then the enigma of my birth now generates the first question of a metaphysics of existence.
One of the first casualties of the disruption is the ontological difference. There is broad agreement that it is largely unsustainable and that the question of Being cannot be held apart from the matter of beings. Yet it is also clear that while the human sciences—for example, biology, anthropology and psychology—provide descriptions of and theoretical approaches to specific regions of our being, philosophy wants to generate the most general claims and to investigate the deepest assumptions of these disciplines. There is still a role for such philosophical investigation, but it cannot lose sight of the ontic details of what it investigates. Wilhelm Dilthey shows how it can be done. At crucial moments in Being and Time, Heidegger describes himself as pursuing the work begun by Dilthey; and at the specific point (in section 73) where natality surfaces as the problem of the intersection of politics and historicity, he directs us to Dilthey’s thought of generation. This proves to be a rich source. All the messy, detailed, disruptive natal life that Heidegger struggled to excise from his fundamental ontology comes surging back through Dilthey’s thought of life and his commitment to the practice of theorizing from the midst of lived experience. He gives us generation as the structure by which we begin to grasp life and in terms of which we can ask those existential metaphysical questions about what life means. We are generated (i.e., natal) beings who form ourselves into generations, who go on to generate, and who eventually pass from the scene. For Dilthey, meaning is found in the relation of a part to the whole; his achievement is in identifying a thought of life—that is, historical, generative life—that fills the role of the meaning-giving whole without ignoring the natal impulse.
After all, it is the natal character of our finitude that leads us to renew the world. This is Arendt’s great insight, and it surfaces at many points in her opus from Love and Saint Augustine, through The Human Condition and the writings on education, to The Life of the Mind.19 Yet, writing after Heidegger and in the aftermath of the political disasters of war, genocide, and imperialism, she finds herself struggling to isolate a thought of natality that does not cross the strict boundary she draws between political life on the one hand, and social and private
12 — NATALITY AND FINITUDE