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  • “Unmöglich ist’s, drum eben glaubenswert”:Paradox in Goethe and Heidegger1
  • Robert Ellis Dye

This essay brackets a discursive strand across the long century between Goethe and Heidegger as illustrated by their shared fondness for paradox. It then examines this common predilection for what it may tell us about the paradoxical link between Erde and Welt in Heidegger’s “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes” and other writings. This pair of contraries – Erde and Welt – are the primary elements of the quadrumvirate that emerges from das Ereignis, first as world, earth, gods, and men and ultimately as das Geviert of earth, sky, the gods, and mortals.2

Looking to Goethe for help with Heidegger may itself seem a paradoxical approach,3 or, at least, an arbitrary one, since it is Kant and Heidegger who are justly seen as the bookends of a continuous German philosophical tradition. Yet Heidegger knew his Goethe well – even in close, esoteric detail. His writings, like Freud’s, are peppered with quotations and examples from Goethe or about Goethe, showing not only his overall familiarity with Goethe’s life and works but also his attention to minute details. He regularly cites the “Einleitung zur Farbenlehre,”4 elsewhere appropriates from Goethe the archaic lexeme “Bedingnis,”5 and, in “The Question Concerning Technology,” discusses what he calls Goethe’s “geheimnisvolle[s]” word fortgewähren in place of the usual fortwähren.6 He felt – or at least felt obliged to say – that he owed Goethe an apology, having called him “ein Verhängnis” (for having made Greek culture inaccessible by wedding Sophocles to Shakespeare; GA 54: 108). He wrote to Karl Jaspers on 12 [End Page 413] August 1949: “Ich selbst habe […] immer noch kein zureichendes Verhältnis zu Goethe. Das ist ein wirklicher Mangel, aber nur einer unter vielen.” For better or for worse, Goethe was the most important cultural icon for Heidegger’s entire generation.7 Given every educated German’s familiarity with Faust, there can be no doubt that Goethe’s words and phrases rang in Heidegger’s ears throughout his life and coloured, or helped configure, his thought and his rhetorical practice. Günther Martin rightly speaks of Heidegger’s “profunde Kenntnis von Goethes Werk” (496).

This is not a reception study in the sense that it proposes to prove a direct influence of an earlier writer on a later one (much less any “anxiety” on the part of the latter). It aims, rather, to show that one feature of a common discourse – shared, of course, by many other writers and thinkers – functions with impressive vitality as “eine Art von geistigem Sauerteig”8 in the works of the two I am singling out here. I hope a look at Heidegger’s (unacknowledged, perhaps unsuspected) kinship with Goethe and at the two men’s declared and demonstrated preference for paradox over straightforward, unambiguous propositions may shed some light both on a familiar conceptual structure and on Heidegger’s exposition of the interaction between Welt and Erde, which makes a first appearance in his essay “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes” and encodes the productive opposition between the world as the conceptual realm of human activity and creativity and earth as the massive, unfathomable foundation on which the world rests and with which it interacts.

Goethe and Heidegger employ paradox for purposes large and small throughout their respective careers. “Der Geist des Widerspruchs und die Lust zum Paradoxen steckt in uns allen,” says Goethe in Dichtung und Wahrheit (Sämtliche Werke 14: 382).9 In what sounds like an allusion to King Lear young Goethe wrote, “Gott verzeihs den Göttern die so mit uns spielen.”10 Love of paradox is everywhere in romanticism: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” As Friedrich Schlegel recognized, Goethe, especially in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, is a practitioner of an ironic “Poesie,” one that represents “das Produzierende mit dem Produkt” and would “in jeder ihrer Darstellungen sich selbst mit darstellen, und überall zugleich Poesie und Poesie der Poesie sein” (KA 1.2: 204).11 “Die Paradoxie ist für die Ironie die conditio sine qua non, die Seele, Quell[e] und Princip,” [End Page 414] according to Schlegel” (KA 2...


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