Translated by Ian Alexander Moore and Gregory Fried1
Rector, esteemed Colleagues!
What is metaphysics? This question gives rise to the expectation that there will be talk of metaphysics here. We will forego this, in principle, and instead discuss a metaphysical question that will lead us directly into metaphysics; metaphysics will thereby present itself to us.
We will divide our remarks into three steps:
1. Introducing a metaphysical questioning;
2. Elaborating this question;
3. Answering it.
Seen from the perspective of sound common sense, the realm of philosophy is “the inverted world,” as Hegel says[.]2 Three things are characteristic of a metaphysical question:
a.) Every metaphysical question encompasses the entirety of the problematic and, together with this, in each case the entirety of metaphysics itself.
b.) The questioner is also brought into the interrogation by the metaphysical question itself, is himself put in question by it.
[c.)] Every metaphysical question must as a whole be posed from the essential situation of the Dasein that questions; in this case we ourselves are the questioners and our Dasein is determined by science.
The individual fields of science are quite remote from one another; their respective approaches are distinct. In every science, we relate to beings themselves; there is no precedence of one science over all the others, for example, mathematics over historiography, even though the rigor of historiography is not exactness in the sense of mathematics; exactness would not at all be appropriate to historiographic knowledge.
Every science has its special relation to beings. In science, a distinctive “coming-into-nearness” to things is carried out. This world-relation is borne by the existence of the human being. In the devotion of scientific questioning to its topics of study, science submits itself to beings; yet performing this service is the ground for the possibility of its leadership.
Prescientific Dasein also relates to beings. Yet when the human being practices science, this amounts to an incursion of a being, which we call the human being, into the entirety of beings. In this way a specific kind of manifesteness of things emerges in and for scientific Dasein.
The world-relation orients itself to beings—and to nothing else.—The stance with respect to beings—and with respect to nothing else.—The incursion into beings—and into nothing else. We are thus related solely to beings and to nothing beyond them.
Is it an accident that we talk this way, as though it were only a manner of speaking? The Nothing is given up on! In science! Doesn’t science thereby give credence to “Nothing” as a being? Do we give credence to the “Nothing” when we speak of the “Nothing”? Mustn’t science, precisely here, guard its sobriety? Mustn’t the Nothing be anathema and a flight of fancy to science?
—If so, then it is clear that science wants to know nothing of the Nothing. Hence science gives up on the Nothing and yet gives credence to it. Accordingly, science itself gives credence to the nullity of our Dasein, only to itself give up on that nullity again at the decisive moment.
What about the Nothing, then?
The elaboration of this question must bring us to the position in which its possibility or impossibility becomes clear to us.
We established that science gives up on the Nothing, and we ask: is the Nothing not given?
Thus from the outset we posit the Nothing as a being, for we are asking about it; however, the Nothing is fundamentally distinct from beings. We see that the question about the Nothing inverts into its opposite, depriving itself of its theme. As a question, it is necessarily bound to the form: Nothing is this or that.—Question and answer are thus self-contradictory.
The basic rules of thinking, universal logic, strike the question down as impossible, so have we reached the end of the line with our question? Yet here we are presupposing that the question falls under the jurisdiction of logic, that the understanding can comprehend the Nothing. Does the question conform to the sovereignty of logic? Is the understanding sovereign or not? After all, the Nothing can be posed as a problem only with the help of the understanding: the Nothing is the negation of the totality of beings. Accordingly, the Nothing falls under the higher determination of denial, of negation; denial is an act of the understanding that logic has never contravened. How then can we take leave of the understanding when it is only through the understanding that we can grasp the Nothing?
Yet is the Not[hing] given only because the “Not” and negation are given? Or are denial and negation given only when the Nothing is there? This question has never yet been posed, let alone decided.
We assert: the Nothing is more primordial than denial and negation.
Is the understanding thus dependent on the Nothing? How can we decide this in conformity with the understanding?
This question looks like an absurdity, not just an obstinate idiosyncrasy of the understanding. We must make the effort to carry out what is decisive here!
If we wish to interrogate the Nothing, then it must previously be given; we must be able to encounter the Nothing. In the search for the Nothing, we must already know it in advance; we are familiar with it from the formal determination that the Nothing is the negation of the totality of beings.
We must attempt to comprehend the entirety of beings in order to be able to negate it as a whole. How is that possible for us as finite entities? How can we comprehend the entirety of beings, and how can we then negate it entirely? We can think up for ourselves, we can imagine, the entirety of beings, but in this way we attain only a formal concept of it, and by negating it we do not come to the Nothing either. As little as we are able to comprehend the entirety of beings, so surely are we placed before the entirety of beings in every moment. There is an emphatic distinction between comprehending something and being placed before something.
It seems as though we are not placed before beings at every moment. Yet we are occupied with beings even when we do not occupy ourselves with them explicitly; even then we are related to beings, indeed even in boredom. Boredom not in the sense of when we say: this book is boring, but rather in the attunement: I’m bored. Here there is a fusion of things, of beings as a whole, which in a certain way sink away in the attunement of boredom.
Being attuned and attunement are the basic way of comprehending and disclosing the world.
The counter-phenomenon to boredom is great and profound joy. We, however, are asking about the Nothing; beings as a whole cannot be comprehended by thinking, just as little as the Nothing can be. If the Nothing is given, it can become manifest only in attunement.
In human Dasein, does a being-attuned happen in which the Nothing becomes manifest?—This happens, albeit seldom, in the attunement of anxiety, not in nervousness or in fear. We are always afraid in the face of something or afraid about something. We are fixated on something threatening and so, when we are fearful, we lose our heads.
This is not possible in anxiety; anxiety is, in itself, too profound and weighty for us to lose our heads in it. Anxiety is anxiety in-the-face-of, but not in the face of this or that; anxiety is anxiety-about—, but not about this or that. Anxiety is in-the-face-of-and-about—, but not about this or that. Anxiety in the face of what? About what?—that is indeterminate. One says: “It’s uncanny.” What does this “it” mean? Can we determine the Nothing in it?—In anxiety everything, beings as a whole, sinks away into indifference; beings as a whole oppress us, leave us behind, abandoned. Anxiety thus makes us hover, we hover in anxiety; beings as a whole make us hover; they are indeed still there, but we have nothing more we can hold onto.
In this Nothing that is unveiled through anxiety, we slip away from ourselves. The Nothing manifests itself and presses in around us. In anxiety, beings manifest themselves in such a way that beings as a whole and the Nothing become manifest together. If asked why we were anxious, we reply quite spontaneously: “It was nothing, really.” This initial, spontaneous answer makes manifest to us that the Nothing was there, the Nothing became manifest, the Nothing could be interrogated.
We will have already attained the answer if we pay attention to actually recognizing it, to confronting the Nothing, and to holding fast to it as it announces itself in anxiety.
We do not encounter the Nothing as a being, because anxiety by no means comprehends anything in an objective manner. If we are anxious, the Nothing was manifest; we encountered the Nothing in union with beings as a whole, but we did not encounter it as we encounter beings, thus not alongside beings, thus not isolated as such. Beings are not annihilated; we are powerless in anxiety. No annihilation of beings happens, but a negation, a nihilation surely does. The Nothing becomes manifest in its superior power such that we are placed before it and comprehend beings as such.
In the sinking away of beings into insignificance and nullity, the abyss of the Nothing as such becomes manifest to us. For us to experience something of beings as a whole in the first place, beings must be manifest so that we experience the Not-Nothing. Thus in the horizon and in the bright night of the Nothing, beings are brought before Dasein and thereby first before themselves. Dasein could not exist, that is, it could not relate to beings, if the Nothing were not manifest.
Dasein means holding oneself out into the Nothing.
Only then does Dasein itself become manifest for itself as existing Dasein. No one could even be existing Dasein if the Nothing were not manifest. Accordingly, the Nothing is not a being, an object alongside beings, which is also there and given in union with beings. The Nothing is the enabling of the manifestness of beings as such for human Dasein.
As this enabling, the Nothing belongs essentially to the existence of human Dasein. Now it is fitting to dispel a misgiving that has been held back too long already. If Dasein can relate to beings, and thus exist, only by holding itself out into the Nothing, but the Nothing only becomes manifest in anxiety—must Dasein then not constantly be anxious in order to comprehend beings as beings? Yet we all exist without feeling constant anxiety, so aren’t anxiety [and] the Nothing arbitrary feelings?
Primordial anxiety happens only in rare moments; the Nothing is for the most part disguised, and indeed it is disguised by thinking—when we are absorbed with beings, there is a turning away from the Nothing; and this happens in its most proper sense when we turn ourselves away so as to grasp beings within the horizon of the Nothing, which beings are not.
All determination of something as something by thought is a distinguishing, and as such, opposition and denial. Being-able-to-posit entails grasping something as distinguished from the Nothing. We can say no only if we already understand the Nothing in making use of the Not, even if we have not grasped the Nothing conceptually. Denial presupposes the Nothing, a point which we won’t develop here; the Nothing is the origin of negation and not the other way around.
If the Nothing is always there, then that means that anxiety is usually suppressed; anxiety sleeps, but its breath trembles unceasingly through Dasein, most readily3 through nervous hustle and bustle, but most decidedly through audacious—and here we are speaking metaphysically—Dasein. Anxiety can always awaken. We are speaking of anxiety in its character of possibility; anxiety is ready to pounce, it can seize us and ambush us at any moment. It belongs to the essence of Dasein that we are the placeholders, as it were, for the Nothing, held out into the Nothing—so much so that we are not even capable of bringing ourselves before the Nothing and thereby into anxiety. We are so entirely finite that we do not have our most extreme finitude at our disposal.—
In holding itself in a relation to beings, Dasein holds itself out into the Nothing. In this way, Dasein accomplishes a surmounting of beings as a whole. The term ‘metaphysics’ comes from the Greek meta ta physika, an incidental designation. Later, this peculiar term gets construed as meaning going out, over, and beyond beings in order to apprehend beings as such and as a whole. This happens in questioning about the Nothing. As such, it is a metaphysical question and it encompasses the entirety of the problematic of metaphysics within itself.
Has the second condition been fulfilled, too? Through this question, has our Dasein, as determined by science, been implicated in the question? If so, then this Dasein itself must have been put in question and thereby become question-worthy.
Scientific Dasein is characterized by a relation to the world that orients itself to beings and nothing else, by the stance with respect to beings and nothing else, by the incursion into beings and nothing further.—With a condescending gesture, science gives up on the Nothing. Now it is clear that we could not comprehend beings if we were not held out into the Nothing. The sobriety of science, which gives up on the Nothing, thus becomes absolutely laughable, speaking metaphysically. Only if science gives in and stops giving up on this can science make beings a problem and grasp itself from the basis of its existence.
Yet science is rooted in still another way in the Nothing; only through the Nothing do beings first have their strangeness, and only through the Nothing are beings able to awaken wonderment, and only if wonderment is possible is a Why given at all. And only where this Why makes its entrance is questioning possible, and only through questioning can we exist as researchers—. The question about the Nothing is a metaphysical question: it puts the questioner in question both within and outside science.
This going out, over, and beyond beings happens at the basis of every human Dasein. Metaphysics is rooted in every human being; it belongs to Dasein insofar as the human being exists, that is, relates to beings. Metaphysics has no absolute domain; it is a basic happening of Dasein.
So, we have not shifted place by entering into metaphysics, nor has metaphysics presented itself to us; for to the extent that we exist, we move within this going out, over, and beyond beings.
“By nature, philosophy is in the essence of every human being, in a certain way,” as Plato says at the end of the Phaedrus.4
Insofar as the human being exists, philosophy happens. Philosophy is the getting-going of the going out, over, and beyond the whole of beings that lies at the basis of Dasein. This getting-going happens only through the commitment of the existence of the human being to the basic possibilities of Dasein. In this consists the essential distinction of philosophy from every science. Decisive for this commitment is a triple demand:
1. Giving space for beings as a whole.
2. Letting-oneself-loose into the Nothing—in this way, one becomes free from the various idols that the individual slinks away to.
3. Letting-swing-out into the uncanniness of beings as a whole and swinging-back into the most radical question of philosophy:
Why are there beings at all and not rather the Nothing?
Martin Heidegger’s text What Is Metaphysics? appeared shortly before Christmas in 1929 with “Friedrich Cohen, Publisher, in Bonn.” That version contains the following comment: “Public inaugural lecture, held on July 24, 1929 in the assembly hall of the University of Freiburg i. Br.” Incidentally, in the same year this press published Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Max Scheler’s posthumous essays under the title Philosophical Perspectives, and Karl Mannheim’s Habilitationsschrift Ideology and Utopia. These books were put in the charge of the young Vittorio Klostermann, who would start his own publishing house the following year on account of the commercial demise of Cohen. Today What Is Metaphysics? is available [in German] from the Klostermann publishing house both as a self-standing publication and in volume 9 of Heidegger’s Collected Works.
The comment in the first publication suggests that the print and lecture versions of What Is Metaphysics? are identical. Heidegger scholarship has accordingly seen no reason up to now to devote closer attention to the developmental history of this text—in contrast, for example, to the various versions of “On the Essence of Truth” and “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In the spring of 2017 the Munich auction house Zisska & Lacher brought a typescript to the hammer that provides information about precisely that genesis. (The estimated value was, incidentally, €8000; the typescript sold for €4000.) The typescript came from the estate of Ernst Zinn (1910–1990), who gained recognition as an editor of Rainer Maria Rilke’s works. Zinn had studied in Freiburg in the summer semester of 1929 and was acquainted with Heidegger for decades. There is the following remark in his hand in the typescript:
typewritten ms. of the Freiburg inaugural address (before publication)
This “typewritten manuscript” is published here [in English] for the first time. From an editorial perspective six points should be highlighted and discussed.
1. The text is only about half as long as the print version and deviates from it in countless details of both language and content. Heidegger’s mode of expression in the text published here is often more unrefined and more direct than in the print version. Thus we can exclude the possibility that it is merely a sort of byproduct, for instance, a shorter version, produced for external reasons, of a manuscript already prepared for publication. We should instead see the text published here as the original version of What Is Metaphysics?
2. The typescript is, more precisely, a carbon copy. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the other copy (or of any further carbon copies). According to Ulrich von Bülow and Gudrun Bernhardt, neither such a copy nor any related handwritten drafts can be found in Heidegger’s literary remains, which are housed at the German Literature Archive in Marbach.
3. It is not possible that Heidegger prepared the typescript himself. First, this would have been highly atypical of his mode of operation; second, an author would have phrased a few passages in the text differently. It cannot be determined whether Ernst Zinn prepared the typescript or received it from a third person. There are no handwritten revisions; even obvious misspellings were left uncorrected.
4. It is necessary to examine whether the typescript is based on a transcription by someone in attendance at the inaugural lecture or on a manuscript by Heidegger. The latter is the case. This is supported by the frequent, fastidious inclusion of dashes, quotation marks, and ellipses as placeholders (“grasping of . . .”), which, as is well known, cannot exactly be ‘heard.’ Thus although there is no handwritten verification by the author himself, we may assume that the typescript reproduces a text composed by Heidegger.
5. We must additionally ask whether this version of the text corresponds to the wording of the inaugural lecture that was actually held. This is supported by the fact that it contains the official address “Rector, esteemed Colleagues!,” as well as by Ernst Zinn’s remark cited above. Nevertheless we cannot claim this with certainty. In view of the brevity of the original version, it is also conceivable that Heidegger expanded and reworked it not just for print, but already before his grand debut on July 24, 1929.
6. Thus it is also unclear when exactly the text that is published here originated. In one of his (often unreliable) retrospective accounts, Heidegger explains that the “lecture ‘What Is Metaphysics?’” emerged “in 1928” at the same time as the “treatise ‘On the Essence of Ground.’”5 That would mean he had composed his inaugural lecture—or just a first version of it—immediately in the course of his return to Freiburg. This however seems fairly unlikely. Even on April 9, 1929, Heidegger was able to write to Bultmann: “My inaugural speech still sits heavy in my stomach.”6 At this point in time, he was therefore by no means done writing it down. Thus the date for the emergence of the original version can probably be shifted to somewhere in the vicinity of July 1929.
The text published here is a faithful transcription of the typescript. All editorial insertions—corrections of misspellings, additions or changes of punctuation marks, corrections of upper case and lower case letters, etc.—have been indicated by square brackets. Only in one passage, which is commented on in the edited text, was there need for more clarification.
The editor thanks the auction house Zisska & Lacher for its generosity and willingness to let him examine the typescript. Heidegger’s literary executor, Mr. Arnulf Heidegger, is cordially thanked for granting permission to publish this text. For the sake of completeness, I must however cite from his July 24, 2017 letter to me: “On the basis of the typeface of the typewriter, it cannot be known for certain that the typescript comes from Heidegger’s entourage. The text you have provided bears no inscriptions by M.H. As executor of the literary estate I cannot recognize the typescript as a text authored by my grandfather. Thus in regards to the publication you are planning, it must clearly be stated when you specify the author that this version of the text was not authorized by the administration of the literary estate.” Heidegger’s imprimatur is indeed missing. Irrespective of the legally effective authorization, a philological investigation of the authorship may be undertaken. It comes to the conclusion that the text here is a carefully worked out transcript of an original text by Martin Heidegger. This is of course not to rule out the possibility that, alongside the recognizable and correctable errors, other, for now unrecognized deviations from the source text slipped into the transcription. These could be identified only if this source text were found. Since the chances of this happening are slim, we can all the same use this transcript as our source of information about the original version of What Is Metaphysics?
Of what use is this information? This question exceeds the scope of an editorial note. It nevertheless imposes itself on us, because it is not self-evident that the sheer aim of completely working out the history of Heidegger’s oeuvre is justified. Rather, after the recent controversies surrounding Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, the philosophical status of this oeuvre is disputed. One must therefore take a step back and concern oneself with commenting on the original version of What Is Metaphysics? In doing so, one must question the extent to which the customary form of commenting on a philosophical text is appropriate here.
*The author, title, and subtitle were provided by the editor. The typescript that served as the basis for this publication contains no such information, but rather begins directly with “Rector. . . .” Philological examination has verified that Heidegger is the author. His literary executor has allowed the text to be published, although he did not authorize it as a work of Heidegger’s. For more details on this, see the editorial note that follows the text. [Editor’s note.]
1. The German was first published as Martin Heidegger, “Was ist Metaphysik? Urfassung,” ed. Dieter Thomä, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie 66(1) (2018): 87–97. We have reproduced the German text here in the left column, with one exception. With Dieter Thomä’s approval, we have deleted the following text: “[der Frage] [‘]Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr das Nichts?[’]” ([of the question] [‘]Why are there beings at all and not rather the Nothing?[’]), which appears in the original publication after “Erst wenn die Wissenschaft diese Preisgabe” (“Only if science gives in and stops giving up on”). (See p. 743, above.) The question does appear in the typescript, but, as Richard Polt has noted from an examination of a facsimile, it is misaligned and seems to have been typed at a different time from the rest of the text on the page. Whatever the case may be, the question clearly belongs at the end of Heidegger’s text, as one finds in the typescript and in the published versions. This deletion required that we modify Thomä’s editorial note accordingly. We thank Polt, Thomä, and William McNeill for their feedback on the text and translation, and Arnulf Heidegger for allowing this original version of “What is Metaphysics?” to be published in English. [Translators’ note.]
2. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 96–97, ¶ 157, et passim. [Translators’ note.]
3. There is probably a transcription error here: Instead of “most readily,” it should read “only slightly.” The parallel passage in the print version reads: “Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping. Its breath quivers perpetually through Dasein, only slightly in what makes us ‘jittery,’ imperceptibly in the ‘Oh, yes’ and the ‘Oh, no’ of men of affairs; but most readily in the reserved, and most assuredly in those who are basically daring.” Martin Heidegger, Was ist Metaphysik? (Bonn: Cohen, 1929), 23; Gesamtausgabe 9: Wegmarken, p. 117f.; “What Is Metaphysics?,” trans. David Farrell Krell, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 93 (here without the italics of the first edition). [Editor’s note.]
4. “φύσει . . . ἔνεστί τις φιλοσοφία τῇ τοῦ ἀνδρὸς διανοίᾳ”; “By nature . . . some philosophy is in the man’s thought” (279a). [Translators’ note.]
5. Heidegger, Pathmarks, 97.
6. Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Heidegger, Briefwechsel 1925–1975, ed. Andreas Großmann and Christof Landmesser (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2009), 111.
Martin Heidegger - What Is Metaphysics? Original Version
Published version in GA 9.