When we turn Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) we are in the presence of a figure who was always at the centre of Corbin’s philosophical concerns and who was one of the most influential thinkers on Corbin’s thought.43 However, one finds the greatest traces of Heidegger dispersed throughout Corbin’s oeuvre. Many of Corbin’s contemporaries were under the sway of Heidegger’s immense influence, not the least in Germany where Heideggerian philosophy had dominated the German philosophic scene. In Heidegger, “Corbin simultaneously and definitively found the work of Luther and Hamann fulfilled.”44 Heidegger’s Being and Time crystallized some of the key themes that had been preoccupying Corbin’s intellectual horizon at the time. If we dwell on Heidegger at length it is because of this reason. However, it is the early Heidegger that we shall focus on because by the time of the later Heidegger, Corbin had already sealed his fate in the Orient and did not turn himself towards any systematic re-reading of any of Heidegger’s later works despite his admission that it would repay a lifetime.
Heidegger figures prominently in Corbin’s understanding of phenomenology and hermeneutics and was, in Corbin’s own words, “decisive” in his understanding of Islamic Philosophy.45 Heidegger, a disciple of Husserl, differed from his mentor’s teachings by shifting the focus of phenomenology from consciousness to Being, as the primary underlying reality, thus, revolutionizing “phenomenology” almost beyond recognition.46 It is fitting at this point to indicate that much of Heidegger’s thought was influenced by medieval theology and a strain of Neoplatonic Christian mysticism.47
Faithful to this anti-modern and anti-enlightenment movement of a Nietzschean kind, Heidegger, in Being and Time, had accused Western philosophy of the oblivion of Being by its increasing concentration on epistemology. In the chapter titled ‘’On the Task of Destroying the History of Ontology,’’ Heidegger, like the Corbin he influenced, attempted a radical critique of Western thought by returning to a more primordial understanding of what it means to ‘’be.’’ Heidegger was calling for nothing less than a “collective Renovatio” that would overcome traditional philosophy and its underpinning monotheistic metaphysics,48 or what Heidegger called “onto-theology.”
For Heidegger, the understanding of Being, what he calls “fundamental ontology”, is prior to any epistemology simply because epistemology is grounded in ontology. To accomplish his task, Heidegger hearkened back to a Pre-Socratic understanding of Being (sein), especially in Parmenides. Being, accordingly, is that which underlies all of reality; it precedes all other considerations because all considerations presuppose it. Without a proper understanding of Being, no proper knowledge is possible. In the most simple predicative sentence ‘’I am’’ the ‘’I’’ presupposes Being and the existence of the subject, even before the assertion ‘’am’’ is uttered. Heidegger compares Being to the very air we breathe ‘’Being is the ether in which man breathes.’’ It is there, often as a vague awareness, even though we do not notice it. Thus, Being, is beyond every entity and every possible characteristic pertaining to any entity. ‘’Being is the transcendens pure and simple.’’49
How do we bring to the fore that vague awareness that we are? It is important for Heidegger to establish the primordiality of the awareness of our existence. “But this vague average understanding of Being is still a fact.”50 Being cannot be discovered via classical means of genus-species definition. In fact, Heidegger attacks the Aristotelian definition of categories. Here Heidegger begins with an account of Dasein in its everydayness; departing from the fact of a vague awareness through detailed analysis to an explicit account of Dasein. The Being of humans is quite distinct from that of other beings or creatures for the simple fact that only humans are capable of raising the question of their own being, despite the apparent circularity of the inquiry. Inquiry into Being must begin with Dasein only because the meaning of Being can only be significant for one who poses the question of its meaning in the first place. Thus, Heidegger designates the special entity from which the exploration of Being must begin as Dasein.51
Dasein is Heidegger’s designation for that about human beings that has ‘’ontological priority over every other entity’’ and which allows the appearance of everything else.52 Thus according to Heidegger, the Cartesian and epistemological model that postulates a subject-object relationship is fundamentally flawed. We do not exist as autonomous subjects in an object-filled world trying to understand it. The subject-object relationship cannot be the primary structure of our being-in-the-world simply because any mode of knowing presupposes a mode of being.
Dasein, literally translated as ‘’being-there,’’ is that aspect of man in his openness towards Being; that ontological and phenomenological structure that is the condition for all the possibilities of presence. All philosophical explorations, which Heidegger describes as ontological, must begin with Dasein. As such, Heidegger rejects the Aristotelian notion of categories and essences. The essence of Dasein is not an attribute or quality such as that of an entity because Dasein is not an entity. The essence of Dasein is simply Dasein’s existence. “The essence of Dasein lies in its existence.”53 This existence, this Being-There, is the pre-conceptual/ontological condition for the presence of anything at all. This crucial intuition is what Corbin found fundamental to Being and Time. For Corbin, the da of Dasein is the “act of Presence.”
Analysis thus begins with the act of Presence and not with the knowing subject or any other thing. Presence, for Heidegger, is ontologically prior to the knowing subject, the ego. This analytic of Dasein takes as its starting point the multitude of ways in which we are in the world thus providing a rigorous philosophical analysis, which is rooted in the concrete and is not abstract. By doing so, Heidegger claims to have overcome the dualism-subject/object, spirit/matter, mind/body, and phenomena/noumenal.
This Analytic marks a revolution in Western philosophy; a radical shift from an epistemology-based philosophy to one rooted in ontology. To prioritize the mode of being of an entity over its mode of knowing is to acknowledge that the latter is an expression of the former. It is to go back to the fundamental question posed by Heidegger: “what do we mean by ‘being’?” Modern consciousness, following Descartes, tends to think of being as res cogitans (Spirit) and res extensa (Matter). As such, it presupposes a thinking subject, the ego, as somehow acting upon a world to understand it. The famous “cogito ergo sum” prioritizes the cogito in order to establish the sum. Thus, the sum “I am”, the very act of existing itself, not the cogito “I think”, becomes the first existential analytic in Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein. To repeat a point we made earlier, thinking and knowing are not properties of a consciousness thinking the world around it. On the contrary, thinking and knowing are properties of the act of presence, of being-in-the-world, for Dasein, as Heidegger reminds us, possesses a pre-conceptual understanding of being by which and through which it is related to the world.
Thought is not res cogitans, it is not extrinsic to the very act of existing of the knowing subject. How do we reveal those other modes of being, the other modes of presence that go unnoticed and concealed? The key for Heidegger, as well as Corbin, is hermeneutics.
43 Indeed, Corbin was the first translator of Heidegger into French whom he had met in Freiburg Germany in the spring of 1934 during which he translated a number of opuscules and excerpts under the title: “Qu’ est ce que la métaphysique?” [What is metaphysics?]. See Corbin, Biographical Post-scriptum, p. 8. Heidegger would remain crucial for Corbin throughout his life. In 1951 and 1966, Corbin concluded his lectures by invoking Heidegger. See Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 136 and note 59. See also Henry Corbin, The Voyage and the Messenger, translated by Joseph Rowe, (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1998), p. 88 and 214. There is disagreement over how far Heidegger’s influence on Corbin can be stretched.
44 Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. xxxix.
45 See Corbin , “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi.”
46 Wasserstrom, p. 137.
47 See Sonya Sikka. Forms of Transcendence: Heidegger and Medieval Mystical Theology, (New York, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997). See also. John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978).
48 Wasserstrom, Religion After Religion, p. 138-139.
49 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarie & Edward Robinson, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. 62.
50 Ibid, p. 25.
51 Ibid, p. 26-27. Heidegger continues: “Looking at something, understanding and conceiving it, choosing, access to it-all these ways of behaving are constitutive for our inquiry, and therefore are modes of Being for those particular entities which we, the inquirers, are ourselves. Thus to work out the question of Being adequately, we must make an entity-the inquirer- transparent in his own Being. The very asking of this question is an entity’s mode of Being; and as such it gets its essential character from what is inquired about-namely, Being. This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term ‘Dasein’’”
52 Ibid, p. 62.
53 Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 67.