New Heidegger Research
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Reviewed by: Henri Otsing (Tartu University)
Paths in Heidegger’s Later Thought is a much-needed communication of ideas from German-educated scholars to their anglophone counterparts in other traditions. A compendium of excellence and creativity, it does indeed map paths that the 15 researchers have either pursued over lengthy careers or are just now discovering. While sometimes eclectic and rather expository, the book might be called mandatory reading for a precise overview of current global Heidegger scholarship.
This review will attempt to characterise the common traits shared between the authors’ approaches and give short descriptions of all articles for the benefit of the reader encountering these authors for the first time.
A few words on the book as a whole. The collection takes as its starting point the oft-cited motto of Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe, “Ways, not works.” Moving from these ways of thought understood in a “metaphorical” sense towards a thinking that is indeed way-making in its character, it attempts to gather and map the recent and more penetrating paths that have been lain through the thickets of Heidegger’s body of thought.
And as the German background of the editors (and most contributors) suggests, the collection follows what we might attempt to generalise as the European approach to Heidegger. This approach focuses more on the later Heidegger, is more focused on congeniality than force of interpretation and aims towards a Heideggerisation of ideas rather than an appropriation in the opposite direction. That said, the collection does a decent job of consciously avoiding the common stumblings: falling from hermeneuticism to hermeticism or from introduction to reduction.
The editors phrase the endeavour of the collection thus: “to present a range of ways in which Heidegger can be read and a diversity of styles in which his thought can be continued. […] it is a hermeneutic endeavour, beginning with an interpretation of his writing” (Foreword, 1-2). This is a wonderful maxim and evidently helps to produce texts that are generally capable of the critical approach, but don’t bog down in open, nor hidden hostility towards a competing interpretation. Still, this variety does beg the question whether the book should be considered a whole at all or merely as a collection of individual texts.
Even more so – and this is not a jab at the editors’ careful work –, does this seemingly unpretentious “range” and “diversity”, a presupposed equality of ideas, perhaps not undercut the texts’ individual philosophical ambitions? Be how it may, the experiment with a plurality of critical interpretations merits even philosophical appreciation, since Heidegger’s own work suggests that authentic thought follows a non-linear or multistable character itself.
Thus, the essays seem to be grouped with regard to their shared paths of thought, intersections and common landmarks. The section titles attempt to reflect these commonalities to a degree but serve rather to facilitate readability. A general overview could here be refined by having a look at the indexes. Keywords like earth (Erde), event (Ereignis), gathering (Ver-/Sammlung), presence (Anwesenheit) and unconcealment (Unverborgenheit) are not left unmentioned for more than one or two essays, broadly speaking. Here, gathering and presence strike as the two most surprising keywords, since they are not exclusive to the later Heidegger and no essay deals with them centrally. On the other hand, care (Sorge), ecstasis (Ekstase), sense (Sinn), but also the turn (Kehre), National Socialism and building (Bauen) – they receive only sparse mentions.
Now, spelling out substantial common traits and ideas between the authors would be to try and formulate a school of Heideggerian research. This would be folly, but the individual authors do share that they are mostly Heideggerian in the sense, that they seem to be operating on an impulse received from reading Heidegger. In the sense of aspiring to go beyond a “mere” scholarly account of Heidegger and walking forward on paths he exposed.
This could be said about the contributions in a historical sense as well. Regardless of his prescient predictions, from a perspective of intellectual history, in many ways Heidegger envisioned a path different to what we see today. Here, the collection displays the throes of reconciling a Heideggerian new beginning and the world today. Perhaps indeed a less unitary and more diverging approach might hold the means to finally “making sense” of Heidegger’s thought.
Next, a quick look will be given at the contributions one-by-one, following the structure of the book. This is to serve also as a quick reference to locate the topic of interest for the reader.
The first section “Language, Logos, and Rhythm” is devoted to essays focused on Heidegger’s notions concerning language, broadly speaking. However, it is perhaps the most uneven section, comprising of works by Jeff Malpas, Markus Wild, Diego D’Angelo and Tristan Moyle.
Interestingly enough, one common theme in this section is explicitly specifying the mode of interpretation: “exegetical externalism” (Wild: 45-46), “immanent interpretation” (D’Angelo: 65-66) and “naturalistic interpretation” (Moyle: 85-86). What’s stunning is that although the three essays and authors differ to a great degree, the mode or methodology of interpretation is actually quite similar.
Even though authors show this conscious effort and also considerable skill in specifying their respective mode of interpretation, these modes tend to differ in mere nuance of exposition and seem to be specific to the question of interest each author addresses. Differences between the authors’ deliberations seem to stem from other sources than the stated mode of interpretation. Perhaps a larger problem in Heidegger scholarship is reflected here: the question of how to interpret Heidegger while differing to a great extent, has been shaped in a sort of tacit consensus, as indicated by some actual similarities of approaches, regardless of differences in stated methodology. To say the least, the search for an approach to Heidegger is ongoing.
The book sets out from home: Jeff Malpas’ “‘The House of Being’: Poetry, Language, Place” builds on his longstanding “topological interpretation” of Heidegger and contends with the problem of bridging language and a topology implied in Heidegger’s oft-quoted “Language is the house of being”. Asserting that in Heidegger the classic dichotomous concepts of spatiality collapse – that “the dimensional and relational are not separate but rather are two sides of the same” (p. 23)–, Malpas gives a delicate account of how this along with a more mature account of the poetic makes sense of Heidegger’s “turn” after Being and Time and also brings the later Heideggerian project to a clearer shape. This is accomplished by identifying poetry as where place and language intersect, where most prominently “saying is placing and placing is saying” (p. 34).
Influential among and well-known to anglophone speakers, Malpas’ essay demonstrates the continuity between anglophone and European scholarship. Markus Wild, known foremost as a philosopher of biology and animals in specific, however, undertakes an investigation into Heidegger’s often disregarded confrontation with Trakl in his “Heidegger and Trakl: Language Speaks in the Poet’s Poem”.
Wild occupies himself with a search for the site (Ort) of Trakl’s singular poem – “the poet’s poem”, a sort of fictional “centre of gravity” from and to which his poetry flows. Wild argues here that the value of Trakl for Heidegger is not, like other poets, liable to be subsumed under or merely opposed to what Heidegger’s treatments of Hölderlin uncover. To this end, he specifies his aforementioned mode of interpretation aimed at locating claims “in relation to other discussions while responding to clues and hints contained in Heidegger’s text” (p. 45). A laudable attempt, which might indeed account for lucidly conveying certain notorious Heideggerisms and also manages to integrate elements from classical rhetorics, speech act theory and psychology.
That said, Wild may well be suspected of walking only halfway down Heidegger’s path towards Trakl’s poetry. This is because Wild seems to, at points, conceptualise poetry in terms of its “ultimate purpose” (p. 60), which is reached and conceived in terms involving notions of empathy and imagination foreign to Heidegger – perhaps a psychologising analysis. In any case, the paper deserves to be followed by an even more “externalist exegesis”, which would connect or relate Heidegger’s analysis of Trakl with the other poets’ – a task little noticed so far.
D’Angelo gives a detailed account of how Heidegger approaches the phenomenon of greeting (Grüßen) in his writings on Hölderlin’s “Der Ister”. By and large, repeating what may be read in the relevant sections of “The Bloomsbury Companion to Heidegger”, D’Angelo’s article does go into necessary and enlightening detail.
Perhaps of most interest is his treatment of the semiotic, in particular a Heideggerian account of the sign (66-69), and how he weaves it into the more well-known account of greeting: a remembrance (Andenken) directed at the future and fundamentally stemming from the Holy (das Heilige).
Now, Moyle’s “Later Heidegger’s Naturalism” should perhaps be called “A Naturalistic Look at Later Heidegger” to reflect its contents more exactly. One of the essays that is only now discovering previously concealed pathways, naturalism is here a specifically McDowellian sort of “aesthetic naturalism” (see 85-87) and the main topic in later Heidegger is rhythm.
Although this is an interesting superimposition, there are clear problems with Moyle’s attempt to “domesticate Heidegger’s rhetoric” (p. 96). In particular, he seems to go against the very idea of a path-like webwork of thinking in Heidegger, by connecting ideas in Heidegger from different time periods and lines of thought – paths, which for specific reasons don’t seem to converge at the points he expects them to. This brings with it some problematic inferences and questionable conclusions. Also, Heidegger’s own translation of the Greek word as Fügung and the implications it involves are not considered.
That said, even when arguing that being itself should perhaps be thought of as rhythm – quite audacious to these ears – there are strong links being made, that merit further study and elaboration.
The second section is concerned with the Greek word physis and centres, with obvious scholarly informedness, on the seemingly paradoxical interplay of emerging and enclosing – the dynamics that Heidegger’s “Greek” physis carries. Here, different readings tend to rely on different sources and thus approach them with ostensibly non-concomitant perspectives, intersecting at uncomfortable angles. Still, this section is perhaps the most focused in terms of substance, including essays from Thomas Buchheim, Guang Yang, Claudia Baracchi and Damir Barbarić.
An interesting choice to include in the collection Buchheim’s essay on Heidegger’s physis as it develops in his thought, which is translated from the similar collection published in 2007, Heidegger und die Griechen, displaying a certain continuity between the publications. D’Angelo’s very readable translation makes it easy to grasp why the editors decided to publish a work older than a decade.
Utilising the arsenal that knowledge of classic philology provides, Buchheim first identifies two quite separate periods Heidegger deals with physis. Second, he gives a sharp overview of the first period physis becomes a topic of deep interest for Heidegger (starting from the 1920s). Then, in an answer to his titular question “Why is Heidegger Interested in Physis?”, Buchheim gives an account of Heidegger’s oft-criticised but piercing account of Aristotle’s physis as an echo of the original presocratic notion. Intensely focused and well-informed, the text makes a case for the presence of a concept of physis as a primordial withdrawal much earlier than is largely supposed. This is certainly one of the essays that gives the collection merit and depth.
One should perhaps approach Yang’s essay as intimating a novel approach, a work-in-progress. He doesn’t precisely reach what the title promises, “Being as Physis,” but instead gives a reading of rest and movement as it pertains to the notion of physis in a phenomenological sense. The two main areas being connected are Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle and his conception of art. A challenging read, the paper’s strength and potential failure lie in how it attempts to include a large portion of Heidegger’s writings that do touch on physis from different sides. A longer form would perhaps enable Yang to express the picture he is setting up with more graspable severity.
“The End of Philosophy and Unending Physis” is an alien text in this collection, but definitely impressive. In it Baracchi retells “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking” in a nimble and alluring style. While not a standard scholarly piece on Heidegger, it makes a number of inspiring, if flimsy, intimations like “the end of philosophy is the task of thinking” (p. 155), most of them, of course, more intricate. Inspired by Heidegger and, it seems, a certain rage against the undying of the light of metaphysics, she has chosen a form of writing that should perhaps reflect the non-metaphysical sort of discussion a thinking might follow after it has surmounted metaphysics.
Another fine article, Barbarić’s “Thinking at the First Beginning” attempts to pave a way towards what the title names. Starting from the plausible assumption that in Heidegger physis “determines Being itself rather than a domain or realm of entities” (p. 165), the crux here is physis and its ontological depth (as opposed to surficity), which Heidegger sets up against the later concept of truth based on the Greek notion of idea, but which is also the source of the latter.
But Barbarić does more than tell the rather familiar story of the completion of Western thought and a need for a return to the first beginning. The intricacies can’t be discussed here without a terrible watering-down, and the reader should instead be directed to Barbarić’s Zum anderen Anfang. Studien zum Spätdenken Heideggers (2016, Karl Alber Verlag) for the whole picture.
The third section, “Phenomenology, the Thing, and the Fourfold”, features essays from Günter Figal, Jussi Backman, Nikola Mirković and Andrew J. Mitchell.
In a tiny masterpiece, Figal lays out the line of thought Heidegger’s philosophy seems to follow in the latter’s reading of Parmenides. Building from the “Seminar in Zähringen” (about this text, see 179-180), Figal takes a look at the neologistic tautophasis and “tautological thinking”, which Heidegger espoused at that point. Now, tautophasis stems from the realisation that phenomena appear or show (phainesthai is the ancient Greek verb). Both Greek words coming from the same root, the presencing of phenomena is thus a sort of self-showing or more aptly “saying-two-together” (Selbander-sage), which is Heidegger’s translation for tautophasis (see p. 183). The corresponding thinking is thus characterised as tautological.
Figal opens up tautological thinking in a way that allows him to venture his own thought: Heidegger failed to address the theme of the sign (semata) in Parmenides – and if he had, the idea of tautophasis (indeed an anti-dialectical attitude) would have perhaps seemed less feasible. Here oversimplified, Figal’s “Tautophasis: Heidegger and Parmenides” manages to keep up with Heidegger and is definitely worth reading, if one is interested in Heidegger’s relationship to the Presocratics.
Backman’s “Radical contextuality in Heidegger’s Postmetaphysics: The Singularity of Being and the Fourfold” approaches Heidegger from without, we might say in contrast to Figal. Backman starts to trace in Heidegger a “radical contextualism” (the definition should be found on p. 190), in a sense attributed to postmodernist and postmetaphysical thinking. He adheres to a Sheehanesque reading – meaning and intelligibility as the ultimate frontier for being, this reading supported by texts that allow for this reading – and finds a radical contextuality in Heidegger, centering around Being as the singular event (Ereignis): “Ereignis, the title for the basic dynamic character of Seyn, is the event or the ‘taking place’ of historical singularity in which meaningful presence ‘finds its place’ – in other words, is contextualised and situated within the ‘instantaneous site’ (Augenblicksstätte) of spatiotemporal situatedness (Zeit-Raum) furnished by Dasein.” (p. 195).
From this he proceeds to unfold the fourfold or “onefold of four” as parallel to Aristotle’s four causes, the difference being that instead of Aristotle’s concept of being as a situatedness, Heidegger conceives of being as “this event of instantiation as such” (p. 201). This strand of thought, as the entire essay, is admittedly inspired and fascinating – perhaps it would benefit in scope and succinctness if also made a comparison with the question of being and becoming in Heidegger.
Looking for a sense of being that bestows meaning like Backman, Mirković turns instead to Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s All Thing Shining. His first aim is to explore the background Heidegger might provide for Dreyfus and Kelly, but reaches something of a deeper nature in what the title succinctly names “The Phenomenon of Shining”.
He starts with the concept of beauty expressed in “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “Beauty is one way in which truth as unconcealment comes to presence” (p. 216) and connects this with the concept of shining in a way that should be familiar to Heidegger of that period. Then, by looking at how Heidegger handles Plato’s concept of beauty in “Nietzsche”, he points to a striking similarity between Plato and Heidegger, but also a sharp distinction: for Heidegger, beauty is related to the earth, but shining and radiance comes about “through its interplay with art and its integration into actual works of art” (p. 218). This is momentous because earth seems to here bestow both what we would call sensible and intelligible – meaningful, yet not limited to conceptual knowledge.
The second strand of the essay concerns history. Where Dreyfus and Kelly characterise modernity in terms of a general loss of meaning and nihilism – art, broadly speaking, included – they seem to be making an overstatement about the (being-)historical change, that has come to pass with the arrival of modernity. Mirković provides an example for this, the Staiger-correspondence on Mörike’s “On a Lamp”. In Heidegger’s interpretation of the poem, Mirković sees a clear inclusion of both social and practical circumstances in the analysis of the work. Now, one may doubt Mirković’s own interpretation here, but still have to admit that Heidegger’s knowledge of history extended well beyond the philosophical, and there is good reason to believe that the practical side of history is indeed incorporated into his deliberations on the topic.
In “A Brief History of Things: Heidegger and the Tradition” Mitchell provides a riveting account of just that, things – in the Heideggerian sense, of course. He starts from the place of a thing as its inherent distinction in Aristotle, proceeds to the intricate medieval system of natural and unnatural places and then to the break from this relational account to an objective account in Newton (this distinction was discussed in Malpas’ essay as well). Finally, he arrives at an ideal body that really exists nowhere, made transcendental from the viewpoint of the subject by Kant’s philosophy.
Done with the Heideggerian story, he turns to Heidegger himself, suggesting that we have to enter this between (Zwischen) that separates subject and object. Interestingly, Mitchell seems to view the between as a sort of rediscovering of the “inherently relational nature of existence” (p. 234). Aware that this claim is suspect, perhaps because a fundamental relationality seems to go against the Heideggerian intuition, he furthers and clarifies it by turning to Being and Time.
Taking an interesting turn here, he quickly makes the case, that Being and Time does not adhere to what we can elucidate as the aspects of a thing in the later Heidegger (p. 239) – “we cannot speak of any ‘things’ in Being and Time” (p. 238). Containing a wealth of new ideas, Mitchell’s proposal of a certain relationality in Heidegger could perhaps be supplemented with the latter’s treatment of Leibniz, one of the definitive modern metaphysical (and especially spatial) relationists.
The last section is titled “Ground, Non-ground, and Abyss”. A sort of show of force, the book ends with three accomplished authors: Hans Ruin, Sylvaine Gourdain and Tobias Keiling – the latter two belonging almost exclusively to the European-language tradition. However, the first two, touching on Leibniz and Schelling respectively, both suggest that the philosophical predecessors may have had a larger impact on Heidegger than previously thought. Keiling then closes the book with an insightful unravelling of the notion of Erklüftung, making this perhaps the most illuminating section for the anglophone reader.
Ruin’s “Heidegger, Leibniz, and the Abyss of Reason” takes a look at what Heidegger himself centres on when discussing Leibniz – the principle of reason or ground (Grund). Heidegger’s interpretations are here examined with penetrating but succinct means. Quite convincingly, where Heidegger seems to prima facie interpret with a deal of “violence”, Ruin identifies a hermeneutics that sheds light on Heidegger’s own development (see especially 249-251).
Giving first an overview of the writings on Leibniz “The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic” (1928) and “The Principle of Reason” (lectured 1955-56), Ruin makes explicit, and at the same time calls into question, the interpretation that the earlier text paves way for the Kehre and the latter treats Leibniz as a symbol of the history of merely rational, calculating thinking – as opposed to “meditative” thinking (Besinnung). Especially concerning this opposition, Ruin urges us to “question and learn to move across the strict borders that Heidegger creates in his own somewhat Manichean conception of the tradition” (p. 256). But in a broader sense, Ruin points at the structural similarity between Leibniz’s ultimately theological metaphysics, Leibniz’s God and Heidegger’s Being. This should motivate us, he asserts, to “refrain from becoming trapped in the dichotomous contrast between rationality and mysticism” (p. 256) and offers further reading and ides on the topic.
Another interesting and very capable essay, “Ground, Abyss, and Primordial Ground: Heidegger in the Wake of Schelling” recounts the influence of Schelling on Heidegger’s notion of ground, which he fully articulates only after Being and Time. Schelling’s Grund, a non-rational basis, is most similar to the Heideggerian notion of earth in terms of a withdrawing-providing nature. Gourdain attempts to also connect it with the notions of Ungrund, Ek-sistenz, clearing and tangentially even with Seyn.
The main comparison here is drawn from the relationships between Schelling’s ground and existent on the one hand and Heidegger’s earth and world on the other. The main similarity here is that Grund and earth both defy total intelligibility, they “each signal the withdrawal and resistance of materiality, which never exhausts itself within a definitive meaning” (p. 267), but still both provide the impenetrability or darkness that is necessary for any disclosing that their respective counterparts seem to encompass.
Heidegger’s deeper confrontation with Schelling occurs roughly simultaneously with the reworking period of “The Origin of the Work of Art” and the beginning of writing “Contributions to Philosophy” in the 1936 lecture course on Schelling’s famous essay on human freedom. This concurrency prompts Gourdain to offer a rather daring sketch of a sort of Schellingian later Heidegger.
This essay is especially welcome as an introduction to both Gourdain’s profound work on Heidegger and to the perspective on the later Heidegger, that’s intimately aware of German Idealism. This is certainly one of the core essays of the collection, one that should motivate further attempts at translation.
Such is the case also with Tobias Keiling’s “Erklüftung”. He approaches this German word, often translated as “sundering”, with a striking supposition. Namely, he follows Blumenberg’s works on the metaphor (see notes, p. 294) and instead of discounting the ultimate legitimacy of metaphors in philosophy, he embraces them wholeheartedly on the grounds, that metaphors or “linguistic images are ‘foundational elements’ of philosophical language” (p. 280) and that the opposite supposition would be Cartesian fancy of an entirely transparent language.
Moving on to a sort of genealogy of Erklüftung, Keiling first lays out the meaning the word had for the brothers Grimm and Goethe. He then gives an account of and relates to Erklüftung the notions of ground and projection, a few marvellous pages that deserve the absence of an inferior summary. Let us quote the final concern that Keiling raises after carefully enumerating and discussing the multitude of characters attributed to Erklüftung in the “Contributions”: “Heidegger’s overdetermination of the term, similar to the overdetermination of Entwerfen [projection] in Being and Time, calls into question the value of this metaphor as intuitive confirmation of a philosophical theory” (p. 291).
Now, admittedly, Keiling does not seem to have concerns that perhaps the problem with Erklüftung lies in the fact that, in treating it as an intuitively graspable metaphor, one can’t service the broadness of its significance. So, instead of dropping the supposition of metaphors as necessary elements, he posits that the term is a “speculative metaphor” and thus conceptual in the sense of being non-phenomenological (see 291-292). Now, even though the notion remains vital for a phenomenology of projecting and Dasein, Keiling asserts, that Erklüftung was sidelined foremost by the notion of the clearing.
Paths in Heidegger’s Later Thought lays out an intriguing trajectory across the later Heidegger’s oeuvre and touches on most key notions therewithin. Generally, the more accomplished authors offer a more substantial account of Heideggerian thought, but a few exceptions do stand out, as mentioned above. An inspiring read and a good overview of the European Heideggerians, the book’s usefulness to a professional reader still probably lies in specific essays of interest.
Reviewed by: Nel van den Haak
While Adorno and others maintained that, after the Second World War, poetry and philosophy are impossible, Blumenberg belonged to that group of post-war, German philosophers committed to exploring what would be possible in and with philosophy. Did Blumenberg succeed in this endeavour, and is that why some today find his work inspiring?
This new volume by Felix Heidenreich examines the operation of the work of Blumenberg, focusing on the operation of his metaphorology as political metaphorology. Yet he does not merely inquire into Blumenberg’s metaphorology. Indeed, there is a certain ambiguity in the title Politische Metaphorologie Hans Blumenberg heute. Hans Blumenberg heute is surely a more expansive topic than his metaphorology. What is the book about?
The book is structured as follows. In chapters 1-6 the author approaches metaphorology as philosophy, or more broadly as thought movement, thinking style. Chapter 6, on myth, is transitional, with chapters 7 and 8 being explicitly about political metaphorology. In chapter 9 the relationship of politics, morals, and truth is the central theme, with a focus on the political character of metaphorology. Chapter 10, the closing chapter, returns to the core question: What can we do with or make of Blumenberg’s philosophy and with his metaphorology?
The first chapter elaborates the core question: What is the operation of Blumenberg’s work? Thus it is clear that the book will not be an introduction to Blumenberg’s work (enough manuals are already available) nor an argument for a single thesis. Rather, it is a search for an answer to the question of what we are able to make of Blumenberg. Instead of a doxography, the author prioritizes investigation as a style of thinking. He wants to offer something other than the usual perspective, moving away from the question “What does Blumenberg say?” and towards the questions, “How does Blumenberg operate?” and “Is it possible to continue this operation?” By investigating these questions as paradigms, as examples of a working style and thinking style, the book attempts to contribute to the self-understanding of philosophy, as well.
The second chapter focuses on Die Legitimität der Neuzeit (1965), the book that made Blumenberg famous. Blumenberg examines European intellectual history, arguing that the modern representation of the self-assertion of the human, the representation that the human uses to take his fate into his own hands, is that by which he can and must transform his world. European modernity is thus not opposed to the Christian world, but procreated by it. The author refers to Anselm Haverkamp, who argues that Blumenberg at the end of the 1960s was conceived as left or progressive philosopher not least because of this book. In Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, the concept of rearrangement is important. Blumenberg’s conception of rearrangement suggests that themes and arguments exist in a functional coherence, in which separate elements can be exchanged and altered, but that there is no absolute “point zero,” an originary place from which new interpretations spring. Since every new idea arises from combinations of existing narratives, concepts, and metaphors, intellectual history becomes a series of changes, rearrangements, and bricolages.
In the third chapter the central question is whether there are any constants in innovation dynamics. What connects the contemporary person to the human being of the Middle Ages, to the ancients, or even to primitive times? Classically, philosophical anthropology gives the answers here. For instance, Kant’s question, “What is man?”, establishes a telos of the human being: Man is substantially social, substantially seeking knowledge, substantially gifted with reason. But according to Blumenberg, this essential determination cannot be continued today. As opposed to the essentialism of traditional European philosophy, he asks the question of man in his own, narrative way. The author points to two strategies in this context. First, in Blumenberg’s narrative philosophy, in place of attributions of being come stories and histories; second, there is Blumenberg’s plea for the generation and use of descriptive categories. In stories and descriptions, Blumenberg’s goal is also to produce distance, not a vision of the absoluteness of reality. He aims for an integration of the phenomenological, first-person-perspective on the one hand and natural-anthropological, third-person perspective on the other. In doing so, his descriptions are strongly bound to historical and personal circumstances, so that culture becomes a shield against the absolutism of reality. To describe this project, Blumenberg uses the metaphor of “caves” that are not built of stone, but of histories, texts, theories woven into houses. Thus, in his last major monograph, Höhlenausgänge (1989), the history of European philosophy becomes a series of cave metaphors. Yet, in contrast to Blumenberg’s emphasis on distance, Heidenreich argues that man is a being who alternates between distance and intimacy, and aligns one with the other.
In the fourth chapter the author discusses the relationship between culture and technology in Blumenberg’s anthropological variations. Not only do humans have means to anticipate danger and to prevent it, but animals also have rudimentary forms of technology: they build nests, communicate, and reap the benefits of their labour. Technology does not contrast with the world, but comes from it. The author applies Blumenberg’s concepts to phenomena that Blumenberg himself never described: digitisation, the Internet, development of self-learning machines. What do these technologies mean for people? They affect us by transforming us into data-producers and consumers. So, here, there appears to be a fruitful way to build on Blumenberg’s anthropological approach to technology.
In the fifth chapter the author points out something more explicitly about Blumenberg’s approach to anthropology and to rhetoric. Anthropological arguments always carry the danger of a certain reductionism. How does Blumenberg face this danger? As already indicated, for Blumenberg, description constants replace essence determinations. And while Blumenberg follows Kant in directing his thinking against a certain pathos of reason, his more powerful contribution is to rehabilitate a justification for rhetoric. Such rehabilitation is necessary because rhetoric has for too long been perceived primarily as an art of seduction. In contract, for Blumenberg, rhetoric is a technique of delay, a substitute for violence. Blumenberg is not so much interested in the rationality of rhetoric as he is in its formalising, delaying, and deflecting effect. In this context, Blumenberg’s understanding of education or Bildung as a kind of distancing or refusal to be impulsive is important. For Blumenberg, political education is not about rhetoric as display or framing, but about rhetoric as a kind of exercise in slowness and thoughtfulness. Nevertheless, rhetoric and metaphor do not always slow down, but can make things more complex, confuse, enthuse, but also oversimplify, leading to questionable cognitive “shortening.”
Criticism of an “essentializing anthropology”, which is based on a given being of man, cannot neglect to hold on to description constants, as already indicated. Chapter 6 starts with Blumenberg’s central thesis of the complexity reduction via narrative by man: Man likes to keep the world off the body and live with the things he experiences by telling himself and others a history. In this view, anthropology is systematically intertwined with myth. The foundational hypothesis here is that man as a narrative, myth-forming, myth-gathering being can never fully outgrow the premodern techniques of world-conquering. From chapter 6 onwards, the book moves towards Blumenberg’s political metaphorology. This chapter, not yet explicit about this, functions as a transition.
In German-language post-war philosophy, myth is a major field of study, and Blumenberg plays a central role in the intense struggle concerning how to understand myth and its function (the origins of this discussion are found in Carl Schmitt, Ernst Cassirer, and Albert Camus). According to Blumenberg, myths organize chaos. The first detailed and explicit presentation of the theme of myth theory can be found in Blumenberg’s contribution to the band on Probleme der Mythenrezeption (1968) under the title “Wirklichkeitsbegriff und Wirkungspotential des Mythos”, on how myth production and myth reception relate to each other. Yet it is Blumenberg’s monograph Arbeit am Mythos (1979) that dogma becomes central, and with it a questioning of the Christian tradition. Unlike Plato, Blumenberg does not pit myth against logos, but instead opposes it to dogma. In particular, he conceives myth as liberal and open in the face of the closedness and authoritarian character of dogma. At the end of the 1960s, this view produced the Blumenberg –Taubes controversy. Whereas Jacob Taubes stressed that the myth can also become anti-liberal, even becoming a means of spreading terror, Blumenberg has no plausible reply. He does write about the Hitler myth, but simply assumes that myth must be ambiguity-tolerant and ambiguous. Nevertheless, even ambiguity can be dangerous, as evidenced by the ideological promiscuity of the national socialist elite. Heidenreich concludes, I think quite rightly, that the outlining the form of thought and presentation of myth does not yet say anything about its content, a point Blumenberg largely missed.
In the seventh chapter, Blumenberg’s investigation of metaphor, as developed in his Paradigmen zu einer Metaphor (1960), takes centre stage. Indeed, Paradigms is Blumenberg’s methodically most important text, and perhaps the one for which he is most famous. Heidenreich argues that with this text Blumenberg opened up an entire field of research within philosophy, its important offshoot emerging, for example, in Ralf Konersmann’s Wörterbuch der philosophischen Metaphern (2007).
What is the core of metaphorology? The author indicates that this question is not easy to answer. The term suggests that it is a scientific treatment of metaphors, so that metaphorology relates to metaphor formation as a kind of reflexive science. But the significance of the project only becomes clear when it is placed in relation to the history of understanding, something that Blumenberg himself never accomplished. When concepts shape our thinking, the historically informed handling of these concepts becomes a requirement of controlled thinking. I think this implicitly shows a focus on the content of metaphors, but that is not yet an answer to the question of what metaphorology is. So, the question arises again: is metaphorology just the history of metaphors (akin to the history of concepts, which includes the history of their content) or a theory of metaphor and its function?
Another important question arises in this connection: Are metaphors ornaments or are they more fundamental? The view that metaphors should be understood not as an appendage but as a foundation of human language, is usually traced back to Nietzsche’s text Über Lüge und Wahrheit im aussermoralischen Sinne (1896). This is a central question about metaphor, but is it addressed by metaphorology? Blumenberg refers to Nietzsche, but offers no extended discussion, nor is Heidenreich clear on this point.
Heidenreich does point out that Blumenberg’s metaphorological texts have been compared to topos research. A classic objection to topos research is its associative character. One jumps among text types, eras, and reception contexts, to compare similar usage modes. But this purely associative linking counters Blumenberg’s approach, which looks to a structuring background narrative, as in Licht als Metapher der Wahrheit (1957). The decisive distinction between a metaphor-collecting topos-research and a metaphorological study is the presence in the latter of an historical thesis, which organizes the material. The concept of “Leitfossile” (leading fossils) is significant here. It means that metaphorology must assume significant cases in any given period, without which it would become a collection of bare materials.
The detection of analogies itself leads to thinking in analogies, for Blumenberg. Thus, the question arises: do people constitute metaphors or do metaphors constitute people? For Blumenberg, the study of metaphor shows that texts know more than their writers, since reality speaks through them. According to Heidenreich, this observation means that people do not have ideas, but ideas have people. But this leads to a methodological difficulty concerning the capacity of metaphorology to oversee the context of its research objects. This question about the relationship of metaphors and people, which appears in various places, seems to be a blind spot in the book, since the author never makes it thematic nor takes any real position on it.
Chapter 8 raises the key issue: what is political metaphorology? In Blumenberg, the word combination of political metaphorology does not occur. Heidenreich wants to investigate how metaphors themselves become political, and hence to understand how metaphors exercise power. His concern is not so much about metaphors within the history of ideas as it is about intellectual martial art, which keeps out questionable ideas. But it seems to me that one need not choose between the polemical function of metaphors, and metaphors as guiding fossils. Again, as far as I am concerned, the author does not offer a lucid treatment of this ambiguity in the functions of metaphor.
The author points out that the dimension of power in Blumenberg’s metaphorology remains implicit, but the next chapter considers political, military, and violent metaphors in the work of Blumenberg and of his pupils. It has long been acknowledged that such metaphors can lead from the point of view of theoretical knowledge. But, then, why is this discussion of violent metaphor necessary? Do these metaphors have depth, or do they serve as merely collective concepts? The same question can be asked about the author’s digressions about Brexit and about the French yellow jackets. Heidenreich even says that metaphors can at once be deadly and guiding. But the point of this observation eludes me. Perhaps we are once again asking whether metaphors form us or whether we form metaphors, but the discussion here does not gain any clarity on that question.
Though they do not resolve this crucial question, the author mentions several valuable features of Blumenberg’s approach. First, Blumenberg’s work clarifies the great relevance of cultural contexts and historical connotations to understanding metaphor: as a phenomenologist, Blumenberg knows that we always “see more than we see.” Second, Blumenberg’s approach makes it possible to consider the mixing of metaphors and myths. Indeed, metaphors can be understood as “micro-myths” insofar as they already have a narrative structure and are in many cases woven into larger narrative, which may even have its own mythical connections. Third, we learn something from Blumenberg about the dynamics of realignment.
The author then elaborates on the metaphorology of “the ship of state” and the question of the democratic “captain,” following Blumenberg’s Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer (1979). Here he refers in passing to Blumenberg’s analyses of the nautical metaphors that unfold in a Bundestag debate. The discussion of this example shows mainly how difficult a good political metaphor can be to unpack.
The author raises another methodically decisive question in this context: do these metaphors guide political relationships ornamentally, or do they have a real, channeling effect? How exactly should the relationship between expression and the expressed be understood here? Metaphors are plastic, so even the limited image of the state ship branches into a variety of theories and themes. Do metaphors really form our thought and action, or do we form metaphors as ornaments to our pre-existing ideologies and decisions? Could it be that metaphors are not deep guide fossils but rather a kind of surface foam?
The author tends somewhat towards the surface foam view. He holds, in a stronger way than Blumenberg himself, that one must assume the incoherence of human metaphor use. Blumenberg imagines that leading metaphors fundamentally pre-structure our view of the world, of which we ourselves are parts. In this view, metaphors are incoherent in the sense that they do not push our thinking through a single compelling channel, but rather through a complex network as in Venice, with side arms, dead-ends, main and side canals. Modernisation also contributes to this pluralisation, since in the absence of an absolute metaphor, there is rather a horizon of meanings, that terminate in one another. Our use of metaphors, including those that form political communication, is a bricolage.
For Heidenreich, the toolbox of Blumenberg’s political metaphor, unlike its pure framing analysis, provides an historically grounded analysis of primary philosophical leading metaphors. Against this background, the author indicates what he believes an integrative political metaphorology should look like. He makes a attempt at systematization, guided by a maxims of political metaphorology:
In the end, the author also stresses that a political metaphor in the continuation of Blumenberg’s work has a deconstructive character: Metaphorology is hardly focused on the question of whether metaphor is “correct”, but will only make explicit what connotations and implications are built in; the metaphors of people in the struggle for the appropriate expression must be understood analytically.
Chapter 9 focuses on the relationship between politics, morality, and truth, based on Hannah Arendt’s writing on the Eichmann trial. The question of truth here is focused on the truth of the existence of evil, while Arendt emphasizes the banality of evil. Though it takes effort to see what relevance this has to metaphorology, the link seems to be that political metaphorology must be guided in terms of power and democracy, and therefore also in terms of good and evil. Blumenberg blames Hannah Arendt for creating the myth of everyday – and thus innocent – evil, by portraying Eichmann as a stupid pawn. I will not go into the discussion between Blumenberg and Arendt about Eichmann, because recent research on Eichmann has shed new light on her assessment of the man and his crimes.
What is important is how we value myth-making. According to Blumenberg, collective myths can have a function. The unsustainability of their imagination does not have to be presented to the weak. As a means of defensive self-confidence, community-forming myths can be legitimate. Myths and truth thus become pharmaka, substances whose use presupposes a context-related clarity. But how can myth distinguish between right and wrong? When is a political myth useful for self-defence and when does it become hegemonic? Blumenberg lacks an answer to these questions, according to Heidenreich, for principled reasons. These questions depend on common sense and practical experience that is indicated in traditional philosophy with the concept of phronesis or prudentia. Because these are eminently practical questions, there is no rule that can be used to answer them. So, Heidenreich argues, there is no moral philosophy in Blumenberg, or at least nothing that solves these practical questions. But if that’s right, does this disqualify Blumenberg’s metaphorology from being political?
Chapter 10 turns to a key question in Blumenberg’s thinking: Where can philosophy still be practiced? As Heidenreich portrays it, Blumenberg gets rid of hard dividing lines of classical philosophy: the image of rhetoric as the enemy of philosophy disappears, myth is no longer directly opposed to reason. Blumenberg is taken as a representative of a soft, empathetic, deconstructive philosophy that allows authors, theories, and perspectives to manifest their metaphorical, time-bound and literary assumptions. But what does Blumenberg have to say about the mission of academic philosophy? Does philosophy disappear into scholarly writing, argument and insight into essayistic commentary?
For Blumenberg himself, it was internal philosophical doubt that makes a certain representation of the profession questionable. He is also clear in his rejection of the usefulness or applicability of philosophy. Heidenreich agrees that the current culture puts research projects under heavy time pressure, a problem already stressed by Blumenberg. Blumenberg opposed the instrumentalization of philosophy by industry, its economization. But since for him, theory was already form of praxis, he also saw little interest in the left-wing thinkers’ demand for the coherence of theory and revolutionary political praxis. The idea that theory could produce solutions to social problems, must have struck him as naïve.
One problem that presents itself in interpreting Blumenberg is that he left few programmatic texts in that set out his intentions. Yet Blumenberg clearly has a narrative style intended to allow one to consider objects from different perspectives, to explore detours and side roads, and to slow down and to express doubts. He allows for impressions to be processed in freedom without immediately reaching a judgment. Blumenberg is therefore very much in a phenomenological tradition. But according to Heidenreich, this narrative style is not dialogical, so the reader is left wondering how any statement could be contradicted or corrected. Perhaps narrative and dialogical philosophy could indeed develop further together, without contradiction, but for further answers about Blumenberg’s philosophy, a lot of research is needed.
But could Blumenberg’s ideas nevertheless help us understand the leading metaphors of the present day? According to Heidenreich, the great potential of Blumenberg’s approach lies in the careful deconstructive effect of a consistent survey of unselected background metaphors and narrative structures, and the apparent plasticity of meanings within that structure. Analysis should focus not only on dramatic metaphors, such as “struggle” but also on less conspicuous metaphors. With Blumenberg, we can initiate the questioning of those images, which in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words “hold us captive.” Metaphorology is thus at once a cultural techniques and a reflective approach to meaning that may ultimately be more than a deconstructive act.
Although the book contains much of interest, its investigation of the main question, about the politics of Blumenberg’s metaphorology, makes no real reference to Blumenberg’s own conception of politics. The author writes as if Blumenberg approached politics as a necessary evil, about which philosophy does not have to make much of a fuss. And to be sure, we rarely find an explicit discussion of the political in Blumenberg. It does arise, however, in his discussions of political theology, in which he questions traditional views on human nature. Similarly, in his posthumous book Beschreibung des Menschen (2007) (Description of the Human), he treats the state not so much as representing the citizens, but as prevailing over them. That’s a little different than seeing the politics as a necessary evil. Perhaps Blumenberg does politicize philosophy, just in a very different way than Heidenreich would like.
A few other criticisms I made in passing can also be made more explicit. First, no clear definition of metaphor is offered. Since metaphorology is a reflection on metaphors, this makes it a little difficult to grasp what the book is reflecting on. More importantly, in Heidenreich’s argument, metaphor and metaphorology are often mixed, which leads to ambiguities, particularly when he asks about the political operation of metaphor. In many places in the book, he wants to draw on the politically operational nature of metaphors as understood by Blumenberg. But a politically operative metaphor need not depend on politically-operational metaphorology, nor would a non-politically-operational metaphor detract from a politically-operational metaphorology. By the end of the book, the author seems to agree with Blumenberg’s broad understanding of the political dimensions of metaphor, as thinking routines. But since this emerges only at the end of the book, much of the earlier discussion remains ambiguous.
Another criticism is that the author is not always sharp about which point he wants to make, especially when he asks whether we form metaphors or whether metaphors form us. This question is regularly run together with the question of whether a metaphor is a superficial ornament or a guiding or channeling idea, e.g.
The methodically decisive question now is: do these metaphors guide purely ornamental world and political relationships or do they actually have a channeling effect? How exactly should the relationship between expression and the expressed be understood here? …… Do metaphors really channel or do we form metaphors? (90)
We see that the author shifts to the second question, without the first question being answered. But whether a metaphor is ornamental or channelling, does not seem to bear on whether man determines it.
If humans are creators of language, they can produce both superficial metaphors and channeling ideas. But perhaps the author has a different view, and he believes that a metaphor can be a guiding idea, only if man is guided, and not creative himself. The author could have offered a clearer argument by drawing on the extensive French philosophical discourse on this subject (e.g. the work of Lacan, Kristeva, and Ricoeur).
Ultimately, it could be the case that Heidenreich fails to find unity in Blumenberg’s work simply because it is not there. Blumenberg hardly mentions metaphorology in his later work, perhaps because Gadamer in Wahrheid und Methode (1960) has sharply worked out this theme. Blumenberg moved on to myth and incomprehensibility, themes that mark a deepening of his phenomenology. The connection with the earlier work is increasingly loose and unclear, and it becomes increasingly difficult to see the political significance in his later work. Nevertheless, despite these concerns, with Politische Metaphorology: Hans Blumenberg Heute, Heidenreich has produced a rich book that provides a welcome, fresh look at Blumenberg’s work.
Reviewed by: Sarah Fayad (Emory University)
It is somewhat easy to forget that philosophy has not always, or in every case, been conducted through the medium of writing. For the most part, we expect philosophy to be written. But the written-ness of philosophy is contingent, and so too is its suspension in the written: in literature, media, interview, and of course poetry. Socrates and Plato, or instance, did not make much use of citation and Plato especially elevated philosophy at the expense of poetry and drama. And, indeed, this contingency is all the more difficult for philosophers to fathom, because the written word is usually the trade-mechanism by which we philosophize, and through which we think. The experienced phenomena of reading and writing are the basic instruments of philosophy, as we practice it. Writing is not merely the way we convey and transmit ideas, born and nurtured in the mind. Rather, when we look at the phenomena of reading and writing, we see the ebb and flow of epiphany, of doubt, of enlightenment and invention. Writing is quite often how we philosophize at all.
The primordial disciplinary decision to move the vague shapes and shadows of our ideas from their mental and social obscurity (and incompletion) to the written word—a decision which none of us living had any hand in making— itself has philosophical ramifications. That is to say that the presupposition of philosophy’s written-ness, is shot through with questions: questions about the truth, as well as metaphilosophical questions about the place of philosophy within the universal/Borgesian «Library of Babel» it has chosen for itself, about the necessity of writing philosophy and the necessity of philosophy regarding other kinds of written works, about the relationship between philosophical, literary, journalistic, and poetical styles to reality, truth, clarity, and that part of the human spirit to which philosophy wants to appeal.
Charles Bambach’s and Theodore George’s anthology, Philosophers and Their Poets lights upon these fundamental questions of philosophy-as-word, as speech, and as our connection to one another and to the real through a series of serious, considered, and illuminating papers examining the relationship of philosophers to art, style, and of course poetry. I see these papers as being divided into four more-or-less distinguishable subject-categories: 1) papers dealing with German idealist discourse around the role and status of art, poetry, and beauty in what they regard as a burgeoning philosophical and rational world, 2) analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art as it serves as a kind of hinge—indeed serves as itself a revealing poem—between idealism and more phenomenological and existential traditions, 3) those dealing with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry as a revolutionary force in meaning-making, and 4) those which proceed from the poems themselves to philosophical analyses.
The first three chapters of this collection take us through the foundations of these questions of style and artistry in the German idealist tradition. The first essay by Maria de Rosario Acosta Lopez analyses a historical controversy between Schiller and Fichte over philosophical style and the part of the human being to which philosophy must speak. This is followed by Chapter 2, which presents us with a very clear and compelling translation of the very letters exchanged between Schiller and Fichte, regarding philosophical style. These first chapters elucidate a possible ambiguity between reason and feeling, which gives way to a possible ambiguity between philosophy and poetry. This ambiguity leads Hegel’s intuitions, both conceptually and historically. Theodore George argues in Chapter 3 that philosophy and art have a similar purpose in the creation of world-historical meaning, for Hegel. We see a transition from any concern about the purity of philosophy in Fichte to an embrace of its meaning-founding affinities with religion and art in the later work of Hegel.
Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Nietzsche, whose philosophy marks a kind of transition between German idealism and the phenomenological and existential (represented by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer), which will occupy the four of the volume’s remaining chapters. In Chapter 4, Babette Babich analyses Nietzsche’s relationship to ancient Greek tragic poetry, to its lost poets, and to their time-silenced songs in the interest of revealing what are indisputable contributions to philosophy itself, contra an extant tradition in the literature which more or less excludes him from the field. The fifth Chapter by Kalliopi Nikolopoulou investigates Nietzsche’s attachment to the heroic in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw ancient heroes and the poets who sung their tales as perhaps doubly heroic, she argues, since they might remedy Modern nihilism.
Chapters 5, 7, and 8 all deal with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry—as both the truth and the promise of philosophy. Like Schiller, Hegel, and Nietzsche Heidegger sees poetry as revealing a fuller truth than that accessible by reason alone. But it is only with Hegel that Heidegger shares this concept of the promise of poetry; both Heidegger and Hegel think art has (or once had) the power to inaugurate worlds and imbue them with meaning. Charles Bambach’s sixth Chapter for this volume begins at the interstices of aesthetics and ethics, mired in this Heideggerian meaning-making power/promise of the poem. He finds that the poem—in granting us access to our humanity in full—promises an originary ethics of our place, and (I’ll say) perfection, which is utterly opaque to us without the poetic disclosure. In the seventh Chapter, «Remains,» William McNeill addresses the futurity any concept of a promise must take for granted. He argues that Heidegger’s confrontations with Hölderlin’s poetry open up novel relations and meanings for us by altering the medium of time. Hölderlin’s works according to McNeill demonstrate a substratum of ambiguity in time wherein the greeting and remembrance are indistinct. Thus, the poem’s novel horizonality inaugurates a new world by possibilizing new projects, new relations to one another, and even new relations to the dead. Chapter 8 is likewise about the time of the poem, but it looks to its momentum, to the cadence of thought. Such poietic momentum, Krystof Ziarek argues, is experienced as rhythm and even texture. When philosophy takes on this cadence, it transcends the mere transmission of information and exceeds the possibilities of the argument: demonstrating in this excess new possibilities for thought itself.
Chapters 9, 10, and 11 emerge from analyses of poets and poetic works, rather than from within the philosophical theories which have taken them up. This provides what I think is a novel opportunity for philosophers who might not themselves read much poetry. It is a strange admission to make here, I suppose, that I have likely read more philosophical works which abstract from and selectively cite poems than I have poems themselves. To the question, «Is poetry true?» Chapter nine of Philosophers and Their Poets poses a kind of phenomenological/experimental response; «In order to answer this question maybe no extensive conceptual discussion of truth is needed…just attention to a particular poem led by the question how such a poem can be read and understood.» To this end, Gunther Figal looks to Burnt Norton» by T.S. Eliot. Chapter 10, by Gert-Jan van der Heiden, which I discuss in some greater detail below, looks to the somewhat revolutionary poetry of Célan, which render in poetic verse that promise of a different world, or of new meanings, of new homes—out of the silence, the nothingness, that must follow the decay of status-quo intelligibility, in the rests, and breaths that keep familiar meaning from crossing living lips. In Chapter 11, Max Kommerell (who has been translated here by Christopher D. Merwin and Margot Wielgus) provides an analysis of Hölderlin’s Empedocles poem, which demonstrates his distinctiveness. In particular, this analysis lays bare Hölderlin’s perhaps utterly unique poetic «ear,» which attunes him to cosmic harmonies and truths, and places what is revealed in his writing always-already outside the grasp of our concepts; «…in accord with his talent, Hölderlin could experience what, for us, lies at an ungraspable distance and is a hardly thinkable event as the real history of his soul.»
Because of its historical breadth, this anthology might serve as a kind of introduction to the specific questions that arise from continental philosophy’s various encounters with poetry. But the book would only be an appropriate introduction for somewhat advanced students of philosophy, familiar with continental thought, and its historical movements. It is therefore I think primarily suited to philosophers already researching some of the questions outlined in my introduction. These would also be invaluable secondary sources for interdisciplinary researchers. I would readily recommend the volume, for example, to anyone writing at the interstices of philosophy or art and aesthetics with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, and metaphysics. This recommendation is in no small part because the authors in this volume have done an excellent job bringing the stakes of philosophy of art to the surface.
Art, especially as poetry, has had an inescapable influence on philosophical thinking throughout its 2000+ years of development. If the bare written-ness of philosophy opens up as many questions as it does, then what does its ready and intimate relationship to poetry mean for us? What does it say about philosophy itself: its veracity, its trustworthiness? And, perhaps more promisingly: What does it say about poetry, about its kind of truth? Bambach and George introduce the works in this anthology by way of a kind of conclusion:
What we find in poetry is the unfolding of the very momentum of language as an originary opening up and emergence that does not fit into the metaphysical encasements of presence and representation… Against the propositional language of statements, poetic language invites us to heed the pauses, the interruptions, and the caesurae that call us to attend to what is not said or can never be said in language.
They find that poetry invites that part of the human spirit which can attend to the immutable mysteries of our existence and of Being, in general, to attend to these mysteries, in spite of their inherent obscurity. Poetry, in short, invites us to philosophize. We come up against this indistinction between the philosophical and the poetic, as we read the essays collected in Philosophers and Their Poets, again and again. The philosophical—which has, in many of its iterations attempted to void itself of the poetic, to let beauty die of neglect—is shot through with the poetic. The poetic is unavoidably philosophical: so much so that we might call any promise of truth philosophy might make, at all, the «poetic.»
We cannot help but ask here, where ordinary categories fail; Who are the philosophers and who the poets of Philosophers and Their Poets? Some thinkers examined within the volume trouble themselves with the differences, while others embrace, and even invest fully in the similarities. (Although, the indistinction between the poetic and the philosophical may, in the end, be why we feel compelled to draw such a distinction in the first place, rendering both derivative).
Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez’s analysis of a confrontation between Schiller and Fichte begins the essays in the collection and does so as an inauguration of the very questions with which we have been tarrying. Most importantly, the argument between these Modern titans lays bare a very basic metaphilosophical point I had not ever before considered: that all writing, all discourse, and all philosophy must speak either to the whole of the human being or to some part of her. Philosophy might, therefore, have a different audience than does poetry, news, or fiction even within the same enfleshed and living reader. Fichte presupposes that philosophy must solicit only some part of the subject. He argues that philosophical writing must be as logical as possible, using examples in such a way that they shore up arguments rather than evoke the sensible and imaginative capacities. This is because, on his view, philosophy takes aim at the Understanding alone. Other capacities of the subject are not relevant, on this view, to the philosophical pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit can, therefore, only be successful if it is confined to this valence of subjectivity.
But, is such a well-fortified compartmentalization of subjective parts, regions, and capacities even possible for more contemporary thinkers? Doesn’t Continental Philosophy’s «phenomenological turn» render anathema the very idea that philosophy might reach something like the tower-bound understanding—especially without dirtying itself in the more immanent ground of evoking and implicating imagination, sensation, and body? Indeed I think many of us would agree that philosophy might not be able to find and transmit truth if it does not consider and speak to the whole human being. Rosario Acosta Lopez shows that Schiller’s evocations of imagination insert «…in the heart of human action the elements of contingency, finitude and a permanent and necessary dialog with a world that is never entirely in our power to control.» Contra Fichte, Schiller’s more poetical and evocative style is veridical: showing us the world in its more awe-inspiring and challenging true-light.
My continual tendency, aside from the inquiry itself, is to employ the ensemble of emotional forces and to the extent that it is possible to affect all of them. I thus do not wish merely to make my thoughts clear to others, but at the same time to transmit my entire soul to them, and to influence bother their sensuous and intellectual powers.
Schiller makes an epistemological, existential, and ontological point with his imaginative and sensuous writing style. He also makes a metaphilosophical one, which proceeds naturally from undermining the understanding’s epistemic monopoly; «[T]he discussion reflects on philosophy itself, inviting us to understand the boundaries of thought, and the very rich possibilities that come along [sic] the recognition of these boundaries.» The understanding has boundaries precisely with regard to the philosophical and cannot philosophize without pooling resources with something like the integrated-and-whole embodied subject.
This more phenomenologically salient, existential understanding of the poetic nature of philosophical writing (and of the philosophical nature of poetic writing, as well) seems to prevail in the context of the anthology as it deals with authors like Heidegger and Gadamer. Poetic writing, as it reaches the whole human being and casts its creeping, seeking, tendrils even into the most obscure and mysterious depths of the soil of our Being, and our Becoming.
Hegel might seem an odd-man-out in terms of this generalization since he does not affirm the indistinct boundaries between philosophy and art. His infamous and oft-misunderstood argument for the «end of art» and the primacy of philosophy is a testament to this. Yet, Theodore George shows Hegel nonetheless sees art as serving a similar function to philosophy in the founding and transmission of meaning, even in the Modern world. This function unsurprisingly has to do with truth. Art, religion, and philosophy allow «a society…to take a good look at itself, to make explicit its deepest context of meaning, the context that otherwise remains merely tacit even as it shapes, orients and grants legitimacy to all further meanings within that society.»
On George’s account in this volume, Hegel should be read as saying that between art and philosophy as well as between Classical and Romantic art, there are no differences in kind. Rather there are differences in context, which yield differences in the magnitude of their respective world-founding forces. Hegel thinks that Classical artworks originarily founded, grounded, and justified Greek culture. Everything in this period—including the first works of philosophy— derives from and makes sense in reference to this founding. Within the modern period, however, art bears no such promise and philosophy must provide our social foundations. The ancient context gave art a greater share of the inauguration, transmission, and preservation of its truth. The modern era by necessity gives it less.
On this view, the nascent philosophy of the ancient world could not but be derivative of its more originary sculptural founding, and thus will be supplanted by modern philosophy: the first philosophy to successfully found and ground a world-historical epoch. Hegel argues that modernity is, in essence, a revaluation, whereby philosophy accrues a greater degree of veridical force. This changing of worlds, the promise of new meanings and truths—the world-historical dawn in which Hegel feels himself bathed—this is the promise of philosophy as poetic and of poetry as philosophical, which comes to dominate Philosophers and Their Poets. Inchoate in language are new worlds.
Babette Babich’s search for Nietzsche’s all-but-lost poet, Archilochus, lays bare the tension with which humanity is suspended upon the Earth. The truth of tragedy is a musical truth, she concludes. But what is music within the Nietzschean paradigm other than «the becoming human of dissonance?» In music, we take up into the body our irresolute difference from the world and its entities: a tension that cannot be resolved so long as we are of this world. Such a tension as that between the world and its dominant species is perfectly thought as musical dissonance; dissonance heard arises from the proximity of one note with the other, the greatest dissonance from the greatest similarity, proximity, intimacy.
This is what distinguishes us as the exception among beings, that we both inhabit and are inhabited by an inescapable uncanniness that pervades our ethos.
This tension between the «possible nearness and necessary remoteness of all things» to us is the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of poetry and art. That strangeness and disquiet that emerges most strongly, most sustained, from the smallest margins of difference, from the tightest chasms of intimacy. We seek the resolution, like any listener, any composer. But the resolution cannot happen here, within our fraught intimacy with a world that cannot harmonize with us; a world that—through Modernity, mechanization, and technologization—we have mistakenly set to sing a different song from us, altogether. Philosophers and Their Poets allows us to tarry with the major philosophical insight that there are however possible—that is, horizonal, not-yet-actual/arrived—worlds, with which we could harmonize.
Such worlds, on Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s accounts, seem to exist just beyond the concepts that make up our reality: possibilities invisible to us because we have a faith in the world, which could perhaps shatter upon rocks of the right philosophical or poetic work. William McNeill argues that Heidegger’s encounters with poetry reveal the limits of phenomenology, and therefore of the truth-telling capacity of our very experience. Poetry reveals those limits of our world which serve as its conditions of possibility (time), and thus what is real beyond our comprehension, or our apprehension, through the structures of meaning in which we are presently enmeshed. Bambach argues that the poet sings the philosopher his longing for his «own home amid the experience of expulsion,» in an uncanny home, in an intelligibility which fails to make sense of the philosopher and indeed each of us, an intelligibility that thus desacralizes us, flattens and debases us. But the poet’s hymn is a heralding hymn, which points «ahead to the futural coming of the gods.» Gods, of course, found worlds. And perhaps the poet can sing the eventual creation of a home that protects our dignity, sanctifies us, and sets us forever free of the old intelligibility.
The anthology presents oscillations and refinements of this insight throughout the history of Western thought—from Nietzsche’s conception of world-revolutionary «revaluation,» to Heidegger’s alethic revelation of (extant and real) values, the existential progressivism of so-called ontological and ethical «ambiguity,» and Gadamer’s «subdued hope…» The notes that harmonize with our being, hum imperceptibly all around us; we just need philosophy and art to amplify them, and finally to change the song of the world.
With new worlds, of course, come new ethics, new values, new ways of being with one another, and even new entities. The works collected in Philosophers and Their Poets confront the abyss of the as-of-yet inchoate possibilities of this new world—hidden in the bare written-ness of philosophy—and they do so with an eye to what’s at stake in such questions for denizens of the present world. We should, I think, desire new answers to the question, «Who are we?” While I am reticent to add much of anything extra-textual to such a rich volume, I will say I feel we cannot but look at our current world in mourning, in longing. The coming of another means the terrifying demise of the world. But it might finally mean the embrace of the Other, of one another, no matter how strange we’ve been to each other:
Language gives us shelter… by deconstructing word and language the poem sets free another horizon, namely the horizon of the unfamiliar… the horizon of heaven.
The stranger, in her approach through the medium of the poem; The strange in its approach through the medium of the poem; Both approach with their arms outstretched, and paradise in their hands, according to Célan.
I do not believe a poem alone can save us (unless our definition of «poetry» becomes so diffuse as to lose all meaning). After all, the horrors of this world have easily survived any beauty in it. I therefore even have to regard the destructive power Célan grants poetry with some skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that (poetic) beauty has its place, as we attempt to turn the world over and reveal its other side. Alongside Schiller, I feel poetic language might help to engage the entire human being in the work of making a way for new meanings. As social and political creatures we are, of course, embodied and intercorporeal, only partially rational. If poetry is world-transitional in the ways Heidegger and Célan argue, it is in part because we cannot migrate to a new world by virtue of our rationality alone. Beauty as justice, as long-awaited relief, as burgeoning post-revolutionary responsibilities to one another, even as forgiveness, as absolution: this is the medium of revolutionary beauty, which might both carry us to a new world as well as compose this world in its meter, its tone, and its colors (as the paint carries us to the world of the painting, by the very act of creating that world). Such a medium perhaps makes possible—even beckons—the revolutionary poem. And thus we might be called to the selfless, futural, heartache of revolutionary beauty by the poets of our current, decaying, world as well. A poem alone may not be able to save us, but I am inclined to take what help there is.
 Günter Figal, “Learning from Poetry: On Philosophy, Poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 204.
 Max Kommerell, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,» Translated by C. Merwin and M. Wielgus, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 260.
 Charles Bambach and Theodore George. 2019. Philosophers and Their Poets. Albany: State University of New York Press, 5-6.
 Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.
 “Fichte and Schiller Correspondence, from Fichte’s Werke, Vol. 8 (De Gruyter).” Translated by Christopher Turner, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 56.
 Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.
 Babette Babich, “Who is Nietzsche’s Archilochus? Rhythm and the Problem of the Subject,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 103.
 Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’ Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 146.
 William McNeill, “Remains: Heidegger and Hölderlin amid the Ruins of Time,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 179.
 Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 152.
 Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 145.
 Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 226.
Reviewed by: Christos Hadjioannou (University of Cyprus)
Introductions are historical pieces of work conditioned by the tendencies and urgencies of the moment, and that means they need to be rewritten again and again. Still, one might be excused for thinking that the world doesn’t need another introduction to Heidegger. After reading O’Brien’s excellent book, though, one will be convinced otherwise. Accessible and intellectually honest, this critical introduction to Heidegger’s life and works is a timely contribution to the field, which I recommend highly to beginners as well as specialists.
Today, undergraduates and other first-time readers of Heidegger do not come to his works empty-handed. We can assume that most of them have been exposed to “the Heidegger controversy.” Preserving Heidegger’s legacy requires addressing that controversy. O’Brien is therefore wise not to bypass it, but instead tell the story of Heidegger’s thought partly against that political backdrop. Nor does the book pretend to offer a guide to Heideggerian philosophical concepts from a “neutral standpoint.” It is a polemical introduction, taking a stand on the political issues as well as important interpretive questions that haunt Heidegger scholarship.
In his preface, O’Brien clarifies what he takes to be uncontroversial about Heidegger’s works, and what remains contentious to this day. Instead of painting a sacrosanct picture, he thematizes the controversies and presents a nuanced picture—one that cancels out neither the controversies and weaknesses in Heidegger’s thought, nor the immense value of Heidegger’s philosophical insights.
O’Brien identifies two extreme positions in Heidegger interpretation and rejects the squabble between them as a false dilemma. One position holds that Heidegger is “the greatest scourge to have afflicted academic philosophy,” while to the other, he is “the most important philosopher to have emerged from the Western tradition since Hegel” (ix). O’Brien offers an interpretation that accepts a version of both positions. He argues that while it is undeniable that Heidegger’s association with National Socialism was neither brief not incidental to his thought, and that his commitment to it was based on some of the core elements of his magnum opus, Being and Time (BT), this does not justify “the extirpation of Heidegger’s thought from the canon” (ibid.). Heidegger’s impact remains profound, and striking him from the canon obliterates his intellectual achievements and makes it impossible to explain the origin of subsequent thinkers, who were influenced by him. But O’Brien also warns against the extreme devotion displayed by some commentators, who are “guilty of all kinds of intellectual acrobatics and apologetics in an attempt to rehabilitate Heidegger’s image” (xi). He vows to avoid such misplaced loyalty, which risks alienating prospective readers of Heidegger “who will eventually learn for themselves that Heidegger was a Nazi and a selfish, arrogant egomaniac to boot” (ibid.).
In Chapter One, entitled “Ways Not Works,” O’Brien addresses Heidegger’s methodology and influences, and takes a clear stand on the Kehre debate, which concerns the relationship between the early and later works. Although this issue is decisive in determining what narrative is offered not only regarding the late works but most crucially regarding BT, it is often set aside in introductory texts. O’Brien warns against the two extremes that see either radically disjointed efforts over the course of his oeuvre or an overt systematicity. Instead, he supports the so-called “continuity thesis,” which finds unity across the Heidegger corpus. Thus he sees Heidegger’s work as “a continuous, evolving, if not entirely seamless, enterprise” (xi). Invoking Heidegger’s maxim “ways not works”, O’Brien presents his oeuvre as a series of attempts at thematizing the question of the meaning of being (2-3), which question he addressed most rigorously in BT. This approach helps us appreciate the reasons why Heidegger moved beyond that central work without ever actually rejecting it. O’Brien’s narrative thus rejects a distinction between “Heidegger I” and “Heidegger II,” and counters the assumption that the later works are incompatible with the earlier (5).
O’Brien also does a fine job in this chapter of acknowledging the most important influences on Heidegger’s work without giving a reductive account that denies his philosophical originality. As he argues, Heidegger’s work cannot be categorized under any of the movements that influenced him. Nonetheless, O’Brien identifies Husserl’s phenomenology as having exerted the most influence on his early thought.
Chapter 2, “Early Life,” covers the most significant biographical information with bearing on Heidegger’s philosophical ideas (and is actually not confined only to his early years), including his attempts at a political philosophy. What is crucial to take away from this chapter is the connection between Heidegger’s philosophical confrontation with modernism and his sense of belonging to his native region and its heritage. O’Brien argues that Heidegger himself made it “very clear that the biographical details of his own life […] were crucial to an understanding of the manner in which his thinking developed” (8). Accordingly, he relates the basic facts about Heidegger’s upbringing and family: his father’s vocational connection to the Catholic Church, and his many ties to the countryside and peasant communities, including his mother’s farming background. Thus he contextualizes Heidegger’s distrust of city life and cosmopolitanism (9), which he associated with inauthenticity.
O’Brien draws attention to the interpretive difficulty that hampers any serious attempt to distinguish between those of Heidegger’s philosophical discoveries that resulted from honest thinking, and ideas he espoused disingenuously, ad hoc, in order to justify his private proclivities. It is challenging to identify and appreciate some of Heidegger’s important philosophical ideas on their own merit when he himself attaches them to ridiculous personal views. As a result, some interpreters end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater (12), allowing these associations to discredit profound insights.
In the chapter, O’Brien does not shy away from commenting on Heidegger’s bad personality traits, such as his feigned humility, his extraordinary arrogance and pretentiousness, his serious messiah complex, as well as his philandering (12). The chapter closes with references to his wife Elfride’s antisemitism and nationalism, and shows that also Heidegger himself was fiercely nationalistic (14).
Chapter 3, “Rumours of the Hidden King,” tracks Heidegger’s intellectual development from the early Freiburg period, when he served as Husserl’s teaching assistant, to his years lecturing at Marburg, in the early 1920s. Once he took up employment at Marburg, Heidegger begun formulating his own ideas and themes, moving away from neo-Kantianism and Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, and recognizing “the importance of time as history for the philosophical project he wished to inaugurate” (21).
One topic stands out in this chapter: Heidegger’s break from Husserlian phenomenology. Here the book’s characterizations of Heidegger’s person are again harsh: O’Brien claims that while Heidegger was indeed at one point deeply inspired by Husserl, nevertheless he “carefully choreographed” the impression that Husserl was his mentor, dedicating BT to him as part of a “calculated piece of manipulation designed to win the favour of one of the most important and influential philosophical voices in Germany at the time” (19).
Chapter 4, “The Hidden King Returns to Freiburg,” is the longest and most important chapter of the book. Here, O’Brien discusses BT and tries to properly contextualize its main arguments in relation to the entire corpus. Discussing the structure of BT, O’Brien analyzes its incompleteness in terms of both philosophical motivations and purely professional-strategic ones. He finds a deep consistency between the projected (missing) second part of BT with the work of his later period. Proponents of the discontinuity thesis, he argues, misinterpret the idea of a “turn” (Kehre), supposing that the new approach and language characteristic of Heidegger’s later texts represent a “reversal,” a “turning away from” and thus a repudiation of BT. But on the contrary, O’Brien points out, the later works constantly invoke BT in order to explain key developments. Heidegger himself recommended that the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics (IM), be read “as a companion piece to Being and Time” (30). While the later works are not reducible to the earlier, still “Heidegger never fully relinquishes some of the key ideas that he was developing in Being and Time” (28).
Having made his case for continuity, O’Brien is free to turn to important texts that postdate BT in order to clarify some of the latter’s central arguments. Interpreting BT as a book that tries to address the ontologically suppressed interplay of presence and absence, O’Brien refers to the 1949 introduction to “What Is Metaphysics?” (WM) (1929) in order to clarify the purpose that animates BT, which is none other than “to prepare an overcoming of metaphysics” (33). According to Heidegger, the meaning of being as traditionally understood in philosophy privileges presence, something which O’Brien says “distorts the nature of reality for us and indeed our own self-understanding” (30). Part of what Heidegger tries to do is challenge the prejudice that the word “being” and its cognates mean that something exists or is present (ibid.). In fact, when we say that things “are,” “it is not clear that that means that they exist as fully present or actualised before us” (32).
In WM, Heidegger would blame this “metaphysics of presence” for misrepresenting the way we actually experience the world (33). WM’s discussion of nothingness targets the principle of non-contradiction, O’Brien says—a principle “routinely invoked to dismiss all talk of the nothing as simply wrong-headed, illogical, unscientific, in short, as contradictory” (34). The tradition has decided in advance that being reduces to presence and that it itself is not nothing. According to O’Brien, this treatment of nothingness is anticipated early on in BT, specifically in the account of moods as the site which throws open the interplay of presence and absence (34). “Heidegger returns to and defends this idea in 1929, in 1935 and again in his 1940’s introduction and postscript to the 1929 lecture [WM]” (ibid.). Heidegger, O’Brien writes, is trying to show that “traditional approaches miss out on all of the possibilities inherent in what we ‘mean’ when we say that a [an entity] is here, or there, or is something or other” (39). Being means possibility—a multiplicity of possibilities—and although beings stand in Being, they never overcome the possibility of not-Being, something that the philosophical tradition has missed by conceiving being in terms of continuous presence. As O’Brien explains, “[w]hat is suppressed is the role that absence or nothingness plays in our experience and how most of our experience involves a constant interplay of presence and absence” (40).
O’Brien concedes that the existential analytic of Dasein does tend toward anthropocentrism or an excessive prioritization of human subjectivity, but he draws attention to the methodological reasons that led Heidegger to begin with Dasein. Heidegger was convinced that “a new brand of phenomenology, unencumbered with the transcendental baggage of the later Husserl, was the appropriate method, while recognizing that time (or temporality) should be central to any attempt to begin to investigate the meaning of being” (42). Rather than “beginning with some abstract theory or idea, Heidegger insisted that we should begin with ordinary, everyday existence, before any abstractions” (ibid.).
In the same chapter, O’Brien also critically responds to realist readings of Heidegger’s late work, which—as he convincingly argues—rely on a misreading of BT. Without attributing to Heidegger the view that Dasein actively creates meaning, O’Brien disagrees that the meaning of being subsists in the absence of Dasein. He clarifies that Heidegger does not deny that entities exist “out there,” only that their meaning (i.e. the phenomenological “world”) exists independently of Dasein. Here the analysis would benefit from a reference to Taylor Carman’s work, whose use of the term “ontic realism” could help O’Brien consolidate his position further.
In the rest of the chapter, O’Brien offers an eloquent explication of the basic structures of Dasein as presented in BT, without ever becoming tiresome or overly technical. Thus he explains how “understanding” works in terms of projects and possibilities, how “affectivity” (Befindlichkeit) works in terms of moods in which we already find ourselves, and how “falling” works in terms of understanding being as presence.
As regards the focus on death in BT, O’Brien argues that Heidegger is not interested in the actual event of death per se, but rather in the fact that our manner of understanding everything in the world around us is conditioned by our own finitude (47). Heidegger wants to move from the metaphysics of presence to an ontology which reckons with the role that absence or nothingness plays in the meaning of a thing’s being (48).
Chapter 5 is entitled “The 1930s – Politics, Art and Poetry.” The chapter begins with Heidegger’s so-called “linguistic turn,” in which the poetic use of language in particular emerged as a key concern. While some commentators see Heidegger’s focus on language, and particularly his preoccupation with Hölderlin’s poetry during the 1930s and 40s, as a shift away from the project of BT, O’Brien argues that if we remain faithful to the fact that BT is about the meaning of Being, then there’s no surprise in the linguistic turn. In my opinion, O’Brien’s thesis here would benefit from a reference to Heidegger’s early notion of “formal indication,” which is also a precursor to poetic language.
Next O’Brien turns to Heidegger’s linguistic chauvinism, which he argues contributed to shaping his political views. Heidegger believed that German and Ancient Greek were philosophically superior languages that could grasp the world in the origin of its being, and that other languages, such as French and English, were philosophically destitute (57). O’Brien brings up the worrisome recurrence of Heidegger’s prejudice about a supposed inner affinity between Germany and Ancient Greece. He also discusses Heidegger’s intense criticism of “everything in the Western tradition that has led to modernity and eventually the age of technology” (60). It is in this context, argues O’Brien, that Judaism is thrown “into the melting pot along with everything else that he sees as a consequence of the history of the metaphysics of presence, a metaphysics which he believes the German people alone can overcome” (ibid.).
One of the most interesting moments in the book comes when O’Brien questions whether Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity is really as unique as we have been taught to think. Thus he calls for an excavation and identification of the sinister and at times disappointingly derivative motivations behind ideas that many have taken to be unique features of Heidegger’s critique (60-61). Some aspects of Heidegger’s critique of modernity, O’Brien says, are but “a variant on what were ultimately a series of stock antisemitic prejudices that proliferated in Germany from the late 1700s onwards” (59). In some of the most nationalistic and antisemitic remarks to be found in the 1933-1934 seminar Nature, History, State, Heidegger argues that for Slavic people, German space would be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to Germans, and that to “Semitic nomads” it would “perhaps never be revealed at all” (62). O’Brien argues that these attempts to relate philosophical views to a renewal of German spiritual and cultural life under National Socialism can be registered under a certain tradition to which also Fichte belonged (ibid.). Yet Heidegger’s conviction that this “revolution” must be based on key elements of his own philosophical vision, i.e. the attempt to overcome the metaphysics of presence and the inauguration of a new beginning which was specifically tied to the destiny of the German people, makes him stand out in this tradition. Heidegger was “as naïve as he was megalomaniacal” (63), O’Brien says, while reminding us not to dismiss the philosophy just because of the political ends the philosopher thought it could serve.
The final part of the chapter turns to the topic of art and follows Heidegger’s engagement with Hölderlin’s poetry in his 1934 lectures, as well as his 1935-1936 essay “The Origin of the Work of Art.” According to O’Brien, Heidegger was keen to distance his discussion of the origin of art from any conventional aesthetics, and previous analyses of this work have overlooked how Heidegger situates his treatment of art within his larger political vision. Invoking the unique destiny of the German people, Heidegger identifies Hölderlin as the poet the Germans must heed in order to foster an authentic happening, a new political and cultural beginning (65).
In chapter 6, “The Nazi Rector,” O’Brien addresses the apogee of the “Heidegger controversy”: his involvement with Nazi politics and his rectorship at the University of Freiburg. His appointment as rector came as a complete surprise to his students, the Jewish ones included, because as far as they were concerned, “there had been nothing in his demeanor or attitude to that point to suggest that he might be sympathetic to Nazism” (71). On the other hand, argues O’Brien, it’s unlikely that Heidegger happened upon his political allegiances overnight in 1933 (71). He draws attention to the fact that Heidegger reportedly read and was impressed by Mein Kampf, and that he held antisemitic and reactionary views from early on (ibid.). Thus on O’Brien’s view, the Black Notebooks only confirm previously available evidence that Heidegger was an antisemite who thought he could articulate antisemitic views from within his own philosophical framework.
The whole controversy, argues O’Brien, “should have and could have been dealt with comprehensively and exhaustively a long time ago” (74). He identifies two key factors that contributed to the unnecessary protraction of the whole issue: firstly, the drip-feeding of problematic texts, which created the impression that further revelations, which might complicate the picture, were continuously underway; secondly, the fact that the most critical voices were philosophically weak or obviously biased, resulting in a superficiality that “managed to conceal the deep underlying philosophical questions which must be put to Heidegger’s thought” (ibid.). The chapter offers a critical review of the most influential books on Heidegger’s Nazism, analyzing their scope and breadth and ideological bents, and assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Here, O’Brien shows his prowess, and demonstrates an excellent grasp of the topic.
As regards the political philosophy, O’Brien argues that Heidegger was not a bloodthirsty biological racist, but an archconservative and traditionalist “prone to some rather bizarre provincialist notions which he sought to justify philosophically” (74). Heidegger unsuccessfully tried to marry his own provincialism with a philosophical antimodernism and ethnic chauvinism, thinking this political philosophy was the way to resist the growing dominion of technology (74-75). O’Brien’s verdict is that Heidegger failed to articulate a coherent political philosophy, “owing in part to the fact that his philosophy doesn’t really admit to being employed in the manner in which he wants to use it” (75). O’Brien also finds that Heidegger’s flawed character must have played a role in his stint with National Socialism (76).
Chapter 7, “Return from Syracuse,” covers the period following his banishment from teaching after the denazification proceedings, especially his philosophical output of the 40s, 50s and 60s. It discusses Heidegger’s musings on language, poetry and technology, specifically his analysis of technology, of releasement (Gelassenheit) and the notion of “appropriation/enownment” (Ereignis) (79). While in chapter 5, O’Brien argued that some aspects of Heidegger’s confrontation with modernity might not be as original as initially thought, here he argues against a reductionist misapprehension that his work on technology is simply a symptom of his antimodernism (80). Instead, he says, Heidegger’s essay on technology stands today as the single most important philosophical work on some of the issues concerning the philosophical age we live in (81).
Turning to the Bremen lectures, O’Brien offers a nuanced analysis of the infamous “Agriculture Remark.” The point of the remark, he argues, is not to liken the Holocaust with the harvesting of grain, as some commentators have suggested, nor is Heidegger arguing that agricultural methods are morally equivalent to genocide. What interests him is the role that the essence of technology (Enframing) has figured into everything that has taken place in the twentieth century, including genocide, war and agriculture (82).
Next O’Brien discusses “The Question Concerning Technology”—a good text for a first-time reader of Heidegger to begin with, he says, because in this essay Heidegger touches upon most of his fundamental concepts and views, such as “equipmentality,” “publicness”, das Man, etc. (83). Here, O’Brien’s continuity thesis is on full display, as he argues that Heidegger’s worries about technology are already hinted at in BT: “it is clear that Heidegger’s thinking about technology was there in embryonic form in Being and Time” (85).
O’Brien interprets Heidegger’s critique of (the essence of) technology as a critique of eliminativism, i.e. a critique of positivist approaches that posit that classes of entities which do not fall within the horizon of their investigation do not exist (89). The problem of Enframing is its eliminative character, namely that it is a mode of revealing that governs the way beings come to presence. Other forms of revealing, like poetry, are necessary in order to “allow people to see things coming to presence in ways other than what is rather aggressively demanded by Enframing” (93). O’Brien then discusses “releasement” (Gelassenheit) as the appropriate comportment of human beings that will enable such a non-eliminative, pluralist disclosure of beings, and closes the chapter by contextualizing Enframing in the history of Being (94). Acquainted as I am with O’Brien’s earlier books, I think he could have spent a few more paragraphs elaborating in greater detail how Gelassenheit relates to Entschlossenheit and the project of dismantling of the ontology of presence.
Chapter 8 is entitled “Heidegger ‘Abroad’.” This is a rather short chapter that breaks up into three sections. The first covers Heidegger’s remarkable success on the French intellectual scene, especially among the existentialists, and gives some historical context to that success. The second concerns Heidegger’s relation to Eastern thought and covers his interactions with a number of Eastern intellectuals, briefly also referring to the body of secondary literature devoted to the intersection between Heidegger’s philosophy and Eastern traditions. The third section covers the impact his thought has had in the United States.
Chapter 9, “The Final Years,” is only three pages long, and provides biographical details of the peaceful and happy years at the end of Heidegger’s life. It notes that he faced his own death with a certain “grace and serenity” (109), and that in the end he arranged a Christian burial for himself after all.
In the tenth and final chapter, “Heidegger’s Legacy,” O’Brien sums up his verdict as regards the “Heidegger controversy.” The recent publication of the Black Notebooks refuelled the controversy, O’Brien says, because it discredited Heidegger’s own “official story” about his association with National Socialism. Heidegger was a committed Nazi and an antisemite who “tried zealously to use some of his core elements of his thought to articulate a philosophy of National Socialism, for a period of time at least” (111). However, Heidegger’s own “political vision was ultimately at quite a remove from historical National Socialism, and he clearly became more and more disillusioned with the regime from the mid-1930s onwards” (ibid.). O’Brien reiterates his own position against other interpretations, insisting that despite claims made even by Heidegger himself, he did try to offer a political philosophy, and deep inside believed “he could be the spiritual and philosophical Führer of an awakening in Germany that would change the course of history in Europe and the Western world in general” (112).
In addition to the political controversy, Heidegger’s legacy is entangled in another controversy, argues O’Brien, namely the divide between analytic and continental philosophy. In analytic circles, “Heidegger is often portrayed as the arch-villain for having led philosophy astray through his promotion of ambiguity, imprecision, a lack of rigour and the proliferation of jargon, mysticism and bad poetry masquerading as philosophical profundity” (114). O’Brien defends Heidegger’s writing style, arguing that the subject itself demanded such a style, but lambasts those “disciples” who try to imitate Heidegger’s style simply because they themselves are unable to write more clearly.
O’Brien ends the book by reflecting on the future of Heidegger studies, saying that it is difficult to foretell what course it will take. He believes that the Heidegger controversy “is only truly beginning, as scholars face squarely the question of how to read the texts of a thinker whose work, while not reducible to National Socialism, was nevertheless twisted and manipulated in various ways owing to his own belief that a happy union could be forged between his own thought and the new awakening in Germany which he initially saw as an underlying possibility of National Socialism” (115).
Carman, Taylor. 2003. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press.
O’Brien, Mahon. 2011. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum.
O’Brien, Mahon. 2015. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
O’Brien, Mahon. 2020. Heidegger’s Life and Thought: A Tarnished Legacy. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
 See Carman, Taylor. Heidegger’s Analytic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
 See O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger and Authenticity: From Resoluteness to Releasement. London and New York: Continuum, 2011; O’Brien, Mahon. Heidegger, History and the Holocaust. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.