logos, phusis and appearance/s: notes on reading Heidegger’s ‘Introduction to metaphysics’

This is nothing more than some reading notes – primarily for the students of my Heidegger class at Greenwich University, though they may be of interest to others. They’re not intended to be a thorough interpretation, nor to engage with secondary literature, but were the basis of my lecture given on December 12th. The class had been requested to do a section analysis of this passage and these notes constitute, in effect, the basis of my own. Discussion is of course welcome provided these caveats are understood.

Notes from pages 190-199, Heidegger; Introduction to metaphysics, trans. Fried and Polt, Yale Nota Bene 2000

1) The first move (or, better, position) – that there is a disjunction between phusis and logos, a disjunction that is stated here but the grounds of which would be found elsewhere in the text – for example, pp186-7 and the connection that is drawn there between logos and the Being of the human being/Being (that is, both the way in which we are as well as the individual beings that we are). The claim locates the beginning of a ‘movement’ in the history of Being. At the beginning of the disjunction between logos and phusis, logos is not set against Being, it does not “step up” as a court of justice. Logos initially has no power of determination or judgement when it comes to understanding Being, it cannot – or does not – judge what Being is. We cannot – at the inception of the understanding of Being – simply judge what has Being through using language (that is, we cannot decide what exists, what is real or what is true simply within and through language – although these terms such as ‘real’, ‘exists’ and true’, whilst more easily appealing to a ‘common sense’, hide within themselves a lot of presuppositions). However, one aspect of language – reason, logic, the ‘logy, the ‘science of…’ – begins to assert itself, begins to assert its’ right to judge Being and eventually reinterprets phusis, a reinterpretation we now live within – for example, the opposition between the physical and the psychical arises as a result of the reinterpretation of Being and is not a universal but a specific historical moment in the history of Being. The process of reinterpretation is, in effect, the history of Being and is the movement that is being examined within ITM.

2) This movement referred to in 1) is coming to an end. The separation between logic and the physical is reaching its limits (possibly in a ‘logic of the physical’, though this is not to be found in Heidegger I think). This is what is commonly referred to as an expression of the ‘end of metaphysics’ thesis ie; the claim that metaphysics, philosophy, reason even, has reached a form of self-destructive limit of its possibilities. The “play of rationalism and irrationalism” appears to mark a kind of ‘final moment’ in the history of reason, understood as a metaphysics of logos.

3) Heidegger increases the fine grained nature of his historical analysis and now marks the existence of 2 movements (i) the ‘inceptive inception’, the first impulse then (ii) the inception of metaphysics, which is the particular inception which covers over the first impulse. In effect we have a beginning and then an end of the beginning and metaphysics begins from the end of the beginning, an end in which the original beginning is forgotten or distorted or reinterpreted (each of these qualifications would imply a slightly different claim and so are not fully cognate with each other). We might ask, how does the end of the beginning cover over the origina – perhaps by fixing a specific route that thought then takes, a set of presuppositions or a ‘stance’ to use one of Van Fraasen’s terms (cf. ‘The empirical stance‘). [191]

4) The origin of metaphysics is a concealing. Plato and Aristotle stand at this particular origin (the end of the beginning) and the word ‘idea’ (eidos) comes to the fore – ie; it begins to be a central object of knowledge, we are led to understand things through understanding the idea of the thing.

5) Hegel is named as the last metaphysician when all Being (absolute Being) is conceived of through the ‘idea of Being’. (As an aside I wonder whether this is actually naming not so much Hegel as the more general movement to focus on the nature of our own self-consciousness and its ‘coming to be’, its presence and genesis. Hegel may represent the pinnacle of this particular way of thinking – Hegel might then be seen as a ‘bridge’, the last metaphysician and the first new thinker. Connected to this is the fact that one of the things that strikes me as curious in this section is the absence of Descartes and the whole emphasis of modern philosophy on self-consciousness. Descartes is not entirely absent from ITM but he is conspicuous by his absence from the vast majority of the text, appearing once -[209] -when he is referred to as the “philosophical founder” of the way of thinking that reduces motion to nothing more than a change of place).

6) The use of the concept of ‘idea’ is unintelligible on its own terms. This is a critical claim within this section it seems to me. In effect Heidegger is claiming that there is no immanent basis within the texts of metaphysics for the central role of the ‘idea’ as a concept. This is a large and difficult claim and one I’m loathe to accept on tick but also one which I find difficult to imagine solidly sustaining. It would surely involve an intimate and detailed knowledge of the history of metaphysics and also an intimate and compelling philosophical analysis of the metaphysical tradition, a task that is enormous and always liable to radical revision. Indeed, is not Heidegger’s very approach – which is an attempt to do both this history and philosophical analysis of the concepts articulated in that history – premissed on the possibility of a radical revision of the account of this history we might be said to implicitly hold? It seems, rather, that this claim is an assumption for the sake of argument. ‘If, for the sake of argument, we accepted that the concept of the ‘idea’ is ungrounded inside philosophy … ‘

7) If the role of the ‘idea’ is unintelligible in its own terms then an historical account of the movement from the originary Greek inception (the ‘inceptive inception’) to fully metaphysical concepts of the ‘idea’ can be used to understand this concept instead. (Is this actually philosophy or history of philosophy at this point? The point of this question? To ensure that we do not mix up the history of philosophy with the real, core, central activity of philosophy – no matter what we define it as – and grasp the difference between purpose, drive and force and the actualisation of this force in specific historical entities and texts)

8) On the basis of a historical narrative Heidegger suggests that the concept of ‘idea’ is based on the Greek conception of ‘the look something has’. The look (eidos – root of ‘idea’), however, is a ‘coming to presence’ – we might say, it enacts a separation of of the foregrounded object from the background or gestalt, though this is a psychological interpretation and is indicated as such by Heidegger when he says that this interpretation should be qualified as “from the human point of view” [193]. The key notion that Heidegger develops from this historical narrative is that the ‘idea’, as derived from the meaning of ‘the look’, has the concept of presence (ousia) at its core.

9) The concept of presence is critical in the distinction between existence and essence. (A ground for the claim that there is an ‘existentialist’ Heidegger can be found here.) The way to think this is to consider the common language phrases such as:
“I see it now…”
“I see what you mean…”
In other words, we grasp Being through an idea that has a presence which we see. We say “I see how things are now…” But these ways of thinking about Being are only one way (that of metaphysics) – what exactly do we see, someone might ask, to which the answer is ‘the reason’. We see the reason of things, according to this common language way of speaking. “I see what you mean …” is almost cognate with “I understand the reasons fro what you are saying …”, though only ‘cognate’, Heidegger would argue, because of the particular route that thought takes as metaphysical thought, not ‘cognate in itself’ as it were. The connection is context bound to the historical way of thinking we are already within.

10) So, Heidegger suggests – if Being is understood through the concept of the ‘idea’ and what he calls an ‘extended’ meaning of ‘look’ that includes ‘apprehension’ (ie; knowing) and this is a Greek meaning then what is the difference between understanding Being as ‘eidos’ and understanding Being as ‘phusis’ [194]? What is concealed? What has been concealed?

11) Nothing is concealed in the concept of the ‘idea’ itself. It is not ‘wrong’, somehow – the concept of the ‘idea’ is a legitimate direction of thought in thinking. Thinking Being as ‘idea’ is entirely legitimate, if by legitimate we mean ‘faithful to the Greek inceptive inception’. It is a natural result of this inception. It is not the concept of the ‘idea’ but the role this concept has come to occupy that is to be criticised as a concealment. This is a critical claim: the ‘idea’ is a natural consequence of the original Greek inception of the thinking of Being as phusis, since this thinking involves the notion of “emergent shining” – on other words, things do have a particular look and the Greeks’ thought this too. The look, however, is a result of the process of emergence that is named as phusis and the problem (the “fall” that Heidegger claims has taken place in our thinking [194, 197]) is that the result is taken to as the way to understand (determine) Being. Effect is taken for cause. This claim, that the effect (that which has emerged) is taken for the cause (of the process of emergence) is what is named by ‘the fall’ – it is this conceptual (not historical) claim that lies at the root of the narrative Heidegger offers which has at its heart the ‘fall’ or the ‘oblivion of Being’. Now a quick note here to say that the terms ‘effect’ and ’cause’ are not the most ideal terms to use in this context since they bring with them a lot of baggage, not least because of their origins within the metaphysical tradition – their use here is solely as a pedagogical tool.

12) We can distinguish the two interpretations (determination of Being as idea and determination of Being as phusis) in the following way:
(i) the idea (look) presupposes a looked at and a looker – an opposition
(ii) phusis names the space in which an opposition can appear (as an aside I would ask whether this ‘can’ is contingent or necessary?)
There is an ambiguity in the concept of appearance situated between (a) the look of a thing (over there) and (b) the space in which looking (and other activities or responses or oppositions) is constituted / constitutes itself. This is a difficult and yet vital distinction [195].

13) The distinction between the two interpretations is cached out in terms of ‘what-being’ and ‘that-being’:
– what a thing is, ie: its essence
– that a thing is, ie: its existence
and the what becomes dominant, deriving from the look of a thing, not its emergence. Its emergence refers to how it comes to emerge as something that is, as something with ‘that-being’. For some reason (it is not entirely clear here) the dominance of ‘what-being’ demotes ‘that-being’ to something that is not really part of the thing – existence becomes something inessential to the things ‘thingness’. The idea comes to the fore in Plato as this pure essence of the thing, of Being. ‘Idea’ becomes, through a purification process, an ‘ideal’ and the ideal is something transcendent to existence and superior to existence, this seperation opening a cleft in existence (the ‘chorismos’) between that which is real (that which has Being) and that which isn’t – except that the most real is now the ideal of the thing (Form) and not the actually existing thing [197]. The idea or ideal is now Being in its full presence and the existing thing is merely an appearance of the ideal object, an appearance that lacks something (“what appears is mere appearance, really a seeming, which now means a defect” [197].

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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