On Heidegger

“Introduction to metaphysics” accordingly means: leading into the asking of the fundamental question. But questions, and above all fundamental questions, do not simply occur like stones and water. Questions are not given like shoes, clothes, or books. Questions are as they are actually asked, and this is the only way in which they are. Thus the leading into the asking of the fundamental question is not a passage over to something that lies or stands around somewhere; instead, this leading-to must first awaken and create the questioning. Leading is a questioning going-ahead, a questioning-ahead. This is a leadership that essentially has no following. Whenever one finds pretensions to a following, in a school of philosophy, for example, questioning is misunderstood. There can be such schools only in the sphere of scientific or professional labor. In such a sphere, everything has its distinct hierarchical order. Such labor also belongs, and even necessarily belongs, to philosophy, and has today been lost. But the best professional ability will never replace the authentic strength of seeing and questioning and saying.

– Heidegger, “Introduction to Metaphysics”

Consider the notion of truth in the Greek term “alethea:” there is the alpha-privative as well as the word Lethe, and the point seems to be that it is a lack of forgetfulness that characterizes Truth. Whether one actually has the truth is besides the point, ironically enough: what we feel marks the truth is that we don’t forget it. From this we get Heidegger’s basic idea that Truth is something covered up, always, and that if Truth is connected to Being (Sein), then while we cannot know the nature of Being, it would seem all of human history consists in attempts (Dasein) to uncover that nature.

It is with that in mind that I want to talk about this notion of leading into the fundamental question, “Why are there beings [das Seiende] at all instead of nothing?” The question already has Dasein in it, as “beings at all” refers to what is more immediate, as opposed to some more universal concept of Being, which, to be apprehended, one might have to stand beyond (cf. Plato, Republic, 529c8-530c3).

Nonetheless, “fundamental questions” do have a special status, as they “do not simply occur like stones and water.” The reference could be to Moses striking the rock and bringing water forth; necessity means that the miraculous is lowered, that it is a simple occurrence despite its singularity, and that it is a question that can always be asked that truly has weight. Further, the image of a river that might be crossed is another possibility. The idea here would not be to cross that river, ignoring what it represents, but to contemplate. So one does something remarkable in life when addressing these “fundamental questions,” as there is a dignity especial to the asking.

The list of “shoes, clothes, books” brings the idea of covering into the passage. Our motion involves a covering, our identity involves a covering, and even our minds are covered in a sense: in each case, it is as if everyday life depends on not asking the deepest questions that could be asked. The being of a question is in its asking, and it uncovers. Thus it is beyond the necessitous (virtually equated with the vulgar in early books of Aristotle’s Politics).

Now I think I have established that Heidegger in this passage is dismissive, for very good reasons perhaps, of the everyday and that which needs to be done. “Leading” seems not to be getting things done as much as a making in and of itself, and perhaps he has picked the philosophical as creative over the political which is merely active.

What is most curious is this notion of a leading that has no following, despite the assertion that philosophy used to have a hierarchy because of labor necessary to it. I think all of us understand when Heidegger talks as if philosophy were pure freedom, but his talk of “labor” and “hierarchy” sounds as if it were taken from Bacon’s New Atlantis, where everyone participates in scientific discoveries, helping out according to his ability. But philosophy does not seem to even mimic the political as we understand it – why does Heidegger treat, then, philosophy as if it had a politics unto itself? (Note the “seeing, questioning, saying” trifecta, where the act comes after the thought: usually, considering politics a noble endeavor means taking into account that some acts occur well before any sort of thought, let alone well-developed thought).

Joshua Parens has mentioned that his problem with Heidegger & Arendt is that both think going back to the ancients is possible. Heidegger seems to ignore the dignity Aristotle and Plato give to the political, give to the spirited as opposed to Spirit, and treats the “philosophic” as the only serious sphere of living (whether Heidegger actually endorses philosophy in any substantial sense is a problem). I have been nagging poor Joshua Rocks with the thought that Heidegger was so easily able to embrace Nazism because of an assumption of human inequality: some people are more capable, and can be shaped, and there are therefore those who are undesirable, and need not exist. I think one can see these assertions about Heidegger in this passage somewhat – the latter is something I’m not sure about nowadays. People wore the term “fascist” with pride before the Second World War: as a commenter elsewhere once noted, fascist parties didn’t label themselves “Evil Thug Butcher Parties” and expect votes. Moreover, all serious thought demands a hierarchy.

I think one can see something absolutely essential to education in this passage, something that Heidegger saw in the ancients that he got exactly right. There is a notion that there are higher goods and that we are most in pursuit of them when we are in pursuit, not when we have. Questioning fundamental things seems to transcend Dasein in a sense, as we are reaching for a perspective to which we might not attain, but still have found an authenticity that is not particular to our age necessarily (Dasein considered strictly as “being-the-open,” or “openness,” may complicate this statement). Further, this most prior questioning means that institutions devoted to education should always be suspect. A pre-established order cannot contain, perhaps cannot even make manifest, the life of the mind and its fruits. That observation led Plato and Aristotle to say philosophy was the highest, but to not dismiss the political entirely, as it was something different to a degree. Heideggeer, on the other hand, might be willing to devote far too much to institutions, for the ironic reason that he is utterly dismissive of them in their most fundamental sense.

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