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Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Five:
The Age of the World Picture 

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Hieronymus Bosch, Outer Wings of the Garden of Delights, ca. 1510.

4,305 words

1. Introduction: From Objectivism to Subjectivism

In the previous two installments (Part Three here [2], Part Four here [3]) we have discussed at length Heidegger’s treatment of the “objectification of beings” in early modernity: how beings come to be seen as “objects” related to a “subject” that confronts them (indirectly) from within an interior space that is called “mind,” “awareness,” or even “self.” This objectification is essentially identical with the representationalist theory of knowledge, which holds that we are only indirectly aware of the “external world,” via internal images which “represent” external objects. So far, however, this may not be the account of modernity that my readers were expecting.

The emphasis seems to be entirely on modernity’s treatment of being as “objective,” and as something that can be known through reason and the scientific method. But isn’t one of the chief features of modernity its subjectivism? Isn’t the denial of “objective reality” the cancer that is eating out our culture? (I have argued for one version of that position here [4].) This is true — up to a point. However, we need to be extremely cautious about framing our understanding of modern problems in this way. The reason is that Heidegger thinks subjectivism is made possible precisely by modernity’s “objectivism.” Thus, one cannot combat subjectivism via a return to an Enlightenment conception of “objectivity.” Nor does resisting such a return entail “irrationalism,” since the Counter-Enlightenment and postmodern embrace of “the irrational” is framed entirely in terms of its fundamental acceptance of Enlightenment standards of reason, truth, and objectivity.

Heidegger writes:

Certainly, the modern age has, as a consequence of the liberation of humanity [from the authority of religion in the Middle Ages], introduced subjectivism and individualism. But it remains just as certain that no age before this one has produced a comparable objectivism . . . Of the essence here is the necessary interplay between subjectivism and objectivism. But precisely this reciprocal conditioning of the one by the other refers us back to deeper processes. [1] [5]

Indeed, one cannot understand the rise of modern subjectivism without first understanding how modernity, in its early phase, sought precisely the opposite of the subjective — how it sought, in fact, the complete grasp of the absolute truth about the entire world.

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You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [7].

2. The Modern “World Picture”

It is common to speak of a modern “worldview” or Weltanschauung, and to contrast it with the worldviews of earlier epochs. In this connection, we find ourselves speaking about how different times or cultures “picture” the world. We also accept it as a commonplace that philosophy and science seek to arrive at the “complete picture” about existence. And we desire to be “in the picture” where this knowledge is concerned, rather than left out and left wondering about how things really are. Seldom, however, do we ever reflect on these expressions, which are metaphorical. We take them for granted and assume that they express attitudes or standpoints that are timeless and universal.

Heidegger tells us that “When we reflect on the modern age, we inquire after the modern world picture.” [2] [8] However, this does not mean what we might think it does. Heidegger writes, further, “The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval to a modern one; rather, that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of modernity.” [3] [9] In other words, the idea of having a “world picture” is actually uniquely modern (and Western). When we speak, for example, of “the medieval worldview” or the “Hindu worldview” we are projecting modern, Western categories where they are inapplicable.

What is a “world picture,” exactly? Let us begin with “world,” for this is a simple point: Heidegger tells us that “‘World’ serves, here, as a name for beings in their entirety.” [4] [10] In short, the world refers to everything that is. But how do we take everything that is in its entirety; in other words, how is it summed up or confronted as a whole? The answer is by having it “in the picture.”

Recall our discussion of representationalism in the last installment: the modern theory of awareness is that the mind re-presents the world in the form of what are usually called “images,” and that these images are what we know directly. [5] [11] Thus, there is some justification in saying that, for the moderns, the mind is engaged in “picturing,” and that its knowledge is like a gazing at pictures. Now, an obvious problem here is that not all sensory impressions are visual, but the language of “images” and “pictures” exclusively suggests the visual. It is difficult to understand, say, the gustatory experience of sweetness as an instance of a subject “confronting” an internal “image” — even if we substitute a word like “impression” for image.

This problem is endemic to representationalism as a whole because it takes vision as a paradigm case of sense perception. Representationalism seems halfway plausible if we stick mostly to examples of visual perceptions, because vision is oppositional or confrontational; it involves confronting and gazing upon an object at some remove from us. Indeed, examples of sense perception drawn from vision predominate in modern “theory of knowledge.” There is a significant, underlying cultural reason for this: modernity is the age in which man sees himself as a subject removed from the world and confronting it, gazing at it. What is the ultimate goal of this modern subject? To take it all in. To achieve an internal “image” not just of this object or that, but an image that encompasses everything, a “world picture,” a “total worldview.” This is the ultimate aim of modern science and modern philosophy: to capture “beings in their entirety” in a total vision of the whole.

Heidegger’s discussion of this idea is the chief topic of one of his most important essays, “The Age of the World Picture” (1938). This text is indispensable for understanding Heidegger’s critique of modernity, and it has the distinction of being one of the clearest essays Heidegger ever wrote. All the quotations above are drawn from it — indeed, I have already quoted from this essay extensively in the previous two installments.

To go a few steps further, let us note the obvious fact that a picture is something that is created by a human subject and for a human subject. Animals can be fooled by pictures; the dog can be fooled by a picture of a cat into thinking that it sees an actual cat. If it rushes at the picture and destroys it, the dog will discover that there is no cat there, but its response is confusion. It cannot register the fact that what it saw was a picture, a representation of a cat. The dog cannot think, “Curses! That was only an image of a cat,” but a man can think this. Furthermore, all pictures created by humans, whether paintings or photographs or what have you, are created from the perspective of the subject. In other words, the picture always depicts things in the world, as they are for me[6] [12]

As discussed in the last installment of this series, in the modern period “to be” comes to mean “to be an object,” i.e., to be related to a subject. And the Being of beings is understood as exhausted by that relation. Man becomes, as Heidegger puts it, “the referential center of beings as such.” [7] [13] Thus, the “total understanding” of the world aimed at in the world picture is one that is fundamentally anthropocentric. However, this fact is made thematic only in modern philosophy. In modern science, anthropocentrism operates beneath the surface. Science’s treatment of beings is taken to be “objective,” i.e., free from subjectivity — while in fact it understands beings entirely in terms of the modern subject’s own theoretical projections of what beings must be. (See part three of this series [2].)

In trying to clarify the idea of the “world picture,” Heidegger first says that it refers to “the totality of beings, as it is for us,” and then he says this:

“Picture” here means, not a mere imitation, but rather that which sounds in the colloquial expression to be “in the picture” about something. This means: the matter stands in the way it stands to us, before us. To “put oneself in the picture” about something means: to place the being itself before one just as things are with it, and, so placed, to keep it permanently before one. [8] [14]

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From Robert Fludd’s Integrum morborum mysterium

The first thing we may note here is that Heidegger is emphasizing that the world picture is always a picture for us. It is the world as seen by us, and as understood in relation to us. And this means “in relation to all of humanity.” Because the all-encompassing world picture is supposed to convey objective knowledge, knowledge that is true for all, it is not conceived as gazed at by a particular individual but by humanity as such (i.e., the total image is believed to be confronted by a total, or universal subject). And the “perspective” of the picture is not relative to any particular individuals; it is an absolute perspective. Because of this, the world picture is also taken to be timelessly true. To possess the world picture is to have the world “permanently before one” (before everyone, in fact), with all its secrets revealed, available for human understanding and control. To possess the world picture is to possess the world.

Man has indeed “put himself in the picture”! When Heidegger tells us that this means “to place the being itself before one just as things are with it, and, so placed, to keep it permanently before one,” he is signaling that the world picture is yet another manifestation of what we have called in previous essays “the metaphysics of presence.” The history of metaphysics, for Heidegger, is the history of how Being (or how we understand Being) has been accommodated to the human desire for knowledge and control by conceiving beings as the “constantly present” (i.e., “constantly available”).

The “metaphysics of presence” is firmly established in the history of philosophy by Platonism [16]. Heidegger notes a little later in “The Age of the World Picture” that “the beingness of beings is defined, for Plato, as εἶδος (appearance, view). This is the presupposition which — long prevailing only mediately, in concealment and long in advance — predestined the world’s having to become picture.” [9] [17] In other words, in defining Being as εἶδος, literally as the “look” of a thing, Plato prepared the way for the arising of the modern construal of “to be” as, in effect, to be looked at, to be “pictured.” Heidegger writes of the world picture’s “metaphysics of presence”: “Where the world becomes picture, beings as a whole are set in place as that for which man is prepared. . . . Beings as a whole are now taken in such a way that a being is first and only in being insofar as it is set in place by representing-producing [vorstellend-herstellenden] humanity.” [10] [18]

When to be becomes to be looked at, when beings are understood as the constantly present and available, they are present not just to our awareness but to our will. When Being is defined purely in relation to humanity, humanity comes to see beings as objects of manipulation — indeed, as existing purely for such manipulation. This is the fulfillment (as I noted in an earlier essay [2]) of God’s promise to man that he shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). This promise is achieved, however, via the transferring to humanity of the divine knowledge and perspective Augustine attributed to God (as discussed in part two [19]).

God’s mind, for Augustine, contains the Platonic εἴδη — the forms or “looks” — and God beholds these looks as a systematic totality: a complete and all-encompassing representation of existence, on which he bases creation. God’s mind, in other words, contains the world picture. For early modernity, this “God’s eye” perspective is possible to us as well. And man shall not just mirror the divine knower but the divine craftsman as well. All things offer themselves to man to be “put in the picture,” and they offer themselves to man to be transformed and manipulated for human ends. Nature stands before us, ready to be “perfected.” And we stand ready to complete the divine work.

What is crucial here is to see that, for Heidegger, the concepts of re-presentation (Vor-stellen) and pro-duction (Her-stellen) are intimately connected. [11] [20] It is only because we have conceived ourselves as subjects abstracted from the world, facing “objects” standing opposed “out there,” that we see those objects as material to be overcome — to be tortured for their secrets, and transformed according to our desires. Indeed, Heidegger puts the point very strongly: representation is not just connected with the will to mastery of nature, representation “is in itself, not extrinsically, a striving.” [12] [21] Essentially, modern representation is nothing other than what Nietzsche will later call “will to power.”

Heidegger writes elsewhere,

[Modernity’s] shattering of the sole dominance of the church in legislating knowledge and action is understood as a liberation of man to himself. But what man is as himself, wherein his being a self should consist is determined only in his liberation and by the definitely oriented history of this liberation. Human “thinking,” which here means the forming powers of man, becomes the fundamental law of things themselves. The conquest of the world in knowledge and action begins. [13] [22]

3. System

So far, we have discussed Heidegger’s general conception of the world picture. However, the reader may find this conception somewhat hard to concretize. In historical terms, just what constitutes a “world picture.” What are some actual examples of modern attempts to create the world picture?

First of all, when Heidegger says that early modern scientists and philosophers are aiming at a world picture, at a complete vision of the whole, he does not mean “picture” in a literal sense. However, there are historical examples of modern attempts to create a literal world picture. These occur very early on in the modern period, in the Renaissance. [14] [23] Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) conceived the possibility of creating a “figure of the world” containing archetypal images that would convey, as a total system, all aspects of creation. Such a figure could be painted on one’s ceiling and contemplated by the lover of wisdom. Frances Yates writes of this strange conception:

The man who stares at the figure of the world on his bedroom ceiling, imprinting it and its dominating colours of the planets on memory, when he comes out of his house and sees innumerable individual things is able to unify these through the images of a higher reality which he has within. This is the strange vision, or the extraordinary illusion, which was later to inspire Giordano Bruno’s efforts to base memory on celestial images, on images which are shadows of ideas in the soul of the world, and thus to unify and organize the innumerable individuals in the world and all the contents of memory. [15] [24]

One also finds such a literal conception of a “world picture” in the “theater of memory” envisaged by Giulio Camillo (1480-1544), discussed extensively by Yates in her classic work The Art of Memory. Yates also argues that Botticelli’s “Primavera” is such a “world picture.” [16] [25] Heidegger himself does not refer to such examples, but they are perfect illustrations (in every sense) of his claim that the guiding metaphor of early modernity is the world picture. The issue of how the Renaissance “Hermeticism” of figures like Ficino, Pico, Bruno, and Camillo fits into Heidegger’s overall analysis of modernity is a fascinating one, and eventually I plan to write about it.

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From Giulio Camillo’s Theatre of Memory, ca. 1519.

The sort of examples Heidegger does offer are essentially totalizing systems of ideas. As one Heidegger commentator puts it, “The ‘picture’ of the world is not really a picture at all, more a schematized and formal outline of it, a construction. The Cartesian mathematization of nature would be the prime example.” [17] [27] The world picture is thus quite a lot like the system of Platonic ideas contemplated by God according to Augustine. In trying to understand this conception more fully, we need to focus on the word “system,” which I have now twice used. I think I understand what I mean by it, and the reader thinks that he understands it as well. But do we? The “system” is, in fact, one of the Leitmotivs of modernity.

Jacob Klein, who was a student of Heidegger, writes that “The Greek word σύστημα [sustēma] means ‘things which stand together or are made to stand together so as to form a whole,’ means in other words ‘a whole compounded of several parts.’” The Greeks applied the word to the human body and various other objects. However, as Klein notes, they do not seem to have applied it to knowledge. However, to quote Klein further, the usage of the word changes in early modernity:

From about the year 1600 on there is a sudden and most remarkable shift: book after book appears under titles like “System of Logic,” “System of Rhetoric,” “System of Grammar,” “System of Theology,” “System of Ethics and Politics,” “System of Physics,” “System of Jurisprudence,” “System of Astronomy,” of Arithmetic, of Geography, of Medicine and even “System of Systems.” [18] [28]

In his lectures on Schelling, Heidegger writes that “The knowing conquest of Being as . . . system and the will to system, is not some discovery of idiosyncratic minds, but is the innermost law of existence of this whole age.” [19] [29]

But why? Why do the moderns need to “systematize” knowledge? A major reason for this is that in the modern period traditional authorities and “self-evident” truths have been undermined. The authority of the Church was attacked on several fronts, notably by Luther and by the “Copernican Revolution,” which undermined the Ptolemaic system. Copernicus’ discovery did not just challenge the authority of the Church but of the senses as well, since it appears self-evident to our eyes that the sun rises and sets, though Copernicus proved it does not. Never again would science or philosophy be able to look to the senses as authoritative guides to truth.

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You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune?, featuring extensive discussions of Heidegger, here [31]

Thus, we find thinkers like Descartes declaring that knowledge is in disarray and must be, in effect, put back together again. Descartes warns that “undermining the foundations [of knowledge] will cause whatever has been built upon them to crumble of its own accord,” [20] [32] but for the moderns this has, in fact, already occurred. Knowledge must indeed be, in some sense, “put back together again,” but much that had been accepted as knowledge has to be rejected, and the entire “edifice” must be placed on entirely new foundations. Thus is born the ideal of the “system of knowledge” (whether philosophic or scientific) [21] [33]: a unification and reconciliation of all that is known, providing a complete “outline” for the understanding of everything.

A mathematical model is at work here, and what we find again and again in modern “systems” is the idea that all knowledge can be unified, or even derived from, certain basic principles that function not unlike Euclidean axioms (Descartes’s ego cogito is the paradigm example of this, but we will find this conviction as late as Fichte and Schelling). This conception is possible because the world itself is understood as a “mathematical system” ordering itself (or ordered by the creator) according to principles that are, conveniently, knowable by man. Heidegger writes,

[In the modern period,] Being in general is determined in its essence in terms of the thinkability and lawfulness of thinking, but this thinking is mathematical; the structure of Being, i.e., system, must [therefore] be mathematical and at the same time a system of thinking, of ratio, of reason. The explicit and true formation of the system begins in the West as the will to a mathematical system of reason[22] [34]

The idea of a “system of knowledge” forever altered how philosophy is understood, both by philosophers and by the general public. The enterprise of building “systems of philosophy,” which is uniquely modern, is read back into the ancients, and Plato and Aristotle are said to have had “systems.” Modern histories of philosophy thus carefully extract (better yet, construct) unified bodies of “doctrines” that are supposed to have been the “systems” of Plato and Aristotle. And we lament the fact that the “systems” of such thinkers as Anaxagoras will never fully be known to us. As a result of this shift, the term “philosophy” comes to connote a set of ideas, so that we now speak of someone “having” a philosophy. The Greek philosophia, in fact, means “love of wisdom.” Hence philosophy originally meant a practice, a way of life, rather than a body of doctrine. [23] [35]

While this “will to system” is the spirit of the times, exhibited by many thinkers, Klein is correct when he notes that “it is due mainly to Leibniz that philosophizing becomes identified with the producing of ‘systems of philosophy.’” [24] [36] And it is to Leibniz, as a paradigm case of the ideal of the world picture, that we will turn in our next chapter of the history of metaphysics.

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Notes

[1] [40] Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 66.

[2] [41] Off the Beaten Track, 67.

[3] [42] Off the Beaten Track, 68.

[4] [43] Off the Beaten Track, 67.

[5] [44] The terminology here differs from philosopher to philosopher. So that Locke and Berkeley refer to “ideas” and Hume to “impressions,” rather than “images.” However, by “impressions” Hume basically means images, and Berkeley and Locke’s “ideas” subsume what other philosophers refer to as images. It should be noted, however, that though Berkeley’s entire philosophy is built upon the assumptions of the representationalist theory, he believes that he refutes it. I will discuss this in a later installment.

[6] [45] Strictly speaking, the picture is created from the standpoint or perspective of its maker. However, when I look at it I am being taken into the maker’s perspective and I see the objects depicted from that perspective. The maker’s perspective becomes my own, which is one of the ways that two-dimensional representational art (e.g., painting and photography) can convey meaning. 

[7] [46] Off the Beaten Track, 66.

[8] [47] Off the Beaten Track, 67. All italics added.

[9] [48] Off the Beaten Track, 69. 

[10] [49] Off the Beaten Track, 67-68.

[11] [50] Vorstellen = vor (before) + stellen (to put). So, Vorstellen, as a noun, literally means “the (act of) putting before.” Heidegger hyphenates the word to indicate its literal meaning. “Re-presentation” roughly means the same thing, as discussed in part four [3] of this series. Herstellen = her (a prefix impossible to translate, but conveying the idea of motion or change) + stellen (to put). So, Herstellen, as a noun, means literally “the (act of) putting to change or motion.” It is used to mean “to fashion” or “to manufacture,” and is often translated as “production.” “Production” does, in fact, express roughly the same idea as Herstellen taken literally: “production” comes from Latin prōdūcō from prō– (“forth”) + dūcō (“to bring, to lead”). So that production is “bringing forth” in the sense of putting something to a process of change, so as to fashion a result. 

[12] [51] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 3, ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. Joan Stambaugh et al. (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 221. 

[13] [52] Martin Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 31.

[14] [53] In part three [2] I give a fuller account of just what I understand “modernity” to encompass.

[15] [54] Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 76.

[16] [55] Yates, 77. I am not suggesting that Yates had Heidegger in mind. 

[17] [56] Andrew Mitchell, The Fourfold: Reading the Late Heidegger (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015), 30. 

[18] [57] Jacob Klein, “Leibniz, an Introduction,” in Jacob Klein: Lectures and Essays, ed. Robert B. Williamson and Elliott Zuckerman (Annapolis: St. John’s College, 1985), 201.

[19] [58] Heidegger, Schelling Treatise, 32. 

[20] [59] Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 14. 

[21] [60] In the early modern period, there is no fundamental distinction made between philosophy and science. This was true of the ancient and medieval periods. In fact, it is not until the twentieth century that terms like “natural philosophy” (for physics) fall into disuse.

[22] [61] Heidegger, Schelling’s Treatise, 33.

[23] [62] The life of Socrates and his practice of philosophy are the best illustration of this. It should be noted that we do find “systematizing” tendencies in Plato. This is despite the fact that his dialogues preserve a “Socratic” form, in which philosophy is presented as an ongoing conversation. If we look to the late dialogues and the reports (in Aristotle and others) of Plato’s “unwritten teaching,” we find evidence that Plato aspired to develop a literal “system of ideas,” in the sense of an “eidetic map” of the realm of forms revealing it as hierarchically organized and “governed” by two ultimate ur-forms. If Heidegger is right that Plato’s εἴδη “predestined the world’s having to become picture,” this should not surprise us. We find “modern” tendencies among the ancients, in germinal form. As Klein has said, “Let us not forget . . . that just as there were plenty of ‘ancients’ among the ‘moderns,’ so there were quite a few ‘moderns’ among the ancients” (Klein, 198). What matters is the form or tendency of thought that predominates in a given period. 

[24] [63] Klein, 201.