… And They Kept Walking

Sunset Roman Times, Catherine Biocca (© Catherine Biocca)

The three interlocutors walking along Heidegger’s country path did not finish their conversation. We pick up the conversation where they left it. This extended trialogue does not resolve any of their issues, but may bring them into sharper relief. Before proceeding with our three friends, readers may wish to refresh their memory of Heidegger’s Feldweg-Gespräch with either Country Path Conversations, translated by Bret W. Davis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), pp. 1-104, or Discourse on Thinking, translated John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 58-90. These conversations are in Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe, vol. 77, pp. 3-157; and vol. 13, pp. 38-74, respectively.

Forscher: In the manner of waiting …

Weiser: … if this is something passively serene (gelassenes) …

Gelehrter: … and the essence of humanity (Menschenwesen) remains appropriately our own (ge-eignet) over there (dorthin) …

Weiser: … where we are called (gerufen) from.

Forscher: “Called”? What do you mean? Have we strayed to somewhere so far away that we need to be called back?

Weiser: I mentioned earlier that we were called (angerufen) to this conversation. If so, then we must have been called from somewhere.

Gelehrter: You sound like a theologian.

Weiser: Not at all. I’m trying to think like a philosophical ontologist, not a believer that, if we have been thrown (geworfen) into this situation, then some god must have thrown us here. We could just as well have been thrown or called into it by sheer circumstance; by mere facticity; by our mutual interest – albeit from three different perspectives – in finding the essence of thinking; or, as our friend Heidegger might put it, by “presencing” (Anwesen).

Gelehrter: It seems to me that both you and your friend Heidegger sometimes make things unnecessarily complicated. Just as theology is the art of preserving outmoded concepts, so you two have elevated the process of obfuscating new concepts to a fine art. When you have a new philosophical idea to introduce, you choose the most incomprehensible way to do it.

Weiser: For example?

Gelehter: Well, for example – a crystal clear example of an intractable obscurity – you claim that an answer can exist without a question. You seem to have fabricated a juxtaposition based on the etymology of the prefix ant- (which is really ent-) rather than on the actual meaning of concepts. Diddling with the word Wort (“word”), you juxtapose Ant-Wort (which more properly would be Ent-Wort), the “getting-out word” or the “word which allows you to get out of whatever state of affairs you were in,” with Gegen-Wort, the “anti-word” or “counter-word.” But the plain fact is that Antwort simply means “answer,” a reply to a question, and Gegenwort simply means “antonym.”

Weiser: I said all that in the context of showing that annihilation is not superlative destruction, but completely different, since destruction leaves debris, which is at least something, while annihilation leaves nothing or – we might say – creates nothing. Did you understand that?

Gelehter: Yes, that much was clear enough, but why couch it in such bizarre wordplay between Antwort and Gegenwort? That makes your argument seem like a koan.

Weiser: Koans can be quite powerful, leading our thinking toward where it would not ordinarily go.

Gelehter: Perhaps. But please tell me how your distinction between annihilation and destruction relates to humanity. You say that annihilation annihilates the human, but does not annihilate humans, or rather that the destruction of countless humans, over and over again, does not contribute toward annihilation, but technology does. All of this is foggy to me, and seems to turn again on fabricated wordplay, this time on your juxtaposition of the accusative singular, den Menschen (“the human,” interpreted adjectivally), with the accusative plural, die Menschen (“humans,” strictly a noun). Annihilation applies to the former but not to the latter. This seems to suggest that you care about preserving and protecting the authentic essence of humanity (das Wesen des Menschen), regardless of how many real human individuals might be killed in the process. Surely you don’t mean that! You even say that we make progress (wir … fortschreiten) as we move in history from one case of mass murder to the next, contemplating annihilation but never finding thereby whatever is human. Surely you don’t mean that either! Anyway, wouldn’t your meaning be clearer if you use the standard adjective menschlich (“human”) instead of that weird juxtaposition of accusatives? Are you really just monkeying with German articles, or do you have something important to say?

Weiser: I indeed have something very important to say about the essence of humanity, which transcends individual humans. Insofar as it is transcendent in this way, it is alien – “over there” – to the extent that it does not pertain to the individual, but to the species. I suspect that Feuerbach sensed this alienation, which may be why he chose to focus on the species instead of the individual: the Gattungswesen rather than the Menschenwesen.

Forscher: If Feuerbach is correct about this, then how could the essence of humanity, which seems relevant only to humanity at large, ever be also relevant to individual humans?

Weiser: Only if the individual – whom we’ll call Dasein – appropriates this essence.

Gelehter: When you speak of appropriating, do you mean eignen, aneignen, geeignen, vereignen, or something else?

Weiser: I’m not sure. The root, eignen, means “to appropriate”; aneignen means “to appropriate”; geeignen means “to appropriate”; and vereignen means “to appropriate.” All those shifting prefixes must mean something.

Gelehter: There are nuances. Aneignen connotes taking possession or adopting; geeignen connotes being convenient or suitable; and vereignen connotes being given, being restored, or being installed in its proper milieu. Let’s also not forget sich ereignen, which takes a semantic leap by meaning “to become real,” “to be fulfilled,” or, more prosaically, just “to occur.”

Forscher: I mentioned earlier – half punning – that the Menschenwesen becomes given to its region (der Gegnet vereignet ist). If the individual rather than the species is the basic unit of humanity, then the Gattungswesen must be a chimera. But if so, then perhaps each individual, being self-contained, would have no essence separate from mortal existence, which would mean that the Menschenwesen would also be a chimera.

Weiser: Would humanity, whether rooted in the individual or the species, have any meaning apart from the region in which it dwells?

Gelehter: Do you mean can it ever feel at home?

Weiser: Yes.

Gelehter: Then I’m skeptical. Humans, whether as individuals or as a species, are more likely to feel alienated than at home. The human essence is either geeignet dorthin (“conveniently over there”) or vereignet dorthin (“given over there”). In this context, dorthin suggests alienation. Are we appropriating some essence that we cannot appropriate because it remains forever dorthin? That seems contradictory (entgegengesetzt).

Weiser: We seem to be throwing a lot of puns around.

Forscher: Puns can be very effective tools for conveying philosophical ideas, but if and only if the philosophical thought process is antecedent to the process of punning.

Gelehter: Yes, I agree. There are some great ones in the literature. My favorite is at the end of the master/servant dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel associates having a mind of one’s own, being one’s own master, or having a strong sense of self (eigner Sinn) with stubbornness, arrogance, or selfishness (Eigensinn). This effectively contrasts two kinds of freedom and provides a smooth segue into the next section, on the freedom of self-consciousness. Hegel’s pun also ties into what I just said about human appropriation, which of course is made possible only by some event (Ereignis) enabling us to appropriate (aneignen) whatever thus becomes uniquely appropriate (eigen) as something that belongs (eignen) to us.

Forscher: I agree too. Consider the central pun of our trialogue, playing on words whose root is geg-: Gegend, Gegenstand, Gegnen, Gegnet, entgegenkommen, entgegenstehen, Vergegnis, Begegnen, Gegensatz, Gegenwehr. Gegenwort, and so on. Its multivalence is mind-boggling. Shall we try to sort it out?

Weiser: Yes, let’s.

Gelehter: Very well. Our leading set of puns seems to revolve around depicting or elucidating – or perhaps obscuring – our central concept: regionality.

Weiser: Fair enough. Let’s unpack this. But in so doing, we must be careful to distinguish between ordinary and systematic uses of terms. Words like gegenüber, dagegen, and even gegen itself seem to be common throwaways rather than components in the deliberate matrix of puns.

Gelehter: Agreed. We will surely keep that in mind as we analyze the matrix. Our word for “region” is Gegend. That’s closely related to Gegnet, an obscure feminine noun which Heidegger probably adapted for our sakes and which we have already defined from context as “the wider region.” That’s just one letter away from Gegner, which means “adversary,” “opponent” or even “enemy.” It opposes us and our region.

Forscher: Hold on! You’re moving too fast. It’s quite a semantic stretch from “region” to “enemy.”

Gelehter: Your rebuke is fair. I’ll slow down. There exists a plurality of regions. Earlier I spoke of the Gegend aller Gegenden, the region of all regions. We need a single term to express this idea. That’s why we use Gegnet. Heidegger didn’t make up Gegnet. It’s an archaic form which he apparently revived. I’ve seen it in some eighteenth-century novels. But such usages seem unrelated to whatever Heidegger was doing with that word.

Forscher: Indeed. I remember one of those novels, Das grosse Jagen by Ludwig Ganghofer, in which a character says, “Die Gegnet schaut aus, als hätt sie der Höllische eben geklopft mit seiner Ofenschaufel” (“This place looks like the devil just whacked it with his coal shovel”). I doubt that this has anything to do with Heidegger.

Weiser: Or perhaps it does. Let’s try to find a connection.

Forscher: OK. As long as we don’t fabricate one.

Weiser: To begin with, there are several subfamilies of words with the root geg, gegn, or gegen. The small begegn subfamily, such as begegnen (“to meet,” “to encounter,” “to act toward something,” “to agree,” or “to concur”) and Begegnen (“the act of encountering”), is fairly simplistic. But the much larger entgeg subfamily is quite complicated.

Gelehter: Yes. We’re back to where we were with Antwort. The prefix ent- is a skewer of meanings …

Forscher: You mean a bunch of meanings in a row like a shishkabob?

[all laugh]

Gelehter: No, smarty pants! I mean that ent– is so multivalent in German that it’s not only difficult to pin down, but also kind of subversive, skewing meanings and giving us what we don’t expect. It’s univalent enough when entgegen means “contrary,” when entgegenhalten means “to hold against,” “to put something in opposition to something else,” or “to contrast,” or when entgegenstehen means “to stand up against”; but the verb entgegenkommen can mean “to come up against,” “to advance upon,” “to prevent” or – commonly and paradoxically – “to meet” or “to be helpful or kind.” Similarly, the gerund Entgegenkommende means either “that which comes up against” or – again commonly and paradoxically – “that which helps,” and the adjective entgegenkommend can mean “approaching” but usually “cooperative,” “compliant,” “amiable,” or “obliging.” Even more puzzling, the noun Entgegenkommen always means “kindness” “cooperation,” “concession,” or even “good will,” with no contrarian connotations at all.

Weiser: I see your point – and in the same vein, Entgegnung can mean either “reply” or “retort,” i.e., either a friendly or an antagonistic response. The idea of antagonism comes from gegen, which almost always means “against” in some sense. The idea of friendliness might come from a benign interpretation of gegen as “juxtaposed” or “facing.”

Forscher: Yes, but gegen as “against” only rarely suggests anything other than antagonism.

Weiser: Rarely? I see many counterexamples (Gegenbeispiele). For instance, Gegengewicht as “counterbalance” or “that which balances against” is rather neutral.

Forscher: Yet the preponderance of words containing gegen has negative or antagonistic connotations. Gegenwehr is “resistance” or literally “the weapon against,” as when we spoke earlier of nature resisting technology. The adverb gegeneinander means “against one another” or “mutually antagonistic.” Gegenruhe (“anti-rest”), as when we try but fail to approach something we desire, is worse than Unruhe (“unrest”). Gegensatz means “opposition” or “alternative state of affairs.” Gegenteil is “the opposite,” “the reverse,” “the converse,” or “that which obstinately confronts or takes the contrary part.” And so on. And so on.

Gelehter: Even seemingly innocent words like Gegenwart and gegenwärtig, the ordinary noun and adjective, “present,” have an etymology rooted in antagonism or confrontation: “against waiting” or “contrary to waiting.” In the present, we don’t have to wait, because it’s already right here, right now.

Weiser: Given all that, how do we get from gegen to Gegend? The general idea of some region or other seems neutral.

Forscher: Maybe to the three of us the word Gegend seems neutral, but Heidegger surely meant it honorifically, denoting a positive presence for the good of humankind, or better said, a positive locus in which this good may come to be. But that seems counterintuitive with respect to the usual meaning of gegen.

Weiser: If Gegend or Gegnet were a verb, it would be gegnen, which would mean something like “to region,” but with strong connotations of achieving rest, returning to a place of tranquillity, or going home.

Gelehter: But again, just one letter away from Gegner.

Forscher: The Gegnerschaft is “the unified opposition,” “our enemies united against us,” or any “group of enemies.”

Gelehrter: The region is our opponent. It wins the battle.

Forscher: Even French supports us – if we accept the translinguistic pun on gagné.

Weiser: That’s farfetched.

Forscher: Perhaps. Yet the thought is still antecedent to the pun.

Gelehrter: All of these words turn on gegen, which means “against,” “anti-,” “opposed to,” “opposite,” “contrary,” etc. So there is something of the forceful negative in each one.

Weiser: Despite the fact that the preposition gegen can also mean “toward” in some contexts.

Gelehrter: Yes, but only in the sense of something coming “toward” something else, so idea of opposition remains intact through this slightly different meaning.

Weiser: Not entirely, it can also refer to that which is nearby, roundabout, or present to us. Gegend then could be the area which surrounds us, comes up against us on all sides, or approximates our own location.

Gelehrter: So Gegend is hardly an innocent or neutral term for “region.” We could have said Gebiet or Bereich, but no! We wanted somehow to get the notion of opposition into our concept of regionality.

Forscher: We could have said Weite instead of Gegnet too.

Weiser: Except that Gebiet, Bereich, and Weite don’t fit into Heidegger’s extensive and deliberate matrix of puns. To extend it even further, he invented a whole subfamily of terms: the noun Vergegnen, the infinitive vergegnen, the third person singular indicative verb vergegnet, etc. Who knows how to translate any of them? Vergegnis could be translated as “regioning” or “enregioning,” but that’s so weird. Untranslatable terms are not unusual in philosophy. That’s why we should do each kind of philosophy in its original language. However, even if we can’t translate these vergegn- words, we can still try to figure out what they mean.

Gelehrter: The prefix ver- is especially problematic. It can suggest refusal, stoppage, change, reversal, deterioration, or loss. It’s hard to nail down. In general it’s an intensifier with negative connotations. But not always. Sometimes it merely intensifies, such as in vergegenwärtigen, which just means “to bring into the present” or, more specifically, “to being into our presence so that we become aware of it,” or as in Vergegenständlichung, which just means “objectification.”

Forscher: Then what are we to do with words like Vergegnen, which Heidegger just made up?

Weiser: I say just leave them alone, as we have left Dasein alone. Let’s not embarrass ourselves trying to shove them into Procrustean English.

Forscher: There’s another subfamily of gegen words that we haven’t considered: Gegenstand (“that which stands against”), Gegenstandhafte (“that which is object-ish”), gegenständlich (“objective”), Gegenständliche (“that which is objective”), Gegenständlichkeit (“objectivity”), etc.

Weiser: This subfamily fits neatly into Kant’s theory of perception as a subject/object dualism.

Gelehrter: Any object of our so-called subjective perception is our own Gegenstand (“that which stands against us”). It is also our own Gegenwehr (“a weapon against us” or “that which resists us”), i.e., it prevents us from learning all there is to know about it.

Weiser: Yes, and the Gegenstand is not the same as the Ding (“thing”). There is a long tradition of this dichotomy in German philosophy, going back at least to Kant. Both exist outside ourselves, but the Ding just sits there neutrally while the Gegenstand operates actively against us – not necessarily in a hostile way, but at least contrariwise or juxtapositionally. In Latin this interpretation is even clearer: Whereas in German the Gegenstand stands against us, in Latin the obiectus is literally thrown against us.

Forscher: Since both Gegenstand and Ding are outside us, they are, at least to some extent, hidden from us. We need to bring them into Entbergen (“unconcealment”).

Gelehrter: They went from their own concealment (Verborgenheit) to their own disclosure (Unverborgenheit) and we can deal with that as we please. We can either accept their self-revelation or not, acknowledge their presence or not.

Forscher: You’re not being very clear.

Gelehrter: You’re concerned with clarity? You sound like an analytic philosopher! Isn’t it better to talk unclearly – though as clearly as possible – about important matters than to talk with perfect clarity about the most trivial imaginary properties of Pegasus, the present king of France, or black swans? Calling an analytic philosopher a philosopher is like calling an ax murderer a surgeon.

Forscher: Nevertheless, we should seek clarity, even we don’t worship it as the analytic philosophers do.

Gelehrter: Fair enough. I will try to make my point a bit clearer. You see that wildflower ahead of us on the path? We didn’t see it a moment ago. It threw itself at us. There was nothing we could do about it. We didn’t know it was there, so we couldn’t hide from it. If we kept walking, it was bound to reveal itself to us, whether we wanted it to do so or not.

Weiser: Yet it is our Dasein which allows the flower to appear to us, to shine forth from obscurity, or to pop up over our horizon, as it were. Its simulataneous concealment and disclosure is due just as much to us as it is to it.

Gelehrter: But if it were not there, if it had not already presenced itself to us, we could not will it into existence. It, not we, is the master of our encounter with it.

Weiser: Perhaps, but only insofar as it a manifestation of being in general, not insofar as it is an individual thing.

Gelehrter: Doesn’t it manifest itself to us as a thing?

Forscher: Is this a real problem? Does it make any difference to being whether Dasein apprehends being or not? Does it make any difference at all? If we apprehend nothing, are we even Dasein? Or, to put the question another way, if the nothing that we apprehend is something, are we then apprehending being? Recall that Hegel, early in the Logic, equated nothing and being, and claimed that the oscillation between them is the becoming (Werden) which makes the world go round.

Gelehrter: We’re not getting anywhere.

Forscher: So what! The device of conversations in literature and philosophy, especially three-way conversations, is seldom, if ever, didactic, but exploratory. While it is true that Piscator’s opinion eclipses those of Venator and Auceps in Walton’s Compleat Angler, this is a rare exception. More common is the type of trialogue exemplied in Hume’s characters, Demea, Philo, and Cleanthes – none of them Hume and all of them Hume – all three with roughly equal input and status. Although we can tell their opinions apart, and can even epitomize each one pretty neatly, one a rationalist, one a skeptic, and one an orthodox believer, we cannot say with assurance what the specific opinion of any of them is. The rationalist has some skeptical and orthodox tendencies; the skeptic occasionally believes; and the believer occasionally doubts. Nor can we say with assurance – on the evidence of these three alone – what Hume’s own opinion might be, since none of them represents Hume straight down the line. Similarly, we might say that one of us is a Hegelian, one a Nietzschean, and one a Heideggerian; or one a scientist, one a historian, and one a philosopher. But those labels are only generalizations – and not always helpful. Maybe we each lean in those respective directions, but not in any hard and fast way. For example, the Hegelian sometimes rejects Hegel and agrees with Nietzsche or Heidegger. So how are systematic didactics even possible?

Weiser: If we three, all of us teachers in some way, wanted to be didactic, then we would collaborate, not just talk. We would sit down together and co-author a treatise to express our consensus. But we have no consensus – which is why we keep talking.

Gelehrter: We’re talking about thinking – and there are at least as many kinds of thinking as there are thinkers. How could any two thinkers – let alone three – ever reach consensus on any matter other than mathematical facts or deductive forms?

Forscher: An old adage says there are three versions of every story: yours, mine, and the truth. This is often misinterpreted to mean that the truth lies somewhere between your version and mine. But not so! The truth may be nowhere near either you or me. In our case, three of us, same thing. The truth may not be inside the circle that our three minds define, but may be so far outside as to be unreachable by any of us. Similarly, if all the billions of humans on this planet formed a perimeter, the truth still might not be within that perimeter, but may be forever beyond all of them. They may not even be close to it.

Gelehrter: Yet we three schmucks, just shooting the philosophical breeze, can say outrageous philosophical things and make crazy philosophical points which could never get published in a philosophical treatise – but just might be closer to the truth than anything in any treatise.

Weiser: Our wisdom rides the wind.

Forscher: Or is the wind.

[all laugh]

Gelehrter: Let’s try to figure out what thinking is. Heidegger’s well-known distinction between meditative thinking (besinnliches Denken) and calculative thinking (rechnendes Denken) is neither dualistic nor exhaustive. Rather, meditation and calculation denote two rather gray extremes of thinking. In between are many varieties.

Forscher: Gray indeed. Perhaps besinnliches and rechnendes Denken even overlap sometimes.

Weiser: But isn’t genuine thinking a journey with no object or end in view?

Forscher: That would be only besinnliches. Isn’t rechnendes also genuine, also a journey, even if it has an object or end in view?

Gelehrter: On the besinnliches side there is, for instance, Nachdenklichkeit (“thoughtfulness”) which, I believe, comprises the activities of nachsinnen (“to contemplate,” “to ruminate,” or “to brood”) and nachdenken, which, in addition to these meanings of nachsinnen, also means “to ponder,” i.e., to think with an object or end in view, but not calculatively.

Forscher: Among what would be between our two gray extremes are andenken (“to think about,” “to launch into a train of thought,” “to remember”) and mitdenken (“to think along with” or “to follow a chain of reasoning”). Both of these show aspects of the overlap I hinted at.

Weiser: Doesn’t all thinking involve attempts to solve mysteries, whether vague, unknown, or undefined mysteries, which would require some sort of meditation, or specific, known, or defined mysteries, which demand calculation?

Forscher: On the one hand, we could define genuine thinking of any sort as refusing to leave any riddle (Rätsel) alone until it is solved. On the other hand, we have agreed that it may be best to let some riddles remain riddles. Some might call us cowardly in this regard. Perhaps we should have opted for resoluteness.

Gelehrter: The interrelation between nearness (die Nähe) and farness (die Ferne) is quite a riddle.

Forscher: Seems rather simple: Nearness is a metaphor of the present; farness is a metaphor of the future. At least that’s how Nietzsche uses them. Why not also Heidegger?

Gelehrter: Whatever is Gegend is near.

Weiser: So going near is going home. That’s what Heidegger means by Ἀγχιβασίη.

Gelehrter: But going near is asymptotic. We never get near. We can never go into nearness. We never reach home. To complete this process, we would actually have to become that toward whose nearness we were going, which would violate Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles – or, as I prefer to call it, the principle of the non-identity of discernibles.

Weiser: But it would appease and even delight the “I-Am-You” empathists.

Forscher: Why bother to appease them? They have their own world.

Weiser: Yes, but sometimes non-scientists are more scientific than scientists and, because they are open-minded, sometimes naively so, in their trial and error, while scientists are hidebound in their adherence to the speculative-empirical cycle and reproducible results, they are sometimes right when scientists are wrong.

Forscher: Sometimes! Sometimes! Sometimes! I suspect that such accidental stumbling upon truth is rare, if it ever happens at all. Give me an example.

Weiser: Digitalis. The farmwives of Shropshire knew that the purple foxglove prevented and cured edema centuries before William Withering identified digitalis and documented its medical properties. Other ancient, traditional, and alternative medicines have also found their way into the approved pharmaceutical arsenal, usually after much resistance from the scientific establishment.

Forscher: Exceptions! For every legitimate folk remedy, there are thousands of quack potions. Science needs to step up and be the judge of all of them. That takes time.

Weiser: Centuries?

Forscher: Sometimes.

Weiser: Centuries of inaction and scoffing?

Forscher: Touché.

Gelehrter: Isn’t it true that every scientific or medical discovery, whether planned or accidental, modern or traditional, progress or regress, genuine or fake, legitimate or quack, popular or hated, arises from what Heidegger calls τέχνη? And isn’t it also true that Heidegger usually disparages τέχνη?

Weiser: Earlier I said that τέχνη, insofar as it partakes of ἀλήθεια, consists in “bringing forth” (Her-vor-bringen). If it doesn’t partake of ἀλήθεια, then who knows what it is or does – besides contributing to the overthrow of nature, the corruption of humanity, and the destruction of our planet?

Gelehrter: Heidegger would agree that τέχνη is a bringing-forth, but not completely, as we see in “The Question Concerning Technology.” He typically puts pejorative implications on τέχνη. But ποίησις, on the other hand, because it is more closely related to φύσις, earns an honored place in his thought, while τέχνη entails enframing (Gestell) and other forms of human interference. Hence ποίησις comprises both Her-vor-bringen and “being active in letting something be itself for us” (Ver-an-lassen). Moreover, it involves Anwesen.

Weiser: And Anwesen, as Heidegger understands it, usually entails the positive connotations of being present in familiar surroundings, a comfortable place, a docile environment, or, in short, home. Let’s not forget that the original title of his famous 1955 Gelassenheit speech was “Bodenständigkeit im Atomzeitalter” (“Autochthony in the Atomic Age”).

Forscher: Heidegger is obsessed with Bodenständigkeit (“earthiness” or “rootedness”), especially regarding the local earth. Robert Metcalf’s article, “Rethinking ‘Bodenständigkeit’ in the Technological Age” (Research in Phenomenology 42 [2012]: 49-66) is very instructive on this point. Heidegger’s whole philosophy can be read as a nostalgic ontology – or an ontology of nostalgia. His systematic vocabulary does not contain the usual or Romantic terms for “nostalgia” – Heimwehe, Heimsucht, Sehnsucht, or Heimsehnsucht – but given that he was so enamored of his own neologisms, that comes as no surprise. He uses the adjectives heimlich and unheimlich systematically, and what he does with systematic terms such as Vergangenheit, Sorge, etc., certainly points in a nostalgic direction. The Sehnsucht of German Romantics such as Novalis foreshadows Heidegger’s nostalgia for a pre-technological “Golden Era” of Black Forest peasant life.

Weiser: Nostalgia? Do you mean simple longing for the past? That seems harmless enough.

Forscher: No. It’s more than simple longing. In prior times nostalgia was thought to be far from harmless. From the end of the eighteenth to about the middle of the nineteenth century, it was a frequent topic of medical student dissertations throughout Europe, especially at Paris. They took it very seriously as a medical problem. People even died from it. Now it is considered a “vanished disease.” Nevertheless, Heidegger seems to have been susceptible to it, if not an actual sufferer whenever he drifted away from home.

Gelehrter: It’s hard to believe that such dire consequences could obtain in real life, but I know that the literature of many cultures includes nostalgia as a major theme. From ancient times until the present the idea of homesickness or home-yearning has consistently carried sentimental overtones and has usually generated good feelings not unlike the overtones and feelings suggested by the ordinary-language use of the word “nostalgia” today. Socrates dreamed a line from the Iliad just before his death, “On the third day you will reach fertile Phthia.” Gunnarr of Hlidarend in Njal’s Saga decided at the last minute to stay home and face death rather than accept a brief punitive exile. Wolfe’s autobiographical novels, Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again show the protagonists Eugene Gant and George Webber at their simpering worst. And let’s not forget Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, etc., etc., etc.

Weiser: All the nostalgic cases from literature that you just mentioned are male. Don’t women get homesick?

Gelehrter: In those days women didn’t leave home, either in real life or in literature – except perhaps their families of origin to get married.

Forscher: There’s more to it than that. For men there is a sexual dimension of homesickness: “Das ewige Weibliche zieht uns hinan.” Venery and its rewards. Odysseus. In traditional society, men identify women with the home, and when they leave, they miss home and women together, considered as a single loss. Throughout literature men identify home with the more comforting feminine qualities, running the gamut from readily available sex to the loyalty of a wife like Penelope or the nurturing sympathy of a goddess like Hestia.

Weiser: It’s true that nostalgia seems to be mostly a male phenomenon, but there is always an exception. Baum’s Dorothy Gale, the heroine of The Wizard of Oz, is a paragon of nostalgia.

Gelehter: She was ripped out of her loving home by a tornado. Gender didn’t matter much in that instance.

Forscher: I’ve been studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century nostalgia from a psychological point of view. As it’s my current topic of inquiry, I happen to have a few notes here in my backpack. Just a second while I dig them out.

Gelehrter: But you’re a physicist. Why are you investigating matters of medical psychology – and arcane ones at that?

Forscher: I have diversions. Anyway, here we go: Construing nostalgia as a pathological condition seems to have gathered steam in the late Renaissance. Robert Burton went against the tide of his early seventeenth-century time by proclaiming in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Part 2, Section 3, Member 4, that to be banished from home is nothing to get upset about and that longing for home is “a childish humour.” When Johannes Hofer coined the word “nostalgia” (“homeward pain”) in his 1688 medical dissertation, the concept immediately gained traction. By the eighteenth century the medical community was nearly unanimous against Burton on this point. William Cullen, in Synopsis nosologiae methodicae – 4th edition – (1785) defines nostalgia as “In absentibus a patria, vehemens eandem revisendi desiderium.” Cullen, who classifed everything even remotely medical (and Kant mocked him for it) classified this vehement desire to return home among the “false appetites,” such as bulimia, pica, polydipsia, satyriasis, nymphomania …

Weiser: Pardon my interruption, but how did Kant mock Cullen?

Forscher: It’s apocryphal, but consistent with Kant’s general outlook, so I accept its genuineness. Kant is supposed to have said against Cullen’s nosology, “Physicians think they do good for a patient when they just give his disease a name.”

Weiser: Despite what Kant may have said, studies have shown that many patients express feeling relief – and even get better – once their disease is given a name, even if that’s all the physician does – or can do. But very well. Proceed.

Forscher: In Lexicon Physico-Medicorum (1787) John Quincy defined nostalgia as “broken-heart, national insanity, longing for home, when absent from one’s native country.” George Motherby echoed this in A New Medical Dictionary or General Repository of Physic – 4th edition – (1795): “Broken heart, longing for home; or national insanity.” In A Compendious Medical Dictionary (1798), Robert Hooper strictly followed Cullen, but adds that nostalgia is “attended with gloom and melancholy, loss of appetite, and want of sleep.” Similarly, William Turton in A Medical Glossary – 2nd edition – (1802): “Longing or pining for home. National insanity. Brokenheartedness.” And again, John Redman Coxe in The Philadelphia Medical Dictionary (1808): “broken heart, national insanity; disease from attachment to home; a species of melancholy.” In The London Medical Dictionary (1819), Bartholomew Parr defined it as “National insanity, in which strangers have such an unconquerable desire to return to their own country, that they become restless, with loss of appetite and strength, succeeded by dejection of spirits, insanity, or death.” He added: “It is, in fact, a species of insanity from hope delayed, to which the Swiss, from a strong attachment to their native country, are generally subject; and the familiar tune, called Ranz de vaches, played at milking the cows, is forbidden in foreign armies, as it excites the tender recollection of what they have left.” Even as late as 1890, John Shaw Billings’s National Medical Dictionary (1890) calls nostalgia “Excessive homesickness, producing melancholy, wasting, and sometimes death” and the 21st edition of Robley Dunglison’s Dictionary of Medical Science (1895) still said that nostalgia was “Homesickness; an affection produced by the desire of returning to one’s country, characterized by melancholia and wasting, sometimes followed by death.”

Gelehrter: Death? That seems farfetched. How could whining proportionate to one’s distance from home be lethal?

Forscher: Nevertheless, it’s true. Leaving behind the medical dictionaries and getting into the periodical literature of medicine …

Gelehrter: Archaic medicine.

Forscher: But medicine nonetheless. Contemporary reports of actual cases written by the best physicians of the day and published in the most prominent medical journals of the day.

Weiser: I think we can trust them. Those physicians were better observers than those of today, even if they couldn’t cure much.

Forscher: That’s right. In the era before mechanized travel, when country folk could hardly expect to roam more than ten or twenty miles from their birthplaces in their lifetimes, the main exceptions, in general, to this rule were adventurers, outlaws, soldiers, sailors, and emigrants. When Western Europe was engaged in worldwide empire building, these rustics were flung to far corners, sometimes with disastrous results. Cases were well-detailed in the contemporary medical literature. In a chapter of Medical Inquiries and Observations, “An Account of the Influence of the Military and Political Events of the American Revolution upon the Human Body,” Benjamin Rush reported, “The nostalgia of Doctor Cullen, or the homesickness, was a frequent disease in the American army, more especially among the soldiers of the New-England.” In “History of a Remarkable Case of Nostalgia Affecting a Native of Wales and Occurring in Britain,” Medical Commentaries (Edinburgh), 1 (1787), 343-348, Robert Hamilton told of a Welsh recruit in boot camp in the north of England who wasted away and only recovered when he was granted a furlough to go home. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars revealed that not only uniformed personnel suffered from nostalgia, but also anyone whose domestic routines were suddenly disrupted, as R.P. Moricheau-Beauchamp reported in “Réflexions sur les modifications que l’éducation et les habitudes ont apportées dans la développement de la nostalgie, pendant la dernière guerre,” Mémoires de la Société Médicale d’Émulation de Paris 1 (1798): 66-71. Napoléon’s surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey, published “Mémoire sur le siège et les effets de la nostalgie, suivi de quelques réflexions sur les lésions partielles du cerveau, résultant de causes spontanées ou de causes mécaniques” in Recueil de mémoires de chirurgie (1821): 161-222, to argue that debilitating and even fatal brain injuries in wartime could result from mental as well as physical causes. The American Civil War, too, turned many Yankee farm boys into glum shadows of themselves as they slogged through Dixie or rotted in camp. Among the reports on this morbidity are W.C. Peters, “Remarks on the Evils of Youthful Enlistments and Nostalgia,” American Medical Times 6 (1863): 75, and J.T. Calhoun, “Nostalgia as a Disease of Field Service,” Medical and Surgical Reporter 12 (1864-1865): 130-132. The same phenomenon continued in Europe, as we see in “Nostalgie mit tödtlichem Ausgange” by A.H. Röbbelen in Deutsche Klinik 16 (1864): 277-278. I would refer you all to Thomas Dodman’s excellent book on the subject, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Gelehrter: Your little vignette from the history of medicine is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Heidegger?

Forscher: Quite a lot. Don’t you see elements of pathological nostalgia in Heidegger’s philosophy of the Gegend?

Weiser: Yes, but what’s your point?

Forscher: I believe that he had a morbid fear of leaving home. Not as morbid as what the Welsh call hiraeth, perhaps, but still morbid. While many of his fellow intellectuals, as well as artists, scientists, musicians, etc. – and not only Jews – were fleeing Germany and finding new homes in England, Switzerland, and America, he was afraid to go. I believe that his collaboration with the Nazis was not due to any ideological conviction. but to cowardice born of pathological nostalgia, in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense. He did not want to die far from where he was born.

Weiser: In general, I see Heidegger as more anxious about death before 1930 and more resigned toward it afterwards. I find support for this interpretation in his critique of technology, which he fears may harm or even kill whatever is authentic about being on this planet. Hence his resignation to pure being, however it may presence itself. Paradoxically, such presencing (Anwesen) includes technology (Technik).

Forscher: The only pure being in which he seems really interested is what involves the land of his birth.

Gelehrter: Nietzsche is also obsessed with the land. “Be true to the earth,” his Zarathustra says. But look at Sils Maria. Contrast it with Todtnauberg. The land that Nietzsche loves is rugged, bold, daring, radical. But the land that Heidegger loves is quintessentially pastoral.

Weiser: For Nietzsche, everything turned on will. Are you suggesting that Heidegger’s embrace of pastoral passivity rejects will, so that authenticity would consist in a sort of Schopenheauerian non-willing?

Gelehrter: We have already established that non-willing is a self-contradiction because it necessarily involves willing, even if this willing is willing not to will. We have refuted Schopenhauer.

Forscher: Is Nietzsche next on the list to refute?

Gelehrter: How so?

Forscher: Well, Nietzsche is the enframer par excellence. He wants to take everything, regardless of its essential being, and bend it to his will as the artistic herald of the high cultural creativity of the world-historical future.

Weiser: We can regard Heidegger and Nietzsche as two sides of the same coin – or better yet, as yin/yang. Heidegger’s approach to existence is passive, quietistic, essentially conservative, present-oriented, near-seeking, while Nietzsche’s is active, bold, daring, radical, future-oriented, far-seeking. Heidegger worships his home – or homeland (Gegend) in the eternal present, while Nietzsche has no home in the present, but only an imagined one in the future. I’ve walked through both Messkirch and Sils Maria. The respective qualities of these two places, the former placid, rustic, and easygoing; the latter rugged, wild, and challenging, perfectly reflect the attitudes of Heidegger and Nietzsche.

Gelehrter: Yet Heidegger and Nietzsche are almost of one mind about being what Zarathustra calls “true to the earth.” The only difference is that Nietzsche wants us to be creators, while Heidegger wants us to be farmers.

Forscher: I’m not the only one who thinks that Heidegger was married to his homeland. Berit Wexia published an article called “Heidegger’s Fieldpath: An Interpretation in Perspective of Chuang-Tzu: Being is Thinking and Thinking is Being” in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy 13, 4 (December 1986): 445-453. In it she writes: “The Fieldpath is rich with memories for the Thinker.” Heidegger is loathe to tamper with these memories in any way. He wants his serenity. And he wants it now.

Weiser: This is why we stay in the provinces. We couldn’t be serene in the city.

Gelehrter: Well, we certainly couldn’t be pastoral.

Forscher: As “The Homesick Philosopher,” he just wants to sit in his hut and let the world pass by however it will, or, as he puts it, let being be. As he dwells where he wants, he feels at home with his gods.

Weiser: Both Heidegger and one of his heroes, Hölderlin, herald the arrival of “new gods” to sanctify and purify the homeland even further, but Heidegger’s “new gods” are really just recycled old chthonic gods.

Forscher: Or autochthonic.

Gelehrter: Yes, and in “The Origin of the Work of Art” he pits the old and new gods in battle against each other, and proclaims language as the locus of this battle. Everything is at stake for the people, who must decide which camp of gods to support, which is sacred, which is profane, which is sublime, which is ridiculous, which is worthy, which is contemptible, etc.

Weiser: As far as the divine is concerned, that remains a gigantic mystery for me. He was a devout Catholic in his youth and lived his whole life as a respected citizen in a very Catholic part of Germany. Yet some have seen him as an atheist, a pantheist, or an adherent of a nature religion.

Forscher: Indeed. There we are, back to Bodenständigkeit again.

Gelehrter: Understood as autochthony. We may charitably say that Heidegger’s feeling of indigenous attachment to the immediate vicinity of his birth did not descend into xenophobia, although some of his letters and speeches show tendencies toward racism.

Weiser: When I visited his grave in Messkirch, I was struck by the eight-pointed star on his gravestone, which suggests the Buddhist eightfold path. Frankly, I see him as a sort of neo-Daoist.

Forscher: Many have likened Heidegger’s spiritual passivity to Daoism, but few as succinctly or as eloquently as Mexia. In comparing Heidegger favorably with Zhuangzi, she accomplishes much, even in this short article. Zhuangzi’s naturalistic approach to practical philosophy readily foreshadows Heidegger’s. Zhuangzi walks the path and plays with language – all in order to find and follow the dao. It is not crazy even to imagine Zhuangzi conceiving of language as “the house of being,” insofar as Heidegger’s argument for it in the “Letter on ‘Humanism'” maintains that thinking, when expressed as language, creates a comfortable place for humans to dwell. That is, for both Zhuangzi and Heidegger, meditation and language are symbiotic, each generating the other and thus forming a peaceful and non-vicious circle.

Gelehrter: By the way, it is also in the “Letter on ‘Humanism'” where Heidegger writes, citing Hölderlin, that homelessness is part of our estrangement from being, because the homeless thinker cannot think the truth.

Weiser: Good point. That supports the contention that home and being are, if not identical for Heidegger, then at least necessary aspects of Gelassenheit.

Forscher: These ideas of Heideggerian Daoism, homecoming, near-seeking, serenity, passivity, Gelasssenheit, non-interference with being, etc., are prominent at Heidegger’s own university, Freiburg, where, in 2001, Yen-Hui Lee wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Gelassenheit und Wu-Wei: Nähe und Ferne zwischen dem späten Heidegger und dem Taoismus” (“Gelassenheit and the Way of Inaction: Nearness and Farness Between the Later Heidegger and Daoism”).

Weiser: What do you think Gelassenheit means?

Gelehrter: Well, it can be translated as “acquiesence” “letting-go-ness,” or “releasement,” but the circumlocution “serene resignation to let being be and thus reveal itself” seems more accurate.

Weiser: It must also include the concept of deliverance, perhaps self-deliverance, from confusion, chaos, agitation, and such.

Forscher: Yes. Lee on page 41 says, “Das alltägliche Bewusstsein des Menschen ist nach Dschuang Dsi oft sehr unfrei und verwirrt” (“Everyday human consciousness is, according to Zhuangzi, often quite unfree, confused, and disordered”). Given that verwirren means “to distract,” “to confuse,” “to complicate,” “to entangle,” “to perplex,” or “to divert,” we might want to claim that escape from these things constitututes Gelassenheit.

Weiser: If not in whole, then at least in part.

Forscher: Lee has more to say about Daoism than about Heidegger and does not mention Verwirrung (confusion or disorder) with regard to Heidegger, yet it must be implicit, not only in her dissertation, but also in the works of the later Heidegger, that his whole aim, in both philosophy and life, was to bring serenity out of confusion and disorder.

Gelehrter: Did he succeed?

Forscher: In his personal life, who knows? But he laid out blueprints for it.

Weiser: Blueprints for his home in nearness, his house of being, his sanctuary of his earthbound gods, his secure dwelling, his solitary think tank.

Forscher: Lee has a whole chapter on dwelling (Wohnen), dwelling with Gelassenheitsdenken, in the Gegend, in the Gegnet, in the Fourfold (Geviert). The last large section of this chapter concerns the Fourfold, about which she writes on page 113: “Der Himmel gibt dem Menschen nicht nur einen konkreten und freien Raum für das Wohnen, sondern auch einen abstrakten, offenen Raum für das Denken, die Besinnung und die Phantasie” (“Heaven gives humans not only a concrete and free space in which to dwell, but also an abstract, open space for thinking, meditation, and fantasy”). Sometimes I think that Heidegger would gladly throw Wissenschaft to the wolves for the sake of Besinnung.

Weiser: The Fourfold is deceptively difficult and carries some very obscure allusions. Heidegger seems a bit clearer about it in “The Thing” than in “Building Dwelling Thinking,” since, in the latter essay, he emphasizes distance and distancing, while in the former, he depicts the thing as gathering earth, sky, divinities, and mortals together and representing them in such a way that they become present – or nearly so – for us mortals. The focus is on nearness or nearing.

Forscher: And the whole argument of “The Thing” (Das Ding) is sealed with an implicit pun: We are “conditioned” (bedingt), that is, we are “en-thinged” or “thingified.” Whatever else the thing is, it is near.

Gelehrter: But in the “Afterword” to “The Thing,” Heidegger tells his student that the escape from the oblivion (Vergessenheit) of being and its attendant or complementary approach toward the nearness of true being must involve a deliberate turning (Kehre) back into thinking.

Weiser: Yes. Authentic turning (Kehren) is turning inward (Einkehren) – and that is Wu-Wei.

Gelehrter: Both Gelassenheit and Wu-Wei are quintessentially passive.

Forscher: Then is authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) the way of inaction? If so, that is very dangerous culturally and politically. We know from history that if educated people are not constantly vigilant, critical, skeptical, and politically active, then the goons will take over, as they did in Germany in 1933 and in America in 2016. If intellectuals don’t exercise some public leadership instead of just sitting in their huts …

Weiser: That’s enough! We see what you’re getting at.

Gelehrter: Yet the connection between passivity and Nazism is worth exploring, since passivity plays into the hands of conservatism – and eventually, into the hands of despotism.

Forscher: Not if Aristotle steps in. Applying his principle of moderation, we may discover that the range of passivity is very narrow, with one extreme providing serenity and peace, but the other entailing impotence in social, political, and even ethical affairs, so that the forces of injustice can stomp all over us. Achieving the proper balance of passivity is difficult.

Gelehrter: Yes, the amorality of Gelassenheit is likely, but not inevitable. The rub is that, if we seek passivity but strive to avoid its natural amorality, then we are not really in a state of Gelassenheit, are we?

Forscher: Assuming that besinnliches Denken, which fosters Gelassenheit, plays into the hands of the right wing, then, to protect and preserve our personal interests, we must be engaged, at least to some extent, with rechnendes Denken, which opposes Gelassenheit. This does not mean that we must be political activists, shortchange besinnliches Denken, or be inauthentic. It means that we must actively monitor political changes and vote accordingly.

Weiser: We need not subscribe to the old stereotype that right-wing ideology is just the rationalization in varying degrees of selfishness, egoism, insularity, isolationism, parochialism, greed, meanness, or cruelty, Nevertheless, sometimes it is difficult to see it otherwise. I don’t put Heidegger in the same camp with Max Stirner, Benjamin Tucker, Ayn Rand, or even Carl Schmitt. He was not a libertarian and didn’t seem to care much about money. His national parochialism is not quite national socialism, yet his explicit affinity with Teutonic chauvinists like Hölderlin bothers me. Whether he was a jerk or a coward does not matter if he was a metaphysician or ontologist rather than an ethicist or moralist.

Forscher: But the fairly well established fact that Heidegger was at least a Nazi collaborator may dissuade some from studying his philosophy, even if he wasn’t a jerk or a coward.

Gelehrter: Philosophers who think about being, truth, reality, etc., and our relation to it are doing metaphysics. Those who think about freedom, duty, love, compassion, rights, etc., are doing ethics. Except for a few passages in Sein und Zeit where Heidegger discusses topics such as care (Sorge), he was generally doing metaphysics, not ethics. Metaphysicians and mathematicians are allowed to be amoral, because morality does not affect their science one way or the other. But ethicists must be moral, because their immorality or amorality would vitiate their thought. If Heidegger were an ethicist, then we could – and should – rightly dismiss his thought because he was a Nazi. But since he was primarily a metaphysician, we non-Nazis can take his thought seriously without compromising ourselves by association with Nazism.

Forscher: However wrong, misguided, or entangled with Nazism he may have been, Heidegger will remain an important philosopher.

Gelehrter: And that would not be because he was right, prudent, or un-Nazi about anything, but because his thought and his language provoke like a koan, cling like a burr, and penetrate like an auger, so that he is impossible to dismiss.

Weiser: A student once asked José Ferrater Mora who, in his opinion, among twentieth-century philosophers would still be read 100 years hence. Without any hesitation or elaboration, Ferrater said, “Wittgenstein and Heidegger.” The student, a bit nonplussed, pressed him on Russell, Whitehead, Habermas, Adorno, Sartre, and a few others. Ferrater remained firm. He gave that impish little chuckle for which he was well-known and dismissed them all. He was especially dismissive of Sartre, whom he considered just a left-wing epigone of Hegel and Heidegger, far outclassed by his better half, Simone de Beauvoir.

Gelehrter: Were you that student?

Weiser: No. But I was present.

Forscher: You’re always present.

Weiser: Aren’t we all?