Re: "Letter on Humanism"--Reading 4

On Tue, 28 Mar 1995, Anthony F. Beavers wrote:

> 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."

Some comments. The forgetting of being begins when Plato thought
aletheia as correctness of correspondence rather than as uncovering.
Heidegger made this "discovery" of the greek experience of truth as
uncovering early on, and held on to it in the face of philological
objections almost until the end of his life, when he finally admitted
that even Parmenides hadn't experienced it, and revealed what we all knew
anyway: that this discovery was Heidegger's own.

I understand the difference of ontic and ontological to be types of
inquiry and not levels of being itself. That which pursues the being of
something is ontological; that which pursues what a thing is as an object
is an ontic inquiry (science). Heidegger's own distinction in the Letter
seems useful: metaphysics does ontology, but it doesn't think the
difference between being and beings as such. This avoids the obvious
objection that the Scholastics did ontology.

This schema helps to weed through the tangle of ontic and ontological
that arises in Being and Time; notably in the sections on das Man and
death, both of which are ontic phenomena to which Heidegger assigns
ontological meaning.

As I indicated in my last message, Heidegger is objecting to a type of
education (paideia) which attempts to educate people according to an idea
of the noble (good) human. He claims that humanism first arises in roman
times, but is really a translation of a practice already begun in the
greek philosophy schools. The connection of education according to an
idea and technological thinking is pretty obvious. I wonder, though, if
Heidegger avoided this. His own goals as a teacher might shed some light.

> 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.

For Heidegger, what makes a thinking metaphysical (in the later sense) is
that it thinks truth as correspondence or correctness. In greek this is
homoisis (?), which literally means like-mindedness. For the greeks,
when we thought of a triangle, our minds became a triangle, thus taking
correspondence even more literally than we are wont to do. If the
greeks, most notably Plato and Aristotle, could think of truth as
correspondence, I don't see why later thinkers couldn't. My bigger
question is whether any other conception is possible.

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.

> 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.

If you could point out a line in which he links greek and german in this
text, I would be grateful, since I thought he fairly rigorously excluded
it. Not that he doesn't do it in general (he hints at in when he
mentions Holderlin in the Letter), but it is often maintained that in
this text Heidegger rigorously deconstructed any privileging of germanness.

The reason for Heidegger bothering with his little historical reflection
seems clear in context: after the war and the revelation of the death
camps there arose a widespread reflection on humanity and inhumanity, and
what sort of thought would be necessary to avoid repeating the inhumanity
of the recent past. Possible candiates were Marxist humanism, christian
humanism, classical humanism (inspiring also what might be called liberal
humanism, in the classic sense of Erasmus and later Goethe), and of course
existentialist humanism, all of which were put forward as competing isms
in the swirl of postwar Europe. Heidegger's point is that all of them
are metaphysical, and hence part of the problem in the first place.


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