Martin Heidegger

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Victor Lange

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The evident impact of Heidegger's thought on modern critical theories has resulted from three aspects of his system: he replaces, first, in Sein und Zeit and in his later lectures, particularly in his reexamination of Nietzsche, the classical concept of thought by a modern notion of thinking, idea by process, Gedanke by Denken. Thinking is for Heidegger the act of giving "presence" to an object, to remain within the resonance of the object which offers itself to thinking in order to be "realized." The phenomenal world is for him not a fixed given to be reproduced in the act of reflection, but the result of a production, a "practice," in which the world is integrated into our consciousness of being. The origin of this view in Marx as well as in Nietzsche has often been demonstrated. Subject and object are not opposites, but constitute one another. In the critical systems that have taken cognizance of Heidegger, the search for ontological meaning has given way to attempts at developing functional theories of appropriate structures.

The second context of Heidegger's philosophy which, despite basic differences in other regards, is related to [Walter] Benjamin's thinking, is the preeminence of the historical experience as the condition of all reflection. Heidegger shares Nietzsche's belief that truth is not timeless or general; history alone gives shape to the absolute. However pervasive the energy and direction of this notion in Heidegger's philosophy, in his analysis of our present state of alienation as an elemental experience, it transcends but is not incompatible with Marx's theory of history: "The Marxist view of history," he wrote to Jean Beaufret in 1946, "is superior to any other." To limit the scope of subjective reflection, to derive his epistemological categories from the "ground of Being" rather than from a traditional distinction between the authority of the object and the discriminatory power of the subject has from the beginning of his work been a fundamental premise.

This refusal to think in anthropocentric terms has qualified his conception of temporality (or historicity) as in no sense teleological or pragmatic. It is, finally, his notion of language that Heidegger offers as one of the instrumental categories by which object and subject are drawn into the common experience of Being. It is an axiom of Heidegger's philosophy that it is not man who speaks but "the word in man." Language is not an expression of man but an appearance of Being. Speech reveals at every moment of our awareness its character as process or procedure, not as a vehicle for the distinguishing or conveying of universal meanings. It is the word, therefore, that gives its Being to the phenomenal world; everything owes its "is" to the word which is not related to the object but is itself that relationship.

It is clear that these contentions are of the greatest importance for a modern theory of poetry. The essence of language, of which "reflection" (Denken) and "composing" or "intensifying" (Dichten) are the two modes, lies for Heidegger in the "saying" (Sage); "saying" is tantamount to bringing Being into its own, to be heard and seen. But the essence of language is ultimately in the stillness which the act of differentiation accrues, at once to the object as a thing in the world, giving it its specific character, and to the world as a constituent of Being. Language, Heidegger formulates in an often quoted phrase, is the "sounding" or "chiming" of stillness (Geläut der Stille ); man speaks only insofar as he hears or listens to what language itself speaks:...

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not the spoken word, itself an objectification, but the saying, that "chime of stillness" establishes the sense of Being or, as Heidegger puts it, that which we name by the word "is." (pp. 15-17)

Without claiming to offer a contribution to literary history or to esthetics, Heidegger has attempted to extrapolate an application and confirmation of his theory of Being and Language from the work of a number of German poets, notably Hölderlin, Each poet, he suggests, in Mallarmé's image, speaks out of a single, over-arching "poem" that is never pronounced: "only out of the place of the (unspoken) poem does the individual poem shine and sound." In a similar fashion Heidegger defines the function of the great work of art as "speaking," and in speaking, "bringing the world to stand." By making the truth into an historical event, the "performance" of the poem at once reveals and conceals the truth. To interpret a work of art is, for Heidegger, the attempt "to move into" the open space which the work has "brought to stand." Heidegger has admitted the affinity of his own theory of time to Nietzsche's "Eternal Recurrence." Time is for him—as it is for Benjamin—not a mere flow of duration, but the "arrival" of what has been: transitoriness, or merging into the past, is the essence of time. Theories of criticism or of literary history such as Derrida's have drawn the consequences of Heidegger's statement that history is "not so much the past, for that is just what does not happen any longer; much less is it a passing event which comes and goes by. History, as happening, is the acting and being acted upon in and right through the present, determined from out of the future and taking over what has been." Heidegger's preoccupation with the problem of Being and Historicity dates back to his inaugural lecture on "The Concept of Time in Historiography" (1916); but if he there speaks of the need for a conception of time more adequate than that of mere chronology, he moves, after his encounter with Dilthey's Lebensphilosophie and Husserl's Phänomenologie, beyond this elementary frame towards an "hermeneutics of facticity."

From Dilthey, Heidegger derived the conviction that the historical concretizations of life require an understanding from within the phenomena rather than a mere causal explanation, a comprehension of the manner in which "life" has constituted itself in history…. Heidegger rejects the subjectivist implications of Dilthey's "Erlebnis"-complex and, in Sein und Zeit, gives to the hermeneutical principle and practice a radical efficacy: it is the fundamental procedure by which man comprehends and articulates his existénce. In this sense, Sein und Zeit has been called a hermeneutical phenomenology. "Understanding" is no longer, as it was for Dilthey, merely a manner of investigation but a constituent element of being-in-the-world. All understanding is temporal, intentional, historical; it is not a subjective confrontation of an object, but the way of being of man himself.

Heidegger's influence upon German criticism has been sporadic and indirect; its ontological bias has been met by resolute refutations on the part of analytical and "critical" thinkers such as Adorno. But its impact has been most striking in France, where, despite its germanicité and its anti-cartesian ontology, it has profoundly affected not only poets such as René Char but, to an altogether astonishing extent, critics such as Lacan and Derrida. (pp. 17-18)

Victor Lange, in his introduction to New Perspectives in German Literary Criticism: A Collection of Essays, edited by Richard E. Amacher and Victor Lange, translated by David Henry Wilson & others (copyright © 1979 by Princeton University Press; excerpts reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. 3-28.∗


William V. Spanos