Hermeneutics and Deconstruction: Heidegger/Derrida; Heidegger’s Plato, Derrida’s Plato (b)
According to Heidegger, the question of the meaning of Being, and thus Being as such, has been forgotten by ‘the tradition’ (roughly, Western philosophy from Plato onwards). Heidegger means by this, and here we’ll follow Wheeler’s succinct summary, that the history of Western thought – history being crucial – ‘has failed to heed the ontological difference, and so has articulated Being precisely as a kind of ultimate being, that history shows in its ‘names’ for Being: ‘Idea’ of course but also, energeia, substance, monad or ‘finally’, will to power. All these for Heidegger signify Being as such being forgotten. So the task is to recover the question of the meaning of Being.’
Note this ‘question’ because that supposes a being who can ask the question – this is Dasein and Dasein is on the way to the meaning of Being which was lost in the Idea – lost because the Idea de-historicises Being. It stops the history of Being being the matter of thought and thus Being is hidden in the history of philosophy hitherto. In other words: Plato initiates a shift in Greek thought from the primacy of phusis, understood as growth, emergence into the light, self-manifestation as a process, to the particular and determinate look of what emerges or manifests itself – what happens or gives itself, if you like.
This is why Heidegger eventually goes back through and behind Plato to re-historicise Being and tell us what it means. Dasein is us – indeed for some commentators a we and not an I – insofar as we show/do/act in the world as if this is a question for us – even if we don't consciously know it. Hence all the stuff about tools and walks in the Black forest in lederhosen and feeling anxious … Which means Heidegger analyses in all this the need to return to the origin of Western thought, not to reduplicate it in an ontologically reconstituted manner but in order to find another way, a way of thinking altogether other than that of the Greeks, and one, Stanley Rosen says, ‘that is associated with other gods.’
So, in Wheelers terms, Heidegger makes a distinction between two types of inquiry: The first – hence the discursive version of the ontological difference – is between ‘the ontical and the ontological; where the former is concerned with facts about entities and the latter is concerned with the meaning of Being thus with how entities are intelligible as entities.’ Thus the history of Western thought is ‘characterized by an ‘onticization’ of Being (by the practice of treating Being as a being)’ – this is what Plato does, Heidegger says later, when he turns truth from its original meaning as un-concealment to the proto-subjectivist ‘correctness’ – thus a subjectivist determination of what is as what is for us. More on this below.
Using some Heideggerian language as cited by Wheeler from Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, we see what’s at stake: ‘an ontic knowledge can never alone direct itself ‘to’ the objects, because without the ontological… it can have no possible Whereto’. So a different enquiry is necessary – and this for Heidegger is to move away from a central dichotomy of subjectivism/objectivism or essentialism/nominalism – hence the priority of the existential over the essential as breaking with these dualisms that battle together over essence.
Now we have ‘different kinds of inquiry within the category of the ontological; between regional ontology and fundamental ontology, where the former is concerned with the ontologies of particular domains, say biology or banking, and the latter is concerned with the a priori, transcendental conditions that make possible such particular modes of Being’ (Wheeler) – so these regional ones. You can see the reciprocity between them.
‘The question of Being aims… at ascertaining the a priori conditions not only for the possibility of the sciences which examine beings as beings of such and such a type, and, in doing so, already operate with an understanding of Being, but also for the possibility of those ontologies themselves which are prior to the ontical sciences and which provide their foundations. Basically, all ontology, no matter how rich and firmly compacted a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains blind and perverted from its own most aim, if it has not first adequately clarified the meaning of Being, and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task.’
So, the question of the meaning of Being? As noted, Dasein, which I suppose is best understood as there-being or being there, why not? You get it. In its there-ness it’s not Being qua Being (with a capital B – so as it is) but is what being is at any given time or place or as some thing. But, and this is a bit of a contentious bit, Dasein is only really being-there as human because it alone is compelled to the question of the Being of its being-there. But again it’s not human-being as such – the qualitative variety ascribed to the Cartesian subject e.g. It’s human being as this orientation to its Being and as such is for Heidegger ‘a way of life’ shared by the members of some community. An analogy that Heidegger makes, cited by Wheeler, and it’s important is with the way in which ‘we might think of a language existing as an entity, that is, as a communally shared manner of speaking’; an intrinsic human capacity.
As Husserl emphasised, and to illustrate what’s at stake in this gesture of the common, ‘consciousness’ is always consciousness of something; as con-sciousness, it is also shared. ‘As the term indicates, the phenomenon of consciousness itself presupposes a fundamental connection not only between the conscious or thinking 'subject' and the perceived 'object' but also among thinking subjects. To discover the nature and foundations of our knowledge, it would thus be necessary to investigate the character of this original connection, the connection Descartes severed in his attempt to provide knowledge with an indubitably firm foundation in the cogito taken entirely by itself.’
Of course, Heidegger has to radicalise Husserl who was still too in thrall to the sciences and thus to consciousness and never quite got back to things as such. So Heidegger had to take or in fact insist on the more hermeneutic approach to discover ‘the nature of that pre-theoretical experience upon which all subsequent theory was founded.’
Heidegger’s aim, as noted, which he didn't write up in the end, is ‘the destruction of the Western philosophical tradition’ – the means is this discursive reduction whereby although the tradition takes theoretical knowledge to be primary, such an ‘onticisation’ of knowledge presupposes ‘the more fundamental openness to Being’ that Heidegger bangs on about as essential to Dasein. In Being and Time, Heidegger explicitly targets Descartes but the same argument applies to Plato.
If you want to put this really basically we could say we are creatures of appearing who have forgotten their being because we already have the idea that being is something over and above us that we cannot know as such but do know as this idea – we have it as correct knowledge – and yet in our very appearing we do all sorts of things that ‘show’ our anxiety in the face of being which is never what we know, and this anxiety is the sign of the desire to pursue the question of our common Being. Hence, then, for Heidegger: ‘the task of interpretation is to press through to the underlying connection of phenomena that Plato did not investigate but which was nonetheless real [and so effective] for him. Only then do the grounds out of which he produced his analysis become present.’
So you can see phenomenology – what there is; hermeneutics the interpretive history of what there is insofar as it is. Or together, as in the original meaning of phainomenon, ‘the self-showing of the being to the one who inquired about it.’
As Rosen notes, Heidegger’s readings of Plato vary over time, as does his own approach – he has his own so called turn from science of being qua being in terms of an access to being by means of phenomenological analysis of human existence in respect to its temporal and historical character, to his emphasis on language as the vehicle through which the question of being can be unfolded. Indeed his reading of the Sophist which is brilliant and the only sustained reading he gives of a dialogue is prior to both Being and Time and this turn and can be seen in the way that it tracks Plato’s own tangled and deductive search for the Being of a being as precursor for how and what he comes to intervene on to denounce.
But it’s these key aspects – phenomenology, hermeneutics, the orientation to Being and Dasein that recur as fundamental throughout. As does his critique of Plato and the tradition he see as his, which, as Rosen says, ‘comes down to the the so-called theory of Ideas’ – which, as Rosen also points out, and we know, is only a theory in Aristotle. The Idea for Heidegger, then, is essentially what he takes to be Plato’s response to what he, Heidegger, insists is at stake always in philosophy – the question of Being. Taking Plato as seeking after the definitive, Heidegger basically assumes Plato has given an answer and thus closed down the question.
With regard to this, and following Zuckert’s summary, it is interesting to note what his great student and hermeneut of distinction Hans-George Gadamer says:
‘Heidegger read Plato too much in terms of Aristotle's critiques’. In Being and Time for example – and for Gadamer this is a critical problem of Heidegger’s reading – ‘the dialectic is called a ‘philosophical embarrassment’ which had fortunately been quickly superseded by Aristotle’. ‘In the Nichomachean Ethics,’ Gadamer says, ‘Aristotle faulted Plato's Idea of the Good because it failed to provide human beings with practical guidance in making decisions, that is, because it severed theory from practice. In the Metaphysics, he faulted Plato's theory of the ideas in general for unnecessarily separating the idea from the thing.’ He continues: ‘Heidegger extended both criticisms out from Plato as source, to the history of philosophy as a whole’ – thus the western metaphysical tradition culminating in Nietzsche – whom Heidegger referred to as ‘the most unbridled Platonist’.
For Gadamer, as opposed to Heidegger, ‘to recapture an original, pre-metaphysical view of human existence as it was illuminated by philosophy it was not necessary to turn to the pre-Socratic philosophers, tragedians, or Homer; such a view was to be found in Plato – and only in Plato – because in his depiction of Socrates, Plato rooted philosophical investigations – hence his metaphysical theorising – in the concerns of everyday practical life.’
One of the things Gadamer is saying here is that Heidegger never understood or appreciated the form of the dialogue itself within which one of the key things for Gadamer is that philosophy keeps going – there is no end as such there is only, Gadmer says, participation.
This view of Gadamer’s here, as cited by Zuckert – that the dialogues are both practice and theory – that in the words of Parmenides to think and to be are the same – and thus that what Plato writes is what is done, squares with my own – albeit we might have different ways at it. (For example, ‘G is still a phenomenologist when he argues that intention plays a key role in discerning the Being-beings confusion.’ Thus the sophist and philosopher are distinguished via their intention with regard to it – emphasising one or the other.
For me, following Badiou, this distinction is a matter of orientation or event. Thus the subject is possible not constitutive and thus philosophy does not end as such but is discontinuous, as Plato shows in the constant exhaustion of dialogue in aporia. Which is to say, then, that it must always resume again or be re-found!
Moreover, Gadamer is one of the few to appreciate, as the great Jacob Kline instructs him, that the theory of number – what a number is – plays a foundational role in conditioning any possible thought of such a praxis; mathematics, thus, has an ontological status in Plato. Whereas for Heidegger, the discourse of philosophy is originally, and properly speaking that of the poem, and thus for Heidegger, it is the poem which harbours the only hope for thought in our all too metaphysical age.
Metaphysical thought manifest today as technical thought wherein knowledge is subordinated to production – human and or divine or market. This notion of production is what matters for Heidegger – it's the Idealisation of Being continued, which for him, Christianity realised in the subjective sense but is ‘found’ in Plato ‘readymade’ so to speak – simply, that what we know and know of is a matter of what can be thought –which is to say, as he later does, that the Idea is this production itself.
Anyway, I shouldn't criticise him too much before exigising him but the centre of Heidegger’s contention as you see is that Plato’s genius is in writing the veil: concealing un-concealedness as the truth of being. Such that as with Parrhasius’ painting, the veil itself is mistaken for the real thing.
Stanley Rosen has this interesting way of contextualising Heidegger’s idea of Plato’s Ideas. He thinks that Heidegger treats Plato as an ‘ontologist of production.’ Which is his way of putting Heidegger’s important claim that the Greek term agathon – key for Plato – essentially supposed to mean Good (man) – really means ‘useful’, which would be then another indication of Plato idealising or hypostasing how things look to the human thinker’. Heidegger’s etymologising is part of his critical hermeneutics or indeed is essential to it – and this influence – which is also the confluence of language and Being is of course hyper visible in Derrida, but also Foucault and Agamben and of course Nietzsche was a philologist.
Rosen says that ‘Heidegger ostensibly thereby reverses the traditional interpretation of the Platonic Ideas as genuine, unchanging, and eternal entities that exist independent of the modifications of human cognition.’ Which, as we know, is a purely Aristotelian categorisation. If I was feeling uncharitable, I’d say he reverses a reversal which would be to say he mistakes his target but it does lead to a nevertheless interesting charge – one I’d avow in Plato – that Plato is the originator of the modern doctrine of subjectivity. But this is itself confused with subjectivism or the idealist sense of the subject of consciousness, thus the sort of subjectivism which Heidegger finds at its apotheosis in Nietzsche’s will-to-power.
Note this in terms of lineage, though, because Descartes is almost always considered to be the culprit here, by postmodernism and post-structuralism and every other relativism needing to find its stable, unchanging centre; around which it can makes its claim that everything is changing, unstable, decentred.
As I noted, the so-called rationalist tradition which is a metaphysical one for Heidegger is all in the firing line since Plato. Thus, again following Rosen, for Heidegger, ‘genuine being (what Plato calls ontôs on) is not an eternal paradigm of transient particulars but the concealment of being by the looks of beings, looks that constitute a human perspective with a view to utility and domination and underpinned then by a notion of truth as correctness.’
Hence, as noted, in the lecture on Sartre, Plato’s Idea is merely the attempt by the human intelligence to gain mastery over being and to make it accessible to human manipulation. Reading through Aristotle, but not necessarily with him either, ‘Heidegger thus sees anthropocentrism or humanism at the very origin of the Western tradition, which he designates as Platonism.’ Hence this is the very nature of the concealment of being and our estrangement from it. Note this, it’s interesting – it’s concealment from us – hence theoretical; and our estrangement from it – hence its materiality. Just note how the disjunction between being and thought replays itself, even in the efforts to un-conceal, which is of course the path that Deasein pursues.
This is the beauty of phenomenology. It allows for the description of what it is for a being to be but it doesn’t have to concern itself with what it is to be as such – because that would mean the very dualism it purports to overcome between Being and beings – via a sort of thesis of mutual manifestation as it were – a ‘lighting up of Being by beings’ as Rosen quaintly puts it – was back in play. In thinking about all the everyday things we do – use tools relative to a task, famously – Heidegger ‘concentrates upon how we experience being in the world rather than upon the principles and formal elements of beings.’
For Rosen, for example, one consequence of this shift in emphasis is that to be ‘on the way toward language’ is frequently to be within ‘the penumbra of silence’. Genuine thinking proceeds ‘in the claim to the soundless voice of Being.’ And this integral silence, ‘metaphysics fills with discourse or Logos’. Reason cannot capture, then, the silence of Being as such. But what captures this ‘non-clamor of being’, which is to say, in what form can this silence resonate or be spoken? Or to put it another way, what speaks about what is otherwise indiscernible or indescribable yet, as such, manifest in everything? The poem, of course, which I might describe as the ‘intention of intuition’.
Now let me characterise this problem of Plato in the terms of Rosen’s critique of Heidegger. I say ‘problem’ because it is precisely the question which Plato ‘forgets’ – which is to say makes forgotten, which is to say, ushers in the deterioration of. It works also because Rosen notes some of the terms for its continuing in the history of philosophy – there are more of course and indeed one can insert ones own hated Ideal into the list as one pleases and why not after all, there is no Idea at all really, right, and so anyone’s as good as any other… I’m not saying Heidegger – that last universally recognised philosopher as Badiou calls him, from the contemporary post-absolute perspective – is a sophist but I’m also not saying that Heidegger doesn't usher in the reappearance of said sophistry.
Here is Rosen:
‘This deterioration … is as follows. Plato’s dualism is that of Ideas and the doctrine of Eros. The history of metaphysics can be regarded as the steady assimilation of the Ideas, which are originally (and contrary to Heidegger) understood as entirely independent of human cognition, into eros, known variously as nous, spirit, the ego, self-consciousness, will to power, and even care, to include Heidegger himself in this historical process. The first step in the transformation, or rather, the attempted overcoming, of this “Platonist” dualism is Aristotle’s attempt to unite forms with the material substrate of particular instances on the one hand and with the intellect on the other. This attempt at unification provides the basis for the subsequent disappearance of essences and the gradual emancipation of subjectivity, the two necessary presuppositions for the emergence of the various forms of metaphysical productionism that dominate in late modern and contemporary philosophy.’
But again Heidegger seems to have mistaken the route Rosen says – ‘sliding Platonism into neo-Platonism’, whereby we get this emanation from Being of beings thing going on, and on the other hand evoking a kind of proto-Dasein transcendental subjectivity. For Rosen, the paradox is that Heidegger ‘maintains thereby a sort of adherence to Plato but not to the Plato he rejects’, which, as I said in lecture one, is what seems often to be going on. The erection of a Plato to reject, and then, in and by the double process of building this figure to be rejected, thus building the alternative to that rejected, a sort of Platonism returns despite oneself.
Let me just give one example of how this occurs and again I draw it from Rosen’s discussion – then we’ll move along from it. This point about H’s anti-Platonist Platonism showing up as concealed can be illustrated with regard to ‘Heidegger’s version of what Husserl calls ‘pre-predicative’ awareness, that is, the pre-discursive openness to being.’ Rosen says, ‘Plato’s Ideas, at least in some of his portraits – note this indefinability in Plato himself – are not initially accessible to discursive intelligence.’ This is pretty clear I think – the dialogue form itself shows us this: when we converse we almost always go from a particular to the universal.
In fact, think about it: You are at a bbq having an innocent conversation about the match last night. It begins when someone says, ‘did you see that tackle on so and so?' ‘Yes, I did!’ And then off you go and soon enough you are comparing incidents; then you speak about the rule that should be applied vis a vis these particulars which are then examples with regard to it; then you talk about the rule itself, its general purpose, then the idea it supports, fairness, say. You still think you are talking about football but really you are not – you are speaking of principles or the good or justice itself, which clearly exceeds the example or particular instance. The difference is that only a philosopher will say that is what we are talking about – which is where you find yourself going silent at a bbq, if you are a philosopher. You come to know where the line is between what can be talked about as a matter of experience and what is a matter of thought itself. Maybe this is what Heidegger means by the ‘soundless voice of Being’… But no, it’s not.
Of course the phenomenological (or pre-Socratic) point is that ‘these Ideas must be intuited or more Platonically, seen by the non-discursive intellectual power of the intellect in order to become available to discursive analysis.’ The cave is a representation of this, when the escaped convict of representation goes up out of the dark and sees the sun and the real it shows him. Rosen argues that this is a point that Heidegger retains, albeit, no doubt, in a quite different context and set of terms.
In what Heidegger calls ‘Platonism,’ however, intuition is replaced by production. That is to say, we intuit, or know, only what we ourselves make. Thus he can extrapolate a history of this: ‘that the inaccessibility of God’s knowledge of his creations is thus counterbalanced by our knowledge of what we create. Pagan thought succumbs to Christianity, which in turn collapses before the onslaught of the emancipated human will, of which the decisive step is the modern European Enlightenment. The Ideas or pure forms are thus replaced by the symbolic constructions or models of human imaginative intelligence, itself in the service of what Descartes calls “the passions of the soul.”’
So it's a weird scene. Heidegger’s critique of what Aristotle makes of the forms in his delimitation of them, Heidegger congeals into what the forms are for Plato. He then critiques that as the theory of the forms to reveal the anthropocentrism behind it – the poesis of it, if you like – Poesis meaning, making, of course. He then of course wants to retain the sense of poesis as the way to Being as such which the critique of Plato reveals he has hidden.
Plato hides his making of the Ideas by making them seem unmade – eternal etc. It's this making of concealing Heidegger wants to unmake while keeping the making to the fore and reversing it such that Being in the mode of Dasein works toward the un-concealment of the Being it is. Beings for Heidegger don't make being but are in their being, beings of Being itself. As Dasein, beings uniquely maintain in their being and doing an openness to Being as such. This is the authenticity of Dasein. Whereas Plato speaks of participation to account for what a being can be – what being and thought can be – Heidegger depicts beings as so many instances of what Being is in itself – which then every being is not – so the existentialist would say.
Moreover, it is quite interesting that Heidegger must himself produce out of this beginning an end. Yes the end is begun in Plato but the end of this beginning Heidegger has to produce as in the world of our present epoch evident in the last metaphysical Idea – that of technology as over and above us.
I think that Heidegger is right about this propensity – it was already recognised by Fichte in terms of the absolute ego, which conceals itself within its presentation as a finite determination or entity and this is the place of capitalism today in terms of our knowledge – but the point Rosen and many others makes, and I am making and that Badiou has made too is that Plato didn't say that! Or at least that Plato can be shown to say something else entirely which is already enough to say that he couldn't have ushered in the end of philosophy but precisely the very conditions whereby it can only again recommence.
Hence the basic argument that what’s at stake finally in Heidegger is the conflation of Plato with Aristotle – which then forgets Plato almost entirely except as empty Ideal for the whole of western metaphysics and its critics. The terms of the conflation are thus: ‘Phusis becomes Idea (paradeigma); truth becomes correctness. The Logos becomes a proposition, it becomes the place of truth as correctness, the origin of the categories, the fundamental proposition about the possibilities of being. ‘Idea’ and ‘category’ become then the two headings under which Western thinking and doing stand.’ What Heidegger blurs, if not ignores, poetry being the means, finally, is that' ‘‘Idea’ and ‘category’ belong to two distinct strands of the ‘Platonist tradition’.
‘In this tradition’, Rosen concludes, ‘we begin from the looks of everyday appearances and proceed by analysis to the formal structure of beings. This formal structure is called an Idea or a form. As the etymology suggests, forms are, in the deepest sense of the phrase, how things look to us. But and this is what is said in the Parmenides, these looks provide the basis for all rational discourse’, and, Rosen says ‘of poetry as well.’ Thus he reckons that ‘Heidegger’s success is the failure of his own philosophy’. Another foundering on the rock of Plato, perhaps?
We’ll leave it there. Next week we’ll move through Heidegger into Derrida, who is in some senses more Heideggerian than Heidegger, which suggests either he is more anti-Platonic or insofar as his being more Heideggerian than Heidegger is also in some way a negation of him and so Derrida could be more Platonist in his anti-Platonism than Heidegger.
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Catalin Partenie and Tom Rockmore (Eds), Heidegger and Plato: Toward Dialogue.
Catherine H. Zuckert, Post Modern Platos.
Drew A. Hyland, Questioning Platonism.
Hans George Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato.
Stanley Rosen, ‘Remarks on Heidegger’s Plato’.
John D. Caputo, Radical Hermenutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project.
Kurt Mueller-Vollmer (Ed.), The Hermeneutics Reader.
Martin Heidegger, Ontology - The Hermeneutics of Facticity.
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