Commentary Magazine


Discourse on Thinking, by Martin Heidegger

Varieties of Reason

Discourse on Thinking.
by Martin Heidegger.
Harper & Row. 93 PP. $3.50.

If Harper & Row wanted the public to read Heidegger, would they have got out his Discourse on Thinking? The tiny volume includes “Memorial Address” given by the philosopher (in Messkirch, on October 15, 1955, at the celebration of the 175th birthday of the composer Conradin Kreutzer), and also a conversation piece (one could hardly call it a dialogue) : “Conversation on a Country Path About Thinking.” The Address and the Conversation take up only fifty-five pages, so that the introduction to the book by John M. Anderson is about as long as the longer of Heidegger’s pieces. Moreover, the Memorial Address, though interesting as a talk, is hardly a good instance of Heidegger’s thought; and the conversation about thinking will be extremely difficult for anyone not acquainted with Heidegger’s other “thinkings.” In fact, it is about as hard to follow as anything I ever read by him. What is the public to make of such a book? And why were the fine essays by Heidegger on poetry, on technics, on Hoelderlin, on Nietzsche, and on nihilism, essays long ago translated into French and which would be intelligible to many, not brought together for American readers? The present Discourse on Thinking is bound to disappoint and disorient anyone unable to evaluate it.

So let me say something to readers of just this volume. Heidegger, the chief instigator of existentialism (with which, however, he refuses to identify his thinking), is first and foremost a master of ambiguity; and his talent for philosophy, which is indisputable, he has himself distinguished from the talent for truth. (No doubt this is why Stuart Hampshire called him a bad philosopher; also a bad man. Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi for a time?) There is danger, to be sure, especially for a thinker, in thinking there might be something better than truth. Many have asked: does Heidegger mean what he says?

I’m not sure that he says what he means in the Memorial Address. In substance it is a defense of what Heidegger calls “meditative thinking” as against the currently wider mode of thinking which he calls “calculative.” Though the Address is somewhat portentous (Heidegger describes our modern world as one in which the kind of thinking he refers to as “calculative” threatens to change the relations of men to things and to their fellows) it is, in its conclusions, modest enough, and in no sense outrageous. Heidegger does not deny that “calculative” thinking is necessary, even valuable. He does not call for a rejection of such thinking, but only insists that there is place for meditation. A modest place. And what should be our comportment toward the technological? In answer he says that we should “let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside. That is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time, ‘no,’ by an old expression, releasement toward things.” So, in his Address, Heidegger does little more than plead for a continued interest in meditation, and a partial rejection of the technological, in other words, the calculative.

The conversation on thinking is a more complex piece; here Heidegger indulges his flair for using terms new to philosophical discourse—also likely to be incomprehensible to the lay reader. I must add that the conversation, in which there are three participants—a teacher, a scholar, and a scientist—does not have the form of a real dialogue, being without a dramatic setting, and without any characterization of the speakers; it could have been more truly presented as a kind of stream of consciousness—the stream of consciousness, of course, of a philosopher. This is hardly the exchange of different views as held by different persons. What is advocated? Waiting. And real waiting, it is asserted, means making no decision as to what it is for which you wait. So, for instance, if you were waiting for Godot, or God, for that matter, if you knew you were waiting for Him, you would not really be waiting. To wait means not to know for what or for whom one waits. At its close, the conversation does rise to a kind of not very clear and not very consecutive series of poetic statements:

Scientist: Indeed, waiting is really almost a countermovement to going toward.

Scholar: Not to say a counter-rest.

Teacher: Or simply rest. Yet has it been definitely decided that ‘Aγχιβασιη means going toward?

Scholar: Translated literally it says “going near.”

Teacher: Perhaps we could think of it also as: “moving-into-nearness.”

Scientist: You mean that quite literally in the sense of “1etting-onese If-into-nearness?”

Teacher: About that.

Scholar: Then this word might be the name, and perhaps the best name, for what we have found.

Teacher: Which, in its nature, nevertheless, we are still seeking.

Scholar: ‘’Aγχιβασιη “moving-into-nearness.” The word could rather, so it seems to me now, be the name for our walk today along this country path.

Teacher: Which guided us deep into the night . . .

Scientist:. . . that gleams ever more splendidly . . .

Scholar: . . . and overwhelms stars . . .

Teacher:. . . because it nears their distances in the heavens. . .

Scientist: At least for the naive observer, although not for the exact scientist.

Teacher: Ever to the child in man, night neighbors the stars.

Scholar: She binds together without seam or edge or thread.

Scientist: She neighbors; because she works only with nearness.

Scholar: If she ever works rather than rests. . .

Teacher:. . . while wondering upon the depths of the height.

Scholar: Then wonder can open what is locked?

Scientist: By way of waiting . . .

Teacher: If this is released . . .

Scholar: . . . and human nature remains appropriated to that. . .

Teacher: . . . from whence we are called.

The conversation of the scientist, the scholar, and the teacher on the country path states once again what Heidegger said in his Memorial Address, namely that meditation is something other than calculation. Also, in the conversation, Heidegger’s notion of meditation is presented as more like waiting for thoughts than actual thinking. As I indicated before, meditation is assimilated to a kind of waiting for revelation, and without even trying to anticipate the revelation which may come. Waiting to think or perhaps waiting to begin, is, I suppose, what Heidegger calls meditation; waiting, that is, for some new revelation of being.

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Why, one wonders, is Heidegger in the Memorial Address so moderate in his criticism of calculative thinking, and why, in the conversation piece, does he fail to distinguish it more sharply from the meditative? One is even inclined to wonder whether Heidegger sees a real difference between these two kinds of thinking: in trying to distinguish them, he is forced to give a most tenuous analysis of “waiting,” and to overvalue “waiting” as against “waiting for.”

Has he not always associated the revelation of being, that is, metaphysics, with meditative thinking? In his essay on technics in Holzwege (“Paths in the Wood”) he puts the whole blame on Western metaphysics—the meditative thought of the West—for the current dominance of calculative thinking, that is, technics. Western meditation is responsible for Western calculation; that was his claim in Holzwege. May not a new experience of meditation lead to newer forms of the calculative?

Or can Heidegger be interpreted as meaning that all Western meditation has been fundamentally calculative, and that a new, more original kind of thinking is now indispensable? Elsewhere in his writings he implied nothing less. But then can he mean what he says in the Memorial Address, that a modest place can still be found for the meditative within the calculative?

Contrariwise, in another of his addresses, on nuclear energy, he attacked our tendency to ask “why” on the ground that it was this kind of questioning which led us into the nuclear age. He argued that any question beginning with “why” must lead to an answer beginning with “because”—and because of “because” we have nuclear energy. Maybe so. Yet in asserting that we are wrong to ask “why,” he himself had to fall back on a “because”; this would not at all involve him in self-contradiction if his “because” were in answer to a meditative “why,” clearly distinct from the calculative. Now I think Heidegger’s bent is to have it both ways, and to confuse, after having distinguished, meditation and calculation.

Suppose, though, we ignore Heidegger’s terms, which he has not made clear, and rely on terms more familiar to us in Western philosophy. Suppose we substitute for Heidegger’s “meditative thinking” the term “speculative reason”—which should present no difficulties; for Heidegger’s “calculative thinking,” let us substitute the term “practical reason,” taken in a wide and not in the Kantian sense, so as to cover all reasoning with respect to consequences. Would it be possible, with these terms, to be clearer about the “meditative” and the “calculative” than Heidegger has been, either in his Memorial Address or in his conversation piece? I’m inclined to think so.

Now it should be immediately evident—though perhaps it’s not—that speculative reason is originary, distinctive of reason as such, and discloses the human most essentially. Confronted by Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth cries out: “Thou hast no speculation in those eyes/ Which thou dost glare with!” And we are convinced that Shakespeare was unerring in making Macbeth miss in the visitation the quality not of life but of thought. But why should speculative rather than practical thinking stand for thinking as such? A very good answer is given by Gilbert Ryle in his Auguste Comte memorial lecture of 1962, “A Rational Animal,” in which he points out that speculative reason—he calls it theoretical reason—is self-motivated as practical reason is not.

For all its independence though, speculative reason can do little more than speculate reasonably. It cannot defend itself against other forms of reasoning. It can only exhibit its charms. Practical reason, however, can defend speculative reason; it can also attack it. Practical reason even has the power to assert that speculative reason is sacred; it did just this in the Middle Ages, setting theology above the sciences.

In what finally lies the charm of speculative reason? Suppose a man, consulting a psychoanalyst, and hoping to be cured of what he takes to be a neurosis, is told by the analyst: I can certainly help you, that is, be of practical use to you, but the theory of psychoanalysis is completely questionable—would not the prospective patient be discouraged? And not merely because the statement of the analyst might lead him to question the likelihood of a cure. I think, in addition, much of the charm of analytic treatment would be gone once one’s own cure was not part of validating a general theory.

Or let us look now at realities which are not expressed in systems of ideas, but in institutions. Let us take marriage, for example, and see how it relates on the one hand to the speculative, and on the other to the practical. Most people who are in favor of marriage—I’m speaking of Western marriage—would nowadays try to justify the institution in completely practical terms, forgetting its foundation in the speculative, that is to say, in the original notion that the married couple is united by a sacrament. And as the feeling for the sacrament has tended to dissipate itself, the institution has weakened. Has it not been the love relation, most often adulterous, which has attracted to itself that powerful erotic interest which can only be focused speculatively? Romanticism, in fact, may be described as living by a speculative judgment that can neither yield to nor become a practical judgment. The lovers can die or write poetry; they cannot marry.

To say that it is difficult to love is to say that it is difficult to judge another speculatively and to live by such a judgment. The ready acceptance of death by romantic characters is explained, I believe, not so much by the force of the erotic, as by their commitment to the speculative. Surely there is little about the Socrates of the Apology that suggests romanticism or eroticism. Yet he said to his judges, “I go to die, and you go to live, and nobody knows which is better.” But if it is difficult to live by speculative reason, people did live by it, at least to some extent, in the Middle Ages when love and love poetry were invented. The lives of Christians were based on that logic made clear by Pascal in his discussion of the Wager: Christians risked the possibility of finite happiness against the possibility of infinite happiness. The odds, Pascal claimed, were reasonable. They did not seem so to the people of his own time, which is why he formulated his argument and if they did seem so during the Middle Ages, it was because during this period it was not merely the speculative, but also practical judgment, which said these odds were reasonable. True, practical reason only supported speculative reason when to do so was in the interest of practical reason; the rational purposes of the church in the Middle Ages required the dominance of theology. Both good and evil came of this: the great figures of the meditative life, also fanaticism, the Inquisition, and the auto-da-fé.

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Is it possible that in this modern world of ours any significant number of people may again feel inclined to lead their lives speculatively? Only if practical reason endorses their inclination. And why should practical reason, so respected and en-trenched, now become less enamored of the power it alone can hold? Perhaps the force of a new faith, like, let us say, the Christian revelation, could induce practical reason to serve the speculative again. Is this the revelation Heidegger is waiting for? It would explain his limiting of meditation to a waiting-to-think; also it would explain what is unclear in his discourse: he wants to speak speculatively but cannot—he has to limit himself to speaking in favor of the speculative, which means he has to speak in practical terms. No doubt this is why he calls for a “modest place” for the “meditative” within the “calculative.” But the speculative, which I take to be what Heidegger means by the meditative, can never have a modest place in relation to the practical: a new revelation of the speculative might be the foundation of some new kind of practical reason. But we cannot speculate about such new speculation; we can only see the practical point of it—until it comes.

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