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Hans Blumenberg on Heidegger’s MacGuffin

Charitable or withering? (See here for supporting evidence.)

The secret of the MacGuffin is that revealing its name only further heightens the suspense about its identity in each situation. This in turn challenges the master to give visual presence to something whose logic is hidden. In other words: something without meaning for the story receives the distinction of optical significance….

In the MacGuffin, distinguished only by its identity, a secret is condensed that justified every expense, every activity, any amount of life, for the suspense of the action. A man is the carrier of material, of a formula, of a sketch, of information that is supposedly terribly important; but it is not important that his secret be revealed in the end – it is not even permissible, if disappointment is to be avoided over the absurdity of letting this thing be a matter of life and death.

It is best that the possessor of the secret goes under with it. The MacGuffin is an unfathomable dimension that determines the suspense of the action. Hitchcock can also convey this without his story, through his experience with the production of suspense: “the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find i very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean my emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in ‘North by Northwest.'” In that 1959 spy film, the all-encompassing question of what the spies are seeking begins with the declaration that it is the object of trade of an imaginary import-export agency. The spectator learns nothing more than that it consists of “government secrets.” “Here, you see,” Hitchcock concludes, “the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing.” Thus it can come to the identity of Being and Nothing. One realizes that philosophers had and must have their MacGuffins in order to preserve the work of thinking, as well as interest in its result.

The legendary second part of Being and Time was never written, because it dared not be written. Anyone who has ever let himself be influenced by the preparations for the expedition into the center of Being as it is understood by Dasein, shudders before the banality of that which could be brought to light at the end of all existential analyses and in the middle of the enchanting “horizon of time” circle.

The author of what is still the most significant philosophical work of this century must have realized that he risked all significance if he did not decide to let it remain a fragment. To do that, it was of course necessary to attribute the breaking off of the fundamental-ontological expedition to the compulsion of higher powers. They demanded with overpowering urgency that he do something else: surrender himself to the fate of thinking.

Companions were quickly found in antiquity. Tradition had turned them into a fragment that alone still darkly transmitted an intuition of origin. So the pre-Socratics, Parmenides and Heraclitus in particular, became obligatory hermeneutic companions; they shared the fate of thought broken off from its ambitious aims.

The MacGuffin of Being did its duty. The effect did not fail – the public followed breathlessly. A few who have not heard anything about the MacGuffin are still spun around by it.

Is this game forbidden? Hardly. The disappearance of MacGuffins from the world would bring its movement to a standstill. The means justify the end; the secrets revealed along the way justify the unrevealed remainder. The answer never given to the question of the meaning of Being induced the effort to question human Dasein about the unity of its statements and behavior. On the way there was a delay, and delay proved itself to be the meaning of the way.

Curiosity is the disturbance of boredom. The MacGuffin is its epiphany.

Hans Blumenberg, Being as MacGuffin: How to Preserve the Desire to Think

The MacGuffin: the promises of transcendence, secret knowledge, a final purpose, total harmony.


  1. Silly.

    “The legendary second part of Being and Time ”

    This a legend of Hans Blumenberg’s own making. Heidegger hadn’t published anything since his PhD. He needed to publish to get the chair of philosophy at Freiburg. The book got too big. He published the first half, got the chair, and didn’t bother publishing the second part. In the end, his complete works run to 100 volumes and include his private notebooks. There is no “expedition into the center of Being”. “the public followed breathlessly”, what public? Ontology is a matter for specialists.

  2. Who plays Eva Marie Saint in this scenario?

  3. David Auerbach

    27 October 2011 at 23:24

    enowing: A lot of people would be very interested to hear that the second part of Being and Time exists and only awaits publication.

    Theodore Kisiel writes: “With the recent publication of the already well-known lecture of January 31, 1962 entitled Time and being’, Heidegger’s thought seems to have at last officially come full circle, and appears to bring some degree of completion to all that Heidegger had announced he would undertake in his prospectus in Being and Time (SZ, 39), though not exactly as it was announced there. The second part of this prospectus, dealing with the ‘phenomenological destruction of the history of ontology’, has proliferated far beyond the announced three divisions, notablyin the Nietzsche volumes and including some of the lectures and essays most recently collected in Wegmarken. The outstanding omission has always been the third division of the first part, entitled Time and being’, which was to have completed the chain begun by the two divisions published as Being and Time: These two divisions, which concluded by showing that temporality was the Being of the being which understands Being, of Dasein, was to have been completed by ‘the explication of time as the transcendental horizon of the question of Being’. In the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger explains that this division was withheld because the available language of metaphysics (presumably including such phrases as ‘transcendental horizon’) was inadequate to express the turn from ‘Being and time’ to Time and being’ (PW, 72)”

    He adds, somewhat apropos of Blumenberg’s comment: “And its last word is silence. For the event is not a permanent presence, but instead gives itself by withdrawing itself. It is this withdrawing mystery which provides the permanent origin of all clearing. Accordingly, the clearing itself is not a fixed stage with its curtain always raised where the play of beings runs its course, but a shifting scene that fades into the background only to emerge anew. Because the event withdraws, it is still the indeterminate ‘There is’ of the Ur-phenomena of Being and time, the Lethe at the very heart of aletheia that continues to draw thought forward.”

    This “indeterminate” “withdrawing mystery” sounds terribly like a MacGuffin to me.

    As far as the public goes, there was evidently enough fuss about Heidegger that non-philosopher non-specialist Thomas Bernhard felt compelled to insert a huge rant about him into Old Masters.

    Ray: Hannah Arendt?

  4. This is just Blumenberg being funny and folding being– the terminus a quo, back into some kind of regulative a priori. The revenge of the terminus ad quem!

  5. “A lot of people would be very interested to hear that the second part of Being and Time exists and only awaits publication.”

    Me too.

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