Martin Heidegger

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Robert Mugerauer

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3774

I take it that one of the reasons Heidegger wrote [Discourse on Thinking] was to invite us to think. And if we are aware of the difficulties of reading and thinking, we might fairly assume that Heidegger was aware of them too. Indeed, we may assume he was more aware of them than most of us are. Further, if I or anyone else claims to be able to help us to read Heidegger, we need to discover some clues as to how to go about it and then pass these on. I say discover, rather than invent, because I believe Heidegger himself shows us how he is to be read.

Parts of Discourse on Thinking do not make obvious sense, but I contend that they do make sense. The book translated as Discourse on Thinking has two parts: a "Memorial Address" and a "Conversation on a Country Path About Thinking." I want to show that the book is reflexive: "MA" tells us how to read "C"; it provides us with pointers which help us to make our way through the conversation and to think along with the scholar, scientist, and teacher whose conversation it is. Note, I am not contending that "MA" only tells us how to read, or that "C" is merely raw material for the approach. No. But in addition to being more, they are at least this. And that is enough for my modest task. (pp. 83-4)

To begin, we need to examine our assumptions. For example, don't we expect Heidegger to be simple; aren't we annoyed when he isn't? However complex or sophisticated his arguments are, we expect him to stick to his point and lead us straightforwardly to what he has to say…. If this is to be a discourse on thinking, then what is to be made of the opaque talk of willing and non-willing, horizon and region, advancing and withdrawing? So we assume that Heidegger is about a simple task, however intricate the single theme may be: he is to tell us about thinking. (p. 84)

I believe that our assumption is hasty. Though Heidegger does in fact tell us about thinking, the book primarily is a thinking. That is, Heidegger's concern is to exhibit thinking; the "end" of the article is not so much to tell us this or that as to engage us in the process of thinking.

Heidegger does not intend to satisfy our desire to understand through being told about something. He wants, in fact, to call this assumption about the nature of understanding into question insofar as it involves "what is put before us as if sheltered amid the familiar and so secured."… (pp. 84-5)

What we take as the standard mode of thought, or even as the only legitimate mode of understanding, is characterized as logical-scientific or representational thinking. But Heidegger calls this mode of thinking into question by exhibiting the difficulties it results in. He shows how it fails as the characters (including the scientist) fail to re-present the nature of thinking. For example, the scientist, as persona , admits at one point, "But at the same time, I know less and less what we are talking about. We are trying to determine the nature of thinking…. With the best of willing I can not re-present to myself this nature of thinking."… That is, when the characters try to use logical-scientific thinking to understand thinking itself, they do not succeed. Thus, the book does not proceed straightforwardly to specify the nature of thinking; rather, it shows how such an attempt breaks down, or...

(This entire section contains 3774 words.)

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better, how it does not lead where the characters intended it to. If this is true, sections which appear to be superfluous because they do not directly re-present the nature of thinking indeed do not re-present it, but are not superfluous just because of that—theyexhibit precisely that failure. (And this is not, I would contend, because they aren't good attempts, but because the good attempts are often inappropriate.)

But, we may object, though the characters fail, we needn't. Perhaps. Thus, Heidegger is interested not so much to tell the reader that representational thought fails as to lead him to raise the issue, to examine just that, to consider alternative strategies. Heidegger, then, has drawn us in—we can get clear on our own difficulties as we too try to represent what is going on in the conversation and try to understand the nature of thinking. But Heidegger has "warned" us, it is likely that we also will fail with this method. At the least, then, some of the difficulties and failures in the conversation would be deliberate; they manifest the limitations of logical-scientific thinking and reflexively indicate that this mode of understanding may be inappropriate for the reader in reading this work. If he tries to use a method on "C" which fails in the conversation itself, he too will not understand the nature of thinking, or the conversation.

The way the conversation "begins" is another signal that Heidegger's intention is more complex than stating something about thinking and that he wants to involve the reader in this task: when we join it it is already underway. (In fact, it continues a discussion which has been going on for some time. For example, the characters refer to things they have said before.) This indicates (1) that what is being discussed is not a discreet or isolated matter, but an aspect of a larger topic; (2) that the reader is asked to plunge into a conversation that has been going on who-knows-how-long (since Heraclitus?); (3) and that, we might expect, the end of this particular conversation is not the end of the conversation itself. That is, the question of the nature of thinking will not be settled here. If so, our assumption that Heidegger was going to tell us about thinking was too simple; it was, in its way, thoughtless. Our assumption, or hope for a quick answer (Why did we choose this slight volume instead of Being and Time or What Is Called Thinking??) interferes with our understanding of what we are reading. (pp. 85-6)

Heidegger anticipates the reader's impatience…. The fruitful way to get at the whole work involves our overcoming our urge to get quick results by finding an assertion to hold on to, carry off, and verify. Thus, meditative thinking, the thinking perhaps appropriate to the nature of thought and this conversation, would involve an active waiting—a possibility which emerges in clearer form near the end of the conversation…. (p. 86)

This too would make sensible the characters' apparent dawdling and the anxiety it creates in the reader. For example, in the course of the conversation ideas often emerge only to be dropped or to be held off until much later. A case: toward the end, the scholar is on the verge of naming "a word which up to now seemed to me appropriate to name the nature of thinking and so of knowing."… But the word is held off again and again…. In fact, once spoken after the delay, the scientist calls the word "an excellent name for designating the nature of knowledge" since it expresses "the character of advancing and moving toward."… The process does not stop here: even once it is named, the word is taken back and reinterpreted/retranslated.

The apparent delay in progress manifests a deliberate restraint, necessary for the thought to out. It may be that to read we have to restrain ourselves, for example, to let the character of this meditative thinking emerge in its own time. (pp. 86-7)

[The] nature of thinking is what concerns us here and now. We should meditate on thinking. But there is something even closer, so close that we may not see it at first glance. Indeed, it is closer because it is between us and thinking. I refer to the book that we are reading, to the conversation through which we think about the nature of thinking. Thus, what is closest here and now is our reading and thinking. It is enough if we meditate on them.

If this is so, Heidegger's pointers are reflexive. Insofar as the book is about thinking, and it is, Heidegger indicates that we need to meditate on the nature of thinking to understand it; but also, we need to meditate on the conversation itself and on our own reading and thinking here and now. (p. 87)

Whether we understand Heidegger or try falteringly, whether we agree or not, we already see thinking and reading in one way or another. To help us meditate on thinking and reading, then, the conversation would have to keep close our own assumptions and differences. And it does. The characters—scientist, scholar, and teacher—embody the ways we might think and the sorts of things we might think about. Though this is too complex to elaborate or show conclusively here, note that the scholar typically (but not exclusively) brings the tradition to bear on the issues; he distinguishes and clarifies historical meanings of terms; he is concerned with time as continuity; he remembers. The scientist is concerned with calculative thought, with time and causality, with spatial relations (for example, the topology of horizon and region). The teacher appears to know the path better than the others; he typically guides the conversation to deeper, surer thought (though he doesn't direct the course of the discussion). This indicates that … several modes of thinking function heuristically in the conversation. It can be argued, then, that throughout "C" the successes and failures of the characters exhibit difficulties and fruitful strategies of thinking and reading. For example, they make the same sorts of mistakes over and over and they forget insights painfully won; this may be inescapable in thinking and reading which are underway (as opposed to reported thought which is already over and distant from us—this difference is exhibited in the tentative character of conversation). Meditative thinking too, then, is difficult to attempt or sustain and has limitations. (pp. 87-8)

Before Heidegger can get us to try to understand, he must get us to take notice. We notice that we read and think, but do we understand what that is? Do we examine the ground of our reading and thinking, our facile use of words? To bend us toward this he throws things up so that they disturb our train of thought. Most likely he disturbs us, not from thought, but into it. For example, after what appears as a breakthrough in the conversation when the scientist achieves meditative thinking and undertakes the important task of indicating how he did it—to clarify what happened and facilitate the attempts of others—the talk of thinking as movement on a path comes to a halt, or, at least, a rest. A shift takes place to what seems a new topic, the use of words to designate and name.

But this is not a distraction. It is a pointing out that what was noticed (we were aware that we use language and names) was not understood. The issue has to be faced: are the thinking and reading which are going on arbitrary? Are the insights gained and held in language so much vapor? How are they justified, or how are they possible at all? Again, it would be naive to expect a quick, simple solution to this issue. What is crucial is that Heidegger has thrown us against it; he has forced us to take into account what we had been using without question. If this is so, without providing any answers to what is raised as something that has to be understood if the reading and thinking here and now are to make any sense, what may have seemed superfluous or inappropriate becomes sensible. Seemingly annoying and distracting passages have sense, at least in part, as a device to Heidegger's "end": to get us to ponder reading and thinking. And it may serve as an example. We should not wait for someone else to throw up what we do not understand. We need to make an effort to raise such matters for ourselves.

If this is so, what appear to be obstacles may help us see more about the nature of meditative thinking. While logical-scientific thinking is getting on with its business, meditation holds its place; it examines what is being done and how it is possible…. We tend to be satisfied too easily. We need to pass beyond the grasp that suffices for use, for reckoning. Such a passing is, to a large extent, what happens within the conversation in the talk about horizon and transcendence. Much of the scholarly and logical thought frustrates the characters and reader alike because it does not provide clear definitions. While it is clear that talk about horizon and transcendence refers to representational thought, they do not get clearly represented to us—not in a sentence or section of the conversation, nor, I believe, if the reader takes all the relevant texts and tries to work out coherent, consistent definitions. This is worth trying, but is, in itself, inadequate. That is, if the reader does not try to represent as clearly as he can all of this, he does not do his part—he must struggle as heroically as the characters do. But what is the meaning of the difficulty (at best) or the impossibility of a clear understanding of horizon, that is, of its clear definition and relation to other concepts? Well, suppose success. If the characters presented a final definition, or if the reader worked one out, what would we have? I imagine we would not just notice it; rather, we would assume that we had understood. And I believe that Heidegger is too concerned with the reader to let him leave with this impression…. [Heidegger] wants us to see that what we take as understanding is only noticing. Thus, when he appears to summarize the result of the conversation about horizon, transcendence, and representational thought, he begins to push beyond it, "to suggest that in this way what lets the horizon be what it is has not yet been encountered at all."… At least ideas which seem fragmentary, inconsistent, or confused are just that way to keep us from believing we understand when we do not (that is, when we work out a consistent definition); to get us to see what does have to be understood; to prod us to try to begin to ponder where we would otherwise have left off, content. The conversation, then, does not pretend to give us understanding, as if that were something which could be handed over if only the characters were clearer or more decisive—at the least, the conversation aims to shatter this illusion. Rather, the conversation is concerned with pushing us toward understanding.

For example, consider whether we notice or understand the formal aspects of the conversation which is immediately before us. To begin a list of significant features which need to be understood: (1) Why are there just these three characters (scientist, scholar, and teacher)? (2) What dramatic roles does each one play: the roles … obviously need to be analyzed in detail. And there are others. For example, how is the teacher different—does he learn the way the others do? (3) How is it that the characters change in the course of thought, so as to increasingly trust, support, and complement one another (note "con-versation" in regard to a change in state or mode of thinking)? (4) How do we deal with the various ways in which time appears, for example, as duration and continuity? (5) Can we puzzle out the senses of "relation," a pervasive, crucial idea throughout "C"? (6) How does the use of nouns and verbs mirror the emphasis on process and experience, for example, in the shift from "region" to "that-which-regions" and "regioning"?

How, then, do we go about understanding? What is involved in trying to understand meditatively? Does Heidegger help the reader see how to go about it? (pp. 88-90)

The conversation appears to abandon clear and simple thinking. The first line of the conversation sets the tone: "Toward the last you stated that the question concerning man's nature is not a question about man."… We are then led through, for example, willing and nonwilling, acting and waiting, responsibility and letting-be, movement and rest, coming near and yet remaining distant. As if this were not bad enough, what do these pairs of seeming contradictories have to do with one another? Do they simply compound the mist, and intimate obscurity as a substitute for insight?

If we read in light of Heidegger's pointer we may see that to begin to think meditatively the simple thread must be rejected from the outset. That is, suppose we begin by holding, for example, that to understand thinking we should inquire into man, specifically into how he wills things to be (a psychology of representation perhaps) and into how this is the first of a series of events by which he grasps and uses objects. But if we begin that way our thought is, in fact, fixed. We won't engage ourselves with what thinking really is because we have already decided what it is and aim only to let the idea run its course (dis-cursis). But Heidegger, by writing as he does, blocks such a process; he says no to it.

Rather than following a simple thread, Heidegger unravels a rope made of diverse strands. Conclusions are reversed; what is said is undone—it's like Waiting for Godot…. An example, one of many: near the end of "C" the characters come closer to their goal and yet are more distant; they have and don't have what they seek. As they put it, "Then perhaps we can express our experience during this conversation by saying that we are coming near to and so at the same time remaining distant from that-which-regions; although such remaining is, to be sure, a returning."… (pp. 90-1)

This is frustrating, but not merely for the reader; the characters, too, find their grasp dissolving: "Meanwhile this formulation has proved ambiguous."… In the conversation, however, the ambiguity is deliberately preserved. Multiple senses are not reduced, but are cultivated and held in tension. Thus, the reader needs not to try to reduce these meanings, but to follow their elaboration. But this does not mean giving in to a hash of confused meanings. As the scientist in the discussion continues to press for single, clear thoughts, so must the reader; as the whole cast of characters indicates, however, there is more to be thought than singular sense provides. Thus, the conversation is not anti-scientific …; instead it insists on more than scientific thought can provide. The drive toward univocal meaning is not rejected here; rather, it is one aspect yoked to others, which together generate the sense of the conversation—as the tensed senses in a metaphor result in its plural sense.

I only note here: this yields an obvious reason why this is a conversation and not a lecture. Heidegger forces the reader to consider diverse ideas and approaches through the diversity of the characters.

It appears, then, that the seemingly contradictory items are intended by Heidegger to present a fuller, though less obvious, meaning than a single thought can. In fact, [Discourse on Thinking] gives another name to this tension of diverse ideas: releasement ("Gelassenheit" …). This is the title of the German edition and, I believe, a central concern of the whole work. Indeed, the conversation indicates that this is the nature of thinking itself!

But again, the conversation does more. Beyond saying that thinking essentially involves tensed double vision, "C" does what it says. The characters come to think (and think about thinking) by engaging themselves in the process of struggling through what does not seem to fit together. At another level the book requires the reader to do this too. That is, because its form invites him to abandon single mindedness and engage himself in the process, the book finally does not say what thinking is, though it does go some way toward doing that; actually, it attempts to get the reader to think what thinking is by prompting him to attempt to unify what is seemingly contradictory. (pp. 91-2)

Consider the meaning of thinking, which is at present hidden in "C": it is hidden since it resists being sought as an object by representational thought. If the reader seeks the hidden meaning of thinking (and, reflexively, the meaning of "C"), he will "seek to clarify how far this is possible, or perhaps even necessary."… (p. 92)

To begin, we recognize that looking for the meaning of thinking as an object might involve trying to locate it. This touches one of the reasons we are bothered by this book: we may be irritated because we can't find where the meaning of thinking or anything else is given—or assuming it's not our fault, because the meaning isn't here to be found. Precisely. The meaning is not located between the covers of the book. Yet it is near; it pervades the whole book from beginning to end. That is, the meaning of thinking is present in the process of the conversation and in the process of meditative reading. We can't look for meaning as for an object, then, and so shouldn't expect to locate any answers in this book; rather, the meaning is there all along and the book may provide the time for us to engage in the process of discovery by interpretation—interpretation guided by the course of the conversation itself.

The process of thinking does not amount to a defining, nor is its meaning found in any definition. That is, it does not run to a conclusion which we might seize and record, leaving behind what came before. (pp. 92-3)

If meditative thinking must go on, we get clearer on why Heidegger refuses to tell us something simple that we can easily understand and just as easily forget. He is trying to teach us an art because we are the ones who must now respond. Hence the conversation with all its devices aims at showing us how it goes and how to do it; hence all the indirect means he uses to get us to do it. He recruits and trains the reader: we either declare the book nonsense and pass on or we stop and learn how to think meditatively. "C" then does not stop or conclude; rather, it persists. (p. 96)

Robert Mugerauer, "Reading and Thinking with Heidegger," in The Michigan Academician (copyright © The Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 1976), Vol. IX, No. 1, Summer, 1976, pp. 83-96.


J. Glenn Gray


Erich Heller