That Heidegger’s is a negative ontology can be seen throughout the development of his thought and on various levels. His destruction of the history of philosophy and his recurrent criticism of prevailing ontological notions represent only the most superficial aspects of this negativity. Already there between the lines in SuZ, negativity is thematized in What Is Metaphysics? and repeatedly reflected upon thereafter. The central ontological categories in all Heidegger’s writings contain their negation as a largely unexpressed, yet fundamental, correlate: Sinn von Sein and Seinsvergessenheit, Unverborgenheit and Verbergung, Sein and Nichts, Sicht and Versicht, Ereignis and Enteignis (the meaning of being and the forgetfulness of Being, unconcealment and concealing, Being and nothingness, sight and refusal of sight, the appropriation and the expropriation). The structure of this negative ontology is probably most explicit in the minutes to a seminar in which Heidegger openly reflected upon his own path of thought, but the comments there rely upon a familiarity with his writings.
SuZ is an attempt at a negative ontology in the sense that it tries to develop an ontology under the condition that ontology is today impossible. The experience which underlies SuZ’s attempt to work out the question of the meaning of Being is that of the forgetfulness of Being. This oblivion of Being is, however, not conceived as the result of laziness or neglect on the part of philosophers, but as an essential consequence of the nature of Being itself. If God appeared in the Middle Ages in His creations, He is now only there in the form of a refusal to be seen; if Being appeared to the pre-Socratics in beings, it is concealed to us by them. The sight (Sicht) which is the appropriate access to Being is now determined by the Versicht, in which alone Being is today present as absent, as in oblivion. Heidegger’s methodology takes this circumstance into account from the start.
Calling the method of his ontology “phenomenology,” he characterizes the phenomena which he seeks as follows:
The phenomena of phenomenology ordinarily present themselves by implication alone, perhaps concealing themselves in the very act of helping ordinary “phenomena” come to thematic appearance. This is a purely formal concept of phenomenon, specifying neither which being – or Being – is referred to, nor the sense in which it “always prior and accompanying, but unthematically” shows itself. The concept is concretized in various ways in Heidegger’s writings and it may be helpful to glance at these before turning to the lecture on Time and Being and the related seminar.
Perhaps the main lesson for ontology in SuZ itself is that Being is not something divorced from beings, but rather the structure of their own presence. The wholeness of Dasein, for instance, is sought in a series of structural analyses, which characterize its Being-there as Being-in-the-world, care, temporality. Heidegger’s subsequent analyses of the work of art, the jug, etc. never leave the beings under analysis to make deductions from a higher being of some kind. The ontological structures are existentials, structures of the form of Being of the beings, explications of what was always non-thematically inherent.
That this emphasis on explication of the things themselves is still important in Heidegger’s later writings was seen in the preceding chapter. After considering alternative interpretations of the essay The Thing, we concluded that the Four, mirroring-play, world and appropriation stand in a similar relationship to the thing as care, etc. do to Dasein or world and earth, creating and preserving do to the work of art, namely as names for moments of its processual Being. In each case, it is a matter of explicating the form of unconcealment of something which is, particularly in our era, concealed.
Heidegger’s publications shortly after SuZ develop themes of negativity only touched upon in the context of the Dasein analysis. On the Essence of Truth elaborates the notion of ontological truth as unconcealment in its interplay with concealment; this notion we have already met in connection with the work of art as the setting-into-work of truth. What Is Metaphysics? attacks the central problem of unconcealment from another angle: reversing SuZ’s perspective on the phenomenon of Angst. In the earlier presentation, Angst was important because it revealed the world as world (in the sense of world used in SuZ) to Dasein by negating his everyday involvement with individual beings. The negation, which is non-thematically at work in the revelation of Dasein’s context of meanings, is, as such, thematized in What Is Metaphysics?:
Nihilation is the precondition for the analysis of world in SuZ. In referring attention to the uncomfortable world of Angst in which all things lose their value for Dasein, Nihilation directs attention away from itself. Necessarily accompanying the revelation of the world of Angst, Nihilation is itself self-concealing. The two processes, revealing and concealing, are really one motion. This is the characteristic finitude of revelation: no revealing without concealing, it is a theme of Heidegger’s which recurs under many titles: Wahrheit and Irre, Geben and Entzug, Lichtung and Bergung (truth and error, granting and removing, clearing and concealing). Nothingness is here still a “phenomenon” as defined in SuZ, but it is now explicitly a structure of Being itself, of unconcealment, no longer specifically of Dasein. In Heidegger’s mature terminology, Nothingness is a giving which gives the revelation of the world as its anonymous gift while holding itself back. The lecture, Time and Being, tries to thematize the way in which Time and Being are anonymously given in this way, or in which they give themselves. This is, of course, the problematic we have already met. In his essay on art, Heidegger explored the work of art as one way in which truth – and that means a world, Being, and an historical epoch, Time – is given. Later, he generalized the notion of an art work as dynamic unity of world and earth to his utopian conception of a thing, which gives itself in the playful mirroring of the Four.
The interpretational ambiguities which made Heidegger’s thought so inaccessible or so misunderstood stem largely from the negative form of his ontology, which paradoxically yearns to negate to on (the being) instead of classifying it. Dasein is not really, authentically, that which it primarily and for the most part of necessity is; what a thing is, is determined by the worlding of a world which unfortunately does not world; and what is all around the earth today has progressively obscured itself for more than 2000 years by the way in which everything “is” in a less emphatic sense. During the development of Heidegger’s thought, the negative aspect gains gradually in historical sharpness. If SuZ’s explications necessitated the overcoming of a rather ahistorical inauthenticity, the work of art was already an historical deed, overturning systems of values and revamping the world-views of historical folk. Finally, the notion of thing embodies a negation of our technological era, represented in everything from television to atomic bombs. But the increased emphasis on history does not clarify Heidegger’s meaning; history and Being merely become inextricably entangled in the paradoxes, adding to the confusion.
The keystone to Heidegger’s paradoxical negative ontology may be seen in the notion of the end of the history of Being, a phrase which literally combines negativity, history and ontology. The structure of the negative ontology was clearly presented in the 1949 lecture series, “Glimpse into that which is”: The Thing, The Gestell, The Danger and The Reversal, but is more thoroughly discussed in Time and Being (1962) and the minutes to the accompanying seminar. In the earlier lecture series, the utopian conception of the thing was first presented; then the nature of technology was analyzed as the Gestell, presenting a contrast between the priority of the thing in the worlding of the world and its total subjugation to the subject in the technological context which determines our present world. That the thing cannot be what it ideally is, that Being is hidden by the technological essence, represents the danger (Gefahr) of our times and makes the task of thought the return (Kehre) into Appropriation (Ereignis). From the start there are perplexing problems to this scheme, already apparent even in so brief a summary: What is Appropriation and what can it mean to return into it? If the Gestell is a form of Being, how can it be said to hide Being and what right has Heidegger to reject the technological form of beings and Being in favor of an “authentic” form, which often seems merely romantically utopian? These and similar questions lead us into the problematic of the history of Being.
The lecture, Time and Being, is composed of three sections: an introduction, a presentation of the problem-complex named in the title, and the analysis itself, which moves from Being and Time to Appropriation. The introduction hints at the underlying problem as well as at methodological considerations. The task of philosophy is, it suggests, conditioned by the contemporary scene, from which it receives its necessity both in the sense of motivation and of restriction:
The task of thought is still to help live the reflected life, to be wise in the ways of the world. But this task cannot be accomplished directly. It requires an analysis of that which determines contemporary appearances – such as Klee’s paintings, Trakl’s verses, Heisenberg’s scientific theories – and conceals itself in them. This is the question of Being in an historical and negative formulation. The formulation implies for Heidegger that the analysis must be one of “Being without reference to a grounding of Being in beings” and that the lecture which presents this analysis cannot be immediately understood as a string of propositions, but only through the mediation of the experience of thinking about Being.
The question of Being is historically situated because Being is itself historical. Firstly, as Heidegger claims immediately after the introduction, Being means presence and is thereby related to Time as the unity of the present with the past (presence refused) and the future (presence withheld). Secondly, Being as presence has taken many historical forms, as can be seen in the history of philosophy: Plato’s ousia, Aristotle’s energia, Kant’s Gegenständlichkeit, Hegel’s Gesetztheit and our technological era’s calculable material. Heidegger must therefore explicitly include the historical question, whence the unity of all appearances in a given age, with his question of Being. This he does in his late lecture by asking not “What is Being?” but ‘How is Being given?” (Wie gibt es Sein?) The appearances characteristic of our world – mass media, the nuclear threat, totalitarianism, subjectivism, the crisis of the cities – share an essential rootedness in the contemporary form of Being: presence as pliable raw material for the uses of people. The question – both historical and ontological – then is: how does it come to be that presence is now given in this form? This question forms the starting point for the main text of the lecture in terms of the relationship of Time and Being – history and presence – and the phrase, “being is given.”
In SuZ the historical character of the question of being paralleled Husserl’s conception of an “archaeology of meaning.” To Dasein’s inauthentic fallenness in the world of objects corresponds his unquestioning acceptance of a tradition, a set of prejudices, including the prevailing philosophical tradition with its implicit ontology. The amalgam of categories, beliefs and outlooks which have been accumulated in the largely unreflected transmission of wisdom from one generation to the next obscures through its own dialectic both its real value and its problematic character:
The posing of the question of Being was meant to reawaken an awareness of this process. The task remaining after the analyses published in SuZ was to remove the obscurities, in terms of the question of Being, in the great metaphysical systems of Hegel, Kant, Descartes and Aristotle, finally returning to the original experience of Being as presence in the pre-Socratic philosophies. According to the plan of SuZ, this “destruction” of the history of ontology was meant to be preceded by a discussion of Time and Being which would take off from SuZ’s analysis of Dasein and temporality. This discussion was meant to give a formal answer to the question of Being which would then orient concrete textual analyses of the history of ontology, allowing them to uncover forgotten potentialities and thereby preparing the way for a new relationship to Being. The answer to the question of Being given in the section “Time and Being” was thus envisioned as neither radically new nor as a final panacea for ontology and society.
Of course Heidegger never carried out this plan in the original order. After publishing SuZ (“Part I”) with its analyses of Dasein and temporality, he suppressed the section on Time and Being, which was to provide the formal answer to the question of Being, and for the next 42 years (1927 - 1969) published thousands of pages of historical critique before printing the lecture to which we next turn. At the end of our discussion of this lecture, we will have to deal with the consequences of this reversal in publication schedule for the formality of Heidegger’s final answer to the question of Being.
Time and Being begins the body of its analysis with the insight into the forgetfulness of Being in general and the historical process of progressively covering the understanding of Being in the thoughtless acceptance of new ontological categories at face value, the confusion of mixing incompatible metaphysical systems and the distortion inherent in translating terms (and the thought they embody) from Greek to Latin to German, French and English. Granted that Being is historically given as presence – and the lecture’s linguistic motor force is: “Es gibt Sein” – then, it seems, the process in which Being is so given (das Geben) is unknown. Being is an anonymous gift which we receive without being aware of the giver or his giving, for we are exclusively involved with the presence of beings. That which is sent the way Being is sent, without the sender or the sending appearing, is called Geschichte, history, from which Heidegger derives his notion of Seinsgeschichte, the history of Being.
Heidegger introduces his notion as follows:
Here themes from SuZ are repeated: the word play with Schicken, Geschick, Geschichte and the “destruction” of the process of covering up. However, the priority has been reversed. The historical destruction now only gives a preliminary glimpse, summarized in the final sentence of the excerpt. The real task is to uncover what is still hidden even when the various stages of the history of ontology have been explicated and it is clear how Plato conceived of Being as idea, Aristotle as energia, etc. and it is also clear how these are all related forms of presence. Still hidden after the destruction are the giver and the giving, which give Being in its various historical forms of presence.
We have already taken a look at one of Heidegger’s attempts to work out the structure of the giver and giving in which Being is given. In his lecture on the thing, Heidegger described the Being of a thing, a jug, as its “thinging”: “What becomes a thing, appropriates itself out of the Ringing of the mirroring-play of the world.” This Being is given in the worlding of the world, which in turn was attributed to Appropriation: “The mirroring-play of world is the propriating of Appropriation.” Viewed within the “Es gibt Sein” formula, the Appropriation is the giver, which gives the jug its Being as a thinging thing, and the giving takes place in the mirroring-play of the worlding of the unity of heaven and earth, the holy and the mortal. The case of the jug as thing was, however, distinguished as “utopian” from the normal case in which the jug is an object of utility waiting to be fit into someone’s plans.
Before following Heidegger’s argument from Being and Time to Appropriation (in the next section), it will be useful to outline the role Appropriation must play in Heidegger’s system. This role is intimately involved with the contrast between the contemporary and utopian forms of Being. In fact, the contrast has methodological implications for the working out of the structure of Appropriation within the context of the history of Being. Although the contrast was foreshadowed in the conceptual pair, authentic/inauthentic, in SuZ, the analysis of the work of art provided the utopian notion which acted as a catalyst to Heidegger’s progress after 1935. The importance of this can be seen in Heidegger’s statement that the relations and contexts which make up the essential structure of Appropriation were worked out between 1936 and 1938. The thirties were certainly a time of crisis in Germany, when everyone was searching for alternatives of one kind or another on a world-historical level and Heidegger was more an extreme example of this than the exception he is often taken to be. His concept of the Gestell is a central, but ambiguous, key to his approach to this task.
In the 1956 “Addendum” to his essay on art, Heidegger pointed out the contrast between the work of art and technological beings in terms of his concept of the Gestell. The essay refers to the Gestell “as which the work is present insofar as it erects and produces itself.” To this Heidegger comments,
There is a certain ambiguity to Heidegger’s use of the term Gestell: it can refer either to the utopian worlding of the world in a work of art or also to the essence of modern technology. This ambiguity is not a matter of conceptual sloppiness or coincidence, but is supposedly the result of an essential relationship within the history of Being. In commenting on the introductory remarks to Time and Being, Heidegger states that the Gestell, as the preliminary appearance (Vorerscheinung) of the Appropriation, is also that which necessitates the attempt to bring into view that which is around the earth today. The Gestell involves the glimpse that phenomena like the work of art give us of Appropriation, which sends the forms of Being, and it involves the latest form of Being, which we have been given in the modern technological age and which represents the danger of our times.
The Gestell as the essence of technology is simply the latest, most extremely subjectivistic form of Being. However, in the work of art the Gestell is part of the worlding of the world; a stage in the process in which Appropriation sends Being, and not merely that which is sent. In this latter sense, the analysis of the Gestell represents a move beyond that which is revealed in the history of Being and towards an uncovering of the giving and the giver which normally conceal themselves. The transformation of Being into Appropriation thus steps outside of the epochal transformations of Being, from which it must be distinguished. This stepping outside, which Heidegger refers to as the reversal (Kehre) or the step back (schritt zurück), constitutes the leaving behind of metaphysics.
In turning away from Being as the Being of beings, Heidegger leaves the metaphysical tradition which still influenced the original plans for its own destruction in SuZ, and tries to think about Being in terms of Appropriation or “Being-itself,” which gives Being. Heidegger’s notion of Being as Appropriation is thus qualitatively different from all the previous notions of Being as idea, energia, etc. The analysis of Being as sent demands a consideration of the sending in which all the previous notions of Being have been sent, it could be called a meta-ontology, a reflection upon the preconditions of all systems of metaphysics. The Olympian position Heidegger attains in his meta-ontology secures him from the charge of relativism; in explaining the multitudes of ontologies, he need not compete on their level.
Heidegger defends his system with a familiar tactic. Hegel’s idealistic theory was the final word because it incorporated the end of the history of the concept. Marx’s materialism founded the objectivity of its class analysis in its perspective from the potential end of the history of class domination. Analogously, the thinging of the thing is not utopian in the sense of wildly romantic wishing, but, as part of Appropriation, is founded in the end of the history of Being and is thus meta-levels beyond technological beings with their positivistic fundamentum in re rather than in the giving of the meaning of res.
Heidegger’s end of history is, formally at least, more like Marx’s than Hegel’s. Where the conservative idealist thought that progress had already reached its goal, his materialist critic viewed the end of the previous form of history (unplanned “prehistory”) as the occasion for a qualitatively different form: truly human progress based on a conscious response to concrete needs. The Heideggerian step into Appropriation is not viewed as a stopping of the sending of Being in new forms, but as a dawning awareness of the process of this sending, an end to the forgetfulness of Being and thus to metaphysics as the reflection of this forgetfulness in philosophy. While people as mortals remain limited in their relation to Being even when thought has experienced the Appropriation – and this notion of human finitude is perhaps the crux of Heidegger’s rejection of Marx – Heidegger does retain an optimism that the danger which has been growing since Plato can be abated by ending the self-concealing of Appropriation
We have seen that the Appropriation is that which gives Being in various historical forms and which conceals itself and its giving in the gift of Being. The task of thought today is thus, according to Heidegger, to “step back” from the view of Being in terms of the beings which it lets be and to turn to the process in which Being is itself given, to experience Appropriation. Keeping this in mind, we can understand Heidegger’s presentation of Appropriation in Time and Being. The underlying experience of negative ontology is Versicht, Vergessenheit, Verbergung. Concealing takes place at every stage of Heidegger’s argument: Being is sent to us, but the giving keeps to itself. Time is passed to us, but the present is withheld from us in the future and refused us in the past.
The point of the step back is to reveal these self-concealing phenomena by understanding them in their self-concealing. The stepping is thus ambiguous, involving a movement into the underlying phenomena (in the phenomenological sense part of a stepping back to let them reveal themselves). The second tendency seems to gain in priority in Heidegger’s later writings, contributing to their mystical tone because of its passive receptivity and consequent incommunicability.
To make intersubjective sense out of this two-pronged approach to the analysis of Appropriation – the retreat from metaphysics to step back into underlying Appropriation, to let it show itself as itself free from our metaphysical language – we are forced to stress the moment of phenomenological explication (Auslegung). The other moment, letting appropriation show itself freely, we can only understand in terms of Heidegger’s frequently repeated warning not to understand the phrases “It gives Being” and “It gives Time” as propositions with subject, verb and object, but rather to understand them on the basis of that which is given – Being and Time – and how it is given – sending and passing.
Time and Being begins its struggle with the related problems of the relationship of Time and Being – history and presence – and the way in which Being is given in terms of Being as presence. The determination of Being as presence, assumed valid for all epochs in the history of Being, can be taken as a result of Heidegger’s historical studies elsewhere or – like the determination of Dasein’s Being as Existence in SuZ – as a leap into a hermeneutic circle, not to be deduced in advance, but to be justified in the end. It could also be treated as a synthesis of these two alternatives, on the model of Marx’s unity of research and presentation.
The giving in which Being is given is then determined in accordance with Being as presence:
Metaphysically considered, Being as presence characterizes every being as a presence by letting it be present. Heidegger’s question reverses this perspective on Being and asks how this Being is given so that it can in turn give beings as present. Metaphysically, that is, Being as presence is a letting-be-present (Anwesen-lassen) of presences, whereas Heidegger is interested in the way in which Being is allowed-to-be-present (Anwesen-lassen).
Heidegger has answered this question in various vocabularies and it may be helpful to relate in chart form the terminologies of 1) SuZ, 2) The Thing and 3) Time and Being:
The vertical dimension indicates the path of negative ontology from categories of the existant to their utopian form of Being and then to a consideration of the relationship of the two forms in terms of the history of Being and its end. The horizontal dimension indicates the two possible directions for an analysis of Being or of letting-be-present: metaphysically to the left or ontologically moving to the right into Appropriation. That a chart cannot faithfully reproduce years of subtle thought or thousands of pages of complex writing need scarcely be stated. Further, the terms which Heidegger uses are inadequate to his task, being part of a metaphysically biased traditional language, and must be understood as “ontic models” which give a hint of something language is incapable of expressing properly. The chart does, however, suggest a relationship between what SuZ called Time and what Time and Being refers to as the giving of Being, a relationship which warrants exploration.
The terms Time and Being are only the starting point for Time and Being, meant to provide a continuity with SuZ. In Time and Being, Being is re-conceptualized as presence, which is given in a sending as that which is sent in the epochal changes of presence. Presence has a temporal character and so Heidegger investigates Time and the giving of Time to see if it is Time which gives Being, as suggested at SuZ’s close. Time is given in the clearing passing of the Time-space in which presence is withheld, given or refused. Thus Time is the giver of Being (or, correspondingly, the withholder or refuser of Being). But what then gives Time? The giver of Being was not found to be Time by some sort of deduction from the phrase “It gives Time,” but by uncovering what lay hidden in the characterization of Being as sent presence. Similarly, the giver of Time is to be uncovered in the characterization of Time as clearing passing.
The phrases “sent presence” and “clearing passing” indicate a circle of activity. The sending of the presence of temporal beings takes place as the passing of the dimensions of Time. Insofar as one can even distinguish Being and Time any more, they appear together within a mirroring play. In the interplay of Time and Being, they are given as clearing passing and sent presence. Time, as clearing passing, thus shows itself to be given in the playful unity of Being and Time, This unity, in which Being and Time appropriate what is appropriate to them, is called by Heidegger Ereignis, the event of appropriation.
Just as we concluded earlier in reference to The Thing that Appropriation was not something totally separable from the Ring, the Four, the mirroring-play of the world or the thinging of the thing, but that these various abstractions represented a series of successive explications of a single phenomenon, so too in Time and Being Appropriation is not a distinct third party to the pair, Being and Time. Rather, Being as Anwesen-lassen (presence) reveals itself as Time in the sense of Anwesen-lassen (clearing) and the relationship of these two aspects of the same phenomenon is Appropriation, which can be pictured as a non-temporal process of mutual self-appropriation. What smacks of Hegelian mediation cannot strictly speaking be called dialectical, because Being, Time and the event of appropriation are no longer posited as distinct entities which merely presuppose each other. At most they could be considered distinguishable moments of the process in which beings come to be present. In this sense they are not, however, chronologically distinguishable, but conceptual moments in the phenomenological explication of that which “gives” presence (and chronology itself) in its historical modes.
The subtlety of the distinction between Being and Appropriation is captured in Heidegger’s statement of purpose: bringing into view Being-itself as Appropriation. Throughout Heidegger’s writings, the phrase “Being-itself” has been carefully, if not always clearly, distinguished from “Being” and has always referred to what is now called Appropriation. However, the separation of Being as presence from Being-itself as the Appropriation which gives Being is problematized by the use of one word for two functions. Heidegger must have judged it important enough to show the unity of the phenomenon that he used the term “Being” in this plurality of senses, despite the confusion which thereby resulted (e.g. in discussions of the ontological difference).
In The Thing the unity of the ontological phenomenon was expressed in the repetitive phrase, “the world worlds.” Although he could not say, “Being is,” the term “Ereignis” allows Heidegger to repeat this ploy:
But this is the formulation of an ontology of identity, not one seeking an escape from the contemporary form of presence, the danger of our times. Technological objects do not “thing” because this world does not “world,” because Appropriation does not “appropriate.” In the sending of Being and the passing of Time, Appropriation retreats and withholds or refuses itself: Appropriation expropriates itself (enteignet).
Negative ontology is one of finitude. In SuZ Dasein’s
finitude is expressed in the limitation of his possibilities to be, imposed by
his birth, situation and death, and by his limited understanding of these
possibilities as his own. The finitude of being is manifold: presence is
always given in one form and thereby not in others (although at any moment
there may be an overlapping of epochs as seen in the contemporaneity of van
Gogh’s painting with the shoes it pictures, or individual phenomena may be
subject to a plurality of interpretations, e.g. by a philosopher, an art
critic and a museum custodian). Time involves the absence of presence withheld
or refused. Appropriation keeps to itself in the sending of Being and the
passing of Time. Appropriation reveals itself only negatively, as
Expropriation, in its absence from the sending of Being and the passing of
Time, as the forgotten question of Being, as the danger of our times and as
the task for critical thought.
In the preceding we have tried to sketch-in a coherent, more or less intelligible system of thought as an interpretation of Heidegger’s central writings, of the path and thrust of his thinking about Being. We have tried to understand his negative ontology – an attempt to grasp the way in which beings are given as present without thereby setting contemporary Being as an absolute – from the perspective of our historical ontological question: how it comes to be that a certain sense of Being prevails in a given era. Assuming that what Heidegger has said is valid and that we have understood him correctly, and granting that he has presented a wealth of material which we have ignored, we can now pose the question: Has Heidegger in the end offered us anything substantial under his cloud of analyses?
Heidegger’s path of thought has led him to criticize the entire philosophical tradition from the pre-Socratics to Husserl, as a whole and in particulars. He has also proposed powerful, original perspectives for answering the eternal philosophical questions concerning space, time and Being; art, science and the humanities; knowledge, truth and thought; things, tools, works and mortals; history, freedom and death. Yet, in the end the question forces itself upon us, as upon Heidegger himself: “But do we arrive by this road at anything other than to a mere mental construct?” Is Heidegger’s thought so deep that it bypasses all content, so abstract that it has no concrete significance, so essential that it forgets its original inspiration: that essence lies in the particular existence? We have seen that originally (in SuZ) the abstractness of the answer to the question of Being was to be counteracted by the concrete destruction of the history of ontology. In Time and Being, these concrete analyses have already been incorporated into the discussion – to little avail. The seminar to Time and Being touched upon the problems of non-specificity several times.
In the seminar, Heidegger was asked if it was sufficient to grasp the relation of presence to what is present as uncovering (Entbergen) when this term is taken in abstraction from all content: “If unconcealing already lies in all kinds of poiesis, of making, of effecting, how can one exclude these modes and keep unconcealing purely for itself?” To this question, Heidegger responded that unconcealing (Entbergen) in the sense he used it was in fact more general than e.g. Plato’s usage of poiesis because he referred to the uncovering of the whole being as such, not e.g. just to its eidos, what it is as distinct from that it is. He had to admit, however, that it remained a task of thought to determine the uncoveredness of the different realms of things.
The concept of presence presents the same problem. Heidegger finds it in all the metaphysical conceptions of Being; if his lecture ever seemed to proceed deductively, it was from the characterization of Being in all its forms as presence, with its temporal connotation. Yet, Heidegger must admit, the first principle of Being as presence is totally questionable: “The priority of presence thus remains an assertion in the lecture Time and Being, but as such a question and a task of thinking, namely to consider whether and whence and to what extent the priority of presence exists.” These terms, uncovering and presence, are no exceptions among Heidegger’s tangle of concepts. Leaving the dirty work for one’s followers is not simply a lazy man’s trick; it is questionable whether the generality of a concept is an asset, especially if it is not supported by a pyramid of more specific concepts applicable to the various aspects as well as the different regions. Heidegger’s specific analyses of Angst, the work of art or the jug may have been brilliant in their day or they may have been trite and absurd – they were not meant to be judged on their own. Whatever their value, they could never justify by themselves the generalizing leaps that followed in their wakes; such generalizations may in the end be unjustifiable or lead to mere emptiness.
The emptiness of Heidegger’s generality is perhaps most painful in connection with his attempt at social criticism. In contrast to the insightful and subtle handling of complex and abstruse considerations throughout the seminar, the blatantly naive question about how the technological sense of Being is limited to our planet was ignored. “It was not explained how the Gestell, which constitutes the essence of modern technology, hence of something that, as far as we know, only occurs on earth, can be a name for universal Being.” A confusion about the scope of the problem might not be so disastrous if Heidegger were clearer about the nature of the salvation from the technological danger. Alas, here he is not even sure what he does not know. He remains unshaken in his confidence that he can reach salvation by stepping ever backwards into increasing abstraction, but where, what or how salvation will be reached he cannot imagine.
To the extent to which this was clarified, one could say in spite of the inadequacy of these expressions: The ‘that’ of the place of the ‘whither’ is certain, but as yet how this place is, is concealed from knowledge. And it must remain undecided whether the ‘how’, the manner of Being of this place, is already determined (but not yet knowable) or whether it itself results only from the taking of the step, in the awakening into Appropriation.
Not that Heidegger has to have all the answers, but his poverty at the crucial point raises further questions. How does he know that what he is searching for is to be found if he knows nothing about it? Is this merely wishful thinking done up in fancy jargon? If the general concepts remain questions and the concrete ground-work has yet to be carried out, does Heidegger really have more to offer, even in the form of an ontological foundation, than Marx?
 The forgetfulness of Being is, however, observable in the situation of academic philosophy. The neo-Kantian bracketing of ontology, which led Husserl away from Being, and the contemporary rejection by positivism of what it considers metaphysical, resulting in a deep-seated scorn of Heidegger’s work, are perhaps extreme examples. Cf. On Time and Being, op. cit., p. 44, S. 47.
 Cf. Being and Time, op. cit., p. 187, S. 147.
 Ibid., p. 187, S. 147.
 Thus, although SuZ’s “fundamental ontology” was more a preliminary analysis which had to be repeated later from an entirely different approach, the character of phenomenological description remains explication. Ibid., p. 60f, S. 36f.
 Cf. e.g., On Time and Being, p. 32, S. 34.
 Cf. Being and Time, p. 232, S. 187.
 Martin Heidegger, “What is metaphysics?” in Existence and Being (Chicago: Gateway, 1965), p. 338; Cf. Martin Heidegger, “Was ist Metaphysik?” in Wegmarken (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1967), S. 11.
 “Time and Being” in On Time and Being, p.1; “Zeit und Sein” in Zur Sache des Denkens, S. 1.
 Cf. Edmund Husserl, “Der Ursprung der Geometrie” in Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie (the Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1954).
 Being and Time, p. 43, S. 21.
 This relationship of formal theory to the texts which form the theory’s pre-history is not unlike that of Capital’s first volume (the theory of value and of capitalist production) to its projected fourth volume (the notes of which form three volumes of critique: Theories of Surplus Value).
 “Time and Being,” p. 9, S. 8.
 Ibid., p. 9, S. 9.
 Ibid., p. 43, S. 46.
 Later edition of “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” op. cit., S. 72, S. 97f.
 “Time and Being,” p. 33, S. 35.
 Ibid., p. 53, S. 57.
 Ibid., p. 52f, S. 56.
 Ibid., p. 50, S. 53f.
 Ibid., p. 22, S. 23.
 Ibid., p. 5, S. 5.
 Cf. ibid., p. 55f, S. 54f.
 Ibid., p. 18f, S. 19f.
 Ibid., p. 19, S. 20.
 Ibid., p. 23, S. 24.
 Cf. ibid., p. 43, S. 46.
 “The Thing,” S. 52.
 “Time and Being,” p. 24, S. 24.
 Ibid., p. 22, S. 23.
 Ibid., p. 23, S. 24.
 Ibid., p. 46f, S. 50.
 Ibid., p. 47, S. 50f.
 Ibid., p. 34, S. 37.
 Ibid., p. 33, S. 35.
 Ibid., p. 30f, S. 33.
Go to top of this page
Return to Gerry Stahl's Home Page
Send email to Gerry.Stahl@drexel.edu
This page last modified on January 05, 2004