Withdrawing Is Not Nothing

In What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger says, “What must be thought about turns away from man.  It withdraws from him….  But – withdrawing is not nothing.  Withdrawal is an event.  In fact, what withdraws may even concern and claim man more essentially than anything present that strikes and touches him….  What withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or at all…. To the extent that man is drawing that way, he points to what withdraws.”

In my last post on this book, I was asking about what it is in us that recognizes that we are still not thinking.   The above quotation relates to this question, I think, in that it gives agency to what must be thought, to the question of why we are not yet thinking, rather than to we who would think it.  The reason that we are not yet thinking is not solely because we fail to reach out to what must be thought, but also because what must be thought turns itself away from us, withdraws from us.

This withdrawal, however, is not nothing, and Heidegger is insistent on this point.  Though the withdrawal of what needs to be thought means that we never encounter it as something present that strikes us or touches us, it nevertheless draws us along, makes us follow after it, pulls us in its wake, and we therefore point to it through our own motion in relation to it.  We may not recognize that we are drawn in this way, but we are nevertheless drawn, and we point towards what draws us, for ourselves and for each other.

In a sense, this answers the questions of my previous post, because we are no longer required to recognize that we are not yet thinking despite the fact that we are not yet thinking.  Rather, what must be thought, the question of why we are not yet thinking, is itself actively drawing us, and we need only to recognize that we are being drawn.  Even so, at least this much is required of us: that we realize that we are being drawn, that this drawing must point toward something that withdraws, and Heidegger himself acknowledges that some do not ever make this realization.    So what is it, to reformulate my previous question slightly, that causes some to make this realization and not others?

There is also the question of the agency that Heidegger ascribes to what must be thought.  After all, in what sense can we speak of something to be thought as active, as withdrawing, as drawing us after it?  What kind of agency can an object of thought actually exercise, especially when it is really only an object of thought in relation to the human capacity for thinking?  If it is the question of why we are not yet thinking, and if it is what must be thought by us, then it is what it is only in relation to us.  How, then, can it act upon us?  How can it draw us after it?

Can we speak, perhaps, of a structure of human being in the world that itself produces what must be thought as an essential by-product of its being in the world, whether consciously or otherwise?  Does the human mode of being in the world, in other words, somehow essentially and structurally presuppose the question of why we are not yet thinking?   If so, do we cast this question ahead of ourselves, so to speak, setting in motion the very thing that will withdraw from us, that will draw us after it?  Are we simultaneously driving this question before us and being drawn after its withdrawal?

How then would we understand thinking?  What would our relation to it be?  Is it this question itself that puts us on the way to thinking?

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4 comments
  1. d said:

    I apologize if I have asked you this before, but I am curious what you think of Heidegger’s history with Nazism?

    This decades-old debate was reignited recently here in the US with the English translation and publication of Faye’s ‘Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy’.

    This article about that book is written and argued poorly, but the comments afterwards are very interesting: http://chronicle.com/article/Heil-Heidegger-/48806/

    I must admit to having never read a book by Heidegger, but I always find what you write about him interesting. He is also a major influence on philosophers who are dear to me. So, I cannot bring myself to reject him outright, but I also have a bad feeling in my stomach when I hear his name, due to his involvement with the Nazis and then his inability to be honest or open about that involvement after-the-fact. After the war, he found time to write articles against industrial agriculture but never against the Shoah. How can such a man be one of the great thinkers of the 20th Century?

  2. John Jantunen said:

    It’s an interesting question and one, I think related, to something I touched on in response to your blog about yoru search for the perfect word. As then, I will try to revert to more concrete terms than the ones you and Heidegger use. For me this process of being drawn after this withdrawal (which I consider to be at core of the way creative man informs his/her life) is as Hesse describes it in Narcissus and Goldmun. It is the passage where Goldmun, seaking refuge, stumbles upon the sculpture of, I believe, The Virgin Mary in the country church and is so transifixed by, not only its beauty, but by the way it makes him feel, that he determines then and there that his life’s work will be to learn this craft so that he may create a piece of his own instilled with the tranformative power to touch someone else as he himself was touched. Of course, the sensation, for those who have established this kind of connection to something apart from oneself (and especially those that have experienced it in relation to something another has created), is a fleeting one and thus Goldmun’s task becomes two-fold; first learn the skills required to create such a thing and second, find a way of reclaiming the sensation that sent him on the path to begin with so that he may instill it in his art once he has mastered the technical aspects. The latter, I don’t think I should have to add, is obviously the more difficult of the two for any wo/man to achieve (and is very likely impossible) and maybe goes someway to explaining what Heidegger means when he says, What must be thought about turns away from man. It is the essence of the thing, the epiphany or the realisation or the gleaning, to be transient, and it is the process through which man attempts to decipher the event, to understand it in relation to him/herself and the world in which he/she lives, that gives meaning to one’s life, or the well-lived life anyway. And the paradox of the thing is, that if one should ever find the means to accomplish the task one has set for oneself (create the statue that will inspire the next generation, in Goldmun’s case) an appreciation of it (that is, it’s full meaning) will be lost on you as the creator because the process of creation deflates the mystery to the extent that its transformative power becomes reserved only for someone stumbling upon the finished product (which is the trick, since, the more one creates, the more one begins to hope that the act of creation will, itself, fulfill the creator’s lust for that original sensation). Thus, in the mind of the creator it, stepping back from the canvas or the book or pile of wood chips, the answer to that age old question of meaning that s/he has come up with and now stands before him/her will always be a simulcrum, and an unfinished one at that, whose lack of transformative power for him/herself, the creator laments, must, damn it, stem from his/her own inability to ask the right question. So he/she starts on a new work, recognizing in the interval, perhaps, that the most impossible of impossibles is truly impossible and instead satisfies him/herself with the idea that if only he/she could catch a glimpse of the thing again, that would be just as well, and all the while the feeling diminishes a little more, and knowing this to be true with every new piece, the creator works harder, learns new skills to enahnce the old, strives for greater understanding of the world around and his/her place in it, and channels it into his/her work, and on and on the process continues until the creator goes crazy or dies or grows bored (or has kids) or the memory of the thing simply fades away, lost to the world until someone seeking refuge happens upon it one night precisely when he/she is in need of transformation, so that the process may begin again.

  3. d,

    There are at least three questions here: 1) Was Heidegger a Nazi? 2) To what degree would a Nazi’s thinking be essentially Nazi? and 3) Could a Nazi nevertheless be a great thinker?

    1) I am not able to judge what Heidegger knew or believed with respect to Nazism. Nevertheless, whatever he knew and believed, he was at least complicit with Nazism to a not insignificant degree, and no amount of philosophical brilliance should convince us to overlook his culpability in this.

    2) I would say that there is a difference between thinking that explicitly supports Nazism and thinking that is by a Nazi but about things entirely unrelated to Nazism. I would also say that there is a vast continuum that stretches between these two extremes, a continuum that encompasses every work actually written by a Nazi. In other words, though I would maintain that a Nazi’s writing is not necessarily Nazi writing, I would also suggest that it is never entirely unrelated to Nazism either.

    3) In my opinion, it is possible to be both a Nazi and a great thinker, just as it is possible for Lewis Carrol to both take nude pictures of children and also write great children’s novels. Though the moral beliefs of the author are certainly not irrelevant to what he or she writes, and though I may want to take these factors into account as a reader, the work of thinking or art must always be read and judged in itself, and I judge much of what Heidegger wrote to be very good indeed.

  4. John,

    Your relation of the act of thinking to the act of artistic creation is interesting, and there are some places in Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, and Thought that I would like to reread with respect to this.

    What I like in what you are saying is how it is the artist who sets this question, who casts this question ahead, and who is subsequently drawn after it, and the question arises out of witnessing how another artist has been drawn.

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