Category: Persons

Heidegger and Plato

Heidegger approaches Plato critically focusing, on one hand, on his dialectical deficiency and, on the other, his nodal position vis-à-vis the grounding of metaphysics in terms of the "oblivion of Being."

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of twentieth century's seminal philosophers, cemented his philosophical reasoning in a state of continuous dialogue with the philosophical tradition. This dialogue did not aim at an "objective" reconstruction of the history of philosophy but deployed the renowned "hermeneutical violence" in its attempt to shed light on facets of this tradition that had been neglected so far. Heidegger's strategy sought to draw out the philosophical potential that traditional philosophers were confronted with, but could not explicitly conceive, express or bear out. He was more involved with what lay "unsaid" in the traditional texts rather than what was clearly expressed. In the 1920s, Heidegger defined this stance towards philosophical tradition as "deconstruction" (Destruktion) and rendered Aristotle as its essential reference point. After the famous turn (die Kehre) during the 1930s, he no longer used the term (Destruktion) yet he did not give up on a critical and "forceful" questioning of the tradition whose starting line he then moved from Plato to the pre-Socratics.

I.The Sophist

Heidegger's first substantial and comprehensive reference to Plato occurred in his university lectures for the 1924/25 winter semester which were focused on the dialogue The Sophist and, in essence, came to serve as a comprehensive interpretation of the work. Paradoxically, the "Introduction", which focused on interpretations of extracts from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics, took up more than 1/3 of the entire volume, i.e., more than 200 pages. This arrangement bore a double significance. As regards the method, it pointed up the necessity to approach the temporally anterior (and therefore more distanced and intractable) work through the subsequent, and admittedly more approachable, one. As for the content, Heidegger's position made it clear that The Sophist responded to questions and objections that had been critically raised against Plato by young Aristotle.

Heidegger's thought revolved at that stage around the concepts of aletheia [truth] and Being, which had, by that time, become pivotal for his own project. The notion of Being occupied Heidegger's thought in the context of one of the most ample and penetrative interpretations that have ever been formulated on the renowned megista genê (ὄν, ταὐτόν, ἕτερον, στάσις, κίνησις). Aletheia, on the other hand, was approached in conjunction with rational thinking [logos] and in continuous cross-reference to Aristotle's body of concepts. Given that, in 1924, Heidegger still adhered to a phenomenologically grounded version of philosophy in terms of "science" or "scientific research," he praised those of the Plato's references that could be seen to be compatible with this conception of philosophy. At the same time, though, he continued to insist that logos and dialectics were deficient when compared with the immediacy and completeness provided by the Aristotelian emphasis on immediate, pure reasoning / mental perceiving [noein]. Heidegger extended his rejection of Hegelian dialectics to all versions of dialectics, including the Platonic one. This schematic approach came to shadow, yet not cancel, the wealth, penetrativeness, and innovative spirit of many of Heidegger's own hermeneutic takes on the Platonic dialogue. It didn't stop him, either, from setting as a motto to his most important published work, Time and Being, the celebrated phrase from The Sophist: "because obviously for a long time now you have been in full possession of what you mean by the expression to on. We, nevertheless, have held that once we did understand it fully, yet are now confronted with an aporia.

II.Platonism and metaphysics

Heidegger's fundamental outlook on Plato was expressed emphatically in the short, yet particularly prominent, 1940 work "Plato's teaching on the truth." The text's main subject was the "cave myth" whose significance Heidegger located exclusively in the issue of truth seeking this way to reconstitute a relevant "Platonic teaching." With Plato aletheia [truth] was no longer Unverborgenheit / unconcealment, cancellation and deprivation of oblivion, i.e., a dynamic becoming of Being as such which transcends human agency (characteristics that, according to Heidegger, were evident in the way previous thinkers and poets had understood the concept). According to this analysis, aletheia was subsequently reducible to mere Richtigkeit / correctness with regard to human stance and was relocated from a potential inherent in things themselves to the human subject who was called upon to embed them in the field of representation. Through Plato's work, subsequently, metaphysics, which until then transpired as a possibility with the pre-Socratics, came to prevail. The metaphysical outlook on life was seen by Heidegger to be oblivious to "Being" despite its references to it, and to be attaching itself exclusively to beings. It was constitutively oriented towards enabling human subjectivity to take control of things paving the way for the decline of metaphysics into modern technology. Despite Heidegger's treating Nietzsche's work as the culmination of metaphysics, it is obvious that attributing to Plato the "primordial sin" of metaphysics echoes a fundamental Nietzschean tenet and is in tune with Heidegger's intense study of Nietzsche during the 1930s.

In the following decades Heidegger continued his sporadic involvement with Plato's work keeping at times his distances from the expressive intensity of the 1940 text, yet not from its content. His decision, however, to publish in the 1950s two philosophical dialogues reveals another aspect of his relationship with Plato. The text "From a Conversation on Language" features his conversation with the Japanese Professor Tezuka whereas his text "Towards the Clarification of Peace" ["Zur Erörterung der Gelassenheit"] features a conversation supposed to have taken place in 1945 between a "researcher," a "scholar," and a "teacher." These two efforts in the dialogic form cannot, nevertheless, be regarded as stylistically and philosophically successful.

Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
  • Gonzalez, F.J. Plato and Heidegger. A Question of Dialogue. Pennsylvania, 2009.
  • Hyland, D.A. Questioning Platonism: Continental Interpretations of Plato. Albany, 2004.
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