One could well imagine instances in which such sights would serve to confirm something thought; for example, that the sight of the pyramids might have served to confirm what Kant had thought about the estimation of magnitudes in judgments of the sublime. But in the case of Heidegger’s travel to Greece, even the sense of confirmation undergoes a certain deformation inasmuch as what would be confirmed is a thinking of withdrawal from the very presence that constitutes a confirmatory sight. One might, then, be inclined to suppose that there is lacking a proper name for that which, in this instance, would connect philosophy and travel.
– John Sallis, “A Philosophical Travelbook” in Heidegger’s “Sojourns,” vii-viii
I’m not entirely sure what Sallis means. If I tried to simplify Heidegger, I might say a futural orientation necessitates calling the past into the present. That could mean when we look at an antiquity, such as the Parthenon, we are participating in a “thinking of withdrawal.” Maybe we are trying to focus on the past exclusively and therefore cannot receive proper confirmation. It is not clear what the past as presence means outside of such an orientation.
When I first read this passage, I wondered if the problem was more intuitive. There have been many times I looked at a building or painting, knowing quite a lot about it, and I spent less time feeling in the “presence” of the object and more time trying to recall facts or figures. A similar experience might happen in museums when one is spending more time reading about something than just taking that something in. One needs to bring forth methods and reasons to apprehend the past, but in doing so one can miss the obvious.
Then again, the question of Greece is not only aesthetic (if my intuition is only an aesthetic problem). Heidegger wonders in “Sojourns” whether the visit is worth it at all, for the Greece he spent a lifetime studying hasn’t existed for years and in a sense never existed. Greece isn’t just about philosophy in the academy as we know it. It is about whether an alternative exists to our way of life that could make the future better. Heidegger talks about Ancient Greece as beyond our industrial, commercial, brutally technological ways. I don’t want to idealize anything, but to be able to see further – not merely correctly – is what the philosopher does.