Heidegger on the Essence of Truth *

Marvin Farber

TO MANY readers of philosophical literature, Martin Heidegger appears to have made great contributions to philosophy. But to those who have taken the trouble to read his writings with logical standards in mind, he has very little to offer, and he rates primarily as a pretentious verbal philosopher. He has taken care to create severe linguistic barriers between himself and his readers, which serve to make plausible the claim to untold profundity and novelty. It will be instructive—and quite disillusioning to some—to examine a piece of Heidegger's more audacious writing carefully. Nothing could be better for this purpose than his essay on “The Essence of Truth.” **

The reader has the right to expect something definite from any discussion of the concept of truth. He is not likely to be deceived, or impressed, by anything else. Once he has departed from the murky intricacies of the language dealing with "being" and "existence," Heidegger becomes quite a different kind of figure. The change is, roughly, from tragedy (a linguistic tragedy, at least) to comedy—or the commonplace. Heidegger asks a good question to begin with (321): "What do we ordinarily understand by 'truth'?" The word truth means, in his words, "that which makes something true into a truth." This is hardly subtle, and not at all new. Much better is Heidegger's subsequent recognition of truth as correspondence, whether of a thing with an idea, or of a statement with a thing. He does not justify his assertion, however, that propositional truth (adaequatio intellectus ad rem) is only possible on the basis [79/80] of objective truth (adaequatio rei ad intellectum). It is interesting to note that "the reduction of propositional truth to objective truth" is called a "theological explanation" (325). The theological notion of creation of the world of things, and of minds as well, hardly requires a "reduction." Such a designation is more appropriate for scientific philosophers.

A promising element in the discussion is the consideration of the view that truth is "the likeness or agreement of a statement to or with a given thing" (326 ff.). The author properly attempts to analyze the meaning of "agreement." By agreement can be meant "identity of appearance" between two coins, for example. Or, the statement "This coin is round" "agrees" with the thing. At this point, Heidegger's acuteness runs away with him, for he finds it necessary to observe that the coin is metal, and the statement is in no sense material; the coin is round, and the statement is not spatial. He is quite right in pointing out that with the coin you can buy something, but that the statement about it can never be legal tender. And yet, the statement "agrees with and is true of the coin." If the agreement is supposed to be an "approximation," then how can such a completely unlike thing like a statement "approximate" to the coin? The author reasons that it would have to become the coin, which would remove the basis for agreement. It follows that "approximation" cannot mean a material likeness between two unlike things. The kind of relationship obtaining between statement and thing is then declared to determine the nature of the approximation. Although this theme has been treated at length in an abundant literature, Heidegger approaches it as though it were waiting for his clarification for the first time. Thus he writes, "So long as this ‘relationship’ remains indeterminate and its nature unfathomed," all argument about such approximation leads nowhere (327). Obviously, he is the person who has been called to fathom this hitherto unfathomed "relationship."

The matter must not be allowed to appear simple in any respect, for then there would be little to "fathom." The statement "represents" the coin, and states “how it is,” “what it is like,” in some respect or other. Much more could have been said on this point, but detailed analysis is not the author's objective. "Representation" is taken by him to mean "letting something take up a position opposite to us, as an object" (328); and the thing that is "opposed" must, in the author's words, "come across the open towards us" while "standing fast" as a thing. [80/81]

But does one always "let something take up a position as an object" when he makes statements? Is this not to ascribe too much autonomy and freedom to man as a knower? The activity of the knower must be duly recognized, but it is also important to bear in mind that the knower is causally conditioned, and that many events in the world force themselves upon him, no matter how unwilling he may be. It is a traditional philosophical disease to exaggerate the status of the mind in reality, thereby ignoring or falsifying the evolutionary perspective.

In the course of his discussion, Heidegger believes he has disposed of "the traditional practice of attributing truth exclusively to the statement as its sole and essential place" (329). He argues that "truth does not possess its original seat in the proposition." It may be observed that scholars have long known that there is a cognitive side and the side of reality (or of the objects) in talking of truth. The ambiguous expression "original seat" suggests order of time, but also logical or metaphysical priority. The statement is assumptive in any case, because "truth" is spoken of as somehow real in its own right. There is a set of truths; there is a concept of truth; but is there "truth" in the sense that the true is the whole? That would be a familiar idea, but it differs strikingly from the author's text because of its clarity and relative simplicity.

Quaint indeed is Heidegger's question (330): "Whence does the representative statement receive its command to ‘right itself’ by the object and thus to be in accord with rightness?" Quaint, but revealing. A command, indeed! He is unable to resist a linguistic coup, when he asks, "My does this accord (Stimmen) at the same time determine (bestimmen) the nature of truth?" Had he written in English, that sentence might never have been born. His next step leads him quickly to a major objective. He asks how there can be "an approximation to a pre‑established criterion, or a directive enjoining such an accord." Having just invented the "directive," he is free to use it as a means to an end. His answer is that "this postulate (Vorgeben) has already freed itself and become open to a manifestation operating in this openness—a manifestation which is binding on all representation whatsoever." This is as fast as it is fanciful. He does not show why it is "binding on all representation." What ulterior purpose may the author have in mind when he speaks of "this 'freeing' for the sake of submitting to a binding criterion"? It is declared to be only possible as "freedom to reveal something already overt" and being free in this way is said to point to the [81/82] "hitherto uncomprehended nature" of freedom. If rightness is to be possible, the line of argument goes, there must be freedom. In short, "the essence of truth is freedom." (330). The author concedes that his version of the essence of truth (rightness of statement) as freedom must appear strange. Instead of attempting to give a precise answer to the question "What is truth?" he equates it to an even more misleading and difficult generality. There is an element of justification in introducing freedom, but it is not the central, or even an important part of the question of the nature of truth.

Heidegger weighs the consequences that might be drawn from "turning truth into freedom." Is that to undermine truth by delivering it up to the caprice of man, "to the whim of this wavering reed"? (331). Truth is now "brought down to the subjective level of the human subject." But all sorts of untruth are ascribed to man. That does not deter the author for a moment, for "this human origin of untruth merely confirms by contrast the essential nature of truth 'as such' which holds sway 'over' man" (332). This truth "as such" is portrayed as imperishable and eternal, and as something that cannot be founded on the transitoriness and fragility of mankind.

This is again a misleading formulation of the truth problem. The author uses merely pictorial language in saying that truth "as such" holds sway "over" man. There is no truth "as such"—that is merely an abstraction. There are truths, as best illustrated by verified scientific statements, or mathematical propositions, which are said to be objectively "true" or "valid," as the case may be. "Imperishable" and "eternal" are emotionally loaded words. Perhaps one should express them with bated breath, if not with the whites of his eyes. If "objectively true" (or valid) relates to a set of facts (or propositions), it may well be, as Bradley expressed it, that "Once true, always true." Every scientific proposition is subject to possible modification, all the way to possible repudiation. But if it is once true with respect to a given set of facts, or a given historical situation, then it is always true with respect to the same set of facts or historical situation. This is not to found truth on "the transitoriness and fragility of mankind," as Heidegger puts it. Man is to be sure transitory, and he is subject to error. The truths (not "truth") which are established, often with great travail, are "from below," and they do not hold sway "over" man.

Heidegger's next step is clearly indicated. If the essence of truth is freedom, as he declares, and if "essence" is "the basis of the inner possibility of whatever is accepted in the first place and generally [82/ 83] admitted as 'known"' (331); then the question must be answered as to how the essence of truth can have "a stable basis in human freedom." It is an obstinate prejudice, in his opinion, to contend that "freedom is a property of man." If truth as such is above man, then the reader would expect that freedom must also be construed accordingly. Conveniently, there is experience of "a hidden ground in man's nature and being, so that we are transported in advance into the original living realm of truth." It now appears that freedom is only the basis of the inner possibility of rightness "because it receives its own essence from that thing of earlier origin: the uniquely essential truth." The term "earlier" is not explained, nor is it pointed out how one thing can "receive its essence" from another thing. If that could be explained, essences might well be rendered more fruitful. Neither is the meaning of "uniquely essential truth" explained. The proliferation of words cannot always be accounted for.

Whatever "freedom" may mean to the average reader—one thinks of freedom defined in terms of the satisfaction of his needs, or with respect to the fulfillment of a plan of action—it has a different meaning in the present context. Here it means "freedom for the revelation of something already overt" (333). Having defined the essence of truth as freedom, the author now asks for the essence of freedom. It would be precarious to attempt to apply his formulation, because the reader would be tempted to think of existing historical conditions (for example, slavery), and to interpret the author as suggesting that acquiescence is freedom. But this line of thought, which is at least as old as the Stoic tradition, appears to be on a more abstract, metaphysical level of analysis. His formulation reads: "The freedom to reveal something overt lets whatever 'is' at the moment be what it is. Freedom reveals itself as the 'letting‑be' of what‑is" (333). This is not held to imply indifference or neglect, but is intended to mean that one "has something to do with it," or to participate in something overt. The “ordinary idea of truth,” as referring to the correctness of a proposition, is now revised and is traced back to "that still uncomprehended quality," the revelation of what‑is (334). What‑is reveals itself "as what and how it is, and the approximation which represents it in the statement may take it for a criterion. Unfortunately for the reader who insists on understanding what he reads, there are no examples of the revelation of "what‑is." All the examples that would occur to one would have reference to limited situations in a selective manner.

The common‑sense understanding of freedom is demeaned and [83/84] passed off lightly by the author. Thus he states that "freedom is not license in what we do or do not do" (334). It is evident from his text that he is aware of the distinction between positive and negative freedom and of the view that freedom is "a mere readiness to do something . . . necessary." Disclaiming these versions of freedom, Heidegger maintains that freedom is "a participation in the revealment of what‑is‑as‑such." As distinguished from the vague, if not vacuous, freedom resorted to by the author, there is the concept of freedom construed in terms of taking one's place in the causal order, where "freedom" may be taken to mean relative self‑determination. This conception of freedom would not be paraded as the essence of truth, however. It seems that a specially manufactured "freedom" is required as a prop for the present abstract concept of "truth."

Heidegger writes at times like a prophet. "In this Da‑sein," he states, "there is preserved for mankind that long unfathomed and essential basis on which man is able to ex‑sist" (335). Naturally, he is the man to "fathom" this 'long unfathomed" thing. It is also interesting to note that there is an "essential basis" on which man is able to "ex‑sist." To suggest food as a part of that "basis" would be an intrusion from the realm of facts. Is it something which the special sciences—natural and social—have missed? Or is it something they could never touch, if only because it is "unfathomable" by scientific means, and accessible only through Heidegger's linguistic usage. Perhaps be is right, after all: an artificially induced linguistic problem can only be met by linguistic devices.

With characteristic linguistic thoroughness and determination, the term "existence" is beaten into the desired shape. It does not signify an "occurrence" or thing, or the "presence" of an "existent." Neither does it mean "man's moral preoccupation with himself," in any psychological sense. The author's answer reads: 'Ex‑sistence' grounded in truth as freedom, is nothing less than exposition into the revealed nature of what‑is‑as‑such (335). This queer usage need not detain us.

The outcome for man and history is noteworthy: "Only where what‑is is expressly raised to the power of its own revelation and preserved there, only where this preservation is concerned as the quest for what‑is‑as‑such, only there does history begin" (335 f.). Then there was no history in the remote past, or, in fact, before the emergence of philosophy. Reminiscent of the idealistic tradition is the author's statement that "only ex‑sistent man is historical, 'nature' has no history" (336). Heidegger's "history" is as distinctive as his "ex‑sistence," "freedom," and "truth"—and practically everything [84/85] else, in his purportedly fundamentally new and original point of view. Thus he is able to assert that "the initial revelation of what‑is‑in‑totality, the quest for what‑is‑as‑such, and the beginning of the history of the West, are one and the same thing."

Speculative philosophers should be given unlimited freedom to reconstruct "absolutes" to their heart's content. But they should not be allowed to operate arbitrarily with regard to matters of fact, and especially history. One kind of history does indeed begin with the posing of the question of the nature of existence. But there are other kinds of history—economic, political, and on a larger scale, biological, geological, and astronomical. It is to be doubted, however, whether Heidegger's purposes could be served by such clarity of designation.

It is interesting to note, also, how Heidegger places certain terms in quotation marks—"time," “known,” “subject,” "object," etc. It tends to elevate the reader above such concepts, and to make him feel a partner in a frightfully searching inquiry. Heidegger was of course anticipated in this practice by Husserl, who questioned everything, all presumed existents being placed in quotation marks. For Husserl, however, it was a matter of an exactly defined method; whereas for Heidegger, in the present context, it is a matter of straining to get away from what he regards as ordinary, fallible, and naive meanings to an inexpressibly "deep" level.

For Heidegger, "freedom is not governed by human inclination and "man does not 'possess' freedom as a property," but, rather, "freedom, or ex‑sistent revelatory Da-­sein possesses man." It is evident that there can be no application of this conception of freedom to actual historical conditions, which abound in social conflicts and attempts to change social relations. For Heidegger, freedom is construed as "the letting‑be of what‑is," and it is supposed to "perfect the nature of truth in the sense that truth is the unconcealment and revealment of what‑is" (336). The reader is reminded that truth is not the mark of a correct proposition, made by a human "subject" in respect of an "object." Truth is, for Heidegger, "the revelation of what‑is, a revelation through which something ‘overt’ comes into force." But one cannot deny the legitimacy of the truth concept in connection with propositions, and the distinction between subject and object, or knower and known. That distinction is a real one, and no distinction is more important. It does not imply a metaphysical, or an ontological, difference. Whatever else the term "truth" may be taken to mean, it certainly has this application. In [85/86] one sense, the knower is a finality, an irreducible fact. He has his ideas, and he is a proposition‑making animal. His ideas may be good or bad, adequate or inadequate; and his propositions may be good or bad, true or false. If good, they express correctly the actual state of affairs concerned; if bad, they do not. One may say that a true proposition expresses the truth (more exactly, an instance of truth). It can also be said that some aspect or occasion of the real has been portrayed, rather than "revealed," in most propositions. One must be prepared, however, to allow for hypothetical, possible, and even unreal entities—even for impossible entities—in determining the truth or falsity of propositions.

Despite his nice words concerning truth as the revelation of what‑is, Heidegger is compelled to recognize error. It would seem to be difficult to provide for human fallibility on his premises, but he has an effective means in the concept of freedom. Although historical man “lets things be,” the author states that he "cannot really let what‑is be just what it is and as it is." But he does not tell why historical man cannot do that. Is it because he does not like "what‑is" in some respects, or that he wants to play a role more satisfactory to himself in the "what‑is"? As the author states it, "what‑is is covered up and distorted," and "illusion comes into its own" (337). His statement that man only ex‑sists as the property of ex‑sistent freedom, which is the essence of truth, is utterly incomprehensible as it stands. It is thus that he tries to account for man's being capable of history. With distortion and illusion, the essential negation of truth, its "dis-essence," appears. If freedom is not a property of man ("man only ex‑sists as the property of this freedom and so becomes capable of history"), then neither is the dis‑essence of truth a property of man. The latter cannot "simply arise a posteriori from the mere incapacity and negligence of man." In Heidegger's view, "untruth must derive from the essence of truth." Thus it turns out that freedom (Heideggerian freedom) must bear the burden of error as well as truth.

The clarification of "what‑is‑in‑totality" proves to be revealing. It is not identical with the sum of known actualities. It is interesting to note that where few actualities are known, or where they are hardly known by science, "the manifest character of what‑is‑in‑totality can operate far more essentially" than where the field of knowledge is endless. Heidegger speaks disparagingly of the "proliferation and standardisation of knowledge, this desire to know everything . . ." (339). The setting for irrationalism has been prepared therewith. In Heidegger's view, man's behavior "is attuned to the manifest [86/87] character of what‑is‑in‑totality." This "in‑totality" is said to appear to us, however, “as something incalculable and incomprehensible.” Although this "in‑totality" is concerned as ceaselessly determining all things, it cannot, in the author's view, be understood in terms of what manifestly "is," and it remains indeterminable. It is "concealed." In each particular case of 'letting be," something is revealed in its proper relationship, but what‑is‑in‑totality is regarded as concealed therewith. Thus, the ex‑sistent freedom of Da‑sein involves "a dissimulation of what‑is‑in­totality," or concealment. This concealment is accorded a fundamental place: as an "authentic untruth," it is “anterior to all revelation of this or that actuality,” and also to the letting‑be of what‑is, which, by revealing, conceals and thus establishes the dissimulation." This basis for irrationalism could only find a sympathetic welcome in anti‑intellectualistic circles which had found the simpler bill‑of‑fare of Bergson no longer effective—if only because it was too easily understood.

The reader is now told that the "dissimulation of what‑is‑as‑such" is a mystery, and that absolute mystery, or mystery as such ("the dissimulation of the dissimulated"), pervades the whole of man's Da‑sein (341). In the great tradition, there has been a place for mystery, especially where theological considerations were involved; and it has been regarded as a mark of wisdom to know when to ward off all rational questions or objections. That "Da‑sein, insofar as it ex‑sists, reaffirms the first and most extreme non‑revelation of all: authentic untruth" is no doubt best left as a mystery. Man errs, says Heidegger; he lives in error. But error is not something into which he occasionally falls; it is "part of the inner structure of Da‑sein, in which historical man is involved" (345). The wrongness of a judgment, or the falseness of a perception, are regarded as only superficial ways of erring. Heidegger speaks of "the error in which historical man must always walk," and of error as dominating man "through and through by leading him astray" (346). What could "save" man, then, it is fair to ask: Heidegger's metaphysics—or possible future theology? Perhaps it may turn out that his being lost is the condition of being saved, and that the losing of the lost is another mystery. But, then, why should the present writer do Heidegger's theology for him? The point to be noted is that it is not too difficult to learn his style of inventing and manipulating a special jargon, and using words with firm connotations in other senses, with a final resort to mystery when the game has gone far enough. [87/88]

When Heidegger speaks of Being, the reader is reminded of the peculiar use of the term "history." Those who have ears for this word (Being) are said to determine man's place in history. This cannot possibly refer to what is generally known as real history, or to real men, whether slaves or slaveholders, bourgeoisie, feudal lords, serfs, etc. They have their places in history, but they do not owe them to their having ears for the word "Being." Of course, this is not what the author is talking about, for he declares his attitude to history to be "fundamentally new" (351). He is at his best when dealing with a totality which involves mystery.

When the author inveighs against "all enslavement of philosophical thought" (349), he appears to be wearing the heroic garb of a defender of the rights of reason. His illustration corrects this impression, however, for he cites "the subterfuge of letting philosophy assert itself merely as an 'expression' of 'culture' (Spengler), as the ornament of a creative humanity" (349). Vulnerable though Spengler was, he had many concrete historical realities in mind. The author's objection to Spengler would apply to all scholars who recognize the actual part played by philosophies in history, and the ways in which the various cultural conditions—economic, political, scientific,  etc.—act upon and determine philosophy. Such recognition does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of the view that there is a cumulative, constructive element to be discerned in much of the tradition of philosophy.

Taken as a whole, Heidegger's performance in his lecture on "The Essence of Truth" is rather clever and ingenious. He appears in the form of a philosopher, but his role is really that of a theologian. If he does not make philosophy serve theology outright—indeed, he purportedly makes it autonomous—that proves to be unnecessary, for the outcome is the same. There proves to be an ultimate mystery; man is fallible, and in effect condemned to err; there are concealment and revealment; and there are boundaries to possible scientific knowledge. In short, reason is circumscribed and undermined. Through it all there is an unsurpassed degree of pretentiousness and boldness, which is shown repeatedly in the display of verbal inventiveness. It is noteworthy that Heidegger could have written his lines centuries ago, with the same ease with which he is able to detach himself from the world and favor solitude rather than libraries. It is a curious fact that the reader is not likely to be aware of the complete absence of concrete illustrations or scientific references. Modern science and logic neither deter nor aid him in [88/89] his attack on the German language. He appears in this lecture as a kind of dialectician who sets up contrasts and plays with opposites in order to exploit them. It is a furious attempt at originality, but is a miscarriage at best. A psychoanalytic type of interpreter would probably be tempted to speak of "the rage of intellectual (or scientific) impotence" as characterizing the style.

It is high time for Heidegger to emerge from his self‑chosen role of philosopher and to declare himself. There may be a more appropriate place for him in the religious world. His characteristic language would make the step an easy one. There is a place in his system for a divine being, and original sin could have a metaphysical as well as an epistemological basis. That would give meaning and direction to his peculiar non‑evolutionary conception of man.

These remarks are sure to be unpleasant to many of Heidegger's former students. Their self‑feeling need not be injured, however. They could have done better in choosing a master, to be sure. It is never too late to acknowledge that fact and to reassess what they think they owe him. In some cases, the "transference" to Heidegger was too effective ever to be shaken by logical considerations, and one is reminded of the words, "Though he slay me. . . ." But the extensive influence of the man, now prominent in many countries, is to be explained culturally, in terms of the reasons for the receptivity of the times to irrationalism.

* Reprinted by permission from Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. XVIII, #4, June, 1958, pp. 523‑532.

** Cf. M. Heidegger, Existence and Being, Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1949, pp. 319‑351.


SOURCE: Farber, Marvin. “Heidegger on the Essence of Truth,” in Radical Currents in Contemporary Philosophy, edited by David H. DeGrood, Dale Riepe, & John Somerville (St. Louis: W. H. Green, 1971), pp. 79-89.


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