Historicism, Disengagement, Holiness
Heidegger and the Reduction to History
Although Martin Heidegger has been central to recent humanistic discussion, there has long been disagreement about the import of his intellectual legacy. To some, he has appeared conservative and obscurantist, with his "jargon of authenticity," his seemingly fatalistic emphasis on "destiny," and his apparent nostalgia for "Being" with a capital "B." Recent criticism has emphasized his association with Nazism and, what many find more troubling, his "silence" afterward, his refusal to accept responsibility, to admit he had made an error. Heidegger's link to Nazism has made his thinking seem at least suspect, perhaps irrelevant, perhaps evil. To others, however, Heidegger has long
appeared not conservative but radical, an indispensable figure in the break from metaphysics and the "modernity" that seems ever more insidiously wound around technology in a way that he uniquely may illuminate. And even with the furor over Nazism, some continue to insist that we have something essential to learn from him, despite his deplorable political choice and his insensitivity in the aftermath.
One way of coming to grips with Heidegger's thinking, especially the obscure works of his maturity, is to start with the sense in which he, like Nietzsche and Croce, was responding to the newly intrusive experience of the world as historical. Heidegger became preoccupied with history early in his career, and his determination to think through the historicity of things and the place of human being in a merely historical world fueled his intellectual quest, leading to several distinguishable approaches. The last of them seems to teeter on the edge of vacuousness, but it proves significant as a response to precisely the collapse into history that preoccupied Nietzsche and Croce. Heidegger's mature response, however, was radically opposed to each of theirs.
It is possible to address Heidegger on this level without hiding or minimizing his support for Nazism. In fact, both his adherence to Nazism and his seemingly evasive posture afterward were central to the process whereby he reached his mature orientation to the actual historical world. Yet his initial political commitment was surely naive, and his whole approach to Nazism manifested the worst sort of national chauvinism. Heidegger started by thinking Germany was special and that Nazism embodied a uniquely German capacity to respond to the modern crisis. But then, once Nazism had failed, he portrayed it not as German after all—but as Western, all too Western. His orientation was self-serving on both counts. If we seek a political guide or moral exemplar, we must look elsewhere.
But it would be shortsighted to view Heidegger's political response as a warrant to dismiss him altogether. The hopes he placed in Nazism, and the lessons he drew from its undeniable failure, stemmed from a deeper experience that remains part of our own. He was a pioneer in exploring postmetaphysical possibilities, but he started with an extreme, even apocalyptic sense of the modern cultural situation. He came to recognize that the hopes he had
invested in the apocalyptic politics of Nazism had been misplaced, but he hardly concluded from the triumph of the Communist East and the capitalist West that everything was fine after all. Rather, he ended up relentlessly apolitical. And in positing a mode of disengagement from the world of history-making political action, he was able to explore, as no one had before, certain cultural possibilities that remain within the postmetaphysical mix even today. We need to understand both the sense of the world that led to the Heideggerian extreme and the orientation that finally settled out from his several attempts to specify an appropriate response.
Virtually from the outset, a sense of loss informed Heidegger's intellectual enterprise. It stemmed first, most obviously, from the eclipse of the traditional religion, for Heidegger had been raised a Catholic and spent six years in Jesuit secondary schools before beginning preparation for the priesthood at the archdiocesan seminary at Freiburg in 1909. But he took courses at the Albert Ludwig University in Freiburg at the same time, and after two years, in 1911, he gave up the idea of becoming a priest and left the seminary to concentrate on philosophy at the university.
Heidegger had begun to sense that something more encompassing even than the "death of God" had to be addressed. As he asked how our religious experience had become bound up with that sort of God in the first place, he shifted from religious-theological to philosophical issues, focusing on the Western metaphysical tradition. That tradition seemed increasingly suspect in some circles because of the inroads of time, becoming, historicity, evident in thinkers like Nietzsche and Dilthey, each of whom Heidegger encountered at an early age. In important respects, in fact, it had been the inflation of history that had dissolved the once-meaningful religious categories of our tradition. Otto Pöggeler has nicely characterized the way religious and historical concerns came together to dominate Heidegger's career: "As a born theologian, but one who became homeless, Heidegger turned against the historians and philologists who changed a present and future task (with Hölderlin, the task once more
to speak of the divine) into informing us about a cultural and literary history already over and done with."
So as the transcendent God faded and the metaphysical tradition increasingly appeared suspect, a kind of retrospective historical understanding seemed all that was left to us. And Heidegger was acutely aware that he himself was coming of age at a particular point in the history of the West, with its particular philosophical and religious traditions. Much like Croce, he believed that it fell to his generation to address the religious issue anew, to find a way, as Michael E. Zimmerman has put it, to "restore meaning to a world from which God seemed increasingly absent." But religious renewal was necessarily bound up with philosophical critique and confrontation with the historicity of things.
As a student first of Rickert, then of Husserl, who replaced Rickert at Freiburg in 1916, the young Heidegger had occasion to know at first hand the leading German attempts to respond to the widespread concern with historicism and its apparent crisis. In his dissertation on Duns Scotus, completed under Rickert's direction in 1916, Heidegger sought to combine neoscholasticism with Rickert's way of positing a transcendent sphere of values; at this point, there still seemed a fixed human nature and a foundation for truth. But during the years from 1918, when he began teaching as a Privatdozent at Freiburg, until 1923, when he won a regular position at the University of Marburg, he began to feel that the challenge of history and historicity had to be confronted in a more thoroughgoing way. He found a common inadequacy in Dilthey, in his mentors Rickert and Husserl, in his near-contemporary Karl Jaspers, and even in leading German Protestant thinkers; none seemed prepared fully to face up to "history." In their different ways, all were clinging to foundations, to grounding, partly out of the assumption that only thus could relativism and skepticism be headed off.
History and historicity had to be taken more seriously, but Heidegger also found something inadequate about the existing historical culture, because modern historiography had developed under the shadow of metaphysics. Practicing historians made our relationship with history "safe" by positing a past that is at once radically distinguished from the present and over and done with, a fixed object. Paradoxically, then, the mainstream historical approach kept us from the sense in which our living is bound up with the particular history in which we find ourselves—into which we have been thrown. To depart from
metaphysics and to take history more seriously might mean raising the stakes of our historical inquiries and intensifying our sense of reponsibility for what the world becomes.
At the same time, however, Heidegger echoed some of the concerns that had informed Nietzsche's "untimely essay" on history almost a half-century before. Especially in the "methodological introduction" to his 1920–1921 course on the phenomenology of religion, Heidegger found something problematic about the implications of the modern historical sensibility for individual experience. The sense that history was inflating to absorb everything—so that anything I might do, like everything else, will simply pass into history—seemed to make the world ephemeral and light, undercutting creativity. Thus the point of confronting history more deeply was not simply to establish the autonomy of history and certainly not to specify a distinctive method. History was too important to be cut loose or left on its own. For Heidegger, as for Croce, the key was somehow to bring philosophy and history together, but in a post-Hegelian way.
Heidegger came to share many of the premises about the historicity of things, even the notion that what "there is" can only be some particular history, that helped shape the thinking of Nietzsche and Croce. Moreover, Heidegger fully grasped the cultural point, even the fatality, of the new axis that the responses of Nietzsche and Croce established. But he strained to think beyond them because he found something appalling in the apparently anthropocentric historicist outcome that responses like theirs portended for the culture. Whereas Nietzsche and Croce affirmed the actual and our confinement to it, Heidegger, in his later thinking, sought a kind of disengagement from the course of the actual, so that a new kind of religious dimension might become possible in light of the collapse into history.
"The problem of being" that preoccupied Heidegger seems incredibly abstract on first encounter; indeed, his sense that we are caught up in an ever-deeper "forgetting of the question of being" may well seem utterly vacuous to us. But from a Heideggerian perspective, our inability to feel the weight of such matters is itself a major indication of the debased, "needful" quality of our own time. And for Heidegger, "the problem of being" was explicitly bound up with the concerns about history and historicity that, as we have seen, had become important cultural themes by the first decade of the century.
As a preliminary, we might say that as it imposes itself on us now, the problem of being is that "it" is not all here—on any level. Until very recently in our tradition, the question of being had seemed to concern the "whatness of beings." We start with the things that are and then seek their grounding—something stable, permanent, the condition of their being as they are. It is only on
this level, we assume, and not on the level of variable and transitory individual beings, that we get at the way things really are, the level of ultimate reality. What we seek, then, is the essence of things, the being that underlies mere beings. But this has meant that we think of being on the basis of beings, and because of this particular perspective we understand being—being shows itself to us—"in and as a transcending." So the erection of a transcendent sphere was the reverse side of the break into metaphysics in the Western experience.
In our tradition, it became almost impossible to conceive of being without or apart from beings, the particular things of the world that . . . that what? That "are," we first say, but things have begun to change when we find ourselves saying instead, "that have come to be." With the intrusion of historicity or history, the problem changes from the "whatness" to the "thereness" of beings. We have begun to experience the reduction to history, and this for Heidegger is both troubling and promising. On the one hand, with the loss of any sense of grounding, of any transcendent framework, we seem to fall into a nihilism based on technological manipulation—and portending some definitive foregetting of "being," some definitive foreclosure of religious experience. On the other hand, the eclipse of metaphysics means that we might open ourselves to a new mode of experience, encompassing a new experience of the holy.
Heidegger might have said, with Cézanne, "I am the primitive of the way I have discovered," because his quest led him onto terrain that had never been explored in our tradition. Merely to find the language, to let a new way of saying take form, was excruciatingly difficult. As Heidegger put it in 1947, "Thinking does not overcome metaphysics by climbing still higher, surmounting it, transcending it somehow or other; thinking overcomes metaphysics by climbing back down into the nearness of the nearest. The descent, particularly where man has strayed into subjectivity, is more arduous and more dangerous than the ascent." We need somehow to wake up to what is right before us, yet somehow hidden: "we need the ability to wonder at what is simple, and to take up that wonder as our abode." We need to "step back," to make possible a new experience of what is so close that it is difficult to see, to hear, to say.
Although he remained preoccupied with the same cluster of concerns over his long career, Heidegger's effort to respond led to three distinguishable stages or approaches. They overlapped in certain respects, and his mature approach presupposed his earlier insights and categories. In retrospect we can discern elements of all three even in the introduction to Being and Time , written after the text was completed, but the dynamic of Heidegger's way of trying them out affected the overall shape of his thought—and thus his subsequent legacy.
Being and Time and After
Heidegger's first approach, in his Being and Time of 1927, was radical and novel in one sense, conventionally philosophical in another. Even as he reacted against his mentor, Husserl, he took over not only Husserl's phenomenological method but also something of Husserl's sense of cultural priorities. At this point Heidegger assumed that some sort of universal phenomenological science was possible—and what was most needed.
Earlier approaches to the problem of being had been too abstract, so Heidegger adapted Husserl's phenomenological method in an effort to begin with concrete human existence instead. By attending without presuppositions to the "things themselves," to naked human experience, it should be possible to identify the pervasive categories or structures "underlying" a variety of experiences, grounding them and making them possible. Such structures lie on the "ontological" level, beneath the level of phenomenological or merely "ontical" description of what is in fact the case. So Heidegger's inquiry in Being and Time was still "transcendental" in seeking to specify the conditions necessary for such and such to be possible.
But Heidegger started with a radically different set of phenomena, or experiences, than Husserl had. Indeed, he reacted strongly against Husserl's theoretical, ahistorical view of consciousness. Our natural viewpoint is not as an observer but as "being-there," Da-sein , thrown into some particular situation. Knowing is not transcendent and detached but embedded and fundamentally practical.
To identify the transcendent conditions or underlying structures was to encounter especially the temporal character of human being and the instrumental character of human activity. In adapting Husserl's phenomenology, Heidegger was seeking to develop a rigorous philosophy of human being in its historicity, a fundamental ontology wound around the inherent finitude and particularity of human existence. In a sense, Heidegger was offering a painstaking analysis of some of what Nietzsche and Croce had simply taken for granted. No longer could we think things through by starting with some sovereign ego or transcendent consciousness, or with the a priori subjectivity of the subject. Human being is fundamentally being-there, Dasein, thrown into some historically specific situation and projected, with it, into the future.
Although Heidegger hoped to proceed from this fundamental ontology to a
new understanding of being, his analysis in Being and Time operated especially on the level of individual experience. We as individuals all find ourselves within some historically specific situation, which affords the horizon from within which we live our lives. And we are never complete but always projected into the future. Yet for the individual, the future is not endlessly open but finite, to be closed by death.
Because we are temporal and finite, our choices are for keeps. We find ourselves to be creatures who care for the world, for others, and for our own place in the scheme of things. But we are also subject to the anxiety that Heidegger, in Being and Time , found to be the core human experience. Such anxiety is not fear of anything in particular but simply the reverse side of care, our involvement with and concern for the world. The immediate imperative that followed from this overall understanding of the human situation was authenticity on the individual level. Authentic existence grasps its own historical specificity, projection, and finitude and takes responsibility for itself in light of that understanding.
The categories like anxiety, authenticity, and commitment that emerged from Heidegger's analysis in Being and Time became popular during the forties and fifties with French existentialism, which resulted especially from Jean-Paul Sartre's way of adapting Heidegger. But Heidegger's subsequent career made it clear that the existentialist reading obscured his deepest purposes. Care remained fundamental, but as Heidegger moved beyond Being and Time , he no longer emphasized the personal anxiety that attends being toward death.
Although his phenomenological analysis of being-there constituted an important break in Western thought, Heidegger in Being and Time was still doing philosophy in a traditional, suprahistorical mode. His manner of questioning was "transcendental," in the sense that he was approaching the matter at hand as a detached observer, from the outside. Even if we fully embrace historicity, accepting it as constitutive of human being, we can specify an ontology sufficiently fundamental to get at the ahistorical structures of human being.
But even as he was writing Being and Time , Heidegger came to sense that a new ontology was not the cultural priority. He had shown that human being in general is being-there, but what mattered was that we are here , in this historically specific situation of darkening and loss. To specify a fundamental ontology, however rigorously, was still too abstract to respond to the experience of loss that had stimulated his quest from the beginning—and that even pervaded Being and Time . Rather than a new kind of philosophy, a new way of approaching history seemed necessary. Moreover, much like Croce at the end
of his Philosophy of the Practical , Heidegger recognized that there will be something historically specific even about any determination of the structures. Thus the reflexivity that forced Heidegger to ask: why these accents now ?
Much has been written about the Kehre , or "turn," in Heidegger's thinking by the later 1930s, and though there is disagreement about the sharpness of the break, there is general agreement about the new direction it involved. For Gianni Vattimo, for example, it was to move from a plain on which there is only "man," or finite, thrown, individual human being, to a plain on which there is principally being. And the "being" at issue was somehow historical, or coterminous with its history. For Zimmerman, Heidegger turned from the structure of Dasein to focus on the historical play of being itself. Thus authenticity, for example, pertained not to individuals and their decisions but to entire historical epochs and cultures.
The new imperative was to consider "the history of being"—and this implied two levels of analysis. On the one hand, Heidegger wanted to probe the general sense in which being is historical and to consider what is necessary for that to be the case. On the other hand, he was concerned with the particular history in which we ourselves are caught up—the history that had resulted, so far, in this . In Heidegger's move beyond Being and Time , the general or theoretical concern came together with the more immediate, even personal concern; examination of being as historical converged with examination of the present situation of forgetting and loss that had resulted from our particular history.
Being and History, Our History and Nihilism
Even in specifying, in Being and Time , that historicity is constitutive of individual human being, Heidegger was implying something about being itself and its relationship to the history that impinges on us as individuals. If human being is this, if individual experience is this, then what can we say about the world, the particular world that comes at us and to us, affording the horizons within which we live our lives? As his focus changed, Heidegger began drawing out certain implications from his analysis of the structure of Dasein. What needed to be understood was not so much the anxiety of personal experience
but the collective, supraindividual dimensions of finitude, projection, and care.
Being and Time brought individual human being together with others in some historically specific situation or collective historicity, which Heidegger characterized as Geschick (destiny). Human being entails belonging to some tradition, which is particular by definition. The moment of individual choice is a particular historical moment in which Dasein confronts the particular historical possibilities it has inherited. Thus, as Caputo has put it, "Dasein's temporalizing (Zeitigung ) is historicizing, and its historicizing is cohistoricizing in and with its 'generation.'" And in Being and Time Heidegger explicitly linked care to authentic historicality. Moreover, the analysis of Dasein in Being and Time , showed that human being is the "there" in which being can appear. Human being is a clearing for the coming to be of a particular world in history.
In emphasizing the "belonging together" of human being and coming to be, Heidegger was dissolving the old dualistic separation between human being, mind, or language, on the one hand, and the world, reality, or "what is," on the other—just as I discussed in chapter 3. Only by "moving away from the attitude of representational thinking," he insisted in a 1957 lecture, can we do as we must and start with neither being nor man but with their relationship.
Man's distinctive feature lies in this, that he, as the being who thinks, is open to Being, face to face with Being; thus man remains referred to Being and so answers to it. Man is essentially this relationship of responding to Being, and he is only this. . . . Being is present and abides only as it concerns man through the claim it makes on him. For it is man, open toward Being, who alone lets Being arrive at presence. Such becoming present needs the openness of a clearing, and by this need remains appropriated to human being. . . . Man and Being are appropriated to each other. They belong to each other.
This relationship is such that what "there is" is history. Whatever there is has come into being in this openness or clearing. Such coming into being is a kind of particularizing—coming into being as something in particular , as finite, as this and not that. Thus Heidegger would come to emphasize that a holding back or withdrawal accompanies every coming to be, every sending of being, a notion that will be crucial for us in what follows.
In moving beyond Being and Time , Heidegger began positing history as totality in the post-Hegelian mode discussed in chapter 3. The coming to be of a historical world is a single event or happening, a destiny or destining (Geschick), but destining is not to be conflated with fate (Schicksal ), some sort of inevitability or unalterable course. Heidegger was not positing some predetermined logic of history, Hegelian or otherwise. The history of being, the coming into the open, is a sending or giving in language: "Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are." So language does not represent some preexisting reality but rather discloses, or allows to come to be. And thus language is not simply one human capacity among others: "Rather, language is the house of Being in which man ek-sists by dwelling, in that he belongs to the truth of Being, guarding it." Language, then, is fundamental both to what we are and to the coming to be of whatever comes to be.
Concerned with the impasse to which Dilthey's thinking had led, Heidegger sought fully to embrace, as Dilthey had not, the inflation of hermeneutics that was a corollary of the inflation of history. What was ultimately at issue, in the hermeneutic emphasis on the ongoing growth of the tradition in language, was not how we know or understand but what there is to be known or understood, what the world must be like. Conversely, insofar as hermeneutics took on ontological weight, the epistemological issue needed to be radically reconceived—and might dissolve altogether. What we need is not some method for achieving a true representation of a previously existing reality. We simply need to understand that truth—some particular truth—happens with coming to language. Truth is neither correspondence nor coherence but a disclosure, depending on human being and its place in the world. Yet truth hardly seemed inevitable; the present outcome of our own tradition seemed to entail something like error instead.
The more dispassionate, theoretical side of Heidegger's concern with the temporality of being was entwined from the start with a more personal side, stemming from his experience of the present as debased and inadequate. Being is not historical in some general, abstract sense but always a particular history. So the "history of being" that we must ponder is our particular history, and this had resulted, so far, in a cultural situation that entailed a certain experience for Heidegger—and, it seemed obvious, not for Heidegger alone. Because the theoretical issue could not be separated from the sense of crisis that had stimulated his quest from the start, Heidegger no longer sought to be detached, objective, even "scientific" after Being and Time .
Indeed, Heidegger's new mode of inquiry included a strongly reflexive dimension. His own manner of questioning was part of the larger phenomenon, bound up with our particular historical experience in the West, that he was seeking to address. Only now, at this moment in our history, could these questions have imposed themselves. And because he had worked through what seemed the best thinking of his time, Heidegger could plausibly believe that his own inquiry and the sense of loss that prompted it were of general cultural import—indeed, were the culmination, so far.
Because something precious appeared to have been lost to us, Heidegger persistently charged that the present cultural situation was one of nihilism, stemming from forgetting: "To forget being and cultivate only the essent—that is nihilism." But what precisely are we forgetting, or losing, as we come to focus exclusively on the world that has actually come to be? Because nihilism, in one formulation, entailed a loss of experience of "the holy," our first impulse may be to understand it in terms of the "death of God." But virtually from the start Heidegger felt himself confronting something more basic than the failure of a particular, once-convincing idea of God to convince any longer. Nihilism stemmed from a deeper tendency that, among other things, had led us to invest our experience of the holy in a God that was bound to seem one being among others—and that thus could grow stale, wither, and die. The invention of that sort of God had simply been a step in the forgetting that was the real basis of nihilism. The nihilism of our time, Heidegger came to argue, is manifested in science and technology, on the one hand, and in anthropocentrism, humanism, and historicism, on the other.
The metaphysics that had decisively informed our experience in the West was what first required attention. Indeed, "metaphysics is the historical ground of the world history that is being determined by Europe and the West." Heidegger worked through that tradition again and again, most notably in the four lecture courses on Nietzsche that he offered at Freiburg from 1936 to 1940 and that became the basis of his four-volume Nietzsche , first published in 1961.
The metaphysical tradition entailed an ever more overtly manipulative and technological mode of relating to things. But this was ultimately because of the progressive forgetting of the distinction between presencing and presence, coming to be and existing. In response to our experience of the groundless "presence" of things, we seek some ahistorical grounding. We name presencing, so it becomes a thing, even as we take it as a grounding or foundation.
As soon as presencing is named it is represented as some present being. Ultimately, presencing as such is not distinguished from what is present: it is taken merely as the most universal or the highest of present beings, thereby becoming one among such beings. The essence of presencing, and with it the distinction between presencing and what is present, remains forgotten. The oblivion of Being is oblivion of the distinction between Being and beings.
In a sense, metaphysics had been the consequence, not the cause, of forgetting, because only insofar as we forget do we seek a transcendent "grounding" for what is, by seeking the being of beings. The forgetting of being involves a forgetting of how the things that are came to be. Our language makes it all "present," but secondhand, everyday, so that the original force, the primordial bite, is lost. And as the metaphysical framework crystallizes, we become enmeshed in logic, cause and effect, and a conceptual and representational approach to language.
Although the present situation of nihilism was the culmination of the whole tradition, it stemmed most immediately from the break into modernity and subjectivism with Descartes. Despite some continued reliance on the Christian God, Cartesian subjectivism made human being the foundation as never before; the real obeys the principles that govern the human mind. Needing an alternative to the certainty of revelation, Descartes posited a human subject that decides what is knowable and that actively constitutes what is known.
With Kant, still more explicitly, the autonomous human subject plays a decisive role in constructing a meaningful world. Hegel's identification of the real with the rational took this subjectivism a step further. Though his direction was profoundly different from Hegel's, Husserl by the early twentieth century similarly ended up with subjectivity, or consciousness, as the matter of philosophy, now brought fully to presence. No more than Hegel could Husserl have raised the question of how there can be presence as such.
Although Husserl had most immediately occasioned Heidegger's effort in
Being and Time , Heidegger came to view Nietzsche as the nihilistic culmination of the whole tradition, including its final subjectivist phase. With Nietzsche, the Cartesian God, the Kantian thing-in-itself, and the Hegelian absolute spirit all fell away; being itself is precluded, is reduced to nothing. The human subject was limited by nothing outside itself, and nothing remained but sheer will, willing nothing but itself, seeking power for its own sake. The Nietzschean outcome revealed the meaninglessness of the whole metaphysical tradition, and it threatened to preclude definitively the renewal or recovery that Heidegger was seeking. Heidegger's questions about being simply could not be formulated from within the Nietzschean framework.
When translated into the world of practice, modern subjectivism led to the end of metaphysics and the triumph of science. As the empirical sciences split off from philosophy, establishing their independence, philosophy was left first with a temporary vestigial role, subservient to science, but then began to disappear altogether. By Heidegger's own time, science had come to seem the universalizing culmination of the whole philosophical tradition in the West. Thus Gadamer stresses Heidegger's insight "that science originates from an understanding of being that compels it unilaterally to lay claim to every place and to leave no place unpossessed outside of itself."
With the triumph of science, we can relate to the world only in one highly restricted way, so even when we approach our own history, for example, we insist on cause-and-effect explanation, precluding other modes of understanding. The world comes to seem a collection of objects, available as instruments for the human subject to measure and control. Thus the modern cult of technology and the manipulation of things that technology, conceived broadly, made possible. The emergence of this all-encompassing technology is the practical corollary of the completion of metaphysics. History reduces to the self-momentum of technology as it becomes ever less possible to argue that technology is an instrument for human ends. With the culmination of our metaphysical tradition, then, we move toward "the planetary imperialism of technologically organized man," bringing about a total and uniform technological rule over the earth.
The present situation was thus paradoxical in the extreme. Although metaphysics had been the problem in one sense, its end did not in itself promise liberation but rather entailed nihilism and the danger of a definitive forgetting. Still, the end of metaphysics constituted a kind of hinge or pivot, making possible a new kind of questioning, including Heidegger's own. Moreover, the present extreme—the "heedlessness" that he found the peculiar greatness of the modern age—makes possible the preparation, at least, of something else for the future. But what else could there be, and how, more specifically, are we to prepare for it?
In his middle phase, roughly 1933 to 1945, the years of the Nazi regime in Germany, Heidegger responded in two complementary ways, actively addressing each end of our metaphysical tradition. He sought to work back through the tradition to retrieve what had been lost, but he also found scope for political action to overcome the present and bring about a new, nontechnological orientation. Only as both these approaches proved dead ends did he begin to outline the very different response of his mature third phase.
The Scope for an Active Response
Especially during 1933–1934, at the outset of Hitler's regime, Heidegger believed that Nazism, as a new, radically oppositional form of politics, could address the present crisis and bring about a more satisfactory relationship to modern technology.
With his gloom about creeping control and manipulation, Heidegger was part of an ongoing romantic current, especially powerful in central Europe and evident, for example, in the "negative totality" theme to be found in Max Weber, the young Georg Lukács, and much of the Frankfurt school. This current stood opposed to another that was prominent at the same time—in the German Bauhaus, for example. The opposing sides agreed that history was moving in a particular direction, summed up as "modernization" or "Westernization" and involving increasing rationality, efficiency, and control through technology. But their evaluations differed profoundly. For Gropius and the dominant current at the Bauhaus, the antidote to our misgivings was to abandon futile nostalgia and to take full advantage of the modern machine age to form the basis for a new tradition. Among those who read "modernization" in a negative way, some could still find hope in the Hegelian-Marxian promise of reintegration to overcome the fragmentation of modernity, attributed to liberal capitalism. But for Heidegger, as for Nietzsche and Croce, any hope for that sort of fulfillment through history was part of what had fallen away.
However benign its intentions, Marxism could only be part of the problem, not the solution.
In Weimar Germany's new conservatism, to which Heidegger's diagnosis owed much, concerns about modernization and technology mixed with anti-Marxist, antidemocratic, and anti-"Western" emphases. Although not all those involved with the new conservatism cast their lot with Nazism, many did, on the basis of a contingent political judgment. Heidegger was among them. Nazism seemed different, a genuine alternative to all that was alienating in the dominant modernizing direction.
Although he explicitly rejected the Nazi appeal to biology, race, and natural force, Heidegger believed Nazism capable of creating a "regional" culture—the space for an alternative to the mainstream technology and everydayness that he found embodied in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Different cultures are caught up in different ways in the wider historical destiny of the West; only Germany, where doubts about modernity were most pronounced, could nurture an active political antidote. By renewing contact with Western cultural roots that had somehow remained more accessible in Germany, Heidegger himself could help Nazism understand its mission. On that basis, the Nazi regime could open the way to a different human relationship to entities, letting them appear in a nonmanipulative way.
Even his detractors admit that Heidegger quickly became disillusioned with Nazism in practice. As early as 1934, he concluded that Hitler's regime was heading in the wrong direction, strengthening technology. But far from repudiating the new German politics, Heidegger continued to believe that his own intellectual enterprise was somehow congruent with the real core, the "inner truth and greatness," of Nazism. And he remained convinced that the Germans were especially open to what he was attempting to do. In this sense his disillusionment by the midthirties was superficial; the real break came only with the definitive defeat and disintegration of Nazism in 1945. From that point he became more resigned about technology, and he pulled back from even the possibility of political response.
During the Nazi years, Heidegger began to argue that certain German-language poets—Friedrich Hölderlin, especially, but also Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, and Stefan George—afforded an antidote to the culture of technology. The poetry of each seemed to elude the stale, objectified language of the modern era and to manifest a deeper need—and an openness to something new. More generally, Heidegger fastened on art as "originary," creative,
uncaused—and thus as closer to being itself than the manipulative, flattened-out language of everyday use.
So artists, especially poets, might play a special role in a destitute time, but Heidegger also discerned a role for thinkers like himself to question our tradition in a fresh way. By working back through the layers of our history, it might be possible to "destroy" or deconstruct the whole history of metaphysics, enabling us literally to recover what we have forgotten or lost.
Even in planning part two of Being and Time , Heidegger envisioned something like such a "destruction of the history of ontology." He would work back first to Kant, then on to Descartes's departure from Scholasticism, and finally to Aristotle, all with reference to concepts of time. But though it was outlined in the introduction, written after a portion of the book was completed, part two never appeared. Within the framework of Being and Time , any such inquiry could only have been ancillary, showing why the various stages of our philosophical tradition had never given us a fundamental ontology. But as our relationship with our own history came to seem more complex, and as fundamental ontology no longer seemed the priority, the imperative of historical inquiry took on a different resonance, a deeper bite. As philosophy contracted and history inflated, deconstructing the tradition became a naked, stand-alone enterprise, itself the priority.
Even in Being and Time , however, Heidegger's way of positing the world as historical suggested the possibility—and value—of penetrating all that is through deconstructive historical questioning. Insofar as we understand our world in an authentically historical way, we step back from the givenness of the present; we undermine the immersion in "what is" and the hypertrophy of the "they," or das Man , that accompany everydayness: "the temporality of authentic historicality . . . deprives the 'today' of its character as present, and weans one from the conventionalities of the 'they.'" By continually bringing the world to historical consciousness, then, we resist our tendency to take the world
as given. For the Heidegger of Being and Time , however, this insight was an aspect of authenticity, not the key to a strategy that might enable us, at this historically specific moment, to challenge our destiny and in some sense undo the present.
As his priorities changed, Heidegger thought more deeply about the scope for historical questioning. The need to respond to nihilism might enable human beings, for the first time in our tradition, to ask truly radical historical questions, leading to the actual deconstruction of the whole metaphysical tradition and the recovery or retrieval of what that tradition had hidden from us. What was not possible in the epoch of Kant or Descartes now becomes possible for us.
By 1935, when he presented the lectures at the University of Freiburg later published as An Introduction to Metaphysics , Heidegger was emphasizing the scope for this sort of radical historical inquiry. And he was especially attentive to the fact that our historically specific situation seemed to demand this line of questioning, insofar as only now had we become possessed by the feeling that "the essent"—everything that actually is—might not be what it is and as it is. Only with the reduction to history, in other words, does it become possible to conceive the whole of our tradition—"everything"—as contingent and ungrounded.
Heidegger envisioned working back through the epochs of Western metaphysics, deconstructing or undoing them, attending to what had not been asked, could not have been asked, to what had "concealed itself" as this tradition had unfolded. In principle this approach might invite a kind of dialogue, enabling us to bring out possibilities heretofore hidden within our tradition, possibilities that had not yet come to fruition. Temporal separation and our historically specific need might enable us to attune ourselves, for example, to what remained unthought, did not come to language, for the early Greeks. Gadamer would follow that direction, though in a particularly conservative spirit, as we will see.
Heidegger's own aims, however, were more grandiose, reflecting his more apocalyptic sense of the situation. The deconstructive enterprise had to be doubly radical, getting to the root of the problem by going all the way back, then achieving a definitive overcoming by uprooting the tradition. In light of the present situation of darkening and loss, Heidegger was not interested in an ongoing dialogue that would merely enrich or expand that tradition.
In striking contrast to his later emphasis on disengagement, "releasement," and passive "thinking," Heidegger's language in An Introduction to Metaphysics was confident, even aggressive. Although the priority was now a form of history and not philosophy, there still seemed the possibility of a definitive
solution or qualitative break. Our present aim, Heidegger proclaimed, was "to stand on the very ground from which logic rose and to overthrow it (as the dominant perspective for the interpretation of being)." Through his deconstructive inquiry, we could move "toward a true transcending of nihilism."
If the whole tradition entailed forgetting and loss, each step from Plato to Nietzsche must have carried us ever further from some more desirable experience of being, the world, ourselves. So it seemed that there must have been a time within our tradition when we experienced what we have now lost, or knew what we have now forgotten. The forgetting that had led to the present nihilism must have stemmed from a particular mistake at some point—a mistake that started our descent into metaphysics. Aiming, as he put it, to "win back our roots in history," Heidegger set out in An Introduction to Metaphysics to reconnect with that moment. We could thereby retrieve from within our tradition the more desirable relationship to being that had been lost.
Generally, when adopting this approach, Heidegger took the advent of Platonic metaphysics, positing a timeless transcendent sphere, as the pivotal moment. Bound up with that metaphysical turn was the advent of logic and a conceptual understanding of language. From this perspective, it seemed that the pre-Socratics, standing before the break into metaphysics, must have enjoyed a richer, more desirable experience. So the imperative was to work back through Plato to Anaximander, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, to listen for what they might tell us, to attune ourselves to their fuller experience of being.
Because language was the vehicle for coming to be, Heidegger's deconstructive inquiry was heavily etymological in thrust. He sought to peel away the subsequent encrustations to recover what he took to be the original meanings of such key terms as aletheia, logos , and physis , then to show how that original meaning, embodying a fresher, more desirable experience, had gradually been forgotten as changes in their meaning entailed a certain loss of resonance or connotation. For example, "truth" started as aletheia , unconcealment, and lost something as it gradually became correspondence or correct representation.
Even if this effort at peeling away and unearthing does not yield a definitive retrieval, it might at least afford us messages from the early Greeks or glimpses of what had been lost. But whatever the precise outcome, the imperative seemed to be to reconnect with an earlier phase within our tradition.
Heidegger's emphasis on such reconnection has drawn considerable
criticism. Although Derrida, for example, derived his deconstructive strategy partly from Heidegger, he found Heidegger too hung up on nostalgic retrieval. For Derrida, as for Croce, no moment is ever as dramatic as Heidegger conceived our own to be—or the break into metaphysics to have been. Moreover, Heidegger was still metaphysical in positing a single, unified history of the West when, from Derrida's perspective, there is really only a plurality of dispatches flying off in all directions. Derrida's eagerness to conflate history with metaphysics may have kept him from grasping the basis for Heidegger's insistence that we belong to a finite totality, a unified history. But Derrida convincingly pinpointed the "nostalgia" in Heidegger's emphasis on reconnection or retrieval.
Still, though Heidegger remained nostalgic for the freshness of an earlier time, he pushed on to the obscure response of his maturity at least partly because he came to feel some of what Derrida had in mind in criticizing nostalgia and retrieval. Indeed, Heidegger came implicitly to admit that to posit the full experience of being at some moment within our tradition—or within history at all—was only nostalgic myth-making. Even if we did manage to attune ourselves to them, the early Greeks cannot be our masters, teaching us how again to experience being and "the holy." For one thing, it no longer seemed that they had enjoyed some plenitude or esoteric wisdom that has come to be denied to us. For another, our temporal distance from them came to seem more important; all the history between them and us—including the subjectivism, technology, and nihilism—is part of us, is central to the way being has come to shine in us. We are caught up in the destiny of the West in a different way than the Greeks, so they can have no direct lessons for us.
In Heidegger's mature works, we no longer hear the aggressive tone, the pretense of critical overcoming or definitive retrieval, that is to be found in Introduction to Metaphysics . Rather than seek actively to overcome metaphysics, we simply turn away from it: "To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics. Yet a regard for metaphysics still prevails even in the intention to overcome metaphysics. Therefore, our task is to cease all overcoming and to leave metaphysics to itself."
Despite his sense of loss, Heidegger ultimately could not find a stopping point, anything with which to reconnect, within the tradition. Even if we work back past Aristotle and Plato all the way to Parmenides and Heraclitus, we never find the point where we can say, "here is where they went wrong." So it
was hardly the point to blame those who had seemed key historical agents—Plato, or the Romans—for mistakes deflecting us from what had seemed the proper path, a path that we, after a disastrous detour, at last might rejoin. Although he continued to believe that the pre-Socratics had been closer to something that we moderns have forgotten, they were always already in the process of losing it. A kind of "slippage"—to adapt Derrida's category—was in operation from the start and is part of the deal. There has always been some concealing, some holding back.
In "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking," first published in 1966, Heidegger admitted explicitly that thought about the opening itself, about coming to be per se, could be found at no time in the past: "Presence as such, and together with it the opening granting of it, remain unheeded. Only what aletheia as opening grants is experienced and thought, not what it is as such." Moreover, Heidegger had to agree with critics who had pointed out that even Homer, well before the pre-Socratics, used "truth" not as unconcealment but as correctness and reliability. Thus, said Heidegger, "we must acknowledge the fact that aletheia , unconcealment in the sense of the opening of presence, was originally experienced only as orthotes , as the correctness of representations and statements." So we cannot claim there had been a change in the concept of truth within our tradition, from unconcealment to correctness, corresponding to or representing what is present.
Heidegger also insisted that to indicate, from our present perspective, what remained unthought in the tradition was not to criticize that tradition; it was not by chance or carelessness that we had experienced only what unconcealment had granted, only what had in fact come to be. Withdrawing, or holding back, is essential to aletheia or unconcealment. In the same way, Heidegger concluded just after the war that the oblivion of the distinction between being and beings, presencing and what is present, was not simply a consequence of a human mistake or failure. On the contrary:
Oblivion of Being belongs to the self-veiling essence of Being. It belongs so essentially to the destiny of Being that the dawn of this destiny rises as the unveiling of what is present in its presencing. This means that the history of Being begins with the oblivion of Being, since Being—together with its essence, its distinction from beings—keeps to itself. The distinction collapses. It remains forgotten. Although the two parties to the distinction, what is present and presencing, reveal themselves, they do not do so as distinguished. Rather, even the early trace of the distinction is obliterated when presencing appears as something present and finds itself in the position of being the highest being present.
The oblivion of the distinction, with which the destiny of Being begins and
which it will carry through to completion, is all the same not a lack, but rather the richest and most prodigious event: in it the history of the Western world comes to be borne out. It is the event of metaphysics. What now is stands in the shadow of the already foregone destiny of Being's oblivion.
In a crucial sense, then, the West was on its way to metaphysics from the start. Immediately, presencing itself becomes present—we name it, it becomes a thing. So the distinction is hidden, is on its way to being forgotten. There is a hiding, a holding back, from the moment there is our particular world at all, from the moment our event begins. As with the myth of human origins that Vico posited, humanity started already in motion, on the run; humanity was always already in a language that is inherently particularizing, that at once discloses something and precludes or keeps something from coming into being at the same time. The concealing or forgetting that leads to metaphysics defines the particular event, or giving, or sending, of the whole Western world.
So even as he continued to focus on the coming to be of the Western tradition, paying particular attention to the early Greeks, Heidegger came to insist that the point was not to recapture the Greeks, or to try to understand them better than they understood themselves, but to think the unthought occurrence, the clearing itself. It fell to us not simply to retrieve something that had been lost or hidden but to think in ways never before possible in the West.
Heidegger continued to return to the early Greeks, but no longer with the strong objective that marked An Introduction to Metaphysics . He noted that the forgotten distinction between being and beings "can invade our experience . . . only if it has left a trace which remains preserved" in our language. It is likely that the distinction was more fully illuminated in early language; thus, in part, the continuing premium on going back. But even early in our tradition, the distinction between being and beings had not been designated as such. So no longer did Heidegger place the same premium on etymology, to peel away subsequent corruptions to recover the original meanings of key words, the right meanings once there and forgotten. Thus he warned, for example, that "an appeal to the meaning of aletheia accomplishes nothing and will never produce anything useful."
Even in Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger's aim of historical recovery meshed uneasily with some of what he suggested about nothingness, which was essential to what had to be confronted: "To press inquiry into being explicitly to the limits of nothingness, to draw nothingness into the question of being—this is the first and only fruitful step toward a true transcending of nihilism." As Gadamer has emphasized, Heidegger found nothingness central to what metaphysics had hidden in our tradition.
Heidegger revealed the essential forgetfulness that dominated Western thought since Greek metaphysics due to the embarrassment caused by the problem of nothingness. By showing that the question of being included the question of nothingness, he joined the beginning to the end of metaphysics. That the question of being could represent itself as the question of nothingness postulated a thinking of nothingness repugnant to metaphysics.
To come to terms with the nothingness hidden by metaphysics was not simply to undo some early Greek mistake; rather, it was to come to terms, in a more general way, with the sense in which being is historical. By formulating the reduction to history in rigorous terms, we might better understand the present debasement—and begin to discern what might come after it.
Nothingness had been at issue for Heidegger even in the phase of fundamental ontology, accounting for the freedom and openness of Dasein as Eksistence. Things are not just here but come to be. And they can only come to be in some "clearing," which is empty, nothing, thus affording the space for things that formerly were not, to be, to stand out. Such a clearing is always some specific place, some historically specific moment, the scene of human being-there. But nothingness was implicitly at issue also because of what "coming to be" seemed to involve—a particular sending or shining that is at the same time a concealing.
Heidegger's way of treating nothingness as he moved beyond Being and Time made it clearer that confrontation with the reduction to history had been the other side of his departure from metaphysics all along. Nothingness is bound up with both particularity and contingency, or lack of necessity. Its import, always sidestepped in our tradition, now had to be and could be confronted—precisely because of the reduction to history. As Heidegger emphasized, we come to feel the resonance of the "rather than nothing" in the basic question, "why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?" To add the possibility of nonbeing, nothingness, is to raise quite a different question than simply "why are there essents?" We now grasp as essential to the essent "the problematic fact that it might also not be what it is and as it is." Indeed, the essent reveals itself in this possibility. "Our questioning," the questioning that only now becomes possible and necessary, "opens up the horizon, in order that the essent may dawn in such questionableness." In the perspective of our questioning, the essent wavers between nonbeing and being—"it has never caught up with or overcome the possibility of nonbeing."
With the reduction to history, in other words, we experience the whole of the actual, the essent, the world that has come to be, as merely contingent and
historical and thus riddled with nothingness—with, again, "the problematic fact that it might also not be what it is and as it is." Nothing that is, is necessary in some absolute sense. And things never simply are as they are, because they are bound up with absences, with all that every sending, or actualization, precluded. Because of nothingness, the essent is particular; coming to be is some particular history. What needed to be considered, Heidegger came to feel, was not so much the particulars of our history, the actualizing steps of Plato and Aristotle and their successors, but the world as historical and the place of human being, ourselves, in the happening of the actual world.
Just as he pulled back from his emphasis on deconstructive historical questioning, Heidegger gave up all hope for an active political response after World War II. Even he could not deny that Nazism had failed; indeed, it had proven all too modern in its embrace of technology. Yet he was evasive and dishonest in discussing the disastrous outcome of Nazism and the role he himself had played during the Nazi years. Much of his stance was narrowly self-serving, and he seemed unwilling to face up to the risks of the global, apocalyptic thinking, with its tendency to devalue present human life, that had led him to invest his hopes in Nazism.
Still, Heidegger's silence reflected his larger sense of the present historical situation and the possibilities it afforded. On this level, he had reason to be unapologetic, unregenerate, even after the failure of Nazism; he found no reason to conclude that either or both of its political competitors, American liberal capitalism or Soviet communism, had been right after all. The triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union signified a deepening of the embrace of technology, while the failure even of the Nazi-led German revolution indicated that there could be no alternative through active politics. So Heidegger simply went his own way, avoiding the explicit discussion of Nazism and his own role that would, from his perspective, simply have given comfort to the political embodiments of contemporary nihilism.
With the failure of both the deconstructive and the political approaches, Heidegger came to believe that the reign of technology was not nearing its end but was only just beginning. Under the circumstances, political action—even purposive action of any kind—can only yield more of the same. So Heidegger's sense of apocalyptic possibility gave way to a still-deeper sense of confinement.
Out the Other Side of Historicism
Disillusioned with our history and its outcome and having abandoned any hope for history-making action, Heidegger might have turned from history altogether. But instead he deepened his consideration of history in an effort to open the way to a new relationship to the world as historical as such.
Heidegger continued to believe that our historical moment is pivotal, especially because of the unique danger that technology entails. But with his third phase he sought to probe beneath the effects of technology to pinpoint its very essence and thereby to make clearer why technology was the "greatest danger." Because technology is uniquely all-embracing, it conceals revealing itself; its reign threatens a definitive forgetting of how things—the world itself—comes to be. But precisely because the reign of technology reduces things in this way, recognition of what technology entails can serve the turning at the hinge. And what would follow would not be simply a more appropriate relationship to entities, or even a different relationship to technology per se, but a different experience of destining itself, of coming to be as history. Such a different experience opens the way to a different relationship to the world as historical as such—and thus to "being" itself.
In some of his statements even after 1945, Heidegger still found the cultural priority to be learning to use technology appropriately, letting entities be rather than forcing them into our molds. But generally, after the failure of his second approach, he became more temperate in his assessment of technology and the whole Western tradition from which it had emerged. Technology is our destiny; it cannot be stopped, overcome, or uprooted. Yet even as we accept technology as fundamental to what we now are, we might find a way of relating to it that does not affirm it, participate in it, or carry it forward. Our situation at the hinge, then, came to seem more paradoxical than ever; we can be released from the grip of technology only insofar as we recognize we are in its grip, accepting it as our destiny, and leave aside any compulsion to master or overcome it.
As the first step, then, our priority shifts from overcoming technology to simply understanding its essence. But to understand its essence is to
understand the way we belong to it, the way we are caught up in it as our particular history, the way we belong together with our history. So rather than focus on technology itself, how we use it, or even how we might overcome it, we step back to focus on the way we are bound up with it, as destinging, or coming to be as our particular world, our particular history. We begin to grasp destining as particularizing, opening and foreclosing possibilities, and we begin determining the relation of human being to a world that is necessarily finite, confining, nothing but some particular history. From there, we can begin to find a way of relating to the world as historical in general , a relationship to the way we belong to a particular history, a relationship to the confinement itself.
Heidegger's thinking about art moved in a parallel direction after 1945. He still suggested a privileged role for poets, and he remained interested in art as nontechnological and as the vehicle for genuine novelty. But the scope for art blurred as Heidegger's accents changed with his third response. The key was not to attune oneself to particular artists who might point beyond the present debasement but to think the essence of art as uncaused worlding. To think about art was thus an aspect of thinking about the world as sheer coming to be. So even insofar as he continued to accent art, Heidegger's concern was to think through the world as historical as such.
Once it became clear what the essence of technology entailed, Heidegger found the danger not so much in technology per se but in "historicism," which was emerging as the dominant way of experiencing ourselves and conceiving what "there is" in our nihilistic world. To find a way, at the hinge, to pivot into something else was to discern an alternative to the historicist way of relating to the world as nothing but history.
In 1946, Heidegger insisted that "historicism has today not only not been overcome, but is only now entering the stage of its expansion and entrenchment. The technical organization of communications throughout the world by radio and by a press already limping after it is the genuine form of historicism's dominion." A few years later he noted that we are caught up in an irresistible process of frenzied ordering; and thus the danger that "all revealing will be consumed in ordering, and that every thing will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing-reserve." In other words, our way of subjecting everything to purposive, history-making action threatens to become all-encompassing and to preclude definitively any alternative.
Historicism for Heidegger was the outcome of the whole chain linking metaphysics,
subjectivism, and technology. By one measure "reality" in our era reduces to what can be objectified, known, and manipulated by the human subject; by another, "reality" is generated as such manipulation takes place. Either way, we come to conceive reality as the ongoing making of the world in history, through willed human response. With the notion that human being makes the world, we have a universalizing anthropocentrism, or humanism, and finally the anthropocentric historicism that Heidegger associated especially with Dilthey. By the twentieth century, the world reduces to an object of human will, and everything appears to us to be available for manipulative technology. The being of an entity lies simply in presenting itself in accordance with the categories imposed by the historical epoch.
The forgetting of being had always meant that we can see only beings, but in the earlier epochs of our tradition, we had thought we could somehow discern, if necessary by peering through those particular beings, being, conceived—again—as the grounding, the transcendent condition, the ultimate reality of things; that was what metaphysics had always meant. The advent of historicism had been fundamental to the eclipse of metaphysics, though it had been a halting process. Even Dilthey had thought we still might apprehend something stable and suprahistorical as we peer through the particulars of our fundamentally historical world.
But after Dilthey, with the step we saw in Nietzsche and Croce, historicism was coming to mean taking the particulars of our actual history—the ontic—to be ultimate reality, to be everything. With the eclipse of our metaphysical tradition, in other words, we have become able to focus only on the things that actually are, the individual things that, we now come to understand, have come to be in time, through history. Let us recall Heidegger's definition of nihilism, quoted above: "To forget being and cultivate only the essent—that is nihilism." And Heidegger explicitly linked nihilism to the collapse of being into what comes to be in history: "The essence of nihilism lies in history; accordingly, in the appearing of whatever is as such, in its entirety, Nothing is befalling Being itself and its truth, and indeed in such a way that the truth of what is as such passes for Being, because the truth of Being remains wanting."
If we ask, as our metaphysical tradition still leads us to, what in the final analysis "there is" in light of that reduction, we can see only the human making or agency or will that seems to bring the particulars of reality into being, whether it is characterized in Nietzschean terms, as will to power, or in Crocean terms, as post-Hegelian spirit. Nietzsche had given voice to the developing
sense that human beings are in some sense making the world—through sheer will to power—and that beyond the particular world resulting from contingent human response there is nothing at all. But whether we refer to Nietzschean will to power or to Crocean creative spirit is secondary. Each is a way of flattening everything into the actual particular history.
Even as Heidegger, in his later writings, continued to portray Nietzschean will to power as the nihilistic culmination of Western metaphysics, he deepened his understanding of Nietzsche's mature strategy. Now Heidegger did greater justice to the sense in which Nietzsche had been seeking to respond to precisely the reduction to "becoming" that had helped start Heidegger, too, on his particular intellectual path. Indeed, Heidegger grasped, perhaps better than anyone before him, how the idea of eternal recurrence and the ideal of innocent total affirmation emerged from Nietzsche's effort to envision what would be necessary to dissolve the gnawing resentment of "it was," the fact of a past not subject to my will, that was creeping into human experience with the waning of metaphysics. Nietzsche was responding to a new sense of finitude, of confinement within a particular destiny, that first breeds a desire for revenge against time. But even insofar as Nietzsche was not simply positing another metaphysics, his mature response was appalling to Heidegger, for it entailed affirming the actual particular, the essent, and precluding any opening to something else.
The tendency of contemporary historicism, then, was to compress all of being into the actual historical course of things, leading us to believe that this particular line of past, present, and future is all there is. As the world reduces to these three dimensions, we may, with Nietzsche, laughingly affirm the particular reality that has become through history, or, with Croce, stoically plod along, building more history onto the old as we do so. What matters from a Heideggerian perspective is that, either way, we settle for a restricted, even one-dimensional, mode of experience. We no longer even grasp the possibility of an orientation, a human place, that might open to something else, another dimension, perhaps an object or source of religiosity.
Historicism, then, was the more general danger, encompassing technology. Yet historicism was essential to our destining, the outcome of our history so far, and a historicist age opens up a new possibility, beyond what had been possible under the earlier reign of metaphysics. Thus, again, the sense that our present situation is a kind of hinge. But the point was not simply to recognize,
once we understand that we can expect no privileged messages from within our tradition, that the message is that there is no message, that there is no privileged epoch but only particular finite histories. That would be to settle for the reduction to history—and might then invite either the Crocean or the Nietzschean responses. The key for Heidegger was fully to grasp the reduction as the outcome of the eclipse of metaphysics yet not settle for contemporary historicism as the outcome.
At issue was the human relationship to the world as historical. Relatively late in the history of metaphysics, Hegel brought the relationship between being and history to center stage for the first time, but the Hegelian way of subordinating the realm of temporality and change to stable being had not held up. And, as Heidegger saw it, the culture was still picking up the pieces. What we first need to ponder, after Hegel, is that the particular sendings of being do not add up to wholeness or completeness.
At the same time, however, Heidegger found the mainstream historical culture that had crystallized after Hegel to misconstrue our relationship with history and the past. In one sense, of course, the relationship to history reflected in contemporary historiography simply manifested the fundamentally manipulative, technological quality of our nihilistic age. Seeking security, we objectify the past, the better to control it, to make it safe. We gain the illusion of explanatory power by forcing the past into an all-encompassing network of cause and effect. Even as we impose our present categories and standards onto the past, we tend to cut it off from us, distinguishing it sharply from the present. History, said Heidegger, is taken to be about the past, so we assume the tradition it encounters "lies behind us—while in fact it comes toward us because we are its captives and destined to it. The purely historical view of tradition and the course of history is one of those vast self-deceptions in which we must remain entangled as long as we are still not really thinking." By itself, then, historiography does not enable "us to form within our history a truly adequate, farreaching relation to history." The point, then, was not to eschew encounter with history but to develop a different relationship with it.
Opening the way to that relationship required a deeper understanding of what is entailed in the coming to be of a world in history. So with his new
orientation by the later 1940s, Heidegger sought to specify how past, present, history, and human being come together in a world that lacks the grounded necessity of metaphysics and that is always only something in particular, not everything, not complete. But once being or presencing could no longer be conceived as a thing or ground, the terminology became treacherous indeed. Heidegger tried out various, often idiosyncratic ways of characterizing what being as history involves, referring, for example, to worlding, based on the distinction between earth and world, and to the regioning of that which regions. But though the terminology varied, he pinpointed two essential features.
First, Heidegger came to accent the "epochal" character of being, taking over a term adapted from the Greek epoche , made familiar by Husserl, as holding back. Being holds back precisely as it actualizes itself as "there is" something. Using the double meaning of the German Es gibt as "there is" and "it gives," Heidegger showed that when "there is" something, there has been a giving, or sending. Being as Es gibt means that precisely as it gives/there is some particular actuality, being holds back: "As it reveals itself in beings, Being withdraws." This holding back is to be understood in a double sense. The sending itself is concealed; we "see" only the actual that has come to be. But giving/holding back also entails endless particularizing; what comes to be is always some particular way as opposed to some other that it might have been. At any one moment, in other words, only something comes to be, not everything. Holding back is essential for something in particular to come to be. Even within the framework of earth and world that he posited in the mid-1930s, Heidegger specified that entities belong to the earth and cannot be reduced to the event of their appearing within a historical world. Earth never fully presents itself in any world.
In Being and Time , Heidegger sought to show that human being, and ultimately language, affords the clearing, the space for being to "shine" in some particular way. In his later works he insisted more explicitly that language, as the medium for coming to be, necessarily conceals or holds back precisely as it enables something to become present: "Language is the lighting-concealing advent of Being itself." Being and humanity are forever coming together, interfacing in language in some particular way.
We can only say that unconcealment is the coming into appearance, as a
particular something, of that which presences, but Heidegger cautions us that our customary grammatical understanding of language leads us to think in terms of "an It that is supposed to give, but that itself is precisely not there." So we must "abandon the attempt to determine 'It' by itself, in isolation, so to speak. But this we must keep in mind: The It, at least in the interpretation available to us for the moment, names a presence of absence." If we insist on the obvious distinction, then being is better conceived as the sending/holding back as opposed to the "it" that sends/holds back as something comes to be. Thus, as Heidegger put it, "The unconcealedness of beings—this is never a merely existent state, but a happening." But the dimension Heidegger was after cannot be adequately named, because any such naming, even in the preferable participial form, tends to make it a thing, another particular essent.
Still, in portraying unconcealment as a happening, Heidegger was recognizing that temporality is essential to the shining of being as particular. And part of what required attention was that somehow this empty temporality turns out to be historical. Even in the face of this temporalizing, things cohere, relate to each other, so that being shines or gives itself as some particular history .
In his important lecture of 1962, "Time and Being," Heidegger said explicitly that he was after a kind of fourth dimension, distinguishable from the three dimensions of temporality—past, present, and future:
The unity of time's three dimensions consists in the interplay of each toward each. This interplay proves to be the true extending, playing in the very heart of time, the fourth dimension, so to speak—not only so to speak, but in the nature of the matter. True time is four-dimensional. But the dimension which we call the fourth in our count is, in the nature of the matter, the first, that is, the giving that determines all.
This giving gives in such a way, as "nearing nearness" or "gathering nearness," that past, present, and future cohere—in some certain way. Heidegger sought to characterize the matter by juxtaposing contradictory attributes—nearing and distancing. The giving is such that past, present, and future are near enough that the things given do not fly apart into chaos but distant enough that they do not collapse into one another to form a stable, finished, immobile unity. Thus Heidegger could say that the "'nearing nearness' . . . brings future, past, and present near to one another by distancing them. For it keeps what has been, open by denying its advent as present." Gathering nearness affords continuity and coherence; the world slips and at any moment is never fully what it "is," but it responds to itself as it does so. Thus there is at once the coherence and the
measure of openness and change necessary for the giving or shining of being to be a history.
With this line of questioning, Heidegger was looking through what we seem to be left with, our merely historical world, to ask what things must be like for this to be what there is. On the basis of the resulting insights, he hoped to tease his way through the historicist emphasis on the actual history to a new kind of openness to the giving itself. And from there we might begin to discern a more fruitful way of experiencing ourselves in relationship with what happens, is happening.
But if a kind of openness becomes possible now, Heidegger's way of portraying the whole history of the West as a single "propriative event," or Ereignis , has seemed to some critics to be unncessarily confining. If we are to grasp the basis of Heidegger's quest for a new openness, and what such openness might entail, we must take care to understand the finitude he associated with human belongingness to a particular history.
In his stimulating Critique of Pure Modernity , David Kolb finds something too restrictive in Heidegger's way of emphasizing the single event or epochal granting of the West, because it means a "unified content," "a unified meaning to structure the space opened to us," so that we must think of the "world as a whole constituted by a unitary granting of presence." Against Heidegger's way of restricting us to that single event, Kolb insists that "there is no end to what we can say." He thereby points toward the constructive, non-Heideggerian cultural orientation that becomes explicit in his concluding chapter. But this set of emphases keeps Kolb from seeing why Heidegger might find other priorities within the framework of groundlessness and finitude that Kolb and Heidegger both take for granted.
Kolb's way of characterizing the single and unified Ereignis, the event to which we belong, does not convey all that Heidegger found significant about the sending of being as a particular history. The point is not simply that some privileged content limits us unduly; rather, whatever we say will be part of a particularizing, will belong to the continuing of this particular event. Our whole world—any world—is a particular event, continuing to grab us, involve us, compel our belonging. Our involvement may entail the multiplicity, the "infinite analysis," that Kolb advocates, but Heidegger was struck with the sense in which whatever results from our multiple responses will be more of the same history, the eventing of this particular world. The particularity is thick enough to allow whatever we could possibly say, but no matter what we say, the eventing remains particular. The finitude and confinement operate on a higher level than Kolb's characterizations suggest. Thus the kind of openness Kolb advocates cannot address the finitude and confinement that Heidegger posited.
Only insofar as we grasp this higher-level finitude, and how it might be experienced, can we understand what a corresponding kind of openness might entail. Heidegger was seeking a relationship to that finitude that would allow us to experience something other than the mere continuance of the particular event. He was suggesting there was some deep value in that as opposed to the response that Kolb advocates. But why? And how do we get at it, open ourselves to it?
Attuning Ourselves to the Sending
With Heidegger's third approach, we still engage our particular history or tradition but now in the curiously passive mode he called "thinking." In light of his earlier, more aggressive accents, we may assume that this approach entails contemplation, even a resigned acceptance of our particular destiny. But the orientation Heidegger envisioned cannot be characterized in our usual terms. It is not simply contemplative, though it is meditative. It is not passive but active, involving a restless continuing conversation with our tradition. It entails not affirmation but disengagement.
The thinking Heidegger advocated stands opposed, most obviously, to the instrumental or purposive thinking that he claimed had dominated our tradition at least since the early Greeks. In his "Letter on Humanism," written just after World War II, he made the point especially in opposition to Sartrean existentialism, but his target could as easily have been Nietzsche or Croce. To experience the essence of the mode of thinking he envisioned and to carry it out, "we must free ourselves from the technical interpretation of thinking. The beginnings of that interpretation reach back to Plato and Aristotle. They take thinking itself to be a techne , a process of reflection in service to doing and making." Heideggerian thinking, then, eschews action in the conventional sense of "working or effecting"; it does not aim to affect the horizontal world of history, by making more history. Still, thinking for Heidegger is a form of action, indeed, the highest form, because it "lets itself be claimed by Being so that it can say the truth of Being." In this sense, Heideggerian thinking is meditative as opposed to instrumental or representational, serving action upon this world. At the same time, however, it is active and restless; we do not simply contemplate something over and done with but keep working back through our tradition.
In doing so, we attend first to what had remained unthought, to what was concealed as being was sent in the particular way it was. Emphasizing the preciousness of the unthought, Heidegger advocated
letting every thinker's thought come to us as something in each case unique, never to be repeated, inexhaustible—and being shaken to the depths by what is unthought in his thought. What is unthought in a thinker's thought is not a lack inherent in his thought. . . . The more original the thinking, the richer will be what is unthought in it. The unthought is the greatest gift that thinking can bestow.
In accenting the unthought, Heidegger envisioned unthinking the course of the actual so that we might attend to the interplay of giving and holding back. The purpose was not to undo anything in particular, nor was it to retrieve something lost. Nor are we seeking access to something formerly precluded that, when now brought to actuality, initiates a different future. Nor is the ongoing encounter to be conceived as the dialogue that might bring out the richness of possibility for creative transformation and further growth, as with Kant's "strong misreading" of Plato.
Turning in the other direction, any such emphasis on the unthought might seem to warrant blurring the distinction between what did not become actual and what did—and perhaps to invite play. Thus Michael Allen Gillespie worries that Heidegger's emphasis on the unthought means rising "above the constraints imposed by the demand for historical accuracy." Gillespie emphasizes that we must grasp what actually was thought before what was left unthought can be penetrated. In fact, however, Heidegger recognized that we need to confront the actual, what did in fact become our tradition. And we still must open ourselves to the happening of truth as we do so, even though our aim is not some positive reconstruction, let alone the quest for a radical rupture in the tradition that Gillespie attributes to Heidegger. It remained crucial that there has been this actual particular destining; there is no warrant for fanciful play or for willful fictions to recast the tradition based on present needs. Nor does Heidegger invite the "enjoyment" that Vattimo finds in Heideggerian thinking, making Heidegger too much like Nietzsche.
The key is rather that by attending to the unthought we grasp the endless concealing or holding back and thus the sense in which coming to be is a shining or particularizing, a sending of being as this particular world. We manage to step back and disengage from the whole of our particular event. And in doing so, we attune to the giving, the particularizing itself, the way things come to be. Typically, Heidegger characterized what this entails in various ways, some using recognizable philosophical categories, some utterly idiosyncratic. We
think the difference between being and beings and the oblivion of the difference. We "let ourselves into releasement to that which regions." However the aim is characterized, we think through our history simply to listen and thereby to experience the sending itself. The resulting Gelassenheit , releasement, allows us access to a mode of experience until now precluded in our tradition.
In Heidegger's third phase, then, no particular moment is decisive; everything is flattened out, and things go limp. Caputo has summed it up nicely: "The task of thinking is not to be taken in by any particular historical configuration but to make the step back , to see in any particular historical meaning a giving of that which withdraws and hence to experience that giving-withdrawing itself, to experience it as such." And we can attune ourselves to this dimension only by rummaging through our particular history, "unthinking" its particulars as Heidegger specified. We cannot simply turn away from history or contemplate the actual, the essent.
If we think dualistically, there is still "something" suprahistorical that reveals itself in history, but it is crucial that Heidegger had departed from both Hegel and Dilthey in the way discussed in chapter 3. Our historical experiences are merely particular sendings; they do not coalesce to reveal or to realize "being" as a totality—in the way that history proves the self-revelation of spirit for Hegel. For Heidegger, as for Dilthey, we focus on our particular history because these particulars, these be-ings, these truths are all we have to think through But in Heidegger the point has become profoundly different even than for Dilthey because, with the full embrace of the reduction to history, there is no longer some stable ground, hidden by history and our own historicity, that we might glimpse even as we focus on the particulars of history. Rather, we attune to the sending, understanding that it is empty: it "is" only as history. By attending to how things come to be in history, we experience ungroundedness, the sheer happening of this and not that, the free creativity hidden with our insistence on cause-and-effect explanation.
Having taken for granted that being can no longer function as a grounding and having found it impossible to deny that the actual historical is in one sense all there is, Heidegger was seeking encounter with the "something else" that had to be at work in the coming to be as history.
Everyday opinion sees in the shadow only the lack of light, if not light's complete denial. In truth, however, the shadow is a manifest, though impenetrable, testimony to the concealed emitting of light. In keeping with this concept of shadow, we experience the incalculable as that which, withdrawn from representation, is nevertheless manifest in whatever is, pointing to Being, which remains concealed.
In seeking to open to this "incalculable," Heidegger hoped to renew the scope for religious experience in a world reducing to nothing but history. This dimension seemed to open just beyond the postmetaphysical experience of history that he shared with Nietzsche and Croce. The religiosity that Heidegger envisioned was not only posttheological but posthistoricist. There could be no return to transcendence, but neither was it enough simply to grasp historicism as absolute and this particular as our destiny. On the contrary, the key for Heidegger was to grasp historicism as our truth, but then to respond by taking the step back or "beyond," making room again for the holy.
Just after World War II, Heidegger lamented that "being is still waiting for the time when it will become thought-provoking to man." And he worried that present tendencies seemed to preclude the kind of preliminary thinking and experience that would form the basis for fresh thinking about what we might mean by "God."
How can man at the present stage of world history ask at all seriously and rigorously whether the god nears or withdraws, when he has above all neglected to think into the dimension in which alone that question can be asked? But this is the dimension of the holy, which indeed remains closed as a dimension if the open region of Being is not lighted and in its lighting is near man. Perhaps what is distinctive about this world-epoch consists in the closure of the dimension of the hale [des Heilen ].
The particular sending of "the West" was in danger of closing in on itself in one-dimensionality, confining itself to technology, historicism, the universe of experiences that Nietzsche and Croce had posited. This would be to preclude definitively any genuinely religious experience, any experience of the holy.
But it remained true that at this historicist hinge in our tradition, there is scope for a new openness as well. Although poets like Hölderlin had helped prepare the way, it fell to Heidegger himself to conceive a posthistoricist religiosity. And only in light of the broadly historicist challenge did his way of
asking the question of being, feeling the weight of the matter, become possible and necessary in the West. As the whole of being seemed to flatten into the actual historical dimension, feeding on its own excrement, it became possible to experience the absolute historicity of things, to feel the interpenetration of nothingness and actuality. On that basis it became possible to think through what is entailed in the sending of being as history and, from there, to suggest a new way of experiencing the human relationship to the sending of being.
Although Heidegger's way of thinking through history to the giving itself is essentially meditative, it is crucial that the Heideggerian orientation is restless and reflexive. We can never say what needs to be said once and for all. We never reach a goal or end that would enable us to contemplate an extrahistorical dimension, at last apprehended in pure form.
Because whatever we think or do will be part of our particular history, the way we hold open, even the way we apprehend the fourth dimension, will be particular, historically specific. Thus Heidegger's cautionary note in his lecture "Time and Being."
Always retained in the withdrawing sending, Being is unconcealed for thinking with its epochal abundance of transformations. Thinking remains bound to the tradition of the epochs of the destiny of Being, even when and especially when it recalls in what way and from what source Being itself receives its appropriate determination, from the "there is, It gives Being."
Even when we manage a sense of how being is given, we are bound to our particular tradition and do so in a particular way—not in a universal, complete, final way. Even in recognizing and experiencing being as particularizing, we do not abstract ourselves from our particular destining. Heidegger was always aware of the tension, but attending to that tension was central to his mature approach. Thinking is reflexive; I think about the fact that my own thinking is historically specific, that in thinking this I belong to the tradition I am thinking about.
The fact that there is no rest is ultimately a corollary of the fact that what there is, is a history. But at the same time, we are constantly in danger of being swallowed up in a confining historicist nihilism. Thus the curious mode of argument in Heidegger's later works. To keep things from congealing, he kept adding new terms, trying to say it in a different way, suggesting the need for a
still more basic line of questioning. Yet things never came to rest; the same questions kept returning, to be reformulated. Heidegger was explicit about the need to keep on the move: "Our task is unceasingly to overcome the obstacles that tend to render such saying inadequate." We must be ready "to let our own attempts at thinking be overturned, again and again, by what is unthought in the thinkers' thought."
There was no end in sight to the confrontation with Parmenides, for example, but this endlessness, rather than a failing, is simply a corollary of incompleteness. Rather than fixing Parmenides once and for all, we continually question him anew, on the basis of new experience, precisely as Heidegger himself was doing. We do not expect any definitive answers from the Greeks, or anyone else. In emphasizing this restless and reflexive encounter, Heidegger offered not some definitive solution but a kind of ritual, which might serve as an ongoing cultural component for a postmetaphysical world, a component based on one possible—though surely extreme—way of responding to the world as historical. Such ongoing ritual seems attractive especially when political response, even the apocalyptic response of Nazism, can only yield more of the same.
But Heidegger suggested that such ritualistic disengagement might serve a deeper purpose, as a way to hold things open for something else, a new dispensation, a different history. Although we cannot hope to overcome, for example, the confusion that Greek categories have bequeathed to us, Heidegger insists that "the attempt to heed this confusion steadfastly, using its tenacious power to effect some resolution, may well bring about a situation which releases a different destiny of being."
In some of Heidegger's characterizations, such steadfast heeding seemed to suggest, again, that we can only wait passively. In his famous Der Spiegel interview of 1966, held for posthumous publication, he concluded, "Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten" (Only a god can save us). But we prepare ourselves for a different sending by actively thinking through our history, attending to the holding back, so that we disenthrall ourselves from our actual destiny. It is thus that we hold ourselves open for an upsurge of the holy, a different experience, even a different dispensation.
There is little for us to say about what that might entail. For now we cannot escape the spatial metaphors and linguistic dualisms that have led us to conceive God and the holy as we have, in terms of such concepts as immanence and transcendence. But even radical immanence is not given once and for all. The point, then, is not that the new God or gods will or will not be transcendent; the dichotomy itself would fall away with a different sending in language.
Yet when compared to what we used to take religious experience to involve, Heidegger's attuning and waiting offers only a pale, limited experience of the holy, a pathetic religiosity, because it seems utterly without positive content. But that is all that is possible for us now, in light of the actual resulting in nihilism, in a historicist world feeding on its own excrement. Still, this new way of experiencing the holy may prove richer than it seems, and it might hold things open for a new giving involving a still richer experience.
On the basis of its posthistoricist dimension, Heideggerian religiosity can be distinguished both from earlier religious emphases and from newer forms of mysticism spawned by the intellectual displacement. As noted briefly in chapter 3, Henri Bergson, like Heidegger, was seeking a kind of posttranscendent religiosity, but what Heidegger envisioned was more radical precisely because it was also posthistoricist. Attuning to the giving-sending is not the same as attuning to the nonrational life force, which is conventional in comparison—and easily becomes a new metaphysics, as we saw. For Bergson, the challenge was to rescue religiosity from science, not from history, while for Heidegger, science had already dissolved into history. The challenge, then, was closer to rescuing religiosity from history, to making way for a new religiosity even in light of the reduction to history.
In a sense, Heidegger was inviting simply an "openness to the mystery," but it is crucial that, because it was posthistoricist, the Heideggerian stance is also distinguishable from mysticism as usually understood. Such openness rests on a restless and reflexive thinking of the particular history, as opposed to mere feeling, to intuition of something else, or to some mushy oneness presumed to transcend history and historicity. Heidegger's emphasis on openness stands in instructive contrast with the accents of literary modernists like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who became interested in mystical or visionary experience in light of the hypertrophy of history. Unlike these writers, Heidegger did not seek to see through the particulars of history to oneness or wholeness; it is precisely such oneness or wholeness that is not there. But once
we have fully experienced that absence, then what can it mean to open ourselves to the mystery? It involves an experience of the difference as such, of particularity itself—of the obvious become uncanny. We open ourselves to the mystery only by approaching our particular history in a new, posthistoricist way.
But if continuing engagement with our history distinguished Heidegger's quest for a new religiosity, is it fair to charge, with Rorty and Derrida, that he was trapped by the terms of the philosophical tradition and that, whatever his pretenses to the contrary, he simply added another layer to it? Although Heidegger occasionally equated the thinking he advocated with philosophy, it is crucial that such thinking does not seek transcendental conditions or definitive solutions. Thus Heidegger's characterization in his "Letter on Humanism": "The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics—a name identical to philosophy." And such thinking abandons any pretense that it will "become wisdom itself in the form of absolute knowledge," as Hegel had envisioned. Rather, "thinking gathers language into simple saying."
Contrary to Derrida, Heidegger was not seeking some metaphysical key to unlock the secret meaning of being. His aim, rather, was to specify what a broadly religious experience would entail once we recognize that there are no such keys or secrets. Critics like Rorty and Derrida have not done justice to the point of Heidegger's posthistoricist concern with coming to be as particularizing. Thus they fail to grasp why, even in a postmetaphysical mode, one might choose not simply to turn from the tradition or use it playfully, for edification. And they fail to grasp the scope for relating to that tradition without simply continuing it, the scope for disengagement through ongoing, restless encounter.
To be sure, Heidegger still envisioned something like the reappropriation of a lost or alienated essence of "man," so he seems subject to the old ideal of, or nostalgia for, wholeness. The present is debased partly because we do not experience ourselves in the "right" way, in terms of the appropriate relationship
to being. In this sense, we are estranged from ourselves, from what we really are. In overcoming nihilism we would overcome such estrangement and experience what is truly our relationship to being.
But these imperatives no longer have the conventional meaning. For one thing, Heidegger well understood that in talking of the "essence" of human being he was using language that was still metaphysical and thus inherently limiting and misleading. We can only start with such metaphysical language, since we have only this particular repertoire of ways of saying. The deeper point, in any case, is that overcoming such estrangement in Heideggerian terms means nothing like completeness or wholeness. It yields only a sense of ourselves as a clearing, with the clearing, as the term suggests, an emptiness, like a screen on which something can be projected. We do not discover what we have been striving to be, and we really "are," once and for all. We simply experience ourselves as the openness for letting be.
Heidegger attacked the whole array of humanisms, from Roman to Christian to Marxian to Sartrean, that took the "humanity" of humans as a given, as "determined with regard to an already established interpretation of nature, history, world, and the ground of the world, that is, of beings as a whole." Every humanism, said Heidegger, is either grounded in a metaphysics or is itself made to be the ground of one. He used humanism pejoratively, then, because it seemed a major vehicle of the essentialism and subjectivism of our metaphysical tradition. But he took care to emphasize, at the same time, that "man" is not to be viewed as simply one thing or being among others; human being is special in the scheme of things. Indeed, he said, "humanism is opposed because it does not set the humanitas of man high enough."
In pushing through historicism to a religious dimension, Heidegger opened up one set of possibilities while concealing others. And thus he invites especially Richard J. Bernstein's objection that the "saving power" he was seeking should encompass praxis, phronesis, action in the public realm. In fact, Heidegger's perspective was so extreme that it allowed virtually no differentiation among human actions; what matters is the sense in which mechanized agriculture and mechanized killing in gas chambers are the same. Even the public action Bernstein envisions would prove to rest on the same sort of manipulation.
In investing his hopes in Nazism, Heidegger was provincial and naive, but he learned from the failure of Nazism, and he shared in the wider political disillusionment of our era as he did so. Because of the dramatic disasters, especially, but also because of the more mundane features of our political experience, even the notions that Bernstein invokes—praxis, the public sphere—have come to seem threadbare. Although it derived from his contingent encounter with Nazism, Heidegger's mature position has resonance partly because it responds to the larger experience of our culture, which had invested greatly in the scope for political action with the eclipse of metaphysics but which encountered limits and frustrations by the end of the twentieth century. Heidegger sought to explore what lies beyond the limits of action, what happens at the point where actions are leveled out, where all they can do is produce more of the same.
But as Bernstein emphasizes, such prominent students of Heidegger as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Hannah Arendt diverged sharply from Heidegger himself on this score. Each denied that the basically Heideggerian framework required any such definitive abandonment of the hope for constructive public action. Indeed, each found it possible to reconceive the political sphere on the basis of certain of Heidegger's insights.
So Heidegger does not merit the last word, but together with Nietzsche and Croce he helped establish a web of possibilities in response to the eclipse of metaphysics and the reduction to history. More recent encounters with the world as historical have operated within the new terrain these three thinkers blocked out.