On the Relation Between Being and Humans in Heidegger's Letter on Humanism and in his Contributions to Philosophy
a) Preliminary remarks
In our age of close encounter between manifold ways of thinking, believing and behaving one fundamental question which arises is: How can one find a proper measure for human life in a world which essentially lacks a common ground? The last great philosopher who, at the brink of the era of pluralism, struggled for a common ground in which humanity might find a new beginning was, I think, Martin Heidegger. Yet for him this common ground differs essentially from a metaphysical ground in so far as it is thought in the face of the abysmal quality of being as it discloses in our facticity. Heidegger's question of Being, is a question which concerns human facticity, i.e. our actual being-in-the-world in its temporal and enigmatic character. As he stated in the 30s, for him this question arose out of the experience of the "forgetfulness of Being" [Seinsvergessenheit] and of the "abandonment of Being in beings" [Seinsverlassenheit des Seienden], that is, out of the possibility of not being at all. With the question of Being, Heidegger struggled to uncover the original historical ground to which humans belong, a ground from which modern society tends to uproot itself through the dominance of calculative and representational thinking. What is most dangerous for Heidegger in this process, is that the original ground of humans and beings in general might be covered and forgotten, to the extent that humans loose completely the sense of what they truly need. For Heidegger, the task of thinking (of philosophy) is to help to bring back humans and beings in general to the place to which they originally belong, i.e. to their originally, most fulfilled way of being which is their proper or own [das Eigene, eigen].
"En-own-ment" or "Ap-propri-ation" [Er-eign-is] is the key-word in Heidegger's thinking since the 30s, in which he attempts to think more originally than metaphysics the relation between Being and humans in terms of the being enowned of humans through Being and in terms of the belonging of humans to Being. In the following, I will rethink the question of this relation in reference both to Heidegger's well known Letter on Humanism (1) and to the more difficult book Beiträge zur Philosophie (Contributions to Philosophy). (2) I will thereby focus on the difficulty, as well as on Heidegger's struggle for a proper language which would be able to say that which essentially remains concealed for metaphysical language: the truth (or ground) of Being as Ereignis.
b) The relation between beyng and humans thought "vom Ereignis"
In the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger claims that we need to think the relation between Being and humans more originally than metaphysics. But this requires also a language which is no longer indebted to metaphysics. The problem in speaking of the relation between Being and humans or, as Heidegger states it in the Letter on Humanism, of the relation of Being to humans is that our traditional language invites us to conceive humans and Being as two separate entities, the relation of which is in question. Our traditional language is the language of metaphysics, and more specifically of modern metaphysics, for which the object of thinking is that which the thinking subject represents to itself. As we know through a marginal note at the beginning of the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger here consciously speaks the language of metaphysics. As he says, the other, the non-metaphysical language remains in the background. In the same note, he also points out that what he states in the Letter on Humanism relies upon a path which began in 1936. 1936 is the year in which Heidegger begins to write the Beiträge zur Philosophie (he wrote the last part in 1938), a book written without any didactic consideration in the mere attempt to speak "vom Ereignis", i.e. to speak from what he calls in the Letter on Humanism the throw of Being. In Heidegger's understanding, the language from Ereignis is more primordial [ursprünglicher], than metaphysics and therefore not metaphysical.
The usual meaning of "Ereignis" is "event". Heidegger thinks the word also and more fundamentally in a more literal sense where the prefix "Er-" names an executional character and "-eignis" refers to the adverb "eigen", which means "own". Correspondingly we may translate Ereignis as: "bringing into the "own", into the proper", and in this sense as: "enownment" or "appropriation". Thinking and speaking "from" Ereignis does not hold itself over against Ereignis but speaks from within the original experience of being enowned and of belonging to beyng [Zugehörigkeit zum Seyn, and "Seyn" is written with a 'y', GA 65:3]. Such a thinking is enowned through what Heidegger calls the Zuwurf or Zuruf des Seyns, i.e. the "throw" or "call" of beyng. In this call thinking brings to language "what is enowned" : it echoes beyng's call, as it were, and in this echoing first brings beyng as Ereignis into language. Ereignis is the occurrence of enowning call and enowned response in their oscillation. (3) Heidegger calls a thinking which arises as an enowned response of this counterswing "anfängliches Denken", "primordial thinking". (4) It is primordial in so far as it takes part in the original disclosure of being.
The primordial thinking of the Beiträge explicitly attempts to hold itself in a Grundstimmung, in a basic attunement in which beyng in its historical occurrence, in its Geschichtlichkeit [not Historie] is disclosed. In the Beiträge, Heidegger mostly names this Grundstimmung Verhaltenheit: "retention". I will try to open a path to the primordial thinking of the Beiträge by following an explication of Verhaltenheit which Heidegger gives in section 5. There he names three attunements [Stimmungen], which together vaguely indicate the basic attunement of primordial thinking (which has no proper single name to itself): "fright", "retention" and "shyness" [Erschrecken, Verhaltenheit und Scheu.]
In fright, Heidegger says, one is driven back [Zurückfahren] or "unsettled [ent-setzt] from familiar behavior with beings into the unsheltered openness of what conceals itself and yet pushes forth [drängt an] in its selfconcealment (GA 65:15). We may think in this context of Heidegger's analysis of anxiety in Being and Time in which Being is disclosed in the possibility of not being at all (of death). But in the Beiträge the disclosure of "not-being" entails a historical dimension: What is disclosed in the fright is that there are beings, but that in our era Being has abandoned beings. Beings are seinsverlassen (abandoned by Being). The abandonment of being characterizes our era as the era of technology in which beings have become mere means of production, exchangeable data in a network of communication and productivity. They don't give shelter [bergen] anymore in their historically occurring [geschichtlich] being to the uniqueness of a historical moment. But the experience of the withdrawal of beyng from beings discloses also that beyng originally occurs as withdrawal [Entzug]- and not as presencing [Anwesen]. In the experience of the abandonment of Being, Being itself "resounds" [klingt an] as withdrawal, as selfconcealment (as Heidegger says in section 50 of the Beiträge). (5) The disclosure of the withdrawal of Being is what Heidegger calls the truth of beyng.
Back to section 5 of the Beiträge. In the fright, Heidegger says, there is also the "will" [Wille] to maintain the relation to beyng as withdrawal, and this is what he calls Verhaltenheit, "retention". The relatedness to the withdrawal of beyng is maintained by withstanding in the mood of retention the withdrawal, without turning away from it, by holding it in hesitation [Zögerung], thus preserving the open tension to the abysmal occurrence of beyng. As Heidegger says in the Beiträge, for instance section 173, in the retention of the withdrawal of beyng humans are, inständig (or inständlich) in the truth of beyng. Inständigkeit may be translated with "steadfastness" or "standing in" or "in-sisting" and is another name for what Heidegger in the Letter on Humanism calls Ek-sistenz. (6)
The Verhaltenheit is the middle in between the fright and the shyness [Scheu], Heidegger points out in section 5. Shyness even surpasses the "will" of the retention. It entails the necessity to conceal by keeping silent [Verschweigen]. It lets beyng occur as Ereignis by penetrating, in its attunement, all behavior in the midst of beings and all comportment to beings ["... sie ist das alle Haltung inmitten des Seienden und Verhaltung zum Seienden durchstimmende Wesenlassen des Seyns als Ereignis" GA 65:15f].
As we heard before, Ereignis means enownment. What is enowned is Da-sein (written with a hyphen) and through Da-sein humans. (7) Now, this enownment is thought to occur in the withdrawal of beyng (GA 65:380), in the Abgrund, the abysmal truth of beyng. How so? The withdrawal of beyng entails a need [Not] to resist withdrawal, to hold it in hesitation, i.e. to hold the withdrawal in the "in-between" of being and not being. This "in-between" of beyng's hesitating withdrawal is what Heidegger, in the Beiträge, calls Da-sein. "Da-sein is the point of turn [Wendungspunkt] in the turn [Kehre] of Ereignis, it is the opening middle [die sich öffnende Mitte] of the playing back and forth between the call and the "belonging response" [...]" (GA 65:311.)
Da-sein is enowned [ereignet] through beyng's need, through the need to be rather than not to be. Hereby, with respect to Being and Time, the sense of Da-sein has shifted. Da-sein does not primarily designate the ecstatical being of humans but the "in between" of the call (the throw) of Being and the belonging [Zugehörigkeit] to Being of humans. Thereby, the "Da-" names the openness in the truth of beyng as hesitating withdrawal and the "-sein" names the Inständigkeit [or Ek-sistenz], i.e. the "being in" the open by resisting and letting be the withdrawal of beyng. Da-sein thereby occurs as the definite [bestimmter] time-space [Zeit-Raum], in which beyng occurs historically. In a certain sense, the truth of beyng as hesitating withdrawal is "more" than Da-sein, because there is always "something" withdrawing from Da-sein as a definite historical occurrence of beyng. The truth of Being occurs in Da-sein as a differencing from Da-sein. But, in this differencing, Da-sein is not something other with respect to beyng as Ereignis. It is not appropriated in such away to be something over against the appropriation. Rather, it is its abysmally open middle, the original time-space of an actual historical occurrence of beyng.
What about humans, then? Of course, in the Beiträge Heidegger attempts to think them from Ereignis. Humans are also appropriated out of beyng's need to occur in Da-sein. Their "own" is to resist and answer to the need through steadfastness [Inständigkeit], which in its turn occurs through the "sheltering" [Bergung] of the abysmal openness of beyng as withdrawal in beings [in Seiendes]. This sheltering originally occurs in language. The thinker originally shelters beyng as Ereignis if the abysmal truth of beyng resounds in his words, i.e. if his words echo the withdrawal of beyng, if in what is said is echoed the silence out of which words come to language.
c) Language in and beyond metaphysics
Insofar as it brings originally to language the abysmal occurrence of beyng as Ereignis, the language of the Beiträge can be said to be more original than metaphysical language. As I tried to show, beyng as appropriation is not something other with respect to thinking, but rather it occurs as the Ereignung ["enowning"] of thinking. Beyng as enownment, and thinking in its being enowned, are disclosed at once in Da-sein. There is no enownment, i.e. no throw of Being, "before" thinking is enowned. Ereignis discloses originally only in Da-sein, in the steadfastness of thinking in Da-sein. And this, in its turn, requires that the openness of the truth of Being (the "Da-" of Da-sein) is sheltered in a being, for instance in a word. (8) In the language of Ereignis, what Heidegger in the Letter of Humanism calls the relation from Being to humans (thinking) is the historical enowning of thinking in the enowning of Da-sein.
If we now look back at the Letter on Humanism we can see that besides some slight allusions (GA 9:318) Heidegger does not say much about the abysmal dimension of Ereignis. He speaks of the relation of Being to humans but does not attempt to think and say this relation out of the occurrence of the relation (from Ereignis) in his own thinking. The language of the Letter on Humanism does not bring forth its own source, its own coming to be out of the need of beyng's withdrawal (as Heidegger attempts to do in the Beiträge).
But does Heidegger really succeed to speak "from" Ereignis in the Beiträge? According to his own words, the Beiträge are just an attempt at such a thinking and language. Further, whether or not his language succeeds to speak originally from Ereignis depends also on us, who read his words. In section 41 of the Beiträge Heidegger says:
It is always possible to read Heidegger's words metaphysically, i.e. to read his words in terms of subject and object, to place what is written before one's sight and represent it as the object of a thinking subject. This possibility can not be escaped. Certainly there are ways of speaking which more than others encourage representational thinking (like speaking in terms of presence, of transcendence, and of horizon of thought); but, on the other hand, there are no written or spoken words which in themselves are non-metaphysical. Heidegger thinks the "essence" [Wesen] of language not in departure from words as signs, but as an articulating and disclosing occurrence. And in order to occur as such, original language needs original listening, a listening which attempts to let itself be attuned by what is said (by the silence which is echoed in what is said), a listening which also resists our natural tendency to think in terms of representation, and which gathers towards the silent source of Being.
Heidegger calls the primordial thinking of the Beiträge transitional. The Beiträge, as he says in the first section, "are not yet able to join the free fuge of the truth of beyng from itself" [die Beiträge vermögen "noch nicht die freie Fuge der Wahrheit des Seyns aus diesem selbst zu fügen"]. At the same time, he seems to think of such a possibility, this means of the possibility of a saying which is totally and adequately responsive to the call of Being. Such a saying would let occur through language nothing but the original disclosure of beyng as Ereignis. It would thereby initiate the other beginning of western history and open from the same source of and like Greek thought a whole new epoch.
I doubt that such a primordial thinking is possible. Even though I do believe that Heidegger in the language of the Beiträge opens possibilities to think more originally than metaphysics, primordial thinking will always have to struggle with the natural tendency towards representational thinking. And this may be seen not as a deprivation but as the possibility to balance and question a thinking which is not free of possible failure [Irre]. In resisting representational thinking, in gathering totally towards the silent source of beyng, primordial thinking may exclude or remain blind for instance to everyday political and ethical issues. This danger is, as I think, present in Heidegger's thought. On the other hand, representational thinking as it is practiced in sciences, politics and ethics might exclude and remain blind to original and creative ways of being which nourish our being from its very source. Heidegger's primordial thinking does open, as I think, such original and creative possibilities of thinking and being, ways of thinking and being which remain attuned and thus respond more fundamentally than metaphysics to our "factual" being-in-the-world.
(1) Martin Heidegger, "Brief über den Humanismus" (1946), in: Wegmarken, Gesamtausgabe (GA) vol.9, ed. by F.-W. v. Hermann, Frankfurt a.M. 1976, pp. 313-364.
(2) Martin Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis) (1936-1938), GA vol. 65, ed. by F.-W. v. Hermann, Frankfurt am Main 1989.
(3) See especially Heidegger, GA65, section 122.
(4) I have no time, here, to develop the notion of an "andersanfängliches Denken".
(5) Anklang is the name of the first of the six fugues (Fuge) into which the Beiträge are articulated. In their interrelatedness they constitute the realm of thinking of what Heidegger calls the transition from the first (Greek) beginning of Western history to the other beginning, which the thinking of Ereignis is meant to prepare.
(6) See GA 9:323, where Heidegger says that Ek-sistenz is "das Stehen in der Lichtung des Seins". See also p. 350.
(7) Unfortunately, I will have no time, here, to develop the question of the relation between humans and gods.
(8) Heidegger moves, in the Beiträge towards a radical simultaneity of beyng and beings.