In Being and Time and Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Heidegger critiques ancient metaphysics for its naïve interpretation of Being. In particular, Greek ontology understands being through the lens of man’s productive way of being in the world. Being is that which is given beforehand in the anticipatory look of the craftsman or designer. Heidegger claims that the producer’s perspective on being is better than that of modern ontology. For the producer understands his product in the moment of release, when he lets the product be or stand on its own. Rather than understanding being through its accessibility to mind, as an object for some subject, ancient ontology sees the product as apart from the producer himself. In other words, ancient ontology never lost sight of the world and that human beings, their actions, and intentions are only intelligible against the background of the world. However, Heidegger is clear that the ancient producer’s perspective is inadequate for at least two reasons. First, the Greeks allegedly failed to justify a priori the concepts drawn from productive life. The ancients never gave a ‘transcendental deduction,’ of concepts like energeia (actualitas), eidos (species), or telos (finis). They never asked the question, why are these concepts, drawn from pragmatic life, justified as ways of describing being? Second, the productive way of being in the world does not capture the being of what Heidegger calls Dasein. This neglect of Dasein leads to what Heidegger calls the forgetfulness of being. By interpreting all being through the concepts drawn from a secondary or less fundamental way of being in the world (i.e. productivity), one forgets that the one who interprets being is not like the beings it interprets. The interpretation of being drawn from productivity does not capture the being of Dasein from whom all productive acts, products, and productive intentions originate. In some sense Dasein as an interpreting and uncovering being is prior the productive or pragmatic interpretation of being through which it views the world. Thus, Heidegger claims that the ancients reduced the diversity of being by forgetting Dasein’s peculiar interpretive character, thereby loosing the ability to ask the question about the Being of being. For if one does not first see the manifold of being, the question as to Being’s unity is obscured.
It seems that Heidegger is onto something here. His interpretation of ancient ontology throws a significant amount of light on notions like forms, ends, and definition. Forms are what one has before one’s eyes, (τὰ ὄμματα τῆς ψυχῆς for Plato and Aristotle). It is what one has gazed at prior that determines what the thing is to be, whether one grasps this in eternity or not. The end is the form gazed at prior, the definition its linguistic expression, and so on. In fact, one can add certain texts from Plato and Aristotle to strengthen Heidegger’s account. The demiurge seems to be the cosmic craftsman or producer behind being in the Timaeus. Aristotle feels completely comfortable in his ethical and natural works switching between examples of things by the productive arts and by nature, as if there were a rather tight analogy between the two. For art and nature alike proceed with ends in mind, and nature has a form that is given prior (at least in terms of dependence), as the form of the tree in some way determines what the seed will be. The whole, in other words, for Plato and Aristotle is primary, a whole which is already somehow given in an anticipatory look, whether that look is human (as in art) or by God (as in nature).
Yet, valuable as his interpretation may be, Heidegger seems to exaggerate the importance of his finding. I would like to suggest that Plato (and very likely Aristotle as well) successfully identified the pragmatic ground of being in Dasein. That is, they did not forget Being in the way Heidegger alleges. In the Symposium, for instance, Plato seems to preempt Heidegger’s claim that Sorge (care) is Dasein’s fundamental way of being in the world. Diotima tells Socrates that there is a great demi-god situated between time and eternity—a metaphysical amphibian. This great deity is eros or love. Love, like care, is always a concerned relationship to some other. Love is always love of something that it does not have but strives to acquire. Therefore, eros much like Dasein is unintelligible without the concept of a world external to it. The necessary precondition for understanding our actions according to Plato and Heidegger is that they are always and only intelligible against the background of the world. Hence, there is never a reason to separate them, and any philosophy that would do so (as we see in Descartes for instance) would render human action (i.e. action oriented towards an object of desire) incoherent. Human beings are always already in the world insofar as they have a concerned and interested relation to it. It seems to me, then, that Plato did not forget the fundamental worldliness of Dasein. Moreover, it seems that Plato (or Diotima) recognized that a concerned relation to being entails that human beings are interpreters of Being. Diotima tells Socrates that “eros is an interpreter and ferryman (ἑρμηνεῦον καὶ διαπορθμεῦον)” of gods to men and vice-versa. Eros is an interpreter. Because it is always already dealing with a world, with some object that it either flees or pursues, eros comes to grips with being, seeking to understand it. For one cannot pursue the object of desire unless one understands it in its being. Thus, rather than productivity, it seems rather that love and a concerned interest in being is the ground of the possibility for being’s intelligibility. Love, a desire for flourishing and well-being, is the ground of interpretation and intelligibility, the ground from which we engage with Being, pursue it, and ultimately seek rest in it.
Disclaimer: I do not take credit for the image used in this post, which is available online at ancientorigins.net