On the Prefatory Note of Heidegger's "Introduction to Metaphysics"

In my early twenties, I was assigned Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics for a class. I did not get very far.

On the Prefatory Note of Heidegger's "Introduction to Metaphysics"


This is the first post of a project I hold to be important. I want to talk at length about a work of philosophy. I can show how a text pushes me to pursue better questions. My concern is whether this will be good enough for someone else. Can I clearly communicate that we can ask more, that this is useful and fruitful for us?

In my early twenties, I was assigned Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics for a class. I did not get very far. I want to revisit it with a few goals in mind. To start, I want to address the political and social implications of Heidegger's lectures. Heidegger's authoritarian beliefs and apologia for violence accompany his reading of the history of thought. One can rightly ask what value that reading could possibly have.

Of note is Heidegger's engagement with other thinkers, especially Nietzsche and the ancients. Those thinkers often speak to a strong sense of justice. I don't believe Socrates is entirely rhetorical when he reaches the conclusion "do no harm" in Book 1 of the Republic. Aristotle discussing justice, friendship, and the contemplative life as the highest virtues implies a nobler vision than paranoia about Russian and American materialism. By contrast, Heidegger is depraved. Yet Heidegger's reading of the tradition can be powerful and evocative. As we will see, he makes the idea of a rigorous inquiry into metaphysics intuitive. He is technical and detailed in his presentation, but it never threatens to collapse into a mess of theory and jargon.

In addition, I need to come to terms with what I couldn't understand because I was an idiot and what I couldn't understand because I needed more knowledge and experience. I will be very explicit about this as we read together.

I plan on commenting on the first chapter, "The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics." This will require a number of posts. During this project I neither want to cease responding to the arts nor lose touch with the news. I will try my best to integrate both into my remarks when appropriate.

Heidegger's 1953 Prefatory Note: On Opening the Past

You can follow along in the Fried and Polt translation of Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics (Yale University Press, 2ooo), but it isn't necessary. I aim to give us plenty to work with.

After telling the reader that what they hold is "the text of the fully elaborated lecture course... held under the same title in the summer semester of 1935 at the University of Freiburg," Heidegger says "What was spoken no longer speaks in what is printed." He concludes his Prefatory Note with this sentence: "In order properly to consider in what sense and on what grounds the term 'metaphysics' is included in the title, the reader must first have taken part in completing the course of the lectures."

As you can sense, Heidegger's big talk is in part motivated by another issue. He was a member of the Nazi party, formerly the Nazi rector of the University of Freiburg, who presented this course in Nazi Germany. "What was spoken no longer speaks" is a statement that world is gone. It also alludes to the problem of speech and writing, which does not allow that world to ever leave. Speaking words breathes life into them; writing, as we hear in the Phaedrus, can be like asking paintings to respond to us. If philosophy depends on one's spirit, if higher truths depend on how one realizes them and changes, can philosophy ever be a matter of writing? Moreover, if Heidegger believed his Nazi students had philosophical promise, then what?

The question we are confronted with is that of spirit. Heidegger is a Nazi who colossally misreads what spirit is. (This is not an academic or technical claim I am making.) It does look like we do need a certain spirit to access metaphysics, though. It's not that metaphysics is a matter of older thinkers who wrote incomprehensible books. It is that another way of viewing the world, another way of conceiving possibilities, has been lost. The question of spirit is the question of history.

This opens via a related problem. I do not understand Heidegger when he says that to understand the title, "the reader must first have taken part in completing the course of the lectures." The "sense" and "grounds" of the titular "metaphysics" only being recoverable by having taken the course does make sense in terms of what literally happened. A Nazi teacher taught the students who signed up for the class. The teacher and the students prepared themselves for a dialogue about what "metaphysics" meant. A definition of "metaphysics" dependent on that cannot be recovered. However, I should say that Heidegger's declaration does free us to think about the title on our own terms.

I believe we can construct an argument for how spirit and history relate in terms of our learning. If you took a course like Introduction to Metaphysics and became aware of why metaphysics mattered, you would not know the history of metaphysics. You would know a story about the history of metaphysics. You would know about a tradition that aims to be historically informed, but you would not know the exact history. What is most important is that you would feel that the world did not have to be the way it was. You'd have the impression everything was changeable, that moments existed where society could have become entirely different. This is "spirit" in a sense Hegel would recognize. The choices which result from our reaction to things are critical. The truth of those things themselves entails another set of issues.