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Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part 1:
Platonism

Plato and Aristotle [1]

Plato and Aristotle, detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens, 1510-1511.

8,701 words

1. Introduction

In my essay “Heidegger Against the Traditionalists [2],” I sketched a critique of Guénon and Evola from a Heideggerian perspective. Although I raised several objections to Traditionalism, the crucial one was this: Guénon and Evola are thoroughly (and uncritically) invested in the Western metaphysical tradition.  According to Heidegger, however, it is precisely the Western metaphysical tradition that is responsible for all the modern ills decried by the Traditionalists.

That objection was not fully developed in the previous essay. Doing so would involve giving an account of how Heidegger sees the unity of the Western philosophical tradition, and exactly why he thinks that it sets the stage for modernity. That is the purpose of the present essay, and of the next two that I shall post here. The three essays together will cover the history of metaphysics from Plato to Nietzsche. Needless to say, what I will be offering is a very terse summary of ideas Heidegger developed over the course of more than five decades, in lectures and essays that now run to more than one hundred volumes of collected works. What follows, therefore, merely scratches the surface.

I should also note that this account of Heidegger’s history of metaphysics, and my critique of the Traditionalists, is part of a larger project the aim of which is to arrive at a new approach to philosophy, through putting Heidegger and the Traditionalists into dialogue with each other. The plan for this series of essays, which will consist of six installments, is given as an appendix to the present text. Each essay builds on the last, but each is relatively self-contained. In the present essay, however, I will assume that the reader understands certain distinctions made in the previous installment.

2. The Pre-Metaphysical Greek Understanding of Being 

One of the many misconceptions about Heidegger is that he searched all of his life for the meaning of the word “Being.” In fact, Heidegger’s real concern was with what points us towards Being in the first place; with how we ever become aware of Being, or take Being to be a “question.” And Heidegger defined human nature precisely in terms of our relationship to Being: we are the beings for whom Being is an issue. There is no other animal like that. And this is why he refers to human beings as Dasein. This is a word used in ordinary German, and it is normally translated as “existence.” Literally, it means “there [da] being [sein],” or “being there.” When I say that the pencil to my left “exists,” I mean that it is “there,” independent of my mind, or outside me (which is literally what the Latin “exists” conveys).

However, Heidegger often uses familiar words in an idiosyncratic way, and Dasein is no exception. He refers to us as Dasein because we are the “there” or the location of Being. Why? Because we are what Being is manifest to. All manifestation has its dative: the “to whom” it is manifest. Being manifests itself to human being. Indeed, for Heidegger, Being just is this manifestation to a human being. We are, again, the only beings that are aware of the Being of things.

Just what does it mean to treat Being as manifestation? Let’s first replace this word with a somewhat more helpful synonym, one that is frequently used in the Husserlian phenomenology in which Heidegger was trained: presentation (Anwesenheit, Praesenz). To understand why Being is presentation, let’s resurrect an example I used in my last essay. I am walking up to my front door, and I see an unfamiliar object on the steps. “What is that?” I wonder. I am inquiring into the Being of the object; what it is. As I approach closer, the mystery is solved: I see that the object is an Amazon box. To put the matter a bit more phenomenologically (i.e., to describe how things appear to me in precise language and fine-grained detail [1] [3]), the object appears to me as an Amazon box; or, to sound quite Husserlian, it presences itself to me as an Amazon box.

This way of experiencing something, when it presences itself as a thing of such and such form or nature, is a fundamental structure of human experience (called “presentational as structure” in phenomenological parlance). And this is what Heidegger takes to be Being. Why? Quite simply, because the Being of something is just the same thing as what it presences itself as. [2] [4] In this presentational event, the Being of something is given to me; its identity or nature displays itself. Most people initially react to this analysis by saying that it seems far too “subjective.” Is Being just what things appear to be? Yes and no.

Suppose that at first the object appears to be an Orvis box, but on closer inspection turns out to be an Amazon box. Now, if the thing just is what it presents itself as, this seems to give us no way to declare that our initial impression was false; that the object is an Amazon box, and is not an Orvis box. Heidegger’s response to this is, in effect, to bite the bullet and say that the object does have the capacity to presence itself as an Orvis box; this is part of its Being (its presentational possibilities). And, clearly, he is right: if I can take the Amazon box as an Orvis box, then the former must have the capacity to display itself as the latter.

This is not as problematic as it may at first seem, for Heidegger readily admits that there are more and less adequate ways in which objects can be approached, which yield more or less revealing presentations. A “revealing presentation” is a bit of redundancy, since presentation, as we will see shortly, just is revealing. But all we mean is that some presentations are more reliable, steady, replicable, and rich than others. Yes, I can mis-take the object as an Orvis box, but the inadequacy of this presentation is realized and overcome the second I take a closer look.

However, if Being is presentation to Dasein, [3] [5] does this commit Heidegger to a kind of Berkeleyan idealism? Is “to be” simply “to be perceived”? In other words, for Heidegger, does the Amazon box exist even when no one is around for it to present itself to? Does it exist as an Amazon box even when no one is there to take it as an Amazon box? Yes. Emphatically, yes. Heidegger believes that there is something out there. Phenomenology is not phenomenalism [6]; Heidegger believes that something exists outside his skull. But what can we say about it? We can’t name that independent something an “object,” since objects are correlative to “subjects.” We also cannot say that there is a “world” out there, for Heidegger argues that our “world” is a world saturated with meanings and values that are only present for human beings. (See my essay “The Fourfold [7].”) Things always have Being — they “are” something or other — only in relation to the vast web of meanings that we call culture.

It is obvious that Heidegger is not using “Being” as equivalent to “existence.” To speak of the Being of the box, for Heidegger, is not the same thing as saying it is “out there.” This way of understanding the Being of something as what guarantees its “thereness” independent of my mind is a preoccupation of modern philosophy. And it only arises once we have bought into the strange Cartesian conception of ourselves as disembodied, container-like “subjects” stocked full of interior “ideas.” Only then does the “existence” of an “external world” become an issue (“how do I know that the ideas ‘inside’ me match up to anything ‘outside’?”).

Let’s try to expunge all such ways of conceiving ourselves that we have inherited from the accretions of Western intellectual history, and which often operate in our thinking as a “common sense” we never think to challenge. Let us get back to the things themselves, to invoke the rallying cry of Husserlian phenomenology. How do we do that? Quite simply, by being open to how things show up to us; how they presence themselves — with, as much as possible, fresh eyes, and without theories. If we do so we will realize that when we talk about “the Being of things” we are really talking about what they mean to us. And things are only meaningful in relation to an us; an us that derives its way of interpreting meaning from a cultural inheritance. It is only us, after all, that register what things are or what they mean; only us that says “so that’s what it is!”; only us that raises the question “what is Being?” Without us, “things” would still be “out there” (if that even means anything), but they would not be.

Now, this understanding of Being as presentation will probably seem strange, unfamiliar, and very modern to my readers. However, Heidegger argues that it is present in the early Greeks — meaning Greek thinking prior to the metaphysical tradition, which begins somewhere between Thales (fl. ca. 585 BC) and Plato (b. 428/427 BC). Heidegger discusses this thesis in a number of texts. An unusually clear discussion is to be found in Introduction to Metaphysics (to which I have devoted an entire article length commentary, elsewhere [7]).

There, he argues that the early Greeks understood Being as the same thing as what they called phusis (φύσις). This word is normally translated “nature” (we get “physics” from it) but Heidegger asks us to be cautious about accepting this. The concept of phusis suggests something dynamic. Heidegger points out that phusis is derived from the verb phuein (φύειν) which means “to generate or grow.” Thus, phusis for the Greeks was not simply the set of non-human-built things around us, which is what “nature” connotes; rather it was a dynamic process. Heidegger writes:

Now what does the word phusis say? It says what emerges from itself (for example, the emergence, the blossoming, of a rose), the unfolding that opens itself up, the coming-into-appearance in such unfolding, and holding itself and persisting in appearance — in short, the emerging-abiding sway. . . . Phusis is the event of standing forth. Arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand for the first time. [4] [8]

Phusis is what emerges out of potentiality or out of absence (the child is born, the child becomes a man, the man’s actions reveal the quality of his soul, etc.). It becomes present and actual — then disappears back into wherever it is such things emerge from. Phusis is this continual unfolding, emergence, and return. Heidegger tells us that “Phusis is Being itself, by virtue of which beings first become and remain observable.” [5] [9] A strong reason to accept this claim is that phusis is related etymologically to “being.” Phuein is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root bhú or bheu. Out of this we get “be,” “been,” “being,” and German bin, and bist.

The Greek term phainesthai is also derived from this root bhú. Phainesthai means “show” or “display,” and “phenomenon” is derived from it. This makes sense, given that phusis/Being is a kind of presentation or display. As I draw closer, the unfamiliar thing lurking on my doorstep presences itself as a racoon. Phenomenologically, the object’s Being seems to “unfold” or to “emerge” at a certain point in my encounter with it. What cannot be overemphasized, however, is that it unfolds or emerges out of a prior concealment or absence. [6] [10] So, we must enlarge the account given earlier of Being as “presentation”: the Being of beings always presences itself from out of a concomitant absence or concealment. Being is the oscillation between presence and absence.

In the case of all things, even Amazon boxes and racoons, when we know a part of the Being of the thing, much else remains absent, hidden (a simple example: when the front of the thing is present to me, the back is absent). Indeed, most of the thing remains hidden, like the proverbial iceberg. Beings contain depths. For every partial display, there is a withdrawal, a concealing. Early Greek thinking affirms this play of presence and absence. It recognizes that there is an ineluctable element of absence or concealment to phusis (as Heraclitus said, phusis kruptesthai philei, “phusis loves to hide”). Not all is revealed to us. What does get revealed always emerges out of hiddenness, and then returns into hiddenness again. In other words, early Greek thinking affirms mystery. In so doing, it affirms that there are limits to our knowing; to our ability to make what is fully present and intelligible.

Heidegger tells us that the Greek response to phusis was “wonder” (θαῦμα). He asks of us, though admittedly it is extremely difficult, that we try to think our way back into the Greek experience of Being as “coming-forth-out-of-concealment.” In one text, he asks what is “co-named in the word [phuein],” and he answers,

It is the overabundance, the excess of what presences. Here one should recall the anecdote of Thales: he is that person so struck by the overabundance of the world of the stars that he was compelled to direct his gaze towards the heavens alone. In the Greek climate, the human is so overwhelmed by the presence of what is present, that he is compelled to the question concerning what is present as what is present. The Greeks name the relation to this thrust of presence ϑαυμάζειν [thaumazein; to wonder]. [7] [11]

In Contributions to Philosophy, Heidegger is (surprisingly) even more clear: “The basic disposition of the first beginning [i.e., of the early Greeks] is wonder [Er-staunen]: wonder that beings are and that humans themselves are and are in the midst of that which they are not.” [8] [12]

Starting with some of the Pre-Socratic thinkers, however, an intellectual shift begins to take place that is only fully realized with Plato and Platonism. [9] [13] This shift is referred to in Heidegger studies as a movement toward “the metaphysics of presence” (a term actually coined by Jacques Derrida). Thinkers begin to demand, implicitly (it is not made explicit until the modern period) that what is be constantly present, in the sense of fully available and intelligible. [10] [14] This means that absence or concealment, as inherent in the nature of Being/phusis, comes to be denied, discounted, or, to speak more like Heidegger, “forgotten.”

The metaphysics of presence is an attempt to accommodate Being to one aspect of human nature. There is a part of us that is deeply uncomfortable with mystery. Just as we prefer light to darkness, we prefer knowing to not knowing. There is a certain sort of person who despises the darkness, as if it were a reproach to the power of his own intelligence. This sort of person usually denigrates the darkness as merely a temporary impediment to the mind’s understanding. Eventually, so he believes, we can cancel darkness altogether and bring everything into the light. The early Greeks would have seen this as hubris, an extreme arrogance that seeks to overstep natural limits, especially the boundary between the human and the divine.

It is this hubris that asserts itself in the Western metaphysical tradition from Platonism (in which it first truly becomes clear) to Nietzsche. This point is crucial to understanding Heidegger’s history of metaphysics.

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You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [16].

3. Platonism’s Metaphysics of Presence

In Platonism, we find the insistence that Being, true Being, is identical with “the forms.” But what are forms? The Greek word translated as “form” is eidos (εἶδος) which originally meant the “look” of a thing, in the sense of its appearance, its phainomenon. So, in actual fact, Being is defined here as presence to a human knower. “Idea” (ἰδέα) has a similar etymology. Heidegger says the following concerning it:

An ἰδέα is what-is-sighted. What-is-sighted is sighted only in and for an act of seeing. An “unsighted sighted” is like a round square or a piece of iron made out of wood. We finally have to get serious about the fact that Plato gave the name “ideas” to being [das Sein]. “Being sighted” is not an add-on to the ideas, a predicate subsequently connected to them, or something that occasionally happens to them. Instead it is what characterizes them first of all and as such. They are called “ideas” precisely and primarily because they are understood to be that: to be what-is-sighted. Strictly speaking, the “sighted” is only where there is a seeing and a looking. [11] [17]

Unlike phusis, however, the presence of the form comes without any concomitant absence, for the eidos presents itself to the intellect of man, and is fully intelligible by intellect. It has no “dark side” — no side that conceals itself from us, no mystery. It is fully intelligible because it is fully present; it hides nothing. Moreover, it remains always available to intellect, for it is eternal and unchanging.

When we encounter some object in nature, a cat for example, the “look”/form of the thing announces itself. This “look” is the appearing to the intellect of the “catness” the cat has. The cat is intelligible insofar as my intellect “sees” the catness that the cat “partakes of” (to use the Platonic language). Unlike the cat, however, this form never changes nor can it cease to exist; it cannot age or get run over by a bus. Catness presents itself to the intellect as firm and constant. The cat, by contrast, resists the intellect’s efforts to understand it. Why did it knock all the objects off the table? Why does it refuse to play with the expensive toy it was bought? Catness, however, never disappoints; it is fully knowable and fully available.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that Platonism comes to prefer catness to cats? Platonism declares that the form is what truly is, precisely because it reveals itself to intellect as permanent, unchanging, and fully intelligible. The sensible particulars that partake of forms either are not, or they have, at best, a kind of derived Being. Thus, Platonism rejects the physical, sensible world as fundamentally “unreal,” [12] [18] and declares the intelligible world, the world of forms only accessible to human intellect, as true reality; the “world of Being,” to borrow Evola’s expression, discussed in the previous essay. Heidegger writes in Pathmarks,

Overwhelmed, as it were by the essence, Plato understood εἶδος as something independently present and therefore as something common (κοινόν) to the individual ‘things’ that ‘stand in such an appearance.’ In this way individuals, as subordinate to the ἰδέα taken as what properly is, were displaced into the role of non-things. [13] [19]

It is crucial to see that what has actually occurred in Platonism is that the understanding of Being has been narrowed down to what satisfies human needs and desires. I prefer the knowable to the unknowable; the present to the absent; the predictable to the unpredictable. Voila! A world of forms is discovered; a world of objects that are knowable, forever present, and predictable. A world of true Being. The other, physical world that frustrates and disappoints tis but a dream.

I also happen to prefer the manipulable to that which frustrates my desires. And it is likewise crucial to see that, for Heidegger, this shift to “the metaphysics of presence,” to insisting that Being must be what makes itself fully available to human knowers, is simultaneously an insistence that what is be fully manipulable. These are intimately bound together. What is fully transparent to the intellect is also fully manipulable by the will, at least potentially. Knowledge makes such manipulation possible; knowing something allows us to discern ways in which it may be changed or exploited.

Manipulation seems to follow as a consequence of understanding, and indeed it does. But there is an important sense in which the desire to manipulate may precede and motivate the desire for understanding. Sometimes the desire to understand is “impure” (i.e., not pursued for its own sake); sometimes it serves the ends of a will that seeks mastery, a will to power. We are accustomed to think that this “knowledge is power” standpoint is quintessentially modern. But Heidegger already sees it at work in Platonism, and this is one of the primary ways in which Platonism’s metaphysics of presence founds modernity.

Understanding and manipulation, intellect and will, are coupled in Platonism in the following way. The forms satisfy the intellect’s desire that what is be fully intelligible. They also provide “models” or standards against which the sensible world is to be judged. The lesser beings of sense and physicality are seen in the light of the higher, truer beings of intelligibility — and inevitably found wanting. The urge to try to transform sensible being to bring it closer to the ideal, to intelligible being, becomes almost impossible to resist.

Thus, in the Republic we find that the philosophers, gazing upon the “Idea of the Good,” shall remake society so that it is perfectly “just.” Had the scheme Socrates lays out ever been tried, the result would have been calamitous. By the time the reader gets to the dialogue’s eighth book, he has realized, if he is discerning, that everyone in Socrates’s ideal city would be desperately unhappy. Children would not know their parents, and vice versa; no one may marry; no one may choose his occupation; women will be forced to serve in the military; the most influential members of society may own no property. Even the philosophers will be unhappy since they must rule (when all they really want is to be left alone to read). To bring the Kallipolis into being, human nature would have to be radically altered. But that is entirely acceptable to the Platonist: imperfect nature, which resists the intellect’s understanding, has no value in itself and stands condemned in its distance from the ideal. There can thus be no reason not to try to manipulate what is in order to bring it into accord with what ought to be.

Heidegger has adopted an interpretation of Platonism that could accurately be described as Nietzschean: Platonism stems from a “world denying” or “life denying” impulse; it damns this world in favor of an invented world that never disappoints. Then it proceeds, disastrously, to tinker with this world to try to remake it in the image of the ideal. Here we see the seeds of modernity’s will to mastery over nature, as well as the seeds of modern political “idealism,” as exemplified by the Jacobins and the Communists, among others.

Now, the reader may have noted that in the foregoing I have usually referred to “Platonism” rather than to Plato. The reason for this is that while the above accurately describes what the philosophical tradition takes to be “Platonism,” careful study of the dialogues suggests that Plato was not necessarily a Platonist. There are suggestions in the dialogues that Plato recognizes that the forms may not be entirely intelligible, or may not even be knowable at all. Also, the so-called “Straussian reading” of the Republic has it that the Kallipolis is not a serious proposal; indeed, that it is intended (in part) as an argument against political idealism, precisely because Socrates’s proposals would require changing human nature. This reading of the dialogue is actually quite compelling.

Finally, one might also mention Plato’s so-called “unwritten teaching,” which is briefly and tantalizingly described by Aristotle in the Physics and Metaphysics, and by some of the later Platonists and Peripatetics. According to these reports, Plato’s supposed “esoteric doctrine” held that Being is a “mixture” of two ultimate principles or ur-forms called “the One” and the “Indefinite Dyad.” The former is the principle of unity, order, and knowability, and is equivalent to the Republic’s “Idea of the Good.” The Indefinite Dyad, by contrast, is the “material” principle and is, in every way, the opposite of the One. It is the element of unknowability, and disorder that is found in all things. If the reports on these esoteric teachings are accurate, they suggest that Plato did recognize that Being involves an ineluctable element of absence or hiddenness.

Heidegger is aware that there is more to Plato than “Platonism.” However, in telling his history of metaphysics he is primarily concerned with what the philosophical tradition took to be Plato’s positions, because it was this interpretation that shaped the history of Western thought, not what Plato might “really” have meant. Whatever may have been Plato’s actual positions, and whatever subtleties in his thought may have been obscured by later philosophers and historians, what matters in understanding the history of Western metaphysics is what he was thought to mean. The earlier account accurately summarizes what the tradition takes to be “Platonism.” The process of interpreting Plato as a Platonist actually begins with Aristotle, Plato’s student.

4. The Metaphysics of Presence in Aristotle

If Plato did recognize an element of absence or hiddenness in Being, this is completely expunged from Aristotle’s revision of his teacher’s thought. (Aristotle is still recognizably a Platonist, even if the significant differences between his thought and Plato’s lead us to distinguish between Platonism and Aristotelianism.)

For Aristotle, the nous (intellect) has no nature of its own. It is a transparent medium, whose only characteristic is to receive the intelligible forms exhibited by objects. Nous cannot have a nature or form of its own, because if it did then that nature would distort or obscure the forms it receives. Aristotle writes in On the Soul,

[Since] everything is a possible object of thought, nous in order, as Anaxagoras says, to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block: it follows that it too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, other than that of having a certain capacity. (On the Soul, 429a)

Hence, since it is nothing, nous may know the forms of all things directly and completely, beholding them exactly as they are in themselves. Just as in Plato, these forms are, moreover, the Being of things. Here again we see that Being is identified with what is intelligible; in other words, Being has once again been identified with what satisfies the human desire for transparency and control. Indeed, note that Aristotle explicitly identifies knowing with control or dominion.

In terms of the doctrine of forms, the difference from Plato is that Aristotle rejects the Platonic separation (chorismos) between forms and sensibles, according to which forms are located in a transcendent realm of true Being. Instead, he makes forms immanent within things by identifying form with the work or function (ergon) of the thing. Nonetheless, the immanent form is ontologically distinct from the thing that “enacts” it. Aristotle also reconstitutes the Platonic chorismos through his theology. He argues that the ultimate reason things strive to realize or enact their form/function is because they are unconsciously imitating a transcendent God, whom Aristotle names the “Unmoved Mover.”

This God is a mind that exists in a state of perfect self-sufficiency, contemplating itself, and only itself. Because things are caused to realize their Being, their form/function, through their imitation of God, Aristotle holds that God is ultimately what makes beings be. Thus God is true Being. Note here that true Being has been identified with a mind, or with subjectivity, and that subjectivity has been made the telos or end of all of existence. Subjectivity is quite literally the be all and end all for Aristotle. What had been implicit in Platonism is now made explicit. Platonism, as we have seen, had implicitly defined Being in reference to subjectivity: Being, or the forms, is what is available to, and intelligible to, a knower. Aristotle now explicitly defines Being as subjectivity.

To be sure, he is speaking of divine subjectivity, not human. But this distinction will not stand the test of time. The zenith of modern philosophy will be reached when, in effect, Aristotle is accused of a failure of self-knowledge. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that the way of the philosopher, the path of Socratic self-understanding, is the terrestrial life that comes closest to that of the divine. Aristotle was not capable, however, of seeing that his God was just that same philosophical ideal projected into the heavens. If we tread where he dared not, the next step is to see that it is actually the philosopher and his self-knowledge that move the world. Could it be human subjectivity, in its highest and noblest form, that is actually the be all and end all? The task of explicitly drawing this conclusion will fall to the thinkers called the German Idealists, about whom I will have more to say in a later essay.

So far, we have seen that Platonism implicitly understands what is in terms of the needs and desires of human subjectivity. Heidegger argues, in addition, that there is a very real sense in which Platonism fails to address the question of Being at all. This is because it systematically obscures the difference between Being and beings. Since we have just discussed Aristotle, let us begin with him, for his theology provides a paradigm example of Heidegger’s claim.

As should be clear at this point, Being (capital B) refers to “Being as such,” or the Being that beings (lowercase b) “have.” The laptop in front of me is a being, because we say that it “has” Being (though clearly not in the way that it has 225 GB of memory). We say, in other words, that the laptop is. This distinction between beings (Seindes) and the Being (Sein) that beings have is what Heidegger calls “the ontological difference.” (In English, this gets confusing, hence the convention of using lowercase and uppercase b’s to distinguish between beings and their Being.)

When Aristotle inquires into the meaning of Being, as he does in the Metaphysics, he is asking what the “is” means when I say “the laptop is”: what is the Being that this being has? As we have seen, he answers this question by saying that, ultimately, God is Being. The trouble with this answer is that Aristotle most certainly wants to say that God is; in other words, he argues that God possesses Being. But this means that God is a being; a thing that has Being. Aristotle thereby obscures the question that motivates his Metaphysics. He explains the cosmos by reference to the highest and most exalted of the beings. But this is not the same thing as answering the question “what is Being?” When we say that God is or has Being, what does Being mean? What does it mean to say that anything has Being? Ultimately, Aristotle leaves his own question unanswered.

Heidegger argues that this is a pattern we see throughout the history of metaphysics. Instead of actually addressing this most fundamental of all questions — “what is Being?” — metaphysicians always wind up speaking about some important or exalted being, some thing that has Being. Aristotle speaks of God (a popular choice throughout the history of metaphysics). Plato, his teacher, speaks of the forms. These are also things that are, that are said to have Being. Thus, Plato too leaves the question of Being unanswered. Whether metaphysicians speak of God, or forms, or substance, or the transcendental unity of apperception, or Absolute Ego, or the Absolute, or Will, or Will to Power, or what have you, they always mean some ultimate thing that has Being; not Being as such. Thus, the history of metaphysics is the history of the systematic obscuring of the ontological difference, and thus of the question of Being itself. [14] [20]

What would it mean to truly answer, or at least to try to answer, the question of Being? It would mean, first of all, to open ourselves to something that presents itself to us, not to define an “idea.” What is presences itself to me. Being, as we have seen Heidegger argue, just is this act of presentation; it is not an abstraction, a category, or a class of things. But presence is always accompanied by absence; what is emerges from out of hiddenness or concealment. Again, Heraclitus: “phusis [Being] loves to hide.”

To come to terms with Being would involve, fundamentally, coming to terms with this interplay of presence and absence, of revealing and concealing. And that would mean coming to terms with the fact that absence is intrinsic to the nature of Being, and ineliminable. It would mean, in other words, accepting inherent limits on the ability of intellect to know the world; to make things present, knowable, and manipulable. It would mean accepting our finitude. But this is precisely what metaphysicians from Plato onwards cannot do. The turn toward metaphysics that inaugurates the history of Western philosophy is born in the insistence that what is must be that which satisfies the subject’s desire to know. It is born in denial of ineluctable absence, or hiddenness. Denial of mystery, and denial of human finitude.

Let us now step back and create a kind of character sketch of the knower or “subject” that asserts itself in Greek philosophy, and that will continue to serve as the principal protagonist in the entire history of Western metaphysics. Recall that Heidegger claims that modernity and all its ills are actually birthed by that tradition. Consider the following summary, and see how many of these characteristics are also reflected in the standpoint of the modern individual:

Greg Johnson writes the following in Graduate School with Heidegger [21]:

Greek philosophy was a product of the Greek language and culture. But it overlooked its own contingent and particular origins. The Greek objective conception of knowledge presented an image of man uprooted from language, customs, and place, a citizen of the world. The consummation of the first inception is modern technological civilization, in which man thinks of himself as entirely rootless and thinks of the world as merely a stockpile of resources to be manipulated and ultimately consumed. By contrast, the German new beginning [i.e., Heidegger’s philosophy] will lead Western man back to rootedness, an acceptance of finitude and uncertainty, and a sense that we are part of the natural world, charged with being its guardians, not its exploiters and consumers. [15] [22]

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You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune?, featuring extensive discussions of Heidegger, here [24]

5. Conclusion

In closing, let us consider a couple of objections to what has gone before.

First, one might object to Heidegger’s history of metaphysics by saying that he grossly overestimates the importance of philosophers. Is it plausible to think that the modern world is the result of philosophical writings that only a small percentage of the population has ever been able to read and understand?

Actually, Heidegger does not take this position at all. For him, the “metaphysical tradition” is not just a term for a tradition in Western philosophical writings. It also refers to a more than two-thousand-year-old Western cultural “trend” of which the works of philosophers are merely a reflection. In other words, Heidegger does not hold that the Western desire for total knowledge and mastery of nature is the result, purely and simply, of the influence of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes. To be sure, the works of philosophers are highly influential, but for Heidegger they are expressions of larger or deeper cultural movements, the origins of which are ultimately obscure and unknowable. [16] [25] Again quoting Greg Johnson,

As an anti-humanist, Heidegger does not think that human minds create history. Instead, history creates human minds. Modernity was not thought up by Plato, Descartes, and Nietzsche. Philosophers are not the hidden legislators of mankind. But they often offer the earliest and deepest articulations of fundamental changes in the Zeitgeist. [17] [26]

In other words, Heidegger holds that more than two thousand years ago a kind of shift in meaning took place in which men in the West began to define Being in terms of what satisfies human desires. The metaphysical tradition in philosophy gives voice to this understanding of Being. Heidegger holds that such shifts, such “dispensations of Being,” are ultimately inexplicable. We balk at this. But the reason for that is that we are caught in the Western metaphysical tradition, which insists that everything is explicable. Again, we cannot accept mystery. But Heidegger insists that the reason we moderns believe that all things are explicable is, in the final analysis, not fully explicable. The ultimate refutation of modernity may consist in modernity’s inability to explain itself.

Let us now consider one final objection.

As we have seen, Heidegger claims that prior to the advent of the metaphysical tradition, the Greeks lived a more authentic relation to Being. This was explained above, in terms of Heidegger’s analysis of phusis. It was this “more authentic relation to Being” that I had in mind in the previous installment of this series, when I suggested that there was something that corresponded to “primordial tradition” in Heidegger’s thought. Indeed, this was the basis of my claim that Heidegger may be “more traditionalist than the Traditionalists,” since the Traditionalists accept the authority of the metaphysical tradition, but Heidegger reaches back beyond metaphysics (which he sees as decadent) to recover something more “originary” (ursprünglich).

But perhaps we should be somewhat skeptical about Heidegger’s account of what this more authentic relation to Being actually was (or whether it even existed). After all, is etymological analysis of a few Greek words really sufficient to establish these claims? To be sure, Heidegger says more than my brief summary would indicate, and he does draw on a number of classical sources. Still, the result has not been entirely convincing to scholars. For instance, Thomas Sheehan writes,

Heidegger based much of his sweeping meta-history of the virtually inevitable decline of Western thought and culture on his idiosyncratic readings of a few cherry-picked fragments from the pre-Socratics that often lack sufficient hermeneutical context to support his interpretations. This is especially the case for Heraclitus’ fragments, but the same can apply to Parmenides. What to make, then, of a Seinsgeschichte [history of Being] that, at least as applies to the “first beginning” of thinking, is so dubiously grounded in Historie [evidential history]? [18] [27]

This is a serious objection. My own belief is that Heidegger’s analysis of the history of metaphysics is correct, in four basic ways. First, Heidegger has correctly identified unifying themes and assumptions running throughout Western intellectual history. Second, he is correct to see these themes and assumptions as problematic. Third, he is correct to see these as constitutive of modernity. Finally, he is correct to see the metaphysical tradition, with all its assumptions, as an intellectual “movement” (for lack of a better word) with a beginning and an end.

If this last point is indeed true, it must follow that there was a pre-metaphysical orientation toward Being. The question is only whether Heidegger has correctly described it. Here we may note serious deficiencies in Heidegger’s method. Sheehan is correct to chide Heidegger for the paucity of the sources he relies upon. Any attempt to recover the pre-metaphysical orientation toward Being must take into account a broader array of historical evidence. Why, to take one major example, does Heidegger have almost nothing to say about myth? If we are looking for Western man’s pre-philosophical understanding of Being, this seems an obvious place to look.

Here is an equally serious question: Why does Heidegger look exclusively to Greek sources? Needless to say, to give a synoptic account of Western metaphysics, one must begin with the Greeks. But if we are looking for that which is pre-metaphysical, why confine ourselves to the Greeks? Hans Sluga notes that “The limit of Heidegger’s insight lies in his inability to find historical paradigms anywhere but in early Greece. And that limitation is due, in turn, to his peculiar and never-reasoned belief that only the beginning is great and that only ancient Greece can be such a beginning for Western man.” [19] [28]

Like many European intellectuals educated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Heidegger studied Greek and Latin as a boy and was steeped in the history and literature of classical antiquity. When he thought of “the ancients” it meant Greece and Rome. This was a common prejudice of his generation that still survives in philosophy departments in Europe and America.

We can do better. Heidegger’s search for the pre-metaphysical understanding of Being must be expanded to include pre-modern European sources outside the Greek world. It must include, for instance, a study of the ancient sources of Northern Europe: e.g., the Eddas and sagas. Heidegger does refer to the ancient Germanic world now and then, but very fleetingly. (For example, in Poetry, Language, Thought, in the essay “The Thing,” he very briefly refers to the Icelandic thing. [20] [29]) It is a great pity that Heidegger himself did not delve further into these sources, and into the research of the Brothers Grimm, and others, into Germanic myth and the sources of Germanic language. Still, he has left to us a great task, and a great question: how did Being disclose itself to the ancient Northern European peoples?

When we explore this question, we may find much that is surprising. For example, it is entirely possible that the roots of “metaphysics” are to be found in myth. This seems, in fact, highly likely in the case of Greek myth. But there may be something deeply “metaphysical” in the European soul, generally. We have seen that at the root of metaphysics, for Heidegger, is the desire for total knowledge and mastery. But doesn’t the God Odin embody this desire? (See my essay “What is Odinism [30]?”) If a “metaphysical” orientation is to be found in pre-philosophical [21] [31] European myth, does this mean there is no “pre-metaphysical orientation toward Being”? Not necessarily, since different tendencies can co-exist (as, for example, the “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” tendencies co-existed in Greece).

This task of extending Heidegger’s project to treat both Greco-Roman myth and non-Greek pre-metaphysical sources is extraordinarily exciting. And it opens up still other possibilities. For instance, going beyond Europe to explore, from a Heideggerian (or “Neo-Heideggerian”) standpoint the larger Indo-European context: e.g., the Indian and Iranian materials. And if we are searching for a pre-metaphysical or non-metaphysical understanding of Being, we need not confine ourselves to European or Indo-European sources. Those must be our primary focus, and for solid Heideggerian reasons: we must be suspicious of any form of universalism, all claims regarding “humanity.” We must be open to the possibility that Being discloses itself differently to different peoples. Nevertheless, non-Indo-European sources, especially those of the Taoist and Zen traditions, may contain hints that could prove useful in understanding our own sources, and our own experience. Heidegger himself recognized this, and in 1946 collaborated with a Chinese scholar on a never-completed translation of the Tao Te Ching [32].

This project constitutes a monumental task, which will take many years. In the more immediate future, the next installment of our series will expand this account of Heidegger’s history of metaphysics to cover everything from late antiquity to Nietzsche.

Appendix. Outline of the Series:

Part One: Why Heidegger and Traditionalism are not compatible; major errors in Traditionalism from a Heideggerian perspective.

Part Two (the present essay): Heidegger’s history of metaphysics, focusing on his critique of Platonism. This account will deepen our understanding of why Heidegger would regard Traditionalism as a fundamentally modern movement, as well as deepen our understanding of modernity.

Part Three: The continuation of our account of Heidegger’s history of metaphysics, from Plato to Nietzsche. Among other things, Part Three will discuss Evola’s problematic indebtedness to German Idealism, especially J.G. Fichte, whose philosophy (I will argue) is like a vial of fast-acting, concentrated modern poison.

Part Four: From Nietzsche to the present age of post-War modernity, which Heidegger characterizes as das Gestell (“enframing”). Part Four will deal in detail with this fundamental Heideggerian concept, which is central to his critique of technology.

Part Five: How Heidegger proposes that we respond to technological modernity. His project of a “recovery” of a pre-metaphysical standpoint; his “preparation” for the next “dispensation of Beying.” His phenomenology of authentic human “dwelling” (“the fourfold”), and Gelassenheit.

Part Six: A call for a new philosophical approach, building upon Heidegger and the Traditionalists, while moving beyond them. Three primary components: (1) The recovery of “poetic wisdom” (to borrow a term from G.B. Vico): Heidegger’s project of the recovery of the pre-metaphysical standpoint now applied to myth and folklore, and expanded to include non-Greek sources (e.g., the pre-Christian traditions of Northern Europe); (2) Expanding Heidegger’s project of the “destruction” of the Western tradition to include the Gnostic and Hermetic traditions, Western esotericism, and Western mysticism; (3) Finally, social and cultural criticism from a standpoint informed by the critique of metaphysics, critique of modernity, and recovery of “poetic wisdom.”

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Notes

[1] [36] Phenomenology (literally, the study or science of phenomena) is a philosophical movement founded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the teacher of Martin Heidegger. It attempts to describe the fundamental features of experience. Phenomenology does not deal with the concrete content of experience (dogs, rocks, stars, etc. — which are studied by the other sciences) but instead describes the ways in which objects are given to consciousness. Thus, any attempt to describe how the world, or aspects of the world, show up for us (or for our ancestors) is an exercise in phenomenological description.

[2] [37] Thomas Sheehan writes: “The ‘as’ of ‘something-as’ is what human λόγoς brings to the phenomenon in order to let it ‘become’ what it is. This contribution of the as-structure — which is what Heidegger means by ‘world’ — marks the arrival of meaning in the universe of entities, and the ‘that-as-which’ a thing shows up (the shield, the god, the home) embodies the meaning of the thing in question.” Thomas Sheehan, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 86.

[3] [38] I am avoiding language like “presentation to a subject,” precisely because Heidegger wants to expunge the language of “subjectivity,” which is characteristic of modern philosophy, and reflects a metaphysical distinction between “subject” and “object” that Heidegger rejects. In a subsequent essay, when we turn to modern philosophy, we will revisit this issue.

[4] [39] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 15-16.

[5] [40] Fried and Polt, 15.

[6] [41] It should be noted here that Heidegger famously interprets Greek alētheia, normally translated “truth,” as “unconcealment” or “revealing.” Thus, Being and “truth” are intimately tied together (as they are, for different reasons, in the Platonic tradition and in Medieval metaphysics). So much so that they can be identified. See “On the Essence of Truth” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977).

[7] [42] Heidegger, Four Seminars, trans. Andrew Mitchell and Francois Raffoul (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 2012), 38.

[8] [43] Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012), 37.

[9] [44] It should be noted that Heidegger objects, rightfully, to the designation “Pre-Socratic”: “To present Parmenides as a pre-Socratic is even more foolish than to call Kant a pre-Hegelian.” Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper Perennial, 1968), 184.

[10] [45] Heidegger writes in What is Called Thinking?, “Since in all metaphysics from the beginning of Western thought, Being means being present, Being, if it is to be thought in the highest instance, must be thought as pure presence, that is, as the presence that persists, the abiding present, the steadily standing ‘now.’” What is Called Thinking?, 102.

[11] [46] Sheehan, 84 footnote 85.

[12] [47] It is important to note that while it is an implication of Platonism that the sensible or physical world is “unreal” this is not the same thing as saying that there is no such world. That world really does exist independent of our minds, but it is “unreal” in the sense that it has a lesser, derived Being. The idea that the “external world” might be unreal in the sense of having no existence independent of minds, is something one encounters only in modern philosophy. It was not a possibility entertained by the ancients. The reason for this, fundamentally, is that the ancients did not possess the modern subject-object distinction.

[13] [48] Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 210.

[14] [49] Note that this is not the same thesis as Heidegger’s claim that philosophers have “forgotten Being.” When Heidegger refers to the “forgottenness of Being” he is actually referring to the forgottenness of “the clearing.” For a discussion of the clearing, a concept we will return to in later essays, see “Heidegger Against the Traditionalists [2].”

[15] [50] Greg Johnson, Graduate School with Heidegger (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2020), 122.

[16] [51] For example, in discussing the thesis that in modernity Being appears as “will,” Heidegger writes, “That the Being of beings appears here invariably and always as will, is not because a few philosophers have formed opinions about Being. What this appearance of Being as will points to is something that cannot be found out by any amount of scholarship. Only the inquiry of thought can approach it, only thought can do justice to its problematic, only thought can keep it thoughtfully in mind and memory.” What is Called Thinking?, 91.

[17] [52] Johnson, 6.

[18] [53] Sheehan, 254.

[19] [54] Hans Sluga, “‘Conflict is the Father of All Things’: Heidegger’s Polemical Conception of Politics,” A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, ed. Richard Polt and Gregory Fried (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 224.

[20] [55] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 174.

[21] [56] By “pre-philosophical” I do not necessarily mean “before the advent of Greek philosophy.” For example, although even the oldest poems in the Poetic Edda were written centuries after Plato founded the Academy, Iceland remained relatively untouched by Greek philosophy until the Christian conversion in 1000 AD.