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Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Two:
Late Antiquity & the Middle Ages

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In the previous essay (“Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part One: Platonism”) I began to sketch Heidegger’s argument for the claim that Western metaphysics lays the groundwork for the nihilism and decadence of modernity. I framed this account partly as a critique of the Traditionalists Julius Evola and René Guénon, who aimed to combat modernity with a “Traditionalism” grounded in Western metaphysics — i.e., in the very source that Heidegger argues made modernity possible. The previous essay was entirely devoted to Platonism (as represented both by Plato and by Aristotle), since Heidegger regards Western metaphysics as essentially identical to Platonism.

In “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger writes that “All metaphysics, including its opponent, positivism, speaks the language of Plato.” [1] In the same essay, he writes,

Plato’s thinking remains decisive in changing forms. Metaphysics is Platonism. Nietzsche characterizes his philosophy as reversed Platonism. With the reversal of metaphysics which was already accomplished by Karl Marx, the most extreme possibility of philosophy is attained. It has entered its final stage. [2]

To understand the history of metaphysics, therefore, is to understand Platonism — since ultimately they come to the same thing (the history of metaphysics is the history of Platonism). For Heidegger, however, comprehending this history is not the same thing as learning a story about how philosophers influenced one another, or challenged one another, in a series of great books now read by hardly anyone. Instead, Heidegger believes that the works of philosophers are expressions of larger or deeper cultural movements, the origins of which are ultimately obscure and unknowable.

The metaphysical tradition in philosophy gives voice to, but does not give birth to, a new understanding of Being which overtook the Western world more than two thousand years ago. Heidegger uses the expression “metaphysics” to refer both to the larger, cultural trend of which Western philosophy since Plato is a part, and, more narrowly, to refer to the Western philosophical tradition. This usage seldom becomes confusing.

“Platonism” is the initial intellectual expression of the new understanding of Being Heidegger calls “metaphysics.” Hence, in a certain sense Plato’s dialogues (as traditionally interpreted) express it in its purest form. Seen in another way, however, the purest expression of Platonism/metaphysics is only found at the end of its history. Philosophically, that end comes with Nietzsche. In the quote above, Heidegger credits Karl Marx. However, he usually names Nietzsche. Following the climax of Western philosophy, the history of metaphysics continues to play itself out in purely cultural (i.e., non-academic, non-philosophical) forms, and reaches its final, and most extreme expression in the dominance of modern technology.

Hence, a thorough understanding of Platonism is essential in order to comprehend Heidegger’s critique of modernity. I believe that that critique is the most thorough, profound, and devastating analysis of our present, calamitous state. Readers are thus advised to familiarize themselves with the previous essay before tackling this one. However, in the remainder of this section I will very briefly summarize Heidegger’s critique of Platonism.

Heidegger argues that Pre-Socratic Greek sources give evidence of a pre-metaphysical encounter with Being that honored its ineluctable elements of absence, hiddenness, and mystery. (It is that “pre-metaphysical” orientation to Being that I would put in place of the metaphysical “Tradition” championed by Guénon and Evola — though this is a point I will not be able to develop until a later essay.) With certain of the Pre-Socratics, however, a change occurred whereby thinkers began to demand, implicitly, that what is be constantly present, in the sense of fully available and intelligible. Absence, concealment, or mystery, as inherent in the nature of Being, came to be denied or discounted.

The resultant “metaphysics of (constant) presence” is an attempt to accommodate Being to one aspect of human nature, the part that finds mystery intolerable. There is something in us that believes mystery is merely a temporary impediment to the mind’s understanding, and that it might be possible to cancel mystery altogether and to bring everything to light. The early Greeks would have seen this as hubris. It is this hubris, in fact, that asserts itself in the Western metaphysical tradition from Platonism to Nietzsche.

Platonism insists that Being, true Being, is identical with “the forms.” The Greek word for “form” is eidos (εἶδος) which originally meant the “look” of a thing, in the sense of its appearance, its phainomenon. Being is thus defined by Platonism as presence to a human knower (a point which is very inadequately appreciated by Plato scholars, since they do not question sufficiently the originary sense of eidos). When we encounter some object in nature, a tree for example, the “look”/form of the thing presents itself. This “look” is the appearing to the intellect of the “treeness” the tree has. The tree is intelligible insofar as intellect recognizes the treeness that the tree “partakes of.”

Unlike the tree, however, this form never changes and it cannot cease to exist. Treeness presences itself to the intellect as eternal and unalterable. Further, the presence of the form comes without any residue of absence, for the eidos presents itself to intellect, and is fully intelligible by intellect. It has no side that conceals itself from us, no mystery. The form is fully intelligible because it is fully present; it conceals nothing. Moreover, it remains constantly available to intellect, just because it is eternal and unchanging. Platonism declares that the form is what truly is, precisely because it reveals itself as having these characteristics. The sensible particulars that partake of forms either are not, or they have, at best, a sort of derivative Being.

Therefore, Platonism rejects the physical, sensible world as fundamentally “unreal,” and upholds the intelligible world, the world of forms accessible only to human intellect, as true reality. However, according to Heidegger, what has actually occurred in Platonism is that the concept of Being has been narrowed down to what satisfies the human desire for the knowable, the predictable, and, as we shall see, the manipulable. To satisfy these desires, a world of forms is “discovered”; a world of objects that are knowable, forever present, and predictable. A world of “true” Being.

Though Aristotle rejects a transcendent world of forms, he nonetheless identifies Being with immanent form, and argues that human intellect (nous) may know these forms directly and completely, beholding them exactly as they are in themselves. Being has thus once again been identified with what satisfies the human desire for transparency and control. Aristotle also argues that the ultimate reason things strive to realize their form is through their imitation of God, a mind that engages in eternal self-contemplation. If God is ultimately what makes beings be, then God is true Being. Note here that true Being has been identified with a mind, with subjectivity, and that subjectivity has been made the telos or end of all of existence. Platonism 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, divine subjectivity.

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. Increasingly, as we traverse the history of metaphysics, we will see that it reveals itself as moved by will to power. Otto Pöggeler writes, explaining Heidegger,

When pushed to extremes, the thought that being is constant presence requires the thought of will to power. If being is thought of as constantly presencing and thus as always present, it then comes to be at the disposal of the thinking corresponding to it. Indeed, being is perhaps thought of only as constant presence because thinking as representing something permanent has always been the guide for the projection of being, even if it is concealed at first. Being is thought of as constant presence in order that it be at thinking’s disposal. [3]

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Of course, it is only with Nietzsche that the metaphysics of presence truly reveals itself as will to power.

Let us now follow out the development of metaphysics, to see how it leads from Platonism all the way to Nietzsche. Obviously, this covers a great deal of territory, and so this essay is divided into several parts. In the present text, I will only deal with Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. To reiterate what I have said in earlier essays, this account of Heidegger’s history of metaphysics, and my critique of the Traditionalists, is part of a larger project. The (revised) plan for this series, which will consist of five essays total (some divided into several installments), is given as an appendix to the present text. Each essay builds on the last, but each is also relatively self-contained. In the present essay, however, I will assume that the reader understands certain distinctions made in the previous two installments.

 Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Heidegger actually has comparatively little to say about the period in the history of philosophy often referred to as “Late Antiquity.” This is the period following “Classical Antiquity,” which reaches its high point with Plato and Aristotle. This means that Heidegger has little to say about Cynicism, the Academy after Plato, the Lyceum after Aristotle, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Scepticism, and Neoplatonism. These movements are referenced by Heidegger now and then, but they are not treated with anywhere near the thoroughness Heidegger accords to Classical Antiquity. Heidegger also has little to say about medieval philosophy. This covers a span of time roughly from Augustine (354-430) until, depending on who you ask, Gemistus Pletho (ca. 1355/1360-1452/1454). (In the accounts of most historians, Medieval philosophy is followed by Renaissance philosophy.)

In short, Heidegger says comparatively little about more than 1,600 years in the history of philosophy. There are various reasons for this. Where Heidegger is silent, many other professional philosophers are as well. The prevailing attitude is that there are no “great philosophers” between Aristotle and Descartes. Even though many would not actually admit to holding this position, it is a defensible one. Much of the 1,600 or so years following the death of Aristotle consists in various new permutations of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Some of these, such as the doings of the later Academy and Later Lyceum, are surprisingly dull. Others, such as we find in Plotinus and Neoplatonism, are profound and interesting. However, Plotinus was not widely read when Heidegger was educated, and still fails (unjustly) to make many lists of great philosophers.

In Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Plato and Aristotle enjoyed, for the most part, the status of authority figures, who were often invoked dogmatically. “As Plato says in the Timaeus . . .” or “As the Philosopher [Aristotle] says in the Physics . . .” were accepted as knockdown arguments in certain quarters. There is no doubt that that is not how Plato and Aristotle would have wished to be remembered, for such appeals to authority completely abandon the spirit of philosophy, which is contentious. To a great extent, however, during the Middle Ages philosophy comes to be seen not as a way of life but as a set of doctrines to be learned from manuals.

To be sure, there were schools of thought in Late Antiquity that competed with Platonism and Aristotelianism. These include the aforementioned Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism. For the most part, however, these constitute “philosophies of life”: they have much to offer in the way of practical advice for living one’s life, but their metaphysics comes nowhere near the heights attained by Plato and Aristotle (indeed, they are crude by comparison). This is the primary reason Heidegger has almost nothing to say about them. They contribute little to the history of metaphysics.

Then there is the well-known fact that in Europe in the Middle Ages philosophy was about as free as it was in Russia under Stalin. Medieval philosophers were simply not free to contradict the official doctrines of the Church. Because philosophy in the Middle Ages was unfree, it was not true philosophy. Philosophy respects no authorities whatsoever, and can have no unchallenged presuppositions. Therefore, a “Christian philosophy” is a contradiction in terms. This was undoubtedly Heidegger’s own view of medieval philosophy. Nevertheless, while philosophy could not contradict Christian teaching, it could interpret it and, within certain limits, expand upon it. This is what philosophy busied itself with, primarily, for around a thousand years.

For decades, scholars of the period have sought to overcome the impression that medieval philosophy was merely the “handmaid of theology,” but most of their scholarship winds up reinforcing this impression. It is true that there are genuinely interesting figures in the Middle Ages, but they are all hemmed in by the Church. Those who came dangerously close to transgressing dogma, such as Meister Eckhart (who was an influence on Heidegger, as I shall discuss in a later essay) were declared heretical. [4] Of the philosophers who played by the rules, Thomas Aquinas is undoubtedly the most profound and worthy of study. However, his project of fitting the square peg of Christianity into the round hole of Aristotelianism, though exceedingly clever, now leaves us cold, and his manner of presenting his ideas is as dry as dust.

For all these reasons, there is no figure from Late Antiquity or the Middle Ages who merits from Heidegger the same careful exegesis he accords to thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant. Nevertheless, Heidegger does deal in general terms with the Middle Ages as a period in the history of metaphysics, by discussing some of the era’s primary intellectual characteristics.

We may begin with the obvious fact that in the Middle Ages in Europe two traditions coalesce: the Greek metaphysical tradition, and Christianity, with its foundation in the Hebrew tradition. This is, of course, an extraordinarily complex topic. Heidegger never claims to be able to “deduce” the various “epochs” in his history of metaphysics (often called the “history of Being”). To be sure, some developments have clear logical consequences, but Heidegger recognizes the role of contingency in history. There was no “philosophical necessity” to the Roman conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, and there is no telling how the history of metaphysics would have been different had this not taken place. Nevertheless, it did take place, and it established the conditions that have made the modern world possible. The role of philosophy, or of the history of philosophy, is to retrospectively understand those conditions, and what developed from them.

In what follows, I will approach the complex topic of “Athens and Jerusalem” selectively, by focusing on a few basic observations about theology.

First, in the philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages the Biblical God is fused with the Aristotelian God. This is an odd situation, for the two are, in some ways, complete opposites. The Biblical God is a creator in the literal sense: Genesis suggests that he “speaks” the universe into being (“let there be light”), fashioning everything in it over the course of six days. He then creates a paradisiacal garden, in which he first fashions our race, then casts us out. Thereafter, he continues to intercede in the affairs of men at regular intervals, visiting sundry calamities upon us (all for very good reasons), then making a covenant with one nation in particular, that of the Hebrews. Finally, according to the Christian tradition he incarnates in the person of Jesus Christ, and dies on the cross for the sins of humanity.

The Aristotelian God, by contrast, is not a creator at all. Although he causes all things to realize their individual being, this occurs because beings are unconsciously acting to “imitate” God’s eternity and self-sufficiency (see the previous essay in this series). However, God does not “do” anything to create this situation, nor does Aristotle give us any reason to think that God is even aware of what is going on. As an analogy, consider that right now the lives of certain individuals are being shaped, sometimes dramatically, through their imitation of figures in popular culture. Those figures, however, do not necessarily “do” anything to bring that imitation about. In fact, they may not want it, and, usually, they are completely unacquainted with the individuals who are imitating them.

But how could God be unaware that beings in the world imitate him? The answer is that Aristotle makes it very clear that God’s consciousness is exclusively self-consciousness; he is aware of himself, and only of himself. The world is not the object of God’s awareness. The basic reason for this is that Aristotle conceives God as a perfect being, and he understands a perfect being to be entirely self-sufficient. If the world were the object of God’s awareness, he would need the world in order to actualize this awareness — a need that would cancel God’s perfect self-sufficiency. Aristotle conceives of God as a pure, disembodied mind for similar reasons: any bodily form would make him vulnerable and dependent on other things. However, as we have seen, to be a perfect mind he cannot think about an other. How, then, can his awareness be actual? The only possible solution is to conclude that God is aware of himself. Thus, God is an absolutely self-sufficient and independent mind or spirit, who is eternally and constantly engaged in thought, but only about himself.

The God of the medieval theologians retains most of the characteristics of Aristotle’s God, only his relationship to the universe has become that of the Biblical God. He is still eternal, invulnerable, and incorporeal, and many of the arguments for his existence presented by medieval theologians are based on those of Aristotle. Now, however, God is the self-aware creator of the universe, who is omniscient — i.e., aware of literally everything that exists, without any limitations whatsoever on that knowledge. Thus, Aristotle’s insistence that God is aware of one thing only, himself, is abandoned in favor of the assertion that God is aware of all things. (His omnipotence follows as a consequence of his being the creator, since omnipotence would seem to be necessary to bring a universe into being.)

This move creates a number of theological problems, which medieval (and modern) philosophers never adequately answer. Aristotle had insisted that a perfect God is perfectly self-sufficient, and needs nothing, and medieval theologians follow him in claiming this. But then why does God create? We cannot say that God needed to create, since this would cancel God’s perfection. With strict logical consistency, medieval theologians grant that God did not have to create, and would have lost nothing if he had never created. So why, then, did he create? No intellectually satisfying answer is ever given to this question. All we know is that God did create and that he must have done so according to some kind of a plan; i.e., the act of creation was preceded by its conception. But how are we to understand this?

Augustine argued that the Platonic forms exist in the mind of God, and that God had, in a sense, looked to these in creating the world. (At least superficially, this likens God to the demiourgos of Plato’s Timaeus, though the demiurge is not presented by Plato as God, and there is every reason to think that the character is a literary device.) Heidegger refers to “Augustine’s conception of the idea as correlate of divine thought — not the idea in itself, floating about freely, but rather in relation to an absolute subject, God.” [5] With Plato, the ideas had indeed seemed to “float about freely,” in an ethereal realm distinct from the physical world. Augustine essentially identifies the “realm of forms” with the inside of the divine mind, and, needless to say, the forms are taken to be God’s own creation.

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Heidegger places great emphasis on a fact mentioned earlier (and discussed extensively in the previous essay): the Platonic term normally translated as “idea” or “form,” eidos, literally meant the “look” of a thing. Heidegger enjoins us in one place to “finally get serious” about the fact that this is the actual meaning of “form.” Why? Because, as he points out in the same text, “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.” [6] Heidegger means that in identifying Being with eidos, Plato has defined Being as presence to a human knower. Where there is a “look” there must be a “looker.”

Augustine’s God, an “absolute subject” (as Heidegger puts it), looks at the forms with a gaze that is impossible to human lookers. First, God’s knowledge of the forms is the absolute knowledge possible only to their maker. Second, he knows the forms as a systematic totality. In his late dialogues, Plato had indicated that the forms constitute, collectively, a systematic hierarchy. In several dialogues he also uses the term paradeigma — paradigm, or model — to describe form. In effect, the Augustinian God gazes at a complete and all-encompassing schematized model of existence, and then creates from this by willing the physical universe into being. As we shall see, this way of understanding God’s knowledge, and his relation to the world, is of great import for the development of modernity.

In his Bremen lectures of 1949, Heidegger states that “[What] presences can concernfully approach the human in varying ways of presence. These varying ways determine the epochs of the Western history of beying.” He then goes on to sketch, very briefly, the “epochs of the Western history of beying” represented by the middle ages, early modernity, and late modernity. [7] Of the first two, he says the following:

What presences can announce itself as something created by a maker, who himself is a constant and omnipresent presence in everything. What presences can offer itself as what is posed in human representation, for it and across from it. What presences is thus an oppositional object for representation; representation, as percipere, is the cogitare of the ego cogito, of the conscientia, of consciousness, of the self-consciousness of the subject. What stands over against [der Gegenstand] is the object [das Objekt] for the subject. [8]

Here, Heidegger seems to suggest that there is a discontinuity between the medieval and modern ways in which Being presences itself. For the middle ages, Being presences itself as what is made by a maker. For modernity, by contrast, Being presences itself as what is representable by man.

Heidegger also seems to draw a striking contrast between the medieval and modern outlooks in his important essay “The Age of the World Picture”:

For the Middle Ages . . . the being is the ens creatum, that which is created by the personal creator-God, who is considered to be the highest cause. Here, to be a being means: to belong to a particular rank in the order of created things, and, as thus created, to correspond to the cause of creation (analogia entis) . . . But never does the being’s being consist in its being brought before man as the objective. [9]

Nevertheless, Heidegger understands modern “objectivity” to be a development of medieval ideas. The modern concept of “representation,” in which what presences is constituted as “the objective” — as an “oppositional object,” as what “stands over against” — is modeled initially by the Augustinian understanding of the relation of the divine mind to the world. In fact, as we shall see, the perfection of human representation, according to early modernity, is when that world has been entirely re-presented in a synoptic, schematic, “God’s eye” vision of the whole. The exact nature of this vision is a topic we will take up in the next installment.

Heidegger also makes much of the fact that the original sense of Greek philosophical terms was lost when they were translated into Latin, a process that was driven, of course, by medieval philosophers. In one essay, Heidegger writes of that period, and of the coming modern age,

Meanwhile, an epoch of being soon arrives in which ἐνέργειᾰ [enērgeia] is translated into actualitas. The Greek is shut away and appears, right up to our own times, only in its Roman guise. Actualitas becomes reality. Reality becomes objectivity. But even this, in order to remain in its essence as objectivity, requires the character of presencing. It is the “presence” in the representation of representing. The decisive turn in the destiny of being as ἐνέργειᾰ is the transition to actualitas. Could a mere translation have caused all this? But perhaps we have learned to consider what can happen in translation. The truly destining encounter of historical languages is a silent event. But in it the destining of being speaks. [10]

The Latinization of Greek philosophy has been so thorough we hardly think about it at all, and conventional scholars would be surprised by Heidegger’s claim that there is anything problematic in this. For example, we are accustomed to saying that Aristotle distinguishes between “potentiality” and “actuality.” But Aristotle never used such language. Both terms are Latin-derived: potentia translates Greek dunamis, and actualitas translates enērgeia. The Latin words are not even etymologically related to the Greek.

To see the problem, and why it is significant for the development of metaphysics, let’s focus on this example, on enērgeia-actualitas. Enērgeia is the word from which we get “energy,” and one would be right in intuiting that it suggests something that is in process and not static or finished. Aristotle uses enērgeia when speaking about the Being of a thing. Things possess the power (dunamis, from which we get “dynamic”) to be what they are. For example, a man, a thinking animal, possesses the power to think. When a man is engaged in thinking, he has “realized” that power (in the sense of “brought it about”), and thus realized his Being. But this realization is not a stopping point; it is not like reaching the finish line in a race. Instead, this realization is a process or a work (ergon). To think, to realize one’s Being as a thinking being, is a doing.

Consider, by contrast, the connotation of actualitas, which is offered as a stand-in for enērgeiaActualitas is a Late Latin term derived from Latin actus (“act, action”), which is derived in turn from agere (“to act, to do”). At least initially, it thus seems a plausible translation of enērgeia, which is derived from energos (“active”), which comes from en (“in”) + ergon (“work, doing”). Thus, enērgeia literally means “in act” — or we could say “in doing,” if we want to avoid Latin entirely. However, the sense of Latin actuālis (“actual”) and actualitas shifts over time, and it is already shifting in the Middle Ages when actualitas is used to translate enērgeia.

One can easily see how this is the case, if one simply considers the way in which “actual” and “actuality” are used outside the context of talking about Aristotelian philosophy. When I say that something is “actual” I mean that it is “real,” and the less-often-used “actuality” means the same thing as “reality.” For example, if someone says “there actually was election fraud,” or “there were actual cases of election fraud,” they are asserting that something is real, and not imaginary or invented. If someone says, “there’s an actual 800-pound gorilla in the corner,” they mean that there really is a gorilla there, and that they are not merely using a figure of speech.

But what does it mean to say that something is “real”? A hint is present in the language I just used: “there really is a gorilla there.” To be real is to be “there.” The German word Dasein is normally translated “existence.” (Here I am referring to the common German word, and not its special, Heideggerean usage — which also means “ex-istence,” but in a special, Heideggerean way.) Dasein literally means “to be [sein] there [da],” or, more literally “there being.” When I say that the gorilla in the corner is “real,” I mean that it is there, confronting us, external to us — as opposed to imaginary, which would make it not “there” but rather something like “in here,” in my mind. [11]

So, the actual is, in effect, “what is really out there.” “Actuality” then means something like “the sum total of what is really out there.” In both cases, the concept is founded on a distinction between the “in here” (in my mind, in my imagination) vs. the “out there.” We are now, far, far removed from “actuality” as the “in act/in doing” of Aristotle’s enērgeia. I have said that Aristotle used enērgeia to talk about the Being of a thing, but he was decidedly not using this term to talk about the fact that things are “real” or “out there.” In fact, this construal of Being never comes up in Aristotle at all, nor does it come up in Plato or in any of the philosophies of Classical Antiquity.

Note that something cannot be “located” as there or out there except in relation to a subject. (There is no there without a here, here where I am; and no out there except in relation to an in here where, again, I am.) Thus, “actuality”/“reality” is implicitly defined in relation to subjects. This is sometimes cited by historians as evidence of what they call “the subjective turn in modern philosophy.” However, this claim is too simplistic. In fact, we have seen that in defining Being as eidos, “look,” Platonism already defines Being in relation to the subject (recall: no “look” without a “looker”). That “actuality”/“reality” has to be understood in relation to a subject is thus nothing fundamentally new. Indeed, Heidegger makes the following sweeping claim about the entire history of Western philosophy: “In its history as metaphysics, Being is through and through subiectivity.” [12]

What is new, however, is that “subjectivity” comes to be conceived as an “in here” that stands opposed to an “out there” that is “actual”/“real.” This claim may surprise some readers. We are used to hearing that something called “the problem of the external world” is one of the timeless “problems” of philosophy. The “problem of the external world” can be expressed as a question: how do I know that there is anything out there (anything real), outside the in here (outside my mind)? However, far from being timeless, this question simply does not come up in philosophy at all prior to the modern period. We need to consider whether this striking fact might give us an important clue as to the nature of modern thought itself.

What conditions need to be satisfied in order for the “problem of the external world” to become a problem? Obviously, we first need to create a division between the “in here” and the “out there.” Readers may balk at the suggestion that we “create” such a division. We are used to dealing with the dichotomy of in here/out there all the time in our thinking, and not just in discussions of modern philosophy. It seems to us to be “commonsense.” In fact, however, it is unique to modern thought. Even though Plato and Aristotle, for example, do speak of a soul, and of a world known by the soul, the familiar in here/out there distinction does not occur in their thinking, nor do they raise any “problem” about knowing the out there.

Could this simply be because classical philosophers had not yet recognized the “problem of the external world”? Had they simply not thought that far? Matters are not as simple as that. Built into the in here/out there distinction is the idea that the in here is a kind of enclosure within which “I” dwell. And this means that I am not in direct contact with the out there. At best, I am only in indirect contact with it. But if that is true, then I am in direct contact with something else, something that stands in for, or re-presents the out there. If that is the only thing I know directly, however, then there is always the possibility that there may be nothing beyond that; nothing at all out there. And so we arrive at the “problem of the external world.”

Heidegger writes in The End of Philosophy,

When Being has changed to actualitas (reality), beings are what is real [i.e. Being becomes “the real”]. . . . The predominance of the determination of Being as reality, now immediately comprehensible to everyone, gets firmly fixed so that soon, conversely, enērgeia is understood in terms of actualitas, and the primordial Greek essential character of Being is once and for all misunderstood and made inaccessible by the Roman interpretation of Being. The tradition of the truth about beings which goes under the title of “metaphysics” develops into a pile of distortions, no longer recognizing itself, covering up the primordial essence of Being. Herein lies the reason for the necessity of the “destruction” of this distortion, when a thinking of the truth of Being has become necessary (cf. Being and Time). [13]

This conception of “subjectivity,” as an in here re-presenting (possibly) an out there that stands opposed is the chief feature of modern thought, though, as I have tried to demonstrate, it has roots in the Middle Ages. This is one of Heidegger’s most important insights. The next installment of this series will be devoted to explaining this idea more fully.

Appendix. Outline of the Series (revised):

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

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

Part Three: 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 Heideggerean concept, which is central to his critique of technology.

Part Four: 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 Five: 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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[1] Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 386.

[2] Basic Writings, 375.

[3] Otto Pöggeler, Martin Heidegger’s Path of Thinking, trans. Daniel Magurshak and Sigmund Barber (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1987), 102-103

[4] Eckhart was tried as a heretic, but it appears that he died before a verdict was rendered in the trial. After his death, Pope John XXII declared some of the statements in his sermons to be heretical.

[5] Martin Heidegger, Being and Truth, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 210), 134.

[6] Heidegger, The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Cave Allegory and the Theaetetus, trans. Ted Sadler (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 52.

[7] For an explanation of why “being” is here spelled “beying,” see the first installment in this series.

[8] Martin Heidegger, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures, trans. Andrew J. Mitchell (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012), 37.

[9] Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 68.

[10] “Anaximander’s Saying” in Off the Beaten Track, 280.

[11] “Real” comes from Latin reālis, which comes from rēs (“matter, thing”). So that what is real is literally “thingey.”

[12] Martin Heidegger, The End of Philosophy, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 47. In this essay, Heidegger distinguishes between “subiectivity” and “subjectivity” (those interested in the distinction are referred to the essay). But, in the end, they come to mean the same thing.

[13] End of Philosophy, 14-15.



  1. James O'Meara
    Posted January 29, 2021 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Plotinus may not have been “widely read” in German universities, but surely H. would have (or should have) picked up something from the enormous influence of Plotinus on Hegel and especially on Schelling.

    If H. agrees that “Platonism rejects the physical, sensible world as fundamentally “unreal,” and upholds the intelligible world, the world of forms accessible only to human intellect, as true reality,” then he might have seen Plotinus as on his side:

    “But if the sensible tree, as known by intellect, by the power which can know what things are, is the tree which has true being, this indicates that Plotinus does not have two worlds, but only one. His world of true being is not, except metaphorically, a world above the everyday world. It is the everyday world, not as experienced by sense, by opinion, or be discursive reasoning, but as known by the intellect, the Nous, the Knower.

    “Plotinus’ world of true being is, therefore, the real world of everyday experience when the latter is known by the best knowing power. The more real turns out to be in the real, in fact, to be the reality of the real. Being, which seemed at one time to be for Plotinus a technical term less extensive than reality, seems able now to coincide with reality, as common sense would appear to demand.”
    — John Deck, Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969; republished in the Toronto Heritage series, 2017), Chapter 8: “Is Nature ‘Real’ for Plotinus?”

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted February 2, 2021 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      In these essays, I’m confining myself mostly to what Heidegger actually said about certain thinkers. Hence, I’ve not discussed Plotinus because Heidegger says little about him. Now and then, I will “channel” Heidegger to try and see what he might have said about a thinker or school he neglects (e.g., I will do this in the case of Bishop Berkeley, in a later installment, and I will also offer a Heideggerean critique of Evola’s “magical idealism”). As to what Heidegger would have said about Plotinus, it’s hard to see how Plotinus would not be subject to the general critique of Platonism Heidegger offers. Much of what I’ve said in this piece about Augustine would apply to Plotinus – which is not a coincidence, since Augustine was influenced by Plotinus. Plotinus locates the Platonic ideas in Nous, the first emanation from the One. Nous, and the ideas are understood by Plotinus – at least as I read him – to completely transcend the sensual world. From Nous proceeds Soul, which forms a link between the supersensible forms and the material world, since it contains reflections of the ideas, which Plotinus called logoi spermatikoi. It is quite true that Plotinus does not denigrate the created, material world – and he attacked the Gnostics for doing this. However, for him the vocation of the human soul is to rise above the material world and to achieve ecstatic union with the ideal. Thus, we see most of the basic elements of Platonism, the elements Heidegger critiques, reconstituted in Plotinus: the distinction between the material world and a “truer” world of the idea, a world available to intellect (and only to intellect), and an ambivalent attitude about the material world (it is not declared evil, but our task is to rise above it to a “truer” world). By the way, Plotinus was not an “enormous influence” on Hegel. Hegel devotes about 15-20 pages to him in his “Lectures on the History of Philosophy.” The account is fairly sympathetic, but outside of this he only mentions Plotinus two or three times in other places. Of course, one could try to argue for an indirect influence, but that would not be easy. I’m not as familiar with the Schelling literature, but I think the situation is similar.

      • James O'Meara
        Posted February 2, 2021 at 11:29 am | Permalink

        I think there’s a small cottage industry debating the influence of Neoplatonism on Hegel, for and against, and if for, in what way (including negative ways). For Deck, Plato and Aristotle were merely stepping stones to Plotinus, and subsequent philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plotinus. He once gave a graduate seminar that spent two semesters reading Being and Nothingness and discussing how Plotinus would have done a better job. (He also taught Hegel’s aesthetic theory, despite being tone deaf and color blind).

        Deck’s great rival was Pinto, the stubby-fingered New Yorker who for his sins was required to try to each me Heidegger (see my review here of Harman’s book on Heidegger and Lovecraft). As a preliminary, we spent half a semester on Husserl. Question: isn’t Heidegger’s phenomenological method, with its special access to eidetic truths, just a form of transcendental idealism, like the Traditionalist appeal to intellectual intuition? This would be an excellent way to accomplish the merging (or Aufhebung) of Heidegger and Traditionalism you propose.

        • Collin Cleary
          Posted February 2, 2021 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Heidegger can certainly be seen as belonging to the tradition of “transcendental philosophy” inaugurated by Kant. One could even argue that “the clearing” is transcendental subjectivity. However, this is considered heretical in Heidegger circles because Heidegger wanted to get away entirely from the language of “subjectivity.” This is why we are “Dasein” and not “the subject” or “the ego” or “spirit.” I am not sure, however, that this is the way to a rapprochement between Heidegger and the Traditionalists. Wait till I get to Fichte! And I’m also not sure that Heidegger isn’t right to want to get away from the language of subjectivity, even though it seems idiosyncratic — and we, who are so steeped in the modern discourse of subjectivity, feel compelled to quibble with him and say “aren’t you just talking about the transcendental _________ (fill in blank with term from Kant/Fichte/Husserl)?” Heidegger may be right to want to move us away from this.

  2. Norbert
    Posted January 29, 2021 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I very much appreciate your clarity about the disagreements between Heidegger and other thinkers , such as Evola, who may appear to be kindred spirits. There is a proclivity among us towards a “weak-kneed eclecticism” — a tendency to downplay such differences among thinkers that appeal to us — and this is harmful because it prevents us from fully confronting their unique understanding of our predicament, its deepest sources, and our possibilities for the future. A recent study of Ernst Juenger’s The Worker, along with Heidegger’s notes on it, brought the realization that a much greater gulf lies between them than I previously thought — and wanted to think.

  3. sordello
    Posted January 30, 2021 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Neither Guenon nor Evola advocated ‘Traditionalism’ or any other ism and both explicitly rejected this. Rather they advocated the Tradition, which is not an intellectual theory, but the transmission of direct and unmediated knowledge of metaphysical truths from their nonhuman source.

    I know elsewhere you have argued that they were both deeply influenced by Western metaphysics, perhaps unintentionally – but even if this were true, it is failing for you to disregard the repeated and very explicit insistence of both authors that metaphysical truths cannot be imparted intellectually but only by initiation, which depends heavily on symbolism, to impart the essential nonhuman truths. This places them in another category entirely from philosophers like Heidegger, who, as Richard Rorty perceptively noted, was obsessed with not being ‘just another footnote to Plato’ but ended up being just that. Guenon and Evola are not because of their essential use of initiation.

    This is fundamentally different to how you represent them and how you must represent them if you are to complete your intellectual project . But since I have searched in vain to find the real Guenon and Evola in your writings, I cannot take your project seriously.

    • Martin Venator
      Posted January 30, 2021 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Someone like Plotinus (or Porphyry or Iamblichus…) was not a “philosopher” in the modern sense, but an initiate. The philosophical system he developed is only a framework for a practical process (engagement in theoria/contemplation for Plotinus/Porphyry, in theurgy for Iamblichus).

      I find this tendency to present certain figures as essentially theoretical thinkers misleading. There is an ontological gulf between someone like Plotinus (or Ramanuja or Nagarjuna or Ibn Arabi or Meister Eckhardt…)and someone like Heidegger.

      So-called “Traditionalism” is about realising the limits of rational speculation and finding a way to tap into the ultimate source of all knowledge. Without a way of accessing that source (a living Tradition), all we are left with is intellectual speculation (”philosophy” in the moderm sense).

      I am saying this just to try and spell out the “Traditionalist” perspective, not to cricise the author, whose work I still greatly appreciate (while not sharing his perspective) Looking forward to the remaining essays.

      • Muhammad Aryan
        Posted January 31, 2021 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        I think Heidegger was saying that philosophy was essentially a metaphysical endeavor which requires a certain ontological order, a sort of hierarchy of Being. Moreover, to achieve this order, you would need a context which is metaphysically alive.

        Now, according to him, since the calculative mind has sapped the meditative tendencies of the Western mind, the soil upon which the tree of philosophy could be planted was long dead. Mistakenly inferring that the ‘tradition’ was still alive, one had been satisfying himself with the appearance of the collage of sprouts on the dead soil.

        The fundamental problem since Heidegger has not been so much the coma of the Western meditative mind and its revival but whether how much of this mind would remain ‘Western’ in its epistemology if or when it is revived.

      • threestars
        Posted February 2, 2021 at 4:45 am | Permalink

        “So-called “Traditionalism” is about realising the limits of rational speculation and finding a way to tap into the ultimate source of all knowledge.”

        But isn’t this precisely what was, according to Cleary’s first essay, Heidegger’s critique of the Traditionalists: their conception of being as ultimately knowable to humans? The only thing that changes from Platonic metaphysics is the means, from nous as “the ultimate source of all knowledge”, to Tradition as “the ultimate source…”. I’m not familiar with Guenon or Evola, but unless they conceive of this “Tradition” as something that just falls contingently upon people, then the subject still has to act in some way to achieve it. So the will is present, in a perfect parallel to what Heidegger conceives of metaphysics.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted February 2, 2021 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Sordello’s comment simply begs the question against Heidegger, and my presentation of Heidegger’s ideas. Heidegger and I are challenging precisely this idea that “Tradition” is a “direct and unmediated knowledge of metaphysical truths from their nonhuman source.” In fact, much of what Guenon and Evola call Tradition has its historical origin with early Greek philosophy, chiefly Plato. The assertion that Platonic ideas pre-date Plato is just that: an assertion devoid of evidence. The claim that they have a “non-human source” is similarly a dogmatic claim, offered without any evidence to support it. The source of these ideas is quite, quite human: it is Plato and the Greeks. I note again and again in the comments posted to my articles by Traditionalists that all they seem able to do in response to my arguments is simply to dogmatically re-assert claims made by Guenon and Evola. That kind of response is not intellectually serious.

      • J.G.
        Posted February 9, 2021 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        The Traditionalist response is precisely not intended to be debatable, which is why I believe Sordello’s comment has some merit. Guenon and Evola treated their metaphysical ideas, as well as those of Plato and Aristotle, to be conventional- and only that. Whether or not Plato and Aristotle themselves treated their teaching as a mere framework for initiation to higher truths is very debatable, but that is surely the Traditionalists understood them. To use a Zen analogy, the Traditionalists would respond that Heidegger is critiquing the finger pointing to the moon. Whatever faults can be found with the finger, it stands that the moon is there, regardless. And if one sees the way the finger is pointing, he will see the moon. The Traditionalists foremost intended their teachings to be lived, not debated.

  4. Right_On
    Posted January 30, 2021 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Blimey! My brain was already threatening to blow a fuse trying to fathom the intricacies of short selling and GameStop . . .

    The Forms of Plato have also been invoked in “Realist” interpretations of mathematics. I hope you’ll touch on that aspect in a later essay. (I’ve got $500 that say Heidegger would not be a fan of cosmologist Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis [MUH] : the physical universe is not merely described by mathematics, but *is* mathematics.)

    Re James O’Meara’s point about Plotinus not having been “widely read” in German universities: I’m always kinda shocked when celebrated names admit they have not read another biggie. Wittgenstein boasted that he had never read Aristotle or Hegel. (Hegel would drive him mad!)

    • James O'Meara
      Posted January 31, 2021 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      But he did read Schopenhauer and indeed thought he was the greatest of all philosophers, himself included (Russell & Co. never understood that he thought “what could not be said” was the only thing of value); that would give him some grasp of Hegel, but more importantly, Schopenhauer would have agreed that you only need to read … Schopenhauer.

      • Right_On
        Posted January 31, 2021 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        Reading Schopenhauer might give you *some* grasp of Hegel, but as he regarded Hegel as “a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan” he wouldn’t be the most reliable guide.

        Wittgenstein once said: “Hegel seems to me to be always wanting to say that things which look different are really the same. Whereas my interest is in showing that things which look the same are really different.”
        I wonder though if Hegel (and, like Ludwig, I’ve never read him!) was making a not-dissimilar point to Alan Watts’s about the unity of organism and environment: “And in the same way, each one of us is a very, very delightfully complex undulation of the energy of the whole universe.”

  5. Wyrd
    Posted February 16, 2021 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    “The view held here states matter (energia), information (eidos) & consciousness (silent witness, the “Absence, concealment, or mystery, as inherent in the nature of Being, that came to be denied or discounted”) are the three fundamental operators of all what exists ; they are irreducible, relatively independent and irreversibly interdependent (the Wyrd). They share a common ontological base, namely the actual occasion. ” ~

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