On Ereignis

I’m back to working on the thesis now. It’s a hard slog, but I made some good progress yesterday. I’ve been in denial about a serious structural problem in the thesis for a while now, and it’s prevented me from getting anything constructive done. I think I’ve tackled it head on now, and even though I haven’t fixed the problem, I think I now know how to do so, which is good. Given that my head is in Heidegger mode, I’m in the right frame of mind to respond to the question Paul has just posed over at anotherheideggerblog (here): ‘What do we know about Ereignis?’

Now, I haven’t performed an exhaustive reading of Heidegger (I can’t even read him in the original German, alas), but I’ve got a rough reading of what Ereignis is. I’ve mentioned this a bit before, but it can’t hurt to repeat myself a bit. On my account, it’s pretty much synonymous with a couple of other terms: Seyn, Being as such (as opposed to the Being of beings), Truth, and the Fourfold. The best way to understand this is in relation to an important duality that runs throughout Heidegger’s thought: that between beings as such and beings as a whole. Heidegger takes it that this duality presents the object of all metaphysics (i.e., beings as such as a whole). However, he takes it that the metaphysical tradition has systematically misunderstood this insofar as it thinks both in terms of beings. Heidegger’s relation to metaphysics is complicated. In his early work, he tries to leverage the criticisms of the tradition in order to complete the project of metaphysics, whereas in his later work he comes to see the problem of the tradition as an essential aspect of metaphysics, and thus attempts to overcome metaphysics entirely.

1. Heidegger’s Progression

In his early work, Heidegger is concerned to give an account of the structure of beings as such (Sein), which avoids thinking it in terms of beingness (Seiendheit). This is a matter of thinking the unity of the different senses in which ‘Being’ is said of entities (e.g., existence, essence, predication, truth, nothingness, and as opposed to seeming, thinking and the ought) and the unity of the different modes of Being of entities (e.g., Existenz, occurrence, availability, subsistence, life, etc.), without resorting to understanding either in terms of characteristics abstracted from entities (e.g., as idea, substance, actuality, subject, will, etc.). The first flaw of the metaphysical tradition is its tendency to think Being as beingness in this way. For sake of clarity, we’ll call what the various senses of ‘Being’ pick out aspects of Being, and thus talk of the dual unity of aspects and modes. A good way of understanding the difference is that modes of Being delineate types of entities, whereas the aspects of Being are in principle applicable to every entity.

His strategy for doing this is to locate the structure of beings as such within the structure of beings as a whole. Whereas the tradition tends to think Being in terms of characteristics of entities (beingness), it tends to think of the structure of beings as a whole in terms of a particular entity (e.g., God). Heidegger must avoid the latter as much as the former, and he does this by thinking the structure of beings as a whole as the phenomenological horizon within which entities can be encountered as entities (world). For the early Heidegger, the structure of Being (characterised by the dual unities of aspect and mode mentioned above) is provided by the structure of the temporal horizon that Dasein projects (Temporalität), and thus in the very structure of this projection (which he calls disclosedness or Truth). This means that for the early Heidegger the meaning of Being is ultimately located in Dasein itself (not that this is ever cashed out properly).

Heidegger undergoes two shifts in the 30’s which change this picture:-

First, in the early-to-mid 30’s his account of the process through which the world (as horizon) is constituted is complicated by the development of the notion of earth. The structure of beings as a whole is now thought in terms of the relation between earth and world, in which Dasein’s projection comes up against that which is constitutively in excess of it. It is important to note that this is not primarily an excess of each being over our grasp of it (as Graham Harman holds), but an excess of the whole of beings in itself (earth), over our projection of the whole as horizon (world). This constitutive excess engenders a dynamic process through which our projection of world is constantly revised as it encounters things which cannot be coped with, understood, or articulated from within the framework it provides. The dynamic process through which the horizon is produced is what Heidegger calls the strife between earth and world, and it replaces (and incorporates) disclosedness as that which he calls Truth. The upshot of this is that the meaning of Being is no longer to be located merely within Dasein’s structure, but within the relation Dasein stands in to reality. Heidegger will come to call this relation Seyn, Being as such (or in itself), or Ereignis, in opposition to Sein, or the Being of beings.

Second, in the late 30’s he abandons his original goal of providing an account of the structure of beings as such (i.e., the original sense of the question of the meaning of Being). This is the point at which he abandons the project of completing metaphysics in favour of overcoming it. The reason for this is that he comes to believe that all possible answers to the question ‘what are beings?’ (i.e., accounts of beings as such) will be variants of beingness in some form or another. There is no one true way of dividing up and unifying the manifold aspects and modes of beings, only a variety of epochal metaphysics which give Being (Sein) a certain shape. Moreover, he incorporates this very insight within his account Ereignis. The metaphysical accounts of beingness are now seen as an integral part of our culturally articulated world, and thus as subject to the same dynamic process through which that world is continually reconstructed. This takes the form of a series of epochs in which particular metaphysical appropriations of Being reign before acceding to the next epoch. This particular aspect of the dynamic process of world construction is then thought in terms of sending and destining. I won’t endeavour to think through the specifics of these here. The important point is that Heidegger’s focus has shifted from locating the one true account of Being (Sein) within Ereignis (Seyn) to thinking the latter as the source of the plurality of accounts of the former.

There is a continuity between the earlier and the later work insofar as a) there is always a relation between these two terms (which correspond to beings as such and beings as a whole, respectively), and b) Heidegger is always in some sense striving to think the latter, and considers his discovery of the latter to be his real innovation. The real discontinuity lies in the fact that he ultimately abandons the former in favour of the latter. The fact that he is often ambiguous as to which he refers to in his use of the word ‘Being’ can make this fact very hard to uncover.

2. Ereignis

What else can be said about Ereignis?

1) Heidegger often says that Ereignis gives Man unto his essence. This follows from the fact that Ereignis is essentially the structural relation between Dasein and reality. To understand this, one has to appreciate two things: a) that the relation does not involve any particular Dasein or group of Dasein, but rather the very structure of Dasein as that being which opens up a horizon (or clearing) within which entities can appear to it, and b) that insofar as it is the structure of beings as a whole, Heidegger thinks that Ereignis is the very structure of reality itself. What this enigmatic statement means is that reality, in and of itself, necessarily involves the possibility of something like Dasein. What Dasein is (or the essence of Man) is not something that has contingently emerged within the world, even if the fact that there are any particular Dasein is contingent. This is the crux of Heidegger’s renowned anthropocentrism: there can be a world without Man, but not without the possibility of something like him. This is correlationism writ large, insofar as the very structure of the correlation (the relation of Man and reality) is not only taken to be a facet of the real structure of the world (or reality), but to be the only such facet that we can know.

2) Heidegger also says that Ereignis appropriates Being to Man and Man to Being. This just reiterates Heidegger’s point that the dynamic process through which the implicit conceptions of Being (as beingness) present within our shared worlds historically develop is itself an aspect of Ereignis. However, it should be added that there are additional aspects of this relation, such as the account of fallenness/errancy and the turning (die Kehre), which indicate both Man’s intrinsic tendency to turn away from these implicit conceptions (and that which underlies them) and his intrinsic possibility of turning back towards them in asking the question of Being. On Heidegger’s account, these are not contingent features of Man, but are essential aspects of the structure of reality itself, insofar as Man’s essence is part of its structure. This also holds for such things as art, which is seen as a fundamental possibility belonging to the strife between earth and world.

3) Ereignis is an event. If it is to be thought of as an event, it is most certainly not an event which happens within history. Rather, it is meant to be the very unfolding of history itself. This is not so strange when one realises that although there might be time (in the ordinary sense) without Dasein, there is no history without Dasein. The process of collectively articulating a cultural horizon of significance in terms of which entities can be encountered just is the enactment of history, and Ereignis just is that singular and universal structure which is instantiated within this dynamic process. This also helps shed some light upon some of Heidegger’s more enigmatic statements about history beginning only once there is some concern with Being. What this indicates is that not only does Heidegger think that our various implicit conceptions of Being (as beingness) are an aspect of our world (qua horizon), but rather that they are a foundational aspect. That aspect of the dynamic process of world construction through which our conception of Being historically develops (the sending/destining) is thus the foundational part of that process. On this definition, history can only begin with the beginning of this process – with some concern with Being.

4) The other important thing about conceiving Ereignis as an event is that it is meant to avoid conceiving it as a being, and thus to avoid the onto-theological tendencies of metaphysics. This is important, because Ereignis plays the same structural role in Heidegger’s work that God (or any other highest entity) plays within metaphysics. This ties into Heidegger’s interest in the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’, which he associates with thinking beings as a whole. It is this question which leads the tradition to conceive of beings as a whole in terms of some entity which grounds the existence of the whole. Although Heidegger thinks that this question is useful for engendering thought about Being, he does not think it has an answer, and Ereignis most certainly is not the ground of the existence of the whole, even if it provides the structure of this whole.

4) Heidegger also says that Ereignis is the ‘it’ in ‘It gives Being/Time’ (‘Es gibt Sein/Zeit‘). This should be fairly straightforward to understand now. In (2) we have specified the sense in which Ereignis gives Being, and in (3) we have specified the sense in which Ereignis is the unfolding of history, which is precisely the form of time that Heidegger is concerned with, as opposed to the time of the cosmos.

3. The Fourfold

Above I mentioned that Ereignis is synonymous with Heidegger’s enigmatic fourfold of earth, sky, gods and mortals. It would be unfair of me not to cash this out in some way. I agree with Graham Harman that this concept demands a proper analysis, and that any such analysis can’t shy away from accounting for the reason both that this is a fourfold structure, and that it contains precisely the elements it does. Nonetheless, I disagree with his interpretation, admirable though it is.

This should be in part obvious from the fact that I’ve accounted for the excess of things in relation to our grasp of them (concealing in opposition to unconcealing) in terms of the whole of beings rather than in terms of the structure of each individual being. This is not to deny that there is a good sense in which each being is in excess of our grasp of it, but simply to claim that this local excess is derived from a global excess (and thus also that this isn’t present until the early-to-mid 30’s). Indeed, this is part of the theme of Heideggers essay the ‘The Thing’ in which the fourfold is enigmatically introduced. The essay makes clear that each entity is encountered in terms of a ‘mirror-play’ or complex interaction between the four elements, and these elements are not themselves to be thought of as aspects of the thing. What Heidegger is indicating is that each entity is encountered only on the basis of a dynamic process which generates the horizon (or clearing) within which it appears as the entity it is. The trick is to show how the mirror-play of these four mysterious elements relates to the account of the dynamic process of world construction we’ve talked about above.

I take the lead from my supervisor, Miguel de Beistegui, here. In his book Truth and Genesis, he tries to show that the fourfold relation is a development of the twofold relation of earth and world. Earth obviously plays the same role within both, and sky plays the role of world (i.e. the horizon within which beings are encountered). That’s two out of four terms down. It is then fairly straightforward to give an account of mortals: they are those whose cultural and practical activity constructs the world/sky as the horizon within which beings can be encountered as what they are (i.e., in terms of their functional roles within their practices). In essence, mortals are just Dasein, and the mortals-sky relation is just the relation between existence and world (Being and Time), Zeitlichkeit and Temporalität (Basic Problems of Phenomenology) and world-forming and the prevailing of world (Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics) that Heidegger is principally concerned with in his early work.

The question is then simply: what are gods? The answer is actually surprisingly simple. Whereas Graham finds his the key to the fourfold in what Kisiel calls Heidegger’s KNS Schema from 1919, I think the key lies much later in ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’, not only because it is here that he first mentions the earth/world relation (which is also implicit within ‘On the Essence of Truth’), but because it is here that he gives his most clear account of the godly. The best way to explain this is to better understand the tension between earth and world itself.

The world is a horizon of significance, which means that it organises all of the possible encounters we can engage in with entities in advance, through articulating both our understanding of the types of entities there are and their general possible relations to one another (what I call pure significance), and the various spatial regions we encounter them in and the relations between them (what Heidegger calls the environment). In doing this, is presents us with a totality of possibility. It organises all entities that could be encountered by us in advance, and this is why it is identified with beings as a whole. However, despite presenting itself as a totality, the world is not for that matter exhaustive. We are constantly in the process of revising both the more particular and more general features of the world, so as better to cope with those entities we encounter. There is thus a tension between the world’s totalising character (which Heidegger calls completion in FCM) and its inexhaustiveness. When thought positively, this becomes the constitutive excess of the whole in itself (earth) over the whole as projected (world/sky), which motivates a never ending process through which the latter is adapted to the former (although this adaptation need not necessarily be thought as incrementally progressive).

However, this strife between earth and world is not homogeneous. It is manifest in a variety of different ways. Importantly, there are points at which entities which appear within the world exceed our practical ability to cope with, understand or articulate them. At these points the framework which the world provides is shown as inexhaustive. At these points the very strife between world and earth becomes manifest, and this is the appearance of a god. For example, to the ancient Greeks, the sea was such an entity. Although they had mastered it to some extent, there were always points at which this mastery proved inadequate to its machinations. In the storm that appears without warning, laying waste to everything in its wake, lies the face of Poseidon (this is curiously analogous to Kant’s account of the dynamic sublime and its relation to the Idea of God, but I digress…). This need not have religious significance though. Anything which resists assimilation within our network of practices for coping with, understanding and articulating entities manifests a god. The anomalies of Kuhnian science, whose accumulation forces the paradigm shifts through which the methodological framework is revised, are good non-religious candidates.

Art is another way in which gods become manifest. However, this is because art instigates strife. Whereas the above examples are things we passively encounter in the world that demonstrate the inexhaustiveness of our framework, works of art are entities we create that produce the same effect. I won’t go into Heidegger’s analysis of the artwork in detail, but it is important to mention because it is in relation to the work of art that he describes the gods most clearly. There he makes it clear that gods are not themselves entities within the world. We encounter the face of the god (or the godly) through the work of art, but we never encounter it as an entity in addition to the work. A god is simply the appearance of the earth within the world. Moreover, it is because the earth can appear within (and disrupt) the world in many different places that there is a plurality of gods in contrast to the singularity of earth.

We thus have a complete account of the various elements that make up the fourfold and their relations: mortals project the sky as the horizon (which includes the limit of possibility) within which ‘things’ are encountered, earth is that upon which this projection acts, while nonetheless resisting it, and the gods are those points within the horizon wherein this resistance itself becomes manifest. To illustrate this better, here’s a quick diagram:-

The only slight problem with this is that the relation between mortals and gods is more complicated than just art. In truth, there is a whole variety of encounters that could be catalogued here, including religious experience, the dynamic sublime, and scientific wonder. We might collectively designate these as ‘awe’, if only Heidegger hadn’t used that word to indicate something else. I’ll come up with a better word at some point, but I’ve restricted it to art for now, as Heidegger talks about that in detail.

Okay, short summary of Heidegger in 3,300 words, check! Now if only I can translate this into my thesis, I’ll be fine.


9 thoughts on “On Ereignis

  1. I definitely agree the fourfold arises out of the twofold but it is interesting to me that there is so much disagreement over how to take the fourfold. Everyone seems to have their own theory. (My own is that one has to see Aristotle’s four categories in the background) I’ve read or herad probably a dozen different theories over the years – many from people I respect a lot. It all makes me skeptical we can really be sure what Heidegger meant.

  2. I like you treatment of the Four Fold very much! It is quite in keeping with Hölderlin, especially his last hymn “Mnemosyne”.

    As a sidenote, prospecdtively, turning to the Greek sense, it is interesting that you place the gods as coming from the Earth (graph arrows), and the Humans as constructing the Sky (arrows), so tp speak. Part of this must also include that the Greeks place the gods within the Sky. That is to say, the eruptive nature of the gods is domesticated by finding home for them within the horizon of possibility itself, where they are domesticated so to speak – but also so that the Sky itself becomes exhaustible, vital, or at least is signified as such.

  3. Clark: I agree that the fourfold is one of the most obscure bits of his philosophy (or any philosopher’s philosophy for that matter). Nonetheless, I do think I’ve provided a pretty decent account of it, insofar as I can both identify all the elements and their relations, and show how it is fundamentally just a repackaging of ideas that are already present earlier on. With regard to your suggestion about Aristotle, do you mean the fourfold sense of Being in Aristotle (potential and actual being, accidental being, the being of the categories, and being in the sense of being-true), rather than the categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, action, affection, possession, and position)? If so, how do you think they line up with Heidegger’s fourfold? I know Heidegger also uses the word fourfold when talking about them, but I think this is strictly coincidental.

    Kvond: I can’t speak to how well it chimes with Holderlin. I do like the imagery in his poetry, but I’m never sure whether there’s anything behind it. As for your point about the domestication of the gods, you’re completely right. In fact, this is made explicit in Heidegger’s account of art in his description of the Greek temple as a home for the God. In essence, the Greeks (as most cultures) create practices to structure their encounters with those things which otherwise exceed their practical grasp. The gods become tamed insofar as they take on the status of ‘known unknowns’ or something of the like.

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