Thinking Being as Self-Concealing

Katherine Withy

Georgetown University

1. I wish to speak today of self-concealing.

If something conceals itself, it is hidden. How, then, can we speak of it? Is this not impossible?

Something conceals itself; it does not wish to be revealed. Should we try to speak of it? Is that not a violence?

Something conceals itself; its very self-concealing is revealed to us. May we, then, speak of that?

To speak of something is to reveal it (SZ32). To speak of self-concealing, then, is to make manifest—what?

2. There are many phenomena in Heidegger’s corpus that conceal themselves. Often, what they conceal of themselves is the very fact that they are revealing—or, that they are revealing poorly. When we say something false, our speaking conceals (or at least, tries to conceal) its own falsity. When an entity appears to us as other than it is, that deceptiveness is withdrawn from appearing. When we relate to entities inauthentically, the ungroundedness of that relating is concealed from us. (Heidegger calls this, ‘ambiguity’ (SZ173)). When we talk idly, the fact that we are saying nothing at all is hidden from us (SZ169). But even when we speak in a way that reveals entities, or when we comport towards entities authentically, the fact that our speaking reveals entities, or that our comporting discovers entities, is not made manifest to us. We simply engage with the entities and do not notice that and how our speaking or comporting has revealed them.

This is why we need phenomenology: to show us that our comporting reveals entities—even though it conceals this fact about itself; to show us that our speaking reveals entities—even though it too conceals this fact about itself; to show us that our idle talk, inauthentic discovering, and experiences of semblance are not in touch with entities—even though they each conceal this fact about themselves. Heidegger’s phenomenology is, in no small part, in the business of identifying phenomena that conceal themselves and revealing the fact of that self-concealing.

3. As we know, the primary phenomenon that conceals itself and so that must be allowed to show itself—including in its self-concealing—is being (SZ35). Heidegger finds being and its self-concealing expressed in Heraclitus’s fragment 123, which says: φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ, φύσις loves to conceal itself (or, conventionally, nature loves to hide). ‘Φύσις’, of course, is another word for being, and to say that it loves to conceal itself is to say that its self-concealing is essential to it:

Self-hiding [Sichverbergen] belongs to the predilection [Vor-liebe] of being, i.e., it belongs to that wherein being has secured its essence. And the essence of being is to unconceal itself, to emerge, to come out into the unhidden–φύσις. (OECP: 229-30 / GA9: 300-01)

So, self-hiding belongs essentially to being’s self-revealing. In fact, “the self-concealing of the essence of being at the same time is precisely the manner that being bestows itself, proffers itself to us in entities” (PR: 54 / GA10: 81). Being could not give itself if it did not, in the very same gesture, conceal itself. Concealment “belongs essentially to unhiddenness, like the valley belongs to the mountains” (ET: 66 {65} / GA34: 90).

Just as we cannot think the mountains without the valley and the valley without the mountains, so too we cannot raise the question of being without also thinking and talking about being’s self-concealing. But how are we to do this? How are we to talk about this hiding and hiddenness? If being loves to conceal itself, is there not something illegitimate and distorting in the very project of trying to speak of being as self-concealing?

Should we not rather remain in silence?

4. Heidegger, of course, did not remain silent about the self-concealing of being. He speaks about it frequently, especially in his middle and later periods. He even speaks explicitly about how to think and speak about being as self-concealing. Consider this tutorial on how to think the κόσμος—and ultimately, being—as self-concealing, found at the outset of the 1943 summer semester lectures on Heraclitus, “The Inception of Occidental Thinking”. It is worth quoting in full:

[I]f thinking is to think the self-concealing, it must allow the self-concealing to unfold as what it is, in which case the knowledge of this essential thinking can in no way be a ‘will’ that compels the universe to divulge its closed-ness. Because the to-be thought is in its essence the self-concealing, and thus the ‘obscure’ in this sense, in this way and only in this way is essential thinking, which remains in agreement with what is experienced as ‘obscure’, itself necessarily obscure. Thought in this way, ‘obscurity’ now means: an essentially necessary way of self-concealing. The thinker Heraclitus is The Obscure because his thinking of the to-be-thought preserves the essence that belongs to it. Heraclitus is not ὁ Σκοτεινός, ‘The Obscure’, because he intentionally expresses himself opaquely; he is also not ‘The Obscure’ because every ‘philosophy’ looks ‘obscure’ (i.e., incomprehensible) within the horizon of habitual understanding. Rather, Heraclitus is ‘The Obscure’ because he thinks being as the self-concealing and must speak the word according to this thinking. The word of inceptual thinking attends to ‘the obscure’. It is one thing to attend to the obscure; it is something else entirely merely to push against it as though against a wall. The obscurity attended to in the way of thinking is essentially divorced from every ‘mysticism’ and mere sinking into the darkness of obscurity for its own sake. (Hk: 26 / GA 55: 31-2)

In this, we can find five guidelines for thinking being as self-concealing:

#1 “[A]llow the self-concealing to unfold as what it is”

As Heidegger says elsewhere, “the κρύπτεσθαι of φύσις is not to be overcome, not to be stripped from φύσις. Rather, the task is the much more difficult one of allowing φύσις, in all the purity of its essence, the κρύπτεσθαι that belongs to it” (OECP: 230 / GA9:301). Allow that which conceals itself to conceal itself. Do not try to undermine that self-concealing or to disrupt it. In whatever way being hides itself, do not try to force it out of that hiddenness. Do not push against that hiddenness, but respect it, attend to it. Be curious about it.

This brings us to the second guideline:

#2 Think the self-concealing of that which conceals itself

That is: think that which conceals itself in its self-concealing. Take its obscurity as “a theme of thinking” (Hk: 26 / GA55: 32). It would be a mistake to try to think being without also thinking its self-concealing. For, as we saw, self-concealing belongs essentially to being. Being’s revealing does not happen without at the same time, in the very same gesture, occurring as a self-concealing. If we fail to think that self-concealing, we fail to think being. That would be the true violence to the phenomenon.

Once we allow being its self-concealing and acknowledge the necessity of thinking that self-concealing, we must admit a certain obscurity into our thought. This is the third guideline, and it implies a fourth:

#3 Allow your thinking to be appropriately obscure

#4 Do not allow any inappropriate obscurity into your thinking

Or, as Heidegger puts it just a little later, “[w]e should be careful not to turn essential obscurity into mere murkiness” (Hk: 28 / GA55: 35). What does this mean? What are the ways in which our thinking can be appropriately and inappropriately obscure? Our model is Heraclitus, who is known as The Obscure. Heidegger gives us four ways in which Hercalitus is not obscure; these are ways of being inappropriately obscure.

First, Heraclitus does not obscure his thought by “intentionally express[ing] himself opaquely” (Hk: 26 / GA55: 32). Contra Cicero’s belief (Hk: 17 / GA55: 20), Heraclitus does not use language intended to befuddle, or use language ambiguously, or play with it merely for the sake of playing with it. He is not “seek[ing] to portray [his] thoughts as ‘difficult’ and [as] as ‘obscure’ as possible, in order that they may appear ‘mysterious’ and ‘important’” (Hk: 17 / GA55: 20). He is not trying to impress anyone, to show off his intellect, or to bolster his ego. He is trying his best to communicate. He aims to express himself clearly and to be understood.

Second, Heraclitus’s thought is not obscure in the way that any philosophical work can be obscure and difficult to understand from the perspective of the everyday—by not being “familiar to common understanding and […] therefore always very difficult for that understanding to grasp” (Hk: 24 / GA55: 29). Of course, Heraclitus’s thought is difficult for ordinary understanding to grasp, but not any more than it needs to be. It is not obscure because it is drowning in jargon, or talking about rarefied things, or relying on inside knowledge and specialised training, or using vocabulary that ordinary people do not understand.

Third, Heraclitus’s obscurity is not that of a ‘mysticism’. He is not speaking on the basis of some special experience of otherworldly phenomena. He is, instead, speaking of something ordinary and everyday—the sort of thing that we might meet by the fire in the kitchen, since even there, as we know, the gods are present (Hk: 8 / GA55: 6).

Finally, Heraclitus’s obscurity is not “sinking into the darkness of obscurity for its own sake” (Hk: 26 / GA55: 32). Obscurity is not an end in itself. Or rather, it is so only for those who have no farther to go. Heraclitus ‘The Obscure’ is not drawn to the pseudo-intellectual aesthetics of obscurity for the sake of obscurity. He bears with obscurity because he is on the way to genuine understanding.

If Heraclitus is not obscure in any of these recognisable ways, in what way is his thinking of being and its self-concealing obscure? Only in the sense that the object of his thought—the to-be-thought—is something hidden: “[t]he universe—ho kosmos, as the Greeks said—is […] in the essence of its very being, the self-concealing and therefore the essentially ‘obscure’. The relation of inceptual thinking to the to-be-thought is inceptually determined by this fact” (Hk: 26 / GA55: 31). This is in contrast to “the absolute as that which wills to manifest itself” (Hk: 32 / GA55: 41), as in Hegel and Schelling. The phenomenon that Heraclitus interrogates is obscure—it, in fact, loves to hide (Hk: 84 / GA55: 110). And so his “essential thinking [of it…] remains in agreement with what is experienced as obscure” (Hk: 26 / GA55: 32). Heraclitus’s thinking agrees with, corresponds to, conforms to, the characteristics of that which he is trying to think. From it, he inherits an obscurity.

What obscurity does thought inherit from an obscure object? When you are trying to think something that is hidden without destroying its hiddenness, there will remain a sort of black hole at the centre of your thinking. There will be something to what you are speaking about that you can never fully reveal—something that swallows up your words as you approach it, and that stops your thinking short every time it gets near. Success in thinking such a phenomenon is not a matter of revealing it in its entirety, without any concealment attending it. Rather, to succeed in thinking a self-concealing phenomenon is to understand what that concealing is and why it obtains.

This thinking, however, will always be a liminal type of thinking. This is how Leo Tolstoy puts the same point in a different context:

I shall not seek the explanation of everything. I know that the explanation of all things, like the origin of all things, must remain a secret of eternity. But I want to understand in such a way as to be brought to the inevitably inexplicable. […] I want to understand in such a way that everything inexplicable presents itself to me as being necessarily inexplicable and not as being something that I am under an obligation to believe.1

To think being as self-concealing is to try to grasp its inevitable inexplicability. This is precisely what Heraclitus seeks to do: to understand the self-concealing of being as necessary and true. We must illuminate being’s self-concealing so as to see not only that but also how and why being conceals itself. This is the fifth and final guideline for thinking being as self-concealing:
#5 Bring the phenomenon of being as self-concealing into the fullest luminosity

5. How, precisely, are we to do that? What method can be employed to illuminate a self-concealing phenomenon?

In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger points out that he has pursued the phenomenon of world in several different ways (FCM: 176-177 / GA29/30: 261-63): historically, in On the Essence of Ground, and phenomenologically, in Being and Time. In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, he intends to pursue world by means of a third method: a comparative examination. There are presumably also multiple ways of pursuing the self-concealing of being. We have glimpsed one already: a historical approach, which looks at Heraclitus’s early thinking of φύσις as loving κρύπτεσθαι. A second way in which Heidegger attempts to illuminate the phenomenon—and one which many readers follow him in—is by finding an image to capture and represent it.

Heidegger’s favourite image is light. Being is the light within which entities show themselves: being “already shines; for it already shines even where we experience that which is only for us the more overt: particular entities. They show themselves only in the light of being” (PR: 64 / GA10: 94). So the light of being is a condition of the manifestness of entities. “All vision [of entities] needs light, although the light is not itself seen” (BPP: 284 / GA24: 403). Indeed, “[t]he essence of light and brightness is to be transparent” (ET: 41 {40} / GA34: 55)—otherwise, we could not ‘see’ entities ‘through’ it. This is why “the light remains unnoticed, just as one takes the day for granted and in its ‘light’ concerns oneself with the matters of the day” (Hk: 74 / GA55: 98). The light of being is not noticed—just like “the invisible air I breathe”.2 Thus the “shining of the light is in itself at the same time a self-veiling—and is in that sense what is most obscure [Dunkelste]” (EGT: 123 / GA7: 288).

This is a powerful image. But it leaves underdetermined precisely in what sense being is self-concealing.

First, it suggests that light—like air—is invisible because it is our most familiar and most immediate environment. It is always there, pervasive and atmospheric, and so difficult to see or notice: “[t]he path to what lies under our noses is always the furthest and hence the most difficult path for us” (PR: 5 / GA10: 5). Being is thus “unquestioned and taken for granted” (Hk: 74 / GA55: 98), like the water in which the proverbial fish swim. On this reading, being is self-concealing insofar as it is too familiar to notice.

But a second account lurks. Light goes unnoticed not so much because it is familiar but because it has a job to do: allowing visible objects to show themselves. As Plato points out in the Republic, light is a ‘third thing’, in addition to visible objects and our power of sight, that allows us to see those visible objects.3 Similarly, being is that ‘third thing’, in addition to entities and our understanding of being, that allows us to make sense of entities. Dreyfus takes this to mean that being functions somewhat like a tool, becoming transparent when it is used: “Like the illumination in a room, […being] normally functions best to let us see things when we don’t see it. […T]he mode of revealing has to withdraw in order to do its job of revealing things”.4

But light, and perhaps being, is best understood not as a tool but as a medium—an intermediary that passes between and connects us with visible entities, in the case of light, and meaningful entities, in the case of being. By virtue of being as a medium, entities appear to us and we are open to entities. Similarly, “light first lets the object through to be viewed as something visible, and also lets-through the view to the visible object. Light is what lets-through” (ET: 41 / GA34: 55-6). Heidegger goes on to argue that, in order to let the visible through in this way, light must be transparent. The medium connecting object and viewer must be invisible. So too for being: to connect the sense-maker with meaningful entities, being must itself withdraw from meaningfulness. Just as “[a]ll vision needs light, although the light is not itself seen” (BPP: 284 / GA24: 403), all meaningfulness needs being, although being is not itself meaningful. In this sense, perhaps, it is self-concealing.

Of course, if light is a medium that allows objects their visibility, then it is a condition of possibility of that visibility. And if, in order to be that medium, light must let-through and must not itself be visible, then light is a condition of possibility that is not characterised by that which it makes possible. It is a sort of frame or context that frames or contextualises something but is not itself framed or contextualised. This could also be the case for being. As Richard Polt puts it, since the “event of be-ing sets the parameters for what givenness itself means”, that event “cannot be given”.5 ‘Parameter’ may or may not be a metaphor, but this insight lends itself to another image in addition to that of a frame: that of a background. Polt writes, for example: “[a]s the background to all presentation and representation, be-ing eludes all attempts to picture it”.6 This is by analogy with the perceptual background, which allows perceptual objects in the foreground to be seen but cannot itself be foregrounded without distortion.

Heidegger’s own image along these lines is of being as a clearing in the woods: “if we stand in a clearing in the woods, we see only what can be found within it: the free place, the trees about—and precisely not the luminosity of the clearing itself” (BQP: 178 / GA45: 210-211). Being is the clearing—the free space and its luminosity. This light and space makes it possible for us to see what takes place within the clearing. But we can only see what takes place within the clearing and cannot see that clearing itself. This inability corresponds to the “vacillating, hesitant refusal” (BQP: 178 / GA45: 211) of being’s self-concealing.

Of course, the clearing could be understood as self-concealing because it is like a frame or a background, or it could be that the luminosity of the clearing is a medium, or transparent like a tool, or taken for granted like the water in which the proverbial fish swim or the air that we breathe. These images are richly suggestive but they do not settle the question of precisely in what sense and for what reason being is self-concealing. The images must be supplemented with some other method of illuminating being’s self-concealing.

6. The three methods for illuminating world that Heidegger mentions in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics were phenomenological, historical, and comparative. I have mentioned, for illuminating the self-concealing of being, a historical approach and an image-based, analogical approach. In my recent book, Heidegger on Being Self-Concealing, I try out a third strategy.7 It might be described as a comparative strategy, although it looks very different from Heidegger’s comparative examination of the human being’s world-forming and the animal’s world-poverty in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. That is because my approach is comparative along multiple dimensions. I present that multiplicity in a table, which gives a taxonomy of the various phenomena of concealing and concealment in Heidegger’s thought.

I proceed by the time-honoured philosophical method of drawing distinctions—“krinein, cutting as de-ciding […] to select, to bring into relief, to set the measure that determines rank” (IM: 185 {194} / GA40: 133). The foundational de-cision and distinction in Heidegger’s thought is of course the distinction between being and entities: the ontological difference. We know that we discover (entdecken) entities (in intentional comporting) and disclose (erschließen) being (in our understanding of being). These are forms of unconcealing:

Discovering (entities)
Disclosing (being)

They result in distinctive forms of unconcealment. When we discover an entity, it shows up meaningfully in our comporting towards it. It is thus manifest. And when we disclose being, an understanding of being takes hold and so does a world as a space of meaning within which things can be intelligible:8

Unconcealing →Unconcealment
Discovering (entities)The entity is manifest meaningfully in comporting
Disclosing (being)The understanding of being, and so a world, obtains

So, we have an event of unconcealing that results in an unconcealment.

Now, we also know that when we unconceal, we bring what is unconcealed out of a prior concealment (λήθη). That is what makes for un-concealment or ἀλήθεια. So unconcealment as ἀλήθεια has this structure:

Prior concealment (λήθη) →Unconcealing →Unconcealment
Discovering (entities)The entity is manifest meaningfully in comporting
Disclosing (being)The understanding of being, and so a world, obtains

Now we have a phenomenon of concealment on the table (as it were)—or rather, two phenomena: a λήθη from which discovering frees entities, and a λήθη from which disclosing frees being. The next task is to identify these phenomena of concealment by filling in each of the two cells.

The λήθη that precedes our discovering of the entity is that entity’s not being available for us to comport towards. It is the darkness of the unknown, the unnoticed, the since forgotten. In contrast, the λήθη that precedes the disclosing of being is the darkness of the not-Dasein, the non-worlding, the animal’s captivation. It is the nothing.

Prior concealment (λήθη) →Unconcealing →Unconcealment (ἀλήθεια)
the entity is not available in comportingDiscovering (entities)The entity is manifest meaningfully in comporting
no understanding of being is operative, the nothingDisclosing (being)The understanding of being, and so a world, obtains

Some people stop here and take themselves to have hit upon the self-concealing of being: it is the λήθη prior to disclosing, the nothing. I disagree.

Λήθη is a concealment that must be posited as in some sense prior to unconcealing because it is overcome by it. But the self-concealing of being is neither prior to unconcealing nor overcome by it. Being’s self-concealing takes place in its being unconcealed, simultaneously with it. Thus Heidegger writes that being “shows itself [zeigt sich] and withdraws [entzieht sich] at the same time” (BQP: 178 / GA45 210); such “proffering and withdrawing—are one and the same, not two different things” (PR: 62 / GA10: 91). If Heidegger is right, then we do not yet have the self-concealing of being in view. Whatever that phenomenon is, it ought to go here:

Prior concealment (λήθη) →Unconcealing →/ Self-concealingUnconcealment
the entity is not available in comportingDiscovering (entities)The entity is manifest meaningfully in comporting
no understanding of being is operative, the nothingDisclosing (being)The understanding of being, and so a world, obtains

This is the column for the self-concealing that belongs to the event of unconcealing.

Now, we know what goes in the relevant cell at the level of entities. Here, we are talking about bringing entities out of their hiddenness and into meaningfulness. This unconcealing conceals itself insofar as the very fact that we are discovering hides itself. That the discovering character of our comporting is hidden from us in our comporting explains why philosophy to date has had such a hard time grasping it and why the first parts of the existential analytic are necessary to show us how we make entities meaningful in comporting towards them.

Prior concealment (λήθη) →Unconcealing →/ Self-concealingUnconcealment
the entity is not available in comportingDiscovering (entities)Comporting conceals its uncovering of the entityThe entity is manifest meaningfully in comporting
no understanding of being is operative, the nothingDisclosing (being)[being’s self-concealing]The understanding of being, and so a world, obtains

Being’s self-concealing will be the corresponding phenomenon at the next level. The task of my book is to identify what goes in that cell. I proceed by generating and filling in a lot of other cells, as you can see here:

The Complete Taxonomy

I identify and distinguish a whole range of phenomena of concealing and concealment in Heidegger’s corpus. (You can find a .pdf of the entire table on my personal website). I will, however, spare you the painful details and indicate only briefly what I take to be the self-concealing of being and why.

7. Let me start with the basic idea expressed in the image of being as light or the clearing: that when being takes place, entities show up. In order for entities to show up, being must not. So, being does not show up; it does not come to presence. One way to capture this train of thought is to express it as what has been called ‘the law of presence’: presencing, or being, is what allows entities to come to presence but cannot itself come to presence.9

The trouble with this argument is that being does come to presence. Being does show up. Being’s self-concealing is not the negation of its showing up but a modification of it. As we saw, being “shows itself and withdraws at the same time” (BQP: 178 / GA45: 210). This means that, even as it conceals itself, being still shines out. It “already shines out even where we experience that which is only for us the more overt: particular entities. These show themselves only in the light of being” (PR: 64 / GA10: 94). Indeed, there is a sense in which being is more apparent than the entities that come to presence: “phusis, as the pure emerging, is more manifest than every manifest object”—but in such a way that it “remains and unfolds as the inconspicuous” (Hk: 109 / GA55: 143).

So being does show up when entities show up—but in a different way. We saw this in the images that we considered earlier: light shows up, the clearing shows up, the frame shows up—but in a way that differs from how illuminated objects, the entities in the clearing, and that which is framed or set off show up. The challenge is to say how the showing of being differs from that of entities and to explain why that difference is necessary in order for entities to show up.

How do entities show up? Entities show up by being set into their limits: “what first makes an entity be an entity as opposed to a non-entity […is for it] to attain its limit, to de-limit itself” (IM: 63 {65}/ GA40: 46). The limits that make an entity be an entity—and the entity that it is—are, first, the limit of its what-being or essence, which makes it be the sort of thing that it is and distinguishes it from other sorts of entities; second, the limit of its that-being or existence, which makes it be rather than not and distinguishes it from non-entities; and third, the limit of its having a what-being and a that-being, which makes it an entity by grounding it in being. Put differently: what makes an entity be the entity that it is is being distinguished from what it is not: it is not its ground, it is not a non-entity, and it is not other than it is. These three contrast cases de-limit the entity and allow it to show up as that and what it is.

Being does not show up in this de-limited way. Consider: what are its contrast cases? From what is it distinguished? From entities, obviously. But Heidegger holds that we cannot grasp the distinction between being and entities. He writes: “[t]hough the two elements of the difference, that which is present [i.e., entities] and presencing [i.e., being], disclose themselves, they do not do so as different” (A: 275 / GA5: 364-5). That is: we have access to both terms of the ontological difference, being and entities, but not to the de-cision that distinguishes them. The reason is that we have no access to “the field or dimension in which to make the distinction” (FCM: 356 / GA29-30: 517-8). As a result, the ontological difference is “a completely obscure distinction” (FCM: 356 / GA29/30: 518). Insofar as being’s distinction from entities is obscure, it fails to be wholly de-limited from them.

What of being’s difference from the λήθη that precedes it? Can we grasp being as distinct from the nothing? Again, to some extent we can, but not entirely. Here, the problem is not that we can’t get the difference in view but that we can’t get one of the terms in view. For one of the terms of the difference is λήθη, and λήθη by definition resists all disclosure. Even in angst, the mood that turns us towards the nothing, the nothing is encountered as “wholly repelling” (WM: 90 / GA9: 114). It resists our encounter. Rather than showing itself as other to being, the nothing “is encountered at one with entities as a whole” (WM: 90 / GA9: 113)—which is to say, the nothing manifests itself indirectly, in the strangeness of the fact that there is something rather than nothing. It cannot be encountered directly. This again robs being of a clear contrast case, against which it could be de-limited.

We saw that entities are set off from their ground in being. Can being similarly be set off against its ground? Apparently not. While entities fall under the principle of sufficient reason, which guarantees them a ground (in being), the principle of sufficient reason, on Heidegger’s reading, forbids to being any ground. It holds that only entities have grounds and so that being does not, and cannot, have a ground (PR: 111 / GA10: 166). “Being, as what grounds, has no ground” (PR: 113 / GA10: 169). Instead, it wells up out of itself; it is “the unfolding that opens itself up” (IM: 15 {15} / GA40: 11). It has no ground beyond itself with which it could be contrasted.

So while entities appear by being set off in their limits, being does not appear within limits. It lacks clear contrasts with an independent ground, with entities, and with the nothing. Not set off against alterity, being lacks definition (cf. SZ4). It is diffuse, indeterminate, borderless.

It is in this sense, I suggest, that being shows up in a self-concealing way. It conceals itself insofar as it does not show up with the sort of ontic determinacy that entities do and that allows us to make sense of them. Escaping ontic determinacy, being escapes ontic intelligibility, and in this sense does not show up meaningfully. Because it is not set off against limits in the ways in which entities are, being is able to ‘get out of the way’, to render itself ‘transparent’ so that entities may be set into their limits. They are framed by limits; being is not. Being is thus the frictionless medium that ushers entities through into determinate presencing.

8. Notice that all the images suggested for being’s self-concealing imply this lack of distinctness, this unclarity of boundaries. Light lets determinately visible entities through without itself taking on any similar determination. Like air or water, it is diffuse, atmospheric, without boundary. The clearing is likewise filled with a diffuse luminosity, and that which is within it is bounded by it but the clearing itself is not bounded. Heidegger writes that “the clearing, in which entities are, is […] bounded and delimited by something self-concealing” (BQP: 178 / GA45: 210). Its own bounds are withheld. Similarly, the frame frames and delimits but is not itself framed or delimited; the background remains indeterminate in contrast to the definite foreground. All these images show that being has no clear edges, as it were. This is its self-concealing.

Nonetheless, I did not choose any of these images for the cover of my book. I chose instead a photograph of a marble taken by my old college dormmate, Simon Dent.10 The transparency of the marble shows being as a medium that allows entities through, but we also see a partially successful but ultimately failed attempt to give the marble a crisp outline. We see something of the boundaries between being and λήθη, being and entities, and being and its ground, which give the marble shape, but we also see these edges withholding themselves and dissolving into diffuseness and indeterminacy. By showing these edges smudged, the image shows our ultimately unsuccessful attempt, as sense-makers, to make sense of being by delimiting and distinguishing it. We try to make sense of it in the way that we make sense of entities. But we fail. We try to get the ontological difference in view, but it remains opaque. We try to find a ground for being but find only its welling up out of itself. We try to grasp why there is something rather than nothing, and the ‘rather than nothing’ repels us and we ricochet back to something.

This image shows being’s escape from the bounds in which we attempt to set it. If you imagine it not as a marble but as a rectangle, you can perhaps see being as self-concealing breaking down the sides of the cell in the table in which I attempted to contain it. Believe it or not, the cell borders in my taxonomy set off being from entities, from λήθη, and plausibly also (although I didn’t discuss it) from its ground. As self-concealing, being resists and blurs those borders. This makes sense: my comparative method proceeded by drawing distinctions, but it revealed that being is self-concealing insofar as it escapes clear distinction. Now wonder being breaks my table.

This suggests to me that my method, in attempting to think being’s self-concealing, has allowed being’s self-concealing to unfold as what it is. It has made that phenomenon as clear as it can, with only—I hope—the obscurity that is appropriate to it.


1 Leo Tolstoy, “A Confession” in A Confession and Other Religious Writings, trans. Jane Kentish (London: Penguin, 1987) 77-78.

2 Thomas Sheehan, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015) 116.

3 Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C Reeve, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997) 507e.

4 Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Ontology of Art”, 409. Insertion mine.

5 Richard Polt, The Emergency of Being: On Heidegger’s Contributions to Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006) 146.

6 Polt, The Emergency of Being, 144.

7 Katherine Withy, Heidegger on Being Self-Concealing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

8 I am simplifying here and throughout. I argue in “The Trouble with the Ontological Difference” (in The Cambridge Critical Guide to Being and Time, ed. Aaron James Wendland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) that the ontological difference distinguishes between being, on the one hand, and entities as such and as a whole (rather than any particular entity), on the other. I argue in Heidegger on Being Self-Concealing that being is the manifestness of entities as such and as a whole. For the sake of simplicity, my formulations here are not sensitive to the complexities of these arguments.

9 Formulated by Miguel de Beistegui, in Heidegger and the Political: Dystopias (London: Routledge, 1998) 132.



‘Entities’ substituted for ‘beings’ in all translations.

A “Anaximander’s Saying”, in Off the Beaten Track, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
BPP Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Albert Hofstadter, rev. ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)
BQP Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected ‘Problems’ of ‘Logic’, trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994)
EGT Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: HarperCollins, 1984)
ET The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Cave Allegory and Theaetetus, trans. Ted Sadler (London: Continuum, 2002) References to Essence of Truth pages above have been updated to {link} to the corresponding page in the 2004 edition.
FCM The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)
Hk Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking; Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos, trans. Julia Goesser Assaiante and S. Montgomery Ewegan (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)
IM Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) References to Introduction to Metaphysics pages above have been updated to {link} to the corresponding page in the 2014 edition.
OECP “On the Essence and Concept of Φύσις in Aristotle’s Physics B, 1”, trans. Thomas Sheehan, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
PR The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991)
SZ Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1962). Page references are to the marginal (Niemeyer) pagination.
WM “What is Metaphysics”, trans. David Farrell Krell, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
GA5 Holzwege, ed. Friedrich Wilheim von Herrmann (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977)
GA7 Vorträge und Aufsätze, ed. Friedrich-Wilheim von Herrmann (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2000)
GA9 Wegmarken, ed. Friedrich-Wilheim von Herrmann (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1967)
GA10 Der Satz vom Grund, ed. Petra Jaeger (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1997)
GA24 Die Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie, ed. Friedrich-Wilheim von Herrmann (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1975)
GA29/30 Die Grundbegriffe Der Metaphysik: Welt-Endlichkeit-Einsamkeit, ed. Friedrich-Wilheim von Herrmann (Frankfurt am Main: Vitorrio Klostermann, 1983)
GA34 Vom Wesen der Wahrheit: Zu Platons Höhlengleichnis und Theätet, ed. Herman Mörchen (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1998)
GA40 Einführung in die Metaphysik, (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1998)
GA45 Grundfragen der Philosophie: Ausgewählte »Probleme der« »Logik«, ed. Friedrich-Wilheim von Herrmann (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1983)
GA55 Heraklit: 1. Der Anfang des abendländischen Denkens 2. Logik Heraklits Lehre vom Logos, ed. Manfred S. Frings (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1979)

Katherine Withy - Concealing and Concealment in Heidegger
for The Heidegger Circle Annual Meeting Boston University, May 2023