In this learned book Michael Allen Gillespie asks the question “What is history?” to which he suggests that there are two basic kinds of response, only one of which he thoroughly explores. The first answer, characteristic of the Greeks, is that history is an account of human events (historia rerum gestarum). It is a mode of inquiry, akin to philosophy and poetry, but due to its necessary relatedness to the contingent and actual, the least philosophic of the three. On the other hand, “modernity has come to the conclusion that it is the human actuality” itself (res gestae) (p. 24)—thus the objective reality to which the science of history must conform and the primary datum for the study of man. For modernity, then, it becomes a legitimate and pressing task to provide an explanation of history’s “ground.”
Now from the perspective of the ancients, modernity’s approach to the question appears to be misguided from the start. History has no objective reality; it is not a “thing” or res. There is no meaning at all in the sum total of human events. Meaning belongs to the exceptional—a virtuous deed, the greatest war. These are the events that the mode of inquiry called history identifies and brings to light. But in spite of the fact that he harbors the suspicion that the modern historical approach may be a mistake, that the effort to grasp the meaning of the course of human events will never reach its goal and has been attended by the most disastrous practical effects, Gillespie does not pursue this line, of thought. He does not develop the suggestion that history may be nothing more and nothing less than the memorialization of memorable deeds, nor does he test the adequacy of this conception for the contemporary world. Gillespie abandons himself to the modern approach or writes entirely from this point of view. He wants the question “What is history?” to designate an inquiry into history’s “ground.”
Indeed, the most surprising feature of this book, posing the issue as Gillespie does, is that in its very mode of procedure it seems to assume what it aims to find out. Gillespie has chosen to explore the problem through the interrogation of Hegel and Heidegger, which is a reasonable enough way to start. Certainly these thinkers are two of the greatest modern philosophers for whom history is a central theme. And yet this is not exactly a confrontation of their work. For nowhere in his book does Gillespie conduct a systematic comparison, reconstruct a dialogue, or methodically show what unites and divides these thinkers on the historical theme, as their rather different philosophies of history, or conceptions of the history of philosophy, would appear to demand. The transition between his discussion of these two thinkers is in fact an account of European history, beginning with the story of how, following his death, Hegel’s influence suddenly collapsed, thus necessitating the survey of developments, both spiritual and political, in the post-Hegelian world. It then leads into the discussion of Heidegger, which is the final part of the book and where only a few passing references to Hegel are made. In this book, too, Hegel’s thought is left behind. It is almost as if the history of thought about history is itself supposed to be an historical res; in his introductory chapter likewise Gillespie writes a detailed survey account of how, in the various stages of Western history, “history” has been variously conceived. Thus the effort to explain this res—to discover history’s “ground”—necessarily takes the form of a history of historical thought, with most attention, to be sure, going to the two figures studied here, whose efforts to explain history form the peaks of history as well.
How far this book, in fact, presupposes such a conception of history must remain a matter for conjecture. It seems likely, however, that these observations are prompted merely by Gillespie’s employment of the common scholarly procedure of giving historical context to philosophical works, and which seems curious only in this book, which wants to place this procedure under the light. Fortunately, however, one need not demand an answer to these questions in order to acknowledge this study’s value, which resides not in the whole nor in any unequivocal response to the questions it poses at the start, but rather in the solidity of its constituent parts. Each part of the book—on Hegel and on Heidegger—is capable of standing on its own as a valuable and provocative work. Here I can only indicate some of the conclusions Gillespie reached and some of the questions his book provokes.
It is in his study of Hegel, of course, that Gillespie is on the more proven ground. The investigation of Hegelian idealism, from root to branch, is by now a developed art. Particularly the origins of Hegel’s system, in the problems initially posed by Rousseau, is by now a well-cultivated field. Accordingly, it is in his study of Hegel that Gillespie might be thought to have made his most important contributions of the type that will enter into the literature and win wide scholarly assent. This seems to me to be the case. In several important ways he has gone beyond contemporary scholarship and has advanced the current understanding of Hegel’s texts. Particularly impressive in this respect is his analysis of the “Introduction” to the Phenomenology, the inner structure of which he seems to have been the first to discern. But in general his book’s importance for Hegel scholars should be evident merely from its stated purpose: to show the basic unity of Hegel’s work—the inner connection, specifically, between his philosophy of history and his logical and more speculative work. With a thorough command of the secondary literature, Gillespie then charts an independent course. This is a book that the Hegel specialist could read with profit; it probably should not be ignored.
Gillespie’s discussion of Heidegger, on the other hand, while lacking the authoritativeness possible in a more cultivated scholarly field, at least has the advantage of opening up a series of questions and problems by which advances toward authoritativeness might be made. His discussion has three clearly delineated parts. He begins with Heidegger’s critique of modernity, which amounts to a critique of subjectivity, the self-assertion of modern man such that he is now fulfilling the task prophesied for him at the start: the attempt to master and subdue all beings. Gillespie’s explication of this critique is the clearest part of this chapter of the book. One problem with Heidegger’s account of technology is that, although the phenomenon is plain, Heidegger’s writings are somewhat obscure. With less mystification than Heidegger, Gillespie accurately retraces his account. Particularly noteworthy is his discussion of how, in Heidegger’s view, politics is subjective self-assertion as well; hence, for Heidegger, the moral distinctions between regimes are erased; Americanism, Communism, and Nazism are all forms of subjectivity, all forms of self-assertion, and thus—superficial differences notwithstanding—all essentially alike. The only flaw in Gillespie’s treatment is his failure to question this view, which does not seem to be wholly true.
Then Gillespie presents Heidegger’s account of the source of this condition which may be said to be modernity’s extreme forgetfulness of Being. Only under the sway of this forgetfulness could humanity be driven so incessantly and totally to the endeavor to master and subdue all beings. Note the difference between “Being” and “beings”; this is the “ontological difference” that Heidegger made his one and only thought. And it is of this difference that Gillespie offers an interpretation that almost combines opposites by being both provocative and clear enough to summarize in a few lines. The forgetfulness, first, is in fact quite old and occurred at the latest shortly after philosophy arose among the Greeks. This point, however, is easy enough to gather from Heidegger’s published work. What really distinguishes Gillespie’s interpretation is the conceptual scheme that he superimposes on the ontological difference and that effectively brings it into the light. The difference between Being and beings, Gillespie repeatedly insists, is precisely analogous to the relation between questions and answers. Being is the question. Its original coming-to-light, among the ancient Greeks, was the appearance of the primordial question that has animated, so to speak, all philosophical thinking since. And since a question as question indicates a want or a lack, one could say that in its presence Being is also absent. On the other hand, Being’s subsequent withdrawal, at a little later point, was what redirected philosophy. Henceforth it gave priority to answers over questions. For Heidegger, the absence of absence yields presence, beings or answers alone. This withdrawal of Being, Gillespie shows, has finally reached a point where beings or answers alone appear. Hence we have modernity and its preoccupation with present answers and ultimately the endeavor to master and subdue all things.
But if what characterizes modernity is the complete withdrawal of Being, its total separation from beings, or the return of Being into itself, then does not modernity conceal within itself a possibility unavailable even to the Greeks: an experience of “Being itself in its unity and purity” (p. 150)? This is Gillespie’s final point in his chapter on Heidegger. Here Gillespie attempts to develop Heidegger’s hints to the effect that the nihilism of modernity is merely the dark side of humanity’s hopes. I found this discussion very obscure. Only experience, it would seem, would entitle one to participate in this discussion.
Experience of Being as such, however, is precisely what modernity lacks. Fortunately Gillespie identifies a touchstone by which we can test our understanding and perhaps even the basic intelligibility of what Heidegger says about the experience of Being. And yet fully considered, I believe this touchstone speaks against our understanding and probably even against Gillespie’s interpretation of the texts.
Politics is the touchstone, within ordinary capacities to grasp, by which we can test our understanding, for the question of Being has political implications. In some sense Gillespie is correct. Heidegger never understood his question as a theoretical abstraction or as a matter for merely speculative thought; it is real and tangible, with practical implications; in the words of Being and Time: “of all questions the most basic and concrete” (Sein und Zeit, p. 9). Moreover, Heidegger several times attempted to tie the original appearance of Being together with a peculiar political creation: the rise and full flowering of the polis of the Greeks. Gillespie emphasizes these points with special clarity and force. The original appearance of Being, he argues, “opened up a new world, brought new gods, a new ethics, a new politics . . .” (p. 135). All phenomena in this world bore the stamp of the appearance of Being. Hence the philosophy, poetry, and politics of the Greeks belonged together in a synthetic unity. Each activity was a response, unique only in type, to the same primordial appearance of Being.
Hence the reappearance of Being which Heidegger divines in the contemporary world will likewise open up a new world. Along the analogy of the Greeks, Gillespie several times refers to an “authentic ethics and politics” which, in replacement of modernity’s nihilism, Being is about to dispense. Whether this is so—i.e., whether politics does indeed have a place in Heidegger’s own incipient experience of Being—does not seem to me evident from the texts. Granting Gillespie’s reading, however, the point still fails to convince, for political phenomena are collective phenomena—widely shared and understood—not the private experience of a single man. And there is no general experience of what Gillespie calls “authentic ethics and politics” anywhere in the world. (For that matter, even Heidegger’s interpretation of Greek politics seems tenuous and forced.) At this level, then, Heidegger cannot be understood.
I can think of only one place, in fact, in all of Heidegger’s work where these questions can be properly explored. That would be his brief commitment to Hitler and the Nazis. Although it is acknowledged that Heidegger later turned his back on the Nazis and regarded them with contempt, for a brief time he gave them his support. To discover the grounds of that support by articulating what Heidegger thought the Nazis were accordingly becomes a legitimate and pressing task. It is the closest thing we have to a concrete check on the discussion of the political implications of the question of Being.
It is curious, therefore, that Gillespie fails to perform this task-given his concern with Heidegger’s politics or the political implications of his work. His allusions to Heidegger’s commitment are confined to occasional footnotes and to summaries of what other scholars have said. The special value of his discussion therefore, apart from its persistent seriousness and the many important insights he throws out along the way, is that he does insist that Heidegger’s politics has to be understood. He thus invites a further exploration of the texts. It only seems likely that when the task is accomplished, this book, along with a good deal of the literature on Heidegger, will have to be partly reworked.