He Who Thinks Greatly Must Err Greatly

What Did Martin Heidegger Mean By This Sentence?

On May 1st, 1933, Martin Heidegger, the obscure German philosopher from Meßkirch, became a member of the Nazi Party. With his misstep, Heidegger tainted his philosophical legacy. Today, Heidegger’s thinking doesn’t wield much influence on academic German philosophy.[1] Not only the German but also the international community blamed him for never offering explicit apologies for his support to the Nazi regime, despite the fact that his membership legitimized Hitler’s movement in the eyes of many young people. In one of his many writings, Heidegger, at first sight, appears to have pleaded his innocence when he wrote, “Wer groß denkt, muß groß irren.”[2] He who thinks greatly must err greatly.

What does this sentence mean? According to one commentator, Heidegger’s statement betrays his “overbearing hubris”.[3] One interpretation might be that the great thinker has the right to err greatly. His greatness places him above others. That narrow mind that errs little must learn to overlook the great mistakes of his great master, “Indeed, Heidegger emphasizes that the philosopher who thinks greatly must necessarily also err greatly.”[4]

Peter Trawny, philosopher, and editor of some of Heidegger’s works went looking for the meaning of the sentence Wer groß denkt… in Heidegger’s “ambivalent”[5] use of the concept greatness, but as so many others, Trawny treats the line in isolation of its context. We find that context in Heidegger’s publication Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens, in the 13th part of his collected works spanning over 100 works. In that work, the sentence Wer groß denkt… forms the closing line in a cursive text—a thought—that sprung up in Heidegger’s mind when he made an observation in outdoor nature. The whole is part of a series of multiple poetic tryouts in each of which an observation provokes a thought in Heidegger.

The concerning observation goes as follows (in German),

“Wenn am Sommertag der Falter sich auf die Blume niederläßt und, die Flügel geschlossen, mit ihr im Wiesenwind schwingt…”

The translation reads as follows, “When on a summer day the butterfly settles down on the flower and, wings closed, swings along with it in the meadow wind…” Having observed this, Heidegger penned the following thought,

“Aller Mut des Gemüts ist der Widerklang auf die Anmutung des Seyns, die unser Denken in das Spiel der Welt versammelt.

Im Denken wird jeglich Ding einsam und langsam.

In der Langmut gedeiht Großmut.

Wer groß denkt, muß groß irren.”

The translation: “All spirit of the mind is the resonance on the vague impression of Being that gathers our thinking in the world’s play. In thinking, each think becomes lonely and slow. In long-suffering flourishes magnanimity. He who thinks greatly must err greatly.”

As Trawny remarked, this passage does not contain a direct reference to Heidegger’s support for national socialism.[6] There is no reason to suggest that Heidegger meant to distance himself from his mistake with this sentence. In the media’s mangle of things, the oft-cited sentence Wer groß denkt… has begun to lead its own life. The sentence has given commentators a soundbite to reject Heidegger’s legacy along with his person with one strike. The man actively supported Nazism so no one ought to study his thinking, let alone take him seriously. But we still don’t know what the line really means.

Let’s analyze the fragment in its contextual entirety. For starters, the thought Aller Mut… and the previous observation Wenn am Sommertag… form an analogy together. Heidegger’s first thought Aller Mut… echoes the earlier observation. The courageous butterfly, a puny creature, nests itself on the flower, die Anumutung des Seyns. The flower and the butterfly gather together in the game the wind plays with the meadow, unser Denken im Spiel der Welt. As the butterfly lands onto the flower, our thinking requires courage to interact with the world. In only two sentences, Heidegger has shown us that the thinking man not only observes his reality, as if the world were to play before our senses like a film we uncritically acknowledge, but rather that such observations elicit a counter-reaction, a thought of our own. Our own thinking resonates on the vague impression of Being in the world.

In fact, having noticed Heidegger’s poetic choice of words, we see this impression resonating through the sentences: Mut… Gemüts… Anmutung, Denken… Denken… Ding, einsam… langsam… Langmut, Langmut… Großmut, groß denkt… groß irren. Heidegger often applies this chaining of similar sounding words. It is the echo of his thinking. It offers an insight into his manner of philosophizing. Heidegger does not jump around. The philosopher follows along with his thinking in so-called Holzwege, wood paths through a forest, the difficult to pass or even impassable paths he either visits or which appear to him. With each dead end, he returns to the last known point from where he looks for another path. He traverses the paths in his thinking in a careful manner, one by one, and meanders thus way then that way through his wood of thoughts, looking for a clearing where the light, Die Lichtung, presents him with new insight. But by traversing each possible path, he must also fall into all traps, even the biggest ones.

In the next line, Im Denken wird jeglich Ding einsam und langsam, Heidegger elaborates on the meaning of our thinking in the play of the world. The Ding is the butterfly that, wings closed, now rests on the flower, lonely and slow. Together, they swing in the wind but in thinking, each only knows his own thoughts. We are always alone in our thinking and we progress slowly. Then Heidegger writes, In der Langmut gedeiht Großmut.  It is the long-suffering flower, the vague impression of Being, that must bear the wind and the butterfly with patience because it cannot escape them. The flower, Being, behaves itself magnanimously and generously towards the butterfly, thinking. Together, they gather Being and thinking in reality.

It is clear that the first ‘groß’ from the line Wer groß denkt… must refer to Großmut, the last word from the previous line. We, therefore, don’t have to regard Heidegger’s great thinking as a sort of abstract notion of the concept greatness, but rather as the magnanimity of the long-suffering thinker. A great thinker is not someone who is great himself, but rather someone who offers the world his greatest thought, both his best and his worst. He presents the world his whole, uncensored thinking, because he, like the flower, does not choose the thoughts that land on him.

So, we arrive at the meaning of Heidegger’s sentence. It is not the case that the philosopher who thinks greatly must necessarily err greatly, but rather the other way around: only the philosopher with the courage to err greatly can become a great thinker. The explorer who has given mankind his best discoveries cannot discover new worlds without risking catastrophe. The magnanimous thinker who offers humankind his best work cannot acquire valuable insights without simultaneously opening himself up to the worthless and despicable. The way towards the clearing in the woods is found by getting lost because the way is not known to anyone yet. Great mistakes make for a great thinker. Wer groß denkt, muß groß irren.

[1]Peter Trawny, Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy, vertaald door Ian Moore en Christopher Turner (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), 14.

[2]Martin Heidegger, Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens: 1910-1976, vol. 13, Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1983), 81.

[3]Ulrich Greiner, “Darf groß irren, wer groß dichtet?”, Zeit Online, 2006, 24 editie, http://www.zeit.de/2006/24/Handke_Grn__xml.

[4]Trawny, Freedom to Fail: Heidegger’s Anarchy, 12.

[5]Ibid., 10.


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