Oskar Becker and the origin of Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art”

Oskar Becker

and the origin of Heidegger’s “Origin of the Work of Art”


“We must provide a new content for the word ‘art’ and for what

it intends to name, on the basis of a fundamental orientation

to Being that has been recovered in an originary way.”

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics


My initial question is simple but threefold. Heidegger’s essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art” of 1936 signals an important moment in the development of his thinking. But why did he set out to examine the origin of the work of art in that essay when the topic makes no appearance in Being and Time? Let us be clear that I am asking three questions here at once. (1) Why did Heidegger come to concern himself with art at all? (2) Why did this concern with art focus on the origin of the work of art? (3) And why is there no such concern with art and its origin to be found in Being and Time?

A first hypothesis is this: Heidegger’s concern with art emerges from an intensified engagement with Nietzsche’s philosophy that began in the early 1930’s.  This hypothesis appears to find support in the fact that Heidegger’s encounter with Nietzsche issued in a series of lecture courses delivered between 1936 and 1945 and that the first of these, from the winter of 1936/37, was devoted to the theme of The Will to Power as Art. But this only raises the further question why Heidegger should have been so interested in Nietzsche’s philosophy of art. His lectures from 1936/37 make clear that he felt no particular attraction to Nietzsche’s thinking on art. He took that to be rather an expression of a particular metaphysics that understood Being as will to power and art as a manifestation of this will to power. When we follow the course of Heidegger’s Nietzsche lectures from 1936 to 1945 it becomes clear, in any case, that he was largely preoccupied with this Nietzschean “metaphysics” and its “nihilistic” consequences. Art was not, in fact, the major issue in these courses. The fact that Heidegger began this series of lectures with a discussion of Nietzsche’s views on art does not mean that the study of Nietzsche alerted him to the question of art and the origin of the work of art; it is, rather, that Heidegger brought an already existing concern with art to his study of Nietzsche and this alerted him to the importance of art in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

I turn, thus, to a second hypothesis concerning the question how Heidegger came to be philosophically interested in art and the origin of the work of art when Being and Time had manifested no such interest.  My hypothesis is that Heidegger’s essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art” is a response to Oskar Becker’s observation in 1929 that Heidegger’s Being and Time lacked any discussion of art, Becker’s attempt to construct a philosophy of art on the basis of Heidegger’s work, his discovery that Being and Time was inadequate for that task, and his conclusion that a modification of its conceptual framework was required for an adequate account of art.[1]

In order to make this plausible I need to say some words about Becker . This forces me to turn for a few moments away from the philosophy of art to the philosophy of mathematics but I hope you will soon come to understand the relevant link between the two topics and its connection with Heidegger’s concern with the origin of the work of art.

Oskar Becker, who was born in 1889 as an exact contemporary of Heidegger, had originally studied mathematics but in the early 1920’s turned to philosophy, was drawn to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, became a student of  Husserl’s in Freiburg and eventually, together with Heidegger, was appointed by Husserl’s to be one of his assistants. From this stemmed a life-long friendship between Becker and Heidegger. Husserl consisted the two at the time his potential successors, with Becker representing the more scientific side of the phenomenological enterprise while Heidegger stood for its ”anthropological” or “humanistic” aspect. Accordingly, Husserl published ‘s Heidegger’s Being and Time in 1926/27 side by side with Becker’s Mathematische Existenz as he sixth volume of the Yearbook for Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. While Heidegger’s work was meant to investigate the “the logic and ontology” of human Dasein, Becker’s was devoted to the analysis of “the logic and ontology of mathematical phenomena.”

Both works sought to explicate their respective domains, moreover, in terms of the idea of temporality. The title of the published first part of Heidegger’s work was, indeed, “The interpretation of Dasein in Terms of Temporality, and the Explication of Time as the Transcendental Horizon for the Question of Being.” (BT, p. 7) And Becker was to characterize his own viewpoint later on in the following words:

Time is not only the form of inner sense, but the fundamental structure of human

life altogether… Our existence can be characterized as temporality. Time is not a

mere form that surrounds us, but permeates our total being and essence. That

shows itself also – even though it is often overlooked – in mathematics… We can

and must count and calculate only because we are temporal beings. An eternal,

infinite being does not need to count.[2]

This view of mathematics has, no doubt, affinities to Kant’s idea that arithmetic is based on a pure intuition of time, but for Becker it was more directly related to the intuitionism of the Dutch mathematician L.E.J. Brouwer which sought to found both arithmetic and geometry on the notion of temporality. Becker’s attempt to shore up this view philosophically went through three distinct phases which we may call Husserlian, Heideggerian, and post-Heideggerian, respectively. It was at the outset of this third period that Becker came to write about art and in doing so concluded that Heidegger’s Being and Time was insufficient for a philosophy of art.

Becker’s first, Husserlian phase in the philosophy of mathematics is represented by a work on the foundations of geometry from 1923. In that work Becker had drawn extensively on both published and his unpublished writings of his teacher Husserl, summarizing his views extensively and commenting on them. “In writing this treatise I owe gratitude in the first instance to Edmund Husserl,” he declared, “whose research is the foundation on which it arises.” At the same time he had spoken of his reliance on the work of the mathematician Hermann Weyl “whose account of the mathematical and physical problems,” he added, “provided particularly suitable material for phenomenological analysis because he himself is close to phenomenology.” (p. 388) Weyl himself was sympathetic to “the need of a phenomenological perspective on all questions of the clarification of basic concepts.” (van Dalen, p. 3) Husserl had even invited him to submit an article on “The New Foundational Crisis in Mathematics” for the phenomenological Yearbook and he regretted it deeply when Weyl finally decided to publish the piece in a mathematical journal. In that essay Weyl had contrasted the classical, atomistic view of the continuum as an ordered set of points (a view he himself had espoused in earlier writings) with Brouwer’s conception of “the continuum as medium of free becoming.” (W1, p. 93) Identifying with Brouwer’s views, Weyl had written: “It would have been wonderful had the old dispute led to the conclusion that the atomistic conception as well as the continuous one can be carried through. Instead the latter has triumphed for good over the former. It is Brouwer to whom we owe the solution of the continuum problem.” (W1, p. 99) It was these ideas that provided Becker in 1923 with the material for his own thinking about mathematics. Husserl described Becker’s work at the time in a letter to Weyl as coming to the conclusion “that the Brouwer-Weyl theories are the only ones that stand up to the strict, indispensable demands of a constitutive-phenomenological research into foundations.” (van Dalen, p. 7)

Being and Time proved a turning-point for Becker’s philosophizing. By the time of its publication, he was walking in the footsteps of his friend Heidegger than those of his teacher Husserl. Mathematische Existenz, the work published together with Being and Time in the phenomenological Yearbook constituted, in fact, an attempt to re-think mathematics with the help of Heidegger’s notions. Becker made that explicit in his preface when he announced that his treatment of the philosophy of mathematics was drawing heavily on Heidegger’s hermeneutic-phenomenological method of investigation – in addition, he hastened to add, to the methods of Husserl’s formal transcendental-constitutive phenomenology. (p. 442) With a further bow to Heidegger, Becker also declared it to be his intention “to put ‘mathematical existence’ in the context of human Dasein which must be regarded everywhere as the fundamental context of interpretation.” (p. 442) In other words, he proposed to treat the problem of the existence of mathematical objects with the tools of existential philosophy; hence, presumably, the title of his work.

Becker’s move from Husserl to Heidegger proved, however, to involve more than a change in the philosophical justification of the mathematical edifice. He argued now that a historical-phenomenological conception of human Dasein necessitated modifications in the intuitionistic view. When Brouwer had constructed the numbers he had relied on a single characteristic of time, the ever-repeated division of the current moment parts into a past and a future. Brouwer had spoken of the two-oneness of the moment as the fundamental phenomenon for intuitionism. But this aspect of time, Becker argued now, could only justify the construction of rule-governed series of numbers, such as that of the natural numbers, series of numbers constructed according to a repetitive, rule-governed principle. Brouwer’s philosophical basis was, indeed, too narrow to make sense of free-choice sequences, that is, of non-rule-governed series of numbers. Even according to Brouwer’s own view these were, however, needed to introduce the real numbers. But Brouwer’s free-choice sequences could be conceived only in terms of a notion of historical time, as Becker argued. Only a historical Dasein could engage in a process of free becoming. Constructive thought could, moreover, so Becker, beyond the limitations of Brouwer’s mathematics. Even in 1927, Becker remained confident that one could salvage large parts of Cantor’s theory of transfinite numbers and “can speak of an ontological foundation of the theory of transfinite numbers.” (p. 561) I will save you the technical details. But there remained one final concern for Becker and that was the question whether a constructive, historical-hermeneutic account could generate all the mathematics that is needed in natural science. Was the mathematics Becker thought he could philosophically reconstruct adequate for its use in describing the natural world?

It was this question that eventually made him go beyond the position he advocated in Mathematische Existenz in 1927, beyond, that is, his Heideggerian inspired mathematical philosophy. Eventually, he concluded that Heidegger’s historical-hermeneutic failed “wherever nature confronts it.” (Gr., p. 170) In the natural world we face, in fact, phenomena which we can grasp with the help of abstract, mathematical formulas but these remain hermeneutically impenetrable. Becker concluded:

Existential analysis is completely justified in its own domain which cannot be

circumscribed from outside. But there exist at the same time other powers

which are inseparably intertwined with existing Dasein.  An ‘understanding’ of

these powers is however impossible; they resist altogether the  existential

hermeneutic, phenomenological analysis. (DD, p. 92)_

The boundary between these two domains runs through mathematics itself. Within the space of human experience the intuitionistic and constructivist conception of mathematics is undoubtedly phenomenologically correct. But the application of mathematics in natural science manifests a further moment which points to the limits of the constructivist conception.

In the natural sciences we rely, indeed, on parts of mathematics that cannot be justified by intuitive and constructive means. The natural world cannot be completely grasped with the tools of a constructive and interpreted mathematics. In science we make use of parts of mathematics which we can no longer intuitively interpret. This kind of mathematics can only be treated as an un-interpreted formal calculus. We are confronted here, as Becker puts it, with the problem of the alienness and incomprehensibility of nature. In quantum mechanics, for instance, it is the concept of Hilbert space of infinite dimensions that brings clarity into the matter whereas Minkowski’s concept of a four-dimensional ‘space- time-union’ plays a fundamental role in relativity theory. (Gr., p. 167f.) But neither of these two mathematical systems can be explained in terms of an intuitively grounded mathematics.

This conclusion distanced Becker from Heidegger’s view of how we grasp nature. In Being and Time Heidegger had spoken of nature ontologically-categorically as “a limiting case of the Being of possible entities within-the-world.” It can be discovered by Dasein “only in some definite modus of its own Being-in-the-world” and this through a form of knowledge that “deprives the world of its worldhood.” (BT, p. 65) Becker commented that these words may correctly characterize the way in which something natural appears in the historical world of Dasein but that they leave the genuine character of nature in the dark and, so to say, despair of its graspability. “In reality, nature belongs to the cosmos which represents the form of its totality. But cosmos in the here intended sense is not world but stands against it as its polar opposite.” (DD, p. 85)

Becker developed this critique of Heidegger’s Being and Time surprisingly not in his philosophy of mathematics but in an essay on art he wrote for the Husserl-Festschrift in 1929 and subsequently applied its results in the third post-Heideggerian phase of his mathematical philosophy. This move from mathematics to art (and from there back to mathematics) should not surprise in a thinker who conceived of mathematics constructively, that is, as a human creation. For the constructivist the gap between mathematics and art is, indeed, small and mathematics may easily be seen as itself a form of art.

In the 1929 essay Becker raises the question whether one can develop an ontology of aesthetic phenomena with the help of the concepts made available in Being and Time. After summarizing some ideas on art proposed by the Joseph Schelling, the romantic idealist, Becker asks:

But is it the case that nothing else can be said about the ontology of the aesthetic?

On the contrary. For we are already in possession of a sketch of a phenomenological

‘fundamental ontology’ that is founded on an ‘existential analysis’ of (human)

Dasein (the ‘hermeneutics of facticity’) but does not exhaust itself in this enterprise.

It should therefore be possible to  present a sketch of an ontology of aesthetic

phenomena against the background of this ‘existential analysis of Dasein. (DD, p. 25)

But this expectation is disappointed. Heidegger’s ontology is, according to Becker, “idealist-hermeneutic” in character. “Human Dasein is systematically interpreted as a being that is capable of an understanding of being.” (DD, p. 25f.) But in the Dasein of the artist “a limit is reached in the power of ‘understanding.’” (DD, p. 33) Art is the sphere where the ‘free favor of nature’ begins, that is, the in-principle unhistorical, fortuitous, and adventurous destiny of the artist.”  (Ibid.) In order to characterize the form of existence of both the artwork and the artist we need a new existential category. “Formally speaking this constitutes an analogue to the existentialia by means of which hermeneutic phenomenology describes Dasein in its existence. There appears thus the need for a new kind of category of being which can be called a quasi- or para-existentiale.” (DD, p. 34) Becker’s critique comes then to this: Heidegger’s categories in Being and Time are insufficient for the analysis of art. H.s’ philosophy must be enriched with new para-existential categories before it can yield an account of art.

Becker sets out to develop his own “para-existential” account of art by means of critical examination of two other philosophical traditions: (a) The Neo-Kantian, value-theoretic conception of art as laid out in Georg Lukács, “Die Subjekt-Objekt-Beziehung in der Ästhetik”, Logos, vol. 7, 1918. (b) The romantic conception of art as exemplified by J.W. Schelling in his System of Transcendental Idealism of 1800 and by Schelling’s student, Karl Wilhelm Solger in his philosophical novel Erwin of 1804.

Lukács’s aesthetic theory proves to have, in fact, only a selective interest to Becker. In a typically Neo-Kantian fashion, Lukacs is much concerned with the epistemology of art, the nature of the relation of subject and object in art as the title of his essay indicates, and not with the ontological problematic that interests both Becker and Heidegger. Becker finds Lukacs’ contribution nevertheless “extraordinarily illuminating” on two grounds. The first is that Lukacs conceives of each great work of art as constituting a world. Each work o art has for Lukacs thus a “microcosmic structure” which gives rise to a distinctive set of experiences. Becker agrees with Lukács that the work of art has its own inner laws and its own inner necessity. But he rejects (again in unison with Heidegger) any Neo-Kantian interpretation of this fact. For Lukacs, a work of art defines a world of values and gives thus rise to distinctive “normative experiences.” In his essay Becker sets the value-theoretical interpretation of art aside and dismisses the notion of normative experience as paradoxical. But in reading Lukacs’ microcosmic conception of the work of art as a claim about the ontological status of the art work, Becker prepares the way for Heidegger’s subsequent discussion of this theme in “The Origin of the Work of Art.” The second idea Becker adopts from Lukacs is the thought that reality of the work of art lies in its appearance. Becker writes: “The aesthetic phenomenon is eminently phenomenal, it is phenomenon as such, the appearance as appearance… It is for that reason in a certain respect ‘Schein.’ (DD, p. 21f.) There is here no distinction between appearance and reality. This makes for its “un-concealedness (α-λήθεια = unconcealedness).” The aesthetic object is for Becker thus “at the same time the higher, ‘truer’, (i.e., the more un-concealed) reality.” (DD, p. 22) Coming from Lukacs’s reflections on appearance and reality in art, Becker thus lays the foundations of Heidegger’s subsequent thoughts on art as truth which, in turn, re-enforces Heidegger’s understanding of truth as unconcealedness.

Of greater importance than Lukacs is for Becker’s thinking on art is, however, the romantic, idealist philosopher J. W. Schelling. His reflections on art, so Becker, ‘belong to the deepest thoughts that have appeared altogether in the history of philosophical aesthetics.” But he moderates that praise immediately by adding that Schelling’s formulations “can today not be considered final any longer.” (DD, p. 23) Becker draws  attention, however, particularly  to Schelling’s conception of the work of art as “reflecting the identity of conscious and unconscious activity.” Schelling’s fundamental principle is “that the work of art is a synthesis of nature and ‘freedom’ (i.e., the historicality or, rather, mind), the identity of a conscious and an ‘unconscious’ activity and thus an ‘unconscious infinity’.” (DD, p. 23) When we adapt Schelling’s terminology to present usage there would appear to be the antagonistic principles of the conscious and the unconscious or of ‘freedom’ (the free, historical spirit) and ‘nature’ (the non-historical or the ‘natural’, specifically also in man himself). The final, ‘metaphysical’ (or strictly speaking ‘hyper-ontological’) basic tension which holds between them and which represents the abyss is spanned by the bridge of the aesthetic which is fragile like the rainbow.” (DD, p. 24) The work of art constitutes a bridge between the two principles, these two “roots of Being, these (“Seinswurzeln” in the sense of the old Emepedoclean rizomata panton). It stretches over an abyss which it does not fill out” giving “the view free into its depth.” (DD, p. 22) In the work of art we discern, thus, “the ultimate duality and discord at the ‘roots’ of Being.” (DD, p. 40) It is this duality which the Heidegger of Being and Time has failed to grasp. For Heidegger Being manifests itself complete in human Dasein and temporality manifests itself totally in historicality; on Becker’s account there is, however, still another dimension of  Being; he calls it “Dawesen” in contrast to Heidegger’s Dasein. Dawesen is an inherently un-historical form of Being. It manifests itself, so Becker, at many places in human life but above all in the work of art. The work of art thus calls for a new kind of analysis, a para-existential analysis parallel to and supplementing Heidegger’s style of hermeneutic-existential analysis

Becker asks accordingly: “Is the aesthetic a purely historical phenomenon? Can the destiny of the artistic ‘spirit,’ the peculiar fate of genius be understood in terms of ‘thrown possibilities’ and of a “future in the process of having been’?” (DD, p. 31) He argues that the temporality of the work of art is different from the kind of temporality analyzed in Being and Time. While that work advances a hermeneutic-historical conception of temporality, Becker postulates the need for a “Heraclitean temporality” that accommodates the possibility of ever-renewed fortuitous beginnings.

Becker came to think that Heidegger eventually learned to appreciate the duality and discord that lies at the root of Being, that Being cannot be fully grasped in terms of a historical hermeneutic, and that art, in particular, requires recognition of this fact. He pointed out that already in his 1929 essay “Vom Wesen des Grundes” Heidegger had “left a certain amount of space for a paraexistential analysis; thus he no longer equates Dasein and man (or the form of being of man) but speaks instead of “Dasein in man.” It is apparently envisaged, that there might be something else in man besides Dasein- such as perhaps Dawesen.” (DD, 86) And he points out that subsequently in “The Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger “put the ‘earth’ next to ‘the world.’ This pair of concepts ‘world-earth’ has a certain similarity to our duality ‘world-cosmos’ – even though, it appears, it points nonetheless in essential respects in another direction.” (DD, p. 93)


I conclude then that Heidegger’s essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art” can be read as a response to Becker’s critical challenge of 1929.

(a) The essay advances a new ontology specifically designed for an understanding of the work of art.

(b) It reworks the Becker-Lukács idea of the work of art as a microcosm and the Becker-Schelling opposition of nature and freedom into the complementary notions of world and earth and of world and work.

(c) It adopts Becker’s interpretation of the work of art as both Schein and truth and as thus engaged in and emerging from discord.

(d) It projects a new understanding of temporality to accommodate the fact that each work of art constitutes a beginning or origin.




[1] Oskar Becker, “Von der Hinfälligkeit des Schönen und der Abenteuerlichkeit des Künstlers. Eine ontologische Untersuchung im ästhetischen  Phänomenbereich” (On the fragility of the beautiful and the adventurousness of the artist. An ontological investigation into the area of aesthetic phenomena) initially published in Husserl Festschift, Halle 1929 and reprinted in Becker’s Dasein und Dawesen, Pfullingen 1963. (Cited as DD.)

[2] Oskar Becker, Größe und Grenze der mathematischen Denkweise, p. 158.

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