Philosophy and Travel

Recently I sat down to read Heidegger’s little travel journal called Sojourns.  Heidegger was not much of a traveler, it turns out.  For most of his life he rarely left the southwestern region of Germany where he grew up, except to give lectures in other German cities.  His five-year stint in Marburg at the beginning of his career must have felt like a kind of exile; beyond that his biggest trip seems to have been 10 days in Rome in 1935 to lecture on Hölderlin and the essence of poetry.  (John Sallis mentions this trip in his Foreword to the book.)  Basically he was a homebody.  Perhaps that’s why the trip to Greece in 1962, at the age of 73, was a big event.  The biggest trip of his life to date, and a trip to the land he had understood to be, in a special sense, the origin of it all.  He wondered whether he would see there “the Greece of antiquity, and what was proper to it”.  He wondered if he would find there the ancient gods of Greece, the gods who had “abandoned” us, whose flight had gone along with “the desolation of men’s dwellings, the emptiness of their work, the vanity of their deeds”.  And above all his journey was predicated on the belief that:

The gods of Greece and their supreme god, if they ever come, will return only transformed to a world whose overthrow is grounded in the land of the gods of ancient Greece.

This passage in particular struck me, because it is the most explicit passage I know of in Heidegger to call for a transformed kind of polytheism based on the polytheism of the ancient Greeks.  (Perhaps our readers will be able to locate others.)  But more importantly, it echoes a passage in Melville that is the guiding motif of our book, a kind of Melvillean prophecy about what that transformation of the Greek gods will look like if and when it comes.  Melville writes:

If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.

In a word, it is the goal of our book to say what it would be livingly to enthrone these ancient gods once again, and what their transformation will look like in our technological age.  Heidegger didn’t find that vision in modern Greece, at least not if his travel journal can be believed.  The kind of travel that can transform our understanding, and lure back the gods, is better done through the poets who sang those worlds than through a guided tour of the ruins they left behind.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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8 Responses to Philosophy and Travel

  1. Dean Rose says:

    There is an interesting passage and footnote on pages 160-162 in the McNeill – Davis translation of Heidegger “The Ister”

    “Because the rivers are the sign that
    bears sun and moon in mind, that is, in the mindful courage of the
    sons of the earth, these rivers, although children of the heavens, are at the
    same time like Mother Earth and are thus at the same time her children .”

    The “Mother Earth” footnote leads to Jakob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, in particular where an “ancient Braga” is named. [one of the Aesir from the Eddas]

    It would seem that we need not only look to ancient Greece or Moby Dick to partake in the feeling Heidegger was attempting to understand. I do wonder how important the call to specific gods really is, other than to make it intelligible to the caller in his or her own time. To me it appears in “The Ister” (as in the quote above) that Heidegger is providing more of a description of a way and placing more emphasis on the play between gods and men through poets-and/or-demigods than to any particular place or flavor of old world beings. These ancient gods, whether their story be told in the framework of a Greek Homer, or as given to us through the lens of Christian scribes in the Eddas, seemingly whoosh up with emotive palimpsest which can be glimpsed our own time…. unless we allow it to be run over by a technological understanding of being.

  2. Britt Z. says:

    Heidegger really has no resistance to the tendency found in German Idealism, arbitrarily claiming the Germans as the spiritual children of the Greeks. This worries me…a lot. (My inner-Derrida won’t let me rest when I read this is in Heidegger lol)

    I am interested in Heidegger’s notion of productive repetition — something carried out not only in early Heidegger, but also transformed in his later writings (from picking up obscure practices to the return of the gods). However, Heidegger’s repetition is impossible without Kierkegaard’s notion of repetition! Why does Heidegger insist on excluding the Christian thinkers that make his project possible? Without Kierkegaard, Heidegger would be trapped in the extreme nostalgia of Platonic recollection.

    Do you criticize Heidegger at all in your book for such exclusions?


    • Jermaine says:

      Hi Britt,

      I don’t believe that Heidegger at all insists on excluding Christian thinkers. Indeed Dasein, as roughly the ‘being who takes a stand on itself, for itself” is lifted out of Kierkegaard (the self is a relation which relates itself to its own self). As for repetition, perhaps the ‘reciprocal rejoinder’ mentioned in _Being and Time_ does this work.

      An overview of influences (Greek and Christian) on Heidegger can be seen in Kisiel’s _Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time_.

  3. Hasen says:

    I’m curious, for my part, whether the “Mast-head” chapter (35) of _Moby-Dick_ might be discussed in the upcoming book; Melville has Ishmael record there a rather damning conception of, as he puts it, Platonist-“Decartian”-Pantheistic-philosophers, and it seems to be one of the few places — including the end of ch. 98, where Ishmael delivers odes to Pythagoras and metempsychosis — in which alternatives to the “transformed” polytheism mentioned in ch. 79 receive some treatment.

    If a transformed pantheism — whatever, at this level of generality, that might entail — may not sufficiently address what (as I understand it) is at stake in _All Things Shining_, viz. the possibility of overcoming various strains of nihilism at the level of personal commitments and shared customs, couldn’t though other alternatives, such as Robert Pippin’s Hegelian modernism or, say, Nietzsche’s treatment of tragedy, be capable of discharging that task? Or does the book’s endeavor to do something further, and, so to speak, renew philosophy via recalling the insights of pre-Socratic philosophy and ancient Greek poetry (the “gods” to be lured back), preclude consideration of the foregoing accounts?

  4. Charles Spinosa says:


    Thanks for bringing up Heidegger’s _Sojourns_, covering his 1967 trip to Greece. I found the book artfully literary even before the last paragraph where Heidegger places himself in the cup of Exekias with dolphins leaping around the Dionysian vessel. I think that the artfulness shows Heidegger absorbed in the Greek element where the Greeks can “understand and celebrate the earth and sky as both familiar and unfamiliar” (49). That sounds like thinking mythically to me.

    I’ve often wanted to ask you (and Bert) what you thought of one of the most peculiar and touching moments of the book (48-49). Heidegger visits the Temple of Aphaia, the goddess who withdraws from appearance. The preachy philosopher he speaks about how this goddess sheltered the enigma of truth—its self-concealing—and therefore who shows that aletheia led to Greek experience of being (48). But Heidegger makes virtually nothing of the goddess of withdrawing when such a goddess could be the one who most needs our luring back. He did feel something. He speaks of joyful peace. What do you make of it? He seems at pains to be delicate. He hardly ever sounds that way.


  5. Thanks for all the comments.

    Since the book is out at the publishers now, and should be returning to us as page proofs in a few weeks, I think I’ll resist saying much in detail about what’s in it. I can say that there’s a lot of philosophical background to the book that doesn’t show up in it explicitly. The goal is for the book to be readable by a wide audience, and it’s demanding enough to expect people to struggle through chapters on Aeschylus or Luther or Homer or Melville that we decided not to talk much about the philosophical orientation that’s influencing our reading of these works. It would be silly to object to the idea that Heidegger is in the background for us, of course. But the Heidegger who influences us may well be unrecognizable to other Heidegger scholars, or indeed to Heidegger himself. What matters really is that the one we depend on has something right. I suppose that’s the point of auseinandersetzung.

    To Charles in particular: It certainly can’t be an accident that the two places on his trip that MH speaks of most admiringly are the Temple of Aphaia (“the one who withdraws from appearance”, pp. 48-9) and the island of Delos (“the manifest, the visible, the one that gathers every thing in its open”, pp. 30ff). Together these lead to the present as the Greeks experienced it, the manifest ensuring that “every thing to which she offers shelter through her appearing she gathers into one present” (p. 30) and the withdrawing Aphaia divinity grounding that present in a local world “without letting it drown in an indeterminable pantheism” (p. 49). But unless the local unity of the Greek world that MH sees there is of a very special sort, I believe these indications are already from a time after the polytheistic world of Homer. And even if they aren’t, the kind of polytheism that we are aiming for is something not found in Homer but available only now. To be cryptic, for a moment, what we are interested in in the book is not the polytheism of a multiplicity of Greek gods gathered together into the Olympian family under Zeus, but the “polytheism” of a multiplicity of ways the practices have gathered over the course of the history of the West, each of which can still summon us to act if only we learn to hear their call. This is polytheism in scare quotes, since it is non-ontotheological; it takes Ereignis as its Zeus, and the only unity that Ereignis engenders is that the practices have gathered, not that they gather in any particular way. Ereignis is unrepresentable in a special way, since it has almost no content at all. Amazingly, this is what Melville seems to intuit when he has the unrepresentable Sperm Whale “exalted to Jove’s high seat”.

    Probably this is too cryptic to make sense in a blog comment; it’s not the kind of thought that plays well as a jingle. Hopefully the book does a better job…

  6. Charles Spinosa says:


    Thanks very much for your insights on the Temple of Aphaia and the island of Delos. You are right that the Temple Heidegger saw was built around 500 BC on the site of one built 570 BC. On the matter of the epoch, however, I think Heidegger wants us to understand that the withdrawing aspect of aletheia—which comes out in the name of the goddess Aphaia—is the earliest moment when the Greeks–under the veil of that withdrawing–experienced aletheia. The goddess goes back to around the 14th century BC. I am, however, fascinated by something simpler : that the Greeks found in withdrawing such a feeling or mood that only a goddess could focus it and bring it into its most intense being. Unlike ferocity, erotic love, cunning, and craftsmanly creation, withdrawing seems too subtle to have a feeling brought to life by a god or goddess. What would receiving the blessing of that goddess be like? Perhaps, it is the peace Heidegger describes.

    Regarding the Greek gods, I never thought that you and Bert were trying to revive the Greek gods. The divinities that Heidegger encounters in his typical things thinging are not, or not mostly, members of the Greek pantheon. Leave it to the Hellenismos movement to see what it can do in resuscitating the Greek gods. You have a bigger issue. It’s not about one moment in the history of the West.

    I think I understand what you mean when you talk about the practices from our past worlds captivating us and revealing their divinities. The Greeks are just one moment. Responding receptively to the solicitations of the Temple of Aphaia and acting on them could count as a case of that for Heidegger.

    I know too that you want to avoid ontotheologizing like the plague. But I don’t think it is worth inoculating yourself with scare quotes around “polytheism.” For me, you will have avoided ontotheologizing so long as divinities are not foundational—the basis of everything that is in a world. That said, if the practices of past worlds can summon us in their own way, I assume too that they can leave us blessed in our receptivity to them in their own way. If that is right, then I see no need to put scare quotes around polytheism. Why not say instead that you are revealing genuine polytheism without the confusions of rationalizers of divinity?

    William James, to whom your position and _All Things Shining_ force comparison, railed against ontotheologizing, indeed, any theologizing. He did not grant the rationalizers an inch, not so much as a scare quote. At his best he sounds like Melville. For inspiration’s sake, I’ll quote the last part of his riff, which comes mid-way through lecture 18 in _The Varieties of Religious Experience_ (Penguin, 447).

    What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon those phenomena of vital conversation with the unseen divine, of which I have shown you so many instances, renewing themselves in saecula saeculorum in the lives of humble private men. So much for the metaphysical attributes of God! From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of the scholarly mind.

    William James, as you know, comes out a polytheist. Since I have the book in front of me, I’ll quote that passage too:

    [T]he practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideas. . . . Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all. Thus would a sort of polytheism return upon us. . . . [S]uch a polytheism . . . has always been the real religion of common people, and is still so today. (525-526)

    A summons or blessing from a larger power is all that we need to remove scare quotes. William James speaks without sensitivity to our epochal history and our current stage. He speaks a bit too humanistically. The ontology of truth establishing itself and attuning remain foreign. There is much to refine, sophisticate, reinvent, and invent.

    It sounds like _All Things Shining_ will do that.


  7. David Leech says:

    What I think is fascinating, and perhaps under-appreciated,in Sojourns is that it is a rare case of Heidegger doing what Bert Dreyfus teaches us to do: interpret the artifacts (and phenomenon) that surround us with Heidegger’s thinker-tools. Now it has taken me quite some time, and a whole lot of help from Bert and his students-turned professors, to get the meager grip on Heidegger than I have; and sometimes I despair that I don’t understand anything; that I can’t make heads or tails of my world with its distinguishing practices and marginal practices. And yet, in Sojourns we see the master himself fumbling and afraid to engage with non-lingusitic (in the conventional sense) artifacts. By and large Heidegger’s window onto the divinities of other destinies, other epochs, are bookish. Of course, that’s where the language of marginal epochs speak most clearly. But so much of our epoch’s distinguishing practices and marginal practices are available to us in non-linguistic form. It’s encouraging to see Heidegger struggling too; doing “applied Heidegger”, Dreyfus-style! The challenge is huge for mere mortals.

    Also, even though Sean says that its “better done through the poets who sang,” the written word is the easy part (!!) and I am not sure its the largest part. It hurst to say “easy” because grasping the distinguishing and marginal practices is so hard in any event. But isn’t our attunement likely driven by the pervasive physical stuff — artifacts — that reflects the style of our understanding of being and isn’t that mostly non-linguistic (in the conventional sense)? I know “language is the house of being” but we spend most of out time coping with the tables and chairs. I am reminded of Bert’s allusions to Marilyn Monroe (“Later Heidegger, ’99) as a goddess and his suspicion that Heidegger’s privileging of “words” was the bias of an academic.

    In Sojourn we have an example of Heidegger trying to get attuned to the sending of the marginal practices of the technological age and trying to get attuned through non-literary artifacts. He meets with success at Delos — where his journey becomes a “sojourn”(what poets and thinkers do at their best in “Holderlin’s Hymn, The Ister”), the 4-fold gathers, and the clearing (“a glance of the invisible of aletheia”) is experienced. (pp. 34-35) A rare moment, especially when summoned by non-lingusitic artifacts.

    Sojourns is short and just cocked full of allusions to so much in Heidegger’s corpus. I think its a real diamond in the rough that is a very rewarding read for “intermediate Heidegger” and beyond. I am surprised its not cited more, especially by applied Heideggerians.

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