Thinking, Memory, and Time (Part II)
...some things you will think of yourself... some things God will put into your mind”
- Homer's Odyssey
The entire question of "what is called Thinking?" for Heidegger revolves around the essence of Memory and Time, as we began to explore at the end of Part I. There is a connection between Thinking, Memory, and Time that he wants us to mine from the depths of his mature thought. He is eager to get 'underway' on the path into Thinking, because "we are still not yet Thinking". Heidegger draws our attention to the fact that "the Old English thencan, to think, and thancian, to thank, are closely related; the Old English noun for thought is thanc or thonc - a thought, a grateful thought, and the expression of such a thought" which "today survives in the plural thanks". Here is where we take a few leaps with Heidegger onto some 'firm soil'.
First we must remember, however, that they are only successful leaps in so far as we make them so with enough attentive and thoughtful energy. There are no quick and easy points scored here; no pat answers to our questions. The number of answers given to us by Heidegger are much fewer than the number of questions asked. The leaps "take us abruptly to where everything is different, so different that it strikes us as strange." Many profound things are revealed underway, and that thoughtful quest is of just as much value as its destination. "To answer the question 'what is called Thinking?' is itself always to keep asking, so as to remain underway".
To convey my feelings towards Heidegger's lectures, I will settle for a crude analogy - the lectures are like a movie you watched which left you thinking that it was trying way too hard to be profound when it was, in fact, nonsensical. You then come across the movie again and, for some unknown reason, watch it a second time. This time a few more scenes made sense to you, but the plot was still riddled with holes. Finally, a friend tells you the last scene of the movie reveals all the previous scenes emanated from the protagonist's dream, so you watch the movie a third time and leave thinking it had one of the best plots ever conceived.
I am setting high expectations here, but not for my essay on Heidegger's lectures, but rather for the lectures themselves. Readers of this essay should expect nothing more than a somewhat diligent attempt to streamline and simplify Heidegger's often wandering train of thought. There are inherent and unavoidable dangers from embarking on any such endeavor. I am taking a work of about 250 pages and making them no more than a dozen. We can easily stray off our charted course if we are not paying close attention to the prevailing winds of his 'post-modern' pre-Socratic analysis. With that said, we get underway...
Is thinking a giving of thanks? What do thanks mean here? Or do thanks consist in thinking? What does thinking mean here? Is memory no more than a container for the thoughts of thinking, or does thinking itself reside in memory? In asking these questions, we are moving in the area of those spoken words that speak to us from the verb "think". But let us leave open all the relationships between those words - "thinking", "thought", "thanks" and "memory" - and address our question now to the history of words. It gives us a direction... - Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? (Lectures - 1953)
Our journey with Heidegger first reveals that our modern understanding of "thinking" and "thoughts" as mere representations of the 'outside world' by the intellect, picked up and imitated from one person to the next, as a small child imitates what it sees to move forward in the world, is so far off from the root thanc that it "turns out to be a reduction and an impoverishment of the word that beggar the imagination". That is a criticism which Rudolf Steiner also leveled at the deadened intellectual activity of the modern era. There are no signs of the Spirit working through such "thinking" as it did in our metamorphosed past.
There must flow into ordinary powers of comprehension a reflection, but a living one, of what I have been saying. If mankind's past evolution is contemplated merely in the light of the frigid ideas of history it remains just image, an image which has significance only as long as it remains in our head. Just as the mental pictures we form of sense perceptions have significance only as long as we have them in our heads, so, too, the mental pictures of history formed purely intellectually have significance only for the head. What in popular terms is called “the spirit of the times” is in fact the historian's own spirit held up to reflect the times. One only learns real history when one participates with living knowledge in the reality of world evolution and mankind's evolution, when one feels the greatest intensity of pleasure and pain in the events taking place in the world. This means, for example, to turn the eye of the soul backwards in time to, let us say, ancient Persia, India or Greece; or any other past age... When a Greek watched a tragedy, he felt shaken through and through; he felt shattered right down into his bodily nature. The basic issues he saw portrayed sent a chill down his spine. The Greeks also experienced life as full of sin and guilt and therefore full of sickness. They felt the tragedy as a healing force. They felt that a remedy was needed and that the public performances repeatedly raised life out of its state of guilt and sickness to what it truly ought to be... What effect has modern drama on present-day society? Its effect might be compared with that of having one's hair shampooed by the hairdresser, whereas the effect of a Greek tragedy must be compared with one's soul and body being healed by a truly competent physician who with genuine health-giving medicine dynamically vitalizes the organism through and through. - Rudolf Steiner, The Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution (Lecture - 1922)
This purely intellectual encountering of performative art is dominated by the fragmenting 'left brain' at the expense of the integrating 'right brain'. The left brain prefers to dwell in habitual thought while the right seeks out creative expression. The left seeks one single perspective on the object and assumes the object's essence has been exhausted in its narrow gaze, while the right seeks to shift, revolve and examine the object from all possible sides before rendering any essential judgment on it. Only through the left brain's submission to the right do we leave open the consideration of Thinking in its essential nature.
Steiner wrote: The intellect... holds firmly to the separated parts. The separation is something brought about artificially, a necessary intermediary stage for our activity of knowing, not its conclusion. A person who grasps reality in a merely intellectual way distances himself from it. He sets in reality's place — since it is in truth a unity — an artificial multiplicity, a manifoldness that has nothing to do with the essential being of reality. The conflict that has arisen between an intellectually motivated science and the human heart stems from this. To go beyond this is the task of reason (Vernunft)
Here a brief thought experiment may be helpful. In a recent discussion between Bernardo Kastrup and John Vervaeke, the latter referenced Alfred North Whitehead and his concept of "prehension". Without straying into too many unnecessary detail, this concept holds that the phenomenal world is constituted by the relations between 'entities' which "prehend" each other. Prehension forces us towards an 'aperspectival' look at how the past is always realized in the present and the present always affords the future. It broadens out our spatio-temporal vision without necessarily losing any resolution of the relations involved. Vervaeke describes this hypothetical Q&A session to illustrate the concept further:
Question: "What caused the sinking of the Titanic?" Answer: "An Iceberg caused it to sink". Question: "Why did it sink in the North Atlantic?". Answer: "Because it needed to take that route for commercial reasons." Question: "Why did it sink in April?". Answer: "Because that was the best time to make the voyage". Question: "Why was there an Iceberg there at that time?" Answer: "Because a glacier formed in the last ice age...", (and the session continues like this ad infinitum)
We then see how every answer can only be judged by the specific aspect of the event we are seeking to explain. In relation to Heidegger's lectures, we are always asking questions about only those aspects of Thinking we want to explain. If we want to explain how the word "thinking" is commonly understood, then we may ask about the development of the verb's meaning in a specific language and culture. If, instead, we are interested in explaining how the "thinking" process manifests in the experience of an individual person, then we may ask about how individual people experience thoughts in relation to 'external' stimuli.
The experiment also shows how we will eventually get the entire history of the Universe through asking these questions, as the 'prehensive' relations are explored between an ever-expanding sphere of relevant 'entities'. That entire Universal history as a whole is the actual causal explanation for any given event in the world, according to thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead. Heidegger's exploration of Thinking also points us towards a 'gathering together' of all thoughts in this manner. Yet he also retains the following "problematic" - what calls on us to Think is also what withdraws from our thought. Writing in the 1st century A.D., Plutarch describes this 'paradoxical' essence:
'It is impossible to step twice in the same river’ are the words of Heraclitus, nor is it possible to lay hold twice of any mortal substance in a permanent state; by the suddenness and swiftness of the change in it there ‘comes dispersion and, at another time, a gathering together;’ or, rather, not at another time nor later, but at the same instant it both settles into its place and forsakes its place... - Plutarch, Moralia
When we keep this "problematic" as it is, rather than attempting futile efforts to "resolve" it, then we are able to continue on our journey in more freedom, says Heidegger, "because our vision achieves an open vista into the essential situations... ". This point is very important to dwell on for a few moments. We cannot penetrate into the foundations of Thinking by patching ideas onto our current intellectual structure, any more than we can sing by mechanically stringing words together without engaging our own pitch-modulating capacity. Heidegger is pleading with us to engage our Thinking nature and find the hidden degrees of freedom which always exist right under our noses in the very words thought.
So, returning to the essential situation of Thinking, we ask - how is Thinking related to thanking? To whom and for what must we give thanks? Heidegger answers, "the highest and really most lasting gift given to us is always our essential nature... in such a way that we are what we are only through it... we owe thanks for this endowment, first and unceasingly." Our essential nature is that of 'beings who reside within Thinking'. We are not simply beings who possess a capacity for thinking, but beings who belong to the "neighborhood where thinking resides". It is for that belonging to that we owe original and eternal thanks.
Heidegger writes, "the thing given to us, in the sense of this dowry, is thinking... it is pledged to what is there to be thought... all thanking belongs first and last in the essential realm of thinking." What is written above may sound hopelessly abstract and circular to some, but let us allow the right brain to view it from more angles before passing judgment. What is the ideal gift, after all? When we want to thank someone for what they have done for us by giving them a gift, what is the primary marker for whether our thanks is expressed sufficiently? It is whether the gift is thoughtful or not, which is another way of saying it is how much thought has gone into the selecting and presenting of the gift.
That is also what underlies our giving of thanks to Being as such - how much thought do we put into what provokes thought "first and unceasingly"? Heidegger now takes us into the connection of this thanking-by-Thinking with Memory. Here we get into concepts which may be even more difficult to follow, at least until a certain settling-in-to the problematic occurs. Heidegger reminds us that we must not think of Memory in its "common meaning", because now "we are following the directive of the ancient word." That directive forces us to conclude, "the gathering of thinking back into what must be thought is what we call memory."
Heidegger wrote: The word "memory" originally means this incessant concentration on contiguity. In its original telling sense, memory means as much as devotion. This word possesses the special tone of the pious and piety, and designates the devotion of prayer, only because it denotes the all-comprehensive relation of concentration upon the holy and the gracious. The thanc unfolds in memory, which persists as devotion. Memory in this originary sense later loses its name to a restricted denomination, which now signifies no more than the capacity to retain things that are in the past. But if we understand memory in the light of the old word thanc, the connection between memory and thanks will dawn on us at once. For in giving thanks, the heart in thought recalls where it remains gathered and concentrated, because that is where it belongs. This thinking that recalls in memory is the original thanks.
I will briefly point out now that Heidegger refers to Memory as Mnemosyne often in the lectures, who is the Greek Goddess of memory. According to the ancient mythology, this Goddess of Memory slept with Zeus and gave birth to the nine Muses. As most people know, the Muses are goddesses who provide all humans inspiration for their creative endeavors, such as music, literature, and art, but also philosophical and scientific pursuits. The ancient Greeks did not take this mythology as an abstract metaphor - rather, all creative works instantiated by man actually came to be through the thoughtful activity of the Muses. Hesiod relays that his Theogeny of the Greek pantheon was itself inspired in him by the Muses.
So then Memory, "when it is the name of the Mother of the Muses... does not mean just any thought of anything that can be thought... [it] is the gathering and convergence of thought upon what everywhere demands to be thought about first of all." The above perspective on Greek mythology must be held by us for safekeeping as we continue. Heidegger emphasizes in this regard that "the nature of that which keeps safe and keeps hidden lies in preserving, in conserving... [it] keeps hidden all that remains to be thought". This "keeping" essence of Memory, however, is not compelled to preserve what remains to be thought, and could just as easily "permit the oblivion of what is most thought-provoking".
Heidegger wrote: What is our evidence? The evidence is that what is most thought-provoking, what long since and forever gives us food for thought, remains in its very origin withdrawn into oblivion. In fact., the history of Western thought begins, not by thinking what is most thought-provoking, but by letting it remain forgotten. Western thought thus begins with an omission, perhaps even a failure. So it seems, as long as we regard oblivion only as a deficiency, something negative. Besides, we do not get on the right course here if we pass over an essential distinction. The beginning of Western thought is not the same as its origin. The beginning is, rather, the veil that conceals the origin - indeed an unavoidable veil. If that is the situation, then oblivion shows itself in a different light. The origin keeps itself concealed in the beginning. Yet all these anticipatory remarks which had to be made, about the nature of memory and its relation to the keeping of what is most thought-provoking, about the keeping and forgetfulness, about the beginning and the origin - all these remarks sound strange to us, because we have only just come close to the things and situations in which what we have said finds expression. But now we need to take only a few more steps along our way, to become aware that situations are expressed in what was said which we find difficult of access for no other reason than their simplicity. At bottom, a specific access is not even needed here, because what must be thought about is somehow close to us in spite of everything. It is just that it is still hidden from our sight by those old-accustomed preconceptions which are so stubborn because they have their own truth.
We will once again take counsel from Steiner and his perspective on Memory as we proceed on the journey through Heidegger's lectures. The former asks us to consider one simple fact - Memory of our experiences is the only aspect of our being which can be said to persist over time. It is the only way we can remain beings with contiguity as we take up our dwelling within the realm of Thinking. Steiner, like Heidegger, is calling upon our attention, upon our Thinking, to take Memory in her highest sense - that sense of Memory as the Goddess who gives birth to all human inspiration and creativity, forever renewing our essential nature.
If today you have physically before you a human being and you see him again after eight or ten years then nothing of what you see today will be present. You cut your nails, your skin flakes off, externally the physical body continually falls away; it becomes dust.... You can be certain that what is today at the center of your physical body gradually comes to the surface and falls away. But then what remains? What remains of man's whole being is solely the reality developed inwardly through the process taking place parallel to that of forming mental pictures. In ten years' time nothing of what you are today will exist except the memories of your experiences. Today nothing exists of what you were ten years ago except what your memories have made of you. You are woven out of your memories, all that is physical flakes off and disappears. - Rudolf Steiner, The Human Soul in Relation to World Evolution (Lecture - 1922)
We now cautiously approach a Cyclops on our journey - our own narrow 'one-eyed' gaze into humanity's collective Memory. It is the 'left brain' gaze which takes a shallow perspective on all things past, present, and future; those "old-accustomed preconceptions" of modern philosophy and the deeply ingrained psychic divisions which resulted from mechanical systems of thought, such as those we find in Descartes and Kant. They are systemic habits of mind which view the world which forever presents itself to our thought in the dimmest possible light, with the lowest possible resolution and with the briefest of glances.
Whoever is able to bring living experience and feeling to the material world only, will regard the higher world as a Fata Morgana or as “mere” phantasy-images. His feelings are directed entirely toward the material world. When he tries to grasp spirit images, he seizes emptiness. When he gropes after them, they withdraw from him. They are “mere” thoughts. He thinks them; he does not live in them. They are pictures, less real to him than fleeting dreams. Compared with his reality they are like images made of froth which vanish as they encounter the massive, solidly-built reality of which his senses tell him. - Rudolf Steiner, Christianity as Mystical Fact
So we have reached a deadly impasse here - we must consider the essence of Thinking and that which gives the most food for thought - that which provokes the most thought in us - but we must perform this operation while we are still not yet Thinking! We wish to take our start from the beginning of Western thought, but that beginning conceals the origin of Thinking. Heidegger now asks us to look in the direction of that beginning of Western thought to find a potential bridge across. Specifically, he asks us to look towards Parmenides when he remarks, "needful: the saying and so thinking, too, that being is."
When assessing the original Greek word so translated, Heidegger concludes that "needful" is more appropriately translated as "it is useful". We will avoid discussing the reasons for that modification, but suffice it to say that those reasons are discussed at some length in the lectures which are available online. So now the saying of Parmenides is, "it is useful: the saying and so thinking, too, that being is." What is the "it" which is useful? Or, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, what does the word "useful" even mean in this context? We are far from speaking of a "mere utilizing", says Heidegger:
Heidegger wrote: Utilization is only the degenerate and debauched form of use. When we handle a thing, for example, our hand must fit itself to the thing. Use implies fitting response. Proper use does not debase what is being used - on the contrary, use is determined and defined by leaving the used thing in its essential nature. But leaving it that way does not mean carelessness, much less neglect. On the contrary: only proper use brings the thing to its essential nature and keeps it there. ... The key word in Parmenides' saying is χρη. We now translate it with "it is useful." Even on superficial level the saying speaks of stating and of thinking of being, of Being. It speaks of the highest and the deepest, the most remote and the nearest, the most veiled and the most apparent that mortal tale can tell. This gives us the occasion and the right to assume that the word χρη, too, is spoken in the highest sense.
Now we are really dwelling within the problematic of the beginning to Western thought. We must not resist it but continue to dwell within it. Heidegger embarks from here on an intriguing mission into the depths of the proper usage of ancient Greek and emerges with the following treasure about the words translated as "saying" and "thinking" - "the Greeks understand [saying] in the light of laying out, laying before, laying to... Parmenides himself, with all the clarity one could wish for, tells us elsewhere what [thinking] means." Heidegger then refers us to fragment 7 of Parmenides' work which contains a warning, translated as follows:
"And let not much-current habit force you into this way, to let roam sightless eyes and noise-cluttered ear and tongue, rather discriminate in reflection [thinking]..."
That is, reflective thinking which allows us "to discriminate one thing from another, to bring out one thing and put another in the background." Parmenides, then, has said, "it is useful: the laying out and so reflecting, too, that being is." Heidegger is really cooking with gas now. He clearly senses the home stretch ahead of us, as we have remained steadfastly underway on the path into what calls upon us to Think, and he wants for us to clearly sense it too. No quarter will be given and no punches will be pulled anymore - no, we are going for the knockout here and nothing less will be tolerated.
Heidegger wrote: Do we intend with this reference to shake the foundations of all philology and philosophy of language, and to expose them as sham? Indeed we do.
What is "laying out" before us, for the ancient Greek, is the under-lying situation, i.e. the underlying foundation. I am skipping over many linguistic arguments from Heidegger to keep our pace and momentum on the journey underway. We will quickly note that Heidegger references as support a passage from Plato's Republic in which he discusses the method of mathematics. Plato uses the same word we are translating as "laying out" when referring to mathematical objects such as "the odds, the evens, the shapes, the angles" which lie before the mathematicians. For Plato, these ideal forms are the underlying foundation which projects the shadows onto our cave wall.
Heidegger wrote: Plato, however, in that famous passage, sees something which every thinker has to see afresh each time, else he is not a thinker: that everything that lies before us is ambiguous. This ambiguity, as we shall see, declares itself for the first time, and definitively, in the saying of Parmenides... To lay is to let lie before us. 'When we say something about something, we make it lie there before us, which means at the same time we make it appear. This making-to-appear and letting-lie-before-us is, in Greek thought, the essence of λεγειυ. The essential nature of stating is not determined by the phonetic character of words as signs. The essential nature of language is illumined by the relatedness of what lies there before us to this letting-lie-before-us. However, this nature of language remains hidden from the Greeks. They have never expressly stressed it, much less raised it to the level of a problem. But their statements operate in this realm. The relations of which we have spoken here are so weighty and far-reaching that they remain simple. This is why men overlook them constantly, with an almost unimaginable obstinacy. Our modern pundits still totally lack the sensibility to evaluate the relations we have here mentioned. To translate the λεγειυ in Parmenides' saying with "the statement" is correct, according to the dictionary, but it says nothing. On the contrary, that translation embroils us in an impossible demand we must make on Parmenides: to wit, that saying is necessary first, and that thinking then has to follow after."
Heidegger has now brought us to the following translation of Parmenides - "it is useful: to lay, let-lie before us and reflecting, too, that being is." But he says we should not stick with the current translation of λογος (Logos) as "[reflective] thinking", which is a translation that "babbles as thoughtlessly as it does" when translating "saying". So λογος is now translated as "perceive". The word so translated is pointing to "perception in the sense of receptivity." It is a receptive perception which is not merely passive but also takes up and does something with what is taken up. How do we take it up? We take it to heart. "What is taken to heart, however, is left to be exactly as it is... taking to heart is: to keep at heart."
We have now drawn very close to, or, rather, we now perceive much more clearly, that which has always remained very close by. Parmenides' saying is now, "it is useful: to lay, let-lie before us and take-to-heart, that being is." Since at least the time of Homer, the word λεγειυ has meant both a "telling" and a "laying out" as discussed above. "The two meanings are so far apart that they do not interfere with each other." The modern world clearly lost experience of these illustrious meanings which dwell within our Memory, but regaining such experience does not take any "supernatural" power from above, only a slight shift in perspective from where we are now.
Heidegger wrote: We must thus first of all make clear what laying means. It is remarkable that we must first clarify something like laying, something we do daily and hourly in many ways. The thing that matters when we lay something, the thing by which laying comes to be laying, is this: what must be laid lies there, and henceforth belongs to what already lies before us. And what lies before us is primary, especially when it lies there before all the laying and setting that are man's work, when it lies there prior to all that man lays out, lays down, or lays in ruin.
The receptive-and-active perception, the taking-to-heart, is the place from which λογος speaks as well. Both words speak to the essential nature of what always and forever calls upon us to gather our thoughts in Memory, to let lie what lies before us, and to take-to-heart all that lies before us, as we give thanks by thoughtful, devotional prayer, first and unceasingly. All such thanks is essential to what is called Thinking. Thankful prayer, in this highest sense, truly brings what is good in collective Memory into each individual's present and attracts what is noble from the future versions of ourselves to converge with that presence as well.
Put another way, it is the ever-present Origin manifesting itself through our Thinking activity. It is fully conscious 'prehensive' prayer which transcends temporality and makes appear what is always already there to be won for each individual spirit. Let me briefly remark that, upon my first and second readings of Heidegger's lectures, I struggled with his arguments from specific translations of ancient texts (reference my crude movie analogy at the beginning), as I am sure many readers are struggling with it now. How can such sweeping conclusions about the essence of Thinking be gained from these simple linguistic exercises?
That question opens up another major [related] territory to be explored, but for now the important consideration is whether one feels the connection Heidegger is expressing here through his translations of the ancient Greek or not. Only once it is felt by intuitive and imaginative Thinking can we begin to align that feeling with our intellectual thinking. These are things which take sustained effort and Time. It does not help that we are dealing with an English translation of German translations of ancient Greek, but, if we remember the 'right brain' integration of such things, then we see how readily available it is. There is a definite modicum of trust, faith, which must be afforded this process for it to be manifested within our soul.
Heidegger is well aware of the criticisms he will face from modern Greek "scholars" with the translations employed - they will not be able to rule the translations out, but they will deem them "eccentric, and in any event useless." So be it, says Heidegger, because the power of the tale they tell is far more powerful than anything modern critics can fire his way. While the modern world speaks to its audience as if they are grade-school children, Heidegger speaks to his as if they were all scholars, poets and playwrights. He both assumes and expects the best versions of ourselves to show up and take-to-heart what is told of in his lectures.
Heidegger wrote: Yet modern man will perhaps forgive us for reminding him that this remarkable word λεγειυ, λογος - or rather what it signifies - is at the root of Western logic. Without the λεγειυ of that logic, modern man would have to make do without his automobile... without the λεγειυ and its λογος, Christianity would not have the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the theological interpretation of the concept of the second Person of the Trinity. Without the λεγειυ and its λογος, there would have been no Age of Enlightenment. Without this λογος, there would be no dialectical materialism.
Modern [religious] man will read the above and be aghast at Heidegger's heresy. How could he suggest the Holy Trinity cannot exist without two ancient Greek words? This objection only goes to show how far our thoughts have fallen from the pre-Socratic era. We should retrieve what we placed in safekeeping earlier for what is to be thought now - the ancient Greeks did not know Memory to be anything other than a living Goddess; the Mother of the Muses. Whether Heidegger accepts their understanding is irrelevant - it is what makes sense of his phenomenology of Thinking.
Likewise, what those two ancient Greek words signify, in their essence, when we let them speak to us instead of speaking for them, is a human power that modern theologians in the West reserve only for Christ incarnate. It is that power by which we weave and are woven into the fabric of Memory; the fabric of Time. It is not purely passive receptivity or purely active activity, but now and eternally both. We have now covered vast distances on our journey through Thinking, but we must still remain underway. It should now come as no surprise that Heidegger was serious when he remarked, "To answer the question 'what is called Thinking?' is itself always to keep asking, so as to remain underway".
Anyone who feels we could have cut out most of the above dialogue and simply stated the conclusions reached at the beginning has, unfortunately, completely missed the message. Those who feel the conclusions reached so far have no practical use are likewise failing to pay enough attention. I recommend such readers reconsider the essay in freedom of vision which opens up new vistas to their view. There remains much that we are still not yet letting-lie before us and which we will navigate in the final leg of our odyssey. Then, after much struggle, the essence of Thinking, for which we are forever thankful, will reside within our Memory for all Time.
"There is one story left, one road: that it is. And on this road there are very many signs that, being, is uncreated and imperishable, whole, unique, unwavering, and complete."