Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.11

Martin Heidegger, Plato's Sophist. Translated by Richard Rojcewicz and Andre Schuwer.   Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1997.  Pp. 496.  ISBN 0-253-33222-2.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Bates Jr, Clifford Angell
Word count: 1525 words

This is not so much a book about Plato's Sophist as a reconstructed transcript of a course on Plato's Sophist offered in the Winter Semester of 1924-25 by Heidegger. This is the young Heidegger, just prior to his big splash on the world philosophic scene in 1927 with the publication of Being and Time. Yet even before the publication of Being and Time, Heidegger had already earned himself a reputation as a great teacher, drawing a great many students to his lectures at Marburg. This volume offers us a glimpse of this young Heidegger and from our glimpse we can see why he so caught the interest of a whole generation of students of philosophy.

Anyone familiar with the course offerings at the University of Marburg during this time will be aware how unique Heidegger's course on a single work of Plato was. More common were lecture courses that encompassed several authors or at least the whole corpus of an author like Plato. But Heidegger wanted to take a fresh look at the Ancient Greeks, in order to understand the origins of the tradition of Western Philosophy. A fresh look required a fresh approach and focusing upon a single text and in the original language. Thus, in approaching this book one approximates what it was to be in this class with Heidegger and see how he opened up a whole world to his students.

During the time when this course was offered, Heidegger was doing his preparation for his grand inquiry into the tradition of ontology, which started with his breakthrough KNS [War Emergency Semester] 1919 where he sought to reach a pre-philosophic means to approach the experience of Being. Given Heidegger's overall phenomenological project, to discover a pre-philosophic means to understand the character and nature of Being, this not only required an examination into the nature of Being itself, but also an examination of the western philosophic tradition on the question of Being. Yet in turning to the great works on the question of Being, he found that the traditional presentations of authors like Plato, Aristotle, etc. appeared hollow and empty to him. The traditional presentations of these great authors did more to obscure the questions he was trying to address than help him resolving them. This forced him to reexamine the tradition of western philosophy and the authors within that tradition. He wanted to take up the root and remove all the dirt surrounding western philosophy in order to understand the thing in itself (i.e., to understand authors like Plato and Aristotle as they understood themselves, not as the tradition of philosophic commentary understood their works and their thought). Leo Strauss, at a lecture at St. Johns, once remarked that Heidegger "by uprooting and not simply rejecting the tradition of philosophy, he made it possible for the first time after many centuries... to see the roots of the tradition as they are and thus perhaps to know, what so many merely believe, that those roots are the only natural and healthy roots." Strauss, Jacob Klein, and many others thought that Heidegger's un-rooting of Greek philosophy made a return to Greek thought a possibility.

The course although focusing on Plato's Sophist opens with an examination of Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 6. The reason Heidegger starts with Arisotle rather than Plato as chronology would indicate is, as Richard Rojcewicz says in the preface, "because of his view that as a principle of hermeneutics we must go from the clear to the obscure. For Heidegger, Aristotle is the only path to Plato, because Aristotle prepares the ground for our understanding of Plato's ontological research, specifically by making explicit what is only implicit in Plato, namely, the link between truth (understood as disclosedness) and Being" (xxvi).

The focus of Heidegger's examination of Plato's Sophist was the very question of Being. How he flushes out the nature of Being, in these lectures, will very much direct the very course Being and Time will take. Thus, it is no fluke that on the opening page Being and Time is a quote from the Sophist. It is Heidegger's belief that the great insight into the nature of being is to be found in the very character of truth. The Greek for truth is aletheia and Heidegger make much of the fact that it is an alpha privative (10-11). Truth, he argues, is a disclosing, a-forgetting, something that is revealed to the seeker. And it is this examination into the nature of truth, that leads first to Book 6 of the NE and then to Plato's Sophist. Heidegger's Aristotle, like his Plato, is very alien. This alien effect is only hardened by his constant referral to the Greek. Heidegger will take a sentence from the Greek and pull out the meaning, and often that meaning is not what most of the scholars of the philosophic tradition have said the text says. He examines NE 6 because it discusses with great clarity and detail the ways by which the human mind grasps truth in various modes. Aristotle distinguishes five forms of "grasping the truth": nous, sophia, epistime, techne, and phronesis. Heidegger was especially interested in the last, phronesis, in that this virtue/excellence of thought deals with human choice and human action in relation to how one best lives one's life. It is in the question of living well that the question of truth most interests Heidegger, for it is a dynamic conception of Being that he is trying to recover against a static one which the tradition of western metaphysics seems to support.

Heidegger's opening examination of the NE 6 addresses the virtues of thought (or so-called intellectual virtues), because he says, the purposes of these virtues is to arrive at what is true. He lays bare the Greek passages of the various sections of NE 6 in an attempt to draw out the nature of the various virtues of the intellect and how they each grasps truth.

After the introduction dealing with Aristotle, he turns to the Sophist and he does the same thing to it as he did with the NE 6, laying bare the Greek sentence by sentence of the various points of the dialogue he holds to be key for understanding the nature of truth. He focuses on each word and how the words work and react to each other in each sentence. Every phrase, every word offers a new and interesting insight. By focusing so closely on the text, not only does Plato seems strange to us, but this very strangeness makes him fresh and intriguing. What we have here is not the stale old Plato (and Aristotle), but something that forces us to pay attention and to rediscover what we often thought we knew. This is exactly what Heidegger wanted. He wanted the student to appreciate the wonder, the awe of discovering that philosophy offers mankind.

In these lectures we can not only see why a whole generation of European intellectuals would turn to Heidegger, but also see the possibility for a recovery of a lost world of Greek philosophy. Again, it was Heidegger's courses and lectures on Aristotle and Plato during these years that drove German students like Hannah Arendt, Jacob Klein and Leo Strauss (and others) to wonder whether a return to Greek philosophy was now possible. And it is justly said that Heidegger's lectures had a great influence on the various revivals of Greek philosophy by numerous adherents of Continental philosophy during the second half of the Twentieth century.

Upon reading what Heidegger has to say about Aristotle's NE 6 and Plato's Sophist one can quite easily imagine the cries of both classicists and students of analytic philosophy interested in Greek Philosophy saying: "This is not Aristotle! This is not Plato!" They would be both right and wrong, for this is neither the Aristotle and the Plato they are used to nor the one that they write about. Often this leads such scholars and their students to merely dismiss Heidegger and what he has to offer. What so offends these critics is that Heidegger will not accept what the philosophic tradition and the tradition of philosophic scholarship has to say about Aristotle and Plato. Rather, Heidegger not only confronts the texts on their own terms, but does so without the lens of the tradition of scholarly interpretation. Thus, he seems to embrace a willful ignorance of what the text, as the scholarly authorities have taught, is supposed to say.

Heidegger forces a confrontation with what Aristotle and Plato say. By making Aristotle and Plato appear so strange to us, Heidegger forces us to think through their arguments rather than accept or repeat as catechism what the tradition of philosophic scholarship holds Aristotle and Plato to have taught. For forcing us to confront the naked texts once again, those interested in what Aristotle and/or Plato has to teach us will find this volume a great find. Also those interested in the intellectual development of Heidegger and the questions and issues he was working upon around the time he was preparing Being and Time will likewise find this volume a treasury of valuable information and clues.

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