A Philosopher in the Twilight: David Bentley Hart Argues That Heidegger Provides a Profound Meditation on the Nihilism That Blinds Us to the Mystery of Being
Hart, David Bentley, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
In his preface to the Philosophy of Right, Hegel famously remarks that the owl of Minerva takes flight only as dusk is falling, which is to say that philosophy comes only at the end of an age, far too late in the day to tell us how the world ought to be; it can at most merely ponder what already has come to pass and so begun to pass away. An epoch yields its secrets to rational reflection grudgingly, only after its profoundest possibilities already have been exhausted in the actuality of history: "When philosophy paints its gray on gray, a form of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated ... but only understood."
It is a winsomely tragic picture of philosophy, but not really a humble one. It may seem to reduce philosophy to an essentially reconstructive, rather than creative, labor; and certainly it implies that philosophers like Kant, who see themselves as harbingers of one or another new dawn, are deluded about their proper roles. But it is also a picture that exquisitely captures philosophy's deep and perilous ambition to be recognized not simply as an intellectual discipline but as wisdom itself; for true wisdom, as we know, belongs properly to the very old.
It also suggests that the greatest philosopher of all would be the one who could plausibly claim to have come most belatedly of all: to have witnessed the very last crepuscular gleam of the dying day and to have learned, as no one else now can, how the story truly ends. The highest aim of philosophy, then, would be to achieve a kind of transcendent belatedness, an unsurpassable finality lying always further beyond all merely local or episodic philosophies. (Needless to say, Hegel entertained few doubts regarding just who that greatest philosopher might turn out to be.)
It is in the context of this Hegelian mystique of belatedness, I think, that one can best make sense of the later writings of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and especially of their sonorously oracular impenetrability, by turns so mesmerizing and so infuriating. In a sense, Hegel's philosophy summoned Heidegger's out of the realm of future possibility. By attempting to devise a grand philosophical narrative that would enclose all other philosophical narratives within its inescapable dialectical logic, Hegel challenged his successors to overcome him--to elude the intricate capaciousness of his logic and thereby enclose his "final" story in one yet more final.
From the period of the "Letter on Humanism" (1947) onward, that is arguably what Heidegger set out to accomplish. Over the last three decades of his life, he sought to go beyond Hegel's heroic feat of "metaphysical closure" by further enclosing the whole history of Western metaphysics (of which Hegel's system is merely the most imposing synthetic expression) within the still larger story of "being" as such, and to tell that story in a language so purged of all inherited conceptual terms and grammars that it could never be enfolded within the language of metaphysics again. Thus, for instance, he even stopped speaking of himself as a philosopher by the end, preferring the seemingly homely title of "thinker." That this postphilosophical language would prove difficult to write was inevitable; that it would prove quite so difficult to read probably was not.
Whatever the case, though, and whatever Heidegger's other motives may have been, his determination to think through what he called "the history of being"--from its remotest origins to its uttermost ending--led him to produce what, for all its eccentricities and deficiencies, remains one of the profoundest meditations on modernity and on the nature and history of modern nihilism written in the last century. It may not achieve seamless finality in the Hegelian sense, but, then again, finality of that sort is one of the metaphysical illusions that Heidegger claims to have left behind. What it does achieve is a vision of Western philosophy and its ambiguously intimate relation to Western cultural history that, if once understood, cannot easily or confidently be dismissed. …