Distance and Nearness

 by on December 10, 2013
Dec 102013

This has always been for me one of the richest passages in all of Heidegger’s work:

To philosophize means to exist from ground. Philosophy is neither one science among others nor a production of world-views; it is more primordial than every science and, at the same time, more primordial than every world-view. The important thing is that we do it proper justice, that is, in philosophizing, we always transform each and every thing in ourselves and to ourselves. As long as we waiver back and forth on the surface by doubling theoretical and practical maxims, we are not yet in philosophy. Logic and metaphysics are grounded in the understanding-of-being that is determined by the ontological difference. The latter seems to us abstract, dry, and vacuous, and yet we must ask: What is the understanding-of-being?

The freedom toward ground is the outstripping, in the upswing, of that which carries us away and gives us distance.

The human being is a creature of distance! And only by way of the real primordial distance that the human in his transcendence establishes toward all beings does the true nearness to things begin to grow in him. And only the capacity to hear into the distance summons forth the awakening of the answer of those humans who should be near.

It appears at the end of the lecture course from 1928 published as The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic.1 Titled “Supplement: Distance and Nearness”, this passage is a concise example of Heidegger’s overall method as well as a new formulation of the question of being and an indication of what this question means not only for philosophy but also–and apparently more importantly–for practical, everyday life. The lecture itself is Heidegger at his very best: a clear and vivid discussion of Leibniz’s thought toward an understanding of our concepts of reason and logic and the relation of these to metaphysics.

It is unfortunate, though it doesn’t surprise me, that I’ve never seen this book on the reading list for any courses on the topics he discusses so well here (logic, metaphysics, Leibniz). It may be that his reputation for opacity in other works scares people away. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of prejudice against a Continental philosopher tackling issues belonging to the academic domain of Analytic philosophy.

The most difficult part of the passage for readers today is usually the idea that philosophy “is more primordial than every science and, at the same time, more primordial than every world-view.” Of this, for now I’ll only say that to understand it, as is common, in the way of moral or prescriptive judgments about the relative superiority of philosophy to science is to miss the rest of what Heidegger says in the passage. This postscript to a 1928 lecture remains relevant today not because it’s a critique of science, but because it’s a critique of philosophy, which continues in a life-or-death struggle to carve out its own little space in times of rapid specialization in all fields of inquiry. In this context of accelerating technological and cultural change, the need to take seriously the distance and nearness of beings is even greater. And it’s the most practical of concerns. 

  1. Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. p. 82. []

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