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The Question of Being by Martin Heidegger
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The Question of Being

by Martin Heidegger

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Seinsfrage

In the midst (really, the maelstrom!) of Heidegger's Silence(s), I fear that one can hear whatever one pleases. Politically, the Right and Left each find themselves. (Heidegger, I have no doubt, would have, in however qualified a manner, found himself nearer the Right than the Left.) I have read and reread this text several times over the years, with notes and underlining everywhere. (Impressively, my 1957 hardcover translation by Kluback and Wilde is still in one piece.) Usually, when I review a text of this importance, I try to walk through the argument, sometimes paragraph by paragraph. I am as yet unprepared to do that. I have a mountain of notes ...but no conclusion. Below, I would like to talk briefly about why.

But first, a little about the text. This is a brief essay that I believe has been included in more than one collection in English. This essay first appeared in a festschrift honoring Ernst Jünger on his 60th birthday. The essay by Heidegger, 'Uber 'Die Linie',' is a response to an essay by Jünger, 'Uber die Linie.' Heidegger actively engages Jünger more than once in his collected works. Thus it is remarkable how few of Jünger's non-fiction works have been translated into English. What makes this edition remarkable is that it is a translation with the German on the facing page. This is very rare with Heidegger; indeed it is rare with all translations of philosophical texts. I wish it would become the norm... I also believe this is the first time Heidegger uses the strikeout (an elongated 'X' through the term) of the word 'Being' in his published works. Derrida will later pick this up and expand on it as 'Sous Rature'.

I want to begin by mentioning how pivotal this small book, really an essay (1956, first translated 1958), was for me. When I first saw it (bought used in the early seventies) the world was in a war between irreconcilable 'truths'. (Communism / Capitalism.) This book showed that one could intelligently speak of the world without knowing what would, or even should, happen next. Beyond our present world-picture, for Heidegger a technological nihilism, we could not be certain of anything. Indeed. we could not even know if we would remain the 'we' we are now!
The known, every Known, is surrounded by the Unknown. There are terrible consequences for that. Once Being is seen to be entwined with Time stability, all stability, is put in question. Heidegger arrives at this through his fundamental (philosophical) anthropology cum fundamental ontology. But he isn't the only one to do so. Lukács (in his late Ontology), for instance, from a militantly opposed direction that starts by willfully ignoring philosophical anthropology cum existentialism, and proceeding through the scholastics, Hegel, Marx, and then surprisingly (for me) ignoring the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, while he makes much use of the now forgotten ontology of Nikolai Hartmann, ends by asserting that the categories of Being Itself change. But Lukács too ends with anthropology: Labor.
It seems that for as long as we remain human, everything is (and can only be) about Man. But Heidegger wishes to get beyond all that.

Many of us (or at least we used to) situate ourselves somewhere in the wake of Kant and German Idealism. But whether as phenomenology, transcendental philosophy, or western marxism, that wake (once called continental philosophy) broke on the shoals of post-Heideggerean philosophy. I consider this a fact. Heidegger's importance has only grown over the years. And the number of Heidegger interpretations continue to grow. Why? Part of the reason, I believe, is that his earlier work and his later work do not seem to sync up. How, for instance, does the old resolution and the new releasement belong in the 'same' philosophy? I don't believe they do. The trauma of the war years fully convinced Heidegger that it is not Man Who Does. (-Even the most existentially Authentic Man.) Indeed, in this text before us Heidegger will imply that Jünger (a proto-fascist) too is a humanist! It is this turn from an active humanity (however conceived) to a humanity that receives the gifts that Being bestows that, in my opinion, pulls the rug out from under all existential / da-sein interpretations of Heidegger.

I don't mean to say, btw, that Heidegger discovered that Being changes. Indeed, in this book, Heidegger says that "'Being' (the reality of the real), is thought of as by Hegel and Nietzsche, as pure growth and absolute movement." (I believe the difference between Hegel and Nietzsche is that for Hegel Being still has a Logos, while for Nietzsche, Being is Chaos.) Many, if not most, people interested in the early Heidegger are interested in his relation to Aristotle. I think that those interested in the postwar Heidegger are more interested in the relation between Heidegger and Hegel.

Now, Heidegger's all-too-brief (but tantalizing) remarks regarding Hegel in this text lead me to the following thoughts. Although the dialectic is the road of despair for Hegel, there is also triumph. Reason can fully grasp this dialectical process as System. (Though, of course, not each and every particular moment can be fully grasped.) With Heidegger this is gone. Working through the Seinsfrage leads the perceptive reader (I believe) to one conclusion: there doesn't seem to be any understanding of ourselves that (certainly) endures when we cross over the line beyond our current nihilism. Not the prewar völkisch fantasies (whether centered on Race or, as with Junger, Worker, is immaterial) of the German right. Not the sovereign ego of Cartesian Philosophy or Sartrean Existentialism. Not even the petty well-crafted ironies of post-Derridean academic philosophy. (Thank God!) Even Thought Itself, according to Heidegger, must radically change. The entwinement of Being & Time fundamentally means that there isn't anything (any being) that always remains itself.
That is enough, but there is (for me at least) more. Dialectics (both Hegelian and Marxist) claims that however much nonsense and games there are in History we will never be at a point where we find that everything we have believed to be important is irrelevant. But that is precisely what Heidegger's postwar understanding of Unconcealment and Epochal Change means! Any Epoch (each ultimately given by Being) is eventually Withdrawn. - With no promise that any past obsessions (yes, that is the precise word) that occur in said Epoch survive over the line that leads past our current nihilism; that is, beyond our currently withdrawing Epoch. That our past, with all its myriad ideologies and religions, could add up to Nothing... - Well, there are no words.
It is really beyond me how any of this can meaningfully be called 'conservative'.

If we can't theorize the late Heidegger politically, - what then? All Theodicy claims that at the most fundamental level there are no mistakes. Heidegger says the same thing. Even the Nihilism of our Time is the Geschick (destining) of Being. Like Hegel again, but in a very different manner, Heidegger also maintains that at the most fundamental level there have been no mistakes. We were always going to eventually end up here in late modernity / postmodernity. Beings concealment belongs to the beginning of Western Philosophy. Philosophy did nothing 'wrong'; - Concealment (and nihilism) was always its Fate.
It is this total loss of 'significance' (i.e., decisive moments, turning points where things could have been Otherwise) for the History of Philosophy that makes Heidegger's later thought (at its deepest) so profound. There are days I think that no interpretation of his final position could ever be radical enough.
But what of Heidegger's myriad interpreters? Nietzsche said that books are mirrors. What he means is that people only discover themselves - their own predispositions, their own 'deep-down', the ways things have settled within them, their particular 'stupidity' - in books. (I would argue that Nietzsche does not mean to say that this is true of philosophy. In order to see that 'books are mirrors' the philosopher Nietzsche had to break the mirror. To be a Philosopher one must no longer be obsessed with oneself. [See BGE, - section 26.]) The 'Unknown' is the first, last and greatest 'mirror'. "Over the Line" (our fated leap into some given realm of the Unknown beyond our present nihilism), Heidegger warns in this book that 'we' may no longer even be ourselves. But regarding this Epochal change, which is both Unwilled and Unknown, the Heideggerian Left somehow discovers Freedom, while the Heideggerian Right uncovers Order. ...All this means is that neither Left nor Right has broken the mirror.
Everybody who reads Heidegger, without simply rejecting him, imagines that Heidegger is somehow 'with' them. The later Heidegger isn't with anyone or any position; each must change (that is, each will be unpredictably changed when we cross the 'Line of Nihilism') into something else. But the later Heidegger, unfaithful to all politics and religions, was always faithful to Being. And yes, 'faith' is (presently) the only possible word. Until, that is, we are enfolded in the Thinking beyond philosophy that (possibly) awaits us Over the Line. And it is this 'waiting' that makes the final Heidegger so difficult come to terms with. Until the 'other beginning' beyond out technological nihilism arrives, what Heidegger says must remain unclear. And I fear any explication of the final Heidegger suffers this fate.

So you see, in the end phenomenology, politics and philosophical anthropology (all of them!) and so forth are but reified moments of the History of Being, temporary arrangements striving not to be temporary. So then is Man but a plaything of mindless Being? No, for Heidegger, Humanity is the only adequate (and destined) witness to Being; we must all strive to be equal to this terrible unsurpassable burden.

A somewhat embarrassing five stars for a book that none of us can fully understand. ( )
2 vote pomonomo2003 | Aug 1, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Heidegger, Martinprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kluback, WilliamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
La Rocca, AlviseTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilde, Jean T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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