Being True to Heidegger

In response to:

Being True to Heidegger from the April 2, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Thomas Sheehan’s otherwise illuminating discussion of editorial problems in Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe suffers from at least two lapses which bear correcting.

In the first place, Ereignis means “event” through much of Heidegger’s writing, as it does in normal German. To cite it as an example of arcane terminology on the basis of Heidegger’s speculations about its etymology (eignen) is to over-confuse a supposedly non-technical presentation. Heidegger should not be made more difficult than he is.

Secondly, in the effort to sound disabused about Heidegger’s merits as a philosopher, an intelligible inclination given the absurdity of many Heideggerians and the ignorance of Heidegger’s opponents (e.g. Ayer and Edwards), Sheehan ends up distorting Heidegger’s real contribution to philosophical debate. Surely, if Heidegger’s “best” were limited to being a “brilliant reader of the history of philosophy” or a “revolutionary interpreter” of “man’s relation to the presence of things,” then one would be hard pressed to see what all the fuss surrounding Heidegger is about. He would be no different from any other brilliant scholar or revolutionary psychologist.

In fact, Heidegger’s true philosophical merits are only emerging now that he is being read by those who use a vocabulary different from that canonized by Heideggerians. Among other things: He questioned the foundationalist goal of post-Cartesian philosophy. He undermined phenomenology. He constructed the first viable model of human behavior which does not rely on the concepts of mind, soul or mental representations. He wrested philosophy away from an exclusive concentration on cognition to an investigation of emotive being. He revived Aristotelian category theory as an issue. He pierced through the sham of philosophical logic as a replacement for devalued epistemology. He redefined ontology and broadened it beyond unique concern with existence criteria. He showed up the so-called ontological paradoxes as based on faulty reasoning. He united the theory of time with the philosophy of history. He revived medieval philosophy as significant for the modern world by freeing it from the concept of God. He first envisioned a critique of philosophy as a whole from a philosophical standpoint. He showed that the Aristotelian category system applied to only a certain sort of entity and devised alternative category systems to supplant and subsume it. In the process, he invented the notion of a mode of being, which represents the first real advance in category theory since the Middle Ages. He leveled the picture theory of meaning, thus opening alternatives to correspondence as a theory of truth. He devalued the notion of hierarchy in the theory of the sciences, showing that each science is autonomous and its methodology is object-relative. He first distinguished between interpretation and theorization in the theory of science.

He provided a conceptual framework for the social sciences. He redefined the notion of essence so it escapes from the Aristotelian stranglehold of unalterability and determinateness through a causal nexus. Astoundingly, the list could continue.

In the light of these basic contributions, belief that dating Heidegger’s texts would affect our understanding of him seems exaggerated.

Willis Domingo

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Indiana

Thomas Sheehan replies:

The demurral of Professor Cavell and his colleagues seems to blur two very distinct issues: the selfless efforts of translators and publishers (the fourth and seventh sentences of their letter) and the quality of the resultant translations (the third, fifth, and sixth sentences).

Regarding the first issue, I heartily agree that, given the difficulty of Heidegger’s language and thought, the dedication of the late Professor Gray and his collaborators and the support of Harper & Row deserve our thanks, and I have said so elsewhere (Research in Phenomenology, Vol. IX, Humanities Press, 1980, pp. 225-228).

But the quality of the translations and the degree to which Heidegger and scholarship have been served by them are questions that can be decided only through a line-by-line comparison of the English with the German. I do not think Heidegger is served at all by the unacknowledged omissions of parts of his text or the invention of sentences he never wrote. This is not a quarrel over details but an outright scandal. Nor is he much served by the errors that mar so many pages of the English texts, no matter who publishes them. Scores of these errors are documented in two papers presented to the Heidegger Conference in 1977 and 1978 and in New Scholasticism, Vol. 53, No. 4, August 1979, pp. 540-544.

But I do think Heidegger is well served indeed by the excellent translations that David Krell and others have made for Harper & Row in the last years. These set high standards of accuracy and allow us to unite gratitude to the translators with confidence in the work.

Professor Domingo’s letter suffers from some lapses of its own, at least one of them major.

  1. No, in Heidegger’s technical usage Ereignis does not mean simply “event” but rather “appropriation” (roughly: emergence into intelligibility). It is his interpretation of the underlying meaning of the Greek words dynamis and kinesis.

To be ignorant of that fact is to risk distorting Heidegger’s main contribution to philosophy, and no extra-canonical lexicon can make up for that defect. But in order to know the Greek—not the German—origins of the word Ereignis, one must have studied both Heidegger’s essay on Aristotle, which is already published, and his last Marburg seminar on the Physics, which is yet to appear in the Gesamtausgabe. Given his apparent misreading of Heidegger’s key term, is Professor Domingo quite sure that he has nothing basic to learn from a proper edition (and dating) of such texts?

  1. I think that Professor Domingo mistook the genre of my article. To adapt Mrs. Grogan’s words in Ulysses: When I writes philosophy, I writes philosophy, and when I writes book reviews, I writes book reviews. And I publishes ’em in different journals.

Since this was a book review rather than a philosophy article, I thought it proper to let Heidegger himself state what he thought his “best” was. In his notes toward a preface for the Gesamtausgabe he summarized the core of his work as follows: “Thought as the relation to being as presence: Parmenides, Heraclitus: noein, logos.” That simple, straightforward phrase, which I adapted for my review, fairly outlines the whole of Heidegger’s thinking, whereas Professor Domingo’s eighteen theses fill in some, but only some, of the blanks. In a brief book review maybe this matter is de gustibus. Do you prefer the master’s modest but comprehensive summary or the disciple’s elaborate but unsorted laundry list?

  1. The accuracy or not of Professor Domingo’s list of Heidegger’s accomplishments can be judged on its own merits. Although I find much of it impressive, I have some hesitations.

Did Heidegger “undermine” phenomenology, or lead it back to its origins? (As late as 1969 he still insisted that his work was phenomenological.) Where and how could he have possibly freed medieval philosophy from the concept of God? And is it likely that he devised any “alternative category systems” when in fact he adjudged the whole of Kategorienlehre to be a Seiendheitslehre?

Questions like these and the one about Ereignis leave me just a bit skeptical in face of the claim that Heidegger’s “true philosophical merits” are only beginning to emerge now that he is being read by Professor Domingo and his colleagues.


The Heidegger Question June 11, 1981

The Heidegger Question June 11, 1981