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The Heidegger Question

In response to:

Being True to Heidegger from the April 2, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Sheehan’s reply as to my points concerning Heidegger translation and interpretation contains the following errors:

  1. He appears insensitive to the precision of expression necessary in philosophical writing in general and Heidegger scholarship in particular. I said Ereignis means “event” through much of Heidegger’s work, not at all. Indeed, certain texts speculate on its etymology but do not propose a new technical term. Being and Time (51-52) speaks of death as an event. What could it possibly mean to call death an appropriation? And Heidegger certainly does not mean that death is “emergence into intelligibility.” On the contrary. Also, Being and Time outlines a philosophy of history in which Heidegger often refers to past events. It is ironic that Sheehan, who is so concerned with dating texts, should not realize that the early Heidegger understands Ereignis literally. For a later Heideggerian usage consult the Afterword to “What is Metaphysics?” where product and event (Erzeugnis and Ereignis) are distinguished. Finally, in those passages where Heidegger does attempt to ramify the sense of Ereignis by comments on aneignen and eräugen (e.g., in Identität und Differenz), he plays on the tension between the unreflective normal sense of the term and his etymological sense. Understanding these passages means keeping both in mind, and Heidegger underscores this fact by writing Er-eignis when he wishes to stress his etymological sense. He wants to emphasize that genuine historical events are changes in mentality and the understanding of the world, and not mere happenstance. To indiscriminately substitute “appropriation” wherever Heidegger utters Ereignis, as Sheehan seems to propose, is to produce the sort of mystical mumbo-jumbo with which Heidegger is all too often and wrongly associated. Or should we also translate Begebenheit as “be-givenness”?

  2. In complaining that Sheehan distorts Heidegger’s philosophical contribution, I do not mean that his presentation should be more technical than a review allows. Rather, Sheehan’s statement that Heidegger’s main value is as a philosopher of man or critical historian of philosophy is a blatant, unimpeachable counter-sense, first to everything Heidegger says about the relation of his “question of being” to empirical research, and secondly to any non-muddled understanding of Heidegger’s philosophy. Even hesitant proposals, such as Sartre’s transcendental psychology, drew blasts on the order of the “Letter on Humanism.” Finally, the quotation Sheehan presents as a “simple-straightforward” counter to my list of philosophical accomplishments is nearly as impenetrable as a Delphic oracle. Can Sheehan himself explain what it means?

Willis Domingo

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, Indiana

Thomas Sheehan replies:

Professor Domingo still cannot seem to distinguish the letters column of the NYR from a philosophical sounding board. Let him take up these weighty matters in the proper forum—the philosophy journal of his choice—and I will be happy to respond and even to explain the phrase he cannot understand. Meanwhile I stand by what I wrote.

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