Breaking the Ontological Circle
Keiling’s study addresses the following problem: according to Heidegger, philosophy should become totally historical and should totally focus on things at the same time. How is that possible? Keiling provides an answer by developing what he calls “phenomenological realism” through a close reading of central texts from Heidegger’s late period. Phenomenological realism according to Keiling is a “context-sensitive category, asking to orient philosophy towards things” (289) by way of a “basal, pre-ontological, quasi metaphysically neutral reference” (293) to these very things. Phenomenological realism calls for a “thematisation of the real” (348), of res, i.e. things qua things irrespective of any ontological preconception. We will clarify what this entails in the following three sections. The first section gives a rough overview of the book, the second section highlights its central claims, which are discussed in the third section.
The book consists of three parts and an introduction. The fairly substantial introduction lays out the problem and clarifies certain hermeneutical issues regarding Heidegger’s late work. Rather than giving up on the later Heidegger’s texts as ‘mystical’ or otherwise unintelligible, Keiling sees them as legitimate philosophical engagements with the history of being and the thingness of things – two strands of Heidegger’s thought he contends are intimately, though not obviously connected. The introduction also provides a synopsis of the themes developed throughout the book and locates them in a wider systematic context.
The first part, “Phenomenology and Ontology” is in some sense negative as it consecutively disentangles the notions of phenomenology and ontology as well as metaphysics. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Keiling doesn’t proceed chronologically in his reading of Heidegger’s texts but aims to present a coherent argument drawing from sources after (and including) Being and Time. In §1 Keiling establishes Heidegger’s topological analysis of the “end of philosophy” as a meta-theory or “overview” (108) of philosophy, where the end of philosophy does not mean its dissolution but rather the point at which philosophy can look back on its history and uncover the historicity of ontology. Famously Heidegger holds that throughout the course of philosophical thought, being has been understood in different ways, where each specific way of understanding being, namely each ontology, constitutes an “epoch”; Descartes and Kant are prime examples of the epoch of the object or objectification, in which being is equal to being an object.
§2 accordingly contains a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of “epoch” and how it is related to Husserl’s notion of “epochê”. One result of the discussion is that while it is presupposed that different ontologies all conceptualise the same topic (being) or answer the same question in different ways, this assumption of a unitary common theme is in need of an argument without which “the unity of Being [across ontologies] remains speculative.” (123)
That issue leads Keiling to discuss different ways of posing the so-called “question of being” in §3. While what Heidegger calls the “guiding question” calls for a concrete, totalising answer of the form “being is …, therefore all beings are …”, which then constitutes an epoch in the history of being, the “basic question” opens up a pre-ontological, i.e. phenomenological discourse (137). Whenever we understand the question of being as a guiding question and accordingly supply an answer to it, we remain intra-epochal. Extra-epochal and therefore pre-ontological access to the appearance of things is possible only through the basic question, which does not require any answer in the sense of a concrete ontology but, reversely, makes it possible to translate different answers to the guiding question into a common language.
The relation between the basic question and phenomenological accounts of the subject matter of philosophy is the topic of §4. While earlier phenomenologists have simply predefined the “matter of thinking” (Sache des Denkens) by answering the guiding question, thus subscribing to a specific ontology, Heidegger leaves the matter of thinking open by posing the basic question. The basic question disallows philosophy to settle on any specific definition of being and it also prevents philosophy from any claims about being as a totality of beings. If we understand ontology as the business of defining being (or existence) and metaphysics as the effort to think the totality of being, the basic question uncouples philosophy from both ontology as well as metaphysics.
As Keiling writes in §5, phenomenology knows ontological totality only in the mode of questioning (179). This pre-ontological, pre-metaphysical stance turns out to be the expression or effect of a genuinely phenomenological freedom, namely the ability of bracketing ordinary thought (which Husserl achieves through the epochê) or stepping outside the history of being (an operation Heidegger calls the ‘step back’, Schritt zurück). As Keiling points out in §6, this step back is not “sigetic” (201), i.e. no lapse into mystical silence, but simply the stepping back from any ontological projection of an epochal understanding of being unto entities. The step back is the appropriate reaction to the basic question; it lets the open appear as condition of manifestation and within it the things qua things, yet it nevertheless structures this appearance propositionally (200), making it available to philosophical, though non-ontological, non-metaphysical discourse. This discourse is phenomenology, oriented towards the manifestation of things in an ontologically unprejudiced way; it reflects on and negates the bias induced by any epoch of the history of being to enable descriptions that are not ontologically naïve but allow for the ontological pluralism the history of being has established. In Heidegger’s terminology, the critical impact of phenomenology on ontology allows particulars to appear not as “objects” (Gegenstände) but as “things” (Dinge).
This progression from the end of philosophy through the reflection on the two ways the question of being might be conceived of, to a step back, can be construed in two different ways: first, it can be understood (macrologically) as the historical development of philosophy in general, Heidegger’s own philosophy in particular. Yet it can also serve as the (micrological) description of what needs to be done to de-ontologise any given discursive context: through the step back as radicalized epochê, the end of philosophy and the turn to phenomenological realism can be initiated at any moment within a philosophical conversation.
The second, positive part, “Phenomenological Realism”, constitutes a discussion of core issues of phenomenology, starting from a discussion of the canonical phenomenological understanding of the phenomenon in §7. Any appearance (phenomenon) is always of something, it contains presentational and representational elements, most importantly, according to Heidegger’s discussion in the introduction to Being and Time, it presupposes an identical point of reference to understand the very idea that a phenomenon can at first be covered (or not-yet-discovered, unentdeckt), then discovered (entdeckt) by phenomenology or covered over (verdeckt) again. The history of ontology is the history of the way the manifestation of things is covered over by different ontologies. These deliberations lead to a discussion about the nature of phenomenology itself in §8 where Keiling portrays Heidegger’s critique of thinking as representing (Vorstellen) in his reading of Hegel in “The Age of the World Picture” and post-war lectures. As opposed to Husserl, Hegel (according to Heidegger) loses both sight of the transcendence of the things qua things as well as his phenomenological freedom, due to his immanentism. Freedom for Hegel is just participation in or even just contemplation of the absolute process; this however is no the step back (269), but contains ontological determinations of the absolute, namely as of a will. Hegel therefore fails to achieve a proper phenomenological stance.
§9 then consists of a close reading of the end of Husserl’s Ideas I and “Mein Erlebnisstrom und Ich” from the Bernau Manuscripts. Keiling points out that things are paradigmatic objects even for Husserl; they are themselves Leitfäden for phenomenological investigations (314) and their dissolution into their constitutional levels impossible (316, 319). Husserl is himself a phenomenological realist in Keiling’s sense (309, 332). §10 sees Heidegger dealing with Kant as well as the late Heidegger dealing with the early Heidegger dealing with Kant. While the early interpretations lapse into (fundamental-)ontological reductionism, the later interpretations allow for a “pluriparadigmatic phenomenological ontology” (360). For, if “being is not a real predicate”, the reality of things can be discussed without a predefined ontology, including the temporal ontology of early Heidegger. The meaning of predicates is independent of a prior answer to the question of being. This raises the question of how such meaning is to be described. In §11, Keiling turns to language. It is in the variety of spoken and written language(s) that phenomenology finds a first freedom from ontological discourse (386). The experience of things itself is lingual and therefore open for hermeneutics; thus, Heidegger’s realism is hermeneutical realism (406). In light of this interpretation, Heidegger’s infamous linguistic speculations, rather than being absurd efforts at a form of mystical etymology, simply afford different ways of describing thing-ness (420).
The task of the third part, “A World of Things”, is to re-interpret three core-concepts of phenomenology from the perspective of phenomenological realism. Keiling accepts a realistic version of Husserlian horizonality in §12, according to which horizons belong primarily to the thing themselves, rather than our experience of them. Also, the horizonality of things is independent of any given ontology. Keiling identifies Husserl’s horizons with the late Heidegger’s topology and conceives of them as the place where experience takes place. Yet he sees Heidegger himself in danger of trying to reduce things to the metaphysical process of an unfolding of the “Gegnet” (438) or of truth. Similar concerns pertain to the notion of the world, voiced in §13, since Heidegger as well as Husserl stand to fall back into dogmatism or metaphysics when dealing with the world: either it is conceived of along the lines of subjectivist ontology (Husserl), the temporal ontology of Dasein (early Heidegger) or the ontology of the four-fold (late Heidegger). Against this reductionism, Keiling introduces Heidegger’s notion of “worlding” (das Welten) to describe the dynamic interplay of the horizons of things as opposed to the “world” as a unique, definite and static totality of things. In §14, Keiling then treats Heidegger’s topology in the same vain. While Heidegger himself tends to prioritise the spacing of space ontologically, thus degrading the appearance of the things to an “epiphenomenon” (462), Keiling argues that things remain “necessary descriptive factors [Beschreibungsgrößen]” (477) in all contexts of building, dwelling as well as thinking.
II. Central Issues
Throughout the dense and detailed study, two main themes emerge. The first revolves around phenomenology as meta-theory of ontology (a), the second concerns things as necessary descriptors (b).
a) As we have seen, phenomenological realism disentangles philosophy from ontology where ontology is identified as a way of answering the guiding question. Any such answer constitutes an epoch in the history of Being, but according to Keiling they necessarily fall prey to the “ontological circle” (35): starting from the question of Being, we choose one paradigmatic entity or a region of entities to start the investigation. We then – following the ontological difference – focus on the Being of this entity. Under the assumption that Being is Being no matter what entity we look at, we commit an act of “ontological generalisation” (33) through which we arrive at a dogmatic and overgeneralised account of what it means for all things to be. Since this account will break down in the face of entities that are very different from the one whose Being we have overgeneralised, we are forced to go back to raise the question of Being once again. As Keiling notes repeatedly (33, 81, 110, 129, 132), Heidegger himself falls prey to the logic of the ontological circle, firstly when he tries to establish a temporal ontology through his analysis of Dasein, as he simply overgeneralises the temporality of his chosen paradigmatic entity; secondly when he outlines his ontology of the fourfold.
Phenomenological realism avoids the ontological circle in two ways. It eschews overgeneralisation since it is not interested in providing a philosophical explanation of the totality of entities, and it does not try to give a definite answer to the guiding question. This is why, surprisingly, the absolute is still in play for phenomenological realism, although it does away with traditional ontology (and arguably metaphysics and even epistemology as well): the “un-thinged/un-conditioned (das Unbedingte)” (386) – as Kant puts it – is not something behind or above all entities, as onto-theology has it, but the reality of each thing itself. Taken this way, phenomenological realism remains a theory of the absolute, but not of the totality of entities.
This stance in turn enables phenomenology to investigate different totalising ontological claims from a non-internalist but also non-externalist viewpoint (288); it avoids the “encroachment of history” (379) on the appearance of things by simply focusing on how things appear in a given situation, without presupposing any specific ontological vocabulary. In this sense, phenomenological realism is still beholden to the idea of phenomenology as a descriptive rather than a speculative endeavour. For Keiling this also constitutes the difference between Speculative Realism as presented by Meillassoux and his own position developed in the reading of Heidegger, for while the speculative realist sees speculative realism as (just another, although) radical alternative to classical ontology, realist phenomenology can treat different ontologies as possible “patterns of descriptions” (64) of the appearance of things and integrate or reject them due to their respective descriptive plausibility. Phenomenological realism thus guards philosophy against empty speculation by tying all ontological theories back to the pre-ontological appearance of things. This is the central negative claim of phenomenological realism.
b) Things have thereby turned out to be meta-philosophically necessary descriptors: without reference to things as they appear we cannot judge any ontological effort. The main arguments for phenomenological realism proceed along similar (transcendental) lines, insofar as the reference to things and their appearances constitutes the condition of intelligibility for certain philosophical moves: “thingness is the focus of very different contexts” (397). This idea has at least two meanings: an intra-epochal sense and an extra-epochal sense.
Intra-epochal, the experience of things is the “condition of possibility of objectivity” (cf. 435). In things, space and time instantiate themselves. Also, units of validity (Geltung) can only be described if they are conceived of as based or centred around things of experience (210), which is why Husserl’s descriptions of the levels of the constitution of objects presuppose the appearance of the thing as the focal point of those very levels (319). In his reading of Husserl, Keiling goes as far as to state that only the reference to can stop the regress-problems surrounding the Ego (331). Even temporal (fundamental) ontology has to presuppose things in order to phenomenologically explicate different modes of Dasein (374), since things are always already present as that from which Dasein can understand itself authentically or inauthentically. Things are the starting point of most if not every ontological universalisation (376), as the ontological circle encompasses the move from a given thing, conceived of as an entity, towards its Being along the lines of the ontological difference.
Extra-epochal, epochs of Being can only be identified as different answers to the same question if the non-ontological phenomenology of the appearance of things is presupposed. For only the reference to things qua things allows to justify and differentiate ontological theories (336) as different descriptions of the very same things. They mediate phenomenological presence and representation as well as their shifts (397). The concept of the world can only be elucidated phenomenologically if things are presupposed (447). A real “why”-question is only possible for the phenomenological realist, since only the realist lets things appear before applying any given ontological framework (456); only the basic question allows to ask for a (final) ground of something without distorting the appearance of the thing in question.
The study primarily sets out to provide a comprehensive and systematic reinterpretation of the later writings of Heidegger. It achieves this admirably by developing the framework of phenomenological realism as a perspective that allows to read the texts of the later Heidegger as systematic efforts of understanding the appearance of things and its ontological-historical distortions. I will not engage in a comparison with competing readings, although these are discussed throughout the book. However, Keiling himself also locates phenomenological realism in regard to the “discussion about metaphysical and ontological realisms” (16) and therefore raises a claim to offer a systematic contribution to philosophy. As he argues in the introduction, any interpretation of philosophy at some point becomes a philosophical position that is itself susceptible to be checked against what it aims to describe. (5) So instead of engaging with the intricacies of Heidegger exegesis, I would like to conclude this review by pointing out one particularly pressing issue.
This issue is the identity of things. Supposedly things are “invariants of experience, the reference to which requires no identity-criteria” (52). But while it is true that in everyday life we do not need to know a sufficient and necessary set of attributes to reference a thing, Keiling himself points out that phenomenology needs to show that the things it deals with on a pre- or non-ontological level are the same as the objects of ontology (200). So, while it might sound intuitive to assume that one identical thing allows for very different appearances, how do we actually know that two phenomena are of the same thing? How do we know we can “carry over” a thing’s identity from one “explanatory and descriptive context to the next” if the “meaning of the thing” changes “radically” and different “truths” apply to it in different contexts (388)? Keiling seems to lean towards a foundationalist solution. With Heidegger, he stipulates a “definitive context of explication [maßgeblichen Explikationszusammenhang]” (388), a pure experience of things below all “epistemic paradigms” (388), i.e. an experience independent of ontological contamination. Since Keiling assumes with Heidegger that experience is in some sense tied to language (and language to things, 477), this pure experience cannot be conceived of as non-lingual, though it need not involve a strong notion of subjectivity. And as it is supposed to ground judgements about the descriptive quality of different ontologies (482), it should even be conceptual. Yet to substantiate these meta-philosophical claims of phenomenological realism, this foundational discourse needs to be fleshed out and put into critical use over and beyond what Keiling already presents in part 3 of his study.
To me this effort would include not only dealing with the issue of the identity of things, securing a foundation and showing how exactly it grounds judgements, but answering a few of the following questions. If phenomenological realism is not thing-fundamentalism, what other categories – apart from “thing”, “horizon”, “world”, “place” – could be in play in such foundational discourse? Is every thing embedded in a “universal horizon” (431) even in the weaker form of a ‘worlding’? Keiling himself notes that Heidegger’s descriptions are always threatened whenever he tries to establish the truth of universal processes without grounding his accounts in concrete phenomena (476), so the supposed universality of the world itself seems suspicious. Also, is the perspective of phenomenological realism available for all ontologies? Phrased differently: are all objects just things in ontological disguise? What about mathematical objects? Should we speak about mathematical things in opposition to mathematical objects? Or fictional things?
These remarks should not be understood as criticisms of Keiling’s book, since they go way beyond his main effort to re-read the later Heidegger. They rather show that to solve the problem of the identity of things and further develop phenomenological realism, we might need to turn to sources other than Heidegger. Keiling himself hints at the author whose work might be the most promising resource for phenomenological realism: Hans Blumenberg.
Hegel, Husserl and the Phenomenology of Historical Worlds by Tanja Staehler is an effort of integration between the phenomenological thinking of two of the most influential philosophers in the contemporary tradition: G.W.F. Hegel and Edmund Husserl. The author’s intention is to reframe a phenomenology of historical and cultural worlds by pursuing the potential of a mutual compenetration of the two German philosophers more than focusing on a static and sterile debate regarding what might make them two different thinkers. The main thesis here shows how Husserl’s phenomenology radicalizes Hegel’s by adding the character of infinite openness to the teleological development of historical Spirit, which afterwards will manifest itself as horizonally constituted. At the same time an Hegelian narrative applies to the entire “parabola” of Husserl’s thought, which the author describes as a progressive development from an abstract to a concrete phenomenology that finally emerges in his later studies and that, by an effort of recollection in the most Hegelian meaning, illustrates the phenomenological development with the motivations and explanations for his abstract beginning. Important to mention is how, within the tradition of Husserlian debate, Staehler takes the side of Derrida and Steinbock by defending the presence of a third phase in Husserl’s philosophy, alongside the static and the genetic, which she names historical. The three stages also serve as the methodological sections of the work.
Hegel and Husserl, in their different phenomenological traditions, both make clear that if philosophy wants to be recognized as a rigorous science it must be presuppositionless and thus, that a leap is required by consciousness in order to clarify what remains overshadowed by the immediacy (in Hegel) and naïveté (in Husserl) of our natural attitude toward the world. In this sense phenomenology takes the sceptical critique as its own starting standpoint by moving the focus of analyses from its directedness toward being, backward to the level of its appearance to consciousness. Scepticism then becomes a moment in the philosophical approach more than a simple school of thought (a point we credit to Hegel) and the very beginning of self-reflection. What for Hegel, however, is a thoroughgoing scepticism, simply “directed against the being of sense-certainty which takes its being as true as such,” and which points beyond the level of phenomena (although in a new mediate form), for Husserl the philosophical approach takes the shape of a refraining from positing the being in the world. We might say that while the teleological presupposition leads Hegel toward a pre-established pathway engaging in what the author calls a pedagogical dialectic between the natural attitude and philosophical consciousness, Husserl chooses the path to suspend the natural attitude itself and to assume a philosophy of a perpetual beginning. A difference in the perspective but not really in the ultimate goal, as the final idea is to have a rigorous discipline better able to disclose in a clearer way the interplay of the perception between the individual consciousness and the phenomenal world. Alongside the similarities and differences between Hegel and Husserl, Staehler lets us notice how a first problematic arises when we approach the beginning of philosophy in the form of a necessary sceptical attitude as it represents everything except a presuppositionless standpoint and which thus requires a given motivation and a contextual explanation. This is a question that remains open until the last part of the work where the encompassing Spirit (in Hegel) and the Lifeworld (in Husserl) will appear and will be able to give a context to the motivation by an effort of recollection.
Hegel describes the process that leads consciousness from the immediacy of sense-certainty to the understanding of itself as the one very constitutive agent of the perceptual activity in the first three chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit. The possibility of self-certainty is triggered by a tension between the unity of the object and the multiplicity of its properties which leaves us the feeling of a phenomenal world characterized by an ungraspable double nature. However, as the author underlines, that uncanniness is only given as a consequence of a static point of view and that when a dynamic perspective is taken the contradiction is solved. The concept of force is probably the best image to show how the coexistence of unity and its unfolding multiplicity is easily graspable when framed within a process-oriented approach. Staehler sees here a common pattern with the Husserlian image of the apple tree and the changing of its determinations in the persistence of an identical bearer. Important to notice is how the possibility of the synthesis of the manifold of the modes of givenness into a phanto-matic unity is possible only by the mediation of time which in Husserl is constituted at the level of inner consciousness. From a static and descriptive methodology the analysis here starts to move slightly to a genetic and constitutive approach. However, while a dynamic-oriented philosophy might represent the possibility of a parallelism between the two philosophers, a basic difference between them remains in the attitude toward the nature of the unity beyond the phenomena. If Hegel, carried by his teleological impetus, does not show any refraining from positing the identity of the object, for Husserl its possibility can be given only when all its modes of appearance are taken into account, a possibility that lies in the infinite. As the author says, “the goal of the perceptual process thus cannot be the adequate givenness of the object, but the closer determination of the thing in the process itself.”
The fact that the absolute identity of the object might be attainable only by an ideal and infinite perspective does not mean that Husserl denies the possibility of knowledge. The author is clear on that point when she frames both philosophers in what she calls an idealistic realism. The tension between unity and manifold is a tension between the focus of the natural attitude on the identity of the phenomena and the relativity of kinaesthetic, individual and cultural horizons while the role of phenomenology is the achievement of a more balanced perspective. Objectivity in Husserl is always partial but anyway possible and progressively enriched not only at the level of internal consciousness but even through communication with others. The analysis on identity and differences (in Hegel) and unity and manifold (in Husserl) begins to show the emergence of the main thesis of this work, namely how the character of openness of Husserl’s phenomenology might radicalize Hegel’s historical development. In order to proceed to this new stage of analysis, however, it is necessary to enter into the debate regarding the interpretation of Husserl’s phenomenology which, following Staehler, has been often too quickly enclosed in an idealistic framework as a consequence of misunderstanding the Husserlian concept of solipsism. The genetic approach, especially the one developed in Ideas and Cartesian Meditations, actually poses the possibility of the otherness of the other and it establishes the basis for what the author calls the historical Husserl. Solipsism, from her point of view, is not to be interpreted in the classical way but as a phenomenological reduction, exactly as the concept of the epoché, in order to clarify the how of the possibility of otherness. At the end of the genetic phase it eventually “becomes accessible in its inaccessibility” allowing the possibility of the foundation of the realm of intersubjectivity to be posed.
Hegel describes the development of the social and cultural world in the fourth chapter of his Phenomenology of Spirit where the master and slave dialectic and the struggle for recognition are introduced. The contradiction is eventually resolved in a typical Hegelian movement by a process of sublation by which the two forces find a balance within a new encompassing level, allowing Spirit to emerge. One of the last chapters of the work is dedicated to the Hegelian interpretation of the Antigone where the dialectical process is again described at the level of an ethical development. Far from psychologizing the characters, Hegel is more interested in the invariant pattern that Antigone and Creon carry on. In the struggle between the divine law and the political law an impasse is reached where neither of the two loses or wins. A reconciliation is only possible at an encompassing level, where the two compenetrate each other. This is expressed by the Chorus. Nothing similar appears in Husserl’s phenomenology of intersubjectivity, which never thematizes the Lifeworld as encompassing realm. Staehler states however that Husserl in his later studies, specifically the ones figuring into the Crisis, shows a plexus of phenomenological approaches which stand apart from the transcendental-psychological way opened by the epoché and by which an ontology of a Lifeworld is posited. The concept of the crisis is openly disclosed and serves as a catalyst in a recollection of the entirety of Husserl’s philosophy.
European man in Husserl’s terms lives in a contextual crisis that is rooted in the forgetfulness of the subject and of the Lifeworld, which are overshadowed by objective and scientific thinking. The role of philosophy is to find again a balance by the re-establishment of the subject as a real active agent of history. The role of phenomenology and its motivation, which were left suspended at the beginning of the work, are now finally explained. If the psychological-transcendental way, following the author’s analyses, leads us to the threshold of the ontology, the ontological way by historical reflection shows us the necessity for a better understanding of our inner consciousness. The recovery of the active role of subjectivity and intersubjectivity allows Husserl to move from history as a pure objective science of facts to what he calls ideal-history and toward a more horizonal and culturally-constituted historical development.
Cultural worlds are described by the author as a plexus of products, norms and values and also as “a world of custom, laws and regulations which the individual needs to consider.” They manifest themselves with the double nature of being established (stiftung), re-established and changed by man but at the same time at work as contextual constraints. There is a kind of Hegelian process in this circularity of an endless creation of new institutions and their establishment as new habitualized norms. The modern crisis can be seen as a consequence of the scientific attitude which eventually led to the forgetting of the primordial philosophy of the Greeks. The possibility of “re-inventing” history makes clear how there is an inner teleology at work in the Husserlian ideal-history. Goals conceived as norms and values are continuously posited anew thus offering the possibility of an open historical development in contrast with the Hegelian absolute teleology.
Staehler’s work gives so many causes for reflection that it is really difficult to give a complete account of it. It is worth mentioning that her insight on the phenomenology of historical and cultural worlds is not reduced to the simple encounter between Hegel and Husserl’s phenomenology. Other authors are discussed. The concept of event by Derrida for example and Levinas’s idea of an ungraspable future as something Other in regard to the Sameness of the intentional consciousness introduce a more radicalized character of nonlinearity to the historical development. More, a postscript is entirely dedicated to Heidegger’s primacy of moods and Merleau-Ponty’s concept of reversibility and ambiguity in the dialectical process. Not to mention Eugen Fink’s different approach on the motivation for the beginning of philosophy.
How could a review of a commentary of Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis), be construed as anything other than a twice-removed betrayal of the intent of the original writing? To the uninitiated reader, this question, which would be clear to one acquainted with the work, requires some background explanation.
The publication of the Beiträge in 1989, fifty-three years after its writing, and the subsequent first translation into English, by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly in 1990, brought much controversy, and responses ranging from contemptuous ridicule as gibberish nonsense, to laudatory praise as Heidegger’s second magnum opus. Even among dedicated Heidegger scholars, the responses to these apparently fragmentary, obscure, and difficult writings veered from scorn to intrigue. Consequently, the last two and a half decades have also produced a number of how-to-read guides, interpretations, and companions-to. The controversy also gave rise to the perceived need for an alternative translation in 2012 by Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu. The book reviewed here, Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis), by George Kovacs, enters this fraught field.
Kovacs’ book belongs firmly in the camp that believes the Beiträge to be Heidegger’s second great work. To state my own position, before reviewing the book, I would affirm that I not only agree with Kovacs as to the importance of the work, but that I am tempted to go further and say that I believe, despite the inevitable unevenness of its success, that in its intent, in its philosophical gesture, and in the magnitude of its epochal sweep, the Beiträge is a more important moment in Heidegger’s work than Being and Time, which I understand as a mere prelude to the later work.
The problem of this review is the same problem of Kovacs’ book, and the problem of the Beiträge itself. Heidegger’s book, which he never thought of as a book, and which he consequently assiduously refrained from publishing in his lifetime, was not meant to be, “about something and representing something objective”, but rather attempted to enact a saying which “does not describe or explain, does not proclaim or teach…does not stand over against what is said…rather the saying itself is the ‘to be said’” (Heidegger 1999, 4). As such, the Beiträge is performative in its intent. It is not a series of assertions aimed at a correct correlation, description or analysis of a state of affairs, but the production of “being-historical-thinking”, of the event of the bringing forth of that which it says as it says it; and as such, it should be used as a directive towards an enjoinment to further action.
To be brief, Heidegger realised that Being and Time had only managed to outline the problem of the need for a new approach to the asking of the question of Being, which would require the “necessity of transforming our orientation of questioning, which entails our entering into this fundamental occurrence”. (Heidegger 1995, 360-361). Heidegger found that as soon as he began to talk about Being, he was no longer in Being, that the access to or participation in Being had become obscured by the mode of questioning, and in the consequent objectification, had become construed merely as a being, another being, rather than Being itself. This is the problem of ontological difference, between beings and Being. To approach Being in itself, it was necessary to find a new way of questioning; a new way of thinking which would escape the representational mode of Western metaphysics, grounded in its epistemology of subject and object, and guaranteed in assertions which could be assessed as more or less true or false. In a sense, Heidegger’s task would necessitate speaking forth Being from within. This, in his estimation, would require a complete revision of the concepts of truth, thinking, and knowing, and a radical new approach to language, which he attempts in the Beiträge, and which has led to the decades of controversy since its publication in 1989.
So, the question is whether the work of a book on the Beiträge should be assessed on how it attempts to interpret or clarify the meaning of Heidegger’s work, or whether it should ultimately be judged on what it does, how it takes up the “directive” (Heidegger 1999, 4), of the former work, and contributes to opening the way of thought that the Beiträge demands. If the latter were to be the case, the measure of Kovacs book would need to be assessed in terms of what it contributes to the possibility of the proposed rethinking. How does it move Heidegger’s project forward?
Before addressing Kovacs’ contribution, I would note that there are a number of fine commentaries on the Beiträge, most notably: Daniela Vallega-Neu’s Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: An Introduction (Vallega-Neu 2003); Richard Polt’s The Emergency of Being; On Heidegger’s ‘Contributions to Philosophy (Polt 2006); Parvis Emad’s On the Way to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Emad 2007); and Companion to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Scott et al. 2001) , edited by Charles E. Scott, Susan Schoenbohm, Daniela Vallega-Neu, and Alejandro Vallega. These works have undeniably added clarity to the wider understanding of Heidegger’s intention in the Beiträge, and rendered its accomplishments available to a wider audience, but they remain commentaries and guides to the understanding of the work.
Kovacs, on the other hand, seeks to take up Heidegger’s directive, acknowledging “that it would be a mistake to simply reconceptualise and resystematize Heidegger’s insights, the open and free play of moves and ventures of his journey of thought” (Kovacs 2015, 67). Rather, he seeks to think “through and with” Heidegger’s work, taking a “’step back’ from the closure of metaphysics at the center of the philosophical tradition…and ‘step into’ the thinking of Be-ing as enowning from the closure of metaphysics” (67). For an avid reader of the Beiträge, this is an exciting prospect, and one that Kovacs’ book fulfils amply.
A primary value of Kovacs’ book is in the regathering of the main concepts and movements which are dispersed, repeated, varied, and counterpointed throughout the fugal structure of the Beiträge. Kovacs piles them up, rearranges them, and takes them to places Heidegger had not ventured. His emphasis, pertinent to the intent of the original work, is on what Heidegger is attempting to do, or more accurately, to prepare for what needs to be done to make the leap the new beginning of thinking. Rather than a secondary interpretation, this book, at its best, is an effective and illuminating activation of Heidegger’s intention.
An example of Kovacs picking up Heidegger’s intimations to open new ways into thinking the leap beyond metaphysics, can be found in the link between questioning and believing in a relationship of faith (116). One of the more provocative aspects of the Beiträge and other works by Heidegger in this period, is the redefinition of truth, not as correspondence or certainty, but as Being coming into its ownmost through the process of Be-ing. The definition of faith is rethought, from within the Turning (Die Kehre), the moment of its coming forth. Faith is defined through its relationship with knowing. From within its ownmost, knowing is understood in terms of enowning, one of the shades of meaning of ereignis, (in everyday German, event) as the play of coming into its own and withdrawing. Thus, the understanding of faith becomes holding for true what is completely withdrawn from any knowing (117). To understand this, the reader must have a familiarity with Heideggerian expressions such as “withdrawal”, “turning”, “enowning”, and “what is ownmost to truth”. Moreover, it is necessary to become accustomed to dwelling with radical redefinitions of everyday taken-for-granted terms such as “knowing”. The Beiträge requires a long slow apprenticeship and a patient stillness of thinking. Kovacs takes this course in his analysis of faith. To the uninitiated reader, the language of Kovacs’ book appears as repetitive, murky and apparently incomprehensible as Heidegger’s own. In a review of this length it is impossible to offer sufficient detail to the multiplicity of neologisms, redefinitions, and connotational complexity in this phase of Heidegger’s writings. To understand these concepts requires an attunement with the thinking of the Beiträge itself. Kovacs dwells in the relationships and definitions with the steady tread of someone who has spent time in the stilling silence demanded by this path of thinking.
The renovated idea of truth mentioned above relies on a rethinking of the relationship of language and Be-ing, in which truth is no longer about holding something for true, but of holding oneself in the truth. In the final chapter, “The Thinking of Being and Language”, Kovacs takes Heidegger’s observations on the need for a language of Be-ing which differs from the everyday “language of beings, from utilitarian, instrumentalized, machinational language”; and which also, more importantly, addresses the “need for restoring the full saying-power to language (416). Kovacs begins with the observation that “the thinker of Be-ing itself…runs up against the boundaries of the language of beings, of the system of metaphysics”, and finds himself with the question: “Is it possible to say ‘something’ of the unsayable. Of that which is not ‘something’ at all?” (413).
Kovacs claims to enact Heidegger’s understanding of language as the site of “the shock, the powerful shift in understanding of the ‘to be’”, which constitutes a “‘leaping into the essential unfolding of Be-ing’ in such a way that Be-ing itself unfolds its essential power as en-owning”, (Heidegger, cited in Kovacs 2015, 82). This occurs because, in the Beiträge, language is figured not as a semiotic or representational enterprise, but rather as the means of attunement of the thinker to Be-ing. “The human being, as speaking and thinking being, is ‘guardian…of the truth of Be-ing’, and both language and human being ‘belong equally originarily to Be-ing’”; thus, human being is “‘essential’ for determining what is ownmost to language’”.. (Heidegger, cited in Kovacs 2015, 451). “In Language…Being is coming to word; thinking listening to the voice of Be-ing” (Heidegger, cited in Kovacs 2015, 452).
This relation of human being, language, and Be-ing is central to the Beiträge, and central to the task of taking up the directives of the Beiträge. By entering the relation between human, language, and Be-ing, the thinker participates in the coming forth of Be-ing, rather than staying in the metaphysical representational function of language. Heidegger calls this enthinking, enowning, inceptual thinking. Kovacs seeks to enter this mode of thinking-saying-writing. According to Kovacs, the speaker here enters “the inner dynamics and the range of the saying, disclosing potential of language” and its “capacity to say the unsayable”. The key to this enterprise is the hermeneutic temporality of the human and language belonging “equally originarily” to Be-ing. (452).
At this moment of equal originariness, “knowing, i.e. what is ownmost to truth, is the clearing opening for the self-sheltering concealing of Be-ing. Knowing awareness is the holding oneself in this clearing” (117). This is the temporality of participation in the presencing of the moment of the coming forth, rather than the depicting of a past which has already occurred. This temporality allows a knowing, a truth, which is “not a mere representation of an encounter but a persevering within the breakthrough of a projected opening, which through enopening comes to know the very Abgrund that sustains it” (Heidegger 1999, 258).
For the purposes of my own sojourn with the thinking of the Beiträge, Kovacs’ venture into the question of the Abgrund, in “Chapter II, Rethinking Thinking”, takes me further into being underway than any previous account I have read. The most important moment, for me, in this section, is the relationship between questioning and the Abgrund. If one is in questioning, then one is not in certainty, one is in that which is withdrawing, the unknown. And then, to stay in the unknown, to stay in the questioning, to stay in that which is withdrawing, is to hold fast to what is ownmost to truth, the play of concealment and disclosure. Because questioning is precisely not knowing with certainty, but finding a way to dwell in the slow craft of that which is ownmost to thinking, the aforementioned clearing opening for the self-sheltering concealing.
Finding home, abiding, and thus truly being there in the course or movement (lived experience) of questioning, as Heidegger’s Beiträge and his other texts teach the attentive, listening reader, steak (sic) out the range and sense of direction, the worth and power (the ways and craft) of thinking, of essential, being-historical, and more and more mindful thinking (Kovacs 2015, 100)
Here, the sense of Kovacs’ appropriation of Heidegger’s concepts and use of language comes to life in taking up his own abode in thinking, to hear, respond, and listen to that which “calls us to think” (Kovacs 2015, 97). In this, I find clear evidence that, for me, as a baffled, hesitant, mostly silent wanderer on the path of thinking, Kovacs’ book succeeds in Heidegger’s task of the foray into the participation of the coming forth of the enowning and the preparation for the transition from metaphysical speculation to being-historical thinking. This is the great worth and excitement. of Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis).
Emad, Parvis. 2007. On the Way to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: University of Wisconsin Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill, Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1999. Contributions to Philosophy: (From Enowning). Translated by P. Emad and K. Maly, Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Kovacs, George. 2015. Thinking and Be-ing in Heidegger’s Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis). Bucharest: Zeta Books.
Polt, Richard F. H. 2006. The Emergency of Being : On Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Scott, Charles E., Susan Schoenbohm, Daniela Vallega-Neu, and Alejandro Vallega. 2001. Companion to Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy, Studies in Continental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Vallega-Neu, Daniela. 2003. Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy: An Introduction, Studies in Continental thought. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential figures in 20th century philosophy but also both a member of the National Socialist party and a committed antisemite. That such a controversy would generate a substantial amount of scholarship is not surprising, and yet Mahon O’Brien’s Heidegger, History and the Holocaust attempts to break the trends of the usual works that deal with this highly contentious issue. In O’Brien’s view, the controversy surrounding Heidegger’s philosophy is an emotionally charged debate that fails to truly get to grips with the content of Heidegger’s philosophy. This philosophy is one that he justifiably finds ‘profound’ (4), and yet he has no delusions regarding whether Heidegger was a Nazi or antisemitic. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of taking sides in the debate which in the process eclipses the critical engagement necessary to understand the nature of Heidegger’s commitments to National Socialism and his antisemitism, and the implication of this for his thinking. It is precisely this trap that Heidegger, History and the Holocaust sets out to avoid. In the discussion that follows, however, there are other traps that O’Brien leaves himself vulnerable to.
In the first chapter, ‘Re-assessing the “Affair”’, O’Brien reviews some of the scholarship surrounding Heidegger’s political affiliations in order to explore how the controversy has unfolded. He argues that those who want to dismiss Heidegger’s philosophy on account of his political affiliations (the assumption being that it is intrinsically fascist) betray a kind of ‘victor’s morality’ (12), where the everyday, banal evils and the more overt evils of both the allies and our contemporary world are ignored. O’Brien’s reminder to step back from our own historical world and draw attention to the evils we regularly participate in is not meant to condone the horrific and abysmal acts of the Holocaust. That is, the repugnancy of Nazism is beyond dispute, but O’Brien is pointing out that the people who fought against them were not ‘faultless paragons of virtue’ either (13). This position does risk diminishing the specific horror of the Holocaust, but it is utilized by O’Brien to take on scholars such as Zimmerman who argue that the Holocaust was a singular event belonging to the Germans. On the contrary, O’Brien claims that the Holocaust is a horrific but complex story that extends beyond the borders of Germany. Framing the debate in this way, he is given cause to defend one of the only statements by Heidegger on the Holocaust:
Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving or countries. The same as the production of hydrogen bombs. (as quoted on p. 24)
Dubbed the ‘agriculture remark’, this statement has generated much controversy due to its suggestion that the horrors of the Holocaust are no different than the horrors of the mechanized food industry. This passage, written in context of Heidegger’s confrontation with the essence of technology, is the basis of O’Brien’s second chapter, ‘The Essence of Technology and the Holocaust’. On the surface, it appears as a highly insensitive claim that suggests a lack of remorse for the victims of the Holocaust. On the contrary, however, O’Brien believes that Heidegger’s work on technology should be ‘interpreted as a robust confrontation with the Holocaust’ (23). His strategy here hinges on drawing attention to Heidegger’s use of the word ‘essence’. For the claim that agriculture, the hydrogen bomb, and the Holocaust are the same ‘in essence’ is very different than saying they are identical, morally or otherwise. For Heidegger, the essence of something is ‘what holds sway within it such that it appears as what it is’ (39). This essence, for Heidegger is Gestell, or ‘enframing’, the technological deployment of the meaning of being into which we in the contemporary world are ‘thrown’. That is, Heidegger is trying to tell us something about the way in which things appear for us in our given historical epoch. Thrown into a world of Gestell, humanity succumbs to seeing things as ‘standing reserves’, that is, things (and people) are ‘revealed’ in relation to how efficient and optimized they are for our use. Hence, the specific way in which phenomena in our contemporary world is generally understood—or ‘revealed’ in Heidegger’s language—lends itself to the production of the atom bomb, the mechanized food industry, and, at its worst, atrocities such as the Holocaust.
O’Brien does not only draw from Heidegger, however, but also explores some of the memoirs of Nazi officials. In doing so, we witness the way in which the Jewish people were interpreted by the Nazis as pests to be exterminated. As O’Brien points out, the phrase the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ is particularly telling. This chilling phrasing expresses how ‘the inmates at the camp were revealed […] as practical, logistical problems that could be approached as one would approach an infestation of rodents or vermin within a factory’ (33) . The Heideggerian warning is that in the age of the technological dispensation of being this way of seeing lends itself to the horrors that occurred in Auschwitz. It is O’Brien’s contention that by viewing the Holocaust as a singular event specific to the German people we miss this sinister occurrence of truth that Heidegger diagnoses as part and parcel of our historical world. He thus presents the case that far from being dismissive of the horrific treatment of the marginalized in Nazi Germany, Heidegger offers us an analysis that may not only aid us in preventing the reoccurrence of something so morally repugnant, but also give us the tools to properly resist alternate expressions of its essence in our own time.
For my own part, nonetheless, although O’Brien’s efforts to show the relevance of Heidegger’s diagnoses is thought provoking, the existential gap between a philosophical analysis of essence and the lived suffering of those who were subject to the atrocities of the Nazi regime seems problematic. As I discuss in a footnote above, even the language of ‘reveal’ [zeigen] could serve to further de-humanize the marginalized and eclipse the responsibility of those involved in the atrocities that occurred in the Nazi regime. This, of course, raises the issue of Heidegger’s silence, his refusal to offer a public apology for his support of the regime. O’Brien’s solution to this is to draw our attention to the ‘lose-lose’ (19) situation Heidegger was in. A public apology would be an admission of guilt, which in turn would eclipse the far greater danger Heidegger wanted to warn us of. Perhaps this is a moment where our commitments to an idea can cause one to lose sight of the concrete and particular suffering in the lived experience of an individual. O’Brien’s later discussion of Heidegger’s rather unfavourable character might testify to this lack of empathy (117-124).
Chapter three moves to examine the charge against Heidegger of being a dangerous ideologue, given that critical scholarship often dismisses him on the assumption that he is just another member of the German Conservative Revolutionary Movement. Here O’Brien concedes that Heidegger does borrow some of the ‘motifs’ and ‘symbolism’ (71) of his contemporaries, such as Spengler and Jünger, but he makes a convincing case that philosophically Heidegger is far removed from the reductive and simplistic, and often dangerously racist, views of these intellectual counterparts. Here, we are reminded that identity of terms is not the same as identity in concepts, that is, that just because both Jünger and Heidegger are concerned with the role of technology in our age this does not mean that philosophically their reasons and solutions to this concern are the same. At times, however, I am left wanting for greater critical engagement with why Heidegger chose to express his philosophy through the language of the ideologues of his time, and the significance of this for a thinking which differs philosophically. O’Brien spends the first part of the chapter exploring the criticisms of the likes of Adorno, Bordieu and Zimmerman, showing in what way their issues with Heidegger’s conservatism fail to miss the content and significance of his philosophy. Having done so, O’Brien is free to move on to address some of the problems he sees in Heidegger’s conservatism, for he is aware that there are ‘genuine flaws’ in this ‘onslaught against modernity’ (48).
There is a great surprise lurking in this next part of the chapter. With its strong criticism of ‘will’, it is easy to assume that Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit is born out of his attempts to come to terms with what went wrong during the National Socialist regime in Germany. This concept is also born out of Heidegger attempts to confront the technological view of the meaning of being, and so offers us a potential way out of the force of its Gestell. O’Brien points out, however, that even as late as the 1950s this concept is entrenched in Heidegger’s idea of the ‘authentic rootedness of the people’ (72). Although the case might not be so evident by 1950, in the 30s it is clear that this idea of rootedness had ethnic ramifications, and given that the Black Notebooks show that Heidegger saw the Jewish people as the acme of a calculative thinking and this as a loss of the rootedness in the earth, the seemingly progressive notion of Gelassenheit becomes shrouded in doubt.
In the next chapter, ‘The Authentic Dasein of a People’, O’Brien returns to the roots of Heidegger’s notion of rootedness (Bodenständigkeit) through his analysis of the authentic community in Being and Time. Described as a ‘hornet’s nest’ (77), the author argues that the undeniably racist implications of Heidegger’s understanding of an authentic community rely on a number of arbitrary moves in his thinking. That is, O’Brien makes the case that Heidegger’s shameful prejudices are at odds with his own philosophy. Drawing our attention to Heidegger’s discussion of authentic community in Being and Time, O’Brien argues that in the notions of ‘leaping-in’ and ‘leaping-ahead’ (79) there is the potential for the development in Heidegger’s thought toward the recognition of the universal condition of finitude that is taken up in the particular historical situation one is thrown into. The inauthentic ‘leaping-in’ that Heidegger understands as the customary way we interact with others denies them the recognition of their finitude, whereas ‘leaping-ahead’ allows both individuals to be who they are (as finite beings toward death) in relation to the project at hand. Of course, my use of the word ‘individual’ here is problematic for this discussion rests on Heidegger’s conception of the human being as Dasein, a being which is primarily related to its self, world and others. As far as Heidegger is concerned Dasein is not an individual at all precisely because it is not indivisible from the historical situation it is thrown into and the others it shares this with, until, of course, it faces its finitude in the experience of anxiety-toward-its-own-death. Nonetheless, O’Brien exploits a strange ambiguity in Heidegger’s description of the social constitution of Dasein, where Heidegger rather bizarrely tries to argue that despite this primary social constitution Dasein is also ‘in the first instance’ unrelated to others (80). O’Brien contends that it is this ambiguity in Being and Time that allows Heidegger’s thought go awry in the 1930s. This is because in Being and Time Heidegger ends up, in some fashion at least, privileging the individual that he at the same time shows to be phenomenologically inappropriate. When his understanding of Dasein in the 30s becomes the Dasein of the nation, this privileging of the individual gets taken up as a privileging of a particular nation. Conveniently, this nation is the German one. Heidegger now thinks that Europe lies between the ‘pincers’ of Russia and America, and it is up to the Germans to save it, through a ‘repeat’ and ‘retrieve’ [Wiederholen] of the ‘historical-spiritual Dasein’, a task for the preserve of the Germans as the most metaphysical of people (85-87). Heidegger’s racism is thus not biological but spiritual, and one that O’Brien contends denies the implications in Heidegger’s thought of the shared history I have with others in my ‘cultural and intellectual milieu’ (88), a notion that an appropriate understanding of ‘leaping-ahead’ would have made apparent. Why are the Jewish people of the German nation denied their part in the historical-spiritual destiny of the German people?
O’Brien’s last chapter turns to Heidegger’s racism, and although the author’s use of the poetry of Kavanagh and Heaney gives rise to some of my favourite moments in this short work, it also seems to be the book’s most problematic chapter. It deals with a number of key seminars and works from the 1930s such as Nature, History, State and the Origin of the Work of Art. Major problems lurk in Nature, History, State, where Heidegger begins to conceive of historical Dasein as a Volk, thought of in terms of ‘mastery, rank, leadership and following’, where a Volk proper is only so in relation to the state (102/103). The ambiguity that O’Brien notices in Heidegger’s thought makes a return, however, for Heidegger also points out that wherever humans go we root ourselves in the soil. As such, the spiritual-ethnic chauvinism of Heidegger seems to briefly lift itself. Heidegger has always favoured the provincial, and through drawing on the poetry of Heaney and Kavanagh O’Brien offers a compelling case for why this provincialism is not necessarily problematic. He sees in Heaney, for example, an expression of the worlding of the world through a relationship with the earth that Heidegger explores in On the Origin of the Work of Art. These poets explore this tension between the universal and the particular, but give us the means of realizing that through our particular, historical and concrete struggles we are connected to all human beings as others who are thrown into the world and projected toward their end. This is of course the same latent possibility that O’Brien sees in Heidegger’s thought, but because of Heidegger’s insistence of the primacy of the particular over the universal O’Brien believes Heidegger’s thought went astray. People may indeed root themselves wherever they go, but in Heidegger’s account it is those rooted in German soil that are superior. The universal dimension that O’Brien finds in Heaney and Kavanagh is denied in Heidegger’s account of the artwork also, as the artwork is a purely regionally specific occurrence. Given that the work of art allows meaning and truth to emerge for Heidegger, O’Brien asks what the implications are ‘for a people [in this instance, the Jewish people] who are [according to Heidegger] worldless and without history?’ (112) O’Brien does not answer this question, but the implications are obvious and distressing.
Nonetheless, I am left wondering why the implications of this are not discussed in greater detail. Furthermore, there are some troubling moments where it is suggested that Heidegger’s friendship with other Jewish people at least somewhat obscures his commitments to his antisemitism (121, 132). Of course, dealing with antisemitism, particularly in such an important thinker, is a sensitive and difficult topic. O’Brien’s work is an important contribution to the growing debate around Heidegger’s political and ideological sympathies. However, perhaps O’Brien’s commitments to the resources in Heidegger’s thought that for O’Brien deny racism cause him to underplay at times the devastating role that Heidegger’s racism wreaks on this thinking. For, although Heidegger’s philosophy might on the one hand suggest that we should never deny someone their essence as a thrown projector, this is nonetheless precisely what he ends up denying the Jewish people. We may dismiss this as a personal prejudice that can be separated from his thinking, but this becomes increasingly difficult when, for example, passages of the Black Notebooks claim that ‘World Jewery’ is ‘grounded’ in the very calculative thinking and ensuing worldlessness that Heidegger’s notion of Gelassenheit attempts to resist. Furthermore, given that O’Brien does a good job of unearthing Heidegger’s specific form of antisemitism, I am left unconvinced that this ‘spiritual’ racism is indicative of the ‘garden variety’ racism (132) that O’Brien charges him with at the end of this work precisely because such a version of racism would seem to be more deeply rooted than the version of biological racism that was more prevalent at the time. That is, Heidegger does not dismiss the Jewish biology as defective as many who bought into the Nazi ideology of the time believed, but instead denies the Jewish person their Dasein. This problematizes one of the central tenets of O’Brien’s case—that Dasein is a universal condition of being human. For this is precisely what Heidegger denies in various works of the 1930’s, such as the Contributions to Philosophy. Here, Dasein is understood as a condition that we must ‘leap’ into, and we now know from the Black Notebooks that this is a possibility that for Heidegger is unavailable to the Jewish people. The troubling implications of this is not brought to the level of critical scrutiny that O’Brien shows himself capable of at other moments in this work. The sentiment that we are left with, however, is that through a proper and critical engagement with his thinking we are not de facto led to a racist ideology, although there is no doubt that Heidegger himself insists that his philosophy and politics are intertwined at some fundamental level. Thus, O’Brien’s study successfully makes the case that Heidegger’s attempt to reconcile the two is problematic.
We must not forget, however, that despite the problems in doing so Heidegger did try to reconcile the two. We can, if we wish, dismiss this aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy, but it is nonetheless a part of its legacy. I welcome O’Brien’s attempt toward a reconstruction of Heidegger’s philosophy. His project, one of critically engaging Heideggerian discourse through delicacy, warranted suspicion, but a certain amount of good will, is bound to bear fruit for Heideggerian scholarship. But I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that despite setting out to do otherwise there is an attempt in this work to find a sanitized Heidegger, as if his revolting prejudices can be weeded out of his philosophy. There is only one Heidegger, and his philosophy will (and should) continue to inspire, provoke, and propel thinking. But the man himself was an ethnic chauvinist and an antisemite, and his attempts to reconcile his philosophy with his prejudices have stained the possibilities of his thought.
His emphasis. It is important to note that ‘revealed’ is not meant to invoke some sort of ‘true’ (in the usual sense of the term) reality coming to appearance, but simply the way in which the appearance is at a given time. In this view, the appearance gets its stability from a given historical movement of ‘truth’ (in Heidegger’s sense of the term), but this truth is not guaranteed or grounded by any transcendent source, such as a God, for example. As such, to say the Jewish people were ‘revealed’ as ‘pests to be exterminated’ is not meant to suggest that this revealing shows anything intrinsic (or truthful, in the usual sense of the term) about Jewishness. Instead, it is meant to suggest something highly problematic about the way in which the world reveals itself to us in our contemporary historical world, where things ‘show up’ as ‘standing reserves’ to be made efficient and optimized. Although phenomenologically justifiable, that the language used to express this (i.e. how the world ‘reveals’ itself) could be utilized to avoid responsibility is not brought under critical scrutiny in this work. That is, Heidegger, or O’Brien’s defence of his position here, has the potential to be used to justify the atrocities of the Nazi regime by arguing that it was simply the way the world was revealed to them at the time and, as such, one bears little responsibility for the horrors committed. Although this is certainly not what O’Brien intends it is a problematic worth drawing attention to.
O’Brien’s discussion in a later chapter of Heidegger’s appropriation of the term Volk touches on this problem somewhat (98-105).
In the first of these instances, O’Brien is quoting Hugo Ott. The second is his own, but afterwards he concedes ‘And yet […] he once insisted that there was indeed a dangerous international alliance of Jews, a belief which he expresses again in his notebooks from the 1930s.’ Although both these instances are not central to his argument, it is a dangerous and distasteful defence to bring into play.
Cf., for example, GA 95: 97 (Überlegungen VIII, 5), trans. by Richard Polt in ‘References to Jews and Judaism in Martin Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, 1938-1948’, available at https://www.academia.edu/11943010/References_to_Jews_and_Judaism_in_Martin_Heidegger_s_Black_Notebooks_1938-1948 [last accessed 05/04/2017 at 15:39].
One assumes that what O’Brien means by this is that Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his ‘garden-variety’ racism with his philosophy, one that could not so easily accept the prevalent ‘blood and soil’ ideology at the time, causes him to develop the ‘spiritual racism’ in his thinking that O’Brien does a decent job of unearthing. The problem is that this spiritual racism seems to me to be a far more profound and dangerous form of antisemitism than the more prevalent form of its time, and it is precisely the intellectuals of the era that gave credence to the horrific and base forms of prejudice (leading to the Holocaust) that were occurring, whether their versions of antisemitism or otherwise were aptly understood by the populace. As such, to dismiss Heidegger’s antisemitism as simply a ‘garden-variety’ gone astray comes too close to a Heideggerian apologetics for my taste. If we then accept that the version of antisemitism that Heidegger seems to have developed is deeply troubling, and perhaps more so than other variations of antisemitism, then an earlier defence O’Brien offers, that Heidegger criticized the philosophy of the German Conservative Revolutionary movement for its misappropriation of Nietzsche (66), becomes deeply troubling, for it is precisely this disagreement with their lack of philosophical insight and depth that leads him to develop a more profound form of antisemitism, one that he at least believed to be concurrent with his philosophical thought.