Tutors Talk Books: Ian Moore on Eckhart and Heidegger

October 31, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Tutor Ian Moore is the author of Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement.

Tutor Ian Alexander Moore is the author of Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement, a new text from SUNY Press’ Contemporary Continental Philosophy series.

How did you become interested in the relationship between Meister Eckhart and Martin Heidegger?

I’ve always been interested in the connection between thinking and language. When I was studying in Germany in 2012—in Freiburg—I took a seminar on Eckhart and Heidegger that was co-taught by a medieval-German philologist as well as a philosopher. I became very interested in Eckhart’s use of both Latin and what is now called Middle High German.

He’s the only major theologian of rank in the Middle Ages whose work survives in Latin and the vernacular, and I became curious about why he felt the need, not just to write scholastic treatises in Latin, but to write and preach in a non-scientific language of the people and thereby to shape German into a medium for profound speculation.

In that same seminar, one of the professors suggested that what Aristotle was for the early Heidegger, Meister Eckhart might be for the later Heidegger. And I thought it could be valuable to follow up on that suggestion, especially because of Heidegger’s own creative transformation of the German language and of the philosophy of his day.

How did that turn into the book?

I decided to explore the connection between Heidegger and Eckhart. There had been some material written on it, but not in the way or to the extent that I wanted to do it. I realized that Heidegger doesn’t discuss Eckhart to the extent to which he discusses philosophers like Kant or Aristotle, despite ranking Eckhart among the few great thinkers of the West and referring to him as “the old master of letters and life.” I came across about 50 references to Eckhart throughout Heidegger’s published writings, but I realized that that wasn’t really enough to fully reconstruct the connection. I thus decided to do quite a bit of archival research, and that led me to make several discoveries throughout Germany, as well as eventually to get ahold of Heidegger’s personal copies of Eckhart’s writings with his marginalia and underlining. That gave me deeper insight into the connection, and I was able to incorporate a lot of that material into my book.

How were you able to get your hands on Heidegger’s personal books?

At the time, I was in Marbach, and the head of the archive there told me that Heidegger’s last assistant before he died, a man named Friedrich-Wilhelm von Herrmann—a fine thinker in his own right—had some of Heidegger’s books. I contacted von Herrmann, and he invited me to come meet him and his wife, so I traveled to Freiburg and I met with them. Astoundingly, he just handed me a dozen of Heidegger’s personal books and said, “Take them for the week. See what you can make of them.” His generosity enabled me to do this.

Did seeing Heidegger’s notes and underlining support your thesis about his connection to Eckhart?

One of the interesting things von Herrmann told me was that Heidegger used different colors to indicate different feelings he had about certain passages. And so I was able to discern when Heidegger was just marking something to go back to it, or when he was, for instance, expressing critical reservations about a passage. This also enabled me to prove that Heidegger was engaged with certain texts that he doesn’t talk about in his published writings. I don’t think that’s necessary for many of my arguments in the book, but it did help to have that confirmation.

I think it was more of a historical interest, seeing what Heidegger read, being able to prove what he was engaged with. There’s one critical note in which he suggests that Eckhart’s thinking about a particular matter ends up falling prey, effectively, to what Eckhart’s trying to escape, namely, reifying God through objective representation. The marginalia also show how interested Heidegger was in Eckhart’s language of letting be and releasement.

What is the imperative of releasement?

Eckhart makes a rather remarkable claim: that you can only know the truth if you exist truthfully. So thinking, or we could say knowledge, or even philosophy, is dependent on a way of life.

In the book, I call it a practical a priori. In order to understand the deepest nature of reality, which for Eckhart is what he calls the Godhead—a God beyond representation, beyond objectification, and even beyond the Trinity—you have to change your life. For Eckhart, [that means] you have to release yourself, you have to let be, to let go of all of the baggage that you’ve inherited, all of the mistaken ways of approaching God, in order to let God manifest himself.

So the imperative of releasement is [that] you must release your mistaken ways of approaching the world, the self, and God. You must let go in order to let the truth be and come to know it. And for Eckhart, it turns out that the Godhead itself is a kind of letting be or releasement. The Godhead itself ends up being revealed to be the same as what we do when we are releasing ourselves.

How did Heidegger appropriate releasement?

Heidegger explicitly draws on this language at various points throughout his career. The word I’m translating as “releasement” is the German Gelassenheit. It can mean a lot of different things both in Eckhart and in Heidegger: “letting be,” “being let,” “the state of having let be.” The word in modern German just means “serenity,” but Heidegger mostly uses it in the Eckhartian sense.

What I argue in the book is that Heidegger draws on this Eckhartian structure of releasement at various stages in his (Heidegger’s) career, but particularly around 1945 in a text known as “The First Country Path Conversation.” I argue that Heidegger thinks in an Eckhartian vein structurally or formally, even when he doesn’t do so in terms of content. In the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics, for example, Heidegger’s language is very far from letting be. He emphasizes the will, and even uses very violent language. However, it still bears a similar structure to that of releasement—namely, [that] we have to do something to understand being. And being and the doing are in a sense identical, or bear similar characteristics. My claim in the book is that this structure is Eckhart’s greatest influence on Heidegger’s thinking, even when Heidegger is not using Eckhart’s specific terms.

Why is it significant that Heidegger was influenced by Eckhart?

The historical answer would be “Heidegger is one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, irrespective of whether onethinks he’s one of the greatest.” And inasmuch as we can better understand his thoughts and the development of his thoughts, we should then be able better to understand how he influences thinking in the 20th century and beyond.

More interestingly, Heidegger tries to go beyond reason. He calls it “thinking beyond philosophy,” and that’s a move that’s very controversial. A lot of people will say that’s mystical in a pejorative sense, or “he just opens himself up to the revelation of being.” What do we do with that philosophically? I think it’s a very important move that he makes to try to understand the basis of rationality. And I think he gets a lot of that from Eckhart, and so if we can better understand Heidegger, we can better understand our own presuppositions and assess whether they’re true. We can have a better understanding of our basic principles—and Heidegger calls a lot of them into question. If you agree with Heidegger, it’s helpful to understand why they should be called into question. And if you disagree with Heidegger, you should at least take his critique seriously in order in order to be able to address it.

Heidegger’s indebtedness to Eckhart helps us to think about our fundamental commitments and whether they’re justified and whether there might be something beyond the standard approaches to the truth, the nature of reality, who we are, [and] who God is.