Cover image for Plato and Heidegger: A Question of Dialogue By Francisco J. Gonzalez

Plato and Heidegger

A Question of Dialogue

Francisco J. Gonzalez


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Plato and Heidegger

A Question of Dialogue

Francisco J. Gonzalez

“Francisco Gonzalez’s book is the most thorough study yet of Heidegger’s encounter with the work of Plato throughout his career. Gonzalez traces the development of Heidegger’s attitude toward Plato from his early lecture courses to the very end of his career in exhaustive detail. Despite the relentless critique of Heidegger’s Plato interpretations within its pages, the book presses for a positive conclusion, that it is up to us to engage the genuine dialogue between these two thinkers that Heidegger himself could never adequately accomplish.”


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In a critique of Heidegger that respects his path of thinking, Francisco Gonzalez looks at the ways in which Heidegger engaged with Plato’s thought over the course of his career and concludes that, owing to intrinsic requirements of Heidegger’s own philosophy, he missed an opportunity to conduct a real dialogue with Plato that would have been philosophically fruitful for us all.

Examining in detail early texts of Heidegger’s reading of Plato that have only recently come to light, Gonzalez, in parts 1 and 2, shows there to be certain affinities between Heidegger’s and Plato’s thought that were obscured in his 1942 essay “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” on which scholars have exclusively relied in interpreting what Heidegger had to say about Plato. This more nuanced reading, in turn, helps Gonzalez provide in part 3 an account of Heidegger’s later writings that highlights the ways in which Heidegger, in repudiating the kind of metaphysics he associated with Plato, took a direction away from dialectic and dialogue that left him unable to pursue those affinities that could have enriched Heidegger’s own philosophy as well as Plato’s. “A genuine dialogue with Plato,” Gonzalez argues, “would have forced [Heidegger] to go in certain directions where he did not want to go and could not go without his own thinking undergoing a radical transformation.”

“Francisco Gonzalez’s book is the most thorough study yet of Heidegger’s encounter with the work of Plato throughout his career. Gonzalez traces the development of Heidegger’s attitude toward Plato from his early lecture courses to the very end of his career in exhaustive detail. Despite the relentless critique of Heidegger’s Plato interpretations within its pages, the book presses for a positive conclusion, that it is up to us to engage the genuine dialogue between these two thinkers that Heidegger himself could never adequately accomplish.”
“Gonzalez presents a critical study of Heidegger’s reading of Plato and argues that Heidegger—although he closely analyzed Plato’s philosophy—did not enter a real dialogue with Plato. Gonzalez’s aim is to imagine the dialogue that Heidegger failed to have with Plato and show us the way Heidegger’s own thought was influenced by the refusal of this dialogue. This is a very original work that will be of interest to many philosophers.”
“Gonzalez offers an insightful, impressively detailed, critical study of Heidegger’s work on Plato—from his earliest lecture courses to his later essays.”

Francisco J. Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa.



List of Abbreviations

Introduction: What Is to Be Gained from a Confrontation Between Plato and Heidegger?

Part 1: Heidegger’s Critical Reading of Plato in the 1920s

1. Dialectic, Ethics, and Dialogue

A. Heidegger’s Critique of Dialectic in the 1920s

B. Ethics and Ontology

C. Ethics in Plato’s Sophist

D. Heidegger and Dialogue

E. Conclusion

2. Logos and Being

A. The Tensions in Heidegger’s Critique

B. The Guiding Perspective of Λόγoς as Undermining the Ontic/Ontological Distinction

C. Heidegger on Plato’s Forms

D. Being as Δύvαμις

E. Conclusion: The Relation Between Being and Λόγoς

Part 2: Heidegger on Plato’s Truth and Untruth in the 1930s and 1940s

3. From the 1931–32 and 1933–34 Courses on the Essence of Truth to “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth”: Heidegger’s Transformation of Plato into Platonism Through the Interpretation of the Sun and Cave Analogies of the Republic

A. The Courses on the Essence of Truth from WS 1931/32 and WS 1933/34

B. Plato’s Truth in the Beiträge of 1936–38

C. Plato’s Doctrine of Truth in 1940

D. The End of Truth: The 1964 Retraction

E. Conclusion: The End of Truth?

4. The Dialogue That Could Have Been: Heidegger on the Theaetetus

A. The Theaetetus Interpretation in Die Grundbegriffe der antiken Philosophie (SS 1926)

B. The Interpretation of the Theaetetus in the Vom Wesen der Wahrheit Course of 1931–32 and 1933–34

C. Conclusion: Heidegger’s Orthodoxy

5. The 1942 Interpretation of Λήθη in the Myth of Er (Republic Book 10)

A. The Roman Versus the Greek Conception of Truth

B. Saying Λήθη in the Myth of Er

C. Purging the Myth of Er: The Ontologizing of Ethics and Politics

D. The Greek Experience of the Open: A Saying That Points and Hints Versus the “Leap”

E. Conclusion: Leaping Beyond Plato

Part 3: Opportunities for a Dialogue with Plato in the Late Heidegger

6. Calculative Thinking, Meditative Thinking, and the Practice of Dialogue

A. Heidegger’s Critique of Logos in the 1930s

B. Dialogue as Bringing to Speech the Unsaid

C. Plato’s Dialectic or Hegel’s?

D. A Saying Beyond Assertion

E. Plato’s Dialogues and Heidegger’s Leap

F. Heidegger and the Dialogue Form

G. Redefining Hermeneutics

H. Back to the Beginning with Dialectic and Dialogue

I. Conclusion: Dialectic Versus Sophia Again

7. Dialectic and Phenomenology in “Zeit und Sein”: A Pivotal Chapter in Heidegger’s Confrontation with Plato

A. From Dialectic and Hermeneutics to Phenomenology

B. The Auseinandersetzung with Plato

C. Conclusion

Works Cited



What Is to Be Gained from a Confrontation Between Plato and Heidegger?

Japanese: To us, at a distance, it had always seemed amazing that people never tired of imputing to you a negative attitude toward the history of previous thinking, while in fact you strive only for an original appropriation.

Inquirer: Whose success can and should be disputed.

—Heidegger, “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer,” trans. Peter D. Hertz

On est pris entre deux feux. Je suis aussi allergique aux dévots de Heidegger qu’aux anti-heideggériens de service. J’essaie de trouver une voie, une ligne, un lieu où l’on puisse continuer à lire Heidegger sérieusement, à le questioner sans céder, ni à l’heideggérianisme politique ni au contraire.

—Jacques Derrida, “Entretien avec Dominique Janicaud”

The present book could be characterized as a critique of Heidegger’s interpretation of Plato. But such a characterization would say both too little and too much. Too much, because the aim here is not to demonstrate that Heidegger’s reading of Plato was “wrong.” The present study will indeed show at a number of points that Heidegger misinterprets and distorts a text, that he ignores evidence against his interpretation, that he mistranslates, etc. In other words, his reading of Plato will often be criticized on purely philological grounds. However, though such a critique is both appropriate and necessary, it cannot be seen as a complete refutation of Heidegger’s interpretation, for the simple reason that he never offers this interpretation as an objective, scholarly, and historical exegesis of what Plato said. The avowed goal of his interpretation is not accurately to represent and thereby retrieve the past, but to reawaken future possibilities for thought that remain unsaid in the texts of the past. In this way Heidegger’s reflection on Plato, and on the Greeks in general, is inseparable from his own future-directed thinking; or, in Heidegger’s own words, his reflection on the “first beginning” of Western philosophy is inseparable from, is indeed the same as, his attempt to think “another beginning.” In short, one cannot distinguish between Heidegger the interpreter of ancient texts and Heidegger the contemporary thinker.

But in this case the characterization of the present book as a critique of Heidegger’s interpretation of Plato also says too little, for such a critique must also necessarily be a critique of Heidegger’s own thought. To confront and take issue with Heidegger’s reading of Plato is necessarily to confront and take issue with Heidegger’s own thinking. Any critique that evades the latter task, either by dismissing Heidegger’s thought without any understanding of it or by failing to challenge it, cannot fully succeed in the former. If Heidegger failed to understand Plato, this was due not to some peculiar psychological quirk or ignorance of the texts, but rather to the fact that, despite all the affinities between the two thinkers, there was something genuinely foreign to Heidegger’s thought in Plato’s texts, something that Heidegger could not appropriate without fundamentally changing the direction of his own thinking. If the confrontation between Heidegger and Plato proves fruitful for a critical assessment of Heidegger’s own thought, that is because Plato is Heidegger’s “other,” though not the “other” Heidegger made him into. By identifying Plato with Platonism and the metaphysics of presence, Heidegger was able to make Plato a chapter in his history of being and transform Plato into his mere opposite, against which he could define himself. Only when we can see that Plato is not the mere opposite of Heidegger and that there is instead a very close affinity between the two can we see just how radically “other” Plato is, that is, the extent to which he represents a genuine alternative to Heidegger’s way of thinking.

The present book can claim to confront Heidegger on his own terms because it shares two of the fundamental convictions that guided Heidegger’s reading of the Greeks: (1) that unlike the questioning in the sciences, philosophical questioning can be genuinely original and radical only through constant reflection on its past; and (2) that such reflection must take the form, not of an exposition of the opinions and teachings of past philosophers, but rather of a reawakening of those directions and possibilities of thinking that, though grounding the subsequent tradition and history of philosophy, are also obstructed and flattened by this tradition and history.

The present critique of Heidegger can therefore be characterized as a Heideggerian critique: the aim is precisely to show that Heidegger failed to recognize and confront in Plato’s dialogues a possibility of thinking that was obstructed by the subsequent tradition of Platonism (to which Heidegger, especially in later texts, too quickly assimilates Plato) and that could have fundamentally changed the direction of Heidegger’s own thinking. The aim is not to show that Plato was “right” and Heidegger was “wrong.” This critique of Heidegger follows, and is indebted to, Heidegger’s own provocation to thinking and historical reflection. But in opening up in Plato’s dialogues what Heidegger’s reading tends to close off under the label of “the history of metaphysics,” this critique aims to think beyond and even against Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysics. The departure from Heidegger’s path attempted here may indeed be the only meaningful and philosophically respectable way of remaining faithful to Heidegger’s path. Neither Heideggerianism nor anti-Heideggerianism is worthy of the task of thinking.

These observations explain the plan of the present book. The first two parts focus on Heidegger’s most explicit and detailed readings of Plato as found in his courses of the 1920s and 1930s. The two most important texts here are the 1924–25 course on Plato’s Sophist and the course On the Essence of Truth, devoted to a reading of the Cave Analogy and the Theaetetus and delivered first in 1931 and again, in a revised form, in 1933–34. Without question the most widely read of Heidegger’s texts on Plato, because the only one Heidegger chose to publish during his lifetime and therefore for a long time the only one available, is the 1940 essay “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth.” But now that two versions of the On the Essence of Truth course from which the essay supposedly derived are available, it is essential to see the extent to which the essay grossly simplifies and sometimes even contradicts the much richer and conflicted reading in the courses: a reading that suggests certain affinities between Heidegger and Plato that are suppressed by the essay. Though the focus in these two parts of the book will be on Heidegger’s interpretation of Plato’s texts, an effort will be made to situate this interpretation within, and show it to be motivated by, Heidegger’s thought at the time.

Part 3 turns to Heidegger’s later work: a period after his identification of Plato with a Platonism to be “twisted out of” and during which he therefore devoted no time to a detailed reading of Plato’s texts. The texts to be considered in this part therefore make only passing and often cryptic reference to Plato. That might seem to put them outside the aim of the present book. However, the goal of this part will be to show where Heidegger’s turn away from Plato, and thus from dialectic and dialogue, leads his later thought and to start developing a Platonic critique of this thought. There are also in these later texts indications of surprising affinities between Plato and Heidegger, which, if pursued, could have led Heidegger in a very different direction. Heidegger himself, as will be seen, expressed during the 1950s a desire to read Plato anew and to rework in particular his course on the Sophist. Heidegger never followed through on this desire, and the general goal of part 3 is to show what was thereby lost.

A detailed critical examination of Heidegger’s reading of Plato is long overdue. Because key texts have not been published until fairly recently, such an examination was for a long time impossible. The books by H. G. Wolz, A. Boutot, and even S. Rosen (which has such an assessment as at least part of its aim) fall far short for the simple reason that the most important Heideggerian texts were not yet published at the time they were written. The mentioned Sophist course, the only text in which Heidegger interprets a Platonic dialogue at length, was not published until 1992 (GA 19). The nearest thing to this available before that time was, first, the Parmenides course (GA 54), published in 1982, which, as chapter 5 will show, contains a very important reading of the Myth of Er in the ORepublic that seriously qualifies, if not undermines, the “doctrine of truth” Heidegger attributed to Plato in the published essay. Yet surprisingly, this reading has been mostly neglected by those who have written on Heidegger’s reading of Plato. The other text is the 1931–32 Vom Wesen der Wahrheit course, published in 1988 (GA 34), in which Heidegger interprets small parts of the ORepublic and Theaetetus. If this important course has itself been largely neglected in the literature, that is in part because it was not translated into English until 2002 (ET). The other reason is that many scholars, judging from their exclusive focus on “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth,” appear to assume that the essay contains everything worth knowing about the course; the truth, as chapters 3 and 4 will show, is that the essay departs radically from the course in key respects and, in contrast to the course, can hardly be considered a “reading” of Plato. Furthermore, the course contains an extraordinary reading of the Theaetetus that Heidegger completely drops from the essay and that all subsequent scholars, following suit, have simply ignored. Finally, as already noted above, there exists a significantly different version of the course delivered by Heidegger in 1933 and published only in 2001 (GA 36/37).

But there are also other texts that, while not focused exclusively on Plato, still make an essential contribution to our understanding of Heidegger’s critique of Plato. The critique carried out in the Sophist course cannot be fully understood without the context of other courses from the 1920s, also published only recently. One very important course on Aristotle that immediately preceded the Sophist course and was billed by Heidegger as preparation for it was published as recently as 2002 (GA 18). Other recently published courses from the 1920s are essential for understanding the philosophical agenda and assumptions of Heidegger’s critique of Plato during this period. Finally, there are some texts from the later Heidegger that address dialectic and display a new sensitivity to Plato’s dialogues, such as the 1957 Freiburg lecture series, Grundsätze des Denkens, published in its entirety in 1994 (GA 79).

There are, of course, some recent discussions of Heidegger’s reading of Plato that take into account some of the recently published materials. M. J. Brach’s book on Plato and Heidegger focuses on showing the role played by the 1924–25 course on Plato’s Sophist in Heidegger’s philosophical development, particularly within the context of his response to Neo-Kantianism. Yet, having this limited scope, Brach’s book is not concerned with providing a critical assessment of the philosophical relationship between Plato and Heidegger throughout the latter’s career. A recent collection of essays edited by Catalin Partenie and Tom Rockmore, Heidegger and Plato: Toward Dialogue (HPD), makes some useful contributions that will be cited in the course of this book. However, such a collection cannot be expected to offer a systematic and consistent assessment of Heidegger’s reading of Plato. Furthermore, the collection still neglects important aspects of Heidegger’s reading (his interpretations of the Theaetetus and the Myth of Er, for example), with the usual overemphasis on the published essay, “Plato’s Doctrine of Truth.” Drew A. Hyland’s assessment of Heidegger’s reading of Plato in his recent book, Questioning Platonism, is both broader in scope than Brach’s and more systematic than HPD, but, taking up only sixty-six pages of the book, it also gives scant attention to key texts and excludes from its aim any critique of Heidegger’s own thought: “Even less do I mean to infer from their readings of Plato [i.e., that of certain continental philosophers, including Heidegger] larger flaws in their philosophic standpoints as a whole, standpoints with which I am often very sympathetic.” With regard to Heidegger in particular, he at one point writes: “It is important to emphasize that my critical evaluation of Heidegger’s reading of Plato is largely directed toward his way of reading the dialogues more than the technical analyses of this or that passage in the Sophist. My problems with Heidegger have largely to do with his hermeneutical principles” (51). There is nothing wrong with a critique that focuses exclusively on hermeneutical principles: Hyland’s is without question very useful and illuminating. The point is only that it cannot go far enough. The one crucial question that Hyland’s approach cannot answer is why Heidegger misread Plato in the way he did when, as Hyland argues and as certainly the example of Gadamer shows, there are resources in Heidegger’s thought for a much more sensitive and faithful reading of Plato’s dialogues. Though he does not explicitly assert this, Hyland must apparently assume that the reason is a purely contingent one: that a certain complacency, laziness, and preoccupation with other matters prevented Heidegger from being a better reader of Plato. At the end of his chapter on Heidegger, Hyland describes Heidegger’s failure to reconsider his reading of Plato as “more puzzling” and “more disappointing” given the movement of his later thought and concludes: “Everything points to a rich dialogue between Heidegger and the Platonic dialogues; it is a loss to us all that Heidegger never apparently allowed that dialogue genuinely to take place” (83). But why did he not “allow” this? This question can be left unanswered only if we assume that the answer lies in some peculiar and unknowable fact about Heidegger’s personal psychology. The present book will show that, on the contrary, Heidegger’s thought itself requires this misreading of Plato, that a genuine dialogue with Plato would have forced him to go in certain directions where he did not want to go and could not go without his own thinking undergoing a radical transformation. A critique of this misreading of Plato therefore cannot avoid being a critique of the thought that needs this misreading.

In the ways indicated, then, the present book covers new ground and therefore asks to be excused for adding to the already huge literature devoted to either Heidegger or Plato. With what success the book traverses this often perilous ground is left to the reader to decide. Yet success should be measured according to the book’s ability to make the confrontation between Plato and Heidegger philosophically fruitful. And since what is ultimately at stake in this confrontation is nothing less than the nature and aim of that activity we call “philosophy,” the greatest reward it can promise is nothing less than a better understanding of the philosophical enterprise as such.

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