Alienation is one of the deepest themes in modern culture. It has also become, alas, one of the most hackneyed. Everybody talks about it, and the more we talk the more casual and accepted the thing itself seems to become. Alienation even becomes an “in” thing. To be alienated is a mark of distinction that sets us off from our less sensitive fellows. In the 1960’s the young aspired to it, cultivated it as a way of life, and proclaimed it as their defiance in the face of their elders. Alienation thus becomes a pseudo-home in which we may comfortably nestle along with other superior and lofty souls. The more easily we chatter about it, the more the phenomenon itself, in its true dimensions, becomes hidden to us.

Alienus means a stranger, and therefore someone not at home where he is. If we think about a home, and what it means to be without one, we shall begin to think a little more concretely about the matter of alienation. We may find too that we have not laid the disturbing ghost by our casual chatter.

To be homeless—how well we know it in this age of displaced persons! Great masses of people are uprooted, driven out of their homes, resettled in strange places. That is part of the history of our troubled century. Even in a so-called stable society like our own, mobility becomes constant. In the movements of people from city to suburb, suburb to suburb, city to city, our successive houses begin to resemble wayside stations. A few years ago the movie, Airport, made a popular splash. It was a poor movie, but it struck a responsive chord in the audience. An airport, with its ceaseless arrivals and departures, seemed to be an adequate image of what life today, in the global stage of humanity, has become.

After the first space flights another metaphor for our earthly existence became current. We were here on earth like voyagers on a spacecraft. The image was a well-intentioned warning: as the resources on board a spaceship are limited and therefore to be prudently conserved, so too are those of the planet earth as we voyage with it through empty space. If we befoul the atmosphere of our cabin we cannot replace it. In the technological era it is natural we should find a technological image for our terrestrial existence. Nevertheless, one could hardly find a more dismal picture of our homelessness than this. From the moment we think of our life on this planet as a voyage in a spacecraft through empty space we have ceased to dwell upon this earth as men once did.

Homelessness is the destiny of modern man. This theme is persistent and recurring in the thought of Martin Heidegger, though he appears to have an ambiguous relation to it. In his earlier works he seemed to bend every effort toward showing us how man is and must be, not by social or historical accident but essentially, an uncanny stranger in the world. His later work seeks to redress this balance: to point forward to the ways in which humankind may find again on this earth a home in which to dwell, think, and build. But perhaps there is no ambiguity here. Only when we have come to understand the stranger within us at his true depth can we learn to domesticate him again.

It might seem ironical that Heidegger, the most stubbornly regional character in modern culture, should be the contemporary philosopher most preoccupied with this theme. All his long life he has been rooted to his place, Suebia in the southwest corner of Germany, near to the Alps and the Bodensee—a mountain and a lake, good companions to meditation. Only very late in life did he travel far enough from his home to see a Greek temple, something on which his thinking had long dwelt. He wanted to see the place that had once been the home of a god, and around which men could therefore build their own homes. There is then no irony about his chosen theme. Only a figure so rooted can be properly disturbed at mankind’s loss of home.

This feeling for his own region may have been what led Heidegger to become a Nazi for a few years at the beginning of that regime—a nationalist party can sometimes make a strong appeal to regional feelings. We do not know. He has taped an interview on this Nazi chapter of his life for the magazine, Der Spiegel, which will not be released until after his death. We may be just as much in the dark after we have heard it. The actors in a drama may not always be the best witnesses to the motives that drove them. What led him to break with Nazism may be more significant than what originally led him into it, for this break coincides in its dates with a definite shift in the emphasis of his thinking. Yet even here the connections between life and thought can only be tenuous and strained at best.

Perhaps philosophers should not have any biography other than the life of their thought. It does not help our initial acquaintance with Plato, for example, to learn that he chose to be prudently absent from Athens during the trial of his master Socrates. In Heidegger’s case, the Nazi episode seems to be the only thing in the way of biography that some critics are willing to allow him. We are therefore spared any such further details of a biographical kind and can plunge directly into the matter of his thought.

The use of this thought is to help us come to some deeper understanding of our human homelessness. The classical analyses of alienation were given in the 19th century by Hegel and Marx. Heidegger speaks from a further region than these great thinkers. For even if their conditions for overcoming alienation were present—if the human spirit were no longer divided and at odds with itself (Hegel), and men were to find at last a real sense of community within a socialist society (Marx)—there would still lurk a more deeply rooted alienation at the core of our human being, and in relation to being itself.



I. Morning

Being? You could scarcely find a word less likely to stir the enthusiasm of readers today. We want solutions to specific problems, or—if we are to dabble in generalities—ideologies that hold forth illusions of such solutions. Being is too remote and abstract for such concerns. It has no cash value, as William James would say. Perhaps the word is hopeless, after all. History has loaded it with too many distorting connotations, and modern philosophers have riddled it with too much critical buckshot. Well then, let us scrap the word, and plunge instead into the everyday world and try to take note of the ways in which we are in that world.

You enter that world differently with Heidegger than with another typical modern philosopher like Wittgenstein. The latter permits you only the langauge of the everyday. You cannot rise above ordinary language to describe its nature. You can show what this language is only by examples of its use, but you remain within it. Like a fish in water, we never get out of that pervasive medium in which we live. Heidegger, however, does attempt to describe the general features of our ordinary existence, and he therefore moves both within it and without it. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the ordinary is that it harbors within it those moments that can always evict us out of it into the extraordinary and uncanny. Thus for the purposes of his description Heidegger uses a language that is often very far from ordinary language. Much has been made of the strangeness of his terminology, but that objection has long since spent its force as we have come to assimilate his meaning. A work like Being and Time, as we return again and again to it, begins to strike us more and more with the economy and power of its expression: it does not seem that language—in this case the German language—could have been used more simply and efficiently to convey the powerful range of what the writer has to say. As we move away from it in time, the book towers as one of the great landmarks that our century has to show for itself. In any case, it offers the profoundest description of our ordinary existence that philosophy has yet given.

Let us follow its lead, then, through one day of our everyday.

I—or you, reader—wake to the day. That in itself is as momentous a fact as it is banal. You wake to this day that is present and yet is the day that is to be as you set about the day’s business. Time present is a future present in that presence. You do not wake in space but in your room. Physical space—the space that science constructs—is not the world in which you open your eyes at morning or close them at night. Nor do you encounter physical objects in anything like the sense of science. True, you are immediately plunged into a world of things: shoes, socks, articles of clothing or of the toilette with which you assemble yourself for the day that is both present and is-to-be. The more smoothly your dressing proceeds, the more unobtrusively these familiar articles come to hand and disappear back into their framework of use, and the less they present themselves as material substances. Only if the shoe is tight, or the razor jams, does this utensil present itself in its obtrusive obstinacy as sheer materiality that resists you. Space, matter, substance—these lie at the remote horizon of our daily concerns, if at all, and though they could become themes of purely theoretical interest, these are not the usual cares we take up at breakfast.

Your small world now links into a larger one: you have to be on your way to work. Notice that “have to be” again. It is a phrase so banal that we do not usually observe how heavy and fateful its meaning is. We are alive and have always to be on the way to. . . . You take your car, let us say, to the train. You stop at a traffic light. Red—that means Stop. This meaning is not something to be located “in your mind.” Meaning is not, first and foremost, a mental phenomenon but an aspect of things within our daily world. Things have such and such a meaning as they point or refer to other things or to behavior that they elicit from us. And this is true too of that larger world that surrounds the man-made world of human traffic. This morning, for example, you may have peeped out of the window earlier to see if there were clouds that might mean rain—in which case you would have carried your raincoat. Signs, symbols, meanings—these do not enter as phenomena from a distinct realm of the mental but as aspects of the various things we encounter and have to deal with in our environment.

On the train you take a seat on the right because the morning sun, risen in the east, will not bother you there. So far there is no abstract physical space but there are spatial directions that we humans mark out for ourselves. We establish places for ourselves in relation to our particular uses for them: the right side of the train, for example, allows you to read your newspaper without the glare of sunlight.

Your morning newspaper! Here another and vaster space opens before you. Events from all over the world, reported here, file before you, depressing, cheering, or boring, according as they engage your particular concerns. Man is the creature who can annihilate distance and bring far and near together. This peculiar relation to space is one of his possibilities. Notice how this thread of possibility weaves its way in and out of the tapestry of your day. This day itself is a concrete possibility present—the day that is here and yet is to be, and in such a way that what is to be already shapes what you think and do. Perhaps too the morning headlines carry the tremors of history behind them. To be involved in history, making it or suffering it, that too is one of mankind’s unique possibilities, at once challenging and terrifying. Even in our tiny corner, reader, you and I, who are not principals in the historical drama, nevertheless feel the constant tug of its possibilities upon our lives. But perhaps at the moment such thoughts beget anxiety, and you would rather turn aside from the ominous possibilities your paper spreads before you and relax with the crossword puzzle.



Notice that you have not been an ego or a self or a mind throughout any of this. Not in the sense, at any rate, in which philosophers have traditionally discussed these matters. You do not carry around a self inside you like a tiny substantial nugget at your center. Sitting there in the train, you are simply one passenger among many. You rest for the moment in that anonymity of the everyday that is at moments blessedly possible for us. An existentialist of a different brand like Sartre would poison even this tranquility for us. According to him, the conductor who glances at us as he comes down the aisle has transfixed us with his stare and we are frozen in the gaze of the Other. Sartre is haunted by the world of Proust, where as you exit from a brothel or crouch to peer through a keyhole you may suddenly be caught by a hostile eye that fixes you forever in the posture of shame. As a phenomenologist, Sartre can never quite grasp the normal in the everyday; his imagination, theatrical and melodramatic, must distort, heighten, overdramatize. Significantly, his best play is also his most theatrical one—Kean, an adaptation of Dumas and a brilliant recreation of Second Empire melodrama. But we are not now in the world of Proust or of Dumas but in an ordinary train; and this anonymity of the everyday, of being one among others, is emotionally and ethically neutral. Persist in it too long, of course, or against the call of other possibilities, and you become a lost soul, a faceless member of the mass.

But for the moment the respite is precious and you escape into your crossword. The puzzle is just difficult enough to engage you and just easy enough not to cause frustration. If the latter, you might be thrown into cares that would project this self lurking in the background all too violently into the foreground. It will be with you in any case all too plentifully throughout your day, always at the horizon, summoning you to be, never complete but always on the way. You are thankful then for these few moments of respite.

So we could go on, if space permitted, through the intricate details of a day, with Heidegger always at our side. It is a good exercise for readers of him to live a day in the eyes of his text. It is amazing how his book stands up to the test. Here is our human existence, not as philosophers have conceived it or as we habitually cover it over with readymade phrases, but as we actually live it, thrusting forth into the dimensions of time, with past-present-future interweaving and co-present, and yet with the silent power of the future—what is not yet but is to be—as the persistent tug upon us pulling the spinning threads along.

Life is many days, day after day. But it is not, we hope, a mere succession of days. We long that these days shall somehow add up to a meaning or a drama that we can call a life. Unlike Wittgenstein’s Investigations, which has no beginning, middle, or end, Heidegger’s treatment of the everyday has an intensely dramatic, even melodramatic, structure. It has almost the elements of a plot or story about it. And this story, oddly enough in a work so austerely secular in tone, follows the outlines of the traditional religious tale of salvation. Heidegger tells us how our human being, thrown into the world, may lose itself there, and sink to a fallen state; but how through the encounter with conscience, anxiety, and death, it is called to and can become an authentic self. But if Heidegger follows the outlines of a religious parable of salvation, what he finally offers is at the farthest remove from the usual consolations of religion. The encounter with anxiety and death opens up no heavenly perspectives for the self. It discovers in that encounter only its own nothingness. Yet the discovery is liberating. In the light of this disclosure we can attain a resolve that frees us from the petty servitudes of the everyday. The fundamental human freedom is our freedom toward death. In the light of that freedom we can take upon ourselves, as authentic humans, whatever decisions and tasks fall to us in the ordinary course of life.

Anxiety and death are shocking matters to be thrown before philosophers who are engrossed in more formal and technical questions. A man must be something of a sensationalist, they think, to deal with such themes at all. The result is that these matters have bulked so large for commentators, both friendly and hostile, that they have obscured the more persistent theme that Heidegger was after from the start. Anxiety and death, to be sure, are integral parts of life, and the philosopher who wishes to understand our existence must come to terms with them. Death is a fearful thing against which the teachers of mankind in the past, including the ancient philosophers, have sought to bring consolations of one kind or another. But Heidegger does not enter the lists in order to bring some kind of modernized version of ancient stoicism that would teach us to face death with equanimity. His purpose is neither therapeutic nor moral; and if his effect is at all moral, it is so only incidentally, insofar as he enlightens our human condition. We interrogate death and anxiety for the light that they shed on the unique kind of being that is ours. But whence do these separate lights borrow their light?

And this, of course, is the question of truth itself—the question that lies behind the dramatic scenario of Being and Time, and establishes the link between the earlier and later Heidegger, where some critics have seen only a drastic rupture.



II. Afternoon

The question of truth, truth as such, is likely to strike most of us as rather remote and far-fetched, or alternately, depending on our mood, as gratuitious and unnecessary because the matter is so obvious. More often than not we can harbor both prejudices without any sense that they may be contradictory. In fact, they may even tend to reinforce each other. It is so obvious what truth is that we need not ask about it; and yet it is at the same time something remote and hard to grasp just because it is woven so closely into the texture of our experience. The things directly at one’s feet are always the hardest to see.

But if we do take a look we may be in for some surprises. We may find that the source of our alienation lies hidden at the center of this apparently trivial question.

At first glance the philosophical tradition might seem to confirm our conviction that the whole matter is altogether obvious. Aristotle, that luminous master of the commonplace, begins it with a definition: Truth is the correspondence of our thought with what is actually the case. Aristotle said some other things on the subject too; but no matter, the tradition congealed around this, and the Middle Ages codified it in the formula “Veritas est adaequatio intellectus el rei”—truth consists in the agreement of our thought with reality. We are thinking truly when our thinking is in accord with the facts as they are. Who can doubt this? This is self-evident common sense, and we should not seek to becloud it with puzzles. Indeed, we don’t in the least seek to doubt it. It is the truth about truth—as far as it goes. But it speaks at a level of abstractness of which common sense remains unconscious and which in the end begets all manner of puzzles.

These puzzles are quick to appear as soon as we enter the modern era in philosophy with Descartes’s dualism of mind and matter, subject and object. Mind and matter are radically different kinds of things; how then can we compare an idea in the mind to a thing outside the mind? For us to make the comparison, the thing outside must somehow come inside the mind. The question of truth now becomes one of consistency between my idea and my perception—between two different contents of my consciousness. Thus arises the well-known coherence theory of truth, according to which truth is a matter of our ever-widening and self-integrating consciousness. This gets rid of one set of puzzles, but brings another in its place. We seem now imprisoned in the mind and haunted by the ghost of a subjectivism that has bedeviled even the greatest among the modern philosophers.

But let us leave such puzzles to the classroom and return to this day in the everyday to see if we can find truth there.

I sit here at my desk as the afternoon wanes, struggling to work, only now and then raising my eyes to stare absently around me. Same old room, same old objects. I do not take notice, my attention is on my work and my eyes return to it. But I begin to be vaguely uneasy; something in the room is troubling me, but I do not even stop to think what it might be. A friend suddenly enters and says, “That picture is hanging askew,” pointing to the painting that hangs on the wall directly across the room. And sure enough, that’s what it is, that is what has been vaguely troubling me all this while: the picture has been hanging lopsided and I was really seeing it but not noticing it. Now the hidden fact leaps out and stands clear. And I experience that feeling of momentary ease and satisfaction that always comes with the resolution of any problem, even when it is as slight as this one.

In this ridiculously commonplace incident we witness nothing less than the happening of truth. Forgive this suddenly portentous language; but we have to hold fast to this tiny situation as a whole or we shall never see what truth is. Usually, philosophers take one part of the situation and find it sufficient. Truth has occurred, they say, because a statement has been made, “That picture is hanging askew,” and the statement turned out to be true. And it was true because it corresponded with the fact: the picture hanging there on the wall is really lopsided.

But is this what really happened? Do we really compare a proposition with a fact? If I want to compare two coins, I set them beside each other and see if they match. Each coin must be equally accessible to me. In general, if I want to compare any two things at all, each must be equally evident to me. The fact would have to be evident (true) to me before the proposition arrived to bring us its truth.

Does anything happen like the following? I hear noises that somehow provoke the idea in my mind, “That picture is hanging askew”; I then exit quickly from the mind, garner a sense-perception from the picture; return inside the mind and compare the perception with my idea. Decidedly, our whole picture of things here has gone very much askew! What we have done, as it were, is to take a great pair of scissors and cut the single proposition out of the concrete situation in which it functioned and did its work; and then on this dislocated fragment we have constructed a fantastic and meaningless structure to build it back into the whole.

Language works differently from a point-by-point matching. Suppose my friend had simply said, “Look!” while pointing at the picture. The exclamation could have disclosed the lopsided picture just as well. Does it therefore “correspond” to—resemble in any way—the fact? Yet it has done the same job as the full proposition: it has brought something hidden into the open. Suppose there had been a curtain draped over the wall and my friend had pulled it aside to uncover the picture hanging askew. His action takes place out there in the open; we wouldn’t think of locating it in somebody’s mind. Yet our language, which here performed the same job of uncovering a fact, seems somehow infected with the virus of the “mental” and we think it has to be pushed back out of the world into the mind. It is as if we were to carry on a conversation with each other inside our separate heads. We forget that the primary function of language, if we have something to say and are not merely babbling, is to uncover something within the world, to bring it into the open; and it can do this only because it itself transpires within the open world.

The old comic strips used to show us truth dawning on one of their characters as an electric bulb lighting up in the head. These cartoonists seem to have gone to school with Descartes. Nor should we smile in too easy superiority here, for we ourselves, so deeply embedded are these notions, more often than not may be unconsciously thinking according to the same pattern. Nevertheless we should keep the image of light; only it is not an electric bulb flashing in our head when truth happens, but some portion of the world that has become illuminated. If we go looking for truth inside the mind we shall only find the mind already outside of itself in the world. When a new truth arises to change our minds, as we commonly say, it does so only in that it changes some portion of the world for us. The world here is taken to include all the things of nature as well as of the life of humans in history.



The means and provenance of illumination may vary greatly. Statements may be the instruments of enlightenment, but not the only ones. As soon as we are freed from the notion of the single proposition as the ultimate locus of truth, with each proposition carrying its truth on its back like a rider on a saddle, we are also freed toward understanding other modes through which truth may be realized. In particular, we might begin at last to ask seriously in what way truth may be embodied in works of art. Instead of squabbling, as philosophers will do, about the trivial matter of how that picture is hanging on the wall, we might ask the more important question, what truth is present in it. For a great painting (of which this is a reproduction) can light up a whole historical chapter of the human spirit for us. If we had nothing from the 18th and 19th centuries but their music, the profound differences of the human horizons within these two epochs would be overwhelmingly evident and clear to us. We cannot understand these truths of art within the framework of strictly prepositional truth. Nor is it any more possible to understand the truth of literature, the form which uses language as its medium, within that framework.

What we have said so far, particularly on the instrumental aspects of language, is obviously related to the controversy launched by the pragmatists, William James and John Dewey, in the first years of this century by their all-out attack upon the correspondence theory of truth. Bertrand Russell, who was among their adversaries, found the Americans unsophisticated and crude. From what we have since come to know about the constructive nature of scientific theory, it turns out to be the pragmatists (on this matter, Dewey particularly) who were the more sophisticated—sophisticated because more imaginative. The scientist may construct models for which it becomes gratuitous and empty to ask for a point-by-point correspondence with each item of fact. The theory is tested as a whole.

In retrospect, the main issues of the controversy can now be sorted out more clearly. If truth is not to be embedded within the human context, including the context of language (as the pragmatists insisted it is), then the alternative forced upon us is a doctrine of independently subsisting propositions each of which has the rider of truth or falsity attached to it. Russell, then a Platonist, could embrace this position gladly, but it has not worn at all well. Nevertheless, the pragmatists could not shake off the correspondence view altogether, it clung to them like the can tied to the dog’s tail, and they accepted it at key points—“in face to face verifications,” viz., where we are facing the thing directly—because they did not yet have the phenomenological understanding that for a thing to be directly evident does not imply any correspondence.1

The Greek word we translate as “true” is alethes, literally “unhidden.” This word does not speak of the correspondence between a statement and a fact, between a mental judgment and a thing, between an ideal content and the matter of perception. It speaks only of something that has emerged from the hidden into the open. The word came into being in the earliest days of the Greek language, we know not how or when or what thoughts may have accompanied its formation. It emerged before the Greeks had become literate and produced grammarians and logicians. And it remains closer to the primal sense and function of language than the subtlest analyses of later grammar and logic. Heidegger did not arrive at his understanding of truth through a piece of ancient etymology. It came to him through prolonged reflection upon the doctrine of the proposition in Husserl’s Logical Investigations; out of the stubborn effort to bring before our eyes—which is what phenomenology properly is—what the master’s doctrine still concealed. And with this step Heidegger transforms the nature of phenomenology much more radically and decisively than by his spectacular analyses of anxiety and death. But having followed this path, we may also guard the Greek word as a talisman. As we shall see in a moment, it will also serve as a somber reminder of what remains alien and hidden to us in all of our truth.

Notice we do not say: the Greek word for true is alethes. That would be to impose ourselves as the standard by which to measure them, and then add a little dash of etymology by way of color. The simple fact of the matter is more drastic: the Greeks did not have a word for “true.” They had only a word which meant: evident, manifest, open, present. Was this a deprivation on their part, a symptom of their relatively primitive state in comparison with ours? In fact, it was a distinct advantage. And if we follow them here, we shall not only learn to think a little more “Greekly,” but we shall be able to see where truth is to be found in our everyday. We have simply to look for ta alethea—the things evident and manifest that we encounter there.

And indeed truth was with us at every step in the long day’s journey through the everyday. Not poked away in some odd corner or other, or popping its head up at some unexpected and unusual juncture of events, but persisting through and within this day in which you and I, reader, have still to be. From the moment we opened our eyes a world was disclosed to us. Familiar faces, houses, streets, cars, trains—all stand out clearly to us. Wherever there is disclosure there is truth. To be in a world—any world—is insofarforth to be in the truth. The world so disclosed may be a tiny and unprepossessing affair, but we must hold fast to it nonetheless. However far from it our theorizing may soar, it must take off from and return here. Even when we seek to go behind this world and dismantle it piece by piece as mere appearance, we would still have to borrow our initial language and meanings from it.

And this day itself? Has it not also been something manifest and evident in its presence? Yet we cannot grasp it like the things that came and went and were present within it. They are visible and tangible, and it is not; yet it has been with us as persistently and as unnoticed as our breathing. Can we grasp presence itself? Yet it is closer and more present to us than any of the things that came to be present within it.



But someone might say: Why make a mystery of it, it is only a day, a segment of time? Alas, we do not escape so easily. When we undertook a journey through the everyday, reader, it was this present day and not any other. “Twenty-four hours” is an abstraction that could be tomorrow or yesterday but not this day in its presence. Nor can we capture this presence by assigning a date: “Today is . . .”—and filling in the blank with its calendar date. For it is precisely the “is” in this sentence-form that we wish to grasp, and tomorrow this date will not name the present.

Nor can we grasp this presence as the present instant of time. I look now at my watch and count off ten seconds. Ten jerky little jumps of the hand and ten “now’s” have followed each other into and out of existence. Watch and ticking hand are things that are present. The counting also is done within this presence that envelops watch and ticking hand. The now thus becomes manifest only within and through presence, and therefore can never serve to define presence. Being, as presence, is manifest through time but can no more be captured under the forms of time than under the forms of space.

With this simple and enveloping fact of presence we have come upon being. Being manifests itself as presence. It is a reality neither remote nor abstract, but there all the time, pervading our day in the everyday throughout its most ordinary encounters. Whenever we said, “Here is. . .,” “There is . . . ,” or “Today is . . . ,” which are indispensable modes of ordinary expression, we were acknowledging presence. And within this presence we spoke of the ill-hanging picture. Even with such provisos constantly in mind, one takes up uncertainly this poor word “being,” which is freighted with so many distortions from history. I would prefer instead to speak of the IS, if this usage did not seem even more arbitrary and barbarous. We have here to do with a struggle with words that is not of our arbitrary and willful choosing. We have to speak of this IS, which is not in the least like any distinct entity or thing, which has no definite characteristics, qualities, or relations like a thing; and we are to speak of it in a language geared to things, qualities, relations. And yet it is only in the light of this IS that we can talk at all about things, qualities, and relations. We shall have to use all the resources of language to circumvent this obstacle—an obstacle without which, paradoxically, we would not have language at all.

At the heart of what should be the most luminous and evident of all things, truth itself, we come upon a mystery before which we are suddenly aliens and strangers. Or have we ourselves, out of our own freedom, chosen not to be at home with it?



III. Night

We may have aroused false expectations that we have more truth than we do. We say, for example, that the world through which we move is illuminated to some degree. And, further, whatever world might open around us would have to be illuminated and would in fact be illuminated to the degree that it lay open before us. Thus wherever there is being there is truth. That would seem to give us a universe more radiant than the one we know.

The philosophers of the Middle Ages had formulated as one of their principles: “Ens et verum convertuntur.” Being and truth are convertible—each implies the other. Whatever exists, to the degree that it exists, conforms to an idea of the divine mind. To the degree that it falls short of truth, it is accordingly deficient in its being. Here the universe overflows with the radiance of Christian theism.

It is a very different picture we are dealing with now. The world through which we move has to be illuminated in order for us to get around in it at all, but there are also vast patches, and even abysses, of darkness within it. The human animal is full of contradictions. Only a creature capable of truth is also capable of lying or deliberately deceiving himself. The gods gave men language and a tongue to tell lies with. Sham, deception, hypocrisy—these are distinctly human products as much as are the awesome bodies of knowledge that mankind has triumphantly built up for itself. Truth and untruth weave the seamless web of human nature, and history is the arena of their struggle.

The history of the Greeks tells us all we might want to know about these bizarre and contradictory human propensities for truth and untruth. The Greeks were the people of the light. The root for “light” runs through their verbs for speaking and saying: to utter something is to bring it into the light. The older poetic word for man is phos: a mortal creature of the light. The poet of their race, Homer, is characterized throughout, as Erich Auerbach has shown, by the desire to bring every detail of his story out of some hidden background into a clear, evenly-lit foreground. The Greeks created the clarities of geometry, logical thinking, philosophy. Yet the history of this people is also shot through with the most glaring kind of darkness. Nowhere else do we find such spectacular, almost superhuman, qualities of guile, deceit, treachery, alongside the most powerful gifts of mind, as in a Pausanias or Themistocles. The Greeks knew very well then why the Letheia, hiddenness, was to be preserved within the same word for the luminous and evident.

Oedipus is the tragedy of the struggle between light and darkness. The hero wishes to see, he will have the truth at all costs; and when the light finally bursts upon him, he puts out his eyes so that he will never see again. As he had been blind in the bright days of his glory, now in the light of his wisdom he sinks into another darkness. So the dramatist would teach us that light and darkness, truth and untruth, always commingle.

But surely this is a mere matter of human pathology, someone might say, and therefore the business of the psychologist, not the philosopher. Our surrogate of Greek drama is now psychoanalysis. In a secular society it seems to be the only ritual left us. The patient is supposed to be in search of his Oedipus complex; I suggest he is reenacting the Oedipus drama in a more fundamental sense—he is struggling for light against darkness. He wants, or ought to want, the truth about himself; but sometimes the more earnestly and energetically he sets about it, the more obstacles he puts in his own way. He is not yet free for the truth. All this is the well-known matter of “resistance,” and the psychoanalysts tell us all about it; we have no need here for the philosopher.

Perhaps. But in the very moment you speak of “resistance” you use the word “freedom,” and philosophy immediately begins to prick up its ears. Perhaps there is a more intimate relation between truth and freedom than we commonly think. We must be free for the truth; and, conversely, to be able to be open toward the truth may be our deepest freedom as human creatures. The capacity for untruth is not a mere private matter of personal psychopathology. Truth harbors within itself the tragic possibilities for untruth because of its intrinsic connection with freedom.

Thus truth and untruth are inextricably mingled not only in the deeds of men of action, in tragic heroes, patients suffering through psychoanalysis, but in our theoretical efforts to understand. The light of a new scientific theory blinds us for a while, and sometimes a long while, toward other things in our world. The greater and more spectacular the theory, the more likely it is to foster our indolent disposition to oversimplify: to twist all the ordinary matters of experience to fit into the new framework, and if they do not, to lop them off. Newton’s Principia dazzled two centuries with its light and blinded them to explain all human matters, even our moral virtues and vices, within the framework of mechanics. Another Principia, also out of Cambridge, that of Russell and Whitehead, seemed for several decades of this century to offer the key to all philosophical questions. Freud had some fundamental insights about infantile sexuality, and now some of the more zealous partisans of psychohistory want to persuade us that the true history of this century has to be written in terms of what went on in the nursery. Marx grasped the economic factor in history more deeply than anyone before him; and Marxist criticism interprets Kafka as a tool of capitalism.

The examples could be multiplied: in each case we take a partial truth and make it total. We become totalitarians of the mind; but we ourselves are our own victims, for we have imprisoned ourselves in a total ideology beyond which we cannot see. We are no longer free to let things be what they are, but must twist them to fit into the framework we impose. Yet we ourselves have freely chosen to surrender this freedom. Why? Because, like children afraid of the dark, we cannot abide to stand within mystery, and so must have a truth that is total. It may be helpful, then, to remember that any portion of reality with which we deal stands always within the encompassing presence of all that is. No doubt we can draw no specific conclusion for research therefrom. But if we let this presence recede altogether, if we make ourselves so alien to it that we forget it entirely, then we are so much the more likely to succumb to the blindness of one ideology or another—not excluding, by the way, that peculiar ideology of skepticism.



Let us return to our trivial case of the picture hanging askew on the wall. This fact, through the efficacy of language, was made present to us within the presence of this room. But the room is part of the house; and beyond the house is the more enveloping presence of the out-of-doors with whatever objects may be found there. To be is to be within a world, the borders of which can be indefinitely extended. Those further borders may be remote from what is luminously present, but not always; and however remote, the background is also always present with the foreground.

We walk now into the out-of-doors and it is night. Let us take up again, reader, our little fiction of a day in the everyday, with which this essay began, and round it off now appropriately with the night that closes this day.

The cold winter evening immediately enfolds us in its presence, in which the stars too, sparkling and crisp, stand out as present. The faintest sliver of a moon seems almost to borrow its light from their shining presence. Ah, there is Orion, ancient hunter, looming in the southeast, while Sirius, the Dog, has just cleared the tall trees near the horizon. The two, the Hunter and his Dog, will go on marching toward the west, marking off the hours within this present night; and then night after night will loom further west in the sky as they mark the progress of our world toward spring. Within the presence of this night these stars, like so many shining symbols, gather into themselves the procession of the seasons.

You and I know, of course, for the astronomers have told us, that these stars are almost unimaginably far away, and that their light now reaches us across the distance of years. Suppose one of these stars had already gone out; then what you and I are presently seeing is the star of several years back. This crisp clear night that envelops us harbors then its own deceptions. Here too, within this shining presence, there prevails as everywhere the eternal conflict that the Greeks knew between appearance and reality, semblance and truth.

The deception, however, is there only if we jump too quickly to conclusions. The reality that hides itself behind this presence is also manifest through it. We have to reflect that it was within the presence of certain phenomena that scientists were led to draw their conclusions about the speed of light. With pencil on paper they made their calculations evident and present to one another. The readings on their instruments had to be present and visible to them in order that they might correct the reading of their naked eye about the stars overhead. And their results, past and present, were gathered together into language in which their thought, though physically they could have been continents apart and centuries distant, could be present to each other. Presence, always presence. Only by the light of one presence can we correct the deception that may be harbored within another.

The night is so clear that if you look sharp you can even make out the faint stars of Orion’s sword as they curve away from his glittering belt. The mighty Hunter faces squarely the Bull in the opposite quarter of the heavens. These stars suddenly leap into life with the myths of mankind. Myths, the calculations of astronomers, the procession of centuries, are gathered within the presence of this night. The now of measured time, the tiny and jerky pause of the second-hand in its sweep of the dial, is but a fragment within this presence; contained but not containing, and certainly never identical with presence. And if we reflect upon the long life of humankind upon this little planet of earth, against this unfathomable background of the stars, we are suddenly thrust into the mystery. Why is there this world? Why is there a world at all?



The mystery may be put in various ways, each of them no doubt inadequate in its own fashion. Toward the end of the 17th century Leibniz uttered the mystery as a question: “Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?” For Wittgenstein in the 20th century the mystery is no longer to be expressed as a question. It is neither a problem to be resolved scientifically, nor a puzzle to be discarded by unraveling our language; and yet it persists: “That the world is,” he exclaims, “is the mystical.” Not how the world is; for science, though its task there is endless, can describe the myriad ways in which things are and are operant in relation to one another; but the sheer fact that there is a world at all—this must forever elude us. And there Wittgenstein stops and passes into silence. Leibniz, however, stays with his question, and we may accordingly dwell there a moment with his answer.

Why is there anything rather than nothing? Why is there a world at all? Existence may be a brute fact for which there is no accounting. But if there is a reason at all that a world exists, then Leibniz—in conformity with the tradition—gives the only possible rational answer to his own question. There is a world, there is existence or being, because there is one being whose existence is necessary. The nature of that being entails its own existence; and if we could intuit that nature we could grasp the necessity of this existence with the certainty and self-evidence with which we grasp an analytic proposition in logic or mathematics. The necessary being, of course, is God.

Such is the position of Western theism. Within this framework, from the high Middle Ages down through the 18th century, Western man experienced the meaning of beings and being. Or, following more Heideggerian language, it was always within this framework that beings were present and manifest to mankind.

This traditional theism, however, does not abolish the mystery, but only pushes it away into the distant and remote region of the divine nature. The more men reflected upon this nature the more absolutely incomprehensible it became to them. One could multiply its attributes or names to nine and ninety but each in turn was as verbally empty as the next. From the things of the world we could borrow no notion at all of what a necessary being would be like. Everything of which we have experience in this universe can be imagined not to exist. “If I can think of something existing,” Hume said, “I can also think of it as not existing.” A thing that necessarily existed, whose existence was intrinsic to its nature, would then be radically different from any kind of thing we know. And so radically different that we do not have any notion at all what sort of thing it might be, despite all the ink that theologians once shed on the subject. God is wholly other to us, and so other that He remains utterly incomprehensible. The nine and ninety attributes merely embroider a mystery.

Through the concrete practice of religion this theistic framework served to keep Western man somehow rooted to being. One existed, after all, within this whole scheme of things under the governance of God. And one’s thoughts and feelings, one’s life and death, had meaning ultimately in relation to this whole. But in pushing the mystery away from us into the remote and hidden region of the divine nature this theism may have done an immense damage to our Western consciousness. The mystery ceased to be enveloping and present. The universe passed into the disenchanted and secular aggregate of things. And now that this theistic framework has receded for us, when it is no longer the conscious or unconscious presupposition of our age, what becomes more and more questionable to our “alienated” age is whether we have not become rootless.

Heidegger would insist that we cannot push the mystery away from us since we are always within it. Its presence is presence itself. The mystery lurks in the nature of truth. Whether conscious of it or not, the Greeks hit upon something uncanny in their word for truth. They kept the privative or negative form—A-letheia, or un-hiddenness—and did not like other Indo-European languages pass over into some directly positive word like our own “truth.” The positive word suggests a state or condition that has divested itself of any reference to its hidden opposite. But in the light of the privative word of the Greeks we must think of truth as the deprivation, the wrenching, or tearing something out of hiddenness; and in such a way that the hidden mystery persists in and through and around what is disclosed. The most ordinary truths of our everyday stand within this riddle as well as our speculations about the farthest galaxies. To go back to that simple and trivial disclosure from which we started: “Look, the picture is hanging askew”; and with these words a fact became present within the presence of our room. Pursue this presence far enough, and we stand now under this engulfing presence of the night with its near and distant stars.

No future discovery by humans will ever alter this situation. Science proceeds from the known to the unknown; but both known and unknown are grasped within the enveloping fact of existence. Any future analysis may refine the language by which we elicit the mystery but will never abolish it. And if new gods or a new revelation were to arrive in this tired world, our hearts might be lifted up, our will exalted, and we might learn again to live in the presence of the holy. But in that new dispensation, whatever it might be, the mystery would still persist and be present. The mystery was there for the first humans conscious enough for it to become present to them, and it will be there for the last who draw their breath upon this planet.



But enough for this evening. Under the circling vault of these stars we have had enough meditation to hold on to. The mood is neither somber nor elated. There are no blurred edges of “the mystical” about it. You have simply to be there and the mystery will be there for you too. The schoolboy hears his name called and answers “Present!” Here we call Present and our call calls us into presence.

A sound stirs in the thicket nearby, some cautious animal moves softly there. In the distance an unlikely owl hoots. And we are suddenly moved to think of all those other creatures beside man upon this earth who are not tortured by this question. Humans alone, among all the animal species, respond to this mystery. Is it too great a burden for us to bear?

We come back thus to the question of alienation from which this essay began. We are strangers in the universe in a way no other animal can be, for the mystery opens only to us. It is on this level that the ultimate alienation of man has to be faced. We may chatter about alienation as a cultural or social phenomenon, but all such talk falls short of the deepest dimension in which man is a stranger in his universe. And yet this dimension of strangeness is the peculiar home where he is drawn closest to all that is. Any utopian social arrangement, where what is facilely called “alienation” would cease, would make humankind most truly alienated from its own being. Creatures of a void without knowing it.

Humankind, conscious of its death, must also bear the burden of this mystery. Is it too great, amid our other anxieties, for us to carry? It makes us feel more homeless within the world than any animal can be. Yet is it altogether a burden? Is it not rather a gift too? It is given to us and to no other animal to stand within the mystery. It claims us as its own and we are at home there where no other animal can be. Tonight the stars shine overhead like old and reliable friends. This cosmos is ours to the degree that we are still able to be enthralled by its stupendous presence.

1 In general, pragmatism deserves great credit for stressing that the locus of truth is not in the isolated proposition but the total human context. Whether it grasped this context widely and deeply enough remains in question. For example, it never developed any account of the specific mode of truth of art. The subject is conspicuously absent from Dewey’s Art and Experience, and is in tact a serious deficiency in an otherwise very valuable book.

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