Heidegger and Learning
“What is lacking, then, is action, not thought….We must be ready and willing to listen.” Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? (Heidegger 1968. Henceforth cited parenthetically as WCT.).
“The hardest apprenticeship is that by which [people] learn how to hear and heed no imperative other than that relation…‘setting the human logos in its proper relation to the Logos’.” Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger On Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy (Schürmann 1987).
Martin Heidegger returned to the University of Freiburg in the winter semester of 1951, and in the following summer of 1952 he delivered his final lectures before his formal retirement from the university. Those lecture courses were organized under the title Was heisst Denken? or the question what is called thinking? or what calls thinking? (In his editor’s note, Krell writes, “What is called thinking? What calls for thinking? Both questions try to translate the title of Heidegger’s 1951–1952 lecture course Was heisst Denken” Krell (1993)). As J. Glenn Gray reminds us in his introduction to the first English edition of Heidegger’s lectures, these courses in 1951–1952 “were also the first lectures he was permitted to give [in Freiburg] since 1944, when he was drafted by the Nazis into the people’s militia (Volkssturm) and was afterwards forbidden to teach by the French occupying powers.” Gray adds that the interruption in his teaching must have been costly for Heidegger because “Heidegger is above all else a teacher.” (Gray, p. xvii) It is productive to listen to Gray’s pronouncement and allow it to guide us towards an understanding of what Heidegger tells us about learning in that last year of teaching at Freiburg.
For Heidegger’s “fame” predates by about eight years the publication of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1927; indeed it is open to question whether the unusual success of this book – not just the immediate impact it had inside and outside the academic world but also its extraordinarily lasting influence, with which few of the century’s publications can compare – would have been possible if it had not been preceded by the teacher’s reputation among the students, in whose opinion, at any rate, the book’s success merely confirmed what they had known for many years.
There was something strange about this early fame, stranger perhaps than the fame of Kafka in the early Twenties or of Braque and Picasso in the preceding decade, who were also unknown to what is commonly understood as the public and nevertheless exerted an extraordinary influence. For in Heidegger’s case there was nothing tangible on which his fame could have been based, nothing written, save for notes taken at his lectures which circulated among students everywhere. These lectures dealt with texts that were generally familiar; they contained no doctrine that could have been learned, reproduced, and handed on. There was hardly more than a name, but the name traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king.
It is indeed quite tempting in the space of an encyclopedia entry to take up the philosophical history of Heidegger qua teacher, and thereby engage his thinking in relation to Arendt and his other famous students whom Sheldon Wolin called “Heidegger’s children” (Wolin 2001). If Heidegger is above all else a teacher then it is quite reasonable to trace the educational force of his thinking in the output of his prolific and influential students who, like Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, and Hans Jonas, were among those who attended his lectures and seminars, especially the earliest ones that produced the notes that circulated like bootlegged live performances.
Today, however, it is impossible to imagine the notes from the early lecture courses retain the aura they once emanated when they were circulated in Germany 39 years before the hidden King was dethroned from his professor’s chair in Freiburg. Indeed, impossible, because l’affaire Heidegger continues to generate increasing infamy, most recently with the 2015 publications of Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte, or “black notebooks,” where, from 1931 to 1970s, Heidegger kept his own private notes. Not the early traded notes, but, rather, the black notebooks is where it is claimed, today, that one encounters the lingering rumor of the hidden King, a rumor that has now morphed into the rumor of what the King has hidden behind the closed doors of his study.
Krell insists that Heidegger’s black notebooks can only be read as exemplars of unthinking because there is almost nothing that is genuinely thought-provoking in the thousands of pages (Krell 2015). What one encounters in Schwarze Hefte is generated from the mood of the egomaniacal, written by a fugitive from thinking. Yet it remains a question how far removed these “private” words stand in contrast to Heidegger’s “public” teaching. And this question is relevant to those who remain students of Heidegger’s published writing that now includes the notorious black notebooks alongside the revered monographs, lectures, dialogues, essays, and poems. Indeed, engaging in a conversation with him, which is to say learning with him, demands that we acknowledge the coexistence of both the famous and infamous figures, the two “Heideggers”: the one figure appearing in the seminar room, who moves with his students into the clearing of thinking, and the other, remaining behind closed doors, working sub rosa. With the one we encounter the “Privatdozent” or “teacher” and with the other hand we encounter “Herr Rektor” or “administrator.”
Today students of Heidegger who are moved by his thought-provoking writing are also familiar with the sub rosa Heidegger, and with the details that Gray did not include in his 1968 introduction to What is Called Thinking? Heidegger was elected rector of Freiburg University on April 21, 1933 (3 months after Hitler became chancellor). He became a member of the Nazi party on May 1st and remained one until 1945. And during that 12-year span Heidegger gave at least one well-known lecture course titled “Introduction to Metaphysics,” where he notoriously professed “the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism.” This line remained in the text when it was published in 1953, exactly 1 year after he offered his final courses in philosophy at Freiburg.
“Heidegger is above all else a teacher.” From the historical distance of time and place what we learn from l’affaire Heidegger can be summoned up in the title of a book by Nietzsche, who was the subject of a lecture course Heidegger offered at Freiburg between 1936 and 1940 (Heidegger 1991. See Krell’s introduction, “Heidegger Nietzsche Nazism.”). The title of Nietzsche’s book is Human, All too Human. Placed within existential force generated by this title, the two Heideggers are, together, absolved by the higher truth revealed in the tragedy that constitutes a human life: to be human, all too human, is to coexist as sinner and saint.
The complete title of Nietzsche’s book bears a coincidental relation to the name of the city (Freiburg aka Free-city) where Heidegger lived and taught: Human, All too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. The extended title suggests first and foremost the form of Nietzsche’s writing: the aphorism. And with that in mind the title, along with the form it evokes, we find an important fragment in Heidegger: “the essence of truth is freedom.” The fragment, from the essay, “On the Essence of Truth,” (“On the Essence of Truth,” Basic Writings, p. 123.) yields a word question that students of Heidegger are repeatedly confronted with: “freedom?”
In 1987, the same year that Victor Farias published Heidegger et le Nazisme, the English edition of Reiner Schürmann’s Heidegger: On Being and Acting was published. Schürmann’s thesis is that Heidegger must be read from the end to the beginning (i.e., studied from his last deeply musical and poetic writings and from there back to Being and Time). (“The Point here is that the correct understanding of his early writings is obtained only if he is read backward, from end to beginning….When read backward, from the last writings to the first, Heidegger appears in a different light. Once again, his texts alone are at issue. From the viewpoint of the typology, praxis…is the only response that the actors in history give, and cannot but give, to the constellations of presencing that enclose them….Heidegger then attempts to think presencing explicitly as plural. The action that responds to presencing so understood, will be diametrically opposed to the Führerprinzip; it would be a type of action irreconcilably alien to all reduction to the uniform, an action hostile to the standard….Presencing then appears more Nietzschean, deprived of metaphysical principles, ‘chaotico-practical’….anarchy.” Schürmann, Heidegger, pp. 13–14.) A fragment from Schürmann’s book directs us to expand the title of Heidegger the “teacher” as “teacher/learner”. This expanded title enables us to grasp the priority of learning to Heidegger’s later project, which, in effect, will enable us to trace this priority back to the beginning of his earliest work as a Privatdozent. Schürmann writes: “The hardest apprenticeship is that by which [people] learn how to hear and heed no other imperative than the relation…of human logos in its proper relation to the Logos.”
An apprentice is a novice, a beginner, but also a beginning. As Arendt citing St. Augustine once insisted, we can begin because we are a beginning: “[the human person] is free because [they are] a beginning…. Because [they are] a beginning, [the human person] can begin; to be human and to be free are one and the same. God created [humanity] in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning: freedom” (Arendt 1977). In this sense, an apprentice in the Heideggerian sense is not only a beginner in being a novice but also beginning in being the appearance of freedom in the world. Learning how to hear and heed Logos entails becoming a beginning. The learner is the realization of freedom in the world.
Learning undertaken by the apprentice of Logos involves a techne (τεkνε) that is no mere technical technique (“how to”) but a poein (πoειν) that responds to the fundamental question “freedom?” Poein (πoειν) hears the question of freedom as the question of Being and responds by making meaning. In turn, the hardest apprenticeship is learning how to listen to human logos in relation to Logos, and thereby receiving the call (inspiration) to make or compose a meaningful contribution to the world, which is to say, a work of art that gathers others into the clearing, or region of peace. Learning to listen is thus the process of learning the techne that most properly attains to human being: dwelling. “The word for peace, Friede, means the free, das Frye….To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free.” (“Building Dwelling Thinking,” Basic Writings, p. 351 Heidegger). In sum, responding to the call of Logos, to the question of freedom, entails undertaking the work that brings about peace.
“Heidegger is above all else a teacher” – and as one who pursued the evasive dynamic of thinking, he remains before and beyond all others a learner. With regard to Heidegger in the context of learning, what should interest us is what remains before and beyond the personas (the masks placed upon him by himself and by others, including his students past, present, and those who will come later). To hear Heidegger the teacher is to listen-with Heidegger the learner, which is to listen not to Heidegger per se but to Logos. When we do this, the student recognizes what remains before the figures of “Heidegger,” behind these masks, is the shared breath, the human spirit, the Soul, which is ultimately exhaled through and moves beyond those masks. Thus what remains always before and beyond is the inspiration (the breath inspired, spirit) from Logos, received through the fundamental question “freedom?” and carried out in response to the instruction to “make something meaningful,” “make a world of meaning,” “make a meaningful world”: make, build, something lasting; something beautiful; something that will sublimate mortality; and something worthy of remembering, of repairing, and renewing.
The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they -- he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground than those who learn are of theirs. If the relation between teacher and taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. It is still an exalted matter, then, to become a teacher -- which is something else entirely than becoming a famous professor (WCT, 15).
The move from assertion to listening involves a resolution to relinquish willing, or to will non-willing, what Heidegger following the medieval mystic theologian Meister Eckhart calls Gelassenheit (releasement). Releasement of the will is a suspension of the will-to-power, that desire to impose or place upon oneself, others, and the world a singulare tantum, a single world-view or system of belief (dogma). Gelassenheit, the releasement of the will, places one into learning via unlearning, into the uncertainty that is confronted beyond dogma and the will-to-power: “when we learn to think…we must allow ourselves to become involved in questions that seek what no inventiveness can find....[We] can learn only if we always unlearn at the same time....we can learn thinking only if we radically unlearn what thinking has been traditionally” (WCT, 8).
“Heidegger is above all else a teacher” – before and beyond teaching is learning, which entails heeding call to think that is put underway by Logos with the thought-provoking question: “freedom?”
On the first day of his last course at Freiburg, Heidegger begins by telling his students that “we must be ready to learn thinking.” And then he adds, “As soon as we allow ourselves to become involved in such learning, we have admitted that we are not yet capable of thinking.” First and foremost, then, the task at hand is to learn how to hear the fundamental question placed before us: “freedom?” The hardest apprenticeship is the one that places us in the tutorial of listening.
All through his life and right into his death, Socrates did nothing else than place himself into this draft, this current, and maintain himself in it. This is why he is the purest thinker of the West. This is why he wrote nothing…(WCT, 17)
Socrates asked questions, and he listened, and then asked more questions, and listened again. The dialogic repetition pointed toward thinking, and away from knowing. In leading this process, Socrates demonstrated the strength required of the one who is an apprentice of Logos. Heidegger’s “most thought-provoking is that we are not yet thinking,” which he repeats mantra-like throughout the session of his last course, is a version of Socrates’ “all that I know is that I know nothing at all.” Both are the aphorisms of the teacher who is first and foremost a learner.
Philosophy offers its own form of education, and with Heidegger we can identify a pedagogy of philosophy that offers us a tutorial in “the essence of truth…freedom.” In this sense to be a student of philosophy is to undertake the hardest apprenticeship, which demands remaining in the draft, in the dynamic flow of Logos, and thereby moved by the Word, and thereby constantly renewed by the existential study of the question, “freedom?” The student of philosophy (Logos) is put “underway to learn thinking”(WCT, 25), but this by no means suggest that they are being instructed in “good” or “correct” “reasoning.” The aspiration of ethics, as a practical science, is in contrast to the radical uncertainty of existential freedom a “refuge” for people “from any draft too strong for them.” On the contrary, the hardest apprenticeship for “those who practice the craft of thinking” (WCT, 25) offers only the guarantee of possibility that history has not foreclosed upon the future. The future remains open so long as the student remains unmasked, sans persona, and that requires a relation to the present that transcends the familiar, the repetitive, and thereby disrupts behavior and motivates action. Learning is thus a relation of attentiveness to the possibility that remains in the presence of the actual.
When Heidegger speaks of the “present,” he is naming what is presencing before and beyond what is perceived to be actual or real (as understood by a fugitive from thinking). Perception of presencing happens by way of acute attentiveness: listening. Listening is thus a unique kind of relation to the present that places the student in the position to receive the presencing of existence (Being) in the specific moment or existential situation. This is what William Blake is describing when he writes of receiving “a World in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a wildflower, Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.” (William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence,” (public domain)). Learning prepares the student for the reception of Being via listening. “In order to be capable of thinking, we need to learn it first. What is learning? [A person] learns when [they] disposes everything [they do] so that it answers to whatever essentials are addressed to [them] at any given moment. We learn to think by giving our mind to what there is to think about” (WCT, 4).
To perceive what remains and exceeds “the real,” and comes before what “is” and remains not-yet, the student must learn listening: “what we can do in our present case, or anyway can learn, is to listen closely,” which “is the common concern of student and teacher” (WCT, 25). We might describe the learning of listening as the communion of learning shared by student and teacher. And here Heidegger, as teacher/learner, is borrowing from Heraclitus who said, “Listen not to me, but to Logos, and know that thinking is common to all.”
With the hardest apprenticeship, the student learns to listen closely, and through close listening responds to offering made in the clearing that persists in-between the chronological order (chronos). Logos heard through the opening or break in time is named kairos. And those who practice the craft of thinking through the art of listening experience a transcendence from the chronological into the kairological, which is described by Heidegger, following Kierkegaard, as the leap. “There is no bridge here – only the leap….” The leap named here is the final emancipatory releasement (gelassenheit) into the place where thinking resides: the clearing or the place where dynamic flow or draft of Logos is moving: “By way of this series of lectures, we are attempting to learn thinking. The way is long....to reach the point where only the leap will help further. The leap alone takes us into the neighborhood where thinking resides” (WCT, 12).
“Heidegger is above all else a teacher” – we must insist on using the present tense for the obvious reason that those who read Heidegger, which is to say study and thereby continue to learn from Heidegger, are drawn into the draft of his thinking, into the existential and ontological dimension where Heidegger’s teaching exists in a dynamic present that defies the boundaries of the chronological, and the historical. For Heidegger, learning is occurring when we attend to what calls on us to think, and when we attend to what is compelling us to take up the essence of truth, which, for Heidegger, is freedom. Most forcefully, this call arrives from art, which is both the result of and the inspiration for the actualization of freedom. And this is why Socrates, whom Heidegger called “the purest thinker” and who remains the exemplary teacher, was inspired to undertake philosophy by the call he received from a dream-figure who repeatedly instructed him “to make music, and work at it” (Phaedo, 61b).
“…the leap takes us abruptly to where everything is different, so different that it strikes us a strange….Though we may not founder in such a leap, what the leap takes us to will confound us....we must be ready and willing to listen. Such readiness allows us to surmount the boundaries in which all customary views are confined, and to reach a more open territory” (WCT, 12–13).
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