Martin Heidegger: The History of Beyng

Joshua Sharman

The History of Beyng Book Cover The History of Beyng
Studies in Continental Thought
Martin Heidegger. Translated by William McNeill and Jeffrey Powell
Indiana University Press
ebook $44.99

Reviewed by: Joshua Sharman (University of Warwick)

This text is a new English translation of some of Heidegger’s most important reflections after his major work, Being and Time (1926). They comprise volume 69 of the Gesamtausgabe (Heidegger’s collected works) and consist of two parts, “Die Geschichte des Seyns” (The History of Beyng), produced between 1938 – 1940, and his treatise, “Κοινόν. Out of the History of Beyng” written between 1939 to 1940. The current translation builds upon the second German edition of the texts published in 2012, some 14 years after the first German edition, by incorporating several corrections made in the former. The work itself builds directly upon the material put forward in the Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event) (1936 – 1938) and connects to the later text, Mindfulness (1938 -1939).

Putting the biographical concerns to one side, what is the significance of the texts themselves? They both remained unpublished during Heidegger’s lifetime and thus each remains incomplete, yet they are important despite this lack of finality. This is because of the insight that is made available into the development of Heidegger’s thinking as a whole, but in particular, into the way in which his account of the history of metaphysics is transformed in its being brought into relation with contemporary events. These contemporary events, WWII and the rise of Communism, provide the world-historical basis for Heidegger’s reflections on the manifestation of ‘power’ from 1900 onwards, through his analysis of the ontological underpinning of these events themselves.

It was in Being and Time that Heidegger introduced his analysis of the ontological structures that underlay ordinary phenomena like a car journey or other mundane, everyday activities. This analysis is what provided the basis for Heidegger’s role as one of the most insightful philosophical commentators of the 20th Century. He was able to provide insights into everyday experience previously unavailable to the phenomenological tradition, particularly the method of Husserl, his former teacher. However, this canonical status notwithstanding, Heidegger’s legacy has been hindered by his purported affinities with the movement of National Socialism during the 1930s and general antisemitic attitudes prevalent at the time. These affinities were not improved by the realisation that Heidegger had transformed standard views of the period to suit his own ontological persuasions. Nonetheless, Heidegger’s political shortcomings can be contextualised, to some degree, by the essays that make up this volume. They allow us to understand these shortcomings as intimately related to his attempts to comprehend the more general meaning attached to the far-reaching, global events occurring between 1930 and 1940, in Germany and Russia.

He argues that the phenomena constitutive of each age are only correctly understood when viewed in light of historical shifts in the nature of ‘Being’, understood as the manner in which entities are how they are and indeed, what they are. Heidegger claims that this central concept, ‘Being’, has been understood in variably different ways throughout the history of the West. It is this variation in a culture’s understanding of ‘Being’ that is referred to in the title of the volume as the “history of Beyng”, albeit in altered form, following Heidegger’s use of the archaic German spelling of the word ‘Sein’ (‘Being’) as ‘Seyn’. This archaic form is employed by Heidegger specifically to denote his own understanding of ‘Being’ as something non-metaphysical in opposition to the usual metaphysical characterisation of that notion. The easiest way to interpret his conception of Beyng is in contrast to the standard way that term has come to be understood, as ‘Being’. Our metaphysical conception of ‘Being’, according to Heidegger, is one that is unchanging and universal, whereas the non-metaphysical conception, Beyng, is constantly changing relative to history and always remains singular, rather than general.

The central issue that arises out of this difference between the two conceptions is that ‘Being’ understood metaphysically has always arrived too late on the philosophical scene. This untimely arrival is due to its metaphysical nature, which limits the ability of traditional ontologies to arrive at anything other than a view about the manner in which entities are at their most general level. A level that is extrapolated from the historical aspect under which entities are constituted i.e. we abstract from the way entities are constituted historically in order to produce the general level claim about ‘Being’. However, this kind of conception of ‘Being’ is necessarily limited by its abstractness, in that it applies to everything and hence becomes almost redundant as a metaphysical concept, or at least uninteresting at best. In contrast, the conception of Beyng introduced in this volume is far more insightful. It does not come after entities, but precedes them by providing the very possibility for their manifestation. Manifestation then is key here and is intimately related to Heidegger’s later obsession with aletheia, or that which discloses. Nonetheless, in the current text, Beyng remains proximally related to Heidegger’s focus on attunement in Being and Time as an underlying mechanism by which all worldly (or ontic-level, borrowing the terminology of Being and Time) events show up for us as they do. This essential aspect of Beyng is basically relational in that, for Heidegger, entities are always given, in some sense, by their connections with other entities. It is this relational aspect of his ontology that is highlighted so well by the current volume, focusing as it does on this intervening space, the clearing, between entities, which allows them to be mutually defined by one and other. This “abyssal ground of the in-between” (116) is what provides entities with their relational grounding i.e. their relations are sustained and governed by this ground. Yet, this ground is not an “indeterminate emptiness into which something appears,” (123) but is the very manner of attunement that relates entities to us and to each other.

The two pieces that make up the volume use this different understanding of Beyng as a way to interpret the major world-historical events that occurred from 1930 – 1940. Heidegger views the major political events of that period as manifestations of an underlying shift in the very being of entities themselves, along with a correlative alteration in the nature of human existence. These changes are located in what he views as the increase in politics of power, conjoined with an acceptance of the everyday status of war. It is here we see a foreshadowing of the Foucauldian account of ‘power’ or ‘power-relations’ in Heidegger’s assessment that power should be seen as an “essencing of Beyng itself,” (55) as the very manner in which Beyng determines the ‘essence’ of all entities that can appear in our world. When Heidegger introduces the notion of ‘power’, he refers to its essence as something which isn’t a “capability for domination that disposes over the means of all forces,” but instead as the “unconditioned domain of making of the overpowering of itself and of the malleability subservient to it.” (158) This runs strictly counter to the standard conception of power as something that requires possessing force for one’s disposal. This is because Heidegger thinks that this traditional view of power fails to adequately thematise the true essence of power in the contemporary age. He argues that this new conception of power is better for understanding the modern era (1940s Europe and Germany in particular) because the forms of power that were emergent, and still continue to be so, involved two critical components that structure our world. The first component is that power itself is always moving towards an overcoming, or “overpowering” of every “attained level of power.” (54) The second component is that power necessarily always requires the “exclusion of every outside that is not itself” and therefore is mandated in determining the “essence of beings.” (54) The implication being that historical procedures and contexts for limiting the enactment of power will always be challenged and fail to convince. This is largely due to the way in which power operates without any normative quality and simply unfolds, outside of the ordinary spheres of “morality, law and custom”. (66) In what can be considered a very Nietzschean claim, Heidegger states that power will “unconditionally shatter” each value or ideal that can conceivably constrain it. Consequently, power will fail to be limited by any imperative except that of its own essence and will answer only to its own demand to exceed “each attained level of power”. (56) It is this consequence which appears to have the greatest foreboding effect in terms of our contemporary world-view. It seems only now that we can recognise a world orientated not in terms of “standards or goals or motivations belonging to humankind hitherto,” (23) but as one that has, or at least is on its way, to becoming fully subordinated by a “machination” (41) that renders all entities as infinitely “malleable”. In a world, entirely in the throws of machination, entities show themselves as open to complete reconfiguration according to our choosing, but always in line with a maximisation for new options rendered in terms of utility. In this way, Heidegger claims that “everything becomes ever more new and ever more rapidly new.” (130)

By now, it is obvious that Heidegger’s introduction of the concept of “machination” is closely related to his later work on technology, The Question Concerning Technology (1954), which describe the manner in which technology seeks constantly to reduce all entities to mere resources, as in the harnessing of the kinetic energy found in a waterfall for instance, or the ever-increasing existence of wind farms for renewable energy. The ultimate impact of ‘machination’ then, is that we will begin to view with disdain anything that blocks or inhibits our ability to transcend the current limits of power because of the “inexorable retraction of every possibility of determining power by way of something that it itself is not.” (157) Again, we encounter similar Foucauldian themes in the way Heidegger thinks power will ultimately manifest itself in its finality (Foucault will later introduce the term “biopower” in this regard). For Heidegger, traditional values that orientate our existence will no longer hold sway over us and power will become all-encompassing in its determination of our world. He claims that we are “entering that cluelessness that vacillates in all directions and that now allows [us] only to be on the lookout for ‘goals’ that are supposed to exceed what has gone before.” (175) Therefore, this leaves nothing “beyond the cultivation of competence and the pleasurable aspect of bodily life”, except “the unconditional expansion of this ‘goal’.” (175) As a result, our world will show up as one guaranteed by power, in which no possible mode of living is considered higher than any other; ultimately, utility becomes the watch-word of such a way of living. However, at the time of writing the texts in this volume, Heidegger did not consider 1930s Germany or the rest of Europe as having entered into this finality with regards to power’s consummation. In his contemporary view, Heidegger claims that in the first instance power will act malevolently by trying to “transpose beings into the domain of power.” (64) This means that power will always try to inhibit and undermine those traditional forms of imperative that orientate an individual’s life and aim at human flourishing (religious morality, or other standard moral imperatives are relevant here), seeking to transpose these imperatives and relocate the individual within the domain of power that seeks only to increase options and avenues of usefulness. The implication of this initial stage of power then, is that when individuals are still orientated by traditional goals and aims, power will necessarily have to manifest itself in terms of violence to reconfigure the world as it requires.

This is perhaps where Heidegger is at his most perspicuous and compelling in both texts in the volume. This is because he argues that any violent pretext that power requires, when in its initial state of “over-powering,” is fulfilled by political organisations that serve to “parade various ‘ideals’ before [the public] in each case, ideals whose desirability spurs on the need for power.” (159) What this means is that, for Heidegger, every claim made by political groups regarding ‘progress’ in culture, the saving of our Western way of life, or indeed, the propositions made by any ‘political system’ (65) at all, serve as a way by which power can undercut our collective willing to fight back against the emergent reorientation of our world at the behest of power. This is why the most important message contained within the volume is that power always has the “the intent of confusing” and “undermining the possibility of forming an opinion”; (71) the result being one of “complete indifference toward everything.” (71) This makes the volume absolutely relevant to contemporary issues facing Western societies, namely how individuals can orientate themselves in democracies wholly in the throws of “machination” and the more developed stages of power, beyond those envisaged by Heidegger writing in Nazi Germany. What is most important for the contemporary reader of this volume is the emphasis placed on the possibility of genuine decision, rather than simply selecting from pre-given options determined by a world imbibed with “machination”. It is this genuine decision-making that allows for human flourishing to gain its highest dignity. “Thought in its essence”, Heidegger insists, “dignity remains so decisively alien to power that it may not even be posited as its opposite.” (65)

To summarise, this updated English translation of The History of Beyng serves as an insightful and instructive text for those seeking to gain a clearer view of the progression that Heidegger’s thinking takes after die Kehre, particularly as the themes in this volume serves as a bridge between the thinking found in Being and Time and the views espoused in later texts such as The Question Concerning Technology. The reader can gain a far deeper insight into some of the central thematic concerns of Heidegger’s philosophy in the late 1930s, specifically the concepts of “power”, “machination” and “essencing”. Rendering any of Heidegger’s texts in English is a troublesome task, given his frequent use of neologisms and play with common word roots, and something no less difficult in this volume of his works. However, William McNeill and Jeffrey Powell are evidently successful in their attempt to remain close to the original German found in the two texts. They render many of Heidegger’s terms in different ways given the way Heidegger’s nuances their meaning in various contexts. This does make it harder for the English reader to track the continuity of these terms, but on the whole, seems more useful than not, constant attention to detail on the part of the reader notwithstanding. Overall, the updated translation showcases what is a central and often-overlooked text in Heidegger’s oeuvre, with perspicuity and illumination. Maintaining a style that shows just why contemporary readers should return to this text for themes that are arguably as relevant, if not more so, to the modern world than they were at the time when Heidegger was writing.


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