Martin Heidegger and the Aletheia of his Greeks

Vrasidas Karalis

I) Back to the Origins

No one can deny the fact that Martin Heidegger’s approach to the Greeks is at the same time erroneous and ingenious. Historically, his interpretation is that of a schoolboy who, impressed by what he reads, can’t get his facts right. Philosophically however, he stretches the semantic calibration of the texts he is talking about into an unimaginable perspective by expanding their exegetical potential to its utmost limits. In that liminal position, the Greek text itself develops unexpected synaptic connections which relocate the semantic centre of its structure. Heidegger re-structured Greek texts in such a way that new meanings emerged and new perspectives were born out of structures hitherto exhausted by centuries of commentaries and endless ambitious attempts to "reconstruct" their "original" meaning.

It is obvious that whichever the Greek text he is dealing with, Heidegger has serious problems with its context. He cannot see any relevance to the fact that Greek thinking emerged as a form of talking about spaces of common experience and interaction. Indeed the political nature of Greek philosophy even in its most moral, metaphysical or even logical expression is passed over in silence in all his commentaries on them. The fact that Greek thought became self-reflective, when criticism of ideas and opinions became a public institution and addressed issues of shared values, remained also an untouchable mystery for Heidegger. Moreover, the fact that around the end of the sixth century thinking started addressing issues of its own self-articulation remained something of an odd and irrelevant observation for him throughout his life. Finally the fact that these specific philosophers lived, thought and died in their own societies and within their own semantic universe seems also to have remained something of an arcane mystery for him: the connection between philosophy and the philosopher remains equally untouched and discarded. In a way, according to him, the texts themselves were written by language as a transcultural and trans-temporal entity, bridging centuries, societies and thinkers beyond the specificity and singularity of each particular life. The rhetorical oscillation between the “Greeks” and the specific philosopher he was talking about is another interesting ambivalence of his approach: Heidegger talks about the Greeks as if the individual philosopher was an instant within a supra-personal continuum. The fact that Anaxagoras was exiled for impiety and Socrates executed for “novel daemons” had no impact on their thinking, according to Heidegger, or more precisely, their ideas had nothing to do with their destiny.

Yet, overall his approach to the Greeks was that of a typical German philosopher who had read Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy and had become somehow irritated by the "naturalistic" re-interpretation of the main philosophical trends by Edward Zeller. Heidegger’s approach is intensely focused on the conscious attempt to de-historicize the philosophical text as a product of its society and the work of a specific individual. He dives into the "deep structure" of the text in an attempt to experience and bring out the very essence of the form of thinking that made it possible. However, a modern reader of Jaeger’s Aristotle (1934) learns a considerable amount of information not simply about the philosopher’s life but also about his philosophical problematic and his specific way of philosophising. The prudent interweaving of personal details (in their absolute majority, of course, conjectures or imaginative reconstructions) with philosophical discussions about the validity of his arguments or the significance of his deductions give both to the unspecialised reader and the overspecialised philosopher something to think about and reach a conclusion relevant to their own degrees of understanding or expectations from the text.

When we read Heidegger’s lectures on Aristotle’s Metaphysics we have the impression that he partialises the text by inscribing into it his own problematic and semantic references beyond the horizon of Aristotle. “Admittedly,” he writes, “Aristotle did not in our context [our italics] explicitly unfold the question of a full knowledge of essence. Although he did, in fact, bring the delimination of the essence of actuality into the closest discerning connection with the determination of what a capability is. But for reasons which lie locked in the ancient and Western conception of being and thereby of what-being, neither is the central problem for the question of essence posed later” (Heidegger, 1995: 192). The suspicious reader immediately understands that Aristotle’s text is used, in Heidegger’s context, as the testing ground for a hypothesis which is not emerging from its own structure without the mediation of another mind and of a different way of thinking. The text is not explored or even interrogated from within its own presuppositions and schemata of conceptualization: on the contrary it is asked questions that it is unable to answer. Indeed it is re-inscribed within a problematic which may have existed in its semantic potential in a subordinate or even symptomatic manner but now through Heidegger’s intervention it is relocated and becomes the dominant axis of signification within the existing text. We are under the impression that Heidegger’s framing of Aristotle’s meaning of essence (which obviously ignored the philological problems about the writing of his Metaphysics as we have it today) does not really reveal the real tension in the semantic potential of the notion as investigated by Aristotle himself. If so, it would have been obvious that the concept of essence in Aristotle was an ambiguous innovation in relation to Plato or the Pre-Socratics; ambiguous in the sense that it contained semantically both Plato’s and Parmenides’ understanding of it but with an added layer of new reflection, belonging to his era and its own performative use of language. Aristotle’s notion of ousia goes beyond the physicality of the notion as seen in Plato for example; it was indeed the first attempt to create logical schemata for the conceptualization of something prior or posterior to experience. For Aristotle, essence is a pre-physical notion and as such a post-linguistic event; indeed, from the point of contemporary socio-cultural thinking one could argue that it was not even a “psychical” notion but that it represented a “bridge-concept” linking the empirical with the notional and thus establishing an epistemological discourse of self-reflection about the act of thinking and the philosophical activity as such.

Heidegger is searching for something else in Aristotle’s text which is not going to be found there. According to Heidegger the absence itself becomes the ultimate postulate for the philosopher’s task. He wants to point out the “concealment” of being and its problematic which it seemed to him must have started sometime then in Western philosophical thinking. Yet Aristotle leaves the concepts of ousia and dynamis in a pregnant ambiguity — an ambiguity that made his text so crucial in forming, informing and reforming a wide variety of conceptual frameworks throughout the centuries. On the contrary, Heidegger seems determined to univocalise the text, to extract or impose a form of semantic unity which the text itself does not posses, if only for its multilayered synthesis. He interrogates the text by positing questions which didn’t exist in its semantic horizons. When Aristotle posited the question of essence, he was talking about the intellectual enterprise to find the synaptic connectivity that underpins the polymorphous diversity of objects, relations and meanings. Heidegger problematises the text for what is not included in its formal and conceptual configuration, of what has been excluded or implied, as a sub-text — an approach in itself creative and challenging, in accordance with Aristotle’s most elegant statement: η γάρ νου ενέγγεια ζωή (the creative activity of thought is life, Metaphysics, Λ, 1072: 26).

In this sense, he doesn’t receive the wrong answer from the text and his own approach cannot be judged on the basis of historical verifiability; on the contrary he manages to graft the text with a new layer of significations that relocate its hermeneutical potential. His approach is an act of creative expansion of the Aristotelian thought in its notional singularity. Even when Heidegger asks questions about Being, or the real being, a term which for Aristotle had completely different connotations, a new horizon of significations emerges from within the Aristotelian thinking forms. Thinking is an act of translating experience and transferring conceptual abstractions onto the level of cultural discourse: it internalises a way of thinking and then externalises it through the practices or the needs of the prevailing discourse. Essentially Heidegger’s approach makes Aristotle’s thinking a conceptualising model for today’s philosophical enterprise, by acclimatising his thinking forms into the discursive potentialities of contemporary philosophical discourse.

Indeed the creative elaboration of Aristotle’s metaphysics can hardly be underestimated. Ancient Greek, Christian and Arab commentators saw Aristotle’s texts as ultimate codes of reference to be endorsed, elucidated or rejected. Heidegger chose a different approach: he tried to salvage the philosophical "essence" of Aristotle by extending the limits of its language and bringing them to their final consequences. This was not an attempt to "modernise" Aristotle but from a modern problematic to analyse the semantic conditions of his philosophical statements and then elaborate on the morphoplastic potential of his language. In this respect Heidegger (and we might stress here: despite the limitations of his own thinking) succeeded in extricating Aristotle’s thought from its canonical position as a holy relic and made it again contentious and antagonistic to the dominant way of philosophising in the first half of the twentieth century — a philosophical thinking dominated by naturalistic progressivism or biological determinism. "How concepts antagonise culture" is probably the best way of describing Heidegger’s re-configuration of Aristotle’s and indeed of ancient Greek’s thinking as a whole.

Aristotle is not the only case of such interrogation for the emerging signification. Heidegger’s most famous endeavour must be the Pre-Socratics and his attempt to retrieve through them the Being-discourse from its later concealments. In that respect it will be interesting to see his approach to them in juxtaposition to that of Karl Popper in order to appreciate the different perception and understanding of what thinking is about in both cases. In his seminal essay “Back to the Pre-Socratics”, Popper, after an extensive analysis of the various discussions between the Pre-Socratic philosophers, pointed out that they established a method of thinking which was incorporated into modern science; he terms this method as “the theory that knowledge proceeds by way of conjectures and refutations” (Popper, 1972: 152) and by “criticizing theories” establishing “rational knowledge” and forming thus the scientific critical way of thinking. Popper himself refers to a certain loss after the Pre-Socratics, strangely reminiscent of Heidegger’s concealment of being: “To my knowledge,” he suggests, “the critical or rationalist tradition was invented only once. It was lost after two or three centuries, perhaps owing to the rise of the Aristotelian doctrine of episteme, of certain and demonstrable knowledge (a development of the Eleatic and Heraclitean distinction between certain truth and mere guesswork). It was rediscovered and consciously revived in the Renaissance, especially by Galileo Galilei” (Popper, 1972: 151). The essay, written in 1958, looks like an intellectual rebuttal of Heidegger’s appropriation of the Pre-Socratics on the very same grounds that Heidegger perceived a loss and a concealment of an important element of the philosophical activity before Socrates. Popper stated that “[...] the critical attitude of the Pre-Socratics foreshadowed, and prepared for, the ethical rationalism of Socrates: his belief that the search for truth through critical discussion was a way of life — the best he knew” (Popper, 1972: 153).

Unquestionably Heidegger had a completely different notion in his mind when he indicated a certain loss in philosophical thinking that he observed after the Pre-Socratics. The concealment he observed was something beyond the idea of epistemic rationalization we witness after Aristotle. It was almost beyond the limits of the contemporary philosophical language; it referred to a much more fundamental form of thinking. Heidegger understood that our relation with Greek philosophical thinking was determined by erroneous translations through philologists’ titanic attempts to reconstruct the “original” and “authentic” meaning. Knowing that translation will always be incomplete and erroneous, he attempted to translate conditions of signification and not crystallized notions created by convention and normalised by custom or academic canonisation. With the Pre-Socratics in particular, Heidegger makes issues of approach and interpretation aspects of the process for the translating not of the content of words but of the signifying processes that made them possible. So he moved to a completely different direction the task of interpreting the Greeks by relocating the centre of semantic articulation. The text itself became the locus in which both its history and future converged: each philosophical term (and Heidegger mainly focuses on words or brief statements) is to be understood as a process leading to its invention and as a point of departure from its meaning. Heidegger extends the limits of its meaning by a subtle transference of its semantic field towards different relations. The philosophical statement, word or verse, are not limited by their historical context: indeed Heidegger’s translations de-limit language from its conditionality and bring to the fore the endless variability of meaning. This has to be seen as both positive and misleading. The paradox of his approach is probably the most interesting and ambivalent element of his whole understanding of the aletheia of his Greeks.

II) The Problem of Translation Aletheia

Heidegger’s question of aletheia is primarily a problem of semantics. Like logos in Greek, aletheia is a word of polyvalence and multiordinality: in different contexts, it encapsulates a variety of meanings according to the validity of the statement or the values of the speaker. In Parmenides the concept appears twofold: as the noun for "truth", "reality" and as the personification of the quest for truth. The Pythagorean Philolaus equated the notion with the absolute notion of the number whereas according to Democritus it could not be found because it was hidden “en bytho”, in the deep. Anaxagoras employed the neuter to alethes indicating that “the weakness [of the senses] means that we are incapable of discerning the truth” (Waterfield, 2000: 130). Careful study of such sentences can easily confirm that the notion of aletheia indicated four different processes: first, the process of experiencing something while it is happening; second, the process of establishing a relation between guess and event; third, the process of trying to conceptualise the "real" as an internal reality; and fourth, the confirmation of hypothesis by means of referring to an extralingual event.

It is true that the Pre-Socratics gave particular importance to the first two processes, whereas Plato and Aristotle to the last two. But for both Plato and Aristotle the language of philosophy was much more complex and self-referential while the structure of their sentences had a different organisation, reflecting a different order of experiencing. Aletheia had already developed a self-validating history of a variety of meanings which were denoted every time the term was employed. Hence the different order of abstraction in the notion of truth that we see in Aristotle or the last dialogues of Plato. Parmenides however is a very interesting case in regard to his way of understanding aletheia. In reference to him, Felix M. Cleve coined the pejorative term “glossomorphic” to indicate “the possibility of talking without thinking” (Cleve, 1969: 538); and he added: “The Parmenidean einai, then, has a verbal stem that has lost its original meaning” (Cleve, 1969: 542). Ignoring the negative characterisation, the term can be apt to describe the transitional nature of Parmenides’ language, especially of the way he understood the most crucial terms of his philosophy einai and aletheia, and the connection between them as terms of logical thinking.

Martin Jaeger pointed out that while aletheia was given its “pregnant and almost philosophical sense” by Hesiod, Parmenides “carried it on to a new stage of meaning” (Jaeger, 1947: 94). Parmenides’ glossomorphism can be seen in his famous assertion that “[t]hinking and being are one and the same” (Jaeger’s translation). Jaeger insists that “in announcing this identity he is simply attacking the conceivability and knowableness of the Non-existent. [....] Parmenides can have no doubts about the existence of an object, inasmuch as noein itself is never really noein except when it knows the actual. What the understanding or logos contributes is the allimportant consideration that the Existent cannot be as our senses reveal it to us — namely something manifold and in motion” (Jaeger, 1947: 103). Indeed this is the crux in Heidegger’s understanding and translation of aletheia. He understood the fluidity of the notion in the way that the Pre-Socratics used it. The fluidity itself expressed a new order of abstract conceptualisation, to be completed only with Aristotle, almost two centuries later. When Heidegger tried to transpose the concept within the contemporary way of understanding the truth, he had to re-trace its semantic evolution. Indeed, if Parmenides’ aletheia has two meanings, Heidegger’s has only one. It reverted to an “originary” meaning from which supposedly it came from. In that sense Heidegger attempts a reversal of signification. By doing so, he suggests a new understanding of aletheia as un-veiling, unconcealment. He states: “In so far as being as such is, it places itself into and stands in unconcealment, aletheia”; and adds: “We thoughtlessly translate, and this means at the same time misinterpret, this word as 'truth'. To be sure, one is now gradually beginning to translate the Greek aletheia literally. But this is not much use if immediately afterward one again understands 'truth' in an entirely different, un-Greek sense and reads the other sense into the Greek word” (Heidegger, 2000: 107 {112}). He stresses that this meaning of aletheia as unconcealment, “was lost due to 'logic'” (Heidegger, 2000: 127 {133}); and that the appropriation of aletheia by Western Dasein has led to the transformation of “the original essence of truth, aletheia (unconcealment), [...] into correctness” (Heidegger, 2000: 203 {211}).

Whoever reads ancient Greek philosophy knows that aletheia also means, amongst other things, correctness, exactness and verification. In his famous lectures of 1942-43 on Parmenides Heidegger suggests that the radical transformation of the essential meaning of aletheia for the West took place with the Romanisation of Greece which led to its understanding as veritas or rectitudo. One could suggest that what we witness in the Latin translation of the term is indeed a localisation, by omitting the overloaded connotations around the Greek term. That was a common approach to the philosophical language of the Greeks in its appropriation by Latin authors. The fact that there was something asymmetric between Greek and Latin has been announced poignantly in Lucretius’ famous verses: “Nec me animi fallit Graiorum obscura reperta / difficile illustrate Latinis versibus esse, / multa novis verbis praesertim cum sit agendum / propter egestatem linguae et rerum novitatem” (De Rerun Natura, 1: 139-139)1. The idea that Latin was poor in words to fit the "strangeness of the things" may account for the process of translatio in the widest sense of the word that we see during the Hellenistic and Late Antique period; it was a translation both of imperium and of culture which led to the gradual emergence, collapse and re-emergence of the West. In his lectures on Parmenides, Heidegger struggled to indicate the magnitude of such asymmetry and the problems it caused for the question of Being in the West. “What is decisive", he observes, "is that the Latinization occurs as a transformation of the essence of truth and Being within the essence of the Greco-Roman domain of history. This transformation is distinctive in that it remains concealed but nevertheless determines everything in advance. This transformation of the essence of truth and Being is a genuine event of history. The imperial as the mode of Being of a historical humanity is nevertheless not the basis of the essential transformation of aletheia into veritas, as rectitudo, but is its consequence, as this consequence it is in turn a possible cause and occasion for the development of the true in the sense of the correct" (Heidegger, 1992: 42). Yet, later in his life he would qualify the statement by indicating that aletheia indeed “was originally only experienced as orthotes, as the correctness of representations and statements” (Heidegger, 1972: 71).

We could explicate further on this, but indeed one can claim that Heidegger understood that translation meant a conscious omission of contextual localisation and an attempt to elucidate the invariant structure of the text which was beyond the level of its verbal articulation in its original language. His own translations of the fragments by Parmenides and Heraclitus try to bring to the surface the pre-lingual structure of the experience determining the expression and as such configure in his philosophical idiom the ground against which such statements could be possible today. Without being a linguistic relativist, he refutes the idea put forward by the famous Bible scholar Eugene A. Nida that “[a]nything that can be said in one language can be said in another” (Nida, 1969: 4). Different things are said by different languages in the sense that different aspects of experience are stressed by each language; indeed languages complement each other through their singular taxonomies since they call into being different forms of life and experience extralingual in themselves. Heidegger understood that since there are not enough words to talk about the multiplicity of mental images, we tend to overload traditional words with surplus meaning. In his approach to Parmenides he embarked on finding the substrate significating processes that transcend the limitations of grammar. His approach was that “what can be said in one language can be only understood through another”. Maybe this refers to the privileged position of both Greek and German as languages of inherited philosophical potential; yet one can easily understand that for him what was lost in the translating process could only be retrieved in a pre-linguistic level expressed by the "is-ness" of the verb to be. “It must be that what is there for speaking and thinking of is; for [it] is there to be, / whereas nothing is not...” (Gallop, 1984: 61). In the un-grammaticality of the first sentence in the existing fragment 6, we can attribute Heidegger’s immense creative effort to recapture the amazement of Parmenides in front of the presencing of Being and the confusion of his language in the process of articulating the elusiveness of such experience. Parmenides associated aletheia with the absence of predication in the existence of being; and Heidegger tried to retrieve that process as he embarked on the titanic project of constructing, in his own context, a new vocabulary for the ontological grounding of unconcealment. Probably it is still early to tell how successful he really was.

III) From a Historical Perspective

It is obvious that Heidegger’s Greeks have been a contentious issue in the study of his work. Not simply because Heidegger had a philosophy of his own which he projected onto a diverse tradition of philosophical propositions. The problem with his approach to the Greeks, similar to the problem of most German philosophers after Hegel, refers mainly to his own creative re-interpretation of their work and posits the question of the limits of such a creative approach to the thinkers or indeed to all philosophical traditions of the past.

The main point of the present exploration is that such an approach is a cultural or even a political question which can be understood both symptomatically and circumstantially. Despite his implied belief that he belonged to an extra-temporal almost ahistorical philosophical continuum, Heidegger was the product of his age and indeed a figure refracting its resistances and fears. Philosophically, his approach to the Greeks has to be also understood as an engagement with certain texts from a specific hermeneutical position at a very critical point of the history of Europe. From within that position, we have argued, Heidegger understood that the “Greeks” needed a new translation of the structure of their thought and not of the reference of their statements. Such translation re-wrote the Greek philosophical legacy and re-created its semantic potential. There were limits of course, both historical and exegetical. Heidegger for example thought that Greek philosophy ended with Aristotle, which is grossly unfair to the great thinkers of Stoicism and Epicureanism, even to Plotinus, a thinker whose style of philosophising is strikingly close to his. But beyond such strange "concealment", the obvious question remains to be answered: can we interpret a philosophical text of the past in a “valid” manner, meaning by understanding its values as they were defined by their own horizon of significations, if we maintain the privileged position of knowing what followed the specific text and its reception throughout the centuries?

Despite their privileged position, the fate of the Greeks has been quite unfortunate in the history of philosophy. Since their re-discovery after the Renaissance and more specifically after the German Hellenism of late 18th and 19th centuries, Greek philosophical legacy has been attributed crucial importance for the contemporary development of all philosophical questions about the mind, morality, politics, knowledge, ontology and epistemology. Historically, Heidegger’s ideas about the Greeks express the profound anxiety of many European thinkers before the fragmenting languages of modernity and their need for canonical authorities which articulated problems through the intense dialogue within the confines of a communitarian understanding of thought. It is the presumed selfsufficiency and self-totalisation that gives to the philosophy of the Greeks a sense of generative principles that defined and circumscribed areas of thinking about their historicity. Furthermore, circumstantially the philosophies of the Greeks express something which is not specifically Greek; they express a social order that represented semantic co-relations that could be historically situated and conceptually understood. But from a philosophical perspective the importance of the Greeks as a generic term meant a completely different understanding of the cognitive process, of the place of knowledge in the exploration of conscious existence, of the process that Socrates would call “the examined life”.

Ever since Plato instituted in his Cratylus the murky business of etymologising as part of the philosophical endeavour, philosophical inquiry has suffered immensely from the seduction of linguistic inventiveness. The Sophists, Plato himself, Christian philosophers, and some of the most important modern philosophers easily succumbed to the allure of written signs without the necessary guide of a language theory or the assistance of implied assumptions about the function of linguistic statements. Contemporary analytic philosophers, as in antiquity grammarians and logicians, struggled hard to dissect the performative functions of various linguistic articulations, implicitly transforming forms of understanding into questions of logic; Wittgenstein himself struggled endlessly to form a grammar of philosophical statements in order to clarify, elucidate and crystallise meaning of specific statements in context. But he ended with a functionalist, almost behaviouristic interpretation of linguistic statements that is neither philosophical nor indeed an interpretation. Yet his statement, “[g]rammar tells what kind of object anything is” (Wittgenstein 2000: 116), may be the right guide in the understanding of the objects in Heidegger’s thought.

Heidegger was one of the ambitious philosophers of the 20th century — and his ambition was greatly assisted by the German language — leaving aside the strong criticisms of his obscure neologisms. The educational organisation and the deep reverence for antiquity gave him the opportunity to embark on the promethean task of re-inventing the language of philosophy and re-writing its history. We must see his project for the historical un-concealment of Being as intricately connected to his own philosophical idiom and from this perspective, interpret and explain his overall perception of those early philosophers who he, persistently and indiscriminately, calls “the Greeks”.

As we know there has been a lot of criticism against Heidegger about his perception of “the Greeks”. Some of this is justified and some totally inappropriate. Heidegger does not talk about “the Greeks” as such; he talks about the Greek landscapes in Holderlin’s poetry, or in the neoclassical tapestries of Germany; and this is not necessarily bad since “the Greeks” are essentially an abstraction, the hypostatisation of states of mind, practices or patterns of behaviour. Rejecting this would mean that with the strange force of empathic union and weberian “verstehen” we are able indeed to reconstruct and re-live the mental world of the Ancients from within our own mental structure and philosophical conditioning. This would not only be impossible but even undesirable. Plato is not Plato’s Plato after Aristotle; and Plato-after-Aristotle is not the same as Plato

Christianus, or Plato Neoplatonicus, or Plato Hegelianus and so forth. Heidegger approaches the Greeks from the vantage point of having studied their legacy and the tradition of philosophising they established in Europe. His perception of them finds in their name a beginning, the origin and the source of a specific way of thinking — and irrespective of what that specific way of thinking entails, it is still the beginning of our way of thinking. Heidegger and indeed German philosophy since romanticism was obsessed with the question of origins, therefore with the problem of time. As it is well-known, the secularisation of temporality after the French Enlightenment led to the disappearance of a providential god or of an implied eschatology and replaced it with the idea of an endlessly open and continuously incomplete progress. This had as a consequence the strong sense of existing-in-time, of temporality and temporal conscience, in order to situate the thinking subject within such infinity which abolished all sense of a situated self. Religious temporality placed individuals within a plan of gradual unfolding; the individual could locate his or her space and could articulate his or her subjectivity by employing the symbolic network of associations established by religious myths and more specifically Christian metaphors. Post-Enlightenment thinking privileged time because it was afraid of space: the very locus of existence became a moment of negation and annulment, feeling was strongly internalised by the emotive language of romanticism. In that process which was rendered more shaky Charles Darwin’s blind contingency of humanity, or Sigmund Freud’s destructive introspective conscience, time and temporality emerged as interpretive principles to account for the disappearance of space.

Heidegger continued the romantic tradition about the Greeks, despite being fully aware of its limitations. He continues it in a rather complex and highly controversial manner, starting with his early approaches to Plato and then through to the gradual discovery of the Pre-Socratics. We know of course that when Heidegger talked about the Greeks he meant Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle. Diogenes Laertius, the first historian of philosophy, believed that all Greek philosophy culminated with the work of Epicurus. The Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle were the stepping stones towards the completion of philosophy in his work. For Heidegger however, the Greeks were the names and the words defined by Hegel: “En” is the word of Parmenides; “logos” is the word of Heraclitus”; “idea” is the word of Plato; “energeia” is the word of Aristotle. All these words define the horizon of the word “being” in Greek and the way that the Greek word for “being”, that is einai, is in its essence aletheia; for Heidegger aletheia can not be found in the Latin “veritas”. According to him, aletheia is not accuracy or truthfulness or even fidelity. Aletheia, he translates, is “esse”, being in its originary, primordial, essence. It partakes with all words mentioned above; en, logos, idea and energeia but it is the foundational structure (being) of all of them. It exists within them and within the totality of the Greek language since Greek is the language of philosophy and thus its aletheia must or simply points towards ousia. Now the question arises if aletheia is ousia; how are disclosed-ness and presence-ness linked? Is aletheia the negation of Dasein, of the historical being in its “throwness” in society? It is interesting to remember here that when in the 60s Heidegger visited Greece, he talked about the “increasing desolation of the modern Dasein” (Heidegger, 2005: 44) as if the aletheia of “us today” is concealed and subsumed under modernity and “the chains of calculatory planning” (Heidegger, 2005: 44).

Unquestionably Heidegger has located a very serious philosophical problem; how language, unconceals the concealed essence of being. What then is the relation between language and mental energy? In one οf his last seminars in 1969, he reverted to Parmenides and stated that “aletheia was visible to the Greeks in the form of το αυτό of νοείν and ειναι as expressed in the poem of Parmenides” (Heidegger, 2003: 39). Certainly this is one of the most controversial ideas of Greek philosophy. Parmenides states that “to gar auto noein esti te kai einai”: “For the same thing both can be thought and can be” (Waterfield, 2000: 58); “For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be”; (Burnet, 1958: 173).

The sentence can be interpreted in many different ways since its syntax is extremely ambiguous. The equation of being and thinking resulted in a rather strong association of being with logos and then, in the Greek context, logos with power and social authority especially with the Sophists. Furthermore Heidegger linked aletheia with the act of revealing in a physical sense. In the same text he stressed that “for the Greeks αλήθεια is visible as λόγος and λόγος means, much more originally than to 'speak': to let presencing” (Heidegger, 2003: 39). This is a very important statement but it refers again only to a limited number of philosophers. Paradoxically it bears the ring of the Sophist’s extolment of language as public performance and parrhesia. Logos from the Greek lego means, as Heidegger perceptively observed, to gather around, to collect. So is made language the locus of convergence and confluence of the potential diversity of the phenomena. So if we associate logos with aletheia, noein and einai, then the act of unconcealing becomes an act of public appearance and expression in the very Greek sense of the word. Heidegger adds to this another dimension from Parmenides’ most prominent opponent. Heraclitus has articulated one of the most enigmatic statements of all time: η φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ. Heidegger translates this as “[r]ising (out of self-concealing) bestows favor upon self-concealing” (Heidegger, 1975: 114). The translation is both inaccurate and original. In his commentary Heidegger states that Φύσις points to aletheia itself. So even in this Heracletian pronouncement we can detect that “the thoroughly positive sense of “forgetfulness” still completely shines through. It becomes visible that being is not “subject to falling-out-of attention”, but rather conceals itself to the extent that it is manifest” (Heidegger, 2003: 46). So φύσις is associated with unconcealment, the revelation of the latent being-ness. In fact this is quite simple, almost simplistic as a statement; the Greeks, especially the Pre-Socratics like Xenophanes or Anaxagoras, had a more sophisticated perception about the exploration of the latent being-ness through dokos (opinion) and fantasia (imagination) — as indeed Parmenides himself, and later Plato in his cave parable. Despite the fact that Heidegger grew up during the idealistic humanism of classicists like Jaeger, or Bruno Snell, he seems to ignore the painful struggle of Greek thinkers to establish and institute the primacy of abstract thinking. In some strange way, he does not even mention at all the intense intellectual struggle of early Greek thinkers to see the unity of being within and probably despite the plurality of beings. His main question is encapsulated in the statement: “all our considerations take off from a fundamental distinction which can be expressed thusly: being is not a being. This is the ontological difference” (Heidegger, 2003: 48).

Philosophically it seems that Heidegger looks at the Pre-Socratics from within a Platonic or even a Christian paradigm. Historically, most Pre-Socratics tried to establish links between language (culture), which was called thesis, with physis, namely nature; some of them tried to reduce the plurality of experience into certain invariant principles which guaranteed unity, regularity and predictability. Others simply considered experience from the point of logical articulation, such as the Eleatics, and especially Parmenides and Zeno. But Parmenides established an “epistemological quest” in order to account for both “unity and singularity” by denying the “plurality of things” (Waterfield, 2000: 54 & 55). Socrates and Plato however started deductively and from the point of logically verifiable statements as definitions; an approach which caused serious problems when it had to deal with liminal cases, exceptions, marginal positions and generally speaking interstitial forms. Aristotle tried later to solve the problem by creating a compromising synthesis that would account for the singular and the plural from the point of the potential, establishing a completely different form of ontological diversity.

This dynamic exploration of experience and language by the Greeks seems to have passed unnoticed by Heidegger. From his works, it is selfevident that Heidegger saw the Greeks in an un-historical and dehistoricizing manner; so he missed the dynamic element of their struggle with their own language to establish signifying schemata for thoughtprocesses, possibly because of his struggle with German tradition. Heidegger’s Greeks are presented as derealisations of the historical, probably in the way that Freud explained the “disturbance” of his own memory on the Acropolis, as "a sense of guilt [...] attached to the satisfaction in having gone such a long way: there was something about it that was wrong, that from the earliest times had been forbidden. It was something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the undervaluation which took the place of the overvaluation of earlier childhood" (Freud, 1984: 456).

Heidegger aspired for philosophy to become a sacred science again and not a professional occupation. Philosophy asks and sometimes answers the fundamental question: “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Whatever subject asks such a question “must transpose itself — and with it the history of the West — from the center of their future happening into the originary realm of the powers of Being” (Heidegger, 2000: 41). When such a transposition takes place, the philosopher, and his people must return to the origin of the quest, before modernity and its established history: “the same hopeless frenzy of unchained technology and of the rootless organisation of the average man” (Heidegger, 2000: 40 {43}). Heidegger's Greeks were the emblems of a lost unity that manifested itself through their understanding of Being as the “spiritual destiny of the West”. Yet when he visited Greece, the philosopher who, during the 30s, extolled the land and the soil as principles of self-determination, found himself in the same Freudian position of experiencing a disturbance of memory or perception. On the island of Delos, he “saw the emergence of pure being”, an epiphany and hierophany of the missing aletheia. "Αλήθεια", he exclaimed, "is the proper word of the Greek Dasein" (Heidegger, 2005: 33). On Crete he asked himself “what is this that shines in things and hides itself in their shine?” (Heidegger, 2005: 23). It seems that he found in the landscape what the people who lived in it could not give him. And in that respect it is psychologically and therefore philosophically interesting to point out that Heidegger in his encounter with the Greek landscape articulated his very uneasy relationship with modern history. He perceived a landscape without humans, filled with moving shadows in opposition to the “invisible nearness of the divine” (Heidegger, 2005: 43).

From the “pathmarks” of the Black Forest to the luminous emptiness of Greek islands, Heidegger searched for the internal “shine” of the landscape as the imminent transfiguration of the real. In his statement: “Delos itself is that field of the unconcealed hiddenness that accords sojourn...” (Heidegger, 2005: 34) sounds dramatically similar to the famous beginning of the Gospel of John: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (John 1: 10). In John one can also find the association of aletheia with action: “But who does what is true (ho de poion ten aletheian) comes to light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been done in God” (John, 3: 21); or even in the most Hebraic fashion: “Your word is truth” (ο λόγος ο σος αλήθεια εστιν) (John 17: 17), aletheia is associated with the word said, with language. This substratum of aletheia as sanctification, indeed the transfigurability of the real through the intensity of its presencing is something that culminates in Jesus’ words: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14: 6) which associates truth with the verb "I am", creating an immense lacuna in understanding of the conceptual framework indicated by such identification. No wonder that afterwards Pilate asked Jesus “what is truth?” (John, 18: 38). In Greek philosophical language aletheia is out there in the very objecthood of the real; in the New Testament, and especially in John’s theological language, aletheia is embodiment: it is the epiphanic revelation of the fullness of life through the sarx of the human nature.

Indeed in Heidegger’s understanding of aletheia, there exists the inherent tension of Greek and Hebrew conceptions of truth, as knowledge and revelation respectively. As Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has pointed out: “For the Semite the truth of a statement is an extension of the truth of his maker. For a Greek the reference is primarily to the truth of the object about which the statement is made” (Murphy-O'Connor, 1968: 182). Indeed, whether the actual-thing-at-hand reveals something about its creator or about its very essence, is probably the question at the heart of Heidegger’s Dasein. For the Greeks however the actuality of things had nothing to do with the intentionality of a creator. Aletheia indicated the “intense visibility of beings”, the ability of their presence to be intensely experienced by the gaze of humans in a responsive relation. Aletheia was not veritas, truth or Warhrheit; for these notions it seems more appropriate to use the Greek neuter το αληθές employed mainly to indicate the “truth of a statement”. Especially for the Pre-Socratics, and to a certain extend for Socrates and Plato, aletheia was temporalised cognition, the ability to establish formal analogies between what is understood and how it is understood. Aletheia meant responsivity between the seer and the seen, a relation of mutual interpenetration: the knowing subject changes its forms of understanding as the known object is resignified. The knower is transformed by what is known: this is the Greek understanding of aletheia. In the Greek understanding of the word there is nothing to be un-veiled or to be revealed; the presence of everything is the epiphany of truth. In philosophical terms, aletheia can only be found in predication, in the qualities of beings, not in the ineffability of their pre-formal existence (or Being-ness). Indeed one could suggest that for the Greeks, aletheia was the relation established between beings through their predicates. The Greek verb to be (Eimi) means “exist as” and not “exist”; it presupposes formal, or formless, presence, therefore predication and actuality. Existence as such, the being-ness, comes into Greek much later, during the semantic osmosis of Greek and Hebrew cultures in Alexandria; when in the Septuagint, the Hebrew God’s answer to Moses is translated as “I am the being-ness”, (in itself a peculiar syntactical form: “Ego eimai ho on”, Exodus, 3: 14), then the notion of existence as existing without predication emerged. (Although the masculine grammatical form is full of cultural connotations also, something which indicates that there cannot be a language of being without predication: beings become linguistic events only in their qualities and connections.)

Heidegger imposed a completely different hermeneutical perspective when he dealt with the philosophers and the poets he chose to engage with. He relocated the idea of such epiphanic knowledge into a theological content so his text brings within it the semantic tensions of its origins. The tension itself culminates Heidegger’s project to offer new translating conditions for Greek texts in a way that both infuriated and inspired many thinkers after him. For example his translation of the Heraclitian saying “ethos anthropo daimon” as “Man, insofar as he is a man, dwells in the nearness of god” (Heidegger, 1998: 269); or “the (familiar) abode for humans is the open region for the presencing of god (the unfamiliar one)” (Heidegger, 1998: 271) is rather evocative of medieval mysticism (more specifically of Meister Eckhart or the poet Angelus Silesius) than of the vision of moral character being the unique fate of the individual.

If there could be a conclusion from the previous notes, it is that Heidegger never saw the Greeks antagonistically, as if he was struggling to establish his philosophy through an agon against them. On the contrary through his Greeks, Heidegger antagonised the history of his era and somehow used them as an incentive and as a weapon to fight against his time and yet to enrich its intellectual endeavor. Probably this paradox of his Greeks can be explained by reference to his own intellectual adventure through his century. Indeed, the philosopher, who never talked about himself, can be implicitly seen in his works as he was struggling to come to terms with the history of his time and his own position in it. Probably the semantic dichotomy of his own aletheia can be felt in his own paradoxical involvement with historical processes that were beyond his philosophical reflections and could be interpreted, precisely because of their origins, only with the discourse of politics. The fact that Heidegger ignored that “philosophy was born in and through the polis and is a part of the same movement which brought about the first democracies” (Castoriadis, 1991: 15) accounts for his own very limiting understanding of aletheia. Probably only within the institutions of political democracy can aletheia have the un-veiling impact that Heidegger suggested. Otherwise it cannot be invested with the psychical energy that will make it a vital project for transformation. The incompleteness in Heidegger’s confrontation with the Greek notion of aletheia can be attributed to his personal inability to confront history. In his own way, he made Greek thinking relevant again but muted its disruptive truth. By decontextulising the forms of meaning that aletheia generates, he domesticated the concept which in any tradition “contains the possibility of a historically effective universality only by effecting a rupture with the world of traditional or authoritarian instituted representations” (Castoriadis, 1991: 74). By depriving aletheia of its most “enowing” element, by erasing the seer from the seen, Heidegger simply deleted the first letter from the word and threw the concept back to its pre-philosophical opacity and ineffability.

Indeed, if we may appeal to one of the most playful peculiarities of Greek grammar, the alpha-privative may also be the alpha-cumulative, meaning all oblivions together. Heidegger made the Greeks speak philosophically again by transferring their linguistic representations onto a contemporary level of significating networks. Yet, he imposed a thick glass barrier between us and them so much so that everything they were saying became inaudible and mythical regressing to its pre-logical origins. Aletheia cannot exist without logos; as Parmenides would have said “for that is not / cannot be spoken or thought”; and despite its ingenious and imaginative interpretive translations Heidegger’s discussion of logos is missing the point of his own innovative approach; because if, as he explained: “Ο λόγος, το Λέγειν is the laying that gathers. [...] Ο Λόγος then would be the Greek name for speaking, saying, and language....” (Heidegger, 1975: 77) then it remained to be explained what is gathered and what is said. But that was not attempted and Heidegger’s own creative misappropriation of the Greeks left behind an unfulfilled great promise.


Burnet, 1958 [1st 1892]
John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy. London: Adam & Charles Black.

Castoriadis, 1991
Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cleve, 1969 Felix M. Cleve,
The Giants of Pre-Sophistic Greek Philosophy, an Attempt to Reconstruct their Thoughts. 2nd edition, vol. 2. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Gallop, 1984
David Gallop, Parmenides of Elea, Fragments, a Text and Translation with an Introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Heidegger, 1972
Martin Heidegger, On Time and Being. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Heidegger, 1975
Martin Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking, The Dawn of Western Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins.

Heidegger, 1992
Martin Heidegger, Parmenides. Trans. Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, 1995
Martin Heidegger, Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ 1-3, Trans. Walter Brogan and Peter Warnek, Bloomigton and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Heidegger, 1998
Martin Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill. Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, 2000
Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. The references to Introduction to Metaphysics page numbers have been updated to link to the corresponding page in Introduction to Metaphysics, 2nd, 2014.

Heidegger, 2003
Martin Heidegger, Four Seminars: Le Thor 1966, 1968, 1969, Zahringen 1973. Trans. Andrew Mitchell and Francois Raffoul. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, 2005
Martin Heidegger, Sojourns, The Journey to Greece. Foreword by John Sallis. Trans. John Panteleimon Manousakis. New York: State University of New York Press.

Freud, 1984
Sigmund Freud, "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis" [1936], in On Metapsychology: the Theory of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Jaeger, 1947
Werner Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers. Trans. Edward S. Robinson. London: Oxford University Press.

Murphy-O'Connor, 1968
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, ed., Paul and Qumran, Studies in New Testament Exegesis. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Nida, 1969
Eugene A. Nida, The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Popper, 1972
Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Waterfield, 2000
Robin Waterfield, The First Philosophers: the Pre-Socratics and the Sophists. Trans. with commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wittgenstein, 1997
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. 2nd edition. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Vrasidas Karalis - Martin Heidegger and the Aletheia of his Greeks
Original PDF.