Featured image is a painting by Homer Dodge Martin
After a failed expedition into Being and Time, I thought I might have better luck trying Heidegger’s essays. “The Origin of the Work of Art” is supposed to be a direct inspiration for Gadamer’s treatment of truth in art in Truth and Method; a section of that book which remains mostly a mystery to me.
One line from the essay kept coming back to me today: “Truth, in its nature, is untruth.”
On its own, of course, it sounds like exactly the kind of thing people think of when they dismiss writers like Heidegger—a seemingly contradictory statement that appears to serve no purpose but to be provocative. But in context it does make sense.
Truth, for Heidegger, is unconcealedness. Think of the straightforward case of a ray of sunshine piercing through an otherwise cloudy sky, illuminating what had been hidden in shadow. “Unconcealed” here is like that.
But the unconcealed and the concealed aren’t simple opposites in Heidegger’s scheme. The former isn’t even possible without the latter.
At first I thought about this in terms of standpoints. A person standing in front of you, unhidden and in plain view, obstructs your view of what is directly behind them. So the unconcealed itself conceals.
But taking the essay as a whole, and further reading I’ve done since, lead me to believe that’s not what Heidegger was getting at. It may be a related point, but the connection between the unconcealed and the concealed is much deeper than that.
Consider a piece of writing. There is more implied by it than is said explicitly in it; that is responsible for such phenomena as semantic indeterminacy. The text is always a finite part that points towards a larger whole needed to make it intelligible. The part, as well as the whole that we could describe explicitly if called upon to, is part of what Heidegger calls “world” and Gadamer calls our horizon—this is what is unconcealed, and what is fundamentally intelligible.
The other part of the implied background for interpreting a text, however, is what Heidegger calls “earth”—the concealed, what is at least currently unintelligible.
Truth as understood by Heidegger is not a stand-alone thing that is ours to grasp if we can find it; it is the unconcealed but only exists in the tension between the unconcealed and the concealed. In a text, we are ever striving to make more and more intelligible. But as we shift our focus, or follow a particular train of thought (especially when that train of thought “has swung into its joint“), that which seemed previously intelligible to us may need to be reinterpreted in a manner that makes it unintelligible. Or, to switch to Gadamer’s terminology, as we expand our horizon in one direction, we may lose sight of the edge of the opposite “side”; as finite beings with finite minds, our horizon does not simply stay fixed as we expand it.
Truth is untruth because the unconcealed is grounded in the concealed, and the reverse is also true—they exist in a hermeneutic circle. Our most concrete grasp of each occurs at the boundary, where we strive to unconceal but what has been unconcealed is also becoming concealed again. A work of art—including a work of architecture—has its truth not in unconcealing, but in setting up a conflict between unconcealed and concealed, between world and earth.
This relationship between truth and untruth has me thinking about something fellow Sweet Talker David has said about Heraclitus—that he believed “justice is injustice.” Perhaps “justice, in its nature, is injustice” would apply in exactly the same way as an interpretation of this idea.
But I’m no philologist.
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