Heidegger’s theme is being. No doubt – but the same could be said of Parmenides, Aristotle, or Aquinas. If we want a name for a uniquely Heideggerian theme – his distinctive concern within the generous domain of “being” – we can do no better than the term Ereignis. The word plays a central part in his earliest extant lecture course (1919; see GA 56/57). It fades away in Being and Time, but makes a triumphant though secret comeback as the “essential” title (GA 65: 3, 80) of the massive and cryptic Contributions to Philosophy (Of Ereignis) (written 1936–8, published 1989). Ereignis makes cameo appearances in a number of Heidegger’s postwar publications and stars in “Time and Being,” his last major essay (1962; see Heidegger 1969).

But what does Ereignis mean? If it is a name for the ultimate, then it will not do to define it in terms of more proximate, familiar concepts. So we may throw up our hands and simply repeat with Heidegger: Das Ereignis ereignet, “Appropriation appropriates” (Heidegger 1969: 24). A more elaborate version of the same gesture might borrow some phrases from the Contributions to Philosophy: “Enowning [Ereignis] occurs as a turning in-between being’s enowning call and Da-sein’s enowned belonging” (Vallega-Neu 2001: 72). But if we simply remain within Heideggerian language we are imitating, not interpreting. Alternatively, if we believe Heidegger is trying to say something that we can say better, then Ereignis can mean almost anything. If, for instance, we think the analysis of everydayness in Division One of Being and Time is what really matters in Heidegger’s thought, then Ereignis can be what enables us to use things “effectively and familiarly according to recognized norms” (Spinosa 2001: 207) – regardless of the fact that the Contributions speak of the “uniqueness” and “extreme strangeness” of Ereignis (GA 65: 252).

The responsible way to gain a sense of Ereignis is to combine close reading with independent thought. We must trace the word’s roles in crucial texts while keeping in mind its usual meaning, corresponding to the English “event.” Furthermore, if Heidegger is right that interpreting is the pursuit of a projected possibility rather than a disengaged staring at the given (SZ: 150), then we have to bring words and concepts of our own to bear on Heidegger’s texts – otherwise we are parroting instead of reading. However, these concepts continually have to be tested both against Heidegger’s own words and against “the things themselves” (SZ: 153).