Demske (BMD:95-98) – Being as Noein-Einai (Parmenides)

What was being for the other great pre-Socratic thinker, Parmenides? Contradicting the widely held opinion that the teaching of Parmenides is diametrically opposed to that of Heraclitus, Heidegger maintains that both thinkers really shared the same philosophical standpoint: “Where should these two Greek thinkers, the founders of all thought, take their stand but in the being of beings? For Parmenides too, being is the hen, kyneches, that which holds itself together in itself, mounon, that which uniquely unites, holon, that which is complete, the constantly self-manifesting holding sway” (GA40:104).

If it is true that Parmenides conceives being as hen, “the one,” or primordial unity, he does not mean this in a static, but a dynamic sense. It is “never empty uniformity, nor sameness in the sense of mere equality [95] . . . [but rather] the interdependent correlation of things mutually opposed” (Zusammengehörigkeit des Gegenstrebigen, GA40:106). In other words, being as hen is basically the same as being under the aspects of physis, logos, and polemos.

Perhaps the best known saying of Parmenides is the one usually interpreted as an affirmation of a radical subjectivism: to gar auto noein estin te kai einai (Fragment 5). This can be literally rendered as: “For the same is both to think and to be.” Certainly this proposition expresses some type of correlation between being and thinking, some form of belonging together. But the real question is: which of the two belongs to the other? Which enjoys ontological primacy? According to the traditional interpretation, which Heidegger rejects as thoroughly “un-Greek,” Parmenides is expressing a kind of rationalism, saying that being belongs to thought, in such a way that “the thinking of the subject determines what being is. Being is nothing other than what is thought in thinking (das Gedachte des Denkens). . . . There are no beings in themselves” (GA40:104).

In contrast to this interpretation, Heidegger attempts to show that the direction of the belonging-together of thought and being must be reversed. He claims that Parmenides intends just the opposite of the above opinion, meaning in fact that thought belongs to being, and not vice versa.

Heidegger’s analysis fastens upon the three elements of the saying: the same, to think, and to be. What does Parmenides mean by to auto, “the same”? Not identity in the sense of uniformity, numerical unity or sheer equality, but rather the correlation or belonging-together of things mutually opposed. Thus, to auto must be understood in the sense of Parmenides’ theory of being as hen, “the one,” as outlined above. It is also seen in its similarity to Heraclitus’ view of being as logos and polemos. To auto is thus also that which gathers together into unity, and that which originally sets asunder the elements of noein and einai, enabling them to play their distinctive and complementary roles in dynamic combination (GA40:106).1

What does einai, “to be,” mean? This is undoubtedly being in the basic Greek sense of physis, emerging and abiding holding sway (GA40:105).

The third element, noein, is the most difficult to grasp and consequently the most widely misunderstood. It cannot simply be translated “to think,” for thinking in the history of western metaphysics is something distinguished from being, rather than something belonging to it. The [96] noein which is “the same” as “to be” must accordingly be something antecedent to the distinction between thinking and being.

Heidegger thus translates noein as “to perceive” (vernehmen). This includes two essential elements: first of all, it means acceptance, i.e., receiving that which is allowed to approach and reveal itself; second, it means accepting in an active sense, as a judge takes the testimony of a witness, bringing it out and examining it and thereby establishing the facts of a case. Heidegger clarifies this double meaning by the use of a military example: “When troops take up a position, they wish to receive the approaching enemy, and in such a way that they will at least bring him to a halt” (GA40:105). Similarly, noein for the Greeks is as much a receiving of what is revealing itself as an active position-taking with regard to it. Briefly, it is an accepting bringing-to-a-standstill of that which appears. In this way perceiving belongs to the taking-place or the coming-into-position of beings as such.

Is this a subjectivistic explanation? Does it mean that beings are real only through human thinking, that the being of beings is merely an object of thought? If one understands man and beings as subject and object, as two completely independent, separate entities standing opposite each other, there is indeed the danger of such an interpretation. Perceiving could be construed as the activity of a subject constituting the real being of beings as object. But Heidegger is here concerned with the relation between noein and einai in pre-Socratic thought, and therefore before the distinction between subject and object was first made. In this primordial context, ‘to perceive’ and ‘to be’ constitute an original unity which is the presupposition for any subject-object distinction at all. Thus, Heidegger’s interpretation is not subjectivistic but rather transcendental, reaching back to the presubjective and preobjective realm of transcendence in the sense previously explained, to the ground of possibility for the primordial occurrence of the illumination of being.2

Let us recall once more: for the Greeks, being is basically physis, emerging and abiding holding sway, or emergence as appearing, standing in the light, stepping forth from concealment into unconcealment. The accepting bringing-to-a-standstill which we have called perceiving belongs to the holding sway of being understood in this way. The emerging sway of being consequently denotes a simultaneous and concomitant occurrence of perceiving; noein belongs to physis, i.e., to einai. Being holds sway as appearing, and “because it holds sway and insofar as it holds sway and [97] appears, it necessarily occurs along with appearing and perceiving” (GA40:106). Thus, being and thinking, einai and noein, “are united in the sense of a mutual opposition, i.e., the same as correlative” (zusammengehörig, GA40:106).

  1. In a later writing Heidegger elaborates on what he understands by ‘‘the same” (das Selbe”). It is not mere equality or pure identity, but rather the unity of different elements, which are both held apart and kept together by the difference itself, and are thus gathered together into a primordial oneness: “Das selbe ist . . . das Zusammengehören des Verschiedenen aus der Versammlung durch den Unterschied. Das selbe lässt sich nur sagen, wenn der Unterschied gedacht wird. . . . Das selbe versammelt das Unterschiedene in eine ursprüngliche Einigkeit” (GA7:193; cf. also GA11:18-19). 

  2. Heidegger later contends that the early Greek thinkers did not regard things as objects in the context of the subject-object schema, but rather perceived beings as something standing-over-against or confronting man (Gegenüber rather than Gegenstand, GA10:139-40). The question of subjectivism will come up again later in this chapter, in the interpretation of Heidegger’s turning.