Up until this point, Corbin is in agreement with Heidegger and his treatment of Heidegger’s analysis is straightforward; after all, it is Heidegger who gave Corbin the key to unlock those modes and levels of being that were closed to him. “This key is, if I may say so, the principal tool with which the phenomenologist’s mental laboratory is equipped.” This key is hermeneutics. “Heidegger’s great merit will remain in his having centered the act of philosophizing in hermeneutics itself.”74
By the time Corbin translated Being and Time into French and met Heidegger in Freiburg, he had already begun exploring the rich terrain of Islamic Philosophy and had found affinities between Heidegger and the Islamic Philosophers he had been studying. These Islamic mystical philosophers had revealed to Corbin hermeneutics levels that were not There in Heidegger.
Every system of thought, even that of Heidegger’s is situative in the sense that: “its premises and their application themselves define a particular situation of human life in relation to that cosmos.” This applies to Heidegger as equally to Avicenna, Suhrawardi, or any other theosophers. Corbin,
The mode of presence assumed by the philosopher by reason of the system that he professes is what, in the last analysis, appears as the genuinely situative element in that system considered in itself. This mode of presence is usually concealed beneath the tissue of didactic demonstrations and impersonal developments. Yet it is this mode of presence that must be disclosed, for it determines, if not always the material genuineness of the motifs incorporated in the philosopher’s work, at least the personal genuineness of his motivations; it is these that finally account for the “motifs” that the philosopher adopted or rejected, understood or failed to understand, carried to their maximum of meaning or, on the contrary degraded to trivialities. 75
It is the mode of presence that really situates us and determines the ‘world’ we live in and the presences available to us. “Like can only be known by like; every mode of understanding corresponds to the mode of being of the interpreter.”76 What, may we ask, is the mode of being/presence of Heidegger? What are the ‘motifs’ that he ‘adopted or rejected’ by virtue of this presence? What is this ‘situative element’ in Heidegger?
According to Corbin, the application of the Heideggerian Hermeneutic “already tacitly posits a fundamental philosophical choice, a conception of the world, a Weltanschauung.” This choice of an interpretive mode, a ‘situative element,’ is already implicit in the There (Da) of Heidegger’s Dasein. Despite Heidegger’s claim to the neutrality and ontological nature of Dasein, he has already made a “choice”, which “announces itself at the horizon within which the ‘Analytic’ of the Da of Dasein is deployed.” 77 Corbin accepts that Heidegger had succeeded in his aim of laying bare the a priori structures of existential life, of Dasein, however with the proviso that these a priori structures are derived from the Da, which is a Weltanschauung. It is not at all necessary, concludes Corbin that we adhere to Heidegger’s Weltanschauung in order to make use of an Analytic of Dasein. One can give the Da of Dasein a different “situs” than that given to it by Heidegger in Being and Time and thus Heidegger’s hermeneutics becomes for Corbin the clavis heremeneutica, the key, with which to open the “locks” that veil access to the hidden without sharing the Weltanschauung of Heidegger.78
Herein lies the difference with Heidegger. Whereas Heidegger organizes his hermeneutics around the situs of human finitude or what he calls “Being-toward-Death,” Corbin, following the Islamic mystics he is studying, organizes his hermeneutics around the situs of a Presence, whose finality is not death, as with Heidegger, but a “Being-towards-Beyond-Death.”79 The crucial question about Dasein is the Da, the There, the Presences. Corbin asks: “To which worlds is it being present in its being there.” Should one limit oneself to the world horizon of Being and Time or should one open up to the worlds and ‘inter-worlds’ as they are ‘dis-covered’ and ‘re-vealed’ by the Islamic mystical philosophers? The answer lies in a choice; it is a decisive choice, which cannot be avoided by any philosopher because it precedes the hermeneutical process itself. The hermeneutical process merely reveals this initial choice.80
The pre-existential philosophical choice, the Weltanschauung, of Heidegger clearly differs from that of the Islamic mystics. This pre-existential philosophical choice is constitutive of the Da of Dasein, the There of Being-there, the act of presence. Corbin: “I could not avoid perceiving that, beneath that somber sky, the Da of the Dasein was an isle of perdition, was precisely the isle of ‘Occidental Exile.’”81 For the spiritual philosophers and mystics of Islam, “the presence they experience in the world…..lived by them, is not a Presence of which the finality is death, a ‘being-towards-death,’ but a ‘being-towards-the-other-side-of-death…” Heidegger’s “to be for one’s death” as a sign of authentic being, becomes for the Islamic mystical philosophers a “freedom for that which is beyond death.” One’s very existence turns upon this choice. As Corbin describes it: “So long as the ‘resolute-decision’ remains simply ‘freedom for one’s death,’ death presents itself as a closure and not as an exitus….To be free for that which is beyond death is to foresee and bring about one’s death as an exitus, a leave-taking of this world towards other worlds. But it is the living not the dead, which leave this world.”82
Corbin’s move beyond Heidegger, however, would not have been possible without Heidegger himself. The moment Corbin had realized the full import of the “historicality” of Dasein, was the same moment “when taking the Heideggerian analytic as an example, I was led to see hermeneutic levels that his program had not foreseen.” These hermeneutic levels are none other than the numerous spiritual worlds towards which the freedom for that which is beyond death would be a leave-taking.83
In this different light, Heidegger’s “question of the meaning of being” is clarified and transformed. For Corbin, resoluteness, orientation, philosophy, and hermeneutics signify the unveiling of the modes of being and the corresponding modes of knowing, which is at the same time a transformation of the soul. Corbin: “The Heideggerian hermeneutics, a distant offspring of Schleiermacher, was for me the threshold of an integral hermeneutics.”84 It was only a threshold, because to Corbin, “the Heideggerian hermeneutic gives the impression of a theology without theophany;” the latter being essential to all the gnostics of the Religions of the Book. There is a difference, Corbin tells us, between the “Logos of Heidegger’s onto-logy and the Logos of theo-logy.” In the Gospel of John (3/13) we find the following adage: “Nothing returns to Heaven, save that which has from it descended.” Corbin asks rhetorically: “Has the Logos of the Heideggerian Analytic come down from Heaven to be capable of re-ascending?”85
The sanctity of the Divine Logos presupposes, in the Religions of the Book, the restoration of the link between theology and hermeneutics, which Corbin has been trying to achieve. As a result, Corbin’s re-reading of Heidegger in the light of the Islamic mystics has brought us full circle back to the primordial link between thought and being, which we found in Hamann and Luther, but this time at a hermeneutic level beyond Heidegger. Corbin does not see Heidegger as completely against metaphysics. In fact, Corbin describes Heidegger’s work in Being and Time as “metaphysics.”86 Corbin reinterprets Heidegger now in a new light:
The phenomenon of meaning, that is fundamental in the metaphysics of ‘’Being and Time’’, is the link between signifier and signified. But what makes this link, without which signifier and signified would simply remain objects for theoretical consideration? This link is the subject, and this subject is the presence, presence of the mode of being to the mode of understanding. Pre-sence, Da-sein.87
This subject is the presence, “the presence of the mode of being to the mode of understanding.” Thus, Corbin interprets Heidegger’s Dasein, which is translated as “being-there”, to mean a being-there that is “to be enacting a presence, enactment of that presence by which and for which meaning is revealed in the present.” The mode this presence assumes is a revelatory one such that “in revealing the meaning, it reveals itself, and is that which is revealed.”88 Thus, the fundamental link that phenomenology discloses to us, as we said earlier, is the link between the modus intelligendi and the modus essendi. The modes of understanding/knowing correspond to the modes of being and any change in the former entails a change in the latter. The modes of being, Corbin concludes, are the “ontological, existential conditions of the act of ‘Understanding’, of the ‘Verstehen’, which is to say of hermeneutics.”89 But the phenomenology and the hermeneutics of presence are now carried to a deeper level. Corbin has transposed Heidegger’s Analytic to a different ‘situs,’ a different presence; one that is open to the vertical dimension and the multitude of spiritual worlds and figures inhabiting it. This can only be re-established, pace Heidegger, through a restoration of the idea of theology itself as it is practiced in the modern West. The figures of “German Romantics” and “Protestant Theologians” loom large in this understanding of Corbin, as do Avicenna and Suhrawardi. Here Corbin clearly disagrees with Heidegger’s distinction between philosophy and theology.
Both Heidegger and Corbin had studied medieval philosophy and mysticism and were both interested in Lutheran hermeneutics. Heidegger had written his habilitation thesis on Duns Scotus90 and found particularly illuminating those passages that explain the grammatica speculative, which is central to Lutheran hermeneutics and which had a profound impact on Corbin.91 Corbin recovers an important dimension to Verstehen92 that many Heideggerians, and Heidegger himself, had forgotten. This is the link between hermeneutics and theology. This notion of ‘Understanding’, which begins with Dilthey, Schleiermacher, and leads on to Heidegger, implies a transformation in the individual souls in the very act of understanding.93 The arbitrary “conflict between philosophy and theology, between faith and knowledge, between symbol and history”94 is thus overcome and the true meaning of Verstehen restored.95
Corbin finds the link between theology and hermeneutics that he is looking for in the exegesis practiced by the Religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this sense, Corbin radically transforms Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology into something similar to what he found in esoteric Christianity and Islam.
Why, asks Corbin, can the hermeneutics of the Religions of the Book restore this link? The answer is not hard to find. In the Religions of the Book, understanding the true meaning of God’s words is crucial. In this notion of understanding, three things are implied: the act of understanding; the phenomenon of the meaning; and the unveiling of the truth of the meaning.96 We can immediately recognize the similarities this hermeneutics of the text has with the philosophical hermeneutics and phenomenology of Heidegger, but especially of Hamann and Luther.97 In the spirit of Hamann and Luther and the mystical theosophers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Corbin heralds the sanctity of the Verb—“the Verb that sounds with divine sovereignty.” Despite the thematic of the Word in Heidegger, it is “fraught with ambiguity.” Corbin asks: “Is it [the Word in Heidegger] a twilight—a twilight consisting in the laicizing of the Verb? Or is it a dawn, announcing the palingenesis, the resurrection of the biblical Tradition’s Verb?” One can better understand this ambiguity in Heidegger by contrasting it with the hermeneutic of the Verb in the Religions of the Book. It has the “virtue of producing a heightening, an exit, an ek-stasis towards those other invisible worlds which give its ‘real meaning’ to our ‘phenomenal world.’” Although for Heidegger, it is in the essence of Dasein to be always ahead and beyond itself, “going beyond what-is is of the essence of Dasein….. Metaphysics is the ground—human existence is ek-static or transcendent by definition. It is Dasein itself,”98 it is hard to envisage a hermeneutics for which the “ek-static and transcendence” and “the going beyond” itself of Dasein is not a going beyond into “invisible worlds” to which and in which the mystical philosophers are present.
“Would Heidegger,” asks Corbin, “have followed our lead in this operation that would tend to convert the Logos of his ontology into a theological Logos?”99 Corbin is uncertain of Heidegger on this; the answer depends on those posing the question. One thing is certain, Corbin found himself at home in the company of the great gnostics like: the great Gnostic Valentine, Joachim de Flore, Sebastian Franck, Jacob Boehme, Immanuel Swedenborg, and F.C. Oetinger in Christianity and Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi, and Mulla Sadra, etc. in Islam.
Following Corbin thus far, we cannot help but notice that his comparative philosophy was a result of an attentive and personal engagement with both Western and Islamic philosophical traditions. He began as a “Protestant Theologian,” a “German Romantic,” and a follower of Heidegger’s hermeneutical phenomenology. At this point, we have seen why Corbin’s intellectual journey would lead him East to Istanbul and Tehran, and to Islamic Theosophy.
75 Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recitals, translated by Willard R. Trask. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), p. 3-4.
76 Henry Corbin, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, translated by Nancy Pearson, (New Lebanon: Omega Publications, Publisher and Bookseller, 1994). p. 145.
77 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p.8.
79 Ibid, p.10. See also Nile Green, “Between Heidegger and the Hidden Imam: Reflections on Henry Corbin’s Approaches to Mystical Islam,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 17, Kononklijke, Brill NV, Leiden, 2005, p. 221-223.
80 Ibid , p. 10.
81 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 11. The Recital of Occidental Exile is a visionary narrative written by Suhrawardi describing the metaphysical Occident of our Being as the place of perdition and exile. He is referring to the physical world into which the soul is cast from her abode in the metaphysical Orient of our Being, the region of angelic lights.
82 Ibid, p. 11.
84 Ibid, p. 15.
85 Ibid, p. 14.
86 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 2. see also Sikka, Forms of Transcendence, p. 5. See also Emmanuel Levinas critique of Heidegger in which he describes Heidegger as a classical metaphysician of sorts; and John Caputo’s similar critique of Heidegger in his Demythologizing Heidegger. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).
87 Ibid, p.2.
88 Corbin, Ibid, p. 4.
89 Corbin, Interview, p. 4.
90 As we saw earlier, Heidegger had written his habilitation thesis on Duns Scotus and Etienne Gilson had already shown that Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was the starting point for Duns Scotus. Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 4.
91 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p.3.
92 There is a direct link between this notion of Dilthey and Heidegger’s Analytic, a fact many Heideggerians are all too willing to overlook. This link is significant because it shows up the connection between hermeneutics and theology, which is lost to modern philosophy. Corbin proposes a “restoration” of this link in the hermeneutics of the Religions of the Book. The latter have already developed a sophisticated tradition of hermeneutics and exegesis with a developed vocabulary akin to that of phenomenology. (We shall see later that in the case of Heidegger, for example, certain of his vocabulary like Erchliessen, Erschlossenheit………….Entdecken, to dis-cover, to unveil the hidden, the Verborgen. All this have immediate equivalents in the classical Arabic of the theosophers of Islam that Corbin had studied. See Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 4.
93 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 2-4.
94 Corbin, Alone with the Alone, p. 13.
95 Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi‘ite Iran, translated by Nancy Pearson. (Princeton, New Jersey: Bollingen Series XCI:2 Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 110. For someone like Suhrawardi, “there is no true philosophy which does not reach completion in a metaphysics of ecstasy, nor mystical experience which does not demand a serious philosophical preparation.”
96 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 2.
97 On the last page of his monumental essay, “Comparative Spiritual Hermeneutics,” Corbin quotes Schleiermacher approvingly: “All those who have still felt their life in them, or have perceived it in others, have always declared themselves against that innovation which has nothing Christian in it. The Sacred Scriptures became the Bible by means of their own power; they do not forbid any other book to be or become the Bible; they would willingly allow anything written with the same power to be added.” Schleiermacher, quoted in Corbin, “Comparative Spiritual Hermeneutics,” in Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam. translated by Leonard Fox, West Chester Pennsylvania: Swedenborg Foundation, 1999), p. 134.
98 Heidegger, quoted in Bamford, Esotericism Today, p. XL.
99 Corbin, “From Heidegger to Suhrawardi,” p. 15.