Elliot R. Wolfson
In 2019, Gatherings inaugurated a new feature: a symposium in which a few experienced scholars exchanged concise thoughts on a topic that plays an important role in Heidegger’s thinking. The primary purpose of a symposium is to foster dialogue on the matters themselves to which Heidegger’s texts direct our attention.
I concluded last year’s discussion of presence by asking, “Are we, today, in touch with time as history? Are we capable of asking who we are, not just what we are? Are we open to the arrival of what is our own? Or do we continue to be absorbed in representing, producing, and reproducing what is present?” These questions lead us to this year’s topic: destiny.
Concepts of destiny (Geschick) play important roles in Heidegger’s thought, both early and late. In Being and Time, the word refers to “the historizing [Geschehen] of the community, of the people. … Our fates have already been guided in advance, in our being with one another in the same world and in our resoluteness for definite possibilities. Only in communicating and in struggling does the power of destiny become free” (GA 2: 508/SZ 384). During the 1930s, Heidegger puts his faith in Hitler, and then in Hölderlin, as guides to German destiny. His later texts associate destiny with the “history of beyng” (Seynsgeschichte) and the “sending” (schicken) of ways of unconcealment.
I thank our five participants for their generous thoughts. All of them have found elements in Heidegger’s discourse on “destiny” that at least have the potential to avoid narrow, oppressive, and chauvinist misuses of that concept. Heidegger himself engaged in such misuse at the height of his political enthusiasm, and whether he ever fully escaped from that blind alley is open to debate. But it would be a mistake – I think all our contributors would agree – to abandon the question he raised: Who are we?
The temptation will always be to answer that question by painting a picture of the ideal member of the group; by absolutizing some collective structure; by telling a story that overrides alternative narratives and suppresses facts; or by rallying behind a leader who simply declares who we are, and who we are not. The question can also be obscured by what are called “existential threats,” the emergencies posed by enemies or disasters that threaten (or seemingly threaten) to annihilate a group. Understandably, when we encounter such an emergency we are usually more concerned with whether we will continue to be than with who we are. However, the shock of such a risk may also be the occasion for facing a crisis of shared selfhood, in which we grapple with the basic possibilities and orientations that characterize our community.
Our writers have made it clear that, if it is genuine, this process of “communicating and struggling” does not issue in a settled answer. As Heidegger said in 1934, we must “let the question of who we are become a question in our Dasein: one that we actually pose – that is, sustain – throughout our entire short lifetime” (GA 39: 59/55). It is not a matter of establishing an “identity,” but of acknowledging the fragile and ambiguous texture of selfhood. The “I,” the “we,” and the “they” are not things, but half-lit paths that intersect, part, dead-end, and start up again as long as we continue to be. We are torn between forms of belonging and forces of unbelonging.
Can these difficult issues be cast aside by some “objective” worldview that is unconcerned with both belonging and unbelonging? Or is such a worldview parasitic on an implicit concern with destiny that it simply fails to confront?
Will our cybernetic forms of communication be overwhelmed by a war of “destinies” – a struggle to the death among collective identities? Or will genuine questioning be sustained within the churn of digital media?
Will philosophy rise to the challenge, and participate in asking who we are? And can philosophy itself become essential to our destiny, so that we can say: We are thinkers?
Original version in Gatherings 10 (2020).