David A. White
Since Heidegger's discussion of language in any form nearly always originates from a consideration of poetic texts, his own hermeneutical techniques and those of literary critics are frequently at odds. But at the very outset of the fourth edition of the Hölderlin lectures, Heidegger clearly states his position with respect to literary criticism. His writings on Hölderlin are not intended to be contributions to "literary and historical research"; but are rather a series of reflections which arise from the needs of thinking (Denken). The assumption is warranted that this claim holds not only for the Hölderlin lectures but also for all Heidegger's discussions of poetic language. If so, then it is evident that when Heidegger ascribes a certain meaning to a word, phrase, line, or poem, this meaning should not be evaluated under the criteria of standard literary Wissenschaft. Heidegger himself provides a methodological distinction to describe the tenor of his technique. An "exposition" (Auslegung) possesses some, and perhaps all, of those factors considered necessary to "lay out" the elements of a poetic text in the accepted scholarly sense. An "illumination" (Erläuterung) is the development of an exposition so that the language of poetry yields insights into problems which belong to the special province of thinking…. If a given illumination is to approximate this end, then the content of the illumination is, as a rule, controlled by the standard canons of exposition…. In no sense does Heidegger advocate a completely freewheeling mode of interpreting poetic texts, as some literary critics doubtless believe. Now, although the two techniques are clearly different, Heidegger rarely signals his shifts from exposition to illumination. The result is that literary critics are offended (at times to the point of publishing "refutations" of Heidegger) by what they take to be arbitrary assertions in an exposition when in fact what they face are illuminations intended to contribute to the formulation or solution of a philosophical problem. It may well be possible to refute what Heidegger says in an exposition, but it does not follow that such a refutation will reduce the force or the insight of the illumination derived from that exposition.
My conclusion is that there is no apparent reason why Heidegger should not be allowed to attempt such practices; in fact, there may be much value in them if new philosophical dimensions are thereby disclosed. But even if we grant the distinction between an exposition and an illumination, it is still relevant to ask what is credible in an illumination and what is not. One thing is certain. The criteria for evaluating Heidegger's results should not be set by literary criticism but should be strictly philosophical. But given that Heidegger has called into question the entire tradition, which criteria emerging from that tradition can be applied with minimal distortion to his thought? I suggest that the criteria which should control his conclusions from the illuminations are the minimal ones of consistency and comprehensibility…. We find Heidegger, perhaps as an initial step in the confrontation with the supremacy of logical principles, maintaining that an essential characteristic of poetic language is that it be "ambiguous" (mehrdeutig). Here and elsewhere, the word ambiguity indicates "multiple" meaning rather than a "confusion" in meaning. Given such multiplicity, Heidegger may well allow contradictory interpretations in order to make the claims for poetic language that he does. But surely contradiction must be retained if we want to assert that what Heidegger says is inconsistent and possibly false. If this principle is not preserved, then Heidegger becomes a prophet, or perhaps a seer, but not someone whose reflections are subject to the limits of rationality as we now know it.
Heidegger would perhaps respond that these very limits have been too tightly drawn and that a general recognition of this...
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