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  • Martin Heidegger and Ontology
  • Emmanuel Levinas (bio)

The prestige of Martin Heidegger 1 and the influence of his thought on German philosophy marks both a new phase and one of the high points of the phenomenological movement. Caught unawares, the traditional establishment is obliged to clarify its position on this new teaching which casts a spell over youth and which, overstepping the bounds of permissibility, is already in vogue. For once, Fame has picked one who deserves it and, for that matter, one who is still living. Anyone who has studied philosophy cannot, when confronted by Heidegger’s work, fail to recognize how the originality and force of his achievements, stemming from genius, are combined with an attentive, painstaking, and close working-out of the argument—with that craftsmanship of the patient artisan in which phenomenologists take such pride. In this study, it is important for us to understand, above all, the true intentions of our author, to illuminate what he thinks really needs to be said, and to surmise what is most critical for him.

To get to the heart of Heidegger’s system, it seems fitting to begin with a problem that is generally familiar. We choose the problem of knowledge, a deeper understanding of which takes us to the very threshold of Heidegger’s thought. For this problem, central to modern philosophy, is one of the main obstacles of modern philosophy that Heidegger wishes to surmount. Neo-Kantianism, which takes knowledge as the philosophical problem of the first rank, is the movement against which Heidegger rebels with all his strength. We have, thus, every chance of gaining access to his thought by the main door, so to speak. Once inside the system we will try to trace its outlines, 2 reserving, for a second part of our work, the determination of Heidegger’s place in the history of ideas, especially in the phenomenological movement, as well as of his relations with the philosopher to whom he owes so much—Edmund Husserl. 3


In its most general form, the problem of the theory of knowledge has a critical significance. It consists in delineating a domain where knowledge can be certain and in determining the criteria for the legitimate scope of knowledge. But this problem, as normal and as simple as it may appear, has deeper roots. That knowledge should need a criterion at all presupposes that truth is not identical to all that is known and that the course [End Page 11] of things can fail to correspond with the course of thought. “How does knowledge correspond to being?” is a more profound formulation of the problem of knowledge.

But we are not going to touch anymore on the primordial phenomenon that generates the problem. The problem of correspondence between thing and thought presupposes a free activity of thought and its isolation in relation to the object. It is precisely this presupposition which renders their harmony and even their contact problematic. “How does the subject take leave of itself to attain the object?” is what the problem of knowledge, in the last analysis, boils down to. Its true source is thus the concept of “subject” as elaborated by modern philosophy. The cogito presided over the subject’s birth. The cogito was the affirmation of the privileged nature of the subject’s immanent sphere, of its unique place in existence; hence, the cogito was the specificity of the subject’s connection to the rest of reality, the sui generis nature which opens up the passage from immanence to transcendence, the passage from ideas contained in the thinking substance to 4 their “formal existence.”

The concept of the subject, understood as a substance having a specific position in the entire domain of being, presents us with difficulties of two kinds. First, how do we understand this leave-taking from the self which the thinking substance brings about and which displays an entirely original aspect? Indeed, we could say that thought, in reaching out toward objects, does not actually take leave of itself, since its objects—considered as ideas and contents of thought—are, in a certain sense, already within it. In order to make sense of this paradox, Descartes...