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The Reliability of Heidegger’s Reading
of Plato’s Gigantomachia

John M. Berry

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ABSTRACT: At issue is the reliability of Heidegger’s contention that Greek thinking, especially Plato’s, was constricted by an unthought "pre-ontology." "The meaning of being" supposedly guiding and controlling Greek ontology is "Being = presence." This made "the question of the meaning of ousia itself" inaccessible to the Greeks. Heidegger’s Plato’s Sophist is his most extensive treatment of a single dialogue. To test his own reliability, he proposes "to demonstrate, by the success of an actual interpretation of [the Gigantomachia], that this sense of Being [as presence] in fact guided [Plato’s] ontological questioning . . .". I will show Heidegger’s strategy in connecting what he takes to be Plato’s naive pre-ontology — Being = Presence — to the ontology of the Gigantomachia — Being = Power. I will show that Heidegger blatantly misreads the text to make the connection: he completely misses the distinction between bodies and bodiless things. The text makes sense, I will show, if and only if its explicit ontology — Being = Power — is its implicit pre-ontology. Plato wrote his text not to discuss, but to exemplify, Heidegger’s ontology-preontology distinction. He wrote the Gigantomachia for Heidegger, but Heidegger missed it.

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Heidegger proposed "to demonstrate, by the success of an actual interpretation of [Plato’s gigantomachia] that this sense of Being [as presence] in fact guided the ontological questioning of the Greeks...." I will show Heidegger failed this self-imposed test. Then with Heidegger’s interpretation as a starting point, I will show the basic structure of the text.

The organizers of this conference have arbitrarily established a fifteen minute long border artificially confining my thought: Anything that cannot be thought within that boundary cannot be thought or said at this conference. In Plato’s gigantomachia peri tes ousias (Soph. 246-48), the Stranger establishes a border that constricts, not thought, but beings within a sharply defined boundary: "For I am establishing that there is a border that confines the beings in such a way that they are nothing else but power" (247de). (My translation). Heidegger, however, claims Plato’s Stranger establishes this boundary confining beings because a conceptual boundary, analogous to the fifteen minute long boundary established for this conference, constricts Plato’s own thinking: Plato cannot think outside the boundary, the "unthought" implicit "pre-ontology," that controlled all Greek thought; Plato’s gigantomachia peri tes ousias, his "ontology," his explicit "theoretical inquiry explicitly devoted to the meaning of entities," occurs within the confines of this constricting pre-ontology.

Heidegger identifies this Greek pre-ontology: "The meaning of being implicitly guiding this ontology is Being = presence." Within this implicit conceptual boundary Plato and the Greeks cannot make Being itself an issue: "The question of the meaning of ousia itself is not alive for the Greeks as an ontological theme...." For the boundary limits "the issue in this gigantomachia peri tes ousias" to an inquiry into beings rather than Being: "The issue is the disclosure of beings" [mine]; "They always ask only: which beings [mine] genuinely satisfy the meaning of Being and which ontological characters result thereby?" "The battle is... over what primarily and genuinely satisfies the meaning of Being, i.e., presence" [mine]. For those who claim "...ousia = swma, Being is properly represented by the presence of bodies" [mine, to accentuate presence]. "The opposite side says: ousia = eide..., namely, the outward look of beings which come to presence [mine] in pure perceiving." The Being = presence pre-ontology further determines the issue: "The battle...over what...genuinely satisfies the meaning of Being, i.e., presence ... includes a battle over which mode of access to the genuine beings is the original one;" for one group presence is accomplished by "aisthesis, aphe, touching, feeling, sense perception," for the other by "noein, i.e., logos."

As the pre-ontology controlling the inquiry will of necessity lead it to an ontology of Being = presence, it must be a misreading of the text to find in it an ontology Being = power: "If the traditional interpretation says Plato could not be serious about this definition, that is because dynamis is translated as ‘power’.... The difficulty people have found in the proferring of this quite new definition derives from their conceiving dynamis too massively from the very outset, almost in the sense of those who say ousia=soma." Heidegger concedes that "of course the literal meaning" here of power "eis to poiein and eis to pathein" is that all beings are powers "which effect [sic] something or which have properties, on the basis of their ontic constitution, by which they can suffer something." He denies, however, that Plato can mean this text to be taken literally, the only apparent reason being that he finds no way to arrive at this meaning from the pre-ontology Being = Presence. As the pre-ontology dictates an ontology Being=presence, the Being=power formulation must be reformulated in that direction: "Being means nothing else than to be able to be with each other, or, formulated in relation to Being as dynamis, to be capable of presence with something" [mine].

The preontology dictates, then, that the Stranger’s questioning of the surrogate materialist must provide the connecting links between the preontology of the questioning, Being = Presence, and the reformulated conclusion, Being = Possibility-of-presence. The heading of Heidegger’s analysis of this part of the passage is: "Exhibition of two kinds of beings: oraton and aoraton [visible and invisible]." The Stranger himself, however, says his argument depends on another distinction — between swmata and aswmata, bodies and bodiless things. Heidegger, in fact, quotes the Stranger’s words in Greek: ei gar ti kai smikron ethelousin twn ontwn sugchwrein aswmaton, exarchei (247c9f.)", then translates them, except for the single word aswmaton—’bodiless’: "If they concede that there is something or other, even if a trifle, which we can characterize as aswmaton [untranslated], then that is already enough." The Stranger explicitly says he needs the admission that something is aswmaton bodiless to proceed (247d). At this critical juncture in the Stranger’s argument and in his own, Heidegger quotes the following text. "If they maintain this seriously and see it, then they must say: to gar epi te toutois kai ep’ ekeinois osa echei swma symphues gegonos, eis o blepontes amphotera einai legousin." The Stranger clearly states the materialists must look precisely at that one thing bodiless things (toutois) and bodies (ekeinois osa echei swma) share that allows both to be called beings. He is drawing the distinction he has just accentuated between bodies and bodiless things as crucial to his argument. But instead of translating this text, Heidegger says: "I will unravel this statement in such a way that you will understand the meaning immediately...." He then blatantly misreads the text, changing the untranslated aswmaton — "bodiless" — into aoraton — "invisible." As Heidegger construes the text, the Stranger is asking the materialists to focus on "that which for both is already... ‘co-present — for both,’ i.e., for the oraton as well as for the aoraton..." He has shifted the argument from its proper basis on the distinction between bodies and bodiless things to base it on a totally different distinction which plays an entirely different role in the text. Heidegger sums up: "The initial result of the criticism of those who say ousia = swma is that the oraton, swma empsychon, i.e., the psuche, presents an aoraton, and that both, the oraton and the aoraton, already imply a symphues gegonos." He then reformulates the Being = power ontology, keystone of the whole dialogue, so that it can be understood as arising out of his misreading of the text. Being = power becomes Being = possibility-of-presence — an obviously watered-down reading of the Greek with no justification at all in the text!

Heidegger’s misreading of the text, dealt with at length, is critical. It destroys any possibility of Heidegger’s connecting the text’s supposed pre-ontology, Being = presence, with its explicit ontology, Being = power. We suspect his own preconceived notion of what Plato’s pre-ontology had to be constricted his reading of the text within very narrow limits.

Far more important. Heidegger undertook interpreting the gigantomachia precisely "to demonstrate, by the success of an actual interpretation of Plato’s ensuing discussions, that this sense of Being [as presence] in fact guided the ontological questioning of the Greeks." This was his test case designed to validate his reading not only of Plato but of the Greeks. I have tried to show that at the critical juncture in the Stranger’s argument and in his own argument, he failed the test.

I believe, concentrating on a crucial part of it, I have invalidated Heidegger’s reading of Plato — and perhaps of the Greeks. I now want to face Heidegger’s challenge head-on by presenting a counter-reading of the Stranger’s inquisition of the materialist. My reading will be structured like his. I will show, however, that the text makes sense if and only its startling conclusion that being is nothing but power is the text’s presupposition from the outset. The concluding ontology is the presupposed pre-ontology. The logical structure? If being is nothing but power, then being is nothing but power.

The text is full of gaps, lacks logical articulation. Why? Because Plato and the Stranger both know that if the materialist or the friend of forms recognize the vicious circularity in its structure, they could not possibly accept it. Once seen for what it is, the text becomes a house of cards. The text was written by Plato for Heidegger, to exemplify the pre-ontology-ontology structure made famous by Heidegger. The text self-destructs to shed its light. Heidegger failed a test devised by Plato precisely for Heidegger.

To what end would Plato write such a text? His texts, I am convinced, are icebergs, nine-tenths below the surface. My aim is simply to gain access to the deeper dimensions of the texts. The Why’s come later.

Investigating the world through pink sunglasses automatically produces empirical evidence that the world is pink. Popper’s Freudian psychiatrist investigates ten thousand patients and concludes human behavior is sexual. The Stranger and the materialist, having just investigated the world, conclude that all beings are nothing but interacting powers. Three instances of pre-ontologies producing ontologies identical to the pre-ontologies. The argument turns a perfect Heideggerian circle: its surface anomalies are the barely decipherable indications that within its depths its presupposition is twisting itself into position to surface disguised as the argument’s conclusion.

Initial position: The materialist identifies being with body: ousia = swma, and maintains all knowing is sense-knowing: aisthesis, aphe (246a-247c).

The Stranger asks the materialist whether a living thing — thneton zwon — is something? Of course. Whether it is an ensouled or animated body — swma empsychon? Yes. Taking the soul to be something real? Tithentes ti twn ontwn psychen? Yes.

The only visible articulation is the shift from adjectival to substantival syntax — from empsychon to psyche. This shift splits a single thing, the thneton zwon, into two distinct things, a body and a soul! To us this makes no sense.

The Stranger asks whether one soul is just, another unjust, one wise, another foolish? (All adjectival constructions.) Why not?

Again a shift from adjectives to substantives. "Is it not by the possession and presence of justice that the soul becomes wise?" (dikaiosunhs hexei kai parousia gignesthai). They agree.

.But is not something "capable of becoming present or becoming absent" (dynaton tw paragignesthai kai apogignesthai) a real thing? They agree.

The operative adjective here, "capable" (dynaton) will shift to a substantive in the conclusion: Things that are dynata — justice, injustice, and the like--will turn out to be dynameis — powers. Justice, injustice and the like, already real things, later turn out to be powers, dynameis. Such syntactical moves provide the only visible articulation in this "rational explanation."

Does the passage corroborate Russell’s critique, similar to Heidegger’s: Indo-European syntax misled the Greeks to the "belief or unconscious conviction" that "every fact consists in some thing having some quality;" that consequently "all relations...must be reduced to properties of the apparently related terms." Is this why in the Republic justice is a highly valued property of the soul with only a derivative connection to society?

The Stranger proceeds. Granted that justice, wisdom "and the soul in which they come into being" are real things, are any of these things "visible and touchable?" The answer — None.

The materialist no longer identifies knowing with sense perception.

The Stranger attacks his materialism at a still deeper level: Do these invisible things have bodies?

The materialist distinguishes: The soul does, but he dare not insist either that wisdom and the like do not exist or that they are bodies — the horns of the dilemma.

The Stranger (against Heidegger) takes this as an admission that something bodiless exists. For that they are "willing to admit that something no matter how small (ti kai smikron) exists as bodiless" — this suffices (exarchei) for him to proceed.

Why the materialist’s distinction? Why insist souls are bodies, then admit knowledge and justice cannot be? We do not know. We have in fact no idea what is going on in this whole inquisition?

What is "this bodiless thing, no matter how small," that allows the Stranger to proceed? Something is present in both bodies and bodiless things (against Heidegger) that has "turned out to be co-natural (to ...sumphues gegonos)" to both bodies and bodiless things, "looking at which they say that both exist." Once this is identified, "they might well be willing to accept it and agree that precisely that is the being" (omologein toionde einai to on).

He focuses their vision: "I suggest anything whatsoever naturally constituted (pephukos) to possess power (kekthmenon dynamin) either somehow to affect something else (eis to poiein eteron otioun) or to be affected in even the smallest way by even the most insignificant thing, and even if this happens only once — everything of this sort really exists. For I am establishing that there is a border that confines the beings in such a way that they are nothing else but power" (247e).

Against Heidegger, we take the text literally and work out its backward implications.

The conclusion that being is nothing but power implies every aspect of the inquiry leading up to the conclusion must instantiate it. The text’s conclusion dictates what must have been going on beneath its surface from the outset.

First, all objects investigated — livings things, souls, justice — must be re-investigated precisely as powers acting on each other. For if being is nothing but power, there is nothing else to investigate. The bodies the materialist believes in must all interact with each other.

Second, the ontology dictates precisely the epistemology Socrates teaches Phaedrus (Phaedrus 270d). In every inquiry, including the Stranger’s, you must first determine whether the object being investigated is simple or complex; then, if it is simple, you must determine what powers (dynameis) it has to act on or be acted on by another thing; then, if it is complex, you must count its parts, and investigate them the way a simple object would be investigated. Claiming that all knowledge is sense knowledge, the materialist is claiming his senses can adequately distinguish the interacting factors in any phenomenon and the nature of the interaction. In his inquiry the Stranger, forcing the materialist to distinguish all factors involved in all phenomena discussed, gets him to make distinctions his senses cannot make.

Third, the ontology dictates that the inquirers interact with and change or be changed by the objects they inquire into: "If to know is to act on something, what is known must be acted upon by the knowing, and accordingly, reality [including the forms] in so far as it is known, must be changed owing to being so acted upon" (248e). Materialist (and friend of forms) must explain what sort of interaction with bodies (or forms) accounts for the knowledge they lay claim to — in general and in this specific inquiry. The materialist’s interaction with invisible things in this specific inquiry will turn out to be the "bodiless thing, no matter how small, even if it happens only once" that will "suffice" to allow the Stranger to proceed. (The friend of forms will also be unable to account for the interaction with forms by which he knows them.)

The Stranger’s strategy in this context? To force the materialist to make distinctions his senses cannot make. That all action is interaction dictates no body can move itself. Seeing a tree waving, he perceives the invisible wind moving it. He "sees" the wind blowing the dust in a wind-devil. A living thing, Socrates tells Phaedrus, is "an earthen body which seems... to move itself." Such bodies must have parts the senses cannot discern. "Any body that has an external source of motion is soulless (apsychon), but a body deriving its motion from a source within is besouled (empsychon)" (Phaedrus 245-6). For "the essence and definition of soul" is "self-motion." The Stranger asks whether there is such a thing as a mortal living creature, which is empsychon, which has a soul in it, forcing the materialist to "see" the souls of living things as clearly as he perceives the wind moving the dust-devil. When the dust dies down, the wind has stopped. When the "mortal" living thing stops moving, its soul is no longer there. For it is by the presence and absence of the soul that the body is alive — capable of self-motion.

Cold water becomes hot only if an external agent, fire, makes it hot. Take away the fire, it remains hot. Something must be inside it, heat, that makes it hot: It is "by the possession and presence" of heat that the water is hot.

A soul becomes knowledgeable only if an external agent, a teacher, makes it knowledgeable. Remove the teacher, the soul remains knowledgeable. Something still inside it must be making it knowledgeable: "Is it not by the possession and presence of knowledge, or justice, that the soul is knowledgable or just?"

If heat and cold, wisdom and justice are "capable (dynata) by their presence in and absence from the water or the soul of making the water or the soul hot or just, are they not certainly something?’’ Of course. The syntax here moves from dynata to dynameis — powerful to powers. The syntactical structure is, however, just the surface appearance of the deeper lying pre-ontology.

Not Indo-European syntax (against Russell) but the Being = power ontology dictates that all relations be "reduced to properties of the apparently related terms." The understanding of relations implied throughout the corpus is not a bit of ontological flotsam or jetsam, but an implication of the corpus pre-ontology: There is no way for relations to arise that transcend the properties in the terms supporting the relations.

Asking the materialist whether souls, justice, wisdom and the like are visible or tangible is asking whether his eyes and hands can make the distinctions he has just made. He realizes he has made distinctions his senses cannot make; knowledge cannot be identical with sense perception. He is no longer a materialist.

Now the crucial point Heidegger misses: Are souls, knowledge, justice and the like bodies? Souls, the converted materialist insists, are bodies. But he cannot say the same of knowledge or justice. Why not? If souls can be bodies, why must knowledge be more than the physical interaction of bodies — light rays, atoms, whatever, interacting with the senses to produce the physical awareness we call sensation?

Imagine a new myth of Jones — a tribe of materialists, genuine autochthones, each with a body and a physical soul. Their knowledge is sense knowledge, and they know nothing but bodies. Their sensation is a completely physical operation — rays, atoms, particles, whatever, interact with their senses to produce their knowledge of the world. Why can the materialist not cling to this perfectly coherent image of his world?

Only one thing. The materialist’s world is coherent — only so long as no materialist is aware of it. Against Heidegger, it is not the materialist’s soul that does not fit into his world — but his realization that he has a soul. When the first materialist becomes aware of his tribe’s condition — even if he is "affected in even the smallest way by even the most insignificant thing, and even if this happens only once" — materialism dies. The materialist’s recognition that he has a soul in the course of the inquiry itself is the ti kai smikron, the "thing no matter how small," that will "suffice" for the Stranger to proceed. For his knowledge is the one small event that must be an interaction between things, but cannot be an interaction between bodies, for his bodyhis sensescannot know he has a soul. (Do you think the genuine autochthones do not realize why they have to keep silent, expressing themselves with sign language?)

The Stranger now asks the materialist to look back at all the things they have investigated through power-colored lenses, bodies and bodiless things alike, and say what he sees. Some lenses make the world pink, some make it sexual, the materialist’s lenses turn the world into power: Tithemai gar oron horizei ta onta ws estin ouk allo plen dynamis.

It must be clear that it is we who understand the text this way. We understand it by working out the logical inferences. Our understanding of the text, that is, is a counter-instance of the text’s Being = power ontology. For we understand it inferentiallywithout interacting with the object we know. If the materialist himself understood it this way, the logic would collapse. The Stranger must get the materialist to work out the inferences necessary to perceive the wind-devil or the soul without being aware of it.

"No serious man will ever think about writing about serious realities for the general public," Plato wrote. "I certainly have composed no work in regard to it nor shall I."

If we have succeeded in breaking through the text’s surface, nine-tenths of the iceberg is still to be investigated. This cannot be done within a fifteen minute long border.

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