Heidegger’s Black Notebooks and the Logic of a History of Being

In: Research in Phenomenology
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  • 1 Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg/Justus-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg


Interpretations of the so-called Black Notebooks have emphasized the interaction between Heidegger’s philosophy, particularly his notion of a “history of being” (Seinsgeschichte), on the one hand, and his affiliation with National Socialism and his anti-Semitic views on the other. The paper proposes to understand this interaction as in part determined by the inherent logic of Heidegger’s ontological reasoning: Heidegger takes power (Macht), violence (Gewalt) and brutality (Brutalität) as the key for understanding his present day and turns to these phenomena as confirmation of the ontology he envisages at the time. But the notes published so far, ranging from 1931 to 1948 (Gesamtausgabe vols. 94–97), document Heidegger’s incapacity to assign to the events of these years a plausible position in his ontology. This failure deepens a trauma both personal and philosophical. Rather than reject the notion of a history of being altogether, I propose an alternative understanding of its logic motivated by Heidegger’s failure to bring his ontological project to the anticipated completion.


Interpretations of the so-called Black Notebooks have emphasized the interaction between Heidegger’s philosophy, particularly his notion of a “history of being” (Seinsgeschichte), on the one hand, and his affiliation with National Socialism and his anti-Semitic views on the other. The paper proposes to understand this interaction as in part determined by the inherent logic of Heidegger’s ontological reasoning: Heidegger takes power (Macht), violence (Gewalt) and brutality (Brutalität) as the key for understanding his present day and turns to these phenomena as confirmation of the ontology he envisages at the time. But the notes published so far, ranging from 1931 to 1948 (Gesamtausgabe vols. 94–97), document Heidegger’s incapacity to assign to the events of these years a plausible position in his ontology. This failure deepens a trauma both personal and philosophical. Rather than reject the notion of a history of being altogether, I propose an alternative understanding of its logic motivated by Heidegger’s failure to bring his ontological project to the anticipated completion.


Understanding the Black Notebooks concerns not only an individual biography, a dark episode of the history of ideas or the psychology of a thinker. Heidegger’s notes document more than that. They claim to convince, to reason, to think—even in the emphatic sense of philosophical intensity. What is disturbing about these texts is not their irrationality but the distorted form of reason they manifest. Regarding such reasoning as individual failure or as a thing of the past neglects that the ideas and arguments presented in the Black Notebooks persist as thoughts that may still be entertained by others. Such repetition may have equally traumatic effects.

Therefore, a philosophical interpretation and critique cannot avoid interpreting these texts as an expression of reason. But that requires following Heidegger’s ideas to the extent necessary for comprehending them as shared possibilities of thought. Only this allows one to understand what motivates these considerations. A philosophical critique of these texts must open up, differentiate and seize alternatives in thought—yet just such a search for alternatives is what is lacking in Heidegger’s notes.

For one thing, this creates the impression that this thinking is closed onto itself, tempting the reader to regard Heidegger’s thinking as unitary, and so either reject or defend it as a whole. But the lack of alternatives also lends these texts an air of consequence. For if there are no alternatives, the individual steps in thought seem to follow by necessity. The Black Notebooks elicit the feeling not only of being addressed, but of being compelled to follow a particular way of thinking, without knowing the alternatives or weighing the options for oneself. They invite their readers to repeat their author’s traumatization.


It is typical of the notes published so far that they expressly relate thinking with the experience of power (Macht), violence (Gewalt) and brutality (Brualität). The coercion in thought takes the shape of a reflection on aggression as a mode of philosophical experience: Heidegger explicitly interprets ideology, war and violence as moments pertaining to the philosophical experience of his time. In this way, he arrives at the belief that it is thinking that is first and foremost subject to power, that suffers from violence and brutality, and that moreover presents itself as a means of power. Violence and brutality are affirmed because they appear as means of thought. For me, that is what is shocking about the Black Notebooks.

An example for the association of thinking and power can be found in a note from 1938. Heidegger here says that the “basic experience [Grunderfahrung]” of his thinking is the “superior power of beyng before all beings [Übermacht des Seyns vor allem Seienden]”.1 It is unsurprising that Heidegger declares the experience of being to be the fundamental experience of philosophy and distinguishes it from the experience of beings. But it is startling how the ontological difference is merged with the experience of power and powerlessness. The experience of being distinguishes itself in that it is the experience of supremacy—in contrast to the “powerlessness of entities [Ohnmacht des Seienden]” (ga 94: 362/264).

If one takes Heidegger by his words, the experience of being presupposes a contrast in power. Although this isn’t argued for here, the greater power of being is what is authoritative for thinking, such that philosophy must have a unique affinity to power. Yet although thought is exposed to the supreme power of being, it is not—unlike mere entities—powerless. Contrary to their seeming lack of power, in thinking, human beings partake in the power of being: the supremacy of being “demands” nothing other than an “empowerment and a distinction of man [Ermächtigung und Auszeichnung des Menschen]” (ga 94: 362/264). Being, Heidegger believes, shares its power.

Such an explicit connection between being and power is found nowhere else in Heidegger’s works. Yet in another respect, this thought is central to Heidegger’s philosophy. For the line of thought just sketched repeats the central argument of Being and Time: thinking attempts to understand being because being determines all entities—has power over them. Yet because human beings understand being, the answer to the question of being confirms that Dasein is an entity distinguished before all others. Phrased in the idiom of power: the ontological overpowering effected by the “superior power of beyng” turns out to be the “empowerment and distinction of man.”

Thus Heidegger here repeats a reasoning already developed in a hermeneutical variation in Being and Time, where the understanding of being is central. Still, Heidegger dismisses that work. For, as he says in the same paragraph, Being and Time failed to carry its principal line of thought to completion. To think “man as Dasein [Mensch als Dasein]” has only been a “first answer” to the question how the empowerment of human beings is to happen (ga 94: 362/264). The “first attempt in Being and Time” (ga 94: 362/264) is insufficient for Heidegger because it fails to attain the experience of being and, with it, man’s being and destiny. In view of this failure of Being and Time, determining the experience of being as overpowering represents an alternative attempt to pose and answer the question of being correctly. Yet even this attempt was not successful. For, as Heidegger continues, the superior power of being, “in spite of all its concealed determinateness,” remains “caught up with what has been before, entangled in it, tarnished and twisted by it every time [this power] wills to take shape [bei aller verborgenen Bestimmtheit in das Bisherige verstrickt, an es verzettelt, durch es getrübt und verbogen, jedesmal wenn sie zur eigenen Gestalt will]” (ga 94: 362/264).

But if this is so, then the superior power of being cannot be as great as it seemed. In the idiom of power, there is an all too apparent consequence: if the superior power of being doesn’t prevail, it is in need of what Heidegger in 1932 expected from a National Socialism guided by philosophy, namely an “empowerment” (Ermächtigung) of being. (ga 94: 23, 36, 39, 40, 43, 45, 46, 56, 57, 65, 76, 82, 84, 85, 90, 98, 100, 140, 190 and passim). It is this hope that pushed Heidegger into ideology.

The basic experience of thinking Heidegger conceives seems thus less an experience actually had than a hope that was not only vulnerable to ideology and illusory, but also contradictory: the empowerment of the supposedly greater power. Even after the disappointment of the rectorate, Heidegger clings to the hope of an experience of being supposedly found in power, as such experience promises to fulfill the logic of Being and Time. Even if in 1938 Heidegger no longer wishes to participate in the political empowerment of being that he saw in National Socialism, his wish to see being in power remains.


As war breaks out and an overpowering power is in fact unleashed, Heidegger changes his mind. But the actual experience of an all-too-powerful, overpowering force produces utter disorientation rather than opening up a philosophical alternative. Heidegger understands World War ii as an event of the “unconditional empowerment of power [unbedingte Ermächtigung der Macht].”2 Thus what was anticipated as the fundamental experience of philosophy occurs in fact. But the event proves to be a total loss of meaning rather than the achievement of the main thrust of Heidegger’s thinking.

Yet Heidegger’s reaction is not to change the fundamental structure of this thought by searching for the experience of being in something other than power. Instead, he forfeits all specificity as to what constitutes that experience. Instead of grasping existing power relations, Heidegger places his hope in a new potentate (Machthaber) who “knows what he can will, but discloses that knowledge to no public [weiß was er wollen kann und der dieses Wissen keiner Öffentlichkeit preisgibt]” (ga 96: 173). This true ruler is the secluded thinker who has utterly secret knowledge of the radical indeterminacy of power. Heidegger still sees in that rule an empowerment of the human. Such empowerment can happen, he continues, by affirming the “pure rule of power [reine Herrschaft der Macht],” even “without knowing what its essence might be [ohne zu wissen, welchen Wesens diese ist]” (ga 96: 173). The secret knowledge of power thus turns out to be ignorance—but power remains the experience of being. Even though experience teaches differently, Heidegger continues to see in power something that makes itself manifest there and nowhere else.

The silent ruler thus continues to search for what Heidegger had already been searching for when he embraced the political empowerment of being: an overpowering so absolute it can only be the power of being. Yet once this power is unleashed in war, its meaning is inverted. In other moments, Heidegger is willing to concede as much. “Power in its unconditional empowerment” is no confirmation of the project of ontology but an “abandonment of being in beings, ignorant of itself [sich niemals kennende Seinsverlassenheit des Seienden].” World war becomes a “vacant place in the history of being [leere Stelle in der Geschichte des Seins]” (ga 96: 186). With this thought, however, the idea that the experience of power is the experience of being becomes questionable. It fails to complete (empower) the ontological project in a renewed attempt, forcing the thinker to return instead to the abandonment of being. At times this motivates Heidegger to doubt the coincidence of being and power, as when he says that a human being must find himself “beyond power and powerlessness [jenseits von Macht und Ohnmacht]” in order to philosophize (ga 96: 17). But, he continues, such a place beyond power still depends on whether the philosopher is “dignified by beyng [vom Seyn gewürdigt]” (ga 96: 17), and so it remains conditional on the greater power and dignity of being.

Thus Heidegger has some doubts that power is indeed the signature of being. This should lead him to doubt the logic of his questioning, or to look for the experience of being in something other than power—but not much thought is given to such alternatives. Rather, the Black Notebooks look for the experience of being in all kinds of things, even in the opposite of supremacy. In the same notebook in which Heidegger writes that entities lack all power, he also writes that what counts is to “learn to find great joy in little things [die große Freude an den kleinen Dingen lernen].” In this way, too, a “transformation of being-there [Verwandlung des Da-seins]” might happen. (ga 94: 321/233)


That is no rhetoric covering over in all innocence the hopes Heidegger has for power. In my judgment, Heidegger’s search for the experience of being in such different places rather expresses an utter lack of direction. It stems from the fact that he clings to the premises of his thinking even when the phenomenon of power fails utterly to confirm his expectations. Heidegger’s ideas about how being manifests itself become wholly indeterminate and contradictory before he is willing to give up the thought that there is an experience of being as such and that everything hinges on finding it. With growing despair, Heidegger is searching for an experience completing the fundamental movement of his thought.

As Heidegger himself recognizes, this was not achieved in Being and Time, forcing him to begin anew with the phenomenon of power—among others. But neither is the completion of the movement of thought commencing in Being and Time achieved in the lecture on the “metaphysics of Dasein,”3 or in Contributions to Philosophy. Heidegger, in my judgment, never achieves his thinking of being. On the contrary, he gets himself even more entangled in the logic proper to his questioning to the point that it becomes increasingly unclear what that questioning might begin with. Nowhere, it seems to me, is the repeated failure of the question of being more traumatic than in the Black Notebooks. If this is true, then the structure of that question must be determined more directly in order to understand this failure, its traumatic repetition and the loss of orientation resulting from it.

It is decisive in this regard that the question of being has a circular logic. I therefore call the logic of Heidegger’s question of being the ontological circle and distinguish different interpretations of that circle. This image not only serves to clarify the fundamental structure of Heidegger’s own philosophical project; it also aids in interpreting his understanding of the history of philosophy as the history of being.4 The figure of the ontological circle explains both the wish to begin anew in the search for the experience of being and the failure of such a beginning in the Black Notebooks and elsewhere in Heidegger’s work. It not only makes comprehensible the philosophical trauma manifest in these texts but also, I hope, provides a way out of its distressing logic.


The structure of the ontological circle results from linking the distinction between being and entities with the attempt to answer the question of being. Because being determines beings in their (respective) ways of being, it is possible to understand the meaning of being by turning towards beings. “Beings themselves turn out to be what is interrogated in the question of being.”5

This is the central premise of the question as to the meaning of being according to Being and Time. Yet as conclusive as that determination may be within a closed ontological discourse, where the connection between being and entities is so deeply entrenched in language, it covers over a crucial problem that results from the fact that “beings” (das Seiende) are always particular: the question of being, although it aims for an answer as to the question of being in general, must be addressed to a particular entity (in its being).

For this reason, ontological thinking is speculative in nature. It engages in an unrestricted generalization to proceed from one (individual) being to being (in general), it spans from the singular to the most general. Thus the attempt is made to understand existence as a metaphysical property, i.e. as a property everything must have in virtue of its mere existence. But even such a property, the mere fact of existence, must be attestable in experience if the question of being is to be answered in a phenomenological manner. The fact of existence must become a phenomenal signature revealing itself as the genuine experience of being.6 Contrariwise, that there is meaning to being remains a mere contention.

Describing the logic of ontology as a generalization may seem to violate one of phenomenology’s most important insights, the difference between generalization and formalization. According to Husserl’s distinction, generalization proceeds by subsuming an individual experience under a more general category; formalization, on the other hand, engages in phenomenological reflection to identify a general feature already manifest in experience.7

Heidegger’s worry about this method, however, is that there might result an understanding of the general that, despite its origin in pre-reflective experience, is too formal and unsuitable for the category of existence at least. In Being and Time, this becomes clear in his discussion of what phenomena are. After giving the initial definition of the phenomenon as “what shows itself in itself, what is manifest [das Sich-an-ihm-selbst-zeigende, das Offenbare]” (ga 2: 38/27), Heidegger insists that this definition is merely formal and must be “deformalized to the phenomenological one [zum phänomenologischen [Phänomenbegriff] entformalisiert werden]” (ga 2: 47/33). This is possible not by asking for a definition of phenomenon, which is a formal or methodological question, but by asking the question of being. Being is “that which, in terms of its ownmost content, demands that it become a phenomenon in a distinct sense [Was demnach in einem ausgezeichneten Sinne, aus seinem eigensten Sachgehalt her fordert, Phänomen zu werden]” (ga 2: 47/33).

Despite Heidegger’s referral to phenomenology as method of ontology, then, the proper logic of the question of being replaces the phenomenological logic of formalization. The logic of ontology proceeds, as Heidegger also explains at the opening of Being and Time, by some form of generalization: the question of being must be oriented towards a phenomenally given entity, where the very fact of existence can first be demonstrated. This is the “exemplary being” (ga 2: 9/6) of ontology because it can be interrogated by way of posing the question of being in general in order to eventually answer that question. Once the being of that entity is established, the meaning of being inherent in it is generalized to cover all entities. But then the question is unavoidable—and Heidegger poses that question explicitly at the beginning of Being and Time—which being is the exemplary entity, “from which entity the meaning of being [is] to be read off [an welchem Seienden der Sinn von Sein abgelesen werden soll]” (ga 2: 9/6). This question triggers the logic of the ontological circle.


The answer to the question as to the exemplary entity is by no means obvious. If every entity qua entity is determined by being, the meaning of being should be evident from every entity alike. This question may be distinguished as a methodological question from those that actually touch on philosophical matters. A method, however, is plausible only to the extent that it eventually attains what it aims to understand.

The choice of an exemplary entity can therefore only be justified if the ontological speculation succeeds: only when the experience of the fact of existence is identified in view of a chosen exemplary entity can a phenomenological answer to the question of being be given. With this answer to the question of being, the choice of the exemplary entity can in turn be justified, for it is with a view to that entity that the ontologist managed to first locate the experience of being. Unless an experience of being can be found in it, the point of departure, the exemplary entity, would seem to be a random positing rather than the central moment of the “relatedness backward or forward” [‘Rück- oder Vorbezogenheit’ von Sein]” (ga 2: 11/7) inherent in being. If this is true, the inception of the question of being as a movement of thought can only be justified in view of how it achieves its answer. Thus already in choosing an exemplary entity, a particular meaning of being is presupposed in the mode of “taking a preliminary look at being” (ga 2: 11/7). The choice of an exemplary entity can only be justified by the fact that it “tentatively articulates” (ga 2: 11/7) the meaning of being.

It is therefore decisive for the entire argument of Being and Time that Heidegger already on the first pages anticipates answering the question of being in virtue of the “temporality of being [Temporalität des Seins]” (ga 2: 26/18). Heidegger thus accepts that he must presuppose nothing less than an answer to the question of being, if only in a vague or indeterminate form, in order to define human Dasein—the ontological meaning of which is temporality (Zeitlichkeit)—as the exemplary entity. The very first step of the question of being, its inception with the “correct” entity to be interrogated, already anticipates an answer that in turn can only be confirmed in an analysis of Dasein as the exemplary entity. The beginning and the end of the questioning of being thus condition each other. That is the ontological circle.

It is part of the structure of this reasoning that the ontological discourse as a whole becomes dependent on its results. This becomes clear after Being and Time. Heidegger can successfully demonstrate that temporality is the phenomenal signature characteristic of Dasein. But “with this interpretation of Dasein as temporality the answer to the guiding question about the meaning of being in general is not already given” (ga 2: 24/17). Not only Dasein but all entities need to be shown as in their being temporal if the analysis of Dasein is to indeed prepare “the soil from which we may reap [the answer]” (ga 2: 24/17) to the question of being as such. Only if the determinations of other entities and, ultimately, all determinations of entities (categories) can be plausibly explained by means of temporality does the temporal structure of meaning become a valid answer to the question of being. And only then will it be confirmed that Dasein truly is the exemplary entity in the experience of which alone can be seen more easily and more clearly what holds true of all entities. Only then can the attempt “to make a being—the one who questions—transparent in its being” (ga 2: 10/6) indeed provide an answer to the question of being.

Yet already in Being and Time Heidegger discovers entities the being of which cannot be regarded as inherently temporal—such as natural entities, the spontaneous and iterative movement of which cannot be explained in terms of the ecstatic temporality of Dasein. In the analysis of Dasein, nature manifests itself as only a “limit case of being” (ga 2: 88/65).8 Thus instead of the ontological circle confirming itself first in its exemplary case and then in all others, the very opposite happens. The ontological circle doesn’t become a hermeneutical circle in which question and answer are confirmed in view of all entities interrogated for the meaning of their being. The answer to the question of being, it turns out, cannot explain everything it was meant to explain. On the contrary, it shows itself to be less convincing the more determinate it becomes. As its insufficiency becomes manifest, its point of departure is called into question. At that point, Heidegger’s ontological project, in its first attempt at least, has failed.


One possible response to this problem in the logic of the ontological circle is to hold fast to the exemplary rank of Dasein but to regard a different trait of human existence as essential. The attempt to describe not time but power as the medium of the ontological difference can be understood in this way.

This doesn’t mean that the logic of the ontological circle forced Heidegger to look to just this phenomenon of human life for the experience of being. The failure of the ontological circle doesn’t determine which trait of Dasein is to be taken as determinative of human beings and, by extension, of all entities. In the logic of the question of being, the turn to power is contingent. It represents Heidegger’s reaction to the historical circumstances in which he attempts to make a new beginning.

But if power is to reveal itself as the signature of being, then this not only requires that all entities are essentially determined by it—an idea articulated explicitly in discussion of Nietzsche’s “will to power.” Human existence in particular needs to be revealed as determined by power in an eminent way—for this reason, empowerment becomes the measure of a philosophical transformation of human life. For through such Ermächtigung, what Being and Time had failed to do could still be achieved: something would have been found that determines all entities but becomes accessible in a distinguished way in human beings: power. Its experience would then have to become the fundamental experience of thinking, just as Heidegger had supposed with regard to temporality before.

Even if the Machtergreifung of the National Socialists is successful, the empowerment of being remains a thought contradictory in itself. This conflict between ontic reality and ontological aspirations becomes blatant the moment Heidegger himself is at risk of becoming a victim of violence. World war manifests itself as a phenomenon of power. Yet it is so senseless—and threatening—that Heidegger reinterprets empowerment to mean an event indicating only the abandonment of being. It can no longer serve as the confirmation of ontology.

But this does not lead him to separate being and power. The thought remains that in power there is an experience of being. What changes is only the mode in which Heidegger wishes to substantiate this preliminary answer to the question of being. As we have seen, rather than political action, Heidegger during the war imagines a secret and secluded philosophical ruler who has still greater power than the war. Ex negativo and in an eschatological inversion, power can remain an experience of being.

This development, too, can be explained with the help of the ontological circle: taking power as signature of being, the circle doesn’t extend to all entities and reveals itself as hermeneutically positive. It rather becomes a regression, leading ever farther away from reality. The idea that the experience of power is the experience of being looses its base. The philosophical trauma experienced in the failure of Being and Time threatens to repeat itself. Heidegger’s reaction is a derealization: he evades the insecurity and vulnerability of thinking by imagining a world in which his thinking is in charge. Yet this fantasy cannot survive its adjustment to the reality of war. The question of being, formulated in the idiom of power, precisely because there is no experience relating to it, becomes an aporia. The preliminary answers—being is time, being is power—cease to be answers at all.


In the structure of the question of being, there is a second possible response to the failure of ontological speculation. This option modifies the ontological circle in that it is now oriented towards another entity as exemplary. Heidegger seized this alternative, too. As an example, take “The Origin of the Work of Art” and Heidegger’s interest in art and poetry. Here, it is not human Dasein but works of art that are ascribed an exemplary function for the question of being. Art is to prove that being is integrated into a history of truth just as, for Heidegger, art works are, opening up a world and founding a history.

This modification of the question of being is evidently more radical than the attempt to take another trait of Dasein as a trait of all entities, of being in general. But beginning with works of art as exemplary entities is burdened with difficulties analogous to those of the logic of the ontological circle in Being and Time. For if the question of being is indeed answered in art, then its character as an experience of historical truth must reveal itself as being not peculiar to art but as happening in everything.

This motivates Heidegger in the artwork essay to assign to “the act which founds a state [die staatgründende Tat],” to the experience of God and to “essential sacrifice [das wesentliche Opfer]” the same historical truth he recognizes in art.9 But this does justice to none of the phenomena. The experience of art is no longer described without prejudice; it no longer remains discernible from other phenomena but is instead exploited for ontological purposes.10 The more the idea of a “setting-itself-to-work of the truth [Sich-ins-Werk-Setzen der Wahrheit]” (ga 5: 21/16) is to explain, the less it grasps what there really is.


There is, however, a third way in the logic of the ontological circle to respond to the failure of ontological speculation. This possibility lies in interpreting the ontological circle as always in progress. On this interpretation, ontological speculation has been successful in every answer to the question of being precisely because one possible meaning of being has indeed been revealed. At the same time, all of these answers are preliminary and remain so. It must therefore always be possible to begin anew and differently.

Heidegger discovers this interpretation of the ontological circle in his engagement with the history of philosophy as the so-called history of being (Seinsgeschichte). This interpretation is motivated by the question how a new beginning in the history of philosophy is possible: if Heidegger wishes to make such a beginning, its very possibility must be made intelligible. This leads to the question of how philosophy can do justice to the fact that the history of philosophy already knows answers to the question of what being is, each answer belonging to what Heidegger calls an epoch of the history of being.

This idea can be explained in reference to how Heidegger describes the structure of the question of being. According to the logic of the ontological circle, each epoch must be unique in virtue of being oriented towards another exemplary entity. This presupposes that philosophers have given convincing phenomenological accounts of particular entities and even of regions of entities. This does not mean that these local descriptions can be generalized to grasp the experience of being as such. But if we are to accept that that is precisely what has been attempted again and again in the history of philosophy, then the history of being must be read beginning with those phenomena that were in each case taken as a measure for ontology. The demand for “phenomenological interpretations”11 of the history of philosophy evolves into the thought that the history of philosophy is the history of the attempts to understand being beginning with different exemplary entities.

The often simplified descriptions Heidegger gives, following very implausible patterns, and the ontological paradigms he distinguishes can thus be recast in the logic of the ontological circle: Plato’s understanding of being takes the ideal being of εἰδή as exemplary, Aristotle is oriented towards the subsistence of substance, ontotheology is oriented towards the being of God, Descartes towards the res cogitans, Kant towards the transcendental unity of apperception—and so forth. The last of these ontological epochs to date were Nietzsche’s metaphysics, taking the will as exemplary, and historical materialism, for which labor is the eminent phenomenon for philosophical thought. Another paradigm is Being and Time. Here, the three dimensions of the human experience of time take on an exemplary role. Heidegger’s present moreover naively takes its bearings from technology, where everything seems to be “doable”.

Such descriptions oversimplify. In contrast to a history of the decay of philosophy or of dialectical reversal, however, they grasp the history of philosophy as giving a plurality of answers to the same question. This plurality can be established on a level of theory where these answers can be judged with a view to what such different ontological paradigms are meant to describe. And this is decisive for recognizing that a particular description of the experience of being is not valid: each time, a description that is plausible for some domain of entities is enlarged to cover all entities—and just this lets it become so thin that it no longer grasps anything.

This thought, however, motivates the desire to begin anew rather than to reach a final conclusion. The fact that the different ontological paradigms follow one another in historical order can now be understood as a continual differentiation of ways the world can be seen. The epochs of the history of being are not subject to a development of historical necessity leading up to its completion. Rather, there have always been good reasons to reject generalized descriptions of all entities. And for just these reasons we shouldn’t expect that the ontological circle will one day close unto itself. On the contrary, that fantasy of closure is contested again and again. In each generalization, other phenomena become manifest that cannot be satisfactorily explained using the relevant concept of being. The entire history of being, understood as an ontological progression, testifies to this.

To understand the ontological circle as a progression inevitably leads to a form of ontological pluralism, the idea that there are not different domains of being but a number of concepts of being.12 Each answer to the question of being is a provisional answer and so leads to a new, different and more complex, posing of the question. It is thus unmotivated to understand the history of philosophy as a history of decay. The history of philosophy appears instead as a process of differentiating diverse answers to the question of being as “guiding question [Leitfrage].”13 Each of these answers takes its particular meaning and relative cogency from the constitution of the exemplary entity toward which it is oriented. Still, as an answer to the question of being, it is to be rejected on phenomenological grounds for it cannot successfully describe all it is supposed to describe.


It is typical for Heidegger’s philosophy after Being and Time to go through all three variants of the ontological circle in parallel. Understanding the ontological circle as continually in progress, however, poses a particular difficulty. For following this logic of the history of being, even Heidegger’s own (temporal) interpretation of being is but one answer to the question of being among others. It is on a par with other epochs of the history of being, but it is also structurally identical. In this logic, Heidegger can neither complete the history of philosophy nor radically break with it.

On the other hand, interpreting the ontological circle as progressive is the only way to overcome the trauma the question of being creates as long as it holds out the promise of giving a definite answer and putting an end to questioning. Such an answer can be hoped for and one might articulate some presentiment of it. Yet in such an understanding, the question of being, instead of enriching the language of describing entities, leads to a discourse closed onto itself, a discourse that cannot be confirmed in view of the many phenomena it should be able to make sense of.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Heidegger is still far from recognizing the progression of the ontological circle. This becomes evident in a thought central to his understanding of the history of being at that period at least: the idea of an other beginning. Following Heidegger’s discussion in Contributions to Philosophy, this beginning is still in the future. It is a new but unique beginning, overcoming the history of being that began with the first beginning, overcoming it in a way that supposedly can do justice to the entirety of that history.

The thought of an other beginning thus responds to the failure of the project of Being and Time. But Heidegger holds firm to the goal of answering the question of being: the other beginning is defined as initiating the movement of ontological speculation in such a way that it promises to finally close the ontological circle, if the other beginning is indeed to contain the entire history of being and its different paradigms.

The pluralism of the epochs of the history of being leads to the monism of one answer to the question of being as “basic question [Grundfrage]” (ga 65: 76/ 60), an answer incorporating all other answers, assigning them their genuine places from the point of view of the other beginning. The “unfolding of the basic question [Entfaltung der Grundfrage]” is to provide the “ground for taking back up into a more original possession the entire history of the guiding question [Grund, das Ganze der Leitfragengeschichte in einen ursprünglicheren Besitz zurückzunehmen].” (ga 65: 77/ 61) The difficulty of this thought is not that such a beginning is to be something entirely new and different. What is problematic is Heidegger’s claim to overcome, with this one answer, all other answers to the question of being.

Even if in Contributions Heidegger accepts the necessity of a new beginning and a fundamental reorientation of the question of being, he doesn’t interpret its logic as a progression. In fact, the very idea of the other beginning is paradoxical with respect to the ontological circle. On the one hand, the thought presupposes the interpretation of the ontological circle as progressive—if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be different answers to the question of being at all, and the history of being would not be differentiated in distinct epochs. Only this variety of answers to the question of being makes the other beginning “visible at all, and allows a presentiment of it” (ga 65: 76/61). On the other hand, the other beginning denies the progression—if it would allow progression, there would be no hope of eventually answering the questioning of being. Yet Heidegger holds fast to the idea that, ultimately, being “does not in itself know any question” (ga 65: 77/61).

Heidegger reacts to this paradox by calling into question the ontological difference. To avoid having to understand the ontological circle as progressive and to renounce the completion of the history of being, Heidegger tries to free himself of the logic of the circle by highlighting that the other beginning searches for a pure experience of being that is no longer the experience of an entity. Such purely ontological experience is to carry forward the other beginning and ground it beyond the logic defining the entire history of being.

This not only explains Heidegger’s interest in Presocratic philosophy, which for him is a testament to an experience of being prior to all questioning of being. Heraclitus’ thinking of φύσις in particular is supposedly pre-ontological, so that in turning to this first beginning one can begin anew outside the ontological difference and outside the ontological circle (ga 65: 190–191/149–150). Another aspect of the hope for a pure experience of being appears in the Black Notebooks when Heidegger contemplates a “cleansing of being from its deepest disfigurement due to the eminent power of entities [Reinigung des Seins von seiner tiefsten Verunstaltung durch die Vormacht des Seienden]” (ga 96: 238).

If one takes seriously the interpretation of the ontological circle as progressive, however, no new beginning can be understood as an entirely other beginning. For if ontological speculation can begin with each and every entity and no entity is ontologically privileged, the history of being is open.

If it is, there is not just one other beginning, but always the possibility of beginning anew. The experience of asking the question of being becomes a positive circle in which the meaning of entities is enriched as they become graspable in new ways. Moreover, if entities are infinite, understanding the ontological circle as progressive implies a transfinite number of descriptions of the infinity of entities. For ontology thus understood, the freedom of thinking cannot be exhausted in a unique beginning. It rather affirms itself every time someone makes use of her capacity to ask, with a view to a particular entity, whether the infinite number of other entities can be described with a view to that particular entity.

Taken thus, the ontological circle becomes the logical structure allowing ontology to overcome the correlationism of subject and object for a transfinite number of possible descriptions.14 This doesn’t mean that all possible descriptions are equally valid. In language, non-sense that can never be redeemed phenomenologically accumulates, too. But no description of entities can be rejected for purely ontological reasons.


Heidegger never reaches this thought of a transfinite openness of the history of being. His understanding of the ontological circle instead remains ambivalent even at the very end of his career, as becomes clear in The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.

Heidegger here accepts the peculiar form of ontological pluralism typical for the history of being and thus the fact that he didn’t succeed in bringing philosophy to an end. There is no “criterion which would permit us to evaluate the perfection of an epoch of metaphysics as compared with any other epoch.”15 But these epochs are still only epochs of metaphysics. This allows Heidegger to say that he successfully inaugurated another philosophizing called thinking (Denken). Or in the terminology of the earlier conceptions of the history of philosophy, Heidegger has not enacted the other beginning but prepared it. The hope of a pure experience of being remains, even if the measure of philosophy is indeed to be found in thinking being “without regard to the relation of being to beings” (ga 14: 29/24).

It would thus be wrong to say that Heidegger’s path in thinking ends in an openness that the Black Notebooks had simply not arrived at yet.16 As an interpretation of Heidegger’s understanding of philosophy, this cannot hold. Nonetheless, the transfinite openness of philosophy is a consequence opened up by his thought. The interpretation of the ontological circle as a progression represents the road not taken, the alternative that would overcome the traumatic failure of Being and Time as well as Heidegger’s later attempts to close the ontological circle.

On this interpretation, however, the new beginning doesn’t have the final meaning Heidegger gives to it. Instead of believing in one unique beginning as a historical necessity and searching for it in ever new phenomena, in a progressive logic of the history of being the freedom of a genuine new beginning in thought would have been understood, a freedom Heidegger claimed for himself without being able to explain its very possibility. Yet this freedom can only belong to all and everyone at all times. If there is no single other beginning, Heidegger’s own thought isn’t privileged by the history of being.

In the Black Notebooks, to the extent that we know them today, Heidegger was not willing to concede as much. On the contrary, no one except Heidegger can at least prepare a new beginning in philosophy. The failure at the completion of the ontological circle here motivates unconditional devotion to beginning anew in ever more radical ways. At the same time, however, it is not at all clear how such a new beginning is supposed to be successful, or indeed which phenomenon is supposed to be the experience of being. Still, Heidegger is not willing to admit that his new beginning, too, is one among others and that beginning in thinking is possible always and everywhere. Because Heidegger is looking for an alternative to the ontological circle, the idea of a new beginning in the history of being becomes meaningless the moment it appears as the only possibility for thinking.


This is confirmed by what Heidegger says about brutality in the Black Notebooks. The discussion presents a variation of the thought of the superior power of being, relating it explicitly to the idea of another beginning. Brutality is here discussed as characteristic of the manifestation of entities in the form of a mere, naked fact, a factum brutum.17 Such reduction of experience to facts makes possible technology, organization and control, as they are omnipresent during the war.

Following this line of thought, to experience the “material battle [Materialschlacht]” of World War ii philosophically is to see in it “matter in its essence [Materie in ihrem Wesen]” (ga 96: 253). The war is thus brutal not because it destroys human lives but because matter, manipulated through technology, becomes a meaningless power. The totalization of war and the submission of life to a logic of organization and control has an ontological condition Heidegger takes to be decisive: entities, regarded as manipulated matter, are understood following the “reigning being,” namely “on the authority of brutalitas [dem herrschenden Sein … der Brutalitas … gemäß]” (ga 96: 253). In war, an understanding of being has gained power that makes the “capacity for brutality [Brutalitätsfähigkeit]” the hallmark of the “reality of everything real [Wirklichkeit jedes Wirklichen]” (ga 96: 254).

In this understanding of being, Heidegger finds the ontological meaning of the war. Yet in this brutality as such there is no beginning anew. On the contrary, the brutality of being is experienced as a loss of meaning. Heidegger hoped for an empowerment of man through the empowerment of being, but in the brutality of war, the exact opposite happens: in the age of brutality, man has become “utterly subservient to the machine [der Mensch der Maschine völlig dienstbar],” held captive by the illusion to “master it [sie zu meistern]” (ga 96: 253). Brutality effects no distinction of man but frees our “bestiality [Bestialität].”18

Still, Heidegger sees no alternative to the conjunction of being and power. The raging of war discloses the reign of power as meaningless. And yet, in the age of brutality, a new beginning for philosophy can still only be found in power. A new beginning, Heidegger says, cannot lie in “a letting go of power [Loslassung der Macht],” but only in the “transformation of power into dignity [Verwandlung der Macht in Würde]” (ga 96: 254). Such transformation would instill in the experience of power that inceptual meaning Heidegger had sought since the beginning of the 1930s. Such transformation, Heidegger assures himself, is “what is coming [das Kommende]” (ga 96: 254).

This hope for a transformation to come contradicts experience, as Heidegger sees perfectly well. It presupposes the eschatological certainty that “when history moves towards the end, a new beginning must already be rising [wenn die Geschichte einem Ende zugeht, muß schon ein Anfang wesen].” (ga 96: 252) For Heidegger, this beginning can only be the other beginning. It is bound within the logic of a reversal of the completion of one epoch of the history of being into a new one. Only historical “decline [Untergang]” can become the “transition into another beginning [Übergang in einen anderen Anfang].” (ga 96: 252) Whoever begins in the way of the new beginning thus carries out a destiny compelling both herself and her entire epoch.

What Heidegger describes, then, is no new beginning in which one is engaged freely. Instead, beginning happens as another kind of necessity, a necessity still coming from power, even if in everyone else’s eyes it has lost all its meaning. Such obedience to the other beginning is the flipside of the brutality of metaphysics. No real power and its empowerment is binding for philosophy other than a power estranged from the world, visible only to someone beginning in the way of the other beginning. In the brutality of war, being qua power shows itself only in its perverted inversion—but it does indeed show itself there, for those at least who have eyes to see.

As a consequence of that thought, brutality is meaningful only to those who can experience in it the grace of an other beginning. Thus Heidegger sees himself exposed to the brutality of being in a particular way, for he expects from himself another beginning, or its preparation at least, and can find this beginning nowhere but in the reversal of raging power and brutality into another experience of being. As vague as that hope and its fulfillment in an other beginning may be, it is clear that given the setup of the question of being, as Heidegger understands it here, only thinking—and his own thinking in particular—can be the locus of such a reversal.

Thus power and brutality are not just phenomena nowhere more present than in their philosophical implications; they are the means of the only thinking capable of a new beginning. In such a way, Heidegger doesn’t affirm power and brutality directly, yet only through their transformation can ontological meaning be generated. To think continues to mean turning towards power and brutality and looking for the new beginning in them. But this presupposes doing so with a view to the other beginning, even if the interpretation of that beginning becomes increasingly detached from reality and can neither describe nor anticipate the transformation hoped for.


This perspective on power and brutality becomes most evident in the Black Notebooks after World War ii. Take the comment that the “terror of final nihilism [Terror des endgültigen Nihilismus],” i.e. the terror facing a thinking of the new beginning, is “more uncanny than all massiveness of the hangmen and all concentration camps [der Terror für ein Denken des Neuanfangs ist noch unheimlicher als alle Massivität der Henkerknechte und der Kz]” (ga 97: 59). This frightening remark presupposes, as if it were self-evident, that the possibility of a new beginning can only be found in the experience of someone exposed to the highest degree of nihilism. In this way, the meaning of phenomena is not in themselves but in their inceptual transformation the locus of which can only be Heidegger’s thinking.

Similar when Heidegger declares “the German people and nation [das deutsche Volk und Land]” to be “an encompassing concentration camp [einziges Kz]” (ga 97: 100). The context makes clear that Heidegger takes it for granted that his own, “German” perspective is preferable for ontological reasons—for only in this perspective can the other beginning become visible. This leads to a reversal of victims and perpetrators; the suffering of those who have been victims of the most outrageous crimes Heidegger takes as meaningless. In thus believing that the other beginning is not accessible to them, Heidegger repeats a trope of Christian anti-Judaic thought: “the Jews” are incapable of recognizing the coming judgment.19

Here a transformation in fact happens. Yet this reversal is not the “decline” of metaphysics in the “transition” into the new beginning, but a complete inversion of the meaning of the Shoah, of National Socialist terror and of World War ii. These events don’t confirm any ontological claim. Seeing them in this light rather corrupts the very idea of an other beginning and the particular interpretation of the logic of ontology it stands for. After the war, from the traumatic, repeated failure of Heidegger’s ontological project and the impossibility to step outside the ontological circle results an intellectual auto aggression that is turned against those who are excluded from the ontological as eschatological perspective.20


This is not simply Heidegger’s fate as an “errant” thinker. It is an implication of a particular way of understanding the logical structure of ontology and relating it to experienced reality in the attempt to engage in phenomenological ontology. As such, it still threatens those who, willingly or unwillingly, follow Heidegger’s logic of ontology.

Yet to end the duress in thinking this logic can cause and to do better justice to the events of the twentieth century, one does not need, I think, to renounce the very idea of a history of being. It constitutes a thought neither to be included as a mere moment of the history of philosophy nor to be simply excluded from philosophy. Given its traumatic structure and effects, it is in need of a transformation. Heidegger’s manic perspective appears necessary only if one anticipates a completion of the history of being, a completion that occurs as the reversal of the present in such a way that the other beginning necessarily relates to and transforms what governs the present. Only when this beginning cannot be repeated does the historical situation gain a unique role in the anticipation or preparation of that other beginning which will be the last. At that point, nothing is to be expected from the present except that it submits one to a force that will usher in a new beginning.

As long as this force and its coercion were not dissolved—and they never dissolved fully—Heidegger could not turn to phenomena unbiased, but must force them into a logic that knows only one final new beginning. The alternative in his very own thought, however, is to take the single but decisive step of interpreting the logic of the history of being differently. The ontological circle, as a transcendental condition of understanding being, can and must be understood as a progression.

That not only allows one to understand the logic of ontology at work in the history of philosophy as the history of being, transforming the idea of a history of being at the same time. Only when that logic represents a progression can the freedom of beginning anew be repeatable and universal, and it should thus cease to be traumatic in the way it has become in Heidegger’s thought. Human Dasein is then not privileged because it stands in an exemplary way for what being is supposed to be: time, power or truth. As Heidegger realized at some point, Dasein is not an entity at all; it does not submit to being. It is rather only the “site of the understanding of being” (ga 2, 11; bt 8), the locus of the experience of the ontological circle, the locus of questions that may well remain open. Only if we understand ourselves thus do we gain the freedom to begin anew, if in a different way than Heidegger anticipated.21


Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen II–VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1938), ed. Peter Trawny, Gesamtausgabe vol. 94 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014), 362. English translation: Ponderings II–VI. Black Notebooks 193–1938, trans. Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016), 264 (hereafter cited as ga 94 with German/English pagination). Translations may be modified.


Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen VII–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1939–1941), ed. Peter Trawny, Gesamtausgabe vol. 96 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014), 173 (hereafter cited as ga 96).


See Martin Heidegger, The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, trans. Michael Heim (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992). On “metontology” as “metaphysics of Dasein”, see Steven Crowell, Husserl, Heidegger and the Space of Meaning (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 222–243.


This argument draws from the account in Tobias Keiling, Seinsgeschichte und phänomenologischer Realismus. Eine Interpretation und Kritik der Spätphilosophie Heideggers (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 28–40 and passim.


Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Gesamtausgabe vol. 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977), 9. English translation: Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 5 (hereafter cited as ga 2 with German/English pagination).


The notion of a phenomenal signature is a variant on the idea of existence as signature that Agamben has rediscovered for philosophy. See Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things. On Method (New York: Zone Books, mit Press, 2009).


Edmund Husserl, Ideas for a pure phenomenology and phenomenological philosophy. First Book: General introduction to pure phenomenology, trans. Daniel O. Dahlstrom (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014), §§ 10–13.


See the discussion in Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 14.


Martin Heidegger, “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes”, in Holzwege, ed. Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Gesamtausgabe vol. 5, second unrevised edition (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2003), 1–74, here 49. English translation: Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”, trans Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, in Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1–56, here 37 (hereafter cited as ga 5 with German/English pagination).


Günter Figal, Aesthetics as Phenomenology. The Appearance of Things (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 27–41.


Martin Heidegger, Phänomenologische Interpretationen ausgewählter Abhandlungen des Aristoteles zu Ontologie und Logik, ed. Günther Neumann, Gesamtausgabe vol. 62, third edition (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2005), 365. English translation: “Indication of the Hermeneutical Situation”, in The Heidegger Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 38–61, here 53.


On standard ontological pluralism in Heidegger, see Kris McDaniel, “Ways of Being,” in David J. Chalmer, David Manley and Ryan Wasserman (eds.). Metametaphysics. New Essay on the Foundation of Ontology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 290–319. McDaniel distinguishes different meanings of being relative to different uses and ontological regions. The ontological pluralism of the history of being, however, is more specific. It points to a historical plurality of meanings of all there is.


Martin Heidegger, Beiträge zur Philosophie. Vom Ereignis, ed. by Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Gesamtausgabe vol. 65 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1989), 75. English translation: Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 60 (hereafter cited as ga 65 with German/English pagination).


On the charge of correlationism, see Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude. Essay on the necessity of contingency (New York: Continuum, 2008). Drawing on Husserl, László Tengelyi has convincingly included the notion of the transfinite in his phenomenological metaphysics. See László Tengelyi, Welt und Unendlichkeit. Zum Problem einer phänomenologischen Metaphysik (Freiburg: Alber, 2014).


Martin Heidegger, “Das Ende der Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens”, in Zur Sache des Denkens, ed. by Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann, Gesamtausgabe vol. 14 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2007), 70. English translation: “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”, trans. Joan Stambaugh, in On Time and Being (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 56 (hereafter cited as ga 14 with German/English pagination).


Trying to combine phenomenology with a form of historical ontology, Heidegger rather faces what I would call the “dilemma of the historicity of phenomenology.” See Tobias Keiling, “Phenomenology and Ontology in the Later Heidegger,” in Dan Zahavi (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).


Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen VII–XI (Schwarze Hefte 1938/39), ed. Peter Trawny, Gesamtausgabe vol. 95 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2014), 396 (hereafter cited as ga 95).


Martin Heidegger, Anmerkungen I–IV (Schwarze Hefte 1942–1948), ed. Peter Trawny, Gesamtausgabe vol. 97 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2015), 45 (hereafter cited as ga 97).


See Joseph Cohen, “Le spectre juif de Heidegger”, in Joseph Cohen/Raphael Zagury-Orly, eds., Heidegger et ‘les Juifs,’ La Règle du Jeu 58/59 (2015): 745–762.


Heidegger’s mental breakdown in 1946 led him to conceive (mental) health with regard to releasement (Gelassenheit), thus successively turning away from the register of power and aggression. Nonetheless, Heidegger still anticipates a future event of healing. Albeit the phenomenon it takes as exemplary is replaced, the structure of Heidegger’s thinking of history remains unchanged. See Andrew J. Mitchell, “Heidegger’s Breakdown: Health and Healing under the Care of Dr. V.E. von Gebsattel,” Research in Phenomenology 46.1 (2016): 70–97.


For helpful comment on different versions of this paper, I am indebted to Ryan Coyne, Nicolas de Warren, Markus Gabriel, Sacha Golob, Christos Hadjioannou and particularly Taylor Carman.

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