- Heidegger: On Being Uncanny by Katherine Withy
In her book Heidegger: On Being Uncanny, Katherine Withy sets up three seemingly straightforward projects—explaining what Heidegger means by Unheimlichkeit, translated as ‘uncanniness’; explaining its underappreciated central role in his conception of Dasein; and using these to “illuminate something about what it is to be human” (11). Yet, the projects are not as straightforward as they might seem. ‘Unheimlichkeit’ is a technical term in Heidegger’s philosophy, so appeals to common experiences of uncanniness are of limited help. The interpretive focus must be on the conceptual connections Heidegger makes between Unheimlichkeit and other, more familiar, terms, such as ‘Angst,’ ‘ownedness’ (‘Eigentlichkeit,’ often translated as ‘authenticity’), ‘finitude,’ and ‘polis.’ The everyday touchstones of uncanniness with which Withy opens the book, for example, the feeling of “emptiness in the routines of daily social life” (1), are quickly put aside; and what we are offered at the end is uncanniness as “the turn of the counterturning between presencing and absencing” (242). By sticking within the Heideggerian conceptual framework, Withy’s project of explaining what Heidegger means by Unheimlichkeit is rolled together with her argument that Unheimlichkeit is “one formulation . . . of the single star that guided Heidegger’s thought” (242).
The argument for the centrality of Unheimlichkeit is made more difficult by the scarcity of references to it across Heidegger’s writings. There are only four substantive discussions of Unheimlichkeit. In Being and Time (BT), Heidegger discusses it first in the context of Angst and later in the context of the call of conscience. In two other places—his 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics (IM) and his 1942 lecture course Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” (HH)—he discusses Unheimlichkeit as part of an interpretation of the first choral ode from Sophocles’s Antigone. The opening line of the ode, πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει, Heidegger translates as Vielfältig das Unheimliche, nichts doch über den Menschen hinaus Unheimlicheres ragend sich regt; that is, “Manifold is the uncanny, yet nothing uncannier than man bestirs itself” (Gregory Fried, translator). Even though the discussions are limited, they are not lacking for bold proclamations. In BT he writes, “Da-sein stands primordially with itself in uncanniness” (Joan Stambaugh, translator). In IM he writes, “The chorus’s concluding words . . . are the direct and complete confirmation of the uncanniness of human essence” (183); in HH he writes, “The uncanny itself is what looms forth in the essence of human beings and is that which stirs in all stirring and arousal” (William McNeill, translator).
Withy’s main argument piggybacks on an argument that Angst is not just a mood, but a state of being of Dasein. When we feel Angst, something about our nature as existentially anxious is revealed—what Withy calls “originary angst”—which is the condition of being the kind of being that can be fallen. The mood Angst, she argues, reveals a deeper truth about our angsty nature. The analysis of originary Angst connects to Unheimlichkeit, as Unheimlichkeit is that which we flee from in Angst. Through these connections, Withy can make the case that Unheimlichkeit is a condition for the nature of Dasein as “open to being and . . . essentially finite” (97). Once Withy has made this case, she has established it as a key concept in a Heideggerian account of human nature. The fourth and fifth chapters address some of the problems and puzzles that arise from trying to make Unheimlichkeit intelligible if it is such a fundamental condition for intelligibility. The fourth chapter also includes a discussion of how the philosophical realization of our uncanny nature renders us apolis.
Withy’s case for the centrality of Unheimlichkeit in Heidegger’s thought should be of great interest to Heidegger scholars. Her conclusions are carefully argued, and it is clear that Unheimlichkeit can be read as a defining feature of Dasein, even if Heidegger himself did not fully articulate that conclusion. However, the immersion in Heidegger’s project, including embracing Heideggerian paradoxes—for example that “unintelligibility is both the condition and the consequence of the enterprise of making intelligible, and vice versa...