Martin Heidegger

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Marjorie Grene

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What has this Heidegger, the prophet of the Seinsfrage, to say to us? That is hard to assess. German philosophical thinking speaks a language doubly different from English: different not only in the language itself, but in its conception of language. British philosophers are haunted by Berkeley's distrust of words; yet distrusting words as guides, they limit themselves happily to the study of words as instruments. A German philosopher is much more inclined to trust to "the wisdom of language," to allow words to tell him their meaning, and guide him, beyond themselves, to an understanding of what they mean. For British philosophers, equivocal words are, philosophically, bad words. For German philosophers, and especially for Heidegger, who like all prophets, delights to puzzle and confound, they are the only words of interest—words to be cherished, caressed, submitted to in wonder and ecstasy. Can there be any communication across such a gulf? (pp. 61-2)

As philosopher, Heidegger's aim is, and has always been, to turn the human mind again to Being. That was the aim, in Sein und Zeit, of the phenomenological analysis of human being, and that is the intention of the prophecies with which for thirty years he has dominated the German philosophical scene. But this historic task—to turn the mind again to Being—is also, and first and foremost, in his view, the task of the poet. "Poetry is the primal language of a historical people"; only the poets can teach a people their proper ear for Being—can bring them, in resonance to Being, to their historical task. Philosophy analyzes away the barriers of our everyday, routine, technique-bound lives, in order to clear the way to Being, to turn us toward Being. But the poets are the "more daring ones" who "speak Being," who "name the holy."… (p. 68)

I began by asking: What has Heidegger to say to us?… Now, in Heideggerian fashion, I must change the emphasis, and ask again: What has Heidegger to say to us?

In a sense, nothing. "Poetry," says Heidegger, "founds and names the being and nature of all things." Yet if poetry rather than literal language is the source of understanding, still language, even poetic language, does not make what it understands. Though it names the being and nature of all things, it does not found them. "Words and language," Heidegger wrote in the Introduction to Metaphysics, "are not shells in which things are simply packaged for the commerce of speech and writing. It is only in the word, in language, that things become and are." But that is to make of the poet and his acolyte, the philosopher, a maker in a sense in which he is not. A poet makes poems, and through them understanding; but he does not make that of which the poems are, or bring, the understanding. If he (or his philosophical interpreter) pretends to do so, he becomes a false maker, a maker of illusions, a magician and a mountebank. That is Heidegger; that is his arrogance and his failure. His tricks of language, which appear to elucidate, are tricks only.

Historically, also, the story Heidegger has to tell is false. It is false prophecy, as his word-magic is false poetic. If we are to take the first step beyond nihilism, to transcend despair, we will not do it so sweepingly as by putting the source of nihilism back to Aristotle or Plato. To expound a line of Parmenides as if it were the history of Western thought, to expound this history of Western thought as if it were the history of...

(This entire section contains 1292 words.)

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humanity, and even, as Heidegger does, to expound this history as if it were the history of Being: "the destiny of Being … to become a haze and an error"—this is not history but hubris.

Yet there is something in it. Heidegger's prophecies are haunting, and only live ghosts haunt. What there is in them of truth is negative, but still a truth: analysis, logic, is not enough. Philosophy is not poetry, but it must flow from the same source, from a comprehensive vision, which precedes, supports, and at the same time transcends analysis. And once one thinks of it that way, even in that fantastically distorted, and insupportable history there is something; for it is after all Aristotle who is thought to have invented a detached and self-supporting logic. Where we are alienated from ontological rootedness, where we are drifting and astray, it is the spirit of Aristotelianism that has misled us. It is the dream of method, of logos as portable property, that has become our nightmare.

A brief statement, to convey the teachings of thirty years. But the question it raises, Heidegger would insist, is not just any question, not even one of a number of questions. It is the question. Some twoscore volumes are not too much to devote to summoning up the question, to calling us to "the spiritual destiny of the West," even "the destiny of Being itself." That's as may be. But look back over the twoscore volumes, compare, for example, Der Satz vom Grund with Sein und Zeit. There is a striking change, a change in the proportion of trickery to truth. The earlier book is full of word play, of endless intricate distortions of German roots and endings, in the worst tradition of the worst German philosophy; yet through the bizarre and twisted labyrinths of its language it is after something: it is after the structure of human finitude, and in and through finitude the hope, even, of human dignity. Finitude: being held down into nothingness, on to the brink of the abyss—that is our ground. Only at the dizzy edge of nothing can we take our stand. This is the root concept of all existentialist literature, which received in Sein und Zeit its definitive philosophic expression. This is what Heidegger has shown us, and on this insight we must not turn our backs. True, it is in itself a powerless insight. Alone, it can lead the lonely consciousness only to the hate-filled subjectivism of Sartre. But if insufficient, it is nevertheless a necessary insight. If we are in truth to renew the "infinite question of being," it is with "the finite powers of man," and in the aching awareness of that finitude, that we must ask it. The alternative—Sartre is right in that—is metaphysical bad faith. But on that indispensable insight Heidegger himself has turned his back. He was, he says himself, never an existentialist. Certainly he is one no longer. Where in the latest of the twoscore volumes is "world"—my world, not made by me, yet world through what I make of it? Where is the absurd givenness of personal facticity; where are dread, death, conscience, resolve? They have drifted away on a tide of easier eloquence, of the tricks in trade of a practiced lecturer:

The Law of Sufficient Reason and its history don't attract us to linger with them. We have enough else to excite us: for instance, the discovery of new elements in natural science; for instance, the discovery of new clocks for calculating the age of the earth; or, for instance, a book about "Gods, Graves, and Scholars," or a notice about the construction of a spaceship.

Behind the cheap rhetoric, what is there? The ghost of the Quest for Being fencing with the ghost of Aristotle. Something, but by no means enough. (pp. 68-70)

Marjorie Grene, "Heidegger: Philosopher and Prophet" (originally published in a slightly different form in The Twentieth Century, Vol. 164, No. 982, December, 1958), in her Philosophy In and Out of Europe (copyright © 1976 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the author), University of California Press, 1976, pp. 61-70.


Erich Heller