"Letter on Humanism"--Reading 4

So far, my comments on the "Letter" have been mostly negative. Let me say
up front here that this is not to imply that I think Heidegger is
completely wrong. However, for the sake of time (and to keep things closer
to my personal interests in Heidegger) I am not spending the time in
exposition that Heidegger or this letter deserves. Tonight is no
exception, though my comments here will be a little more general,
referring not only to this section of the "Letter," but to Heidegger's
understanding of history.

In this "Letter" and, indeed, in _Being and Time_, Heidegger often
suggests that the forgetting of Being began with Plato and Aristotle.
Heraclitus and Parmenides (presumably the "giants" of Heidegger's "battle
of the giants concerning Being") opened (discovered) Being only to have it
closed by the ontology of their successors. (This is a familiar point for
Heidegger: Heraclitus and Parmenides engage in ontological enquiry, while
their successors in ontical enquiry.) Furthermore, Heidegger often sees
the Roman borrowing of Greek concepts as a gesture that trivializes them,
and to be sure, the Greek _alethea_ is far richer than the Latin
_veritas_. But I've often wondered about the swiftness with which
Heidegger generalizes this critique. Indeed, he himself sees the necessity
of bringing down to earth the lofty, Greek "cosmos," but does not
acknowledge the daily, common or average of the Latin "mundus" which seems
to be much more in line with his "average everydayness." In short,
sometimes it seems to me that even at his most critical, Heidegger favored
his beloved Greeks over the Roman counterparts. Thus, I am already
suspicious when he turns to the Roman "humanitas" to determine an
historical meaning for "humanism."

In what follows, I am not going to challange Heidegger on this point,
preferring instead to go after a broader one. I would like to offer the
possibility that the difference between the ontical and the ontological
does not appear within texts as easily as Heidegger seems to think they
do. Instead, seeing the ontological in a text (as opposed to the ontical)
may be due more to the viewpoint of the reader than the text. Certainly,
first time readers of Heidegger tend to reify "Being" when reading _Being
and Time_ (and, indeed, hasn't Heidegger to some extent by making it a
word at all) thereby sanctioning Heidegger's constant reminder that Being
while always the Being of an entity is never itself an entity. To be sure,
we, as his readers, need the constant reminder that Being is an
ontological, and not an ontical, concept. Once we are versed in this
difference the warnings may not be as necessary, but their placement
already begins to suggest the possibility that an ontological text might
appear ontical to those who aren't aware of this difference.

When we keep in mind that reading (or, perhaps, more to the point, the art
of decyphering signs) began first as a priestly art, even as the reading
of omens, the suggestion begins to look plausible. Those who were aware of
transcendence (the religious) were the privleged few who were permitted to
read. Their secular counterparts where unable to appreciate the meaning
"behind" the signs, that which did not appear in the sign itself, but to
which the sign referred. Perhaps they would see only the signs the
themselves, that is, the representations, and would therefore be consigned
to the ontical level of interpretation.

If the first readers were those open to the ontological level, then
certainly so were those for whom they wrote. Texts like the Bhagavad Gita
and the Tao te Ching, in fact, go so far as to try to make holy readers of
their readers, to restore reverence to the sign, by outstripping their
representations. "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal tao; the
name that can be named is not the eternal name," write Lao Tsu in the Tao
te Ching. We cannot assume, however, that because a book does not play
these reader's tricks that it is forever consigned to the ontical level.
In the early Church, interpretation of scripture and religious history was
the privlege of those who understood how interpretation functioned.
Indeed, the early hermenuetic theories of thinkers such as Augustine and
St. Cyprian often look to me so much like Heidegger's that I think
Heidegger made a blatant oversight not to mention them.

My point is simply that if an author writes a text with an ontological
understanding of interpretation to a reader with the same, it will be
unnecessary to point the way to destroy or deconstruct the text. Prayers
self-deconstruct in the act of praying them; and if interpretation is this
holy or sacred "decyphering of signs," then only an irreverent reading
will make a spiritual text (if it truly is spiritual) appear to be written
on the ontical level.

When I ask myself about the necessary condition for consigning something
to the ontical level, I constantly return to the doctrine of "truth as
representation" or correspondence. Truth must be construed as the identity
between sign and signified in order to claim that the ontical levels out
the ontological by reducing Being to categories. Thus, it seems
implausible to me that Latin thinkers prior to the advent of scholasticism
were capable of producing ontical texts. Certainly, the early Church
fathers were incapable of the necessary conception of truth needed to
produce an ontical reading. They were not the "literal"ists that Heidegger
seems to make them.

What I am suggesting here is that Heidegger takes a scholastic (or perhaps
Aristotelean) approach to the text to understand prescholastic, Latin
texts that do not share the Scholastic or Aristotelean conception of
truth. Indeed, the very suggestion that texts need to be deconstructed in
order to show their roots in Being requires a posture that sees texts
already as ontical. It requires a representational theory of truth because
it's truth as representation that is being deconstructed.

It would seem that the "forgetting of Being" occurred very gradually over
time. But Heidegger often refers to ancient writings in such a way to
suggest that it occurred in 5th Century (BCE) Athens, only after Being was
disclosed in the only way that it could be disclosed, in the Graeco-German
way. With this in mind, I think that Heidegger's appraisal of history is
both anachronistic and ethnocentric, even at (no, make that especially at)
the ontological level. In other words, he underestimates early
non-hellenic culture.

None of this, however, is pertinent to the "Letter on Humanism," since the
digress to the Roman and Christian conceptions is incidental and
irrelevant to his discussion. I am rather boggled why he went into it in
the first place. Could it have been to distinguish the Graeco-German ethos
from the Roman conceptions (including the Renaissance conceptions) arising
from Italy, France and Spain? "Distinguish" is perhaps too neutral, since
he is arguing throughout this letter that the Graeco-German view is far
superior to that of the Roman peoples. We must remember that "humanism"
is a Roman invention.



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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