Heidegger on the Essence of Humanity

In his essay  “The Way to Language” (Basic Writings 2008), Heidegger opens by saying,

Man would not be man if it were denied him to speak — ceaselessly, ubiquitously, with respect to all things, in manifold variations, yet for the most part tacitly — by way of an “It is.” Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language. (397-8)

There is a lot to unpack in these two sentences. One could make the claim that his entire philosophical system is here condensed into a magnificently concise formula.

To begin, let us dig out the concept of an understanding of being, that is, an understanding and use of  “It is” grammar. That is a scarf. You are beautiful. I am self-conscious. Through linguistic scaffolding we tacitly understand what it means for an object to be, and moreover, we tacitly understand what it means to interpret the world in terms of entities, things, objects, etc. Furthermore, as Heidegger points out, metaphors and figurative thought structure or “carve up” the experienceable world in terms of such entities, things, objects, etc. We reify object-hood into almost everything. Time is spatialized, seen and understood in terms of geometry and motion; “Time flies“, “Time is crawling to a halt” (Here we might see, following Heidegger who was following Husserl, where Derrida gets his conception of “spacing” and “becoming-space” of time and the “become-time” of space. Bergson made the same basic point about time as well, but in a more eloquent fashion).

Moreover, abstract ideas and psychological states are understood in terms of object metaphors and everyday embodied coping, with Love being a Journey, Time being Money, Knowing being Seeing (“I see what you mean”), etc. For a more extensive and thoroughly researched expose of such embodied metaphors, see the great work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, from whom I typically borrow superb linguistic examples.

The point being (no pun intended) is that our understanding of being — our interpretation of things and objects as things and objects, our explicit, linguistically structured object recognition, our use and understanding of “Is” grammar, our ability to point out objects and abstract mental states to other persons through language and symbolism — constitutes the phenomenological particularity of human existence. This cognitive trick seems to be uniquely human in its “ceaseless ubiquity”.Heidegger thus calls the essence of human language use and understanding its “rift-design”, with rift meaning “to notch” or “to carve”. The familiar expression is that language allows us to carve nature at its joints, to, in a sense, turn Nature’s squiggles into well-ordered Cartesian geometry. And as Heidegger says, “The rift-design is the totality of traits in the kind of drawing that permeates what is opened up and set free in language” (408).

We now have a concept of our understanding of being, of the “open freedom” of linguistic cognition, and accordingly, we can see that “In manifold ways, by unveiling or veiling, showing brings something to appear, lets what appear be apprehended, and enables what is apprehended to be thoroughly discussed (so that we can act on it)” (401).

Thus, we have our conception of Dasein, the linguistic animal, for whom “Language is the house of Being because, as the saying, it is priopriation’s mode”. Here, we have what is perhaps the best clue for understanding Ereignis and its relation to Being and Time‘s more simple vocabulary of “being” and “the understanding of being”, which rendered our experience of the world explicit, as opposed to the tacit or “absorbed” coping of typical mammalian behavior. Dasein’s full existential structure is constituted by the “as-structure” or “well-joined structure” of the rift-design i.e. the linguistic “carving” of the experienceable world in terms of complex webs of background knowledge concerning objects, ideas, people, events, etc. and how they interrelate.

As a side note, it is this feature of Heideggerian thought which led me to become dissatisfied with Hubert Dreyfus’ insistence that Dasein’s nonrepresentational and “non-mental” absorbed coping is the total story insofar as Dasein is average. On the contrary, as the rift-structure indicates, and as John McDowell attempts to demonstrate in Mind and World and in his recent exchange with Dreyfus in Inquiry, human experience is thoroughly “conceptualized” in terms of linguistic “object carving”. This is the nature of propriation, of letting things be shown as things, of opening up a space of linguistic freedom wherein interpretational perception “lets beings be seen (as beings)”. The close etymological relationship of Ereignis — propriation — to “owning” can thus be made sense of in terms of the reifiction of objecthood, of unity and “well-joined structure”, onto the world, thus allowing the world to self-subsist in terms of “objectivity”. Thus, Heidegger says that

If by “law” we mean the gathering of what lets everything come to presence on its own and cohere with all that belongs to it, the propriation is the most candid and most gentle of laws…[and moreover] Propriation is the law, inasmuch as it gathers mortals in such a way that they own up to their own essence. (416).

In moving from the early Being and Time notion of “understanding of being”, later Heidegger, borrowing from Hölderlin, was simply trying to be more poetic when he shifted vocabulary from his earlier “paths”. But the basic structure of Dasein’s intentional uncovering of objecthood, its being-directed-towards worlds of referential significance, its direct behavioral resonance to the external environmental niches, both constructed and natural, remains the same throughout Heidegger’s career. Thus, “Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language.”

And, finally, as Alan Watts so nicely puts it, “There is too little recognition of the vast difference between the world as described and the world as sensed, too little recognition that what we describe in the physical universe as separate things are of the same order as areas, views, aspects, selections, and features — not data but capta, grasped rather than given.”



Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology

3 responses to “Heidegger on the Essence of Humanity

  1. Pingback: Dreyfus and Heidegger : Mormon Metaphysics

  2. Hi Gary,
    There is a lot for me to catch up on philosophy and psychology, but I just got enough cognitive skills to recognize some of the web places of true inspiration in this domain.
    How is that for some shameless sucking up?
    It’s been one of my observations that language is pretty much all body language, so without direct contact communication is pretty much non casual and with no impact. With the Internet, now I feel like I started to develop my own little “sand box” of “worlds as described” where I can grasp totally new perspectives that other wise I wouldn’t have had any access to.

  3. Pingback: Heidegger as Geometer « Log24

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