Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Heidegger's Bremen Lectures and the Erroneous Path

I recently finished reading Andrew Mitchell's new translation of Heidegger's Bremen and Freiburg lectures of 1949 and 1957 respectively. Let me first say that the Bremen lectures in particular, from which the much better known "The Question Concerning Technology" takes its origin, are a breathtaking text both in terms of poetic beauty and powerful philosophical suggestions. I have no doubt that a portion of the text's surprising force comes from Mitchell's translation which has managed to capture the singing in Heidegger's at times oracular speech. Students of Heidegger's thought are clearly in Mitchell's debt for this much needed translation.

Both sets of lectures provide numerous subjects for discussion and so it is with great difficulty that I shall limit myself, at least for now, to one particularly interesting moment in the Bremen lectures. In both series of lectures one of Heidegger's main topics is a critique of the representational thinking which he suggests characterizes metaphysical thinking stretching all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. A central moment in this critique shows up in his presentation of what he describes as an erroneous, but necessary, path of thinking when it comes to understanding the worlding of the world.

Near the beginning of the third Bremen lecture, entitled "The Danger", Heidegger points out that we are inept both at thinking the worlding of the world on its own terms and at corresponding to this event. In a marginal note he enigmatically includes the term "Ereignis", presumably referring to what it would mean to correspond to the worlding of the world on its own terms. Because of this ineptitude we need assistance in understanding the event of world disclosure and so we turn to an unavoidable knowingly erroneous path of thought but, "because we go along it knowingly we can turn back at any time" (p. 46). 

The erroneous path arises from our need to think the worlding of the world in terms of something else:

"This something else, starting from which we now representatively think the worlding of the world, again cannot be entirely foreign to the essence of world. Quite to the contrary, it occurs to us that we take this something else, from which we understand the worlding of the world, to be the essence of world..." (p. 46).

The something else we take to be the essence of world is the being of beings or the presence of what presences. As in Being and Time, Heidegger overtly asserts once more that the being of beings is something we are very familiar with even if not explicitly. As such it helps us to think what he takes to be the more difficult subject of the event nature of world. Being, then, would be that from which world takes its own being and as such it would be the essence of world. We might say for example that more than anything else, the world is.

But this is very expressly the erroneous representational path, though it remains for us to say something of what we mean by representational thinking, why the path is erroneous, and what its dangers are. At this point, however, it would be useful to recall what seems an equally representational path that Heidegger sets out on in Being and Time in order to make clear the extent to which this one page discussion of an erroneous path in the Bremen lectures continues Heidegger's engagement with the limitations of Being and Time. In Being and Time we are offered, if we might now speak from the perspective of the Bremen lectures, an erroneous path to being. Because we find thinking being particularly difficult, despite that fact that we always already have a familiarity with being, we attempt to engage with something else that is nonetheless intimately connected with being. That something else would be a prioritized or representative example of being from which the meaning of being could be drawn. As is well known, the representative example ends up being Dasein.

There is, of course, a deeper twist to the issue in Being and Time. Dasein is not arbitrarily taken to be representative but rather its priority is thrust upon us from the very moment we ask the question of the meaning of being. To ask the question we must, as Heidegger points out, already have a familiarity with being and so to even come to understand the question we are asking we must turn to understanding Dasein's inchoate grasp of being and how such a grasp is possible. Any methodological questions, then, will thrust us inevitably into an analytic of Dasein such that the question of the meaning of being seems to demand the analytic. What the analytic makes clear, however, is that the attempt to get Dasein clearly in view in turn makes unavoidable an understanding of world as a meaning disclosing event within which individual Dasein itself is disclosed.

The path in the Bremen lectures is erroneous, Heidegger suggests, because it attempts to think the worlding of the world in terms of something else, the being of beings, and as such runs the risk of basing the worlding of the world on the being of beings. In other words, thinking the world in terms of being leads to the seemingly reasonable question of what the being of the world consists in, indeed we had gestured to this point when suggesting that the world is, of all things, that which has the most being or is most real. As Heidegger puts the point: 

"Thus we now characterize the world in respect to being. So conceived, world is subordinate to being, while in truth the essence of being essences from out of the concealed worlding of world. World is not one way of being and deferential to this." (p. 46)

The question about the being of world is, then, fundamentally distortive. We see this clearly when Heidegger asserts that worlding is the truth of the essence of being. What is interesting at this point is Heidegger's stress on a two-fold danger. The erroneous path leads us to think either that world is grounded in being or that world and being are the same. Both of these conceptions are to be rejected, a rather striking point as the second is a fairly easy interpretation to arrive at from Being and Time. Heidegger repeats in the Bremen lectures that worlding can not be grounded in, or understood appropriately in terms of, anything but itself. To ground it in being or understand it in terms of being is, then, to distort it. Rather, it is only by means of worlding that being can become an issue for thought at all. We might see this more clearly by replacing the term "being of beings" with "presence", as Heidegger does at this same point in the lectures. Grounding worlding in terms of presence would show up by asking what causes a world to presence or what its presence is like. The worlding of the world, however, is abyssal in contrast to each of these questions. In other words, worlding is never present and can not be thought in terms of the concepts of cause, reason or ground which it alone makes meaningful. 

Representational thinking, then, consists minimally in engaging with one issue in terms of another with the second issue generally being more familiar or available to everyday consciousness, subjectivity, or ways of life. (There are interesting connections to the issue of language here and the tendency to conceive of it as representational that come up in the Freiberg lectures, but I lack the space to engage with it right now.) Along with this general characteristic of representational thinking goes the danger of grounding the issue at hand upon the more familiar issue or equating the two. Let us return Being and Time and see how this plays out in terms of Dasein, being, and world in common interpretations of the text. The priority of Dasein as a representative example leads to the temptation, one I feel is generally resisted in the text but hard to resist in interpreting the text, to understand being, equated with temporality, and world, equated with a totality of practices, as grounded in Dasein such that there is only meaning or being because Dasein exists as temporality temporalizing itself. In this sense Dasein is thought of as the essence of being in the same way that the Heidegger of the Bremen lectures fears the erroneous path will lead us to think that being is the essence of worlding. We slip unwittingly from the original assertion that being is not an entity to the commonsense view that it is, nonetheless, the doing of the entity Dasein. This is a characteristic of many transcendental readings of Being and Time. It is because meaning, world, or being come from Dasein that we can be justified in taking the analytic of Dasein to provide universal knowledge about what it is for anything to be. Similarly, it is because Dasein has stable and grounded structures (i.e. is taken as an objectified entity) that the project of Being and Time can provide something like apodictic knowledge of transcendental truths. It is clear at the end of Being and Time that Heidegger is aware of, and concerned with, this temptation and I think it is also the case, despite Heidegger's seeming own misgivings on the issue, that Being and Time need not be read in this way.

When we keep the earlier path of Being and Time in mind, what is striking about the Bremen lectures is the way in which they willfully resist the logic of the earlier work. Being and Time insisted that we could not start with any random thing in order to arrive at being but must rather begin with human being, the Bremen lectures on the other hand begin precisely with an attempt to think the thing which eventually leads to the problematic of the worlding of the world.

What becomes clear in the course of page 46 of Mitchell's translation is that the dangers of the erroneous path are, at the same time, the justification for Heidegger's differentiation of being from beying. We can see this in the incredibly suggestive conclusion of the discussion of the erroneous path:

"Being has to own its essence from the worlding of world. This points out that the worlding of world is an appropriating in a still-unexperienced sense of this word. When world first properly takes place, then being, and along with it the nothing, vanish into worlding. Only when the nothing, in its essence from the truth of being, vanishes into this is nihilism overcome." (p. 46-47).

Repeatedly in the text Heidegger notes the word "Ereignis" in the margin next to references to the worlding of the world or appropriately coming into relation with the worlding of the world. When we stress this we begin to see that the question of the distinction between worlding and being, or between the truth of the essence of being and being, is the question of the distinction between Ereignis and being. Worlding, then, is the event which guards, shelters or makes possible the specific meanings of being we find within history. To follow the erroneous path, however, is to ground the event that gives meaning on some specific constellation of historical meanings. It seems as well that were worlding to be disclosed and were one to properly relate to worlding both the dominance of historically reified meanings of being and nihilism would be overcome. It seems that this same distinction, between an abyssal event and what that event grants, is one possible meaning of Heidegger's distinction between beyng and being and one sense in which being is eclipsed by beyng or Ereignis.   

(As a concluding side note, I must confess that despite the observations offered above I have been unable to find a consistent use of the words being and beyng in the text of the lectures themselves. Both being and beyng show up in the text, but at this point they appear to me at times distinguished and at times interchangeable. My observations would be on far firmer ground were they limited to connecting worlding and Ereignis rather than taking the further step of relating Ereignis and beyng. I may post on this in the future, and am open to any thoughts others who have engaged with the text might have.)     


1 comment:

  1. William: my opinion is that "beyng" is Ereignis as being or the giving of being, whereas beyond the closure of metaphysics Ereignis no longer equals beyng, i.e. no longer occurs as the giving of being as horizon. This is a suggestion that I have not really fully textually confirmed, at least not yet.