Rajiv Kaushik: Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology

Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology Book Cover Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Rajiv Kaushik
SUNY Press
2019
Paperback $25.95
202

Reviewed by: Keith Whitmoyer (Pace University)

The wealth of literature that has emerged (and continues to emerge) on Merleau-Ponty’s thought is striking considering that the span between the publication of the author’s first work, The Structure of Behavior (1942), and his last, posthumous work, The Visible and the Invisible (1965), was only a touch more than two decades of active, “serious” academic production.[1] Reading through much of this commentary, one encounters a series of issues and motifs that seem to circulate through discussions of this philosophy: the living body, perceptual experience, motor intentionality, the flesh, the chiasm, reversibility, the place of painting and with respect to these, the author’s engagement and relationship with Husserl on matters autochthonous to phenomenology. This list, of course, goes on. As a reader of both Merleau-Ponty and literature on his thought, one wonders what, if anything, remains to be said.

Kaushik’s work, Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, I think, clearly indicates that the answers to the above question—whether and what remains to be said—are yes, and much. It makes this indication, however, by rethinking what it means to read and write about the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty by showing that there is a thought and philosophy here that goes well beyond the well-trodden signs that have typically framed approaches and discussions of this author and his work. Kaushik shows us quite eloquently that readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work need no longer rehearse a series of questions that have already been well-documented (perhaps over-documented) and that there remains much to be thought and discussed. Rather than discourse about the lived body, perceptual experience, the flesh, and so forth, we are introduced to another set of signs that frame and render Merleau-Ponty’s thought and which re-constitute its legibility: the symbolic matrix, the elemental, the oneiric, and most importantly, the event.

In addition to opening the field of Merleau-Ponty studies to a series of questions and motifs that have for the most part been unconsidered, Kaushik’s book accomplishes a second task. To the extent to which Between Philosophy and Symbolism provides another set of signs for entering the domain of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, this work also repositions this thought with respect to the history of 20th Century continental philosophy. In a manner that is the analogue to way in which a set of signs gets recycled within the literature on this thinker, Merleau-Ponty is almost invariably attached to the 20th Century’s “phenomenological curve,” the upslope being the work of Husserl and his immediate constellation, the peak probably being Heidegger, the beginning of the downward slope including its rise in France and the immediate post-war period, ending, of course, with the rise of “post-phenomenology” in the figures of Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida, who all in their own ways tried to ring its death knell. By recasting the signs by which we would enter Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Kaushik, I think, succeeds in dismantling this curve (which surely deserves no less and probably worse). Not only does Merleau-Ponty appear as belonging more to “post-phenomenology” than as a member of the movement but the very terms by which we would want to define “phenomenology” in contrast to “non-phenomenology” (including “post”-phenomenology) become (rightly) contested. By re-framing the approach to the work of Merleau-Ponty, Kaushik’s book re-frames the manner in which we can make sense of what means to belong (or not to belong) to the phenomenological movement and what “phenomenology” can signify in the first place. I want to take the opportunity to explore these transformations through a series of concepts that make up the infrastructure of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, the analysis of which will constitute this writing: the matrix, the symbolic, the element, and the event.

The subtitle of Kaushik’s book, The Matrixed Ontology, already indicates the central role that this concept will play in his reading. A matrix or “matrix event” is positioned against a theory of the transcendental field where the transcendental as such is identified with some form of ipseity: a self-identical, discrete consciousness that occupies the role of referent for the sense of a world it constitutes. Of course we find such a theory of the transcendental most clearly in Kant’s “I think that must accompany all my representations,” the transcendental unity of apperception; in Husserl through the various iterations of transcendental consciousness and egoicity; and of course in Sartre’s theory of consciousness as the active, centripetal constituting agency of the world’s meaning (“nothingness”). Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is distinguished from these theories at the point where the transcendental field is now reconceived—not as the privilege of a constituting self—but as the interstice, fissure, or, as it were, silent lacuna, the écart (divergence) of difference within beings that allows them their phenomenality. In other words, Merleau-Ponty, on Kaushik’s reading, gives a theory of the transcendental that not only allows for but requires internal differentiation. This is a crucial claim because, as Kaushik indicates, it is this revised theory of transcendentality that immunizes Merleau-Ponty’s thought against the critique that phenomenology necessarily eliminates difference, and in so doing, occludes the possibility of thinking the event as such.

Thinking through the configurations and operations of matrices, as well as their corresponding eventualities, occupies much of the individual analyses of the text. We nonetheless encounter some indications in the Introduction, to which I will briefly turn. Kaushik states:

Matrix events do not emphasize self-consciousness at the cost of difference. They are, in fact, called matrices because they constellate difference as difference…. A matrix event may be equated with differentiation in several ways: in addition to difference between human and animal, it can refer to the exterior and interior, public and personal, language and speech. A matrix event runs a circuit through these differences. But the loop of matrix events is never closed, and neither are the terms that they snap up into them. This is crucial, for unless Merleau-Ponty thinks that, through the event, differences are reduced to an identity, he is not guilty of the typical criticism that befalls phenomenology—that it transforms nonsense into sense and makes what is incoherent coherent.[2]

The typical criticism would be that, in its attempt to trace the lines of force that produce and shore up the everyday appearance of the world and the sense it has for us, phenomenology will discover an absolute origin that constitutes this sense. Such an origin, as the origin of all difference, would not itself be subject to difference. It would be a purely centripetal, outwardly oriented movement that thinks but is not an object thought, sees but is not seen, speaks but which cannot be heard, constitutes a time to which it would not be subjected, and constitutes a space in which it would not be found. As Kaushik indicates, such an origin could, by definition, not abide any exteriority, could have no relation to anything that would not in principle be subjected to its sense-making movement, and in this way could not stand in relation to anything radically other to it. A matrix event, by contrast, produces sense but in such a manner that it nonetheless still includes and even welcomes what is beyond its sense. Whereas the traditional, phenomenological view of the transcendental ends with a closure into sense and the elimination of non-sense, a matrix event remains constitutively open to non-sense and what is outside, and in this way is “adventurous:” the matrix event is never complete but remains on its way, unterwegs, as Heidegger might say, but “on its way” only to difference. Kaushik notes in this regard:

An event is not singular but plural. Its plurality, furthermore, prevents the event from being teleological. That there is a temporal character to the matrix event means neither that it is an origin from which other times succeed nor that it is a destination into which all times lead. The event is neither an origin nor a destination.”[3]

Matrix events are made legible over the course of the text through a second concept, the importance of which is already suggested by the title, symbolism. Kaushik, borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, will also speak of the “symbolic matrix,” and one also hears very clearly through the invocation of this concept the “symbolic form,” and both Ernst Cassirer and Erwin Panofsky are on the horizon here, filtered through Merleau-Ponty’s lectures on Institution in Personal and Public History and his last publication, “Eye and Mind.” I want to consider symbolic form and symbolic matrix under the general rubric of symbolism, which I believe should be understood verbally.

In the Institution lectures, Merleau-Ponty says:

The parallel [of painting] with philosophies is acceptable only if philosophies themselves are taken not as statements of ideas, but as inventions of symbolic forms. Shortcoming of Cassirer’s philosophy consists in thinking that criticism is the endpoint, that philosophical sense has a directing value even though this sense itself is taken up into sedimentation. Consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not as a philosophy of symbolic forms.[4]

The idea at play here, taken up again in the essay Eye and Mind, is that, as Merleau-Ponty famously says, “every theory of painting is a metaphysics.”[5] That is to say, every theory painting—even one that attempts to ignore or deprecate it such as we find in Descartes or Kant—is a theory of expression, a theory about how the sense of what is comes into being, and every theory of expression is already metaphysics, since metaphysics has only ever been the attempt to think the becoming—the expression—of what is. The significant claim here is that we need to hear “metaphysics” not as the “statement of ideas”—metaphysics in a profound sense has nothing to do with the articulation of theses about being—but “as the invention of symbolic forms,” i.e., the invention of ways and means that allow for the expression of a certain point of view, a certain perspective, or way of seeing. Renaissance painting is of course just this: the presentation and making visible of a certain Weltanschauung, a certain frame—one might even say Ge-stell—for what it means to appear, what it means to be.

Kaushik makes the following commentary on the text from the Institution lectures:

His last sentence here, ‘consider criticism itself as a symbolic form and not a philosophy of symbolic forms,’ is sweeping and radical in its proposal to alter both the method and aim of philosophy. If philosophy criticism is itself a symbolic form, this would mean that the ground for every truth claim in fact enfolds a symbolic component. The height of philosophical criticism would then, counterintuitively, eventuate in the symbolic. If so, philosophical criticism becomes absorbed by something very much counter to its usual goals, a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.[6]

If metaphysics is the invention of symbolic forms, then the tasks for philosophy as well as its very nature are reconfigured and rethought. It means that the symbolic is no longer a regional matter for a specified branch of philosophical discourse but that the symbolic—symbolism in the verbal sense—is at the very center of philosophical discourse. This means, according to Kaushik, that philosophy cannot hope to arrive at a final diapason of self-consciousness or absolute knowledge but that it encounters at best “a form only ever discovered in mutation and that is never itself.”[7] In being oriented by and in terms of symbolic forms, philosophical inquiry is constitutively defined by a certain delay, an internal slippage as its symbols defer their sense. As a result (or even as a function) of this slippage, phenomenological method (now oriented in terms of symbolic forms) can no longer be understood as the disclosure of an absolute origin, but as indicated earlier, must be thought in terms of an ineliminable difference. Kaushik summarizes this as follows:

The symbolic does not, however, mediate or bring beings together with being but opens up and is the very difference between them. It is in other words, on an adventure and is not a destination end or even a proper origin. It takes or is always on an excursion—between consciousness and unconsciousness, body and world, oneself and another, and the things of the world—while also being no place otherwise.[8]

The adventure of sense, its radical openness, and the necessity of the event for phenomenological method are, in a way, thus premised on the symbolic. This adventurousness, however, requires another concept. If the symbolic introduces a function of slippage and differentiation within the articulation of sense, the principle of this slippage must still be clarified. Kaushik accomplishes this by invoking another term: the element, to which I will now briefly turn.

“Element,” of course, immediately recalls the oldest metaphysics of the Western tradition, the φυσιολόγοι, as Aristotle said, those who discoursed on φύσις or “nature.” We should be careful, however, not confuse the use of element at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism with a theory of nature, however, nor should we assume that by invoking this pre-Socratic notion that Kaushik wishes to recover or return to some absolute ὑποκείμενον beneath the phenomena that would explain or even express them. As the third term in the triad matrix-symbol-element, the elemental here designates both the plane of excess of sense and the unexpressed (and inexpressible) silence necessary and intrinsic to any event of phenomenality. In other words, the element is the invisible, the absent and by definition indeterminable interstices or lacunae within the world that allow for the visible, which would precisely be their inverse. Kaushik says:

The elements are, to my mind … by no means determinate, by no means exterior to the explicit phenomenon, and do not oppose it. They are rather within the phenomenon and even if they are not themselves phenomenal. They therefore do not introduce a new reality. The only reason they cannot be located is because they are always differentiated and have no specific locale.[9]

The element is, as it were, the unidentifiable, non-localizable and yet silent interior of things that gives but is not given, that makes possible while itself not being a possible object of identification. As such, the element provides the needed principle of slippage since it appears only in its absence, appears only as missing, known only indirectly through indication and never encountered as such. The element in this sense is elicited through analyses of Merleau-Ponty’s remarks on light in connection with Heraclitus’s use of ἁπτόμενον, “kindling.” As Kaushik says a propos of illumination in Merleau-Ponty:

In the logic of light, it is important to Merleau-Ponty that what issues illumination is also within the illuminated. This means that, for him, illumination contains no original source or point of view that can itself be illuminated. It means, in other words, that illumination is in effect also dark—that it is in fact darkness that makes illumination possible. There can therefore be no general ontology of light that does not have to do with its regional context and its inability to be seen…. [Light] penetrates everywhere, explores the phenomenal plane, and yet can never be a single source from which we know about visible things…. Rather than a source, light is an endless refraction and flash-like. This refraction never shows. Its primary character is diversion. Yet both phenomenon as well as its disclosure are because of the very texture of this always diverted light.[10]

Light or the “kindling” Heraclitus speaks of, the spark-like flash in which things appear, is elemental precisely at the point where light itself shows the phenomena but in its function as showing, itself withdraws and is not seen. I see the visible surface illuminated by the light but do not and cannot see the light itself. There is, as it were, then, a darkness, a shadow within all light that makes it possible as light, but in virtue of this darkness light itself remains elusive: vision only operates in virtue of our constitutive belatedness with respect to light—we see only after the fact, after the light itself has vanished, leaving behind only a trace in the form of the visible thing we see. Understood through light and lighting, the elemental is thus not identifiable with any kind of substrate, atom, matter, or even with a “basic ingredient.” The element, or elements, or elemental must be understood verbally: elementality is what happens, indeed, the event, when the things of the world flash up before us, where that flashing, that “deflagration” of the world’s sense comes to pass through an inverse event of recession, darkening, and shadow—a partial disintegration of the world’s sense around the edges, where sense emerges thanks to non-sense and without eliminating it. Elementality is the event of this lighting-darkening, a penumbric passage from one to the other in which the element as such is encountered only through its inverse, through what it allows and not, as it were, “in the flesh.”

The conceptual triad, matrix-symbol-element, as they function across the specific analyses of Between Philosophy and Symbolism, re-orient Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy in such a way that we could no longer say with certainty that we are still in auspices of “phenomenology,” at least given the traditional sense of this as “transcendental science.” Indeed, through the mechanism of this conceptual triad, the very sense and meaning of “transcendental” becomes contested. Rather than a transcendental philosophy in the tradition of Kant and Husserl, through Kaushik’s reading, we must now situate Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy on the side of thinkers such as Deleuze and Derrida—thinkers of difference, slippage, and the event. I want to close this consideration of Between Philosophy and Symbolism by turning to the event in more detail.

Since the publication of Badiou’s Being and Event (1988), it has become fashionable for “philosophies of the event,” including Badiou but also figures such as Meillassoux and so-called “speculative realism,” to pose what is supposed to be a fatal critique of phenomenology. The critique, as Kaushik nicely phrases it, operates like this:

The assumption is that phenomenology reorients incoherency to coherency, inconsistency to consistency, nonsense to sense, and therefore also closes itself to the truly abnormal aspect of events… a philosophy of the event does not exclude the transcendental per se…. Only when it is conceived in terms of an intention, whether subjective or bodily, does the transcendental exclude the event…. An event would break from all forms of intentionality so radically that it cannot be an origin, destination, or even a preexisting referent, and its eventfulness would instead be utterly spontaneous.[11]

The conceptual triad matrix-symbol-element undoes intentionality—it makes sense of the birth of sense without reducing this genesis to an intentional form that would erase its excess, other, and outside. In other words, what the reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at stake in Between Philosophy and Symbolism accomplishes is the articulation of a phenomenology that allows for incoherency, inconsistency and nonsense to dwell within the sense of the world and that the emergence of sense does not exclude these. Kaushik reiterates this in the conclusion of the text, where he says “The impossible is internal to all senses, configuring them from within. This matrix, between sense and the meaning that cannot possible make sense, implies that no sense ever exhausts its non-sense.”[12] If the impossible is internal to all senses, if sense itself requires a non-sense internal to it, then it would seem that phenomenology—at least the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty—is already a philosophy of the event.

If Kaushik’s analyses are correct, and the close reading and analyses of the text indicate that they are, then the supposed fatal critique of phenomenology posed by philosophies of the event is not only not fatal, but premised on a misreading of phenomenology—or at least a misreading of the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Furthermore, by making Merleau-Ponty’s thought legible in terms of and through the matrix-symbolic-element, the traditional series of concepts that typically make up the currency of Merleau-Ponty studies—body, perception, flesh, etc.—are recast such that their internal relationship as well as Merelau-Ponty’s original contributions to philosophy (his engagement with Husserl, his conceptualization of phenomenology and its method, etc.) now come to fore clearly in a way hitherto undocumented. That being said, I will only add that Between Philosophy and Symbolism indicates that the more traditional interpretations of Merleau-Ponty’s thought (lived body, perception, flesh, etc.) are, in a sense, already in the past and that they most likely belong there, footnotes to a philosophy that itself continues to thrive and live. The readers of Merleau-Ponty’s work who are yet to come will leave these traditional readings there, in the past, and instead take Between Philosophy and Symbolism as their point of departure.


[1] Contrast Heidegger, who published Being and Time in 1927 and whose academic activity seems to have lasted at least until the late sixties, almost twice the output of Merleau-Ponty.

[2] Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism: The Matrixed Ontology. (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2019), xii.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Institution and Passivity. Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2010), 44; Kaushik, Rajiv. Merleau-Ponty between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Galen Johnson. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 132.

[6] Kaushik, Between Philosophy and Symbolism, xviii-xix.

[7] Ibid., xix.

[8] Ibid., xx.

[9] Ibid., xxii.

[10] Ibid., 64-65.

[11] Ibid., xi-xii.

[12] Ibid., 128.

Martin Heidegger: Heraclitus

Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking and Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos Book Cover Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking and Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos
Martin Heidegger. Translators: Julia Goesser Assaiante, S. Montgomery Ewegen
Bloomsbury Academic
2018
Paperback $39.59
328

Reviewed by: Zühtücan Soysal (METU Philosophy)

The English translation of Martin Heidegger’s 1943-44 Freiburg lectures on Heraclitus makes this important text available to a much broader audience than before. Appearing as the 55th volume of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe, the lectures exemplify his finest analytical vigor and philosophical insight. The work is particularly important for Heidegger research, as his understanding of the ancient Greek world and interpretation of pre-Platonic thinkers constitute the backbone of his oeuvre. Specifically, the book represents the concluding piece of Heidegger’s Freiburg lectures (1928-44), and thus presents a unique stylistic maturity. In addition, the range of covered issues and concepts is so vast that the lectures may shed light on both his earlier and later work. In terms of his prior work, the Heraclitus lectures might be seen as a fruit of endeavors that began with Beiträge zur Philosophie (GA 65) and the intensive Nietzsche readings of 1936-40, thereby in contrast to his thought preceding Beiträge. In relation to his later work, especially the second part of the book may be read as the foundation of his output for the late 1940s through the 1950s, and also as a springboard for his even later engagement with pre-Platonic thinking (cf. GA 15). What is even more noteworthy than the richness provided by the possibility of establishing such connections is the lectures’ ability to teach the way of thinking and reading by which Heidegger brings the word of Heraclitus into immediate relevance with the historical situation of modern humanity. The task remains, however, that we interpret that way ever anew.

The book consists of two parts, corresponding to two lecture courses. The first part, entitled “The Inception of Occidental Thinking” (1943 summer semester), is mostly concerned with getting a grasp of the ancient Greek experience of the terms φύσις (nature),[1] ζωή (life), δύνειν (submerging), and πῦρ (fire) through an attentive reading of ten of Heraclitus’s fragments, thereby demonstrating the proper mode of approach to his sayings. The second part of the book, titled “Logic: Heraclitus’ Doctrine of the Logos” (1944 summer semester), proceeds from that background and is centered around an elaborate elucidation of what it means for the human to be essentially characterized as ζῷον λόγον ἔχον (the living being having a logos) and an attendant justification of such characterization. No command of the Greek language is necessary to follow the courses, and the laudable translation of Julia Assaiante and Montgomery Ewegen captures the essence of the textual flow. I would also like to maintain that no prior knowledge of Heidegger’s thought is required either. However, Heidegger assumes that his audience has sufficient understanding of Hegel and Nietzsche, which makes it possible to put the confrontations with those thinkers into context.

At the very beginning, Heidegger makes it clear that when he says ‘philosophy’, he means something which is essentially Occidental. The word translated as “Occidental” is abendländischen (3),[2] which beckons a land of evening, that is, a region characterized by the sun’s having submerged. These expressions acquire sense as the book proceeds, but one does not find a definition for ‘Occident’ in its relation to a supposed opposite, ‘Orient’.[3] Instead, Heidegger wishes to direct the reader’s attention to what he considers to be more originary and essential. Unexpectedly, though, he begins with recounting two seemingly irrelevant stories about Heraclitus. In one of them, a group of people visit someone whom they think to be an “exceptional” and “tantalizing” philosopher, and surprised by seeing Heraclitus warm himself at an oven, upon which he says: “Here, too, the gods are present” (6). In the other story, the thinker plays a dice game with children inside the temple of Artemis, and shouts at the crowd perplexed before the “inappropriate” behavior of the thinker: “What are you gaping at, you scoundrels? Or is it not better to do this than to work with you on behalf of the πόλις [city-state]?” (10). Far from being insignificant ornaments, the two stories define and constitute the inconspicuous central axis of the narrative, around which the rest of the lectures unfold. It would for now be enough to note that in both stories, Heraclitus baffles the crowd by challenging their presumptions about the relationship between the ordinary and the godly, for he seems to think that Artemis is closer to his everyday abode than she is to the temple bearing her own name. Moreover, just as he rejects conspicuous piety, he rejects conspicuous politics (“working with you on behalf of the πόλις”). Heidegger remarks, at this point, that Heraclitus’s avoidance of ‘politics’ cannot be interpreted as a kind of disinterested neutrality, and thus does not make him ‘apolitical’. To the contrary, Heraclitus is political in the true sense of the word (11-12). This is the only place in the book where a direct mention of ‘politics’ is made, and Heidegger points to fragment 121 as well as to his lecture course of the previous year, Parmenides (GA 54). It would here suffice to say that without a proper understanding of these references in regard to how πόλις is conceived and how its care is envisaged, any political inference would at best be incomplete. Returning to the stories, they also ground the book-long response to a widespread misunderstanding by which one is tempted to think that the issues taken up by Heidegger lie beyond the place where the urgencies of immediate reality reside. Despite the significance of the two stories, on the other hand, their nature is preparatory.

There is a particular difficulty in translating Heraclitus and getting a grasp of his word. That difficulty, which is experienced to its fullest extent through the course of Heidegger’s elucidations, stems from the millenia-old tradition of thinking which Heidegger simply calls ‘metaphysics’. To explain by way of a rough outline of Heidegger’s account of the history of Occidental thinking, it should first be noted that it begins with the self-opening of the essence of truth, which precedes ancient Greek thought but which nevertheless finds its first decisive expression in the words of the “inceptual thinkers,” namely, Anaximander, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. Metaphysics, although grounded in “inceptual thinking,” is characterized as the “self-rigidifying essence” which drives Occidental thinking away from its inception (31). Beginning with Plato until its consummation in Nietzsche’s thought, metaphysics not only transformed the word of Heraclitus through a series of interpretative translations but also determined, established, and secured the proper manner of approach to the fragments.

As a result, if one simply wishes to be “true to the word” (cf. 37) of Heraclitus without the disturbances of the long-standing tradition of metaphysics, their path must harbor or at least be open to and ready for a transformation of the path itself. Such transformation is called “learning” (cf. 190), which does not occur on a straight course of development. Rather, while approaching the sayings of Heraclitus through different angles, as if from afar to their essential core, Heidegger’s discourse also employs a stream of thought which turns toward the opposite direction, i.e., from core to afar. The spiraling of the two streams unfolds as a lasting encounter with the metaphysical tradition as every attempt at getting closer to the simplicity of the fragments is met with the voice of metaphysics, bending the discourse into its spiral course. What is learned as a result of this learning cannot be confined into any doctrinal content that replaces ‘false’ translations of φύσις, ζωή, etc. with ‘correct’ ones. Still, the manner and attitude of what Heidegger calls “essential thinking” remains distinguishable from conventional attempts at the thinker’s word.

First of all, Heidegger distances his way of thinking from historiography, which is defined as “the calculating and fundamentally technical relation to history,” whereby history is rendered as a sequence of bygone occurrences (69). As an example, the disciplines of anthropology and philology, on which an array of conventional interpretations of the world and the word of Heraclitus is based, are grounded in the historiographical manner of approach. Contrarily, Heidegger does not aim at lexicographical accuracy or etymological precision; he tries to reach a region of thought where the ‘decision’ for such accuracy and precision has not yet been made. Accordingly, for instance, the two stories recounted in the first lecture, even if they never actually happened, are considered to be worth more than a stockpile of correct biographical findings.

The emphasis on the aspect of ‘decision’ in translation might evoke the idea that words can take any meaning according to the ‘decisions’ of the interpreter, which constitutes the second manner of approach that Heidegger rejects. This idea may result in what might today be called ‘post-truth translation’, by which authority over meaning is surrendered to the arbitrariness of willing ‘decisions’ and individual perspectives. To be sure, ‘decision’ as understood by Heidegger in no way implies such a relativistic indifference to what the thinker’s word says. In fact, such a ‘post-truth translation’ is possible only on the basis of a prior, determinative decision regarding the essence of words in general. In this case, the decision pertains to the contemporary reality in which “[t]he machinegun, the camera, the ‘word’, and the billboard all have this same fundamental function of seizing and arresting the object” (71). In Heidegger’s reading, this state of affairs corresponds to the consummation of Occidental metaphysics, and is marked by the thought of Nietzsche.

The third manner of approach that Heidegger distances himself from involves interpreting the thinker’s word metaphorically. Heidegger explains in various places that Heraclitus’s sayings do not point to anything except what they simply say. To illustrate, the word ζωή is customarily translated as ‘life’, so ζῷον is taken to designate living beings in distinction to non-living beings. Therefore, if ζωή is somehow attributed to φύσις, it must be in a metaphorical way extrapolating the characteristics of living beings to the whole of beings. On this reading, Heraclitus may too easily be classified as a ‘primitive thinker’ in whose thought the lack of formal clarity and conceptual rigor is patched with metaphors (292). Nevertheless, Heidegger demonstrates through the text that if we “think-after the inceptual word,” there is a way to experience those words in their ‘inceptual sense’, although from a distance (85). Thinking-after the inceptual senses of ζωή and φύσις makes it possible even for the modern human to experience both of the words, in their respective ways, as the emerging-forth by which every being—e.g., gods, wars, algorithms—comes to presence, and not as a group of beings in distinction to others. Henceforth, the relationship between the two terms acquires a new character on the face of which hasty classifications of conventional thinking, together with the mindless application of the concept of metaphor, fall short. Of course, with this commentary, only a little insight into what is achieved by Heidegger’s phenomenological odyssey through the word of the inceptual thinker can be hinted at. It is essential to think-after Heidegger’s thinking-after, so that what it means to experience a word above all becomes clear.

If the proper manner of approach to the fragments can depend neither on historiography nor on the unrestricted will of the beholder, and furthermore if we cannot either accept that the thinker says one thing and means another by way of metaphors, then conventional thinking resorts to the suspicion that “an empty sorcery with words is being practiced here” (59). On that matter, Heidegger seems to be very well aware of the danger of falling into empty chatter, so he differentiates between “an empty play on words” and “the concealed play of the word” (138). How is this concealedness to be understood? Does the thinker’s word enclose a meaning in the same way a seed contains genetic information? These questions bring us to the fourth difference, which is also one of the central issues of the book, and which can be read as an encounter with “dialectical thinking.” Dialectics is defined as “the thinking of opposites together in a higher unity,” and is said to begin with Plato (34). Since being itself is determined as ἰδέα (appearance/look) by Plato, ‘truth’ gained its metaphysical characterization as the actuation of appearing (φαίνεσθαι) in assertion (κατηγορία) in accordance with the thing. In other words, the true in the metaphysical sense consists in re-presenting that which presents itself manifestly (cf. 40, 255, 385). Taken in its dialectical history from Plato to Hegel, the re-presentation of what there is in its totality, i.e., of beings as a whole, moves from a murky self-externalization of Spirit into its deciphered union with itself from out of its will to appearance. Accordingly, understanding Heraclitus would consist in resolving the lack of clarity by comprehending his word with respect to this manifest history. This point of view, however complete its mastery over concepts is, comes to a “stand-still” when it is confronted with what Heidegger calls the “irreconcilable” (117), which consists in the idea that Heraclitus’s thought is “not incomprehensible because it is too complicated, but rather because it is too simple” (149). ‘Simple obscurity’, which not only describes Heraclitus’s fragments but also is itself a cardinal part of the original experience of many ancient Greek words, is irreconcilable with dialectics, because absolute cognition can cognize ‘obscurity’ in its unity with ‘clarity’ only after the two are essentially separated. In other words, dialectics is not capable of attributing obscurity to the “essence of things” rather than to the “eyes of the human” (140). Therefore, “the concealed play of the word” is not in the sense that the word envelops a meaning to be unlocked, but instead it refers to the simple obscurity of the word concealed by the tradition of dialectics in general.

The fifth and last differentiation may be thought of as a continuation of the previous point. As the thinker’s word resists being viewed in terms of the metaphysical ideal of manifest explicitness, it becomes relevant to ask whether Heidegger’s way is akin to a kind of mysticism. However, that is not true either. It is clearly maintained that the truth in inceptual saying is “decisively divorced . . . from the hollow dizziness of a mystical profundity” (176). For Heidegger, it seems, the ‘mystical’ is associated with the experiential reckoning of a futile darkness that can never be brought into word. Summing up,

[t]he true in the inceptual sense of the unconcealed does not have the nature of mere clarity of explication and explicability. To the same degree, the true is not the unclear in the sense of an inexplicable and ciphered profundity. The true is neither the one-dimensionality of mere arithmetic nor the ‘profound’ dimensions hidden behind a theatre’s curtain. (180)

Right after these renunciations, Heidegger gives his own account with a very compendious expression whose succinctness I will not adulterate by attempting to unravel: “The true is the unsaid that remains the unsaid only in what is strictly and properly said” (Ibid.).

The above five points outline Heidegger’s manner of approach in a negative way, that is, by pointing at the inapparent, whereas indeed the progression of the lectures is principally driven by a positive exploration into the thinker’s sayings. In particular, it is the “foundational words” (Grundwortes) which are thought-after, the words that define the domain of inceptual thinking. What is named by each of those words (‘emerging,’ ‘submerging,’ ‘life,’ ‘fire,’ etc.) is also that which is named by “the foundational word of all thinking—namely, the word ‘being’” (90-1). It must be noted, though, that in none of the elucidated fragments does Heraclitus explicitly ask “τί τὸ ὄν” – “what is being?”  This shows, before everything, that Heidegger’s persistent prioritization of the question of being is not about making the name ‘being’ explicit in inquiry, even less about research into linguistic copula. More importantly, this also shows that those words name the be-ing of beings in the ways that the words themselves open. As such, they cannot be thought of in terms of anything that comes before them, and it is in this way that they are inceptual.

What is more, this inception itself is brought into word by Heraclitus as πῦρ, which is delineated as the enflaming fire whose light makes possible all appearing, and also as the origin-creating, sudden strike of lightning which separates the light and the dark in the first place by flashing into the unlit (cf. 161-2). Such a lightning must have separated the Occident from its other and placed forth the two toward one another at the moment of inception in the original saying. It is here crucial to note that whatever comes thereafter, i.e., history, is not seen as a dialogue between two poles, but rather as an enduring conversation with the inception, ensuring that the decision regarding the inception remains both in having-been and in future. The proper characterization of the human’s standing within all these relations depends on how the human itself stands out among beings, which in turn depends on the inceptual sense of another foundational word, λόγος. The central achievement of the second part of the book comprises the elucidation of this term and its history from logos to ratio, reason, and finally, to will to power.

Like other foundational words, logos has undergone severe transformations throughout the history of Occidental thinking. In pre-Platonic thought, logos had not yet acquired its status as an object of inquiry. To be sure, this is not a lack whatsoever on logos’s part, for it was rather seen as the proper ground and region of every inquiry. Even then, logos meant ‘speaking’ and ‘saying’ along with ‘gathering’ and ‘harvesting.’ The most decisive determination of the term occurred with the beginning of metaphysics, where λόγος, φύσις, and ἦθος were taken as the three directions of inquiry into beings as a whole. Accordingly, logic, physics, and ethics, which correspond to those directions respectively, became the disciplines comprising philosophy. At that moment, philosophy was given its distinctive position in relation to other forms of knowledge—that of astronomy, mathematics, etc. To be more specific, by establishing itself as the highest science, philosophy has rendered itself a science among others, a science whose program of research is designated by the tripartite departmentalization of knowledge. In fact, an image of this three-fold division is visible even in today’s commonly accepted classification of scientific branches as formal, natural, and social sciences. Returning to logic, it defines logos as ‘assertion’ or ‘judgment’, and is by the same token defined as the doctrine of valid inference, which results in what Heidegger calls the “dominance of discipline over the matter” (233) in the sense that the original richness of the inceptual word is first trimmed for the sake of researchability, and then the resulting research is given the authority over the meaning of the word in its entirety. In this way, “what is more originary than every kind of science,” i.e., logos, is gauged by “what has first arisen from out of this origin” (227), i.e., logic.

The history of logos after this decisive turning point gets more intricate with the development of Koine Greek, the emergence of Hellenistic Judaism, and the ecclesiastical determination of the term as ‘the Word’ (Verbum), the second personage of the Christian deity. The resulting worldview, which was further modified by the Arabic influence, culminates in its conclusive form with the advent of modern metaphysics from Descartes to Nietzsche. Heidegger claims that in none of these transformations was Occidental thought able to return to its essential ground within the original unity of ἐπιστήμη. On the contrary, it continuously rigidified the metaphysical conception by generalizing its methodological apparatus according to an ideal of universality in order to gain technical mastery over its subject matter (cf. 74, 192, 209, 228, 331). In consideration of all these, it is ultimately critical to avoid accounting this history solely in terms of its intellectual component, as if the determination of logos was merely an issue that we happen to see in the books of logicians. What is at stake here is by no means confined to how ‘logos’ as a technical term is defined. Rather, the conversation over logos is the one between the historical human and its history, however inconspicuously it takes place. In this conversation, ‘subjectivity’ is the final response of Christian theology to the question of the essence of the human, which paves the way for the modern restatement of this response as ratio and reason. When Heidegger implies—in 1944 in Freiburg—that it is the inability of Christian church to justify these responses which caused the two world wars (209), his discursive play reminds one of the dice game at the temple. It seems that both thinkers have a tendency to do “inappropriate things” (11) when it comes to temples and churches.

In the end, what can be said about the pre-Platonic logos, and how do these lectures respond to its call? To begin with, according to fragment 50, one cannot attain “rigorous knowledge” (σοφόν) by merely attending to the word of Heraclitus; rather, it is necessary that we turn toward that which already addresses us (259-60). ‘That which already addresses us’ is called the Logos, and the human essence is characterized by having a logos responding to the Logos. Logos, as a foundational word, can be approached in as many ways as being itself. But the most straightforward way to think of it would be through its sense of ‘gathering’. Accordingly, it is the gathering of beings, which shelters every doing and every saying along with every seeing and every listening. On the one hand, metaphysics interprets this gathering as the most universal of all beings, thereby at the same time retaining the godly as the “universal world-ground” (cf. 13). The persistence of this interpretation harbors the danger of interpreting these lectures themselves from the Christian or anti-Christian perspective. The common denominator of all such perspectives is to ab-cise the godly from the earthly abode of this very thinking, and by the same stroke, to separate the discipline from the matter. On the other hand, in this very thinking, we are thinking after Heidegger, who says after Heraclitus’s sayings: Do not merely listen to these words, but rather attend to the originary Logos (325). In the thinkers’ pointing out our relation to the Logos, there appears to be a resistance against the “dominance of discipline over the matter,” which compels us to ponder our decision between turning toward the script (i.e., merely toward the words) and turning toward the Logos itself.

In the former case, the script is considered strictly with regard to what is said in it. So, for instance, Heidegger’s warning against conceiving the Logos—“the One that unifies all beings” (292)—in terms of “any notions of Spirit, personhood, godhood, or providence” (396) might get particularly important, because in this way the Logos is posited as yet another such concept in distinction to the others, making possible an entire area of research on the conceptual-structural relationships between the ‘One’ of Heraclitus and those warned-against concepts. It may even be possible as a result to upgrade those concepts and have an even superior providence. Consequently, we might have multiple truths instead of the sole truth of the all-uniting One. However undeniable the significance of these possible attainments is, the danger persists as long as the human’s standing among those truths is left unexamined. Be that as it may, in the latter case, that is, when one turns toward the Logos itself, the issue is precisely the human’s standing among those truths. Because, as the gathering, the Logos is that which “for-gathers” (cf. 364) all scripts and scriptures so that they greet the human with their claim, and it is also that which must have already addressed the human—the ‘you’—before any of those multiple truths and before any commandment. “The Λόγος is not the word: it is, as the foreword to any language, more originary than the word” (383). In view of this, if one really has to employ the idea of commandment, one should not expect anything further than the command ‘be’, as there is no doubt on Heidegger’s part that it is the address of being which precedes all (323).

Being, however, is not ‘something’ that lies hidden in some supersensory place and in the heights of some vast soaring speculation. As the little word ‘is’ makes clear to us each time it appears, being ‘is’ the nearest of the near. Yet, because the human being troubles himself first and foremost only with what comes next, he constantly avoids the nearest, particularly since he appears to know very little about the near and its essence. (103-4)

All in all, one will find in this book a rigorous restatement of the question of being on the basis of Heraclitus’s doctrine of the Logos, and Heidegger’s response to many possible ‘post-Heideggerian’ approaches at ontotheology. To me, what is most valuable in the book lies in the fact that it somehow teaches, or at least attempts to teach, what one could expect from a lecture course on logic to teach—how to think. The discipline of logic, while setting out rules and methods of making correct use of reason, can hardly say a word on how to think. Here, on the other hand, how to approach a thinker’s word is demonstrated with authentic care toward what is cared by the thinker. Only by way of such care can we learn from the thinker, and only through authentic turning-towards can we remain in thinking.


[1] The parenthetical translations are provided only as labels and should not be assumed to convey the meaning of the Greek words.

[2] All page references are to GA 55. Pagination of the German text is used.

[3] Lin Ma’s Heidegger on East-West Dialogue: Anticipating the Event (Routledge, 2009) remains to be a scholarly gem in the field.