Martin Heidegger: On Inception.

On Inception Book Cover On Inception
Martin Heidegger. Translated by Peter Hanly
Indiana University Press

Reviewed by: Shawn Loht (Delgado Community College, New Orleans, USA)

This edition marks the first English-language translation of Über Den Anfang (GA 70), an entry in Heidegger’s so-called “esoteric writings.”  These writings consist of private notebooks from the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, in which Heidegger tries out different approaches for describing the phenomenology of the origins of being and meaning.  Notably, none of these writings were available to the public during Heidegger’s lifetime, as he intentionally chose for them to become available only after his death.  Contributions to Philosophy (Beiträge zur Philosophie) (GA 65) is the most well-known of the esoteric writings, but other titles now familiar to Heidegger scholars include Mindfulness (Besinnung) (GA 66) and The Event (Das Ereignis) (GA 71).  As with these other texts, in On Inception Heidegger does not present a systematic or progressive exegesis.  Rather, the text is loosely organized according to general themes, with short sections that provide microstudies on specific topics.  On Inception is divided into six principal divisions, with the first two of these taking up more than half of the book.  Both of these first two divisions analyze at length the phenomenon of “inception,” while the remaining four study “event” and being-there, interpretation, the history of being/beyng, and Heidegger’s own work Being and Time, respectively.  In all instances, the numbered sections comprising these divisions of the text show significant repetition and thematic overlap.  One gets the sense in the course of reading that Heidegger is experimenting to find the words and locutions for what he wants to say, in a manner that no single statement or argument is meant to be authoritative.

In what follows, I will highlight some of the text’s key concepts and some of the notable positions Heidegger develops.  First and foremost, as he describes in the first division, the term “inception” (Anfang) signifies for Heidegger the dawn of being in the West, the moment in which being (Sein) takes hold and history eventuates.  Likewise, inception marks the moment at which the ontological difference comes to life, such that human thought begins to identify both “being” in general, and “beings” or specific things as such.  But “inception” does not denote a temporal unfolding.  It is not an event happening in time, and it does not mark a point between “before” and “after.”  Finding the right language to express this dimension poses a challenge.  “Inception” refers to the moment in which time comes to be, and in which “being” arrives as a meaningful concept.  (In the third division, Heidegger describes pre-inception reality as “the beingless” (98).)  Indeed, in most of the passages devoted to this theme, Heidegger uses the more archaic Seyn, or in the English translation, “beyng,” to indicate the primordial sway of being in terms of effecting an origin and destiny.  He often refers to beyng in terms of the entire historical epoch of the West, whereby “being” is instantiated as such.

Much of the account of inception involves describing the phenomenology bound up with such a beginning of being.  For instance, Heidegger characterizes inception as, on one hand, concomitant with a clearing or unconcealment, through which world and things first become ontologically conspicuous.  On the other hand, this clearing entails a concomitant “receding” (Untergang), whereby being withdraws further and further from view.  This latter phenomenon for Heidegger reaches its apex with the total abandonment of being in the epoch of twentieth-century technology.  Whereas Heidegger leaves many gaps in the explanation of this historical phenomenon in more popular writings like “The Question Concerning Technology” (GA 7) and An Introduction to Metaphysics (GA 40), the analyses in On Inception suggest that he regards receding as a definitive, necessary dimension of inception.  (“In the first inception the arche emerges, but incipience begins only in the intimacy of retreat” (12).  The moment of inception at the dawn of Western history immediately entails an unnoticed concealing, such that what is at first most illuminated is countered by a receding that becomes less conspicuous with the duration of history.  The clearing in which being comes to appearance is countered by its unseen groundlessness.  For Heidegger, this receding that counters the clearing is just as relevant at the end of beyng’s history as it is at the beginning.

As expressed in other writings from this period of Heidegger’s career, the “end” of inception’s initial reign at once makes the beginning fully apparent, and discloses hints of a second or “other” inception.  Here, however, Heidegger inclines toward describing the second inception as merely the next in a potentially infinite series.  This is to say, he uses less frequently the locution “other beginning” (andere Anfang) known from texts like Contributions to Philosophy and Basic Questions of Philosophy (Grundfragen der Philosophie) (GA 45), favoring a view in which inception has a cyclical character, though it need not manifest the same shape every time.  Similarly, a contrast with Contributions Philosophy’s better-known concept of “appropriation” (Ereignis) that one sees in Heidegger’s account of inception is an emphasis on inception’s atemporal character, out which space-time comes to be.  Whereas Heidegger’s accounts of Ereignis emphasize the twofold, appropriative correspondence of being with being-there occasioned in Ereignis, the account of inception places more focus on the very moment of inception itself, asking as it were, what it means to describe beyng purely as inception (Anfang), as having a beginning.  Heidegger often invokes the keyword “incipience” (das Änfangnis) to describe inception’s continuous, singular character, according to which it is constitutive of history.  For instance, Heidegger writes “Incipience determines and ‘is’ the essential unfolding of inception” (6).  Incipience signifies “a way whose scope and configuration is in inception’s being in itself the essence of history” (Ibid.).

Beyng (Seyn) is essentially bound up with describing inception.  In this text, beyng (Seyn) refers not simply to being (Sein), and definitely not to beings (Seiende).  Instead, the “question of being,” Heidegger suggests (echoing the scope of the Being and Time project), is more deeply the question after inception: “Being remains, always, what is said; however, the essence of beyng is not beyng, but is rather the incepting inception.  From this, and as this, beyng incepts (and that also means recedes) into its proper domain” (10).  In other words, we do not and cannot cease to live amongst beings, from which our reckoning with the question of the meaning of being is always determined.  Yet, to ask about the dawn or origin of being entails inquiring more deeply into the inception (Anfang), or literally, the taking-hold (An-fangen) of beyng.  Heidegger writes: “Incipience is the ground of the poetic character of beyng” (18).

The second division of the text, entitled “Inception and Inceptive – Thinking the Creative Thinking of Inception,” continues the themes of the first division while placing emphasis on a kind of meditative reflection.  In Section 72, Heidegger makes explicit that inception is a singular phenomenon but with multiple manifestations, that is, multiple inceptions.  Each subsequent inception is nonetheless a manifestation of the same underlying movement.  “Each inception is more inceptive than the first, and thus is this inception itself in its singular future” (71).  An appropriate intuition of an inception to come calls not for action but instead for a meditative waiting and thoughtfulness.  Although one cannot predict how inception will unfold, simply the ability to distinguish the name of “inception” and what it entails offers some preview of the impending epoch (87).  Referring to the historical moment at his time of writing, Heidegger observes that German culture in contrast has mistakenly pursued goal-setting, machination, and achievement, all of which only lead to destruction.  He echoes and recasts here the famous passage from An Introduction to Metaphysics that begins “All distances in space and time are shrinking…”, published just a few years before this writing, stating “No longer can it be asked: ‘To what end?’  The simple plight alone is to be knowingly accepted” (Ibid.).  He concludes that there is no sense in thinking of present history as having a human-directed “purpose” or destiny, because the destitution of the age is under the sway of beyng (Ibid.).  There is not some other historical trajectory that human beings can bring about by sheer force of will.  Thus, he gives a preview here of his later concept of Gelassenheit or “letting-be.”  In the following section, he draws this point out in observing that preparedness for inception will become manifest when language and images cease to yield food for thought (72).  This passage echoes statements from elsewhere in the esoteric writings to the effect that in a future time, thinking will become “imageless,” viz., that in this future guise, we discover a kind of thinking that does not rely on the affordances of sight or the outward look of things.  Whereas in the present, we are still under the way of being understood as idea, what is visible (75).

The fourth division of On Inception pivots from the earlier themes of the book, with a series of reflections on poetry and the legacy of Hölderlin.  One key theme is the appropriate understanding of “interpretation,” where this concept in its modern context is taken to mean correct “reading” of history and texts.  Heidegger takes issue with the proposition that interpretation involves “correct” or “objective” analysis, maintaining instead that interpretation involves hearing the inceptive word.  He writes: “For interpretation must first ground itself more inceptively from out of itself, surrendering to inception and to history, so that it might emerge more inceptively from its inception” (121).  In contrast, to talk of “escaping” the hermeneutical circle that is typically invoked in discussions of “objective” interpretation overlooks that the sway of beyng dictates the circle within which one moves.  Indeed, there is no escape, nor is there any such circle to be inside or outside of, aside from beyng (126).  Regarding Hölderlin, Heidegger goes on to state that this poet’s importance has nothing to do with seeking knowledge or founding truth.  Instead, the poet poetizes being, “naming therein the domain of historical decision in its own poetic essence” (132).  Here Heidegger describes that Hölderlin does not “think” the other inception, in the way that this is the subject matter of his work.  Rather, Hölderlin’s poetry provides clues about the other inception for those who are able to think ahead to the epochal decision the poems indicate (Ibid.).  For Heidegger, the futural phenomenon Hölderlin identifies is the “holy” (130).

The fifth division of the text, entitled “The History of Beyng,” finds Heidegger meditating on how to understand the time-instantiating dimension of beyng or “inceptive history” (144).  A central question concerns how to describe beyng as an occurrence that itself is not temporal.  Heidegger writes of this occurrence: “Nothing happens.  The event eventuates.  The evental appropriation takes on what it at the same time clears as its own: the clearing itself, which is the ownness of beyng” (143).  To seek for a whatness, something that can identify the history of beyng’s essence, misses the point, mistaking the history of beyng for a being proper.  The history of beyng is groundless; it “happens” as itself (Ibid.).  Consequently, the history of beyng cannot be studied or known as an object of historiography (Ibid.).  Similarly, other phenomena occasioned with the history of beyng, such as concealment, unconcealment, clearing, and being-there, are likewise irreducible to temporal moments (143, 145).  Instead, they comprise the inceptive, groundless ground in which the temporal can take hold at all.

Another theme receiving treatment in the fifth division (already peppered throughout the first four divisions) is the growing conspicuousness of inception (147), by virtue of its distance from the present.  While Heidegger observes that inception is essentially concealment, and moreover, concealment that becomes more and more hidden as history elapses, this concealment has a double effect of becoming more silently conspicuous over time as its absence becomes further pronounced.  For Heidegger, this progression is manifested in the history of metaphysics and its subsequent abandoning of being for the sake of beings, such that at the end of metaphysics, it becomes painfully obvious that being no longer has any meaning; being has become an empty notion (148).  Here and elsewhere, Heidegger is not much re-inventing the wheel or introducing new vocabulary.  But he is offering some deeper and more patient phenomenologies that fill in considerably many claims from the more well-known texts in his corpus.

In the final division of the text, Heidegger reflects on the relevance of the phenomenon of inception to the Being and Time project.  In Section 172, he comments that Being and Time reflects “onto-historical inceptive thinking,” viz. that the project of that work is essentially about inception in its scope (161).  Although, Heidegger’s implication is that his own writing of Being and Time did not sufficiently comprehend this fact.  Continuing, he writes, with a series of line breaks:

Being and time are the same.
Being is inception.
Time is inception.
The incipience of inception (Ibid.).

He concludes by remarking that “the age is not ripe” to engage in a full criticism of Being and Time vis-à-vis its relevance for the phenomenon of inception, because readers are too eager to interpret the work merely as a continuation of metaphysics.  The register of this statement implies that critics of Being and Time are unable to comprehend the broader phenomenological direction that work opened up.  (Here, we have to remember that, as Heidegger is writing this text a mere 12-15 years after Being and Time’s publication, most of Heidegger’s audience would have had no inkling of his concerns regarding inception, the appropriative event, or the history of beyng, and so forth.)  To similar effect, in Section 174 Heidegger invokes Kant and Hegel in order to contrast his own understanding of the Being and Time project with views of critics that Being and Time concerns only transcendental conditions for the possibility of experience.  Kant’s project, Heidegger remarks, only takes up conditions for experience regarded from knowledge of beings or objectivity.  Similarly, Hegel’s project purports to unravel the conditions for experience based on an “unconditioned”; however, like Kant, Hegel fails to realize that arriving at the unconditioned fundamentally differs from insight into beyng.  In this aspect, Hegel does not overcome the transcendental but only draws out its metaphysical implications.  Heidegger concludes “All conditioned is abysmally separated from appropriative event” (163).

In Section 175, communicating his own assessment of what Being and Time failed to achieve, Heidegger concludes:

Only one thing was already clear and fixed at that time; that the way into the truth of being headed toward something unasked and could no longer find support in what came before, as other pathways were to be investigated.

Initially, nonetheless, supports were borrowed from metaphysics, and something like an attempt at overcoming metaphysics through metaphysics was advanced.

[…] although the direction of the question has already leapt over all metaphysics (Ibid.)

Heidegger’s self-criticism here ostensibly centers in the notion that, while the Being and Time project began with metaphysics, any attempt to resolve the question of the meaning of being necessarily entails pressing the language of metaphysics to its limits.  This outcome enables one to envision what new language must arise next.
To conclude, On Inception offers many helpful explorations that supplement themes from Heidegger’s entire corpus.  In this way, the book has something for everybody among readers of Heidegger.  Nonetheless, its immediate audience will be very narrow, given that it is a private writing not originally conceived for publication.  Scholars who stand to benefit most from engaging with this book will be those studying Heidegger’s accounts of the history of being/beyng and the appropriative event (Ereignis).  The book’s value for providing insight into Heidegger’s actual thought will be somewhat more tenuous.  The experimental style of the book makes questionable whether the content represents positions Heidegger wishes to advance or whether Heidegger is simply trying out various ideas.  Current Heidegger scholars including Thomas Sheehan and David Kleinberg-Levin favor treating the esoteric writings as primary sources informative for comprehending Heidegger’s philosophy overall.  Yet, some care is surely called for in this approach.  In this regard, I suggest that caution may be in order if one is tempted to place On Inception on equal ground with books Heidegger published in his lifetime.

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