Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Heidegger Circle, Second Post: Still Troubling the Ontological Difference

Before I get down to business I would like to take a moment to thank Andrew Mitchell and Emory University for an exceptionally well organized and smoothly run conference, to say nothing of a very enjoyable and important meeting. In some posts to follow this one I intend to discuss what I saw as some of the most (historically?) important work presented at this year's meeting. Particularly a new archival discovery concerning Heidegger's claims about the "inner truth of National Socialism" offered by Julia Ireland and the panel discussion of/with Thomas Sheehan concerning his proposed paradigm shift in Heidegger interpretation.

Christopher Ruth "Dwelling and the Ontological Difference"

The other paper which troubles the Ontological Difference is one that was presented by another Villanova graduate student, Christopher Ruth. I found his paper very helpful in thinking through the work of the late Heidegger, particularly in connection with some of my own work on "The Origin of the Work of Art". For the sake of space, however, I shall limit my discussion and wont really engage with the primary framework of the paper, the themes of being at home and not at home as discussed in Richard Capobianco's Engaging Heidegger. Instead I shall limit myself to discussing Ruth's engagement with the Ontological Difference and the changing status of the "thing" in Heidegger's work. This will offer, then, a rather partial engagement but it will allow me to focus on those parts of Ruth's paper I found, because of my own work, most provocative and useful. Ruth, who is a sometimes reader of this blog, should feel absolutely free to add to, correct, criticize or amend anything I say here within the comments section.

Ruth's piece spans the period from Being and Time, through the 1930's Introduction to Metaphysics, to the late Heidegger's engagement with the fourfold. In the course of this he traces changes in how Heidegger conceives of Being which correspond to changes in the status of the Ontological Difference and the nature of the "thing". In the 1930s Heidegger attempts to think Being in terms of historical instituting events which allow for beings in the world to show up the way they do. The Ontological Difference, at this point, is thought in Introduction to Metaphysics as a polemos or strife between the institution power of Being (the "overwhelming sway" for example) and the entities so instituted within the world opened up by Being. I would suggest we can easily see connections here with the status of the great work of art as a world instituting event in "The Origin of the Work of Art" (note that Ruth doesn't discuss "The Origin of the Work of Art" in his paper, so any suggestions about it throughout this post are my own additions). Ruth also points out, however, that already in the Introduction to Metaphysics we begin to get intimations of Being understood not as an instituting event but rather as something that undermines and destabilizes all instituting. Again we see this point very clearly in the event of great art in "The Origin of the Work of Art", through which not only a world is set up but also the limits and questionability of that world is assured through the work setting forth the earth as well. I am struck by the point that, if we agree with Ruth's reading, what was a strife between instituting power and instituted beings becomes in the slightly later work on art a strife within the instituting event itself.

A key change that occurs in the transition to the late Heidegger, as described by Ruth, is a shift from seeing the Ontological Difference as a characteristic of the relationship between instituting Being and instituted beings to seeing it as what is instituted by the event of Being. In other words, Being becomes conceived, for example as Ereignis, as beyond the Ontological Difference and as granting that difference. However, as beyond the Ontological Difference and as an ungrounded event, Ereignis is concealed if we think of it primarily in terms of the Ontological Difference. To think Ereignis, Ruth points out, we must think the Ontological Difference as the withdrawal of Being and, as such, as a characteristic of the various epochs of the History of Being. The Ontological Difference is seen by the late Heidegger as a guise, as Ruth puts it, of Being and not as either a fundamental characteristic of its relationship to beings or as an internal characteristic of Ereignis itself. The Ontological Difference is, then, metaphysical. This also means, however, that in moving out of the metaphysical epoch of Being we would also move out of the context in which speaking of the Ontological Difference is helpful or necessary. If Ruth had stopped his argument at this point it would have been careful, enlightening and impressive. It would also have left a maddening enigma at the end. What does it mean to think without reference to the Ontological Difference, the difference between Being and beings? Ruth's paper did not end here, however, but included a very impressive suggestion drawn from the late Heidegger's work that illuminates what this would mean.

Ruth's work at this point hinges upon two quotations. The first, from What is Called Thinking, is Heidegger's claim that "to this day, thought has never let the tree stand where it stands." The second, from "On Time and Being", is Heidegger's statement that "...from Ereignis it becomes necessary to free thinking from the ontological difference. From Ereignis, this relation shows itself as the relation of world and thing, a relation which could in a way be understood as the relation of being and beings. But then its peculiar quality would be lost." To think without the ontological difference is interpreted by Ruth as being able to "let the tree stand where it stands" and this can only occur when we find a way to think the relation of world and thing in a way not dependent upon the Ontological Difference. The answer, then, is to look at Heidegger's work on the fourfold and recognize the thing as the meeting of earth, sky, gods and mortals. In this sense, as Heidegger puts it in "Building, Dwelling, Thinking", "...dwelling itself is always a staying with things." When we think beyond the Ontological Difference we do not, then, think Being and beings, rather beings entirely fall out and instead we finally come to think of things. What occurs when we do so, however, is that we find that the thing, as the center of the fourfold, plays the same role the event of art did in "The Origin of the Work of Art". Specifically "The thing things world." The thing, then, becomes the worlding of the world and dwelling with things involves an openness to their constant opening up of a world. Thus, then, a careful attention to the world opened up by the thing is what it would be to let the "tree stand where it stands" as an engagement with things beyond the Ontological Difference. This is also what Ruth suggests is a post-destinal notion of world, thing and Being. In other words it occurs after the History of Being. The worlding of the world through the thinging of the thing, however, has more the character of the destabilizing than the instituting event of Being. In thinking close to things we think against any stabilized instituted complex of relations.

It has always struck me that one of the major moves Heidegger makes from the time of Being and Time to that of "The Origin of the Work of Art" involves an attempt to think of beings in a manner beyond that of simply the Vorhanden and Zuhanden. In my previous post concerning the work of Raoni Padui I had suggested this slightly when discussing the enigma of what it would be to think the being of beings not in terms of Dasein but rather in terms of Being. To do so, if we focus on what Heidegger suggests in relation to his metontology immediately following Being and Time, would be to think the being of beings in terms of Being and Time's conception of temporality without, again, grounding this on Dasein. This is a decidedly difficult thing to do, for beings would therefore have to be thought in terms of activities such as retention and projection. Beings would be understood as time-ing in the way the Dasein of Being and Time does. In thinking the work of art as a truth event through the strife of world and earth Heidegger made a major step in formulating how this might be worked out. It seems that one way to think the status of the thing in Heidegger's later work, then, is to see it as an extension of his earlier conception of the work of art and the challenge to think of beings, and not just Dasein, as temporality temporalizing itself. The fourfold can be thought, then, as a fuller working out of the strife of world and earth which is then applied generally to the "thing" rather than just select world-founding events. Following through, then, on Ruth's suggestions has been very helpful for me in bridging my understanding of the middle Heidegger and the issues of the fourfold and thing in his later thought. For this, and the provocative explanation of what it would mean to think beyond the Ontological Difference, I am grateful for Ruth's work.    


  1. WIlliam,

    Thanks for that, that is an excellent summary of my argument. I think the connection with "Origin of the Work of Art" is on the money.

    I will read this again and perhaps comment further,


  2. I wonder if a connection between the fourfold and four-dimensional time (a la On Time and Being) is suggested by your last paragraph, and if you have any ideas about this.

    The context you omitted--dwelling--problematizes the question of what it means to "think beyond the ontological difference," in other words this is not just a theoretical/epistemological problem. But this makes it hard to go much further in elaborating the whole thing. (I'm not saying your focusing in on ont. difference at the expense of dwelling was unjustified, I just wanted to briefly show what's at stake in adding it back in.)

    I do have one correction: I'm an "all the time" reader of your blog.

    Thanks again for the post, it's actually helpful for me to read it since reminds me of some my main points without having to wade back through the paper.

  3. I don't doubt there is something one can do with four-dimensional time and the fourfold (I also think there is work one can do relating the fourfold to a more "authentic" conception of the Aristotelian four causes as Heidegger seems to be working on in the early parts of "The Question Concerning Technology"), but I had nothing so specific in mind. I was really only trying to follow the path marked out by a few basic indications:

    1. The being of Dasein is temporality (in a rather specific sense) in "Being and Time".

    2. One of the main problems following "Being and Time" is to think Dasein in terms of Being and not vice versa. (This gets address through Ereignis.)

    3. One of the other major problems is to think the nature of things beyond the Dasein-focused vorhanden zuhanden distinctions. (This gets addressed in the "Origin of the Work of Art" and then later, as your paper helped me to see, through Heidegger's engagement with the Thing in its relation to the fourfold.)

    4. However, immediately following "Being and Time" Heidegger is still committed to thinking the being of things in terms of temporality.

    So, what would temporality on the model of "Being and Time" be when applied to things and not based on Dasein? The obvious trail to Ereignis seems clear here, but I don't see it helping with the status of the Thing especially in light of your own suggestions concerning the post-destinal. Add to this that time seems surprisingly downplayed (though not absent) in the fourfold and there is a bit of an enigma. I certainly think that the model of the thing as art work found in the "Origin of the Work of Art" can be understood as having its own temporality which then opens up temporality for humanity, but how this carries into the later work on Thing and Fourfold would require more thought on my part and probably a review of the pertinent texts (I myself, at least recently, tend to focus most on the texts between 1919 and about 1946 with a few key exceptions).