In the Black Notebooks Heidegger suggests that having only fragments of the Presocratic philosophers is better than having their entire ‘Collected Works’ including letters, because these seduce us to psychologizing rather than simply thinking it through. (GA94:390 Üb. V 125) The irony is that Heidegger’s Complete Edition is going to comprise more than 100 volumes and is still under way even though he died in 1976. So, the obvious question is: are these Black Notebooks food for thought or not? To be precise: are these notebooks a contribution to philosophy?
That depends, you might say, on your definition of philosophy. I suggest we stick to Heidegger’s ‘definition’ – I surround the word definition with quotes here, because, obviously, Heidegger is not a big fan of defining terms he is using all the time. I think Heidegger’s take on philosophy is sufficient, not because I adhere to ‘only do internal questioning’, but because if it not a valuable contribution to philosophy even according to his own understanding, it probably won’t be according to anyone else.
So, how does Heidegger understand philosophy? According to Heidegger, philosophy is about questioning Being (Sein/Seyn). Until Heidegger, so for about 2500 years, this question has taken the form of question what something is, more specifically, what this individual being (Seiende) in front of me (horse, clay, human) in essence is. This question has in the end led to science, and also to Hegel and Nietzsche. Heidegger wants to stop asking this question, because it has reached its completion, and rather start anew with the question what Being itself means. He even calls the question of Being ‘his only thought’. Therefore the Black Notebooks would be a contribution to philosophy if they inquire after Being itself.
Do the Black Notebooks question Being itself? While Heidegger is insisting on the importance of the question of Being itself on every occasion, in the Notebooks he does not actually question it. He only talks about it. He criticizes everyone who doesn’t think this is an important or meaningful question: these people, about everybody else besides Heidegger, are called ‘mediocre’. This talking about the grandness of the question of Being combined with this highly insightful cultural criticism of mediocrity takes up a large part of the Notebooks. As, according to the introduction of Sein und Zeit, we (including Heidegger) are not supposed to know what ‘Being’ means and we are not even convinced the term ‘Being’ is very significant at all, this is pretty frustrating. ‘Questioning X is important’ – ‘But what does X mean? What are you talking about?!’ Whether or not Heidegger actually asks the question, makes a strong case for its meaning, significance and urgency and/or gives some good samples of asking this question elsewhere, is a question for another time.
This merely talking about the question of Being show what is so frustrating about the Black Notebooks: it mostly consists of only concisely talking about something. This just leaves the reader puzzled. Not only regarding the question of Being, but especially when he starts talking about ‘the gods’ and ‘the last god’. This apparently is not about the stupid metaphysical Christian God, but something from Hölderlin and maybe the Greeks, I don’t know. As it stands, this is just meaningless philo-babble. If we replace this with just [PHILO], very little is left. Some moaning about scholars, some praise for Hölderlin and mainly offhand culture criticism where he takes terms from prevalent ideologies at the time (like Volk) and gives them a new meaning from the perspective of the question of Being – whatever that is supposed to be. This ‘method’ will blow up in his face when the term is ‘Jew’, but that doesn’t occur in this volume yet.
Some writers (like Kafka) have instructed their loved ones to burn some of their work after they die. Luckily for us, they usually didn’t (thanks!). With Heidegger it is the other way around. He helped (ordered?) to plan the edition of his work, which includes not just published and unpublished work but also lecture notes, speeches and these black notebooks. By his own remark on the Presocratic philosophers: in this case less would be more.
Heidegger, Überlegungen II-VI (Schwarze Hefte 1931-1938) Gesamtausgabe 94.