeaks our thrown-openness as the groundless no-thing of being-in-the-world” (235). That is the human side of the Ereignis, but the correlative, “that beings are” (GA 9:307), which entrusts human existence with the role of shepherd of being (and not only Platzhalter des Nichts, placeholder of nothingness) and human language with the role of house of being is “groundless no-thing” in a positive sense—the presencing of being is not to be confined to the register of a ground or a thing. I realize that I am trotting out a string of Heideggerian clichés here. Heidegger may have found these clichés tiresome himself, but they served an essential purpose in indicating clearly the coordinate of his thought (just as with Hegel’s clichés, “The real is the rational,” “The truth is the whole,” etc.). Does Sheehan’s reading allow full weight to be given to these clichés, or if it seeks to overturn them, does it provide sufficiently weighty grounds for doing so?
Sheehan quotes interesting texts (236-7) that show that Er-eignung is a sublation or completion of Geworfenheit; but they do not show that it is nothing more than Geworfenheit. In the Ereignis human existence is thrown-open, but also addressed and claimed. Even the fact that Heidegger makes odd statements such as “Being as such is not yet awake enough to catch sight of us from out of its awakened essence” (GA 10:80, quoted, Sheehan, 236) shows at least how far he is from reducing Ereignis to Geworfenheit.
‘Der Bezug ist das Seyn selbst, und das Menschenwesen ist der selbe Bezug: der entgegnende zum Gegnende des Seyns. So überhöht und untergründet das entgegnende Gegnen das Seyn und das Menschenwesen’ (GA 73.1:790). The first words here are quoted by Sheehan (240) and look like a proof-text for his interpretation: “The relation is the clearing itself, and man’s essence is that same relation.” But “the clearing” cannot be right for “das Seyn,” since the text goes on to say that that both Seyn and the human essence are raised and undergirded by the entgegnendes Gegnen, which I take to be the equivalent of the clearing(GA 73.1:790, quoted, Sheehan, 240). But the “is” here may not indicate identity but rather nonduality (shades of Bill Clinton), as suggested by the continuation of that quote, with its vocabulary of gegnen and entgegnen (confronting and responding)avoiding the dualistic overtones of begegnen (meeting).
Ek-sistence is not open to the clearing but is the very opening of the clearing (cf. Sheehan, 241). Yet the clearing is not Lichtung des Daseins but Lichtung des Seins. What calls thinking? Not my mortality, but the being of the world. Thinking of mortality quickly degenerates into morose brooding; thinking the being of the world is a potentially endless task. What Heideggerians need to do is to find methods of building on Heidegger’s modest contributions to that task. If Sheehan rephrased what he says about the alleged identity of Seyn, Lichtung, and Dasein in terms of nonduality it might make better sense of Heidegger. To translate “Sein” and “Seyn” as “the clearing” elides the sense that the clearing is rather the place of encounter of Dasein with Sein. The translation of Seyn as Lichtung on p. 227 produces the idea of a withdrawal of the clearing, an Entzug der Lichtung. But the Entzug des Seins is rather a dimension of die Lichtung.
Is Existence Everything?
“Once the Kehre is understood in its primary and proper sense as the oscillation of ek-sistence/clearing, we readily see that Ereignis and the Kehre both name ‘the thing itself’: the appropriation of human being to its dynamic thrown-openness” (Sheehan, 241). But surely the “appropriation” Heidegger has in mind is that of Being to thinking. “Making sense of things requires the imperfection and incompleteness of possibility, along with the resultant space for mediation.” So it seems that what the Ereignis offers is something like epistemological elbow room for humans struggling to make sense of things—no gracious presence that would be the chief source of the sense, no Sinn des Seins in any substantial sense. In Kafka or Beckett the thinking might take the form of such a struggle, since the things to be made sense of are absurd and meaningless. But in Heidegger to be thrown open to being is not to be thrown into absurdity. Why would one be a “shepherd of being” and “used” by being in this role, if being did not have a constant meaning and value to be appreciated and celebrated (to put it in the flattest terms)?
One of the senses of die Kehre, and perhaps the most important one, is the overcoming of the man-centered perspective still prevalent in Sein und Zeit. So it cannot be primarily a message stressing “radical human finitude—with no need for a supervenient God or some preternatural ‘Being’—the ultimate source of meaning-at-all and thus of culture in all its historical configurations” (292). That sounds like an extreme Fichteanism. Being-in-the-world even in Sein und Zeit does not mean that human finitude is the source of meaning; rather it opens the transcendental perspective in which the meaning of the world appears—and later, with die Kehre, it ek-sists into the clearing in Denken and Danken, thus receiving rather than creating meaning. Nothing preternatural about that; in fact it is a phenomenological repristination of Greek nature, physis. World is not over against me; my thinking is the opening of world; but still it is world, not I, who take the lead in this disclosive event.
“Heidegger’s philosophical work stands, and may endure for a while, as the text in which radical human finitude was shown to be the ungroundable ground of the phenomenal world and also as the text in which Western metaphysics, with the God-pretensions of its onto-theology, found a proper and respectful burial” (Sheehan, 294). In a sense Hegel already buried metaphysics by sublating it into the Concept; Heidegger performs a second burial by recalling metaphysics to its forgotten basis in Seinsdenken. But he never denies the truth of metaphysics as far as it goes, any more than Hegel did. Metaphysics can even say true things about God, but they lack phenomenological power Heidegger, too, tries to say things about God on the basis of Seinsdenken, without conspicious success. The musings on “the last god” GA 65 may be only groping toward his final position from the Letter on Humanism on. He would not in those final texts say that finitude grounds the God or the gods, but that finitude/mortality allows the Gebirg des Seins to emerge, and ultimately at its summit (hearing Gebirge in Gebirg) the divine, the gods, the God. “Der Tod birgt als der Schrein des Nichts das Wesende des Seins in sich. Der Tod ist als der Schrein des Nichts das Gebirg des Seins” (Death conceals as the shrine of nothingness the essencing of being in itself. Death is as the shrine of nothingness the hiding-place of being” (Vorträge und Aufsätze, 177). Sheehan claims that transformation is muted in the later writings. But Gelassenheit itself is a transformation, unless one dismisses it as escapist quietism. In 1979 I visited Heidegger’s brother in Messkirch and he muttered as he showed me the manuscript of Gelassenheit: “Ein halbes Schwindel” (a half-swindle; Fritz Heidegger was a banker). Naturally if one finds nothing authentic in the existential stances of the later Heidegger one had best confine one’s attention to the earlier work.
“Imperialism of the one over the dispersion of the many” lives on in Heidegger, much more than postmodernists like Reiner Schürmann are happy to admit, not only in the unitary concept of “being” (its unity, he said to Beaufret, was a “working hypothesis”) but in the whole movement of recalling man and things to their home in the “truth of being.” I would not see him as perfecting Feuerbach and Nietzsche but as rejecting their anthropocentrism as a closure against being. “Our backs pressed up against mortality” does not imply that we have only our own finitude to brood on. The later Heidegger invariably links mortality to the opening up of world, a gracious event that addresses man and is not merely a human construction or projection as Feuerbach might say.
Technik is read by Heidegger as the last form of metaphysics. Though his talks on it grabbed the attention of Germans in the Atomic Age, it is only one theme of his later thought, the negative counterpart of others such as Denken, Wohnen, das Geviert, Sprache, Zeit, and being/beings. Cut off from these themes what he says on Technik could sound like a predictable reactionary jeremiad.
Heidegger’s affinity with Rilke is nowhere clearer than in his attitude to Technik. The latter wrote in a letter of 13 November 1925: “A ‘house,’ a ‘well,’ a familiar tower, nay their own cloak, their coat, was still for our grandparents infinitely more, and infinitely more intimate; almost every thing was a vessel in which they found something human lodged and in which they invested something human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pressing in, pseudo-things, life-dummies… A house, in the American understanding, an American apple or a vine from there, have nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grapes into which the hope and reflection of our forefathers had entered” (quoted in Holzwege, 268).
To apprehend things in their full being we have to overcome this technological depletion of things. But how? Contrary to Rilke’s common Americanophobia, Heidegger remarks that “the unexperienced essence of technology already threateningly surrounded our forefathers and their things. What points ahead in Rilke’s consideration lies not in his effort still to save the forefather-things. With more forward thinking we must discover what it is that has become questionable about the thinghood of things” (269). Heidegger tries to present himself as more up-do-date and progressive than Rilke in his attitude to technology. I don’t think that he despised cinema and modern art (Sheehan, 260), judging from his enthusiasm about Kurosawa’s Rashomon (Unterwegs zur Sprache, 104-6) and his reference to Paul Klee (in Zeit und Sein). His literary tastes included Trakl, Rimbaud, Char—hardly rearguard. Undoubtedly the discourse on Technik is too sweeping, as is the account of metaphysics as nihilism; here the exclusively phenomenological optic (comparable to Rilke’s exclusively poetic one) leads to judgments that underestimate the robustness of the intellectual achievements of human kind, casting gloomy shadows that remind one of Augustinian theology and suggest that the Seinsgeschichte is a secularized version of a history based on original sin.
The eschatological awaiting a turn-about in the dominance of Technik is perhaps weakly fatalistic, a counterpart of the positive fatalism of his Nazi time. I don’t think Heideggerians expect Being to reveal itself in a blaze; rather, rerootness in the Ereignis would abide patiently with the withdrawal and hiddenness of Being, which become salutary factors, different from the negative hiddenness of Seinsvergessenheit which has forgotten itself as well. The joke about “what analytical philosophers will feel when they wake up one morning to banner headlines in the New York Times: ‘BEING REVEALS ITSELF! Heideggerians finally proven right!’” (Sheehan, 261) is rather misleading. Heidegger would say being is always revealed, even in configurations that occlude it such as metaphysics and technology; the conversion of thinking he calls for is just recognition of this; a turn-about of the Technik as consciousness of its depleting effect is more and more registered is the only eschatological consummation he aspires to. This shift in thinking must be more than insight into one’s own mortality and finitude; it is a rediscovery of the splendor of being, a new culture of thought and living. But this has nothing to do with a millennial vision of every tear being wiped away; for that, Heidegger might say, look to theology.
Heidegger ignores empirical history, because he wants to think exclusively phenomenologically, and empirical history and sociology are at the calculative level. Still his metaphysical genealogy of die Technik discerns some basics of the technological enframing of our world—the prevalence of functionality over substance. The sounding he offers resonates with the poetic revolt against technology in Blake, Wordsworth, Hölderlin, Rilke, in the name of nature poetically apprehended. This is an ontological sounding and ontic details would indeed obscure it. But Technik is a relatively easy phenomenological theme, and Heidegger’s treatment of it is less fascinating that his grapplings with such inscrutable matters as being and time.