Richard Polt

The Ereignis Interview

Richard Polt is professor of Philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He has written Heidegger: An Introduction, this site's recommended introductory text, translated Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics and edited a companion book of essays with Gregory Fried. His most recent book is another collection Heidegger's Being and Time: Critical Essays. This interview was conducted via email.


Ereignis Some of the emails we get are from young people considering studying philosophy. They're curious, but unsure if it's the right path for them. Could you tell a little about how you got involved in philosophy, and Heidegger in particular?

Richard I have a broad and simple definition of philosophy: asking questions beyond the point where questioning usually stops. Philosophical people have a desire and need to do this. They don't take the familiar for granted, but want to understand its grounds and the alternatives to it.

I can see the beginning of this desire in my adolescent readings of science fiction and fantasy. In college (UC Berkeley), I signed up for my first philosophy course without any clear idea of what philosophy was, but thinking that it should be part of a well-rounded education. I got intrigued, took more courses, and was both fascinated by problems of ethics and epistemology and irritated by what I vaguely felt to be the artificial presuppositions and overly intellectualist attitude of the authors we were reading (mostly early modern and analytic philosophers). The first thinker I felt spoke to me honestly as a fellow human being was the Spanish existential writer Miguel de Unamuno. When I read Heidegger as a senior, I was excited to find a combination of existential insights with rigorous conceptual development and historical knowledge.

Some mental abilities will help students make progress in philosophy -- such as the ability to identify unspoken assumptions, or the instinct for seeking out contradictions and thinking through them -- but I don't think philosophy is essentially a matter of intelligence. As I said, what makes people philosophical is a desire. If they feel that desire and have the opportunity to pursue it, they shouldn't miss the chance.

Ereignis It is interesting that Unamuno was on your path towards Heidegger. I ran into him in high school, when I had to read "San Manuel Bueno, mártir", a short story about a village priest who keeps his existential doubts from his parishioners. I found a correspondence in that story with the Camus and Sartre novels I was reading at the time, and it also suggested a connection between the issues the French existentialists confronted with the ethical struggles of the whiskey priest in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, which I'd had to read a year earlier.

I've come to consider Unamuno as a kind of moral antistrophe to Heidegger and his political involvement. In 1936 the Falangists had taken Salamanca and held a celebration at the university. General Astray gave a speech and concluded with the refrain "Long live death". Unamuno, rector of the university, immediately rebuked him from the podium, to which the general responded by shouting "Death to intelligence". Unamuno was placed under house arrest, where he died at the end of the year.

You begin your essay "The Question of Nothing" with a poem by Antonio Machado "To the Great Naught", a poet of the same generation as Unamuno. Do you have a special attraction to that period of Spanish literature?

Richard My father is an emeritus professor of Spanish literature, and I've lived in Madrid at several points in my life, so I've been exposed to some twentieth-century Spanish poetry and fiction, much of which I've found moving.

Unamuno, like Heidegger, had an anti-modern and anti-rationalist streak that didn't sit well with liberal democracy, or in fact with any sensible notion of politics. But you're right: when it came down to a crucial choice, the Salamanca professor made the right one, and the Freiburg professor did not. I would say that by 1933, Heidegger was caught up in sweeping fantasies about the destiny of the West, whereas Unamuno never lost an individualist humanism that protected him from those fantasies.

On a couple of occasions I've taught Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life in conjunction with his 1914 novel Mist, which is an excellent exploration of what Heidegger calls everydayness and its rupture in the face of an existential crisis (Unamuno's fictional hero wonders very literally whether he exists, or whether he and all of us are "fictional").

Ereignis Was your introduction to Heidegger at Berkeley Prof. Dreyfus' class on Being and Time?

Richard When I was ready to take a Heidegger course as a senior, Prof. Dreyfus was on sabbatical, but I had the opportunity to read Being and Time with Charles Guignon, who had studied with Dreyfus and was visiting at Berkeley that year. He did a great job, and we've kept in touch ever since; he's been a wonderful mentor.

Ereignis I appears to me that Heidegger's analysis of everydayness in Being and Time was the initial impetus for his popularity. For example, Hubert Dreyfus' book on Division I is the most popular English book in the vast secondary literature on Heidegger. This analysis of everydayness is the basis for a new way to do philosophy. Instead of doing philosophy by reflecting on an ideal world as Plato suggested, or imagining oneself as a detached subject in the mind dealing with or experiencing objects out there, Heidegger philsophizes about man already thrown into a world of meaningful things. In your collection on Being and Time Charles Guignon says that man in Heidegger's examination of the everyday deals with things without having to first reflect on their "substance", and that Heidegger aims to "deflate" the Cartesian or substance dualism that had dominated western philosophy up until that time.

That philosophical focus on the everyday was taken by other philosophers, despite being misinterpreted often, and was hugely influencial. In French philosophy alone we have Sartre's examinations of interpersonal relation, Merleau- Ponty's critique of perception, Lefebvre and the Situationists' critique of Marxism for ignoring everyday life, and many more.

Having come so far, Heidegger then goes further, and criticizes man in his habitual everyday mode. In Division II he says that at times man is aware of his finitude, and this forces man to chose between living life in light of that finitude or to remain in an "inauthentic" everydayness. This section of Being and Time too has been influential, oftentimes with the same philosophers, and in some cases with others, and can also be interpreted as one in a philosophical and literary tradition of existential choices found in the 19th century works of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, both of whom Heidegger read.

How do you interpret these two aspects of Heidegger? Are they both equally valuable contributions on his part? Are they inextricably connected or can each be considered without the other?

Richard I think the "view from nowhere" that many philosophers have tried to develop is insensitive to both familiarity and unfamiliarity. In other words, pure objectivity, if there is such a thing, would be neither a pre-reflective immersion in the everyday world nor an extraordinary experience of estrangement and alienation. But as early as 1919, Heidegger was trying to show that any objectivity we can attain depends on an underlying familiarity, and in turn, familiarity presupposes certain deeper experiences of unfamiliarity.

English-language philosophy includes an antimetaphysical, common-sense tradition that has appropriated some German-language philosophical ideas -- such as the later Wittgenstein's attempt to dissolve philosophical puzzles by bringing us back to the way "we" do things. Heidegger's phenomenology of familiar everydayness has a similar deflationary potential. In fact, Dreyfus explicitly calls his interpretation of Division I Wittgensteinian, and that's part of the reason for its success.

If we disregard the theme of unfamiliarity, though, or take it as independent of the analysis of familiarity, we will be missing some of Heidegger's crucial thoughts. (Dreyfus has realized this, and no longer views Division II as a separate, "existentialist" side of Heidegger -- see his essay in my anthology.) Heidegger writes that "the 'not-at-home'" that we feel in anxiety is "more primordial" than comfortable familiarity (Being and Time, German p. 189). In uncanny experiences such as anxiety, we confront the sheer givenness of things and of ourselves. Those experiences can then transform the ordinary world. So I see Heidegger's accounts of familiarity and unfamiliarity as interdependent, and I do think he has very valuable points to make in both areas.

The dynamic of the familiar and the unfamiliar has not gotten enough attention in traditional philosophy (with some exceptions, such as Plato's allegory of the cave). If we concentrate on only one side of this dynamic, we get a warped interpretation of life. By focusing only on the familiar, we end up denying ourselves the urge to challenge what we take for granted -- an urge that, as I said, I see as essential to the philosophical spirit. By focusing only on the strange and alienating -- as do some continental philosophers with a revolutionary bent -- we end up with some stirring but abstract rhetoric about "otherness" that's difficult to apply in practice.

Ereignis Five years ago Yale University Press published your new translation of Introduction to Metaphysics. The first translation, in 1959, was one of the first of Heidegger's texts published in English, so a new translation benefits from the decades of scholarship in this area. Yet there are still texts of Heidegger’s that have not yet been translated.

In many translations, the translator's preface indicates that Heidegger did not want his texts published with indexes, yet this book and Being and Time appeared to have evaded that stricture.

Why did you and Gregory Fried decide to translate this one again instead of tackling an un-translated text, and how were you able to include an index?

Richard This was actually a pet project of ours ever since we read the 1959 version by Ralph Manheim together in graduate school, and found when we compared it to the German that it was pretty loose, and sometimes plain wrong. You can't blame Manheim -- he was a pioneer in translating Heidegger, and sometimes he finds wonderful English expressions -- but we felt that IM was such a rich and important text that it called for a more accurate translation.

The rule against indexes applies to the Gesamtausgabe editions. Since we were translating from the Niemeyer edition and not the GA, we didn't have to deal with that rule.

Greg Fried and I have just embarked on another translation project together. This time it's a text that appeared in German only in 2001: GA volume 36/37, Sein und Wahrheit (Being and Truth). It's never been translated, and in fact, it's almost unknown, but it's very important, because it consists of the lecture courses that Heidegger gave while he served as rector in 1933-34. It overlaps with GA 34 (On the Essence of Truth), because Heidegger recycled some of his lecture notes from 1931-32; but it also includes some new and important material, such as a discussion of modern and Hegelian metaphysics, passages on the destiny of the German people, an attack on the biological interpretation of National Socialism, and an interpretation of Heraclitus's "polemos" fragment. (As the author of "Heidegger's Polemos," Greg is just the right person to be working on this text.)

Ereignis When I read GA 34, I was surprised that Heidegger lectured on the Plato's Theaetetus without bringing up Protagoras, as Protagoras' dictum "Man is the measure of all things" plays an important part in Heidegger's discussion of humanism and Descartes in one of the Nietzsche lectures a few years later. In GA 36/37 does Heidegger revisit the Theaetetus or the allegory of the cave?

Richard He not only revisits them, but actually rereads his GA 34 lectures; understandably, it seems that he was too busy with administrative duties to create an entirely new lecture course. However, he improvised some alterations and extra remarks while delivering the lectures. GA 36/37 prints the transcription by Wilhelm Hallwachs, which records these changes.

The volume wouldn't be worth translating if that's all that it were, but the first part of the volume is a new lecture course ("The Basic Question of Philosophy"), and the material recycled from GA 34 is introduced by new material on Heraclitus and language. Overall, the book is an interesting grab bag of ideas, with a strong political atmosphere that will probably be what seizes the attention of most readers.

The opening of the volume reads: "The academic youth knows of the greatness of the historical moment through which the German people is now passing. What, then, is happening? The German people as a whole is coming to itself, that is, it is finding its leadership. In this leadership, the people that has come to itself is creating its state. The people that is forming itself into its state, founding endurance and constancy, is growing into a nation. The nation is taking over the fate of its people. Such a people is achieving its own spiritual mission among peoples, and creating its own history. This happening reaches far out into the difficult becoming of a dark future." Dark indeed....

Ereignis I'd like to move onto something dear to this website, Heidegger's singulare tantum Ereignis. Heidegger experimented with many terms for his key philosophical insight (e.g. Seyn, sein, the Da in Dasein, the Welt in In-der-Welt-sein, Ereignetsein, Lichtung, die Wahrheit des Seins selbst, and more) before settling on the cognomen Ereignis. What exactly Heidegger meant by the term appears to change in different texts, and Heidegger himself warned of the futility of attempting a mere propositional understanding of the term.

In your essay "Ereignis" for the Companion to Heidegger you examine the term as Heidegger used it at three different points in his career: a 1919 (KNS) lecture course, in the Contributions, and in Time and Being. You carefully note the differences in how he uses the term in each text. Those three meanings are respectively and roughly as a phenomenological appropriation of phenomena, as an ontologically determinative event, and as the universal condition that gives time and being to humans. No doubt close readings of other texts would uncover additional explanations.

Do you think that Heidegger had one key question with several distinct answers at different points in his life, or are his different explanations all linked by a core insight or variations on a single theme?

Richard Heidegger often said that his only question was "the question of being," but we shouldn't assume that we know what that means. I agree with Thomas Sheehan, who has repeatedly argued that what Heidegger is asking about is the basis of intelligibility -- in other words, what makes it possible for things to make sense to us? Or in still other words, how are we given our sense of givenness itself?

Whether Heidegger had a consistent answer to this question is debatable -- and permanently so, because one can always argue about whether his words at different periods are indicating different things. On the surface, as I point out in the Ereignis essay, Heidegger seems to swing from particular events (1919) to general existential structures (Being and Time), back to particularity (now conceived on a grand scale in the Contributions), and then back to universal conditions (Time and Being). Sheehan tends to read the universal structures as the core philosophical message of Heidegger's thought: he is teaching us that humans are constituted a priori (or "always already") by finitude, historicity, etc. The rest -- all the business about our fate at this unique moment in history -- is "Teutonic bombast," as Sheehan calls it.

My own preference is to take the opposite tack, and view Heidegger's analyses of a priori structures (such as historicity and finitude in general) as pointing back to unique moments (the uniquely historical and finite). At least, I'm convinced that this is what Heidegger is up to in the Contributions. I take the term das Ereignis seriously: it means "the event," that is, a unique happening that would found intelligibility. I make the case for this in my forthcoming book on the Contributions. I would also point out that in Being and Time, the general "existential" insights are grounded on particular, "existentiell" truth (section 63). As for Time and Being, which seems to be focused on a priori structures, I read it as an introductory and relatively exoteric text. In a 1964 letter to Dieter Sinn, Heidegger claims that all his postwar publications, with the exception of "The Thing," are cast in the language of metaphysics and indicate a non-metaphysical thinking only indirectly.

So my working hypothesis is that in all of his thought, Heidegger is trying to understand unique events of unfamiliarity as the basis of both familiarity and theoretical truth -- and this understanding is not supposed to be just another theory, but is supposed to be attuned to the uniqueness of the primal event, thinking "from" this event, as the Contributions put it.

Ereignis If das Ereignis refers to a unique happening that founds intelligibility, do you read Heidegger as identifying multiple such historical events? For example, was there an event in archaic Greece whose intelligibility was subsequently occluded by the invention of metaphysics? Or is it only an event in the future, the god that will save us that Heidegger referred to in the Der Speigel interview?

Richard That is one of the hardest problems I had to face in trying to write about the Contributions. There's a tendency in that text to think of Ereignis as a future possibility. But if it's not yet here, how can we think of it, and why should we?

Sometimes Heidegger also speaks as though the "first inception" -- that event in archaic Greece -- was also an Ereignis. But usually I believe he sees it as a near-miss, an undeveloped opportunity. I think the event of appropriation can genuinely emerge only when we recognize the question of being as an emergency, a burning issue that propels us into genuine history. (Hence the title of my book: The Emergency of Being.) The Greeks fell short of that, so -- as Heidegger puts it in one of the most puzzling lines in the Contributions -- "man has never yet been historical."

A further huge difficulty is that the intelligibility of an event of appropriation cannot exactly be occluded, because the event is already intrinsically mysterious. That is, this event founds (or would found) an order of intelligibility, unconcealment, or givenness, but the event itself cannot be understood, unconcealed, or given -- except as a disquiet, an emergency, a question.

My own view is that Ereignis is a viable thought, but that Heidegger goes too far (in the Contributions, anyway) in making it unique and futural. I think events of appropriation happen many times (though not constantly) in every individual life.

Ereignis When Heidegger refers to the mystery and parousia of Ereignis, he sounds like he is almost discussing religion, and very far from the phenomenology of Being and Time. Jean Grondin, in his essay in your Being and Time anthology hints that Heidegger was more Catholic than many suspect, and that this will come out when the final volumes of the Gesamtausgabe are published.

Over the years scholars have debated if there was a change in Heidegger's thinking in the 1930s, and was it a reversal or an elaboration of the question of being. Those who argue for the "one Heidegger" interpretation must demonstrate the continuity in his thinking, and why, for example, Ereignis does not appear in his most famous, albeit incomplete, book Being and Time. Without diving into the very complex matter of "the turn", I gather you do not agree with those who find Ereignis in the throwness (Geworfenheit) in Being and Time, or in the Da in Dasein?

Richard Thrownness and the Da are definitely correlated with some ideas in late Heidegger, such as "the region" (in "Conversation on a Country Path," in Discourse on Thinking). And there are a number of interpreters who read Ereignis as the condition of having always already been thrown into the there. But the Ereignis of the Contributions, at least, is more like the moment of vision in Being and Time -- a unique moment that provides a primordial disclosure. It's not the there or thrownness, but the happening that initially throws us into the there. The Contributions differ from Being and Time in thinking of such a moment as a very rare event that would found a historical epoch. This happening would require "the passing of the final god." Heidegger doesn't say much to illuminate this idea, and maybe for that very reason, a lot of ink has been spilled on it in the secondary literature.

Ereignis A little earlier you indicated that Heidegger's question of being is about the basis of intelligibility, and in an essay on the Contibutions you wrote that enowning (Ereignis) indicates the emergence and flourishing of meaning and that "'Being' (Sein) denotes the meaning that beings in general have for us".

What distinguishes being from meaning? Are they synonyms or, to ask this another way, is the beingness of something the same as its meaningfulness?

Richard This reminds me of the time I was castigated by a fellow scholar for daring to ask, "What is being?" in public. I was lectured at length on how being is an indefinable ultimate, how the "what is it?" question would reduce being to an entity, etc. But it seems to me that if we stop trying to find new words for what Heidegger is saying, then our repetition of the word "being" will degenerate into idle talk. So I appreciate your question, not as a chance to offer a reductive explanation of what Heidegger is "really" saying, but as an opportunity to suggest a perspective that might illuminate his project for some readers.

As I see it, there are two themes that Heidegger indicates with the word "being."

(1) The meaning (or intelligibility, or significance, or import) of "things" (in the broadest possible sense). Things have meaning both as a whole and as various particular kinds of thing (people, tools, art, natural things, mathematical objects, etc.). They have meaning both as essence (what they are) and as existence (the fact that they are). Meaning can occur only if there are entities for whom things can be meaningful (interpreting entities, or Dasein). The meaning of things happens only for us, so it varies in its character and depth depending on the way in which we are currently open to it; but meaning is never simply created by Dasein, because we wouldn't even "be there" (be Dasein) in the first place if it weren't for the fact that meaning is granted to us.

(2) The GRANTING of the meaning of things -- the SOURCE of being in the first sense. In the Contributions, Heidegger tends to use the old-fashioned spelling Seyn (which can be conveniently translated as "be-ing") to mean this second sense. He tends to use the modern Sein to mean das Sein des Seienden, the being of beings (being in the first sense). The second sense, "be-ing," is what can be called the "basis" of meaning, or the "emergence and flourishing" of meaning. When he writes "das Seyn west als das Ereignis," or "be-ing essentially happens as the event of appropriation," I take him to be saying that the meaning of things emerges in a unique, unfamiliar happening. This happening first establishes a familiar domain where things can belong (this belonging is one aspect of the "proper" in "appropriation").

Leaving aside the details of his thought experiment in the Contributions, we can put all this in a nutshell by saying that Heidegger is constantly concerned with two questions: what do things mean, and what lets them have meaning?

Ereignis It's been a pleasure conducting this interview. I'd like to thank you for taking part, and finish off with one last question.

You've mentioned the upcoming translation of Heidegger's Being and Truth, and your book on the Contributions, The Emergency of Being. I understand that you are also involved in the Annual North American Heidegger Conference. Do you have tentative dates for publishing the books? And have you any other plans to help English speakers better understand Heidegger?

Richard Thank you for all your good questions.

"The Emergency of Being" should be in print in spring 2006, and it looks like there'll be a panel on it at the conference in May. The translation is only in its beginning stages, so it may be two or three years before it's available. I also have two articles in the works, one on Heidegger's political thought in the late thirties and one on the problem of the origin of time in his writings of the thirties. To put it as paradoxically as possible: at what moment in time does time itself begin?


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2005/12/12
Pete