David A. White

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1969

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.

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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 restriction is one of the primary goals of his work. Thus, the "seer" aspect of Heidegger's thought should not be completely discounted, especially with respect to the criterion of comprehensibility. Heidegger intends to present a new and difficult perspective on the fact of language, and he feels constrained to employ a large number of new technical terms, new meanings for old technical terms, and new configurations of thinking, all to convince his audience that there are crucial reasons for looking at language as he does. We should not expect to comprehend his drift immediately, nor should we weigh the tensions present in Heidegger's distinctions against the comfortable certitude of reigning notions without expending considerable effort toward discerning order where there appears to be only chaos. In fact, of the two criteria, the search for comprehensibility should override inconsistencies that arise as "obvious" to those accustomed to conceiving language in the traditional manner.

There are three other main sources of possible misunderstanding related to the literary-philosophical framework Heidegger has adopted. The first source, itself two-pronged, concerns (a) whether Heidegger intends to establish criteria by which to determine questions of aesthetic value regarding poetry and poets; and (b) how Heidegger can defend himself against the charge of arbitrariness in attributing to Hölderlin (also, to a lesser degree, Trakl, George, Rilke, and others) sufficient value to justify the claims based upon their work. In a book entitled Aspects of Criticism [see excerpt above], L. L. Duroche asks whether a criterion has been offered by Heidegger "for differentiating … genuine poetry in which truth occurs from a poetry in which there is distortion." Duroche's reply is a resounding no! This criticism is relevant only if Heidegger's project includes establishing such criteria. And it is evident that Heidegger is not concerned to do literary theory. This is not to say that it is impossible to derive incisive critical principles from what Heidegger has written, just that it is inaccurate to assume that Heidegger is implicitly describing the differences between "true" and "false" poetry whenever he makes general claims about poetry or based on poetry.

Heidegger maintains that the type of poetic language he deals with is "great"; it then appears reasonable to question the grounds on which Heidegger decides that, for example, the greatness of Hölderlin is greater than the greatness of Goethe. Given Heidegger's proclamation, it is natural to anticipate some statement as to what constitutes greatness in general. But must Heidegger provide such declarations? First, Heidegger's appeal to greatness could be completely justified without Heidegger (or anyone else for that matter) being able to stipulate in a necessary and sufficient sense in what that greatness consists. Great art may be no less great when its greatness is impervious to discursive analysis. Second, the preferential value judgments implicit in Heidegger's choices for exposition and illumination are less crucial than the results he obtains from these choices. In fact, from the strictly philosophical point of view (cf. the genetic fallacy) it is irrelevant whether or not Heidegger chooses great poetry and also why he selects the poetry he selects. The result he achieves from the poetic language he does consider is the important point, regardless of the source of that language. Even if it could be somehow demonstrated that all the poets and poems Heidegger dwells upon are in fact superseded by greater poetic language, we would still be faced with interpreting what Heidegger has said through his own development of the language in these poems.

The second possible source of misunderstanding concerns the character of the claims Heidegger derives from poetic language. A currently viable aesthetic postulate concerning poetry is that its ordered sequences are merely expressions of the poet's feelings or emotions. Such expressions are not of the same sort as cognitive assertions, assertions whose meaning can be based on some form of verification inapplicable to the expressions of poetry. The distinction is, of course, arguable from a number of standpoints, but regardless of the various refinements possible, most entrenched Heideggerians would immediately respond that the level reached by Heidegger's illuminations is much more fundamental than the derivative dimension represented by the emotive-cognitive distinction…. Now, I agree that the point of what Heidegger is after will probably be overlooked if assessment of his arguments remains at the level explored by the emotive-cognitive distinction. But it is surely prudent, if not humane, to provide some middle ground for those philosophers who deal exclusively with that distinction when they think philosophically about matters poetic.

The sense in which Heidegger's illuminations are more fundamental is of course speculative. And for now, the following brief sketch of his position must suffice. The source of both the emotive and the cognitive elements in language is located in the human factor in spoken language. But Heidegger believes that the essence of language entails the specification of ontological perspectives which are independent of the fact that language as spoken is of human origin. Since the concept of language as either cognitive or emotive is itself based on some conception of human nature, the distinction as a whole will misrepresent language, if we allow the feasibility of Heidegger's approach to language. The cognitive-emotive distinction has the advantage of focusing on the spokesman of language in terms appropriate for understanding, at least to a certain degree, differences between various types of discourse. Thus, the burden of proof, or perhaps the burden of possible legitimacy, is on Heidegger to demonstrate that, as well as how this supposed more fundamental character of poetic language exists. But the burden is possible to bear, I think, and we should at least give Heidegger the opportunity to bear it.

A similar note should be included for the third possible source of misunderstanding, that based on the prescriptive-descriptive distinction. After illuminating a certain poetic text, Heidegger at times makes assertions which would strike a reader with some awareness of ethical analytical literature as starkly prescriptive, when the context of the assertion appears to allow only propositions which are descriptive of the meaning of the passage. An example is the notion of "steadfastness" (Inständigkeit), which plays an important role in Gelassenheit. Heidegger will make claims using the notion of steadfastness which intimate the presence of a morally prescriptive force, such as "one ought to be steadfast" in some yet to be defined manner. But, so the objection might run, is it legitimate to move from apparently descriptive developments of poetic language to an apparently prescriptive if inchoate ethics? (pp. 10-14)

Heidegger's illuminations appeal ultimately to a complex notion of being (Sein). This notion of being must be kept in the background of all the apparently prescriptive claims Heidegger puts forth. If the designation prescriptive is at all applicable, it functions only as an indicator that it is being which prescriptively grounds how men should act. Why being selects the morally determinative ways that it does must remain an open question at this point. Also—and this is equally vital—the perhaps less controversial notion of the descriptive function of language must be transcended as well. Heidegger will contend that the notion of language as a vehicle of description is based on modes of representation (Vorstellen) which, by their very nature, distort, or misrepresent, the being of what is represented. Again, the burden will be on Heidegger to demonstrate the tenability of these far-reaching revisionist proposals. (pp. 14-15)

Toward the conclusion of Adventures of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead cautions that "the speculative methods of metaphysics are dangerous, easily perverted. So is all Adventure; but Adventure belongs to the essence of civilization." Whitehead's notion of Adventure is technical, but the ordinary sense of the word fits well the scope of Heidegger's work on poetic language. And of course, whether any adventure is successful or a misadventure can be determined only after its completion. (p. 16)

David A. White, in his introduction to his Heidegger and the Language of Poetry (reprinted by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1978 by the University of Nebraska Press), University of Nebraska Press, 1978, pp. 3-16.

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