Martin Heidegger: Ponderings II-VI. Black Notebooks 1931–1938

Gregory Jackson

Ponderings II–VI. Black Notebooks 1931–1938 Book Cover Ponderings II–VI. Black Notebooks 1931–1938
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz
Indiana University Press
Hardcover $60.00

Reviewed by: Gregory Jackson (The National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

Presented with the first instalment of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks I find myself wondering less about the specific entries throughout the book but, first, how to read them. How do we read these Überlegungen, translated here somewhat obscurely as Ponderings, numbers II through VI of Heidegger’s black clothed notebooks from 1931-38. Given that they are aptly considered an ‘idea diary’ (p. 384) by editor Peter Trawney, surely they are not quite of the same status as Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, a collection of private notes that are taken to radically break with his earlier work. Although this instalment encompass the years in which Heidegger’s thought goes about a Kehre, or ‘turn’, the exact nature and significance of this is still widely contested by scholarship. Are they, then, akin to Nietzsche’s The Will to Power? A collection of his notes meant for a specific work that never got written, his attempts to re-evaluate all values. The entire Black Notebooks series, we are told in the translators introduction, will comprise a total of nine volumes (p. vii), which will bring us right up to 1970, and assumingly up until Heidegger’s death in ‘76. After scholarship has had time to engage with and unpack this first instalment of the Black Notebooks, might they be taken as his preparation for such works as 1938’s Contributions to Philosophy? And the Contributions likewise as The Will to Power Nietzsche hoped to write before his unfortunate breakdown in 1889. In the end though, it seems that the attempt to compare the very different notebooks of the great minds of Western philosophy is already a bad start. On the opening pages it is written ‘[t]he entries in the black notebooks: are at their core attempts as simple designations—not statements or even sketches for a planned system.’[1] So much for a strategy of reading! Perhaps the Black Notebooks need to be read on their own terms. Those of you familiar with the controversy surrounding these notebooks, however, will know that it is not that simple.

Within these ‘simple designations’ Heidegger deals with a diverse range of issues, but the most notable of which has already garnered much attention since before the publication of this work as volume 94 of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe. For it seems that the entirety of the Black Notebooks series have already been framed for us when some extremely problematic passages from later volumes got leaked just before the publication of this volume. It is true that these passages need serious attention. That Heidegger defended some form of anti-Semitism is certainly evident and his specific kind of anti-Semitism needs engaging with, interpretation and damning. Due to this evidence, it is understandable that these 10 or so pages have become in its reception the dissonant heart of the entire collection of the Black Notebooks. Let me clarify; we should never ignore these passages and they need to be taken absolutely seriously. Should they frame, however, the entirety of a collection of notes that go from philosophical to personal[2] and sometimes even silly and self-aggrendizing.[3] Not to mention that Heidegger is not just an anti-Semite but, in this volume at least, anti everything; as the Christians, the Bolsheviks, Europe, the National Socialist movement, philosophy itself and even his own work all come under attack at different points in this text.[4]

It seems that perhaps we are already too late for the Black Notebooks have been framed and nailed on the wall. See the only quotation at the back of the book by the New York Review of Books which speaks to this; ‘they will cast a dark shadow over Heidegger’s legacy’. Heidegger already cast this dark shadow by being an active member of one of the most atrocious regimes of the 20th century, and although it is evident that he both philosophically and politically withdrew from the National Socialist Party he once saw much promise in, anyone engaging with Heidegger today would be foolish to not always consider and be wary of his political history. One contribution of this book to Heideggerean scholarship, political philosophy and beyond is to serve as a testament and reminder of to what extent thought can go awry for a brilliant thinker who should have had foresight beyond what his political affiliations suggested and what the Black Notebooks series are set to prove beyond doubt. All the more pressingly relevant with the contemporary upsurge of far right nationalist groups throughout Europe and beyond, whilst the universities are increasingly squeezed of resources that promote thinking and creativity and instead forced to accumulate profit at the hands of a neoliberal agenda that demands “qualified” experts over people who can really think. That Heidegger both saw this process occurring long before it had taken hold in its contemporary form, and yet saw hope in the Reichsuniversität (p. 86), suggests the impetus for reflection and dialogue on this crucial issue all the more.

However, this book review shies away from the anti-Semitism throughout these volumes. Partly because apart from some criticisms of the Judeo-Christian worldview (p. 345) Heidegger is silent on ‘international Jewry’ (GA FSE96: 133) in this first instalment (which is not to say he is short of praise for the ‘Führer’ (p. 81)), but also because other reviews have focussed on this matter and there are many books and collections to come that will deal with Heidegger’s anti-Semiticism with far more grace than is available to me here.[5] Instead, I would like to focus on some other themes that are developed throughout Ponderings II-VI, as another contribution of this book is the glimpse it gives into a different side of Heidegger. Thoughts that are less edited, often more convoluted and dense, but sometimes strangely lucid and direct (see p. 177 where Heidegger attempts to describe the sort of relationship mankind could have with the gods). At a time that Babiche has called the search for the new Heidegger, the Black Notebooks could prove invaluable in the next stage of Heideggerean scholarship. Regardless, we should always proceed with caution.

Sheehanites, for example, will jump for joy with such passages as 189 in the first book ‘Intimations x Ponderings (II) and Directives’ (a book that begins October 1931)

‘Whither the human being throws himself adrift, there he unfolds the pre-sentiment of his directionality, and “there” the “there” arises, the originary open spaciousness and thence also space. Through this space is thrown the swing of time­­—the world forms itself “in” space-time {?}.—herein the partitioning [Zerklüftung] essentially occurs.’ (p. 59)

And later, in 1934/5 (book IV), Heidegger tells us that ‘the essence of truth unfolds only as Da-sein’ (p. 196). Indeed we are even told that ‘the essential occurrence of being [is] as the ineluctability [Unumgänglichkeit] of Da-sein’ (p. 183), keeping in mind however his hesitance in claiming what exactly Dasein is (ibid). As such, he affirms in the same period that the ‘basic position’ of his philosophy is one ‘aiming at a “Philosophy of Da-sein”’. Note, however, his quotation marks and emphasis, which serves to highlight his clarification that he is not an existentialist, as Da-sein ‘is determined only on the basis of the question of the truth of being.’ (p. 206) So those on the other side of this ongoing debate who want to see Being (capital B) remain the focus of Heideggerean scholarships, ready your references to passage 229 of book IV, where Heidegger says ‘the mystery is the source of that truth which guarantees us the great breadth of the affiliation to beyng and makes the inexhaustible into a gift.’ (p. 202)[6] We will (re)-discover, of course, that any attempt to get to the core of Heidegger’s thinking always sends us astray. Those caught up in the feud between Sheehan and Capobianco might take clarity from passage 150 of book II, where Heidegger seems to address precisely this tension between mankind and being; ‘no matter whether being was referred back to humans (sheer subjectivizing of the understanding of being) or whether humans as beings among others were placed under being. In either case, the possible existential essence of mankind—empowering swing into the happening of being—does not get liberated’ (p. 43). Perhaps we should all heed Babiche’s call to stop looking for the new Heidegger and to start thinking.[7]

Relevant to this ongoing discussion is the equation of ‘Da-sein’ with ‘human’, which the notebooks show to be thoroughly incorrect. Take a passage very early on, the 7th entry of book II, the first book that we have (the first one, ‘Intimations x Ponderings (I)’ has ‘uncertain’ whereabouts (p. 385)), ‘mankind believes it must do something with itself­—and does not understand that Da-sein has already done something with it (beginning of philosophy)—from which mankind fled long ago’ (p. 7). We already knew from such texts as the Contributions that for Heidegger Da-sein became a way of being that he hoped mankind could ‘leap’ into (he affirms this throughout this book also, e.g. p. 183), and it is precisely this hope for liberation that caught my eye. A clear trope running throughout these notes is Heidegger’s wishes for such liberation in the form of revolution. In fact, and indeed echoing the troubling political landscape at the time, Heidegger calls many times for such a revolution [Umwälzung]. A revolution that would come through a meditation on truth, and indeed only by first preparing such a meditation (p. 218). A revolution, therefore, that we might call ontological in nature. Take passage 172 of book IV, ‘[t]he revolution to Da-Sein as effectuation [Erwirkung] of the truth of being—my one and only volition’ (p. 190). The access to the question of the truth of beyng—‘to the abyss­’—however, is ‘not open’ (p. 212). We get insight, then, into the apocalyptic mood of such texts as the Contributions, as everything has become ‘common’ and ‘small’, indeed ‘ordinary’ (p. 199), Nietzsche’s ‘“last human being” is raging through Europe’ (p. 175), and this desperate state of affairs can only be saved at the hands of the transitional ones, the Zarathustrian down goers (p. 220), and the space for their ‘creative decisions’ must be prepared for (to which a chorus of Heideggereans respond; let it be me, master). We already know from Heidegger’s lecture courses that this necessitates a grasping of truth beyond its common propositional form; as he says early on in these “ponderings”; ‘[t]he Essence of truth must first be transformed and must be transposed into a new sharpness and hardness so that beings may find admittance. To admit beings—let them through “through” Da-Sein. Ambiguity of the “through”’ (p. 9).

Indeed we might find this ‘ambiguity’ as a running theme throughout Heidegger’s entire oeuvre, whether it be Being and Time’s existential analytic of Dasein or the later works Lichtung, etc., Heidegger was constantly attempting to thoughtfully speak about the place where being happens. Such is why we find throughout Ponderings II-VI Heidegger’s criticisms of his earlier attempts at this, even if some of these criticisms are in the form of criticising how the book had been received and interpreted. By 1932, Heidegger describes his earlier work as ‘alien’ to him (p. 15), but later complains about the impatience for the publications of the never released second volume of Being and Time: ‘I [Heidegger] am waiting for this waiting to cease and for people to finally confront the first volume’ (p. 135). In the end, it is a book he has to write ‘again and again’ for there is no ‘other tasks in philosophy besides the question posed there—even if at first only partially worked out’ (p. 17). Perhaps Heidegger’s statement in the authors preface to the 7th edition of Being and Time—that the first volume would have to be written anew if the second was ever to be written—was already underway, time and time again; way’s, not works. As he concludes this author’s preface, ‘the road it has taken remains even today a necessary one, if our Dasein is to be stirred by the question of Being’. What we witness throughout this first instalment of Heidegger’s notes is his constant dedication to awaken humanity to the disaster he felt awaited us by providing the philosophical leeway to aid ‘those to come’ to manoeuvre us out of disasters reach. Although it is difficult to deny the self-importance this suggests, and indeed there are no shortage of passages that reveal Heidegger’s arrogance, moments of self-doubt and (semi)-humbleness occasionally surface. Take, for example, where Heidegger questions the basis of his own project ‘[w]hat beyng “means” no one knows. Can we at all know it? And if yes, should we know it? And if yes to that, how must it become knowable?’ (p. 160) Such humbleness, however, is short lived for assumingly Heidegger had already answered yes to the first two of these three questions, and spent his philosophical career trying to deal with third. Instead, what we generally find is an arrogance cloaked in the image of a humble thinker. Take this passage, which both affirms his finitude and yet hints at his own greatness at the same time: ‘[t]he strength of a work is measured by the extent to which it refutes its creator—i.e., grounds something altogether different than that on which its creator himself stood and had to stand.’ (p.318) Such is why Heidegger felt Being and Time never brought him his ‘Great enemy’ [he capitalises the G] (p. 8), for its only effect is to have increased ‘prattle about “being”’ (p. 9). In the end it is Heidegger himself, in his own view at least, who takes Being and Time on as the ‘sharpest opponent’ (p. 52), for although a failed work its intentions can still be effectuated (p. 28).[9] One is left wondering what he may have thought of thinkers like Derrida and Levinas, who in many respects thought from out of the grounds of Heidegger’s thinking and creatively developed its insights toward different ends and other possibilities.

Part of Heidegger’s ‘way’, however, was the movement a-way from the kind of thinking that encompasses Being and Time and into the poetic disposition of his later works. One notable passage is when he claims that the grounding of Da-sein through thinking and poetry ‘overcomes the question of possibility’, for possibility as a question, or so he claims, ‘is the last implementation of mathematical thinking […] which in turn is the result of the collapse of ἀλήθεια’ (pg. 164). Given the important place the notion of possibility holds in works such as Being and Time this again raises the question of what sort of development occurs in Heidegger’s thinking after and throughout the 1930’s, and what it implies for the thinking of the Being and Time era and beyond. His 1935 lecture The Origin of the Work of Art, for example, will surely need fresh interpretation when Heidegger thinks of Dasein ‘as the contention of the strife between world and earth’ (p. 242). For me, one of the more exciting moments in the book is the first major reflection Heidegger has on art that look like the result of an insightful burst of creative inspiration. These passages come from 1931/2 and yet they offer us a glimpse into themes that come to dominate Heidegger’s work thereafter. He imagines the possibility of a philosophy that addresses Dasein through the ‘poetry of being’, realizing that because beings ‘[burst] forth of being in the packings of its poetry’, poets must poetize being also. Heidegger then climaxes with an obscure claim that this will lead to that which ‘cor-responds to the poetized’, which will thus manifest itself ‘for the first time’. He finishes this line of thought off with a cryptic symbol that we are told is that which we go ‘into’ in the asking of the question of being, and is born of silence.[10] ‘First thoroughly fathom the silence’, he tells himself, ‘in order to learn what may be said and must be said’ (pp. 12/13).[11] These musings of the passage from what Heidegger dubbed ‘the first’ to the ‘other beginning’, and the importance of poetry and the arts therein, occupied Heidegger’s thoughts throughout the rest of his life. It is informative, but also interesting and at times inspiring, to be privy to early stages of these definitive strands in Heidegger’s later thinking, cryptic symbols and all.

Finally, a word on translation. Rojcewics is already known as the co-translator of the (generally considered) superior version of Contributions to Philosophy, alongside Daniela Vallega-Neu. Asides from the fact that as Heidegger himself knew every translation is an interpretation, the difficulty that any translator of a work by Heidegger faces must be immense. Regardless, Rojcewics continues with the excellent work we have seen previous. I welcome the continued rendering of Sein/Seyn as being/beyng respectively. Speaking from my own ‘encounter’ with Heidegger at least, the traditional use of capital B ‘Being’ impinged on my ability to fruitfully interpret Heidegger’s project for too long a time, and overtones of a substantial Being over and against beings still creeps itself into my own interpretative work of Heidegger’s texts. As Richard Polt has already pointed out, Ponderings as a translation for Überlegungen gives the book a pretentious overtone that the German lacks (in title, at least). Although Ponderings perhaps gives a general lackluster feel that is relevant to the books ‘idea diary’ constitution, I think ‘Considerations’ may have been a more fortunate rendering here. I also commend Thomas Sheehan calling out the ‘scandal’ of Heideggerean scholarship that generally leaves Dasein untranslated, and Rojcewics continues that trend here.[12] However, this scandal remains unanswered for good reason, and although Sheehan offers scholarship a timely challenge (one which I’m not convinced his preferred ‘openedness’ answers), I don’t hold Rojcewics accountable for failing to take up that challenge. Occasionally, I find myself checking in dictionaries both the English words and the German counterparts to make sure I’m making sense of a passage to my best abilities, and generally discovering the translation makes sense. In some instances, there is even improvement to previous translations. For example, in a quotation I provided above Zerklüftung has been translated as ‘partitioning’, which I prefer to the Contributions ‘fissures’. Words like Erwirkung, rendered here as the awkward ‘effectuation’, could have been translated to the far more readable ‘bringing about’ but might then gain a connotation different than what is likely to have been Heidegger’s intent in the original (see especially p. 190). Although I would have liked to have seen more instances of the german word inserted alongside the english (all german insertions in this review are my own), over all I have not yet found a translation choice of Rojcewics’ preposterous and even when I did disagree I could see the sense of the difficult decisions he must have had to make time and time again.

[1]Which the ‘Editors Afterward’ claims comes from around 1970 (p. 383). Emphasis in original. For the purposes of this book review, all emphasis in quotations are from the original text, and as I complain about later, all german insertions are my own.

[2]For example, Heidegger reflecting on his mother (p. 232).

[3]I am thinking here specifically of p. 200 where Heidegger wonders about the significance of having two g’s in his name, and concludes that it must be because he recognises what constantly matters through benevolance [Güte] and patience [Geduld]. Which reminds me of another entry: ‘Pride­— […] it is the certainty of no longer confusing oneself with something else’ (p. 195).

[4]Examples include, but in no way exhaust, p. 15, 57, 136, 137, 144, 162, 172, 239, 343. Notably, pp. 145/146, the closing statement of ‘Ponderings III’, where through a criticism of his own The Self-Assertion of the German University Heidegger offers even harsher criticisms of both natural and human sciences, medicine, theology and the universities. The problem, it seems from this passage at least, was not that he was entirely wrong in his criticism, but that he didn’t take his concerns seriously enough.

[5]See the review of the same book by Richard Polt: [last accessed 11/08/16]. See also his translations of all anti-Semitic passages throughout the available Black Notebooks, of which only the first volume (GA94) has been translated: [last accessed 11/08/16].

[6]And of course the numerous other passages in both this book and other works by Heidegger that suggest the cor-relation between Da-Sein and Sein eg. p. 52, 85, 245, 205. I draw you’re attention, however, to p. 253 where Heidegger says ‘the essence of beyng needs humans. In questioning this relation, the essential occurrence of beyng is determined for the first time as the event and the human being is determined as Da-sein […] the relation [between beyng and Dasein] is the essential occurrence of beyng itself as event’. It seems to me that there is lucrative potential for interpretation in this passage for both sides of the debate

[7]See her article ‘The ‘New’ Heidegger’ in Articles and Chapters in Academic Book Collections, Paper 65, available at [last accessed 11/08/16].

[8]Although this passage does not explicitly state what he means by what Being and Time ‘intended’, I take it to mean that at this stage Heidegger understood its intentions as the ‘revolution’ discussed above. In Being and Time this was about raising the question of the meaning of being (for the first time since Parmenides, according to Heidegger on p. 8).

[9]An editors insertion informs us that this symbol is ‘unfamiliar’, but given that it is used by Heidegger at other points throughout the work it will be interesting to see if any sense is made of it in the ensuing scholarship

[10]This specific stream of thought seem to be picked up again at number 56/57, and his thoughts on art, Hölderlin, poetry, etc., continue throughout the book.

[11]Cf. Thomas Sheehan’s hilarious and insightful, A Paradigm Shift in Heidegger Research, p. 193. Available at [last accessed 11/08/16]

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Gregory Jackson

PhD student at Maynooth University, Ireland. Working thesis title: 'The Development of the Concept of Truth in Relation to the Work of Art in the Thought of Martin Heidegger in the 1930’s'

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