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Heidegger and the Occidental essence of philosophy

Heidegger has been a widely used and yet abused inspiration and source for comparative philosophy.5 Unlike most twentieth-century philosophers, Heidegger had a continuing interest in Asian forms of thinking since the 1920s when he read aloud from the Zhuangzi at social gatherings. Heidegger repeatedly incorporated images and phrases from translations of Daoist and, less frequently, Zen Buddhist texts. He is particularly concerned in these instances with the Daoist discourse of emptiness and the word “dao” Ж itself as the fundamental concept and guiding word of Chinese thinking. As explored in Chapter 4, Heidegger found an affinity between Zhuangzi’s free and easy wandering (xiaoyaoyou ЖШ^) in the dao and his thinking that he described as a way (Weg) and a “being underway” (Unterwegssein) without a predetermined goal or destination. Heidegger is often described as enthusiastically discussing Asian poetry and thinking with Asian students and visitors, even attempting to co-translate the Daodejing with Paul Shih-yi Hsiao (Xiao Shiyi

Ш) in the mid-1940s. Heidegger’s actual dialogues with Chinese and Japanese students and visitors are taken up in several writings.6

Notwithstanding Heidegger’s active interest and the vast literature in the West and the East deploying Heidegger’s concepts and strategies to interpret Asian texts and figures, this attention should not be conflated with an endorsement of Asian thinking as philosophical. On the contrary, Heidegger consistently and explicitly opposed the possibility of a Chinese or other forms of non-Western— that is to say a non-Greek—philosophy. In a typical utterance, for instance, Heidegger claimed that: “The style of all Western-European philosophy—and there is no other, neither a Chinese nor an Indian philosophy—is determined by this duality ‘beings—in being.’”7 For Heidegger, insisting on the Greek origin and exclusively European essence (Wesen) of philosophy, “the West and Europe, and only these, are, in the innermost course of their history, originally ‘philosophical.’”8 Heidegger contended that the peoples of “ancient India, China, and Japan” are not “thought-less” though this thought cannot be thinking “as such.”9 The thoughts of the East are not determined by the Greek conception of logos (Xoyo^) and its fate that characterizes what Heidegger calls “thinking

‘as such’” and “our Western thinking.”10 Heidegger’s destructuring confrontation with the logos-orientation of Occidental philosophy remains bound up with its historical conceptualization as essentially and necessarily Western, as do the later critiques of Western logocentrism unfolded in the works of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty.11 The immanent radical critique of the history of Western philosophy can end up serving as a means for preserving its prioritization and the neglect of philosophy’s non-Western possibilities.

In Heidegger’s worst and more sinister moments in the 1930s, associated with his involvement with National Socialism, the original Greek origin of philosophy and the evening land (Abendland) and its repetition are identified with what he describes in a text from 1934 as a “decision against the Asiatic.”12 Decision, as expressed in the German word Entscheidung, means a crucial transformative cutting apart and separation of the Greek-Germanic vis-a-vis the Asiatic world. The image of a Greek confrontation with and overcoming of Asiatic hordes reoccurs throughout his lecture courses and writings on early Greek philosophy and the German poet Holderlin, who—according to Heidegger in 1934/35— creatively surpassed “the Asiatic representation of destiny” as the Greeks originally and singularly—evoking Hegel’s distinction between Greek freedom and Oriental servitude—overcame “Asiatic fate.”13 Prefiguring Germany’s present task, Heidegger envisions the “Greeks” as only becoming a people (Volk) by creatively confronting and differentiating themselves from what was “most foreign and most difficult to them—the Asiatic.”14 Employing the characteristic decisionist and voluntarist language of his thinking during the early National Socialist period, Heidegger portrays how a people—namely, this German people—must choose its essence to distinguish it from other peoples so that it can be itself and not be overwhelmed by the foreign.

In 1936, when he already began to distance himself from National Socialism, Heidegger spoke of the need for the “preservation of the European peoples from the Asian,” playing the geopolitical game of an alien and foreign Asiatic threat menacing and overwhelming the European world and thereby vindicating National Socialist politics.15 We should note that Heidegger’s former teacher Edmund Husserl can be said to celebrate the unique achievements of Occidental civilization in his writings on history and science during this period, as Derrida argued and which will be examined in greater detail in Chapter 6, yet Husserl’s situation is fundamentally dissimilar, as he interprets the basic tendencies of Western culture to be ethical and rational and directs them against the irrationalism and authoritarianism characteristic of the geopolitical situation in the 1930s, and which Heidegger embraced.

Heidegger’s provocative and fearful language concerning the menacing and uncanny presence of the “Asiatic” is primarily applied to Soviet communism from the 1930s into the Second World War. However, Heidegger would still oppose the “Asiatic,” as the primary antagonist of the Greek, in the 1960s, contrasting its looming threatening and uncanny “darkness” with the Greeks capacity to reorder it through the imposition of order, measure, and light: “The Asiatic element once brought to the Greeks a dark fire, a flame that their [i.e., Greek] poetry and thought reorder with light and measure.”16 Although this could be construed as the generous gift of heavenly flame, the fire of heaven of the Greeks inspiring the native poet of which Holderlin speaks, the statement is problematic given Heidegger’s association of the Asiatic with the irrational and the emphasis on reordering and illuminating rather than guarding this “dark fire.”17

Despite the totalizing and destructive character of Western technological modernity, it is only the confrontation with the Western origin of philosophy that grants a release. It is often mentioned that Heidegger praised Zen Buddhism at times. But he warned in the 1966 Spiegel interview “Only a God can save us” of “any takeover (Ubernahme) of Zen Buddhism or any other Eastern experiences of the world (Welterfahrungen).” Whatever affinities Heidegger noted between his conception of way and a non-coercive “letting releasement” (Gelassenheit) with Chinese wuwei and Daoist and Zen Buddhist expressions of letting and responsiveness, Heidegger reasserted in this interview that the question of philosophy is necessarily an internal European one: the needed shift in thinking (Umdenken) is only possible through a new appropriation of the European tradition through a confrontation with its origin.18 The crisis of European philosophy and culture that characterizes modernity can be countered only through a return to and emancipating confrontation with the Greek origin that fundamentally determines it.

The question of philosophy is consequently and persistently a question of the Greek-German (in the 1930s and early 1940s) and, after the end of the Second World War, of the European and Western confrontation with the history of metaphysics from its initial Greek origins to its unfolding in the modern technological world-picture. In Heidegger’s account, globalization, and consequently also the emergence of phenomena such as global and “world” philosophy, would only be a further realization of the enframed and reified world of Western modernity that precludes intercultural encounter and dialogue.

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