In the Introduction to Heidegger’s Identity and Difference, the translator, Joan Stambaugh, says that Heidegger stated that Identity and Difference was “the most important thing he had published since Being and Time.” The two short essays in I&D are from 1957. So it is not a trivial statement, as 30 years had elapsed between the two publications. For Heidegger himself, something was being said in those two essays. It is on us to catch it. Let me start this attempt by pointing out that the two essays seek a reformulation of the old Heideggerian theme of the ontico-ontological difference. This is an issue that occupied Heidegger’s thought throughout his life, and to which he gave several formulations, as he was always relatively unsatisfied with any one of them. In my opinion, the thematization of the ontico-ontological difference is the most important event in 20th century thought, and it continues to occupy us centrally—precisely in an epochal sense, which is the one Heidegger thought defined by, or indeed defining, the epoch of the end of philosophy and the beginning of thinking. A confrontation with Hegel is essential here. Also with Nietzsche, but in a different sense. I think, putting aside his enormous respect for Hegel, Heidegger thought of himself as a Nietzschean not a Hegelian. This does not mean, obviously, that he had no differences with Nietzsche. To me it means that Heidegger thought of his own work as a continuation of the Nietzschean not the Hegelian path.
In the first essay, “The Principle of Identity,” Heidegger talks about a “transformation.” The transformation is subsequent to the metaphysical itinerary of identity and its culmination in Hegelian logic. Heidegger says: “to get to the point where the relationship of the same with itself—which prevails in that identity which was already implicitly present very early—emerges as this mediation [namely, the mediation of “the unification into a unity,” the mediation according to which “every A is itself the same with itself”] in a decisive and characteristic way, and where an abode is found for this radiant emergence, of mediation within identity, Western thought required more than two thousand years.” Parmenides’ old word about the “sameness of thinking and being” is the founding word that evolved metaphysically into the unification into a unity in Hegelian logic: the real is the rational, the subject is the substance, the rational is the real, substance is the subject. From that point on a “coordination” was required that finally turned animal rationale into a subject among its objects and the world into an object for its subjects. At that point the “belonging together” of man and being has become an “intertwining.” Man challenges being and being challenges man.
“Our whole human existence everywhere sees itself challenged—now playfully and now urgently, now breathlessly and now ponderously—to devote itself to the planning and calculating of everything . . . Is it that Being itself is faced with the challenge of letting beings appear within the horizon of what is calculable? Indeed. And not only this. To the same degree that Being is challenged, man, too, is challenged, that is, forced to secure all beings that are his concern as the substance for his planning and calculating; and to carry this manipulation on past all bounds.”
“Moving away from the attitude of representational thinking” is the definition of Ereignis Heidegger promotes here. He talks about a “leap in the sense of a spring. The spring leaps away, away from the habitual idea of man as the rational animal who in modern times has become a subject for his objects. Simultaneously, the spring also leaps away from Being. But Being, since the beginning of Western thought, has been interpreted as the ground in which every being as such is grounded.”
The leap is a leap away from man as animal rationale to Da-sein, through a radicalization of the Da-, which now appears as the site for a “belonging together” of thinking and being that will no longer issue in challenging representational calculation. “The word Ereignis . . . should now speak as a key term in the service of thinking. As such a key term, it can no more be translated than the Greek logos or the Chinese Tao. The term Ereignis here no longer means what we would otherwise call a happening, an occurrence. It now is used as a singulare tantum. What it indicates happens only in the singular, no, not in any number, but uniquely.” This is the transformation, which defines a new relation to the real.
The second essay, “The Onto-Theo-Logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” explains how the move beyond the Hegelian recapitulation of the history of being as a move from “indeterminate immediacy” to “determining mediation” opens the possibility of the leap, which is a leap outside the onto-theo-logic. Preparing for the leap, announcing the need for the leap, this is what is both Nietzschean rather than Hegelian and, at the same time, the decisive turning point in 20th century thought. It is historical through and through, but it assumes a historical break itself presumed on previous history. This is the most precise formulation of it: “for Hegel, the matter of thinking is the idea as the absolute concept. For us, formulated in a preliminary fashion, the matter of thinking is the difference as difference.” Thinking the difference as difference is presented as a step back into what has not been thought in the history of metaphysics and remains concealed within it—which, again, is presented as historical thought, as a thinking on the history of thinking.
“But the step back out of metaphysics into its essential nature requires a duration and an endurance whose dimensions we do not know. Only one thing is clear: the step back calls for a preparation which must be ventured here and now; but it must be ventured in the face of beings as such and as a whole, as they are now and are visibly beginning to show themselves ever more unequivocally. What now is, is marked by the dominance of the active nature of modern technology.”
Which cannot but include capitalism, and in our days, its avatar as neoliberal capitalism. Is this step back a regression to an epoch prior to the epoch of capitalism? It is not. Heidegger says it clearly when he talks about the “obvious misinterpretation of the term ‘step back:’ the view that the step back consists in a historical return to the earliest thinkers of Western philosophy. The ‘whither’ to which the step back directs us develops and shows itself only in the execution of the step.”
And yet, and this is the task for thinking, which comes down to us as a legacy and an obligation:
“No one can know whether and when and where and how this step of thinking will develop into a proper . . . path and way and road-building. Instead, the rule of metaphysics may rather entrench itself, in the shape of modern technology with its developments [read, neoliberal, extractive-surveillant capitalism] rushing along boundlessly. Or, everything that results by way of the step back may merely be exploited and absorbed by metaphysics in its own way, as the result of representational thinking. Thus the step back would itself remain unaccomplished, and the path which it opens and points out would remain untrod.”
There is of course no empirical obligation to pay heed to the words of the thinker. And there is no need to understand the history of thinking as he did present it to us. There is no need for the leap, which is a leap not into the Hegelian rose of the world, but into an abyss—the unthought, the unseen–that brokers no presentation. But, for me, there is nothing better to be done than pursuing this path, which I consider a sine qua non condition of any move forward.