What Is a Hermeneutic Light?

Of the many unresolved debates surrounding the work of Martin Heidegger, the following question returns with some regularity: Is Heidegger’s phenomenology ultimately a question of hermeneutics and interpretation, or is it ultimately a question of immanence and truth? Is Dasein forever questing after a Being that withdraws, or does it somehow achieve a primordial communion with the truth of Being? In other words, is Heidegger the philosopher of blackness or the philosopher of light?

Hermeneutics was an important topic for theory in the 1960s. Hence it is not surprising that Heidegger, who was being rediscovered and rethought during that period, would often be framed in terms of hermeneutics. To be sure, the critical tradition handed down from post-structuralism leaves little room for modes of immanence and immediacy, modes that were marginalized as essentialist or otherwise unpleasant (often for good reason). Thus it would be easy to assimilate into the tradition of hermeneutics a figure like Heidegger, with his complicated withdrawal of Being. For where else would he fit?

Indeed it is common to categorize Heidegger there. But is it not also possible to show that Heidegger is a philosopher of immanence? Is it not also possible to show that he speaks as much to illumination as to withdrawal? That he speaks as much to the intuitive and proximate as to the detached and distanced?

For instance, consider his treatment of gelichtet, a word stemming from the noun for “light.” In the chapter on the “there” in Being and Time, Heidegger speaks of Dasein as lumen (one of two Latin words meaning “light”) and defines Dasein in terms of the “clearing” (gelichtet) or “illumination” of Being:

"When we talk in an ontically figurative way of the lumen naturale in man, we have in mind nothing other than the existential-ontological structure of this entity, that it is in such a way as to be its 'there'. To say that it is ‘illuminated’ ['erleuchtet'] means that as Being-in-the-world it is cleared [gelichtet] in itself, not through any other entity, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing."

No one can deny the cryptological tendencies in Heidegger. No one can deny that, for Heidegger, Being likes to hide itself. But this is far outweighed by the fact that Dasein can indeed be experienced as an authentic disclosedness of Being, by the fact that phenomenology preaches — without irony or pathos — that one may strive “toward the things themselves” and actually arrive at them.

Recall that hermeneutics is the science of suspicion, the science of the insincere. But Heidegger, like Socrates before him, is the consummate philosopher of sincerity. The phenomenological subject is the one who has an authentic and sincere relationship with Being. Because of this, we should not be too quick to consign Heidegger to the history of hermeneutics. Hermes’s natural habitat is teeming with deception; his economies are economies in the absence of trust. But Heidegger lives in a different world. His world is a world of authentic presence, of questing after truth.

Thus running in parallel to the Hermes-Heidegger, the Heidegger who touches on the tradition of interpretation and exchange in the face of the withdrawal of Being, there is also an Iris-Heidegger, the Heidegger who touches on the tradition of illumination and iridescence along the pathway of seeking. Heidegger’s is not simply a Hermes narrative, but also an Iris arc.

When Heidegger evokes the lumen naturale of mankind he is making reference to one of two kinds of light. The light of mankind is a terrestrial light. When bodies with their anima (their vital force) are vigorous and alive, they are illuminated with the light of the lumen naturale. Lumen is the light of life, the light of this world, the light that sparkles from the eyes of consciousness.

But there is a second type of light. Being carries its own light that is not the light of man. This light is a cosmological light, a divine light, the light of the phenomena, light as grace, or, as Laruelle says, the kind of light that does not originate from a star.

So just as there are two Heideggers, there are also two lights. One light is the light of transparent bodies, clear and mobile. It is the light of this world, experienced through passage and illumination. The other light is the light of opaque bodies. It is the light of color, a holy light, experienced only through the dull emanation of things.

Duane Michals "The Illuminated Man"
Duane Michals "The Illuminated Man"


(Excerpted from Laruelle: Against the Digital [University of Minnesota Press: 2014], pp. 137-139.)