Read an Excerpt
If it serves its purpose, this entire book will be an introduction to the question of Being in the thought of Martin Heidegger. This "general" introduction to that more demanding one will first try to sketch the prehistory of the question in Heidegger's early years up to its decisive formulation in Being and Time (1927). But because only the Introduction to Heidegger's major work appears in these Basic Writings, the present introduction, after outlining the prehistory of the question, will offer a brief analysis of Being and Time. It will close by trying to show how the later essays advance the project undertaken in that work.
I.In the summer of 1907 the pastor of Trinity Church in Constance gave a seventeen-year-old high school student a book that was too difficult for him. It was the dissertation of Franz Brentano, On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle (1862). Martin Heidegger later called that book "the chief help and guide of my first awkward attempts to penetrate into philosophy."
The young author of that dissertation now being studied by the even younger Freiburg student conceded that his book strove "to solve difficulties experienced scholars have called insoluble."' Brentano was trying to unravel the meaning of a word that had long puzzled Aristotle-to on, "being." "The question that was raised in earliest times," Aristotle had written, "that we raise today, and that will always be raised and will always be a matter of perplexity [is]: ti to on, What is being?"'
For his main text Brentano chose a passage in Aristotle'sMetaphysics (VI, 1, 1026a 33ff.) that reduced the many meanings of "being" to four, and he devoted a chapter to each meaning: (1) being in its essential and inessential senses; (2) being in the sense of the true; (3) being in the sense of potentiality and actuality; and (4) being in the various senses derived from the schema of the categories. Bewildering though this list may be, the text from which it derives was actually one of the least complicated Brentano could have found. Other passages in the Metaphysics expanded this list of meanings to include words which in translation read as follows: being as substance, property, on-the-way-to-substance, privation of substantial forms, being that has no existence outside the intellect, being of finished but dependent existences, and being of movement, generation, and corruption. It seemed a bit of an understatement to call "being" a homonym--a word with "manifold meanings." But when the young Heidegger followed Brentano's lead a year later and looked into Aristotle's own works the riddle became even more puzzling. For Aristotle believed that all these equally incomprehensible meanings pointed toward one essential sense and insisted that one privileged science devote itself to the search for that sense.
We speak of being in many senses but always with a view to one sense and to one nature. Not simply in the way we use identical expressions but in the way everything healthy is related to health, inasmuch as it preserves or restores health or is a sign of health.... In precisely this way we speak of being in many senses but always with a view to one dominant source .... And just as there is one science of the healthy so it is in all such cases .... Obviously therefore it is proper for one science to study being insofar as it is being.
Had some Polonius asked the young man what he was reading in his two books on "being" he might well have answered, "Words, words, words." German words from recent times trying to translate Latin words from a bygone age that were trying to translate Greek words from antiquity. But what were the Greek words trying to translate? And whatever it was that for two thousand years had been sinking in the debris of gutted libraries, why be concerned with it now? Why should "being" fascinate a boy who, although studious and devoutthe firstborn son of the Messkirch sacristan, one of the boys who rang the bells of the church that gave him his name and who thought he might like to be a university professor some day-preferred swimming and skiing to everything else? Or almost everything else.
It must have been apparent to the young Heidegger that not only did the question of the meaning of "being" elude easy answer, it also withheld its sense as a question. Brentano succeeded in demonstrating that the question of being captivated Aristotle as the single most important question. Heidegger's classical education, emphasizing study of the Greek, Latin, and German languages and literatures, could hardly have failed to demonstrate that Aristotle had almost singlehandedly laid the foundations of the sciences. Heidegger knew in some detail Aristotle's contributions to, or creation of, what were later called physics, biology, astronomy, psychology, logic, rhetoric, literary criticism, ethics, and political science. But Aristotle's broadest and deepest question, which demanded an account (logos) of the Being of beings (onta) and so became known as "ontology," although it incited disputations for the next two thousand years, seemed to have lost all meaning. 'Me question of being? A baffling nexus of fateful signifi cance and fatal obscurity. How could even a sense for the question awaken?Basic Writings. Copyright © by Martin Heidegger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.