The Heidegger Question
PTOLEMY XI ALEXANDER II
These sorts of things I love to handle. For one thing, considering the whole context from the beginning, they bring revelations to me. I usually pay little attention to the first sentence of a work because I expect it to be mere introduction to what follows in much greater detail. But in "Letter on Humanism" the first sentence is a blockbuster: "We are still far from pondering the essence of action decisively enough." My first reaction is, This is a response . . . but to what? Hell, if I know. Maybe if my head were clearer, (now, you know we Macedonians drink what you all call so piteously wine which would either knock you on your ass or simply kill you and makes your whisky less than horse piss) or Serapis sent Hermes down to be with a divine message . . .for, after all, I too, am Pharaoh, a god, so why shouldn't he? Maybe He's mad at me because I just murdered my new wife, who happens to be my step-mother, after nineteen days of marriage. Maybe I was hasty. But Heidegger goes on, i.e., saying action causes effect, effect is valued by its utility. (Strange words from Heidegger which serve as warning signs) "But the essence of action is accomplishment. To accomplish means to unfold something into the fullness of its essence, to lead it forth into its fullness -- producere. THEREFORE ONLY WHAT ALREADY IS CAN REALLY BE ACCOMPLISHED. (Richard to Jud, "I think Gary has really gone all the way around the bend. Should we notify somebody?) But wait a minute before you put me in a straight-jacket.
Heidegger has just precisely said what I have being saying all along about the nature of the present 'tense'. For one thing 'tense' is a VERY poor word to describe the present. This is not a grammar lesson in English class. THE PRESENT IS THE WHOLENESS, THE ONE, THE ALL-INCLUSIVE ACTUALITY OF WHAT WE CALL REALITY INCLUDING PAST AND FUTURE AS THE FANTASIES THAT JUSTIFY OUR LIVES WHERE "ONLY WHAT ALREADY IS CAN REALLY BE ACCOMPLISHED." God resides only in the future and is completely harmless there. Immortality is the future and lives as a dream only there. God created the heavens and the earth in the, if you think about it in terms of actual experience, immeasurable past and therefore awes us with something that, again quite literally, we KNOW nothing about, I mean ABSOLUTELY nothing about. Pericles made his stirring, noble speech over the Athenian plague dead that Thucydides, of course, 'accurately wrote down ("Beware Greeks bearing gifts" though). But the fact almost no one wants to face is that NONE of these things ever exist present-at-hand. Our minds are stuffed to overflowing with these things we have "faith" in to such an extent that even the most skeptical atheist, if pushed to the edge, would have to say we have to 'believe' in something (actually, in lots of somethings), so that everything fits into meaningful context, a plan by which these fantasies are and therefore real, a fate and destiny that, though not understood, we know is guided, aimed, directed because it is a plan that we no longer dare say WE imagined. The reason for this is simple. We know we do not control things. But to know that NOTHING WHATSOEVER is controlling them is debilitating. "Therefore only what is already is can really be accomplished" amplifies the saying, "A bird in the hand is better than a golden palace sitting in the clouds." You might even say this is a variation of Hegel's "What is, is rational." Yes, it is an obvious statement, it is trivial, but has that not exactly what I have been saying about the "present" AS IT ACTUALLY IS HERE AND NOW? That it is trivial, and that NO human being can abide that for long. The present cannot have any value or meaning as it stands by itself despite the fact it gives the ground to all our fantasies of meaning, hope, purpose, sorrow, regret, anger, etc., etc.
(Richard: But what the hell does this have to do with what I requested?) The next sentence is, "But what 'is' above all is Being." Now this makes me think twice since you put me in a bind. I usually consider such statements buzz words and go to something more substantial. Yet, being consistent with what I just said, this meaningless, dead, de trop, superfluous reality of the present is "what 'is' ", and is ALSO "above all," that word so very many people want to make into "God", that is, "Being", I then become Satan, Beelzebub, and Mephistophiles in one quick breath. For I think Heidegger has made it excruciatingly plain that "Being" is nothing much, nothing much at all. In fact it is Nothing at all, and he has said this numerous times from the beginning to the end of his philosophical life. Now, what immediately happens in our minds is THE COMPULSION TO NECESSARILY CREATE AN OPPOSITE! Because how can there be a nothing, in, of, and all by itself? HOW CAN IT BE COMPREHENDED WITHOUT COMPARISON? There has to be then, common sense says, a SOMETHING! "Go ye, and gather all of your gold, and pour it into the smelting pot, and we shall make ourselves a Golden Calf, a God we can see!" But Heidegger NEVER considers this opposition of the visible and the invisible. Why? "Only what already is can be accomplished." And so guess what the next sentence is? "Thinking accomplishes the relation of Being to the essence of man." Abstruse? No. Terrifying? Yes. But terrifying more like a dream every night of unending, Sisyphusian drudgery. This is the present-at-hand. Any past relating to it is ridiculous fantasy so far. And I tell my cowardly self the same applies to the future. But this is where one is irrevocably trapped like a wild and frightened animal in this present, right this moment, this moment that can have no relief, no distraction, and no escape. This is the meaning of "originary time", this is fundamental ontology.
If there are any Heideggerians out there (Gary?), perhaps they can decipher the following abstruse passage from the great mans LETTER ON HUMANISM:
PTOLEMY V EPIPHANES:
I know you meant no disrespect, but please do not imply I am a Heideggerian.
Thinking accomplishes the relation of Being to the essence of man. It does not make or cause the relation. Thinking brings this relation to Being solely as something handed over to it from Being. Such offering consists in the fact that in thinking Being comes to language.
PTOLEMY I SOTER (LAGUS):
To me, though granted, the passage is out of context, this could be the
ramblings of a deranged mind. The house metaphor is especially curious -
makes little sense.
If language is an act like making a fist, and conversance is relating desire and confrontation with others in drama, then, quite literally, one is making a house of Being in which one dwells with others. I have used these poor Ptolemies to emphasize one does not have to like ones home-mates at all in the slightest, but we are all in this together. Liken it maybe but literally to a spiders web. The touch is real, the metaphor is not. One might call it a poem, but that would really be wholly inadequate, for what we must combine here all at once in one pondering the essence of action decisively enough is the whole of emotion from start to finish, as filled with love as hate, as much lying as truth. It is a drama, whether tragedy or comedy. There is no way to unwind the web once woven without total destruction. That is what a life is, and not just human life. When Heidegger says, Their guardianship accomplishes the manifestation of Being insofar as they bring the manifestation to language and maintain it in language through their speech, is intoned, I admit, as if by a priest in benediction. Well, forget that. It is better found at the bloody end of Hamlet or the family bosom incest and butchery of the Ptolemies. You end your quote with, Thinking does not become action only because some effect issues from it or because it is applied. We are definitely not dealing with train car couplings here. Thinking acts insofar as it thinks. Yes, as it stands by itself, it sounds totally idiotic. BUT! Heidegger continues with, Such action is presumably the simplest and at the same time the highest, because it concerns the relation of Being to man. But all working or effecting lies in Being and is directed toward beings . . . Thinking is not merely lengagement dans laction for and by beings, in the sense of the actuality of the present situation. Thinking is lengagement by and for the truth of Being. The history of Being is never past but stands ever before; it sustains and defines every condition et situation humaine. Thinking as Heidegger uses the term, is in no way abstract but means commitment, emotional binding to a desired engagement. Or it can mean its exact opposite in this case, its rejection and hatred. Le condition et situation humaine.
At one point in Letter on Humanism, Heidegger says, Thinking does not overcome metaphysics by climbing still higher, surmounting it, transcending it somehow or other,; thinking overcomes metaphysics by climbing back down into the nearness of the nearest. The descent, particularly where man has strayed into subjectivity, is more arduous and more dangerous than the ascent. The decent leads to the poverty of the ek-sistence of homo humanus. In ek-sistence the region of homo animalis, of metaphysics, is abandoned. Considering what I quoted from his Aristotle lectures, this is obviously NOY a rejection of human animality but just the opposite, their perfect identity. Remember also when he said, Thinking acts insofar as it thinks, it was followed by Such action is presumably the simplest and at the same time the highest . . . What Heidegger is trying to say here, without being accused of mere emotional subjectivity, is that thinking is passion. NOT a passion, but IS passion.
I am having difficulty in expressing exactly what I want to say. But your prodding's keep me advancing at the question and away from self-pity at the moment. Somehow I must make a plain statement about what reality is. Now, this is not a straightforward statement in the slightest, as I am coming to realize, at all. Logic only operates by abstractions, like mathematics. This is clear enough. Abstractions, then, are the ONLY tools by which to find things, define things, make new things, understand how things work, and even by which to try to make the direction our lives are going our own instead of simply being pulled by a current in a river. But the tool-user is utterly beyond being anything at all like a tool. And yet is this not exactly what ALL organizations of people, politics, religion, sociology, psychology, medicine, etc., etc., do? That is, make human beings either into tools or the raw material, Heidegger's "standing reserve", upon which these tools are used? "We are still far from pondering the essence of action decisively enough." If it were not for YOU, I would NEVER have understood the tremendous importance of this sentence at the beginning of "Letter on Humanism." "The essence of action." Not what the tool does because the tool 'does' nothing. It never does anything. One could say that all it is, is that it is there waiting to be used, or is in the process of being used. But a tool does not ACT.
Now, in an earlier letter you said if we got rid of abstractions, would we not also get rid of language and words? But abstractions merely serve like the couplings between train cars. In a sense, they are an inferior version of mathematical formulas. But a mathematical formula without external input or put to use for a purpose is the most utterly meaningless and useless of things. In other words, abstractions and mathematical formulas are merely intellectual devices, tools like the screwdriver and pliers lying on your tool shelf. And yet we have made these abysmal trivialities the meaning and goal of our lives.
Gary, me thinks you shoot thyself in thy own foot. Using language to disparage language is fruitless -- perhaps even a bit daffy. You cannot have it both ways -- praising the abject abstractions of Heidegger on the one hand, and disallowing other abstractions (ones you find repugnant) on the other. A more convincing display by one who thoroughly eschews the abstract (mathematics or language) would be silence.
PTOLEMY IX SOTER II (Lathyrus):
You are perfectly right. If you use language, you necessarily use abstractions. But there is a catch. If they are tools as I stated, then they become tools "for the sake of", to ou eneka of Aristotle. As long as we are speaking in terms of action without regarding the final cause, yes, I am certainly shooting myself in my own foot. My sister/wives would thoroughly enjoy seeing me do that. But in proposing your crux of "using language to disparage language" you make me take on something quite formidable. For obviously, if I follow my line of thought - and I also think it is Heidegger's also - language at some point must not only be to ou eneka, but absolutely and inescapably be SEEN as agathon, kalos, and telos, and most of all theoria. Now, yes, I am being thoroughly pretentious in pretending to know Attic Greek, which I don't, just Macedonian street slang. BUT it is precisely because these terms, even in the most everyday and sophmoric philosophical usage have a divine implication. They are the WHY of to ou eneka. And they are utterly useless. And, yes, as once again you hit the nail straight on the head - SILENCE. As the inventor of the calculating machine said, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread," (201) which is immediately followed in my edition by, "Be comforted; it is not from yourself that you must expect it, but on the contrary you must expect it by expecting nothing from yourself" (202), and both of these are preceded by something I know you recognize, "Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this. Thus all our dignity consists in thought. It is on thought that we must depend for our recovery, not on space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then strive to think well; that is the basic principle of morality" (200). Nietzsche could not agree more.
And in this context, being comforted by expecting "nothing" from yourself takes on exactly the opposite meaning most people would assume because only such a person as can expect "nothing" from himself can HEAR "the eternal silence of these infinite spaces." ONLY because you wrote what you wrote did I dig out my Blaise Pascal that I have not read in - my god - forty years? The point comes down to this then, WHAT EXACTLY IS HEIDEGGER DOING WITH ABSTRACTIONS IF FUNDAMENTALLY HE THINKS THEY ARE JUST TOOLS? Towards the end of the "Letter on Humanism" Heidegger says:
But now in what relation does the thinking of Being stand to theoretical and practical behavior? It exceeds all contemplation because it cares for the light in which a seeing, as theoria, can first live and move. Thinking attends to the clearing of Being in that it puts its saying of Being into language as the home of ek-sistence. Thus thinking is a deed. But a deed that also surpasses all praxis. Thinking towers above action and production, not through the grandure of its achievement and not as a consequence of its effect, but through the humbleness of its inconsequential accomplishment. For thinking in its saying merely brings the unspoken word of Being to language. (262)
Now, taken abstractly, that is, taken metaphorically, this is total nonsense. But if one is actually "pondering the essence of action decisively enough," if one is passionately concerned with really DOING something no matter how "humble" or "inconsequential" JUST SO LONG AS ONE HAS ACTUALLY DONE SOMETHING! That one has crossed the line of pretense and make believe and fantasy and prestige and pride and status and academic degrees and assertion of authority to simply plant a real seed in the risk, the chance that maybe a real rose might grow from it, then one has pondered "the essence of action decisively enough." What exactly am I blathering? Actually, I - and Heidegger - are speaking in such a simple minded, retarded way that maybe, in this modern and sophisticated world, we need to be put in a safe place and be cared for - like Hitler did for the retarded and the insane. When Heidegger says, "cares for the light" he means "cares for the light." That's it. That's all. That's what ALL the furor is about. "The thinking of Being . . . cares for the light." This is something you would expect your illiterate gardener to say who has to walk to his work because he does not have the 'intelligence' to drive a car. "Cares for the light in which . . . seeing . . . can first live and move." It is at times like this I really wish I knew German, because the English here, in THIS context sounds far too pretentious and abstract. THEORIA is NOT something attained by getting a doctorate and going through post-doctoral studies under a magnanimous guru. It is, "I know I am superior to the universe BECAUSE I know I am dying." This is theoria. This is why it exceeds forever and always ALL PRAXIS. Old, blind Goethe, unable to walk, sitting in his chair, reaches out into empty space with one hand, says, "Light! More light!" and dies. THIS is THEORIA! "The thinking of Being . . . it cares for the light." "Thinking attends to the clearing of Being" like a gardener attends to the rose. There is no abstraction here. "It puts its saying of Being into language as the home of existence" -- "Light! More light!" - "Thus thinking is a deed."
'Tis written: "In the beginning was the Word!"
Here now I'm balked! Who'll put me in accord?
It is impossible, the Word so high to prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am rightly by the Spirit taught.
'Tis written: In the beginning was the Thought!
Consider well that line, the first you see,
That your pen may not write too hastily!
Is it then Thought that works, creative, hour by hour?
Thus should it stand: In the beginning was the Power!
Yet even while I write this word, I falter,
For something warns me, this too I shall alter.
The Spirit's helping me! I see now what I need
And write assured: In the beginning was the Deed!
So when Heidegger says, "For thinking in its saying merely brings the unspoken word of Being to language," he is not only being perfectly literal, but he is echoing Pascal's, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread."
If your metaphor for abstractions serving MERELY as couplings between train cars is a good one, then continuing the metaphor leads to the fact that there is no TRAIN sans such couplings.
Precisely. The whole meaning and purpose of a train is its couplings. A train that pulls nothing is perfectly useless. An abstraction that stands by itself outside of a sentence, or implied context of a sentence, is perfectly useless. There must be something intended! There must be purpose! There must be emotion.