Martin Heidegger: A Dangerous Fragment. (10/19/2001)

In his study of pre-Socratic philosophers (Early Greek Thinking: The Dawn of Western Philosophy, Harper and Row, 1984), Martin Heidegger states that: "Such a multiplicity threatens us with the specter of relativism" (105). While this statement is obviously taken out of context, appearing here exactly like one of the pre-Socratic fragments Heidegger examines in his analysis of the dawn of Western thinking, it is nevertheless a whole thought in and of itself, whole enough as it were to stand, as well as any piece of early Greek thinking, up to a close linguistic and philosophical scrutiny. The restrictions I intend to place on this examination are exactly like the ones facing Heidegger when he set out to analyze mere fragments of early Greek philosophy, taking a phrase, a sentence, a partial paragraph, from the work of someone else who quoted Anaximander, Heraclitus, or Parmenides, and thereby saved the fragment from oblivion when the original text was lost to subsequent generations. Aristotle, and then the early church Father, Tertullian, for instance, reported that Heraclitus was responsible for the notion that the human soul was an incorporeal "body" best characterized as the breath of life, a "warm exhalation," to use the actual term that Aristotle apparently quoted from Heraclitus's text. It is assumed by most scholars that Aristotle, being closer to Heraclitus's time, might actually have had his original writing on the subject, where it is much less certain that Tertullian possessed or had access to it. Hence, it is possible that Tertullian only quoted Aristotle who may or may not have had an actual copy of Heraclitus's description of the human soul. The point here is that we must depend on Tertullian, who depended on Aristotle, who may have depended on oral tradition and not a written text, for whatever knowledge we can claim to have about the perception Heraclitus had of the nature of the soul. Being four times removed from any documentary evidence of the pre-Socratic view of the soul ought to make us cautious in the extreme when we set about to characterize Heraclitus's position, even if Aristotle is a reliable authority when it comes to articulating what his ancestors said about such subjects, especially since he seems to be quoting a direct source.

What Aristotle actually said, however, ought to make us pause even more; that is,

"Heraclitus too says that the first principle [air]-the 'warm exhalation' of which, according to him, everything else is composed-is soul; that this exhalation is most incorporeal and in ceaseless flux" (On the Soul, 405a25).

The problem here begins with the fact that only two words of Heraclitus are actually quoted; that is, "warm exhalation." It was well-known in Aristotle's day that Heraclitus based his philosophical position on the concept that the world was in "ceaseless flux," was, in fact, so radically contingent that knowledge of any object was literally impossible because, as soon as any perception of a thing was formed, that thing changed into something else. That air is the "first principle," among the four elements (earth, fire, and water, being the other three), is also a well-established fact among the Greeks. There seems, however, to be a question over the validity of the assertion Heraclitus apparently made that "everything else is composed" of air, of the "warm exhalation" of air, because Aristotle includes the statement that this perception was specifically attributable to Heraclitus ("according to him") and not necessarily to anyone else.

The idea that the "warm exhalation" is the same as the breath of life, which may be an idea added to Heraclitus's assessment by early church Fathers, in order to make the Christian perception of the soul seem more Greek-like in its essentials, cannot be attributed to Aristotle, since he does not make that comparison in his statement. Whether Heraclitus might have thought about the soul in those terms or not is a question that cannot be answered one way or the other from the evidence in hand. It is not unreasonable to assume that he did think that way about the soul but equally possible is the fact that he may have had something else in mind. An exhalation of warm air, after all, could just as reasonably be attributed to a volcanic vent, like the one associated with the Oracle at Delphi, where the priestess inhaled that "breath" from the earth's interior before entering her ecstatic trance and from which she then produced her prophecy. That possibility would stand Heraclitus's perception in sharp contrast to the Christian notion of God breathing the "breath of life" into Adam in the creation story in Genesis. That the early Fathers might have seen a parallel between the Oracle's communion with Demeter in the underworld and the way God created man in Hebraic tradition makes some sense on the ground that Demeter's return from Hades in the spring was part of the regeneration and rebirth myths that flourished everywhere in the ancient world.

While the more prudent course to follow here is to assume nothing more than a simple parallel between Heraclitus's supposed perception that the "warm exhalation" was the same as the breath of life given to Adam by God in the form of an immortal soul, it is also possible to strike out on a wholly speculative ground by claiming, if only tongue in cheek, that Heraclitus was influenced to take the position he did because he was familiar with the creation story in Genesis, was moved by it, and so made his own version of it for his non-Hebraic Greek audience, on the one hand, or, looking at it from the other side, by suggesting instead that the early church Fathers, or pre-Christian Jewish rabbis, were taken by Heraclitus's vision of human origins, at least where the soul was concerned, and either rewrote the Biblical version to include the Greek perception of the soul in it, where the Fathers are concerned, or simply crafted the story that way initially, even after the fact of its first inscription, in order to broaden the base of its credibility, where the Judaic tradition is considered. Given the fact that every sentence of this writing occurred in deep antiquity, that very few truly ancient manuscripts have survived the ravages of time, and where little, if any actual evaluation of texts can be meaningfully accomplished, some possibility of inter-cultural borrowing cannot be absolutely ruled out of the question. The one thing that does stand visibly in the way of making such speculative arguments, of course, is the fact that the Greeks considered anyone who did not speak their language to be barbarians of the worst kind and, presumably, would never have appropriated any idea that had its origin in the culture of the Other. At the same time, since the Hebrews considered themselves to be God's chosen people, it is equally unlikely that they would have adopted a story about Yahweh's creation of Adam from any source not absolutely their own.

Where mere fragments are concerned, then, and specifically in this case with only two words ("warm exhalation") of Heraclitus's at our disposal, virtually any flight of fancy can be credibly fabricated from a point that holds sway over so little ground. Heidegger's observation that "Such a multiplicity threatens us with the specter of relativism," however, gives us a considerably wider frame of reference, and consequently less leeway, in which to fashion a response to the idea he expresses. Not to be forgotten, or overlooked, here is the fact that nothing else Heidegger said in this context will be considered and we will approach this statement exactly as if it were a fragment, as if nothing else of his whole compass of thought beyond this single center still exists anywhere in the known universe. A place to begin, since this statement embraces the notion of a specific action, and one furthermore directed, not randomly, but at "us," hence elevating our collective interest in the possible consequences of that action, even to our good or to our ill, then seems to be centered squarely on the verbal constellation of Heidegger's statement. That we are threatened, even placed in danger, by the other elements of his warning ought to stand us a little on edge, ought either to push us in the direction of defensive withdrawal to safe harbor or cast us out on the waves of offensive aggression against whatever it is that means to harm us. The fact that faceless terrorists have recently flown two commercial airliners into the twin towers of New York's WTC, causing the deaths of nearly 6,000 people, makes any statement of threat against our well-being one that cannot be ignored. That these same terrorists, or others like them, are using the US Postal Service to deliver what might turn out to be deadly strains of anthrax bacteria to media and governmental offices across the country adds not a little urgency to our collective vigilance against anything that might threaten us.

But wait! Heidegger's fear and foreboding concerns nothing but a ghost, a phantom, an image of no specific substance, a pale and even transparently fragile thing only floating on the mind like a distant memory, a "specter," as it were, and then only of something called "relativism." Well, this is not exactly the Same as terrorists flying airplanes into buildings. Maybe we ought to stand down a little in our collective alarm. The source or cause of this "relativism," however, is something called "multiplicity," even one that is specific, since it is foreshadowed by the qualification that "such a" multiplicity is what actually throws us into threat and danger. Hence, many, as opposed to only one, is the cause of the threat we should be experiencing from the resultant "relativism." To say that many things threaten us, as opposed to only one thing, is clearly more significant, even if the danger we face is only "relativism," than it would otherwise be if there were only several things, of just a single thing, threatening to overwhelm us. Many is more threatening than the One. A thousand terrorists (the al-Queda network, for instance) is vastly more frightening than the single terrorist (Osama bin Laden, say). "Multiplicity," then, is something that Heidegger fears, feels threaten by if it should manage to get to wherever he is without being challenged. And by extension, it might be true that "multiplicity," in and of itself, is not what he really fears so much as he does the "relativism" that is produced by it.

The ultimate concern here, then, is "relativism," which, according to Heidegger, is caused by a "multiplicity" of some unspecified agent. Precisely what "relativism" means, or refers us to, is not made clear in Heidegger's fragment. One can infer, however, from the statement in hand that a question has been put which, due to some unforeseen circumstance, has produced too many possible answers; that is, more than one answer to the question has been found that seems to satisfy its query and there is no available method to decide which of the Many is the One that answers it in the best possible way. In other words, the sense communicated by Heidegger's "relativism" is that one answer seems to be as good as another, where there is no way to rank them in a range from best to worst, most likely to least likely.

Most European thinkers in pursuit of the truth have found the prospect of relativism, whether it is connected to Einstein's Theory of Relativity or not, where the majority imply that it is, to be the single most troubling development in the history of Western philosophy. As Heidegger suggests here the ideology positively threatens Eurocentric discourse in a way that few ideas ever have. The "specter" of "relativism" raises questions on one ground or another, furthermore, that have so far resisted rational analysis due in part to the fact that they remain so highly charged emotionally that few thinkers since the appearance of Einstein's Theory have been able to deal with them rationally, if at all, simply because they challenge the core issues that define the essence of what makes European ideology what it is. Heidegger's sentence is a case in point, since he dismisses "multiplicity" as something that necessarily leads to "relativism" without engaging the issue directly or indirectly, believing, apparently, that no one will disagree with his position simply because the "specter" of it has been evoked.

Establishing a neutral ground on which to examine the issue of relativism and its actual impact and significance on the development of ideological material requires, on the one hand, a structure of things related to each other by similar kind, like different answers to the same question, which are so similar that one cannot rank them according to significant differences, and a method of changing each answer, without affecting their essential similarity, so that an order of rank accrues naturally in their sequence, on the other. Once the two sequences are constructed it becomes possible to evaluate the question of whether or not the "specter" of "relativism" is as truly threatening as Heidegger claims, and furthermore of pointing to the cause, or likely cause, of precisely what it is that "relativism" threatens in the conduct of Eurocentric discourse. The example I have chosen carries with it little or no possibility of raising anyone's angst over the possibility of gaining or losing one's cultural identity. Assume the existence of an individual who needs to make a phone call, using a "pay" box, who has four coins at his disposal. Each coin is valued the same and equals exactly the amount required to place one call. In other words, he has four quarters in his pocket as he approaches the phone booth. If each quarter represents an answer to a question, then, there is absolutely no difference in the value that each answer supplies, where each one of them is nevertheless a decidedly different answer to the same question. There is an obvious "multiplicity" in this construct, that is, four, as opposed to only one, quarter. Since it does not matter in any way whatsoever which quarter the man uses to complete his call, it is obvious that the "multiplicity" leads to an absolute condition of "relativism." In other words, one coin is as good as another in this particular case.

Changing the terms of this construct, let us assume that a second individual needs to place a call, has four coins in his/her pocket, wants to use as few of them as possible to complete the transaction, and has in his/her possession one quarter, two dimes, and one nickel. He/she could answer the question with a "multiplicity," as it were, by using the dimes and the nickel to complete the call, but that would violate the terms of the construct which stipulates that the fewest number of coins possible constitutes the "correct" or "proper" answer to the question. Since he/she also has one quarter, the right answer must of necessity be that he/she uses the single coin to complete the transaction. In other words, use of the One, as opposed to the Many, where the two dimes and the nickel taken separately do not equal the necessary value of the transaction, is the only proper solution to the task at hand. In this circumstance, of course, there is no hint or possibility of anything that could be called "relativism."

The essential difference between these two constructs is glaringly obvious. What Heidegger struggles to preserve with his warning against "multiplicity" and "relativism" is much less concerned with truth than it is with maintaining an essential ground for the implementation of hierarchical structure in Eurocentric discourse. What is a stake here is nothing less than equality and freedom, since in the first example, where the four quarters are equal to each other in assigned value, the "specter" of "multiplicity" leads inevitably to "relativism," which, according to him, is precisely what "threatens us." In the second example, where an inevitable hierarchy of assigned value necessarily dominates the structure, and where the One answer is predetermined as the "best," as opposed to the Many as the "worst," there is absolutely no possibility whatsoever of "relativism." At the same time, all sense of equality and freedom are necessarily banished from the second example.

Putting this into its proper frame, in a structure where value is assigned by natural right, where, by prior agreement, as it were, all quarters are worth more than all dimes, and all dimes are worth more than all nickels, the existence of hierarchical structure necessarily becomes absolutely inevitable, there is no possibility of "relativism," and equality and freedom are categories necessarily excluded from the field. Where all coins are equal to each other, and where "relativism" is the only possible condition, hierarchical structure is banished and freedom of choice, this quarter that quarter, is the only circumstance that applies. The fact that hierarchy can be established on the ground of a natural sequence of assigned value does not mean that it can or should be imposed where no discernible difference in value exists, or where an arbitrary assessment of value is assumed without cause or prior assent. Heidegger seeks to defend "us" against the effects of living in a world conditioned by "multiplicity" and "relativism" by imposing artificial standards of selection that have no ground in any value-based reality. Transposing the same coin-based example into one taken from the point-of-view of national origin and the "racial" characteristics of skin color, as the following extension in formal structure illustrates, demonstrates clearly enough the danger inherent in reducing value for the sake of banishing "relativism," while maintaining a flawed system of hierarchical structure for the sake of identifying which One of a "multiplicity" turns out to be the "best":

A. Quarter A'. Quarter A''. White (European)
B. Quarter B'. Dime B''. Black (African)
C. Quarter C'. Dime C''. Brown (Latin American)
D. Quarter D'. Nickel D''. Yellow (Asian)

Moving across from the first column to the third, where "relativism" holds sway, there is no credible sense in arguing that any of the terms achieves a higher value over any other class. Moving from the second column to the third, however, where hierarchy holds sway, but where the values applied are racially motivated, an equally obvious structure is revealed where the One (White) is necessarily valued higher than the combination of any two of the others, and where it requires all three of the Others (Black, Brown, Yellow) to reach the same level of value supposed to exist in the One (White). To say that Europeans do not see the whole world in precisely this way is to ignore 5,000 years of human history. Heidegger simply does his part to continue the myth of Eurocentric domination over the Other when he says that "Such a multiplicity threatens us with the specter of relativism." The only place where "relativism" does not exist is in the motion from the second to the third category, where hierarchy is evoked to bar the intrusion of the barbarian past the sacred and holy gates inscribed with European delusions of superiority.

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