Re: "Letter on Humanism"--Reading 11

On Wed, 19 Apr 1995, Anthony F. Beavers wrote:
> Here in this reading, Heidegger suggests that Holderlin does not seek the
> essence of "homecoming" in "the egoism of his nation. He sees it rather in
> the context of a belongingness to the destiny of the West" (1977, 218).
> Shortly thereafter, Heidegger writes, ""German" is not spoken to the
> world so that the world might be reformed through the German essence;
> rather, it is spoken to the Germans so that from a fateful belongingness
> to the nations they might become world-historical with them. The homeland
> of this historical dwelling is nearness to Being" (1977, 218).
> These claims are loaded, and I cannot begin to unpack them here. However,
> it now seems clear that in this "Letter" Heidegger has transcended his
> German Nationalism. But he has not done away with imperialism, he has
> merely changed his allegiance from Germany to the Western legacy. The same
> gesture that assimilates or destroys the stranger that characterized Nazi
> Germany also characterizes the entire Western legacy. The West has always
> been the ever-expanding cosmos that assimilates; Heidegger's apparent
> valorization of becoming "world-historical" which is "nearness to Being"
> seems to me to be another form of totalitarianism, no longer German, but
> now Greek. In either case, the person is dissolved into the universality

Actually, I read it just the opposite, at least in concrete political
terms; Heidegger keeps the nationalism but gives up the imperialism,
although he never really embraced the imperialism in the first place.
Heidegger says that the nation comes to it own when it takes up its task
and returns to its origins. It is a very inward-looking doctrine, and it
is hard to see how it could sanction, except in a very convoluted manner,
an aggressive foreign policy. Plus, if we accept Lenin's reading of
imperialism for the moment, the latter depends upon capitalism's
ever-expanding need for new markets, fed as it is by unfettered
technological development. Heidegger, to state the obvious, is no friend
either of capitalism or technology in their blindness to domination.

And to be really generous to Heidegger, when we read the lectures to which
Heidegger points his readers, Heimat turns out to be the place of being,
with an ambiguous positioning of Volk in relation to the poet. I
recommend Robert Bernasconi's excellent articles on this in Heidegger and
the Question of Existing.

> of Being, cosmos, logos, nomos, etc. (Indeed, this might precisely be the
> fundamental characteristic of cosmos that caused early Christians to seek
> in the person of Christ a redeemer for the cosmos. The concept of a
> personal God outside the cosmos as Father and inside the cosmos as
> incarnate son breaks the totalitarianism of the cosmos thereby "saving"
> the world. My current research focuses on this movement and in so doing
> tries to steer a course between Levinas and Heidegger, a course that is
> not the one that Derrida took in "Violence and Metaphysics")
> Hanging in the balance, and central to my own research, is the destiny of
> Being, that it should of necessity give way to beings, and that, in turn,
> this entry into metaphysics should make it possible to disclose Being as
> the "transcendens pure and simple". So far, I have seen nothing in
> Heidegger to suggest why this transformation is necessary. But it is vital
> to my research that I come to terms with it. In addition, I think it is
> necessary to understand this if we are going to understand this "Letter".
> So, I was wondering if we might retrace the steps of that argument. Chris,
> so far, you seem to be the one who is most familiar with it. Can you
> provide us with some references or an outline of Heidegger's thoughts on
> the matter?

Well, I'm certainly no expert in the matter. The text I have been using
has been translated, so I learned yesterday, into english. It's called
Basic Questions (or Problems; I'm not certain) of Philosophy: Selected
"Problems" of "Logic". In another light though, this problem extends
over the whole of the post-Being and Time period, so almost any text will do.

I understand two operations going on that can explain the fall into
beings: one of language and one of human constitution.

In the former, the Greeks first opened up the question of being as such,
and therewith phusis, logos, aletheia, etc. At certain points Heidegger
insists though, that they did not treat the ontological difference as
such, but rather understood being in the light of beings. Therefore all
of the key terms became part of scientific or technological thinking, and
attained a self-evidence of meaning that no later thinker could ever
really challenge (until Heidegger). The equivocation I find in Heidegger
is whether the Greeks really ever experienced the difference of being as
such, but it is safe to say that at least since Aristotle, things have
been science. What Heidegger decided by 1964 was that it wasn't really
important if any Greek thought this, because the language itself held the
clue that we can follow to its origin; language points to an origin that
even the originators might not have known. (Can anyone detect Derrida
here? You should.) Personally, I find this path of thinking eminently
questionable, but Heidegger points out the abyss we must hurdle more
clearly than Derrida; to make sense of the later Heidegger, we must hold
that language exceeds the sum total of meanings in usage of a language;
or in other words, that "greek" is something other than that language
spoken by people speaking greek.

Second would be the constitutional limits, or what it means to be human.
This latter would be drawn most strongly from his fundamental ontological
writings, most notably, Being and Time, but it holds still into his later
writings on poetic existence. "Fallenness" is a positive constitution of
Dasein, which more or less means we have no choice but to fall. Part of
being human is to fall; concretely said, we have to labour, communicate,
raise families, etc. From this perspective (daily existence)
transcendence is the possibility of transcending this restricted world so
that the whole suddenly lights up. This sudden lighting is the
Augenblick, or the moment, which should be taken to mean (in another of
his metaphors), being flashes like lightning in the dark and illuminates
everything, but only briefly, and then darkness again falls. To unite
these metaphors, the constant daylight of reason and science threatens to
make impossible the flash of lightning. We can busy ourselves with our
daily lives and practical affairs and never transcend this world.

The poetic problem which I hinted at is of course also connected with
language, but not a specific historical configuration. In his analysis
of Hoelderlin's poem Heimkunft ("Homecoming",in Being and Existence),
Heidegger says that the poet must come down from the holy places in the
mountain peaks and back to human society. Because I only read it last
week, it's not terribly clear to me why. One way would be to compare
this to Zarathustra, who after 10 years of solitude feels the need to
come down again to be with people. In connection with his works on art,
Heidegger says that the work of art is nothing without those who preserve
the work (who are the historical Volk). A work of art is directed
towards other people. Herein lies the problem that Heidegger approaches
in his later writings on language. The poet cannot name the highest,
because there the word fails and there is only silence. All poetry is in
some sense vain, a talking around the unsayable (sound and fury
signifying nothing?). Perhaps a concrete example would be a profound
experience, which we try to relate to others, but the words fail us. I
think we have all had this experience, and if Heidegger is correct, the
problem is not so much lack of technical facility of the speaker, but rather
the nature of language and the experience itself. The more I read his
little jottings ("The Fieldpath," "The Secret of the Clocktower"), the
more I find myself convinced that these experiences are for Heidegger the
highest (although the simplest), and the problem he is busying himself
with is the very one that Rickert (I think) challenged the
phenomenological efforts of Husserl and Bergson: the ability to
articulate a stream of consciousness, because the articulation "stills"
the stream in order to say anything. Heidegger initially gave a positive
answer to this question. Later I think the problem came as to whether we
could ever really experience it anymore.

As you can tell by the number of "I think"'s, this is fairly
speculative. Comments would be appreciated.

> clarification on the matter seems necessary now.) What is at stake here
> will become clear later in the "Letter" when Heidegger situates the
> problem of agriculture next to the problem of the gas chamber. It seems to

Actually, this doesn't come up here, but in a newly published book in the
Gesamtsausgabe, #79, in the part on the Bremen lectures. And there are
others as part of this comparison, but the specifics escape me at the
moment. Levinas does go into them.

> me that Heidegger is dehumanizing the cosmos, and I wonder whether his
> deconstruction of "humanism" might fail to recover the human from the
> destiny of Being. I still remain concerned about the absence of the
> individual in the determination of the dignity of the human. I think we
> are still a long way from understanding "what is human" for Heidegger.

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