Allen Scult

The Ereignis Interview

Allen Scult is National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Philosophy and Rhetoric at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He is the co-author of Rhetoric and Biblical Interpretation and has recently published Being Jewish/Reading Heidegger: An Ontological Encounter. This interview was conducted via email.

Ereignis How did you come to be interested in Heidegger?

Allen I had read a few things before, but my interest began to get serious after my introduction to Gadamer in 1981 at an N.E.H. seminar with Gerry Bruns entitled something like "The History of Interpretation" (which became the basis for his later book entitled "Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern," which is a delight, as was the course). Reading Gadamer sent me back to Heidegger, and I was hooked.

Ereignis Our intellectual heritage is jewgreek, a term invented by James Joyce, I believe. However Heidegger almost exclusively studied the contributions of the Greeks, and so have many of the scholars that have followed him. I find this disappointing because there are affinities between Heidegger and Jewish philosophers like Spinoza (to whom you refer briefly in your book) that Heidegger left unexplored, and the threads going back to the Pentateuch that deserve the same careful thinking that Heidegger devoted to the Greeks. You have written a book that begins to redress the balance somewhat.

Allen Thanks. That's one of the things I meant to do, but not by arguing that somehow he should have taken these affinities into account. Heidegger owed it to his thinking (and to us who would read it) to trace the unfolding of his thinking as it happened, and I think his work compellingly shows that his thinking developed primarily out of his encounter with ancient Greek philosophy, and he needs to be read in that light. To fault Heidegger for not acknowledging the apparently Judaic connections in his work as Marlène Zarader does in her book, "La dette impassee: Heidegger et l'heritage hebreique," severely interrupts one's understanding of Heidegger's thought in itself. What I try to do in my book is to bring those affinities to bear on what I think is a deeper understanding of Heidegger's thought. I believe this represents the sort of hermeneutical charity which, as we learned from Augustine, is the approach proper to philosophy.

Ereignis How can attention to the Jewish half of jewgreek help us to better understand Heidegger?

Allen Well, I think this is very much what the book does, but if I had to make a kind of summarizing statement about this dimension of my project, I would say that juxtaposing Heidegger with Jewish hermeneutics in the way that I do discloses Heidegger’s way of reading the ancient Greeks as the organon of his philosophy. Remembering Heidegger's principle that philosophy is philosophizing, I would say that philosophizing for Heidegger is grounded in a way of reading the ancients as what amounts to a sacred text.

Ereignis In your new book you describe similarities between the Torah and Heidegger's works. The books of the Pentateuch are "sacred words" to the Jews; words with which God spoke directly to the prophets and words through which God speaks when rabbis interpret them. Heidegger describes having "gifted moments" while thinking through a text. Heidegger said that certain phrases resonate with a special affinity for being. As you describe it, the words have the potential to cross "the Hermes Gap", to be understood; not merely as data, but understood ontologically. Heidegger hears the voice of Being in Greek and German, Rabbis and Kabbalists privilege the Hebrew of the Torah. Here we are conversing in English, like much of the rest of the world. Are sympathetic translations that can fully express Greek or Hebrew texts possible?

Allen I think the best English translation is the more recent one (There's an older one from the beginning of the 20th Century) by the Jewish Publication Society. There are some passages in there which I think succeed to the extent possible (a moveable endpoint, to be sure) in echoing the voice of the Hebrew. But as I say that, it occurs to me that one needs to know the Hebrew in order to appreciate the accomplishment of the translation. Then again, even someone who knows biblical Hebrew needs to attend to the words in a way which permits the resonances you speak of above to come through. Then again still, doesn't reading Heidegger in the German or the English present this same problem? Witness some of our colleagues (one in particular) on the Heidegger list, who manage to miss the point in both languages.

As I think about it there is also a remarkable book by Harold Bloom entitled "The Book of J" which attempts to give an account of his reading experience of a certain strand of the narrative in the Torah named "The Yahwist," by Biblical scholars ("J" for short). Bloom's project and the accompanying translation by a Biblical scholar, reads the text rather closely and attentively, but at the same time radically. I could say more about the parallels to my own reading, but that would take us far afield.

Ereignis Your book touches on many aspects of Heidegger, but one common theme is Heidegger's 1924 lecture course on Aristotle's Rhetoric. Are there any plans to publish an English translation of these lectures?

Allen The German just came out last year. I've heard rumors to the effect that the translation is about three years off.

Ereignis I recently re-read Nietzsche's lectures on rhetoric. In those lectures he explains to his pupils what Aristotle wrote in his book with that title. It appears from your description of Heidegger's lectures on Aristotle's Rhetoric, that Heidegger did what he did in so many other classes. He basically uses the course's subject as a starting point to discuss what interests Heidegger, ontology. Instead of describing how rhetoric may be used to persuade an audience, he describes a phenomenological rhetoric, one that helps the student grasp the essentials of philosophy. What is this phenomenological rhetoric?

Allen I believe it is the "coming to be" of speech as a kind of mediating bridge between thought and being-with-others. In chapter six of the book I argue that Heidegger’s reading of the "Rhetoric" in that course goes even deeper into the philosophical import of the "Rhetoric" than Heidegger explicitly admits to, and further that Aristotle's "Rhetoric" itself is more a work of philosophy than it has ever given credit for.

Ereignis In your book you refer to the formal indication, used by Aristotle and Heidegger. What is the formal indication?

Allen It's a wonderfully suggestive concept, more explicitly present in Heidegger's early work than the later. Heidegger doesn’t clearly and directly define it, I think, in part, to make his teaching of the formal indication itself an example of the formal indication. Perhaps it would be best to let Heidegger speak for himself on this issue in order to preserve the integrity of the concept and to keep me from saying too much about it. This is from "The Phenomenology of the Religious Life":

We shall call the methodic use of a sense which is conducive to phenomenological explication the "formal indication." Its task is to prefigure the direction of this explication. The phenomena are viewed on the basis of the bearing of the formally indicating sense. But even though it guides the phenomenological deliberation, contentwise, it has nothing to say.

Ereignis I got the feeling reading your book that Heidegger just needs the thinkers from the two centuries between Pre-Socratics and Aristotle in order to launch his way of thinking. One could argue that in his writings on Kant, Hegel, and the rest of the canon, Heidegger is merely commenting on their contributions, but that they are not essential to his way of thinking; that Husserl's phenomenology may have guided him early on, but that after his study of Aristotle in the early 1920s, even Husserl was no longer critical for grounding the major works came after: Being and Time and the Contributions to Philosophy. Are any thinkers after Aristotle critical to understanding Heidegger?

Allen Wonderful question, one which I don't feel qualified to answer. Nonetheless... I think the Medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, continued to be crucial to Heidegger's thinking, perhaps especially to "Contributions," and the spiritual dimensions thereof. And given Meiseter Eckhart's ties to Augustine, I would say Augustine as well. But once we get to the really late works, such as the essays in "On the Way to Language," Heidegger gets into a very idiosyncratic sort of "poetic thinking," which I think is sui generis, but I might be wrong.

Ereignis If someone asks you what they should read to begin understanding Heidegger, and they were too impatient to spend years studying Aristotle first, what books would you recommend?

Allen Another tough one. I teach a class in phenomenology, and I have my students read the introduction to Dermot Moran's in his "Introduction to Phenomenology." I then have them read the chapter on "The Work of Edmund Husserl" in Levinas's "Discovering Existence with Husserl." Then we read Husserl's article in the Encyclopedia Britannica. After these readings, in addition to being conversant with Husserl, my students seem ready for Heidegger.

Ereignis There are many more connections to be thought regarding Heidegger and being Jewish. Having completed this book, where do you expect to continue your studies?

Allen I end the book with a chapter entitled "Heidegger’s Teaching: Philosophy as Torah." "Torah," obviously a very rich concept, comes from a root meaning, among other things, showing, and instruction. One of the things I learned from Heidegger's early courses is that philosophy shows itself as a saying that is primarily a teaching. The epigram for that same chapter is from Nietzsche: "Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students--even himself."

The next phase of my work is to investigate this intimate relationship between philosophizing and teaching, which I find not only permeates Heidegger's best work, but is also very much in evidence in the work of other great philosophers.

Ereignis Thank you.

Back to Heidegger home page.