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Part III, Chapter VII

Part III. Martin Heidegger: Meta-Ontology as Interpretation and Transformation of the World


Martin Heidegger thinking about transformations of Being.

Transitional Remarks

Marx’s theory is intimately related to the social context of its times: to the establishment of the power of the bourgeoisie and the rise of an industrial proletariat, to the ensuing class conflicts and the concomitant crises of the capitalist economy. Heidegger’s thought also corresponds to his time, in particular to the technological advances surrounding World War II and the accompanying technification of social existence. The significant developments of the century which separates Marx from Heidegger, not least of all in the form of the capitalist economic system, raises the question of Marx’s relevance to our world. Has society changed so drastically qualitatively and essentially that Marx’s categories no longer get to the root of the matter and that his critique is no longer fundamental? Is Heidegger for this reason justified in ignoring commodity relations as such in favor of a thorough and historical analysis of technological rationality, reversing the relation of priority between what Marx occasionally referred to as base and superstructure? Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno has demonstrated that it is possible to comprehend within a Marxian framework the development of technological rationality from the early Greeks to German fascism and American pop culture. Heidegger, however, rejects such an approach, insisting on the need for a new set of essential categories, in fact, for a new language and a new comportment of investigation.

The following chapters will present an interpretation of Heidegger’s central path of thought in his mature work. They will investigate how Heidegger’s system stands up to the standard set by Marx’s dialectical materialist method and the explanatory power of his theory. Guiding the inquiry will be Adorno’s claim that Heidegger hypostatizes Being as divorced from beings. Whatever the conclusion, it cannot be considered final, because Heidegger’s important discussions of, for instance, language and the ontological difference must remain beyond the present scope. However, where such subsidiary topics contribute significantly to the problematic here, they should be expected to reappear within Heidegger’s central argument.

The path of thought, according to Heidegger, is the questioning of Being. For the sake of a preliminary orientation, what Heidegger means by “Being” can be roughly approximated in a series of steps and through comparison with parts of Marx’s system. Being is the universal determination of beings as beings. In various historical periods this determination has taken different forms so that all beings were present as, for instance, creations of God, objects for subjects or materials for labor. Being can thus, on first approximation, be considered the prevailing world-view of an historical era, conceived, however, on an ontological rather than political or aesthetic level as an interpretation of all beings as such in general. But talk of world-views is too subjective, leaving the decision on how to interpret beings up to the individual’s wager.

Already in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, hereafter referred to as SuZ) Being is treated as an a priori: prior to subjective perception, beings are always already given as interpreted. But in SuZ, as part of its man-centered fundamental ontology, the objectivity of Being is reduced to the subject’s individual network of meanings, remaining subjective and individualistic even if prior to conscious choice. Even in SuZ, however, there is a tendency, developed in Heidegger’s later writings, to talk of man as “being there” in a “clearing of Being.” This circumstance is prior to the hermeneutic “as” and can perhaps be construed, as follows: Beings are present to people and as present are given with certain meanings. While these meanings are to be attributed to the subjects manifold of signification, the presence of the beings is independent of this subjective hermeneutic sieve, prior to it. “Being” applies to this latter level, as the determination of the character of the presence of beings as given beings in general, not as the determination of the meaning of individual beings or even of the system of their possible meanings. The question of Being is a reflection upon presence.

Heidegger represents his task as retrospective first philosophy, which tries to uncover the fundamentals through systematic and historic back-tracking. But the important motivation of his project lies elsewhere. The question of Being would be an academic matter if Being were immutable. But Being is subject to historic variation and its historic forms overlap at any given time. The questioning of Being is propelled by a yearning for a now epoch of Being, whose coming entails sorting out the contemporary forms of Being, which obscure their own history and interconnections. Of special concern is the reified form of Being which is associated with our technological epoch. In SuZ this form is criticized as inadequate under the category of presence-to-hand in contrast to readiness-to-hand or the ecstatic temporal structure of human existence. Later, technological “stock” is opposed to a dynamic conception of the thing.

Marx’s thought can also be understood in terms of this question of Being. Marx is concerned with beings insofar as they are products of human labor. Thus it is clear that for him beings are determined by human labor in accordance with human intentions, needs and capabilities. This differs little from Heidegger’s discussion of the manifold of meanings, which focused on the pre-capitalist workshop to develop the non-capitalist concept of readiness-to-hand in relation to the individual’s project, meaning structure and interpersonal relations. The difference is that Marx’s analysis – in addition to and related to having more concrete social content – is socio-historically specific. In moving now to a comparison of Marx and Heidegger on the presence of beings as such, rather than on the determination of individual beings, both the similarity and the contrast remain. As socially produced, beings have a general character of presence which corresponds to the socially prevalent mode of production, to the unity of the technical forces and social relation of production. The epochal history of Being corresponds to that of social production. Further, the important motivation behind Marx’s analysis lies in the contemporary contradiction between two ontological forms: use value and exchange value. The point is to reconcile these through a “social value” form of beings. Because Being corresponds to the mode of production, the reign of social value presupposes the rearrangement of the forces of production developed under capitalism (the industrial revolution and subsequent technology) in accordance with transformed, post-capitalist social relations.

Marx’s work can be understood as an ontological investigation and thus as an alternative to Heidegger. The form of value, whose analysis is so central to Capital, is an ontological category, a determination of the Being of commodities, of their form of presence. Commodities are given as use values and as labor values, as embodiments of useful labor and of abstract labor. This historical ontological determination is social. It has a base in economic structure and economic history, as Marx shows in his sharp dialectic of the form of value, in his entire analysis of the real process of exchange (in production, circulation and the total economic process) and in his retrospective history of property relations, whose perspective was designed to show the historic determination of the commodity form.

The methodology of Marx’s critical social theory as hermeneutic ontology provides a point of reference in the investigation of the Heideggerian alternative. Of particular importance is the relation of Being to beings, which in Marx takes the form of the relation of the abstract to the concrete, as mediated by historically-specific concepts. In the Grundrisse, general (trans-historical) concepts are abstractions from the mere concrete historically-specific concepts. In Capital, on the other hand, historically-specific exchange value is derivative of the essential labor value, being merely one form of the appearance of this abstract essence. The mediation of these opposed relations takes place through Marx’s two-way trip from the concrete to the abstract and then back to the concrete, but now criticized as limited in terms of the abstract potentials. Marx’s abstractions, which are necessary for a critical stance – for distinguishing second nature from the natural and forms of appearance from the essential – are themselves arrived at through the concrete appearances which are thereby critiqued. Without resorting to arbitrary or external metaphysical frameworks of interpretation, Marx satisfies the need for abstract concepts, trans-historical categories and essential characteristics in accordance with the hermeneutic principle of basing interpretation upon the subject matter itself, explicating what is most appropriate to it.

The following chapters trace Heidegger’s attempt to uncover the Being of beings through appropriate interpretation of beings. Heidegger’s thought is followed through three lectures which present the development of his mature system, emphasizing his response to the problematic just discussed in terms of Marx. This problematic is unavoidable for any truly post-Hegelian, historical, hermeneutic ontology.

Chapter VII: The Work

The Art Work and History

In Germany of the mid-1930’s, with the life-and-death struggle between Hitler’s National Socialists and an active communist movement, the question of how the character of future society would be determined was no academic matter. Taken within this context, Heidegger’s 1935 essay on art can be interpreted as a philosophic approach to the burning issue. Heidegger does not assume that history is determined by political world-views which are backed by political power, but raises the ontological question in its historical form: How is the character of a given historical era determined; specifically, how was ours determined and how is the coming era already being determined? Heidegger phrases his approach to this problem in terms of art: Is art an “origin” of historical ontological change? Comprehension of his answer to this question presupposes a careful reading of Heidegger’s purposefully ambiguous essay on the origin of the work of art.

While no interpretation of Heidegger’s thought can ignore Being and Time, any final evaluation must be based on his subsequent reversal of the position stated there. In SuZ Heidegger founds the revelation of being in the labor of man, human praxis: the involved Being-in-the-world of Dasein. This relationship of founding was mediated by a concept of truth as discoveredness. “Being (not beings) are given only insofar as truth is. And truth only is if and when Dasein is.”[1] The notion of fundamental ontology as the analytic of Dasein seemed to be a primary methodological principle of Heidegger’s ontology.

However, from the perspective of Heidegger’s later writings – the perspective upon which our considerations will be based – the analysis of Dasein provides no foundation for building a philosophical system in the sense of Descartes’ cogito sum, but rather a point of departure for a path of thought along which such preliminary relationships must be reinterpreted and reversed as part of a reversal of thought. This reversal takes place repeatedly on many levels: in the difference between the tradition of metaphysics and Heidegger’s own thought, through the development from Being and Time (1927) to Time and Being (1962), foreshadowed in the early distinction between inauthentic and authentic, by the twists in dialectical sentences, thanks to the ambiguity of phrases betokening possession and by means of the reinterpretation of individual concepts.

The reversal of thought can be followed effectively in terms of Heidegger’s lecture, The Origin of the Work of Art. This work, in fact a pivotal point in the author’s ouvre, makes a well-considered break with metaphysics by questioning Hegel’s seminal philosophy of art, rejecting the subjectivism of traditional aesthetics and deserting the royal road to knowledge in favor of lingering along the overgrown and forgotten dead-end trails, the intellectual Holzwege. In the reversal of the meaning of the lecture’s title, the origin of the work, or of the equivalent phrase, the setting-itself-into-work of truth, the subjectivistic standpoint – not yet sufficiently overcome in SuZ, where Dasein is still a foundation – is surpassed. We shall take this specific example of Heidegger’s reversal as a model for concretely understanding the abstract formulations in which Heidegger presents his final position.

The traditional characterization of the work of art is in terms of a person, either the creator or the audience, for whom the work is a representation, a second presentation, of something that was already present, revealed, discovered for someone as an object or idea. In the language of SuZ, “Revelation is an essential mode of being of Dasein. . . . Beings are only then discovered and only revealed as long as Dasein is at all.”[2] Because discovery or revelation is commonly taken to be essentially a function of man, an art work can only present what its human creator has discovered and its human audience rediscovers. As such, a work of art can transmit truth, but nothing more; the origin of the work of art as a conveyor of truth is then its creator, the artist, human subjectivity: Dasein.

Heidegger’s first step in his analysis of the origin of the work of art is to move away from the traditional characterization by citing an experience in which a work reveals truth independently:

Van Gogh’s painting is an opening-up of that which the tool, the pair of farmer’s boots, in truth is. This being moves into the unconcealment of its being. . . . There is a happening of truth at work in the work, if an opening-up of the being takes place there into that which and that how it is.[3]

Somehow, claims Heidegger, the oil painting of the peasant woman’s shoes itself reveals the nature of the shoes as serviceable and reliable tools in the farmer’s world. Such a revelation is often reserved for philosophical contemplation and even SuZ restricts it to the understanding of Dasein; but in the preceding quotation it appears to be the work of an art work. Art is then characterized by Heidegger as the setting-into-work of the truth of the being, where the “setting” cannot be understood as a human act of placing already understood truth into an artful representation, but rather the essential function of the work itself is to discover on its own and to present for the first time the truth about something.

What we have paraphrased as “presenting” the truth about something, Heidegger more precisely names an opening-up of the being in what and how it is. This phrase refers back to the origin in the essay’s first sentence as that from which and through which something is what and how it is. The title of the essay cannot be understood according to the traditional notion of art, where the artist is the origin of the work, but must already be seen to point to the origin-character of the work itself: the work of art as origin of truth.

Van Gogh’s painting evokes a whole world of relationships in which the shoes which it pictured must, as tools, stand. Heidegger then applies this notion of a world of relationships to the work itself and asks how a work of art is situated within its world. Is the painting to be considered in terms of its surroundings in a museum, in its creator’s biography and ouvre, or in its social and historical circumstances? Heidegger’s answer is that the world of the work is not independently present, but is itself determined or revealed by the work. The work belongs solely in the region which is opened up by the work itself. This is because the “working” of a work takes place only in such opening up.

In revealing the truth about some being, a work is self-revelatory, revealing itself and opening up a realm for itself which it also reveals. All art is, one could say, dramatic, opening a stage within, yet separated from mundane reality, a space and a framework of significance in which the truth which the work reveals can stand out obtrusively. The work of art is the origin of stage, script and message, of its world and itself as well as its “object.” It sets itself into the work of presenting truth about something which it is not.

Even beyond its self-revelatory character, the work of art is the revelation of the world of an historical people, says Heidegger:

The temple as an architectural work joins and gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, illness and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decay win the form and the run of human nature in its destiny. The persisting breadth of these open relations is the world of this historical people. From and through them it first comes to itself and back to the completion of its determinations.[4]

To determine what is meant by this function of art is the central problem of our investigation. What revelation of the truth of the being or of being meant in Heidegger’s pronouncements is far from clear, and the claim that this is the essential function of art must remain unsupported until this is clarified.

Whether the reversal of thought has at least been suggested in its full scope or whether only the first steps have been noted has yet to be determined. Perhaps most urgent is to interpret the significance of the work of art as origin of the world of an historical people. If a temple gathers together and joins for the first time the dimensions of history, has it then created the unity of the times or merely reflected it? Is the revelation of an historical world merely the re-presentation – perhaps for the first time making conscious – of what already exists and determines the life of man whether he is aware of it or not? Or are the historical alternatives formed and selected in works of art, among other ways, so that the work of art is the origin of the world we live in as well as the work’s own world? This problem poses the crucial question of Heidegger’s thinking about Being in nuce. There may be no better way of understanding his position than to interpret carefully what he has to say about the relationship of art to history.

Art and Being

At the close of the preceding section, the possibility was proposed that the work of art may in some way represent prevailing relationships without in any manner changing the structure of reality. An art work would then provide a unity in accordance with its aesthetic form for the material which is historically given independently of the work. The realm of art would be a medium for the transmission of interpretations of the world, but not a creative source of new interpretations.

This possibility seems, however, to be immediately rejected by Heidegger. The Greek tragedy, for instance, was no simple allegorical representation of the battles of the gods or of the moral cosmic order by actors on the stage. Pre-existing gods were not described nor were ethical values indoctrinated; rather, the gods were brought into existence and the values determined in the drama itself; they were created and formed there, to be preserved in the language and tradition of tragedy.

In the tragedy, nothing is presented, rather the battle of the new gods against the old is waged. When the linguistic work appears in the speech of a people, it does not talk about this battle, but transforms the speech of the people so that now every essential word wages this battle and places in question what is holy and what is unholy, what large or small, courageous or weak, exalted or fickle, master or slave.[5]

The artistic presentation cannot be separated from its creative and formative functions: Zeus cannot appear on stage as a nondescript pawn in the action, but can only be Zeus as holy, grand, courageous, exalted and masterly.

When a temple is erected to Zeus, the erecting includes consecrating, which is declaring the holy as holy. Consecration means making holy in the sense that in the erecting of the work the holy is opened up as holy and God is called into the openness of its presence. Just as Dasein’s understanding always reveals beings as already interpreted, so the work of art is necessarily an interpretation of that which it presents.

Dasein, according to SuZ, reveals and relates to beings as already interpreted within a framework of meanings called its world. This world is a part of Dasein’s existential structure, a hermeneutic sieve for relating to other beings, not the totality of these other beings themselves. Heidegger analyses the being of a work of art much as he analyzed Dasein – as a being which, unlike beings present-at-hand and ready-to-hand, erects a world in which truth is opened up and beings are revealed: to be a work means to erect a world. Naturally the ontological analyses of man and art are not identical, the former having an ecstatic care structure and the latter merely the structure of the setting-itself-into-work of truth; however, they both have a world, in the one case disclosed, in the other erected.

The question now is: If the world of Dasein is part of his structure and that of the work of art part of its, then do these two worlds have any relation to each other? What did the world of the tragedy have to do with the Greek’s world and what does the world of van Gogh’s canvas have to do with our world? We have already heard that tragedy raised into question what is holy and unholy, what large and small, etc. Presumably the decisions reached by the tragedy are important for us.

In connection with the work’s erecting of a world, for instance, Heidegger says, “Where the essential decisions of our history come to pass, are taken over by us and left behind, forgotten and again sought, there the world is worlding.”[6] Our history, the history of mankind, is thus viewed in terms of crucial changes in our interpretive framework, in our world. One way in which these changes are brought about is through the work of art. What the world of the work undergoes in the way of decisive changes is transmitted to the world of people when it is taken over by people in their relationship to the work. In the role of preservers of the truth which a work reveals, people join each other and the work in a common historical process.

For the preservation of the work does not isolate men with their individual experiences, but pulls them into a relation of belonging to the truth which happens in the work. Thereby, men’s being for and with one another is grounded as the historical exstasis of Dasein out of relation to unconcealment.[7]

The character of historical decisions is now somewhat clarified. History, for Heidegger, consists in changes in the relationship of man to the unconcealment of beings. This does not contradict the talk about changes in the world, but rather explains the possibility of changes in the framework of the meaning of beings in terms of the revealing and concealing of changing aspects of beings. The effectiveness of the work does not, according to Heidegger, consist in an effect. Rather, it rests in a change which arises out of the work, a change, however, of the unconcealment of beings, i.e. a change of Being.[8]

The work’s relationship to the interpretation of beings motivated Heidegger to say that the essence of art is poetry, for “language is the house of Being” in the sense that the interpretation of something as something, the hermeneutic as, is fundamentally linguistic, even in its non-thematized, pre-predicative stage (cf. SuZ §32). Language is thus the central dimension of history for Heidegger. His historical reconstructions trace the translations of ideas from language to language (Greek, Latin and various stages of German) and from writer to writer (Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche), while his own struggle to reverse the history of thought is fought in terms of reinterpreting grammar, phrases and key terms of metaphysics.

The ability of art to set truth into work is now formulated as follows: truth as the clearing and concealing of beings takes place as poetry. Art has to do with the revealing and concealing of beings because art, as essentially poetic, is linguistic in nature. Here language is not understood by Heidegger as a system of spoken or written symbols which express attributes and relations of already present beings. Rather, language not only further determines what is already manifest or concealed as so interpreted by means of words and sentences, but language brings the being as a being into the open in the first place. What poetry does linguistically to open up a world in which beings are named as beings, as so and so interpreted, every work of art does in its own way. The work’s interpretations are creative, original. They replace the mundane clichés of the familiar world and thereby bring beings obtrusively into focus in a new way. Due to the poetic nature of art, it happens that the work of art breaks out an open place in the midst of beings, a place in whose openness everything is different from everywhere else. By clearing an opening for a new interpretation of beings, art plays a key role in the movement of history. The harmonic order of Greek art, the religiosity of medieval works and the subjectivistic perspective of art since the Renaissance can be seen in relation to the prevailing interpretations of beings throughout history:

Whenever beings as a whole, as beings, require grounding in openness, art attains to its historical essence as institution. This happened in the West for the first time in Greece. What was to be called Being was definitively set into work. The beings as a whole which were thereby revealed were then changed into beings in the sense of creations of God. This happened in the Middle Ages. These beings were again changed at the start of and during the modern age. Beings became calculably controllable and transparent objects. Each time, a new and essential world broke out. Each time, the openness of beings had to be erected through the fixation of truth in the Gestalt, in the beings themselves. Each time, the unconcealment of beings happened. The unconcealment set itself to work and art accomplished this setting.[9]

Thus far we have given Heidegger a “nominalist” interpretation. Being is nothing beyond the characteristic of individual beings as interpreted as beings. Being thus changes when the totality of beings are differently interpreted within the world shared by people and works of art. In the classical age beings were beings as parts of an harmoniously ordered cosmos; in the Middle Ages as creations of God; and recently as calculable material. Historical change is produced by beings themselves, such as works of art, not by external forces. Such a nominalist interpretation which gives beings a priority over Being, is a plausible one for all of Heidegger’s writings. This may be due to the hermetic principle of phenomenology, “to the things themselves,” which is repeatedly referred to and adhered to in Heidegger’s analyses. Where SuZ’s search for the wholeness of Dasein confined all within Dasein’s own existential structures (Being-in-the-world. Being-with, temporality), the analysis of the work of art tries to retain earth and world, creator and preserver, beings and truth firmly within the art work’s internal structure as the setting-itself-into-work of truth.

The nominalist interpretation is, however, problematic. Most of the ontological structures of a being point to other beings and, even overlooking this, Heidegger’s attempt repeatedly fails, as he admits in the midst of his essay on art: “The attempt to determine the work-character of the work purely out of itself has shown itself to be impossible.”[10] But certainly the crucial question is how to understand a history shared by all beings in terms of an ontology of monads without a god to insure harmony. How is it, that is, that the manifold worlds of all people and all art works in a given historical period share a single interpretation of beings, a common meaning of Being? This question demands a second look at Heidegger’s essay on art.

The Primacy of Being

The previous chapter’s interpretation was a desperate attempt to rescue Heidegger from a mystical position. In line with the nominalist tendency, everything that smacked of metaphysics, that referred to something that cannot be grasped in the hands and reckoned with, was argued away at the expense of any ability to understand history. Whatever value this approach to Heidegger may have, and whatever it has in fact revealed of his position, it cannot be considered the whole story, even in outline form. On the basis of such an interpretation we will never be able to explain the crucial fact that in each historical age there is a prevailing meaning of Being. To fail to see Heidegger’s struggle with this question would be to miss the whole thrust of his thought.

Heidegger approaches his question of Being and beings by way of a reflection on truth. SuZ argued that propositional truth is only possible if the beings denoted have been revealed beforehand. This prerequisite revelation was considered in terms of human Dasein’s Being-in-the-world. Associating revelation with Dasein, SuZ claimed that truth is only in so far and as long as Dasein is. However, in discussing art and truth, Heidegger shows that this revelation can also be a function of the work of art as the setting-into-work of truth, where truth is taken in its primordial sense of revelation, precondition for propositional truth. Whereas in SuZ Heidegger stressed the role of Dasein in the revelation of truth, in The Origin of the Work of Art he underlines the passivity or receptivity of Dasein in this role: “But it is not we who presuppose the unconcealment of beings, rather the unconcealment of beings determines us in such an essential way that we are always placed after unconcealment in our conceptions. Not only that toward which knowledge is directed must already be somehow unconcealed, but also the entire region in which this directedness toward something moves and also that for which an adequation of a sentence to the subject matter is manifested must already take place as a whole within unconcealment.”[11]

A reversal in thinking has switched the significance of the fact that propositional truth requires the unconcealment of its object and of that object’s world from: propositional truth presupposes Dasein, to: Dasein, in order to know anything, presupposes primordial truth as unconcealment of beings. Extended to the work of art, this means that the work does not create its world in erecting it, but the work presupposes an already given world. Furthermore, to truth as unconcealment belongs its battle with concealment. The clearing of Being which is constitutive of Dasein and of the work is determined by an unconcealment, which is in turn characterized by a self-concealing concealment. “Concealment conceals and displaces itself. That is, the open place in the midst of beings, the clearing, is never an empty stage with continuously parted curtain on which the play of beings plays itself out. Rather, clearing happens as this double concealment. Unconcealment of beings is never a merely present circumstance, but a happening.”[12]

This processual notion of truth as the interplay of concealment and unconcealment is absolutely central to Heidegger’s thought, from his conception of phenomenology (cf. §7 of SuZ) to that of the Ereignis hinted at in his mature essay on Time and Being. The relationship of such truth to the work of art, theme of the essay on art, is an exemplary analysis of the relationship of Being to beings. The kernel of the analysis is presented in a single paragraph, worth quoting at some length.

Truth is the primordial battle, in which the open is fought for in one way or another, in which everything stands and out of which everything holds itself back that shows itself and erects. . . . The openness of this which is open (truth) can only be what it is, namely this openness, if and as long as it arranges itself in its opening. Therefore there must always be a being in this opening, in which the openness can take its stand and gain fixity. . . . With the reference to the openness arranging itself in the opening, thought reaches a realm that cannot yet be analyzed here. Only this is remarked: that if the essence of unconcealment of beings belongs in any way to Being-itself (cf. SuZ §44), then the latter on the basis of its essence lets the play-space of openness (the clearing of the there) happen and brings to pass that in which every being comes to pass in its own way.[13]

Here we can distinguish two basic theses on the relationship of Being to beings. The thesis extensively thematized in this section of the essay is: openness (world, truth, clearing, Being) can only be what it is if and when it is arranged in a being within the opening. Taken together with the previous premise about primordial truth – that for a being to be discovered presupposes an openness – this thesis implies a dialectical relationship between Being and beings, in which each both “presupposes” and “determines” the other. The second thesis is only touched upon in the art essay, to be developed in later writings,[14] namely: Being-itself has a priority; out of its own essence – i.e. unaffected by beings – it opens the clearing in which beings can appear. In this second thesis, the dialectical relationship is largely lost in favor of a linear chain of command from Being-itself (the Ereignis) to Being (as the Being of beings), to beings.

These various theses can be ordered as successive interpretations of the essay’s title which follow Heidegger’s reversal of thought. “The origin of the work of art” can be understood in the following ways:

  1. The artist, in forming matter into the work, and the audience, in experiencing the work’s psychological effects, are its origin.
  2. The work is an origin, namely of the truth about its object.
  3. The work is its own origin as that of its world.
  4. The work and the clearing in which it stands are – dialectically – each other’s origin.
  5. Being-itself is the origin of the work in which it sets itself into work.

The remainder of our analysis of the essay on art will be concerned explicitly with the last two of these theses, the others representing the criticized philosophical positions of commonsensical approaches and previous thinkers.

The truth, Heidegger says, is not written in the stars to begin with and then concretized, objectified, displayed, represented, made visible, brought down to earth in the form of an art work. Primordial truth as a clearing and the work as a being in the clearing go together like two sides of a coin. Clearing of openness and erecting in the opening belong together; they are both the essence of the happening of truth. The emphasis here upon the mutual dependence of truth and work as presuppositions of each other is shifted to an analysis of truth alone as a process, where the clearing and the work are both aspects of its essence.

With the incorporation of the work within the structure of truth, the work becomes a merely formal requirement for truth which has no effect on its content: “Because it belongs to the essence of truth to erect itself in beings in order to bring truth into work, therefore the relation to the work lies in the essence of truth as a special possibility of truth to come into work in the midst of beings.”[15] The phrase, “relation to the work,” was italicized in the 1960 edition of the essay to emphasize that the work was to be considered in terms of the structure of truth (not unlike the way SuZ considered objects in terms of Dasein’s existential structure with its inherent relations to objects through its world) and that what came to be among beings was truth itself and not merely another being, perhaps influenced by but distinct from truth.[16]

It almost seems as if truth created the work in order to come into existence itself. Heidegger’s definition of creating is indeed an extreme anti-anthropocentrism: “Arranging truth in the work is the bringing forth of a particular being, which never was before and never will be afterwards. This bringing forth places the being in the opening in such a way that that which is to be brought is the first to clear the openness of the opening into which it comes forth. Where the bringing forth itself brings the openness of beings (truth), that which is brought forth is a work. Such bringing forth is creating.”[17]

It still sounds like a dialectical formulation when something clears the opening it requires in the very act of filling it. However, as Heidegger is quick to add, what seems like pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is in truth flowing along with the tide. The force of the dialectic is annihilated, although the form is retained, because the outcome is determined in advance – if not externally, at least one-sidedly. The being does not create its Being, the work its truth, in bringing it forth; rather, as this bringing, it is more a receiving and accepting within the relation to unconcealment. Unconcealment, truth in the primordial sense, determines the character of the clearing and of the beings: the meaning of its Being, whether it is present in the Greek, medieval or modern sense. What has traditionally been taken as a formal requirement – when considered at all – in the sense that the presence in an opening which is necessarily common to all beings was never thought to have any content, now treats the being which it makes possible as its own formal requirement, to which it lends the content. This move is part of Heidegger’s reversal of perspective, from a concern with beings to an emphasis on Being as prior.

From this new perspective, the creating and preserving of the work of art are reinterpreted in terms of the ambiguity of the characterization of the essence of art as the passive/active setting-itself-into-work of truth. Heidegger understands this characterization as follows: “On the one hand, it says art is the establishment of self-arranging truth in a Gestalt. This happens in creation as the bringing forth of the unconcealment of beings. But setting-itself-into-work also means bringing the workhood into motion. This happens as preservation. Therefore, art is the creative preservation of truth in the work. Thus art is a becoming and happening of truth.”[18] The creation of unconcealment is by no means arbitrary; it merely gives to a pre-given character of unconcealment a concrete form and specifies in detail this one instance of unconcealment.

The general character of the unconcealment, the issues that are really at stake, is predetermined and merely brought out – not into the light, but as the light. In bringing truth out in a concretely structured form, the work comes into action as a work and preserves the truth. This working of the work is, however, the working of truth coming into work in the work. It is truth which sets itself into work in the work, at least as much as it is set into the work by the work or by the work’s human creator or audience.[19]

The primacy of truth as already determined in content before the dialectic of truth and work is as clear in Heidegger’s formulation, “poetry is the essence at art,” as in his other formulations in terms of origin and setting-into-work. Poetry, as naming, brings to expression the Being of beings; it does not participate in the creation of their Being. Poetry provides language in which Being can articulate itself, it explores this language and it enunciates it, but the poetic work does not participate in the epochal changes in Being as such (the thrower in Heidegger’s metaphor). “Such saying is a projection of clearing, in which it is said what the being will come into the open as. Projection is the result of a throw, which is the way in which unconcealment sends itself into beings as such.”[20] The work’s poetic thrust merely carries out the cast of the die in which unconcealment delivers itself into the being. The chips are placed long after the cast has been, unknown to the players, determined. How the being will appear in the opening is already decided by a cast which is not part of the dialectical game played by truth and the work, but which rather preconditions it.

Art, then, is not the creation of truth, not the origin and inspiration of history, but rather – as the concrete setting-into-work and poetic naming of that which is primordial – the means of executing a pre-given destiny.

Whenever art happens, that is, when there is a beginning, a thrust emerges in history. History begins anew. History does not here mean a sequence of events, however important, in time. History is the transporting of a people into its appointed task as entrance into what has been given along with that people.[21]

Art is one of the several ways in which truth, proposed for “an historical folk,” is consummated in marriage with beings. Other historical media are the action which founds a state (politics), the nearness to the “being-est” of beings (God), the essential sacrifice (Christ), thought’s questioning which names Being in its question-ableness (Heidegger’s philosophy).[22] Whence art receives its historical mission and why the work of art plays a special role in Heidegger’s conception of history are questions which will be considered in the following chapters in terms of other Heideggerian analyses. Heidegger’s closing verse taken from Hölderlin may serve here as a transition from art as an origin to the art work as place-holder.

Reluctantly departs

That which dwells near the origin, from the place.[23]

[1] Being and Time, §44. p. 272. Cf. Sein und Zeit, S. 230.

[2] Ibid., p. 269, S. 226.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “The origin of the work of art,” in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. Hofstadter & Kuhns (New York: Modern Library, 1964), p. 664f. Cf. Martin Heidegger, “Der Unsprung des Kunstwerkes” in Holzwege (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1963), S. 25.

[4] Ibid., p. 669, S. 31.

[5] Ibid., p. 670, S. 32.

[6] Ibid., p. 671, S. 33.

[7] Ibid., p. 690, S. 55f.

[8] Ibid., p. 693, S. 59.

[9] Ibid., p. 697, S. 63f.

[10] Ibid., p. 682, S. 46; Cf. p. 667, S. 29.

[11] Ibid., p. 677, S. 41.

[12] Ibid., p. 678, S. 42.

[13] Ibid., p. 684, S. 49.

[14] Cf. the later edition of Heidegger’s essay, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1960), S. 99, and Martin Heidegger, “Zeit und Sein” in Zur Sache des Denkens (Tübingen: Niemayer, 1969), p. 43, S. 46.

[15] Ibid., p. 685, S. 50; italics as in later edition, S. 98.

[16] Cf. later edition, S. 98.

[17] Ibid., p. 685, S. 50.

[18] Ibid., p. 693, S. 59.

[19] Cf. later edition, S. 100.

[20] Ibid., p. 695, S. 61.

[21] Ibid., p. 697, S. 64.

[22] Cf. ibid., p. 685, S. 50.

[23] Ibid., p. 699, S. 65.


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