Theory and Praxis in Aristotle and Heidegger

Theory and Praxis in Aristotle and Heidegger

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Theory and Praxis in Aristotle and Heidegger

ABSTRACT: The discussion of Heidegger's “destructive retrieve” of Aristotle has been intensified in recent years by the publication of Heidegger's courses in the years surrounding his magnum opus. Heidegger's explicit commentary on Aristotle in these courses permits one to read Being and Time with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics. My paper analyzes a network of differences between the two thinkers, focusing on the relationship between theory and praxis. From Aristotle to Heidegger, there is: (1) a shift from the priority of actuality to the priority of possibility. This shift, I argue, is itself the metaphysical ground of: (2) a shift from the priority of theory to the priority of praxis. This shift is seen most clearly in the way in which (3) Heidegger's notion of Theorie is a modification of his poíesis. The temporal ground of the reversal is seen in (4) Heidegger's notion of transcendence towards the world, and not towards an eternal being.

Heidegger's "destructive retrieve" of Aristotle is getting more attention recently, as the courses he gave in the years surrounding the appearance of Being and Time are gradually becoming available. Heidegger's explicit commentary on Aristotle in many of these courses permits one to read Being and Time as a work written in conversation with the Greek master. Contrasting Being and Time with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Metaphysics, my paper analyzes a network of relations and differences between the two thinkers, focussing on the relationship between theory and praxis.

Between Aristotle and Heidegger, there is 1) a shift from the priority of actuality in Aristotle, to the priority of possibility in Heidegger. This shift, I argue, is itself the metaphysical ground of 2) a shift from the priority of theory in the one thinker to the priority of praxis in the other. This shift is seen most clearly in the way in which 3) Heidegger's notion of Theorie is a modification of a more original poíésis. The temporal ground of the reversal is seen in 4) Heidegger's notion of transcendence towards the world, and not towards an eternal being.

I. From Aristotle's Actuality to Heidegger's Possibility

For Heidegger, possibility precedes actuality: though human beings have a factical structure, the way that we interpret the world is on the basis of possibility. For Aristotle, however, actuality is prior to potentiality (Meta: 1049b 4ff). Now Aristotle's notion of physical potentiality and what Heidegger calls possibility are not identical.

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But nor is Aristotle's notion of potentiality limited to the coming-to-be of form in sensible things.

In Metaphysics Theta, Aristotle distinguishes between rational potencies [dunámeis logoi] and irrational potencies [dunámeis álogoi]. Irrational potencies are those that admit of only one result, thus something hot must produce heat; this is the physical and metaphysical notion of potency, that everything tends, by nature, towards fulfillment of its potency. In the physical world, sensible ousía are finite as particulars, but the universal character of ousía, the universal form, is eternal. The physical cosmos is the eternal cycle of movement from potentiality to actuality in sensible things. In book Lambda, it is shown that this eternal movement is grounded formally and finally by a first mover, an eternal being, who is fully actual. Thus actuality precedes potentiality in the physical cosmos.

The notion of rational potency is perhaps closer to what Heidegger intends by possibility. Rational potencies, such as the téchnai (the poietic sciences), admit of contrary results: the science of medicine can produce sickness or health. The actualization of rational potencies is determined by desire (particularly in the case of animals) or by rational choice [órexin é proaíresin], though it depends on whether the desire or choice is directed towards that for which we have a given capacity (Cf: Meta: 1046a 36-b 9; 1047b 31-1048a 15). But desire and choice are also directed towards some end. Choice is the efficient explanation of action; and the final explanation of choice is desire and reason, themselves directed to some end (NE:1139a 6).

The end of the disposition [héxis or dunámis] of téchné is poíésis, the production of something; the end of the disposition of phrónésis, is praxis, action itself. The end of the disposition of sophía, on the other hand, is not action, but theoría, universal knowledge. (1) But in all these cases, actuality is prior to the principle of change. The three rational héxeis come to be only through being employed; thought and desire are what bring the dispositions to actuality. And human being [ánthrôpos], the originator of action, is a union of desire and intellect (NE: 1139b 5-7). The end of human being is eudaimonía (happiness) the exercise of the dispositions of the soul in conformity with excellence, throughout a complete lifetime (1098a 12-20). But the highest form of happiness is the exercise of the highest virtue, sophía. Noûs is the best activity for human being, and the telos of human life (NE: 1177a 13-22). Now noûs is directed towards the universal and the eternal, and the eternal is fully actual.

Thus even in the sphere of practical behaviour, actuality precedes potentiality in Aristotle. Rational potencies are dependent on rational héxeis, and these are dependent for their fulfillment on a more primordial irrational dunámis: that of the progression of all things from potentiality to actuality. Human beings, like all sensible beings, progress towards their telos, which is reason. (2) Reason is inspired by and directed towards the eternal, pure actuality. Pure actuality is thus the final explanation of any human potentiality; and explanation precedes explanandum.

For Aristotle, the eternal and fully actual is primary in establishing the meaning of "being", and the way that human being understands his or her own being. Eternity is the basis of Aristotle's ontology and his ethics: being is eternal.

In Heidegger, on the other hand, any notion of the temporal infinite, if such a notion is coherent, is gathered from Dasein's prior understanding of itself as temporally finite. Since Dasein is finite, and since Dasein is disclosiveness of being, time and being are primordially finite. Whereas kínésis in Aristotle applies to beings coming into actuality, and human being achieving its rational telos, in Heidegger, Dasein's understanding of beings, and thus of being, is kinetic. Kinetic understanding is grounded in the kinesis that is Dasein itself in its transcendence. Finite movement, as opposed to infinite presence, defines Heidegger's ontology. Human being as living into finite possibility, and as aware of its own possibility, precedes actuality in the order of understanding. Between Aristotle and Heidegger, there is then a shift from the priority of the eternal to the priority of the finite.

II. From Aristotle's Theory to Heidegger's Practice

Theoría in Aristotle is the activity of contemplation of necessary objects, while praxis and poíésis require knowledge of contingent objects. Whereas poíésis is an activity of making, aiming at a goal that is distinct from the action involved in the achievement of the goal, the goal of praxis is achieved in accomplishing the very action itself. What about the goal of "contemplation" [theoría]? Aristotle is quite clear that theory is sufficient unto itself; that the goal of theory is not something other than the activity of contemplation itself, and that it is non-poietic. (3) Likewise, happiness, which is activity [energeía] in accordance with the exercise of sophía as the highest virtue, (and sophía is the disposition associated with theoría), is self-sufficient and an end unto itself (NE 1076b 2-6). (4) Theory is clearly not poietic activity in Aristotle. Is it a form of praxis?

The virtue associated with praxis, phrónésis, concerns the affairs of human beings, and things that admit of deliberation [boulé]. It is concerned with action, and action has to do with particular and contingent things (NE:1141b 8-17). Phrónésis determines the right means to the right end of a particular action; it is not itself poietic. Phrónésis and sophía are contrasted throughout the Nichomachean Ethics on the grounds of the particular and contingent object of the one, and the universal and necessary character of the object of the other.

Theoría then, as not concerned with action and the affairs of human beings, must also be distinguished from praxis. It is an energeía, an activity, concerned with investigation of explanations, and contemplation- the highest activity of human being. It is concerned with the question why, and the answer to this question does not necessarily have practical consequences. None of Aristotle's three energeíai are reducible to the other, (5) but theoría, as the telos of human life, and as revelatory of the first archaì kaì aítia is primary amongst them.

For Heidegger, Theorie is no longer concerned with the contemplation of necessary objects. Theory in Heidegger involves stepping back from the world, and conducting a cold analysis of things seen as merely present in the world. Unlike Aristotle's theoría, however, theory in Heidegger is in no way directed towards the end of contemplation, nor does it study "necessarily existent" objects. Theoretical behaviour is looking at things, without looking at them in terms of use. As I will show in the section below, theory in Heidegger is a derivative form of poíésis, stemming from the original moment of involvement in the hermeneutical situation. Theorie is not an entirely separate realm of dianoetic activity, but is already permeated with the productive. (6)

"Concern" [Besorgen] refers to Dasein as caught up in the world of things, entities and abstractions, as involved in the world and as "seeing" the world. "Seeing" here is to be understood as the understanding and interpretation of the entities with which Dasein finds itself already "alongside"; it designates a way of comporting oneself towards beings. In circumspective concern, Dasein sees things as "ready-to-hand"; in theoretical observation, it sees things as "present-at-hand". Practical absorption and theoretical distancing conform more closely to the Aristotelian distinction between poíésis and theoría, than to that between praxis and theoría. (7) In using things, seeing them as primordially ready-to-hand, Dasein aims at something other than the action itself.

How does praxis then fit into Heidegger's schema? Since Dasein at the outset is concerned with itself, its finitude, etc, it must prioritize praxis, as the activity that aims at an end non-distinct from itself. Being in the world is the fundamental praxis of Dasein that grounds both the poietical and the theoretical. (8) Dasein's concern for its self, expressed in care, and more primordially in the movement of finite transcendence, is the condition for the possibility of both seeing things as zuhanden and vorhanden (that is, in modes of poíésis and theoría). Praxis is primordial in Heidegger's analysis; not theory.

III. From Heidegger's Poíésis to Heidegger's Theorie

The way in which poíésis, theoría and praxis are unified according to Heidegger, who sought to find a unity where Aristotle did not posit one, is through temporality. For Heidegger, the ground of the unity of Aristotle's energeíai is temporality, but for this to be the case requires not only a shift within the structure of these "activities", but since in Heidegger possibility precedes actuality, it requires also a re-interpretation of the energeíai as dunámeis. In order to demonstrate this transformation, we have first to see again how in Heidegger theoría is a derivative mode of poíésis: but now on the basis of temporality. Since care is at its root temporal, so also are poíésis, expressed as the form of knowledge that sees the world as ready-to-hand, and theoría, as the form of knowledge that sees the world as present-at-hand. The shift from the prioritization of theoría in Aristotle to praxis in Heidegger will be interpreted in terms of a shift from energeía to dunámis, and will result in an understanding of the understanding of being that is kinetic, as opposed to static.

What is the temporality of zuhanden? Seeing things as ready-to hand entails "the hermeneutical situation"; the pre-predicative way that we relate to entities in the world, showing our understanding of the possibilities inherent in them by unthinkingly using them, or interacting with them. In this mode of circumspective concern, we do not see for example a hammer "theoretically" as a hammer of a certain weight and size, except insofar as this relates to the relative utility of weight and size for the task at hand. We might reject it as too heavy for the task at hand, without yet standing back from it in order to assess its mass. We simply let something be involved, or not involved, in the situation: in Aristotelian terms, things as zuhandenes are seen poietically; in terms of use, and to perform an action for the sake of producing something.

Concern is a part of care, as the mode of being-alongside entities in the world. Since care is grounded in temporality, so also must be concern (SZ: 353\404). In looking at a tool "as" something, we "project" the possibilities of that tool in relation to the current situation by seeing it as "in order to".

In taking something as something, I have already "seen" it in relation to its situation, and to my situation. In projecting its possibilities, I have already projected myself, and seen myself in relation to it as possibility. I look towards what it can be (in its situation, as part of my factical situation), in referring to what it has been (how it has worked before, what I know myself to be capable of), in order to realize a certain present possibility. Thus the future and having-been are the ground of the present. But it is primarily the future-oriented nature of projection, looking ahead to possibilities, that makes it possible for anything to be seen as something. The as structure (like understanding and interpretation in general) is thus grounded in ecstatic temporality (SZ: 360\411). Concern is understandable only in terms of the fundamental praxis of care, as projection and transcendence. Thus the poietic involvement with things as ready to hand is primordially futural and dynamic.

Seeing things as zuhanden, then, is seeing them poietically and in terms of possibility for production and use. But using something involves a prior understanding of being, and therefore of the being of Dasein: this is accomplished through the dynamic structure of transcendence, Dasein's fundamental praxis, which is the movement of Dasein in understanding possibilities. Zuhandenheit is therefore grounded in transcendence; or in Aristotelian terms, poíésis is grounded in praxis: and both are dunámeis, not energeíai.

The two modes of being-in-the-world, theory and practice, theoría and poíésis, vorhanden and zuhanden, are both rooted in transcendence. The condition for the possibility of both modes of behaviour is temporality, and specifically the futural movement of projection. Poíésis and theoría, two of Aristotle's energeía are in this Heideggerian reappropriation, dunámeis. And they are rooted in the fundamental human dunámis of transcendence, a retrieval of Aristotelian praxis.

IV. Transcendence

Transcendence is the fundamental comportment of Dasein on the basis of which it can relate to any other being. It is being-in-the-world, as the basic way in which Dasein is in the world, as disclosive, and as temporal. Transcendence precedes every possible mode of activity in general, prior to nóésis, but also prior to órexis" (GA26: 236\183); it is prior to any noetic intentional relation to the world, and prior to any sort of erotic relationship also. It is also prior to any practical or theoretical mode of understanding the world, prior to all behavior (WG: 34-35).

As Heidegger himself points out, "the problem is the common root of both intuition, theoreín, as well as action, praxis" (GA26: 236\184). Transcendence is the key. Transcendence, being-in-the-world as attempting to understand the world in relation to its own possibilities, is the primordial praxis of Dasein that roots theory and practical comportment.

Transcendence always takes place within a "horizonal unity", within, that is, a field of possible significance that is limited by what we already are. Death is the ultimate limit of making-sense-of in the crudest sense: my time, and therefore my possibilities, are limited. But the reverberation of the realization of death in anticipatory resolve is greater than the actual coming-to-an-end of Dasein. The fact of my living-towards-death, and the sometime awareness of this, permeates the way in which I approach the possibilities open to me. The way that I project onto possibilities is conditioned by the nature of those possibilities as finite, thus by the horizonal limitation of Verstehen (understanding), and by my awareness of the limit that hangs over me, the horizonal limitation revealed by Befindlichkeit (disposition). The way that I make entities present, the way that I concern myself with entities in the world is conditioned by both the ecstasis of "future" as possibility, and the ecstasis of "past" as the given. The world is comprehensible to Dasein, because Dasein is finite comprehensibility of possibility. The radical finitude at the core of Dasein affects the way in which being is interpreted. Because Dasein is finite, being, as meaningfulness for Dasein, is also finite.

Heidegger retrieves many of Aristotle's notions, as well as the central question of the unity of the ways in which being is said. But he no longer seek the grounds of why what is, is as it is, a question which in Aristotle leads to the positing of a supreme being who is fully actual. Rather, Heidegger asks how it is that we see things as we do: the grounds for what is, are in the groundless ground of Dasein as understanding what is, through transcendence. Because Heidegger thematizes the disclosure structure of Dasein as decisive in the way that being can be said, and because the one who discloses is finite, much of Aristotle is in a sense turned "upside down". For Heidegger, possibility precedes actuality, praxis is primordial over theory, and the finite is primordial over any possible notion of the infinite.


(1) The three fundamental modes of activity [energeíai] in Aristotle's description of the logos of the psuché are: theoría, poíésis and praxis. These correspond to three natural potentialities [dunámeis] of the soul, or dispositions [héxeis]: respectively sophía (which unites epistémé and noûs), téchné, and phrónésis. Cf. NE book VI, 1139bff- chapters that Heidegger himself cites frequently in courses and published texts.

(2) The telos of human being is the good, and the good for human being is happiness, and happiness is the life of contemplation. Ethics is not an exact science: thus it cannot give universal and necessary explanations of human being attaining a given telos.

(3) Cf NE 1177b 2-5: "[The activity of contemplation; energeía] may be held to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake: it produces no result beyond the actual activity of contemplation". Also in the Metaphysics, Aristotle characterizes first philosophy or sophía as non-productive [ou' poiétikê] and as something we engage in for its own sake. To know in any non-poietic sense is an end in itself. Cf: Meta 982b 10-30.

(4) Sophía is the unity of the other two noetic dispositions: epistémé, which has as its goal the understanding of explanations; and noûs, which aims at the direct apprehension of the principles upon which epistémé ultimately depends. Both ultimately deal with universals; things that do not vary. And both are in a sense means to the end of the "consummate" form of human knowledge, i.e, wisdom, sophía, as knowledge of the first principles and explanations. Sophía is ultimately contemplation of God, a goal which needs no further justification, no higher goal than is involved in the performance of the activity itself.

(5) See Meta: 1025b 25, where once again Aristotle specifies that there are three dianoetic activities, viz. poíésis, praxis and theoría, and in the subsequent passages sets physics, mathematics and theology as the three theoretical epistémés.

(6) Theoría in Aristotle is not derived from poíésis. Téchné (the disposition of poíésis) and epistémé (the disposition of theoría) both involve knowledge of universals, gathered through sensation, memory and experience. The difference is in the application, not the discovery, of the universal; in the case of téchné it is applied to contingent things; in the case of epistémé it is used to find explanations of what is. Cf. Meta: 980a 28- 981a 12 (Aristotle here refers us to the discussion in NE, clearly book six); also APo:100a 3-9.

(7) But even so the analogy is flawed, since Heidegger's "Theorie" is a derivative form of poíésis, whereas in Aristotle, as we saw "theoría" is an entirely separate (dia)noetic activity.

(8) Since theoría is derived from poíésis, and since poíésis is the primordial way in which Dasein interprets the world and (through the world) itself, it could be argued that all poíésis is praxis and vice versa. But the praxis of transcendence involves also Dasein as authentic; this existentiel modification cannot be achieved through interaction with things, but only in confrontation with the self on a more primordial level.

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