Home Psychology Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought
Three: Heidegger, Europe, and the Question of Asia The Occidental essence of philosophy and the crisis of the Occident
Jacques Derrida argued that there is a common language and logic running through the discourse of spirit (Geist) and Europe in Husserl and Heidegger in the 1930s, noting how “this reference to spirit, and to Europe, is no more an external or accidental ornament for Husserl’s thought than it is for Heidegger’s. It plays a major, organizing role in the transcendental teleology of reason as Europocentric humanism.”115 “Europe” expresses an eidetic unity. It is not to be construed here in a worldly cartographical, geographical, or territorial sense; it is defined in a “spiritual” sense in this discourse, in which the very “unity” of Europe and Western philosophy is at stake.116
Derrida comments further how this conception of Europe as a philosophical idea is bound to a historical-teleological order: “The teleological axis of this discourse has become the tradition of European modernity. One encounters it again and again, intact and invariable throughout variations as serious as those that distinguish Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, and Valery.”117 The Eurocentric- cosmopolitan politics of these great European “spirits” is, according to Derrida, “less innocent than often believed.”118
Derrida’s interpretation of the operation of the language of spirit in the discourses of Husserl and Heidegger raises significant issues in the context of the question concerning intercultural philosophy: is there a significant difference between the idea of Europe—and potential Eurocentrism—in Husserl (who is oriented toward universality, rationality, and cosmopolitan humanity) and in Heidegger (who is a critic of Husserl’s rationalistic language and project)? To what extent do Husserl’s and Heidegger’s conceptions of philosophy, its exclusively Greek-born and European history, and Europe cohere and belong together?
Heidegger in his 1935 lecture-course Introduction to Metaphysics, composed in the context of his recent period of public active support for the National Socialist regime (1933-1935) that he hoped would renew German cultural and social-political life, asked whether the question of the sense and meaning of being was intrinsically interconnected with the question and potential decision concerning the fate of Europe. The question of being, Heidegger remarked, is: “a question, the question: Is ‘being’ a mere word [ein blosses Wort] and its meaning a vapor or is it the spiritual fate [geistige Schicksal] of the West?”119
How was it that the question of being (die Seinsfrage), which was primarily directed at individual existence in Being and Time (1927), had become an issue of the character and destiny of Europe and the West in 1935? The question of being is the question of its concealment/unconcealment in the history of Western metaphysics.
Heidegger posed this 1935 version of the “fundamental question of being” in the context of his articulation of “this Europe” Which Europe is this? It is one in the middle trapped between Russia and America—that is, “Europe” signifies “Germany” in this and many other contexts in Heidegger—which “seen metaphysically, are both the same: the same hopeless frenzy of unchained technology and the rootless organization of the average human being”120 What is the spiritual crisis of technological modernity represented by America and Russia? It consists of the collapse of the fourfold (das Geviert): “the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings into a mass, the hatred of everything creative and free”121
Heidegger’s critique of technological modernity is developed in the 1930s as the culmination of the history of Western metaphysics as the “forgetting of being” This forgetfulness of what is essential is a key theme throughout Heidegger’s mid and later philosophy. In Introduction to Metaphysics, the critique occurs in the context of Heidegger’s increasingly ambivalent relationship with National Socialism, with which he had problems but did not decisively break during this period. The question of being is a query into the very essence of the Occident. Yet, although he speaks of Europe, it is primarily a question of Germany. It is the German people (Volk), as the “metaphysical” people, who are called to spiritually renew and reshape Europe: “We lie in the pincers. Our people, standing in the center, suffers the most intense pressure—our people, the people richest in neighbors and hence the most endangered people, and for all that, the most metaphysical people.”122
It has been claimed that Heidegger’s discourse of the first and other beginning could refer to Western and non-Western beginnings. Heidegger’s mentioning of “few other great beginnings” in a 1959 lecture “Holderlin’s Earth and Heaven” is tactically deployed to justify Heidegger’s openness toward non-Western forms of thinking.123 Heidegger remarked here that:
In its essential beginning, which can never be lost, the present planetary- interstellar world condition is thoroughly European-Occidental-Grecian. However, the supposition reflects on this: What changes can do so only out of the reserved greatness of its beginning. Accordingly, the present world condition can receive an essential change or, for that matter, preparation for it, only from its beginning, which fatefully determines our age. It is the great beginning. There is, of course, no return to it. The great beginning becomes present, as that which awaits us, only in its coming to the humble. But the humble can no longer abide in its Occidental isolation. It is opening itself up to those few other great beginnings which, with their own character, belong in the sameness of the beginning of the infinite relation in which the earth is contained.124
The context makes it sufficiently evident that the few other beginnings mentioned in this passage refer to forms of non-Occidental beginnings. Nonetheless, given Heidegger’s other statements about great beginnings (ones that occur through great artists, poets, and statesmen) and the beginning of philosophy, of which there can only be one, it is clear that the Greek beginning is the privileged beginning. Furthermore, Heidegger repeatedly states that the first and other beginning of philosophy is an essentially Occidental concern even as it has been globalized in the modern technological epoch.
There is a social-political context to Heidegger’s thinking of the first and other beginning, as the first Greek and the other German beginning, in the early National Socialist period, which later—with his growing disillusionment with the possibility of a new political beginning in Germany—becomes the first Greek and other Occidental beginning.
Heidegger stated in the charged atmosphere of 1933 the affinity between the Greek and German beginning, in which the political mirrors the philosophical realm:
National Socialism is not some doctrine, but the transformation from the bottom up of the German world—and, as we believe, of the European world too. This beginning of a great history of a people, such as we see among the Greeks, extends to all the dimensions of human creativity. With this beginning, things come into openness and truth.125
Likewise, Heidegger identified Germany with the possibility of the (renewed) commencement of the West in a remark in 1942: “We know today that the Anglo-Saxon world of Americanism has resolved to annihilate Europe, that is, the homeland [Heimat], and that means: the commencement of the Western world.”126
The relation between the first and the other beginning signifies in 1935: “To ask: how does it stand with Being?—this means nothing less than to repeat and retrieve (wiederholen) the inception of our historical-spiritual Dasein, in order to transform it into the other inception.”127 The philosophical beginning and the political beginning of a people, which he associated with the great statesman, are here still intertwined in Heidegger’s thinking. The first beginning of philosophy is consequently only the Greek beginning, the orginary questioning of being in all its perplexity and wonder. The other beginning is “our” (Heidegger means the German people with this “we”) retrieval and renewal of the question only in relation to the first Greek beginning. This idea appears as the social-political possibility of a people for Heidegger from 1933-1935 and is subsequently increasingly associated with the beginning of philosophy in distinction from the beginnings initiated and established through the great artists, poets, and politicians articulated in the “Origin of the Work of Art.”128
Technology and globalization are pathologies of the culmination of the history of Western metaphysics in Heidegger’s mature thinking. The question of technology and its planetary character is rooted in the history of Western metaphysics through which it needs to be addressed. The decisive answer thus requires a confrontation with this history and the first Greek beginning. The language of decision and destiny in response to the Occidental-Western and now planetary or globalized character of modern technology continues into Heidegger’s later writings such that there is a definite continuity between his thinking in the 1930s and his later thought. Heidegger comments in 1962: “This confrontation is for us today—in an entirely different way and to a greater extent—the decision about the destiny of Europe and what is called the Western world. Insofar, however, as the entire earth—and not only the earth anymore.”129
Heidegger clarifies this statement elsewhere, where he remarks how (as Husserl likewise did) the “Occidental” is not only geographical but is essentially world-historical: even if there are “ancient cultures” in China and India, they are now part of the Occidental history of being and its forgetting from metaphysics to modern technological civilization, which has become the fate of the entire planet.130 To this extent, the return to Chinese and Indian beginnings are not relevant even in China or India; they too must confront the Greek beginning to encounter another beginning in confronting the existential destructiveness of modern technological civilization.
China and India, the two primary examples of other cultures for Husserl and Heidegger, lack the beginnings of philosophy and thus the historical situation that would enable them to confront technological civilization that now shapes their lifeworlds. Heidegger maintained that philosophy can have only one essence and it is Greek:
The often heard expression “Western-European philosophy” is, in truth, a tautology [...] The word philosophia appears [...] on the birth certificate of our own history; we may even say on the birth certificate of the contemporary epoch of world history which is called the atomic age. That is why we can ask the question, “What is philosophy?” only if we enter into a discussion with the thinking of the Greek world. But not only what is in question—philosophy—is Greek in origin, but how we question, the manner in which we question even today, is Greek.131
Likewise, according to Heidegger, once again: “The statement that philosophy is in its nature Greek says nothing more than that the West and Europe, and only these, are, in the innermost course of their history, originally ‘philosophical.’” Heidegger continues, echoing his teacher Husserl on this point: “This is attested by the rise and dominance of the sciences.”132 Heidegger asserted further that there is only one essential style of philosophy— being and its forgetting in beings: “The style of all Western-European philosophy—and there is no other, neither a Chinese nor an Indian—is determined from the twofold, ‘beings-being.’”133 Is non-Western thinking in a sense superior to Western philosophy insofar as it is free of the problematic of metaphysics and technology? Is there a valorization in Heidegger of the non-metaphysical thinking and poetic wisdom of the East, as when Heidegger praises Daoism or contrasts the dignity of Thai traditional culture and the horrors of Americanism in his 1963 conversation with the Thai Professor and Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Maha Mani? Or does such exteriority to the history of metaphysics and Western philosophy embody an Orientalist exclusion of the East and non-West from both the fundamental problematic and the possibility of responding to it? Do the radical decentering critiques of Western metaphysics in thinkers such as Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, and Rorty continue in fact to privilege it by retaining its centrality even if in a negative form? Is decentering the West without confronting and encountering its others still indeed in the end a centering around the West?
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