Re: "Letter on Humanism"--Reading 5

Dear Chris,

I think I understand your response. What if we start from what
hasto be the case and work backward to what Heidegger must have
meant? It can't be that being happened only once. If we had no
being... well, nothing would be (which is either untenable or
obvious, depending on whether one emphaizes 'be' or 'nothing').
Being obviously is, forgotten or not. So what could he mean in all
the places where he stresses the idea that the Presocratics had
access to something we do not?

Here it would be useful to unbracket the close reading strategy.
What he usually says is that the Presaocratics experienced but did
not capture in thought being. And then he usually refers to the
fact that by thinkiking being as phusis or aletheia they thought
being in the inherently temporal dynamism of its emerging unfolding
(i.e., as presenc-ing, before freezing it into ousia and ossifying
it into substance, his deconstruction of the Cartesian ontology of
substance in a nutshell), or to the fact that they thought truth in
its essential conflictual agon between concealing revealing. Or
that Parmenides doesn't explicitly differentiate when he says eon
between being (later stripped of its Eleatic 'E') and beings, but
thinks them together in the Same... The case can and should be
multiplied if we really want to see what the Presocratics got that
we miss, we need to return to study them, and Heidegger's texts on
them). But I take it that although they experienced being in its
open, essentially conflicted, non-autochthony, they nevertheless
couldn't resist the human need to name the unnameable, to escape the
aeffective attunement (grundbestimmung) of aidos, awe or wonder, in
which they were totally overpowered by being, and, in feeling awe in
the face of being, we 'without a cison from being.' That awe was
terrifying, and we named it--to gain power over it, to seek shelter
from being. Hence in the first words (after aidos, phusis and
aletheia) there is an essential ambiguity, the words both speak of
the open and conflicted experience they try to name, and they also
imply that there is something, some being, that can be named,
captured, overpowered. Insofar as the words preserve something of
the original *experience* out of which they speak they hold out the
possibilities of thought for the etymo-genealogical strategy of
dis-covery; insofar as they presume to capture being, they turn
being into a being, elliding the ontological difference. Being
cannot be captured by any name, but is the source of the
possibilility of being otherwise, of alterity, difference, change,
heterogeneity. That's my take, anyway.

So what could it mean that being just happened for the Greeks?

Either that being happened a first time, in the original naming of
being as phusis and aletheia, by which humanity articulated its
experience of the openness of being, and so began the slow process
of closing it off, a process the irony of which is how well it has
succeeded--we fled before that which overpowered and terrified us,
the uncapturable, and in so fleeing brought about a world in which
that from whgich we fled is gone, captured (how do you capture the
incapturable? You banish it, and convince yourself that really
there was nothing there in the first place worth troubling over).

So this would be the first happening of being--its first naming, the
name with the wholest preservation of its ambiguity/fullness. Heid
says as much in 43's Parmenides lectures, when he talks about the
eigentliche Ereignis (the advent of the event, the event most
strictly so called, the event/happening most properly speaking).
I can't recommend this lecture course highly enough on these and
other big questions in Heidegger.

That's my interpretation of Heidegger as it bears on this question.
But I still don't understand something you say in response to my
question. You write:

particular constellation that being sends as it happens (eignen) is

necessary, but once it happens that which follows as part of this

constellation is necessary. It is this latter necessity that I have

difficulties with.

I'm not certain, but you seem to be implicitly buying into the
Schurmannian anti-humanism interp., according to which humanity
plays no role in the unfolding of 'constellations of presencing.' I
admit that Heidegger sometimes talks like this, but it cannot be
right, and other places he admits that the being-human being
rapproachement must be reciprocal (being needs human being too).
I'm not sure the two moments can even be divided. On Heidegger's
reading, a tuned-in human being (a poet or philosopher) names being,
if she captures something (e.g. Descartes) we all say 'yeah, that
sounds right.' So the words of the thinker function like the temple
in Greek times, to gather and for a time preserve a certain way of
understanding ourselves and our relation to the world (a given
understanding of being). This was what Heid called
'truth-setting-itself-to-work." What necessity is there here at
all? If the dominant understanding implicit in the culture (or, on
a smaller scale, the particular discursive field or language-game)
had been articulated slightly differently, we could all be
understanding ourselves slightly differently. And who is to say
where the next understanding of what counts for this group or that,
let alone for a society, culture, world as a whole will come from?
The danger. Heidegger said, was that we will foreget that we are a
dialogue, that we ourselves constantly constitute the conversation
that we are. The danger is that we will accept Enframing's empty
optimization imperative as the right and only possible answer to the
question (of what matters, e.g.) which we in fact *are*. Human
agency, the active participation of human beings in the
constitution, maintenance, and change of the understanding of being
cannot be, or at least must not be written out of the picture (to
forget that we play this role is part of the danger, and is also
what Heidegger himself seems to have forgotten at his worst
moments--see Scott on the Rector's address). In the Heraclitus
seminar, Heidegger simply says that being 'noncoercively steers'
us--there is no necessity here (that I can see).

But I take it that this whole topic--which intersects in a profound
way with questions of the impact of Heidegger's fundamental
reshaping of ontological thinking on ethics, and on contemporary
effe\orts to rethink the space of the ethical, is not yet well
understood by most contemporary Heideggerians.

Iain Thomson
UCSD Philo.

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