We can understand Heidegger’s choice of the term hermeneutics over alternatives as interpretation when we remember that implicit in the Heideggerian project is the effort to regain a grasp of being that has been lost in modern times and indeed since the time of Plato and Aristotle. One seeks the “hidden weight” of ancient words precisely in order to go behind what is self-evident in modern thinking. This special and intense listening Heidegger calls for is necessary in order to break away from the confines of the modern world view. Hermeneutics, it will be remembered, is the discipline concerned with deciphering utterances from other times, places, and languages–without imposing one’s own categories on them (the hermeneutic problem). It is significant that Heidegger attempts to sharpen his reflection by a conversation with a person from a radically alien world–a Japanese. The atmosphere of the conversation is an effort to understand the most difficult and ineffable conceptions–beauty, utterance, language. A Japanese tentativeness and delicacy pervades the dialogue, and one can understand Heidegger’s fascination with a people whose art strives for the letting-be of what is.
But the use of a Japanese dialogical partner is not the only indication of Heidegger’s effort to transcend the westernized, modern world view. Heidegger explicitly states that the careful listener will put in question “the guiding notions which, under the names ‘expression,’ ‘experience,’ and ‘consciousness,’ determine modern thinking.“ If one thinks of these conceptions as constituting the make-up of one’s “world,” then what Heidegger has in mind is that interpretation as hermeneutics should be “world-shaking,” a fateful message that shakes the foundations of thought. Only an interpretation that goes outside the prevailing conceptualities can move toward what Heidegger has in mind–“a transformation of thinking.” Unfortunately, the word interpretation fails to suggest a mediation from something outside and alien, but hermeneutics, since it customarily has reference to interpreting ancient texts in another language, has precisely this sense of relating to something essentially other yet capable of being understood.
The mediation Heidegger has in mind here is ontologically significant. It would seem to be a kind of bridge to non-being. The transcending of the already-given world is elsewhere in Heidegger even called the “step back”: a “step back” from presentational thought as such. This “step back” is a movement back from embeddedness in a set of fixed definitions of reality, in order to regain access to a certain realm of “latency” which we might also call our deeper sense of the meaning of being. Heidegger roots his thinking in a latency lying below the level of manifest consciousness. It is not nonbeing in the sense of a mere emptiness but rather a source of being for which the word “latency” seems rather apt. The mediation, in this case, is not between two well-lighted but incommensurate realms of being but between the well-lighted daylight of consciousness and something more like the mysterious night of what lies below and above consciousness. Heidegger clarified in his well-known letter to Richardson that this realm, as ontological nonbeing, is not the transcendental in the sense of Kant’s conditions for the possibility for phenomena but a kind of creative foundation and source for our being-in-the-world.