Martin Heidegger: Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation

Interpretation of Nietzsche's Second Untimely Meditation Book Cover Interpretation of Nietzsche's Second Untimely Meditation
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair
Indiana University Press
Cloth $55.00

Reviewed by: David Mitchell (University of Johannesburg, South Africa)

With the recent publication in English of the ‘Black Notebooks’ (2014), much renewed attention has been paid to Heidegger the man, and particularly his association with Nazism and anti-Semitism. It is refreshing then to find the release of a work where political and biographical controversies take a back seat. Originally published in German in 2003 as volume 46 of the Gesamtausgabe (‘Complete edition’), ‘Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation’, is the translation of a series of seminar notes from the winter semester of 1938-39 in Freiburg. The content of these seminars, delivered eventually in the form of lectures by Heidegger, was the second of Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations: ‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life’ (1874) ((hereafter, when cited, UTM: 2)) . And this has been ably translated into English by Ullrich Haase and Mark Sinclair, who also provide a brief introduction and a post-script by the original German editor, Hans-Joachim Friedrich.

As said then, Haase and Sinclair render the German into a readable and fluent English. They make potentially clunky and jargon laden passages from the original seem natural, and also do a good job of dealing with the specific difficulties thrown up by this text. In particular, they confront well the problem of distinguishing between Historie, the study of the past, and Geschichte, which is the past in general, as it underpins reality. And they do this by translating the former as ‘historiology’ and the latter as ‘history’. Likewise, they deal effectively with the various German terms surrounding memory and forgetting. Specifically they render Erinnerung as ‘remembering,’ Gedächtnis as ‘memory’, Andenken as ‘remembrance,’ Vergegenwärtigung as ‘making present’, and Behalten as ‘retaining’. However, while providing some context, and flagging up issues of translation, they could do more in the way of guidance for the reader. That is to say, Haase and Sinclair could say more about how one should read the text. This is an issue precisely because as the translators acknowledge ‘Heidegger’s notes are for the most part schematic and fragmentary’ (xii). As such, read simply in themselves, large sections may come across as confusing or obscure, especially for those not versed in Heidegger or the work being interpreted. For this reason, a helpful suggestion might have been for the text to be read in conjunction with the second Untimely Meditation itself. Like the lectures originally therefore, The Interpretation would make more sense when it is read alongside the passages from Nietzsche under discussion. Indeed, given that the sections from Untimely Meditations analysed are relatively short, a prior reading of each before looking at the corresponding chapter in Heidegger is highly recommended.

The introduction might also do more regarding other relevant texts by the author. For instance, attention could be drawn to ‘The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics’ (1929-30), the ‘Letter on Humanism’ (1947), and’ What is Called Thinking’ (1951-52), all of which touch on similar themes found in The Interpretation. In particular, Heidegger’s understanding of the distinction between the human and the animal, and critique of the ‘animal rationale’, is something developed in each of these works. In any case, looking to the text itself, we can say that the structure of the work is relatively straightforward. With the exception of a short introduction on the nature of interpretation and ‘thinking’, Heidegger’s twenty chapters by and large track the ideas and arguments raised in the first six sections of the second Untimely Meditation. These lettered major sections, from A to T, are typically direct discussions of what Nietzsche said in a particular section. And these are sometimes followed by more thematic chapters related to specific ideas raised there. As a result, after the ‘preliminary remarks’ he begins with an account of section one of Nietzsche’s text. This is focused on the nature of memory and forgetting, and the meaning of the historical and ‘unhistorical’. After this, Heidegger looks at section two of ‘Advantages and Disadvantages’, which deals with what Nietzsche calls ‘monumental history’. We then, in C, have an account of the antiquarian and critical modes of history found in that Untimely Meditation. Chapters E, F and G meanwhile represent thematic discussions concerning historiology. A discussion of section four of the ‘Advantages and Disadvantages’ follows, which deals with cultural critique. Barring thematic digressions, the rest of the text then looks at sections five and six of the second Meditation. This involves, respectively, a critique of the ‘historical man’, and an analysis of the pursuit of historical truth for its own sake. That is, it looks at what Nietzsche calls ‘truth that eventuates in nothing’ (UTM: 2, 6: 89). Heidegger then finishes The Interpretation with a lengthy thematic discussion of the concepts of truth and justice employed by Nietzsche in the later sections.

It is worth noting, before moving on, that Heidegger’s attention to each of these themes and sections is not necessarily commensurate with the emphasis given to them by Nietzsche. Sections one and six, for instance, receive much more attention than the others of similar length in the original, and the issues of truth and science are also stressed far more in Heidegger. It should further be observed that he does not address the final four sections of Nietzsche’s text, only the first six, and that the other three Untimely Meditations are not even mentioned. The reasons for such an omission are never really made clear. Although it is consistent with Heidegger’s predilection for minutiae in interpretation, this may be a source of frustration for anyone expecting a more definite reading of the Untimely Meditations as a whole.

Nevertheless, moving away from these more general considerations, there remains much of value in Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche here. Specifically, the discussion of memory and forgetting stands out as particularly thought provoking. This is because this issue constitutes the most sustained, and philosophically interesting, theme which Heidegger explores in relation to this work. This discussion also forms the kernel of what is illuminating about other aspects of Heidegger’s reading of this text, as well as how the two figures differ. That is, it also informs subsequent themes in the dialogue between Nietzsche and Heidegger. To explain briefly then, Nietzsche argues in the second Untimely Meditation that the human being is fundamentally just an animal that has acquired the ability to remember. That is, the human is an animal that has gained the ability to be aware of itself within, and stretched over, time. Or, put more precisely, we are an animal that has overcome that constant proclivity to ‘forget’ which traps other creatures in the perpetual present. And this is, for Nietzsche, what gives the human its distinguishing nature as ‘an imperfect tense that can never become a perfect one’ (UTM: 2, 1: 61)

Yet it is precisely this point of clarification regarding forgetting that Heidegger takes issue with. This is because, he believes, Nietzsche mistakes the order of logical priority pertaining to this capacity and that of memory. As he says, ‘The characterization of forgetting remains in Nietzsche underdetermined and contradictory, because he fails to clarify the essence of remembering and of making present.’ (40) And, continuing, this means that ‘Nietzsche does not determine forgetting as a variant of retaining (making present to oneself and remembering), but vice versa: “remembering” is a variant of forgetting as not being able to forget.’ (41) In other words, Nietzsche, according to Heidegger, fails to analyse remembrance properly. And this leads him to view memory as the suppression of forgetting, rather than seeing forgetting as something that is possible only once a memory has been established in the first place. Furthermore, this has consequences for of an understanding of the life of the animal. For Nietzsche, on this view, fails to make sense of a certain observable phenomenon in the natural world. This is what Heidegger describes when he says that,

‘the tit always finds its way back to its nest, and therefore must be able “to retain” its place and aspect. The robin waits every morning for the mealworm that has been put out for it. Migratory birds always return to the same region. The dog comes back to the buried bone.’ (39)

Put another way, Nietzsche’s stress on the primacy of ‘forgetting’, and of the animal as in a state of constant forgetting, means he is unable to make sense of these more ambiguous instances. That is, wanting to determine the animal purely in terms of the ‘perpetual present’, he is forced to ignore those cases where they appear to possess something with certain inchoate similarities to human memory. Further this, for Heidegger, is merely symptomatic of a deeper misunderstanding and simplification of the world of the animal on Nietzsche’s part. And central to this, is an overlooking of what he calls ‘captivation.’ As he says then,

‘It is not that the animal retains something for itself in the mode of a constantly possible making present; rather the animal is held within its milieu as captivated by it, in such a way that, depending on the sort of animal it is, now this now that emerges in a withholding manner and then sinks back, again within the indeterminate contours of its milieu. This emerging and taking away and taking in happens in each case within a circle of relations that is not present as such.’ (39)

In other words, we should not understand the animal in terms of an endless state of ‘being present’; trapped in series of perpetually static moments. Rather we should view it more in terms of a fluid, and temporally ambiguous, absorption, or captivation, in its world. Thus the animal is continually moving back and forth between a state of ‘being-taken-along-with’ (39), its interest held by some specific engaged relation to its environment, and a more passive ‘sinking back’ into the amorphous totality of its world. And critically it is this model, rather than that of ‘perpetual forgetting’ that for Heidegger can make sense of the problem cases described earlier. That is to say, it is this model, rather than Nietzsche’s, which can account for how certain animals, without having ‘memory’, nonetheless exhibit a more complex temporal relationship to their environment than perpetual presence.

However returning to an assessment of other parts of the book, this issue continues to play a role. The question of memory and forgetting, for a start, is for Nietzsche tied to the different kinds of history that may be practiced by a culture. So for example ‘monumental history’ involves a veneration of past great figures and actions so as to inspire the present. But this also necessarily involves a certain kind of wilful ‘forgetting’ of what may be limited or problematic about such figures and their ages. Conversely ‘critical history’ involves the effort to soberly ‘remember’ and critique the past as objectively as possible, regardless of its effect on the present. The danger of this approach though is that, as with the individual, an excess of memory may paralyse present action. Heidegger’s analyses of these different modes of history, and of the ‘antiquarian’ mode, are nevertheless for the most part uncontroversial. Since the advantages and disadvantages of these types of history are also relatively well known we will not dwell on this aspect of The Interpretation. That said, he does make an interesting point regarding the correspondence of these different modes to what he sees as the three essential comportments of human life. These are ‘life-intensification, life-preservation, life-liberation’ (75). Likewise these are said to correspond to the three temporal dimensions of the human: past, present, future.

In any case, we can say this theme of ‘memory’ also informs the ideas developed in subsequent chapters. Specifically, Heidegger’s discussion of sections IV and V of Nietzsche’s text, chapters H through K, on the topic of culture, is underscored by this basic concern. Here Heidegger provides a succinct analysis of how ‘the over-saturation by historiology’ (100), and hence a lack of forgetting, according to Nietzsche has ‘five noxious effects’ (Ibid). Again there is not space to go into all of these, but ‘the destruction of the “instincts”’(Ibid) and ‘the spread of a mood of “irony” and cynicism’ (Ibid) are two of them. And it should also be noted that Heidegger is actually very critical of this attack by Nietzsche on modern culture, describing it as ‘“polemical,” shallow, a rant’ (Ibid).

Moreover, the analysis of forgetting and remembrance in this text, as a final point on this, reveals a fundamental philosophical difference between Heidegger and Nietzsche. This concerns the distinction between the human and the animal, and is one of the most revealing aspects of Heidegger’s Interpretation. For Heidegger says that Nietzsche’s construal of the human being as essentially an animal with the capacity to remember leaves him trapped in a certain tradition of western metaphysics. This is the idea of ‘the essential determination of the human being as animal rationale.’ (134) And, put more exactly, it is a tradition which suggests that ‘The human being is a present-at-hand animal, and this animal has something like ratio—νοῦς—in the same way that a tree has branches.’ (134-135) Further, ‘The human being is endowed with this faculty and it uses it just like the hand uses a “tool”. (Ibid) A defence of Nietzsche on this point though could be proffered. For we might argue that to say the human is a type of animal does not necessarily commit one to the idea that it must therefore either be present-at-hand or exist as an animal in addition to some other capacity. Indeed, as also seen in The Genealogy of Morals, an animal that is divided against itself, and over time, does not have to exist as a substantial present-at-hand entity. Likewise, in so far as the human is an animal turned against its animal nature then what distinguishes it from other animals is not a specific attribute, but the radical transformation of its entire relationship to self and world.

Nevertheless, whoever is right, the present text sheds interesting light on this fundamental difference between the two. That is, it sheds light on Nietzsche’s naturalism in contrast to Heidegger’s belief in a more ‘abyssal’, to use a recurring term in the book, distinction between animal and human. Perhaps what is frustrating though is that Heidegger does not really spell out what this difference amounts to, or what an alternative to the human as a type of animal would look like. There are also, we should point out, other limitations with Heidegger’s engagement with Nietzsche in ‘The Interpretation’. Principal amongst these is that he does not really delve into the philosophical problems associated with a selective attitude toward the truth or history. For how can one choose to forget more, and remember less? This is an issue that crosses over with problems raised by philosophical work on self-deception by Mele (2003) and others. In other words, how can we be wilfully selective about our view of a certain age, and toward a certain end, without in some ways engaging in distortions of what we know to be true? And Heidegger’s claim that Nietzsche’s ‘doctrine concerning truth should in no case be associated with a coarse and cheap American pragmatism’ (155) is obviously inadequate to answer these concerns. Similarly, Nietzsche’s own over-valorisation of the Greeks is something that goes unchallenged by Heidegger. For how can the ‘example’ of Greek culture really be an inspiration if we know that the ‘example’ is in many ways based on a myth?

All that said, ‘The Interpretation’ as a whole doubtless has a lot to offer. It certainly will be of enduring worth to Nietzsche and Heidegger scholars. And this is particularly because we see here the latter’s sustained engagement with a specific published text, rather than the more familiar interpretation based on Nietzsche’s notebooks (‘Will to Power as Art’, v.1 1936-39, v.2 1939-46). It is also of value for bringing to light an intriguing critical discussion of a key issue running throughout Nietzsche’s thought. That is, it sheds light on what is an important philosophical question in its own right: the nature of remembering and forgetting in connection to what separates the animal from the human. In this sense, this book will as well be of interest beyond Heidegger and Nietzsche scholarship. Arguably, as mentioned, Haase and Sinclair could do more to guide the reader regarding how to read the text. For it is doubtless best read in conjunction, and dialogue with, the Untimely Meditation it is interpreting. They may also have flagged up Heidegger’s somewhat polemic, and politically motivated, rejection of Nietzsche’s cultural critique. Yet there is still much to be applauded here. And, in conclusion, the effort in bringing ‘The Interpretation’ to English speakers for the first time has certainly proved to be a worthy one.

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