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Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell

Author: Rod Hemsell

Last Updated: December 24, 2011

Let us keep in mind these phrases that Heidegger takes from the pre-socratic Greek thinker: meleta to pan (take into care being as a whole), and arche ton onton to apeiron (the origin of beings delimits or repels the infinite)

These phrases are discussed at length in the little book with which I want to begin this course, Basic Concepts. This book is a 1940 course he gave which is a good example of the idea that Heidegger's work is a continuous reflection on Being and Time (1927). Many of his works are a continuation of Being and Time. I find that in the forties and fifties, he examined this theme in many lectures which became books. In one titled What is Called Thinking (1949), there are two series of ten lectures which are a contemplation of the question of Being. In the fifties he published another book called The Principle of Reason, which is about Hegel's philosophy, but it is an original reflection on the question What is Being?. Everything has a reason, is the argument, and the reason for everything is its origin. It always goes back to arche, origin.

In this little book of reflections called Basic Concepts we also find two clear points of departure in philosophy: Gebser clearly finds here his inspiration for The Ever Present Origin written ten years later, in 1949, and Derrida's philosophy of difference also has its roots in this book, as we will see. In Gebser's case, his book is a bridge between Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo. He oscillates back and forth between the two throughout his book. And in Derrida, the act of deconstruction is performed by looking into being, the being of beings; he focuses on something like a work of art, or a principle of society or economics, or literature, and peels back  all the layers of interpretation to find the whole. The whole of something is its past, its future, its potentiality, its connections, its fulfilment or its lack, all are a part of its being. Nothing is what it is in the moment. The concept of 'being and time' is that time is necessary for the revealing of Being.

So this phrase meleta to pan, take into care being as a whole, means to care for the being of beings. To do philosophy according to Heidegger, to practice philosophy, means to care about being. This is what I would like for us to move towards: philosophy as practice. Heidegger uses language to guide thinking towards being. So he asks the question, What is Being? And how is it not 'beings'? What is the relationship between beings and being? This is the origin of Derrida's philosophy of difference. We are always aware of the being of beings but we always put it in the background and allow ourselves to be preoccupied with beings; and to that extent we forget about Being, unless we make an effort to recover its thinking and realize that the two cannot be separated. Heidegger constantly points out this problem of the human being, being preoccupied with beings. It is a shrinking of time and a reduction of reality.

This is also an interesting connection with the philosophy of Bergson who criticizes logical thought and elaborates the reductive tendency of the mind which captures a mental picture, cuts out a frame, and calls it reality. For example, we all know what 'evolution' is. But we don't actually know what it is at all; it is much too vast and complex for our mind to grasp; we can only arrive at a concept or a theory of evolution. So Heidegger raises the question in this way: is Being also only a concept, the most universal concept? Being is a kind of nominalization of the verb to be. 'Being' is what is. So, is Being only what is? In metaphysics people always discuss being as if it were something else. And often they arrive at the concept of emptiness. Being is an empty concept. Kantian philosophy contemplates this idea quite seriously, and Heidegger pursues a process of thinking with the aim of the eventual destruction of this idea of being as emptiness.

Being refers to what is, as a whole, according to the pre-socratic phrase, 'the taking into care of being as a whole'. This is a yogic concept that we also read about in Sri Aurobindo. He teaches the universalization of consciousness; the technique he recommends in order to move from rational mind to higher mind and Overmind is to learn to see things in terms of universals: beauty, utility, harmony, power, Nature. We can observe every aspect of nature as part of the web of life; the web of life becomes a universal in which every aspect of nature can be seen, felt, understood, identified; in its niche, its birth, its dying, its struggle and reproduction. Each thing can be seen as the action of Mahalakshmi in her material, vital unfolding in time. We can learn to observe the behavior of nature, human behavior, every thing in nature, as the flow of the divine shakti.

By observing human behavior in society as vortices or spirals of ascending and descending consciousness, from the vital physical to the vital mental to the higher mental and supramental, we can observe the development of society, up and down through all the stages of development through which human societies pass. The being of human civilization is what Sri Aurobindo writes about in The Human Cycle. Every chapter is a dynamic restatement of that universal perception of the developmental stages through which societies grow. He constantly describes the series of stages, rather than being preoccupied with one or another stage. He describes where each stage or level of society fits in the universal pattern. This is the universalization of consciousness that he practiced and that he advocates. And I believe that Heidegger is moving in the same direction.

Heidegger's discussion of being as the most universal concept moves in two directions. One is the discussion of being as a concept that includes every being: the most universal concept. The other direction is the discussion of the being of beings, i.e. that beings are what they are. Society is what it is,  technology is what it is, humans are what they are. This saying: arche ton onton to apeiron,

conveys the idea that everything that is, and what it is, has emerged into presence from origin, and at some point it defects and passes back into non-presence. While it is in presence it is what it is. In its changes, its coming and going into being and out of being, in its limitations and its potentials, each thing is what it is as an emergence into presence. This coming into being (presence) and passing out of presence is what 'beings' do, in a continuum of existence in which Being continues always to be the ground. In this saying, arche is not a point of beginning; it is the constant emergence into and passing out of presence of beings. Gebser, (who has done the most thorough study of the developmental stages of human civilization), gets his idea of the ever-present origin from this concept.

To apeiron, the unlimited, the infinite, is repelled or overcome by the limitations of each thing as it comes into and passes out of being. This delimits the infinite. But by delimiting the infinite, the infinite itself is not limited; only the being becomes what it is, but the infinite itself continues to repel that limit as it repels the infinite. Infinity is repelled by the beings that come into and pass out of Being. In this concept of to apeiron (the infinite) in relation to arche (origin), neither of these poles or aspects - the origin of the thing and the infinite it repels - adequately defines being, because being is both the infinite and the emergence into presence of beings. 

This concept of emergence into and out of the infinite by beings, the Greeks eventually decided to call phusis. It is the process of things themselves, the energy of existence, which in Sanskrit is prakriti; this concept of the presencing of beings is a concept of energy in motion. And it leads to the question How and Why are beings what they are?, and this questioning becomes the analysis of the relationship of beings as they are now with their next or previous phase of development, and their relationships with other causes and effects, which constitute  the limits of what they can become. The concept that is being described seems to be the twofold concept of prakriti and purusha, nature and being. That into which and out of which beings arise and become what they are is Being (purusha/self); the how and why, and all the intermediate exchanges of energy which take place in the process, are prakriti/nature. This is the concept that the teaching of Heidegger seems to be attempting to guide the mind towards, rather than (I would suggest) to frame these concepts in predetermined names or fundamental principles, such as Brahman, Maya, Form and Substance, etc. In the more traditional mode of teaching, such ideas become beings, and as such, conceal the idea of Being. Heidegger has some clever ways of guiding thinking away from its traditional grooves.

Daniel: Would you say then that Heideggerian reflections are a way to get beyond the mental into higher mind?

Yes, unequivocally. Basic Concepts is a particularly good example of this. It is a collection of two or three page reflections which put you in a perceptive mode for grasping a concept which is ancient and difficult. It is not the way you normally think about things. His problem is, can it be shown? Heidegger's basic premise is that truth, aletheia, means uncovering the untrue, uncovering limited and opinionated thought and perception until the truth of things themselves stands in light. The thing itself uncovers itself by coming into being. The human being who is dwelling in practical mind and opinionated routine living is a partially concealed human being. It has not emerged into what it means to be a true human being. The observing mind can help to bring out the potentiality which is concealed in being. The definition of truth is not a correct statement or correspondence with the facts. For Heidegger that is the falsehood that has taken place in thinking between the pre-socratics and the present. Thinking now means analyzing and reducing things to practical statements and theories, by which we lose contact with the reality about which we are speaking. Both the reality and the understanding get reduced to a framework that is useful but it is not the force and quality and nature of things themselves which can be known 'gnostically', by identity.

Because, eventually, it may be possible to compare Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo, (this is one of our goals), it is important to realize that both of them have presented their metaphysical philosophy from

three points of view. One is the classical, ancient, scriptural point of view. Both have based their thinking on ancient language and concepts. Both have developed rational, philosophical reasons to justify and communicate their philosophy. And both have relied on experience. Therefore we can say conventionally that they have presented arguments from scripture, from reason, and from experience. And for both everything finally depends on experience.

This short and concise text, Basic Concepts, is a good example of these three approaches. Heidegger dwells on a few passages from Anaximander and attempts to bring out the meaning of these ancient expressions that are no longer thought; they are hardly thinkable. In Sri Aurobindo's case he has brought back Vedic Sanskrit texts that are hardly readable any more. And yet he found there the source of his philosophy. There is a combination of linguistic genius and philosophical intentionality that has enabled both of them to bring out the meanings from ancient languages that would otherwise probably not be accessible to us. Sri Aurobindo happens to have also been a Greek scholar at Cambridge and situates much of his thought in the context of classical Greek as well as Sanskrit writings. For example, he wrote a series of essays on Heraclitus which is very much along the lines of Heidegger's thinking.

What we might realize on this path is something about the ancient mentality before calculative thought came into the picture. That's why Heidegger is interested in it. He sees in that way of thinking a way to address our loss of a closer identity with the world, because we are only interested in manipulating it. Both thinkers are trying to bring back into perspective a way of seeing that is not so accessible to our thinking or experience today. We benefit from going with them into this process of revealing, through classical language, a way of thinking other than the one we are accustomed to.

Here Heidegger refers to scriptural statements from Anaximander, then he develops a tight and concise philosophical argument concerning the difference between being and beings, as he has done in many texts, but this one is exceptionally tight and almost Upanishadic. Then, finally, he guides our thinking, if we are willing, along a pathway towards a seeing of being, and not just a thinking about being, but a seeing of being as the Same. In the writings on Heraclitus by Sri Aurobindo and in Heidegger's writings on the pre-socratics, both have referred to the writings of Nietzsche who is well known for his philosophy of the eternal recurrence of the same. Now what is this 'the same'? This is the secret that Heidegger is moving towards, the seeing of being, the idein. The seeing of the idea or reality of something in Greek is idein. This concept of the Same is what Heidegger concludes these reflections with. And I have noted that in The Ever-Present Origin, in Gebser's chapter on the philosophy of time,

the first thing he refers to is the incipient saying of being in the fragment of Anaximander. And almost everything he says about origin and time comes from this short commentary of Heidegger, which Gebser acknowledges openly as a fundamental understanding of time brought forward by Heidegger.

This seeing of the Same concerns the emergence and passing away of temporal beings. Temporal beings emerge into their duration and pass out of presence, back into that out of which they emerge, which might be thought of as 'nothing' but which is actually the infinite source of everything, the apeiron.  Arche means the emergence, ton onton is beings, in relation to or in the infinite, apeiron. Heidegger interprets this phrase as meaning 'the origin of everything repels limit, or moves towards the infinite'. Beings have a temporal duration, whereas Being is that into which beings emerge and pass away. Apparently there is a way of identifying with the whole, as in the phrase meleta to pan, which Heidegger interprets as 'caring for being as a whole'. This, he believes, is the fundamental philosophy of the Greeks: being is the fitting together of beings as a whole, but it is also the source, the force, the emergence and pervasiveness and limit, which is constantly being exceeded. Temporal beings are not permanent but there is a permanence in the temporality of which they are, and in which they fit, as a part of the whole.

We are moving on this path toward seeing Being as the infinite source and also as a need. Heidegger draws out of Anaximander the phrase to chreon, the cry, or the need, of being that brings forth things. He says this is not a lack, but an overflowing of freedom. The essence of being is the infinite repelling of limit through the emergence of beings. So it is not an emptiness or void. The essence of being is this repelling of limit, which is also the need of being. (These expressions of Being as overflowing freedom, origin and repelling the infinite convey the sense of power and of the empowerment of beings.)

In the section on 'the connection between being and time Heidegger says that in Greek, kronos means what corresponds to topos, the place and the time where each being belongs. Kronos is the always  favorable and granted time, as distinguished from the untimely. It never means a serial ordering of now points one after the other, but the allotment character that lies within time itself as what is always the proper sending, granting, and ordaining time, the duration of a being. Everything that is comes into itself through a process of time, and fulfils its potential through a process of time, and passes back into the Same through a process of time. This has become the main theme of Gebser's book The Ever-Present Origin. This atemporal way of seeing things, is understanding time as primarily the duration of being. If you think about yourself or some project or thing that you have, you can conceive of it as not having a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but it goes on until it becomes what it is, in terms of its purpose, function, form, essence. And it was always that. This is fundamental to the Greek concept of time. Aristotle's most well-known book, The Physics, is all about this. In it he says something that has always fascinated me. He said that in defining the fundamental principles of existence, he could easily explain two, matter and form form being the nature of something and matter the substance, but the most difficult thing to explain was the third principle: motion. Matter becomes a form though a process of change which we do not see until it becomes what it is. We are always thinking about the end that the thing will become, its form and its purpose. For example a carpenter's chiseling of wood to make a table is not something we see happening; at some point the table stands. We do not think of the table as the wood pieces falling from the chisel. The process of making it is motion, matter being in motion to become a form.  Anything we think of as happening or that we do has an energy and duration necessary to it which can't be more and can't be less. The artificial notion of time that we have is quite different from this classical Greek notion that we are trying to grasp.

Heidegger says, Time is in itself  the kind of thing that directs and allots. So when he says meleta to pan, he translates it as 'take care of the being of beings as a whole'. It is like the concept of the Divine Mother who is all pervading and gives the energy to each being to become what it is. It's a mythical concept. This is the mythical structure emerging at a post-rational level. Its the 'integral structure' that Heidegger seems to be trying to discern or to point out. Time is the allotment of presencing for what presences in each case. Being does this. Being allots to each thing its presence in the infinite, against limit.

Earlier in the book, when Heidegger was discussing the emptiness of the concept of being from the linguistic point of view, he made some comments that seem especially Upanishadic. He said, It could appear that something important is concealed in what is named by the noun being, something important and in this case especially profound, even though the title being nevertheless remains just a nametag for emptiness. And yet behind the uniformity and emptiness of the word is, a scarcely considered richness conceals itself. ...While being yet remains closer to us than everything nearest, and farther than all that is farthest, it is a matter of becoming aware of our essential abode in Being. Being is overly near. All talk about it as near and closest has already distanced it. For the nearest proximity already essentially includes distance. Being never stands back from us because it is that into which we are placed.

To this extent, says Heidegger, aletheia, truth, is the unconcealing of the Same, to apeiron, the infinite, in each being. There are resonances here with the Isha Upanishad, which, as we have said, is the basis of The Life Divine. That moves, and that moves not. That is far, and the same is near. That is in all this, and that also is outside all this. But he who sees the Self in all existences and all existences in the Self, shrinks not thereafter from aught. Sri Aurobindo points out that we can get a clear impression from this passage of the difference between vidya and avidyaAvidya is seeing things as they appear, beings; vidya is seeing things as the Self, in the Self, which is the Same, universal being. I think Heidegger was moving through his forest in this direction. But the Western approach is always concerned with motion, with becoming. The Eastern point of view is always concerned with the static, the motionless, the permanent. When we compare Sri Aurobindo and Heidegger, we can see that they are really touching the core of their respective traditions. And Heidegger cannot get away from time, as Heraclitus could not get away from the river into which you cannot step twice. The whole mystery of movement and change preoccupies the Western mind, and the whole mystery of the permanence that underlies all of the change preoccupies the Eastern mind.

In his essay on Heraclitus, Sri Aurobindo speaks about Nietzsche and the philosophy of the eternal recurrence of the same, where he says something very interesting. He says Nietzsche seems to speak always about becoming rather than about being. But, he says, ...but, if we think about the Brahman as being all energy, and all existence, then the becoming too is Brahman. Especially in Nietzsche and Heidegger, we can always read this paradox in what they say, and it seems that for them becoming is Being. They have a perception of the being of beings as a whole but all their thinking is conditioned by this Western compulsion to define change, energy, motion, cause and effect, and to explain those things against the background of the Same, which they also perceive.

(from the lecture course recorded on 19/9 and 26/9, 2011)

Audio Links

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 1

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 2

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 3

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 4

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 5

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 6

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 7

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 8

  Heidegger and Sri Aurobindo by Rod Hemsell Lecture 9