William McNeill

Tracing τέχνη

Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Legacy of Philosophy

In the 1920s, Heidegger engages in an incisive and comprehensive critique of τέχνη, the knowledge or artisanship that guides the production of artifacts, arguing that it furnishes the foundation and horizon for Greek ontology, and by extension for the entire Western philosophical tradition. This horizon is problematically reductive because the ontology it gives rise to understands the Being of beings in general in terms of independent presence-at-hand, the appropriate mode of access to which is theoretical apprehension. Not only philosophy and ontology, but science and its outgrowth, modern technicity—itself a monstrous transformation of τέχνη—would be an almost inexorable consequence of this fateful Greek beginning. The project of Destruktion, the “destructuring of the history of ontology” announced in Being and Time, would seek to retrieve and to open up an entirely other dimension of Being, a dimension foreclosed by the Greek beginning and yet awaiting us precisely as the unthought of that beginning and the tradition to which it gave rise.1 The destructuring would take as its guiding thread an understanding of the Being of Dasein—designating the being that we ourselves in each case are—as radically temporal, never simply present-at-hand, and essentially inaccessible to theoretical apprehension. Yet the critical resource for this analytic of the Being of Dasein was, for the early Heidegger, itself provided by Greek philosophy: it was Aristotle’s insight into the Being of the human being as action, πρᾶξις, and its authentic mode of self-disclosure, φρόνησις, that led Heidegger to see the radically different kind of temporality pertaining to human existence in contrast with the theoretically ascertained time of nature as something present-at-hand. This provided a key insight into the essence of “truth” (ἀλήθεια) as unconcealment. Aristotle’s insight into this more primordial sense of ἀλήθεια or “truth” as the knowing self-disclosure of our radically temporal Being-in-the-world as πρᾶξις, as opposed to truth conceived as a property of λόγος, judgment, or theoretical knowledge, was a forgotten thread of Greek philosophy that could shed light upon the limits and foundations of the theoretical tradition that dominates the subsequent history of ontology.

While Heidegger, in the 1920s, certainly radically transforms Aristotle’s analysis of φρόνησις, opening it up phenomenologically and exposing the radical, “ekstatic” temporality it implies, and showing how this originary and primordial temporality constitutes the horizon for every understanding of Being, there can be no doubt that, following Aristotle’s distinction between τέχνη and φρόνησις, he rigorously differentiates Dasein’s authentic self-understanding from any kind of “technical” understanding. The model for authentic self-understanding is the φρόνησις that, for Aristotle, guides excellent or virtuous πρᾶξις; by contrast, understanding oneself in terms of a particular work—whether an already existing work, or a work to be produced—is inevitably an inauthentic self-understanding that projects Dasein’s Being upon the Being (or possible Being) of an entity within the world that has the character of something present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. Any ontological understanding of one’s own Being emerging from the horizon of τέχνη is clearly problematically reductive. And yet, why, then—given the entire rigor and phenomenological persuasiveness of these analyses by which τέχνη is decisively sidelined as a reductive and inferior mode of disclosure, responsible, as it were, for the entire cumulative sins of the Greek-Western philosophical tradition—why, then, does τέχνη return so centrally as arguably the issue to be thought throughout Heidegger’s work from at least the mid-1930s on? Why is it the work, qua work of art or τέχνη, that, in “The Origin of the Work of Art” from 1935–36, is now said to first disclose the historical Being and world of Dasein?

In an attempt to approach these questions, I shall begin by recalling Heidegger’s critique of τέχνη in the 1920s. This critique, one must be clear, is also and intrinsically a critique of the whole of Western philosophy, from beginning to end. In the second part of my essay, I shall briefly review the resource that not only underlies that critique, enabling Heidegger to see the reductiveness of the understanding of Being that emerges from the Greek, Platonic-Aristotelian interpretation of τέχνη and that subsequently dominates Western philosophy, but that also opens the way to another, more radical understanding of Being in terms of ekstatic temporality and the happening of unconcealment. That resource, as I have indicated, is Aristotle’s account of φρόνησις. In the third and final section of the essay, however, I shall attempt to complicate the distinction between what seem to be the two very different understandings of Being that emerge from Heidegger’s early analyses of τέχνη and φρόνησις, namely, presence-at-hand and ekstatic existence (respectively). I shall do so by way of a common root or point of intersection: the phenomenon of world and the disclosure appropriate to it. Heidegger’s ongoing meditation on the question of world and world-disclosure in the late 1920s, I shall suggest, prepares the path for the return of τέχνη to central stage, now in its Janus face of art and technicity, as the focal point of Heidegger’s subsequent thinking.


Heidegger’s claim that τέχνη,2 seen as a mode of producing (Herstellen), constitutes the fundamental horizon of Greek ontology is made most succinctly and forcefully in the 1927 lecture course The Basic Problems of Phenomenology.3 The radicality of the Greek beginning is striking in its claim that the form or μορφή of a being is grounded in its εἶδος, which Heidegger translates as Aussehen, the “look” of a being. In the order of perception, of our sensuous apprehension of a being, precisely the opposite is the case: the look of something is grounded in its form. The form or shape of the wood determines how the wood appears and looks, whether as a tree, a table, or a chair. For Greek philosophy, however, the converse is the case, because Greek ontology understands these aspects of a thing—shape and look—not within the order of perception, but from the perspective of production and productive comportment. All production entails the prior forming of an image, a seeing in advance of what has yet to be produced, and this anticipated look of the thing to be produced is what Greek ontology interprets in terms of the εἶδος or ἰδέα of the being. What is critical is not just that this look determines the shape or form of the thing to be produced, but that it does so in advance: what determines the Being of something is that which governs its γένεσις, its coming into Being. And this, Heidegger comments, explains what Aristotle means in determining the εἶδος as τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, as what is generally, and altogether inadequately, translated as “essence”:

The εἶδος, as the look of what is to be shaped that is anticipated in the imagination, gives the thing with regard to what this thing already was and is prior to all actualization. For this reason, the anticipated look, the εἶδος, is also called the τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι: that which a being already was. What a being already was prior to actualization, the look that provides the measure to which production conforms, is at the same time that from which what is shaped properly derives. The εἶδος, that which a thing already was in advance, provides the lineage [Geschlecht] of the thing, its derivation, its γένος.4

The γένος or “genus” of something, Heidegger adds, has precisely this ontological sense of Geschlecht, “lineage,” and is not primarily to be understood in the logical sense. And the “nature” or φύσις of something is understood along the same lines, as that which first enables a thing to come into Being, to be produced or to produce itself. Yet it is this very moment of coming into Being, of γένεσις as φαίνεσθαι, as emergence into appearance, that is eclipsed when the εἶδος is thematically abstracted as such and posited as that which was earlier—whether as something that, having independent existence, is itself a being (as in Plato’s ἰδέα), or as what constitutes the true “beingness” or οὐσία of something, as in Aristotle. Heidegger highlights the implicit temporal dimensions of this fundamental move of Greek ontology, initially in a broad sketch that encompasses the ontologies of both Plato and Aristotle:

All that which is earlier than what is actualized is as yet free from the incompleteness, one-sidedness, and sensuousness that are necessarily given with all actualization. The “what” that lies prior to all actualization, the look that provides the measure, is not yet subject to changeability, to arising and passing away, unlike that which is actual. It is both earlier than the latter, and, as that which is earlier, always, that is, what a being—always conceived as producible and produced—already was in advance is what truly is in the Being of a being.5

Yet if the εἶδος thus understood, as originally accessible within τέχνη, determines the true Being (or more precisely, “beingness”) of a thing for Greek ontology, how is the Being of a being implicitly already understood by the Greeks prior to the emergence of philosophy and ontology? What is implicit already in their prephilosophical, everyday experience of beings that prepares the way, so to speak, for the philosophical interpretation of the Being of such beings precisely as εἶδος? Prephilosophically, argues Heidegger, beings are understood first and foremost as those entities that lie independently and constantly before us, encompassing both the items of equipment (Zeug) produced by τέχνη and those products (Erzeugnisse) of nature that are constantly available for use.6 What qualifies as a being is whatever lies at our disposal, lies before us, “before the hand,” vor-handen, as Heidegger writes: present at hand before us.7 This is the prephilosophical sense of the Greek οὐσία: whatever we “have” at our disposal, our “means,” as it were. And it is this sense of οὐσία that gives rise to the philosophical interpretation of what truly is, of the true Being (beingness) of a thing, as that which lies most constantly and independently before us: the ὑποκείμενον, das Vorliegende. What is important here, as Heidegger underlines, is that a certain prephilosophical Greek experience of beings remains decisive for the philosophical interpretation of the Being of beings undertaken by Plato and Aristotle:

For everyday experience, whatever is before the hand [vor-handen] in such a way is what counts as a being in the first instance. The goods and chattels that lie at our disposal, what we have: these above all are beings, in Greek: οὐσία. Even in Aristotle’s time, when it already had a secure, philosophical and theoretical, terminological meaning, this expression οὐσία still also signifies the equivalent of possessions, property, means. The prephilosophical, genuine meaning of οὐσία persisted. Beings accordingly means: that which lies present before us, at our disposal.8

This prephilosophical experience of beings not only prepares the way for the philosophical interpretation of what a being most truly is— its “whatness,” or what would later come to be called essentia—in terms of its οὐσία understood as εἶδος. It also implicitly prescribes the way of being or mode of givenness of beings thus understood—their εἶναι, later characterized as existentia—in terms of actuality conceived as being present at hand.9 Indeed, this very distinction between essence and way of Being, essentia and existentia, is, Heidegger argues, first opened up by the orientation toward productive comportment. Yet is production the sole horizon for this interpretation of εἶναι as presence-at-hand, asks Heidegger? Does not Greek ontology take as paradigmatic for its understanding of being precisely those beings that do not first need to be produced by τέχνη, those beings that are by nature, that belong to the κόσμος? Is it not the world, understood as φύσις and κόσμος, that is seen as being always already present-at-hand, as that which is eternally (ἀεί ὄν), and is not in need of production? Is it not from such beings that the predominant understanding of Being as independent presence-at-hand is derived? Against such an objection, Heidegger insists that this very understanding of the κόσμος is itself first enabled within and from out of the horizon of productive comportment, of τέχνη. For production, Her-stellen, setting-forth, means “to bring into the narrower or wider realm of what is accessible, forth, forth into the There [Da], such that what has been produced or set forth stands independently in itself and, as standing steadfastly and independently, remains and lies before us as something that can be found before us.”10

The understanding of Being that guides productive comportment takes the being that is to be produced “in advance as something to be freed to stand independently on its own. The Being that is understood in productive comportment is precisely the independent Being of that which is completed.”11 This “peculiar character of freeing and releasing” that lies within the understanding of Being that guides τέχνη means that τέχνη is oriented in advance, from the very outset, toward that which can be seen as independently present and standing on its own. Even though the seeing that guides τέχνη is a circumspective seeing, oriented specifically toward production, such seeing already carries latent within it a seeing that is oriented toward the mere apprehending of any and every being as set forth and standing before us, the apprehending of such a being in advance in terms of its εἶδος, that is, the pure apprehending of theoretical contemplation, of a θεωρεῖν that would be appropriated as the seeing of philosophy and science. This means, Heidegger insists, that productive comportment, and the understanding of Being that guides it, is not restricted to beings that are or can be produced, but rather “bears within it a remarkable scope with respect to the possibility of understanding the Being of beings,” a scope that explains the universality with which all the concepts borrowed from the sphere of τέχνη are deployed as foundational concepts of Greek ontology.12 It is from within τέχνη itself that beings of nature and the κόσμος can first appear as beings that already lie before us, independently present-at-hand:

In other words, it is within the understanding of Being belonging to productive comportment, and thus in an understanding of that which is not in need of production, that an understanding can first arise of beings that are independently present-at-hand before and for all further production. It is an understanding of what is not in need of production—an understanding that is possible only within production—that understands the Being of that which already lies at the basis of and lies prior to all that is to be produced, and that is thus in the first instance already independently present-at-hand. The understanding of Being that belongs to production is so far removed from understanding beings only as that which has been produced that it rather precisely opens up an understanding of the Being of that which is already simply present- at-hand.13

Heidegger’s “destructuring” of τέχνη as the thoroughgoing horizon of Greek ontology appears both comprehensive and exhaustive, and I have certainly not been able to present it in all of its astonishing detail here. Yet, we may ask, from what perspective is this destructuring undertaken? What provides, as it were, the critical resource for Heidegger’s phenomenological critique? And in what does the critique consist? Thus far, we have at most a genealogy of the foundational conceptuality of Greek philosophy, but no assessment of its legitimacy. The underlying critique throughout these reflections is a radical one: Greek ontology is not only incomplete and reductive, but naive: “Ancient ontology undertakes its interpretation of beings and its elaboration of the said concepts naively, as it were.” 14 The naivety of Greek ontology consists in the fact that it never really escapes the horizon of the natural, everyday understanding of beings, the horizon dominated by τέχνη, and that it brings conceptuality explicated from this experience to bear on beings as a whole, including the human being. It thereby fails to see, or rather, determines reductively, the Being of the human being, or what Heidegger calls Dasein. The problem, therefore, is that it does not radically interrogate Dasein ontologically, but imports a conceptuality and ontological horizon that here too are borrowed from the sphere of productive comportment—which means, from the prevailing, everyday understanding of the Greek world. Heidegger expresses the point thus:

Having recourse to the comportments of Dasein in its ontological interpretation can occur in such a way that that to which one has recourse, Dasein and its comportments, does not become a problem in its own right, but that the naive ontological interpretation goes back to the comportments of Dasein in the same manner that is familiar to the everyday and natural understanding of Dasein. The ontology is naive, then, not because it does not look back toward Dasein at all, or is not reflective at all—this is excluded—but because this necessary looking back toward Dasein does not get beyond a vulgar conception of Dasein and its comportments, and thus does not emphasize this conception in its own right—because it belongs to the everydayness of Dasein in general. Reflection remains within the orbits of prephilosophical knowledge.15

In conclusion, the overarching claim of Heidegger’s destructuring of the history of ontology and its Greek foundations around the mid-1920s is clear: Greek ontology—and by extension, philosophy itself in its entire history from the Greeks to the present—is naive. It is naive because it never really breaks with what Heidegger terms the “natural,” “everyday,” “vulgar” understanding of the world, oriented toward beings that are present-at-hand, and whose horizon is that of τέχνη. Not only is the meaning of Being in general never radically interrogated; it is not even raised as a question, because what Being means has been presupposed from the outset. The Being of the human being, Dasein, constitutes no exception. “In naive, ancient ontology,” comments Heidegger, “Dasein has seemingly been forgotten.”16 To raise in a radical manner the question of the meaning of Being as such, as well as that of the Being of Dasein, one would have to radically break with the interpretive horizon of τέχνη itself.


In my introductory remarks, I indicated that it is Aristotle’s account of φρόνησις, practical wisdom or prudence, as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics, that provides the critical resource for Heidegger’s ontology of Dasein that attempts to break with the interpretive horizon of τέχνη. In this second section, I want first to recall some of the central features of Heidegger’s appropriation of Aristotle’s φρόνησις, and then to raise some questions that might problematize the broader interpretive framework within which this appropriation is accomplished.

As Aristotle tells us, φρόνησις is an intellectual or dianoetic virtue: a virtue of thought that entails excellence in deliberation on how to attain a given end of human action. It is directed, not toward the Being of something other than myself, such as a work to be produced, but toward the Being of myself in each instance, toward the Being of the self as πρᾶξις, as action. It is thus in service to πρᾶξις, doing, and not to ποίησις, making; these two, Aristotle insists, are fundamentally different. Φρόνησις deliberates on how best to act in the here-and-now situation, which is always changing, yet does so always with a view to living well as a whole, to εὐδαιμονία as the ultimate goal of human existence. Phronēsis is thus a kind of knowledge that is subservient to πρᾶξις itself in its very enactment at every moment, and as such, it is new on each occasion, at each moment. It is not a knowledge that is secured once and for all, but an ongoing task of deliberating on how best to act in the here-and-now situation—a situation that can never be foreseen and that must therefore be disclosed in what Aristotle describes as a practical “perception” or aisthēsis, a seeing that apprehends the momentary situation as a whole, and to which deliberation must be responsive.

We can see already from this very brief sketch why it is φρόνησις that offers the critical resource whereby Heidegger attempts, in Being and Time, to break with the interpretive horizon of τέχνη. If φρόνησις is appealed to as providing phenomenologically more appropriate access to the Being of the human, it is on account of several things.

First, φρόνησις is concerned with the Being of the human being as such (and not with the Being of present-at-hand things or works that can be produced and set forth as present at hand)—not in a thematic-objective way, but as an acting being, as a being whose very Being is the ongoing possibility of action, of πρᾶξις. Second, in φρόνησις, there is a seeing of the Being of the human that is not theoretical, not the objective seeing of something independently present-at-hand, but a momentary catching sight of one’s ownmost Being in the situation of action, that is, as acting—in the very enactment of one’s ownmost (singular) possibility of Being, of the δύναμις of one’s ownmost Being. The seeing or εἰδέναι in φρόνησις is that of a practical νοῦς, of an apprehending or catching sight of one’s ownmost Being in the moment of one’s ownmost self-enactment, the moment which Heidegger terms the Augenblick. Third, if φρόνησις provides and testifies to a phenomenologically more appropriate access to the Being of the human as in each case mine, it is on the one hand because the Being of the human—as attested to in φρόνησις—cannot be adequately understood in terms of an already existing εἶδος. The εἶδος of the human, of my own Being, is never pregiven as something to be contemplated. It is something that—as the form of my action—has always yet to be decided, has always yet to emerge. Fourth, on the other hand, this also means that what is problematically reductive about τέχνη with respect to the disclosure of the self, of the human, is its temporality: the inscription and prioritizing of the “always already there” of the εἶδος as origin, as ἀρχή, of the work, of the ἔργον, of that which has yet to come into Being. By contrast, the temporality of φρόνησις is marked by an “always yet,” which is to say, a never-yet. The Being of the human is such that, insofar as it is, it has always yet to be, it is not yet: it is the not-yet of its ownmost having to be. But this very temporality—the temporality of the moment or καιρός—Heidegger suggests, was never adequately explicated by Aristotle; it was, rather, seen only in terms of Being as not yet fully completed, not yet fully actualized: not yet standing in the fullness of its most proper possibility for presence, that is, for Aristotle, the πρᾶξις of θεωρία, the activity of contemplation, as standing in the presence of that which always is, of that which is ἀεί. We see this in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle privileges σοφία (philosophical and theoretical wisdom) over φρόνησις as a mode of disclosure. In explicating phenomenologically the ekstatic temporality of Dasein, by contrast, Heidegger seeks to understand that temporality of Dasein’s being-underway more radically and in its own terms, not with a view to a possible finality, but in its own radical finitude, and as providing the most originary horizon (temporality in its horizonal constitution, which Heidegger terms Temporalität) for any understanding of being whatsoever.

The significance of φρόνησις for Heidegger is thus multiple. First, it comprises a unique mode of knowledge—of disclosure—that is not the epistemic/scientific contemplation (θεωρεῖν) of the εἶδος of things through deduction; nor the contemplation, in σοφία, of the ultimate first principles (ἀρχαί) of beings as such and as a whole (via νοεῖν/ἐπαγωγή); nor, above all, is it the antecedent contemplation of the εἶδος in service to making or producing (ποίησις), in which that which is to be produced is anticipated in a προαίρεσις, an anticipatory decision. For this disclosure, in τέχνη, aims ultimately at closing our προαίρεσις by arriving at a relatively secure technique that can become routine. Whereas τέχνη, we may say, aims at the mastery of presence by making it subservient to the εἶδος, φρόνησις maintains an openness that must be responsive to the happening of presence, a happening that always exceeds its control. Furthermore, φρόνησις comprises a disclosure of factical life, of the Being of Dasein itself as it is lived—that is, of a truth of existence—that remains inaccessible to, and unattainable by, all theoretical and scientific contemplation. The most proper, most primordial truth of my existence as it is lived, as it is being enacted, is inaccessible to any knowledge premised on the theoretical ideal. With this insight, an intrinsic limit to the theoretical aspiration of both philosophy and science becomes visible. And finally, φρόνησις is a form of self-knowledge that is not only radically temporal, but that brings to a fore the finite and “ekstatic” temporality of human existence or Being-in-the-world as such, a temporality that nevertheless was not fully or thematically explicated by Aristotle himself.

Yet precisely at this point, where the Being of the human might thus seem to be most clearly and definitively distinguished from the Being of what is brought forth in τέχνη or found to be already present at hand and not in need of production by the human (namely, φύσις), several questions must arise.

First, is it τέχνη as such that is problematic as a horizon of access to the human, or merely the Platonic-Aristotelian, eidetic appropriation of τέχνη and the temporality it inscribes—what Heidegger, some years later, would describe as the “purely ‘technical’ interpretation” of τέχνη?17 An inauthentic self-understanding, emergent from the everyday horizon which is that of τέχνη, Heidegger insists, can be at once genuine and disclosive of (authentic) Dasein itself. Thus, in all its pre-ontological, everyday activities and absorbed involvements, Dasein, or the Being of the human, is never entirely concealed from itself. Its self-concealment is not a total concealment, but a distortion (Verstellung), a distortion arising from the everyday mode of experiencing oneself, one’s own Being, as reflected out of things themselves—out of the things with which one is involved in the mode of τέχνη. Heidegger emphasizes that it is here a matter of an “inauthentic self-understanding” that nonetheless is “genuine” and “experiences the authentic Dasein as such, precisely in its peculiar ‘actuality.’”18 It is a question of how this pre-ontological experience of the authentic Being of the human (and that means: of the possibility of the human—if Dasein is primarily Seinkönnen, potentiality for Being) is conceptually appropriated, that is, interpreted and thus understood— and thus itself experienced at the explicit, conceptual level.

Second, if φρόνησις indeed provides appropriate phenomenological access to the Being of the human as such—if Dasein’s “peculiar ‘actuality’ ” is disclosed phenomenally in φρόνησις—then how exactly is it disclosed and “what” is disclosed there? The Being of the self is not disclosed as something non-sensuous, nor as the interiority of the soul or the ego, but in its very “not yet”—a “not yet” that, however, is the “not yet” of the unfolding situation itself, of its Being-in-the-world. Heidegger, with Aristotle, emphasizes that the self is given to itself only in and through the νοῦς πρακτικός, which is a practical apprehending, a practical αἴσθησις— thus only in and through the sensuous presence of what is already “there.”

This in turn must lead us to ask a third question. Is the Being of the human, of Dasein, ultimately separable from the Being of the intraworldly, of beings that appear within the world—given that Dasein itself is nothing other than Being-in-the-world? Even though this “in-the-world” is not the Being “within” the world of other entities, this does not preclude that the Being of other entities may indeed be constitutive of and for the Being of Dasein. In other words, it does not preclude that Dasein’s relation to its own Being, or to world—a relation that constitutes its ontological distinctiveness vis-à-vis all other entities—might be possible only as a relation to those other entities. Heidegger indeed acknowledges this very point early in Being and Time, when briefly explicating the concept of facticity. Dasein, Heidegger insists, is not an ontological abstraction, but always exists concretely and factically. The ontological analytic of Dasein is grounded in the ontic, in the facticity of factically existing Dasein. Yet what does this facticity mean? The concept of facticity, he explains, entails “the Being-in-the-world of an ‘intraworldly’ being [since Dasein also appears to others as a being within the world], in such a way that this being can understand itself as bound up in its ‘destiny’ with the Being of those beings that it encounters within its own world.”19 Furthermore, Heidegger himself insists in the last pages of Being and Time that “what seems to be so illuminating as the distinction between the Being of existing Dasein and the Being of non-Dasein-like beings (presence-at-hand, for example) is only the point of departure for the ontological problematic, but nothing with which philosophy can content itself.”20


In the concluding section of this essay I want to suggest that what is at stake in the retrieval of τέχνη that occurs from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s and beyond must indeed be understood in terms of the question of world. Central to Being and Time is the claim that Dasein’s Being is Being-in-the-world, a mode of being that enables Dasein to dwell, for a time, in the presence of other beings that show themselves within the world, whether artifacts, nature, or other Dasein-like beings. Yet what exactly is world? We must recall Heidegger’s insistence in Being and Time that traditional ontology has always and repeatedly passed over or “leapt over” the phenomenon of world and its ontological structure, substituting instead those beings found within the world, beings regarded as present-at-hand, including “nature” itself.21 In the 1927 lecture course The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger makes the point even more emphatically:

Elucidation of the concept of world is one of the most central tasks of philosophy. The concept of world and the phenomenon designated thereby is what has never yet been recognized at all in philosophy. You will think that this is a bold and presumptuous claim. You will object: How can it be that the world has not hitherto been seen in philosophy? Did not the very beginnings of ancient philosophy lie in asking about nature?22

Yet nature, even conceived as the entire κόσμος, or as the totality of beings that appear in it: plants, animals, humans too—all of this is not world, but rather beings that appear within the world:

World is not something subsequent that we calculate as a result from the sum of all beings. The world comes not afterward, but beforehand, in the strict sense of the word. Beforehand: that which is unveiled and understood already in advance in every existent Dasein before any apprehending of this or that being, beforehand as that which already stands forth as always already unveiled to us. . . . World is that which is already antecedently unveiled and from which we return to the beings with which we have to do and among which we dwell.23

If ancient philosophy passed over the phenomenon of world, it was because it invariably began from the contemplation of what was present-at-hand and proceeded to understand everything, the world and the κόσμος, in terms of the same implicit ontological horizon of presence-at-hand. Aristotle himself indeed testifies to precisely this at the beginning of his Metaphysics: “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize, wondering in the first place at the aporias that lay present-at-hand [τὰ πρόχειρα τῶν ἀπόρων ], and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, such as about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars, and about the origin of the whole [περὶ τῆς τοῦ παντὸς γενέσεως].”24

In their naivety—a naivety which Aristotle himself largely shares— the first philosophers leapt over what was initially given, yet was so close to them that they could not see it: world as the antecedent horizon within and from out of which beings, including the present-at-hand, could first appear as such. According to Being and Time, this leaping over the phenomenon of world begins with Parmenides.25

Now, in both Being and Time and The Basic Problems of Phenomenology it might appear that Heidegger, having recognized and forcefully demonstrated the naivety of both ancient and all subsequent ontology, has also succeed in retrieving, through this “destructive” interpretation, the horizon that was passed over in philosophy hitherto, providing us for the first time with a phenomenologically sound account of the phenomenon of world and its ontological structure. Do we not, indeed, through the brilliant phenomenological analyses of readiness-to-hand and of Dasein’s everyday dealings in its most proximate environment (Umwelt), arrive at a conclusive definition of world? It is, Being and Time tells us explicitly, the contexture of signification (Bedeutsamkeit) that “constitutes the structure of world, that wherein Dasein as such in each case already is.”26 And yet, this answer is far from being conclusive. For why, we must ask, is it precisely the question of world that remains the central and most pressing concern of Heidegger’s subsequent lectures and writings in the 1920s, including the lecture course on The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (1928), the essay “On the Essence of Ground” (1928), the 1928–29 lecture course Introduction to Philosophy, and the 1929–30 lecture course The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude? As Heidegger himself put it in The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, “What is this enigmatic phenomenon [dieses Rätselhafte], the world, and above all, in what way is it?”27

I cannot adequately address here the development of Heidegger’s thinking of world as it moves through the late 1920s into the mid-1930s and beyond. I shall instead make just a few remarks that attempt to trace that development and what is at stake in it.

(1) It is the question just raised by Heidegger, I would submit, that gives us a clue as to why world remains a burning issue for him, one that has not been resolved by the phenomenological analyses in Being and Time. For the question is not only what world is—formally, we may indeed say that it is the contexture of signification—but how it is, its way of being or of prevailing. For not only is world not a thing or entity, not a being, nor the sum total of beings within the world, but it is not a phenomenon that simply “is.” It is, rather, an event, something that happens— as Being and Time had already insisted. As Heidegger put it in the essay “On the Essence of Ground,” “World never is, but worlds”—a claim that would be repeated some six years later in “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Now, as we trace Heidegger’s work in the late 1920s, we see that this happening of world is thought not only as temporality and as the “play” of transcendence, but increasingly as world-formation—that is, in terms of ποίησις.28 There is a poietic dimension to the happening of world, Heidegger comes increasingly to acknowledge, and it is this poietic dimension that moves his thinking of world in the direction of the question of art, in other words, back to the question of τέχνη. For it is art that indeed brings forth and presents this poietic happening of world. Significantly, Heidegger already knew and anticipated this at least as early as 1927. In The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, it is not his own phenomenological descriptions that tell us what world is, but rather Dichtung, the poetic or literary work, specifically Rilke’s poetic description, in the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, of the wall of a house that has been torn down.29 Similarly, in the 1929–30 course, after over five hundred pages of philosophical analysis, Heidegger concludes by telling us that it is in “The Intoxicated Song” of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra that we experience what the world is.30

It is this poietic formation and antecedent disclosure of world— in the 1920s understood by Heidegger initially as temporal transcendence, then as the “play” of or within such transcendence, and finally as world-formation— that constitutes the common root and common ground of both φρόνησις and τέχνη as forms of worldly understanding: both are, as Aristotle himself states, modes of unconcealment, of ἀλήθεια. It is this antecedent and thus always excessive happening of world (exceeding and preceding the human) that comprises what Heidegger calls on the one hand the “enigma” (Rätsel) of art and on the other the “mystery” (Geheimnis) of the essence of technicity as a destining and revealing of Being.31

(2) During the period of Being and Time, Heidegger was insistent that world had the same mode of Being as Dasein. World, that is, was understood ontologically, and just as Dasein’s Being was conceived as radically distinct from the Being of entities within the world (the present-at-hand and ready-to-hand), so too such entities were denied any intrinsically worldly character. They could enter a world, appear within a world, but were not in themselves world-like, or could be said to be such only in a “secondary” way (as “world-historical”).32 They did not in themselves contribute to the happening of world. Yet as Heidegger’s work moves toward the 1930s, he increasingly acknowledges that this understanding of world is still too “subjective,” or at least too anthropocentric. World cannot adequately be conceived as belonging purely to Dasein (at least not if Dasein is conceived as the Being of the human being, as it was in the phenomenology of Being and Time), nor as purely ontological. Again, we see this most prominently in relation to the work of art. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” it is the work of art itself, such as the Greek temple, that is said to “open up” a world.33 Heidegger writes:

It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people. . . . Standing there, the temple-work opens up a world.34

(3) Finally, this insight into the nature of the happening of world, which corresponds to a new understanding of the issue of institution or founding (Stiftung) and of projection (Entwurf) on Heidegger’s part, ought also to make us reflect on Heidegger’s later writings on technology and its essence, technicity. In insisting that the essence of technicity, as a mode of τέχνη, consists in revealing, that is, in the happening of unconcealment, Heidegger repeatedly returns us to the question of another possibility of τέχνη, that of art. If it lies in the essence of technological revealing as Gestell, as “enframing” and challenging-forth that, despite being a revealing, it precisely “dissembles” revealing as such, we must nevertheless continue to ponder the other side of τέχνη, that of art, which “once brought the shining of the gods,” enabling, in Hölderlin’s words, the possibility of a poetic dwelling for human beings upon this earth.35 In particular, I would suggest, we need to urgently ponder not only the fact that, if world is not something human, but a phenomenon that, in its happening, always precedes and exceeds the human, then we do not and cannot control the destiny of the world through any human planning or calculation; but also the fact that the shaping of this destiny occurs, not purely ontologically (not, that is, if we conceive the ontological in terms of the ontological difference), but through the ontological work of beings themselves, through that which we produce or bring forth. What we produce, in other words, our works—whether consumer goods and items of utility, works of art, or of philosophy—are not simply something at our free disposal. They carry and configure our destiny.

1. On the destructuring of the history of ontology, see Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (Halle a. d. S.: Niemeyer, 1927), §6 (hereafter “SZ”); translated as Being and Time by Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010).

2. This section is a condensed and somewhat modified version of a paper first presented at the meeting of the Heidegger Circle at Northern Illinois University in 2008, under the title “The Naivety of Philosophy: On Heidegger’s Destructuring of the History of Ontology.” The original paper is available to members via the website of the Heidegger Circle at www.heidegger-circle.org.

3. Martin Heidegger, Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann (Gesamtausgabe 24) (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1975) (hereafter “GA 24”), translated as The Basic Problems of Phenomenology by Albert Hofstadter (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

4. GA 24:15051.

5. GA 24:151.

6. It should be noted here that the word for equipment, Zeug, from zeugen, to produce (also in the sense of procreate) carries within it the very strong connotation of something produced. Both items of equipment and the so-called products (Erzeugnisse) of nature are something “produced” in the sense of set forth (hergestellt).

7. Heidegger’s hyphenation of the term vor-handen here of course suggests literally that which lies before our hands, in front of us, ready for possible use. The term vorhanden, it should also be noted, is a very precise translation of the Greek πρόχειρον. Aristotle, for example, in Book I of the Metaphysics, writes of how the first philosophers initially contemplated τὰ πρόχειρα, the things that lay present at hand (982b13).

8. GA 24:153.

9. Ibid.: “The verb εἶναι, esse, existere must be interpreted starting from the meaning of οὐσία as what is present-at-hand, present. Being, being actual, existing in the traditional sense means presence-at-hand.”

10. GA 24:152.

11. GA 24:160.

12. GA 24:164.

13. GA 24:163–64.

14. GA 24:155.

15. GA 24:155–56.

16. GA 24:156. The word “seemingly” (scheinbar) is of course not insignificant here: this is no doubt a tacit acknowledgment of Aristotle’s analysis of the Being of the human being as the authentic self-disclosure of πρᾶξις in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics, which, as I suggested above, becomes a critical resource for Heidegger in revealing a mode of disclosure that is neither that of theoretical contemplation (oriented as it is toward what lies present at hand), nor that of τέχνη: namely, φρόνησις. As Heidegger would explicitly concede in 1928, the authentic Being of Dasein “was nevertheless, as authentic action, as πρᾶξις, of course not unknown to antiquity.” See Martin Heidegger, Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik im Ausgang von Leibniz, ed. Klaus Held (Gesamtausgabe 26) (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1978), 236 (hereafter “GA 26”), translated as The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic by Michael Heim (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). In Being and Time itself, Heidegger, referring explicitly to Book VI of the Ethics as well as Book IX.10 of the Metaphysics, emphasizes that despite the Greeks being responsible for scientifically developing and bringing to domination the most proximate understanding, which understands Being in general as presence-at-hand, there was alive, at least in Aristotle, a pre-ontological understanding of a more primordial sense of ἀλήθεια as unconcealment. See SZ 225.

17. See the lecture course on “The Will to Power as Art,” in Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche I (Pfullingen: Neske, 1961), 192; translated by David Farrell Krell as Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 1:164165 (translation slightly modified). It is significant that this later remark comes in the context of a meditation on the question of art, and that Heidegger there distinguishes this purely “technical” interpretation from “care” as “the innermost essence of τέχνη,” where “Care” is understood in terms of μελέτη, and as “a composed resolute openness to beings.” Notably, the concept of resolute openness (Entschlossenheit), which was earlier used both to translate the moment of βουλή (decision arrived at through deliberation) within φρόνησις and (in Being and Time) to characterize the authentic Being of Dasein, is now associated precisely with τέχνη (as it is also in “The Origin of the Work of Art”). For the translation of βουλή as Entschlossenheit, see the 1924–25 course on Plato’s Sophist: Heidegger, Platon: Sophistes, ed. Ingeborg Schüssler (Gesamtausgabe 19) (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1992), 150; translated as Martin Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist by Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997).

18. GA 24:228.

19. SZ 56.

20. SZ 43637.

21. SZ 66, 100.

22. GA 24:234.

23. GA 24:235.

24. Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b12.

25. SZ 100.

26. SZ 87.

27. GA 24:236.

28. On this, see especially the 1928–29 Freiburg course: Martin Heidegger, Einleitung in die Philosophie, ed. Otto Saame and Ina Saame-Speidel (Gesamtausgabe 27) (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2001), 309.

29. See GA 24:24447.

30. Martin Heidegger, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt—Endlichkeit—Einsamkeit, ed. F.-W. von Herrmann (Gesamtausgabe 29/30) (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1983), 53132 (hereafter “GA 29/30”), translated as The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

31. Cf. GA 29/30:414: “World-formation occurs, and only on its ground can a human being exist in the first place.” On art as enigma, see the postscript to Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” in his Holzwege (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1950), 66; translated by Alfred Hofstadter as “The Origin of the Work of Art” in his Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 79 (translation modified). On the mystery of the essence of technicity (but also of art), see Martin Heidegger, “Die Frage nach der Technik,” in his Vorträge und Aufsätze (Pfullingen: Neske, 1985), 29, 32, 40; translated by William Lovitt in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 25, 28, 35.

32. See SZ 381, 38889.

33. Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes,” 42.

34. Ibid., 41–42.

35. Martin Heidegger, Die Technik und die Kehre (Pfullingen: Neske, 1962), 34–35.

William McNeill - Tracing Technē