Monday, May 15, 2006

On the Essence of Truth--Introduction

The more I read Heidegger’s work the more I realize that his understanding of ‘truth’ is central to understanding his thought as a whole, particularly his later work. As such I want to inaugurate my posting of summaries and commentaries by starting with Heidegger’s On the Essence of Truth (all page references [bolded numbers] taken from John Sallis’ translation in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, David Farrell Krell, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 111-138). Many of my own current interests stem from Heideggerian aletheia, so a close study of this work will be good exercise for myself and (hopefully) a good introduction for others.

[NOTE: This is an ongoing project and will be posted by section in line with Heidegger's own work. Also, this is a work-in-progress, so I may make some changes to already-posted sections; I'll let you know if/when that happens.]

Written in 1943 (about a decade after Heidegger’s “turn”), “On the Essence of Truth” stands at a changing point in Heidegger’s understanding of truth, directing us back to his exposition in Being and Time and pointing forward to his reformulation of the idea in “Time and Being” and “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking.” This is seen particularly in his exposition of truth as “freedom” and his discussion of “errancy” and “forgetfulness” (both important for understanding Heidegger’s elucidation of the rise and [possible] ‘end’ of “technology”). Heidegger primarily deals with the correspondence/representational views of truth, attempting to ground it in something more primordial--the appearing of entities.

[115]We are discussing “the essence of truth”; not the (ontic) question of the truth of science, of art, or even that of belief, but what truth itself is (ontologically). Some might think that this too abstract; aren’t we depriving truth of its real-world relevance when we push it to such a level of generalization? A philosophy that “turns to what is actual [ontology] must surely from the first insist bluntly on establishing the actual truth that today gives us a measure and a stand against the confusion of opinions and reckonings” (emphasis mine). Here we are thinking of science or modern epistemology with their ‘methods’ for determining and validating the nature of entities: through experimentation, normative rules, verification, logical coherence, etc. While no one can avoid “the evident certainty” of this claim or the seriousness with which it is given, [116] this demand inherently rejects the “essential knowledge” of beings, or philosophy.

“[C]ommon sense” has its own peculiar kind of “necessity” because it appeals to “the ‘obviousness’ of its claims and considerations,” for why should we doubt what ‘everyone’ (das Man) knows? But philosophy itself is defenseless against such, if only for the fact that “common sense” lacks the ability to hear what philosophy has to say. The average person does not want to be questioned, to be excised from their comfortable everyday understanding of things; allow them to be content with what everyone knows, that which does not need to be questioned because it is “obvious.”

[W]e ourselves remain within the sensibleness of common sense to the extent that we suppose ourselves to be secure in those multiform “truths” of practical experience and action, of research, composition, and belief. We ourselves intensify that resistance which the “obvious” has to every demand made by what is questionable.
Because of this, even if do question truth, we want to know “where we stand today” on the issue (compare 115); we want to start with the question of how our current notion of truth developed historically (through “research, composition, and belief”). We look at what philosophers and scientists are saying now and catalogue the possibilities that they have given, trying to find the strongest case among them. In doing so, “we call for the goal that should be posited for man in and for his history” by looking for the “actual ‘truth’” in what has already been accomplished. By putting things in these terms, we intimate that we already know “what truth as such means” and we think that we already have a grasp of it “today,” hence our appeal to the current situation. By looking closer at “where we stand today,” what we already know, what “common sense” dictates, truth is known only “in a general way” and the insistence that we already know what truth means shows our “indifference” to the question.1 Such are the roadblocks that an examination of the essence of truth comes up against: stubborn “common sense” and a resultant indifference to the question.


  1. No doubt the philosophers who may read this will think (perhaps ironically, from Heidegger’s point of view) that this claim is patently false: surely ‘truth theory’ in the last century has amounted to more than a “vague” or “general” understanding of truth. Given Heidegger’s approach to philosophy, this may not be the case: much of 20th century thought on the issue of truth all began from the wrong ground, whether that be logic/rationalism, empiricism, or scientism. By ignoring the question of being, and with it the question of man, modern thought on the question of truth will largely amount to vague generalities that are truly ungrounded. For Heidegger, only a thought that is grounded in being can bring truth-itself to light.

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