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Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163 www.brill.nl/rp

Otherwise than the Will: Davis’ Faithful Transgression of Heidegger

Bret W. Davis. Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to “Gelassenheit.” Evanston,
Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007. xxxi + 379 pp. Index.

Bret Davis has written what I consider to be one of the best English language
books on Heidegger in recent years. It is a thoroughgoing and illuminating
confrontation (Auseinandersetzung) with Heidegger regarding the problem of
the will. By book I do not simply mean a study or exposition of a theme,
although this book is a highly accomplished study and it does undertake a
vigorous and quite thorough engagement with an important and underap-
preciated theme, namely, the genesis and fate of the will throughout the course
of Heidegger’s Denkweg. “In attempting to carefully read Heidegger’s text”
Davis does not resort to the routine application of textual analysis of either the
critically dismissive sort (all of Heidegger’s thinking reduces to some manner
of link to his political misadventures) or the uncritically subservient sort
(all that remains is to consecrate endlessly the letter and spirit of the master).
Rather he embarks on “a careful and critical reading that involves (or at least
prepares for) both an appropriation and an Auseinandersetzung with Heidegger’s
thought” (240–41). Davis’ opening to and confrontation with Heidegger is his
attempt “to go through a genuine encounter with his thought” (241).
In this light, I would like to begin, before considering some of the fruits
of his reading, with a brief consideration of some of the complex features of
Davis’ “encounter.”
(1) Davis situates his readings in the “ambiguous limits of reading Heidegger
after Heidegger” (277). These limits are not merely chronological, simply
acknowledging that this text was written almost three decades after Heidegger’s
death. Nor do they assume that we can be altogether done with Heidegger,
consigning his writings to the philosophical curators while the philosophers
move on to something else completely different. Davis attempts to think
in and through Heidegger, engaging in something like an “immanent cri-
tique” (276), crafting perhaps the ultimate sign of respect of one thinker for
another thinker: “faithful transgressions” (276). These readings engage Heidegger
neither through a fawning report on some yet underreported aspect of his
thinking, nor through philosophical witch-hunting, but rather through the
site of thinking that emerges in Heidegger’s thoughtful experience (Erfahrung)
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2009 DOI: 10.1163/156916408X336800
136 Review Articles / Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163

of thinking. Indeed, Davis creatively repeats the relationship in reading and

writing that Otto Pöggeler formulated when Heidegger insisted that it was
time to “stop writing about Heidegger” (4). It is necessary both “to bring
into view appropriately the impetus which can emanate from Heidegger’s
thinking and to wean oneself from these initiatives in order to travel one’s
own ways” (5).
(2) The inaugural gesture of Davis’ interpretive confrontation with Hei-
degger resides in Davis’ decision to give unprecedented weight to the question
of the will, that is, “to thematically focus on the problem of the will and the
possibility of non-willing” (276). In this sense, Davis is not only arguing that
the question of the will has not been given its full due (which it has not), but
rather is opening up Heidegger’s Denkweg from the perspective of this ques-
tion. New dimensions of thinking, both in general and with regard to Hei-
degger, emerge when the problem of the will is emphasized.
It is taken for granted that the question of the meaning of being, or the
ontological difference, of the relation of time and being, or some formulation
of this admittedly complex question speaks to what is at stake in Heidegger’s
thinking. Of course, this is in a broad sense undeniable, but then again
Heidegger was also attempting to enact an experience of thinking by thinking
the very opening of thinking. To think with Heidegger is to think with him at
the site of this opening, and to think it in ways that illuminate this site as well
as in ways in which Heidegger could have otherwise (further or even better)
articulated it.
(3) Davis reads the problem of the will as central to Heidegger’s Denkweg
not merely as Davis’ attempt to set the record straight, but as central to the
way of Heidegger’s thinking and as a problem with which (his) thinking, “after
Heidegger,” must continue to confront. This “problematic lies at the very heart
of Heidegger’s Denkweg” (xi). Heidegger himself, sometimes with breathtak-
ing power, sometimes with unsettling errancy, confronted this critical dimen-
sion of the question of being, and those who would think with him, that is,
think transgressively as a manner of remaining faithful to the site of thinking
that Heidegger illuminated (rather than the bad faith of remaining steadfast
only to the letter of his texts), must also confront it. One reads Heidegger, the
thinker of thinking, at the site of thinking itself.
The problem of the will is one such site. In fact, it is a particularly disclosive
one. “The problem of the will is thus a problem ‘in Heidegger’s thought’ in the
dual sense of, on the one hand, a problem which his thought explicitly and
painstakingly takes up as a theme for thoughtful questioning, and, on the
Review Articles / Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163 137

other hand, a problem to which his thinking itself succumbs. The task of this
study is to learn from both of these aspects, by explicating and interpreting the
former, while critically exposing the latter” (xxiii).
(4) Davis brings another important aspect to his thinking with “Heidegger
after Heidegger,” namely, the enhanced perspective provided by his postdoctoral
studies and career at Otani University (a Buddhist University in Kyoto) as well
as Kyoto University. His work with Ueda Shizuteru and Ōhashi Ryōsuke and
others associated with the third generation of the Kyoto School greatly expanded
the purview by which he reads Heidegger and by which he situates the site of
Heidegger’s thinking. Heidegger and the Kyoto School philosophers have long
maintained mutual respect, although it was less pronounced publicly in Heidegger’s
work. The Kyoto School has contributed not only to a deepening of our con-
frontation with Heidegger (the first essay in any language on Heidegger was
written in 1924 by Tanabe Hajime, himself a great philosopher in his own right)
but also to the possibilities of thinking within a genuine intercultural dialogue.
Davis’ project was originally conceived as a “dialogical” work “on the prob-
lem of the will in Heidegger and in the Zen Buddhist philosophy of Nishitani
Keiji” (xi). An explicit and sustained study of Nishitani on the will, beyond
some published and forthcoming essays, is still (hopefully) forthcoming, and
the present work “for the most part postpones” this dialogue. Nonetheless, the
spirit of the Kyoto School in specific, and East Asian Zen in general, is subtly
present in this study. (Ōhashi Ryōsuke’s Ekstase und Gelassenheit: Zu Schelling
und Heidgger is already among the few important works to have stressed the
importance of the problem of the will.)
One of the most pronounced and illuminating parts of his study is a short
but highly illuminating discussion of the Great Death (daishi) in relation
to Heidegger’s ambivalent relation to the will (encrypted in his discussion of
Entschlossenheit) in Being and Time. The readiness for anxiety and the embrace
of the conscience (of the call from afar to afar) are not compatible with the
mood of Gelassenheit in the late Heidegger. Yet death remains a vital clue to
Gelassenheit. “Perhaps one could willingly undergo, on the way to this Gelas-
senheit, a kind of ‘existential death’—a death without sublation of the subject,
where what gets reborn or uncovered is rather a non-ego (muga) or a ‘self that
is not a self ’ ( jiko narazaru jiko)” (57). Davis, like Nishida Kitarō, Suzuki
Daisetz, Nishitani Keiji, and others before him, turns to Zen Master Bunan,
who famously said, “Become a dead man, remaining alive; become thoroughly
dead; then do as your mind pleases, all your works are then good” (58). Think-
ing cannot live until it has learned to die, perhaps vindicating Plato who in
138 Review Articles / Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163

the Phaedo had Socrates claim, “I am afraid that other people do not realize
that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to
practice for dying and death” (64a; Grube translation).
In a sense, Bunan already sees beyond the incompleteness of Dasein’s Angst
before death. It is as if Bunan had already unleashed the Gelassenheit that
Entschlossenheit conceals. Davis reflects on the appropriation of this insight by
some of the Kyoto School philosophers: “In radically stepping back through
the nihilism of ‘relative nothingness’ (the Nothing of anxiety) to ‘the place
of Absolute Nothingness’ (zettaimu no basho) or ‘the field of emptiness’ (kū
no ba), one would learn to dwell without metaphysical ground or reason (ohne
Grund )” (58). Heidegger’s later turn to Gelassenheit “resonates well with Zen’s
path of awakening to a non-egoistic and non-dual manner of being-in-the-
world by way of an existential death of the ego-subject of will” (59).

* * *

Having delineated some of the constitutive features of Davis’ “encounter,” I

now turn to a consideration of some of its fruits.
(1) Davis coins the phrase “ecstatic incorporation” to capture the “double-
sided” or “duplicitous” character of the will as Heidegger articulates it, begin-
ning with the second half of his voluminous Nietzsche lectures. On the one
hand, willing incorporates. It draws difference back into the sameness of the
self. It assimilates what first contests it. As Heidegger writes, “Willing always
brings the self to itself .”1 It is therefore also ecstatic. “In willing, we exceed
ourselves only to bring this excess back into the self ” (9). The will constantly
moves beyond itself, but it does so to expand itself, to incorporate this beyond
back into itself, or, in Heidegger’s words, willing is “being-master-out-beyond-
oneself ” (9).
The will therefore moves in ever expanding circles, wanting only its own
movement, willing only to will. This circular movement is a mutually reinforc-
ing play of increase (it absorbs more and more, incorporating more and more
power) and securing (preserving its power). “The will, in willing itself, reaches
out to the world as something it posits and represents as a means for its move-
ment of power-enhancement and hence power-preservation, of power power-
preservation and hence power-enhancement” (12).

Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 1: The Will to Power as Art, trans. D. F. Krell (New York:
Harper & Row, 1979), 52, quoted in Davis, 9.
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This reciprocally accelerating circular movement, the “dynamic character

of insatiable growth” (150), is inextricably tied to the rise of representation
(Vorstellung) in modern philosophy. “In representing the world, one brings
it into one’s sphere of knowing and acting” (13). Nietzsche is the last great
metaphysician and the consummation of metaphysics because, according
to Heidegger, his refusal of metaphysics inadvertently reveals the heretofore-
concealed crux of metaphysics: the rage of the will as it dominates being by
assimilating it into an ever-expanding human measure.
The problem of the will, the threat of the utter occlusion of the forgetting
of being (when the subject can no longer become to itself a question), is not
sufficiently addressed by demanding that the “will to will” somehow suddenly
start willing to not will. The domain of the will contains “the polar extremes
of a straightforward assertive willing on the one hand, and the simple negation
or lack of willing on the other” (18). What is demanded is the possibility of
twisting free of the subjectivity of the will to will altogether. This twisting free
is the advent not of “not willing” (the simple negation of willing, the willing
to not will) but of a wholly other non-willing, an “other to willing” (20).
If I understand non-willing, then it has at least the following four features.
1) The “non” in “non-willing” is not the “not” of logical negation. It is not
what Heidegger called “crude reversing” (18). It is closer to what the poet
William Blake in Jerusalem called “contraries,” or what Schelling retrieves from
the Greeks as mē on (otherwise than being, rather than ouk on, the negation of
being), or Nagarjuna’s philosophy of no position, which neither wholly negates
nor affirms anything but rather thinks everything in its primordial relational-
ity. The “non” speaks to that which in willing is otherwise than willing, con-
cealed by willing, to be thought beyond the duality of willing and its opposite.
2) Non-willing cannot be thought in the way beings are thought within the
domination of the will to will. Non-willing cannot be represented as a known
object to a willing subject. It demands rather a transformation of thinking.
“In order to think non-willing, we must already to that extent be able to think
non-willingly” and hence enter the hermeneutic circle by which our capacity
to move beyond the will is possible only to the extent that we already find
ourselves attuned to that which willing conceals (218). 3) There is no going
around or somehow skipping where we already are. Non-willing demands
going through the heart of the nihilistic dominion of willing. It “requires
going through the hallways and clearing the portals of our current domicile”
(221). 4) Non-willing and thinking non-willingly are not something that
we do, nor is it something done to us. Davis is right to reject the facile account
of Heidegger that claims the active willing that characterizes his political
140 Review Articles / Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163

misadventures in the ’30s is replaced by the radical passivity (and therefore

ethically impotent quietism) of Gelassenheit. Heidegger the guilty doer is
replaced by the irresponsible passivity of “letting be.” (It was not me, it was
being!). Non-willing emerges from an opening that Davis, following Charles
Scott and others, has discovered amidst the ambivalence towards willing in
Being and Time, namely, the middle voice, which speaks beyond the gram-
matical constraints of the active and passive voices, both of which fall prey to
the dominating expansivity of the willing subject. “It is precisely the grammar
of the middle voice on which Heidegger draws in Being and Time to depict the
fundamental manner in which things show themselves” (27). Hence, “we shall
need to attune our ears to this voice as we attempt to follow Heidegger in his
most radical moments of thinking non-willing(ly)” (16).
(2) Davis traces the problem of the will in Heidegger’s Denkweg through-
out its entire trajectory. The emphasis on Hingabe or devotion or “dedicative
submission” in the early Heidegger (27) is replaced by Heidegger’s ambiva-
lence towards the will in Being and Time. In a nuanced reading of this text,
Davis considers the polyvalence of Entschlossenheit, which demands both resolve
and the inability of that to which one is resolved (death, nothingness) to
preserve the original resolve. This is not murkiness on Heidegger’s part, for
Entschlossenheit is, in Davis’ persuasive reading, something like “an open will-
ingness to repeatedly interrupt willing” (54).
Unfortunately, in Heidegger’s political missteps in the 1930s he placed great
and, while not uncomplicated, nonetheless pernicious, emphasis on the will.
With Beiträge zur Philosophie and related texts, Heidegger began to turn away
from the will and to begin problematizing it as the bane of the contemporary
relation to being. This turn also includes the shift within the middle of the
Nietzsche lecture courses as well as a reconsideration of Schelling’s work as a
“metaphysics of ‘unbounded subjectivity’ (101), the architect of a “system
of freedom” that was, concealed to Schelling, “another name for the system
of subjectivity” (113), Schelling’s groundlessness tacitly operates as an ever
expanding ground, the subiectum, a concealed, ever disappearing and self-
constituting hypokeimenon (113). From this vantage point (Schelling, Nietzsche,
the Ge-stell ), the question of non-willing beckons, concealed yet hinting,
within the portal of will-bound nihilism.
(3) Heidegger’s enormous narrative, despite its powerful evocation of non-
willing, is not without its problems. I cite here just a few of them as articulated
by Davis. 1) Heidegger, while clearly inspired by Meister Eckhart, nonetheless
consigns his account of Gelassenheit to the domain of willing. (I extinguish my
own will in order to follow the will of God.) Reconsidering Eckhart, in part
Review Articles / Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163 141

with the help of Ueda, one learns that for Eckhart one breaks through the
problematic of willing altogether. “Having broken through both self-will and
the Will of God, one stands, not just empty, but ‘empty and free’” (134). In
Ueda and in Davis’ eyes, it is easy to see why the Zen tradition has such respect
for Eckhart. This is not to say that Eckhart does not have his own ambiva-
lences, but “this inability to restrict Eckhart’s Gelassenheit to the domain of the
will suggests, then, the possibility of a non-historical excess to the history of
metaphysics, an excess that both critically calls into question the seamless rule
of its epochs and affirmatively suggests the possibility of participating in a
transition to an other beginning beyond the closure of metaphysics in the
technological will to will” (145). When one furthermore considers that Hei-
degger’s efforts to think non-willing(ly), despite being powerfully contempo-
rary, are not unique, then one worries about what this history occludes. What
is new in Heidegger is, in some sense, ancient in East Asian Zen as well as
in Meister Eckhart and many of the other contemplatives, not to mention
the prodigious accomplishments of the novel, whose “history” Milan Kundera
tells us, “is the novel’s revenge on history.”2
Heidegger’s reading of Schelling and Nietzsche as consummate metaphysi-
cians also ironically comes across as a somewhat willful misreading, revealing
powerful dimensions of Heidegger’s own thinking, but seriously distorting the
powerful movement of Schelling’s and Nietzsche’s (and Rilke’s) own thinking.
As Gadamer lamented, this is the monological quality of Heidegger’s history
of being: “When all is said and done, we are forced to admit that Heidegger’s
thoughtful dealings with the history of philosophy are burdened with the vio-
lence of a thinker who was veritably driven by his own questions and a desire
to rediscover himself everywhere.”3 Alas, the irony is bitter: Heidegger’s read-
ing of the advent of the nihilism of subjectivity (the will to will) was not
altogether free of the very subjectivity (a desire to rediscover himself every-
where) that he criticized. To some extent this is unavoidable (one moves
towards non-willing by moving through the dominion of subjectivity), but on
the other hand, Meister Eckhart, Schelling, and Nietzsche are much more
powerful philosophical allies then and now than they are inadvertent prophets
of the technological worldview. They have as much to tell us in their own way
about our contemporary prospects for thinking and living as does Heidegger.

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, trans. Linda Asher (New York: HarperCollins, 1995),
chap. 1.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Heidegger’s Ways, trans. John Stanley (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1994), 165, quoted in Davis, 259.
142 Review Articles / Research in Phenomenology 39 (2009) 135–163

(4) Finally I conclude with a brief thought about the question of language.
Heidegger’s turn to Gelassenheit, it seems to me, cannot be separated from his
turn towards the problem of language. One must also write non-willingly and
free language itself from the will to will. This is a critical issue, one that does
not simply reduce to a reliance on the power of the middle voice. Writing
undergoes within itself the same overcoming that willing does, giving rise to
something like “non-writing.”
Davis did not have the space to devote to such issues. His text is already
quite exhaustive. I think that it is one of the marks of a good book that one
can already anticipate, with joy, the other books awaiting birth within the
present one. Perhaps we will have the book on Gelassenheit und die Sprache
after the book on Nishitani. After this wonderful and important book, I know
that they and others will be worth the wait.

Jason M. Wirth
Seattle University