Was ist Metaphysik?

What is Metaphysics?

Heidegger delivered his inaugural lecture on 24 July 1929, in the assembly hall of the University of Freiburg. It was published the same year. In his lecture, Heidegger takes up a particular metaphysical question, “Why are there entities at all and not rather nothing?,” while trying to transform the question as the basic task, mission, and theme of traditional metaphysics.

In the first part of the lecture, Heidegger distinguishes sharply between science and metaphysics. In metaphysics each question already implicates entities in the whole, within which the inquirer is also situated. This implies that the questioner, as such, is also there within the question and thus placed in question simultaneously. Metaphysics must be posed as a whole and from the essential position of being-there that questions. Although there are many different fields of inquiry in science, we always approach what is essential in all things. In the pursuit of science, human beings irrupt into the whole of entities in such a way that this irruption breaks open and shows what entities are in their being. Science studies entities and nothing else. In science the questioner remains outside his objective field of study and does not question himself. Science wishes to know nothing of the nothing. And yet, when it tries to express its ground, that is, the study of entities and nothing else, it calls upon the nothing for help. In this duplicitous state of affairs, a question has already unfolded: how is it with the nothing?

Heidegger elaborates the question of the nothing in the second part of his lecture. The nothing is not an entity, and so we come face-to-face with the problem of how we can encounter the nothing. Heidegger defines the nothing as a complete negation of the totality of entities and then asks how entities in the whole can be given to us. Although we concern ourselves first and foremost in our everydayness with particular entities, entities in the whole may become manifest in certain moods, for example, deep boredom. Heidegger describes how entities conceal from us the nothing precisely when we come face-to-face with them in the whole. Is there an attunement in which we may be brought before the nothing itself? Heidegger can then point to anxiety as the mood that reveals the nothing.

In the third part, Heidegger answers the question of how it is with the nothing. The nothing reveals itself in anxiety, but not as an entity. In anxiety, human beings shrink back before the nothing. This wholly repelling gesture toward entities that are slipping away in anxiety displays the essential character of the nothing: nihilation. The nothing itself nihilates. Nihilation manifests entities in their potential to presence. In the “clear night” of the nothing of anxiety, the original manifestation of entities, as such, arises: that they are entities and not nothing. The encounter between being-there and entities is made possible by the original showing of the nothing. Being-there is being held out into or “suspended” in the nothing. Only because the nothing reveals itself in the ground of being-there can the uncanniness of entities overwhelm us and evoke wonder. Only on the ground of wonder does the “why” loom before us. Only then can we inquire into the ground and question entities in their being. It is only because we can question and ground things that we ourselves are put into question.

In 1943, Heidegger added a “postscript” to the fourth edition of his inaugural lecture, where he explains that the question “what is metaphysics?” questions beyond metaphysics. It springs from a thinking that has already entered into the question of overcoming metaphysics. Heidegger then proceeds to discuss some of the central themes of his later thought. Modern science, calculative thinking, and technology are manifestations of the will to power. Metaphysics is determined by the forgottenness of being. Heidegger opposes a more originary kind of commemorative thinking to metaphysics. The other kind of thinking is the echo of being’s gift: the clearing of being. It is obedient to the voice of being and seeks from being the word through which the truth of being may come to language. The thinking of being cares for our dwelling in language. The task of the thinker is the saying of being, whereas the poet must name the holy in poetry.

In 1949, Heidegger placed an introduction at the beginning of the fifth edition. It is a careful meditation on the metaphor of René Descartes in which he describes philosophy as a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk of the tree is physics, and the branches that issue from the trunk are all the other sciences. Heidegger uses the metaphor to introduce his step back into the ground of metaphysics. Although metaphysics speaks continually of being, it fails to ask the question of being. It does not ask this question, because it thinks being only by representing entities as entities. The essential nature of metaphysics is onto-theo-logy. Metaphysics has become the barrier that obscures the turning relation of being to human being by virtue of which each can come into its own. As a result, all philosophy has fallen into the forgottenness of being. If we want to overcome metaphysics, we must attempt to think the truth of being itself. This commemorative thinking attempts to ask the basic question of thinking: what is the ground of metaphysics, that is, how does being itself become manifest?


Translated in Pathmarks.


Wegmarken (GA 9)