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Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

The Blanketing of the Truth

The problem is that Heidegger as he examines the Greek concept of truth (aletheia), even as it is investigated by Plato in The Sophist, begins with Aristotle. We can see this plainly in his recounting of the “history” of truth in his lectures on the Platonic Dialogue, as he moves as quickly as possible to the logos-determined, speaking realm of human beings. Heidegger wants to get onto the firm and comfortable ground of Dasein, of human-oriented Being-There. And in the quotation below we can see how in just a few strokes he gets from “Aletheia” (which is commonly translated into our word “truth”) to the albeit to be problemized “uncoveredness” of the legomenon, “the spoken thing”.

the history of the concept of truth

Alethes means literally “uncovered.” It is primarily things, the pragmata, that are uncovered. To pragmata alethes. This uncoveredness does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern. Accordingly uncoveredness is a specific accomplishment of Dasein, which has its being in the soul: aletheuei he psyche. Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things. That is, the determination of life, a determination that can be conceived of as logos, primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. Aletheuei ho logos, and precisely logos [speech, reason] as logein [to speak]. Insofar now as each logos is a self-expression and a communication, logos requires at once the meaning of the logomenon [the spoken thing]. And insofar as it is logos which aletheuei, logos qua logomenon is alethes. But strictly taken this is not the case. Nevertheless, isfaras speaking is a pronouncement and in the proposition aquires a proper existence, so that knowledge is preserved therein, even the logos as logomenon can be called alethes….Knowing or considering is always a speaking, whether vocalized or not. All disclosive comportment, not only everyday finding one’s way about, but also scientific knowledge, is carried out in speech. Legein primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. This legein is for the Greeks the basic determination of man: Zoon logon echon [an animal that holds speech]. And thus Aristotle achieves [in Nic. Eth. VI, 2], precisely in connection with this determination of man, i.e. the field of the logon echon and with respect to it, the first articulation of the five modes of altheuein. (Heidegger’s lectures on Plato’s Sophist, 18-19)

There are a few things to set straight right off. His simple, literal defintion of aletheia as  “uncoveredness” is an incredible simplification of the meanings and origins of the word, something he quickly has reduced, in largely Sophoclean fashion, to a trope of cloaking and residual depth. The power and sweep of this simplification should not be underestimated, for it directs the whole of the theoretical that follows. When something is “covered” our immediate questions inevitably turn to the nature of the thing that lies between it and us, how did it get there, what is it made of, can we remove it, what purpose does it serve. One can see how nicely such a condensed translation fits within the Idealist tradition which focuses on the Phenomenal and Ideational veil of Ideas.

Unfortunately, or we might say fortunately, the history of the concept of truth goes back much further than where Heidegger wants to take it. He wants us to see that A-letheia is a privative. It means A (not) letheia (covered). But does -letheia mean “covered”? Not really; at least it cannot be reduced to such without extensive distortion. We can recognize the name famous River of Lethe in the land of the Dead (so named by Ovid) in the word, a history of which we will return to in a moment. But the root comes from the Greek verb lanthánõ, which specifically means (LSJ):

A. in most of the act. tenses, to escape notice

B. causal, to make one forget a thing

As a signular note, a cloaked thing might or might not escape notice, and one might or might not forget a cloaked thing (in either case its very cloakedness could draw attention to it, as someone who kept their hand hidden behind their back has a certain obviousness to them). The Greek concept of Lethe is much more thorough than “cloakedness.” It is much closer to our notion of Oblivion. The forgetfulness of Lethe is more than the visual trope of “coveredness” gives us. It is the dissipation of difference. There is no difference there that matters, that makes a difference.

To bring out more of this concept of Aletheia, the a- (un) letheia (forgotten, obliteratered, lost) I want to turn to the Orphic mythologies that informed Plato’s own theories of truth, and likely formed a widespread and constitutive influence upon the very notion of aletheia in Greek culture. Below I quote from Guthries’s Classic text,  Orpheus and the Greek Religion, a selection which focuses on the occult knowledge of the Underworld given an Orphic Initiate regarding the topography of the land of the Dead, and their explicit instructions on how to avoid Lethe.

Keeping, then, to the right, the soul comes to a spring [on the right, having been warned not to drink from the spring of forgetfulness on the left], and addresses to the guardians that are before it a prayer that it may be allowed to drink of the water, of which it is in dire need: “I am parched with thirst and I perish”. We may presume that it has passed by the way that is described in the Republic as leading to the plain of Lethe, “through terrible and suffocating heat; for it is bare of trees and of all the fruits of the earth”. At the end of that journey too the souls are given water to drink. For the general belief that the dead are thirsty and in urgent need of water we have references which though not frequent are sufficient to indicate that it must have been widely held and not a particular tenet of the Orphics. The same prayer occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and had been adopted from it into the Hellenic religion of the same part of the world, as is shown by several sepulchral inscriptions, found, like the gold plates themselves, in Italy, with the formula: “May Osiris give thee the cold water”. No doubt the name of Osiris was taken by the Greeks because they found in the Egyptian religions an idea similar to that which they already held themselves.

The word yuxpro/n means of course not simply “cold” but “refreshing”. (The two are the same in Mediterranean countries.) It is of the same root as psyche, soul and Dieterich (Nekyia, 95) compares the word a)nayu=xai in the Orphic line which literally means “refreshed from evil”. The water is not ordinary water. It is water from the lake of Memory, and it is only the soul whose purity is vouched for which is to be allowed to drink from it. This is the soul which has escaped from the circle of birth, or evil, or woe, and is about to enter on the state of perfect divinity. Consequently it is not, like the souls in the Republic which are being prepared for a new incarnation, made to drink a certain measure of the water of Forgetfulness (Rep. 620a). That, without doubt, is the fountain on the left which it is told above all things to avoid. For it is reserved the water of life, which will enable it to retain full consciousness (Guthrie, Orpheus and the Greek Religion, 177)

How far we are from simple “covered” and “uncoveredness”, and even linguistic reductions of the determination of the human soul to that which is spoken. Rather, the depiction of Lethe and not-Lethe is expressed in very physical terms, in terms of refreshingly cold water as drink. The soul in the land of the dead has passed through extreme heat, and is bewildered by its thirst. It has been instructed not to drink of the fountain on the left, but on the right. Here I quote the already cited Orphic passage from the Republic:

[621a] And after it had passed through that, when the others also had passed, they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion [tes Lethes pedion], through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness [Ameleta potamon], whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things.

The word-choice here is telling. The soul has passed across the Plain of Oblivion (tes Lethes pedion), and the river that the reincarnating soul drinks from is not the River of Lethe, but the River of Ameleta, the River of Uncaring. Under Orphic telling, the aletheia is not the “uncovered” but “the not-uncaring”. Clearly, those that drink from the River of Mnemosyne instead of Ameleta, retain their cares and concerns. Quite to the contrary of Heidegger’s lexical reversion which will eventually make a “cloaking” out of human Dasein engagment with the pragmata (affairs, things of concern), the very nature of aletheia is that of retaining concerns and care. It is only through the retention of cares that the soul is refreshed of the heat of oblivion.

The Role of Care as Revelation

Importantly, Heidegger tells us in his history of the concept of the truth that “This uncoveredness [of aletheia] does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern.” Notice how this differs from the Orphic/Platonic tale of elementary care and concern. The concern is not with “objects” but with thirst itself, with the state of one’s own body. It is the purity of this sufferance, as a care, which in turn orients the soul both toward the gaurdian and the spring. And contrary to Heidegger’s assessment, it is indeed the care of the soul which orients it rightfully to the pragmata, “insofar as they are”. One must, in examining the history of the Greek notion of the truth acknowledge this fundamental equation.

It is for this reason that the optical metaphor of covered and uncovered that Heidegger adopts, while suited to the Idealist heritage he keeps, actually is insufficient to the Greek concept of truth (insofar as we can historically generalize). The the failure of cares in Oblivion is the detachment from one’s own state, to dissipate. It is not a condition of veiling, or coveredness, of something coming between the subject and the world, but rather is a constitutive internal relation, a failure of orientation towards one’s own health and dynamic expression, a failure to recall in one’s concerns the connections which “as they are” have constituted you.

In this correction we must keep track of Heidegger’s smooth move towards Aletheia of speaking being: “Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things.” One wants to stretch back to some time more distant than the benchmark for truth, Aristotle, and turn to Homer, the Iliad. Achilles is furious and in attendance of the Assembly where he is told that Agamemnon will take from him his beloved Briseis. Achilles has his hand on the hilt of his sword which he is in the act of drawing. Agamemnon is finished, yet:

The white-armed goddess Hera had sent her forth, [195] for in her heart she loved and cared for both men alike. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. (Book One, lines 195-200)

What is the “truth” status of Athena’s terribly flashing eyes? None of the others in the hall saw her (literally, she was coming to light [phanomene] to him alone, not the others).  Not only did he perceive her [gignosko] as generally present, but seemed to do so as particularized by the very manifestion of her eyes [phaanthen]. These eyes are the very epithetic status of the goddess herself, “Flash-eyed” Athena. I suggest really that it is not on this occasion of words (debate in a hall) that the most immediate form of “uncovering” is words, but rather of bodily seizure and distinctive identification. The pragmata of Achilles’ concern, that of Agamemnon’s unworthy stewardship of the Greek contingent, his love for Briseis, suddenly is invaded by the pragmata of his own condition, exposed in the glinting revelation of things as they are, the concerns of his very thumatic soul. But it is not a condition of layering, of things standing between what is and the perceiver. Nothing is hidden, rather the richness of connection is accomplished in care. We find this in the poem when Achilles finally achieves the ῎Ελεος of compassion for Hector’s father and his sworn enemy King Priam, Eleos, the God of Mercy. This is what is missing from Heidegger’s notion of “truth” as kinds of covering and uncovering, in an optical metaphor of distance.

Productively I feel that the order of these points against Heidegger should be framed within a large problem in the Idealist tradition that Heidegger participates in, and this is the absolute tendency to consider philosophical questions solely in terms of a fundamental dyad. This form of analysis is one that principally comes out of the European Christian concern of how to connect the human soul with God. The presumption was that the world simply interferred in some sense (which the exception of the Church, which faciliated the connection) As God came to be displaced, the fundamental question became epistemic, how does the human perceiving subject connect to the world (and the world’s surrogate, the “object”). In taking the philosophical question to be primarily a subject/object question, the great and constitutive third, others, came to be pushed aside. In general, as philosophies become discordantly engaged with one-to-one relationships, and their profusion of binaries, it is inherently insuffient and misguided (that is, it has decomplexified the relationships of the world to an unhelpful degree). It seems to me that as Heidegger turned to Aristotlean notions of truth, categorizing them widely as Greek, and adopted a primarly optical metaphor for qualifications of Being, he did so in a way quite friendly to the pre-existing Idealist dyad of self/world. In this fashion, in his foreclosure to the immanent capacities of “care” in the Greek mind, he obscured the very third leg of the triangle, others, which would otherwise show how “care” in all things, including things “non-human” is actively involved in our mutual construction of the world, in degrees of ontological freedom.  Because “aletheia” was for Idealist Heidegger primarily an EYE/OBJECT relation (that metaphor), the constitutive movment from “lethe” (dissipative oblivion) to “a-leth-eia” (condensed internal relations of expressive care) was robbed of the very depth of the dimensionality of others. More Augustine, more Achilles was needed.


The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

Some Considerations of Objecf-Object Oriented Philosophy

Recent engagement with Graham Harman’s “Object-Oriented Philosophy” as it stems from Brentano and Husserl, stirs in me a terrible disagreement (I use “terrible” in the Greek sense). It comes from the “picture” that for me lies behind phenomenological preoccupations with the object, and I think also is core to Heidegger’s, at least rhetorical, notion of hiddenness (dear Sophocles, your Aias  meditation on Time!)…this is the intensely visual metaphor for how the mind works, and thus how we are to orient ourselves philosophically towards the imagined “object”, philosophically equated with Being. The entire heritage in my view suffers from this essentialized orientation to the object, the thing that reveals itself only in part.

In a soon to be published text Graham Harman quotes to some effect Husserl’s object orientation in Logical Investigations:

“every intention is either an objectifying act or has its basis in such an act.” 

“whether I look at this book from above or below, from inside or outside, I always see this book. It is always one and the same thing, and that not merely in some purely physical sense [which plays no role in Husserl’s philosophy- g.h.], but in the view of our percepts themselves. If individual properties dominate variably at each step, the thing itself, as a perceived unity, is not in essence set up by some over-reaching act, founded upon these separate percepts.”

As I have argued elsewhere (linked far below), and found in my research into Spinoza’s optical theories and practices, this modern conception of a picture of consciousness as somehow oriented towards the object, in a sense, being composed by its object, is something that has its modern origin in optical metaphors drawn from the rise of dioptics, the science of the lensed refaction of rays. The transition from the Perspectivist tradition which matched linear rays from points on an object to points in the back of the eye, to the philosophical meditation on what it takes to have “clear and distinct” ideas (Descartes), led us to understand consciousness itself as oriented towards a central clarity, a clarity which, however obscure the borders, as the object of the mind composes a kind of “truth”. Under such a view it is the very nature of consciousness to be somehow defined by this centrality, this clear picture, and the obscure boundary spaces do nothing more than “serve” this center (Kepler, Descartes).

The “Clear and Distinct” Center

As just suggested, Descartes is responsible for bringing to the fore this notion of consciousness through a pursuit of the “clear and distinct” idea. It is important to note that this phrasing comes directly from dioptrics where it carried a specific meaning. In an age wherein refraction was barely understood (the law had just been identified), the quality of glass incredibly fogged and bubble-ridden, and methods of glass grinding unsettled and under continual invention, an image in a lens that was “clear” (clare) was one which was bright, and one that was “distinct” was one which, if bright enough and the properties of the glass and curve optimal, all the parts could be made out. A bright idea was one that struck one with obviousness, a distinct one one that struck with detail, that is, as being sufficiently differentiated. When looking through a microscope a “clear and distinct” image was a good image. In keeping with his preoccupations with the future science of the dioptrics of microscopes and telescopes, Descartes felt that mentally the “clear and distinct” idea was the focus of mental perception, just as the clear and distinct image is the focus of visual perception. Emotions and sensations were indistinct quite often. A pain might be very “bright” (obvious) but indistinct as to its cause or nature.  


In my studies I find, following Graham Burnett’s inspiration, that Descartes’ hyperbolic lens, designed as it was to bring a central object into view as clearly and distinctly as possible, was related to his hyperbolic doubt, which was meant to help focus the mind on the most bright and disguishable ideas. In both Descartes hyperbolic lens and imagination, it is the visual center of consciousness which stabilizes truth. It is the object of one’s eye and mind. I argue that Spinoza’s objection to the efficacy of Descartes’ optical hyperbolic lens contains also an objection to the notion of a central clarity, a clarity that works to anchor the mind to truth.

The Dissonance Hole

Now back to the inheritors of a concept of consciousness which finds at is center an (object) clarity. These are the phenomenological sons of Descartes’s preoccupations with the optical metaphor. To this inheritance I would like to raise a deeper question than simply exposing a central metaphor (and its possible contingent relationship of the validity of arguments that depend on it: chose another metaphor, like for instance how Plotinus uses sound, and possibly end up with different conclusions). I want to suggest that if one attends to consciousness itself, and looks to the very center of consciousness, one doesn’t find a stability there at all. In fact, there is hole at the center of vision.

Richard Sennett’s recent, and thought-provoking The Craftsman  includes the importance of this “hole”:

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

Pay attention to the dissonance that lies at the center of one’s attention. As the eye plays over the surface of an object, the gaze is not upon the “object” but at the living line which erupts out of the sense of it.  If we take up Husserl’s book, we don’t even have to look at its inside, outside and bottom. We merely need to look at its cover. The eye flits across it, an electric line that traces out the variations of its color, its choice of title typeface, its wear on a corner, its color that reminds us of a dress we saw. Yes, we are “seeing” the book, but it is an eruptive book. These are not accidents to the essence of the book, but rather are produts of our engagment with it. But more than this, the “book” is not a center of our consciousness, it is is not the “object” of our consciousness, or even intentionality. In fact there is no object at all which is the focus of our altering gaze. But it goes further than even this, for if the living line does erupt from the book, we understand that the book itself is present to us as a ground of sense for which this line depends. It is not that the book is somehow constructed out of these in some “over-reaching act” but rather that the book already serves as a ground, an under-reaching ground. The dissonance of our awareness depends upon an awareness of consonance. And this consonance is not though made up of the object of the book either, for the book is perceived as a book against (or in coherence with)  a vast array of other boundary perceptions and beliefs (I see that it is a book because that is a table, and I am in a room, and “I believe that writing exists, that there are authors” etc.). Not only is the “object” not at the center of our gaze, but neither is it the whole of the sense from which we do derive our center. Our awareness is a breadth. We say that we are “looking at the book” or “thinking of the book” as a kind of short hand for mutitudnal effects which are only understood as layers or degrees. And we also “picture” (retroactively) a stability of what we are looking at, paying less attention to what it is that we are attending to (a living line of dissonance, and a counter-boundary of outer sense) .

Intentional and Other Objects

When “object-orientation” concepts of Being flow from this notion of central apparition (and also for Heideggerians necessary hiddenness), the full sense of what the mind does, what consciousness is, I think gets lost. I have not read Graham Harman extensively (only an unpublished essay, a lecture listened to, and some informative comments), but I cannot help but have the sense that there is something of a central clarity conception of consciousness that he has taken from the sons of Descartes. What is interesting to me though is that tool orientation, a craft understanding of consciousness, actually is what calls our attention to the very hole at the center of vision. A craftsman is the one that focuses on the eruptive amid an organized sense, plan or workability.

So when we consider what Graham Harman takes to be the “object” of philosophy…

1. Intentional objects (such as phenomenal trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their accidents

2. Real objects (such as real trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their qualities

3. Real objects are deeper than the phenomenal qualities that emanate from them in relations

4. Intentional objects are unreal but are made up of real moments

This fourfold of accidents, relations, qualities, and moments can be restated in cosmologically more interesting fashion:

1. The tension between an intentional object and its accidents is precisely what we mean by TIME

2. The withdrawal of a real object from any relation is what we call SPACE

3. The duality between a real thing and its own real qualities can be called ESSENCE

4. A merely intentional thing’s possession of genuine qualities can be called, in a Husserlian sense, EIDOS

I feel that we need to ask how much of this falls back upon the essentialized notion of central clarity, the idea that our minds should be directed (philosophically) towards the focus upon “intentional objects” or “real objects” (or the interplay between them); how much does this direction rely upon a mistaken over-simplified “picture” of consciousness, and the historical inheritance of conceptions derived from Descartes fascination with refraction and the correction/enhancement of vision? It seems that when we realize that it is rather the “accidents” of an object that actually compose our intentionality, the eruptive semiotics of a dissonance that flows out from a ground of sense-making, the game of recapturing the buried “essence” of an object, the “real” object, apart from its intentionality loses its footing. It is the accidents themselves that connect us to the object, the flash of light across a surface that redirects our orientation to the object and causes us to care about it in a new way, to encamp it with a cathexis of our informing affects, and understand the world differently through these connective effects. When the intentionality of consciousness is understood not directed towards a clarity, an object (however present or hidden), but rather towards the breakdown of that object, not through an attention to the regain of an eidos behind it, but through a bodily reconfiguration of ourselves in orientation to the world itself wherein there is no accident for each accident signifies, then we understand the mind much more as an activity rather than a representation device (an important step I feel). It is in this constant re-vectorialization of the self through reporting others and a world that gives knowledge its uumph, its power and freedom. I am unsure how far Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy deviates from my thoughts on this, for we share a distinct interest in the post-human, a sense that flat ontologies should be in some ways deepened, and would work toward a cybernetic understanding. I look forward to a continual and edifying communication with Graham Harman’s writings, in particular the coming book on Latour, Prince of Neworks. These thoughts come out of what for me was a strong sense that he yearns for a solidity behind (or in front of) the orientation of philosophy, a solidity which he reads as “depth”, yet an anchor point which by my brief reading takes its cue from a tradition that pursues a central clarity in what for me are misleading metaphors of vision, a tradition which works to stablize and centralize the human self (soul) which he looks to de-centralize.

In addition to this, as a last remark, there is in modern philosophy a tendency to think in irreducible dyads, that is: How do we get from here (let us say, that intentional object) to there (the real object); or how do we get from here (a true proposition) to there (a state of the world); or how do we get from here (thoughts in my mind) to there (thoughts in your mind); or most generally, how do we get from here (the self) to there (the world). This binary thinking which haunts much of representational analysis is a continuation of the primary problem of much of theology, how to get the soul back to God. All kinds of mediating paths are offered to what is imagined to be a fundamentally binary relationship (we expect the mediations to vanish). Many of these philosophical conundrums disappear when the dyad turns into a triad (and not a Hegelian triangle), that is, when the A/B line becomes a triangle of orientations. This is part of Latour’s philosophy of the “same”, but also central to Donald Davidson’s triangulation. It is not self/world, but self/self/world. I think part of the problem of thinking in terms of mind/object-essence dyads is that the triangle does not become properly emphasized. What happens when we find a fissure at the center of consciousness is that the third term (be it another informing person/object, or a causal state of the world) comes into view to help consolidate the fissure, bringing it into a clarity which then erupts. The fullness of a philosophy should be directed towards the necessity of the third term in any binary preoccupation, the way in which the third completes the sense. Not Object-Oriented Philosophy, but Oriented Object Philosophy, perhaps.

As Plotinus tells us:

If they are two, the knower will be one thing, and the known the other, and contemplation (theõria) has not yet made this pair akin to each other (õieiõsen) (Enn. 3.8.8). 

For thoughts related to these:

1. A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza

2. The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

3. Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters