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  • The Early Heidegger and Medieval Philosophy: Phenomenology for the Godforsaken
  • James D. Reid
S. J. McGrath . The Early Heidegger and Medieval Philosophy: Phenomenology for the Godforsaken. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006. Pp. xx + 268. Cloth, $69.95.

Taking its clues from the scholarly work of Kisiel, van Buren, and others on the religious origins of early Heidegger's phenomenology, blending philosophical interpretation and biographical insight, and drawing fruitfully from a wide range of historical and philosophical sources, McGrath's The Early Heidegger and Medieval Philosophy offers a wide-ranging account of Heidegger's complex and evolving (and in the long run antagonistic) relationship to the Scholastic tradition. In a series of chapters dealing with, among other things, Heidegger's philosophical and religious development and his early phenomenology (or "hermeneutics of facticity"), the significance of the Habilitationsschrift on Duns Scotus (and Thomas of Erfurt, as it turned out), Heidegger's engagement with mystical literature and the writings of Luther, and the two lecture courses dealing explicitly with religious themes (on Paul's eschatological letters, in 1920–21, and the tenth book of Augustine's Confessions, in 1921), McGrath argues persuasively that, however skeptical about the significance of Heidegger's religious roots some of us might be, those of us who care about early Heidegger's philosophy and the convoluted path that led to Sein und Zeit (and beyond) cannot afford to ignore the philosopher's theological and religious (at first Catholic, then Protestant, and finally pagan) agenda. Heideggerian ontology is no neutral description of essential structures of human life, but a philosophical interpretation of what we might, with Heidegger, call "ontic" issues and concerns (theological, religious, even ethical). McGrath's primary thesis is that Heidegger arrived at his mature "Godless eschatology" by way of "a systematic, if covert, overthrowing of the medieval theological paradigm" (4). There are theological and (personal) religious struggles hidden beneath much of what Heidegger has to say about the human condition.

McGrath develops this overarching thesis fully in several helpful historical analyses. The Chapter on Heidegger's early work on Scotus (and Thomas of Erfurt), written under the influence of Husserl and the neo-Kantians (especially Lask), is possibly the best in the book. McGrath argues clearly and compellingly that, during Heidegger's comparatively short-lived Catholic phase, Scotus helped open the young philosopher's eyes to the pre-theoretical nature of our understanding of being, the close ties uniting modes of signification, intentional forms, and ontological structures, and the "derivative nature of abstract and theoretical language" (117). And Scotus's provocative work on haecceitas clearly prefigures Heidegger's early obsession with facticity and, eventually (although this is missing in Scotus himself), "the understanding of historical life" (105).

In another solid chapter on early Heidegger's work on Luther, the author argues that the philosopher's break with the Catholic theology of his youth took shape in dialogue with "Protestantism, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, and above all, Luther" (151). And he suggests that several crucial themes and preoccupations in the mature hermeneutic phenomenology of Sein und Zeit can be traced back to Heidegger's Luther research, including Vorlaufen zum Tode, Desktruktion, fallenness, and conscience.

There are, however, some troubling spots in this otherwise interesting account. The significance of Heidegger's intense and lengthy engagement with Aristotle—beginning in the early 1920s and leading up to the publication of Sein und Zeit and shaping some of Heidegger's most compelling philosophical insights on topics central to McGrath's study, including facticity and the historical fabric of human experience—receives scant attention. And the chapter on mysticism, based primarily upon the few scattered notes compiled in Band 60 of the Gesamtausgabe, overstates the role played by mystical literature in Heidegger's developing hermeneutics of facticity. It might be true, as others have already suggested, that Heidegger discovers some parallels between mystical experience and the phenomenological surrender to "the undifferentiated whole of life" (140). But life is not always undifferentiated; and a philosopher (if not a mystic) who went no further than this would hardly have become the gripping interpreter of human experience who speaks in Sein und Zeit and the surrounding lecture courses. [End...


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