Being and Truth in Arendt and Heidegger

Being and Truth in Arendt and Heidegger Hannah Arendt was my teacher and mentor at the New School in New York City from 1970 until 1975, when she died suddenly. She lectured on thinking during part of that period and it was for us quite mysterious, because she had been known as a political philosopher. These were quite controversial lectures since she claimed that thinking, true philosophy, did not deal with truth, but rather with meaning. We were, of course, ardent seekers after truth. Of cours
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  Being and Truth in Arendt and Heidegger Hannah Arendt was my teacher and mentor at the New School in New York City from 1970 until 1975, when she died suddenly. She lectured on thinking during part of that  period and it was for us quite mysterious, because she had been known as a political  philosopher. These were quite controversial lectures since she claimed that thinking, true  philosophy, did not deal with truth, but rather with meaning. We were, of course, ardent seekers after truth. Of course, she dealt with Heidegger in the lectures, but we did not know at the time of their intimate relationship. That was revealed in 1982 by my classmate, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl. Since then various biographical works have chronicled their relationship, and it is always controversial, because she was of Jewish srcin and he was a Nazi. He never publically renounced his allegiance to the party, and he refused to comment on the destruction of the Jews. Some have maintained that this is a reflection on Arendt as a person, though so far not much has been done to establish the relation between their philosophies. Here I want to show, not that Arendt was a mere disciple of Heidegger, or that she was an epigone, but that there are important parallels between their philosophies on topics fundamental to philosophy, such as the nature of being and truth. First of all, there is the parallel between their view of modern life. Heidegger characterizes it in his notes from 1938-40 with the term, Seinsverlassenheit, which can be roughly translated as abandonment of being. We are in our time those who have abandoned being, which we might say is reality, what truly is; or, another way of looking at the same situation is to say that being has abandoned us. The reason for our abandonment has to do, for one thing, with science. Of course, modern science has been very successful in advancing knowledge, and making life for us more comfortable, but Heidegger conducts a polemic against it, saying that it has blinded man to the truth of  bein g. “That no -longer-admitting (of being,tr.) has its own special meaning and decisiveness from this, that it has made standing in truth irrelevant.” (Martin Heidegger, Die Geschichte des Seins, Vol. 69, Complete Works, 1998. P.3 7) And he continues, “ In the „light‟ of this knowledge, man is blinded and only sees himself. But this blinding admits being as the blinding force of the abandonment of being.” The outstanding form of abandonment of being is “Communism”, by which he does not mean Soviet Russia, or the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, but what he takes as the  philosophy behind it, namely Platonism, understood as a received philosophy, a worldview. In a somewhat refined note, he concludes the section on the overcoming of metaphysics by writings that what is really wrong with our time is we do not understand Platonism, which ---- in the writings of Nietzsche --- has been overcome. (see Heidegger, 1998. P.35) This leads to the sense that what is real, what being is, is that which we can dominate and plan. “  The particular being is in that, just what it is, and as it is, and that it is so and so, because it has been given over to the planning and directing domination of man, and man, thereby, becomes the one whose preservation is a matter of being the one who has business with the particular beings.” (Heidegger, 1998. P. 38.) But, still, in all of this abandonment of being, he adds that true being, Being as such, is still essentially   present.”Communism” is the name for the historical appearance of planning, wh ich depends on technology, and has as its goal security. This is perhaps a reference to the various social programs of Social Democracy and the Communist party in the Soviet Union. As we shall see, it is being itself, true Being, which must disturb what is settled and secure. A parallel to this rather bleak view of modern life is to be found in Arendt in the conclusion to a lecture course, which she held at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955. It describes that time in which we live as a desert, and she claims that Nietzsche was the first to understand our situation, and, as well, that he helped create the desert by, among other things, denying God‟s existence, or any meaning  to life at all. Just as Heidegger says that true Being is present, even in the situation of abandonment of Being, so Arendt states that there are oases which give us the opportunity to live and breathe. “The oases are thoses fields of life which exist independently , or largely so, from  political conditions. What went wrong is politics, our plural existence, and not what we can do and create as far as we exist in the singular: in the isolation of the artist, in the solitude of the philosopher, in the inherently wordlessness between human beings as it exists in love….” (see Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 2005. P. 202) All this is quite a remarkable quote from someone who made her reputation as a political theoriest,  because it quite plainly implies what true life, the life which gives up the opportunity to  breathe is to be found outside of politics, in art, philosophy, love. And of course, it seems to recall the common view that Germans, especially those of Jewish srcin, regarded  politics as a dirty business, and retreated into private life. There is a major diffe rence between Arendt‟s view of modernity and Heidegger‟s , or more correctly, the view about how we are to be “saved” as it were from the desert and abandonment of being. Heidegger sees the way in which we can survive our situation in what he calls, “Thinking of the History of Being.” He calls for Germans to wake up from the desert brought about by the domination of technology, and to push into the region of the coming “event.” (Heidegger, 1998. P. 86) The event, of course, is the coming of true  being of Being, as an event which lies in a future we can strive for. We strive for it in a certain kind of thinking, namely, in thinking through our situation in the abandonment of  being, and further more, coming to awareness of our situation leads to the disturbance of things as they are. He states his view in fragments: “ The occasion for the shaking up through the lighting up of the unusual. This announces itself in the seldom ones. The seldom as the disturbance of the usual. The usual and the habitual. The unusual in the sense of the surprising and the extraordinary. “ ( Heidegger, 1998. P87) And he continues that the kind of thinking which disturbs the particulars and planning is without form: “The kind of thinking of the history of being fits into the for  mless which does not guarantee a hold, no image, and not a thing, explaining all…. A bare and daring word.”  This leads to yet another turn in the foundation of a “race” as he puts it, who have a kind of presentment of being, but, being in turn with true  being, they are quiet about its voice.” And finally, there is the trace of being, which, in order to be thought, and to be an event of being, cannot be represented, or intuited… but, there must be a readiness for the trail to the Abyss. This indicates that true thinking and the life of true thinkers must be characterized by the willingness to jump at some time or another into the Abyss, which is a matter of not finding a hold on things, certainly not in the comfort of scientific knowledge. Such thinkers lead lives in a kind of darkness, and, as he says, they hear the voice of being, but they keep quiet. The kind of thinking of such thinkers, and their lives, are in a certain sense the truth, which is coming, in a new age, a new God, about which Heidegger has little to say, except that he must be encountered in our own poverty. (See Heidegger, 1998.p. 110) H Hannah Arendt had a personal preference for those who were unusual or the seldom ones, and indeed, several of her closest students became such persons. A favorite of hers never finished his dissertation, quit academics, went into the publishing business, and at the moment publishes a community newspaper for homosexuals in New York. Nor did he long-time assistant finish his degree. But he has become director of her archive and her literary executor. The classmate who wrote a biography of Arendt, and revealed the relation to Heidegger, Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, did finish the PhD and taught for a while,  but gave up the academic life, and became a psychoanalysis. More than that, she came out as a bisexual, and eventually married her female lover. I did as a matter of fact finish  but it was despite her objection. It is perhaps her introduction to Walter Benjamin‟s “Illuminations” which gives us the  best clue as to her view of the alternative to the desert of modern life, to what an oasis might be. Benjamin was special because he failed at almost everything he tried. He failed his examination to qualify for a professor ship, and his wife divorced him, he was unable to make a living, and, in exile in Paris, he barely survived, moving from cheap hotel to another, and sometimes starving. From 1927 until the German invasion of France in 1940, he worked on a statement of his philosophy, which he could not complete, because he really had no thesis to prove. It is a monumental collection of quotations, called in German “Das Passagen - Werk” and translated into English as “The Arcades Project.” It appears that Arendt was aware of the project because she writes in the introduction that during their friendship in Paris, he would visit her, and her husband to be, and read from little black notebooks the quotes which he had assembled from newspapers and books from the previous day --- all in a very excited way, as if to announce a major discovery. (see Arendt‟s introduction in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 1968. P. 45.) She described his intention to produce a major work consisting entirely of quotations as whimsical and even self-destructive. (Arendt,1968.p.47) Nonetheless, it was driven by Benjamin‟s conviction that such a collection was the method whereby truth could be reached. She discusses his method in the following passage: “To the exent that an accompanying text by the author proved unavoidable, it was a matter of fashioning it in such a way as to „preserve „the intention of such investigations‟, namely, „…to plumb the  depths of language and thought…by drilling rather than excavating‟, so as not to ruin everything with explanations that seek to provide a causal or systematic connection. In so doing Benjamin was quite aware that this new method of „drilling‟ required a certain „forcing of insights …whose inelegant pedantry , however, is preferable to todays almost universal habit of falsifying them‟” (Arendt, 1968. P. 48) Such a collection Aims at discovering and preserving what Arendt calls “world essence.” (Arendt, 1968. P. 50) Such essences are what the poet Goethe has called “urphaenomene;” the urphaenomene are the srcinal appearances of things, which have been lost, or more importantly, may have been falsified in the course of time. Nonetheless, this is not an historical investigation. The aim of a collection such as the Arcades Project is to display such essences in their srcinal state, so that they may be shown as they really are in a  pure unadulterated state. Such displays are kind of collections of very valuable objects, such as might be found in a museum, but without accompanying explanation. Benjamin was convinced that showing them, in such a fashion, would allow them to show themselves, to establish by their very presence, their value. As I mentioned in the first remark, Arendt‟s topic in the 70‟s was thinking, and it was controversial because she maintained that true philosophy, thinking, was not intended to grasp truth, but was concerned primarily with the meaning of things. However, she describes meaning in such a way as to almost equate it with truth in , “Thinking”, the first section of her s tatement of philosophy, The Life of the Mind,” which was edited by Mary McCarthy, the famous novelist, and published in 1977. To my mind, the following  passage is a very strained exercise in avoiding the concept of truth: “ The temporal dimension of the n unc stans (eternal present, Kraft) experienced in the activity of thinking gathers the absent tenses, the not yet and the nomore into its own  presence. This is Kant‟s „land of pure intellect‟, „an island , enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limi ts‟, and „ surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean‟, the sea of everyday life.And though I do not think that this is the „land of truth‟ it certainly is the only domain where the whole of man‟s life and its meaning - which remains ungraspable for mortal men, whose existence in distinction from all other things which begin to be, in the emphatic sense, when they are completed, terminates when it is no more  –   when this ungraspable whole can manifest itself in he sheer continuity of the I am, an enduring  presenc e in the midst of the world‟s ever  - changing transitoriness.” (see Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1977. P. 211.) The echoes of Benjamin‟s method and results are apparent in this passage. It is as if Arendt was advocating collecting and bringing thoughts onto an “island” where they could be saved and made eternally present as her version of urphaenomenome, that is, as srcinal presence. That is to say, in more prosaic language, that philosophy is concerned with eternal truths. In this sense, she was a true philosopher, not merely a political theorist, and for her Walter Benjamin was the foremost philosopher of our time. And all of this method turns back on itself: Arendt carried some of Benjamin‟s writings from Paris to Spain and then to Portugal and finally to New York, saving them from destruction.She was instrumental in the publication of some of them in Germany in 1955 and her collection, Illuminations, introduced Benjamin to the English language world. In 1968.
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