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Beyond or Beneath Good and Evil? Heidegger’s Purification of Aristotle’s Ethics

Gonzalez: Heidegger and Aristotle on the Human Agathon and Telos

Heidegger and the Greeks

quinta-feira 7 de dezembro de 2017


Extrato de HYLAND & MANOUSSAKIS, Heidegger and the Greeks. Bloomington: Indiana University   Press, 2006, p. 129-131.


Let us begin at the beginning, that is, with the good  . The first text of the Nicomachean Ethics   to which Heidegger turns in the course is appropriately the opening chapters of Book 1, devoted to a discussion   of the agathon. Heidegger has been reflecting on the characterization of the human being   in the Politics, according to which human beings differ from other animals in the possession   of logos   and, specifically, of a logos that aims at revealing   the advantageous and the disadvantageous, the just   and the unjust (Pol. A2, 1253a 9 ff). It is the presence   of the terms sympheron and blaberon (which I have translated as “advantageous” and “disadvantageous,” and which Heidegger translates as Zuträgliche and Abträgliche) in this determination of human being that leads Heidegger to an examination of how Aristotle   understands the agathon to which human beings are essentially related in their very being. Heidegger makes clear from the very beginning that he will give a strictly ontological   account of the agathon. He asserts, before even turning   to the text, that the agathon is a way of being  , “the genuine character of man’s being” (65). To see what exactly it means to characterize the agathon in this way   and what such a characterization might exclude, we need to turn to Heidegger’s reading of the very first line of the Ethics  .

The initial translation of this line must leave the key terms untranslated, since they are precisely what is at issue: “Every techne   and every procedure [methodos], as well as [homoios de] praxis   and proairesis   appear to aim [ephiesthai] at some good.” As is often the case with Heidegger, his interpretation already begins with his translation/paraphrase of this sentence. Most significant, and most essential to his subsequent claims, is the way in which Heidegger translates the terms that appear to be contrasted in Aristotle’s sentence: on the one hand  , techne and methodos, on the other, [129] praxis and proairesis. Heidegger translates techne as Auskenntnis im einem Besorgen, know-how in taking care   of something (67). That in itself is unobjectionable. But what of the translation of praxis as Besorgen, taking care   of something, and proairesis as das Sichvornehmen von etwas als zuerledigendes, als zu besorgen, zu Ende   zu bringen, the taking-in-hand of something to be settled, taken care of, brought to an end. The effect of such translations is to suppress the distinction implied by the phrase homoios de, “as well as, on the other hand" by assimilating or subordinating praxis and proariesis to techne, making them only the taking-care and bringing-to-completion for which techne provides the know-how.

This translation is not   a slip but is rather essential to what Heidegger wishes to conclude from this opening sentence of the Nicomachean Ethics. He approaches this passage with the following question  : in what or where is the agathon expressed and made manifest (65)? The answer at which Heidegger arrives through his reading of the first sentence of the Ethics will not surprise any reader of his translation, but must surprise any reader of the Greek: the agathon is expressed and made manifest (ausdrücklich sichtbar wird) in techne (68). As a result, the distinction between techne and praxis suggested by Aristotle’s sentence, a distinction of which Heidegger is well aware and which he even briefly summarizes on pages 70-71, is simply ignored in this conclusion. Here and, as we will see, throughout the rest of the course, techne becomes the sole and guiding perspective in Heidegger’s account of the agathon.5

But why is this important? In techne the good appears as the end result of an action  , as something produced, finished; and as we have seen, this is exactly the kind of language   that Heidegger imports into his translation/ paraphrase of the first sentence of the Ethics. Therefore when Heidegger, following Aristotle’s discussion of the good in the opening chapters of the Ethics, proceeds to discuss the good as peras   and telos  , he clearly understands these terms from the perspective of techne: “‘Ende’ im Sinne des Eine-Fertigkeit-Ausmachens” (79): the good is an “end" in the sense of being finished, completed, taken care of. But it is at least questionable whether the good appears this way in praxis. Does the “end” of being generous, being just, or even seeing   have the character of Fertigsein, of something “finished”? A house produced by a builder is fertig, and it is this being-finished at which the builder aims. But the aim of being courageous is not to make something fertig, nor does being courageous itself ever have simply the character of being finished or complete. As Aristotle insists, while in the case of techne the perfect tense rules out the present tense, this [130] is not the case with praxis: for example, while the sentence “I have built the house” cannot be true at the same   time as the sentence “I am building   the house,” the sentences “I have seen” and “I am seeing  ” can be true at the same time. One can perhaps put the crucial point   this way: praxis is complete without being completed in the sense of finished; if the good therefore appears in praxis as telos, this cannot be in the sense of Fertigsein or am-Ende-Sein  . Heidegger himself much later in the course, and apparently forgetting   for the moment   the conception of the good he is defending here, insists that virtue is not Fertigkeit   (188), by which he clearly means both that it is not a skill (the normal meaning   of Fertigkeit) and that it is not something fixed or finished (he insists that it is not the “bringing-into-play of some fixed and set skill [einer festsitzende Fertigkeit],” 189). How Heidegger positively understands virtue will be considered later. Here we can conclude with the un-Heideggerian suggestion that courage is an “end,” not in the sense of being “finished” or “completed,” but rather in the sense of being pursued, desired, and chosen for its own   sake.

That this suggestion is indeed un-Heideggerian is shown by the other peculiarity of Heidegger’s interpretation of the first sentence of the Ethics. Here again we need to consider specific translations: proairesis, normally translated in English as “choice  ” or “decision  ,” is translated by Heidegger as das Sichvornehmen von etwas als zu erledigendes, als zu besorgen, zu Ende zu bringen (67), taking in hand something to be finished, taken care of, brought to an end; ephiesthai, normally translated in the sense of “aiming” at the good, is translated by Heidegger as Hinterhersein einem Guten, to be behind the good, in the direction of the good. To these translations we should add Heidegger’s translation of the characterization of the good in the Politics as that which is haireton in itself and for its own sake: Heidegger translates haireton, usually translated as “chosen,” instead as ergreifbar (61), graspable. What is common to all of these translations? Clearly the exclusion from our relation   to the good of any deliberate choice, desire, or decision. This should not surprise us since this is precisely what Heidegger must do in order to interpret the agathon ontologically as a way of being  . Our relation to the good is to be located in our existing, not in our acting, desiring, deliberating, or choosing. Heidegger’s reading of the very first sentence of Aristotle’s Ethics has already succeeded in transforming ethics into ontology  , and a very determinate ontology according to which Being means being-finished, being-completed, being-delimited.