Graeme Nicholson: Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and Is Fate

Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate Book Cover Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and its Fate
New Studies in Phenomenology and Hermeneutics
Graeme Nicholson
University of Toronto Press
2019
Cloth $45.00
200

Reviewed by: Daniel Regnier (St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan)

In Heidegger on Truth Graeme Nicholson, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, provides a close reading of the Heidegger’s works published under the title “On the Essence of Truth” (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit: WW). Heidegger delivered lectures under this title on four occasions in 1930 and the work was published in written form first in 1943 and then in a second edition in 1949 (another version dating from 1940 also exists but is virtually identical to the 1943 version, Nicholson tells us (8)). Nicholson provides a developmental account of Heidegger’s thought on truth by identifying the differences between the 1930 lecture versions of WW and the later published essays.  Accordingly, the book is divided into two major parts.

Part I of Nicholson’s book is dedicated to the 1930 lectures and provides a very good detailed analysis of some of the key innovations in Heidegger’s view of truth developed in them. Nicholson explains the fundamental phenomenological strategy that Heidegger uses to account for truth writing, “A phenomenological account will treat experiences as the wellspring of statements and by the same token the birth place of truth” (31).  In this context Nicholson explains how in accordance with notions developed in Section 33 of Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) Heidegger points to “conduct” (Verhalten) as the point at which openness to a thing occurs. Conduct has a “revelatory power,” Nicholson points out (35).  And he rightly identifies a Kantian moment in Heidegger’s claim that “the essence of truth is freedom” (indeed, Heidegger also lectured on Kant’s notion of freedom in 1930). Graeme explains, “Our conduct can only adjust itself, accommodating the standard set by the thing, if it is free or open, ready to receive orientation” (39). This amounts to “letting-be” (Seinlassen).  And it is at this juncture that Heidegger moves from a relatively ahistorical phenomenological approach to truth to an analysis conditioned by historical considerations.  Heidegger writes,

It is in the letting-be of beings as such that such a thing as a being ever becomes unconcealed, that is, de-concealed. The unconcealed was known to Western philosophy in its decisive beginning with Heraclitus as ta alêtheia (47).

Nicholson defends Heidegger’s reading of alêtheia as unconcealedness and proceeds to show how this notion accords with Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein.

Nicholson addresses the difficult problem of the relationship between truth and non-truth in Heidegger (expressed as the “Non-essence” (Unwesen) of truth, and as “error” (Irre)).  Nicholson is at his best when interpreting texts such as the following where Heidegger writes,

Then, if the essence is to realize its full scope and authority over us, would it not have to retrieve this Non-essence, i.e. untruth, and admit it explicitly into the essence of truth? Certainly! (57)

Nicholson shows how Heidegger’s way of dealing with truth is grounded in a contextualism that takes account of a totality and can be better understood when seen against the background of the treatment of attunement (Gestimmtheit) from Section 29 of Being and Time. Nicholson remarks that attunement in WW is, in contrast to the account in Being and Time, “not phenomenally evident to Da-sein” (63).  This leads to the discovery that, as Nicholson puts it, “erring and the mystery are contained within that essence [i.e. of truth]” (73). And it is philosophy that is equipped to deal with this mystery according to Heidegger in 1930.  Yet, as Nicholson points out in his conclusion to Part I of his book, “Here and elsewhere through the 1930’s Heidegger tended to speak of philosophy as a body of ontological knowledge rather than the experience of questioning or the encounter with mystery” (87). This foundationalism in understanding truth is, Nicholoson suggests, related to Heidegger’s understanding of philosophy’s leading role in relation to the other disciplines. Nicholson essentially suggests that Heidegger had not yet fully developed the implications of his own thought which consequently contains certain inconsistency.

Before proceeding to Part II, Nicholson inserts a section entitled “Intermission: Political Storms” (83-94).  It is however, much more than an intermission, because it is a key in understanding the developmental account that is at the heart of the Nicholson’s reading of Heidegger. In this section Nicholson puts Heidegger’s work on truth in the context of his Rectorship of the Freiburg University 1933-34 and his relationship with the Nazi party.  Nicholson comments on the lectures Heidegger gave during this period, on the Black Notebooks as well as other documents.  In general, we might say that without releasing Heidegger of responsibilty, Nicholson argues that Heidegger’s thought is not compromised by the “Political Storms” of the period of the rectorship.  Nicholson writes,

But the “Heidegger Case” is not one of simple opposition between pro- and anti-phenomenology, or pro- and anti-Nazism, or even pro- and anti-Heidegger. I would suggest instead that Heidegger’s life and work exhibited a cleft or bifurcation that many of this readers, especially his critics, have not noticed, have not understood, and consequently have misunderstood grievously. (93)

This position serves Nicholson as a hermeneutic principle. Accordingly, Part II of his book is entitled “Later Work: the Pathway Rectified.”

Nicholson writes “After 1930, or rather 1934, Heidegger moved to correct the overconfident doctrine of this earlier period that an a priori Seinsverstgeriod that an a prioir 4, Heidegger moved to correct the overconfident doctrine of thi searlier s, have not noticed, have not uändtnis (“understanding of being”) gave guidance to the sciences but can be traced in every human encounter with the world.”  Nicholson’s treatment of truth in the later Heidegger follows a historical structure from the Plato lectures (of 1931-32) which begin to expose Plato’s role in distorting the original Greek experience of truth (Part II, A) a section dealing with Medieval thought (Part II, B) and a section dealing with the present-age (Part II, C).

In Part II, A Nicholson shows how Heidegger understands Plato to have compromised truth as alêtheia by mixing with it the idea of truth as correctness (Richtigkeit, orthotês), a problem which subsequently became embedded in Western thought (105). Nicholson argues that Heidegger revises his understandings of freedom, unconcealedness and Dasein. Here Dasein functions differently than in Being and Time, Nicholson tells us, insofar as it the “hidden essential grounding of the human being” (129).  Heidegger writes, “In Da-sein, the essential ground, long ungrounded, on the basis of which human beings are able to ek-sist, is preserved for them” (125). The notion of the “clearing” (Lichtung) which does not appear in WW but elsewhere in later Heidegger serves for Nicholson to better understand the idea of openness expressed in the Da- of Dasein. As Nicholson puts it, “Da-sein brings us, through ek-sistence, to belong to the Da-, or the open region” (131).

In Part II, B Nicholson deals with the notion of truth as adequatio rei ad intellectum and various permutations of this formula. Nicholson says that the idea of truth as adequatio persists in Western thought even when detached from notions of creation and God. In this section Nicholson deals briefly with truth as certainty in Descartes, grounding in Leibniz and with Hegel on certainty.

Nicholson opens Part II, C with consideration of the following undated marginal note which Heidegger had written in the 1943 edition: “Between 5 and 6 the leap into the turning (Kehre) (whose essence unfolds in the event of appropriation (im Ereignis wesende)” (142). The numerals refer to chapters of Heidegger’s text. Readers familiar with Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy will recognize the terminology of the marginalium, and it is precisely to this work that Nicholson turns to explain the way in which Heidegger deals with truth in the context of his later thought.  Nicholson explains why Heidegger begins to spell being (Sein) with a “y” beyng (Seyn), namely “because he which to speak not of an object of thought, noumenon, but of what might prompt thought and give rise to it after the concealment of all the beings” (146). That is, being is thought as en-owning (Ereignis) (146).

Overall, Nicholson provides an insightful and very useful reading of WW. This reader found Part I of Nicholson’s book to be more successful than Part II. No doubt, this is largely a matter of the difficulty of later Heidegger. (Trying to explain WW by referring to Contributions could be considered an attempt to explain obscurum per obscurius!)  But the brevity of some explanations towards the end of Part II seem to me unjustified (for example, the one sentence paragraph labeled “On Psychology” on page 164). A remark on the book sleeve suggests that this might be a good pedagogical tool. I am not so sure about this. On the one hand, there are very lucid discussions of key notions in Heidegger. On the other hand, certain aspects of the text assume a lot on the part of readers: knowledge of the certain debates in the secondary literature and knowledge of key Heideggerian works. I do think that the work would certainly be of interest to graduate students and scholars. When the book does deal with secondary literature it tends to be recent secondary literature in English. One might have hoped for somewhat more attention to scholarship in other languages. Nicholson suggests at the beginning of the book (5) that he will apply contemporary issues and the Conclusion is entitled “Against Self-Expression.”  However, the conclusion is very brief. One gets the sense that either the author might either have simply left out reference to contemporary issues or developed this section more.  In sum, Heidegger on Truth: Its Essence and Is Fate is a very welcome addition to Heidegger studies.

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