This research was supported by Kyungsung University Research Grants in 2013.
Martin Heidegger’s philosophy is a notoriously complicated one. In his earlier writings one has to struggle through the difficulties posed by his innovative usage of language and long, compound words. Yet, the majority of the ideas are relatively clear-cut and after a considerable time of demanding, yet rewarding struggle many of us can acquire the skills to glimpse into the depths of this uniquely powerful thinking. However, by the time one finds the courage to regard oneself a skilled reader of the young Heidegger’s works, one is normally stricken down by the enormous task of understanding the so-called ‘later Heidegger’, who is, indeed, another very prolific thinker. These two persons, biographically speaking, are identical; nonetheless their language, their attitudes towards philosophy and their goals of thinking differ to such a great extent that no matter how invincibly the older one tries to argue about the presence of the same unbroken line of thought during his entire life, it is at best a dubious claim.
Martin Heidegger’s philosophy is a difficult one, but perhaps the energy expended by many of his commentators on pointing out this fact has generated even more complexity and confusion. The overemphasis on the complexity of Heidegger’s thought can serve as a defense line that shields and protects all those who live in the ‘real world’ from the enigmatic persona who uttered his profound revelations in the heart of the mystical Black Forest. Particularly, the later period of his philosophy is widely referred to as ‘esoteric’ or ‘poetic’, which evidently speaks of the aversion that mainstream Western thought displays towards ‘irrational’ ways of reflecting on the nature of reality. Heidegger’s understanding of such key concepts of Western Metaphysics as Being and Truth turned away from the occidental canon, no doubt about that. However, this does not have to mean that his train of thought runs off its rails and rushes into a senseless or unintelligible abyss. Rather, it turns to another ancient source of grasping reality: to the various but altogether similar oriental approaches of conceiving Being and Truth. This turn signals a crucial happening in Heidegger’s philosophical program: the encounter with Asian metaphysics impregnated his thinking to such a degree that his later philosophy can be understood as a single, colossal effort to prepare the ground for the coming of the Event of an all-embracing cultural renewal that he named the ‘second beginning’ of philosophy.
I: Heidegger’s Point of Departure and his Early Period
Heidegger began his philosophical career as the remarkably bright pupil of Edmund Husserl, the founder of the phenomenological movement and already a widely renowned and celebrated mind across Europe. By this time, the young philosopher had broken away from his early affiliations with theology and, for a brief period, preoccupied himself with mainly epistemological questions of the new phenomenological methodology. However, it did not take him long to seek independence from his mentor, and by the early 1920s he was already looking for a philosophically defensible access to the so-called ‘facticity of life’, that is, to the concreteness of ordinary human life. This considerable task culminated in the 1927 publication of Sein und Zeit(Being and Time) which attempted to elaborate the new, phenomenological ontology via an existential analysis of Dasein. Dasein is the term used by Heidegger to exhibit the human by depriving him from his traditional – and, to Heidegger, burdensome – anthropological connotations, and to present him as the unique being which is solely able to witness and reveal the Truth of Being.
Some readers might read Being and Time not so much as a philosophical treatise but as a novel, perhaps a kind of mystery or crime story. The identity of the narrator is not much of a mystery: it is Heidegger, of course, who tells us the story. But who is the protagonist of this philosophical story? Without due reflection, careless guessers might risk taking Dasein, that is, the human as the hero. However, it would be an obvious mistake to make. On the contrary: we, the audience of the narrative, are just as much passive spectators as the narrator. Whereas the story seems to circulate around Dasein as a special mode of existence of the human, the true hero is Being itself. The narrator does not want to deceive us: from the outset, he tries to orient our attention to Being, to the meaning of Being, but we humans tend to focus mainly on ourselves. And this is exactly what Heidegger is concerned with: we people have a natural inclination to forget about Being – what it means to be, to exist – we just take it for granted, and this Oblivion of Being is the fountainhead of numerous characteristics and problems of how we conceive reality. Thus the ‘plot’ of the book deals with finding this long missing protagonist, Being.
Oblivion of Being is the translation for Seinsvergessenheit, which literally means the ‘forgottenness of Being’. I believe it is not premature to make clear distinctions between the different usages of Being and beings. The simplest way is to start on beings or entities. A house, a cat, a train or a human is a being. No matter how different they might be from one another, all of them exist in one or another way. ‘A being is’: this is the most fundamental statement one is authorized to make about a being. ‘A being is a something’ would be too much to say and already misleading compared to what Heidegger has in mind. Just as he tries to avoid calling Dasein a ‘man’ because of its anthropological overtones, similarly he evades the metaphysical trap of calling a being a ‘thing’, in other words conceiving of it as a self-sufficient, Cartesian substance which has, as he prefers to call it, ‘present-at-hand’ qualities. Being (Sein) with capital ‘B’ is, on the other hand, that which is common in every being or entity. Being is not a ‘super-being’ like the Idea of Good for Plato, or like God in Scholastic theology but it is the common denominator of everything that exists. Therefore Being is not one of the beings. Being is not. But does this mean that Being does not exist?
No, it does not. Without Being, there would be nothing, no beings, including human beings. Being is the indefinable inevitability of existence, and it is just as indefinable as the truth of Being. But why is it indefinable? Because ‘definition’ per definitionem means that we can provide a sufficiently satisfactory verbal circumscription or delimitation of a phenomenon. With Being, this is impossible, argues Heidegger. The Truth of Being, as we will see, is that the original meaning of truth is not in accordance with the customary notion of truth as correspondence oradequatio. The Truth of Being is not a factual truth; it does not correspond to any constellation of state of affairs. Therefore, when the narrator of the story entitled Being and Time tells us that we have forgotten about Being, actually he means that we have forgotten about the meaning or the ‘Truth’ of Being. Moreover, not only have we forgotten about the meaning of Being but we have also forgotten about this first forgetfulness. Thus what is at stake in Being and Time is whether we can recommence our relationship with Being or not.
The difference between Being and beings is called ‘ontological difference’. However, for the issue at hand, it is equally important that in Being and Time the primordial concept of truth is tied to the ancient Greek – chiefly Aristotelian and Pre-Socratic – interpretation of beings. As Heidegger writes:
Dasein, as constituted by disclosedness, is essentially in the truth. Disclosedness is a kind of Being which is essential to Dasein. ‘There is’ truth only in so far as Dasein is and so long as Dasein is. Entities are uncovered only when Dasein is; and only as long as Dasein is, are they disclosed. Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatever – these are true only as long as Dasein is. Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any after Dasein is no more. For in such a case truth as disclosedness, uncovering and uncoveredness, cannot be. Before Newton’s laws were discovered, they were not ‘true’; it does not follow that they were false, or even that they would become false if ontically no discoveredness were any longer possible. (Heidegger, 2001: 269)
It would be hard to deny that this interpretation of truth strikes the reader as a fairly subjectivistic one – provided that we may justifiably use the term ‘subjectivistic’ in the context of an existential analysis of Dasein where there are no subjects and objects in the usual sense. Nonetheless, it seems fair to maintain that Dasein’s activity is absolutely necessary for any kind of truth construed as aletheia or ‘disclosedness’ to come about. Being discloses itself as the truth of beings to no one else but only to the human being. If there is no revealing or disclosing activity from Dasein’s side, that is, were man not an inherently hermeneutic creature who makes continuous efforts to understand his world, there would never be anything we could refer to as truth (or untruth, for that matter). But luckily enough, Dasein is an interpretative being who is virtually unable to stop making sense of the bulk of phenomena he experiences on a daily basis as the ‘world’.
II: Truth in the Essays of the Middle Period
According to Heidegger (Davis, 2010: 4, and May, 1996: 3), Heidegger had only had one basic thought which he attempted to express in several different forms, and as such, none of his texts should be conceived as a final or a closed work ( Werk ) but rather as ways or paths (Wege). Consequently, he would be reluctant to agree with most of his commentators who either claim that he made a relatively sharp turn in his philosophical approach, or that he made even more than one (two or three) major turns during his lifetime. The first major change or turn that occurred in Heidegger’s own thinking happened when he exchanged the transcendental approach of the existential analysis of Dasein for a seinsgeschichtlich one focusing on Being and, particularly, on the history of Being. This turn took place during the 1930s, and the first testimony or manifestation of it can be observed in the 1930 essay entitled On the Essence of Truth. The second turn – If there had ever been one – could be connected to his placing more and more emphasis on the coming of the Event (Ereignis) which would signify the so-called ‘second beginning’ of philosophy. Furthermore, a third turn might also be detected in his writings from the 1950s and 1960s when he turned increasingly to language and saying (Sage). For simplicity`s sake, I will only distinguish three main periods. The early period lasted until 1930, the middle period from 1930 to 1938, the later period from 1938 to his last writings.
The first text I will investigate here is the one that signals the turning (or Kehre), the one entitledOn the Essence of Truth. In this short essay Heidegger demonstrates that his understanding of truth is unmistakably devoid of traditional Western subjectivism or relativism. After subjecting it to careful etymological and conceptual scrutiny, Heidegger states that in Western metaphysics the concept of truth (veritas) has long been pictured as correspondence to an idea or essence of a being. A being or a statement is true in so far as it corresponds to its ideal concept. For instance, a certain king is a true king only if he satisfies our notion of king-ness. If the criterion that the king should justly rule his people is included in our concept of a true king, and the king in question does not rule his people justly then he does not correspond to his adequate notion of king-ness, therefore he is not a ‘true’ or ‘real’ king. To this, Heidegger adds:
if we take the tracing back of propositional truth to material truth to be what in the first instance it shows itself to be, namely, a theological explanation, and if we then keep the philosophical definition completely pure of all admixture of theology and limit the concept of truth to propositional truth, then we encounter an old – though not the oldest – tradition of thinking, according to which truth is the accordance (homoiosis) of a statement (logos) with a matter (pragma). (Heidegger, 1998: 140)
But, according to Heidegger, this is not the oldest or the primordial meaning of truth for the Greeks. Before Aristotle or Plato or Socrates came along, the Pre-Socratics had a more original encounter with Being by which they struggled to grasp the Truth of Being. This original truth does not correspond to any ideal reality or to a concept or essence of a particular being but rather it is a mode of ‘letting-be’:
To let be – that is, to let beings be as the beings that they are – means to engage oneself with the open region and its openness into which every being comes to stand, bringing that openness, as it were, along with itself. Western thinking in its beginning conceived this open region as ta alethea, the unconcealed. If we translatealetheia as ‘unconcealment’ rather than ‘truth’, this translation is not merely ‘more literal’; it contains the directive to rethink the ordinary concept of truth in the sense of the correctness of statements and to think it back to that still uncomprehended disclosedness and disclosure of beings. To engage oneself with the disclosedness of beings is not to lose oneself in them; rather, such engagement withdraws in the face of beings in order that they might reveal themselves with respect to what and how they are, and in order that presentative correspondence might take its standard from them. (Heidegger, 1998: 144)
As we can see, the original meaning of truth is unmasked as ‘letting beings be as they are’ and the only way to facilitate their uncovering is by not coercing them into our pre-manufactured ontological categories. However, it is vital to stress that this disclosing of beings can never entirely come about: the moment of complete truth will never arrive so we had better not to hope for an ultimate advent of a radiant revelation. The reason for this is simple. Being never reveals itself entirely. As Heidegger puts it: ‘Precisely because letting-be always lets beings be in a particular comportment that relates to them and thus discloses them, it conceals beings as a whole. Letting-be is intrinsically at the same time a concealing’ (Heidegger, 1998: 148).
One prominent field where the playing of concealment and unconcealment of truth takes place is the realm of art. Art in Heidegger`s view is not primarily the field of aesthetic pleasures or of sophisticated analyses of works or art. In his famous 1935/36 essay On the Origin of the Work of Art, art is presented as an epistemological mediator: thanks to its operation, new worlds can open up for us. Art is not mimesis or imitation of ‘real life’ but it is the ‘setting-itself-into-work of truth’, that is, the medium in which the disclosing of the Truth of Being can be carried out. We should keep in mind that beings are never separate, isolate entities for Heidegger. A toothbrush is only a toothbrush in that particular web of reference or aggregate of meanings where it had been placed since its coming into existence. If there were nobody in the universe who had teeth, or simply if people had no need to brush their teeth because their body parts would never decay, toothbrush would have no meaning at all and, consequently, would have no ‘world’ that surrounds it. Similarly, human as Dasein is always an In-der-Welt-sein or a Being-in-the-World. In other words, no human is cut off from his or her environment: we are who we are because other beings – our parents, our place of birth and upbringing, our historical circumstances, the Zeitgeist amidst we live, etc. – constantly influence and form us. What art can show us is nothing less than different ‘worlds’: different possible meanings of the great variability of beings by establishing an open domain for the display of truth.
Yet, as we are already aware of it, truth can never be exhibited entirely because every single coming to light is attached to its respective concealment. In the Origin of the Work of Art, this is expressed in the dual activities of ‘world’ (Welt) and ‘earth’ (Erde). While the world of a work of art always entwines it and shines out from it when Dasein embarks upon the often-painstaking enterprise of proper understanding of the phenomena, nevertheless the earth of the work of art tirelessly pushes back the truth of that particular being into hiddenness. What does Heidegger mean by the earth? Contrary to the common belief, there is nothing enigmatic about it. Earth is the background materiality on which the world of a work of art – or, as a matter of fact, the world of every single being – rests. Whenever a being presents itself in a certain light, an element of truth is certainly there in that particular way of appearance, but precisely because it is always just one particular aspect of it, it can never show us the entire truth. As Dronsfield aptly remarks, what Heidegger stresses is the never-ending ‘strife’ (Streit) between world and earth:
The world unconceals earth’s self-seclusion; earth tends to draw the world into its concealing. The world makes visible what is otherwise invisible; the earth is materiality that can never be explained or accounted for in terms of what can be shown. The movement between the two is one of concealing-unconcealing and showing-withdrawal, and what happens in the movement is a drawing apart and a holding apart, such that what Heidegger calls a clearing (Lichtung) is won. (Dronsfield, 2010: 133)
III: The later Heidegger’s Concepts of Ereignis and Truth
We might recall that for the young Heidegger Seinsvergessenheit or ‘forgottenness of Being’ is the core problem of modernity. This initially means that we as Daseins – those to whom Being discloses itself – forget about the ontological difference, that of Being and beings. We have forgotten the meaning of Being. In the later works, however, it is rather Being itself that has ‘abandoned’ us and other beings, likewise. This is what Heidegger calls Seinsverlassenheit, ‘abandonment of Being’. According to Heidegger, this latter is the one which has an enormous, determinant impact on our reality in the epoch we are living. Abandonment of Being is the ground of nihilism, and is responsible for the errors and terrors of the calculating modern mind. Western metaphysics has an inherent logic that inevitably leads towards the age of instrumental reason and technology, which, in Heidegger’s eyes, are the evils of our era. However, Being is capable of disclosing itself once again for the human, provided that the human leaves his or her self-identification as animal rationale far behind, and is prepared to become Da-sein in a genuine way. The new or second beginning of philosophy is marked by the name of ‘Event’. Ereignis is the key term for the later Heidegger from his book titled Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Basically, Ereignis can be translated as ‘event’, although Heidegger charges it with a heavy load of various connotations. For instance, it is etymologically connected to ‘appropriate’, to make something one’s own, therefore it has been translated sometimes as ‘enowning’ or ‘appropriation’. This way it can easily be tied to the earlier Heidegger’s concept of authenticity orEigentlichkeit which is an existential mode of Dasein. In any case, the primary meaning ofEreignis is a future event when the apparently harmful epoch of Western Metaphysics and technological rationality will end and a new beginning will occur. This new beginning, however, can not be urged or forced. The most one may ‘do’ is to demonstrate patient readiness for the coming of this new age. Thus ‘Event’ is the outset of a new era in which the human is no longer the arrogant encroacher in the course of things but the ‘shepherd of Being’. However, Ereignisalso refers to one’s turn in relation to Being. This alludes to the transformation of the human after the realization of the oblivion of Being and the transformation of attitudes from manipulating the world to Gelassenheit (‘releasement’). This latter means letting the beings come to fore as they are, without wanting to shape or distort them according to our desires.
Heidegger asserts that the second beginning of philosophy will open up the clearing of Being once again. Clearing or Lichtung had been present in Heidegger’s philosophy since the essay on the Essence of Truth in 1930. Clearing, just as in everyday language, is construed as an empty place in the woods where the sun may freely shine. This metaphor is used by Heidegger in different forms at different times, but one thing never changes: Being is the one that makes this illuminated clearing possible while Dasein or the human is this opening where the meaning of beings – the Truth – can be disclosed. It is rather plausible to suggest that Being is to be understood as the Sun from where every sort of light originates, however, Dasein could also be considered as the source of light, at least in terms of shedding its own light of understanding – which it, naturally, receives from Being – on beings that are present in his clearing. Dasein and Sein, as always for Heidegger, are mutually essential for the meaning giving process of understanding.
IV: Similarities with Buddhist and Daoist approaches of Truth
So philosophy needs a new beginning. But how should this new dawn come about? Or more bluntly put, from what source did Heidegger imagine it possible to overcome the inherently problematic nature of Western thinking, considering the fact that he himself was also a Western thinker, standing on exclusively Western soil for reflection, as he frequently remarked. Or did he perhaps not lay all his cards on the table? Some fairly recent developments in Heidegger studies have credibly demonstrated that although he tried to maintain complete secrecy concerning his other sources (other than Western, that is), for many of his fundamental insights he owes gratitude to traditional Eastern thinking, particularly to Daoism and Zen Buddhism. There is no room here to go into detail, but I am obliged to point to the unfortunate fact that Heidegger explicitly denied any possibilities that the revival of Western thinking could take place from turning to Zen Buddhism, for instance, even though his thinking has evidently drawn a great deal from Daoist and Buddhist texts – a fact he never acknowledged (May, 1996).
However it may be, I wish to conclude my paper by mentioning some of the key concepts to which Heidegger’s philosophy should feel indebted to Eastern thinking. First of all the concept of Nothing – wu in Daoist Philosophy and Nichts in German – is absolutely central in Heidegger’s unique view of Being from the inception of his critique on Western metaphysics in the early 1920s. For him, just as for Laozi and Zhuangzi, Being and Nothing belong to each other so intimately that the essential Truth of Being is this: ‘Being: Nothing: Same’. According to Heidegger, this was the one and only thought he sought to express throughout his entire life (May, 1996, 49). Closely related to this one is the concept of Emptiness (or mu in Japanese) which shows striking similarities to Zen Buddhist and modern Japanese thought, especially to those of Nishida Kitaro’s, with whose work Heidegger was familiar. As for the increasingly peculiar terminology employed in the middle and later periods of Heidegger’s idiosyncratic ways of thinking, such central notions of great significance as Clearing (Lichtung), and Event (Ereignis) were lifted out from ancient Daoist texts, some of them verbatim (without any reference whatsoever), as Reinhard May showed in his monograph entitled Heidegger’s Hidden Sources.
This is not to say, of course, that Heidegger was not an original thinker. He certainly was. He combined Western and Eastern ideas in a very original way, and given his rare ingenuity, made them look like as something almost miraculous: coming solely from the West, yet initiating something unprecedented. There is no doubt that his own ways or Wegen, Heidegger apparently considered in the manner of the Dao: the authorship of them is less significant than the thoughts expressed by them. At around the same time, his long-term friend and colleague, Karl Jaspers was working devotedly on ‘the unavoidable task of the era’ (Saner, 1970: 105), that is, establishing the field of ‘world philosophy’ founded on mutual respect and declared acknowledgement of different traditions. Meanwhile, Heidegger – I believe, unwittingly – was serving the same noble cause, in his own secretive ways. Considering the first and the second beginning, between which we all stand, he comes to admit the importance of non-Western thinking in preparation for the Event:
What is changing [in Europe] is able to do so thanks to the preserved greatness of its beginning. Accordingly the present state of the world can receive an essentialtransformation – or even just the preparation for it – only from its own beginning, which determines our era through destiny. It is the great beginning. There is of course no going back to it. The present as something waiting over against us becomes the great beginning only in its coming towards the small. But nor can this small something remain any longer in its Western isolation. It is opening up to the few other great beginnings that belong with their Own to the Same of the beginning of the infinite relationship, within which the earth is held. (Heidegger, as quoted by May, 1996: 48)
Eventually, it seems that the new beginning may only occur provided that after learning to be ‘small’ (insignificant, humble), Western metaphysics can open up for ‘other great beginnings’, that is to say, to Eastern – Chinese, Japanese, Indian, etc. – philosophical reflections on the nature of reality, because all these ‘great beginnings’ sprout from the same ground (or rather ‘earth’). The incessant dialectics of concealing and unconcealing of the Truth of Being happens in different fashion within different traditions but the main point here is that truth never stops ‘happening’; it operates all the time whenever people try to make sense of the phenomena they perceive. And perhaps most importantly, there is no single philosophical tradition that possesses an exclusive access to the ‘ultimate truth’. However, this is not Heidegger’s view anymore. Yet it seems evident to me that only unbiased discourse of various traditions might bring about that momentous Event that Heidegger was so fond of expecting.
Davis, Bret W (2010). ‘Introduction: Key Concepts in Heidegger’s Thinking of Being’, in Martin Heidegger: Key Concepts, ed Bret W. Davis. Durham: Acumen Publishing, 1-16.
Dronsfield, Jonathan (2010). ‘The Work of Art’, in Martin Heidegger: Key Concepts, ed. Bret W. Davis. Durham: Acumen Publishing: 128-139.
Heidegger, Martin (1998). ‘On the Essence of Truth’, in Pathmarks ed. William McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 136-154.
Heidegger, Martin (2001). Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
May, Reinhard (1996). Heidegger’s Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on His Work, trans Graham Parkes. London/New York: Routledge.
Saner, Hans (1970). Jaspers. Hamburg: Reinbeck.