Did Heidegger conceal an oriental debt?

Heidegger's Hidden Sources

January 31, 1997

In this translation of his 1989 book, Ex oriente lux, Reinhard May makes the bold claim that Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential of modern western philosophers, drew several of his key ideas from East Asian sources without ever acknowledging their provenance. In making this claim, May's work (along with the companion essay written by the translator, Graham Parkes) exposes an over-looked history of mutual involvement between German and East Asian philosophers. Although East Asian thought may be a fringe interest in the present Anglo-American philosophical world, it was a serious concern among Heidegger's contemporaries (such as Jaspers and Buber) and the German universities were frequently visited by the most eminent of East Asia's philosophers.

But what impact did these contacts have on Heidegger? Many commentators have noted a likeness between Heideggerian and Zen notions, in particular. But is May right to twist and assert the existence of a serious influence where others have chosen to stick and assert mere similarity? May's principal source of evidence is a number of correspondences between Heideggerian remarks and the rendering of certain Daoist and Zen remarks in German translations that would have been available to Heidegger. Given that the most strident of Heidegger's very occasional comments on the relevance of East Asian thought to his own work played down any such relevance, if May's claim is correct, Heidegger concealed one of his most important sources.

There are, however, several reasons to be cautious about May's case. Perhaps the most important is that May does little to prove that what Heidegger found in East Asia were novel sources and not mere kindred spirits. Heidegger's interpretations of earlier western philosophers are notoriously "strong", readily reading into others groping anticipations, or illuminating misunderstandings, of the insights that he, Heidegger, offered. Examples that May himself gives, of Heidegger translating certain texts and terms, raise the worry that his study of East Asian texts was another search for intimations, in venerable sources, of insights at which he had already arrived. Heidegger's translations seem distinctly stretched, worrying the native speakers with whom he was working and suggesting, perhaps, a preconceived sense that Heidegger wished to extract. These East Asian texts may well have mattered to him. But was it because of what they could tell him or what they could confirm?

What really would go some way to establishing an influence, and would also make the book more generally useful, is a demonstration of how one can understand parts of Heidegger's work better as a result of bearing in mind East Asian ideas. The closest May really gets is showing that certain Heideggerian terms are associated in much the same way as apparently corresponding terms are in a Daoist or Zen text. This rarely conveys any sense that one now understands the Heideggerian passages any better, as this kind of treatment sticks to their "surface" and the significance of the texts with which they are being aligned is itself hardly transparent.

Parkes's essay, on the other hand, is more compelling. His account of the concerns of several Japanese philosophers with whom Heidegger had contact early in his career leaves one with a real sense of how his encounter with those concerns could have made certain developmental options more natural for Heidegger. There is no bold claim of straight plagiarism here but what is claimed is defended more credibly. Both authors realise that their work is only a start. But Parkes's approach, lacking though it does the appealing air of scandal, appears to me to be the more likely to encourage a serious debate over a claim of influence, a debate which might alter radically our view of the history of 20th-century philosophy.

Denis McManus is lecturer in philosophy, University of Southampton.

Heidegger's Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on his Work

Author - Reinhard May
ISBN - 0 415 14037 4 and 14038 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 405

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