Ian Alexander Moore, Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019; 350 pages. ISBN: 978-1438476513.

Reviewed by Matt Clemons, Stony Brook University.

On several occasions, Martin Heidegger fondly refers to Meister Eckhart as the “old master of life and letters,” expressing his high regard for the Middle High German philosopher and mystic. The affinities between Eckhart and Heidegger are perhaps most discernible in Heidegger’s later thought, especially with the centrality of the notion of Gelassenheit, for which Heidegger acknowledges his indebtedness to Eckhart. Thus, those who have investigated the relationship between the two have focused primarily on this period of Heidegger’s thought, meaning that any comprehensive exploration of the influence of Eckhart on Heidegger has been missing. In his Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement, Ian Alexander Moore takes up this task, considering the way in which Heidegger’s own reflections on Eckhart and Eckhartian themes inform and inspire his thought.

The work’s philosophical point of departure is the Parmenidean dictum that affirms the sameness of thinking and being. As Moore clarifies, “in order properly to understand being, one must engage in the proper activity of thinking,” or, again “I must do something before I can understand.” (xiv) He refers to this precondition as “the Imperative” or, following Reiner Schürmann, as the “practical apriori.” The essence of the activity that one must engage in to understand being, which is thinking broadly conceived, turns out to be the same as the essence of being itself. As Moore puts it, “to think being at its most basic level, I must act in terms of the very way in which being is to be thought.” (37) Going further, he argues that, because thinking as the essential activity of the human being is the very essence of the human being, the essence of the human being and the essence of being are, in a sense, the same. We might recast Parmenides’s declaration, then, as “the human being, the one who thinks, and being are the same.”

Moore’s task in the book is “to explore how this imperative functions in Eckhart’s philosophy, and to show how Martin Heidegger creatively appropriated it at several stages of his career.” (37) The central thesis is twofold in accordance with this task. First, Moore argues that for Meister Eckhart, the “Godhead” and the “spark of the soul,” (62) which stand in for being and the human being respectively, are not merely unified moments of beatific vision, but are always already one and the same. Just as the essence of the Godhead can be glossed, “as abegescheidenheit (Middle High German for detachment) or, more properly […] with the term gelâzenheit (Middle High German for releasement),” so can the soul and its essential activity. (62) Moreover, in order for the soul to wake up to its identity with the Godhead, the soul must do this essential activity. It must become released. Moore locates this imperative to “be released” in the practical apriori in Eckhart’s thought. Thus, in Eckhart, we find both the sameness of thinking (the spark of the soul) and being (the Godhead) and the practical apriori that must be undertaken to understand this insight. Second, Moore argues that this same structure is operative in Heidegger’s thinking throughout his career. For Heidegger, in order to understand, one must do something, and this doing turns out to be the very same essence as the human being (and, being). Indeed, according to Moore, “Heidegger’s greatest debt to Eckhart lies in the dependence of thinking on a sort of activity.” (92)

Parts Two and Three of the book contain the majority of the exegetical work, Part Two focusing on Eckhart and Part Three on Heidegger. Chapter Two, the first in Part Two, is a stand-alone consideration of Eckhart’s vacillation between two positions, namely that, on the one hand, God is thinking, and on the other, that God is being. The possible charge of ontotheology at the end of the chapter, which brings the Heideggerian problem into relief, sets up the transition into Chapter Three, in which Moore’s thesis as it pertains to Eckhart begins to manifest. Taking up a handful of Eckhart’s German Sermons, Moore argues for the understanding of: 1) the spark of the soul; 2) the Godhead; and 3) the essence of the practical apriori as gelâzenheit/abegescheidenheit. In summary,

If, to know the truth, we must be the truth, and if the truth is God’s detachment, we must be detached. What we have here is thus the formal structure of the identity between thinking (as the broad, essential activity of the human being) and being (as the way of being of both the Godhead and the ground of the soul). (76)

At play in this chapter is much of Eckhart’s religious anthropology, i.e., the differences between the created “me,” the exemplar that I am as it is in the Son, and the spark of the soul in which I am identical to the Godhead without differentiation, and theology, i.e., God as Creator and Trinity in relation to Creation, and God as Godhead without differentiation. We are also introduced to the problem of willing as it relates to gelâzenheit, a discussion which will play a major role in Moore’s consideration of Heidegger.

In fact, one of the major challenges Moore faces in Part Three, in which he argues for the influence of Eckhart on Heidegger’s entire corpus, is the difficulty in the latter’s language of resoluteness, will, and violence in the 1920s and 30s, which is far afield from Eckhart’s gelâzenheit. The unique contribution of Moore’s analysis is the way in which he argues for a consistent formal similarity, if not always with regard to content, between all of Heidegger’s work and Eckhart’s identification of the spark of the soul and the Godhead and the practical apriori of gelâzenheit. For this purpose, Moore focuses on the period just after the publication of Being and Time up to the completion of the first of Heidegger’s Country Path Conversations in 1945. In Chapter Five, Moore deals with two texts from the late 20’s: Einleitung in die Philosophie and The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

With regard to the first text, Moore defends a middle-voice understanding of not only the transcendence of Dasein, characterized as a letting-be that grounds the possibility of any relation to beings and of Vorhandenheit in general, but also of the task of philosophy, as the letting-be necessary to understand the letting-be of Dasein’s transcendence. With regard to the second text, Moore focuses on the ambiguity surrounding action and Gelassenheit in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, arguing on the one hand that the apparent vacillation, even contradiction, can again be understood in terms of the middle-voice, and on the other, that there is still a notion of Gelassenheit that precedes activity. Moore argues that although these texts may seem ambiguous with regard to Gelassenheit, the content of the structure in Heidegger is the same as in Eckhart.

Chapter Six deals with Heidegger’s work in the 1930s, when the “radical dissimilarities in content” are most visible, and “the few glimmers of Gelassenheit…barely peek through.” (112) Moore marks the change as follows: “Rather than as letting-be, the essence of being and of the human being is interpreted in terms of willfulness, struggle, and violence.” (112) However, this change is “by no means [a change] in form.” (112) According to Moore, “We will find both a practical apriori that will reveal being and the human being to be the same as that activity.” (112)

Insofar as Heidegger maintains that the human being, whose essence is violence, must commit violence in order to understand that the essence of being is violence, Moore’s thesis holds. There is still an affinity between the human being and being; the practical apriori is operative. But insofar as the ethical and axiological framework of the ontological investigation radically shifts, we might wonder to what extent the formal similarity is meaningful. It might be meaningful, as Moore argues in the Conclusion, insofar as we can argue that Heidegger’s thought in the 30’s (and, taking the Schwarze Hefte into consideration, afterwards as well) need not have gone in the direction of voluntarism and violence. Instead, had Heidegger stayed true to the insights appropriated and developed from Eckhart, he might have realized the ethical consequences that Gelassenheit entails. In Chapter 7, Moore states that, as the power of National Socialism waned, “Heidegger comes to see that willful violence and violent willfulness, far from providing access to the truth of being, are precisely what obstructs it.” (123) Rather than violence, what is called for is meditative thinking, which is characterized by letting-be, or Gelassenheit. Thus, we come full-circle to Eckhart:

For both Eckhart and Heidegger, we must exercise restraint in the face of that which cannot be represented. We must allow the concealment of the Godhead and of the open-region to be, even as well allow that, at bottom, we essentially belong to them. Yet we cannot come to realize this without a practical apriori. For Heidegger, we have to let go of the will and let ourselves wait for the essence of thinking and being to show itself, which turns out to be Gelassenheit and only shows itself in Gelassenheit. For Eckhart, we have to be gelâzen in order to understand that letting-be characterizes the oneness of the Godhead and the ground of the soul. In both cases, the imperative of releasement is primary. (138)

As this bears on the question of violence in Heidegger’s writings in the 1930s, there is still room for concern, insofar as the only critique of violent thinking that Gelassenheit affords is that the former is calculative, and so representational, rather than meditative. I think, for instance, of Heidegger’s grossly misguided likening of the extermination camps to the mechanized mass food industry. It might be, however, that a more robust notion of Gelassenheit, as it is furnished by Moore through Eckhart in Chapter 3, can be of service here.

Having summarized the exegetical work of Parts Two and Three, I now turn back to Part One, which to my mind represents one of the significant accomplishments present in all parts of the book, namely its scholarly acumen. Moore demonstrates the impressively thorough, careful, and creative research conducted in the formation of the book. In Part One, to determine “when and where Heidegger cites or refers to Eckhart,” (3) Moore exhaustively considers not only Heidegger’s published works, but also references in unpublished manuscripts, in letters, in the copies of relevant literature in Heidegger’s library, and in archival material, much of which has not, to my knowledge, been treated in any other English-speaking work. Moore shows a familiarity not only with the relevant contemporary German and French scholarship on both Eckhart and Heidegger, but also with the figures and milieu that were contemporaneous with Heidegger. As regards his thesis, Part One has the effect of furnishing the material evidence that Heidegger was in fact consulting and reading Eckhart throughout his life. Many of the problems dealt with in Parts Two and Three—for instance, the apparent contradiction between Eckhart’s designation of God as thinking and God as being—are foreshadowed in Part One through Heidegger’s references to them. Part One also introduces and references the material included in the appendices, which in themselves are an accomplishment in scholarship. In Appendix One, Moore reproduces Heidegger’s own notes and references to Eckhart in the original German. This includes Heidegger’s enthusiastic review of his student Käte Oltmanns’s dissertation on Eckhart, which she defended in 1934. Appendix Two is a translation of Oltmanns’s presentation, given in Heidegger’s class on Schelling, which was the catalyst to her dissertation work. Finally, Appendix Three contains the first English translation of an essay by Nishitani Keiji—also a student of Heidegger—on Zarathustra and Eckhart. For scholars of Heidegger and Eckhart, Moore’s Eckhart, Heidegger, and the Imperative of Releasement contributes not only a unique and well-supported argument for Eckhart’s influence on Heidegger’s entire corpus, but also an abundance of material essential for future endeavours on the same topic.