I. “Poetic Thinking”
We should still be asking the question “what is the thing called thinking?” though perhaps not in the same terms in which Heidegger asked it in 1951 and 1952. One can certainly argue that the most urgent thing, das Bedenklichste, has not diminished in its urgency, only perhaps changed its contents (GA 8: 6). Heidegger saw in the word das Bedenklichste a way in which everyday language already made the connection between thinking and an emergency. The highest crisis of our present ‘situation’ is called in German ‘the most worthy to be thought.’ This means that whatever it may be, whatever its shape or process, thought responds to our crisis and in some way also rescues us from it; thinking is kairotic, and it is also das Rettende that arises each time alongside the crisis of the world.
While we may never know what the thing is that we call thought, what thought does is as near to us as our existence. We recognize it when it gives shape or language to the emergency. And this makes sense in Heidegger’s system. There is no ‘what’ of thought, no immaterial substance, no thinking thing; there is not even a structure or apparatus, an instantaneous fully present process of cognition. Just as little is there a logical-ontological process of reflection in which the world, step by step, becomes totally consumed by thought. Thinking knows no absolute; it responds here and now to a crisis of the world; that is, it operates in a historical way, letting the crisis appear. And [End Page 78] each time it lets a different crisis appear, thought itself appears differently.
Thinking is radically historical, for Heidegger, or so it seems until one gets a look at some of the complications that arise around this conceptualization. To repeat, thinking derives its task from the emergency—it emerges out of the crisis and returns to it. Yet Heidegger’s kairotic idea of thinking runs up against one difficulty right away: what is the criterion for recognizing thought when it happens, for saying “this is what is called thought (of and in this critical moment)”? Does the criterion for what counts as thought ‘emerge’ from the moment as well? For insofar as denken tells us what for us “the most urgent thing to be thought” is, we cannot say we are in fact doing thinking until it lets the crisis appear. We cannot identify the crisis before the thinking, and we cannot think before the crisis. Tis collision and indeed collapse of the two sides in the equation of historicized thinking is signaled in the single word Heidegger uses, das Bedenklichste, which is neither agent nor patient. This is a good thing, by his lights. But it is also a fatal complication, if you want to point out precisely where thinking emerges.
We should still be asking the question “what is the thing called thinking?” though in a different way. Instead of seeking an answer, we ought to legitimize the question as a question—we ought to be faithful to what we could call the ‘spirit’ of the question. The spirit of the question tells us that what thinking may be has to be asked. It is neither already known, nor obvious, and not deducible from axioms or assumptions. This may be the most radical consequence of a radically historicized thinking. We have to ask anew the question of what thinking might be or mean or do, and yet we cannot ask until after thinking has discovered itself in a crisis, revealing itself by revealing the crisis. Tis implies that there is a different crisis, a crisis—permanent by the looks of it—in the meaning of thinking.
Who is ever thinking? In Plato’s Republic, we learn that the philosopher-king thinks the good, and on the basis of thinking the good he can rule the best city in the best way. Thus the imperative and hazardous task becomes to say who the philosopher-king actually is. For the best city this is the true crisis. Plato resolves it, but not in the way you’d think...