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Santa Fe Tutor Co-Publishes Translation of Newly Discovered Heidegger Lecture

March 12, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

A previously unknown version of Martin Heidegger’s lecture “What is Metaphysics?” was recently published in German and translated into English in Philosophy Today. St. John’s tutor Ian Alexander Moore was one of the translators.

Nearly 30 years after the death of philologist and editor Ernst Zinn, those going through his collection happened upon a number of typewritten pages tucked into a bound copy of “What is Metaphysics?,” a famous lecture by Martin Heidegger. The typescript, a handwritten note from Zinn indicated, was a manuscript of the lecture—and, curiously, differed significantly from the published piece.

“Everyone had thought, based on Heidegger’s writings, that the lecture he published was the version he delivered to inaugurate becoming a professor at Freiburg University,” explains Ian Alexander Moore, St. John’s College tutor and translator. “This is quite the discovery because it suggests that this typescript is what he delivered in 1929.”

With the permission of Arnulf Heidegger, grandson of Martin and the literary executor of the philosopher’s estate, the editorial team at Philosophy Today decided to publish the German text alongside an English-language version. Moore, who serves as an associate editor at the publication, worked with the editor of Heidegger’s text, Dieter Thomä, and fellow translator Gregory Fried to produce “What is Metaphysics? Original Version.” The typescript and translation were published in the summer 2018 issue of Philosophy Today, offering a fresh take at the classic Heidegger text and suggesting a possible evolution of the German philosopher’s thoughts on the topic.

A little background: “What is Metaphysics?,” in both of its forms, explores its titular question by questioning how human beings can gain access to—as Moore puts it—“that which is not a being, which is no thing.” It can’t be done by way of the sciences, Heidegger explains, because the sciences answer questions related only to “beings or domains of beings.”

“In the original version, [Heidegger] is not trying to ground the sciences,” says Moore. “He’s much more critical of the sciences and the humanities. When he gave this lecture, he was much more standoffish, [saying] that philosophy is separate from what everyone else in the university is trying to do.”

In contrast, the published version, he explains, said something more to the effect of “‘If you pay attention to what I’m saying, then science will make sense.’”

“He essentially presented himself as the savior of higher education,” Moore adds.

The differences between the versions go beyond Heidegger’s messaging, however. The script, Moore says, is “half as long, much rougher, more draft-like, and elliptical at times … It’s much blunter.”

“There were a lot of challenges,” he recalls. “As I mentioned, it’s a somewhat elliptical text. There are incomplete sentences, so you have to really get a whole sense of the trajectory. It doesn’t allow for a ready word-to-word translation.”

The typewritten version, for example, heavily featured wordplay and colloquial language, which required Moore and Fried to think critically about their representation of the text.

“The question at the end [of the first section], ‘Wie steht es also um das Nichts,’ was originally translated ‘What’s up with the nothing, then?” he explains. “It has that feel, ‘What’s the deal with the nothing?’ But we landed on ‘What about the nothing, then?’ It’s more formal, more in accord with what English may have been in 1929.”

Philosophy Today’s choice to run the original German in a column directly beside his translation was both a blessing and a curse.

“Having the German right next to it was a challenge in one way because everyone is going to see whether you got things correctly,” Moore says. “On the other hand, it was advantageous. We were able to be a bit more free and looser in our translations because if we couldn’t capture wordplay, readers can access it readily [in the other column].”

The typescript had another quirk to contend with: a seemingly out-of-place line in the middle of a page.

“There was one problem in particular with the initial German publication,” Moore says. “It’s a fascinating typescript. In the middle of one of the pages, the question with which Heidegger ends the text appears out of nowhere. In the initial version, the editor included that question almost in the middle of a sentence. We thought it was a peculiar inclusion.”

Consultation with a typewriter specialist proved that the alignment was off, that the question wasn’t actually typed in the middle of the sentence. Instead, the page had been reused, and whoever typed the document didn’t realize that the question was in the middle until too late. Rather than starting over with a blank page, the typist just skipped over the question and continued the sentence they had been working on below it. Thomä, Moore, and Fried elected to leave it out.

Spending such extensive time and attention on Heidegger’s words, Moore says, helped him better understand the philosopher—particularly when he was able to approach the topic with his St. John’s colleagues.

“We have a faculty seminar at the end of every February,” he explains. “At the time [in 2018], I had done a rather rough translation, and we did it as a two-hour seminar, which was very rewarding and helpful. It opened up the text to me. There were people in the seminar who had taught ‘What is Metaphysics?’ a thousand times, so I was really happy with that.”

Studying the text with his colleagues helped him identify and correct awkward translation, he says, “but more than that, I was developing a deeper philosophical appreciation.” Several months later, Moore gave a lecture on the subject entitled “Logic, Nothingness, and the University.”

“Translating an author like Heidegger really opens up his thinking in a different way because he’s so attuned to language and the way language itself speaks,” says Moore. 

It’s worth noting that the lecture in question was written and delivered during the rise of the Nazi party, with whom Heidegger was affiliated. Thomä’s editor’s note addresses this directly, questioning the ethics of continuing to parse Heidegger’s writing.

“Even before the revelation of [Heidegger’s] metaphysical antisemitism, we should be wary of this time period,” says Moore. “The author of the editor’s note says we ought not to read Heidegger today as though his texts were written in abstraction.”

As for Moore’s own take?

“I think we can read Heidegger’s ‘What is Metaphysics?’ and benefit from it greatly,” he says. “Whether we can compare all the different versions or do all the philological work uncritically is a different matter.”