Sunday, March 21, 2010

Steiner on Heidegger

Notes on/quotes from George Steiner's book Martin Heidegger

One may get to the heart of the matter by asking: How is a page of Heidegger to be read, what orders of meaning can be drawn from it? For Heidegger it is the right asking that matters. (18)

The beginning of our asking should be treated with the same dignity as the goal we hope to reach.

One starts out on "a path." There are different paths one may start on, and one can't know if the path one has chosen will lead where one hopes. One must be sure, however, that the path is at least "in the forest"--i.e., in what is proper to philosophy and not somehow extraneous to philosophy. For Heidegger most of Western philosophy has been a matter of elaborating things extraneous to philosophy.

One does not read Heidegger so as to understand his texts if understanding means the ability to summarize or explain in different words, a different idiom. One reads so as to experience his texts, his project.

Steiner: "What blazes in Heidegger at best is a slow lightning. Heidegger would have been the first to underline the preliminary, fragmented nature of his labors. He conceived of these as a didactic, purgative preparation for a revolution in thought and in sensibility yet to come." (xxxiv-v)

Steiner takes up the issue of Heidegger's association with the Nazi movement and concludes: 1) there is no way to demonstrate that Heidegger's work in Being and Time had any direct influence on the Nazis; 2) there are in fact many areas in which Heidegger's concerns overlap with aspects of Nazi ideology; 3) the most troubling fact of all is not Heidegger's original collaboration, but his complete silence on the Holocaust after the war. (Heidegger said almost nothing about the Holocaust for the remainder of his life.)

Steiner's treatment of these questions seems at times very condemnatory, at other times even-handed: Heidegger's associations with Nazism are neither treated as insignificant, nor however are they reason to neglect Heidegger's philosophy.

Considerations on a 1955 colloquium in France: Was ist das--die Philosophie?

Heidegger's insistence on listening to etymology: "The word 'philosophy' speaks Greek." Steiner elaborates:

It is not we who are using a word that happens to be derived from the classical Greek lexicon. The power and agency of statement lie inside the word philosophia . . . . It is language that speaks, not, or not primordially, man. This, again, is a cardinal Heideggerian postulate, to which I must return. (22)
Heidegger: "[Philosophy] determines the innermost basic feature [Grundzug] of our Western-European history." Philosophy is the founding and shaping impetus of our history.

Philosophy for the Greeks was a working through of their astonishment before the question of Being/beings. Heidegger:
All being is in Being. To hear such a thing sounds trivial to our ear, if not, indeed, offensive, for no one needs to bother about the fact that being belongs to Being. All the world knows that being is that which is. What else remains for being but to be? And yet, just this fact that being is gathered together in Being, that in the appearance of Being being appears, astonished the Greeks and first astonished them and them alone. (26)
It is the task of philosophy to be, as Steiner puts it, "incessantly astonished at and focused on the fact that all things are . . . . This astonishment . . . what Heidegger will call 'the thinking of Being' . . . sets philosophy on the way toward the question of what it is that is, of what it is that indwells in all extant things, of what it is that constitutes beingness . . . ."
Socrates and Plato were the first to take 'the steps into philosophy.' This is to say, they were the first to pose the question of existence in an analytic-rational guise. Theirs is a great achievement, says Heidegger, but . . . also a symptom of decline. Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, who came before, did not need to be 'philosophers.' They were 'thinkers' (Denker), men caught in the radical astonishment (Thaumazein) of being. They belonged to a primal, therefore 'more authentic' dimension or experience of thinking, in which beingness was immediately present to language, to the logos. Just what it signifies to experience and to speak being in this primary and 'thoughtful' way is something that Heidegger labors to explain, to illustrate, and, above all, to 'act out' in his late writings. (27)
As to the question of what philosophy is, we should not seek an answer--for to seek an answer is to guarantee a "philosophic" answer--but rather a response, a correspondence [Entsprechung]. Steiner: "A 'thinker,' as distinct from a post-Socratic or academic philosopher, is 'answerable to' the question of being." (29)

The history of philosophy is thoughtless, unthinking. Though we must engage a dialogue with "that which has been handed down to us as the Being of being," we must not do so from within the history of philosophy. Rather philosophy must be "the expressly accomplished correspondence which speaks in so far as it considers the appeal of the Being of being." (30) The summons:
Man is only a privileged listener and respondent to existence. The vital relation to otherness is not, as for Cartesian and positivist rationalism, one of "grasping" and pragmatic use. It is a relation of audition. We are trying "to listen to the voice of Being." It is, or ought to be, a relation of extreme responsibility, custodianship, answerability to and for. Of this answerability, the thinker and the poet, der Denker und der Dichter, are at once the carriers and the trustees. This is because it is in their oneness to language (to the logos), in their capacity to be spoken rather [than] to speak--a distinction that will become more intelligible as we proceed--that the truth, or can we say with Wordsworth and Hölderlin "the music of being," most urgently calls for and summons up response.

. . . Philosophy is a "distinctive manner of language," a manner that interconnects thought with poetry because "in the service of language both intercede on behalf of language and give lavishly of themselves." (32)
Heidegger was to rephrase his central question in a number of ways: "What is the Being which renders possible all being?" Steiner: "To ask why there is being instead of nothingness is to ask of the foundations (Ursprung, Urgrund) of all things. But it is also, and explicitly, to put in question the nature of the questioner himself (this will lead to the Heideggerian notion of Dasein, of that in man which 'is there'), and it comports a constant questioning of the language which enables us to, or inhibits us from, posing the question in the first place." (36) Language both enables us to and inhibits us from posing the essential questions. This is what both philosopher and poet must realize first of all.

Heidegger: "Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are." (37)

Heidegger insists that the forgetting of being is the cause of our particular dilemma. Steiner:
How did it come about that the most important, fundamental, all-determining of concepts, that of being, should have been so drastically eroded? What "forgetting" of being' has reduced our perception of "is" to that of an inert piece of syntax or a vapor? . . . To Heidegger, the history of Western civilization, seen from the two crucial vantage points of metaphysics after Plato, and of science and technology after Aristotle and Descartes, is no more and no less than the story of how being came to be forgotten. The twentieth century is the culminating but perfectly logical product of this amnesia. (38)
Steiner regrets that Heidegger neglected to use the question of music as an analogy to the question of being, as an example of an experience that we cannot summarize in other words. (43-5)

The forgetting of the question of being is now entrenched in language: it is an historical-linguistic cover-up managed through the triumphant constructions of metaphysics. Steiner: "If the 'question of being' . . . strikes us as vacuous . . . the reason is, literally, linguistic." Heidegger: "Many words, and precisely the essential ones, are in the same situation: the language in general is worn out and used up--an indispensable but masterless means of communication that may be used as one pleases, as indifferent as a means of public transport." (45)

Steiner begins an analysis of the words for being on page 46.

The Greek terms for being: ousia, or, more fully, parousia; and physis.

We have wrongly translated parousia as "substance." Parousia rather has a cluster of significations: homestead, at-homeness, a standing in and by itself, a self-enclosedness, an integral presentness or thereness.

As for physis: to emerge, to come to stand autonomously, to grow; nature.

Heidegger points out that neither term can be translated as existence, which means "a standing outside of." One may thus say that the Greek existence is almost the opposite of being. Heidegger can ground his critique of Sartrean existentialism in this etymology. Against existentialism, we must work toward a true ontology.

Steiner: "Being lives essentially in and through language. If we had no comprehension of being . . . there could be no meaningful propositions whatever, no grammar, no predications. We would remain speechless. But 'to be a man is to speak.' Man says yes and no only because in his profound essence he is a speaker, the speaker. . . . For Heidegger, to be is 'to speak being' or, more often, to question it." (50) Heidegger: "For it is questioning that is the piety of thought." (55) Steiner:
Heidegger [analyzes] what he takes to be the relation of "is" to a number of decisive "surrounding" concepts. These are "becoming," "appearance," "thinking," and the notion of obligation in "ought." This analysis is conducted via seminal passages in Parmenides, Pindar's Ninth Olympian Ode, fragments of Heraclitus, and the celebrated first chorus from Sophocles' Antigone. . . . Heidegger's return to origins, whether in the etymology of a word or in the stream of thought, is not, as we have already seen, an arbitrary or pedantic archaism (though there are elements of both in his work). It is, at its best, the expression of a deeply meditated conviction that in human thought, as in all important phenomena, "the beginning is the strangest and mightiest." (51-2)
Language is the primordial poetry in which a people speaks being. Conversely, the great poetry by which a people enters into history initiates the molding of its language. The Greeks created and experienced this poetry through Homer. Language was made manifest to their being-there [Da-sein] as departure into being, as a configuration disclosing the essent. (52)
Steiner writes on the problematic of the grounding of idealism on pages 52-3. The permanence of being vs. the flux of becoming and how thought "actualizes both being and what is opposed to being." Steiner: "That which is actually seen to be stands opposed to the changing appearance of the seeming. It is thought, not the eye, that distinguishes between permanence and motion, between essence and appearance." Thus Heidegger: "Thought is the sustaining and determining ground of being."

The metaphor of the arrow pointing upward or downward. Steiner: "As soon as being realizes itself as 'idea,' as soon as essence is 'idealized,' the arrow points upward. It points, inevitably, to 'ought,' to the category of the exemplary, the prototypical, the teleological and obligatory. In the realm of 'ideas,' essents are endowed with a purpose, a forward-directed rationality, a 'should.' This conjunction of futurity and obligation is the core of Platonic and Kantian idealism."

Steiner: "For Plato the Being of beings resides in eternal, immutable matrices of perfect form, or 'Ideas,' for Aristotle in what he calls the energeia, the unfolding actuality that realizes itself in substance. The Platonic notion engenders the whole of Western metaphysics down to the time of Nietzsche. The Aristotelian concept, with its concomitant investigation into 'first causes' and 'dynamic principles,' lays the foundation of our science and technology. [par.] For Heidegger, neither of these two legacies, the idealist-metaphysical and/or the scientific-technological, satisfies the original, authentic condition and task of thought which is to experience, to think through the nature of existence, the 'Beingness of being.' From Sein und Zeit onward, Heidegger conceives it as his essential enterprise to 'overthrow' (in a sense yet to be defined) the metaphysical and scientific traditions that have governed Western argument and history since Plato and Aristotle. Heidegger will urge relentlessly that these two great currents of idealization and analysis have sprung not from a genuine conception of Being but from a forgetting of Being, a taking-for-granted of the central existential mystery. More than this: Heidegger will seek to prove that it is the continued authority of the metaphysical-scientific way of looking at the world, a way almost definitional of the West, that has brought on, has, in fact, made unavoidable the alienated, unhoused, recurrently barbaric estate of modern technological and mass-consumption man." (28)

A long central chapter on Being and Time

Steiner: "To 'think Being' is the task of H's Fundamentalontologie, that 'ontology of foundations' which is to be distinguished utterly from the Platonic model of ideal Forms, from the Aristotelian-Aquinian network of cause and substance . . . . The 'fundamental ontology' is to replace all specific ontologies such as those of 'history,' of the physical or biological science, or sociology. . . . How does a fundamental ontology proceed? By differentiating absolutely between the 'ontic' and the 'ontological,' this is to say between the realm of external particulars, of beings, and that of Being itself. Let us note at once: the 'ontic' and the 'ontological' are as different as any two concepts or spheres of reference can be. But the one makes no sense without the other. . . . Without the 'beings' whose 'isness' it is [for us as Dasein, of course], 'Being' would be as empty a formulation as pure Platonic Form or Aristotle's motionless mover. Only by keeping this distinction sharply in mind can we ask: Was ist das Seiende in seinem Sein? In the Sophist, Plato equates this question with the attempt of mortals to wrestle with Titans." (80-1)

To repeat: "Without the 'beings' whose 'isness' it is [for us as Dasein, of course], 'Being' would be [an empty formulation]." And, according to Heidegger, it is only as Dasein that we can think Being, it is only Dasein that experiences Being as a problem. To speak in a theological register, Dasein is different from both animals and God: neither animals nor God experiences Being as a problem (though these two--presumably--avoid the problem in very different ways).

The question of Being is the problem that Dasein must wrestle with. Thus Heidegger insists that what he calls 'everydayness' and what he calls 'facticity' are constitutive of Dasein--not accidental properties added later, as if one could somehow consider Dasein abstracted from its '"being there" in the world. Heidegger uses the composite term In-der-welt-sein to stress how radically we are immersed, rooted, grounded in the world. Steiner: "[H]uman has in it humus, the Latin for 'earth.'" (82)

Theological question: But if Dasein is at its core a pre-existing soul/spirit/spark 'thrown here'? Heidegger doesn't acknowledge this of course, and he uses the concept thrownness differently. But does his very use of this concept indicate a Platonic slant? Can one speak of thrownness without also evoking the the questions: Thrown whence? Thrown whither? (Steiner notes on page 85 that for Heidegger "the notion of existential identity and that of world are completely wedded. To be at all is to be worldly. The everyday is the enveloping wholeness of being." See also p. 87.)

Steiner: "A being that questions Being by first questioning its own Sein is a Da-Sein. Man is man because he is a 'being-there,' an 'is-there' . . . . The ontic achieves Da-Sein by querying the ontological. It does so, uniquely and necessarily, by means of language. Thus, in a way that only the later Heidegger develops, Da-Sein and Sprache are mutually determinant." (82)

Steiner: "Man's being is a 'being-there.' Heidegger now expounds on the nature of 'thereness.' The crux is Alltäglichkeit, signifying 'everydayness.' All Western metaphysics, whether deliberately or not, has been Platonist in that it has sought to transpose the essence of man out of daily life. It has posited a pure perceiver, a fictive agent of cognition detached from common experience. It has disincarnated being through an artifice of introspective reductionism of the sort dramatized by Cartesian doubt and Husserlian phenomenology. This is why metaphysics has loftily relinquished the study of metaphysics to psychology, the understanding of behavior to morals or sociology, the analysis of the human condition to the political and historical sciences. Heidegger utterly rejects this process of abstraction and what he regards as the resultant artifice of compartmentalization in man's consideration of men. (82-3)

The world comes at us in the form and manner of things. The things that constitute Dasein's being-in-the-world are not just any things, but what the Greeks called pragmata and what Heidegger calls Zeug. Heidegger explains pragmata as "that which one has to do with in one's concernful dealings." His word Zeug has been translated as "equipment," "instrumentation." In German Werkzeug is "tool." Steiner: "The distinction between 'anything' and Zeug is essential to Heidegger's entire world-view." Presentness-at-hand is opposed to readiness-to-hand (Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit). The former characterizes the matter of theoretical study, the latter the things that are taken up. And so, rocks are present-at-hand to the geologist but ready-to-hand for the stonemason. Steiner: "That which is zuhanden, literally 'to-hand,' reveals itself to Dasein, is taken up by and into Dasein, in ways absolutely constitutive of the 'thereness' into which our existence has been thrown and in which it must accomplish its being." Heidegger:
The process of hammering does not simply have knowledge about the hammer's character as a tool, but it has appropriated this tool in a way which could not possibly be more suitable. . . . [T]he more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become. . . . No matter how sharply we just look at the "outward appearance" of Things, in whatever form this appearance takes, we cannot discover anything ready-to-hand. If we look at things just "theoretically," we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one. It has its own kind of sight, by which it acquires its own Thingly character.
Steiner: "Appropriate use, performance, manual action possess their own kind of sight. Heidegger names it 'circumspection.' . . . Heidegger's differentiation is not only eloquent in itself; it brilliantly inverts the Platonic order of values which sets the theoretical contemplator high above the artist, the craftsman, the manual worker." (89-90)

On pages 91-4 Steiner treats of Heidegger's understanding of the "they" and the structural foisting of responsibility in the social order--in short, inauthenticity. Steiner:
Inauthentic Dasein lives not as itself but as "they" live. Strictly considered, it scarcely lives at all. It "is lived" in a hollow scaffolding of imposed, anonymous values. In inauthentic existence we are constantly afraid (of other men's opinions, of what "they" will decide for us, of not coming up to the standards of material or psychological success though we ourselves have done nothing to establish or even verify such standards). Fear of this order is Furcht. It is part of the banal, prefabricated flux of collective sentiment. Angst is radically different. In its Augustinian, Pascalian, and, above all, Kierkegaardian sense, Angst is that which makes problematic, which makes worthy of questioning, our being-in-the-world.
Following this is a like differentiation. Heidegger distinguishes between the authentic language of Dasein, which he calls Rede, and the inauthentic language (in which Dasein is lived through the "they"), which he calls Gerede. Rede may be translated as "speech," Gerede as "talk" or "idle talk," with these two terms bordering on gossip, cliché, jargon, other such concepts. Steiner points out that there are no suitable English translations for the terms, Rede being "less formal than 'discourse,' but certainly less colloquial than 'talk.'" (94-5)

On the distinction between Furcht and Angst, Steiner writes:
Dasein "is in anxiety." Angst is the taking upon oneself of the nearness of nothingness, of the potential non-being of one's own being. "Being-toward-death is, in essence, anxiety," and those who would rob us of this anxiety--be they priests, physicians, mystics, or rationalist quacks--by transforming it into either fear or genteel indifference alienate us from life itself. Or, more exactly, they insulate us from a fundamental source of freedom. . . . Angst reveals to Dasein the possibility of fulfilling itself "in an impassioned FREEDOM TOWARD DEATH--a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the 'they,' and which is factual, certain of itself, and anxious." . . . The taking upon oneself, through Angst, of this existential "terminality" is the absolute condition of human freedom. . . . The refusal to see death as "an event," the stress on the dialectical oneness of existence and ending, arises closely and consequently from the whole construct of "being" and of "time" . . . . Without finitude there can be no truth. We are at the antipodes to Plato. (106-7)
Being and Time is a poetic work as much as a philosophical work. Or rather: for Heidegger the two inextricably overlap.

After Being and Time

After Being and Time Heidegger begins to give concealment ontological precedence over unconcealment. Steiner: "It is the mark and nature of significant truth to stay hidden, though radiant in a through this occlusion. Man, moreover, is not the enforcer, the opener of truth (as Aristotle, Bacon, or Descartes would have him), but the 'opening for it,' the 'clearing' or Lichtung in which it will make its hiddenness manifest. . . . Truth, [Heidegger says,] relates fundamentally to 'nothingness.' This 'nothingness,' however, is not nihil ('nothing'), or Vernichtung ('annihilation'). It is Nichtung, an untranslatable neologism in which 'negation' is made an active, creative force. This negation takes away from Dasein its self-evidence, its habitual inertia. It restores to Dasein its primal astonishment in the face of being. To be thus astonished is to . . . lay oneself open to the concealed presentness of the truth."

Heidegger begins to realize that in Being and Time he had fallen back into the language of metaphysics, "albeit wrenched into idiosyncratic shapes." This language cannot achieve access to the essential secret of the truth, to that hiddenness of generative nothingness at the heart of being. "If being is to be thought in depth, if Western through and society are to be freed from their anthropomorphism, from their arrogant humanism, a new kind of language must be found. Already, Heidegger is moving toward the idea that it is not man who speaks meaningfully, but language itself speaking through man, and through certain poets above all. By 1933, he is turning, increasingly, to Hölderlin." (115-6)

Heidegger: "Language is the house of Being. Man dwells in this house. Those who think and those who create poetry are the custodians of the dwelling." (127)

Steiner: "[D]welling in a house of which he is, at his rare best, a custodian, but never architect or proprietor, the thinker must be prepared to speak seldom, to speak fragmentarily when he speaks at all, and to suffer constant misunderstanding and contradiction. . . . To think fundamentally is not to analyze but to 'memorate' . . . to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure. Such memoration--again Heidegger is strangely close to Plato--is pre-logical. Thus the first law of thought is the 'law of Being,' not some rule of logic which, in any event, is a late product of the opportunistic-mechanistic impulse, incarnate in Aristotle, to classify beings, to index the world according to man's purposes and convenience." (129-30)

"It is art that allows the later Heidegger to delineate, to make as palpable as he can, the antinomy of truth's simultaneous hiddenness and self-deployment. It is art that enacts the dialectical reciprocity of cloture and radiance. . . . [The work of art conserves and gives] to Being a dwelling and a sanctuary such as it can find nowhere else. . . . Art is not, as in Plato or Cartesian realism, an imitation of the real. It is the more real. And Heidegger's penetration of the paradox leaves traditional aesthetics far behind." (134-6)

"True art, true knowledge, true technique are a 'vocation,' a 'calling forth' that imposes upon man his native 'calling.' Since Roman engineering and seventeenth-century rationalism, Western technology has not been a vocation but a provocation and imperialism. Man challenges nature, he harnesses it, he compels his will on wind and water, on mountain and woodland. The results have been fantastic. Heidegger knows this: he is no Luddite innocent or pastoralist dropout. What he is emphasizing is the price paid. Things, with their intimate, collaborative affinity with creation, have been demeaned into objects. . . . We have compelled nature to yield knowledge and energy, but we have given to nature, to that which is live and hidden within it, no patient hearing, no in-dwelling. Thus our technologies mask Being instead of bringing it to light." (139)

"The fatality of technicity lies in the fact that we have broken the links between techne and poiesis." (141)

"The nerve of poetry is the act of nomination. Authentic poetry does not 'imitate,' as Plato would have it, or 'represent' or 'symbolize,' as post-Aristotelian literary theory supposes. It names, and by naming makes it real and lasting. . . . Poetry is not language in some esoteric, decorative, or occasional guise. It is the essence of language where language is, where man is bespoken, in the antique, strong sense of the word." (145)

"Obsessed with instrumentality, with informational functionality, language has lost the genius of nomination and in-gathering as it is explicit in the original meaning of logos." (146)

Hölderlin: "Mankind dwells poetically, in the condition of poetry."

The question of Being, concealment and tautology

Steiner: "Being is not itself an extant, it is not something that can be identified with or deduced from particular beings . . . . To inquire into being is not to ask: What is this or that? It is to ask: What is 'is'? . . . Even to ask is to realize that this question has not been posed nakedly in Western thought since the pre-Socratics and that Western systematic philosophy has, indeed, done everything to conceal the question. But it is also to realize that human speech, either through some inherent limitation or because the impress of conventional logic and rational grammar is too incisive, cannot give an answer that simultaneously answers to, is authentically answerable to, the nature of the question, and satisfies normal criteria of intelligibility. This, says Heidegger, leaves only the resort to tautology. . . . [But] it may well be that the 'tautologous is the sole possibility we have of thinking, of thinking through, that which dialectics can only conceal.' We cannot paraphrase is. We cannot explicate the 'isness' of Being. We can only state it tautologically: Sein is Sein ('Being is Being')." (154) Steiner refers to the period in which Heidegger thus defends tautological thinking as a "tranquil, summarizing moment in [Heidegger's] lifework." It does seem to me however to indicate that although Heidegger has well articulated the problem he has not gone beyond an initial wrestling toward an answer. Such tautological formulae (Sein ist Sein) may stand as the best we can accomplish, but they can only be tentative. There may yet be more that language can do, if, perhaps, it stretch itself out of its current shape. Of course it is the poets that are called to undertake this deforming and reforming of language.

Is it true that only by concealing itself Being can make beings appear? That to give being to something Being itself must withdraw? The problem of this dialectic between the concealment of Being and the unconcealment of beings seems particularly worthy of thought.

Lévinas: "Being does not identify itself with [any being], not even with the concept of being in general. In a certain sense, Being is not (il n'est pas). For if Being were, it would in its turn be a being: il serait étant à son tour, whereas Being is, in some way, the very occurrence of existence in and of all beings, l'événement même d'être de tous les étants."

Richardson: "Being contracts into the beings it makes manifest and hides by the very fact that it reveals." "Being as the process of non-concealments is that which permits beings to become non-conceald (positivity), although the process is so permeated by 'not' that Being itself remains concealed (negativity)." This latter seems to me overconfident in its playing with positivity/negativity. There is something else at issue or at work.

Steiner: "To this process of concealment which brings forth openness, as the chemical medium, invisible in the darkroom, brings forth the picture, Heidegger gives the Greek name for truth, aletheia ('the unconcealed')." (66-8)

We might begin to query other metaphors like Steiner's darkroom metaphor: one of them might bring some light to the question.

Check George Steiner: Martin Heidegger at

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