“For that man be delivered from revenge: that is the bridge to the highest hope for me, and a rainbow after long storms.” – Nietzsche1

It is widely known that Heidegger’s career had at least two periods wherein his position on metaphysics shifted. His followers would certainly disagree while pontificating about his evolution as thinker, but they’re biased and annoyingly postmodern so never mind them. While the exact year in which the shift occurred remains unknown, many scholars posit that it was largely due to his subsequent reading of Aristotle after an extensive reading of Plato.2 If in fact he had three periods, it seems to me that the third was surely a return to the first, where he initially adopted Plato’s metaphysical dualism.3

It was during the first period that Heidegger adopted Plato’s view of Being as a Form, taught several lectures on Plato, and in 1927 saw the publication of his seminal text Being and Time. In the text, he attempts to settle an important ontological question on the nature of Being and being. However, by the early 1930s, seemingly at the start of the second period, he begins rejecting Plato’s view in exchange for both Aristotle’s doctrine of Being understood as being and Neitzsche’s doctrine of Being as will to power. This shift would prove to be a major turning point (or dare I say evolution?) in Heidegger’s career and would span some three decades of his life.

First published in 1954, Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking? finds him midway through this second period and apparently most confident about opposing Plato’s view. He insists that “we are still not thinking,”4 simply because “mythos [myth] and logos [reason] become separated and opposed only at the point where neither mythos nor logos can keep its original nature,”5 and “in Plato’s work, this separation has already taken place.”6 Essentially, he’s claiming that the question about Being has seen no progress since Plato.7 I should like to add that at this point Nietzsche’s influence on him was more palpable than was Aristotle’s. In addition, Heidegger’s interpretation of what he claimed the Pre-Socratics meant by Being in contrast with what he claimed Plato meant by Being was to surely inform his thinking over the course of the second period.

To that end, while referring primarily to his What Is Called Thinking? and to a lesser extent his Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking, herein I hope to sketch briefly how in What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger misinterprets some of Parmenides’ fragments, particularly Fragment 3, and thus appropriates Plato’s metaphysical dualism, only to further advance in general his own metaphysics and in particular his thesis that what is “most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”8 I will then attempt to clarify why Heidegger owed to Plato more than meets the eye, given that Heidegger, in spite of himself, not only posited many a thought resulting from his extensive study of Plato but also, since Being and Time, echoed much of Plato’s Meno. In thinking of Heidegger’s quotation that “a thinker is more essentially effective where he is opposed than where he finds agreement,”9 I now accept the challenge to oppose him for his appropriation of Plato’s metaphysics.

In Lecture XI of Part II of What Is Called Thinking?, Heidegger seems to suggest that only he, not Kant nor Hegel nor for that matter anyone else, has interpreted correctly Fragments 3 and 8 of Parmenides. The usual translation of Fragment 3 is: “For it is the same thing to think and to be.” Heidegger claims that it should be translated as follows: “For it is identical to take-to-heart and to be in the presence of what is present.” But then he disagrees with the truth of the statement, arguing that “taking-to-heart” (thinking) and “presence of what is present” (being) can never be identical.10

But recall that this is the very thinking for which at the very start of What Is Called Thinking? he does in fact criticize Plato who, having considered mythos and logos as separated, viewed Being as a Form as something eternal, permanent. For that reason, unless Heidegger is confused at the very start, he is merely replicating Plato in considering mythos and logos to be separated. The only difference is that Heidegger rejects Plato’s view of Being as a Form, which in turn suggests that he is opposing Plato here to more or less advance his own metaphysics.

What is most curious about this is how Heidegger tries to create an ally in Parmenides, only to further state that Plato misinterpreted Parmenides and that as a result metaphysics has since taken a turn for the worse, that is, toward nihilism and existentialism.11 In fact, he argues too that Platonism has hindered thinkers for the past two-plus centuries and therefore rendered us all incapable of really thinking, at least in the Heideggerean sense of “thinking as thanking, recollecting, taking-to-heart.”12

In his Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking, first published in 1959 but written around 1944, a decade before What Is Called Thinking?, Heidegger was already thinking in this vein, for he states that a “patient noble-mindedness would be pure resting in itself of that willing, which, renouncing willing, has released itself to what is not will.”13 And yet this is but another instance where he replicates the thought of another, in this case Nietzsche: “He surely missed the mark who shot at the truth with the words ‘will to existence’: this will—does not exist! For what does not exist cannot will; yet what already exists, how could that then will to exist! Only, where Life is, there too is will: though not will to life, but—so I teach you—will to power!”14 Then in What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger renders such thought “as old as the hills.”15

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates and Meno are in dialogue seeking to define what virtue is. Meno, having already attempted six definitions of it, all to Socrates’s dismay, retorts to Socrates what is known as “Meno’s Paradox”: “But how can you try to find out about something, Socrates, if you ‘haven’t got the faintest idea’ what it is? I mean, how can you put before your mind a thing that you have no knowledge of, in order to try to find out about it? And even supposing you did come across it, how would you know that was it if you didn’t know what it was to begin with?”16

Socrates then responds to Meno with what is known as “Plato’s Theory of Recollection”: “A person’s soul can never die;17 there’s nothing [the soul] hasn’t already learned about.”18 “There’s no reason,” he further responds, “why you shouldn’t be able, after remembering just one thing – most people call it ‘learning’ – to go on and figure out everything else, as long as you’re adventurous and don’t get tired of trying to find out about things; in fact, ‘finding out about things’ and ‘learning’ are entirely a matter of remembering.”19 Heidegger in What Is Called Thinking? adopts and adapts this same theory: “Memory is the gathering of recollection, thinking back.”20 But he still rejects Plato’s view of Being as a Form.

What I find difficult to understand about Heidegger is how he could replicate Plato at will when making a similar argument as he, but seldom if ever does he offer any concrete examples of what his contention with Plato’s view really is. On the other hand, Heidegger does claim that all of Western philosophy after Plato, in particular the modern age, is doomed because, apparently, “we are still not thinking.” I disagree. As regards teaching and learning, Heidegger offers what at first glance appears to be much food for thought. For example, he states that “man learns when he disposes everything he does so that it answers to whatever essentials are addressed to him at any given moment.”21 Or put another way, he says: “To learn means to make everything we do answer to whatever essentials address themselves to us at the given moment. In order to be capable of doing so, we must get underway.”22

While I find these two quotations here somewhat convincing in the main, I must admit that the idea itself seems to be far from an original of Heidegger himself. To be sure, Socrates in Meno says that “[the slave will] have knowledge without anyone having taught him, just through being asked questions – by retrieving the knowledge from within himself.”23 So here is Heidegger once again challenging us to start anew daily and to think for ourselves, yet his notion of getting “underway” is strikingly equivalent to Socrates’s above notion of think for ourselves.

Despite Heidegger encouraging thinking for self and challenging thinkers to go beyond themselves in their approach to thinking and being, there are reasons to think that at times he was pushing an agenda and that his approach was quite dubious. For instance, in between the two above quotations he states that “preoccupation with philosophy more than anything else may give us the stubborn illusion that we are thinking just because we are incessantly ‘philosophizing’.”24 But is not Heidegger himself preoccupied with philosophy more than anything else? As is evident, his writings show his preoccupation with both Plato and Nietzsche. Moreover, by insisting that “we are still not thinking,” is he not giving us the stubborn illusion that he is thinking?

Such an illusion certainly brings to mind Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, where Zeus is disillusioned into thinking that power eclipses wisdom. However, Prometheus uses cunning, or rather wisdom, in order to teach Zeus that wisdom is in fact more important than power, and that one should never abuse power. And yet, like Heidegger, Zeus has the stubborn illusion that he is teaching all the other gods to obey his rule, lest they be punished like Prometheus and suffer the consequence. I wish not to liken Heidegger to Zeus really, but they seem to be abusing a power bestowed upon them by their peers, and this I find rather demoralizing.

Needless to say, such a topic as this definitely requires more than a brief sketch to do it justice, but I was keen on it because for a while Heidegger probed my mind in ways that only a few philosophers ever had. And while I cannot deny that Heidegger is a force to be reckoned with, lately I have been recognizing the complexities of both Heidegger the man and Heidegger the thinker. Thus, at last, I should like to offer my final remarks here on his ironic response to the Nietzsche quotation featured at the start.

Heidegger in several lectures of Part I of What Is Called Thinking? makes many a reference to this very quotation. Perhaps such an approach is yet another way in which he attempts to further advance his own metaphysics, for his main response to the quotation is that “the question of revenge is after all not the question of Being.”25 Yet in a metaphysical sense I believe it is. I believe too that Heidegger’s first shift in metaphysics had its genesis in his revenge on Plato. This I attempted to show all throughout this joint.

For Heidegger, Nietzsche was the most prolific thinker in all of Western philosophy, although upon further investigation one can see the influence of Plato on Nietzsche too. Hence I posit that no matter how much Heidegger adopted Nietzsche’s view or replicated him, Heidegger could never escape the influence of Plato. But what makes Heidegger’s response to Nietzsche so ironic is that, despite his many attempts to relate Being to being, he was the very person in need of deliverance from revenge. Sure, Heidegger struggled both as a philosopher and as a human being, but his appropriation of Plato’s metaphysics, as well as his revenge on Plato, was unwarranted. He played with matches and got burned. He should’ve known better. I think Plato would echo the same. Perhaps Nietzsche would too. We already know who wouldn’t, but never mind them.

  1. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).
  2. Joseph Margolis’s “Heidegger on Truth and Being” (2005) and Stanley Rosen’s “Remarks on Heidegger’s Plato” (2005) are but two sources among the many to confirm that at some point between 1927 and 1930 Heidegger began reading less Plato and more Aristotle and in turn began having controversial interpretations of Plato’s metaphysical theory of Forms.
  3. See Heidegger’s “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth” for a full overview of Heidegger’s Plato.
  4. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, p. 4.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid., p. 10.
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid., p. 6.
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid., p. 241.
  11. Rosen (2005).
  12. Margolis (2005), p. 139.
  13. Heidegger, Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking, p. 85.
  14. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).
  15. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, p. 109.
  16. Plato, Meno, 80d.
  17. ibid., 81b.
  18. ibid., 81c.
  19. ibid., 81d.
  20. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, p. 11.
  21. ibid., p. 4.
  22. ibid., p. 8.
  23. Plato, Meno, 85d.
  24. Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, p. 5.
  25. ibid., p. 87.

2 Responses to “You Play with Matches, You Get Burned”

  1. Courtney Kessler

    I read “a Brief History of Everything”. I was wondering if you had read this as well. Bill Bryson covers some controversial metaphysical theories that sent certain religious fanatics over the edge. If you haven’t read it, I suggest it with bravado.


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