By Kalev Pehme
[This piece, as it is about truth, is written for Tawnya Gunn who won’t read a word of it (smart woman), and to Luke Neely who asked me to write something on Heidegger’s approach to aletheia.]
If it were not bad enough that Martin Heidegger is an incredibly humorless writer, it is another thing that his revolutionary effort to “overcome metaphysics” comes with questionable truth. He presents numerous annoyances. For example, Da-sein (There-being or the more amusing Being-there) is supposed to be the human being. But what a difference! Heidegger doesn’t use the term “human being.” Human, which derives from the Latin homo, a man as an individual, is also the term for the basic genus in the traditional sense of the human being contrasted with the irrational part of creation. To be human means a vast array of activities and thinking, as well as institutions, conventions, physicality, literature, differing pasts, and so on and so on. Da-sein, however, is nothing about these things. It is instead standing apart beyond oneself to understand one’s own being. That being is there, in the world, something so abstract that it is not burdened with anything material that could mar the argument.
When I say Heidegger is humorless, I also mean that his notion that Da-sein has moods is limited to very dark and depressing and anxious moods, because, after all, the foundation of Da-sein is a great abyss. There is no laughter, and hence no pleasure in knowledge in his work, in his existential moods. In great part, the angst arises out of the realization that man is in the condition of “falleneness” and man has been existing already from primordial times to be in “thrownness,” although I like to think of it that as Heideggerian Being has excreted Da-sein.
About this bad mood, Leo Strauss writes: “Existentialism appeals to a certain experience, anguish or angst, as the basic experience in the light of which everything must be understood. Having this experience is one thing; regarding it as the basic experience is another thing. That is, its basic character is not guaranteed by the experience itself. It is only guaranteed by argument.” I assume that Strauss intimates that if the experience itself were enough, there is no real need to write the argument of Being and Time.
Let’s retreat for a moment: It is often said that Heidegger is a radical departure from the past. Rarely, however, do I find anyone who explains what that departure is. Perhaps the best way to see this problem is in the following way: Throughout the centuries, individual existence was always a mode of Being, writ large. Being is the principle of manifestation by which anything that can be manifested, even if it hasn’t yet been manifested, is manifested. All things and beings that exist, i.e., as individual things and beings, are only a slice of Being, so to speak. The Indo-Aryans of the East, for example, make a difference between man’s ego, i.e., his individual self, and the “self,” the principle of Being that is Being itself. The self is something is beyond the individual, but the two are inseparable. Most traditional metaphysics in various forms make existing things simply differing modes and possibilities of Being, but they are all united by one Being.
Heidegger, however, finds that Da-sein, the human being, was excreted out (actually thrown out) of Being in primordial times. The existence of Da-sein there is what is critical. The question to ask is not the ancient question, what is being?, but the question is what is the meaning of existence? What is the being of Being? The investigation is done through an investigation not of what Being is, but what the existing thing is, or what is called an “existential analysis.” That is Heidegger’s radical departure, as he eventually finds that the meaning of “care” (the being that understands; the Da-sein that has moods, most depressive; and the being that is caught up in the world) is temporality. Eternity need not apply.
Strauss puts it this way: “Yet while according to Plato and Aristotle to be in the highest sense means to be always, Heidegger contends that to be in the highest sense means to exist, that is to day, to be in the manner in which man is: to be in the highest sense is constituted by mortality. Philosophy then becomes analytics of Existenz.”
In any event, this piece is not meant to be an explanation of Heidegger, which would be done far better by others. My interest here is the past and Heidegger’s rather strange defining of Da-sein as “repetition” of its possibilities and to authentic being. The separation of Da-sein from Being is characterized as ecstasy or a form of the ecstatic. Here, ecstasy has nothing to do with a rather elated condition beyond normal life. The ecstatic role is done historically, although for some reason is determined by the future. When I speak of the future, I do not mean the simply future, but the Future writ large. In French, it would be the difference between the simple future, futur, and the indeterminate and larger future, l’avenir, in the way Jacques Derrida puts it. In any event, history is the repetition of the past driven by the life resolutely facing “being-unto-death.” That must be done resolutely, with fixed gaze, head-on, a bit of philosophical machismo in the Hollywood manner found in old spaghetti Westerns—Heidegger as a protagonist in the Good, Bad, and the Ugly.
In the end, there is an archeology of the past that tells us about this temporality. Heidegger writes (Stambaugh translation, 73 in academic pagination): “But heedful association does not come up against unusable things within what is already at hand. It also finds things which are missing, which are not only ‘handy.,’ but not ‘at hand’ at all. When we come upon something unhandy, our missing it in this way against discovers what is at hand in a certain kind of mere objective presence.” The past has “equipment” by which we discover the heritage of the past. The problem is obvious: How do we know when we encounter an archaic jar from an inundated village that it has anything to do with the history of Being? Moreover, how is it that Da-sein has anything to do with that jar being the jar it is?
I bring this problem up because of Heidegger’s rather strange translation of the Greek aletheia, generally translated as truth, unconcealment or disclosedness. In his anal-y-sis, Heidegger notes: “From time immemorial, philosophy has associated truth with being.” The footnote says: “Physis is intrinsically aletheia, since kryptesthai philei.” (Nature likes to hide.) “The first discovery, Heidegger says, “of the being of beings by Parmenides ‘identifies’ being with the perceptive understanding of : to gar auto neoein estin te kai einai.” The quote from Parmenides that thinking is the same as being is then supported by going to Aristotle. (We have come to believe that truth is objective, one, communicable, conforms to logical principles, and in some way conforms to what is real or simply what is.)
That is good and bad. The problem we have is that we don’t have a full text from Parmenides and his chariot ride with Aletheia by his side, but we do have enough supporting material from Plato and Aristotle and others to accept this view. However, this assumption is okay, if there were no other interpretation or understanding of truth before Parmenides. The basic reality is that Heidegger ignores the record of the past and as such also ignores the actual etymology of aletheia, which is not at all what he makes of it. Before Parmenides in archaic Greece, a period which allegedly is very important to Heidegger, an entirely different approach to the truth was born. Why it is critical to question Heidegger on this point is obvious: Heidegger makes the claim, in effect, that the understanding and actual meaning of alethes or aletheia is an essential part of the history of Being. If the past is not the same as the past of the history of Being, then we have to question whether Heidegger is right about anything.
What we find in Heidegger is that the notion that truth is disclosedness or unconcealment removes a vast array of context for truth, including its social meanings. Just as Da-sein is a vast abstraction from what a human being is, so is Heidegger’s approach to truth a way of divorcing truth from some of its important ancillary meanings and friends.
Let’s look at this in another way: In my Sanskrit class, we encountered the famous ancient word rta (there is a little dot under the r-character which my font doesn’t provide and it is pronounced something like erta). This word is normally translated as truth or order. It also means, according to my Monier-Williams dictionary, proper, fit, apt, suitable, brave, honest. But there is more: It also means fixed or settled, law, rule (especially “religious” rule), sacred or pious, action or custom, divine law, faith, divine truth. Yet, again, there are more meanings to this word: truth in general, righteousness, right; also, it refers to the life of a Brahman (the highest priestly caste) as opposed to the farmer whose life is amrta. The word also means wealth, a particular sacrifice and the gleaming sun. It is a liturgical prayer and a few other things as well. It is also the personified truth that can be worshipped with sacrifice and prayer. The point here is that the word truth is inseparable from a religious cyclical way of life that the Indo-Aryans lived a long time ago. Thus, truth, rta, is not just some kind of logical function or just an abstraction comparison to what is reality. (As Heidegger once called for a dialogue between West and East, I thought it would be amusing to bring in the East, something, which I believe, Heidegger knew nothing about.)
Strauss, by the way, puts it in another way: “The meeting of East and West depends on an understanding of Being. More precisely it depends upon an understanding of that by virtue of which beings are: esse, être, to be, as distinguished from entia, étants, beings. The ground of all being, especially of man, is said to be ‘Sein.’ ‘Sein’ would be translated in the case of very writer than Heidegger by ‘being.’ But for Heidegger everything depends on the radical difference between ‘being’ understood as verbal-noun ‘being’ understood as participle…Earlier philosophy, and especially Greek philosophy, was oblivious of ‘Sein’ precisely because it was not based on that experience [that of the Heideggerian being thrown’ somewhere, finiteness, etc. ] Greek philosophy was guided by an idea of ‘Sein’ according to which ‘Sein’ meant to be hand, to be present, and therefore (‘Sein’ in the highest sense) to be always present, to be always.”
Recently, I reread the pre-Socratic philosopher Herodotus, one of my favorite writers. What struck me this reading was the intensity of the “religious” life of ancient Greeks and the barbarians. Moreover, there is an incredible amount of searching for the truth among all these people. Frequently, that truth is sought at an oracle, especially the one at Delphi. The piety of these people is remarkable, especially among the Spartans. We get the sense sometimes that a Spartan won’t take a dump without going to Delphi for instructions. Truth and “religious” life, like in the Sanskrit above, are inseparable. However, I must point out something exceptionally important. Religious life is a false characterization, because before Herodotus there was no distinction between phusis and nomos (nature and convention, law, custom, habit, etc.). Although this distinction is crucial to the understanding of human life, there was a time when this distinction was not socially recognized. Because this intellectual distinction was not socially inculcated, there was no so such thing as religion as we understand it today. There is no distinction in archaic times between king and priest. Agriculture, urban life, going to the temple, making sacrifices, marketing goods in the agora, taking up arms, painting a vast with pictures of Athena, politics(!) i.e., all aspects of human life, are one and indistinguishable from each other in the terms of what is sacred and profane. There is a profane, but it is understood solely in terms of the sacred. One doesn’t walk on the sacred grove of the goddess, but that is not a religious problem.
The word aletheia, too, has synonyms and associations and that is what makes Heidegger’s entire approach to aletheia dubious. We know that because there is a sizeable pre-Parmenidean literature that includes Homer, Hesiod, and so on (the archeology or equipment that Heidegger ignores). Moreover, we can go beyond that. As far as we know, the first man to examine the nature of truth in a philosophical manner was Epimenides of Crete who is most famous for the paradox that is associated with his name. [The paradox is very simple: The Cretan says, “All Cretans are liars.” This paradox made its way in Christianity and it is much argued. (My take is also very simple: Nothing that is self-revealing is a lie. Perhaps the paradox is not all that paradoxical.)]
Epimenides is a partially a myth, partially a man. Our principal knowledge of this man comes from Diogenes Laertius who writes that this man had an extraordinarily long life, 157 years, and, of course, he is famous for purporting entering a cave and sleeping in it for 57 years. In his sleep, he spoke with Aletheia and Dike, right or justice. This goddess of truth is opposed by lethe, oblivion, forgetfulness, who is frequently accompanied by blame, silence, darkness, and obscurity. Aletheia is accompanied by praise, logos, light, and memory. Epimenides apparently walked on the Meadow of Truth and also by the path of the Fountain of Lethe and the icy waters of memory. Well before Parmenides’s ride on his chariot with aletheia, Epimenides spoke with Truth, that strange truth that is inseparable from the old, old religion of the archaic world. He also was a mantis, a healer. He purified Athens, according to Plutrach. He wrote poems of thousands of lines, all lost, alas, except in some fragments. However, it is clear that the notion of truth is not simply an equation of what is true with Being in the very far past. There is a very great incongruity between Heidegger’s history of Being and the actual past.
Let’s retreat a moment: Heidegger is attempting to put aletheia into a mental category that has nothing to do with social and material life, especially politics (scratch any Heideggerian and you find him hating the word politics unless he happens to be a French Marxist at the same time). The appeal to Parmenides is a bit odd in this view, because Parmenides’s poem is essentially a myth where a chariot is drawn by the daughters of the Sun and so on. (Strauss notes: “Parmenides transmits the teaching of a goddess…”) Parmenides is not giving us a modern logical proof and there is no question that all of the so-called “religious” elements in the poem are essential to an understanding of what is truth, although, as I noted before, we don’t have the whole poem so that we really cannot know definitely what is going on. For Heidegger, a lack of information is no problem. Consider the absurdity of his anal-y-sis of the Anaximander fragment.
Hesiod evokes the Muses in his work, but the Muses besides being inspiration are also associated deeply with memory. Memory and the Muses make for what is true and make aletheia what it is. After all, the Muses are the daughters of memory, Mnemosyne. In a word without computers and without much in the way of available paper or even ink, memory tends to be a rather important place to store data, one might say. Lethe, forgetfulness, is a terrible thing in such a world. Alethe, not forgetting, is rather an important part of such a world. Not forgetting is especially important in the memorializing men and gods and their deeds. In Hesiod, the Muses have the privilege of speaking the truth. They can tell us what is, what will be, and what was the past. Heidegger doesn’t evoke the Muses, but attempts to give up the history of Being with no regard to memory.
In the past where the aletheia comes to the fore, to repeat, lethe is associated with silence, blame, darkness, oblivion. Alethes is associated with praise, with logos, light, and memory. It is rather obvious that a small survey of the past’s literature in Greece that aletheia has nothing to do with unconcealment or disclosedness. Heidegger’s etymology is arbitrary. When we look, into Homer and others of that period, we don’t find any place that substantiates Heidegger’s etymology.
But there is an important point I want to make here. Epimenides is perhaps the first man to associate aletheia and dike together as an essential pair. Truth and right (or justice) are inseparable from each other, even today. We go through extensive rules and efforts to ascertain the truth to convict a man of a crime, for example. That combination of truth and justice is something so integral to human life that we could not live very well in anyway without it, both on the most personal levels as well as on the most important political levels. How does unconcealment or disclosedness combine with justice in Heidegger? The truth is that they do not.
That reality is critical when we think of what Heidegger did. Most of the evidence that has been accumulated throughout the years is that Heidegger lied to the denazification committee about his membership in the Nazi Party and his activities as Rector at Freiburg. He claimed that he was trying to undermine the Nazi cause from the inside. Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that he did that, while there is a great deal of evidence that he was trying to become the philosopher of the Nazi Reich. There is enough evidence now as well that his philosophical views were completely in keeping with Nazism.
Moreover, given the opportunity to renounce his past actions and his pro-Nazi stand in an interview with the German magazine, Der Spiegel, well after the war, Heidegger said nothing of the mass murder of the Jews (and never did anywhere else) and never even submitted an effort to give some kind philosophical explanation of his support of the Nazis. Heidegger never ran away from the Nazis either. In fact, even in the Spiegel interview, Heidegger attempted to find ways to distance himself from anything bad the Nazis did, while at the same time never saying anything that might implicate him to be a part of something rather evil. In fact, he claims not to have been involved in politics at all, being busy doing other things. (Heidegger was basically a coward to disclose what he did.)
Instead, Heidegger attempts to divert the problem into a rather unsophisticated attack on technology and the replacement of what he calls philosophy with “cybernetics.” Although he doesn’t define the term, cybernetics evidently means something like the science of control. However, again, Heidegger never deals with the problem of his Nazism head-on and without evasion. In other words, he has no unconcealment or disclosedness about it. His evasiveness falls into the archaic Greek view of lethe, i.e., of obscurity and deception. Heidegger allegedly faced one of the elemental problems of philosophy, whether there is a foundation for ethics. Heidegger did: He said there is none. A man who believes that can find it easy to lie. So can a man who divorced truth or unconcealment or disclosedness from politics.
Straus notes in his analysis of Heidegger: “There is a needed meeting of the West and the East. The West has to make its own contribution to the overcoming of technology. The West has first to recover within itself that which would make possible a meeting of West and East: its own deepest roots, which antedate its rationalism, which in a way antedate the separation of West and East.” There was no genuine separation of West and East at the time of Epimenides, Hesiod, Homer, or even Parmenides, but the notion of truth was never unconcealment or disclosedness.
Heidegger’s lethe came in the form of a remarkable and rather dubious characterization of what he regarded as the core of Nazism (which he didn’t see as hatred of Jews). The “inner truth and greatness” of the Nazi movement, Heidegger noted in his work Introduction to Metaphysics, was, in a later parenthesis, “namely, with the encounter of between technicity on the planetary level and modern man.” The parenthetical was added to the 1953 edition of this 1935 work. What apparently Heidegger is means is that the way Being has manifested itself in this word is through technology but not just as we believe to be technology. Heidegger apparently means that Being manifests itself as objects that can be used and “employed” and controlled on a worldwide basis. Nazism somehow distinguished itself against this technicity. Moreover, Heidegger claimed that the US and the Soviet Union (as a representative of communism) were in fact the very representatives of this horrible technicity (hmmm, by co-incidence, the two great enemies of the Third Reich). Strauss also notes: “A world society controlled either by Washington of Moscow appeared to be approaching. For Heidegger it did not make any difference whether Washington or Moscow would be the center. American and Soviet Russia are metaphysically the same. What is decisive for him is that this world society is to him worse than a nightmare. He called it the ‘night of the world.'” It should also be noted that Heidegger is probably the most patriotic of all German philosophers and finds that rootedness to the Bavarian soils to be something sublime. He is also famous for the expression that language is the house of Being, provided, of course, that language is German.
While it may be the case that on a metaphysical level there is no difference between Washington and Moscow in those days, there is something obvious that Heidegger would not recognize: That there was a difference between Washington and Moscow morally and politically. Stalin, who fell in love with Hitler in the 1930s, was a mass murderer who outdid Hitler. With all its faults, the US has never achieved the evil that Berlin or Moscow or, for that matter, Beijing have pushed on the world.
In any event, Heidegger’s effort to defend the Nazis against the technicity of the Americans and the communists, resolves itself into what Heidegger regarded as the essence of technicity: a rather interesting German word, Ge-stell, a word he makes the very center of his argument in the Spiegel interview. While I don’t know German, I do know many German words, and this word I first encountered in Karl Marx, apparently a father of technicity. Marx, the greediest of the modern philosophers other than capitalist apologists who are not philosophers, associates Ge-stell with great warehouses stuffed with commodities that come from the infinite abundance of production. It is a world where everything is available and, more importantly, can be exchanged (the very ideal of capitalism itself, but, of course, capitalism is the esoteric side of communism just as communism is the esoteric side of capitalism).
For Heidegger, that Being has manifested itself in the world as objects to be used really means that everything in our world, from the iPhone to the Japanese condom is metaphysics, not only metaphysics but a fact that is very useful. It is useful for Ge-stell. The world ordinarily means a scaffolding or a bookshelf. Heidegger plays with the word stellen (to put) from the vorstellen (to represent) of classical metaphysics to the bestellen (commercial order) of the business world. Ge-stell means the appearance of everything that is, including, and perhaps especially, man as what is available, material (very handy) to be used, and exploited. Everything, including, and perhaps especially, man is raw material to be “employed.” The world is to be employed by employees and, of course, who is the number one employee? What? Hitler? Obviously, it can’t anyone in Washington or Moscow.
So that is where we are in the history of Being. Its truth is the unconcealment or disclosedness of what we can put on the shelf and use for whatever purpose we want without any regard to ethics, morality, or politics. It is the night of the world to believe that, and it is a vision of nihilism that only a man who is a perpetual Nazi could believe. It is the darkness of lethe, not the light of alethe. The basic problem is that Heidegger never unconceals or discloses what he is about, most likely because he never examined himself as he did Da-sein and, as such, never lives up to what the truth is.