Martin Heidegger: Heraclitus

Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking and Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos Couverture du livre 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.

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