Hart on Heidegger

(Excerpts from D.B. Hart’s essay,

Descartes’ method gave priority to a moment of radical doubt about everything outside the self.

…the wonder before the mystery of being (the origin of all philosophy)…

Even the mystery of God is forgotten, says Heidegger; the God of Descartes is a deduction of the ego, serving as a secondary certification of the verity of experience and defined as a causa sui precisely because even divine being must now be certified by modern reason’s understanding of causality.

God thus is just another kind of thing, the chief function of which is to provide ontological and epistemic surety for all other things. (Heidegger himself, it should be noted, even though he had once insisted that philosophy must be a “methodological atheism,” nonetheless refused to foreclose the question of God. In his essay of 1957 “The Onto-Theological Constitution of Metaphysics,” he even argued that his own refusal to think of God in received philosophical terms perhaps made room for the truly “divine God”—the God before whom one could sing and dance, to whom one could make offerings and pray—to show himself anew, outside the determinations to which Cartesian rationalism would confine him.)

For Heidegger—and here is his truly challenging contention—what becomes explicit in Descartes has been implicit in all of Western philosophy since at least the days of Plato.

Like Nietzsche, Heidegger traced the philosophical origins of nihilism back to ancient Athens; but unlike Nietzsche, he did so—or so he believed—without rancor, any impulse to pass judgment, or any lingering trace of metaphysical thinking.

…being is not a thing that can be thought about; indeed, to mistake it for any sort of thing that can be found among other things is already to have lost sight of its truest mystery.

… being was experienced as the passage of all things from future possibility into the nothingness of the past through the narrow juncture of the always disappearing present; and so the thought of being had not yet been separated into a stark opposition between temporality and eternity.

[Barfieldian – evolution of consciousness – participation via poetics????]

The pre-Socratic response to this experience was essentially poetic:

not an attempt to devise a hierarchy of categories by which to capture the event in a cage of human concepts but, rather, an attempt to name the event of being in its mystery, with an almost childlike innocence, in a language of purest immediacy. For this reason, Heidegger believed, the words those earliest thinkers used, in their original meanings, were still inseparable from the event of being’s self-disclosure; for a time, being really manifested itself—which is also to say, retained its impenetrable mystery—in the names that it evoked from those whom it addressed.

Physis, for instance, before it was reduced to the narrower, largely taxonomic concept of “nature,” referred to being as the mysterious upwelling source from which beings inexhaustibly arise and to which they return; it meant something wholly unlike the “physical” forces with which modern reason is acquainted.

Logos, before it was reduced merely to a “word” conveying facts, or to “reason” in the philosophical sense, or to “principle,” or to the ground of “logic,” referred to being as that power of gathering that brings all things forth into the light of being, holding them together in the unity of the world while also allowing them to shine forth in their separateness.

Aletheia, before it became “truth” in the limited sense of a correspondence between a proposition and an object of cognition, named being as the primordial movement of “unhiddenness,” being unveiling itself in beings, the darkness of possibility ever anew pouring forth its secret riches in the fleeting sparks of transient beings.

The problem with such names, however, is that they cannot be reduced to stable concepts and so cannot be mastered; and the human intellect craves concepts, and the human will craves mastery.

…the mere philosopher replaced the poetic thinker.

Plato was the first great philosopher in this second phase in being’s history; it was he who committed the vital apostasy that would lead Western thought down its path of fruitful error. He turned his eyes away from the ungovernable, essentially inconceivable flow of time, and so away from the very process by which being shows itself, and looked instead toward a fabulous eternity of changeless essences, the timeless “ideas” or (more literally) “looks” of things; and it was to this latter realm that he accorded the authority of “truth” while consigning everything proper to time to the sub-philosophical category of “unlikeness.”

This, for Heidegger, was the first obvious stirring of the will to power in Western thought, the moment when philosophy first tried to assert its power over the mystery of being by freezing that mystery in a collection of lifeless, invisible, immutable “principles” perfectly obedient to the philosopher’s conceptual powers. Of its nature, such a way of thinking is supremely jealous: It resents the coyness of being in withholding itself from clear and precise ideas, and it resents any form of novelty that might upset its invariable order of essences, anything new—any way of thinking or speaking of being—that might try to come forth into the open.

This is metaphysics in the fullest and, for Heidegger, most problematic sense. It knows no truth that is not immune to the particularities of time. It sees the truth of any sort of object (say an apple) not as that object itself, in its strange and lovely transience, passing through its various moments of existence (seed, tree, ripened fruit hanging on the bough, fruit eaten or moldering away) but as the unchanging form on which it is modeled (the apple that never shines forth in the beauty of its own color, that has no flavor or fragrance, that has never lived).

This understanding of truth is for Heidegger already nihilistic. It is already an expression of the will to power, though still in a restrained and even self-deluding form. It is at least still pious; it still feels wonder before the mystery of being even if it has largely forgotten how to name that mystery. But it also inaugurates an entire history of philosophical epochs, one succeeding another—pagan, Christian, secular, it makes no difference—crystallizing into one or another system of abstractions and then dissolving again.

For Heidegger, the last metaphysician was Nietzsche because in Nietzsche’s thought the will to power was elevated to a position of ultimate truth; it became the principle of principles. In that moment, metaphysics became somehow perfectly self-aware. It had discovered its deepest essence by having achieved its nihilistic destiny.

To his mind, our age is simply the age of technology, which is to say that our reasoning is simply a narrow and calculative rationalism that sees the world about us not as the home in which we dwell, where we might keep ourselves near to being’s mystery and respond to it; rather, the world for us now is mere mechanism, as well as a “standing reserve” of material resources awaiting exploitation in the projects of the human will.

Now the world cannot speak to us, or we cannot hear it. Being, in its difference from all beings, no longer wakens wonder in us; as it is not a thing we can manipulate, we have forgotten it.

We live, according to Heidegger, in a very deep twilight indeed; ours is the time of the “darkening of the world and the flight of the gods.”

The “final solution” was a kind of consummation of all the evils of European history, perhaps, but it was possible as a conscious project only in an age in which humanity itself had first been reduced to a technology (the technology of race). Knowledge of how to split the atom was the inevitable consequence of advances in physics, perhaps, but nuclear weapons were also the product of cultures that had reduced all of nature to a morally neutral technology.

…our art (especially poetry) is the highest way in which being gives itself to us in any age, showing itself in the creative response it evokes from us, both by its generosity and by its elusiveness. If we are no longer conscious of that mystery, nothing we make will shine with the splendor of the world about us, or draw us nearer to its wonder.

Heidegger had become convinced in his later years that the search for conceptual content is not really the search for truth. So he presented his vision in a series of evocative pictures whose meaning was inexhaustible precisely because they could not be translated into philosophical categories.

The pagan temple, for instance, was one of his favored images (although he also sometimes used the image of a lonely Christian church). The temple, as the center of a people’s attention and piety, was the way in which human existence was oriented in space and time and gathered into a unity. It demarcated a boundary between the sacred and the profane and thereby created a sheltered place in which the encounter between human beings and the divine (which is the mystery of being in its most eminent and compelling splendor) could occur. In so doing, it called forth each age’s special artistry and ethos. In itself, it was a central expression of the sometimes antagonistic, sometimes peaceful, but ultimately nuptial union of two realities that Heidegger simply called “earth” and “world.” That is, in the elements from which it was made, illuminated under the open sky, it showed forth the hidden riches of the earth, while through the pious craftsmanship of its makers, it made manifest the highest powers of a human world.

The most entrancing and obscure of Heidegger’s images was that of the Geviert—one of Heidegger’s many neologisms, usually translated as the “fourfold”—the “ring dance” of earth and heavens, mortals and gods. This was Heidegger’s attempt to provide something like a non-metaphysical alternative to Aristotle’s order of causes, at least in understanding the creations of human culture. It is these four together, he says, in their inseparable but distinct inherence in one another, that create a way of dwelling on the earth that creates a space that allows human beings to be at home upon the earth, and that allows being to unveil itself in a particular way, at a particular moment.

This “dance of the four” has, in every age, caused human beings genuinely to create, and to allow being’s mystery to shine out from what they create. An object such as, for instance, a silver votive vessel [Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet?] comes into being not only by the interplay between the dark hiddenness of the earth and the radiant openness of the heavens—hidden ores brought up to shine in the light of day—but by the reverently poetic approach of mortals toward the gods and by the lordly approach of the gods toward mortals, out of the hidden realm of the divine, announcing themselves in the powers of nature.

Here is where the twilit Hegelian mystique of belatedness becomes most apparent in Heidegger’s thought. It is very late in the day indeed, Heidegger believed, and we are very near the night of total nihilism; but in this, the time of highest risk, the possibility of healing has opened up as well. Having seen the nihilistic destiny to which our ways of thinking have led, perhaps we can now reflect on them, before it is too late, and learn to put aside the appetite for power, and to cultivate in ourselves instead an attitude that does not repeat the primordial error. This attitude he calls—borrowing the word from Meister Eckhart— Gelassenheit [Boehme!]: release, letting be, learning not to coerce reality but rather patiently to wait upon it [Taoism]. Simply let the world be the world. If we should ever achieve this attitude, then perhaps the mystery of being might open itself anew to us, God or the gods might return in the glory of true divinity, poets might arise again to speak the names of being . . .

What, in the end, should we think of Heidegger’s genealogy of nihilism?

What should be said here is that Heidegger’s renunciation of metaphysics did not, in the end, allow him to produce a coherent ontology of his own. His efforts to describe the relation of being to beings in purely immanent terms ultimately added up to very little; certainly they did not provide any convincing answers to such perennial questions as why there are beings at all. At most, all he could do was point to temporality, the ceaseless flow of beings out of nothingness and into nothingness again, and then—in a gesture that often seems as much one of hopelessness as of “piety”—point away toward the mysterious Ereignis, the “appropriating event,” that somehow brings this about.

Because he had left himself no room for any kind of language of analogy, which might have allowed him to say how transcendent being shows itself in immanent existence while still preserving its transcendence [Barfieldian ‘tension’], and because, moreover, he had decided in advance that one cannot speak of being in other than temporal terms, he really could not escape lapsing into a certain fatalism regarding the history he described.

And I think we also can appreciate the simple pathos of Heidegger’s disenchantment with philosophy. At times, of course, it is little more than the protest of a weary man, perhaps aware of his own moral and intellectual failures, imploring the voices of philosophy and ideology to cease their babbling. Western humanity has talked its way right to the edge of the abyss—so, please, be silent now. Wait. Listen. Let being speak, let the world be a world again, let the divine show itself to us if it will. But stop talking for a while.

It is almost tempting to see Heidegger’s history of being as a sort of epic transposition of the private story of a long and disappointing life. It has an air of spiritual fatigue about it—a deep longing for a return to innocence, to immediacy, to childlike wonder and to the child’s delight in speaking the names of things: a wise simplicity not yet corrupted by those empty concepts that distance us from the world. It is almost as if he wanted to find a way back again to the experience of the child’s first amazement before the mystery of the world and to linger there forever, speaking a language of pure naming, pure invocation—the language of Adam or of the natural poet.

We can also grant, I think, that Heidegger did indeed surpass Hegel as a philosopher of the twilight, and in two senses. In his later years he liked to speak of the true thinker as a wanderer in the forest, seeking out hidden or forgotten paths, uncertain of his course but looking for that clearing among the trees where truth might show itself. I do not believe he ever found that clearing, but when I am feeling charitable I am willing to believe he really did seek it.

And Heidegger was a philosopher of twilight in a more crucial sense, too. That is, he understood the vocation of every true thinker to be much the same as the vocation of the true poet, or of any true artist: to bear witness to that haunting and penumbral interval that marks the difference between being and beings, and to attempt to keep it open in our thoughts and our words and our works. He was himself in no sense a morally credible witness, admittedly, but he was an often perceptive one. And he knew that being’s mystery, while it is the source of our humanity, never shows itself to us with the undeniable clarity of a distinct thing among other things, but reveals itself only as a kind of intangible shadow at the edges of the things that are. Shadows, however, disappear as darkness falls, so those who can must continue to testify to that difference, to that mystery—because, if it [Being] is wholly forgotten, no one can imagine how deep and long the night may be.

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