Re: "Letter on Humanism"--Reading 4

On Thu, 30 Mar 1995, Christopher Rickey wrote:

> 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.

I see them as levels of being, though certainly the designations refer
also to types of inquiry.

That which pursues the being of
> something is ontological; that which pursues what a thing is as an object
> is an ontic inquiry (science).

Yes, but as Plato shows with the divided line, isn't it the case that
each activity should be related to a different "object". I thought that
the doctrine of intentionality required this as well.

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.

Though the ontological difference is not explicit in the letter, it does
still seem to be present in the difference between elemental thinking and
theory. Again, I think you are missing the metaphysical import of
alternate paths of thinking. Elemental thinking is steeped in Being,
theory in beings. I thought this was pretty clear, perhaps I am missing

> 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.

Certainly, for Aristotle, yes, "the mind is in a way all things." But I
don't see this in Plato. Plato's memetic doctrines indicate that Plato
saw the idea of something to be both like and unlike that which is copied
by it. There was just as much difference between representation and
represented as there was alike. Hence, the need for the good to make idea
stick to thing. In Aristotle, the mind copies the same form as the one in
the object, allowing truth as correspondence.

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.

Of course, other conceptions are possible. Truth could be treated
analogically, for instance, or truth could be taken as coherence.
Remember that Plato says in the Timaeus that Physics is at best "a likely
story." In Plato, correspondance is more or less, it is incommensurable,
assymetrical, or in Husserl's language inadequate. In Aristotle,
correspondence is identity. The period after Aristotle quite deliberately
dismissed his conception of truth in favor of Plato. In about the 11th
Century, Aristotle's conception is rediscovered, thereby opening the
possibility of Scholasticism and the science that will follow from this.
So, I am willing to concede that Aristotle developed truth as
correspondence, but it did not achieve front place in society for
*several* centuries. A review of early Medieval thought has us thinking
truth along different lines.

> 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.

Even though he does not explicitly mention it in this text, I do think it
is still present. (All of us in these commentaries have used other texts
to ellucidate the "Letter".) I see his bias in the view that "ethics" can
be derived from an abstract as opposed to concrete existence. We will see
more of this later. I know from earlier texts that Heidegger thought that
this propensity towards abstraction before the concrete was a Greek and
German phenomenon. I no reason to suspect that he changed his mind on
this. Do you?

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.

I just don't see this. In fact, how can he be deconstructing any
privileging of germanness without, as you have noted, pointing it out? In
order to make this claim, you must refer to the same texts (those outside
the "Letter" as I did to maintain his bias.) I see a change in words, but
no change in ideology.

> The reason for Heidegger bothering with his little historical reflection
> seems clear in context:

Not to me, especially since after his Roman digression, he defines
humanism in his own way and continues without the Roman view.

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.

And yet, the institutionalized and bureaucratic destruction of life
occurs only with totalitarianism. Maybe some metaphysics are ethically
justifiable and others are not. The fact that something is metaphysical
is not, in itself, bad or wrong, if metaphysics preserves an intimate
connection with the concrete. What I find missing in Heidegger and German
Idealism in general is the lack of concreteness, the lack of body, the
equation of the personal with the private or, at least, that the private
is derived from the public, a tendency to put the state over the
individual and to make the individual exist for the good of the state. Of
course, we cannot escape metaphyiscs, but a transcendence that supercedes
metaphyiscs without being included in it might have the ability to
justify it. (I take this up in the last chapter of my book by arguing
that Kierkegaard undertook precisely this inversion after Kant and Hegel.
I think that the same justification is necessary for Heidegger.)

In any case, I admit that my last commentary was general and far from the
text. Your comments are greatly appreciated. I am struggling with a way
to justify Heidegger. I like his work, but I am irresistably drawn to see
its totalitarian political consequences. I used to think that Heidegger's
politics are irrelevant to his philosophy, now I think they follow from
it. But I also realize that I am importing my own metaphysical structures
into Heidegger, and that this is partly why I see what I see.


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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