Book Plug: Heidegger’s Confessions by Ryan Coyne

Countering a Significant Omission: Heidegger’s ConfessionsHeidegger's Confessions

Reviewed by Dr. Gary R. Brown, University of Dallas

It is well-known that the compelling breadth and depth of Heidegger’s thought is due in large measure to how much of the Western philosophical tradition it encompasses. He has ferreted out, rethought, and retrieved significant themes from everybody’s favorite thinkers. We can find echoes in Heidegger’s work of Kant, Nietzsche, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Eckhart, Aquinas, Dilthey, Jaspers, Lask, Scheler, St. Paul, Luther—a list that can be further extended even without including poets and dramatists. But, according to Ryan Coyne, there is another, perhaps equally significant, thinker whose longtime influence on Heidegger has been sorely overlooked, and that is St. Augustine.

The first reaction by many Heidegger scholars to such a claim is surprised denial. It is widely assumed that after The Phenomenology of Religious life, Heidegger moved progressively further away from Augustine as he set about de-theologizing philosophy. Heidegger’s supposed incompatibility with Augustine might seem even more pronounced after Phillip Cary’s Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self. Cary shifts the blame for modern subjectivity from Descartes’ shoulders to Augustine’s—its true originator. If we can claim anything with certainty about Heidegger’s work, it is that he has labored mightily against Descartes’ subjective metaphysics. So why would Augustine’s abiding influence on Heidegger be something to consider as possible?

Coyne argues that Heidegger’s reading of Augustine’s Confessions for his 1921 seminar allowed him to see Augustine as a predecessor in his battle against Cartesian metaphysics. Having Augustine as an ally in his exploration of the concrete facticity of life had greater influence on Heidegger’s future work, according to Coyne, than his study of the Pauline epistles during the same period. Heidegger’s ongoing de-theologizing of theological concepts hid Augustine’s influence on Being and Time, but after the Kehre Heidegger returned to his early reworking of Augustine’s thought in order to find ways to move forward. Coyne finds echoes in the Contributions to Philosophy (1936-1938) of Augustine in Heidegger’s rethinking of Dasein in terms of displacement and “restraint.” He points to Heidegger’s reference to Augustine in the 1946 study, “Anaximander’s Saying” while trying to interpret the early understanding of being. Coyne also presents textual evidence for a “muted resurgence of resignified Augustinian terms” in Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s completion of Descartes’ metaphysical project (1944-1946). This twenty-five year span of Augustine’s influence, which surfaced during significant periods of crisis in Heidegger’s work, brings clarity to the tension in Heidegger between the secular and the religious contributions to the meaning of being. Coyne’s presentation is a pleasure to read due to the clarity of his argument, his impressive knowledge of the stages of Heidegger’s development, and the rich selection of supportive textual details.

Book Plug: Situating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.

Part IV: An Introduction to Hans-Georg Gadamer

Walter Lammi, Kathleen Wright, Brice Wachterhauser and others have highlighted Heidegger’s influence on Gadamer.  Gadamer readily acknowledges his indebtedness to Heidegger, after all he was a student of Heidegger’s for many years.  In Truth and Method, Gadamer mentions his use of Heidegger’s “hermeneutical circle” (an on-going movement between whole and part and part and whole in our interpretative endeavors) and embraces Heidegger’s understanding of truth as aletheia (a dialectic of concealment and Gadamer Painting by Dora Mittenzweiunconcealment), yet Gadamer is also critical of Heidegger.  For example, Gadamer rejects Heidegger’s Seinsvergessenheit thesis (the “forgetfulness of being”) and denies that the Western metaphysical tradition necessarily culminates in nihilism.  In fact, Gadamer detects nihilistic tendencies in Heidegger’s views in the latter’s separation of questions of Being from questions of the human good.  According to Gadamer, Heidegger’s critique of the Western metaphysical tradition fails because he employs a univocal understanding of metaphysics.   Here Gadamer’s study of Plato, particularly the later dialogues causes him to reject Heidegger’s read of Plato as a “metaphysics of presence” advocate.  Gadamer sees the later Plato as endeavoring to work out an ontological vision that overcomes a certain misread of his theory of Ideas, viz. the interpretation that the Ideas constitute a separate realm (i.e. a view of the Ideas that suggests a strong dualism in Plato).   Instead, Gadamer interprets the later Plato as sharing similarities with Aristotle (non-dualistic) and developing what subsequent thinkers have called the “transcendentals” (good, true, unity, beauty etc.).   Gadamer argues that the center of Plato’s thought is not the theory of the Forms but rather the relationship of the One and the Many.  On Gadamer’s read, there is a kind of “movement” in the Forms in that when they reveal themselves they simultaneously conceal themselves (i.e., in their relation to the whole, that is, the other Forms and of course the ever-elusive Form of the Good).  Thus, for Gadamer, Plato does not promote a “metaphysics of presence” philosophy.  Rather, he acknowledges our finitude and our incomplete (yet real) grasp of the Forms.

Reappropriation of Platonic Insights:  “Metaphysics of Light”

At the end of Truth and Method, Gadamer turns explicitly to Plato’s view of beauty and self-validating truth.  Beauty is that which draws us to itself; it shines forth and presents itself as tangible in its visibility.   Truth likewise exhibits radiance and manifests itself in the beautiful, thus functioning as a “mediator” between the ideal and the real.  Given his rejection of the modern foundationalist project and its attempt to make knowledge completely transparent along with its search for a “method” to justify its every move, Gadamer suggests that an appropriation of this ancient version of self-validating truth, in which knowledge is not identified with certainty, is a possible way beyond the impasse of skepticism and the ruins of (modern) foundationalism.

In keeping with the overall vision of his dialogical, hermeneutical project, Gadamer continues his “fusion of horizons,” interacting with both ancient and modern thinkers and philosophical traditions and suggesting a way forward through an appropriation of the past and present so that the tradition can continue to speak, flourish and “surprise” us and generations to come.

Part II: Gadamer’s Ontological Perspectivism: A Way Around Relativism and Dogmatism

As Wachterhauser stresses, Gadamer’s path avoids the pitfalls of both the relativist and the ahistorical dogmatist, not by eschewing all things metaphysical, but rather by gleaning ontological insights from ancient philosophy (particularly the later Plato).   Here we encounter a significant divergence between Gadamer and Heidegger in that the former rejects important aspects of Heidegger’s critique of the Western philosophical tradition’s so-called Seinsvergessenheit (“the forgetfulness of Being”).  That is, though appreciative of Heidegger’s contribution to philosophy, Gadamer thinks Heidegger’s narrative of Western metaphysics as necessarily culminating in nihilism is based on a univocal understanding of metaphysics.  Moreover, Gadamer discerns nihilistic tendencies in Heidegger’s own position, viz., a failure to consider the ways in which questions about the human good are fundamentally related to questions about Being (Beyond Being, p. 15).   For Gadamer, “Plato is not clearly the author of the so-called metaphysics of presence,” nor is metaphysics a “univocal phenomenon destined for the nihilism that dominates many parts of our culture” (p. 15).  Instead of seeing metaphysics as a dead end in need of overcoming, Gadamer “leaves the door open to the possibility that ‘metaphysics’ contains possibilities or resources for development that have not been adequately explored” (p. 15).  Interestingly, Gadamer’s project, in light of his openness to the ancient tradition and his appreciation for Heidegger’s work, attempts to synthesize the best of both worlds.  As Wachterhauser explains,

Not only does Gadamer’s hermeneutics rely on Heidegger’s insights into ‘self-manifesting Being, the Being of aletheia‘ but it attempts to expand these insights into a more fundamental ontological inquiry by reintroducing the fundamentally Platonic concern with the transcendentals (p. 15). 

So just what is Gadamer’s ontologico-hermeneutical strategy-a strategy that Wachterhauser claims carves out a path that bypasses the problems of relativism and ahistorical dogmatism?  First, Gadamer directs our attention to ontological questions, viz., what kind of being do works of art or texts possess that allows an identity in difference?  Here Wachterhauser introduces what he calls Gadamer’s “ontological perspectivism,” which claims that

things like texts are such that they contain within themselves different ‘faces’ or ‘looks’ that present themselves in different historically mediated contexts in such a way that we can say that it is possible for one and the same reality to show itself in many ways (p. 7). 

With his understanding of a non-univocal, non-staticized view of identity, Gadamer can, on the one hand, allow for the possibility of ever new (legitimate) interpretations, and on the other hand, because some kind of identity obtains, he can also regard other interpretations as illegitimate.  Here I propose a few of my own musical examples to further elucidate how Gadamer’s ontological perspectivism does not fall prey to relativism.  Jazz musicians often use what is called a “lead sheet” when learning a new piece of music.  A jazz lead sheet is similar to a notated score for a classical piece; however, only the melody is written out in standard musical notation.  Both the lead sheet and the classical score are “texts” that the musicians must engage and interpret in order for the music to, so to speak, appear.  In contrast, however, to the classical score in which the bass line, the chords, and more or less every note that will be played is written out in full notation, a lead sheet allows for much more flexibility.[1]   For example, above the melody one simply finds chord symbols, as opposed to chords displayed in standard notation with specific voicings.  Writing the chord symbols in this manner affords the pianist or guitarist, as well as the bassist, a significant amount of creative freedom in performing the piece.  However, we should be clear that this freedom does not swallow up the form or structure nor does it fundamentally alter the piece itself, as one must choose harmonies and bass lines that fall within a certain trajectory of the specified chord symbol that supports the melody and marks out the general harmonic structure of the piece.  Thus, with a jazz lead sheet, one is in a sense tied to the score, i.e., one must agree to submit to the givens that make the piece to be what it is and respond accordingly.   Yet, in other sense, one’s own personality, skill level, and creative sensibilities also come through making each performance something unique. (In Gadamer universe of discourse, a “fusion of horizons” occurs). One might even say that the flexibility that lead sheets afford, coupled with the distinctly human traits and personal idiosyncrasies that manifest in improvisation, in a sense engenders greater intelligibility and appeal to the piece itself.  That is, the built-in flexibility of lead sheets aids in preserving the piece through the passage of time while simultaneously allowing and even expecting various re-articulations because it has room for the creative expansions that inevitably come with temporal/historical progression and human interpretative endeavors.   

Just as in no way is it the case that when a jazz piece is performed and interpreted by various musicians from different time periods, a kind of free-for-all takes place in which the original melody is somehow destroyed, neither would it be the case according to Gadamer’s hermeneutical thesis that our interpretations have no strictures whatsoever and no relation to the to the text and even the author’s intentions.  (However, Gadamer would quickly add that our interpretations are not confined solely to the author’s intentions).  Though it is the case, that each jazz performance is distinctive, there is a common, yet dynamic range that unites each performance such that the melody is recognizable when played in a wide range of styles (from traditional to more avant-guard styles).  If one simply ignored the melody (text) and harmonic structure or distorted either such that they became completely unrecognizable, then clearly one has gone astray.  However, this is neither what I nor Gadamer have in mind.

In part III, I shall discuss in more detail Gadamer’s non-repetitious use of Platonic insights. 


[1] I would argue that even with classical music where all the parts are strictly defined and written out, the same piece played by the same group or musician is strictly speaking never played the same way twice; hence, we still have multiple interpretations though they are not as readily apparent as those encountered in jazz.

Part VI: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

Section four, “The Indifference to Be,” is perhaps one of the most important sections of chapter three. In light of what he sees as an inherent connection between the Being/being framework and idolatry, Marion attempts to outwit Being by its own rules—which in essence means to outwit onto-theo-logy and the “ontological difference.” The phrase “ontological difference” is a reference to Heidegger and speaks of the difference between Being (as such) and beings. One aspect of the “difference” between Being (as such) and a being is that the former a dynamic process and is therefore not a being, yet the history of Western philosophy on the Heideggarian read has ossified/static-ized Being and made it a being (e.g., pure act, highest cause etc.), which is why Heidegger gives his critique as he does. This dynamic process (Being) reveals itself differently in different epochs and allows particular beings to manifest/appear as the beings that they are. Being as such then seems to provide the condition for the possibility of beings appearing. [This is my understanding of “ontological difference” as used in this context. However, as I have stated before, my knowledge of Heidegger is very basic, and I welcome criticisms and corrections to what I have said here].

In order to outwit Being, that is, to break out of the horizon of Being, we must find a new rule whose difference is not that of “ontological difference” and consequently, whose difference does not refer at all to the horizon of Being (which would involve us in the idolatrous gaze). Ontological difference has a built-in reflexivity and it is this very (idolatrous) reflexivity that Marion wants to avoid. This other difference turns out to be biblical revelation. In other words, Marion employs that which is “foolishness to the Greeks” to outwit the (wordly) logic of Being. E.g., appealing to two texts from St. Paul (Rom 4:7 and 1 Cor 1:26-29) and one from St. Luke (the prodigal son), Marion shows how biblical revelation is indifferent to Being. To elucidate what is meant by this, Marion writes, “one must distinguish, in fact, between two extremely different points. Incontestably, biblical revelation is unaware of ontological difference, the science of Being/beings as such, and hence of the question of Being. But nothing is less accurate than to pretend that it does not speak a word on being, nonbeing and beingness” (p. 86). Marion appeals to these texts because all of them speak about being (or ousia) in one way or another. Though Marion admits that some might be frustrated with his interpretation of these texts, he asks the reader to exercise patience and see his argument through to the end.

For the sake of brevity, I shall engage only one text, viz., Rom 4:17. In this text we read that Abraham was made “the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations,’ facing Him in whom he believed, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls the non-beings as beings” (p. 86). As Marion observes, we see St. Paul seemingly employing the language of the philosophers when he speaks of a movement from non-being to being. The Greeks of course were very much concerned with the possibility or rather impossibility of this transition; however, the transition that Paul has in mind does not depend on any human conception, nor is it solved by a movement of a being from potency to act. Instead, the transition comes to the (non)beings from the outside. As Marion puts it, the transition is an “extrinsic transition” and “does not depend on (non-)beings but on Him who calls them” (p. 87). Of course Marion does not mean that these “dead” individuals do not actually exist. Rather, his emphasis is that in the eyes of the world, they are non-beings. In contrast, God is indifferent to the world’s (ontic) determination of being and nonbeing. God’s call in fact “does not take into consideration the difference between nonbeings and beings” (p. 88)—nonbeings are called as if they were beings.

In the texts from St. Paul that Marion examines, we find that nonbeings (ta mē onta) do not mean that or those who are not, and as a result nonbeings in the context of revelation do not play according to the logic of Being and do not submit to the horizon of Being. (The same of course is true of beings (ta onta). Marion highlights an interesting point in the 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 passage, viz., that the wisdom of the world goes against its own logic. That is, it calls the brethren nonbeings, though strictly speaking they, as humans, exist. But as Paul points out, the “world” contradicts itself because it founds itself or is founded not as a result of the fold of Being but on its own works and therefore boasts in itself before God. So even in spite of itself, the “world” when bedazzled by the light of God, becomes so distracted that it, being revealed as a “forger of itself,” “acknowledges that its funding does not lie in ontological difference, but in the pretension to ‘glorify itself before God’” (p. 94). In the end, what counts here as to the debate between beings and nonbeings has little to do with ontic or ontological difference, but rather with the two opposing boastings—one which is founded on itself and one which boasts in the Lord because of God’s call (p. 94). Consequently, we now see how “being and nonbeing can be divided according to something other than Being” (p. 95).

Later in the chapter (after giving his interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son), Marion identifies this “something” as the “gift.” The “gift” not only outwits the Being game, but it makes possible Being/beings in the first place—it “gives Being/beings” (p. 100). As Marion explains, “[t]he gift crosses Being/being: it meets it, strikes it out with a mark, finally opens it, as a window casement opens, on an instance that remains unspeakable according to the language of Being—supposing that another language might be conceived. To open Being/being to the instance of a gift implies then, at the least, that the gift may decide Being/being. In other words, the gift is not at all laid out according to Being/being, but Being/being is given according to the gift. The gift delivers Being/being. It delivers it in the sense first that the gift gives Being/being and puts it into play, opens it to its sending, as in order to launch it into its destiny. The gift delivers also in that it liberates being from Being or, put another way, Being/being from ontological difference” (p. 101). This gift in fact is inextricably linked with charity/love itself, “which gives and expresses itself as gift” (p. 102). In sum, being is not a being because (the horizon of) Being has provided the condition by which it can become manifest [or said slightly differently, a being is not a being because of the “ontological difference”], rather a being is a being because it has received a gift (e.g. the “call”) from Love Himself.

Part IV: Jean-Luc Marion, Beyond Conceptual Idolatry

In section two, entitled, “Ontological Impediment,” Marion gives a fairly complex and detailed analysis of Heidegger’s onto-theology critique, pointing out both the insights and the shortcomings of Heidegger’s claims. (I have to say that given my very basic knowledge of Heidegger, I found this section extremely difficult and am not sure whether I have properly understood it. Hence, I welcome corrections). Having engaged and examined Heidegger’s position, Marion concludes that though Heidegger was correct in pointing out the onto-theo-logic that characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition, Heidegger himself does not escape his own critique.

Marion sees Heidegger as diminishing theology’s dignity by making it submit to the requirements of Dasein, which in the end for Marion means Being, as well as and the very ontology Heidegger himself criticizes. Heidegger wants to make a strict separation between philosophy and theology, the former constituting the science of Being (ontological science) and the latter an “ontic” science of faith, which studies a particular slice of reality (having the same standing as chemistry or mathematics) [p. 66]—it’s object is not Dasein or “God” but faith in Christ crucified. In other words, faith becomes an aspect or modality of philosophy and consequently remains a conceptual idol. “The invariant of Dasein appears more essential to man than the ontic variant introduced by faith. Man can eventually become a believer only inasmuch as he exists first as Dasein” (p. 68). In the end, theology as a mere ontic variant of Dasein remains subordinate to Dasein as such.

Second, according to Heidegger, it is valid and perhaps even preferred to speak of faith as “the experience of faith.” Yet, again faith must be understood according to the strictures or conditions of philosophy, particularly of Heidegger’s phenomenology, which means that faith cannot show itself or give itself as itself but is always filtered through Dasein (and the horizon of Being).
Marion, however, wants a theology that allows Gxd to reveal himself “without condition, antecedent, or genealogy” (p. 70). In other words, he asks, “why must revelation be determined by the strictures of a philosophy that says in order for Gxd to show himself he must do so as a being within the framework of Being? (p. 70). “Who then decides that that mode of revelation, about which the Bible emphasizes that it speaks […] ‘in many refrains, in many different ways’ (Heb. 1:1), should have to sacrifice, as a retainer fee, to Being?” (p. 71). Marion ends this section with a simple but profound question: “does the name of the Gxd, who is crossed because he is crucified, belong to the domain of Being?”