142 The Emergency of Being

with what is given? Here our ultimate “justification” is not a rational one, but an experience of emergency. We experience a crisis—or some of us do—when we recognize that our sense of the being of beings is limited and contingent. We ask how it comes to pass that this sense of being, and not some other, has been granted to us. This question leads us to search for an event of giving, an event that cannot itself be given.

Perhaps all philosophy begins with an experience of contingency, a felt need for a justification or explanation that would provide a ground for something. The danger is that this project will drown the contingency in necessity, leading us to forget the original experience. Heidegger’s project is different. While respecting the impulse that drives us toward a primal source, he thinks of this source as an un-ground or abyss that is itself radically contingent. The effect is to heighten the urgency of the original experience rather than to cover it over.3

However, Heidegger often implies that be-ing has to withdraw. This suggests an insight into a necessity, which calls for an elucidation. But would an explanation of be-ing’s obscurity violate this obscurity? Would it impose crassly on the mystery? Perhaps not. It could be that, while respecting the esotericism of Heidegger’s text and his topic, we can reveal a few of the grounds for his claims.4 Be-ing’s self-concealment seems to have several modes, not all of which can be considered necessary or inescapable. Some seem to be contingent features of Western history; others are intrinsic features of everydayness, but we can emerge from this everydayness, at least for a while; finally, some are inescapable aspects of be-ing itself and can never be overcome, even if we can glimpse the reasons why we cannot overcome them. This classification of modes of concealment will work well enough to allow us to carry out our search for grounds. Still, we should remember that the “traits” of be-ing are really straits—and that all necessity, Heidegger insists, is grounded in emergency. (As we will soon see, he even tries to find an alternative


3. In this respect Heidegger is akin to the late Schelling, who tries to think through the original givenness of beings and their sense without effacing their contingency. Schelling elegantly characterizes the object of his thought as the Urzufall, the primal contingency or accident: On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Andrew Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 116. For both thinkers, the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” retains its urgency and pathos, because it is a meaningful question that can never adequately be answered. As Otto Pöggeler observes, Ereignis happens contingently: for example, “Every pure work of art . . . lets the history of Truth be seen as that which possibly might not have been, i.e. as event (Ereignis)”: “‘Historicity’ in Heidegger’s Late Work,” trans. J. N. Mohanty, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 4 (1973): 63 (translation modified). In this sense it can be said that Ereignis is a “miracle”: Aldo Magris, “I concetti fondamentali dei ‘Beiträge’ di Heidegger,” Annuario Filosofico 8 (1992): 248.

4. For another attempt to explore the theme of be-ing’s self-concealment—and a refreshing admission of its difficulty—see Stambaugh, The Finitude of Being, esp. 111.


Richard Polt - The Emergency of Being