"Letter on Humanism"--Reading 8

I have decided to work this brief post on Reading 8 into a request for
confirmation on something Chris said in a different context.

On Mon, 10 Apr 1995, Christopher Rickey wrote:

> I had to check what I wrote to see what I meant. What I meant was, the
> particular constellation that being sends as it happens (eignen) is not
> 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.

In Reading 8, Heidegger writes:

"Man is rather "thrown" from Being itself into the truth of Being, so
that ek-sisting in this fashion he might guard the truth of Being, in
order that beings might appear in the light of Being as they beings they
are. Man does not decide whether and how beings appear, whether and how
God and the gods or history and nature come forward into the lighting of
Being, come to presence and depart. The advent of beings lies in the
destiny of Being. But for man it is ever a question of finding what is
fitting in his essence which corresponds to such destiny; for in accord
with this destiny man as ek-sisting has to guard the truth of Being"
(1977, 210).

I can't help hear the voice of historical determinism here, though I am
uncertain of how to read the phrase "Man does not decide whether and how
beings appear..." The "whether" is easy enough for me to grasp, it is the
"how" that concerns me. I was under the distinct impression earlier in
the letter that alternative metaphyiscs were possible, that the
metaphyiscs of the Roman worldview was distinctly different from the
metaphysics of the Italian Renaissance, and the one of Christianity
another one still. Now Heidegger seems to be saying that though
alternative metaphyiscs have occured and do occur, human beings have no
ability to manipulate and control them; all they can do is find "what is
fitting in [their] essence which corresponds to such destiny." Am I
reading this correctly, and if so, is this pertinent to what you [Chris]
were getting at in the above quote.

By now, I don't think my concern with this quote will surprise anyone.
The quote suggests that human beings are not responsible to direct the
course of history toward adopting a metaphyiscs of the Good. Instead,
human beings are at the throes of whatever destiny hands them. In
contemporary America, I think that a case could be made for a metaphyiscs
of the product. What is a thing? Something to be manufactured, bought and
sold, consumed. What is the role of man in this metaphysics? To
perpetuate the system by participating as a "consumer". Every evening the
news media reinforces the metaphysics, and every evening millions of
consumers fulfill their responsibility to be "informed" of the status of
things as products in the world. If Heidegger is correct, human beings
are not responsible for the rise of this dominant ideology over and above
all others. It is the force of historical determinism having its play in

But I wonder whether or not we cannot hear in the background an excuse
for Nazi Germany? For is it not the case that culture fundamentally *is*
a metaphysics. Is Heidegger saying here that his role in the Nazi party
was justified because, first of all, "Man does not decide whether and how
beings appear," but, more importantly, "...for man it is ever a question
of finding what is fitting in his essence which corresponds to such

If I am understanding things correctly, then I am with Chris about having
difficulties with the necessity of what follows "from the particular
constellation that being sends..." I do not think that we can simply wash
our hands of a fundamental obligation we have as philosophers to interact
in the history of Being and to help engender a constellation that
promotes moral autonomy, freedom, peace and justice. Certainly not all
metaphysics do this; but should not these criteria serve to help us
choose between competing metaphyiscs to find one that stands well with
Being and with our fellow human beings? We cannot forget that Socrates
met his fate by going against the metaphysics of his day to call his
culture to a deeper awareness of justice. To be sure, even in going
against his culture, Socrates was within it. But this cannot be taken to
mean that the philosopher can willy-nilly go with the metaphyiscal
configuration of his day without any sense of responsibility. (Or is
perhaps Heidegger confessing here in this very section of the "Letter on
Humanism" that he feels (or felt) no sense of responsibility to contest
the metaphysics of Nazi Germany? Or is perhaps Heidegger giving way to
Arendt's "banality of evil." "As a philosopher, I was just doing my job,
to say how it is with Being in my historical epoch."

The lack of moral accountability for the direction of history concerns me
a little here, particularly coming from one who was so aware of the
limits of metaphysics. Perhaps this is what Levinas is getting at when he
writes, "One can forgive many Germans, but there are some Germans it is
difficult to forgive. It is difficult to forgive Heidegger" (To the
Other, in _9 Talmudic Readings_, 25).

I would be curious to know which (if any) of these themes are
recognizable to others reading this "Letter." I would like to see what is
in the "Letter," but I am certain that my own study, disposition, and
pre-disposition are contributing to my seeing what I see. I don't know.


Anthony F. Beavers, Ph.D. / Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion
The University of Evansville / Evansville, Indiana 47722 / (812)479-2682
Metaethics, Metaphysics, Existentialism, and the Judeo-Christian Tradition
Visit the Academy of Human Arts and Sciences

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