Individual, as thrown into being

The following was written some years ago as a response to a seminar given by Rodolphe Gasché at SUNY Buffalo (UB). For those distrustful of Heidegger, or who don’t know his work, this may help to understand that Heidegger is trying to use a specialized language to approach difficult ontological issues; whether successfully or not is another matter.
My purpose in reproducing this here is to continue a contemplation on a problem I see arising in issues I have noted in threads on other sites, especially Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True. Hopefully I will be able to clarify the issue in my own mind enough to at least articulate the problem, if not reach a resolution to it.

The problem is the individual. Not the “self,” which I believe well deconstructed by Buddhist psychology, but the empirical individual, the human who must always learn whatever knowledge there is to know, and who must suffer whatever disappointments life has to offer. This is inescapable. We are all individuals and must live our individual lives as best we may, regardless of the generalities of any knowledge.
(Terminological note: We – as individuals – are ‘thrown into being’ – we are born, we live, we die. That is the inescapable ‘thisness’ of what it means to be human. “Da-sein.”)

The following concerns Heidegger’s consideration of Sophocles’Antigone, in “Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister,’ Martin Heidegger, lecture course, 1942. Translated by William McNeill and Julia Davis; University of Indiana, Studies in Continental Thought, 1996.

“In the introductory dialogue between Antigone and Ismene, Ismene tries to dissuade her sister from her resolution to bury their brother. Antigone’s “pursuit” is, she says, concerned with that against which nothing can avail. Antigone, in other words, takes the impossible as her point of departure. She says herself that she wishes to suffer or bear the uncanny. In this she is removed from all human possibilities, and is the supreme uncanny.” (

Obligations of Being:
Heidegger’s interpretation of Antigone

for Rodolph Gasché:

We are here after that which is least general, not at all universal (though commonly available to every human). I hope to disclose this in a thoughtful consideration (which here must be brief, unfortunately) of the thought of Martin Heidegger in his confrontation with Sophocles.

Heidegger’s interpretation of Antigone is important, because Heidegger begins as clearly determined not to fall into any easy solution to a critical puzzle that at all resonates with fixed notions of cultural or literary history. Heidegger’s reading is important, because it is truly adventurous, because he really makes the effort to think Antigone anew, as if for the first time.

What does that mean? “as if for the first time”? Does it not sound just a bit like some review in a magazine? ‘Heidegger’s reading! — as if for the first time!’

Philosophers do not need such encomiums. Whenever was there a first time for philosophy?
Sophocles knows something – it’s in his text. And Heidegger thinks he knows what that is (and, as will, I hope, become clear, I believe him).

Antigone arrives. All of a sudden, she appears. How could she be, otherwise?

‘How could she be what?’ we want to say. We want the thing… no, we want the name for the thing, we think the name ‘names’ the entity, whatever it is before us. ‘Here is “chair,” here is “tree,” here is “Antigone”…’ That doesn’t sound right somehow, does it? No, of course not. We recognize the difference, but we can’t say what it is.

What, indeed, is “it”? Antigone is not a “thing”, Antigone is no ‘it.’ We want to ask, not ‘what is “Antigone”?’ but who is ‘Antigone?’ “Who” – this ‘other’ person we name “Antigone”.

But this “who” – we ask this question – how?

Consider: In Third Grade, boys don’t look up the teacher’s skirt because they want to see ‘something’ – they want to see what it is that they are expected to want to see….

Heidegger does understand this, this “expected”, what it is we are to expect here, what is expected of us as the audience of Sophocles’ Antigone. That is history; that is ‘culture’. Let’s not underestimate it (“Sophocles’ Antigone”) – it’s the common word, i.e., the common naming for it.

For what? Antigone? That’s absurd; ‘what’ do we think Antigone ‘is’?

Antigone is not a ‘what’. In all of his confrontations with Kant, Heidegger never disowned this ground of Kant’s ethics: A human being is not a thing.

Can we read this in Heidegger? Probably not.

Hegel buried the very idea. He always played his audience, never a “thing’, against ‘the other’ – always a thing. Let’s not underestimate this – this is the ground of Hegel’s ‘social dialectic’. The ‘thing’ and the ‘not-thing’ cancel each other out, producing the – well, let’s just say, ‘higher consciousness’.

[This was not entirely by intent; the impression is the result of the rhetorical force of Hegel’s language:
“The truth of consciousness is self-consciousness, and the latter is the ground of the former, all consciousness of another object being as a matter of fact also self-consciousness. Since abstract self-consciousness is itself immediate, and the first negation of self-consciousness, it is self-consciousness. But, for the self-certainty arising from the suspension of consciousness, the object is not.” (Phenomenology of Spirit)

Hegel wants to say that we all share in a social consciousness, but he can’t get there from here; too much ‘is-notting’ gets in the way. Ultimately, Hegel has the individual mind leaping through the ‘other’, so to speak, into a universal mind; but this is mere trick of language, since the individual consciousness (always ‘self-consciousness’, as Hegel says) must remain for there to be any mind at all. But remain as what? Hegel struggles for a term between “self-consciousness” and “consciousness” (per se, as universal), but it’s nowhere to be found. Apparently, the ‘higher consciousness’, having no language of its own, is doomed to silence, and must thus remains a-social – which of course is absurd.]

Heidegger doesn’t think Antigone has any ‘higher consciousness’ to attain. On the contrary. He offers the presence of Antigone as that of a consciousness we still seek to attain. But what is it? And can we even ask that question, “‘what’ is it?” (Who “we”?)

On page 101 of the translation of Heidegger’s lecture on Hölderlin’s “Der Ister,” Heidegger performs an odd litany; and any time a modern philosopher performs a litany, readers ought to take notice. There, according to the translators, he writes, three times, “as though”. As though we could interpret Antigone this way, as though we could interpret Antigone that way. As though we could interpret Antigone.

(I do not have Heidegger’s German text available at this writing; but it is worth wondering if McNeill and Davis aren’t translating the German “als ob” as ‘as though’. If so, the resonance with Kant would be obvious: “als ob”, as if; the necessary evil of presupposition, the inescapable (yet wholly ungrounded) assumption….) (Well, let us not pursue “assumptions” here; the texts we have before us are certainly difficult enough.) Let us change our tact.

“Antigone thereby takes upon herself into her ownmost essence, namely, to pursue that against which nothing can avail as the point of departure governing everything.”
(Heidegger: Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, 102.)

Our translators give us a fairly typical English compound pronoun: “herself” – her self. I am assuming they are translating accurately; why not? Heidegger has the language he has, McNeill and Davis have the language they have. Assuming it could be otherwise, assumes that philosophers and translators have the freedom of poetry at their command. Such is not the case. “Her-self” — as philosophers, as translators, as commentators, we’re all rather stuck with this. Antigone is a “her”, and she “has” a “self”. Inescapable.

And yet – what if it were otherwise?

The essence of Antigone; does this have a “her”? “Her”: generic female pronoun. Any “her”; thanks to Feminist politics, we no longer refer to hurricanes as ‘her’; but in the private speech of sailors, they still use the word to refer to harsh winds – “… hold fast, gotta watch her tonight!”

Very well; “her” is indistinguishable from all the other “hers” we must refer to in daily living; but this can never strip from Antigone the self she owns….

But, which “self” (whose)? Hegel’s “absolute consciousness”? Kant’s “transcendental ego”? The “intellective soul” of Thomas Aquinas, mimicking Aristotle? But the mere mention of Hegel tells the whole story here: the “self” (Ich, I): what could be more universal? And hence more empty? (“More empty”: in Hegel, that phrase means something; but in Heidegger, there is “being” or there is… not.)

Antigone, “herself”: the compound pronoun condemns her. To what? Interpretation. It is not that she “must” be interpreted; as an entity having a “her-self”, she will be interpreted, whether she wishes it or not.

No; not so; according to Sophocles (as Heidegger reads the text), this is precisely what Antigone will not allow.

Henceforth, to do Antigone justice, that is how we shall read her: Antigone. No “her”, no “self”.

Heidegger apparently wishes to read the choral ode of the play, he seems to wish that to be definitive of the Greek view of Dasein, i.e., human as human thrown into being. This can certainly be read compatibly with the main text of Sein und Zeit; the ‘authentic self’ is never a given, but must always separate itself from the ‘They’ – which means the ‘They’ has existential priority. No use trying to find one’s ‘self’ until some other selves tell us what ‘self’ means. (In what language?) Or does this get the process backward? How does any people know what having a ‘self’ means until an individual comes along to announce this?

” Well, what are you? ”
” I’m ‘self’. ”

Self thus appears as the ‘thrown into being human’ (Da-sein). But what if others disagree? Or have they any valid say in the matter? The individual announcing ‘self’ – has he or she a choice in this matter? Or is ‘self’ the necessary presupposition for recognizing any choice. (Perhaps this is the real legacy of Descartes.)

Representative of a number of possible Greek voices, Sophocles’ Chorus can be interpreted a number of ways; but Antigone is Antigone-Dasein. Antigone is thrown into Thebes as Antigone. Antigone cannot be otherwise.

Antigone-Dasein: this is your drama; we are left with you.

Heidegger must be therefore confronted with Antigone-Dasein. Heidegger must be; therefore, confronted with Antigone-Dasein. (Perhaps then Heidegger-Dasein confronts Antigone-Dasein; and perhaps Heidegger cannot be otherwise. If that is so, can the human thrown into the writing of this text be otherwise than as confronting Heidegger-Dasein in a reading of Antigone? If there is any escape from this – then there is nothing to escape from.)

“(Antigone’s) dying is (…) a belonging to being.” (Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, 104.)

There is no point in rehashing Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit here; its main thesis on Dasein is well known. Antigone-Dasein is “authentic Dasein”. If there is any difficulty in reading this of Antigone, the reason should be obvious: This is Antigone-Dasein. It belongs to no one else.

It does not even belong to Antigone; Antigone belongs to Antigone-Dasein (“a belonging to being”).

This should be obvious; but, of course it is not. The generalizing terms – “her”, “she”, “it”, even (despite objections from some stalwart Heideggerians (but certainly not Heidegger himself)), “Dasein’ – these words are labels, designating fictitious entities: collections of entities, faceless, nameless herds of – what? Can we call them “human”? As we refer to members of the logical class “canine” as “dogs”? (I am not getting sardonic here; this is no insult. This is a fundamental problem of logic, which the discourse of “logical analysis”, seemingly erasing the problematic relationship between individuals and class, has not resolved.)

(Well, let us not get caught up in the technicalities of logic….) (Yet, let us never forget that logic is the real issue here; at least linguistically; at least so the history of metaphysics in the West would teach us….) (But isn’t it really grammar at issue here? What truth is there for Antigone to say, if there is no saying? And who can say it if there is not this one – at least this one, but of course there is only one – this Antigone?)

Heidegger wants the Chorus of Sophocles’ play to present us with Dasein – but such can never be the case. And to pursue the matter too far in an effort to make that which can never be the case appear to be the case, Heidegger would simply end up in a grammatical tangle similar to Hegel’s simultaneously united and divided selves. Fortunately for Heidegger, and fortunately for us, Heidegger gets distracted, and rightly so, with a ‘thrown-into-being-human’ that knows no other choice – none, that is, that rightfully belongs, and yet identifiably, among these Choral Thebans.

I believe that what Heidegger struggles to discover, is trying to relate to us, is that Antigone-Dasein, although confronted with a seemingly ‘common’ problem (the state law demands of Antigone one set of behaviors, the common law of the community another), cannot respond to this problem commonly. Antigone is Antigone-Dasein; responding authentically to the dilemma, Antigone can only respond as Antigone-Dasein calls upon Antigone to do.

“Yet leave this to me, and to that within me that counsels the dangerous and difficult:
To take up into my own essence the uncanny that here and now appears.”
(Sophocles; Heidegger’s translation, re-translated by McNeill and Davis; Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, 99.)

“To take up into my own essence the uncanny” – every now and then, reading a text of philosophy, one wonders: With but a simple turn of phrase, would the history of philosophy have been different? Had Heidegger begun his discussion here, with this line, with the decisive moment presented to his audience, with the real confrontation of his thought with that of Sophocles/Antigone, would his discursive task have been easier? Would his text have been easier to understand?

Or is this hope for some “understanding” – is this not exactly what Antigone refuses?

“And no one knows from whence it once appeared.”
(Sophocles; Heidegger’s translation, re-translated by McNeill and Davis; Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, 116.)

Here this essay, in which, perhaps, Emmanuel-Winner-Dasein at least participated, but which “I”, “Emmanuel Winner” must now complete before my “choral” audience – here we must draw to a close. We have not Antigone’s courage; we have not Antigone-Dasein’s freedom. There is a ‘law’, a ‘custom’ we must observe: every text must come to an end.

But as we part from this text, a final word, in the voice of Martin Heidegger (at least as translated, by McNeill and Davis):

“That which is determinative, that which determines Antigone in her being, is beyond the upper and lower gods. And yet it is something that pervasively attunes human beings as human beings”. (Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, 116.)

If human being, we are human, then that Dasein assigned to us is just is as it is. If such is not the case – what are we?

Hegel (and Aristotle, although differently) seemed to promise an answer to that question – which, to be honest, many of us did not even know to be problematic. But what if there is not an ‘answer’? What if answering the question is not what the question asks? What if the question simply and only asks us to ask the question?

If human being, we are human, then that Dasein assigned to us is just is as it is. Who are we?

Heidegger tries to direct our thought to this problem – Sophocles’ Antigone will not have it otherwise; Antigone must confront us, as Antigone-Dasein. For Dasein is this confrontation.
To be human thrown into being, is always to confront human being.

But with that recognition (however fleeting in awareness), we must here close.


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