Can you Snatch the Pebble from my Hand, Grasshopper?

Dear Students, past, present and future:

At this very moment, many of you are probably struggling with decisions that will affect your career over the next twenty years and beyond. The capital markets are in total disarray while most investment bankers have been reduced to glorified Maytag repairmen at best. Most of them have no choice but to believe that the future will look very much like the past, and in so doing are not completely wrong. Yes, the past is still the best predictor of the future, but this only means that somehow, deals will be done next year or the following. That’s true, but how will they be done, and by whom? This is no mere speculation. The rest of your life may hang in the balance.

The fate of American finance, the one we know and love, depends on finding solutions to such seemingly unsolvable riddles. Data vendors and I-Bankers keep saying they are “looking for ideas” on valuation. The problem is that, in order to know what an idea might look like, you first need to have had at least one in your entire life. Worse yet, new problems appear to emerge every day with no resolution in sight. Only now is Europe waking up to the fact that drunken orgies on a beach in Mykonos are invariably followed by gigantic hangovers, not to mention unwanted pregnancies.

God says, one day money will move again. If not now, then when? For that to happen though, we clearly need to “restore the confidence of investors in the integrity of the rating process”. Is this really what we need? Apparently, investors should simply “get over this” and move on. That’s easy for you to say. For most of Wall Street, the subprime crisis was nothing but an all-expense paid trip to Heaven, soon followed however by a longer ride in Hell. How can we get back to Heaven you say? As always, everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.

At this juncture, it has become painfully clear even to traders and other children that deals will not happen without a proper and credible valuation paradigm. Unfortunately, the arbiters of taste in valuation, i.e. the rating agencies, are fighting for their very existence as I write. In fact, the next time you speak to a rating agency analyst, ask yourself how it feels to know that the man or woman trying to tell you about your own future doesn’t have one.

The next wave is coming for sure, and at least this much is known: there will be bigger deals, fewer deals and simpler deals. Next year will most likely see an explosion of financings from all corners of the globe. Most will be good, but many will be bad. Can you tell the difference a priori? If you can’t, you really know nothing about finance. If you can’t, why do I need you in my life? I might as well invest in all of them, for at least then I would do as well as the index. And what does it mean to “know something about finance?” Does an usher at Yankee Stadium “know something about baseball?”

Where will you be in the next wave? Will you be a demiurge on a deal team, or just a humble servant toiling away in the back office, merely happy to be employed? Years from now, when your daughter looks up at you so adoringly with unconditional love, as only a daughter can, and asks “what did you do in the war Daddy?”, it would be a sad shame if all you could say were “your Daddy was supply officer!”

I cannot be there for you, or even with you. Whatever I could do, I have done already, except perhaps for testifying to the fact that your dilemma is nothing save the eternal existential struggle. You might reply that it’s hard to do the right thing. No, it’s not. What’s hard is to know what the right thing is. Once you know it, it’s hard not to do it.

The following letter is a rare personal testament penned by the master himself, Martin Heidegger. As you know, Heidegger is easily the greatest philosopher since Hegel. He wrote this in response to the struggle of someone very much like you, i.e. someone looking for his place in the sun.

Of course, German philosophy and finance don’t really mix, but how about Stefan Banach, who suffered his entire life while attempting to find a mother he never met? Or Felix Hausdorff, who gave us set theory as we know it, but who struggled with his own faith in God and with how his own religion could lead to salvation in this world. Needless to say, Wall Street is not exactly the place for serious introspection.

This is my own translation. Since it is the only one around, by definition it is the best and the worst. I hope it lifts your spirits as high as it lifted mine long ago when I first read it. Obviously, unlike me Heidegger never intended for his students to become deal-makers, but he offers much more than that to anyone seeking cosmos. One day, perhaps it will dawn on you that finance is nothing but philosophy with a human face.

In the meantime, know this: every time you see the term “Being,” replace it in your head with “Dealing”, and everything will become clear. If it doesn’t, you still cannot snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper!


Freiburg in Breslau, June 18th 1950


Dear Hartmut [Buchner],

I thank you for your recent letter. Your questioning is essential and your logic correct. Yet, I’m still asking myself whether you are driving at what is decisive.

You ask (in a nutshell): where does any thinking of Being receive its guidance? In asking this question, you are surely not taking “Being” as an object and thinking as the mere activity of a subject. Thinking, as it lies at the ground of a doing, of a thing, is no crude representation of some freely floating thing-at-hand. “Being” is in no way identical with “reality” or with the easily apprehended real. Being cannot at all be juxtaposed to the no-longer and the not-yet because both of these themselves belong to the essence of Being. To be sure, Western metaphysics already felt this long ago i.e. in its teaching on “modalities” according to which, in addition to possibility, reality and necessity also belonged to Being.

In thinking Being, it is never the case that a real thing is represented, and that this representation is then taken over as the truth. To think Being simply means to correspond to the calling of its essence. This correspondence originates in the calling and gives itself over to it. Corresponding is recoiling from the calling and yet simultaneously being allowed entrance into its language. The originally discovered Logos belongs to the calling of Being, as much as does the concealed arrival of that which announces itself in the possible return of the oblivion of Being in the revelation of its essence.

At the same time, the correspondence must pay careful attention to the lengthy gathering and to the constant validation that arises out of engagement, one that enables such calling to be properly heard. It is in this type of thinking that the possibility of error is greatest. This manner of understanding can never reveal itself like a mathematical statement. Yet, it is not arbitrary but rather, bound up with the essential destiny of Being. Instead of being binding like a theorem, it behaves like a contingent rationale for following the way of the correspondence and truly walking in full consciousness of the gathering along the pathways of an already linguistically emerged Being. The lack of God and godliness is absence. However, mere absence is not no-thing. On the contrary, it is already the nearing presence of the undisclosed fullness of the evanescent and of its thus gathered eternity, as in the Gods of ancient Greece, in the Jewish prophets and in the preaching of Jesus. This “no-longer” is in itself the “not-yet” of the concealed arrival of an inexhaustible essence.

Because Being is never simply what lies before us, guardianship of Being can never be equated to the passive work of a security guard preventing people from breaking into a treasure trove of piled up knowledge. The guardianship of Being does not stare at what lies for everyone to see. In the commonplace of a mere for-itself you will never discover the calling of Being. Rather, this guardianship is a kind of receptivity to the future-bound priority of the destiny of Being out of a long and ever self-renewing thoughtfulness that heeds the interrogation of Being. In the destiny of Being, one never finds the crude sequence: first positing, then thing and world, but on the contrary, constant priority and the simultaneity of the early and the late. Albeit in an inverted form, you can also find the presence of this truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

As a correspondence, thinking of Being is a treacherous thing and therefore, a very precious thing. Perhaps thinking is an unavoidable journey, one that few can endure. Further more it is one that does not pretend to deliver profound wisdom. Above all, it is a rocky road; a trail over a field that not only speaks of renunciation, but that has already renounced either a futile quest for a secure doctrine and a valid cultural stance or else a fleeting thing of the mind. It all depends on that halting, error-prone and regressive step into a reflective listening to the pre-figured return of the oblivion of Being within a fateful arrival. This backward step from the representative thinking of ordinary metaphysics does not reject essential thinking. Quite the opposite, it opens up the resonating distance of the truth of Being in which the correspondence stands and lives.

So many times, I have seen even my closest collaborators listen to the story of the essence of the cup only to close their ears when the conversation turned to source, to the origin of objectivity and to substance. Yet, all these also belong necessarily to the thinking of Being, which thinking reflects on the arrival of a world, and in such remembrance helps bring about, in admittedly unseen and minuscule steps, that the arrival may eventually reach the region where the ordinary consciousness will grasp it.

To the solitary wanderings that I experienced as the price of my voyage, I would like to add the hope that some of you will indeed wonder whence their guidance should arise, whether or not the question becomes necessary owing to my own thinking. Isn’t strange that nobody bothers to ask: where did Plato receive his guidance to think being as ιdea, or where did Kant get his to think Being as the transcendence of object-hood, as position? Perhaps one day, the answer to these questions can be read off thoughts similar to mine i.e. those that may now appear gratuitous and arbitrary.

With mere words, I can offer you nothing that amounts to a roadmap with which you could make peace with what everyone calls “reality”, hopefully to become comfortably smug in your illusions. Clearly, this is not what you are asking me to do.  The only secure path is to listen to the adventuresome validation of the correspondence. Beware however, because an adventure always runs the risk of turning into a painful struggle. Therefore, traveling along this path requires care and practice, but practice presupposes a committed engagement.

May you remain in a genuine hunger for the path and, in spite of any failure, may you pursue relentlessly the handiwork of thinking.

Sincerely yours,

Martin Heidegger