One of the most common observations regarding the Turn or “Kehre” in Heidegger’s thinking is that the earlier work is more “analytical”, more rational, (though not in the sense of Analytical Philosophy) while the later work, after the Turn, is more “poetic” (or “poietic”). While this is accurate (and to a large degree originates from Heidegger himself) the usual interpretation is not at all accurate. The reason for the change, insofar as it’s interpreted as a rational change, is usually part of the narrative of Heidegger’s supposed anti-technological reactionary bent. An example of this particular lack of understanding pervades narratives such as that of Brockelman, an example of the sort of commentary follows:
I would argue that this is a far more promising approach to critical theory than any philosophy (like Heidegger’s) which allows itself to entertain nostalgia for a pre-modern world or truth.
Brockelman, Thomas (2011-11-03). Zizek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism (Continuum Studies in Continental Philosophy) (p. 69). Continuum UK. Kindle Edition.
The second misunderstanding is that “poetic” (or sometimes “poietic”) thinking is less rigorous, vaguer than the earlier, more analytical thinking. The later thought is also usually acknowledged as more difficult, but this is ascribed to some sort of inherent obscurantism rather than a difficulty that originates in the reader. The question then as to the nature of the Turn itself becomes obscured behind a basic misunderstanding of both the later and the earlier work. A more appropriate understanding of the nature of thinking, as “poetic” rather than rational, might help in comprehending Heidegger’s work as a whole, and understanding the nature of the change between the earlier and later works, and in what the Turn itself consists.
The notion of Heidegger as reactionary is at odds with the evident situation that the more radical of later philosophers are precisely those influenced by Heidegger’s work. It is also at odds with the way the work was initially received. Intuitively, Heidegger’s readers have always experienced his work as radical in a much more basic way than the intuitive reaction to the work of “progressive” thinkers themselves, and particularly self-described “radical” thinkers. Partly the portrayal of Heidegger as reactionary arises from the desire of the left-liberal “secular” establishment to portray itself as somehow “radical”, when with certain notable exceptions it has been the ruling establishment in most of the west for at least the past century. The properly radical governments have by and large all been on the right, the furthest right of these have been the most radical. If you compare the stability of the Clinton years after the radicalism of Reagan and Bush 1 (or the radicalism of Thatcher compared to Labour governments before and after her if you’re in the U.K.) you can easily see the point. Was Heidegger a right-wing radical? His involvement in the Nazi party ended because they weren’t radical enough. But not because they were too right-wing. Put simply, Heidegger wasn’t on the left or the right, because the fundamentals on which both are based are the same. Nor was he in the centre, for the same reason. It’s best to consider, then, that he was “on the other team”, i.e. against the common assumptions that sustain all western political positions, although what that might mean in positive terms is not initially going to be clear.
The first difficulty for readers of Heidegger, which I would argue is perhaps more evident in the interpretation of the earlier work than the later work, comes from a lack of understanding of reason, generalized as it usually is from the activity of rational consciousness, itself misinterpreted as simply consciousness, as if the rationality of reason were self-founding and self-evident. The second difficulty is a lack of understanding of poetic or poietic thinking, and the relation of this thinking to both rational thinking and the origin of rational thinking in pre-rational thinking. If poietic thinking is not anti-rational, but starts from rational thinking and its limitations and takes up from the pre-rational what was left out of rational thinking, a leaving out that fostered those limitations in the first place, then poietic thinking can be considered as post-rational thinking rather than some sort of nostalgic return to the pre-rational, or worse an abandonment of all reasonableness in careless anti-rationalism.
Heidegger’s later work, far from being an anti-technological flight into a nostalgia for the past, is precisely an attempt to respond to technology in an appropriate manner, and as such is itself technological, though in the sense of the other face of the Janus head of technology itself. As such, his own description of “thinking” as opposed to “philosophy”, as another beginning, is crucial to understanding both the earlier and the later work.
In order to understand rationality itself as a historical phenomenon, rather than begin with the culmination of the first beginning in Plato, it may be helpful to begin with the first culmination of the most extreme form of metaphysics, since it is in its most extreme form that its history becomes visible as such, in the work of Hegel. Hegel is the first proper culmination and simultaneously the first inversion of metaphysics as a whole, which as polymorphic, must in order to reach its completion undergo a number of intertwined inversions. Each of the thinkers that lie between Hegel and Heidegger accomplished an inversion of metaphysics starting from different initial threads of the intertwining and self-reinforcing paths that constitute the rationality of history and the history of rationality.
“Hegel says that the rationality of history “is not a presupposition of study; it is a result which [he adds without apology] happens to be known to myself because I already know the whole.””(Lischer, n.d.)
Firstly, the idea that Hegel has anything to apologize for in this statement betrays an unthinking response to thinking, famously expressed by Heidegger as “The most thought-provoking thing in this thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” More urgent, though, is rectifying this by thinking with Hegel rather than against Hegel what is intended in such a statement. What does knowing “the whole” mean in terms of the “rationality of history”? What is intended by “happens to be known”? What is the “rationality of history” itself, specifically not as a presupposition? Finally, what is reason itself for Hegel, i.e. what does the end of rational history imply for rationality itself, or how is it that rationality, precisely as the end of rational history, becomes absolute as Pure Reason, which simultaneously means absolute knowing?
In terms of knowing “the whole” Hegel is referring to the situation that, for him specifically, history itself appears as complete. Complete, for Hegel, means that as a development there is nothing further to be accomplished within rational history itself. That this is an event implies that the event “happened” to Hegel himself, it befell him, rather than it being a result, or an accomplishment of Hegel’s. This event underlies the Phenomenology of Spirit as a change in thinking, a change that itself had to undergo further changes, each of which resulted in a different understanding of the Phenomenology itself and its appropriate place. While a full description of this event is not available, we can place it as most likely occurring during the time Hegel spent with Holderlin in the first half of the first decade of the 19th Century. Some parallels with Heidegger’s Kehre, including the proximity of poetry and thinking and the first beginning as a non-origin but a historical development that had already occurred, appear with a greater obviousness in the personal development of Hegel himself than in his works, where they were suppressed due to circumstances, partly the circumstances of Holderlin’s “madness”, but more crucially due to the performative nature of the works themselves. At any rate, we can figuratively reconstruct the result of the event via its relation with Holderlin’s work both poetic and philosophical. In terms of a figurative reconstruction, the intertwining of certain images, figures, which appear in the thinking of both, should be sufficient. In order to properly understand Hegel, then, not only Holderlin but also the work of Schelling must be seen as complementary to that of Hegel in an analogous sense to complementarity in quantum mechanics. Heidegger’s confrontation with Schelling precisely at the time posited as that during which the event befell him as the Kehre lends credence to this speculation.
One such figure is the “fluidity of the concept”, the initial figure of what has been translated into English as absolute notion. Another is the figure of the “cosmic spirit”, which prefigures Hegel’s notion of absolute spirit, and as such must also prefigure its development through rational history, i.e. it must pre-date history itself as the result of pre-rational thinking. Hegel’s stay with Holderlin crystallized the contents of the discussions that took place earlier at Tubingen between Hegel, Holderlin and Schelling, which received their first public figuration in the early work of the latter. This crystallization, though, was simultaneously fluid rather than fixed, and as such can be understood as structural. The initial thinking that reached its culmination in Hegel’s Logic was a projection, conceived as the construction of a mythology. What appears in these figures is a change in thinking that appears to mirror the change in Heidegger’s thinking, but in reverse. This appearance is itself deceptive, however, since the change in thinking for Hegel is itself a Janus head, but a different Janus head from that of Heidegger, who themselves in a certain sense thus form another Janus head. The change for Hegel is a change that projected rational history as the history of rationality. In passing, as well, the synchronicity of the time the three spent together at Tubingen and the invention of the factory ought to be noted, particularly in terms of understanding the relation between the thought of Hegel and that of Marx. The latter must be thought as another culmination of metaphysics, as the culmination of the history of rationality experienced as the rationality of history, the history of history itself and as an inversion of history and rationality. Marx, of course, viewed this history from the perspective of the history of economy as capitalism. This is intertwined with rationality and history from the beginning in that reason initially arises as the measuring of the historical record, the balancing the books of the historical record. That capitalism and metaphysics have been intertwined from the beginning is neither accidental nor incidental, and so Marx cannot simply be overlooked.
The Phenomenology must be understood neither as simply didactic, in terms of a preparation for the thinking of absolute spirit as Reason, nor simply as a description of the development of the psyche as the correlate in the individual of absolute spirit in community, but as a performance of the revelation of reason as the “self-organizing system of speculative knowledge”. The thinking of absolute spirit as Reason is not rational in the metaphysical sense but the culmination of Hegel, Holderlin and Schelling’s original intent to produce a new mythos, one that would in a sense reawaken the last figure of the pre-rational as cosmic spirit.
To modern ears, both the idea of mythology as a construction, and hence structural, and the conception of history as a projection, sound perverse, and in need of a fuller exposition. In terms of mythos, and the specific mythology of the cosmic spirit, the figure of the cosmic spirit must itself be a figure that stands-in for mythos as the cosmic myth, and thus a change in mythos, an inversion of mythos that is the precondition for the beginning of history as rational. The rationality of history as a result, and thus the appearance of history as a whole, must be understood as a change from cosmic spirit that founds rationality as the basis for conscious experience. Rationality must not only be historical but must originate together with it as entangled and thus each must be understood from the other. In terms of rationality, history must be necessary, and vice versa. That history is teleological is based on this conception of history as a figurative projection. In terms of history, rationality must be historical, and thus ground history as necessary. As concepts that already determine the experience of consciousness as reality, both must originate in a change that, because it’s not isomorphic to what it changed from, is irreversible. Thus what preceded rational history and its founding must be neither. From a rational, historical perspective, that which preceded rational history must be misunderstood as a form of rational history that was not yet its proper form, yet was an isomorphic change. Only from outside that history can the first beginning be understood as such. This necessary misunderstanding corresponds to the misunderstanding of another beginning as isomorphic to rational history. The figure of cosmic spirit can stand-in for mythos as cosmic myth only insofar as it is the prefiguration of concept. It is only conceptually that rationality can determine conscious experience as reality, and the first culmination of the first beginning in the works of Plato must conceptually determine the conceptual itself, which must be already operative as determining conscious experience as reality, for Plato’s response to that conceptual determination as an unveiling of what determines reality, and must always have determined reality. As this “always must have” Plato must conceptualize the conceptual as the culmination of rational history, but as only the first culmination of the first beginning cannot unveil rationality or historicity as they are, which means in terms of each other. The conceptualization of the conceptual thus is determined as the Eternal Ideas. This conceptualization culminates the projection of rational history which, not conceived as a change, is projected both backwards and forwards as a history without change. This fixation is experienced by Plato as constant presence, which is understood as constantly already present and thus also having been the end of a construction must then be retroactively posited as having-been prior to the construction, as always-having-been, or eternal. This “already present” is itself experienced as the ideal past, thus what has been, and therefore is still in a sense present, rather than what was and has now passed away, what is known grammatically as the “past perfect“. Simultaneously, the productive or constructive aspect of rational history had to already be understood as constituting the history of its prefiguring, thus cosmic spirit could not have been understood as a self-originating god but had to become understood a priori as a human construction. The belief in belief as totalizing, or religiosity in the modern sense, is a modern phenomenon and thus the experience of mythos by the Greeks bears no relation to the type of total belief we associate with religion today. Modern religiosity is dependent on metaphysics as the ground of ideology, not the other way around.
This fixation of reality itself, prefigured as cosmic spirit, must be a construction whose first appearance as having-been–constructed is cosmic spirit, thus mythology must be already known to be a construction. The retroactively posited construction of the cosmic myth first becomes constituted as cosmic spirit as already constructed. Rational history is founded, in the first beginning, non-rationally and ahistorically as a change from cosmic spirit, a change that confers a conscious experience of reality as rational and historical. Cosmic spirit itself must be a change from an experience of reality as fluid, and thus its fixation. As a prefiguring not only of Hegel but also of Heidegger, cosmic spirit is a retroactive positing of the first appearance of the last god, which is thus a transformation of the first god – Chaos as pure fluidity of primordial conscious experience, the fluidity of the concept.
The metamorphosis from the pre-rational is simultaneously the beginning of history. In order to understand how they belong together, we need to start with a commonality between them, which is expressed in the concept of the “literal”. “Literal” in its modern meaning can be applied to both rationality, as a literal understanding, and history, as a literal interpretation of the historical record. In both senses we intend something like “direct”, and “as it is” rather than a story about how it is or an interpretation with a assumed direction, for instance, of “how it was”. This is not the original meaning though, in fact it contradicts the original meaning, which in a similar fashion to “literature” intended “a relation to the written word”. How did a meaning apparently opposite to the original become the common meaning? What was the intent of the word literal in the first instance? The clue as to what was intended can be found in the notion of the historical itself as a “record”. Records, of course, require record-keeping, and the most common early record-keeping found in early ‘literate’ (i.e. having a written form of language) societies are all records of trades, “bookkeeping”. It is in relation to bookkeeping that history initially arises. Reason, as the rational or measured consciousness, first means to measure as balancing the books of the historical record, accounting-for that record. The metaphor of the historical record (and the record of natural history) is thus predicated on bookkeeping as the primary source of records themselves. As records of what has-been, the records still are, therefore what has been can be accounted-for on their basis. In a specific sense, then, the present, as the accounting-for of what has been, includes the past, and thus reality is experienced as historical, and simultaneously as rational. Literal thus passed directly from intending simply a relation to the written word into a relation to reality determined by history, which is always tacitly assumed as known precisely through the records of bookkeepers. The care for exactness in rational thinking is a continuation of the trader’s need for precision in terms of keeping records of trades and accounting-for them accurately later. In this we can find the meaning of Heidegger’s statement that reason is the “stiff necked adversary of thought”.
We also find the rationality of history as the history of rationality, and the basis of their belonging-together. What, then, is reason for Hegel, insofar as the end of history must also entail some sort of end of rationality as understood to that point?
Reason, as notion, for Hegel is expressed as system. That Hegel’s system is not particularly systematic has been pointed out many times, as if this were some kind of flaw, but what is system itself? Hegel describes it most fully as the “self-organizing system of speculative knowledge”. This should strike us as odd relative to the usual modes of interpreting Hegel. The usual narrative describes some sort of egomaniacal system builder who believed he could systematically include everything. But
absolute, particularly in Hegel, never means total. Instead it means self-referential, self-contained. The epitome of system in this sense is language itself, and Hegel’s “System” is thus a re-thinking of the Logos of Heracleitas.
And if the system is self-organizing it could not originate as Hegel’s doing. Self-organization is today a common term, adopted specifically from what is known as systems theory, Yet systems theory is not about the systematic, but the systemic, and self-organization is not about the arrangement of a form as a doing, but dynamic relations that themselves form a dynamic, fluid structure. Reason for Hegel is precisely this dynamic structure, and absolute spirit the dynamism that breathes life into it.
Since Reason as System or Logos, then, could not be Hegel’s doing, we have firstly a closer relation to Hegel in terms of understanding the manner in which such a system had to be presented – not as the work of a specific man named Hegel, but as an absolute, because self-referential, system. Secondly, we have a closer understanding of how the initial understanding of reason as such a system had to “happen to” Hegel as a specific man. The universal as the self-organizing system of reason had to be embodied in a particular event occurring to a particular man in order to be actualized. This tension is itself part of the initial movement of Hegel’s thought as dialectical. As the end of metaphysics, and simultaneously its first inversion, Reason could not, for Hegel, be equivalent to rationality insofar as the latter is purely metaphysical. Hegel’s Reason is the first image, figure, of another beginning, but not yet another beginning as such. The Phenomenology is both a revelation of understanding, understood as self-arising and reflexive, and an attempt to share such by provoking it.
For Heidegger, by contrast, in the effort of the attempt at “another beginning”, reason can be simply thought as rationality in the metaphysical sense. The figure of Hegel’s Reason, as outline, is already replaced by a fuller outline, itself disclosed not merely in an event but as event, Ereignis. Thinking, specifically poetic thinking, is the only appropriate response to the event, itself the appropriating event.
Insofar as Heidegger’s earlier work appears as more “analytical” the later work is already intended in it. Ereignis though can never be understood from the perspective of man as metaphysical. Ereignis cannot be properly even experienced as such from this perspective. Achieving a reflexive understanding of Dasein, as who “me is”, is an a priori task. It is this task, as preliminary, that the early work attempts. Yet the “Kehre” is a turning of thinking that happens to Heidegger as much as by Heidegger, and Ereignis is a factical event that happens to Heidegger at a particular juncture. Such epiphanic or even revelatory events do not usually occur as the culmination of a successful development of thinking, but as a rupture occasioned out of a catastrophic failure of thinking. It is this catastrophic failure of rationality itself, specifically Heidegger’s rationality, contained in what are called the “Black Notebooks”, that acted as the precondition for his experience of Ereignis.
The later work, beginning with vom Ereignis, although not understood as beginning there until later due to Heidegger’s temporary suppression of that book, is thus a prolonged effort at another beginning, prompted by Ereignis as appropriating, and thus revelatory, event. This poetic thinking is at the same time intertwined with a different thread than the economic thread of metaphysics, a technological thread.
Heidegger’s thinking on technology can itself be understood as a technological thinking. The raw material of philosophy itself, its key terms and stances, become interminably exchangeable for one another. The history of technology is thus also the essence of technology, which is at the same time the essence of history. But we appear to be involved in a contradiction. How can technology be the essence of history, if history is already seen as rational and therefore essentially as accounting-for? In Heidegger’s thinking of technology as technological and simultaneously poetic, there is a key figuration of technology left unremarked, just as the last god remains unnamed, unidentified. “The essence of technology is nothing technological.”, a strange turn of phrase, considering that within metaphysics technology would be thought as the essence of the technological, not the other way around. But the key aspect of the technological is precisely that it can stand-in for the essence, technology and the technological are so close that Heidegger’s inversion in the above quote has barely been noticed. It is in this ability (and the inadequacy thus revealed) that technological things always reveal own replacement that provides the developmental notion of history as progress, and does so progressively. Simultaneously, the notion of history as development has its roots in this unacknowledged aspect of the technological itself. If history as rational is based on accounting-for the record of trades, what technology itself is necessarily involved? Writing is a technical skill, and can be seen as an enabling technology for recording values of trades, but the values themselves recorded could not be merely arbitrary measures, or no balancing of books would be possible. Factically multiple currencies were in play at that time, minted by the various city states, thus what made a non-relative measure (at least insofar as what it was related directly to, namely gold, was tacitly assumed to be absolute) was the technology of the touchstone. This technology enabled exchange via currency, and the exchange of currency itself for other currency. With this system exchange as barter, always the exchange of something specific for something else specific, was itself exchanged for an exchange of any for any, and as such the touchstone is both a simple, specific technology, yet it reveals the essence of technology itself, as interminable exchange, and also reveals its own inadequacy in terms of valuing, that it values by reference to gold, and thus if gold itself were valued, creates a circularity that destabilizes the apparently stable valuation of currency, that then provides the ability to account-for an arbitrary number of trades at a future point. The entirety of the modern financial system is merely a transformation of currency, made apparently trustworthy by the touchstone, and thus itself an exchange. Thus in the account of history itself as rational, accounting-for can be exchanged for what made such accounting relatively reliable, which is technology.
This exchange, though, is itself figurative, metaphorical, or to use another term, poetic. Figurative language is always associated with poetry, and thus it bears an original and intimate relation to poetic thinking. If exactness as the goal of rationality originates with reason itself as rooted in accounting, then the rigour of poetic thinking being other than exactitude is not accidental, exactness in rationality was itself exchanged for a different rigour.
Heidegger’s poetic thinking, as with Hegel’s system of self-organizing speculative knowing, must be new in some sense, not merely a return to the non-rational that preceded history and rationality themselves. Otherwise it would hardly count as another beginning.
The reflexivity of Hegel’s self-organizing system is a clue to understanding in what way “poetic thinking” is not the same as the “mythical thinking” of man as pre-rational. The pre-rational did not experience thinking as poetic. Nor did it experience thinking as literal, since the notion of literal could only arise with and intertwined with history and rationality. Precisely how the pre-rational experienced itself is not fully possible to understand, since the figure of the figurative was not part of the figuration. This figure of the poetic as an outline, a guide, is precisely the figure of the figurative, reflexively included in the figuration of the figure. The revelation of revelation itself as an understanding of understanding always based on the figure, the image, the metaphor, is itself experienced figuratively, something only possible from out of rational understanding. Simultaneously the figure, image, metaphor is experienced figuratively in the figure of exchange, every figurative thinking of something operates itself via exchange with what is figured. As exchange, then, the last god in its first appearance is Janus, which can also be figured as currency.
Thus poetic thinking is neither arbitrary in terms of another beginning, nor does the deprecation of exactness equal a lack of rigour. Poetic thinking is thinking per se at the end of metaphysics, not rationalizing in terms of a constant measuring of one’s thought, but a dynamic, living thinking. At the same time rational subjectivity first provides the reflexivity that is completed in a further reflexive thinking of thinking, the thinking awareness of thinking in terms of content and process, which allows for self-critique. This critique is not less operative than in rationality, but more so due to the additional recursion involved in generating the additional reflexivity. Poetic thinking is a new thinking, based on a further understanding of figurative thinking as the basis of both pre-rational experience and rationality made possible by the rational itself and its limitations. These limitations are properly experienced as such from poetic thinking itself, a thinking made possible by the reflexive revelation of Ereignis.