J. Glenn Gray

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3758

Some day the major significance of the existentialist movement may be seen to lie in the recovery of poetry (in the generic sense of imaginative literature and art) as a subject matter for philosophy. For many generations philosophers have looked to natural science for a model of philosophic method as well as for standards by which to judge the worth of philosophic effort. Anglo-Saxon philosophers have also used the findings of the sciences, social and natural, increasingly as the proper material for reflection—indeed as the very core of their discipline. In conceiving philosophy to be a criticism of culture, they have been impelled to pay more and more attention to science as the enterprise that has revolutionized the modern world.

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Literature has inevitably suffered by philosophers' devotion to the sciences. (p. 93)

[However, poets] and philosophers have always been closely associated in Germany. It was Kant who insisted in his third Critique that for an adequate account of the world philosophers should investigate the ideas and visions of art and artists. As John Herman Randall has emphasized recently, it was Kant's Critique of Judgment that became a major source of inspiration for idealism and romanticism, which dominated the nineteenth century in Germany. This close alliance of poetry and thought reached a peak but did not end in Schelling's conception of "productive imagination" as the way to philosophic wisdom. Later Germans such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and most of the Lebensphilosophen preserved this alliance down to the present. "Poets and thinkers" is anything but a chance conjunction of terms in German intellectual history. When studying Nietzsche, Herder, Lessing, or many another German writer, it is difficult to discover where philosophy ends and poetry begins.

From this perspective Martin Heidegger's increasing preoccupation with the role of poetry in his philosophy is easily understandable. Though he is not a typical existentialist (if indeed he is one at all), his work has already been influential for the whole movement and likewise has had profound impact on the interpretation of literature and the other arts in Europe. In this respect at least Heidegger is far from revolutionary. On the contrary, he is a continuator of that long line of artistphilosophers which began in ancient Greece and which has long been so congenial to the German philosophic temperament. If we ever succeed in assimilating Heidegger's peculiar language, he may even become in the eyes of posterity a representative philosopher of the German tradition, if not of our whole era.

In what follows I want to sketch Heidegger's views, as they have developed over the years, on the interconnections of poetry and philosophy and the close affinities of poets and philosophers for one another. I shall try to clarify why he considers the utterances of poets like Hölderlin, Trakl, and Sophocles of such importance for philosophy. If I am successful, the attempt should throw some light on the general shift of allegiance from science to art, particularly the art of literature, which I believe to be characteristic of existentialist thought. (pp. 94-5)

Heidegger defines his conception of philosophy [in Einführung in die Metaphysik] by first rejecting two current misconceptions of its function. The first of these is the demand that philosophy provide a foundation upon which a nation can build its historical life and culture. This asks too much of a philosophy, Heidegger insists, for "philosophy can never directly supply the energies and create the opportunities and methods that bring about a historical change." The second misconception somewhat more modestly conceives philosophy as a cultural force because it provides an over-all view of the premises, basic concepts, and principles of the sciences. "Philosophy thus is expected to promote and even accelerate—to make easier as it were—the practical and technical business of culture." According to Heidegger this second misinterpretation distorts the real function of philosophy.

In opposition to these views Heidegger believes that "philosophy is one of the few autonomous creative possibilities and at times necessities of man's historical existence." It is not dependent on other disciplines nor is its mission to provide a systematic cultural perspective. No, philosophy must break new paths, open new perspectives, bring into radical question the very foundation of the values and norms by which a people live. By thinking more deeply and simply, philosophy must challenge conventional ways of viewing the world and thereby provide a more authentic knowledge of things than any social or natural science can achieve. The advance of any civilization tends to cover up and obscure man's fundamental relations to his environment and to his fellows. Hence philosophy's mission is to break new paths into strange and unfamiliar terrain—terrain that has become unfamiliar because a people forgets continually the points of reference of its historical existence and needs to be recalled to them. (p. 96)

It was in [Einführung in die Metaphysik]—rather than in his earlier Sein und Zeit—that Heidegger began to concern himself with the pre-Socratics, Parmenides and Heracleitus in particular, and to combine them with a long discussion of Sophocles' famous chorus from the Antigone. Here poets and thinkers were pathbreakers par excellence; they taught us what it means really to think, not simply in terms of ethics, metaphysics, or any of the later divisions of philosophy which first came into existence in fifth century Athens. Heidegger is convinced that crucial and originative thinking tends to cease when thinkers turn into philosophers, that is, into those who are professionally taught to think. Scholarship in philosophy is a necessary and useful occupation, he tells us in Was Heisst Denken?, but there is no guarantee that the philosophically learned know what thinking is. The pre-Socratics, on the other hand, were not learned men, but they knew how to think, Heidegger believes, as do few of us today. Indeed, the sentence that becomes a recurring refrain in Was Heisst Denken? is: "The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking age is that we are still not thinking."

Why does he believe that these earliest philosophers of the West, who lived before the very name "philosophy" was coined, are the models of what thinking ought to be? To provide a full answer to this question would exceed by far the limits of this essay. But to get at the essential relations of poetry and thinking, as he conceives them, it is necessary to suggest the outlines of an answer.

These first thinkers were concerned with physis, that fundamental reality which the Romans translated as Natura—thus perverting, so Heidegger thinks, the basic subject matter of philosophy, a perversion that endured throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. (pp. 97-8)

Unencumbered with learning and pseudosophistication, the pre-Socratics were clear-sighted enough to perceive the whole of that which is and the parts within that whole in their essential relations to it. They did not confuse being with single existents, or believe that being is nothing more and nothing other than the sum total of single existents, the later view of metaphysicians whom Heidegger opposes. Moreover, their basic problem was to think this vision of totality adequately, to discover the integral relation of physis and logos, indeed to uncover the belonging-together of being and language. "It is in words and language," Heidegger asserts, "that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things." Their thinking was prior to the scholarly separation of subject and object, hence prior to any separation of poetic and scientific thought. The pre-Socratics thought about the things of nature and man from the standpoint of the mighty spectacle itself, not the other way around. (p. 98)

A thinker's task is to reveal being, according to [Heidegger], and relate it to, and distinguish it from, single existents and their sum.

This task can be accomplished only by means of a poetic and intellectual experience, similar to that given to the pre-Socratics. In such still untranslated later works as Was Heisst Denken? Holzwege, and Vorträge und Aufsätze [Lectures and Essays] Heidegger has come to grasp this kind of experience in terms of man's learning to dwell rightly on earth. Dwelling and a capacity for dwelling rightly have come to have for him the ontological sense and weight that being in-the-world held for him in the earlier Sein und Zeit period. If the fundamental characteristic of dwelling is care-taking,… the activities that constitute care-taking are thinking and building. (pp. 99-100)

Thinking is called or bidden into existence by what there is to think about, and this, in the broadest sense, is being itself. Being, however, is not something that lies behind appearances, but is their face or countenance. The truth of things shines in their appearance; it is the elusive substance of appearance. We must look for the truth of being in the intricate structures and manifold phenomena of this motley world, of which man is so inextricably a part. In the phenomena of our cultural past the thinker must discover the unthought elements in every previous system if he is not to miss the essential and authentic. In the phenomena of nature he must seek to penetrate the disguises of appearance and come upon the necessary relations and abiding powers. Truth is an uncovering or revelation of what is, but there is always still another veil or cover concealing the essential. As Heidegger expresses it, being is always advancing toward man (who is, when authentic, open to its message), but it is retreating, too. Its uncovering is at one and the same time a covering up and obscuring of its essence. Words conceal as well as reveal it, whether the phenomenon in question be a philosophic system of the past, a technological civilization of today, or nature herself as yet untouched by human building or poetizing.

Hence the thinker must be at once receptive and assertive, fully focused on what is there to be perceived. He must know how to listen and to observe, for thinking in the first instance is not so much an activity that we initiate as it is something that is initiated by physis or being itself. He must learn how to be astonished by what he perceives, as the early Greeks were astonished. This implies an attitude of openness far more fundamental than the usual meaning of the world. It is not "a listening with the inner ear" or other such metaphorical ways of expression. Rather it is a belonging of the whole being to what is to be thought about and at the same time a collecting, or recollecting, in language of the abiding powers that inform our mortal natures. Man is in essence a pointer, as he reminds us in Was Heisst Denken?, a signpost which reveals this ever advancing and retreating phenomenon of the world whole.

Authentic thinking is far more simple than we complicated modern men imagine. We have not learned to think as yet because we do not know how to face the world as world, to understand the essence of a simple thing like a jug or a bridge, which assembles, focuses, this world for us. The difficulty, he seems to say, lies in us, in our inability to listen to what words in their primordial nature tell us about these objects. That is, we do not focus ourselves and our words rightly. For we possess in the immense power of language and in our primary inclination toward truth the necessary equipment by which to approach being. We do not know how to think or to build because of our lack of attunement and rootedness. To dwell close to things and approach them in their own nature involves a determination to let them be what they are—namely, the assemblage of the durable powers of the earth.

Heidegger is convinced that poets can come to the aid of thinkers now, when the latter are so out of touch with the sources of being. The importance of poetry has steadily grown in his estimation to the point where it appears to overshadow systematic philosophic analysis. In Sein und Zeit we read comparatively little of poets and art works. But with his Hölderlin essays of the thirties, references to poets and poetic utterances have increased so markedly that one wonders whether Heidegger has not discovered in poetry the way to overcome that "inadequacy" in the language of traditional philosophy which prevented him, as he claimed, from completing the second half of Sein und Zeit. (pp. 100-01)

It should be emphasized, however, that turning to poetry does not signify that Heidegger is concerned with aesthetics per se. His interest in poets is for their ontological significance, the truths they can teach us about man's way of dwelling on earth. Strictly speaking, he does not treat imaginative literature and other works of art qua literature and art, but as aspects of philosophy or meditative thought. In the last essay of the collection of lectures Unterwegs zur Sprache …, he puts this most succinctly: "All reflective thought is poetic: all poetry, however, is thought." This progressive unity of function of poets and thinkers is an important development of his philosophy. At one time, following Hölderlin, he believed that "poets and thinkers dwell near to one another, on peaks farthest apart." The function of poets was to name the holy—that is, the essential powers of nature—and the function of thinkers was to think being. It would be fair to say that recently these peaks on which poets and thinkers dwell have come very close to each other.

Nevertheless, this sameness of function in poets and thinkers, Heidegger warns, must never be taken in the sense of identity, of an empty and mathematical oneness. The concept "identical" or "undifferentiated" is always quite different from the concept of "same." Things can be the same in the sense that they are inseparable from each other yet far from identical; there is a belonging-together of different qualities in an organic and primary unity. One can speak of the same, he writes, only when one thinks of the differences. So it is with poetry and thought. Poets and thinkers think the same but not the identical. Both are intent on discerning the powers of the earth and the sky, of mortals and gods, of physis and logos. Their differences lie in the way they conceive these powers and in the formulation of their thoughts. (pp. 101-02)

If one could put in a few words what Heidegger is saying about poets it would run something like this: Men are initially given to dwelling poetically on earth—that is, to perceiving things as they truly are—but every age requires poets, who are the most innocent of beings, to see more deeply into the nature of things and to bring them close to the sources of their being. Far from being subjective or arbitrary in their utterances, they are able to sing of phenomena as phenomena. They teach us to see more exactly, to glimpse physis in its unity with logos in a way that scholars, scientists, and practical men are unable to glimpse it. They are not knowers but seers, and Heidegger is persuaded that such seers are the sanest men of any epoch.

Do all men dwell poetically? No, he answers, but all men are capable of it to some degree. And they can actualize these potentials by listening to and learning from poets, whether they write in verse or prose. In fact, it is best if they speak rather than write. Nor is Heidegger talking of all "poets," but only of the authentic few who are thinking and poetizing in the proximity of being itself.

It is evident that Heidegger's high estimation of the utterances of such selected poets is governed by two philosophical considerations: his conception of language and his theory of truth. To language Heidegger attributes a power that has rarely been accorded it by philosophers since the early Greeks. It was Aristotle who wrote that a thing is what it may be said to be. In the "Letter on Humanism" Heidegger calls language "the house of Being," which is, I take it, a contemporary expression of the Aristotelian position. Logos is not simply the way human beings reveal to themselves the appearances of physis or the world process, but in an ontological sense is the same (not to say identical) with it.

Man is under an illusion, Heidegger keeps repeating, so long as he imagines he is the master of language. Instead, language masters him. When a person is genuinely concerned with speaking rather than merely chattering, he does not really determine what he says, but his speech is determined for him by being, by the innermost essence of things. This faith in the powers of language to put us in touch with reality, not at the periphery but at its very center, has not been unexampled in the history of philosophic thought, but is, to say the least, uncommon in the modern world. In a climate of opinion where language is thought of as a tool or instrument of thought, Heidegger's conception testifies to the boldness and radicality of his philosophy. It is also testimony to the influence of the Greeks on him in an aspect of their thinking that has grown strange to us.

Sometimes it is said that Heidegger's philosophy can be understood only through his conception of truth as aletheia—uncovering or disclosure. This may well be so; in any event he has held without much change to this notion from his first works to his latest. Certainly this idea helps to explain the ever-closer relation between poetry and thinking which has undergone evolution in his philosophizing. Poetry, as we have seen, is of primary concern to him insofar as it reveals truth, that is, ontological truth or the truth of being. Such truth is not approached through a long process either of deduction or induction. It is not the result of the work of science and scientists. Heidegger does not, of course, deny the reality or importance of the correspondence theory of truth. Nor does he reject the work of scholarship and science in their principal concern with the notion of truth as adequacy between intellect and thing. In its own sphere this notion of truth is inevitable, necessary, and very fruitful. But in the quest of ontological truth, he insists that the conception of aletheia, revelation in its secular meaning, is all-important. (pp. 105-06)

Some of us find the greatest promise of the existentialist movement in this attempt to recover for thought the insights and visions of artists. Precisely because philosophers like Heidegger are not approaching literature with the usual queries and concerns of aesthetics, there is hope that philosophers may once again take seriously the discoveries of creative writers who are not consciously seeking to "do" philosophy. Lately we have been so occupied with the much-touted "two cultures" that we have paid scant attention to a more serious estrangement, that between poets and thinkers, philosophy and literature. Even those not interested in existentialism might well grant, for instance, that real advances lately in ethics are more likely discoverable in the writings of Dostoevsky or Camus than in most academic moralists. Perhaps something of the same may be said for certain other traditional disciplines of philosophy. At least I find Heidegger's investigation of poetic works highly suggestive in this regard.

At the same time an important caveat is very much to the point. Poetry may be the most innocent of occupations, as Hölderlin has told us, but language, the poet's medium, is "the most dangerous of possessions," as he has also reminded us in the same poem. One senses that the older Heidegger is becoming less and less critical of poetic utterances, less inclined to apply the same standards of phenomenological analysis to the art work that he applies to the history of thought. Heidegger has a deeply religious nature, though it is surely not Christian in any specific sense. There is a danger in his fascination with language, in the almost irresistible impulse to play with it which sometimes tends to divert him from his task. Though this is a very innocent occupation, it is not less dangerous for that reason. (pp. 107-08)

It was Albert Hofstadter who recently pointed out in a brilliant article that Heidegger's conception of truth as "unconcealment and lighting" leads him to forget that the concept of truth has long had a relevance and meaning in the ethical sphere as well. Truth means right as well as radiance. And Hofstadter suggests that this stress on light and radiance may well be a reason for the comparative absence of the ethical emphasis in Heidegger's thought. One should add that it was just this attentiveness to the ethical good which led Plato to reluctant criticism of poets and poetry.

In saying this I do not wish to be understood as criticizing Heidegger for placing primary emphasis on the power of imagination and poetry. Man is not first a prosaic being and then in his leisure able to live poetically. The prose of life is primary not in this Philistine sense that labor is more elemental and real to him than poetizing. That we tend to think so in advanced civilizations testifies, in my opinion, to a fundamental derangement in our true relations to our fellows and to the earth and sky. In this I agree with Heidegger. But I intend my criticism in a different sense. Man's first vocation is that of taking care of himself and his fellows in a moral and social way, and this, though not divorced from poetry, is frequently a prosaic task. Like Plato's cave dweller who escaped from the cave, it is necessary for men to return and take up the task of education, even though by preference they would live in the sun's rays. Man's first task, I think, is justice, and if we can make no conclusive progress on it without imagination, poetry alone is not enough. Poetry has a seductive power, as the Greeks understood far better than most of us do, and it must be controlled in the interests of the pursuit of the good. (p. 110)

J. Glenn Gray, "Poets and Thinkers: Their Kindred Roles in the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger," in Phenomenology and Existentialism, edited by Edward N. Lee and Maurice Mandelbaum (copyright © 1967 by The Johns Hopkins Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967, pp. 93-111.

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