Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.35

Martin Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy (translated by Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer). Studies in Continental Thought.   Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2009.  Pp. xii, 279.  ISBN 9780253353498.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Joydeep Bagchee, Philipps-Universität Marburg (


Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy is a translation of the text of a lecture course given by Heidegger at the University of Marburg in the summer semester of 1924. The text is reconstructed from student transcripts, since no complete manuscript of the lecture course survives. On the basis of two sets of transcripts, the editor Mark Michalski has reconstructed the lecture course as being divided into two parts: following an introduction to the lecture, part 1 deals with a preliminary explication of the “ground of conceptuality” (Bodenständigkeit; rendered by the translators as “indigenous character”); part 2 presents an interpretation of basic Aristotelian concepts on the basis of this understanding of the “ground” of conceptuality undertaken as a “retrieval” or a “repetition” (wiederholende Interpretation). Although titled Basic Concepts, the lecture course is not intended as a traditional philosophical introduction: for example, one does not find an explication of Aristotle’s logic, metaphysics, or psychology. The lecture course aims, rather, at being an original philosophical interpretation of the being of human life (Dasein or existence, which the translators render as “being-there”).

Heidegger’s approach to reading ancient texts can best be understood by paying attention to the articulation of the lecture course into two parts. Part 1, as we noted, undertakes an explication of the ground in which concepts are rooted. This ground, Heidegger makes clear in the first chapter, is οὐσία, which he translates as Da-sein, i.e., with the German word for existence (Dasein) in the emphatic sense of being “there” (da). Οὐσία therefore becomes the definitive ontological horizon within which Greek concepts arise and out of which they must therefore be understood.

Chapter 2 then undertakes an interpretation of the existence of human beings, understood as “ζωή πρακτική.” This turn to Aristotle’s Politics (A 2) and Rhetoric (A 6 and 11) is surprising but not without reason: Heidegger is interested in a definition of human existence that preserves its character of haecceitas, its existence in a world hic et nun; an aspect of human existence that had fascinated him since his early work on Duns Scotus and had been the central theme of his thought since then.1 The turn to Aristotle’s Politics/ Rhetoric allows Heidegger to define human existence as “being-in-the-world” (16) and “being-with-one-another” (33), two characteristics he, not without a certain violence, reads into Aristotle at the very outset of his inquiry, but it also brings him up against his biggest problem: the character of the τέλειον appropriate to human existence. Heidegger suggests (but does not further develop) the thesis that Aristotle’s understanding of the τέλος and, ultimately, the entire understanding of being upon which it is based is inadequate to understanding the nature of our death. Indeed, Heidegger seems to suggest, Aristotle displaces the entire discussion of the end of human existence from a discussion of human finitude to theoretical existence: “Θεωρεῖν … [becomes] being-there’s ownmost possibility since in it being-there reaches its end in such a way that it is transposed into its most genuine possibility … as θεωρεῖν constitutes the most genuine ἐντελέχεια of human beings” (64).

This problem thus dictates the subsequent structure of the text. On the one hand, a close interpretation of the Greek understanding of human existence must show that in ordinary “speaking-with-one-another”2 Greek existence understood being in the sense of “being there” such that therein becomes manifest a fear of its potentially not being there, of disappearing from out of its “there” (chapter 3; see also part 2, §26b); this also contains the clue to why the βίος θεωρητικός which tarries with what always is (das Immerseiende, Heidegger’s translation of ἀεὶ ὄν) comes to represent “the genuine and highest possibility of Greek existence” (178). On the other, an interpretation of κίνησις must show how Greek existence understood movement in relation to a privileged category of beings (the beings encountered in and for human πρᾶξις) and hence overlooked the specific movement characteristic of human life (part 2, esp. chapter 2). Indeed, the entire book hinges on the claim made in §26b that the “determination of the ὄν as κινούμενον was always noticed, but not in the sense of being considered as the most proximate character of being. The possibility of discussing movement was not such that movement itself would be recognized as the distinctive mode of the being-there of a definite being” (197).

The entire structure of the book thus yields a very compact argument. Part 1 takes Greek concepts back into οὐσία as their native ground to show how being has always been understood as existence (or, as Heidegger will later call it, “presence-at-hand” [Vorhandenheit]) from out of or in relation to the things human life has to do with in its everyday dealings (cf. 19), in order to show how this way of understanding being leads the Greeks: 1. to overlook the specific role of death as co-constitutive of human life, and 2. to identify νοεῖν with the highest possibility of human existence; indeed, as something divine. “Insofar as νόησις is the highest possibility for the being of human beings, the entire being of human beings is determined so that it must be apprehended as the bodily being-in-the-world of human beings” (134). Part 2 then repeats (wiederholt) the interpretation of Greek conceptuality with the aim of retrieving (wieder-holen; lit. “to bring back”) what is lost or obscured in it: a genuine possibility of movement of human life. This question, only intimated here, provides the point of departure for Heidegger’s writings around 1927, especially the “existential analytic of Dasein” undertaken in Being and Time.

Heidegger has often been criticized for the violence his interpretation does to ancient texts, and rightly so. Nonetheless, rather than critique him for his translation of specific concepts it is more productive to think about his motivation for reading ancient texts ‘against the grain’. Recent research leaves us in no doubt that the motivation underlying Heidegger’s critique of Aristotle is a deeply theological one. For example, scholars such as Yfantis have pointed out his immense debt to Luther.3 More significantly, Adluri, in a recent paper presented at the Heidegger Circle, has argued that Heidegger’s reading of ancient texts must be seen as a critique of Greek philosophy analogous to Luther’s rejection of the theologia gloriae for a theologia crucis.4 Thus, Adluri argues that Heidegger valorizes the notion of a finite, linear temporality as a means of excluding “cyclical temporality—whether thought of as transmigration of the soul (Plato) or as eternal recurrence (Nietzsche)—which is incompatible with [an original] Christian experience.” In the context of the present text, one can easily see that the critique of the Greek concept of movement is not undertaken because of the way the Greeks saw the movement of this or that being; it is undertaken because of the implications this interpretation has for the movement of two privileged ‘beings’: 1. human beings, and 2. the θεῖον.

Let me relate this work to Heidegger’s larger philosophical project. The present text constitutes only a small part of this overarching critique: it actually fits into a much larger Aristotle project announced in the early brief essay Phänomenologische Interpretationen zu Aristoteles: Anzeige der hermeneutischen Situation.5 There, Heidegger articulated a program of research he described as a “phenomenological hermeneutics of facticity” in which “ontology and logic” were to be “taken back into their original unity of the problem of facticity”;6 in essence, the very same project as we have seen here. The goal of such a hermeneutics is to “loosen up the inherited and dominant interpretation following its hidden motives, inexplicit tendencies, and interpretive approaches, and, through a deconstructive regress, press forward to the original motivational sources of the explication”7 and the reason for doing so is because “Christian theology and the philosophical ‘speculation’ standing under its influence … speak in borrowed categories foreign to their proper ontological domain.”8 Concretely, Heidegger proposes to accomplish this project in four stages through an interpretation of: 1. Nicomachean Ethics Ζ, 2. Metaphysics A 1-2, Physics Α, Β, Γ 1-3, and 4. Metaphysics Ζ, Η, Θ,9 with the core of this project lying in the interpretation of the Physics, esp. Γ 1-3. To this we may add an inexplicit first half, which requires linking the interpretation of the “hermeneutic situation” undertaken in the first half of the text to this concrete “destructive” appropriation of the tradition through taking Aristotle to be the embodiment (albeit a scientifically developed one) of the Greek interpretation of life. In the 1922 essay, Heidegger does not as yet specify Aristotle’s Rhetoric as presenting us with such a text but, by the time of the 1924 lecture course, it has become evident that (the interpretation of) Aristotle’s Rhetoric is to fulfill this precise function.

The present work (which establishes the link between human existence and its self-addressing of itself in the Aristotelian Rhetoric and unfolds an interpretation of κίνησις from the Physics) thus constitutes the key text in this project. Indeed, together with his lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics delivered in winter semester 1924/25 (published as the first half of Plato’s Sophist), an interpretation of Nicomachean Ethics Ζ, and the text Phänomenologische Interpretation ausgewählter Abhandlungen Aristoteles zu Ontologie und Logik from summer semester 1922, an interpretation of Metaphysics A 1-2, it constitutes in essence the entire project as laid out in the 1922 essay. The final piece is a lecture course on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ 1-3 given in summer semester of 1931.10 Thus, while he never published the Aristotle book he proposed writing at the time of his appointment, Heidegger did substantially complete this project and there is good reason for seeing these three works together as the completed text of that book. We thus have every reason to thank the translators for undertaking a translation of one of the most major Heidegger works to be published in recent years and Indiana University Press for making two of the three critical parts of this project available in translation.

The translation is mostly good, barring some errors. For example, Vermeinen is translated throughout as “supposing” although as Heidegger’s translation of νοεῖν it is best translated with “thinking.” Secondly, on page 48, the translator’s translate, “If we aim at understanding the ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν, that being-determination that the being of human beings constitutes in its genuine being-in-its-world, we must look to the being of human beings itself,” confusing subject and object: it is not the being of human beings that constitutes the “being-determination” of the ἀγαθόν but the ἀγαθόν as an ontological determination that constitutes the being of human beings. Another such example occurs on page 201, where the authors translate, “Ἐντελέχεια μόνον … a completed being that is there, which is always already completed, which was never produced, which never would be but is simply present,” crucially overlooking the negation nicht; instead of “never would be” the clause correctly reads: “which never would not have been.”


1.   See, for example, the claim made in his Habilitationsschrift of Scotus that “he discovered a greater and finer proximity (haecceitas) to real life in its multiplicity and potential for tension than the Scholastics before him.” M. Heidegger, The Doctrine of Categories and Meaning of Duns Scotus, trans. Joydeep Bagchee (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press [forthcoming]).
2.   Heidegger’s ‘translation’ of δόξα (cf. 103); rhetoric, on the other hand, is defined as that which makes explicit what is contained in such δόξα (cf. 91-92).
3.   Dimitrios Yfantis, Die Auseinandersetzung des frühen Heidegger mit Aristoteles (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2009).
4.   Vishwa Adluri, “Heidegger’s Encounter with Aristotle: A Theological Deconstruction of Metaphysics,” paper presented at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Heidegger Circle, Stony Brook University, New York, 2010. See also the same author’s Plato, Parmenides, and Mortal Philosophy: Return from Transcendence (London: Continuum Publishing, 2011), a full-length defense of Parmenides and ancient philosophy against Heidegger’s totalizing critique.
5.   This essay has now been reprinted in M. Heidegger, Phänomenologische Interpretation ausgewählter Abhandlungen Aristoteles zu Ontologie und Logik (Frankfurt a.M.: Vittorio Klostermann, 2005).
6.   Ibid., 364; all translations mine.
7.   Ibid., 364.
8.   Ibid., 389-390.
9.   Cf. ibid., 375; no. 4 is added later at the end of the text and seems an afterthought – Heidegger never develops it quite as fully as the others.
10.   M. Heidegger, Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ 1-3: On the Essence and Actuality of Force trans. Walter Brogan and Peter Warnek (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995).

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